Using real-life peeps to spice up your historical fiction

There are moments when I feel rather torn. In one corner of my brain my medieval characters are clamouring for my attention, in another, 17th century Matthew and his wife Alex are just as vociferous (with some reason: I’ve sort of left them hanging) In my frontal lobe my new characters are spreading out, and as I have three WIPs in various stages of completion this means I have one group of contemporary protagonists, another set of (new) 17th century characters among which figures a certain Queen Kristina of Sweden, and a new medieval set. My new medieval set is presently snagging a lot of attention – Edward I is a commanding presence, even when relegated to a supporting role.
“Supporting role?” Edward’s droopy eyelid twitches.
“Yup.” I give him an ingratiating smile. “If not, you’d take over the entire narrative, sire.”
“Hmm.” He doesn’t look convinced and gives Robert FitzHugh a rather dark look. I give Edward a warning scowl. “This is MY brain,” I remind him. “If you don’t behave, poof, and you’re gone.”
The tall king smirks. “You think?” He shakes his head. “I am a conqueror at heart, fair authoress. Where I want to go, I go.”
I forgive him for his condescending tone because of his indirect compliment—and because I do need him to stick with the project. He may not be the protagonist, but he’s the “real-life” character my story pivots around.

I do that a lot: I use real peeps to anchor my make-believe to a historical period. I prefer fictional protagonists, but they become far more solid when they hover round someone who did exist, their lives affected by what this real person did or didn’t do. In Edward I’s case, it’s his obsession with Wales that sits at the heart of my plot. In my series The King’s Greatest Enemy, it’s the final fate of Edward II—and of Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella—that set the boundaries for my story.  Within those boundaries, I subject my Adam and his Kit to a lot.

If we leap ahead to the 17th century and Matthew and Alex, one of my more joyous discoveries was a certain Alexander Peden. I had been reading up on the persecution wreaked upon the Scottish Presbyterians after the Restoration of Charles II (this relatively tolerant gent had little time for the members of the Scottish Kirk, probably a result of how he was treated by the Scots in 1650 when, as a  newly crowned king of Scotland, he was dragged hither and dither as it pleased his Scottish lords) and had just realised that the little town I’d chosen as closest to Matthew’s beloved Hillview, Cumnock, had been the home of a most fiery and determined Scottish minister, nalemly Alexander Peden.

As a consequence, Alexander (or Sandy to his friends, among which I now count myself) came to play a pivotal role in the third of the books, The Prodigal Son. His was a cloak-and-dagger sort of life, always on the run from the English who wanted nothing more than to apprehend him and send him off as indentured labour to the West Indies. Eventually Alexander was captured, betrayed for the very generous prize on his head. Fortunately for him, the attempt to transport him failed utterly.

In one of my WIPs, Queen Kristina of Sweden plays an instrumental role. So far, this WIP is taking one step forward and two back, mainly because I can’t quite decide whether I like Kristina or not. I lean towards the not – the lady held a very high opinion of herself. At the same time, I admire her for being a big,big girl in a man’s world. Thing is, until I’ve made up my mind, poor Sofia Carolina (very much a figment of my imagination) can’t exactly make up hers either.
“Some days I like her, some days I don’t,” Sofia tells me. “Thing is, even when I don’t like her, I still care for her.”
True. So do I, because Kristina’s childhood was no child’s play, surrounded as she was by a wacky mother and serious gents who constantly reminded her of her duties to the state. As she herself said, “any child born to inherit the crown belongs to the state”.

I shall have to make up my mind about Kristina later. At present, I am more concerned with Edward I. As multi-layered as an onion, that man is.
“Ah. You find me enigmatic?” the king asks with a little smile.
“I find you contradictory,” I retort. “On the one hand a loving husband, a good lawmaker, on the other a brute.” Oops. Shouldn’t have said that. He is fading away fast, and I must throw myself forward to grab hold of him before he totally disappears. “Stay and prove me wrong,” I tell him.
“I can’t.” He glares at me. “Things were complicated back then.”
Well, clearly my Edward I will have moments when his conscience pricks him. That, IMO, is good.



