The “industrious” Meon Valley

This is a piece that I first posted in May on The History Girls blogspot but which I thought I would like to share again here.


At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.

blaeu1 cropped
Map by William J Blaeu,
Amsterdam, 1645

The River Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…

But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s


Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.

More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2

Until the seventeenth century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3

Soberton Mill 
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill.
Chesapeake Mill, Wickham
Photo © Richard Thomas

Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site. The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.4   

Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunct Meon Valley railway line, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.

Bridge at Mislingford
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 2212 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely  following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meandering course of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.

In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.

The Meon Valley Railway trail
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.

However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.

Old loading gauge at Mislingford

(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)

Droxford station in July 1975
Photo by Nick Catford

The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparation for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.

If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.

Forest of Bere, near Soberton Heath
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.

But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.

Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people (except, one supposes, illicitly).

In the 13th century oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.

It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.


1 From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014.

2 The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993.

3 Stories of the river, railway and forest can be found in The Story of Soberton and Newtown by Ann Pendred (1999).

4 From The Warship and the Watermill accessed 10th May 2017.

Picture captions

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Map of Hampshire by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1645. From:

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s. From East Meon History Archive:

Chesapeake Mill, Wickham Photo © Richard Thomas [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Soberton Mill, Soberton Heath. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway trail. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bridge over the Meon Valley Railway at Mislingford. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The old loading gauge at the former Mislingford goods yard. Photograph in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Droxford station building in July 1975. Photo by Nick Catford. From:

Forest of Bere (Upperford Copse), near Soberton Heath, Hampshire. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere (West Walk). Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Those pesky topiary elves again…!

I first posted the basis for this blog back in November 2016. At the time, I was a bit apologetic that the piece was only marginally to do with writing historical fiction, but I now am of the view that, when I write about gardens or plants, or indeed birds and wildlife, instead of historical fiction, it simply reveals another aspect of “who I am”, and is no bad thing. Gardens and gardening do often have a place in my novels, but I have always been interested in plants and nature, and so writing about them in my blog does seem just as natural as writing about writing!

The November blog was basically about topiary. And the reason I want to talk about it again is that, here in France this summer, we have revisited the wonderful, and surprising, shrub sculptures that sparked my post last year, but that I have also a sadder tale to tell about them…

You may or may not much care for topiary – clipped box, yew and suchlike – but I really rather love it. I maintain a few little box hedges and balls in my own garden. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we’ve been going for our summer holidays for twenty-five years, there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges, shapes and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads. I think the faces are a relatively recent addition, for I don’t remember seeing them twenty-five years ago. They seem very much in keeping with the French sense of fun in their public art – public gardens and roundabouts, for example, are often wonderfully quirky and delightful. (More of this in a moment…)

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2016 photos © Author

The first time we saw them, all those years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Because, honestly, there are miles and miles of bushes, painstakingly and (it would seem) lovingly clipped to crisp or curved perfection. Now, we still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this work. Is he/she alone, or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

To discover these clipped wonders along mountain roads for the first time was so surprising that it seemed almost magical, as if – as we used to say to the children – the elves had done it!

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though, again this year, some of the clippings were clearly quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves. (And, actually, if anybody does know the answers to these questions, I’m not sure I really want to be enlightened! I think the idea of the topiarists being elves is just too charming…)

It was lovely this year seeing some of the same “sculptures”, and some I’d not noticed last time.

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2017 Photos © Author And, yes, it’s the same chap! His friend from last year is still there too. I have a suspicion that one or two of the round ones are potential candidates for sculpture…)











For the blog last November, seeing the mountain sculptures again last year had set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times. If you’d like to read that blog, it’s here…

But, this time, I want to talk about something much more contemporary, a modern invader – albeit a pretty enough little creature – that hasn’t yet attacked these wonderful mountain sculptures, but very well might…

1854 - Cydalima perspectalis - Box tree moth
Photo © David Hughes

You may have come across the Box moth, if you have box hedges and if you live in a place where they have become invasive. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) says that the moth is a native of East Asia and became established in Europe in 2007. The adult moth was first reported in the UK in 2008, whereas the caterpillar wasn’t found in gardens until 2011. But since then it has become widespread in London and surrounding counties.

The understory is (was) box © Author
A hedge in a country garden. The green leaves are, sadly, not box © Author

It’s clearly here in France. As we drive around we can see the devastation that it causes – box trees stripped bare of leaves. It looks horrible!

We have noticed that some trees do seem to grow new leaves, but presumably only to be eaten again…

(By the way, this is not the notorious “box blight”, which is a fungal disease that results in bare patches and die-back on a bush, and I think is pretty difficult to get rid of.) In a garden, if you are willing to do so, chemical sprays can be used – quite successfully, I understand – to control the box moth, though of course spraying does have potentially serious side effects to wildlife.

Photo © David Hughes

Our gîte owner sprays his hedges (and his topiary squirrels) and, so far, they have not been attacked. I suppose that all owners of topiary gardens, and especially perhaps those whose gardens are famous for their topiary – like the Château de Villandry, for example –must take steps to guard against the dreaded moth…

But, out in the countryside, what can possibly be done? I suppose the “elves” could take a spray with them when they go out clipping – perhaps they do – but, seriously, it’s hard to see how anything could prevent the moth attacking these lovely sculptures.


