What Seeds the Story? Four Authors on the Impetus for their Fiction
by Jenny Barden
I find the issue of creative triggers fascinating, particularly in relation to historical fiction, when so often the impetus begins with a convergence between the remains of the past and the present lives of authors. How does one spark off the other? In what ways, often perverse and unexpected, does history continue to resonate by kick-starting the impetus to write?
Four of the ‘greats’ of historical fiction writing today were asked to pick out one specific factor that fired their imaginations and drive to tell a story. Bernard Cornwell, Lindsey Davis, Alison Weir and Robyn Young each focused on a particular detail, discovery or experience that was a pivotal influence in the writing of one of their novels. From a family’s place in England’s making, to a bleak mountain pass, to a speculation of murder, to twenty-two galvanised chimney cowls, here are candid insights into what has seeded four wonderful stories.
We write what we want to read, it’s that simple. Years ago I looked for a series of novels that would imitate C.S. Forester’s wonderful Hornblower stories, only land-based instead of naval, and never found them, and so Sharpe was born. Other books had truly capricious beginnings; I was reading a hefty volume about crime and punishment in 18th-century Britain and came across a footnote which mentioned the existence of an ‘Investigator’ whose task was to advise the Home Secretary whether or not to grant petitions of mercy to condemned criminals, and I remember thinking that this obscure official was the first detective, and so Gallows Thief was born.
I had long been interested in the Anglo-Saxons and, specifically, the tortuous process by which England was born, but had no idea how to tell that big story until, in 2002, I met my real father. He had been an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force stationed in England during the Second World War, and I discovered him in British Columbia where he showed me the family tree. ‘It goes back a long way,’ he said, and so it did, all the way to Ida the Flamebearer, who was the Saxon invader who captured the fortress which was to become Bamburgh Castle. The family held the fortress from the 6th to the 11th century, despite the Viking invasions and the establishment of Danish rulers in Northumberland, and that unlikely survival of a small English enclave in Danish land was the story I had been seeking. So the big tale of England’s making is seen through the small prism of a family’s story.
None of us would write historical novels if we did not love history. I’m sometimes asked if my job is not ‘lonely,’ but writing novels is never lonely. The characters live, you hear their voices and, for a time, share their lives. That is a wonderful experience, a privilege too, and so perhaps the biggest motivation for writing is an addiction to the enjoyment it gives; a joy, I hope, we share with our readers.
The Empty Throne will be out from HarperCollins in the UK this October, January 2015 in the US.
I am asked to be candid: A lot of hoo-ha is talked about creativity. I won’t be reverent. This is my job. If it’s fun, excellent. If I find historical novels more fun than other writing, it’s only like preferring a policy meeting over auditing a sales report. Personal choice. Probably makes you look weird at a promotion board…
My ‘drive’ comes from having bought a house which needs expensive maintenance. I am writing another Roman series because I can do that even while all my research books are in 30 boxes, waiting for shelves. I’m hankering mildly for something different, but without inherited wealth, I don’t have the luxury. I first wrote about the Romans because that sold. Now people want more, so I carry on.
History is not some ethereal fabric to be breathlessly worshipped; it’s only my material in the same way that shopping or lust would be if I wrote chick-lit. Most is background material because what counts are characters and plot.
I believe the less ‘personal’ sharing an author does in a novel, the better that novel will be. Writing as therapy is bunk. Autobiographical novels only work once or twice. Then you have to invent, so the ‘my divorce last year’ hacks come unstuck; until their next loathsome ex, they have no ideas. Well, not unless their unknown love-child turns up on the doorstep with a fatal disease and a cute parrot.
If I admit a creative trigger with Enemies at Home it was that in Roman law, when a slave-owner was murdered at home, all the household slaves would be executed. How could I play with that? What if they were innocent? Yes it’s a historical rule from an alien society, but only a foundation for constructing plot, motives, dialogue, jokes.
