Drawing Anglo-Saxon and Viking Treasure: Guest Post by Gilli Allan

To tie in with the release of the gorgeous new cover for Buried Treasure, I'm delighted to hand the blog over to author Gilli Allan: ...

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Anglo-Saxon Historical Fiction, with Millie Thom & Theresa Tomlinson

I've read two of Theresa's novels and two and a half of Millie's. It occurred to me recently that novels about Anglo-Saxon England can almost be of completely different genres. Sons of Kings is a saga, telling Eadwulf's story, while the Fridgyth stories are more like murder-mysteries. Allow these wonderful authors to explain:

AW:You both have fictional people as your main characters. Does this make it easier, or harder, when plotting a story against a backdrop of real historical events?

MT: I must admit, I don’t find keeping Eadwulf’s story within the framework of King Alfred’s, unduly difficult. I do have to make sure their timelines are coordinated, but my principal fictional character, Eadwulf, lives with Danes who actually feature in Alfred’s story anyway, and are mentioned in ‘Asser’s Life of King Alfred’ and the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicle’, as well as in numerous other reference books and online sites. I searched through many such texts in the hope of finding less well-known events that the Danes of that period were involved in – like Bjorn and Hastein’s sacking of Paris in Book 1 and their great ‘Mediterranean adventure’ in Book 2. Some of these incidents and events have become much better known in recent years, thanks to various documentaries and TV series like ‘Vikings’, which include incidents such as the death of Ragnar Lothbrok and the blood eagle ritual. I tend to fit wholly fictional events into gaps in the historical timeline, during which nothing major is happening. By the middle of Book 3, Alfred’s and Eadwulf’s stories are closely linked anyway.

TT: I think the answer is a bit of both! 
For many years I thought that somebody ought to write a historical novel with the exciting time period and dramatic setting of Hild’s double monastery at Whitby – I also assumed that the writer should be a historian, who’d studied the period in detail. Initially I felt daunted by the prospect of describing such iconic characters as Abbess Hild, Caedmon, and Princess Aelfleda. Time went by and it didn’t happen – though Melvyn Bragg touched on the subject with Credo. Eventually I decided to have a go at writing a Young Adult mystery/adventure using this setting – this seemed to be a less formidable prospect. Inventing a fictional character, Wulfrun the weaver’s daughter as my main character brought a sense of freedom, but once started on the project I realised that if my protagonist was to be surrounded by those well-known historical figures, I should try to set my story in a specific time frame. This made it necessary to study and check out both the local history and the wider Anglo-Saxon period in detail, hopefully making my invented storyline believable and realistic. Random House Children’s Books eventually published Wolf Girl - my first Anglo-Saxon setting.

AW: When you wrote the first book, did you already know that it would form part of a series? How did you go about deciding whether the story would become part of a longer collection and how easy do you find it to write the end of each book, knowing another will follow on?

MT: Now, this is a question and a half for me! I am now writing the fourth and final book of the Sons of Kings series, which is quite laughable when I think that I set out to cover the whole of King Alfred’s life in a single book. As I delved into research with relish, it very soon became obvious to me that a single book was out of the question. And that was before I decided to include a second protagonist. Once I got carried away with Eadwulf’s story, I soon realised I needed a trilogy. Then, lo and behold, I was writing the second half of Book 3 before I knew for certain that I wasn’t going to finish the story in that book, either! So, a four-book series it will be.
As for the ending of each book, I like to leave some indication that the story is ongoing, without making it into a blatant cliff hanger – which I know some readers really detest. I’d like to think that the endings of my three books leave readers speculating as to what could happen next, without leaving them unhappy that the story abruptly ended in mid-crisis, or feeling they’ve been tricked into reading the next book! I’d like to believe that any of my three Sons of Kings books so far can be read as ‘one-offs’. However, having said that, the character development throughout the series is ongoing, and reading Book 2 alone, for example, would mean readers meet the two protagonists as young men without knowing what they went through as boys – or how they changed, particularly Eadwulf. I imagine the same could be said about all book series which involve the same characters. 

TT: My original plan was to write a Young Adult trilogy, but when Wolf Girl was published it didn’t sell very widely and the publishers didn’t feel confident enough to take on another Anglo-Saxon setting. I was left with a half written sequel, a head full of ideas, a large library of Anglo-Saxon history books and growing interest in the period. I had for a while been thinking of trying an adult historical novel, particularly as I was finding that I wanted to focus more on older characters, as I too was growing old. When I re-read Wolf Girl, a secondary character, Fridgyth the herb-wife seemed to step forward and tell me that she’d been waiting patiently for me to notice her properly. She again fitted the bill as a fictional character, but one who could be there at the centre of the story and interacting with real historical events and people. So, I took up my original ideas for a second and third story and used them with the herb-wife as my protagonist, also moving the story onto a more adult level. A Swarming of Bees was eventually followed by Queen of a Distant Hive.
Now that I’m working on a fourth story I’m finding it quite difficult, as this wasn’t part of my original plan, however readers are asking for another book and I love stepping back into Fridgyth’s world - so I’m attempting to do it. The way to move forward seems to be to study what happened next historically both locally and in the wider world of that time and try to see where my herb-wife could have another adventure. I haven’t totally got things worked out yet, but real events around the death of King Oswy- and Queen Eanfleda’s move to Whitby seem to be offering scope and Fridgyth will get the opportunity to travel a little more. I haven’t really worried too much about finishing a book off, with another sequel in mind – I’m just happy to find a satisfactory ending and grateful that another story is completed.