Pretty (?) box moths Photo © Author
Version 2
Beautiful lavender, rather spoiled. Photo © Author

And our fears about the potential danger were confirmed when we drove into a different mountainous area specifically to look for a particularly wonderful field of lavender that we knew would be growing along one of those windy roads. We found the lavender, growing, as it has for the past several years, in all its lovely heady glory, but it was absolutely covered in – box moths!

This field wasn’t particularly close to our mountain sculptures, but these pretty little horrors can of course fly! It would simply be so very sad if they flew that way and destroyed all that wonderful topiary work…

So, that’s a potentially worrying prospect, but let me end on a much more cheerful note.

I mentioned earlier the French sense of fun in the way they present their public art, such as in gardens and on roundabouts. And, as an example, and following the topiary theme, I give you these…an elephant and a dragon.

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Elephant and friend. Photo © Author
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Dragon and friend. Photo © Author
© Author

These two charming creatures can be found in “our” village, close to our gîte, Montelier, which is one of only eighteen four-flower villages in the Auverge-Rhône-Alps region (out of 516 villages and towns in the region with all levels of  flower label). The town gardeners go in for  particularly charming animal “sculptures”, including topiary, as part of their plant displays. (More on the Concours des villes et villages fleuris – “towns and villages in bloom competition” – in a future post, perhaps…)


You probably can’t see from my photos that each topiary animal has a “person” riding them… And who might these be, one wonders…? Here is a slightly closer, yet still rather mysterious, view of one of them…

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© Author

A topiarist elf perhaps?

Nature red in tooth and claw (part deux)

My blog today is not much – well, nothing, actually – to do with writing historical fiction, or with medieval history. Instead it is a bit of an addendum to my post last month, Nature red in tooth and claw. If you follow my posts, you have probably realised by now that, as well as writing novels set in the fourteenth century, I am also pretty keen on observing the natural world, and especially birds…

So, today, I am offering a relatively short blog, and one that is not only short but also, I’m afraid, not very “sweet”. So you might want to look away now if you’re squeamish…

Bésayes, Drôme, France. View towards the Vercors mountains. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

How very tranquil the countryside seems as we sit here on the terrace of our gîte in Drôme, south-eastern France, looking across the fields towards the Vercors mountains, watching a tractor trundle up and down the rows of corn or sunflowers in the distance, listening to the crickets chirruping, thrilling to the sight of the locally-nesting bee-eaters swooping and gliding, noticing the lengthening of the evening shadows… With a glass of rosé at one’s elbow, and the barbecue coals burning nicely in anticipation of pork and aubergines and fat red peppers, it’s all quite relaxing and delightful.

Well, yes, I am putting a shamelessly romantic spin upon it all, but only really to point up the contrast between what we see out there with our rose-tinted eyes, and what we know is actually going on…

For, of course, at the micro level, the countryside is anything but tranquil, and you can be sure that, each day, many creatures, small and larger, meet their – often gruesome – ends, mostly in the service of another creature’s belly (or, at this time of year especially, those of their growing young).

It’s not often one has the opportunity to observe this playing out of nature – perhaps indeed you wouldn’t want to? But, yesterday evening, we did observe it, and admittedly it wasn’t pretty. However, what we saw was not just a death but, more intriguingly, a display of social interaction between different species of bird, which was grimly fascinating to watch, and yet we felt somehow privileged to be doing so.

Unfortunately (or, you might think, fortunately) I can’t show you photos of what we actually saw, for the scene was played out just a little too far away, even for a bird-watcher’s excellent long lens camera. But here are the actors in this everyday drama of French country life…

(Images courtesy of the RSPB website)


carcr_tcm9-18253      magpie_tcm9-17626

Photo © Chris Shields for RSPB

It was early evening and dinner preparation was under way – apéritif, barbecue and so on –  when we suddenly heard the raucous squawks of crows and the harsh rasp of magpies, somewhere not all that far away. Looking from the terrace across to the fields just beyond the hedge, a gaggle of birds – four magpies and six carrion crows – was flapping and hopping noisily around a buzzard, clearly safeguarding its recently captured prey. It seemed clear that the poor thing – from its size and colouring, a rabbit – had been recently captured from the continued jerking of its hind legs. This might have been its death throes, but the movements were vigorous enough to suggest an, albeit hopeless, attempt to escape its grisly fate.

Horribly voyeuristic as it might seem, I’m afraid that we set up the tripod and telescope for a better view. Because what was happening was not just “nature red…” but also a stand-off between the buzzard and the would-be purloiners of its dinner, and we were intrigued to know which of them would win the day. Ten to one seemed poor odds against the buzzard, but the other birds (and I’m going anthropomorphic here!) seemed to be all talk and no trousers, as they flapped and swooped and barked at the buzzard, but most definitely kept their distance.

© Spencer Wright, North Walsham, England (, via Wikimedia Commons

They were undoubtedly safe enough from the raptor’s talons, which were keeping tight hold of the hapless rabbit. But one imagines that just one peck from that vicious beak could do a huge amount of damage to a magpie, or even a crow.

