Thursday, 7 August 2008

Susan Price: A Boy's Adventure Story...

I'm away with the Vikings again...

My recent book, 'Feasting The Wolf' was set against the background of the Great Danish Army's invasion of England in the 9th Century. I'd hardly finished it before a publisher who shall be nameless (until the contract's signed) asked if I'd write for them 'a book for boys, set in the Dark Ages, full of adventure and violence.'

I need the money, so at once set about constructing a book. Colleagues have blogged recently about the joys of beginning a new book. By contrast, this is about the graft of working up a commissioned book to a brief.

'The Dark Ages' could mean anything from the 6th Century and King Arthur to the 8th and the Vikings, but it was always going to be Vikings, because I already know a lot about them.

I needed an idea, so I dredged up the plot of a book I'd written years ago and which had never been published. And I used my partner as a sounding board because he was once a boy, and so might have a better idea than me about what boys enjoy. How about, I suggested, a Viking trying to win enough gold to persuade the father of his sweetheart to let him marry her?

Yuck! Anything to do with weddings or kissing or girls was not on!

Okay, so how about our hero sees a beautiful sword for sale, but the swordsmith won't sell it, so he steals it, and -

"That makes him a thief!" said my partner, shocked.

Yes, and? Vikings were known, occasionally, to take without permission.

But no, no, no, I didn't understand. Heroes of boys' adventures cannot be thieves. They must be honourable and clean-living and right-thinking. This hero sounded less like a Viking every second. I wasn't getting anywhere.

In the end it was my brother (also once a boy) who said during one of our pub conversations, "Base it around the Battle of Stamford Bridge."

Well, that battle was right at the end of the Viking Age - literally, as the Viking Age can be defined as 'from early 8th Century to 1066'. Also, I usually avoid pinning any of my historicals to a definite date as arguing with historians can be so tiresome, I find. And Stamford Bridge, like the Battle of Hastings, has 'the one memorable date in English history'.

Still, I thought it was worth looking into, and started researching the battle. Before long I was fascinated and committed. Stamford Bridge it was going to be.

It was the battle fought in Yorkshire about twenty days before the Battle of Hastings, and for a story-teller, it has lots to offer. An invading Viking army numbering thousands. Impossible, heroic forced marches. Five thousand Vikings fighting to the death under the hot Yorkshire sun (really) without armour. Hardship, courage, heartache. Thank you, bro.

I invented and named my heroes, sketched out the story, and e-mailed it to my agent, so she could flog it. Instead, she flung it back. Too much history, she said, and not enough story. And expunge all mention of the Saxon hero wanting to be a monk! Christianity was the biggest turn-off! And there was I, thinking I was reflecting the way of that age, when Christianity was still fresh and vital.

But the main thing, with a commissioned book, is to sell it - so back to the laptop. History and Christianity out, story in. And my agent was, as usual, right. The story is coming to life as I get closer to the characters and ruthlessly cut the history. Can't wait to get to those five thousand hot, sweaty, doomed Vikings...


Lucy Coats said...

Away with the Vikings is better than away with the fairies, which is where I've been for the last few weeks (literally--am writing a commissioned Field Guide to the little people). I love being asked to do stuff (a novel? I wish!) as I find it triggers off all sorts of new pathways to wander down in my brain. And I find it comforting when publishers actually want to commission me. Ah, the fragility of the writer's ego!

Farah said...

And that is a good summary as to why most modern children's historical fiction is utter tripe.

Your book sounds brilliant, would have sold loads and would have had reviewers everywhere crying into their beer saying "But we *know* children dont like didactic fiction!"

I'd really like to see the book you wanted to write. The book that such "failures" as Geoffrey Trease, Ronald Welch, Henry Treese and Rosemary Sutcliff would have written.

adele said...

I reckon you'll be able to stuff a whole lot of 'history' down the side of the sofa so to speak. Whatever, it does sound great...

Katherine Langrish said...

If I know Sue, it will be a bloody good historical book anyway, as good as anything by Rosemary Sutcliff or Henry Treece or Geoffrey Trease. (All of whom I loved and admire.) Thank goodness we still have classic writers, and Sue is one of them!