Some Thoughts with ... Matthew Harffy

4 Jul 2024

The Author/s

Matthew Harffy

Matthew Harffy

Matthew Harffy is the author of action-packed, historically accurate novels. He has published nine novels in the Bernicia Chronicles series, set in seventh century Britain.

The Times called Matthew’s standalone novel, Wolf of Wessex, “a treat of a book”. His newest series, A Time for Swords, is set at the dawn of the Viking Age and follows the adventures of monk-turned-warrior, Hunlaf, who witnesses the first attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne and feels compelled to pick up a blade and organise the defence against the Norse raiders.

Before becoming a full-time writer Matthew worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator.

Matthew lives in Wiltshire, with his wife, their two daughters and a slightly mad dog.

The Interview

1.- Could you introduce yourself to Jamreads’ readers?
I am a full-time writer and the author of 13 published historical fiction novels before Dark Frontier. Until now I have written about the early medieval period, with my longest running series, The Bernicia Chronicles, set in the 7th century, my A Time for Swords series (of which the first has just been published in Spanish), set in late the 8th century and my standalone, Wolf of Wessex, taking place in the 9th century.

2.- How did you start writing?
I have always loved stories and read widely. Every now and then I would get an idea and start writing, but all my efforts would peter out after a few pages and I had no idea how to actually write something longer with a beginning, middle and an end.
In 2001, still with no idea, I started writing the opening pages of what would become The Serpent Sword, the first of the Bernicia Chronicles after watching a documentary about Bamburgh Castle and its importance in the Dark Ages. For some reason, this idea stuck and also perhaps because I was then working in technical writing, I was less daunted by the prospect of writing a novel. It took me years to do the research and complete the book, but in the end, The Serpent Sword was published and the rest, as they say, is history!

3.- The Bernicia Chronicles was your debut series. What made you choose this concrete historic period to write about?
As mentioned, I saw a documentary about Bamburgh and the ancient kingdom of Bernicia back in 2001. That sparked my imagination and got the ball rolling and as I researched the period, I realised there were very few books written about that time or place. I had lived in the area as a child too, which meant I had an affinity with the locations. Also, as a fan of sword and sorcery fantasy, a period of superstition with a warrior culture played to my strengths.

4.- Which challenges would you say arise from writing historical fiction?
Writing a novel is hard enough, but writing historical fiction brings with it extra obstacles and difficulties. First of course is the amount of research. Even if you know the broad strokes of the historical events you are writing about, you quickly realise that for a story to feel authentic you need to find out how your characters do all the mundane things we take for granted in our lives. What do they eat? How do they wash? Where do they sleep? What clothes do they wear? The list is pretty much infinite.
The next challenge is that you cannot just make things up as you could do if writing fantasy. People know what kings and queens were ruling, they know all about the religions, weapons and technologies of a given period. A historical fiction author fudges these things at their peril!

5.- How is typically your process when working on a novel?
The first thing I do is read around the subject and the time period, picking out elements I want to include in the story. Then I begin to work out a rough synopsis. I keep refining the synopsis until I am happy with the high-level structure and plot. Then I map out how chapters might fit with that synopsis. At this point it is on to the actual writing.
I aim to write 2,000 words a day Monday to Friday until I have the first draft done. I avoid going back and editing until I have finished that first draft. Then it is all about polishing and improving the rough novel until it is ready to send to my editor. From then on, there are more stages of improvement based on the editor's feedback.

6.- A Time for Swords was your depart from seventh century; how was starting a new series in a different historical period?
Actually, Wolf of Wessex was my first departure. I wanted a break from Beobrand and his pals, but I didn't want to stray too far from the period I was used to writing in, and that my readers were used to reading! I really wanted to write a western, but I was worried it was a jump too far both for me and my readers, so instead I wrote what was effectively a western set in 9th century Wessex! It did very well, which gave me the confidence to start the A Time for Swords series, and ultimately, Dark Frontier.
With regards to A Time for Swords, I wanted to try my hand at writing in first person, hence the new series.

7.- What inspired you to write Dark Frontier?
I've always loved westerns and wanted to write one ever since I started writing. I was worried about tackling a new place and time, knowing the scrutiny would be huge given how many westerns have been written and how much is known about the period, not to mention that they are not really in fashion. But in the end, I decided I didn't want to wonder what might have been, and luckily my publisher agreed with my plan for Dark Frontier.
Still, as an Englishman writing in what is a quintessentially an American genre, I decided I had to do something a bit different from the classic western. I chose to make the main character English, so I could use the “fish-out-of-water” situation to my advantage, reflecting my own newness to the genre. And Gabriel Stokes is no cowpuncher or saddle tramp. Stokes is a retired Lieutenant of the Tenth Royal Hussars, who has later served as a Detective in the London Metropolitan Police.

8.- Why did you choose this setting for Dark Frontier? How it differed from writing Middle Age historical fiction?
I thought it would be a good idea to write about a setting that was slightly different from the majority of westerns. So instead of the dusty, heat-blasted deserts of Texas or Arizona, I settled on the hills, mountains and forests of Oregon. The Pacific Northwest was where many pioneers put down roots at the end of the Oregon Trail, and it certainly had its share of conflicts on which to build my story. 
I wanted to find a different focus for the narrative, a conflict that was not so frequently covered in fiction. I found it in the wars waged between cattlemen and sheep farmers on the open range. Cattle and sheep wars in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claimed the lives of 54 men and over 100,000 sheep.

9.- Gabriel Stokes is a complex character; did you take any kind of influence from a historical figure?
Not really. I read a lot about the hussars and also detectives in the Metropolitan Police, but Stokes is really a figment of my imagination. While writing I realised he had a passing resemblance to certain traits found in both Sherlock Holmes and his friend and colleague Doctor Watson, but as you'll see if you read the novel, as it turns out there is a good reason for that, and you could say Holmes and Watson actually resemble Gabriel Stokes!

10.- What can we expect from Matthew Harffy in the future?
More action-packed historical fiction! There will be more Bernicia Chronicles (book 10 – Shadows of the Slain is already written and will be published in December 2024) and also more in the A Time for Swords series. Beyond that, who knows? If Dark Frontier does really well, perhaps my publisher will let me (and Gabriel Stokes) ride again!
And as if the writing wasn't enough to keep me busy, I will also continue to co-host the podcast, Rock, Paper, Swords! With fellow historical fiction author Steven A. McKay. The podcast is dedicated to history, action and adventure, and a bit of rock music too! We've had some amazing guests (including Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull), and we have big plans for the future.