Snakes and Ladders

Themes in fiction can be subtle or more evident, sometimes, I find, they creep in while the book is a work-in-progress. This happened with the ‘snakes and ladders’ motif in the third story in The Chosen Man Trilogy. I came across the origins of the game while researching the background to By Force of Circumstance and it fitted what was happening to the wily, unreliable Ludo da Portovenere so perfectly I knew I had to include it in the narrative.

There are various theories and dates for how the game ‘snakes and ladders’ came about, but its origins are ancient and almost certainly ancient Asian. Originally called Mokshapat it was played with cowrie shells and dices. The ladders represented virtues, the snakes indicated vices, and the game demonstrated how good deeds take people to heaven and evil to the cycle of re-birth. An early version was devised or described by the 13th century poet Gyandev, but apart from its original intrinsic meaning, which has been lost, the game has undergone few modifications. The underlying meaning remained the same until it reached the west, where the more philosophical and didactic meaning was condensed to the chance and risk element of landing on a snake and slithering down to start all over again.

Snakes and ladders was played in India as one of many board and dice games, including pachisi (modern day Ludo), where it was known as moksha patam or vaikunthapaali or paramapada sopaanam, meaning the ‘ladder to salvation’ and emphasizing the role of fate or karma. A Jain version, Gyanbazi, has been dated back to the 16th century: a version called Leela reflects the Hindu concept of ‘consciousness’ in everyday life.

I came upon all this as I was reading and researching the historical background for my second story in The Chosen Man trilogy, which opens in 17th century Portuguese Goa. The original, ancient game fitted so perfectly with the story it became one of the main themes – the wily, unreliable Ludo is trying to make his fortune as a merchant, but he is also trying to find a meaning and focus for his life in general – so I knew I had to include it.

In the scene that follows, Ludo is on a trading voyage from Goa to Plymouth, his ship has anchored off an Omani beach and he has gone ashore to purchase pearls. Ludo sees two exquisite Arabian mares with their foals and finds his way to the local sheik intending to purchase them. Instead of the horse trading he’s expecting, however, he gets a lesson in destiny and desire.

*

1*

The sheik was seated on cushions in a high-ceilinged room. There were no intricate tiles such as those of the Arab homes Ludo knew in North Africa, only brightly coloured wall-hangings and mats, and on a low oblong table a large patchwork cloth.

Ludo was led up to the sheik, who peered at him through unsmiling eyes then said, “You wish to take my joy from me and transport it across the world.”

“That is so, Excellency,” Ludo replied, wondering how he had divined where he wanted to take the mares having not thought it through himself.

The sheik stared at him until Ludo was forced to look away. Across the unfurnished room an eagle owl blinked, surprised perhaps to see a stranger. A small hawk chained to another perch shook its jesses. The owl had the same amber eyes as its master. Ludo shifted from one foot to the other, not unlike the smaller bird then, aware of what he had done and how it might be interpreted, stood straight, folding his arms across his chest.

The sheik, an elderly man similar in appearance to the pearl trader in a flowing white robe and square-set head cloth, tapped his beak-like nose. It was flattened at the tip. As Ludo’s vision became more accustomed to the low indoor light, he tried to decide if the flattening were natural or the result of an accident or fight, then chastised himself for becoming distracted and wondered how the sheik might be reading his features: the newly-grown beard that still itched, his Indian cotton pyjamas, his swollen, reddened hands from helping on deck after a long period of living in comfort.

Breaking the tension, the sheik snapped his fingers and a servant brought in a tray of sherbet and sugary date and almond morsels. He then indicated a cushion and invited Ludo to sit at the low table covered in a cloth with yellow and gold, white and red squares. Appliquéd onto the squares were fat, winding snakes and unstable ladders that tilted up and across the cloth. Words and phrases had been embroidered into certain squares in black but Ludo couldn’t read them.

“It was brought to my father’s father or perhaps his father’s father, many years ago from India,” the sheik said. “It is called moksha patam.” He placed two ebony white-spotted dice on the middle of the cloth.