Buzzards are a good deal bigger than crows and magpies. The smaller birds are similar to each other in length, approximately 45cm, although the carrion crow has a wingspan half as much again as the magpie, and is twice its weight, at about half a kilo. But the buzzard – and I think the one we had here was a fairly large example – is more than a quarter longer than the others, with an additional 20cm or so of wingspan than the crow, but it weighs twice as much as the crow and four times as much as the magpie. And it’s got that scimitar of a beak!

So it’s hardly a surprise that, despite the greater numbers of their posse, the aspiring thieves were exceedingly cautious about getting too close to their target.

Nonetheless, they didn’t stop their harassment. The buzzard might have been the big kid on the block, but perhaps the crows and magpies knew that, precious as its meal was, it wouldn’t risk a physical confrontation with them.

Buzzard and Carrion Crows, Bough Beech
Photo RSPB

You see this also in the air, where it’s very common to see crows mobbing a buzzard, presumably because the buzzard got too close to their nest or had simply invaded their territory, although I think it’s rare that physical contact is ever made, as it could be very damaging to all involved. Usually the buzzard just seems to fly off, presumably to look elsewhere for easier, less taxing, pickings.

So crows – and magpies – are brave, but presumably know from experience that, if they keep up the pressure long enough, they stand a good chance of winning.

And that is actually what happened, although not for a good fifteen or twenty minutes…

The poor rabbit struggled on a while, and the buzzard tried to eat a little something of its dinner. But, with the constant interruptions from its tormentors and its own failed attempts to see them off – we could see quite clearly that, beak open, it was shouting at them, telling them to scram – it didn’t seem to be enjoying its meal very much, and was perhaps already thinking better of bothering to defend it.

In fact, some of the crows and magpies did scram, but there remained a persistent few of both species that weren’t going to let this potential free meal go.

I thought the buzzard might try taking off with whatever was left of its dinner in its talons, but the rabbit might well have weighed as much as its captor, or even more – it did look quite big – so maybe that wasn’t a practical possibility.

And, in the end, leaving the remains behind, the buzzard did simply fly away, with a parting bark at the victorious corvids, who then pounced upon their prize and tucked in.

So, for them – the crows and magpies – there was such a thing as a free lunch (dinner). All they had to do was have a degree of courage and a fair amount of patience, and be really, really irritating for long enough to force their bigger rival to feel the effort of the fight was greater than the reward.

Thus, in this case, the underdog(bird)s won out over the top dog(bird). But I imagine it doesn’t always work out that way…

After the Black Death

I first posted this in The History Girls blog, but I thought I would like to share it again here.

“It is June 1349. In the Hampshire village of Meonbridge, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population…”

So goes the blurb for my historical novel Fortune’s Wheel.

“Meonbridge” is broadly somewhere in the upper reaches of the valley of Hampshire’s River Meon. The Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and for much of that length is a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

The plague referred to in the novel’s blurb is what we call the Black Death, the plague that struck England in 1348-50. At the time they referred to it as the Great Death, the mortality or the pestilence. Having spread across the world from Asia and throughout Europe, it arrived in England in June 1348, or thereabouts. Famously, it was once thought to have entered the country at Melcombe in Dorset, although some believe it might have come in closer to Southampton, or Bristol, but it’s also possible that it arrived in several places at about the same time. The disease lasted a matter of months in any one location, although overall, as it spread relentlessly across the country, it persisted for the best part of two years.


In Hampshire, it was in October 1348 that the effects of the plague began to be seen. We know that partly because William Edyngdon, the Bishop of Winchester, issued a letter to the clergy in his diocese…

“We report with anguish the serious news which has come to our ears: that this cruel plague has now begun a savage attack on the coastal areas of England. We are struck by terrors lest (may God avert it!) this brutal disease should rage in any part of our city of diocese.”1

Sadly, the bishop’s prayers were not answered, for the diocese of Winchester suffered gravely, with 48.8% of its clergy dying, the highest proportion for any diocese in England where figures were available.2

Meon Valley map 1695
Extract from a Map of Hampshire, by Robert Morden, published in an edition of Britannia by William Camden, 1695. Source: Portsmouth University.

In southern Hampshire as a whole, including the Meon Valley, roughly half of the populations of the towns and villages lost their lives.

Titchfield is at the sea end of the Meon Valley. There, in the year January 1349 to January 1350, 423 tenant deaths were recorded on the manor, compared to 56 in the previous year. In all, Titchfield might have lost perhaps as much as 80% of its population. In Corhampton, closer to the part of the Meon Valley where I think that “Meonbridge” is located, 55% of people died. In Bishops Waltham, a market town some five miles south west of Corhampton, it was more like 65%. In Funtley, further down the Meon Valley towards Titchfield, the numbers were not large (21 deaths) but it represented a huge percentage of the tenant population, and in Crofton, closer still to Titchfield, there appear to have been perhaps 92.5% mortality among tenants in the 1349-50 plague year.

But losses were not evenly distributed. Although the places I have mentioned had relatively high losses, the plague apparently skirted some places altogether, while a few communities died out completely for a while. An example of the latter is Quob, a tiny hamlet near Funtley, where a manorial court statement in the plague year indicated that no-one survived in that community. However, as Tom Beaumont James says, in The Black Death in Hampshire, while there is a popular belief that many communities in England died out as a result of the Black Death, this is probably not true, but rather that the high mortality caused by the plague started a decline that was completed as much as a century or two later. Quob was tiny, perhaps just a few families, so it was undoubtedly easy enough for the plague to kill them all, but the little community did recover some years later. Whether or not a community recovered was undoubtedly affected by factors other than the Black Death, including the later outbreaks of plague, and perhaps the increasing mobility of working people, driving some away from the countryside and into towns.

