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Monday 19 October 2020

Writing Historical fiction... but what about the bad bits?


I've been writing as a published author for more years than I care to think about. (I was accepted by William Heinemann/Random House UK) in April 1993 - You can do the maths.) During that time, views on historical fiction have changed - back in the pre-1980s the popular writers were Catherine Cookson, Georgette Heyer, Victoria Holt etc. Good stories, but not necessarily accurate history. Then, as the 1990s began to fade, Historical Fiction took a down-turn and lost it's popularity, despite Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe and the arrival of Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman Barbara Erskine (friends of mine, I must add ([OK name dropping bragging, sorry!]) 

Barbara Erskine, Me, Elizabeth Chadwick

Fortunately, interest in the genre picked up again and is still going strong - but it did change. Accuracy and the overall feel of reality became expected, probably, I suspect, influenced by the expansion of the Internet where factual facts can be easily discovered. (Who uses a library now to look something up?)

I agree that an author of historical fiction should get the facts right...

  •  No, you couldn't smell the sea from London's Embankment in Tudor times (until relevantly recently the only smell coming from the Thames was of sewage, the Embankment did not exist before late Victorian era, and anyway the sea is more than thirty miles away from London.)
  • No, England does not have hummingbirds. (Our smallest bird is the wren fact amended! The Goldcrest is our smallest bird... my fault for not checking, but I always thought it was the Wren!)
  • No, English oak trees are not tall and spindly - that's the American version
  • No, Richard III did not drink coffee...

English Oak

But what about the other things? That unpleasant, nastier side of history?

I've had grumbles from readers complaining that the battle scenes I've written are too violent. (Well, yes, battles were not exactly nice places to be!) Sex, if it is explicit is another contentious issue, particularly when the female involved is regarded as underage. In an historical context, however, many girls (especially those of noble, important families) were betrothed before they were fourteen - often much younger. A woman was regarded as 'old' by the time she passed twenty-five. Life expectancy in the past was nowhere near as long as it is now. Violence, torture, cruelty (hanging-drawing and quartering, bear-baiting, cock-fighting...) was accepted in historical times. Newgate, Bedlam, the Bastille - places where mercy and caring were never entertained. A child could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread. Women were regarded as part of the furniture - how much do we, as writers, include these 'nastier' things in our novels?

The Roman Empire - slaves in chains

And then there is slavery. I know one author who said she would not read any novel that involved slaves. Another said she would never write anything about slavery. Other novels gloss over the truth, or romanticise it, or elaborate, or dumb down. And now we also have the toppling of statues and the debate about how should this era of the past be portrayed in real life, let alone that of fiction.

Dare I, in a future adventure of my Sea Witch Voyages (set during the early 1700s) write anything about the Slave Trade? My lead character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne was (well, still is, quietly on the side) a pirate. The Atlantic was full of ships transporting black Africans to a life of misery. These poor people were a valuable trade commodity. To be accurate of the period, Capt Acorne should be happy to transport slaves in dreadful condition aboard his ship in order to make a fat profit for himself. As it happens, however, he will not ever do so. My guy values freedom, for himself and others, regardless of the colour of their skin or country of origin. 

But taking a 21st century moralistic view of the past is, I feel, as bad as denying the truth of the awful things that happened. We must talk open and honestly about the cruelties of the Roman Amphitheatre where the spilling of blood and slaughter - of humans and animals - was undertaken purely as entertainment. We must never forget the Holocaust, or the deliberate massacres of those of a different belief to the Christian Church. I'm not a fan of glorifying the Crusades - I think it's time to stop promoting those knights who went off to fight the Infidel as heroes. (And yes, I include Richard the Lionheart here. I detest the man). Murder and massacre is murder and massacre, even if it is done in the name of Christ. Or any god, come to that!

My point, I suppose, is that an historical novel is a work of fiction, but the author has a duty of care to write, where possible, the facts, when they are known, as accurately as possible. And we should not flinch from portraying the facts, even when they do not sit comfortable in our hearts and minds.


Wednesday 14 October 2020

Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick - In Conversation..

