Monday, May 22, 2017

Facing a Book... what goes into the cover image?

Did you get to pick the cover? It's one of the questions writers get asked most of all, strangely enough. But like it or not, we all judge books by their covers. The cover image tells us if the book is our kind of book, so it's incredibly important to get the image right. The worst response a reader can have is, having bought the book, that the image lied to them.

So here is what went into the paperback cover of Viking Fire...

I have to start off by getting something off my chest. When my publishers presented the hardback cover of Viking Fire they went for fairly uninspiring pagan imagery, compounded by the fact the wrap around back cover had a Viking man wearing a horned helmet. At reading after reading, keen-eyed readers and appalled reinactors, who take these kind of anachronisms very seriously came to chastise me and I had nothing to say in my defence. So this time round it was important that the book get the right cover.

First thing to consider is that this is part of a series, so that the books should look like they're related. As Shieldwall, the first in the series, had a really strong cover, so it was settled fairly early that we went for something largely similar.

The cover was being designed in-house at Little, Brown, so I put together a mood board of various strong 'Viking' images, with a mix of contemporary and modern images.

And then my publishers came back with the first set of rough ideas, one of which was this, which has a much later medieval feel, with great sword, mail coif and mailed sleeves; never mind the 1980s biker flames and a horrible font. But what it did give us a basic framework to move forward from.

I suggested changing the flames for a Byzantine skyline, to hint at how the book goes beyond typical Viking stereotypes, both geographically and in terms of characterisation. I also suggested that the cover image feature an axe, not only because this was a great way of getting Norse imagery into the cover, but also, according to his saga, Harald Hardrada went down fighting with a battle axe in hand. There was some tooing and froing with various types of armour possibly worn in the 11th century in the Mediterranean and the Scandinavian world, and finally my agent and I were very keen that the final image should look less 'photographic' than this, giving the book a more literary feel.

We soon settled on a number of variations on the basic idea and I was presented with a choice of images. My thinking, with these, was that the left hand one, with the hood, seemed too much like an executioner. The middle image the face appears a little malformed. So the right hand image it was, a face that many people have assumed is of me. Wouldn't that be something, to be on your own book cover!

Once that was settled, there was further discussion on the font and quotes, giving us the final 'face' of the book. But a cover has to work from the front, the spine, and also as a reader picks it up to browse it and see how interested they are.

There were quotes to blurbs to fix, and this terribly old author photo to remove. I also wanted to flag up that Viking Fire was picked by The Times, as one of their Books of the Year, 2016,
So here, at last, we settled on a final image, author photo, blurb and quotes.

 Giving - what I think are two fabulous looking covers: which say literary, compelling read.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Author’s Note: Viking Fire

Because of the way that books are printed, the Author's Note at the end of Viking Fire got dropped just before publication in favour of the rather lovely map...

But for you, dear reader, I reproduce it here. 

Author's Note: Viking Fire

By the year 1066, Harald Hardrada’s star dominated the heavens. He was the superstar of his age, not only one of the richest man in Christendom, but also with a proven career as a mercenary commander, having fought and won across the Mediterranean world, from Sicily to Jerusalem, Bulgaria and Asia Minor. He came close to being one of the most extraordinary rulers we ever had, perhaps eclipsing even Richard the Lionheart (currently the most celebrated adventurer king) in scope and achievement. But the Fates being cruel, he’s little more than a footnote to that year, being the first of the three 1066 contenders to be knocked out.

But we must not let hindsight bias lead us into thinking that the man who has often been dubbed ‘The Last Viking’ was leading a final, doomed Viking expedition against England. Of course, no one at the time knew the Viking Age was coming to a close. And rather than being a final gasp, I  would venture that the betting man or woman of Late Anglo Saxon England, forced to pick one of the three contenders for the throne in that year, would have put their money on Harald Hardrada coming out as King of England in the autumn of 1066… (and how that would have changed history). I hope this novel lifts Harald up from the footnotes of history and gives him his due place of honour.


Harald’s impetuous decision, in the summer of 1066, to invade England seems to baffle Snorri Sturluson, the compiler of the sagas, when he was writing a hundred and fifty years later. The motivation he gives for Harald’s decision seems tenuous at best, with Harald claiming to be heir of Edward the Confessor, through a twenty-five year old agreement between his nephew Magnus and Knut’s son, Harthaknut, of Denmark. This bit of Dark Age sophistry has always felt a poor reason for Harald to risk all. I think his reasons were much more personal, and visceral, as laid out in this novel.