It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate from what is recorded for real Hampshire to what might have happened in the fictional Meonbridge. There, I have the plague arriving in December and being more or less over in early summer, which accords reasonably well with the evidence. The high levels of mortality among clergy in the Winchester diocese show that the plague was at its worst there during the first half of 1349. Evidence of the devastation in this part of Hampshire comes also from the records of the Bishop of Winchester’s manors, where much higher than normal deaths among tenants meant that many holdings became vacant and large tracts of agricultural land were therefore uncultivated.

But, whatever the numbers, it is surely very hard to imagine how shattering the plague’s arrival must have been. The disease was of course quite terrible enough in itself, but it followed in the wake of two other appalling disasters: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade of the century, ruinous weather, disastrous harvests and devastating famines in the second.

Probably not as cute as he looks!

We know now that this terrifying disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, carried by a flea that lives on the black rat, although exactly how it was transmitted to people remains a matter of some debate.

The particular hideousness of the disease was described by many contemporary chroniclers. One, Gabriele de’ Mussis, a lawyer from Piacenza in Italy, in his Historia de Morbo, wrote thus:

“First, out of the blue, a kind of chilly stiffness…a tingling sensation, as if they were being pricked by the points of arrows. [Then]…a fearsome attack which took the form of an extremely hard, solid boil [typically in the armpit or groin]. As it grew more solid, its burning heat caused the patients to fall into an acute and putrid fever, with severe headaches….In some cases it gave rise to an intolerable stench. In others it brought the vomiting of blood…Some died on the very day the illness took possession of them…the majority between the third and fifth day….Those who fell into a coma, or suffered a swelling or the stink of corruption, very rarely escaped.”3

It sounds decidedly grim. The “boils” of course were the black pustules that we call “buboes”, giving the term bubonic plague, though not all victims suffered from this form of the disease. Some caught the pneumonic variety, which attacked the lungs, causing pain and an inability to breathe, then coughing up of blood and sputum. Apparently this form of the disease was invariably fatal, and quickly so, whereas it wasn’t unknown for bubonic plague victims to recover.

Seems they may be fortunate enough to have a priest to shrive them… Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

But whichever form of the disease friends and family members suffered, it must have been almost beyond horrifying to witness. And how fearful people must have been when they saw how randomly the plague seem to find its victims – rich and poor, old and young, reprobate and innocent, any and all were taken. Moreover, the very scale of affliction in a community often meant that there was no priest available to give the last rites to a dying victim – the priest being either simply too occupied with others, already dead himself, or perhaps he’d even abandoned his flock to try and save himself – bringing the added terror that your loved one might be about to die in sin, unconfessed, unshriven.


The particular terror of the plague undoubtedly tested relationships and familial bonds to the utmost. With a lack of understanding of how the disease was spread, and the terrifying speed with which it invariably dispatched its victims, some people did abandon loved ones in an attempt to escape the same fate. Indeed, when some thought that the disease could be communicated through the gaze or breath or clothes of victims, it is perhaps unsurprising that many were left to die, not only in extreme agony and terror, but entirely alone. However, not everyone abandoned their loved ones to their fate – some stayed to care for them, and it is perhaps one of the mysteries of the disease that, given its apparent virulence, not everyone in a household was necessarily afflicted.

And how much more frightening was it to be told that this disease – like other natural (and perhaps man-made) disasters – was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin? This was presumably what priests would have taught their congregations. In September 1348, at the original behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the plague was seen as a punishment for sin.4

“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises;…he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.”

Yet people might well have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so severely.

But it is what happened after the Black Death had moved on that is the underlying premise of Fortune’s Wheel. I didn’t want to write a novel about the Black Death. Rather, I was interested in what happened after it had passed on, leaving communities with fewer neighbours, empty houses, unfarmed land. How on earth did people cope with such calamity? I suppose that medieval society was more hardened to natural and human disasters than many of us are today, and it seems that people in fact rebuilt their lives quite quickly.

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.

In 1351, the government, worried that the old way of life was being overturned, brought in the Statute of Labourers, which attempted to curb the demands of peasants for higher wages, attacking both the peasants themselves and those employers (manor lords) who were willing to meet their demands. But it didn’t really work. Wages did rise, and some who’d been previously landless were able to become tenant farmers but paying money rent for their land rather than giving feudal service. Indeed, the feudal system eventually broke down completely, giving peasant populations a greater degree of freedom to manage their own lives.

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. Those of us who, today, live in villages or small town communities may know, or at least be acquainted with, a great many of our neighbours. But we in the twenty-first century generally live quite dispersed lives, having our homes in these communities, but probably working elsewhere. But in former centuries, when communities worked together too, the death of half of your neighbours must have been unimaginably devastating.

Death surely never looked so jolly!

