Why is there no historical note in The Harrowing? A number of readers have asked me this over the past two-and-a-half years since the novel was first published. It’s a question that, I’ve come to realise, goes to the heart of what I believe historical fiction is all about. In this post I’ll explore my decision not to include a note (no, it wasn’t down to laziness) and how this fits into my wider philosophy as regards writing fiction set in the past.
In all three of my Conquest novels, first published in the UK between 2011 and 2013, the final chapter or epilogue is followed by an appendix in which I contextualise the story by exploring the real-life events, cultures and individuals who inspired it. In this very short essay – never more than around 2,000 to 2,500 words, or roughly 5 to 6 pages in the printed book – I would offer an insight into some of my preparatory research and the primary sources I’ve relied upon, deconstruct the novel’s relationship to the historical record, and highlight particular occasions where the truth is uncertain, where I’ve used artistic licence, or where I’ve deliberately introduced a fictional element.
The historical note, or author’s note, or afterword – whatever one wishes to call it – is these days a standard element of the historical novel, especially at the commercial end of the market. It’s my general impression that it’s slightly less common at literary end, although by no means is it unheard of. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent are two prominent examples of novels containing such a note that spring to mind, being as they are conveniently placed on the shelf above my desk as I write this piece. Needless to say, historical notes vary considerably in length: in the case of Burial Rites, it’s a mere three pages; by contrast, C.J. Sansom concludes his latest Shardlake novel, Tombland, with a 60-page essay.
The key reason why I elected not to write a historical note for The Harrowing was my desire to let the story speak for itself. I won’t give any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the novel finishes on a touching moment, balanced between optimism and tragedy, and with a complex swirl of emotions in play. It felt appropriate to give the reader space to digest the resolution and decide how they feel about the events described, rather than allow the authorial voice to intrude and puncture the atmosphere. Closing the book with Tova’s words rather than my own felt more respectful towards her, the other characters and the journey they have completed – and on which the reader has followed them.
The end, in this case, really is the end. There is no story beyond the story; the novel’s meaning is not complicated or revised by the addition of an appendix that seeks to provide a broader picture, or that brings the reader back to ‘reality’. Demonstrating the narrative’s historical underpinnings would, in this case, have severely undermined what I was trying to achieve.
After all, my rationale for using fiction rather than non-fiction to explore the Harrying of the North – the devastating campaign that saw the Normans lay waste to vast tracts of northern England during the winter of 1069–70 – was that the bare facts and figures seemed insufficient to convey the true horror of this episode. No first-hand accounts of this event have been handed down to us by its victims; their stories have been lost forever. The only way to give voices back to those people, to make sense of their experience, to see them as individual human beings and to rescue them from being relegated to mere statistics, was through fiction.
For that reason, to fall back at the end of the book upon statistics, dates and sources relating to the Harrying of the North as justification or context for the narrative would have seemed to me like an admission of defeat. It would have diminished the creative process, the act of imagination and the attempt to forge an emotional connection with the past, by implying that the story was not robust enough to stand on its own merits.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. In 2017, in an interview at the Oxford Literary Festival, Hilary Mantel criticised her fellow historical novelists who, in her words, ‘try to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography’. She said: ‘You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary.’
The historical note, it is true, offers novelists a chance to set the record straight. In it we can demonstrate the breadth and depth of our reading. In this way, we are arguing for the right to be taken seriously – a natural impulse. But by doing so we are actually asking to be judged by the standards of a different discipline, and so inadvertently diminishing our own status as writers. It is a defensive act rather than a positive statement of our own distinct and legitimate authority.
Novelists, it should go without saying, are not historians. Historical fiction, no matter how well researched, is not history. Its value as a literary genre lies elsewhere. Where? Well, that’s a weighty subject in its own right, and one that I’ll save for another day and another blog post. Suffice it to say for now that historical fiction is the product of a different set of skills, and it is those skills – the craft and technique that we have each developed as writers – that we should be celebrating and drawing particular attention to.
