The Future of History

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Arthur's Grave

I don't know - maybe I'm getting a bit tired of words, or maybe I'm just enjoying playing with maps and figures, seeing as they do break up the text a bit.  But, well, I'm tempted to sneak this image at the end of the appropriate chapter.

It's black-and-white because that's what the inside of the book will be.  I wasn't planning on having any photos in the book.  But I think I might just get away with a couple of illustrations artfully inserted into the text. 

And, hey, it is The Grave after all.

Try to imagine it with a circle of stones on the summit, which is what it was like up until the eighteenth century.  Or with a great bonfire burning away on its crest on Beltane eve.  Or with "sweet music" emanating mysteriously from inside it, as some have reported.  Or during a total eclipse of the sun - which is what happened at the moment when Arthur's head was laid to rest inside it.

And then tell me I shouldn't sneak this picture into the book.

End of the Road

This is where the story ends.

It's been quite emotional, putting the finishing touches to the final chapter.  On the one hand, I wanted to explain how the legends of Arthur and his people got removed from their proper environment and transplanted to southern Britain.  At the same time, I was eager to recount the last stage of my research journey - the visit I made in 2010 to the place where the Arthurian trail finally goes cold.

I'm pleased to say that the last chapter seems to end on a high note of sorts.  Which comes as a pleasant surprise, given the tragedies that have afflicted Arthur's people over the centuries.  The last chapter doesn't ignore their sufferings, revealing for example that in 1841 some 52 descendants of Arthur lived in the village pictured here, but by the early twentieth century the settlement was in ruins.  The people had been forced to leave.

That sort of thing makes me feel that the damage done to Arthur and his reputation by his enemies is simply part of a bigger picture of intolerance and oppression.  It is distressing to realise the extent to which Arthur's people have been persecuted through the ages, their culture suppressed, their traditions outlawed.  Some of the best of those traditions lingered longest at the village in the photo, preserving a direct link with Arthur which continued up until the nineteenth century and possibly later still.

But it's a strange thing.  The exodus of Arthur's people, thrown to the four winds as they were, means that today, the descendants of Arthur are everywhere.  In the wastes of British Columbia, in the cities of America, in Australia and New Zealand there will be people with Arthur's blood in their veins.

That seems a good note to end the book on.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Stop Press: Round Table Discovery

Well, this is kinda timely.  Archaeologists from my alma mater (University of Glasgow) have been surveying the site which I have identified in the ARTHUR book as the Round Table.  And they've found a "circular feature".

How cool is that?


We're into a new phase.  After months of concentrating solely on writing the book, I'm now spending much of my time playing with images.  Maps, figures, illustrations ... and, of course, the cover.

There's something very therapeutic about it all.  The same sort of processes are involved.  There's not a word in the main text which hasn't been thought about, revised, altered, edited and revised again.  Pretty much the same can be said for the artwork.  But I find that it exercises different parts of the brain - which makes me wonder whether I'm really just enjoying taking a break from words, words, words ...

The maps are an interesting challenge.  And I'm liking the way that images can break up the text - a family tree, a diagrammatic approach to the cauldron ritual (the original Grail quest) - and the maps both elucidate the story and change the feel of the manuscript.

And I think I've resolved some of my formatting issues, having spent many months agonising about the font (big shout of thanks to Cameron Chapman, whose blogpost on fonts was an inspiration - for those who are interested:

Back in the day, when I first ventured into graphic design, there was only Letraset and freehand calligraphy.  But we live in a world of choices, now.  Hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of fonts and sizes.  Finding the right one can take time.  Think I've cracked it, though.  Looks good, at any rate.

So the book is changing, even as we speak, from what looked just like a manuscript to what is beginning to feel like an artefact, an object.  It has a different kind of reality.  It's taking shape.

All work in progress, of course, and as nail-biting as anything, but curiously satisfying, too.  Like an episode of "Grand Designs".  Out of the chaos, order is forming.  Each new job adds to the whole.

The cover design (above right) is still ongoing.  But I'm beginning to like it (I think it looks even better with the spine alongside).  I'd be really happy to hear from anyone who wants to express an opinion, before I commit.

Anyway ... back to work, and those all-important maps.

Thursday, 25 August 2011


I've just been revising my chapter on Arthur's last battle.  I don't want to give too much away, but the Battle of Camlan was fought along the banks of this river.

