Talking about histfic…

You know how much I love talking about writing historical fiction?

Well, I’m doing it again this weekend, over on the website, where members discuss all manner of bookish things. As part of kickassheroines, Kim Wright runs Ponder the Page, a particular “place for all things Historical Fiction”, and, a while back, she asked me if I’d like to join her for a discussion about writing historical fiction. Well, I was bound to say “yes”, wasn’t I?

Kim set me several challenging questions, which I’ve done my best to answer reasonably coherently. She is expecting that there will be some supplementary questions for me to answer too, and I’ll address those over the next day or so.

You can read the interview here:

As I said, kickassheroines is a member-only site, so, in case you don’t want to sign up  right now – though they do have some interesting discussions – I thought I’d reproduce the interview here. If there are additional questions, I’ll put them in a separate post.

Interview with Carolyn Hughes

One of the first novels I read after starting this blog was Fortune’s Wheel by Carolyn Hughes. The cover and title caught my eye. I hadn’t seen a reference to Fortune’s wheel since reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales:

And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously

And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.

The fickle Lady Luck has replaced Fortune’s wheel these days, but the concept remains the same. Your fate, good and bad, is out of your control and is subject to change at any time. Fortune’s Wheel perfectly describes the story beyond the cover. For the people of 14th century England, Fortune’s wheel couldn’t have been more unpredictable as the worst plague in England’s (indeed, the world’s) history wiped out half its population, seemingly at random. The time immediately following the Black Death was one of great turmoil and social change. Carolyn uses this catastrophic event as the starting point for The Meonbridge Chronicles series.

Reading The Meonbridge Chronicles novels has provided me a fresh perspective on the lives of the ordinary people that lived so long ago. I’m especially delighted that their focus is on the women and are told through their voices in the stories. I have long felt that women are an afterthought in many historical novels and don’t get the voice they deserve.

Shortly after reviewing Fortune’s Wheel, I was surprised to get an email from Carolyn thanking me for my review and I took the opportunity to swing for the fences and ask if I could interview her. Fortune’s wheel turned in my favor. She agreed! I was so excited, then came the anxiety. I totally wasn’t prepared for her to say yes. So, what do I do when faced with a new challenge? Fake it until you make it. So, I jumped in with both feet and decided on an email interview with a live follow-up. Carolyn has been so gracious during this process and I can’t thank her enough for giving me this opportunity.

Below is that email interview with @Carolyn Hughes. Her live follow-up begins now. She will log in once or twice today, then once more tomorrow, to answer any questions you leave in the comments section of this post. In addition to the many questions I didn’t ask, there is a lot of material for discussion in her answers. I hope you will join me in welcoming Carolyn to Ponder the Page and participating in the discussion.

From the outside looking in, I sense that your creative writing journey is a labor of love and not a conduit for fame and money. When creative writing overtook technical writing as your focus, what drew you to historical fiction and the 14th century in particular?

The answer to both questions lies in serendipity.

When I had to choose what to write as the creative piece for my Masters in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University, I mostly just wanted a change from the contemporary women’s fiction I had been writing for the previous few years (none of which is yet published).

Searching for inspiration, I was looking through some of my old scribblings, when I rediscovered the fading handwritten draft of about 10,000 words of a novel I’d written in my twenties. Set in fourteenth century rural England, it was about the lives of peasant families. To be frank, the novel’s plot (indeed the writing itself) wasn’t terribly good, yet I was really quite drawn to its period and setting. I had one of those light bulb moments and, a few days later, I was drafting an outline for the novel that became Fortune’s Wheel.

It is true that I had long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and in our understanding of it and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the habitual present-day perception of the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art, architecture and literature. The briefest of investigations quickly showed me that I wanted to know more about the period, and I soon realised that, by writing an historical novel, I would have the opportunity both to find out more about the mediaeval past and to interpret it, which seemed like a thrilling thing to do.

But was the fourteenth century a good choice? It seemed to be relatively unloved among historical novelists. Other centuries – the sixteenth, twelfth and, more recently, the fifteenth – seemed to be more appealing to writers, with stories of, for example, Henry VIII and his many wives, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Wars of the Roses. And perhaps they were also more appealing to readers? I didn’t know. But I also decided not to care! I knew what I wanted to write about. And, in truth, I can’t imagine why the fourteenth century might be “unpopular”, for it really is a fascinating period.

Living in the area you write about might make it easier to research, but what have you discovered is the hardest part of researching the 14th century?

Researching the physical details, such as houses, clothes, food, tools, so that the picture you paint in your novel is vivid and historically authentic, is relatively easy. Clearly, the practical, day-to-day lives of people who lived 700 years ago were very different from ours, and it’s important to try to portray those everyday practicalities so that readers can, in a sense, see themselves in their antecedents’ shoes, even if only a little bit.