Historians and other scholars are required to show their workings if they are to build a convincing argument. For artists it is different: what matters above all is the final piece. I would much rather these days that my work speaks directly to the reader. That’s why, for me, the historical note has become redundant: not because I have nothing to say, but because to say it would risk dispelling the magic. Yes, it’s always fun to see how the trick is done, but we revel more in the mystery. Less, as so often, is more.
For both narrative and philosophical reasons, then, there is no historical note in The Harrowing. Will there be one in my current work-in-progress? Probably not. That’s not to say I can’t envisage a future novel that might be enhanced by such a note. For now, though, I’m content to keep separate my twin identities – the novelist and the medievalist – and to let them work freely and independently in their own respective ways.
This summer, after writing professionally for eight years, I finally penned my very first short story.
To some readers of this blog this may come as a surprise. Creative writing guides often advise those getting started to begin with short fiction: it is regarded by many as part and parcel of the traditional apprenticeship that writers must undergo. The short story, according to the theory, is the training ground where we’re supposed to hone our craft, to find our voice, to tighten our prose, to learn the skills that will allow us to tackle our bigger projects.
There’s a certain logic to this school of thought. A novel is a mountain: to scale it takes considerable planning and preparation followed by a long and arduous climb to the summit, punctuated by unforeseen obstacles that aren’t always visible from base camp. And the metaphorical descent can be just as tricky, as you return over ground already covered: editing, reassessing and rewriting, often repeatedly. The prospect is daunting, and there are any number of reasons to give up along the way. The gratification that comes with completion can seem forever out of reach; it’s easy to misinterpret the constant struggle as a sign of failure.
The short story, on the other hand, offers a quicker route to that sense of gratification. For the novice, the knowledge of having completed something is invaluable: it is validation of one’s own ability. Success breeds confidence, and confidence breeds success. It’s a virtuous circle, or at least that’s the principle. It enables experimentation without risk.
But writing short fiction has its own unique challenges. Few of us read it, and even those of us who do tend not to consume it in the same quantity that we consume novels. If we don’t read it, how can we expect to be able to write it? When in 2006 I started out on my writer’s journey I certainly hadn’t read enough short stories to understand their form and structure. I did attempt to write a few, but without a clear idea of what I was trying to achieve, and so I soon abandoned them. What I wanted was to write a novel, and so with the single-mindedness of youth I set out from the beginning to do exactly that.
It’s only now – after an MA in Creative Writing, four published novels and now the first year of a PhD – that I feel I understand my craft well enough that I’m able to graduate from the novel to the shorter form. The short story is more technical, more succinct; it requires greater precision of language and phrasing. Every word matters. What is not said can be just as important as that which is made explicit. Working out how best to exploit the negative space around the words can reap immense rewards, but takes time.
A short story doesn’t obey the same conventions as its longer counterpart. It can be a puzzle for the reader to crack; it can pose questions without the pressure of having to offer resolution. In its very brevity it offers complexity. The process of writing one is certainly shorter, but not necessarily any easier than writing a novel. It requires skills that my younger self twelve years ago simply did not possess.
For me, writing short stories this summer has offered me a chance to experiment with voice, form and prose technique, to break away from my usual habits and comfort zones, and to test ideas for my bigger project – the novel that forms the heart of my PhD thesis. It has been liberating, allowing me to expand my horizons beyond historical fiction and try out other genres for the first time in years. (Not that I’ve ever seen myself purely as a historical novelist: that’s simply where my career has happened to take me so far.)
These past few months have been some of the most creative I’ve experienced, and the stories I’ve produced are, I believe, some of my most challenging and imaginative work. As I turn now back towards thinking about the novel, I feel reinvigorated but also increasingly aware of the possibilities of the longer form – and increasingly confident in my own ability to achieve them. More than ever I feel I’m on the cusp of something very exciting: I’m redefining myself as an author.
Get ready for James Aitcheson 2.0.
This week I wrote.
That probably seems like a fairly unremarkable thing for a novelist to say. But in fact this was the first time since last summer that I’d produced any substantial creative work at all.
Sure, I’d scribbled down musings from time to time: a phrase; a sentence; sometimes as much as two sentences in a row. I’ve put together a quick-fire story in ten minutes as part of an exercise during a writing workshop that I led recently.