AW: Millie, what drew you to the Anglo-Saxon period?

MT: I do love the Anglo-Saxon period, Annie. It’s a turbulent and violent period of history, but it is also a very long period of cultural, religious and political importance and change – as your fabulous book, ‘Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom’ so brilliantly describes, and more! (AW: Blushes!) The years I cover in my books are set at the very beginnings of the unification of the kingdoms that leads to the development of England, and I’ve tried to show that throughout the series. But I have to admit, it was not the period that inspired me to write my Sons of Kings books, but Alfred himself. 
I first became interested in Alfred when we lived in Wantage for six years in the 1970s. Alfred was reputedly born in the town (in Berkshire until 1974, and in Oxfordshire after the county boundaries changed at that time) and there’s one of the two most famous statues of him in the Market Place there. The other one is in Winchester, which became Alfred’s
I’ve loved writing my books about Alfred and Eadwulf, but now I’m looking forward to a new challenge, I’m a history lover in general, and often become engrossed in other periods. 
I have a number of ideas for my next full novel, and none of them involve Anglo-Saxon times. My next book will definitely be historical, and I’m presently wavering between Roman Britain and the 1950s. So, you can see how wide a range that is! 

AW: And Theresa, what drew you to the period?

TT: As children growing up in the Whitby area, we were told that the large numbers of ammonite fossils found along the coast were once poisonous snakes that had been turned into stone by the magic of Saint Hilda. This saint always sounded a little more interesting than other rather pious religious women of the past. Later, as an adult, I learnt that she had ruled over a large monastery of monks as well as nuns, this seemed to suggest that she had been a very powerful person indeed. I began to study the history of her time in more detail and found the sparse information known about Caedmon and Princess Aelfleda fascinating too. When excavations at Street House, by archaeologist Steve Sherlock, uncovered a mysterious Anglo-Saxon cemetery with high status graves and gold and garnet jewellery, very close to where I’d lived as a child, I was completely hooked.

AW: Both of you also write in other genres/periods. How easy is it to swap from one to the other? Do you have a favourite?

MT: I realise I’ve answered some of this question in my previous answer, but I’ll add that there are many periods of history I’m interested in, and not only British history. I used to think I only really liked ancient history – Greeks and Romans fascinated me – but I know now that many periods can fire my imagination. Delving into research is part of the fun of writing a book to me, so I’ll happily ‘get stuck in’ to whichever period I choose to write next time. 
As for different genres, I also write flash fiction and I love it! My short book ‘A Dash of Flash’ is a collection of 85 pieces ranging from 100 to 1,000 words. I enjoy the challenge of writing a story with a beginning, middle and end in so few words. But in all honesty, writing a novel is so much more satisfying and I get a real buzz when I actually reach the end.

TT: I like working on two books at the same time. I have found that it works well to be writing a young adult, or adult historical novel, alongside a much shorter time-slip story, usually aimed at primary school children. Inevitably I get stuck – or a bit worn out with one project and find it a relief to set it aside for a while and turn my attention to the other story. It seems that by taking the pressure off for a while and focussing on something else, solutions miraculously emerge to sticky problems. 
I really can’t say that I have an absolutely favourite time period, but as well as the Anglo-Saxons, I have developed a special interest in the Victorian period and also in the history of steel.
Fascination with the beautiful Victorian and Edwardian photographs of fisher people by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe led to an interest in Victorian Whitby and its many industries. Until I was eleven, I lived next door to the gates of Skinningrove Steelworks in Cleveland. The dust and noise, the sights and sounds of the men walking into work every morning has always stayed with me. At a later date I lived in both Rotherham and then Sheffield, so the history of steel has become a regular theme that I’ve used especially for time-slip stories for younger children. Meet Me by the Steelmen, now published by Award Publications, is often used in schools in the South Yorkshire area and Forged in Steel, a sequel, is due to be published in Spring 2020.

AW: Thank you both for telling us about your books and writing processes. Readers who wish to discover more can do so here:


  1. Thank you so much, Annie. You have presented the interview beautifully and I really enjoyed reading Theresa's answers to the questions. I adore historical murder-mysteries and would love to write one myself at some stage. Theresa's books are now firmly on my TBR list.

    1. Thanks for being such a wonderful guest Millie. You'll love Theresa's books; like you, she allows her characters fully to inhabit their A/S setting, whilst telling a gripping tale at the same time :-)