It is also not too difficult to discover something of the social and political history of the time, so that the context for your story has a ring of truth. And, yes, living in the area and being able to see the surroundings help you to get a feel for the Meonbridge environment.

But what is more difficult – and this applies to all historical fiction, I think – is to depict a reasonably convincing mediaeval “thought-world”. Yet, it is this that can give a novel depth, and a feeling that the characters are “real” mediaeval people. For, although people who lived so long ago were undoubtedly like us in many ways – they fell in love, adored their children, had aspirations, enjoyed a joke and suffered the pain of loss, to name just a very few of the many similarities – they were surely also unlike us, also in very many ways…

Historians do address thought-worlds, but typically perhaps more those of the elite in society, because their lives were recorded in some way. Whereas I am much more interested in the lives of “ordinary people”, and, of course, those lives were not much recorded. Well, that is not entirely true, for you can learn quite a lot about them from entries in, for example, manorial court records. But, there, they are often just names, and do not reveal to us their characters or motivations. So, ordinary people of the past are essentially unknown and invisible; they have no “voice”.

Trying to portray, with any degree of authenticity, the way they thought – how they understood the world and the way it works, the part religion played in their lives, their belief in magic and superstition, their attitudes towards sexuality and gender, their sensibilities and mindsets in general – can be tricky. But my job is to draw characters with whom readers can associate but who do seem, not alien, but truly “of their time”.

The fictional village of Meonbridge is set in the County of Hampshire. What is the significance of placing it here?

Only really that it is where I live, and have done for more than thirty years! The events I depict could in truth have happened anywhere in England – possibly anywhere in Europe – but it simply felt “right” to set my fictional village close to home. I do also know that, in the towns and villages in southern Hampshire, roughly a half of the populations were lost to the Black Death. The devastation was not evenly spread throughout the country, so Hampshire made a good location for my story of social change.

I’m intrigued by the story beginning after the plague is over. It seems unique. Can you elaborate on your decision to omit the events of the plague from the story line?

I have written about the Black Death itself in another, as yet unpublished, novel, The Nature of Things, which I wrote for my PhD. But, for Fortune’s Wheel, what I discovered from my reading was that the Black Death heralded, or at least accelerated, a period of great social change. And it is what happened after the plague had moved on that interested me.

Social change had already begun in rural manorial communities, with the feudal system of lords and peasants starting to break down. But the huge demographic shift that resulted from the simultaneous deaths of so many people during the plague accelerated that change. It is an interesting period of social history. For those who survived, opportunities presented themselves for demanding higher wages and taking on untenanted land, which generally brought benefits to ordinary people and caused problems for the wealthier landowners. The old rules about tenants not being allowed to leave their manor were largely swept away, giving peasants more freedom to choose where to work and for what price. Women too had improved opportunities, which lasted for perhaps the next 150 years or so. On the whole, conditions improved for many ordinary English men and women: with higher wages, and fewer mouths to feed, they ate better, and could afford better homes.

Nonetheless, imagine the heartache that people must have felt, the turmoil they must have faced, in society as a whole, and also at a personal level, in the immediate aftermath of such a calamity.

Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their sinful lives.

Yet, amidst all this turmoil and undoubted continuing fear, normal life simply had to continue: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made, animals nurtured. People would still fall in and out of love. Babies would still be born and children cherished. The wheel of fortune forever turns…

It’s refreshing to read from the women of Meonbridge perspective. It’s as if the traditional men in the fore and women in the periphery has been reversed. That there isn’t a single typical damsel-in-distress nor an out-of-place modern woman is a bonus. Was this focus organic or intentional?

I definitely wanted to give a “voice” to the women of Meonbridge! But it was important to me that they were “of their time” and not feminists! So I am glad that you feel that my women characters are neither clichéd damsels, nor inappropriately modern. Nonetheless, I saw no reason why they shouldn’t have aspirations and ambitions.

As I have already said, after the devastation wrought by the Black Death, society (in Meonbridge, and in England, and indeed Europe, as a whole) began to change, as feudal lords lost their former power in the face of resistance from their tenants, who weren’t willing any longer to be confined to a single manor or to be paid lower wages than they could obtain elsewhere. This is partly the story of Fortune’s Wheel. But it seemed that women’s lot might change as well. When so many people – perhaps as many as a third, or even a half, of the country’s population – had died in the plague, it seemed likely that everyone, including women, would have had to turn their hand to whatever needed to be done. Women might well have seen opportunities to break out of the old mould and take on new occupations, and perhaps to be a little more independent of their menfolk. And, in A Woman’s Lot, it is this theme that is developed. It is another everyday story of ordinary folk, but very much of its time. Central to the story is the somewhat “misogynistic” attitude held by mediaeval men – or by some of them at least. Of course such attitudes are not without parallels in our own time, but I’m not attempting to draw comparisons. My tale is one of the fourteenth century, one that doesn’t try to make Meonbridge’s women “feminist” in any way. Their stories aren’t about women’s rights and liberation, but about making the best of opportunities within the context of the society they live in.

