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The Sins of the Father

Novelist Annie Whitehead brings Anglo Saxon history to vivid life

I am so happy to welcome historian and novelist Annie Whitehead to the blog today for a chat about the research and inspirations behind her new novel, The Sins of the Father. I first discovered her gorgeous writing in the excellent novel To Be A Queen (about the inspiring leader Aethelflaed, ‘Lady of the Mercians’). The Sins of the Father offers an equally satisfying and totally immersive story, taking us back to AD658 as the sons of Penda of Mercia struggle to retain the power forged by their warlord father.

Reading this novel, I was transported into an authentic world peopled by relatable characters. Whitehead masterfully shows readers the light and the dark of life as it played out a thousand years ago. All the details are there: the foods in the feast hall, the dyes in the fabric, the flowers and plants used to treat battle wounds and illness. We see men falling on battlefields but also making merry with friends and families on feast days. We see women working ceaselessly to clothe and feed their families, and children engaged in sweet moments of play. We see the scheming of powerful kings and the consequences of divided loyalties.

I was especially drawn to Penda’s youngest son Ethelred, the hero of this tale—a man haunted by the tragedies of the past, whose strength and tenderness are portrayed beautifully on the page. Read on to learn how Annie Whitehead brings the distant past to life in such a captivating and vivid way.

Welcome to the blog, Annie!

AM: What’s the tagline or ‘elevator pitch’ for your book?

AW: When your father was a notorious warlord, is his legacy a blessing or a curse?

AM: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

AW: The Sins of the Father is the follow-up to Cometh the Hour. The first volume told the story of Penda, the last pagan king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and of his fight to free his country from the aggressive Northumbrians. He also fought to avenge his womenfolk. Book Two picks up the story when his children have come of age. Both they, and their Northern counterparts, have difficulty either living up to, or shrugging off, the reputation of their fathers. At the end of Book One there was unfinished business, so I needed to write Book Two to let my characters resolve this.

AM: What inspired you to write about that particular era or character?

AW: I’ve always been interested in the events of pre-Conquest England, and focused on that era for my undergraduate studies. Somehow I’m particularly drawn to the larger-than-life characters from Mercia, who, along with the energetic and charismatic Penda, include the likes of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, King Offa (or more especially his wife, who was the only known Anglo-Saxon queen to have coins minted in her name), and Lady Godiva and her grandchildren. Her granddaughter married first a king of Wales and then Harold II of England, and her grandson rebelled against William the Conqueror and was the last earl of Mercia.

AM: How did you create a realistic setting for your story?

AW: Research, and my existing knowledge of the period. This is my fourth novel, and I’ve also written two nonfiction books about the era, so I know the historical timelines, the politics and the general history. But I’m always careful to research in detail the elements of ordinary life: how food was produced, the tools required for crafts, how clothing was made and what it looked like.

AM: What surprised you in the course of your research?

AW: For this latest book, I think the biggest surprise was that polecats and weasels were domesticated and used to keep grain stores free of mice and rats. Research for my first novel, To Be A Queen, about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, led me to discover that flour dust is highly flammable, which enabled me to write a scene involving an explosion.

AM: Do your research findings guide the plot, or do you plan out the plot first and flesh it out with research? (Or perhaps both?)

AW: It’s a little bit of both. Nearly all of my characters are based on real people, so I begin with the known timeline and then start to consider why they acted as they did, what the dynamics of their relationships would be like, and whether there are any bits of the known story that won’t work as fiction. Then I look at the gaps in our knowledge, and plot how to fill them in. Of course, sometimes I get to one of those gaps and the characters, as I’ve written them, rebel and force me to rethink certain scenarios!

AM: What is your usual writing routine?

AW: I’m fortunate that I can work almost full time with my writing, although I still teach one afternoon a week. I try to be really disciplined and work Mon-Fri 9-5. But I find first drafts really hard work, so my discipline slips, and then when I’m at the editing stage I can lose all track of time and might suddenly look up and find it’s way past bedtime and I’m still writing.

AM: Do you have any tips for other writers about historical fiction research?

AW: There’s a lot of advice out there, much of it conflicting, but I think I’d offer this: Pick a subject/era that you are passionate about, research the details thoroughly and add author’s notes at the end of the book for clarity — or if you’ve altered certain facts, or even if you’ve included something accurate that might seem surprising. Finally, I always like to keep in mind Dorothy Dunnett’s words, that “History is all very well, but it’s just the showcase. It is the arena in which your characters will perform, and which supplies the conflicts, stresses, dilemmas and the struggles they’ll get through.”

AM: What do you have planned for your next writing project?

AW: The Sins of the Father was a slight departure for me, because there were huge gaps in the known timeline, which I had to fill with pure invention. This has set me up nicely for my next project, where I’ll return to the tenth century and I shall be writing a mystery story with a fictional lead character, although they will bump into lots of real life characters along the way. Old habits die hard!

To buy The Sins of the Father on Amazon, please click here.
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