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…


  1. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.115
  2. I owe my information about the 1348-50 plague in Hampshire to the excellent pamphlet The Black Death in Hampshire by Tom Beaumont James (Hampshire Papers, No.18, Hampshire County Council, 1999).
  3. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, pp.24-5.
  4. Referred to in The Black Death, edited by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, 1994, p.113.



Nature red in tooth and claw

My blog today is a bit of a diversion from the usual topic of historical fiction, if not entirely without reference to it… But it’s mostly an excuse to share a few photographs of some of the wonderful birds of prey we’ve seen, in this country and elsewhere…

Sparrow hawk Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Can you imagine how thrilled and excited I was when this beautiful sparrow hawk (probably a juvenile male) landed on the fence literally a few feet from my office window…

What a magnificent bird it was! And I have never before been as close to one as this, apart from at those birds of prey displays they have at country houses, which somehow don’t seem quite the same. This was a truly wild bird, and it was a wonderful privilege to be able to watch him for a while at such close quarters.

Although I’m afraid it was a bit gruesome, as he was clearly digesting his lunch – an unlucky blackbird. You can just see bits of something or other in his beak! I think his excessive meal – feeling a little bloated perhaps? – was partly the reason why he just sat there and let us photograph him and then sit quietly and watch…

Sparrow hawk portrait - Longcroft
Sparrow hawk Photo © Carolyn Hughes

But seeing him up close like that put me in mind of medieval hawking. I know that people enjoy working with birds of prey today, but somehow hawking seems a very “medieval” type of pastime. Although, of course, it was enjoyed then only by the wealthy, because the cost of acquiring and training the birds was very high.

Codex Manesse, a German illuminated manuscript of poetry, c.1300-1340. Folio 69r: accompanies poetry by Wernher von Teufen (fl. 1220).

However, it seems to have been a pastime that was enjoyed by both men and women, who used a variety of trained birds of prey – falcons, peregrines, merlins – to hunt small game, rabbits and the like, and other birds, anything, in principle, that the birds might hunt naturally. Falconry was, apparently, deemed a suitable sport for ladies because it was less dangerous than, for example, hunting a deer or wild boar with excitable dogs, and was less energetic and bloody for the hunters, as I suppose the birds were doing all the work.



These wealthy folk employed professional falconers to train their birds, which was – and is – a difficult and time-consuming activity that requires great expertise. Birds had to be trained from very young, both to get used to people and to go after the prey and return with it without tearing it apart (unlike my sparrow hawk). One imagines the whole training process took a great deal of time and patience.

Falconers, from a treatise by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, De arte venandi cum avibus, (The Art of Hunting with Birds), 1240-1250

But even these wealthy people could not, apparently, just buy any bird they took a fancy to. The fifteenth century Booke of Hawkyng after Prince Edwarde Kyng of Englande (BL Harley Collection 2340) is one of a number of medieval guides on hawking and, like some others, it provides a hierarchy of birds of prey and a list of which birds could be used by which members of society.

So, for example, an emperor was allowed an eagle or a vulture, and a king, a gyrfalcon (a large falcon), whereas an earl could only use a smaller peregrine. A knight could use a saker (smaller still) and a lady might have a little merlin. Even further down the pecking order (sorry…), a priest was permitted a sparrow hawk, and a knave or servant might be allowed a kestrel, although it does seem unlikely that such lowly people would really have had the wherewithal to own any sort of bird.

Version 2
Photo of Lesser Kestrel, Tarifa, Spain
© Carolyn Hughes


Saker Falcon
Photo by Marek Szczepanek (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Peregrine falcon
Photo by Will Mayall (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ólafur Larsen. Derivative work: Bogbumper (Falco_rusticolus_white.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

But if all those fierce-looking creatures seem “small” enough to train, can you imagine attempting to bend a much larger one to your will? Best of luck with that vulture, if you’re an emperor!

Version 2
Photo of Black Kite, Bésayes, France © David Hughes
Version 2
Photo of Griffon Vulture, Tarifa, Spain © David Hughes

Anyway, given my close encounter with “my” sparrow hawk, and our frequent more distant encounters with many other types of bird of prey, I cannot imagine wanting to constrain these wonderful birds’ natural instinct to hunt by forcing them to return the prey intact. Any more than I begrudged my sparrow hawk his lunch, despite my regret that it was one of our garden’s blackbirds. All “nature red in tooth and claw”is gruesome, but it is the way of things – the nature of things.

And so it seems fitting to close with an extract from my as yet unpublished novel called, indeed, The Nature of Things. This passage illustrates the mingled excitement and regret experienced by a young woman on her first exposure to hunting with falcons.

Extract from The Nature of Things, Part 5

It was supposed to be a treat for us, all those years ago, to stay at the chateau of Monsieur de Martigny, a friend and business partner of Papa’s, for two or three months while they travelled around northern France, seeking out new suppliers. It was so romantic there, and I just loved the elegant French ladies and their fashionable clothes. I was twelve, my sisters younger, and we had such fun with the Monsieur’s daughters, Katherine and Marguerite, playing in the chateau gardens, going for picnics on the banks of the Loire, and riding in the huge forests surrounding the estate. And Katherine and I, being older than the others, were even allowed to go hunting with falcons. 

Katherine’s brother, Estienne, sometimes joined us for the picnics, and always for the hawking. He had the prettiest of falcons – her name was Ysabeau – with a blue-grey back and white speckled breast and the brightest of black eyes. He carried her so proudly on his wrist, attached by a little silver chain to his glove. 