“Ah, it is a game, like parchis.”

“Yes and no. Parchis requires a certain skill; moksha patam depends to a greater degree on the fall of the dice – and an individual’s luck.”

“A game of chance.”

“More than mere chance, my friend: truly it is a study in karma and kama; destiny and desire. We shall play together.”

“For the horses? If I win, I may take them?”

“No.”

“Then forgive my bad manners, Excellency, but I have no time for games.”

The sheik handed Ludo the dice. “As a guest you may throw first.”

Ludo delayed his response, taking a sip of sherbet to hide his annoyance; he was not in the mood for mystical games of chance, time wasted here could put his ship in jeopardy. If Tulip’s pursuers found their hiding place and he was not aboard . . . Ludo closed his eyes, not wanting to complete the thought, and rattled the dice in his accommodating palm out of sheer habit.

The sheik pointed to a ladder. “The ladders take you up to the end of the cloth and finally, if you win, bring you to ‘salvation’. The snakes take you down through your earthly vices. Look,” he pointed at the words stitched into the cloth, “your first chance to rise is through ‘faith’, then ‘reliability’, ‘generosity’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘asceticism’. But you can be brought back down again by ‘disobedience’, ‘vanity’, ‘vulgarity’, ‘drunkenness’ and ‘debt’. The longest and therefore the worst of these snakes are these which bring you back or near to the beginning, meaning you must start your climb all over again: watch out for ‘rage’ and ‘greed’, ‘pride’, ‘murder’ and ‘lust’. This one fat serpent here crossing the entire cloth is ‘lying’ – telling that which is not true.”

“There are fewer ladders than snakes,” Ludo said.

“Such is life.”

Ludo jiggled the dice. “And there is no one ladder that can take you straight to the top; but this snake up here can take me right back to the beginning.”

“No one single virtue is sufficient for salvation. What good is generosity if you are unreliable and guilty of greed and self-love?”

Trapped, Ludo tried to relax and indicated he was ready to begin. It was after all, only a game, although as the sheik had pointed out, not exactly a game for once he had begun he couldn’t help but wish for more virtues and lament his vices. In parchis, with a bit of cunning and friendly dice you could win within an hour. Not so here.

Ludo lost, devoured by the serpent of ‘disobedience’ twice, then ‘greed’ when he was close to finishing. He wanted to blame the sheik, who had maintained his scrutiny of his guest throughout, unnerving Ludo each time he threw.

Glad that it was over, Ludo tried to pull on his old mask of bonhomie and said cheerily, “Is there a prize for you, Excellency?”

“Is salvation not a prize?”

“I doubt I will ever find out, Excellency. Where I come from there’s no point even trying. And as I am no Hindustani I do not have to worry about the Wheel of Re-incarnation.” Across the room, the eagle owl glowered.

“Neither am I of Hind my friend, but I do believe a better life is attainable while we are on God’s earth. Only a complete fool dismisses the possibility of returning – being condemned on the Wheel.” The sheik drank from his cup of sherbet and ate a sweetmeat, taking his time.

Ludo forced himself not to squirm, pondering whether the actions related to ‘whim’ should be classified as a vice. Then his blood ran cold: on a whim he had walked into a trap. He had made himself a prisoner while the sheik’s men were unloading his ship. Rapidly he cast about for a guard but saw only the owl and the hawk; wisdom and aggression.

“You are nervous my friend. You fear I shall not let you go. You fear we shall take your cargo. It is within our power, but I would have hoped this past hour had shown you we are aware of the penalty of greed. Not that we have no need of your cargo. Spices from India, silks and tea from Cathay? You have tasted our sweetmeats: cinnamon from Ceylon would be most welcome here. Perhaps on your next voyage you will allow me to purchase from you?”

“Gladly, Excellency.” Ludo endeavoured to keep relief from his voice.

