According to historian Patrick Collinson, “It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Much of the evidence, is simply not available to us,” to this, I add, especially from the so-called Dark Ages, which means there are a lot of grey areas.
Happily, historical novelists can exploit those grey areas. That’s where our imagination fills in what might have happened behind and between recorded accounts. This is the case as I write my current work in progress about what happened to the Norse-Irish expelled from Dublin in 902 AD. To some extent I have to invent, especially the minor characters, relationships, and motives that history books can’t supply. The challenge—and enjoyment of writing historical novels lies in successfully weaving a story that meshes what’s known with what might have happened.
Storytellers can find sparks of inspiration everywhere—annal entries, a manuscript footnote, or, as I did for The Purple Thread, a letter. My research gives me a framework or skeleton, then, I can identify the spaces where the story can be woven to flesh out the bones. I actually enjoy the research that lies behind producing the manuscript, which requires passion for the topic because it has to sustain my interest while I write the book my characters and their stories deserve. The important thing is to understand what motivates my real or imagined characters.
The research gives an overview of the historical period, but what I enjoy most is trying to understand the daily life and work of ordinary people as they rub shoulders with the great and mighty characters who shape the events determining their life or death. This was a major factor underlying my St Cuthbert Trilogy, where the main characters emerge from a humble family. They are sequentially: a leatherworker, a horse breeder, a master mason; whereas, in the Sceapig Trilogy, they are successively a deer herder, an apple grower, and a warrior.
Of course, more research crops up along the way. In my latest work in progress, as yet untitled, I had the exact date from annals recounting the Viking raid on Tours in 903 AD, but the question arose, on 28 June, what phase was the moon in? I needed to be accurate and, to my relief, found a calendar that told me what I needed and wanted —a New Moon!
Apart from inspiration, research gives us the details that make the world of our story come to life. History books offer names, dates, and locations of events. But novels need characters and relationships, conflict and redemption, risks and rewards.
So, another of my writing pleasures is to consider the role of the gender much (though not entirely) neglected by historical records: the female. Whereas in the Dark Ages, we have detailed information about ladies from the upper classes, who often became nuns and almost by reflex, saints. I loved writing about my favourite, Saint Leoba in The Purple Thread, but even more so, about my more or less invented Cynethryth in Wyrd of the Wolf and its sequel In the Name of the Mother. More intriguing than the noble nuns, abbesses, prioresses and queens are the unknown women who populated Europe and managed to survive in conditions of war, pillage, famine, and various other adversities and still raised children and maintained the family. Surely, I ask myself, some of these courageous, unsung women deserve a major role in a novel. It’s hard for a male author to depict the female mentality, but I tried my best with Cynethryth, and I hope succeeded to an extent. Naturally, as a male writer, I’m drawn to major events and the dominant males who populate the pages of our history books, but whenever I can, I like to exalt the virtues of women who had the strength to battle on. Not all of them were positive characters as I hope I depicted accurately in Sward and Sword where the great Queen Emma displayed her Machiavellian traits to the full. Now that’s controversial! Many authors and historians see her as a positive character, whereas I portray her as something close to a witch!
The historical fiction writer is faced with the nigh on impossible task of entering into a world of contemporary values and philosophy. Mostly, I deal with times of social and political transition where change creates opportunities for my characters to show who they are as they deal with conflicts both internal and external. I want their responses to seem plausible, so it’s important to establish how gender, education, social class, belief systems, occupation, and other factors have shaped my characters because otherwise, readers will judge their behaviour by contemporary values.
Historical fiction is not the most popular literary genre, perhaps owing to the mental leap needed to enter into the spirit of bygone times. Those days were far from the consumerism of modern times. Can we readily empathise with the lords and ladies who changed places with the oxen to drag a cartload of stone uphill to the cathedral of Chartres under construction in a demonstration of faith? Can we project twenty-first century susceptibilities onto the past? Of course, not! Political correctness be damned!