For many people, reading all the time is simply what they do, no matter how hard they labor at other things. A friend of mine who works full time is forever recommending books she’s actually read. She must read several a week. And she remembers what she reads. Amazing. For me it’s always been a struggle to put aside distractions and focus on the simple joy of reading.
I’m always conscious that sooner or later I’ll be reporting on what I’ve read. This creates a kind of internal dialog where I’m taking notes for the next radio show rather than enjoying the pages in front of me. Challenging and rewarding as that can be, it also takes away some of the fun. So a couple of weeks ago I ate dessert first because life is short. I dove into a pile of books I’d been saving for fun, not for review. No pressure cooker. All fun, as reading should be.
Bernard Cornwell is a so-called “genre” author of historical novels. He’s not reviewed much in prestigious journals or newspapers, but he is read prodigiously by a large band of fans. I’m one of them.
On vacation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean I hauled out “The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles” and pondered the American Civil War between bouts of snorkeling. I then turned to Merry Olde Before-There-Ever-Was-An-England and read the “Saxon Novels,” four of them so far.
And when those weren’t quite filling enough, I also read “The Spies of Warsaw” by Alan Furst, “The 25th Hour” by David Benioff and John Marsden’s young adult novel, “Hamlet.” Gems, all of them.
Back to Mr Cornwell. After devouring several servings of his books I discovered they follow a pattern. The stories are told from the point of view of a fighting outsider hero. It may be Nathaniel Starbuck, a displaced Northerner fighting for the Confederacy. In Ninth century Britain it’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a displaced Northumbrian fighting for the southerners of Wessex. Or Richard Sharpe, a common soldier raised to officer status during the Napoleonic wars, or the protagonist may be Thomas of Hookton, a skillful archer during the Hundred Years War seeking not just the Holy Grail, as if that isn’t enough, but also revenge for the massacre of his family. All of these characters are involved in various aspects of revenge, come to think of it, plus the occasional manly love affair.
Simply, these are ripping tales that don’t stop. Cornwell never bogs down in literary description or gratuitous subplots. Although the scenery’s often lovely, there’s very little of it.
He brings alive a far-off time and place as few others are able. If you time-traveled me to, say, Northumberland in the year 891, I could tell a Dane by his arm rings, a Viking by his dragon ship, and a Saxon by his stink. I have learned the old place names and fought the old battles. It’s like studying history with the most entertaining teacher you could imagine.
Now and then Cornwell does get all poetic: “...and so I turned south and rowed away from the shore, while in the west the sun leaked red fire through rifts in the cloud so that the whole sky glowed as if a god had bled across the heavens.” (from “The Pale Horseman”).
But the adventure never falters: “And next day the eight dark horsemen came.” (from “Lords of the North”). He begins well: “Darkness. Winter. A night of frost and no moon. We floated on the river Temes, and beyond the boat’s high bow I could see the stars reflected on the shimmering water.” (from “Sword Song”) and of course he ends well, too: “...but in the end he had pulled the trigger because he had to live with himself. Though God alone knew where that would take him. Night fell. The smoke of a broken city vanished in the dark. And Sharpe sailed home, a soldier.” (From “Sharpe’s Prey”).
Cornwell sets up the reader to crave more: “While at Bebbanburg, where the gray sea never ceases to beat upon the long pale sands and the cold wind frets the wolf’s head flag above the hall, they dreaded my return. Because fate cannot be cheated, it governs us, and we are all its slaves.”
Ahh. History for dessert. Delicious!
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Pick up any of Cornwell’s novels and you’ll find a current list of all his works, by series, and sometimes by chronological order within series. He’s written at least 42 novels, probably a few more than that, and he’s only 28 years old (I made that up. Born in 1944, he lives with his wife on Cape Cod, where the adventures roll in like the Atlantic tides).
Cornwell's home on the web.
The American publisher of all these books is HarperCollins.
A fascinating exchange on Cornwell’s site:
Hello Mr. Cornwell, I am curious about your process for developing (and writing) a story. Stephen King says that he gets the idea for a situation--say, a crazed fan holds her favorite author hostage--and lets the story develop however it happens. Do you do the same, or (for example) do you have the climax of the story mapped out inside your head in advance, and just have to figure out the way to get there? Do you outline story before beginning to write? Also, when you are in the process of writing, do you try to write a certain amount every day (like King), and do you try to write the first draft through all the way without edits, and then go back and make changes when you are finished? Anything else you can share about your process would be welcome. Thanks and best wishes, Warren Firschein Safety Harbor, FL
A: An outline? No, I don't. I have a very broad idea of where I want the book to go, then just let the characters sort it out amongst themselves. I'm not saying this is the right way to do it - some writers plot very carefully, and their books are great, but others, like me, leave it to instinct. I write maybe eight, nine hours a day? That includes daydreaming. I always start with a stick figure . . but there ain't no rules. I like to get the story straight so I write fast, pushing the story line ahead, but I revise constantly. I always think that writing a novel (for me! not for everyone!) is like climbing a mountain - I get a quarter of the way up, look back and see a better route, so it's back to the beginning and start again and that better route takes me halfway up, I look back, and so on and so on. Once that 'first' draft is finished I rewrite the whole thing maybe two times, and it's then that I add lots of detail. (B.Cornwell)