*

The game Ludo is playing here (and his name, shortened from Ludovico, is no accident) is far more complex than our children’s ‘Ludo’ or parchis, but the combination of skill and luck remain the same. The original game was a tool or means for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. As in this scene, the ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices of lust, anger, murder, and theft. The moral to be learned was that a person can attain salvation (moksha) through doing good: doing evil one will lead to re-birth. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that the path to salvation is full of obstacles and should be trod with caution. There were fewer ladders than snakes; as the sheik here says, such is life. In the game he and Ludo are playing, the squares of virtue are faith (12), reliability (51), generosity (57), knowledge (76), and asceticism (78). The squares of vice or evil are disobedience (41), vanity (44), vulgarity (49), theft (52), lying (58), drunkenness (62), debt (69), rage (84), greed (92), pride (95), murder (73), and lust (99); number 100 was salvation.

Ludo leaves the sheik a somewhat confused man without the mares he wished to buy. In the rest of the story we see him climb numerous ladders both physical and metaphorical, only to slip back down the fat snakes of ‘disobedience’, ‘greed’ and even ‘theft’ until chance, skill and luck redeem him and take him where he had not planned to be: a place offering the peace and contentment he didn’t know he was seeking.

*(1)The image above and some information on the of snakes and ladders comes from: http://iseeindia.com/2011/09/11/the-origin-of-snakes-and-ladders (accessed 23rd April, 2018 @ 11:21)

The Chosen Man and A Turning Wind are available from book stores and on-line retailers. The Amazon UK link for books by J.G. Harlond is: https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=+j.g.+harlond&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3A+j.g.+harlond&ajr=0

This post was originally written for Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles Blog: https://dawlishchronicles.com

A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett

‘The historical novelists’ historical novelist’ . . .

A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett (1923–2001)

There are two sets of Dorothy Dunnett’s two historical novel series on my bookshelves, plus two copies of King Hereafter: a few are hardbacks the rest are now dry, cracked-spine paperbacks, whose pages are so yellow and print so small that I struggle to read them – but I still do. I’ve bought a few replacements over the past forty years, but somehow can’t bring myself to throw or even give away the originals. The other curious thing about these old books is something very modern. Without strapping any box to my head or standing in any man-made cubicle wearing black goggles they produce a form of virtual reality. Just by looking at a title I can see scenes. Stills and moving images hang in the air: a joyous youth riding an ostrich, the same man now older rides a silken-hide camel; a little boy with sturdy legs runs through apricots drying on a rooftop; a vast eagle swoops across a snowy waste onto an arm; a mad, brave youth runs across moving oars and marries a woman with ‘spawn-like’ eyes . . .

If you recognise any of these scenes you probably qualify as a Dorothy Dunnett fan, and are very likely a ‘historical fiction junkie’. That’s what I was told Dunnett fans were a few years ago. There are currently three Facebook groups for Dunnett fans that I know of. I dip in now and again and am always rewarded by some insight into a bit of history or details on one of the many locations. The news on one today is from a student in Australia who is writing her MA dissertation on Dunnett.

Dame Hilary Mantel’s recent Reith Lectures on creating fiction out of past events makes this tribute particularly timely for Dunnett did not have access to the Internet to check details as we do. She conjured the past from hours of very serious reading then wove fact through her fiction, writing long into the night. By her own admission her investigations were time consuming. Speaking with Isolde Martyn in March 2,000, Dunnett said,

My notes for my early novels are in ledgers. My studio is lined with bookcases. I buy a huge number of reference books and I subscribe to about twenty periodicals so I can keep myself informed about what is available.

If Dunnett’s background reading into real events, people and facts was rigorous, her readers are also expected to keep up. Writing in the New York Times in December, 2000, Anne Malcolm said: ‘(Her) novels are unusual in their erudition; Dunnett’s characters are apt to address one another in quotations from Renaissance verse (in several languages, generally untranslated), and the ground is thick with classical allusions. Using a vocabulary that sometimes outstrips the resources of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the books lavishly evoke the intellectual furnishings of the 16th century.’

