Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first of them is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, THE SERPENT SWORD.
Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. He has co-authored seven published academic articles, ranging in topic from the ecological impact of mining to the construction of a marble pipe organ.
Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.
When not writing, or spending time with his family, Matthew sings in a band called Rock Dog.
Hello, Matthew! Thank you for chatting with me today about your book, The Serpent Sword. First tell me where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?
When at home writing, I do most writing at a desk in the spare bedroom, but I have written parts of my first two novels in trains, airplanes, airports, hotels, school halls, cars, libraries, my living room, the kitchen, a holiday flat in Cornwall, and probably other places I have forgotten.
My process is as follows: I come up with some key historical events that will form the backbone for my novels. I then look to find more personal stories that my characters can live within the context of those historical events. One of the advantages of writing about the seventh century is that not a huge amount is known about the day to day life of people. Large brush strokes of the history have survived, but the stories of the individuals are lost in time. This is what makes the Dark Ages such an apt name. The details are hidden in the shadows of time. Making it possible for me to write pretty much anything, as long as it fits within the framework of what we know and it has the ring of authenticity about it.
I map out a high level synopsis based on the ideas I have around the real history and how my characters will interact with events. I then break down that synopsis into very rough chapters. Then each of those chapters I break down into scenes. This is not all done up front, but as I get to a chapter, when I have a better grasp of what I need to propel the story along. I try to keep each scene from the point of view of one character, but sometimes I break this rule.
When I sit down to write, I usually only have an hour, or perhaps two, and I’m often not sitting at my desk at home. I may be on a gym bench, while my daughters do their Tae Kwon-Do class. Or sitting in the car, waiting for my youngest to finish her tap dancing class. Or in the local Library, while she is doing her brass band practice.
So, given the time constraints, I really need to focus. I put headphones on. Playlist set to Classical. And I quickly read what I wrote in the last session. I will make a few minor tweaks as I go. Fixing typos, or repetition. That kind of thing. But I don’t allow myself to get bogged down.
I then leap into the next scene. I try to complete a scene at one sitting and I think this gives my writing good pace. Sometimes though, that is not possible. When time is running out, I jot down some notes for me to pick it up at the next sitting.
If I come across anything that I do not know. A type of tree. Some historical detail. The name of a king. Or a place name. Anything at all that would require me to stop and investigate. I add a note in [square brackets], like that. When I finish the first draft, the next thing I do, after doing a victory dance and drinking lots of beer, is search for all the square brackets and fill in the blanks.
I write chronologically, so, although I know there are some great scenes coming later, I have to get through the rest of the scenes to get there. I think this also helps make sure the story hangs together. When I get to the pivotal scenes, I know all the details that have gone before, so it is easier to write and the scenes are richer for the extra detail.
I try to write about three thousand words a week. Often I manage a few more, but rarely do I get more than four thousand down. So somewhere between eight and nine months to complete the first draft. And then a couple of months of edits before sending out to test readers for their feedback.
Tell me a little about your story, The Serpent Sword.
The Serpent Sword follows the story of, Beobrand, a young man from Cantware (modern-day Kent) who travels to the northern kingdom of Bernicia (modern-day Northumberland). There he finds himself embroiled in the ongoing conflict between the Angelfolc (the Angles) led by King Edwin, and the Waelisc (the native Britons) and other tribes of Seaxons (Saxons). He witnesses terrible atrocities and is buffeted by events until he finds his path as a warrior who can help to bring justice to the land. In essence it is a tale of coming-of-age and revenge.
What fascinates you the most about the seventh century?
The seventh century is fascinating because it is a melting pot of religions and peoples. Christianity is resurging in Britain and the native Britons are in the final throes of their fight against the Anglo-Saxons, who they perceive as invaders from across the sea. This backdrop of turmoil, coupled with a scarcity of hard historical facts, makes it a time ripe for a novelist.
There are people-I’m sure-who are reading this interview and have never heard of Northumbria. Could you please talk a little about that and where it was located and what the area is called now?
The Northumbria I am writing about is made up of two kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia. Deira is more or less equivalent to modern-day Yorkshire, and Bernicia is to the north of that and is roughly modern-day Northumberland and some of the south of what is now Scotland. Deira and Bernicia were unified in the early 7th century. At the time of The Serpent Sword, the royal families of Deira and Bernicia are still vying for control in a series of bloody wars. I have used Northumbria, and not Northumberland, so as not to be confused with the modern county of the same name. The name comes from being the land north of the river Humber.
What is one of the challenges Beobrand faces?
Apart from staying alive and in one piece, which is a pretty tough challenge for him, Beobrand’s main challenge is growing into a man he is happy to be. He is haunted by the memory of his overbearing and violent father, and when he finds that he has a natural ability with a sword and can kill easily, he struggles to harness that skill for good. He doesn’t make all the right decisions, but he does find a woman along the way who believes in him and gives him something to fight for. In fact, what he really battles with is fulfilling the potential that others seem to see in him.
I’ve read a little about King Edwin before and I’m interested in your portrayal of him. Does he play a big part in the story?
He plays an important part in the early section of the book. He is an extremely important character, being the first Christian king of Northumbria and the driving force of the Deiran dynasty that unifies the two kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. Without giving away any spoilers, in the second part of the novel, Beobrand’s journey takes him away from Edwin, but the king’s presence overshadows later events.
I’m really fascinated with the shift of powers during this period your story is written in. You have the religions of the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. Then the battles between different Kings. Will you talk about the differences between these two groups of people-the Britons and Angle-Saxons?
It is a fascinating time. I see it as being like the American Wild West. You have the invaders who have come from the east bringing superior fighting techniques, armour and weaponry. They bring their own religion and way of life and they push the natives of the land further and further west, creating a frontier land that must have been just as dangerous as North America in the middle of the nineteenth century. In this analogy, if the Anglo-Saxons are the “cowboys” and the Britons are the Native Americans, I have focused more on the story from the perspective of the incoming cowboys.
Any other historical significances to your story?
The Serpent Sword deals with the battle of Hatfield Chase, which is significant in the power shifts of the time in Britain. I also touch on the emergence of Christian monks coming down from Ireland, through the island of Iona. In the second book in the series, we see the settlement of Lindisfarne, the Holy Island on the north-eastern coast of England and other significant battles that are recorded in the known histories of the time, such as the Venerable Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Around these events, I weave the more personal story of Beobrand and his friends (and enemies).
Who designed your book cover?
I did and I’m very happy with how it turned out. I put it together using only free software (GIMP, LightZone, Inkscape). It features an original photo of authentic period war gear. The photo was taken by the owner of the gear, the talented, Matt Bunker, from the living history group Wulfheodenas.
What are you working on next?
I’ve already completed the sequel, THE CROSS AND THE CURSE. I’m now working on book 3 of the Bernicia Chronicles. I also have an idea for a prequel novella or perhaps novel, but that is just in the planning stage and has been set aside at this time.
Do you stick with just genre?
If you were to pick another genre, what are you most likely to write about? Or have you ever thought about it?
I would love to write a western. I used to love Louis L’Amour, and I’m a huge fan of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I love western movies too, and would really get a kick out of bringing the hard vision I have of the American West into a novel. Plus it would be a great excuse for a trip to states like Texas, Arizona and Colorado!
I have also started toying with the idea of writing a book with my wife. It would be set in Victorian times and be a crime thriller, with a twist.
So many ideas, not enough hours in the day or days in the year!