For those of you who’ve read one or more of my books but knows little about me as a writer, I thought I’d share some selected questions and answers from some of the online “interviews” I’ve taken part in over the years. For last month’s blog, I chose questions related to how I started out as a writer and my general writing process. This time, I’ve chosen questions specifically about writing historical fiction.
Why historical fiction?
What made you choose this genre?
When I had to choose what to write as the creative piece for my MA 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 it yet published).
As I mentioned last time, my original inspiration came from discovering the fading draft of a novel set in 14th century rural England, written in my twenties. The novel’s plot (and the writing) wasn’t great, but it was about the lives of peasant families, and I was drawn to its period and setting. I had a light bulb moment and, a few days later, was drafting an outline for the novel that became Fortune’s Wheel, the first Meonbridge Chronicle.
It was true that I’d long been intrigued by the medieval 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 convinced me that I wanted to know more about the period, and I suppose I soon realised that, by writing an historical novel, I’d have the opportunity both to find out more about the medieval past and to interpret it, which seemed like a thrilling thing to do.
What led you to set your Meonbridge Chronicles novels in the aftermath of the Black Death?
I’ve written about the Black Death itself in another, as yet unpublished, novel, The Nature of Things, which I wrote for my PhD.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 (which I wrote first), I had discovered from my reading that the Black Death (as we call it––they called it the (Great) Mortality, the Pestilence, or just the 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 continued 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. All of that I wanted to reflect in my novel.
How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved in?
I knew when I started writing Fortune’s Wheel that I wanted to write about the lives of “ordinary people”. Many historical novels are about kings and queens, nobles and knights, and the ordinary folk take rather a back seat, whereas I was––and am––much more interested in exploring the lives of 14th century peasants and artisans. Having said that, I’m happy to include the gentry, and indeed the third Meonbridge Chronicle is mostly about the lives of Meonbridge’s leading family. In truth, I wanted to write about a community as a whole, with its range of people, from the lord and lady of the manor down to the poorest peasant, and all the ranks of folk between.
Why did I want to do this? I suppose because I felt that ordinary people of the past are essentially unknown and invisible: they have no “voice”. Chroniclers didn’t write about these sorts of people, but rather about the lives and exploits of those who were in charge. Ordinary lives were not much recorded, although you can learn a surprising amount 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. I felt that, by writing a novel about them, I could somehow explore their lives and give them the opportunity to “tell” their stories.
Initially, I wanted my principal characters to be women. For I had read that, at this point in history, there was a shift in the opportunities available for women, which some historians have referred to as a “Golden Age” that lasted into the 15th century (though others do dispute the cogency of this).
As I’ve already mentioned, after the devastation wrought by the Black Death, society 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 changed as well. When so many people had died in the plague, I felt it was likely that everyone, including the 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. This possibility of significant change for women seemed a perfect focus for my stories.
I didn’t want to write only about the women, but I wanted them to be predominant in all the Meonbridge novels.
Central to the story in A Woman’s Lot, the second Chronicle, is the somewhat “misogynistic” attitude held by medieval men – or by some of them at least. And this view of women’s powerlessness continues into book 3, De Bohun’s Destiny, though there the women, or some of them, do in the end prevail. Book 4, Children’s Fate, also focuses on the plight of women in a society run by men, though not all those “in charge” are men; women can be manipulators too… And, in the fifth book, again we will see a continuing power struggle between high born and low, and between men and women, but it will not only be women who are “victims” and not only men in control.
Of course such attitudes are not without parallels in our own time, but I am not attempting to draw comparisons between then and now. I am telling stories about the 14th century, and I am trying to make all my characters, men and women, as “authentic”-seeming as possible.
Importantly, my stories aren’t about women’s rights and liberation––my characters are not “feminists”!––but about people, including women, making the best of opportunities within the context of the society they live in.
How do you balance the fact and the fiction when writing this type of novel?