In this regard Dunnett ignored the rules would-be authors are advised to follow nowadays because they also have hundreds of characters, both fictional and those ‘mentioned in history’. And the books are difficult. Readers have to think. We witness what Lymond, Thorfinn and Niccolò are up to from multiple and often conflicting viewpoints. There are no revealing internal monologues from these flawed heroes to help predict what is to come or confirm what has just happened. Plots are intricate, onion-skinned intrigues – one layer reveals another then another then another. As Alaya Johnson said in 2014, ‘If a writer wants to depict political intrigue and misdirection, Lymond is the template of hidden agendas and the benchmark of single-minded ruthlessness’.

There are a few so-called rules for modern writing Dunnett does observe, however: the opening ‘hook’; the flawed hero, and ‘show, don’t tell’. The Ringed Castle opens with: ‘Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.’ Try putting that one back on the library shelf! Regarding her charismatic, flawed hero Lymond, Dunnett is quoted as saying:

Ian Fleming was a friend of ours and he told me he was going to write a novel about ‘a spy to end all spies’ and he went ahead and created James Bond, and I decided, ‘Right, then, if he can do it, so can I! I am going to create the hero to end all heroes.’

Before becoming an author, Dunnett was a successful portrait artist, which may explain how and why she shows us personalities through significant details or scenes. Take this as an example:

‘Each in its nest of gauze and gilt thread, of tissue and taffeta, swathed in silver and satin, in velvet and white fur sugared with diamonds, each face painted, each brow plucked, hair hidden by sparkling hair of raw silk, the well-born of France sat in waxlight and flowers like half a hundred candied sweets in a basket. Last at the last table, soggy gristle next the sugar plums, sat Thady Boy Ballagh.’

‘Soggy gristle’ Thady Boy Ballagh is Lymond in disguise, but we also see aspects of minor and secondary characters’ personalities and private histories via significant scenes. In the first novel in the Niccolò stories, Katalina van Borselen, a key figure in Niccolò’s life, is shown to be afraid of night-flying insects. In the third story Race of Scorpions set on Cyprus, her cold demeanour is completely undermined when dusk falls and moths gather around a lantern. We are reminded of what happened in Bruges in Book One and what has happened to her since with a few artful brush strokes.

In the same story we learn of the wantonly cruel nature of a Mameluke commander not through his violence towards other men but from what happens to a hundred innocent, many-hued monastery cats. I’m not a cat person but the image of those cats when they are first presented in their warm and subtle, multi-coloured hues stayed with me for years, so much so that when I was in an Italian mountain-top village a long time later and they re-appeared weaving patterns around me I had to go home and write about them.

As a reader I continue to be enthralled by these stories, but as an author I am permanently in awe. Dorothy Dunnett set the bar very high.

© J.G Harlond

This post first appeared as a Discovering Diamonds (@DDRevs) Mid-month Special. See: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/search?q=A+tribute+to+Dorothy+Dunnett

Writing secondary characters

Riddle: How does an author use historical fact to create and describe secondary or minor characters in historical fictional?

 Secondary characters are often used to develop the main character(s) and/or move the plot. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person these characters are frequently fictional constructs, and, like minor characters, in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable; meaning they should develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to.

An example of this is the character Marcos Alonso Almendro in The Chosen Man (Penmore Press, 2015).

Here’s a scene from the novel where the main character, wicked, wily Genovese merchant Ludo da Portovenere is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in Holland during the 1630s. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee.

Amsterdam, early June 1635

‘Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.

“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”

Marcos gulped, the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness: an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.

Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.

“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.

“So people can’t see each other I expect.”

Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”

“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”

“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like …” He was interrupted by the serving girl.

Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?

“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”

“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.

“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”

“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”

“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.

Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.’

