A Surfeit of Crises – Some Thoughts on Writing Fifteenth Century Historical Fiction

I love a good crisis because crises are vital in storytelling and in historical fiction in particular. Of course, they are pretty important in life as a whole, but in historical fiction a crisis provides very fertile ground for the writer: battles, treason, overthrow of kings, rebellions, and so on. In the period about which I write, fifteenth century England, or more specifically the Wars of the Roses, there seems to be a crisis every few minutes. So there is no shortage of material – a writer’s paradise, you would think. Well, actually, no, because the abundance of material creates problems of its own.

There are so many crises in such quick succession that you have to be selective. Fair enough then, but why is that such a problem? It’s a problem because the Wars of the Roses period has a cast of thousands and spans several generations. The period is packed with political and military turnabouts as well as plotlines to die for – which in many cases, people do. But because there are so many interconnected stories the danger is that the reader will need so much background information that the story itself will get lost. After all, historical fiction is about the story, not about a period of history.

As an author with a passion for history you want the reader to have a grasp of the nuances of the period, yet as a storyteller you can’t afford to indulge in gratuitous information. It’s a perennial conundrum: how to give the reader enough historical information without obliterating the story. When you are dealing with such a long and involved thread of history, being selective can be especially difficult.

At the heart of crises we expect to see the most well-known personalities, often at pivotal points in their lives. But there are so many well-known and interlinked personalities, each with an extensive back story. The likes of Margaret of Anjou, Edward IV and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick carry a good deal of historical baggage. Where do you start?

Well, for me, the main protagonists are actually less interesting than those around them so I prefer to portray the events of a crisis by putting fictional characters into the mix. This is a frequently-used device which readers never tire of because it gives the outcome a personal edge. As readers, we invest a great deal in the fictional heroes and we are willing them to emerge unscathed from the ferocious events to which they are subjected. By using mainly fictional protagonists, I can control the amount of peripheral information the reader needs and, in the course of a four book series, I can draw on fictional back stories from previous books.

Even so, how do I keep the history easy to follow? It helps to limit the number of “actual” characters who interact with the fictional ones so that only the key historical players make an entrance. These figures are mostly kept at arm’s length but they have to add something to the story or there’s no point in including them at all. They have to play a part – they are not just manikins upon which the story loosely rests.

Also, I try to keep the detail of political events very sparse. If an event does not impact on the heroes then it is not included – tempting though it might be to do so. In the historical notes at the end of the books I try to explain a little more about the real historical figures for those who are interested.

The balance between story and history is important. If the reader is left completely in the dark about the historical context then the story itself does not work. I think it is fine to leave the reader with questions about real characters who only have walk-on parts in my story. You can’t try to do too many things at once and my prime purpose is to entertain not educate. If the reader is encouraged to find out more about the history then that’s all well and good.

When I started my Rebels & Brothers series I had to choose one of many crisis points in the Wars of the Roses to begin my story. Believe me, they are too numerous to mention! I chose 1459 when a period of “cold war” turned hot. The next decision to take was how much background to give the reader at the start – I decided on almost nothing and plunged my fictional characters into a violent crisis of their own.

The story of the Elder family, my protagonists, runs parallel to the course of the Wars of the Roses and mirrors the vicissitudes experienced by the House of York during the years 1459 to 1471. Even during this relatively short period there are crises aplenty but there is also some symmetry to this 13 year period. It begins with a flurry of battles in 1459-1461 and ends with a similar flurry in 1469-71. Yet throughout the period there is crisis upon crisis – not to mention intrigue and a few more battles too.

In a series which inevitably goes from one crisis to another, there has to be development both in the characters and their approach to the dangers they face, otherwise it becomes repetitive. As the characters get older – and my main protagonists start the story in their late teens – they have different priorities and the more dangerous the threat, the more aware they are of their mortality. I have had one or two readers express surprise at the high casualty rate and the brutality to be found in Rebels & Brothers, but there is little exaggeration. As the years go by though, each crisis becomes more difficult to survive.

A crisis is not just important to those who hold power, it is also vital to the rest of society. For that reason I like to tell some of the story from the point of view of the lower classes. This again emphasises the personal dimension of crises at government level. A lord such as Ned Elder, one of my heroes, should expect loyalty from his tenants including fighting for him in time of crisis. In peacetime ordinary men’s lives were dominated by paying their rents, farming the land or providing service of some sort in the lord’s household. But in the period 1459 to 1461 they were also worried about staying alive. How far would their loyalty stretch if their lord went down? Some simply accepted their lot and prayed for survival; others grumbled at the reckless ambition of their masters. I like to have characters that give this sort of perspective to a crisis.

It is common in the course of long-running, armed disputes for the nature of the fighting to change over time. Battles become bloodier and attitudes harden as each side is prepared to sacrifice more in order to win, Towton in 1461 was the ultimate example of this. By then, the customary clemency often shown towards the commons on the losing side had been abandoned and little quarter was given. For me, it is important to show how crises played out at all levels.

Crisis upon crisis creates misery and desperation amongst both the powerful and the powerless. The use of a broad range of fictional characters enables the writer to demonstrate the impact of crisis on the lower classes – and it is pretty brutal. But my brand of historical fiction demands an emphasis on fast-paced action with many an unexpected turn of events. Although I am working with historical crisis points that have known outcomes, I want to keep the reader guessing right till the end. How will it turn out for my fictional characters? Who will live and who will die? I love a good crisis!

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The penultimate book in the Rebels & Brothers series, Kingdom of Rebels, will be out on August 31st but is available to pre-order now on Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00MQA6826

This entry was posted in Historical Fiction, Medieval History, The Writing Process, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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