With the Meonbridge Chronicles, I’m writing about a fictional place with fictional characters and (largely) fictional events. This is not entirely true of The Nature of Things, where a few real personages do have minor parts, and some of the storylines are more closely based on real events, but they are still more about the fictional characters and their lives, and more about what my imagination brings to the story than a history of the time.
But, with all my novels, including the Meonbridge Chronicles, it is important to me to underpin the fiction with enough “reality”––facts––to bring the period to life, with a sense of “naturalism” and “authenticity”. Techniques for achieving authenticity include describing accurately what we know or can deduce about how people lived, their homes, clothes, food, tools, working practices, to paint a picture of the lives of the characters that is vivid and convincing.
However, it is important to tread lightly with these historical details. I’ve read historical novels where the writer has quite clearly done a lot of research about a particular aspect and has “dumped” a great dollop of what she/he has learned into the novel, often in a way that feels quite unnatural. Historical details need to be seeded lightly through the book in small pinches, so they are integral rather than obvious. I suppose the setting and everyday details have to become almost second nature, so you are able to describe them in no more detail than you would describe them in a contemporary novel. If you over-describe setting or clothes or anything else, it can hinder the flow of the story. Getting the balance of fact and fiction right is about ensuring that the story telling flows whilst the imagery and backdrop are clear. I guess it comes with practice, and I hope I’m getting better at it…
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
I try hard to ensure that the names of my characters were more or less current in the 14th century. I consult a website (Medieval Names Archive, https://www.s-gabriel.org/names/english.shtml), which gives lists of names according to the years when they were popular. Some names were generally very common. John, for example, might have been the forename for most of the men in a small village! But of course in a novel you can’t have several people with the same name, otherwise it would get confusing, so I choose a range of names. Many of the forenames I choose are still familiar enough today – Emma, Richard, Susanna, William, Tom, Ann – but I do like to choose at least a sprinkling of much less modern names – Hawisa, Amice, Ivo, Fulke, Warin, Mariota – to help underline that these people are not 21st century. Choosing slightly strange forms for some family names too adds to the medieval feel: atte Wode, Collyere, Brouderer, le Bowyer, Wyteby. I’m a fan of Susanna Gregory’s historical mystery novels set in the 14th century, and I’ve been struck by her use of this simple enough device of having odd-sounding names, and decided to follow her example.
Finally, several of my interviewers have enquired about my writing plans for the future. Over the years, these have inevitably changed and developed. This is the current state of play…
What are your future plans as an author?
I’m currently writing book 5 in the Meonbridge Chronicles series. I know there will be a sixth book, and possibly a seventh. That might then be the end of the Chronicles but we’ll see…
As I’ve already said, I have another completed novel, The Nature of Things, which I wrote for my Creative Writing PhD. The book is structured as seven novellas, spanning the entire 14th century, and history drives the plot to a greater degree than it does in any of the Chronicles. However, although it is complete, the book does need quite a bit of work, so I’m editing it alongside writing the next Chronicle, and I’d like to think it might possibly be published within the next year or so…
I mentioned last time that I also have an idea for a new series set in the 14th century, called provisionally Medieval Heiresses, following the lives of women who, for the lack of a male heir in the family, inherited their father’s estates or business interests. I have three novels in mind. The stories will be fictional but based on texts I’ve read about real women who successfully inherited property under such circumstances. I thought the idea sounded an interesting one to explore…
But, finally, I do also have a plan to publish those contemporary women’s novels I also mentioned earlier. Alongside my continuing historical fiction writing, I’m editing the first of those contemporary novels. In a way, they’re not terribly different in subject matter from the historical novels, in the sense that they are about relationships between essentially “ordinary” people, and the stress and strains of family and community life. It’s just that they’re set in the modern era instead of 700 years ago!
Anyway, I clearly have plenty to keep my writing muscle well exercised!
Addicted to #HistFic? intrigued by #medieval life?
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“A book/series I’ve been waiting for” (Amazon reviewer)
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