***

Without knowing it at the time, this scene follows author Helen Hollick’s tips for writing historical fiction. I tried to put myself into the setting to create the atmosphere and imagined what it must have been like in a Dutch tavern in 1635. I needed the secondary character, Marcos, to start acting on his own, and I needed to show the protagonist, Ludo, was not to be trusted. Fact in historical fiction is vital: accuracy in setting and detail is essential. But when it comes to the plot and fictional characters take Hollick’s advice, “Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story”.

Avoiding ‘gadzooks vocabulary’ is both easy and difficult: employing diction that is appropriate to the time and setting, while also being in the modern lexicon sometimes means looking up words to find out when they were first used, and making some surprising and disappointing discoveries. In this scene I use the word ‘waitress’. It sounds like a relatively modern term for the setting, but I wasn’t happy about using ‘serving girl’ all the time, it was awkward; and the idea of ‘serving wench’ carries vulgar implications that distracted from what was happening. The term ‘waitress’ slipped in and felt appropriate because it reduces the girl to her function, making her less relevant to the incident and maintaining the focus on what Marcos is doing, and is about to do.

When I did finally check ‘waitress’, I was delighted to find the term waiter goes back to the 14th century and was used for males waiting at tables in taverns in the 17th. Unfortunately, the term waitress wasn’t in common use until the early 19th century – but it might have been . . .

(This was originally written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog.)

Historical Novel Society Review of The Chosen Man November, 2015

Be prepared to be immersed in this book. The research into the tulip trade in 1636 (the story is based on a true event) and the manor house life of 17th-century England add depth to the storyline.  A well-written period novel that I highly recommend. Jeff Westerhoff for the HNS.
See the review.

Click on this link for Amazon preview

J.G. Harlond

See: www.jgharlond.com

 

“You write what you read . . .”

I recently heard a comment that an author writes what he or she reads. This is possibly true, but herein lies something of a dilemma for modern fiction authors, because these days, to be successful – it is said – one is supposed to choose a genre and stick to it. To become a ‘popular author’ one is advised to write a whole series in a specific genre.

But if we write what we read, how many of us only read one genre? And even if we do, within any category there are all sorts of sub-genres. Up to now my books can all be classified as historical fiction, but they include various types of crime, international espionage, Vatican intrigue and financial skulduggery, swash-buckling pirate scenes and stately royal scandals, and recently, a World War II murder mystery based on the highly secret British Resistance movement set in a Cornish village. And now, to add to this motley list I have to add ‘fantasy’ because it is based on part of the ancient Norse Volsung Saga and includes a shape-shifting, evil-minded dragon. So as you can see, my own reading and research has ranged pretty far and wide. I only wish it had dawned on me to put it all in a series and call it something like a Game of Thrones.

Setting aside the genre dilemma, I will confess to trying to write some of what I have read. This might explain how and why, after ten years as a full-time fiction author, I came to finish (I’d been writing it on and off for years) The Doomsong Sword, which began life as part of a school series on traditional tales – a project that was cancelled during the financial crisis.

I loved, and still enjoy high fantasy with dragons and arch-mages and shape-shifters. As a child, I gobbled up all manner of classic tales and folklore from Narcissus and Theseus to The Little Fool Ivan and the Knights of the Round Table. Later, as a student I dabbled in the academic side of traditional tales and read the Russian folklore analyst, Vladimir Propp. I devoured Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, and then enjoyed it all over again reading it to my own children. Throughout the years of this type of reading, I suppose I have been most influenced by the blurred text where history meets magic: T.E. White’s Once and Future King, Tolkein’s use of Norse tales, and Beowulf, especially Heaney’s translation.

