Adventures in writing – the birth of a book; how I developed the story of Harald Hardrada, the VARANGIAN.

The problem with writing – perhaps the biggest problem – it is totally addictive. It is a strange phenomenon, but by nature I am normally a patient person until it comes to writing… Something happens and the opposite becomes the case. When a story is in my head, I write like a demon. Possessed…Perhaps that’s a bit too strong, but certainly I would call it an addiction. But a good one!
Take my latest novel, ‘Varangian’. A historical novel based around the life and times of Harald Hardrada. This first volume tells of his time serving the emperors of Byzantium, or New Rome as they themselves called it. I’m currently working on the second instalment, as this is what I want to talk about this time. How I went about researching the story, plotting it, and then…ah…the addiction! Because half way through the sequel I had the crazy notion of writing a prequel. Yes, that’s right. Two volumes to be written, perhaps at the same time…madness? Let’s see.
I’ve been a teacher for many years, and my interest in history has always been deep, so it was natural for me to study the subject at university and help me gain entry into my chosen career. Twenty-two years later, I still love my job. Every year I teach the extraordinary events surrounding the momentous year, 1066. How three great men fought for possession of the English throne. We all know that only one prevailed, but what a story it is. And for me, the greatest and most fascinating of those contenders for the crown was Harald Sigurdsson, or Hardrada (the Ruthless) as he is better known.
Every year I’d stand in front of a new class of students and enthral them with stories of this incredible character, trying to give them a sense of his drive, his ambition, his desire to be remembered as a worthy and great man. As I embroidered the story with snippets from his earlier life it slowly dawned on me that here was a book that needed writing, in such as way that would make it accessible, interesting and, above all, entertaining.
Two years ago I began serious research and read everything I could about his time in Byzantium. I’ve always been a keen wargamer and so the military side of things took precedence. But the more I discovered, the more I realised that here was a tale, not only of blood and battle, but of intrigue, duplicity, betrayal…and sex. Lots of sex, because Hardrada was the lover of the empress Zoe, and when he began to take a shine to her niece, she threw him in prison. An interesting woman in her own right, it was rumoured that Zoe had more than a little to do with the mysterious deaths of her two previous husbands. There was never any proof of course, but in that hot pot of wagging tongues called Constantinople, there were many who voiced their suspicions loud and clear, fearless of Zoe’s wrath and disgusted by her brazen exploits. Zoe loved being empress, and all the trappings that went with it, both in and outside the bed-chamber!
Hardrada escaped, and we do not know how. Some accounts talk of a mysterious woman – the niece perhaps – who brought him the key to the cell; others that he flew away out of the window, others that he made some sort of a deal. He was rich, having accumulated a secret horde of treasure from his many exploits right around the Mediterranean. But how would Zoe react to his escape, and what would the new emperor, Michael V, do? A debauched individual, helped to the throne by Zoë herself, his legacy is not a good one. He almost single-handedly brought the Empire to ruin, a man concerned more with the pomp and glory of being emperor than the massive responsibility it entailed. Like the worst of the old Roman emperors, he wined and wenched his way through his reign, pointedly ignoring the religious aspects of his crown. Not as famous as Caligula or Comodus perhaps, but certainly on a par with them, his fall from power, when it came, was swift and merciless. This was what spurred me on, embroidering the history with my imagination and my book was born. Varangian. The story of Hardrada’s time in Constantinople as the leader of the elite Varangian Guard, soldiers from the Norse, fabled for their prowess in battle they had a fearsome reputation. And the greatest of them all was Hardrada himself, a legend in his own lifetime, a man who had songs and sagas written about him. A man who wrote poetry, and cleaved heads. What a character!
The book, once accepted for publication by Rebel-E publishers, begged for further instalments; there was still so much to tell. So I set to planning out the sequel. This would take Hardrada’s story to the next stage; his seizing of the Norwegian throne. But I have interwoven the continuing intrigues of the Byzantine court, to follow Zoë’s story, and those of the men who flocked all around her. I have invented various other characters to move the narrative along and, hopefully, to invest it with a fair amount of plot twists to keep the readers guessing.
We all know how this story will end, for that is no secret. But I intend to make it surprising nevertheless. For that, however, we will all have to wait for volume three. And this brings me back to my initial point. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became with Harald, and as I closed Varangian and began to work on the second instalment, I realised too that there was much still to be written about his youth. How did he become who he was, what led him to the Byzantium Empire? So I embarked on more research, looked again at the original sagas and have unearthed a thrilling story that simply cries out to be told.
Of course my publishers know this. But what will they do? Shall we go with the second volume, and continue Harald’s life, or shall we turn back time and discover the reasons why this man became one of the greatest heroes of his age, a man who came within a breath of becoming King of England and changing the entire course of history.
Now, wouldn’t that be a story!

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel 'Varangian'.

The cover for my forthcoming historical novel ‘Varangian’.

VARANGIAN is to be published in October, 2013 and will be available from ALL online bookstores , in paperback and for all e-reader platforms. Visit my website or my Facebook page for further updates: http://www.stuartgyates.com. I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did writing it. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a fascinating one and has something for everyone.
Thanks for dropping by, and keep reading.

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