How I loved to watch Estienne release her and cast her up into the sky, where she spread her wings, wheeled and sped off after the poor frightened ducks that the servants had beaten up from the lake. I didn’t like that part of it – when Ysabeau flew back to her master with a drooping bird clasped in her claws. But Estienne loved the hunt and I wanted to show him I loved it too, so I clapped my hands and laughed, trying not to look at the duck’s dead eyes.

1.  From “In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, completed in 1849.

Everyday lives of country folk…?

“‘An everyday story of country folk’. No, not Ambridge but Meonbridge. And not in recent times either, but in the middle of the fourteenth century. A tale covering a single year; one of twists and turns too. The Black Death has recently passed over the village reaping a harvest of dead adults, children, and infants; tearing holes in the fabric of village life, as well, of course, as causing holes in the ground – so many the old churchyard cannot take them all… …Those who tune-in with anticipation to Radio 4 at six-thirty in the evening, will probably love this book.”
From a review of Fortune’s Wheel by Alan Hamilton on Amazon on 11th February 2017.

When I first read this review of Fortune’s Wheel, I have to confess to feeling slightly put out. He was comparing TheArchersLogomy “literary masterpiece” to The Archers – a soap opera, for heaven’s sake! – although he didn’t actually call it that…

But then I recalled that, in my own blog of just a few weeks before, I had myself referred to Fortune’s Wheel as “more the ‘everyday lives of country folk’”. What I meant then was that my novels’ plots are based on social history, the stories of ordinary people, and their everyday lives, rather than high-level politics, war, or the antics of royals and the nobility.

Stories that are, essentially, much like fourteenth century versions of those in The Archers

What’s more (I told myself once I had climbed down from my high horse), I actually love that everyday story of country folk, and I’m definitely one of those who tunes in eagerly to BBC Radio 4 at six-thirty (or, actually, two minutes past seven!) every evening…

And I am not alone. Even John Banville loves The Archers. In an article in the Mail Online, on 4th September 2010, Banville “a lifelong Archers fan, explain[ed] the draw of the world’s longest-running radio soap opera”. But, he said, “soap opera is much too sudsy and urban a term to apply to this awesomely impressive phenomenon.…” He went on to say that the programme was garnering a new crop of younger listeners, and (in 2010) “a listenership of almost five million…a lot of eager ears.”1 Of course eager eyes are what authors want for their books!

So if my novel proved to be wildly popular, what possible reason could I have to feel miffed? Well, of course, I wouldn’t.

Nonetheless, I do still feel bound to contemplate to what extent Fortune’s Wheel might be a form of soap opera…

soap operaWikipedia defines soap opera as “…a serial drama on television or radio that examines the lives of many characters, usually focusing on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama.

The Free Dictionary says: “A drama, typically performed as a serial on daytime television or radio, characterised by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama.

Oh dear – I don’t at all like the sound of “stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama”! Of course, the term “soap opera” is often (invariably?) used pejoratively, to imply something trashy and trivial – which is obviously why, at first, I was rather put out at the suggestion that my work was of that ilk. But whereas, obviously, Fortune’s Wheel doesn’t exactly fit the definitions, because it is a book and not a television or radio drama, it does have one or two of the same elements as such dramas, which I thought might perhaps be worth exploring.

cast_thousandFor example, The Archers has a large cast of characters, and the storylines alternate between them. Not all of the characters appear in every episode, indeed some don’t appear for months.

Fortune’s Wheel too has quite a large cast, which a few readers don’t seem to care for very much. Some because they find it hard to remember who everyone is, others perhaps because they simply can’t identify with any of them properly or, as my reviewer Alan Hamilton put it, find it “hard to feel particularly strongly about any of them”. But other readers love having lots of characters – or at least don’t find it too daunting as, said one reviewer, with the “list of all the important characters at the beginning of the novel… I soon acquainted myself with them all.” I too like a large cast, as long as it’s not too difficult to  distinguish between the characters…

I guess that particular preference is horses for courses…horses for courses

A major challenge of having a mega-cast, however, is controlling multiple protagonists, and weaving together their many different story threads. We are often told as writers that we “should” have a single strong main protagonist, one character for readers to identify with or root for (or indeed loathe). But I have three “main protagonists” in Fortune’s Wheel, four in its sequel, seven in The Nature of Things… And there are very many protagonists in The Archers, some undoubtedly more significant than others.

So how do readers/listeners cope with such a plethora of people to love (or hate)? Do they in fact fail to find anyone to root for? I suppose some do fail – those people, perhaps, who don’t like a cast of thousands?

But I suspect that many listeners to The Archers are simply drawn to one or more characters in particular, and follow their stories with more interest than others. That’s certainly true for me. I invariably find myself listening eagerly to the next instalment of so-and-so’s story, but switching off (my ears) when the scene changes to someone else’s story in which I’m not quite so interested.

