Thanks Annie.. myself and my readers appreciate you taking the time to be here with us.
My blog is all yours…
Apart from the odd foray into fantasy fiction (Fattypuffs and Thinifers by André Maurois – although I notice now that apart from it being incredibly non-PC, it has historical costumes) I only ever read historical fiction when I was a child. I wasn’t a quick or voracious reader, so I really think it was the tales of history being brought to life which appealed to me, rather than the literature. But I also wrote my own stories (about Ferdinand the Hedgehog!) so I guess the desire to write was always there, and at some point the desire to write, and the desire to write history, coincided.
While history remained my first love, the literature thing continued to burgeon – I studied both subjects for ‘A’ level and was all set to read English at university when I switched and read history instead. My first two historical novels both came about because of a single sentence. In the case of To Be a Queen, the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter Aethelflaed, it was a sentence about her husband. My tutor said of Ethelred of Mercia that “Nobody knew exactly where he came from.” I suddenly had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history out of some unknown hinterland. I wanted to write his story and, in a way, I have. Although of course the real story was that of his wife: daughter of a king, wife of a man with the powers of a king (albeit a sub-king); a woman who led her army into battle against the Vikings.
My second novel was born when I read a paper written by that same tutor. It was about Aelfhere, earl of Mercia in the 10th century, and in a little footnote there was mention of a widow who had been deprived of her lands following his death. It’s the only known reference to this woman and the supposition is that she was Aelfhere’s wife. Hmm… Why did we not know more about her? This became part, although not the whole, of the story in Alvar the Kingmaker. A central theme, yes, but there was more which needed to be told. I wanted to write his story, but never as a thesis, or a non-fiction book. I suppose I wanted the element of ‘romance’, in its broadest term.
So how does one go about constructing an historical novel?
I had my ambition to write. I had my stories. And I knew my stuff. Ask me the names of any king between AD600 – 1066 and I could oblige. Ask me who invaded whose lands at any given period and why, and I could tell you.
Just one problem. I quickly discovered that I didn’t know how people lived; what they ate for breakfast, what they wore, how they built their houses and ships, which animals they reared and what type of crops they farmed.
It’s all very well having a chapter plan but not so great if you can’t actually describe what’s happening in every scene. I learned that knowing about history and having the information required to write an historical novel are not the same thing. Turns out that it was the literature, as well as the history, that had made those stories so interesting for me when I was young.
I also learned that it’s sometimes better to write the story and then only stop when you need to look up some historical detail – it keeps it human and personal if you concentrate on your characters and story. I know I’m not the only author who will draft sentences like this: ‘The table was laid with plates of check seasonal foods’ or ‘The children were waist-deep in the river, fishing for check types of freshwater fish later.’
Luckily for me, I had contacts within the ‘industry’ who were more than happy to help, or knew someone who could. I immersed myself in my early medieval world, finding out about looms, textiles, cooking methods, flour production, and I even learned how flammable flour dust can be (a fact which served me well in one particular passage in ‘Queen’.)
But research isn’t the only thing required: you have to decide your story. It can’t simply be a narrative of what is known to have happened, otherwise it will read like an essay. But stray too far from the facts and you might as well just write pure fiction. Do you tell the whole of a person’s life, and end when they die, or do you focus on a particular period of history? Yes, you have your timeline already worked out, but where along that line do you start and stop?
Sometimes there are gaps in that timeline, and that’s where the fun can be had. You wonder ‘What if?’ And if the answer is ‘Nobody knows’ then you’re free to let your imagination fly. Sometimes you then unearth a scrap of evidence that gives credence to your idea – what’s known in the trade as a ‘Bingo’ moment.
You also need to make your characters out of the chronicles and mould them into people. Carefully. My characters are not the Anglo-Saxons of Middle Earth. They are not mystical, magical or mythical, but rather they are medieval. My stories don’t contain elves or monsters. The ‘Dark Ages’ covers a period of over 500 years. To lump all the Anglo-Saxons together would be like saying the Tudors were a lot like us.
Alvar lives in a period of relative peace. People have a breathing space between Viking attacks to find out who they are, what their values are. ‘England’ is a reality and yet still only a concept to many. It’s a Christian world where people cling to superstition, too. It’s important not to place modern values on your characters – they need to live and work in their own world. Aethelflaed is a strong-minded woman, yes, but in writing her, I needed to keep her firmly rooted in her early medieval environment. She’s a woman in a man’s world, but she’s not what we would recognise as a feminist.
A sense of place, a sense of time. For me, the art of writing an historical novel is a subtle blend, requiring equal measures of: the story, the characters, the history, and the details. When the blend is right, it should be possible to have the reader not just dip into it, but become fully submerged without those precious parts separating at any point.