Matthew Harffy is an author who has transported readers to vivdi historical landscapes since The Serpent Sword in 2015. His action packed and historically accurate novels excite readers around the world and his latest series (A Time for Swords) is set at the dawn of the Viking Age and follows the journey of Hunlaf, a monk-turned-warrior who witnesses the infamous attack on Lindisfarne.
Matthew Harffy’s latest novel is A Day of Reckoning and it continues Harffy’s reputation as a master of historical fiction as Hunlaf’s journey takes him to Islamic Spain. It is my pleasure to speak with Matthew and discuss his influences and challenges in developing these engrossing stories.
[MH] I don’t really plan that far ahead, if I’m honest.
But there are several reasons why taking Hunlaf and his friends to Islamic Spain made sense. Most importantly, al-Andalus and the Emirate of Cordoba were becoming real political, economic and military powerhouses in Europe, so if Hunlaf is to travel across the known world, to miss out Islamic Spain would be quite strange, especially given the wealth and depth of learning that resided there and Hunlaf’s insatiable appetite for knowledge.
Another reason for wanting to take the story south to the Iberian peninsular was that I lived in Spain for over a decade, so I have visited some of the locations. I have an affinity for the country and welcomed the chance to explore it anew through the eyes of Hunlaf.
Finally, of course it was the story itself that dictated where Hunlaf would visit next. Without giving too much away, the conclusion of book two in the series, A Night of Flames, made it clear that al-Andalus would be Hunlaf’s next destination.
[GDM] What inspired you to create a character that starts as a monk and grows into a warrior?
[MH] I’ve read quite a few stories of old men recounting their lives of adventure. The great Bernard Cornwell himself uses this technique in his Warlord Chronicles that tell the story of King Arthur from the perspective of Derfel Cadarn. At the time of writing the story Derfel is now an old monk looking back on his time as a warrior. I like that conceit for telling a story in the first person, of having an old man penning the tale of his life, and, of course, in the early medieval period most people who could write were monks or other ecclesiastical figures, so it makes sense to have Hunlaf be a monk. However, I liked the idea that instead of being a warrior and later becoming a monk, Hunlaf would start life as a studious monk and life would conspire to throw him into a situation where he discovers he has a natural talent for warfare, leading him to make the decision to put his fighting skills in the service of others and, in doing so, turning his back on his vocation, at least until he is older and perhaps unable to continue the warrior lifestyle.
[GDM] What challenges have you come across in researching the historical elements of your stories set in the Middle Ages?
[MH] The challenges in writing historical fiction set in the early medieval period are legion. I think the single biggest challenge might also be the biggest gift to a historical novelist. And that is the lack of real detailed evidence of many of the people and events. That dearth of information is a double-edged sword. It can make it difficult to find what the facts are, and to create something truly authentic feeling and believable, but at the same time it enables me to make up exciting stories, effectively filling in the gaps that historical accounts have left empty.
[GDM] Many of the interesting characters that you have written grapple with morality, often having to balance violent actions with a dream of something better – what do you find most interesting about writing such characters?
[MH] I think there is a tendency in action and adventure writing to create heroes who are quite one-dimensional. Stronger than anyone else, able to defeat whoever they stand against in battle, and always able to save the day. Some of that goes with the territory of the type of writing. Readers want to have heroes that overcome obstacles and they want a satisfying conclusion at the end of the story. I find that adding other challenges to my characters, perhaps not purely physical, but moral and ethical too, not only makes them more interesting to write and hopefully read about, but adds an extra depth to the stories that perhaps to some extent elevate them beyond the wish fulfilment they can become where the hero can do no wrong.
It is a fine line to give heroes some darkness to their character without turning them into antiheroes. I always want it to be clear that the heroes are just that: heroes. But perhaps having to face up to their inner demons as well as overcome their enemies in battle is partly from where their heroism stems.
[GDM] What are the challenges with writing characters such as Beobrand and Hunlaf as they age over a long period of time in a series? Is this something you have planned out before the first book or something that changes as you are writing?