I can’t say all this consciously inspired me to re-write The Doomsong Sword as a novel, but I was motivated in part by the desire to create a meaningful story out of an old tale for a new generation – my newborn grandson in particular. Davor, the reluctant hero in the story, is an ordinary boy in an extra-ordinary situation: he is lazy and dreams up wild stories to get out of doing his chores. But then he begins to live one, and it is a story more fantastical than he has ever concocted. He not only has to survive alone in the cold Dark Age North with only a wolf-cub for company, but confront all manner of dreadful and frankly outrageous situations, such as finding himself in the home of a three-headed troll and evading the vicious Dwarf, Andvari, under a waterfall. The sword in the title is named ‘Anger, Doomsong and Truth-teller’ in the saga and I had huge fun writing this into my story, although the manuscript went through many, many drafts before it felt right. Weaving bits of Norse mythology into the basic Sigurd, the Dragonslayer legend to create something new – a coming-of-age story that has meaning for a 21st century reader – was not easy. Nevertheless, as soon as I’ve finished the third book in my wily Ludo da Portovenere (17th century) trilogy I’ll be back in the old, cold North to write the ‘Doomsong’ sequel.

This brings me back to being accepted as an author writing in different genres. ‘Genre’ is a convenient concept for online retailers and librarians, but many fiction authors bring elements from a whole range of genres into their new works. The joy of creative writing surely stems from the joy of having been taken into other worlds by other authors; living in past epochs, walking in another person’s shoes in numerous, different types of book. Yes – we probably do write what we read. This is also why children need to read all manner of stories – and daydream. They need to imagine other lives, experience, albeit vicariously, other people’s cultures and world views so that they are better prepared for some of the odd, difficult and perhaps even dangerous things that may befall them in the future. All-powerful dragons and three-headed trolls come in many guises, especially nowadays.

This post first appeared on Tony Riches’ blog on 25th April, 2017, The Writing Desk: http://tonyriches.blogspot.com.es

*Image of Odin and the sword named Gram (Anger), Doomsong and Truth-teller from the Volsung Saga is the woodcut ‘Sigmund’s Swert’ by Johannes Gehrts, 1889.

A Place in History

There is a cave in Iceland that I will always remember. It is a place I have never been, but Karen Maitland took me there in Falcons of Fire and Ice and I have never been able to forget it. There is a valley full of butterflies and venomous little snakes on the Isle of Rhodes, and a besieged castle on the Isle of Crete, Dorothy Dunnett took me to both – and Constantinople and medieval Bruges. She took me over rooftops in sixteenth century Blois as well. I can think of many memorable places that I have never visited but somehow cannot forget.

What strange and wonderful power is this that enables an author to create a place so completely in words that a reader will see it in her mind’s eye for years to come? It is an aspect of good story writing often overlooked. Historical fiction reviews, articles and conference panels say much about characters and what they did – the wilder and sadder royals, infamous rogues and feisty heroines – far less is ever said about where their stories unfold. Yet these locations have often inspired the telling in the first place.

This is how Karen Maitland found the cave I remember so clearly and why she had to write about it:
“I was in Iceland. A guide took me to a hillside in the snow and vanished. He had dropped down into narrow slit in the ground, invisible unless you were standing next to it. I followed him down the shaft, scrambling over rocks which formed a natural ladder. At the bottom was a broad stone ledge around a thermal pool. Viking women used come down to give birth in the warm water and the old people were brought into the cave in the bitter winter snows to live on the rock ledges, which were always warm. During the persecutions of the Reformation, local Icelanders hid in the cave and worshipped in the old ways, knowing it would mean a terrible death if they were caught. About twenty years before I went down, the water temperature in the pool suddenly shot up to over 200 degrees centigrade. The water was gradually cooling, though still too hot to touch, and the cave was full of white steam rising from the water. As I stood there, I could almost see and hear the ghosts of all those people who had hidden in the cave over the centuries. It was as if they were circling around me in the silent white mist, whispering their stories.

