Q & A: Writing Historical Fiction
This article is based on some of the questions students have either emailed or asked during author talks about novels I've written that are based on history (Ghost Boy, Turning the Page, The Janna Mysteries) and/or legend (the Shalott trilogy). Most of the questions are about The Janna Mysteries, a medieval crime series for teenagers set at a particularly dangerous and treacherous time in England's history.
Q: Why would anyone want to read crime stories set in medieval time?
A: We all love a good mystery, trying as we read to unravel the clues and find out 'whodunnit' and why - and the Janna Mysteries are really CSI for the 12th century. Readers are challenged to try and solve various crimes and mysteries before Janna does - but only Janna can work out the secrets of her heart!!
Q: What relevance does Janna's situation have to today's teenagers?
A: Characters drive the story, whether it's set in the present or the past, so it's really important to have interesting characters with real issues and problems with which readers can identify. Janna is a 12th century ‘street kid', with no family, no friends and no obvious means of support. For her, it's a struggle to survive, but she's courageous, inquisitive and clever; more important, she is free at a time when most medieval women were bound to their families, their overlord and their king. Teenagers have always felt isolated and insecure, wanting to know about the world, about their community, about family and friends and where they belong – feelings shared by Janna almost a thousand years ago when she set out on her quest to find her unknown father in the hope that he might help her avenge her mother's death. During her journey Janna finds her identity and her place in the world, and also finds true love. Her journey is one of discovery, both external and internal; it's a bildungsroman, the sort of journey with which every teenager can identify. Of course Janna's situation was very different from teenagers' today who have DOCS, help-lines and other community services to support them. Hopefully this will provide points of contrast and comparison for readers to reflect on and discuss, while the character of Janna herself might provide a good role model.
Q: How do you work out a plot if your novel is set in historical time?
A: My characters, both real and imaginary, dictate what happens in the story. For me, it's a matter of inserting my imaginary characters into the historical past, so that they interact with real historical figures (like King Stephen, the Empress Matilda and her half-brother, the Earl of Gloucester) and with real historical events (like the siege of Winchester and Matilda's daring escape from Oxford castle in the depths of winter.) At the same time Janna is also solving fictional mysteries and crimes and interacting with other fictional characters – like potential love interests Hugh, Godric and Ralph. Sometimes someone else's work can spark off a story idea. For example, my series is set at the same time as the Brother Cadfael mysteries of Ellis Peters; her central character is a herbalist and he solves crimes. I gave Janna the skill and knowledge of herbs and healing because she needed to be able to do something to transcend the very strict social boundaries of the time and that would enable her to survive – so there is a good reason for her similarity to Brother Cadfael. Likewise, I set the novels in the same period because a) the civil war makes a great background (see below) and b) because I'd already researched some of that history while writing the 3rd novel in my Shalott trilogy: Shalott, The Final Journey. My series has been compared to Brother Cadfael and yes, those novels inspired me, but The Janna Mysteries are nothing like Ellis Peters' series.
Q: How do you decide on which historical time to write about?
A: It partly depends on my plot and what my character plans to do. If I'd wanted to write a battle scene with guns and tanks, for example, I'd have had to set the Janna Mysteries much later than the 12th century, because in those days they used ‘siege engines' (like giant catapults) plus bows and arrows, spears, swords and lances in battle. It also depends on the sort of society and story I want to write. I chose the civil war between Stephen & Matilda as a background for the Janna Mysteries because it was a really bloody, treacherous and difficult time in England's history. The changing fortunes of the two rivals for the throne, and the potential for betrayal, adds excitement and depth to Janna's journey in search of her father, and my story about her quest for identity and her place in the world.
Q: How do you find out information about medieval time?
A: The first thing to remember is that ‘medieval time' stretched from about the 9th century to the 14th century, and society, buildings, dress, kings and power structures etc changed a great deal during that time. So the first thing I had to do was identify the time frame of my story. Google is a great source of information – you can get maps of the town and settings, plus information on all sorts of other things too. I have a HUGE and growing library with books on history and medieval society, medieval farming practice, herbs and herbal medicine (dating back to Anglo-Saxon time), flower, bird and tree guides, old maps, copies of contemporary chronicles of the time, dress through the ages, etc. Reading novels set at a similar time is also helpful (though I have to be very careful not to plagiarise!) Most recently, I needed to find out about childbirth in medieval time (so that Janna can help her friend Agnes through a difficult birth.) Through the midwife's association, I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a scholar who'd written her PhD on the subject. On her advice, I've now acquired ‘The Trotula', a translation of the ‘Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine'. There's always something new to learn!
I have several picture books for children about life in a medieval society (bearing in mind that a picture is worth a thousand words.) Two are particularly good: The Middle Ages by Sarah Howarth, part of the See Through History series, has 4 layered ‘see through' scenes so you can see the interior + exterior of a castle, a water mill, a monastery and a town scene. Medieval Towns from the I Was There series also has great pictures. They help me visualise the scene I'm writing about. The book that helped me identify the setting was an edition of the Domesday Book. This was commissioned by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William sent commissioners all over England to count every dwelling, person, pig, shed, piece of equipment etc so that he could find out what he ‘owned.' From the Domesday Book I identified the places I needed for my story: a medieval forest, farm, towns, castles and two abbeys, all close to Winchester (at that time the seat of power because the Treasury was kept in the castle there.) And I've used the Domesday spelling too, so that the place names sound authentic.
Something else I need to bear in mind is the sights, sounds and smells of the middle ages. No indoor plumbing or regular garbage service. Describing the reality of medieval streets and the hand to mouth existence for most people helps add colour (and stink!) to the narrative.
Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words. I have several basic picture books for children about life in a medieval society. Two are particularly good: The Middle Ages by Sarah Howarth, part of the See Through History series, has 4 layered 'see through' scenes so you can see the interior + exterior of a castle, a water mill, a monastery and a town scene. Medieval Towns from the I Was There series also has great pictures. They help you to visualise the scene you're writing about. The book that really helped me identify the setting was an edition of the Domesday Book. This was commissioned by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William sent commissioners all over England to count every dwelling, person, pig, shed, piece of equipment etc so that he could find out what he now 'owned.' From the Domesday Book I identified the places I needed for my story: a medieval forest, farm, towns, castles and two abbeys, all close to Winchester (at that time the seat of power because the Treasury was kept in the castle there.) And I've used the Domesday spelling too, so that the place names sound authentic.
Q: How do you work out the ages of your characters?
A:Generally, the main characters are a few years older than my target group of readers. Janna's journey begins when she's 16 and ends when she's going on 19. I also need to bear in mind content and language level, particularly when writing for younger readers (eg Ghost Boy and Turning the Page.)
Q: How long does it take you to write a novel?
A: It depends how much research I have to do, and how readily the plot unfolds. The Jannas are each between 85-95,000 words. On an average day I might write 2-3000 words; if I'm really firing I might write 5-6000 words. (Some days I can't write at all!)
Q: Do you think of a title and base your story on that?
A: Sometimes, but it's more usual for me to think of a title after the story is written (when I know exactly what it's all about.) Finding a good title is sometimes the hardest thing of all. With the Janna Mysteries, because Janna has herbal knowledge and healing skills I decided to base the titles on various herbs and flowers, depending on the plot or Janna's personal circumstances.
Q: How do you decide on the cover?
A: I don't! It's up to the publishers to approach an artist or designer with a brief on what the novel is about. Once the designer has come up with something, I may have some input as to whether I like the cover or not, and whether I think changes are necessary.