I'm a little taken aback to realise that I've known about the site of the infamous battle for nearly five years.  At first, I'd found what I thought was the right spot - based on a number of Arthurian landmarks, local traditions and the proximity of his wife's grave.

Little by little, the rest of the story came together.  Only recently have I discovered that Arthur's half-sister was born nearby.  This was land that had been annexed by his grandfather.  Arthur's military genius allowed his people to reconquer the territory (it had been lost shortly after his birth).  The final battle was fought on the very border of the region which had been ruled by Arthur.

The biggest breakthrough, though, was the realisation that a contemporary poem of the battle survives.  It's gone unnoticed for many years, not because the poem is unknown, but because scholars have misinterpreted it.  A shame, because for hundreds of years a description of Arthur's final campaign has existed and no one managed to put two and two together.  But then, that's what happens if you fool yourself into believing that Arthur must have been a warlord of southern Britain.

So for me, this was a golden opportunity.  I had a contemporary account of the last battle and had found a site which seemed appropriate.  I began to notice that certain place-names mentioned in the poem still exist, and they're right there, precisely at the very place where I'd suspected the battle was fought.

One in particular gives the game away.  This place was, without doubt, the site of Arthur's last stand.  He was mortally wounded just yards from where the photo was taken.  And the place bears his name - not once, but twice.

The awful thing is that Arthur would appear to have been winning.  His war-band was battle-weary, but they were the best around.  They faced a massive army of warriors from various different places.  A little further up the river which stretches away from the confluence shown in the photo, his principal rival was directing the enemy forces (the place, again, is marked on the map).  But Arthur had a strategy, the enemy was scared of him, and he might - just might - have come very close to victory.

And then he was attacked from the rear.  The story of Camlan is one of treachery and betrayal.  And, in the book, I will reveal who betrayed him, and why.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Art on Authonomy

For those who don't know, is a website run by HarperCollins publishers.

I first came across it in December 2008.  Back then, I was working on a new beginning to my Arthur project.  I had spent about a year-and-a-half working with a highly respected literary agent on various different proposals for the book (outlines, synopses, sample chapters, etc. etc.) and I was getting just a little bit frustrated.  Fearing that I might be losing interest in my own project, I decided to go ahead and write a few of the early chapters for my own enjoyment.  And that's when I found out about Authonomy.

I joined up on 5 December 2008 and on 10 December I uploaded my chapters.

Authonomy works like this: authors and readers all around  the world can join.  If you have upwards of 10,000 words of your book project written, you can upload them and anyone on the site can read them.  When you've read some or all of the author's material you are expected to leave a comment or two.  And, if you choose, you can put their book on your virtual shelf.  This earns them points.

The site aims to work like its own self-regulating slush pile.  Every publisher has a slush pile of manuscripts sent in by hopeful writers, and every publisher knows that maybe, just maybe, somewhere in that great big pile could be the next Harry Potter.  HarperCollins simply decided that, rather than having to read through the slush pile themselves, they'd get all those eager, budding novelists to do it for them.

The more people 'shelve' a book on Authonomy, the higher it rises up the rankings.  The object for every writer on the site is to get their book into the top five.  At the end of every month, the top five books are spirited away to the Editor's Desk, where they receive a gold star and a half-hearted review from a jobbing editor.

It doesn't necessarily lead to publication, although one or two authors have been spotted on Authonomy and their books fast-tracked into print.  For the rest of us mortals, the great thing about Authonomy is the people you get to know there, the extraordinarily high quality of the material you can read (for free) on there, and the massive amounts of help, advice and support you can get - especially in terms of editorial suggestions.

My Arthur book was then called "Commanding Youth" (you'll have to read the book, when it comes out, to understand that title; but it's not called that anymore).

I was very lucky.  Two lovely people, Richard Dowling and N. Gemini Sasson, got to it really quickly and gave it a great big thumbs up.  Others came along and had a look.  Some terrific comments began to appear.  The book began to rise up through the rankings.

Now, there really isn't very much Non-Fiction on Authonomy.  Hardly any, really.  There's some excellent material (Gemi Sasson, for example, writes great historical fiction) but very little from the Non-Fiction camp, and most of that falls into the memoirs category.