What I hadn’t done in over six months was spend a full day at my computer engaged with my current novel. In fact, for most of 2017, I deliberately didn’t write, or did so only intermittently. My total word count for my work-in-progress amounted to not much more than 10,000 words – that is to say, roughly around 30 pages.
I was a writer who wasn’t writing.
Of course, there have been a few mitigating circumstances. I was busy with other things: firstly preparing to begin my PhD at the University of Nottingham, and then, from the autumn onwards, launching myself into my research, which has taken me down some fascinating avenues. (Look out for more posts about my research coming soon.) But the main reason for this extended break was simply that I needed the time to recharge my creative batteries.
By that point I’d been writing consistently for over a decade: I began working on my first novel, Sworn Sword, shortly after I graduated from Cambridge in 2006. Traditionally I’ve tried not to take very long between finishing one novel and starting the next – often no more than a couple of months. It always seemed like the best way of overcoming the fear of the blank page, and gave me a continuing sense of purpose.
What it’s meant, though, is that there’s rarely been a moment when I’ve not had one project or another actively underway. In ten years, I hadn’t allowed myself the chance to step back and think more broadly about my creative direction and what I’m looking to achieve.
Hence why I decided for once not to pitch myself into this latest novel with the same single-mindedness, but instead to let it evolve gradually. In fact, the most important imaginative work I did in 2017 was away from the computer, as I refocused my energies.
I ventured out into the field to explore the history embedded within the urban and the rural landscapes: castles, cathedrals, abbeys, churches, palaces, you name it. I invested in a replacement for my aging 2003-spec digital camera and experimented with photographing these sites, searching for new ways of looking at them and the world in general.
Armed with notepad and HB pencil, I sought out the ancient and medieval collections in museums across the country, and made rough sketches of the artefacts I saw: whatever inspired me, however magnificent or mundane.
I thought about writing, even though I was doing very little of it. I went on a retreat, and even though it wasn’t as productive as I hoped, I came back re-energised. I spent more time than usual in the company of other writers, talking with them about the challenges, joys and frustrations of the creative process, and revelled in that sense of community. (Writers, in my experience, tend to be solitary creatures by necessity rather than by nature.)
I read books by authors I’d never encountered before, in all sorts of genres: historical fiction; memoir; SF and fantasy; young adult; contemporary; short stories; magical realism. All the while I continued to make reams of notes for my work-in-progress – gems of insight that I could add to my treasure hoard.
When I finally came back to the novel this week, having not looked at it – or those extensive notes – for several months, I saw it at once in a new light. To put things into perspective: those 10,000 words from last year were already, in my view, a cut above anything I’d ever produced before. In purely numerical terms it might not have amounted to much, but technically and conceptually, I felt I’d made an enormous stride forward.
Once I set to work, though, I was quickly aware of how often the 2018-me was bringing out the red pen for paragraphs that the 2017-me had considered brilliant. Even though I hadn’t been actively exercising my writing muscles, my expectations had evolved. I had raised the bar; I’d become more demanding of myself, not to mention more confident in my own abilities.
The revised draft that eventually emerged was a considerable improvement in almost every aspect: better control of voice; greater precision of imagery; a more tightly worked approach to dialogue. And this made me think.
Is it possible to become a better writer by not writing?
From the very beginnings of our literary careers, we authors put pressure on ourselves to keep busy. How-to guides on getting started in creative writing often stress the importance of establishing a routine: making it a familiar habit. Indeed, the most common piece of advice I give to aspiring writers is simply to practise, and then to practise some more. There’s no great secret to it: the more you write, the better you’ll get.
For professional novelists, too, it’s easy to feel that if you’re not actively working on something, you’re not being productive. Readers, editors, booksellers and fellow authors are all eager to know not just about the current project, but also what’s next in the pipeline. (Will there be a sequel?) And, of course, time is money: if you’re not writing, you’re not earning.
At some point, though, it’s worthwhile taking a step back. If you’re to take your craft to the next level and produce something truly original, it makes sense to pause once in a while. Only by gaining some distance from the nitty-gritty can you see the bigger picture.