Interestingly, in Fortune’s Wheel, if it seemed initially, from the early pages of the novel, that Alice atte Wode was the “main” main protagonist, in fact it seems to have turned out that Eleanor Titherige is the character to whom readers (or at least those who have mentioned it) have been most drawn, and whose continuing story they are most eager to discover…

relationshipsIn both Fortune’s Wheel and The Archers, storylines alternate between the protagonists. Stories in soap operas tend to be about relationships between the characters, and the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. Occasionally, a storyline might draw on a topic of national or political importance, and sometimes a story will be full of drama and tension, even horror, as one or more of the characters has to face an extraordinary event that is beyond everyday experience. But these dramatic storylines are  interspersed between the more gentle, commonplace incidents of normal life. Some storylines are relatively short and insignificant, while others are major, sometimes harrowing – and authentic-seeming, partly because they seem to be playing out in real time – dramas that spin out over many episodes, sometimes lasting for months.

The effect is not dissimilar in Fortune’s Wheel. It is the first in a novel series, “The Meonbridge Chronicles”, where individual characters’ storylines may not be concluded in one novel, but will continue in a subsequent one. The stories are also essentially about relationships, some joyful, some troubling, others challenging and even devastating. There are of course far fewer storylines than in The Archers (if only because its scope is so very much more restricted), but certainly there is at least one, and sometimes more than one, storyline for each main protagonist. Dramatic events are interspersed between the minutiae of everyday life. Weaving together the different story threads in a way that maintains interest in the storyline that is centre stage without detracting from those waiting in the wings is one of the challenges of both a soap opera and this type of novel.

Another of the challenges of having lots of characters is, of course, distinguishing between them. Obviously, this is relevant to all forms of drama and fiction, but is perhaps of particular pertinence here…

On the radio, it is true of any drama but, I think, particularly women talking
so with something like The Archers, that one has to tune one’s ear to the different voices, and there are certainly times when I can’t distinguish between the young men – is that Tom Archer or Chris Carter or one of the Fairbrother brothers? Or indeed, between the young women – is that Helen? Pip? Alice?

For a radio drama, it is especially important – if tricky – to ensure that different characters have different, distinctive, voices. This is partly an issue of actors. But language is also a factor. And so it is in a novel.

A writer has to try and ensure that all her characters’ voices don’t just “sound” the same, with the same vocabulary, the same turns of phrase, the same intonations. And I actually think this is quite difficult to achieve, particularly if your novel does have a large cast with, say, two or three characters of the same gender and age, and from broadly the same social background. In my novel The Nature of Things, for example, two of the principal narrators, Tom Godewryght and Peter atte Hyl, are young men, essentially from the same sort of background – relatively lowly peasant stock – both of whom, in their different ways, go “up in the world” and get a modicum of education. Although their narratives are decades apart in the novel, so that they never do actually “appear” together, it still seemed important to try and make sure that they “sounded” like quite different, and therefore more distinctively “real”, people.

In the sequel to Fortune’s Wheel, I have a similar problem with two of the young women, both of whom appeared in Fortune’s Wheel but, in the sequel, are two of the four principal  narrators. Emma Ward and Susanna Miller are of similar age and both cottars, so how do I make each sound distinctively herself?

CommunicationA good test of voice differentiation is, I think, when each voice is sufficiently distinctive that the dialogue could be written without attributions. If the voices are adequately differentiated – especially when the characters are talking to each other – you should be able to “hear” which of them is speaking even if their names are not tagged on the page. That’s the theory, anyway – and certainly what I aim to achieve.

So, three ways in which Fortune’s Wheel might possibly be considered a form of soap opera: a large cast of main characters; multiple, interwoven storylines, with a mix of everyday and high drama; and the challenge of creating many distinctive and “real”-seeming voices.

It’s hardly a tightly-argued analysis! But interesting, I think.

But I still might ask, is Fortune’s Wheel a form of soap opera? And, if so, should I mind? It’s true that I might have preferred my magnum opus to be regarded as a work of “literature” but, when all is said and done, if Fortune’s Wheel ever turned out to be even as remotely popular as The Archers, why on earth should I object? As long as, I suppose – and this is very important! – it is not simply dismissed as trite or trivial or melodramatic, which, so far, is certainly not the case. Even the reviewer who sparked off this train of thought didn’t say that.

So, what do you think? If you’ve read Fortune’s Wheel, do you have a thought or two? And even if you haven’t read it…


Bringing characters to life – not quite literally…

MacbookIt’s a very strange thing, being a novelist. You give life to people who don’t actually exist… It’s a bit like being a parent except that, in that case, the person you give life to is a flesh-and-blood, breathing, demanding being, whereas the characters in your novel no longer exist once you close your laptop lid…

Except that, of course, they do. They hang around inside your head. They talk to you in the middle of the night. They even tell you what’s going to happen in your novel, for goodness’ sake!

I have written creatively on and off all of my adult life. But it was only when I started woman writingwriting seriously, in a more focussed, structured, conscious way, that I discovered how very “real” invented characters can turn out to be. I don’t know if all novelists find this, but I rather imagine that many of them do.

In my own case, the way I write my characters – or at least the main narrator characters – is very consciously intimate. I like to have a number of narrators, who take it in turn (though not rigidly) to “relate” their part of the story, so that each chapter is told entirely from one character’s point of view. This is the style I find myself falling into with each new novel. In my Meonbridge Chronicles, including the recently published Fortune’s Wheel, I write in the past tense, third person – close third person, I think it would be called.