But my Arthur book was doing pretty well, and I got to enjoy plugging it (you have to, otherwise Authonomy will get you nowhere) and reading, reading, reading so many other people's chapters.  Before Christmas had come I was able to let my agent know that the book was soaring up the ranks.  He asked me for a proposal.

Back to Square One, then.  Over Christmas, I rewrote the first chapter and test-ran it on Authonomy, alongside the many, much shorter chapters I'd already got up on the site.  All the comments I'd had back from those first chapters fed into my rewrite, and many Authonomists gave me their considered opinions (special thanks must go out to Richard Pierce-Sanderson, who gave me the most detailed and helpful editorial critique I could have hoped for).  Yep - that new first chapter was looking good.

But the agent wanted three chapters, along with all the rest of the material for the proposal.

That meant taking time out from reading, swapping reads and generally plugging my Arthur book on Authonomy.  I took a couple of weeks and, thanks to all the advice and encouragement I'd received, came up with two more chapters.  We were now nearing the end of January 2009.  The book was riding high in the Authonomy charts and was in with a real chance of making the Editor's Desk, especially once I had replaced my original chapters with the three new ones.

My agent chose that moment to end our association.  Apparently, I'd written those two new chapters far too quickly.

My computer then got a virus, which kept me off Authonomy for another two weeks.  But even so, "Commanding Youth" (as it was then known) hit the top five at one minute past midnight on 1 March 2009.  I think it peaked at number 3.  No other Historical Non-Fiction had ever made it into the top five.

It didn't go to the Editor's Desk, though, because I pulled it from Authonomy a few days later.  I didn't have the heart to slug it out all through March just to keep it up there in the top five.  Two publishers had expressed interest, and so I bowed out and freed up a space on the Editor's Desk for another author.

And, in the meantime, I turned my attention to another of my projects ... but that's another story.

Anyway, apart from all the friends I made, the great chats, fabulous feedback and wonderful stories on Authonomy, the best thing for me was the discovery that history can be very popular indeed.  Away from the mainstream publishing market, real people all over the world, of all ages, found they could really enjoy reading a history book!!

Like I said, the first (and perhaps the only) Historical Non-Fiction book ever to make it into the Authonomy Top Five, ahead of literally thousands of other books.

It's come a long way since then.  But nothing gives me more hope, as I near the moment when "ARTHUR" goes live and the book can be ordered or downloaded, than the fact that, as Authonomy taught me, it is possible to make historical non-fiction every bit as enjoyable as any fiction.

And with Arthur, you're off to a pretty good start anyway.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Won't Be Long Now

It's taken nearly eight years.

Thousands of miles, hundreds of references, dozens of rewrites and several languages.

And now, at last, I'm nearly there.  My book about ARTHUR will be completed in just a few weeks.  Give it a month or so, I reckon.

I'm finalising the last chapters now.  There'll be a prologue and an appendix to write, a bibliography and an index to compile, and there's a list of maps to be completed.  I'm also toying with a time-line and a who's who.  Maybe even a family tree or two.  And, of course, the cover.

One of the first things I'll be posting in this blog is the cover design.  It'll be good to get some feedback on it.

But, after all this time, the book is nearly there.  Sometime this autumn - 2011 - it'll go on sale.  And for the first time, people will be able to read up on who the greatest hero in British history really was.

Yes, for the first time in history!  The book explains why Arthur went missing, why so many people imagine that he was based in southern Britain, and why some experts doubt that he ever existed at all.  There are some shocking conclusions.  I'm fully aware that this book could create a bit of a fuss.  Some people will not be happy about the revelations.

But anyone who has the slightest interest in Arthur and his legends will find pretty much everything they need to know: where was Camelot?  The Round Table?  Where did Arthur fight his battles, against whom, and when?  Where was the Isle of Avalon, and where can we see his grave?

I'm looking forward to sharing this all.  This blog will keep you up-to-date on developments, both with the ARTHUR book and my subsequent work on Shakespeare (that's taken even longer - about twenty-five years, at the last count).  But it's ARTHUR first.

I'll keep you posted via this blog.  Any questions, my email address is at the top of the page.  And if you feel like sharing any blogposts, just go to the bottom of the screen.

The countdown has started.  It'll be out there in time for Christmas.

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