Stealing the limelight – or how a secondary character grew into a central one

Writing historical novels very often leads to discovering new favourites. When I started writing my The King’s Greatest Enemy series, I was very much into Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella, only occasionally sparing a thought for Isabella’s son, the very young Edward III who became an unwilling participant in the events that led up to his father’s deposition and subsequent (purported) death.

As my writing progressed, Edward grew on me. The idea of a young boy torn in two by his love for both his parents had a lot of potential for emotional tension. And I imagine it was tense—and difficult—for Edward to watch the rift between his parents widening. Even more so when he ended up as the official figurehead for Isabella’s invasion of England: she came, she said, to deliver the English from that foul snake Despenser, and to protect the throne for the rightful heir, her handsome son.

What her handsome son thought about being paraded at the head of an army intent on ousting his father was neither here nor there according to Isabella. Edward likely did not agree, and these early experiences made him all that more determined to become a king so perfect no one would ever dream of attempting to oust him.

Edward the boy king

It also made him determined to rule his own roost. I imagine living under mama’s thumb for a number of years only reinforced that feeling. It is strange that a woman as intelligent as Isabella did not realise just how much her young son resented her attempts to order all things in his kingdom, even more so when the Isabella & Roger duo showed little inclination to step aside as Edward grew older.

Edward had few opportunities to rebel. The royal administration was in the hands of Mortimer’s capable officers, Isabella and Mortimer held the Great Seal, and Edward spent his days surrounded by people who served his regents rather than him. A difficult situation for a young king who aspired to power.

What Edward did have were friends. Having learnt from his father’s fate just how dangerous it was to play favourites, Edward cultivated a varied selection of young men, some substantially older than him, some as young as he was. What all these young men had in common was that they were the heirs to important lordships in England, i.e. Edward was forging strong relationships with the men that would in the future be his barons. Along the way, this group of companions would also help Edward reclaim his royal power.

In my recently released book, any reclaiming of power is still in the future. Edward III is as yet an untried youth, chafing under the rule of his mother and her favourite baron. He is confused by what is happening around him, he is afflicted by guilt for his part in his father’s deposition, and he is quickly learning to be very selective as to who he trusts. He is also an adolescent, a lanky teenager thrust into a position of eminence which requires adherence to protocol when he’d prefer running wild with his companions. Plus, at the age of fifteen he also becomes a husband, a role he intends to take very seriously. After all, Edward has seen first-hand just what a failed marriage can lead to, and is therefore determined to ensure his Philippa is content.

A larger-than-life lad is my Edward, and where initially he was more of a supporting character, he has become one of the protagonists, a young puppet fighting his puppeteers for control over his own strings. I admire this boy-king. I am impressed by how quickly he learns to play the political game, I smile fondly at his more boisterous moods and am not sure whether to groan out loud or pat him encouragingly on the back when he rides north at the head of his army to teach the pesky Scots a lesson. At the time, he was fourteen…

As all those familiar with history will know, some years later Edward wrested control away from his mother and her lover. At eighteen, Edward III began his own personal rule, forty plus years in which he was the undisputed king, his authority never questioned.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_CrécyWas he a perfect king? I suspect the French would have replied with a resounding NO. After all, Edward III unleashed the Hundred Years’ War on France, resulting in far too much death, too much loss. He was ruthless in war—whether in France or Scotland—but he was also a man determined to act honourably towards his vanquished foes. Well…if it suited him politically.

Whether perfect or not, Edward III is definitely one of the more impressive English kings. But he tends to be overlooked, squashed as he is by the tumultuous reign of his father, and the equally volatile reign of his grandson. Both the king that preceded him and the one that came after were destined to lose their crowns, obliged to abdicate. Heady stuff, that, and in comparison, Edward’s reign can seem a bit staid. Here was a successful king, happily married and with the reins of government held firmly in his hands. No scandal (except for Alice Perrers when Edward was already slipping into his dotage), no rebellions.