Don’t be a slave to your manuscript! Give your writing the room it needs to breathe. Take stock of what you’ve achieved so far. Think about how you might do things differently next time round. Consider new approaches, new ways of challenging yourself.
Reflect. Refresh. Get out for a bit. See the world. Read more books. Try your hand at another creative discipline. Open yourself up to new experiences. Do anything but write, at least for a little while.
Most importantly, by stepping back you allow yourself to recapture the passion, energy and ambition that made you want to write in the first place.
You owe that to yourself. And, in the long run, it’ll be worth it.
As many of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook will already know, later this month I’ll be beginning a brand new chapter in my literary career. In just a few weeks I’ll be starting my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, thanks to an AHRC-funded studentship from the Midlands3Cities DTP.
The PhD will see me explore the boundaries of historical fiction and magic realism. I’ll be looking at medieval concepts of the otherworldly and supernatural in sources ranging from Beowulf to the Icelandic sagas, and using my findings to inspire and inform a novel set in medieval England that incorporates fantastical themes. It’s something of a departure in style and subject matter from my recent work, and I’m looking forward to delving into some of the weirder and more wonderful aspects of life in the Middle Ages.
Lately I’ve found myself thinking back to the autumn of 2007, just as I was embarking on a similar adventure with the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where I began to develop the manuscript that eventually became Sworn Sword. I’d been writing in my spare time for several years, but I’d never before taken a formal course in the subject. Like everyone else, I was hoping it would be my first step on the journey towards seeing my name in print, but at that point publication, if I’m entirely honest, was still a distant dream.
Instead what most excited me about the MA was knowing that I had a whole 12 months ahead of me to develop my writing in a nurturing environment where experimentation was actively encouraged. The sheer energy of our cohort was infectious; it didn’t matter that were each working on wildly different projects, across every conceivable genre and in all manner of prose styles. We all knew the same joys of fiction-writing, and we all had the same goals: to learn and to improve.
Now, as I prepare for this next stage in my literary career, I find that same excitement returning, in a strange reflection of that autumn ten years ago. That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t enjoyed the process of writing four novels in the meantime: each one has been an exciting, sometimes terrifying, frequently frustrating, but always hugely rewarding adventure. But that raw passion and energy for the creative process – the thrill that comes from venturing into the unknown, exploring new horizons and discovering as-yet-untapped potential, without the burden of expectation – is something I’ve not experienced since I was a novice writer. It bodes well, I think, that I’m rediscovering those feelings now.
I’ve often said that it would have taken me ten years to learn on my own what I learned in a single year on the MA. The course transformed my prose and I emerged from it armed with the skills I needed to turn my ideas into a fully fledged novel, having opened up avenues that I’d never previously considered. Partly that was due to the support I received from tutors; partly it was the result of the considered and constructive feedback from my peers; partly it was down to self-reflection and intensive drafting, redrafting and studying.
As well as the strides I made creatively, I also made friendships to last a lifetime. I still meet regularly with many of the other writers I met on the course, to review each other’s work over coffee and cake: this has been without a doubt the most valuable legacy of the MA. I had no idea when I started just how big an influence it would prove to have on my life, and it makes me wonder what lies in store for me over the next three years…
I’ve no doubt that the PhD will be a different beast: more self-directed, more research-focussed, it will require me to use different skills, and to develop some new ones along the way. But if I can recapture and hold on to that spirit of ’07, I hope to be able to match the progress I made that year, and even surpass it. To infinity – and beyond!
Earlier this year I was invited to do a Q&A with fellow historical novelist and Norman Conquest enthusiast Joanna Courtney over on her website, about the highs and lows of the writer’s life, the significance of 1066 and the appeal of historical fiction.
This week, to coincide with the publication of her latest novel, The Conqueror’s Queen, I’m delighted to return the favour, and Joanna has kindly written a guest blog post on seeing the events of the Conquest from a Norman perspective.
