Matthew Harffy

What are the secrets to writing a successful historical fiction series?

Report by Sarah Noon

Matthew Harffy is best known for his historical series The Bernicia Chronicles which are set in the 7th century. There are currently 8 of these and the 9th is due out in December.  This evening he takes us through the whole process of researching and writing historical fiction.

Matthew begins by talking us through the books he has written:  as well as The Bernicia Chronicles, he has written the Wolf of Wessex (set in the Viking period) and another series – A Time For Swords and A Night of Flames.

He then goes on to explain how he got into publishing; asking us to bear in mind that the industry has changed significantly over the last 10 years. For Matthew, it all started in 2001, when he was watching a documentary about Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. The story behind the castle inspired him to write his first book, The Servant’s Sword. The development of the book required much research. Over a period of three years, Matthew studied the history and background, maps and documents and, he says, realised that his idea was more of a series than a stand-alone novel. He then speaks about having “the wind taken out of [his] sails,” when soon after, Bernard Cornwall brought out The Last Kingdom – a book very similar to The Servant’s Sword.  As a result, he stopped writing. Over the next few years, he “lived his life” and talks about his family, holidays, going to the Olympics, playing in a band… but, he says, “I wasn’t writing.” He says that although he would think about the book and his writing from time to time, he wasn’t really doing anything about it.

His writing journey then continued in 2012.  Matthew recalls that he was travelling to a campsite in his car and listening to a radio documentary about E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, and how this was selling incredibly well via eBooks on Amazon.  Matthew says that due to his job, he had the skills to do this with The Servant’s Sword and that “…maybe I should consider that as an option.”  He describes sitting on his own outside his tent that evening, listening to the sounds of the wind, and the fire etc. thinking about his book.  He realised that he was hearing the same sounds as his characters in his book would have heard over 6000 years ago.  “The people are the same, the world is the same. I need to write this book.” He says that he considered that many books have similar themes and settings so shouldn’t be put off by the fact that Bernard Cornwall had already written something similar. 

Following this moment of realisation, Matthew went home and wrote the book.  It took him seven months and was about 100,000 words.  He found an agent by going through the channels that many of us are familiar with (one-to-ones at writers’ festivals, email pitches etc).  He eventually found an agent who took on his manuscript.  However, despite working hard on Matthew’s behalf, “…every publisher in Britain rejected [it],”  which, says Matthew, leaves you feeling “ … pretty much like you’re rubbish.”

However, Matthew explains that whilst all this was going on, he had caught “the writing bug” and had written a sequel … leaving him with two unpublished books. Feeling that he perhaps wasn’t going to get any further along the traditional publishing route, Matthew reveals that this was when he began to consider self-publishing (something, he informs us, that agents don’t like as they don’t get any money!).

With the practical skills that Matthew has already spoken of, he tells us that he edited his work, got others to read it, designed a cover on some free software, contacted other writers who read his manuscript and allowed him to use their quotes on the covers – and he self-published. Matthew explains that once he had his book on Amazon and had sold several thousand copies and had lots of reviews “…then the publishers are a bit more interested.”

This lead to him being taken on by Head of Zeus publishing.  Their way of working meant that they published the e-book first, then print-on-demand, then getting the book into shops as the final stage. He explains how difficult this decision was to make, as Head of Zeus was not offering any advance and Matthew had already self-published, but signed up with the hope that it would bring him other benefits such as foreign language rights etc.  Whilst Matthew is now very happy with the way things have gone, he says that after taking a significant pay cut, there was a moment when he was “… bricking it.”

So, how did he write that first book?

Matthew urges us to consider the difference between an amateur and professional writer. Is it simply a writer who makes some money out of their work? He quotes Richard Back “A professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.” and reminds us that he did, in fact, quit for a time.  He also quotes Jodi Picoult who says “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”  Matthew reminds us that if you don’t write, you’ve got nothing to make better. He says the most important thing is to “… finish your manuscript.” Whether one chooses to self-publish or publish traditionally, it needs to be finished first.

Matthew sets targets.  He tells us that “Microsoft Word is horrible” when writing a long manuscript.  He discovered Scrivener. This writing programme allows him to set targets. Whilst working full-time, he set himself the target of 3000 words per week. Much of this time was whilst waiting to pick his children up (he says that when you’re a parent of young children, much of your time is “…just waiting for your kids to do stuff,”). So, Matthew used that time productively by writing.

He then went down to part-time. He set himself the target of 5000 words per week.  Now that Matthew is full-time, he writes 2000 words a day between Monday and Friday.  He advises us “Don’t get bogged down in research,” when writing.  He explains that if he needs to research something specific, he will highlight the section and then go back and research once he has completed his first draft.

Matthew talks through the process of his structural edits, line-by-line edits, copy edits, proofreading etc, all leading to a published book. But how does he start?  After writing twelve books, he is well placed to tell us…

For Matthew, “…every story starts with the history.” He makes clear that although his stories are fictional, he starts with a dramatic real event. He may also add a “…what if?” After he has the ideas for his story, he says that he then spends a few weeks researching the history and location, considering how the story will work.

So what, asks Matthew, keeps people coming back? He explains that it’s not the plot, it’s not the history, it is, he says, the characters. “Characters sell books.”  He goes on to tell us that the character needs flaws. Another tip he gives us is that we should “…leave every chapter with an unanswered question,” thus ensuring your novel is a page-turner.   Returning to the fundamental issue of characters, Matthew discusses how in order to make the ones in his 7th Century stories accessible to his readers, he tries to make them “… a little less 7th century,” making him more relatable and emotional to a modern-day readership.

Having been very generous with his time and advice, Matthew ends his fascinating and in-depth talk with his mantra:

“Story over history, authenticity over accuracy.”

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