Was the decision to self-publish through SilverWood and not through a traditional publisher a hard one? How do you think your creative writing journey has differed because of this decision?

It wasn’t really hard because I seemed unable to win a traditional deal, or even get an agent. Of course I could have tried a lot harder to get both – by which I mean I could have sent Fortune’s Wheel out to lots and lots more agents, in the hope of finding one who said “yes” – but I am not in the springtime, nor even summer, of my life, and I felt that I simply couldn’t wait! I wanted my book published now! For the traditional publishing process does take a long time. It can take months or years before you find an agent. Then he or she has to find a publisher to run with your book – more months. Then the publisher takes months (or a year or more) to schedule your book for publication and go through all the publication processes. I decided that, for me, it wasn’t worth waiting for…

The hard decision, however, was whether to self-publish “properly”, by which I mean getting the cover done, formatting the files, uploading the files, managing the distribution etc etc,, all by myself, or having help, as provided by a publishing company such as SilverWood. The downside to SilverWood is that they cost money – obviously! – but the upside is that they do a great job, and produce a really high-quality result.

If I hadn’t made that decision, I am sure that I would not now have two published books, with a third on the way. I needed to “get on with it” and self-publishing and SilverWood enabled that to happen.

The perfect number of books in a series is subjective. Do you see a clear end to The Meonbridge Chronicles? If so, what do you have in mind as a follow-up?

Mmmm, good question! When I first realised that I wanted to write more about the people of Meonbridge, I imagined that I might write three Chronicles. But, by the time I was writing A Woman’s Lot, I knew that three wouldn’t be enough. Book 3 is now finished in draft form and is undergoing the editing process. I am planning Book 4, and I now realise that I have a storyline for a fifth book as well. Whether I will go beyond that rather depends on what the characters decide… They may wrap it all up at Book 5, or maybe not… What I don’t want to do is to run out of steam, so that the storylines become dull and “samey”. But when I do say farewell to Meonbridge, I want to leave everyone in a happy, or at least reasonably positive, place, so we’ll have to see if that has happened by Book 5 or not!

Once I’m done with the Meonbridge Chronicles – or maybe even before I’m done – I am keen to publish my PhD novel, The Nature of Things. It is the story of the entire fourteenth century, told in the voices of seven characters, each of whom, in a sense, hands on the baton of storytelling to the next person. Historian Barbara Tuchman (in A Distant Mirror) called the fourteenth century “calamitous”. Catastrophic events affected nearly every decade: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade; famines in the second; the start of the Hundred Years War in 1337, which continued on and off for the rest of the century and beyond; the Black Death in 1348-9, another plague in 1361, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. And all these horrors do find their way into The Nature of Things

Thereafter, well, I really don’t know… It’s a way down the line, but I daresay ideas will come to me in due course. Whatever it is, it will almost certainly still be “mediaeval”, but possibly fifteenth century rather than fourteenth??

Every writer is a reader first. What types of books do you enjoy reading? Do you get to read as often as you would like? Please recommend a book that is on your People-Must-Read-This-Book list. What qualities does it have that made it one of your favorites?

I only read fiction at night, just before bedtime, so I certainly don’t read more than two or three novels a month. So, the answer is no, I don’t read as often as I’d like to! (I do of course also read other sorts of books, history and so on, for research, and I’ll read them during the day!)

I do enjoy historical fiction, and I read quite a lot of it. However, I also hugely enjoy thrillers and crime novels, though I could never write one.

I would like to recommend two books/authors, because I can’t choose between them…

First, an historical novel by the late Helen Dunmore. All her books are wonderful, but if you haven’t read The Siege, you really must. This story of the siege of Leningrad (1941-1944) is harrowing and deeply moving. Dunmore draws her characters so well that it is easy to empathise deeply with them, so that when they are put into such devastatingly appalling situations, when the struggle to find anything at all to eat drives them to extraordinary lengths, to be honest I was in pieces… And I think I would be again, if I read it now… Brilliant writing.