Some readers, who have come to this book after Shieldwall might be wondering why this is the second book in the series. This is the tale that best spans the fifty years between 1016 and 1066. I hope that the interconnectedness of the events in Northern Europe become apparent in the reading. The much-forgotten Danish Conquest of England, in 1016 (a thousand years from the publication of this novel) set in train events across the northern world that would lead to 1066. Not only did Knut’s power lift Godwin from obscurity and scatter the heirs of Alfred to the wind, but it also drove Harald’s brother, Saint Olaf, into exile – not once, but twice. And I guess, Knut’s power drove Harald on the Eastern Road.


Harald Sigurdson (his nickname ‘Hardrada’ only being used after his death) is a character about whom we know a surprising amount, considering the time and distance of his life from our own. He’s the subject of part of the Heimskringla Saga, which chronicles the lives of the Norwegian Kings, and his part of it is published by Penguin Classics, as King Harald's Saga. The essential thrust of the story has variations on a theme in Fagrskinna and Morkinskinna. He appears in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and he also pops up in a Byzantine text, the Strategikon of Kekaumenos, written in the mid-1070s by an Armenian who knew Harald personally, and wrote about his great service to the Empire.

But historical texts, by necessity, leave out more than they cover. To take the sagas as an example: the writers were working with limited knowledge, more than a century after the events of which they speak, and their point of interest is both much more parochial than our own (as well as being based on and in conversation with a common oral history, which has been lost). This means we often feel as though we’re watching a news report about that time, but that the camera is pointing at the floor. Contemporary chroniclers are famously concerned with the deaths and appointments of abbots and bishops, while the common folk barely warrant a mention, and the private lives and thoughts of characters involved cannot be known.

This skewed focus is apparent in Heimskringla, for example, where the first thirty years of his life gets short shrift. He is in Constantinople by chapter three, back in Norway by chapter nineteen, and the remaining eighty-two chapters deal with his last twenty years in Norway. This novel hopes to redress that focus; to nudge the camera back towards Harald’s formative years, and the years where he grew into formidable manhood.

This novel is of course, imperfect. But so is any history. Much of what a modern novelist, or reader, would like to know about Harald Hardrada has been irrevocably lost. Despite all the historical sources we have, we will never know what he said, thought, felt.

If imagine the sublime vastness of History then we could do well to think of the night sky, where facts are the brief, bright pin-pricks of light. The blackness between them is all the whys, the hows, the thoughts, the passions, the words that were spoken, the events that happened just off from the eye of History.

The historian Richard Fletcher wrote in his excellent book, Bloodfeud (which deals with events that run parallel to these books) that historical facts do not speak for themselves. They have to be ‘coaxed and entreated into utterance. And if they are to speak, however hesitantly, however indistinctly, however obscurely, they have to be scrutinized against a background, a setting, in a context.’ This coaxing is the job of both historians and historical novelists alike, but the results and expectations on both works diverges, each according to their craft.

The historian responds to night sky by making patterns and constellations, and bringing order and understanding to what might appear to be confusing chaos. The historical novelist does something quite different: they fill the darkness with lights of their own devising. It is of course, a fiction, but sometimes Truth is best dressed up in fictional clothes. If you think in archaeological terms, historical fiction is an excavation through imagination. Hopefully, among the dirt, there are a few pot shards and bits of broken comb, and maybe also a hint of gold.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Viking Fire rolls off the press...

I started Viking Fire on 26th September, 2013. Three years later, and a lot of sweat, toil and inspiration, I'm delighted to announce its launch September 22nd, 950 years to the day that the story starts in York, in 1066.

Turn the music up for this one... ;-)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Blog Tour: how, how, what and why...

1) What are you working on?
I’m working on three things at the moment.  First is I’m putting the finishing touches to the second in the Conquest Trilogy, the first of which, Shieldwall, which tells the story of the young Earl Godwin, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. 
This book tells the tale of Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway who won the Battle of Fulford Gate, and lost the Battle of Stamford Bridge, a week later.  Harald has been a really fun character to write.  He’s bold, brash, ballsy, and he’s done it all. 

