The Fascination Of Writing About The Past: A Guest Post by Carolyn Hughes, Author of Fortune’s Wheel

Fortune's Wheel

I’m always fascinated by history and am delighted that Carolyn Hughes, author of Fortune’s Wheel, shares that fascination with me and has agreed to write all about it in a great guest post for Linda’s Book Bag.

Published by Silverwood Books Fortune’s Wheel is the first in the Meonbridge Chronicles and is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here.

Fortune’s Wheel

Fortune's Wheel

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, and 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. 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.

The Fascination Of Writing About The Past

A Guest Post by Carolyn Hughes

Why do I write historical fiction? And why are my novels set in the fourteenth century?

The answer to both questions lies in serendipity. When I had to choose what to write as the creative piece for my Masters in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University, I mostly just wanted a change from the contemporary women’s fiction I’d been writing for the previous few years (none yet published).

Searching for inspiration, I was looking through some of my old scribblings, when I rediscovered the fading handwritten draft of about 10,000 words of a novel I’d written in my twenties. Set in fourteenth century rural England, it was about the lives of peasant families. To be frank, the novel’s plot (indeed the writing itself) wasn’t terribly good (dreadful, actually!), yet I was really quite drawn to its period and setting. I had one of those light bulb moments and, a few days later, I was drafting an outline for the novel that is now Fortune’s Wheel.

It’s true that I’d long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and in our understanding of it and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the habitual present-day perception of the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art, architecture and literature. The briefest of investigations quickly proved to me that I wanted to know more about the period, and I suppose I soon realised that, by writing an historical novel, I’d have the opportunity both to find out more about the mediaeval past and to interpret it, which seemed like a thrilling thing to do.

But was the fourteenth century a good choice? It seemed to be relatively unloved among historical novelists. Other centuries – the sixteenth, twelfth and, more recently, the fifteenth – seemed to be more appealing to writers, with stories of, for example, Henry VIII and his many wives, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the Wars of the Roses. And perhaps they were also more appealing to readers? I didn’t know. But I also decided not to care! I knew what I wanted to write about. And, in truth, I can’t imagine why the fourteenth century might be “unpopular”, for it really is a fascinating period.

Historian Barbara Tuchman (in A Distant Mirror) called the century “calamitous”. Catastrophic events affected every part of its life: overpopulation and severe poverty in the first decade; famines in the second; the start of the Hundred Years War in 1337, which continued on and off for the rest of the century and beyond; the Black Death in 1348-9 and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. So, plenty of background there for interesting storylines…

Such events as these would have meant (as they do in every century) huge changes to people’s lives, at all levels of society. However, although I enjoy reading historical novels about kings and queens, and the movers and shakers of the world, I don’t particularly want to write about them. I’m much more interested in how events affected the lives of ordinary people, and I wanted to write –and still do – about ordinary lives within the context of these big social changes.

Of course, the lives of “ordinary people” are not much recorded  – well, that’s not entirely true, for you can learn quite a lot about them from entries in, for example, court records. But they are generally just names, without the input of, say, chroniclers and historians about their characters or motivations. Ordinary people of the past are essentially unknown and invisible, with no biographies to drawn from, so I’m obliged to invent entirely all the characters who populate my stories.

But that is not to say, of course, that I can also just “make up” everything about the way they lived.

My objective is to bring the past to life with a sense of naturalism and authenticity. I want to try and understand (what we know of) the truth about the period, and to portray it as realistically as possible. (This is obviously the objective of all writers of historical fiction…)

A question might be: how “authentic” does it have to be? For readers who enjoy learning about history through fiction, a sense of historical truth is important, while those who simply enjoy reading stories set in the past may not mind too much if a novel tends more towards the imaginative than the true. Book reviews of any number of historical novels show how widely readers’ needs and sensibilities can differ: for some, historical accuracy is vital, whereas, for others, a sense of authenticity is enough, provided the story is sufficiently engaging.

For those readers, including me, for whom authenticity is pretty important, using a few aspects of recorded history, even if the story isn’t about those events, sets the fiction against a background of fact. Describing physical details, such as houses, clothes, food, tools can paint a vivid picture. Depicting a reasonably convincing historical “thought-world” can give the picture depth.

And this last is, I feel, the most difficult. For, although people who lived 700 years ago were undoubtedly like us in many ways – they fell in love, adored their children, had aspirations and ambitions, enjoyed a joke and suffered the pain of loss, to name just a very few of the many similarities – they were surely also unlike us, also in many ways…

Clearly, their practical, day-to-day lives were very different from ours, and it’s important to try to portray those everyday practicalities so that readers can, in a sense, see themselves in their antecedents’ shoes, even if only a little bit. But trying to portray, with any degree of authenticity, the way our antecedents thought – how they understood the world and the way it works, the part religion played in their lives, their belief in magic and superstition, their attitudes towards sexuality and gender, their sensibilities and mindsets in general – can be tricky. And one of the things that is difficult about it is, I think, to try and draw a balance between the authentic past and the sceptical present.

For, although magic and superstition might have been part of the mediaeval person’s ordinary experience, they are the opposite for us. In writing an historical novel, I’m not just portraying the past, but must also be conscious of how certain aspects of the past might now be seen by a modern reader. For example, a potential danger of introducing “magical” elements that today would be dismissed as fantastical – however authentic they might be to the mediaeval experience – is that the novel might appear less naturalistic historical fiction than a kind of fantasy.

Nonetheless, one must certainly not eschew the “strange” altogether, for it is the very difference, or “otherness”, of the past that makes writing historical fiction so intriguing. And it is why I am so enjoying writing it, and expect to continue doing so for many books to come.

(And following that guest post Carolyn, I can’t wait to read Fortune’s Wheel!)

About Carolyn Hughes

Carolyn publicity

Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After completing a degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. 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 writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton. Fortune’s Wheel is her first published novel.

You can find Carolyn on Facebook, follow her on Twitter and find out more on her website.

4 thoughts on “The Fascination Of Writing About The Past: A Guest Post by Carolyn Hughes, Author of Fortune’s Wheel

  1. patfurstenberg says:

    What an interesting read, Carolyn! Fascinating! Thoroughly enjoyed the read.
    I have a personal and professional interest in the 15th century so, yes, I can relate to your ideas and findings 🙂
    Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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