But I always say that my favourite author is (also, late) William Trevor, because he was such a master of the short story, and of depicting the subtleties of human interactions. So, he was not an historical novelist, but just the most brilliant writer. All his novels are great, in my humble view, but let me recommend his short story collection, The Collected Stories. The characters are typically eccentrics or people living at the margins of society: children, the elderly, single middle-aged men and women, or the unhappily married. His stories have real atmosphere, superb dialogue, and are disturbing, affecting and amusing. The keenness of his eye and ear brought to life some ordinary and yet extraordinary characters. A master!

You are currently working on the third novel in The Meonbridge Chronicles series. What stage of the process are you in? When do you anticipate its publication?

I have finished the draft of “Truth and Lies” (working title), and edited it several times. It is currently out with beta readers. After I have dealt with their feedback, I will send it to my (professional) editor. I am expecting to publish it at the end of this year, or early next. I know that some authors publish several books a year, but I just can’t do that! In some ways, I would love to write, and publish, much more quickly, but in truth I simply have to take my time, to agonise and tweak until I am finally satisfied.

What do you enjoy most about connecting with readers? Do you make appearances? If a reader is unable to attend an appearance, is there a way for them to get a signed novel or bookplate?

I do enjoy connecting with readers, and I have made just a few appearances, at the book launch and signing for Fortune’s Wheel (I wasn’t able to have a physical launch party for A Woman’s Lot) and I have given a few talks about writing historical fiction to local groups. But actually, I gain a lot of pleasure from engaging with reviewers online. For example, in May, I put Fortune’s Wheel onto the NetGalley website, for readers to download and post reviews. I wrote to thank personally all those who did leave reviews, and I have had the most delightful email exchanges with some of them, and I have established new friendships. You are one of those new friends, Kim!! And, in truth, when anyone leaves a review saying how much they enjoyed your book, it gives you a most tremendous uplift. I love it that those reviewers have taken the time and trouble to tell me that my writing has brought them pleasure. Because, after all, that is really why I write my books – to give other readers pleasure!

As for getting a signed novel, well, I have sent one or two to folk who live in the UK, but haven’t actually been asked to send one to the US! I hadn’t thought of the idea of a bookplate, but it is rather a nice concept, so I might consider it, especially if hundreds of US readers begin to demand my signature in their Meonbridge Chronicles paperbacks!!

The title and cover design of your novels fit the story inside perfectly. Please share a little about that process. Do you have something in mind before you even start writing?

Thank you! I’m so glad you like them! The titles came to me eventually… Originally, Fortune’s Wheel was simply Meonbridge… I wasn’t happy with the title, as I felt it didn’t really convey “historical fiction”, or indeed any particular genre, so I cast about for something better.

I did know that, in ancient and mediaeval philosophy, the rota fortunae was a symbol of the unpredictable nature of fate, and this did seem a rather appropriate metaphor for what had happened to my poor Meonbridge folk. So Meonbridge became Fortune’s Wheel. And, having made that decision, I concluded that subsequent novels should all have titles that alluded to “fate” in some way. So what was originally Trouble and Strife became A Woman’s Lot! Book 3’s working title may be Truth and Lies but it won’t be its final name…

As for the covers, well, I did more or less leave it to the designers at SilverWood. Though I did tell them what I didn’t want! I definitely didn’t want anything photographic – too modern – and absolutely definitely no images of women, and especially headless women, which seemed to be the norm for a lot of those Tudor period novels by Philippa Gregory! I wanted the image to suggest “mediaeval”, but I didn’t want overly fancy “mediaeval” fonts. I gave them examples of about a dozen historical novels, pointing out what I felt was good and bad about their cover designs. I would have liked to use a genuine fourteenth-century image but the ones I fancied – from the Luttrell Psalter – are not freely available. So, in the end, I suggested the rota fortunae, and they came up with the final design. I really did leave them to it for A Woman’s Lot, and they chose to adapt the wheel theme.

I think both covers work really well. They are certainly different from the norm for historical fiction, which is not necessarily a good thing, but I am very happy with their distinctive look.

Have you ever entertained the idea of co-writing a novel? If so, who would be your dream co-author and what type of novel would you write?

I actually can’t imagine co-authoring! To be honest, it seems a really weird idea… I’m much too self-centred and self-determining (i.e. opinionated!) to be able to share my creative process with anyone else!

However, I suppose what might be good – in an impossible world – would be to team up with someone like a mediaeval historian, who knew absolutely everything there was to know about mediaeval life. Then, with no worries about whether this or that in my novel was “authentic”, I could focus entirely on the story and the characters. But I would of course then lose that aspect of what I spoke about right at the beginning of this interview – about why I write historical fiction – and that is the pleasure of discovering the mediaeval past, as well as interpreting it. So I guess I am happy to stick with going it all alone!

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