Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
My name is Matthew Harffy and I am the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, set in seventh century Britain and recently Wolf of Wessex, set at the start of the Viking Age in the ninth century.
What are the real-life stories behind your books?
So far all of my novels have followed stories of fictional characters against the tapestry of real historical events. In the Bernicia Chronicles, the main character is Beobrand, a warrior who finds his life entwined in that of the kings, queens and holy men of Britain in the 600s. Britain is an island split into several small kingdoms, each vying for supremacy over their neighbours. Anglo-Saxons have settled the land in the east, pushing the native Britons, who they called Waelisc (Welsh), into the west. Beobrand is a natural warrior and leader of men and so finds himself indispensable to a series of powerful kings of the period.
The first novel, The Serpent Sword, takes place in the reign of King Edwin of Northumbria and as the series progresses, Beobrand follows King Eanfrith, King Oswald and (by the seventh novel in the series) King Oswiu. As you can see by the number of kings of the one kingdom of Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria), it was a savage time of great conflict and kings fought in the front lines with their warriors against their foes. If you throw into that mix that Christianity was resurging across Britain and replacing the old gods worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons, you can see there is a huge scope for tales to be spun against the backdrop of real history.
My latest published novel, Wolf of Wessex, is set in AD 838 and follows the tale of Dunston, an aging warrior, who needs to use all the skills of survival garnered from a lifetime in the wilderness to lead a young girl, Aedwen, to safety, to thwart the implacable enemies on their trail and uncover the terrible secret that led to Aedwen’s father’s murder. Again this is fiction set against real life events and King Ecgberht of Wessex (King Alfred the Great’s grandfather) features in the novel.
What inspires your creativity?
I have always read novels and there is nothing more inspirational than reading a good book, or even a bad one! Authors who have inspired me include David Gemmell, Bernard Cornwell, Larry McMurtry, Lee Child, Tolkien amongst many others. I think all of the good writers I have read help me to strive to improve my writing. The bad writers I have read (who shall remain nameless!) give me hope! Hey, if they can be published with writing that bad, of course I can be successful!
How do you deal with creative block?
Take the dog for a walk, read something else, talk the problem through with someone… But the best remedy is just to sit down and write. The longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to get back in the saddle!
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Killing off good villains too soon and leaving good villains alive too long!
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
Titles need to grab you and hint at the story. It is hard to do, but I try to have more than one meaning possible in my titles. For example, The Serpent Sword features an actual sword that has a pattern-welded blade that looks like the skin of a snake, but it also deals with Beobrand embracing the life of a warrior and how the sword is dangerous and like a viper. The violent life he chooses will just as likely cause him pain and loss as it will harm his enemies.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
It is never nice to receive a negative review, but it is part of being published. I used to long to reply to one-star reviews, but now I just shrug and move on. Negative criticism can be constructive, but usually it is not and should just be ignored. A three-star review might well have something useful in it, a one-star review rarely does in my opinion and often says more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed.
Once you have broad enough readership, it is inevitable that some readers will not love your writing. It is healthy and as it should be. As a writer, I just need to write the best I can and hope that most people like the results!
How has your creation process improved over time?
The more I write, the easier it is to get the words down. However, the more I write, the more difficult it is to be happy with those words! I think that is why writers tend to get better the more they write. They get more self-critical, which in turn makes each subsequent book feel more difficult to write than the last!
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
I think it is important to write what you would like to read. You just have to hope that enough other people agree with you!
What role do emotions play in creativity?
I’m not sure. I suppose your state of mind will always affect your writing, but some of my best writing has come on days when I have felt down and uninspired. You never know when creativity will strike, but one thing is certain, if you are not sitting down (or standing) writing, nothing good will get written.
I also think that creativity plays an important part in my emotional state. When something has worked out in the writing, I feel an almost physical sense of wellbeing and achievement.
Do you have any creativity tricks?
If I am stuck, I move the action forward a bit and start writing in media res and then have the characters fill in the backstory of what has happened in between the previous scene and the new one. This seems to jolt me out of any jams, makes things dynamic and prompts me to think about what the reader needs to know to understand the scene.
What are your plans for future books?
I am currently working on a new book set at the beginning of the Viking Age. It is a completely new cast of characters, so it is challenging. After that, I will probably write book eight in the Bernicia Chronicles series. And then? Who knows?
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
I used to sing in a rock band. And though I write historical fiction, I failed both history and English Literature at school!
The Bernicia Chronicles
Wolf of Wessex
Novella – Kin of Cain