To complete our joint tour, Annie Whitehead and I thought we could have a converdsation about our various Anglo-Saxon characters - but then we had another idea... why not hand over to two of them instead:

In Conversation
Queen Emma of Normandy 
Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians

frontispiece of the 'Encomium'

Queen Emma of Normandy
(Referred to as Ælfgifu in royal documents; c. 984 – 6 March 1052) was queen of England, Denmark and Norway through her marriages to Æthelred the Unready (1002–1016) and Cnut the Great (1017–1035). She was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy and Gunnor. After her husbands' deaths Emma remained in the public eye, and continued to participate actively in politics during the reigns of her sons by each husband, Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut. She is the central figure within her contemporary biography  Encomium Emmae Reginae, a critical source for the history of early 11th-century English politics. Emma is one of the most visually represented early medieval queens. (From Wikipedia) 

Emma is the central character in Helen Hollick’s novel A Hollow Crown (title of the UK edition) / The Forever Queen (title of the US edition), and a character in Harold the King (UK edition title) / I am the Chosen King (US edition title) the story of the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

Æthelflæd's Statue at Tamworth
Æthelflæd, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, 
(c. 870 – 12 June 918) ruled Mercia in the English Midlands from 911 until her death. She was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his wife Ealhswith. Æthelflæd was born around 870 at the height of the Viking invasions of England. By 878, most of England was under Danish Viking rule. She was married to Æthelred of Mercia, who played a major role in fighting off renewed Viking attacks in the 890s, together with Æthelflæd's brother, the future King Edward the Elder. When Æthelred's health declined Æthelflæd was responsible for the government of Mercia. Æthelred died in 911 and Æthelflæd then ruled as Lady of the Mercians. She was a great ruler who played an important part in the conquest of the Danelaw. She was praised by Anglo-Norman chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury, who described her as "a powerful accession to [Edward's] party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of enlarged soul". (From Wikipedia)

Æthelflæd is the central character in Annie Whitehead’s novel To Be A Queen.
* * *
Two Queens: Sometime... somewhere entirely fictional...

Queen Emma (QE): [inspecting a wine flagon on a side table] I see that useless maid has not refilled the wine, yet again. I suspect she spends too much of her time lifting her skirts for Æthelred, that no-good, useless husband of mine. Hoping he can amuse her. [mutters] She’ll be lucky.

Æthelflæd (Æ): [looking up from a manuscript that she is reading, her father’s translation of the Cura Pastoralis] How odd that we should both have a husband with the same name, yet we existed so many years apart?

QE: [snorts] From what I’ve heard, your Æthelred was a competent man. In all respects. Unlike mine who deserved the addition of ‘Unready’ to his damned name. [She laughs] Most people think he got it because of his incompetence with fighting the Vikings. I was calling him that long before then – for his equally as incompetent lack of performance in bed.

Æ: [smiles to herself but makes no comment]

QE: I suppose your husband succeeded there as well? [she snorts again, then smiles] Well, my second husband made up for all that. Cnut was, how shall I say? Most satisfactory.

Æ: It is strange for me to hear of a Viking so lovingly spoken of. We did naught but curse them in our households, my father’s and my own in Mercia. They were the enemy.

QE: [changing the subject slightly] You only had the one daughter did you not? 

Æ: [quietly] Only one that lived, aye.

QE: [sighs] My daughters were taken from me before they met womanhood. Married off as ‘essential alliances’. Alliances? Huh! The only use for a daughter, as men see it. I ended up with Æthelred because of a damned alliance.

Æ: I suppose I could use those very words, for I too was married to my Æthelred to strengthen the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. But you chose to make alliance with Cnut of Denmark after he had conquered England, did you not? 

QE: I did. But that was in order to retain my crown. I did not know, then, that I would end up loving him.

Æ: Again, I could say the same. I did not think I would come to love my husband. I was truly lucky there, for love can be a fickle, fleeting, thing.

QE: [Scornfully] When it comes to your children it certainly is! One of my sons, Alfred, stupidly got himself murdered. Another, Harthacnut, refused to listen to the physicians and died, while the other, Edward, was even more useless than his imbecile father.

Æ: My daughter was a long-awaited, much prayed-for gift from God. I thought I had failed my husband by not providing a son, but he loved her. Sadly, our fate was ever to be on the march, and perhaps we neglected her. In the end, our love was not returned. I do not blame her. Had I known what my brother did to her, though, I would have fought him, even though we had ridden and marched together in common cause until that point.

