I’m really delighted today to welcome author Carolyn Hughes as my guest. Those of you who love historical fiction will perhaps have come across Fortune’s Wheel already: the first book in the Meonbridge Chronicles, it was published in November 2016, and is available for kindle and in paperback from Amazon in the UK and US, or direct from Silverwood Books.
Plague-widow Alice atte Wode is desperate to find her missing daughter, but her neighbours are rebelling against their masters and their mutiny is hindering the search.
June 1349. In a Hampshire village, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population, including Alice atte Wode’s husband and eldest son. The plague arrived only days after Alice’s daughter Agnes mysteriously disappeared and it prevented the search for her.
Now the plague is over, the village is trying to return to normal life, but it’s hard, with so much to do and so few left to do it. Conflict is growing between the manor and its tenants, as the workers realise their very scarceness means they’re more valuable than before: they can demand higher wages, take on spare land, have a better life. This is the chance they’ve all been waiting for!
Although she understands their demands, Alice is disheartened that the search for Agnes is once more put on hold. But when one of the rebels is killed, and then the lord’s son is found murdered, it seems the two deaths may be connected, both to each other and to Agnes’s disappearance.
Although it’s not something I often do, I’d like to share some review quotes about Fortune’s Wheel too…
“…exceptionally well written…astoundingly well researched.”
“…visually descriptive, atmospheric and felt authentic….”
“…completely intriguing, fascinating and surprisingly emotional…more please!”
“…saturated with expertly researched descriptions which capture the essence of medieval life.”
“…captivating…opened my eyes to a personally unexplored genre.”
“…grab yourself a copy and get lost in an altogether different time.”
When I read historical fiction, I can be a little choosy – I have a well-advertised aversion to kings and queens, generally prefer a dual time thread, and there are distinct periods to which I naturally gravitate. The fourteenth century isn’t one of those periods – but everything Carolyn has told me about this book and her approach to historical fiction has made me really want to sample the Meonbridge Chronicles. Much as I’d love to, I sadly just can’t find the reading space for this one – but I guarantee I’ll be reviewing the second in the series, A Woman’s Lot.
I’m delighted to welcome Carolyn Hughes to Being Anne, to tell us more about what makes an historical novel seem “authentic”…
I love reading, and writing, historical fiction. My novel, Fortune’s Wheel, is the first of my “Meonbridge Chronicles”, set in fourteenth century rural Hampshire. The Chronicles are not about politics or war, or royals or heroes, but are rather the “everyday stories of country folk”, and my particular writing pleasure is trying to recreate their world for readers to immerse themselves in.
And to make that world feel natural requires both “authenticity” and a little “strangeness”, so here are a few thoughts on how I try to achieve this…
Although my novels are not about “history”, history does provide the important factual context in which my characters’ fictional lives are set. In Fortune’s Wheel, the backdrop is what we call the Black Death. It’s hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been to live through. But it’s the plague’s aftermath that interested me: trying to understand how ordinary people got on with their lives following such disaster.
And what was it like to live then? I enjoy depicting what we know, or can deduce, about how people lived – their homes, clothes, food, tools, working practices – and showing everyday life as authentically as possible. Portraying environment, in particular – people’s homes and their interactions with the world outside – can also help to give an authentic-seeming picture.
For example, in my depictions of peasants’ homes, I try to show how generally cramped, dark and smoky they were and, in bad weather, cold and damp. I don’t dwell on the unpleasantness, but don’t shy away from it when required. Trying to put myself into my characters’ shoes, to imagine the minutiae of their daily lives, is what I find so fascinating about writing about the past, and what I hope contributes to that sense of authenticity.
Some readers might think I’m obsessed with weather! Weather does play a big part in my novels, for it surely affected medieval people’s lives far more than it does ours (here in England, at any rate). If you owned only, at most, two sets of clothes, how miserable was it to work outdoors in the rain and come home all wet, with just a small hearth fire (no radiators or tumble dryer…)? Drying clothes must have been a nightmare! No book has yet told me exactly what they did, so, putting myself in their shoes, I assume they arranged their clothes around the fire, on some sort of rack, perhaps, and that they possibly slept in their damp clothes – sometimes, anyway – to help dry them out. A pretty ghastly prospect! Yet what else could they do?
Depicting the physical aspects of daily life is important, but almost more important – and yet more difficult – is portraying the intangible aspects. Sexuality, religion, superstition, ideas and sensibilities in general are more tricky. The difficulty lies in transporting oneself as a writer into their very different mindsets. Fourteenth-century people must have been like us in many ways, yet also unlike us in many others, and tapping into those dissimilarities is both a challenge and, perhaps, one of the principal points – and pleasures – of writing historical fiction.
For example, the Church was central to daily life: in prayers and oaths, influencing people’s view of their position in society, directing how they ran their lives to an extent that we would consider deeply interfering. The fourteenth century was also a world where what we consider natural (or man-made) disasters, such as ruinous weather, famine, plague, were presumed to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. These aspects of life need to be portrayed in a way that shows the differences in people’s thinking, yet without making them seem alien – they were still individuals, with ambitions and concerns, emotions and desires.
Historical fiction is sometimes criticised for failing to portray the past’s strangeness (the “foreign country”). Beyond religion and superstition are aspects of belief that modern readers are likely to find obscure or even bizarre: religious charms, relics, magic and spells, monsters, weird concepts and seemingly fantastical happenings that today can be explained or dismissed. All of these were normal to people of the time, yet they need careful handling in a novel. If “magic and monsters” were part of a mediaeval person’s ordinary belief, they are the opposite for us: we tend to consider them fantastical, not commonplace. And a danger of introducing such elements – however natural they might have been to a mediaeval mind – is that the novel might seem to the modern reader to be less historical fiction than fantasy.
Achieving a sense of naturalness requires a balance between the authentic past and the sceptical present.
Carolyn, thank you – and I’m guessing that others will now see what it is that makes me want to try your writing. See you again soon…
About Carolyn Hughes
Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government.
She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton. Fortune’s Wheel is her first published novel, and a sequel, A Woman’s Lot, is under way. She writes a blog, mostly about writing historical fiction.
Carolyn also posts a blog on the 20th of every month at http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com.