On publication day of The Last Enemy: England: The First Viking Age (The Ninth Century, Book 4) I am pleased to welcome author MJ Porter to my blog.
I’m an author of historical fiction (Early English/Viking) and fantasy. I write A LOT, you’ve been warned.
Your most recent book, The Last Enemy is the fourth in the series, can you tell us a bit about the series?
The Ninth Century books, of which the Last Enemy is the newest one, grew from my desire to write an alternative to the highly popular Last Kingdom books by Bernard Cornwell. Not that I don’t love them, but as a proud Mercian by birth, I wanted to explore the what have’s and might have been’s a bit more than he was ever able to, mainly because a big archaeology find was only made quite recently (in 2015), and Uhtred’s main focus was always Northumbria and Wessex, not Mercia.
I also wanted to write quite a different book to normal, focusing on battles and war and the camaraderie between my warriors. A few things helped when I was first starting out, most notably, watching The Gentlemen film directed by Guy Ritchie, but I had been considering Coelwulf for about three years, ever since I wrote The Lady of Mercia’s Daughter, set about forty years later.
You’ve written over 30 books across multiple eras, which series has been your favourite to write and why?
I really enjoy writing The Ninth Century series. They are steeped in history, but because they cover such a short space of time, the day to day business of the story is very much improvised. The fact that I get to include a lot of humour also helps. I’ve also adopted a different strategy, because if I’m typing away, and I think, ‘oh wait, no one’s died for a few pages, or sworn,’ I write that in, and it means there’s not the usual amount of politics that can be found in my other books.
Which series was the most difficult to write and why?
I think the Tenth Century series was difficult to write, not necessarily the first two books about Lady Ælfwynn, the daughter of the Lady of Mercia, but the two follow-up books, Kingmaker and The King’s Daughters. Both books covered quite a long time period, and Kingmaker was ‘written over’ some books I’d already written and I didn’t want to rewrite something by mistake. The King’s Daughters was similar, but it took me way out of my comfort zone, and into East and West Frankia of the tenth century, something I’d never studied before. Getting all the characters right was challenging, but equally, so was the geography and the fact lots of people seemed to have the same name. There were even two places called Burgundy, and it took me ages to realise that.
Of all the characters who is your personal favourite?
I will go back to my first historical creation, Ealdorman Leofwine, from the Earls of Mercia books. I adored writing him, and when I had to ‘kill’ him off, because he disappears from the historical record, I was gutted. I wanted him to be an honourable man at a time when there was little honour from the king and his followers, and I think it worked really well. I suppose, he was my ‘William Marshall’, from Elizabeth Chadwick books. Not that I don’t like them all, but I have a soft spot for old Leofwine.
You clearly write a lot! How do you plan your writing?
He he. I don’t. Well, I do, but not in the way people might think. I tend to set targets, often unrealistic ones, such as word counts for each day, and completion dates, and motivate myself from that. It also depends what stage of a story I’m at, I have a writing phase where I aim for 5000 words a day, at least two editing stages, where I have to do a couple read-through, and then spelling and grammar days. I write quite quickly.
As most authors will say, I have ideas for more projects while I’m writing. That’s why the characters often inter-connect. I’m lucky in that not many people are writing about the early English period, other than for certain key moments. It gives me a great deal of scope to play with, and a lot of ‘lost’ historical characters and events whose stories I can tell.
Can you give us a hint what you’re currently working on?
I am currently working on a project I’m calling The Custard Corpses, a 1940s murder mystery. I’ve never written anything so ‘modern’ before. I don’t know if it will work out, but I’m enjoying it right now.
I’m also working on the latest Earls of Mercia book before I get back to Coelwulf and his comrades.
Name a book you think everyone should read
That’s a hard one. I’m going to cheat and name a few of my favourites. I’ll start with the Robin Hobb Fitz books, which are just a stunning exercise in creating a wonderful world and characters. They will make you sob and give you all the feels.
The books that I reread most often are the Anne McCaffrey Pern books. I just adore them and it’s her fault I created a fantasy series all about dragons.
And finally, I’m going to say Wuthering Heights. It’s one of those books that’s just stayed with me for years, the bleakness and the beauty combined all together.
If you wanted to know about Early England, I would recommend both books by Max Adams, Ælfred’s Britain and The King in the North. They’re very readable and filled with detail.
If you could have a conversation with anyone from history who would it be and why?
What an intriguing idea. I’d love to talk to quite a few people but I’m going to go with Queen Elizabeth I. She was my first historical heroine but I think she’s full of contradictions, a woman ruling but who thought that women shouldn’t rule. I’d ask about her many marriage proposals and maybe about Robert Dudley, as well, and what she really thought of her sister and father.
Have you read any books this year you’d particularly recommend?
Yes. The first recommendation is Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival. A stunning book, and one from which I may (I did) ‘borrow’ the idea of using letters from for my Lady Estrid book. Only Anne O’Brien uses letters to tell about 90% of the story. It was a new idea for me, but I think it worked really well because it’s a complex book with many characters and a lot of change.
I also recommend Giles Kristian’s sequel to Lancelot, Camelot. It had such a pervading sense of doom to it, and yet, despite it all, I wanted the ending to be very different. It seemed to epitomise the Arthurian Legend perfectly.
Do you have any advice for budding authors?
Write. It sounds daft, but what I’ve discovered, and I think other authors will say the same, is the only way to know if you can do it, is to write. You can spend years devising your ideas, and researching (especially for historical fiction), but there’s a huge difference between thinking about characters and storylines and getting them written. The ideas in your head that feel magnificent, might only end up being a paragraph or two. It’s very frustrating.
I would always recommend taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November of each year. The idea is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
The first time I completed it, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but now I do it every year because it makes me remember the importance of routine, the need to just write words, any words, to hit your word count for the day. The story will come together in the edit, and you can’t edit your ideas😀
MJ’s latest book The Last Enemy is out today and can be ordered here. You can my reviews of the series so far below:
Thank you to MJ for joining me and those interesting answers. I can’t wait for the next instalment of Coelwulf and his warriors.