Ironically, Edward’s happy and fruitful marriage would indirectly cause one of the more violent periods in English history. For a medieval king to have so many accomplished sons was almost as bad as not having any, and while the brothers seem to have worked well enough together, the same could not be said of their children. And so, within decades of Edward III’s death, one of his grandsons had usurped the throne from another of his grandsons, thereby laying the foundations for the extended civil war that would plague England for most of the 15th century.

Fortunately, I am not writing about that era. No, I am writing about the years that shaped Edward into the man and king he would one day become. I am writing about a queen and her baron who became addicted to power, about a very young king who could do nothing but bear it—at first. I am writing about a son plagued with guilt over his father’s fate, about a half-grown royal lion finding his claws and teeth. I am writing about a boy who dreamed of valour and glory on the battlefield, a lad who rode to was under the flag of St George, determined to forge his kingdom into something bigger and better than it was!

Cracking the whip

writer“No inspiration,” I sometimes sigh, while staring at the screen which remains enervatingly blank. And yes, inspiration is a must when it comes to writing—if nothing else as the igniting spark—but there’s another component which is just as important: discipline.
“Of course,” my very own muse, Ms Inspiration says. For the day, she’s wearing a rather scary outfit—all black & red leather—and out of nowhere a whip materialises. She smiles—one of those smiles that is all teeth no warmth. When she’s in this mode, Ms Inspiration is frankly quite frightening, and I have to suppress the urge to stand up and run, reminding myself repeatedly that Ms Inspiration is not real. She’s a figment of my imagination.

“Ouch!” I jump like half a metre when she cracks the whip over my back. For a figment, she sure has quite the hand on her.
“You have work to do,” Ms Inspiration tells me. She nods at my very long to-do list. “Get cracking.” She chuckles and cracks the whip in the air a couple of times before fading away. I have no doubt she’ll be back to plague me if I don’t comply.

That to-do list of mine is full of stuff that requires discipline rather than inspiration. Things I do once I have a first draft to work with – once that initial conflagration of inspiration has burned down a bit. After all, the first phase of any writing project IS creative, inspirational. I dive right into my escapist bubble and end up so caught up in my developing story I often forget to cook and shop, surviving on copious amounts of tea and too much chocolate. This stage is exhausting – productivity is at an all-time high and I am burning energy as if there is no tomorrow, especially as I also have a pretty demanding day-job.

Some writers love this part of the process. I do and I don’t, torn between the exhilaration of seeing my story, my characters come alive, and being uncomfortable with the way I am engulfed by my creative side. You see, in all other aspects of my life I am VERY disciplined. I write lists. I plan dinners a week at the time. I am a structural fascist. Having my brain taken over by my characters—and a loud and opinionated lot they are—is way out of my comfort zone, however exciting.

Fortunately, once the first draft is in place, I can resort to structure—which in my case results in the to-do lists. Lists with things like “double-check how many blows to the head it took before XX died” or “MANTEL, not MANTLE!!!!!” or “time from Northampton to Leicester by horse?” or “top speed for a Tesla?” (and yes, obviously these are examples from different books). This is when I rewrite and revise, when I go back to my research notes to verify my facts.

Now, historical fiction authors come in all sizes. For some, the human-interest angle overshadows everything else, and a couple of historical errors is neither here nor there. For others, the historical facts must be as correct as they can be. I belong to the latter category, and my penchant for lists and structure—discipline—comes in handy when I chase up little details such as on what day exactly was there a full moon in April of 1328. Or spend hours studying what medieval maps I can find of the various towns in which my story takes place.

metsu_writerI think this is my favourite phase of the writing process, lovely hours spent polishing my work. This is also when I discover that perfect scene in which my heroine is staring out towards the setting sun has to go as the location she’s at would not offer all that much of a view to the west. I sigh mightily at having to cut the scene—but pat myself on the back for having the fortitude to do so. After all, facts are facts.