At the other end of the time scale I’m in the 41st Millenium….!   I’ve been working with The Black Library on and off for a number of years now, and have been given a really exciting opportunity to take one of their Imperial Guard characters, Usarkar E. Creed.  In my mind he’s something of a mix between Churchill and Zhukov… I’m starting off with a set of three longish short stories, the first is almost done, and will be starting the others soon.  These short stories are a really freshener: I'm enjoying having shorter projects I can deliver in a month or so, and get them out into the world.  It's a pleasant contrast to the slowness of novels, and traditional publishing.   

I can't talk about the third thing I’m working on... but I can tell you that it is to write  two novels for an Oscar winning film.  Delighted to be selected, and in some ways its familiar territory which is great to be playing around on.  More soon!  ;-)
 2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Many popular histories retell the Norman myths, and often fiction writers take that and embroider it. 

My Conquest Series is trying to set down in fiction what ‘probably’ happened around the events of 1066.  I’ve started my tale back in the reign of Ethelred the Unready, circa 990s, and am tracing the story forward. 

I’ve chosen this because what happens in 1066 seems directly a result of Knut’s conquest of England in 1016.  Also the Conquest Series is centered around the battle itself, not necessarily any particular characters, who may or may not appear in other novels. 

Other than that – what can I say?  My novels are kick-ass reads, full of great characters, and loaded with history.  What could be better than that?

 3) Why do you write what you do?

I was giving a talk to school kids this morning, talking about stories and how they fill our lives, and I got a bit choked up a couple of times and had to take deep breaths.  I think it’s because writing, stories, and being able to write are deeply personal to me.  I’ve wanted to write since I was ten years old, and had just put down The Lord of the Rings, and was smitten by Tolkien’s ability to construct an entirely new world with myths, and histories and languages and all.

I always thought that being a writer would be a long hard slog, but perhaps I’m reaping the benefits now.  I know what I am doing much better than I did when I had first started, and I’m starting to write stories quicker, and better as well, I hope. 

As I said, I've never been busier, and loving it.  I get to make a living out of this, honest?!

4) How does your writing process work?
I’m not sure yet I have a process, and how I approach a short story of 10,000 words is quite different to how I approach a novel.  But generally I’m not a planner, though planning, or perhaps sketching out a story is something I’m learning to do more and more and still keep the level of creativity I enjoy. 

But generally I’m an over-writer.  I have a good editorial eye, and cut back furiously.  For example, the first draft of the short story I’ve just finished was about 14,000 words long to get a really zinging 10,000 word story. 

With my last novel, Shieldwall, I probably wrote at least 250,000 words to get a 112,000 word novel. 

I wish there was a faster, quicker, more direct line from the first line of a story to the end, but I haven’t found it yet.  Sketching stories out before hand does help, but still the  process is two fold: creating and then editing. 

Thanks to Matthew Harrfy for asking me to continue his tour... check out his answers here

The Tour Continues! 
Look out for these authors next Monday, 28th April.

Ben Kane

Ben Kane was born in Kenya and raised there and in Ireland. He qualified from university as a veterinary surgeon. After several years of practice, he took off around the world, indulging a passion for travel. Seven continents and more than 65 countries later, he settled down, for a while at least. In 2001/2, he naïvely decided to write bestselling Roman novels, a plan which came to fruition after several years of working 90 hour weeks as a veterinarian and a writer. He now lives in North Somerset with his wife and family, where he has sensibly given up veterinary medicine to write full time.
Ben is currently walking in Roman Legionary garb, for charity... support him here
Picture courtesy North News and Pictures

Edoardo Albert
Edoardo Albert is, on paper, an exotic creature: Italian, Sinhala and Tamil by birth, he grew up in London among the children of immigrants (it was only when he went to university that he got to know any English people). His proudest writing achievement was reducing a reader to helpless, hysterical laughter. Unfortunately, it was a lonely-hearts ad. He’s writing volumes two and three of The Northumbrian Thrones, a biography of Alfred the Great with osteoarchaeologist Dr Katie Tucker and a spiritual hisory of London. He is quite busy.

 Carol McGrath

My passion has always been reading and writing historical fiction. I live in Oxfordshire where I taught History until I took an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, and an Mphil at Royal Holloway. My debut novel, The Handfasted Wife, is first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066. The Swan-Daughter will be published in July. So, for now, no more teaching except for creative writing!

Follow me on Twitter @carolmcgrath