QE: [inspects what Æthelflæd is reading, raises her eyebrows, then sits down in a chair] Brothers? Oh, don’t get me started on brothers! It was my brother who arranged that dreadful marriage with Æthelred.

Æ: My brother Edward learned duty from an early age. We both did; watching our father fighting the Vikings made us aware of what needed to be done. We were close, even as children. I think that’s why he was able to work with me and let me rule Mercia. To be honest though, even had he tried to take over, the Mercians would not have let him. By then, I had gained their trust, but it came almost too late. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself and should have learned much earlier to adapt.

QE: [sighs] Oh, if only I could have my life again...

Æ: [Interrupting] If you could, how would you change it?

QE: I would ensure that I had the power to remain in control. You had the advantage there, didn’t you? 

Æ: You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I had a stark choice: let Edward take over or become ruler myself. I had been taught well, by my dear husband. It was somehow easier with him advising me.

QE: I admire you, Æthelflæd, when your husband died you took command. Look at all that you achieved!

Æ: [modestly] Oh, well, thank you for that. I had a group of the most loyal men you could wish for; they fought for me and sadly many died for me. My success was laced with loss and heartache. [her voice becomes shaky and she takes a moment to steady her breathing] But you achieved much. You ruled as regent when Cnut left England to journey to Denmark and Norway, and to go on pilgrimage to Rome. You fought to ensure that Harthacnut became King of England after Cnut died...

QE: Fought? Not in the way you fought, my dear! All I had were words, words to write down, words to cajole and convince. Words that meant nothing, because my dearest son only became king when the one who usurped his crown, that weasel, Harald Harefoot, so conveniently died. [She mimics a sad face]. 

Æ: I’ve often wondered. Did you have anything to do with his sudden death?

QE: [going to a side table and ignoring the question. She lifts a silver platter, offers its content to Æthelflæd.] Do have one of these honey cakes. They are delicious.

Æ: [watches her, recalling how she used to observe other people moving around to cause a distraction.] Thank you, I will. [waits patiently for Emma to answer.]

QE: If I must confess to anything, I will confess that I regret not strangling Edward at birth. There was many a time I wished I had. Especially when he stripped me of authority, threatened me with exile and took away the treasury from my care. The little runt.

Æ: [smiling] Perhaps, if we spoke to them nicely, we could persuade Annie and Helen, our scribes, to write something where our history of these things changes for the better?

QE: [also smiling] Now there’s a thought! What a superb idea!

* * *
Note from Annie and Helen ... an idea indeed. You never know, we might... One day.

We hope you have enjoyed the joint tour that we have journeyed through these past few days.

 If you missed any of our articles, the full list is below

Thank you for supporting us. If you have enjoyed any of our novels, please do consider leaving a comment on Amazon and Goodreads.

© Helen Hollick / Annie Whitehead

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Helen’s Links:
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Twitter: @HelenHollick

"Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past. Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands..."  ... but there is now!

available in paperback from 15th October

Follow the tour - a joint venture with 
Annie Whitehead  and Helen Hollick

 1st October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Helen Hollick
Lady Godiva – Who Was She, and Did She Really?

2nd October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Nicola Cornick
Why Do We Do It?

3rd October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Lisl Zlitni
Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?

4th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Tony Riches
Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?

5th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Pam Lecky
Murder in Saxon England

6th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Derek Birks
King Arthur? From Roman Britain To Saxon England

7th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson
Æthelflæd's Daughter 

8th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Cryssa Bazos
An Anthology Of Authors

9th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Elizabeth St John 
Anglo-Saxon Family Connections

10th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Judith Arnopp
Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.

11th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Brook Allen
Roman Remains - Did the Saxons Use Them?

12th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Amy Maroney
Emma Of Normandy, Queen Of Anglo-Saxon England – Twice

13th October : Annie Whitehead - hosted by Simon Turney
Penda: Fictional and Historical 'Hero' 

14th October : Helen Hollick - hosted by Annie Whitehead
The Battle Begins...

15th October : A joint post

 hosted by both of us 

Thank you for following our tour
We hope you enjoyed 'Stepping Back Into Saxon England' 
with us!