P.D. James said her crime novels always began with a location. The air, the atmosphere, what she could see and hear and smell not only set the tone for the story, they became the story. Her characters and plots came later. The manner in which historical fiction authors conjure the streets along which their characters walk or ride, the countryside they traverse, the shape and sound of Regency tea rooms, the dampness of dungeons, the musky sweat of unwashed uniforms in wartime dance halls . . . adds significantly to the quality of a book. This description, however, has to be handled carefully, pared down so it does not intrude. A good writer employs the five senses in their descriptions, but with the lightest of touch: a mere whiff of cinnamon in a Goan spice warehouse; the flicker of sunlight on leaves before a forest glade ambush . . . Just enough for the reader to imagine a scene. For this, the author may have done weeks, months of research; travelled hundreds, even thousands of miles. All for a few apt words on a page.

Knowing a place well obviously helps a writer re-create it in words, but in historical fiction this is not enough because the author has to also imagine what that place was like many years ago. Writing about a place in the past – a castle, a workhouse, a landscape – requires significant research because places change; towns grow and absorb villages; villages disappear under volcanoes; forests are felled to provide grazing for sheep; railways are built where canals boats once plied their trade. Entire landscapes change.

Let’s examine these two aspects of setting and location in historical novels a little further. Firstly, when a particular place inspires an author to write about a certain epoch or event, then how and why most authors visit and explore the locations in which their characters lived. To do this I asked authors to comment on their experiences and research, and what or where has moved them to create a novel.

Hilary Green’s Never Say Goodbye grew out of seeing roadside plaques to members of the Resistance in the French Comte region then standing in front of a memorial in the castle of Besançon, where many had been executed.

Ruth Downie was impelled to write after a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. What inspired her, though, was what was not there: tombstones for the women who lived with and worked for the occupying Romans.

I was once in the National Trust property Cotehele in Cornwall, preparing to write a sequel to a twentieth century novel when an entirely new story set in the seventeenth century emerged unbidden from the rooms and the portraits on the wall – the view from the roof gave me the absurd fight scene at the end of The Chosen Man before I had even begun.

Monuments and the effect they have on writers can lie dormant for years – until one day that place is just right for a certain story. As a teenager, Joanna Hickson visited Orford Castle, years later that visit became a children’s story, Rebellion at Orford Castle. As an adult, a visit to the Chateau Vincennes outside Paris, where Henry V died, and where ‘the solemn tragedy of (that) event seemed to have seeped into the walls’, reduced her to tears. It was, she says, ‘a story that had to be told’.

This in itself is a little explored aspect of how authors see and present places in their fiction. The story that develops out of a visit somewhere can be heavily influenced by the mood that place generates. And perhaps the mood the author is in at the time. Elizabeth Freemantle tells of her visit to the Elizabethan house Hardwicke Hall in Derbyshire, which inspired The Girl in the Glass Tower: ‘The place is perched on a hill surveying the surrounding countryside and in my mind it became a glorious prison (for the tragic royal girl, Arbella Stuart)’. Had she visited on another day would the way the daylight lit the walls or her inner feelings have resulted in a quite different novel?

Personal experiences and private histories also influence how writers see places. Living far from home across the world in a remote region of New Zealand, Martine Bailey’s sense of being alien meant she was able to empathise with European women who had been there long ago, some of whom who had been captured by the Maori. The experience led to her writing The Penny Heart. Tom Williams’ first book The White Rajah came out of a visit to Sarawak in Borneo, where he came across the story of James Brooke. To tell the story in greater depth, he travelled up-river to stay with the Dyaks. When it came to writing about the area his own sense of adventure, facing potential dangers and difficulties, can only have informed his writing.

This leads back to how and why authors research locations for their novels. Characters in novels need to act and interact in appropriate and credible settings. Authors also need to check storylines are feasible. This research can lead to surprising and awkward discoveries. While writing Threads of Treason, Mary Bale used ‘a fabulous map of the coastline of Kent as it was during the period of (her) book’ only to find the coastline had changed so much that Lympne, which is now well inland was once by the sea.

Michelle Birkby, writing about The Women of Baker Street, and Sally Zigmond, writing about Harrogate in Hope against Hope, both say that when their characters walk down a street they have to know what they’ll pass on the way, what they’ll smell and hear. As mentioned earlier, in order for a reader to see what is happening in their mind’s eye some writers go to extra-ordinary lengths – and distances – following in their protagonists’ footsteps, even travelling to wild, unpopulated places.