“Ever since I sat up in my cot with a book, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I started out with short stories and have had over 200 stories and serials published in women’s magazines, but I always wanted to make it as a novelist. I was delighted, therefore, when PanMacmillan bought my historical trilogy, The Queens of the Conquest, telling the stories of the too-long-neglected women of 1066. The Chosen Queen and The Constant Queen are both out in the world and it’s always my great joy to hear from readers who’ve enjoyed them, so I’m over the moon that The Conqueror’s Queen is just about to join them. I really hope people like the Norman side of the story and watch this space for more queens in the future…”
The girlie side of the Normans: or, understanding Duke William
The Normans don’t get a great press in history. They generally go down as Vikings without the sex appeal – dour, straight-laced, humourless warriors who liked to go about nicking other people’s countries. Here in the UK they do particularly badly because of the terrible ‘Harrowing of the North’ after the Conquest in which thousands of men, women and children were wiped out in one of the greatest acts of genocide in known history. The Normans’ reputation is perhaps, then, fair…
But is it?
My novel The Conqueror’s Queen is the third in my series The Queens of the Conquest about the wives of the men fighting to be King of England in 1066. When writing the first two books from the Saxon and Viking perspectives I happily embraced the idea of the Normans as the ‘baddies’. When I came to write from their point of view, however, I had to talk myself into looking at things from the other side of the story – which is always an interesting place to be. And so it proved.
I write from a female perspective and am therefore focused on domestic intrigue, human motivation, and political twists and turns, rather than the flesh and blood of the battlefield. I am not suggesting that the women back then (or now) were necessarily less ruthless or vicious than their male counterparts – indeed there is a fabulous woman called Mabel de Bellême whose reputation as a heartless poisoner proves this instantly wrong – but simply that women operated on their estates and at court, rather than with a sword in their hands. What I wanted to research therefore was why the Normans acted in such apparently dark ways. And there are many very sound reasons.
Normandy was a fairly new province in the mid-eleventh century, being only a little over a hundred years old. William was only the seventh duke and was still having to fight to establish and confirm his borders. Plus, William became duke aged only seven when his charismatic father died on pilgrimage. As a child and a bastard-born one at that, his rule was not readily accepted. There were plenty of cousins apparently concerned for the duchy in his control and – more to the point – keen to assert their own claim in his place. As a result there were endless rebellions throughout his early years of rule and stone walls (something Normans became famous for when they introduced castles to England) grew higher.
Inevitably in this warlike climate, the more cultural and domestic sides of life seem to have been neglected. When Mathilda of Flanders arrived to marry William in 1050 I suspect she did not find a place that was terribly congenial for women, especially in contrast to the far more peaceful and sophisticated court she’d grown up in, in Bruges. Mathilda and William’s long reign, however, changed all that.
William successfully put down all rebellions and gradually stability became the norm in Normandy. As a result the ducal pair were able to spearhead a huge programme of church-building which included their own beautiful Abbey aux Hommes and Abbey aux Dames in Caen. From this grand starting point they built Caen up into a hugely prosperous city and they also developed already flourishing Rouen. Bayeux, too, became rich and beautiful under the patronage of William’s extravagant half-brother Bishop Odo and it is safe to say that in the fourteen years between Mathilda marrying William and the invasion of England, Normandy was transformed into a far more stable, prosperous and elegant duchy than it had been before. It was this stability that enabled them, in 1066, to turn their eyes over the narrow sea…
Was William wrong to invade? He did not believe so and the more I researched his story the more I began to see it from his point of view. He was promised the throne by King Edward in Christmas 1051 when the Godwinsons (Harold’s family) were in exile. Most people, King Edward included, may have conveniently forgotten about that promise when the Godwinsons came back into power at court but William never did. It was why, when Harold visited Normandy in 1064, he forced him to swear an oath to uphold him as the next king.
William and Mathilda genuinely believed the English throne was William’s right and he wasn’t alone. When Harold was ‘treacherously’ declared king in January 1066 William sent straight to the Pope to denounce Harold’s reign – and the Pope did so. The Normans marched on England beneath a papal banner offering full benediction for their cause and whilst that may have been a handy political tool, it was also an unequivocal statement of William’s right to invade from the highest Godly authority on earth. It helped him attract soldiers from all over Northern Europe and undoubtedly shored up his own belief in his cause. God, in William’s eyes, wanted William to win – and God made sure that he did. We might sneer at that now but back then it was a very serious matter.
