21 December 2021

Special Guest Interview with Helena Barnard, Author of A Painted Winter (Book 1 of the Pictish Conspiracy)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

In the misty highlands of fourth century Scotland, two Pictish brothers conspire with the Ancient People from beyond the Great Wall to attack the Romans.

I'm pleased to welcome author Helena Barnard to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

A Painted Winter is book one of the four-part Pictish Conspiracy series. Set in early medieval Scotland and Roman Britain, it tells the story of the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ which was a fourth century conflict in Britain when the Picts allegedly conspired with other ‘barbarians’ like the Saxons against the Romans. It is a fascinating, little known about moment in history that was influential in ending the Roman occupation of Britain. The novel is predominately historical fiction with some Celtic mythology / fantasy elements.

A few years ago, I was travelling around Scotland and I started to engage closely with the history and archaeology of Scotland more broadly, but in particular in relation to the Picts. I found it fascinating, especially the early period involving the conflicts with the Romans who tried to conquer their lands.

Unfortunately, the Picts did not record their own history in writing, so the historical records that we have are from the Roman, “enemy perspective”. I thought it would be interesting to show these conflicts from the Pictish perspective. To show what they thought about the conflicts with the Romans and also how they thought about themselves. “Scotland” at the time was made up of many different tribes or Kingdoms and it is interesting to learn that not all of them saw Rome as an enemy. 

Their relationships with each other and with Rome was complicated. Even the people living in what we now know as “England” (who had been occupied for hundreds of years by the Romans at that time) did not necessarily identify as “Roman”and many held onto their old Celtic religion, practices and language. I really wanted to draw out these issues around identity in complex political and economic situations in my book. These themes have never been more relevant given the often polarising state of cultural and political issues in modern times.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I’m very much a planner and after years working as a lawyer, I prefer a structured day. I need a lot of time to research and mull things over. I’ll usually do research and planning during the day, 10 to 5. But for writing, I like those dark, quiet times. So I write late at night and early in the morning.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

No matter how old you are, or what career path you’ve had; if you have a story to tell, you should tell it. I was inspired by Sharon Kay Penman who had worked as a lawyer before becoming a historical fiction writer.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

This is my debut novel, and it is being released on 21 December 2021 so I don’t have a lot of experience with publicity. But I’d say that Instagram and Twitter are very useful platforms in sharing information about upcoming releases. However, it is really important to try and genuinely connect with people on these platforms. The reading community is very positive and is great to connect with like-minded people who love reading and writing. The novel is also part of an Instagram book tour, which has been great in getting the book in the hands of people who are passionate about books.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

Despite being surrounded by oceans and rivers, the Picts likely did not eat fish. We know this from the absence of fish in archaeological deposits and also human skeletal analysis. Salmon and other sea-beasts feature on the Pictish symbol stones, so they knew they existed. It is unclear, but it may be the case that fish were considered so special by the Picts that they avoided their consumption.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

I don’t find writing that difficult, but going through the editing process with my editor and publisher and accepting that certain scenes or even just a line or two needs to be deleted or re-written was hard. Very hard. One scene in particular, involving Druwydds (Druids) in an ancient Oak grove comes to mind. I felt very attached to it. I’d done a lot of research into Celtic mythology and it is probably the scene I am most proud of. Any change that had to be made to that by my editor I found painful!

What are you planning to write next?

I’m finishing off the second book in the Pictish Conspiracy series called The Saxon Spring. It focuses a lot more on the pre-migration Saxons and their involvement in the barbarian conspiracy. I am really excited about the new elements to the story and the action continues to build as the series progresses.

Helena Barnard

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About the Author

Helena Barnard (Pen name H. Barnard) is a historical fiction author, and formerly a lawyer. Born in Australia, Helena now resides in northern England, at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall. A Painted Winter is her debut novel and is book one of the four-part Pictish Conspiracy series. Helena has a passion for history and archaeology, particularly in relation to iron age and medieval Britain. As a historical fiction writer, she focuses on shining a light on lesser-known fascinating moments in history and bringing these moments to life for readers. You can find out more here: https://linktr.ee/Helenareadsandwrites and follow Helena on Twitter @HelenaBwrites

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