I was eleven. It was more or less midnight and I snuck out of bed and opened the door to my closet. I clambered up the fitted shelves to the little platform right at the top – my secret nest. The closet was – obviously – dark. It smelled of wood and clean clothes. I struck a match and lit the seven candle stumps I’d arranged in a rough pentagram shape. I put on my home-made tunic. As I am a disaster at sewing, it was stapled together. A belt, my Dad’s heirloom knife and I was ready to go. I swept my hands through the respective flames, set my palms flat to the wood and prayed for time to tear itself open and suck me through, land me at the feet of my great hero, Richard the Lionheart.
It didn’t happen – if it had, I’d not have had my ear chewed off by my mum for being an idiot who potentially could burn the whole house down by lighting candles in my closet. On the other hand, had it happened, I guess I would have wished it hadn’t.
The thing about the past is that we tend to romanticise it. We think life was simpler back then – good and bad more clear-cut. We ignore the fact that the vast majority of our medieval forebears were poor, hungry and generally quite scruffy. They had lice and fleas. They ate a lot of porridge or pottage. They never had lemon and meringue pie for dessert. They worked a lot. Most of them rarely went all that far beyond the village of their birth. The majority were illiterate. Not, all in all, a life to aspire to, is it?
Since my eleven-year-old self’s experimentation with the arcane, I have moved on. I still have moments when I wish I could step into another time. I tend to linger in ancient churches and ruins, and at times I imagine hearing the faint echoes of those that went before. A whispered prayer, begging God to spare his wife from the plague: a shadowy lady, kneeling as she lights a candle for her departed son. Men fleeing a battlefield for the sanctuary of a church, screaming as they are cut down just inside the door. It all happens in my head, yet it is so very vivid. Real, almost.
Writing historical fiction is about transporting the reader through time. Effectively, a historical novel should resemble a Tardis, sweeping the reader out of the securities of modern life and dumping them somewhere else entirely. You don’t achieve that by loading your book with info-dumps. Neither will the reader be transported by a re-telling of political events. No, what creates the historical settings are the details, the little things that subtly indicate the plot is unfolding in a distant time. Tallow candles burning with a sooty flame, a woman combing lice out of her hair (although that is something we rarely see in historical fiction – despite it reasonably being quite commonplace), a swaddled baby hung off a hook to quieten its cries. Linen being soaked and washed, muddy garments being cleaned with brush and sand, cows to milk, pigs to butcher – the minutiae of everyday life is the warp into which the adept historical novelist weaves the plot itself. And those who weave know that unless the warp is set up correctly, the weave itself will collapse, no matter how impressive the weft.
The trick with all these everyday details is that as a novelist you must know much more about them than you ever share with the reader. The reader does not want a detailed description of how to make lye soap – but wants enough for the reader to think; “aha, he/she knows her stuff”. Of course, if you’ve spent hours investigating lye, if you’ve collected birch ashes and mixed with rain water, if you’ve set it to drip, if you’ve even gone to the trouble of boiling the resulting lye with lard to make some sort of rudimentary soap, then you really, really want to share. Don’t. Just add the occasional detail, like your character checking on the lye barrel, or someone hollering at a child who gets too close to the (very) caustic lye.
So to get the warp right I’ve made lye, I’ve made soap, I’ve done laundry the old-fashioned way. I’ve also castrated piglets, milked cows, helped foals into the world, butchered a pig, used a flail and scythed a hayfield. And no, that is not as easy or picturesque as when Aidan Turner walks about bare-chested against a gorgeous backdrop of sunny skies. To start with, it is hard work which causes you to sweat, and when you sweat, the flies descend upon you.
Very little of all of the above ever shows up in much detail in my books. But I know – and I am very, very glad I live in a day and age where everyday life comes with washing machines and dishwashers. And showers. And chocolate. I do feel we could do with some more knights in shining armour, though. And seriously, how about a gilded swan for dinner? No? No, maybe not.