The Mind’s Eye: Getting Inside The Story

So, The Fighting Man has been out for a few weeks.

It’s already had a number of reviews and ratings on Goodreads but the thing that pleases me most is the number of people who’ve said: “I really felt like I was there…in the story.”

That’s the best feedback of all because it is exactly what I hope to do every time – transport the reader inside the story.

But how do you do that? What is it about mere words on a page that can convey images and spark the senses – make the reader feel like they are actually there with the characters and see the action as it unfolds?

Obviously, I can’t answer that question definitively – not least as everyone is different and multiple readers will respond differently to the same words/style etc. But those for whom it can work…what are the triggers? What are the stylistic tricks that open the story portal and make the reading experience more like a real experience happening inside the reader’s head?

I’ve never really thought about this before so what follows is a series of guesses. As usual, I’m making it up as I go…

First off, the reader mustn’t be conscious that they are reading. The writing needs to cast something like a spell over the reader so they live the story as the pages turn. It takes a lot of careful work to set the spell and it’s easily broken. Awkward prose; anachronistic words or concepts; characters out of character – any of these can jolt the reader out of the story flow – make them conscious they are reading.

A story spell starts with the set up – an opening which engages the reader immediately and sucks them into the world you have created. The Fighting Man introduces the reader directly to the main character’s (Brand’s) world and the main philosophical force that underpins it. The idea of being tested by God was a powerful compulsion in the C11 and is crucial to my story.

Of course, you can’t labour a point like that with explanations or the story will get bogged down and boring. The readers need to know about it (and occasionally be reminded of it) but they need to know it via something they can feel rather than something they have to think about.

The other way I quickly introduce readers to Brand’s world is by engaging their senses – especially smell. One of the biggest differences between the medieval world and the modern world is how it smelled. Modern first world readers would be assailed by the stench of Brand’s world – open sewers, tanneries, wood smoke, rotting meat and fish, animal dung everywhere – and yet the people of the time would have noticed it no more than modern people notice the smell of traffic or hospitals. Brand, however, hates the smell of shit – one of the first things we learn about him – and instantly the modern reader identifies with Brand and his shitty world. We can smell it also and share his disgust.

The other key part of the set up is introducing the reader to the main character’s central problem. Brand has two – the need to avenge his family and the pursuit of Valla – and within two chapters the reader is already anticipating the journey ahead. All the writer has to do after that is to (at least) fulfil the reader’s anticipation and if possible exceed it. By exceeding it I mean gradually broadening the scope of the story so it becomes much bigger than the reader’s original expectation. If you can carry that off you will surprise and delight and that is what readers most enjoy.

After the set up, the story has to flow. My stories typically follow the journeys of multiple characters – which is a gamble. Extra story arcs can enrich the reading experience, but they can also overcomplicate and confuse. The secret is to keep the additional journeys as simple as possible so the reader isn’t distracted by too much information or too many agendas.

The main character’s journey need not be simple but it should be easy (enough) to follow. And all the other characters’ journeys must add to the climax in some way. The pace of the story has to really speed up as the plotlines converge and push each other towards the finish.

The plot is a major part of the flow that sweeps the reader along. The Fighting Man is built around the events leading up to Hastings in 1066, but the plot is essentially generated by the fictional characters interacting with the historical characters. Brand, Valla and Malgard are the key fictional characters and it is their motives that drive the main plot. What this means is that while the readers know how the story will end on one level (the Normans win), on a different level they have no idea which makes the book gripping for the reader as the plot winds towards its heroic/tragic/bittersweet conclusion.

The subplots are mainly for the historical characters and the way I interpret their actions a thousand years later. I find Harold and Tostig Godwinson fascinating. Aelfgar also, and Edward the Confessor is an intriguing fellow. The Conqueror, of course, must have been one of history’s greatest gamblers and the Bayeux Tapestry is full of holes and riddles. I had a lot of fun interpreting the Tapestry (including the upper and lower borders with their many mysterious figures and symbols). Much of it trickles into the story and gives it some of the (hopefully) authentic medieval flavour.

In some ways, flavour is the hardest part.

Giving the reader an authentic feeling medieval experience is not easy. As noted above, I started with God and smell to link the reader with Brand and his world, but that won’t be enough. You have to use words and concepts throughout that would have been recognisable to the people of the time, while simultaneously entertaining a modern reader who wants insight into the past while inevitably processing that past through a sophisticated modern prism.

Some of this is easy – use of weapons for example – Brand has to use the weapons of the time, but what about other things? Like food, technology, transport, architecture, music, relationships, drinking culture, sense of humour? These, and any number of other matters, are major challenges. Get them right and they deepen the ambience and keep the reader under the spell. Get them wrong and the reader is irritated and bumped out of the flow. Some (like food) can be easily fixed with research but others are much more of a challenge – like sense of humour for example, how can we really know what the people of the C11 found funny? I always have some humour in my stories but sometimes the temptation to add a funny line must be resisted because it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a C11 person would say.

Finally, and possibly the hardest ingredient to describe, is technique. There are the simpler things like ensuring the rhythm of your sentences is just right – excess syllables pared back and a little tasteful alliteration here and there – but the really hard thing is this: to put yourself in the story.

This is perhaps the core of successful story telling – actually immersing yourself in the story and describing the atmosphere, action and dialogue without conscious effort. When I am working well it’s almost like going into a trance where the words pour out of my fingers into the keyboard. I am so oblivious to what has happened that when I open the laptop for the next session I read back over my latest work and can’t remember any of it. For me, this is the best part of being a novelist – it’s as close as I can come to not being me and experiencing the story as a reader.

But how do I do it?