[MH] As mentioned previously, I don’t really plan very far ahead. I sometimes wish I did, but in reality I look at each novel as a stand-alone story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of course, there is in the case of my series, a rich back story for many of the characters as the series progresses, and I have a vague idea of where the overall series is heading, but little more than that before I start each novel.
In terms of the characters growing older, that just seems obvious to me and another way to make the characters interesting. In a novel you want a character to be altered at the end of the book, different from who they were at the beginning. Something about their journey has to have impacted their life in a meaningful way, changing them for better or worse. In a longer series, the changes to the characters due to their experiences and their physical ageing and the challenges posed by that, is a natural extension of those story arcs. I want Beobrand in book nine of the Bernicia Chronicles to be markedly different from the Beobrand who started out the serpent sword as a seventeen-year-old youth. By the events in Forest of Foes, Beobrand is about twenty years older, with countless battles under his belt. He is a father, soon to be a grandfather, and he has an incredibly rich life experience behind him. It would be madness if he hadn’t grown as a person over those years and books. It frustrates me in some long-running series where the protagonist does not change over time. It might make for comfortable consistency for readers, but it seems very shallow and unrealistic to me.
[GDM] Which do you find easier – writing a first book in a series, or a sequel?
Writing any novel is difficult! But I suppose writing a sequel is in some ways less taxing, as you have the backstory already there, with the previous experiences of the characters to draw upon. When writing a stand-alone novel, or the first in a series, you have to create the world from scratch and all of the backstory of all of the characters, which is quite daunting.
[GDM] How has your writing style or process changed since your first novel?
[MH] I don’t know how my writing style has changed since I wrote my first book. With each new book I try to push myself to do something different. With the first few books that meant adding more subplots, or writing from different points of view, trying different ways of misleading a reader, for example. When I wrote Wolf of Wessex I decided I would write it from the perspective of two characters and alternate between those points of view throughout the whole novel. And when I started writing A Time for Swords it was in order to try my hand at writing in first person.
If my writing style has changed at all, I imagine it has simply become more polished, and I probably know instinctively what will and what won’t work.
In terms of my process, the main difference is that now I am writing full-time and have a dedicated office space, so I can focus for several hours each day on writing. When I was writing the first three or four novels I was working full-time in a day job and writing in my free time, which meant I had to learn how to focus quickly and write in small windows of time of perhaps 45 minutes to an hour.
[GDM] Your books deal with what is often viewed as a grim and violent period in history for Europe – your characters have to deal with loss and grief in what can be an unforgiving world. Are there any scenes that you found difficult to write because of this?
[MH] You are right—the early medieval period in European history is grim and violent and that is often reflected in my novels.
I find writing the action and battle scenes relatively easy and it is the part of writing that I enjoy the most. I don’t know what that says about me, as I am actually a pacifist and have never really been in a fight!
The most difficult things to me to write are actually those scenes that deal with people’s emotions and the inner turmoil they often face. Writing about grief is never easy. There is a particularly harrowing scene in The Cross and the Curse which was tough to write, but more than one reader has written to me to say it made them cry, which as a writer is all I could ask for, I suppose.
[GDM] Which authors do you consider to have had the biggest impact on either your love of historical fiction, or your writing style?
[MH] I’ve already mentioned Bernard Cornwell, but David Gemmell and Conn Iggulden were also hugely influential in my style of writing and subject matter. It would be remiss of me not to mention Larry McMurtry too, whose Pulitzer prize-winning Lonesome Dove is one of the most important inspirations for my writing.
[GDM] Finally, as a primary teacher, I have always loved teaching History (especially Vikings!), if you could travel back in time to any historical period and location, where would it be and why?
[MH] Funnily enough I failed history at school, but perhaps the less said about that the better!
I think if there was any period in history that I could visit and then come back from safely, I would choose to go to witness some of the great mysteries of the past. For example, how about visiting the tomb of Jesus after his crucifixion and seeing what really happened? Or what about the Nazca Lines in Peru? Or the construction of the pyramids? Or Stonehenge? Or how about visiting the site of the first European (Norse) settlers in North America and see what happened to them?
There are so many questions we’ll probably never have the answers to, perhaps time travel would be the only way to solve some of those riddles. Historical fiction is the next best thing, of course.