All of this requires discipline—and an eye for details. Fact-checking, tick, plot-structure, tick, grammar & spelling (MANTEL, remember?), tick, All those ticks build the foundation of the final story. Ultimately, though, it is the inspirational bursts, the characters and their lives and loves, which add the icing to the story-telling cake. And who wants cake without an icing, hey? Not me!
“Done yet?” Ms Inspiration reappears in a swirl of red and black leather. I proudly hold up my list. Write post is now neatly ticked.
“Well done.” She peers at the list (she’s seriously myopic but is too vain to admit it). “Only nineteen items to go.”
I groan. She cracks her whip. Here we go again…

Historical Fiction – a genre or an umbrella?

Millais Sir Isumbras ISUMBRAS
Millais: A Historical Painter, or a Painter who Paints the Past?

Sometimes, people ask me why I write historical fiction. “Why such a difficult genre?” they ask, which in itself makes me a tad irritated, as historical fiction, IMO, is not a genre – it’s an umbrella under which all other genres coexist. In essence, the “historical” in historical fiction merely indicates that the story is set in a non-contemporary time. It says nothing about the content as such, albeit that many people seem to think historical fiction is defined by blood and gore and thousands upon thousands dying in one battle or other.

Yes, that stuff happens in historical novels. It also happens in contemporary novels – it happens in real life around us on a daily basis. There are historical novels that are essentially love stories, there are others that are coming-of-age stories, yet another author delivers a well-crafted thriller set in distant times, and quite a few produce so called cosy mysteries a la Miss Marple. As long as all these very different books are set in the past, they end up labelled as historical fiction – and considered comparable. Obviously, they are not.

I write books set in the past because I am something of a history geek. Since I was old enough to read for myself, I have submerged myself in stories set in the past – no matter genre – because I wanted to pretend I was there, in an era very distant from my own. Escapism in its purest form, one could say.

And yes, I spend very many happy hours researching my chosen setting – at times resulting in tangential excursions that bring no value whatsoever to my WIP, but expand my soul and enrich my life in general. After all, who doesn’t want to know that Peter the Great married a low-born, illiterate commoner? Or that Eleanor of Castile had a half-brother, Felipe, already a bishop when he threw his ecclesiastic career out of the window to marry a Norwegian princess?

Neither here nor there for the purpose of this post – except to highlight that I am as happy as a calf in a field of juicy clover writing historical fiction.

You can research your setting and the era you’ve chosen until you’re blue in the face. That in itself will not result in a page-turning novel. In fact, sometimes too much research produces a major info-dump instead – you know, books in which the author expends pages and pages on showcasing their own knowledge of the period, thereby effectively killing pace.

A skilled writer of historical fiction inserts DETAILS, not paragraphs. A skilled writer – no matter genre – also knows that if you want the story you write to resonate with the reader, your novel must deliver some sort of insight into the commonalities of being human. Therefore, for a novel to come alive, it requires characters that are vibrant and complex, real enough to step out of the pages, no matter if they ever existed or not.

People have not changed all that much through the centuries. We are still needy creatures, both on a physical and emotional level. Think Maslow, and I guess we all agree humans have physiological needs, a desire to feel safe, to belong. We do in this day and age, they did back in historic (and pre-historic) times as well.

It is therefore a safe bet to assume human emotions and reactions are relatively constant throughout the ages. Someone betrays you, the visceral rage you feel is probably identical to the one your 12th century ancestor felt when he realised he’d been set up. Loving someone probably feels the same – maybe with the caveat that these days, we consider it a borderline human right to be loved and love. Back in the darker and grimmer eras that precede ours, love was something of a luxury: if you had food and a roof over your head, if you were safe and your children set up for surviving, you could live with not falling into throes of passion at the sight of your husband/wife. Truth is, you didn’t EXPECT to love your spouse – you married for reasons on the lower lever of the Maslow pyramid. But this doesn’t preclude that IF you fell in love, it would feel exactly the same way as it feels today.

