New Voices: Jenny Barden, Patricia Bracewell, Kristin Gleeson & Enid Shomer

by Myfanwy Cook

Jenny Barden, Patricia Bracewell, Kristin Gleeson, and Enid Shomer provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the inspiration for their debut novels.

The Twelve Rooms of the NileIt started with a phone call,” Kristin Gleeson, author of Selkie Dreams (Knox Robinson, 2012) explained when describing what sparked her desire to write her debut novel. The call came from “a Tlingit elder from Alaska when I was working at a historical society in Philadelphia. He was trying to prove to the U.S. government that the Tlingits inhabited a section of Alaskan land that the government had declared uninhabited in 1905. In the process of helping the elder I learned more about the Tlingit view of missions and white settlements, something not contained in the archives where I worked.”

Gleeson continues: “…it was an effort to bring out their experiences that caused me to start the novel, Selkie Dreams, after I moved to Ireland. Drawing on my background as a musician and singer, I used the framework of the selkie myth (seals that take on human form) and the ancient folk song, The Silkie of Sule Skerrie, to tell the story of an Irish woman working among the Tlingit of Alaska as a mission teacher.” Gleeson’s novel, which blends historical fact with myth and legend, opens in Belfast in 1895, with a young woman haunted by her mother’s death, who embarks on an Alaskan adventure to escape an unwanted marriage.

The Silkie of Sule Skerrie is a song, Gleeson says, that she has “sung many times with the harp. [It] tells the story of a selkie man who comes ashore and spends the night with a lonely woman. She gives birth to a son, and the man appears and gives her a gold chain for the son. Years later, when the son is seven years old, the selkie comes again to claim him. Though she mourns her son and lover, she marries a hunter who, not long after their marriage, shoots two seals, one with a gold chain around its neck.”

Jenny Barden, co-ordinator of the Historical Novel Society UK Conference, 2012, and author of Mistress of the Sea (Ebury, 2012), “an epic Elizabethan adventure set at the time of Drake, pirates and privateers,” was not inspired by a telephone call, but by the painting of a Dutch artist. However, as Barden points out: “The inspiration for Mistress of the Sea has come from many sources,” and she traces its origins back to her childhood. Barden explains she had “a fascination with myth and legend: stories of valour rooted in the past. I can see my love of Bernard Cornwell’s early Sharpe novels showing through in the urge to write a rip-roaring adventure, though I read those stories long before I ever thought I would write a book myself, and then, when I did, I wanted to write a Sharpe-style adventure with a female protagonist and a romantic slant.

“Travels in South and Central America were also a key inspiration, particularly retracing the footsteps of Francis Drake in Panama, and trekking along the route of the Camino Real: the old Royal Road along which Spanish bullion from Peru was transported overland by mule train, and the focus of Drake’s successful raid on the ‘Silver Train’ as the convoys were called. This episode in history would come to form the backdrop to Mistress of the Sea and the fictional story at its heart: the quest for vengeance that is transformed into a hunt for treasure which becomes a search for love. But the genesis of my publishing debut has been a process of evolution, and in truth the book has been reshaped several times in response to feedback from readers, my agent, my editor and others involved in its gestation.

“I began writing quite late in life, after seeing a painting of the 17th-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius in the National Gallery, and my fascination with this started me delving into research which ignited a story in my mind. The result was my first bottom drawer novel, but it was enough to secure an agent, gain the interest of editors, and afflict me with the writing itch which has remained with me ever since. When I came across the little-known story of Drake’s first successful enterprise against the Spanish, I knew I had struck gold: a true David and Goliath story of bravery, endurance and triumph against near impossible odds, and one of enormous significance to England’s rise as a nation. It’s been a joy to bring that story back to life in Mistress of the Sea and an even greater joy now to see the novel published.”

Patricia Bracewell was fascinated by a fact that she discovered online, which eventually led to her writing Shadow of the Crown (Viking/Penguin, 2013): “I first stumbled across a reference to Emma of Normandy some fifteen years ago on an internet bulletin board. Someone had posted there the bare details of Emma’s life: daughter of the Duke of Normandy, wife to two kings of England and mother of two kings.

“So why, I asked myself, had I never heard of her? I had been interested in English history all my life and could claim a passing familiarity with at least the names of all (I thought) of the English queens, but Emma was not among them. What piqued my interest the most was that she had been wed to two different kings. There must, I thought, be quite a story there, and I determined to learn more about her.

“Yet for several years I ignored Emma’s siren song. Much as I wanted to write a historical novel – and I wanted to very much – I was terrified of the research that I knew would be involved. I did not see how I could add “researcher” to my roles of wife, mother, and fledgling writer. But Emma wouldn’t go away. She burrowed into my subconscious. I began to read nonfiction titles that dealt with the 11th century, and while I had always been drawn to works of historical fiction, my reading took a decidedly early-medieval turn.

“Finally, I could resist Emma no longer, and I started to research in earnest, beginning with the book that she herself had commissioned around A.D. 1040, Encomium Emmae Reginae. The Encomium made no reference to her years as Aethelred II’s queen, and I knew immediately that the story of that first marriage, when Emma was a very young bride in an unfriendly, foreign land, was the one I wanted to tell.”

Enid Shomer, a well-known American poet, was inspired to write her debut historical fiction novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon and Schuster, 2012), when she “…read an essay by William Styron about his cruise down the Nile which included outrageous quotes from Gustave Flaubert’s Nile journal. I then read Flaubert’s journal as well as his Nile letters, and was hooked. Flaubert was both a great sensitive and the bad boy of 19th century French literature. He loved language and prostitutes with equal dedication and vigor.

“I’d written about half of my first chapter when I discovered that another unhappy genius, Florence Nightingale, toured the Nile at the same moment and kept a journal. I became convinced that this was no coincidence, that she and Flaubert shared a profound connection despite their striking differences. Why were they both in a state of despair and why was Egypt the ‘cure’ for that despair?

“However, for me, choosing the subject for a novel is not a rational calculation. Instead, it feels as if the subject has chosen me. I know there must be deep psychological resonances between myself and my material, but I don’t know what they are. What drew me to Nightingale and Flaubert with such force that I was willing to read hundreds of books, travel to obscure spots, and spend six years writing and rewriting? I can’t answer that, and I honestly believe that if I could have, I wouldn’t have needed to write the book.

“Only recently I recognized one of the triggers (which seem so obvious now!) between myself and this novel: like my characters, I traveled for a year in the Middle East. I was 21, and hoped the trip would clarify my life. Other parallels will occur to me as time passes, but they are merely curiosities after the fact.  Knowing them wouldn’t have helped me write the book. When something grabs me, it’s a bit like falling in love. I can’t say why I’m in love; I just know that I am.”

Shomer’s novel, which has received rave reviews, is a clear example of how inspiration also requires passion to transform historical facts into engrossing historical fiction.

About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is fascinated by the originality of debut novelists and their ability to find hidden characters and corners of history to entertain and inform their readers. Please do email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists that could be featured in future issues. ______________________________________________

Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 63, February 2013


In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissiones for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.

We also occasionally publish original short fiction features – on a very selective basis. We do pay for our fiction. Please read more about our original short fiction here.