I’ve turned in 27 books (books people like) by just getting on with it. That doesn’t debase what I write; I have high standards. I can’t muck about. Others can quiver over their creativity, but I need to buy 22 galvanised square (special order) chimney cowls… That’s what I call a trigger.
Enemies at Home (Hodder & Stoughton UK, Minotaur US, 2014) is the latest Flavia Albia novel.
Their affair was the scandal of Europe, and in writing my new novel, The Marriage Game, which tells the captivating, tempestuous, often hilarious and ultimately poignant story of the extraordinary love affair between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, I wanted to delve deep into the intrigues and mysteries that surround it.
Did they or didn`t they? The matter has been furiously debated, and as a historian, I have my own strong views about it – but not necessarily the ones reflected in my novels! Elizabeth was famous as the Virgin Queen, but was that merely policy, or a cover for her profound psychological fears of intimacy? The other crucial issue is the fate of Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, and this novel offers a dramatised version of my own theory – a theory that rests purely on circumstantial evidence. In a history book one can only speculate so far – but in a novel a hypothesis may be creatively developed and acquire an authenticity of its own. I believe that Amy Robsart was murdered, and this novel recounts how and by whom.
It is a book packed with all the colour and pageantry of the Tudor court, a tale played out amidst the most famous events of the Elizabethan age, culminating with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Above all it is the story of Elizabeth’s affair with Dudley and the dynamics that enabled it to last for so long.
I wanted the challenge of using the wealth of source material to bring Elizabeth, that feisty, formidable, witty and mercurial woman, to life. I wanted to bring to her story all the research I have done for my nonfiction books on the Tudors. Above all, I want my readers to be able to trust me to use the facts where they exist, and credibly to exercise my creativity where they do not. I have researched Elizabeth over many decades, and was fired by the challenge of portraying her in fiction, getting inside her head and reliving this most extraordinary and controversial of royal love affairs.
The Marriage Game (Hutchinson UK, 2014, Ballantine US, February 2015) brings Alison Weir’s knowledge of Elizabeth I to vivid life.
I remember exactly when the inspiration for the Insurrection Trilogy struck. I was standing in a lay-by in the shadow of Ben Cruachan, on Scotland’s west coast. I’d come to this place to climb a mountain and research the last book in my Brethren Trilogy, in which I’d always intended to feature Robert Bruce and his fight for independence.
Cruachan – or rather the narrow pass that curves around its lower flanks – was the site of one of the king’s most audacious victories, years before the confrontation at Bannockburn. Aiming to capture the castle of one of his Scottish foes, Robert led his men through the pass, but his enemy was lying in wait and sent boulders hurtling down the hillside on top of them. It was one of many examples of Robert coming right up in the face of disaster – and giving it a head-butt.
The battle also serves as an example of just how complex this period is. It isn’t a simple case of Scotland versus England. There were as many allegiances, familial ties and feudal bonds as there were divisions between the two kingdoms, and both suffered through bitter civil wars during the course of their long conflict. Robert himself is anything but black and white. He shifts and twists his way through the war, switching sides and changing from hot-headed ambitious knight to king in exile, to the desperate man fighting for his country’s freedom, to a ruler redeemed in the eyes of his people.
It was this complexity that attracted me to his story, but as I stood on the roadside looking up at the dark mass of Cruachan with the green mirror of Loch Awe stretching behind me, imagining the boulders thundering from the heights, the screams of panicked horses, the shouts of men, I realised Robert couldn’t just play a role in another man’s narrative. He was worthy of a trilogy all of his own.
Kingdom, the final instalment in the Insurrection Trilogy, was published this June (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014), the month of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
About the contributor: JENNY BARDEN writes Elizabethan historical fiction set against the backdrop of epic adventures. Her latest book, The Lost Duchess, features the Lost Colony of Roanoke and is published by Ebury Press. Find Jenny at www.jennybarden.com or on Twitter @jennywilldoit. She is programme advisor for HNSLondon14.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 69, August 2014