William, I believe, was a hard man but a straightforward and perhaps surprisingly loving one – at least in private. Of the three men fighting to be king of England in 1066 he was the only one who was faithful to his wife. A great man was more or less expected to have mistresses in those times but William never did. This may have been as a result of his Bastardy taint or may just have been his own love for Mathilda but it was remarkable enough for contemporaries to comment on it.
He was also very devoted to his mother, Herleva, and persistently promoted her ‘lowly’ family to high office. He was a man who prized loyalty, who worked hard to surround himself with faithful servants, and who rewarded them well for their devotion. He was not, perhaps, a lovable man, but looking at the 1066 story from his side enabled me to see that he was an earnest one who was driven by duty and a genuine desire to create a better world for his subjects.
And that is what he wanted for England too – but England would not play ball. The Harrowing of the North was a truly terrible act but when you look at it through the eyes of a man who had longed to be king for many years, who was desperate to be a good one, and who had spent his youth fighting off endless rebellions by people who wouldn’t trust him to do his job, it can perhaps been seen less as a cruel act than as a desperate one.
Call me girlie if you wish, but I firmly believe that all William wanted to do was be a good king. It is perhaps as much his tragedy as ours that history didn’t quite work out that way.
As well as visiting bookshops and libraries as part of my book tour, occasionally I’m also invited to speak about my work in universities and schools, and it’s been my pleasure in the last few weeks to present talks and chair workshops at both Swansea University and Huddersfield New College.
At Swansea I was invited first to co-chair a workshop for medieval history students, looking at primary sources, their value and their limitations. After a short presentation by me, students used extracts relating to the Norman Conquest as inspiration for creative writing – an unusual and in many ways counterintuitive brief to give historians, for whom imaginative interpretation of available evidence doesn’t always come naturally, but an exercise that produced some interesting results.
Later I also gave a public lecture on the process of writing historical fiction, tackling a common question posed by readers, and one that has dominated the debate about the genre for seemingly forever: “Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction?” Drawing upon examples from my own work, I argued that we shouldn’t fixate, as we traditionally have done, on the issue of historical accuracy. Rather, we should celebrate fiction’s potential to understand, interpret and communicate the past in new ways, and I offered some alternative ways of framing the debate regarding the genre.
Both sessions provoked some lively discussion with staff and students, historians and writers alike. I was thrilled to be invited to speak – my thanks to Dr Charlie Rozier (pictured with me, above) for kindly organising the event and making sure the day ran smoothly.
The following week I was delighted to return to Huddersfield New College for the third year in a row as their guest author for World Book Day. As well as speaking about the process of researching and writing historical fiction with A-Level medieval and modern history students, I also led a creative workshop based around a series of timed writing challenges designed to free up the imagination and to help writers bypass the internal editor that can sometimes hold them back.
Students were encouraged to write as much or as little as they wanted, without any obligation to share what they’d produced. The challenges varied in difficulty and structuredness, including question-based prompts for generating plots, a picture-based free writing exercise and the ever-popular (and my favourite) “word salad”. I was hugely impressed not just with the energy and enthusiasm the students brought to all of the tasks, but also the range of different responses produced, which often put my own efforts in the shade!
Again this year I was given the honour of presenting the certificates at a lunchtime prizegiving ceremony to the winners – chosen by College staff – of the annual short story competition, this year themed upon myths and legends. I also made myself available throughout the afternoon to chat with students about their current writing projects and give advice. It was fantastic to speak to so many keen young writers, and I wish them all the best for their future literary adventures. I’d like to thank Rebecca Hill, the College Librarian, for putting together this year’s event, as well as to Scott Townsend, Sarah Newton and the Principal, Angela Williams, for once more making me feel so welcome.
I’m always happy to visit schools, colleges and universities to speak about my work and to run creative writing sessions. If you’re a teacher, librarian or lecturer and would be interested in hosting a similar event, please do get in touch with me via the Contact page – I’d be glad to discuss some ideas.