In my as-yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, for the first time, I tried writing in the first person and the present tense, thinking it would bring greater intimacy. John Mullan has said that this style has the effect of  “replicating the immediacy of experience” (How Novels Work, p.72). And, in fact, I felt that, for The Nature of Things, the first person present did work well, as it seemed really immediate and engaging, which was what I wanted to achieve – capturing the characters’ voices in a way that might enable readers to feel they were inside their heads – or, indeed, were them. In truth, though, I agonised over that decision, if only because I had read so often of readers who “hated” first person present, and I feared that I might alienate potential readers. But I did it anyway, simply because – for that particular book – it felt right. Only time, and publication, will tell if it was the correct decision! But it was an experiment – one that I think worked well – but nonetheless I am sticking with the  third person past for all the Meonbridge Chronicles.

medieval women talkingPerson and tense aside, my narrative style demands that my characters sometimes talk to the reader about what they are thinking and feeling, about their anxieties and their dreams. I’m not suggesting that there is anything unusual in this sort of introspection – this “inner dialogue” – because it’s a great way of developing fully-rounded, complex characters, and writers of every genre use it, though some writers are a great deal more introspective than others. I’m sure I’m among the former. And I wonder to what extent the intimacy of the writing style an author uses actually contributes to the sense of intimacy that she develops with her characters?

Anyway, where is this is all leading? What I really set out to say in this blog post is this…

It is interesting to contemplate how it is that a character evolves from being just a name with a set of invented features and traits into a corporeal-seeming person with thoughts and feelings, worries and aspirations? And how does that person then seem to acquire sufficient “agency” to determine events in the novel that I have created?

Perhaps it’s worth me explaining how I create – no, give life to – my characters…

Once I have an underlying premise and a setting for the novel, a few characters somehow present themselves to me, although I’m not quite sure how that happens. Generally, at the early stage, they are rather vague, 2-D, not much rounded or fleshed out. They quickly enough acquire a name (although it might well change) and a set of physical characteristics, and I know their family relationships, but possibly little of their friendships or antipathies. Before I start writing a draft of the novel, alongside the broad outline of the whole story that I always write, I also flesh out my characters – or at least the narrator characters – by writing a profile for each of them. This will include obvious things such as what they look like, what they do for a living, where/how they live, their families and friends and so on. But, most importantly, also my initial thoughts about their anxieties and motivations. I do write profiles for minor characters too – my novels tend to have a large cast – although they are generally not quite as detailed, or as intimate, as for the main ones.

Medieval woman writingI find that writing a few paragraphs or more of an imagined journal for each main character works quite well too (even though, of course, most of my fourteenth century characters wouldn’t be able to write such a thing). It helps me to see those anxieties and motivations through their eyes, and also to build a picture of their relationships – good and bad – with other characters.

As I write the first draft of the novel, I consult the character profiles as often as I need to, adjusting them where necessary as my acquaintance with, and understanding of, the characters develop. I don’t set out knowing all of their innermost thoughts and feelings, but find that they emerge little by little as the story proceeds, just as you gradually learn about a real friend’s thoughts and feelings as your relationship with them develops.

Theatre stage
Image courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 387, fol.3r

As I write, I do of course put words into my characters’ mouths, and thoughts into their heads, and I move them about on the stage I have set, in the role that I have planned for them.

I should just say that, right now, I am writing the first of a number of sequels to my published novel, Fortune’s Wheel. What this means for the characters is that I already know some of them quite well – including, for this first sequel, all the main narrator characters. Even so, I have still reviewed, and indeed updated, the profiles I wrote for those characters for Fortune’s Wheel. Because, although they must of course remain essentially the same people, with a new storyline, a fresh set of events, and indeed the passage of time, they will experience new anxieties and motivations, and perhaps interact with different characters. Intriguingly, new sides to their personality or temperament might even be revealed…

I’m pretty sure that, as I write the novel, for a while at least, the characters do what I say. But then, perhaps without much warning, I realise that I’m writing something that I hadn’t really planned – typically, a passage of dialogue, or one of those introspections – that will almost certainly change some aspect of the story. The characters, it seems, have become strong enough – real enough – to decide for themselves what to do or say or think, rather than simply letting me decide for them. I mustn’t overstate the case – they don’t completely take over. But they do seem to take on a sufficiently real existence to enable them to share the telling of their story. Can you believe it? Well, I never would have, had I not experienced it.

But I have read about this phenomenon many times in authors’ blogs and articles, writers who say that their characters sometimes do seem to take over and direct proceedings. So I know that I’m in good company with other novelists, although some people do insist it’s all hogwash and those authors are letting their imaginations run  away with them…

Dianne DoubtfireHowever, in her short but excellent little book of thirty-plus years ago, The Craft of Novel-Writing, Dianne Doubtfire said:

“Sometimes a character becomes so real that he refuses to do what you have planned for him. When this happens, don’t coerce him; it means you have created a real person with a will of his own and this is a marvellous moment in any novelist’s life.”

And that is what I think. I don’t really believe that novel-writing is an obscure “mystery”, so much as a craft that needs time and practice. But I do feel that, when my characters somehow become people, real enough to make their views and innermost thoughts quite plain, I have stumbled across a moment of mystery, and even magic, in my novel-writing life, and that is indeed a marvellous thing.