Janet Kellough’s books about the saddlebag preacher Thaddeus Lewis set in nineteenth century Upper Canada (now Ontario) involved exploring the regions he covered, the northern shores of the Great Lakes, even the backcountry.

Closer to a British home, Anna Mazzola has recently travelled up to Skye to find the ‘treeless, bleak, beautiful and sometimes frightening’ spot where her upcoming novel involving dark folkloric beliefs unfolds. Jason Hewitt describes how during his research for Devastation Road he took the same journey as his protagonist, sketching out ideas for scenes as he went ‘a bit like an artist making rough sketches before he returns to his studio to produce the final work’.

Walking where real people of fictitious characters walked to then describe what they might have seen, touched, sensed long, long ago, can be one of the drawbacks to writing historical fiction, though, because it requires time and sometimes considerable expenditure. Is it necessary? Is it worth it? Yes – precisely because the author has to convey what was real then – if not, it’s fantasy?

As someone who is currently writing about Portuguese Goa in the seventeenth century, I agree with Ruth Downie, Google can only take you so far. Re-creating what any place was like in a certain period is, ultimately, an act of imagination, but for it to be effective and affective, it is better if it comes from what the writer has actually experienced.

J.G. Harlond

Photos: Hardwicke Hall – Barry Skeates, Hadrian’s Wall – Ruth Downie, image of Stoney Lake – Janet Kellough.

This article was first published in the Historical Writers’ magazine ‘Historia’: http://www.historiamag.com/a-place-in-history

 

Memoirs from the Tower of London

This month’s guest post on the writer’s craft is by Elizabeth St.John.
Elizabeth was brought up in England and lives in California. She has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London to inspire her writing. Although her ancestors sold a few mansions and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint.


“All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made (the prisoners) broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.”

Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson
Lucy Hutchinson, 1620-1681
(Recounting the life of her mother, Lucy St.John)

Gazing from the parlor window of the Queen’s House within the walls of the Tower of London, I could see the chapel of St. Peter, the iconic White Tower… Continue reading “Memoirs from the Tower of London”

Leah Devlin’s “Where I write about . . .” or “Where the bodies and pirate treasure are buried”

vital-sparkIn the opening scene of Vital Spark, Alex Allaway is driving along a coastal road, through a valley of summer corn on Maryland’s eastern shore. She’s thrilled to be returning home. She’s landed a job as a fisheries ecologist at a small marine station in her hometown of River Glen. River Glen is the epicenter of my new Chesapeake Tugboat Murders series. The village is located at the intersection of the fictional Glen River and the real Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading “Leah Devlin’s “Where I write about . . .” or “Where the bodies and pirate treasure are buried””

Plague and Tulips: gambling in a time of pestilence.

The first recorded economic bubble, ‘tulipomania’, occurred in the Dutch United Provinces between 1635 and 1637. The 1630s were a period of intense political and religious intrigue, when Pope Urban VIII appeared to be supporting Spain’s attempt to reclaim her lost territories in the Netherlands, but was actually conspiring to limit the size and power of the Habsburg Empire, Continue reading “Plague and Tulips: gambling in a time of pestilence.”

Uninvited Characters.

. . . members of a reading club had been asking me about my characters. Where, they wanted to know, did my characters come from?

Well, the truth is I see things: that is I see people doing things. The other truth is I didn’t know this wasn’t normal: I grew up knowing my great-grandmother was ‘fey’; Continue reading “Uninvited Characters.”

Secondary characters in historical fiction

Secondary characters are used to develop the main character(s) and/or further the plot in any fiction genre, but in historical fiction the author also has to ensure what they say and do is appropriate to the epoch of the novel.

Whether or not the protagonist was a real person, secondary characters are frequently fictional constructs and in the story to serve a purpose. Continue reading “Secondary characters in historical fiction”