All of us have personal experience of feelings and emotions. As these are the most important aspects to convey in a novel, we could all, potentially, carry a budding writer within. There is, however, a major difference between experiencing an emotion and describing it – plus, once again, it is a fine balancing act between describing too much and too little. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks. Writers don’t want them to fill in the blanks with the wrong stuff, so writers have to leave enough hints to steer the reader in the right direction. This is the major difference between “show” and “tell” writing – as in “She was so devastated and confused she had no idea what to do next” (the writer informs – tells – the reader of what the protagonist is experiencing) or “She couldn’t quite focus: her hands shook, her mouth was the texture of paper, her brain a total blank” (the writers presents the protagonist’s reactions which the reader analyses before concluding she is in a bad way, probably in some sort of shock).

Whatever the case, it is my opinion that to write a novel one must be fascinated by humanity, in all its diverse forms. It is only by presenting the reader with a mirror in which they can recognise their own emotions that a writer succeeds in hooking them. And once the reader has swallowed the bait, it doesn’t really matter if the book is set in the future, the past or the present. What matters is that the reader is willing to take a ride through the imagined landscapes produced by the writer, hand in hand with the protagonist.

Write what you love, they say. And I do, combining my endless curiosity as to what makes people tick with my love for the past. Do I write historical fiction? I guess I do – but more importantly, I write novels that explore the human condition. An exercise in self-exploration? Maybe. An attempt to exorcise personal experiences? Rarely. A fulfilling experience? Always.

Taking them there – of transportation with words

ISOTS pic 4I 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.

A light in the dark

IMG_0323Wandering through the past has similarities to walking through the forest on a summer night. There is enough light to make out the general shape of things, the odd boulder, the stand of rustling oaks. The water of the distant lake shimmers in the ambient light, and a streak of orange hovers to the west – enough to illuminate the general contours that surround you.

The details, however, hide in the shadows. Something crunches benath your foot, and in the dark you have no idea whether it was a twig or the fragile shell of a bird’s egg. All you know is that something broke.

Writing historical fiction requires dragging those hidden details out into the light. In some cases, the author will fill in the gaps with plausible events – at least according to that author. But what is plausible for one author, is impossible for another, and so we can have two equally competent writers writing about the same historical person and depicting that person very differently. The classic example is Richard III, elevated to the heroic victim of whispered calumnies by some, presented as a ruthless murderer of innocents by others.

Some writers allow themselves the pleasure of presenting the same historical character differently in different books. One such example is Tony Riches, who in his book about Eleanor Cobham presents her husband, Humphrey of Gloucester, in a far more favourable light than he does in his book Owen, which features Owen Tudor and his secret marriage to Catherine Valois, Henry V’s widow (and Humphrey’s sister-in-law). Of course, neither of these depictions is correct – should Humphrey materialise before us, he’d probably be quite surprised by how he has been represented, as would Richard III. And Henry VII. Maybe not so much Henry VIII – although I suspect he would loudly claim he was the victim of a character assassination. From Henry VIII’s perspective, it is unfortunate that so much documentation from his reign has survived. Richard III, however, can give us a toothy grin and ask us just what sources we would base our assertion that he murdered his nephews on.

Things become even more diffuse if you choose to write about people who did not figure on the central stage – maybe who did not exist at all. Obviously, in this latter case you can ignore all need to research the individual’s timeline – you make it up as you go – but for the sake of plausibility, there is no getting away from the need to shed some light on the historical darkness. You need context. You need details. You need a setting that comes to life, whether through the draught that filters through the slats in the shutters or the endless sequence of meals that consist of pottage.

Actually, an author ALWAYS has to illuminate the setting. Whether contemporary or historical, sci-fi or dystopian, a writer aspires to anchor the reader in his/her world, with his/her characters. Readers can forgive a sloppy setting if the characters live and breathe. (The other way around doesn’t work – ever). But readers remember the books that transport them to whatever corner of the universe, in whatever time the writer has chosen to set the story in.

All of the above influenced me as I considered what to name my imprint. Yup. MY imprint.  Allow me to introduce Timelight Press – a little light in the endless oceans of time – and space 🙂

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