I can’t say exactly how it works because I don’t know. I’m guessing that the imagination is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the more powerful it becomes. Anyone my age with the same interests as me will have seen countless images and actions of medieval people. Add to that the vast amount of material I’ve read about the specific period and incidents and I can literally see – in my mind’s eye – Brand and Harold and Valla et al, and everything that happens to them.

It really is like watching a movie in my head, and if I can somehow get those visuals (and other senses) onto paper then I know I’ve done a good job.

In the end (of course) whether I’ve done a good job is up to the reader. But the reader will never feel themselves to be inside the story unless I’ve already been there myself.


The Fighting Man is available in all good bookstores or Booktopia. Ebook also available through all the usual sites.

A Sense of Joyous Evil

I have a new novel coming out in a few weeks.

The Fighting Man could be said to be a bit of a change of pace for me – being an historical novel – although those familiar with my work will recognise the dark humour, the plot twists, the immersive ambience and the general sense of joyous evil which (I hope) is my trademark.

I’ve long wanted to write an historical novel. Not least as I have a fascination with history – especially medieval history – and love trying to get inside the heads of humans from different epochs. Historical novels that seem to give an authentic glimpse into an alien past are, for me, deeply satisfying and I’ve long seen it as a challenge to accomplish that glimpse for others.

So how do you get into the heads of people from the past?

In my own lifetime I’ve witnessed clear evolution in the prevailing attitudes of ordinary individuals buffeted by the winds of change, from the 60s of my infancy to now. So how on earth could I possibly comprehend the manifold phases of zeitgeist stretching from here back to 1066?

Well, obviously I can’t with any certainty, but there are some clues. The written records for a start, such as they are, always bearing in mind that history is written by the victors.

But there are other more subtle clues. I believe that human beings are essentially the same now as they were a thousand years ago. Certainly that is true physically, but beyond that we love, we laugh, we politic, put food on the table and try to get ahead. We may do these things very differently now, but fundamentally, the yeoman farmer driving a pig to market and supping an ale with friends was no different from the stock market analyst shouting his mates after getting a bonus for hitting his quarterly targets.

It goes deeper than that. For example, the contraceptive pill (introduced to Australia in 1962) to my mind was the biggest change in male/female relations since the dawn of time. And it’s my generation (Baby Boomers et seq) who’ve had to deal with the change.

How could young women growing up in the C21 genuinely understand, in a real visceral sense, what it was like growing up in that pre-pill milieu – the pressures on girls to be chaste and the shame of being proven otherwise?

That shame, of course, devolved from the pre-agrarian revolution times when the land could only support a finite few. In those days – pre-C14 England – marriage was literally a licence to produce children – new mouths to feed from the small parish pool. Those who bred out of wedlock, and their bastard progeny, were utterly scorned and reviled – not for any particularly moral reason, it was a purely economic problem. But we carried that stigma across the subsequent centuries – through the Renaissance and Reformation – the Ages of Discovery and Enlightenment – the industrial revolution, mass urbanisation, the wars of imperial and political revolution and then the mobility of post-war populations and suddenly – in 1962 – men and women were finally equal as far as control of their bodies was concerned.

But that didn’t mean an overnight adjustment. In 1962 there were still centuries of socio-cultural baggage that had to be dealt with – like the importance of monogamous marriage – and it’s that same socio-cultural baggage that allows me to peer myopically across the millennium and make inferences about the folks that went before.

So what were they like – the denizens of the C11? (I’m limiting myself to Western Europe because that has been my study.)

The medieval mind rested on two broad pillars – the church and vestiges of pagan magic which had, especially in rural areas, managed to survive in secret despite the church’s efforts to wipe them out, and in fact the two different traditions blurred somewhat. Historians refer to the various patron saints as the paganisation of the church. They refer to ecclesiastical magic – prayer as incantation or the communion rite as symbolic of sacrifice and the imbuing of oneself with Christ’s characteristics by consuming his flesh and blood. This was powerful stuff to the medieval mind (and not so far from the Neolithic mind).

The C11 people didn’t see the world the way we do. They saw God and magic everywhere with the physical world in front of them just one plane among many which was visited all the time by powerful spirits from other planes and used like a chessboard by the Gods. Human beings were like pieces being moved around a board by any number of ethereal players and prayer was a way of trying to influence the players but if prayer didn’t work there were other remedies offered by witches and wise women – and to this day there is an innately superstitious reflex in all of us. I for one always put my left shoe on first – the consequences of putting my right shoe on first simply don’t bear thinking about.

So, God and magic are central to The Fighting Man. Of course, I don’t let those get in the way of telling a compelling story. There is no magic – it is history, not fantasy – but there is the flavour and ambience of magic as I try to give the modern reader that glimpse I referred to earlier.

The basic synopsis is as follows:

In the year 1060, young Brand Holgarsson’s family are wiped out in a Viking raid arranged by Brand’s treacherous uncle Malgard. Malgard is named thegn of the town of Stybbor in East Anglia while Brand is made outlaw and hunted through the woods by Malgard’s men, determined to extinguish the last possible claim to Malgard’s thegnship.

Aided by a strange young woman, Valla, who claims to be 242 years old, Brand escapes and is befriended by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and the choice of the Saxon nobles to be king after the childless Edward (the Confessor). Brand nurses his dream of vengeance over Malgard while sharing Harold’s perils and waiting for Valla who will only return from The Place of Dreams if Brand has remained true to his promise to lie with no other woman.

All stories come together at the Battle of Hastings, where Harold’s great banner, The Fighting Man, flew above the field at Senlac Ridge in opposition to the papal cross carried by William the Bastard.

Beyond that, The Fighting Man is the kind of book I love to read myself, full of intrigue, sex and violence. Because that’s the way people are, and in my opinion, the way they’ve always been.

The Fighting Man will be in all good bookstores or Booktopia by early December 2017.

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