How I Suffer for my Art: Historical Research

Dressing up, getting drunk, shooting arrows, hawking and playing games. I love my job.

Research is one of the best things about writing historical fiction. As a former history teacher, I know all about primary and secondary sources and how to use them for best effect. Reading is essential, but not always reliable. The Dark Ages is my chosen period and herein lies the problem.

The primary sources are so old it’s a huge task just trying to decipher the language and then another job deciding what exactly the writers mean by these strange words. I can read Anglo-Saxon – or Old English –  but it is quite a long winded process and, guess what, I nearly always agree with the online translators.

So, I am armed with the facts from the period, I’m ready to write my story. Only, I’m not. How can I know what it feels like to wear a metal helmet in battle? Or to shoot arrows? This means more research. Reading about people who have experienced it, using my imagination. No, not enough.

I need hands-on research.

It is the twenty-first century and so I can never really know what it was like for those poor folk in the Dark Ages. But I have tried on the strange clothes and attended battle re-enactments just to hear the sounds and smell the scents. I think I actually have feared death on occasion, too. I have trained in archery (won a medal, let me tell you!) even though I have opted for the very modern recurve bow as the longbow is just too difficult. Other games, like chess and knucklebones, are a piece of cake.

Falconry was necessary for Teon, (available to buy now) as a golden eagle is a major part of the story. You can see the wonderful bird of prey on the cover. I loved the experience of handling the birds and getting close to them, looking into those beautiful eyes and being afraid of them. Yes, I was. Hunting in the National Forest in the Midlands, UK, is illegal so that’s as far as that went. But it was a vital start.

The easiest bit of research is eating and drinking. I find the odd recipe now and again and try it out for myself. Usually my cooking turns out quite well. Next is mead. Essential research. Gulfyrian, one of my major characters in Gulfyrian and Teon, collected honey and made mead. I haven’t gone as far as making it (yet) but drinking it…sweet and heady…that’s another story.

Yes, I love my job. Have I already said that? Well, I’ll say it again.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton

This post originally appeared on Creativity @ Work on 12 March 2016

Why March is the Month of War

It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. March,  named after the Roman God of War, Mars, would certainy suggest an aggressive month. For the Anglo-saxons, March was called Hreth Month (Saxons), which means rugged or Hyld Month (Angles), which means stormy month. We get the picture.

There are storms and snow, gales and blizzards. But there are a lot of good things about March. As I sit writing now, the sun is bright even though it is frosty, birds are singing very loudly and everywhere shows signs of life with green sproutings all around. It is the month where  spring starts.

For hundreds of years, until 1752, March was the New Year (see Why January 1 is a Confusing New Year). In many ways, it is right that March is the start of a new year. Life begins at this time in nature, everything seems fresh and new. Sometimes, Easter is in March as well, with all the stories of rebirth and resurrection it’s easy to see why March should be celebrated as the New Year.

Mars, besides being the god of war was also the god of agriculture. The message here is that March sees the start of the farming year and the start of the fighting year. Well, who wants to fight in the winter?

Astronomically there is, of course, the Spring or Vernal Equinox, when night and day are almost equal in length. This was called Lenten by the Anglo-Saxons, which means spring. The full moon at this time was called the Lenten Moon. This led to the Christians calling the period before Easter, Lent. The first full moon after the equinox is the date of Easter. See how it all falls together.

Let us march towards the light and warmth. Hehe…

Why I Love Saint David

Feast of Saint David by A.J. Sefton

Some years are barren and in others, abundant. Daffodils. But whether they are growing naturally or are of the paper variety, there is no avoiding them on 1 March in Britain. These lovely spring flowers of eternal cheeriness and hope are the national flower of Wales, 1 March being Saint David’s Day, the Patron Saint of Wales.

This day is a triple celebration for me personally. I love Wales, the little principality of the United Kingdom, and  Saint David is one of my favourite saints.  Of course, daffodils are one of my favourite flowers and we know the winter is over when they show their bright heads. Oh, make that four things. The place of Saint David’s Cathedral is Brtian’s smallest city, which also happens to be my favourite city. It’s called…Saint David’s.

At the time of David’s life, in the sixth century, Saint David’s was known as Menevia and David (or Dewi in Welsh) was the bishop there. He was nicknamed ‘water drinker’ because he ate a simple diet of vegetables and bread and probably drank no ale. Unusual for folk back then. Besides being the patron saint of Wales, David is also the patron of vegetarians. It is written that he refused his monks the use of oxen to pull the plough on the monastery farm. He said that “every man is his own ox” demonstrating a kindness to animals. Statues of him often depict a dove on his shoulder.

Saint David was a real person, which is good because so many saints have little evidence to support their existence. However, there are several legends surrounding him:

Before his birth

The first legend is set 30 years before David was born when an angel foretold his birth to Saint Patrick.

The legend of his birth

Saint David’s father was a prince called Sant, son of the King of Cardigan.

His mother, Non, was the daughter of a local chieftan (and possibly the niece of King Arthur).

But David wasn’t the child of a love-filled marriage. He was born after his father either seduced or raped Non, who went on to become a nun.

Non left her family and gave birth by the sea. So intense was the birth that her fingers left marks where she grasped the rocks.

As David was born a bolt of lightning from heaven struck the rock and split it in two.

The legend of his baptism

St David was baptised by Saint Elvis of Munster, and it is said that a blind man was cured by the water used for the baptism.

David’s early life, and another legend

David was schooled at the local monastery, Hen Fynyw, which is south of present day Aberaeron, and was taught by Paulinus, a blind monk.

David cured Paulinus of his blindness by making the sign of the cross. Realising that David was a special and holy person, Paulinus sent him off as a missionary to convert the pagan people of Britain.

David died on 1 March 589 and was recognised as a saint by Pope Callixtus in 1120.

Although I am not Welsh (my mother-in-law is) I always celebrate Saint David’s Day by filling my home with daffodils and eating Welsh cakes. This September my daughter is off to a Welsh university, Aberystwyth. I shall visit her often.

Happy Saint David’s Day.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton