28 January 2013

Back to Basics

So here I am, 10,000 words in on my first draft of my work in progress, working title: My Lady of Rosedale. It seems a very long time since I've been in this position. And it presents a set of totally new challenges. Although I read and am interested in most periods in history - apart from the Romans and the eighteenth century both of which leave me cold. I have no idea why. And I'm not a huge fan of the Tudors and Stuarts either. Maybe it goes back to school history lessons or, if I were fanciful, I would say I had traumatic experiences at those times in my previous lives...

Moving swiftly on...

If I had to name the two eras in English history that set my heart singing the loudest, they are:

1. The early nineteenth century, the age of steam, of railways of social mobility, the move from country to city, the spread of the dark satanic mills over England's green and pleasant land and the beginnings of the modern age. It is the setting for Hope against Hope, my only published novel so far. That was a labour of pure love.

2. The Anglo-Saxons, their language, their often-disregarded culture and elegance. Their poetry is sublime. Who can read The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer or The Seafarer and not be moved? (Here is a modern translation of The Seafarer although modern English cannot capture the rhyming patterns, the alliteration, the imagery and the music in Anglo-Saxon poetry.) It was all swept away. As the Normans were the conquerors they got to write the history. Even though the Anglo-Saxons remain a stubborn bunch, the Normans were brutal and snobbish and the Anglo-Saxons have since been tarred as the rough peasants, the resentful serfs. Even today, English aristocrats like to talk about their forebears who sailed with William, who gave them their titles and their castles, stealing the land from the people who had made it what it was. I can never forgive the Normans for what has become known as 'the harrying of the North' - a poetic term for what was genocide. That's how they dealt with dissent. When the Domesday book describes much of the land north of the Trent as 'waste', this was because it lacked the bounty of the South, it was because the Normans torched the land and slaughtered men, women and children in their hundreds.  I blame them for the  so-called North/South divide. They perpetuated the myth that the South is prosperous and hard-working and the North as work-shy and uncultured that still persists   I remember a television programme (or perhaps a book) in which the historian, Michael Wood related a conversation with a descendant of Field Marshall Montgomery - or even the man himself, for reasons I can't remember. The meeting did not go well. Michael later realised it was because his ancestors were Anglo-Saxon and this man's were Normans.  I could push this analogy further and declare that Asda shoppers are Anglo-Saxons and Waitrose aficionados are Norman. But that's just me. Anyway, yes: The Anglo-Saxons. Love them to bits. The period was the setting for my most successful published story. The Millennium Miracle. I wrote it in 1998 and is about the coming of the very first Millennium set in a poor monastery on the North East Coast facing Viking attacks. It was a rare thing for me: a comic story that fell almost fully formed from my brain. It was a hoot to write and fortunately it was well-received, won a prestigious competition and earned me a great deal of money. But it's no longer in print. Time moves on.

So back to now and I ask myself why is The Lark Ascending, currently doing the rounds of publishers, set immediately after the First World War and why oh why have I embarked on a journey into the early fourteenth century?

Thinking about it now, I believe that my characters are all divided between the Old English and the Normans. I have given my medieval protagonist an Anglo Saxon name. Even my twentieth century characters are ordinary English folk. People with aspirations as well as a stubbornness  They do as they're told but carry on regardless with sullen defiance.

I look for stories, not about Kings, Queens and Great People not about Movers and Shakers. I write about ordinary people living their lives coping with extraordinary changes. Whether they be war or disaster, epidemics economic downturns  that hits them, it's how ordinary people cope with them, the people who never get to make the important decisions that fascinate me, people who have to make the best what's thrown at them - but often do the wrong things entirely. This is my background  My family have never been destitute (although the fear of The Workhouse hung over them even after they'd gone) nor rich. I come from a line of craftsmen and shop-keepers. We are undistinguished Anglo-Saxon East-Midlanders. We don't join belong to any club, movement  or organisation. We don't follow footballers or any other sports team. Family names are Smith, Roff, Bond and Avins: plain, dull names: people who throughout history only ever half-listened, nodded, done what they were told then carried on their own way..Bloody awkward some people would call us.

My Lady of Rosedale is set right slap bang where I now live. Rosedale Abbey is my village, the countryside rugged, remote, bleak in winter. Its people are reserved and secretive. The name is historically wrong. There never was an Abbey here and the first question most tourists tend to ask when they step out of their cars is 'Where's the Abbey?'

Forlorn Remains

Basically there never was an abbey. What there was was a small priory containing no more than ten nuns at any one time. It was founded in 1154 and ended in 1536 by Henry III's Dissolution.   Very little is known about it: what it looked like, where exactly its foundations are or the women who lived in it. There is still confusion about whether it was Benedictine, Cistercian or Gilbertine. However poor it was, its business - sheep breeding - made money and its wool exported and highly prized. Maybe it wasn't poor at all. Or more likely its fortunes wavered. Records are scarce or are lost in some dusty archive somewhere. This is bad for historians but a fabulous opportunity for novelists. I have chosen to set my story in in the early fourteen century before the arrival of the Black Death in Yorkshire. It was a time of warfare between the Scots and the English. There were two local battles and plenty of brutal attacks by Scottish raiders. It was a time or poor harvests and famine, all rich pickings. In my story a strange woman arrives at the priory. Is she the miracle they all crave or The Devil sent to lead them astray?

So, a lot of work is needed. Historical fiction is never the easiest option. Although the imagination can be let loose, the history has to be firmly set in concrete or the whole structure collapses.

Good Heavens.

This post was intended to be an introduction to a new, occasional series about the way I approach and write a new novel. I've called it Back to Basics. I was supposed to begin by discussing whether I am a Plotter or a Pantser. If you Google this phrase you'll come up with loads of hits. This one is as good as any and better than most. I've finally come to the conclusion I'm neither - that family bloody awkwardness again!

But that will have to wait until next time. Now back to my nuns.


  1. What a fascinating blog post! Your new novel sounds just as intriguing as your others. I'm like you - adore the early Victorian era - and have set one and a half novels in that period.

    Got to take you to task re shopping habits and ancestry however. If I tell you I always shop at Waitrose and am apparently descended from William the conqueror himself you'll say, ah ha, I was right. But that's just one line of descent. I'm also descended (I assume) from large numbers of anglo-saxons, as well as Celts and quite possibly Vikings (there's red hair in my family). As is everyone who has at least one English grandparent. (And being employed by John Lewis, I get discount in Waitrose so that's the lure rather than my diluted Norman blood!!)

    Anyway I digress too. Stories about ordinary people living in extraordinary times are generally the best fiction around. I look forward to your Rosedale novel and further posts in this series.

  2. Glad to know you are making such a great start on you new novel, Sally. My husband and I came across Byland Abbey while traveling around North Yorkshire in August. It a fantastic place for using your imagination.
    I too love history, but I don't write about it in my novels. I've published some nonfiction articles about my family history. My roots are in Whitby. Have you thought publishing your winning 'Millennium Miracle' as an ebook?
    I would love to read it. I've read 'Hope against Hope' and 'Chasing Angels'

    1. Thanks, Paula. You might be interested to know that my main character ends up in Rosedale, having fled Whitby after the death of her father? But did she kill him or not?.

    2. Now that's intriguing, Sally. I can't wait for it to be published, so don't delay keep on typing. :-)

      I'm busy editing my timeslip crime novel which is set in and around Whitby & Middlesbrough

    3. I'd love to read that, Paula. Good luck with the editing.

    4. Thank you Sally. It's been through two major rewrites as I wasn't happy with it, but now I know where I'm going with it I'm very excited.
      At first I jumped around too much and had too many characters and plotlines. It so easy to get carried away with the writing and to lost focus on what your story is all about. Then I changed the POV hoping this would keep me on track but I wasn't happy about writing it in the first person.
      Now I think I have just right. I have an agent interested in seeing it, but I don't want to rush it off to her until I'm happy with it, so I've given myself two to three month to knock it into shape. I'm met the agent at the RNA winter party.

  3. I was being tongue in cheek. I would shop at Waitrose if there was a store this far north! I'm therefore a Sainsbury's girl (my older son works for them) which as well as my preference for Costa Coffee, puts me, according to an man speaking on Radio 4 this morning, in the same class as the Middletons. I didn't know whether to be flattered or affronted! I actually find the English class system hilarious. I can watch the X factor and then a history programme on BBC4 immediately afterwards. We're all mongrels. But I still hate the Normans!

  4. So was I! (And yes, Costa over Starbucks any day.)