On Saturday 22nd March I attended the launch of a very exciting non-fiction book – an English translation of Nicoletto Giganti‘s second fencing manual, which until very recently had been lost to history.
The story of its discovery is up there with that of Tutankhamen’s tomb: a missing piece of the historical jigsaw that had faded almost into legend, suddenly found by a couple of bold adventurers. Admittedly the journey of discovery required only a visit to the Wallace Collection in central London, not to Egypt, but for those of us who love Renaissance history, it was just as exciting. Read more
Yesterday morning I was glued to my laptop, watching the press conference announcing the results of the research into the skeleton found in a Leicester car park last year. To cut a long story short, they confirmed that yes, the body is that of Richard III, beyond a reasonable doubt. I was immensely moved by the whole proceedings – after all, Richard is the most vilified king in English history, and this discovery goes a long way towards teasing out the truth from the Tudor propaganda.
But what is that truth? Well, for a start, it confirms that although Richard suffered from scoliosis (a twisted spine) which would have likely left him with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, he was not a “hunchback”, nor did he have a withered arm. So Shakespeare’s representation of his deformities is a gross exaggeration but not wholly without foundation. The remains and the facial reconstruction based on them even fit the portraits of Richard: a handsome young man with delicate, almost feminine hands despite his reputation as a great fighter. Indeed, far from making him appear the wicked king of legend, most portraits show a care-worn figure, perhaps troubled by chronic pain caused by his scoliosis.
Secondly, the Leicester investigation provides touching insights into the events of his death. The body bears several potentially fatal head-wounds, the most severe of which almost certainly killed him, but there are other, minor wounds that seem most likely to have been inflicted after death. Dagger cuts to the face, and stabs to the back and buttocks (areas that would have been protected by armour during the battle), all echo contemporary accounts which say that his body was stripped and tied across a packhorse for transport to Leicester.
None of this, of course, bears much relation to the real mystery associated with Richard: did he murder his nephews (or at least, cause them to be murdered)? I’m not one of those rabid Ricardians who believes he was practically a saint, viciously slandered by the Tudors – as we now know, there were grains of truth in the unflattering physical description presented by Shakespeare, so why not in his behaviour too?
My personal belief is that Richard fully intended to carry out his role of Lord Protector (as set out in his late brother’s will), but found himself thwarted at every turn by the queen and her ambitious relations. Richard was very popular in the North, his home ground, but he was little known in the South and may have been out of his depth at court. Remind you of a certain fictional character?
Rather than back down and see the Woodvilles rule through a child king, he declared the boys bastards (just as Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones tries to disinherit the Lannisters) and took the throne for himself. It turned out to be a disastrous decision, but at the time he might have felt it was the right thing for England, and the House of York. After all his own son, Edward, was still living at this point and his wife was young enough to bear more children.
So what about the princes in the Tower? To my mind there are two possibilities:
1. Richard realised that the princes would be too tempting a target for rebels, and so they had to die. Medieval kings were ruthless in protecting their interests, and perhaps Richard was no exception. Or maybe the king balked at such an act, just as Queen Elizabeth later hesitated over signing her cousin Mary’s death warrant, and it was one of his courtiers who acted in his name.
2. The princes were killed by a Tudor sympathiser looking to simultaneously blacken Richard’s reputation and clear Henry’s way to the throne. The boys’ deaths certainly made Henry Tudor’s job a lot easier. If they had been alive when he defeated Richard, he would have had to get rid of them himself – not a good start to his reign!
The problem is that both are plausible, so I don’t think we’ll ever know which is the truth. It wasn’t to Richard’s advantage to cover up their deaths so clumsily – if he had access to either the living princes or their bodies, why not put an end to all the speculation? – but then unlike a novel, real life doesn’t always make sense. At least his remains have been rescued from their ignominious fate and will now be buried with honour. Richard III was no better than many medieval kings, but I reckon he was no worse, either.
A few weeks ago I heard that the Globe had transferred two of their summer productions to the Apollo Theatre for the winter – and more importantly from my perspective, these were two new all-male productions starring Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe. I’d read about the similar productions he’d done almost a decade ago, so the chance to see one at last was irresistible!
I hesitated briefly over which to choose, and eventually plumped for Richard III. Much as I love Twelfth Night, it’s a play I’m very familiar with, whereas the only version of Richard III I’ve seen is the well-known Laurence Olivier film. The reviews of Rylance’s performance suggested that this might be the better of the two, which swayed me further.
I booked stage seats, for the best possible view at the most reasonable price. This meant we were seated in one of two two-tier wooden stands, almost like a bit of the Globe Theatre brought to the West End, on each side of the stage. Unfortunately we arrived too late to get a lower-level seat, but the upper level still gave wonderfully up-close-and-personal views of the actors and set. The costumes were absolutely gorgeous – I spent a good deal of the play just taking in all the details, from the various styles of men’s hats (including a very silly fluffy white one with a pink hatband, like something a pimp would wear!) to the daggers worn tucked horizontally through the belt, in the small of the back. Another benefit of our seats was that we could see many of the costumes hanging up backstage, and even got a chance to thank the actors personally as we left, since they were still standing in the wings.
The undisputed star of the show was of course Rylance. He plays Richard as an almost pantomime villain, confiding in the audience about his wicked plans and getting them on his side. The result was an extremely funny play – surprisingly so, for a Shakespeare history play – at least until his final downfall. He was ably assisted in this by his foil, Roger Lloyd Pack as Buckingham (better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses). Most of the actors apart from the few leads played multiple roles, but the distinctness of their costumes meant that I was never confused when they returned in new guise. From our stage seats we could also make out little details invisible to the rest of the audience, like the fact that the pewter inkwells really did contain ink and you could see the actors signing the various documents that appear in the play. This added a startling verisimilitude that I had not expected – and nearly gave Mark Rylance a turn when he all but dropped an inkwell in his lap!
As mentioned above, one of the main reasons I wanted to see this production was that it was being staged with full Elizabethan practices as far as possible. The stage was lit by masses of candles (albeit backed up by some electric lighting for the benefit of modern theatre-goers) – four huge wrought-iron candelabra hanging from the ceiling, and a large floor-standing one at the back of the stage. Scenes flowed seamlessly from one to the next, with incoming actors beginning their lines even before the previous ones had left the stage. And then of course there were the men in female roles.
Samuel Barnett (perhaps best known for his role as Posner in The History Boys) was brilliant as Queen Elizabeth, graceful in his movements and acting as effortlessly as if this were his usual type of role. Johnny Flynn was less successful as Anne Neville; he declaimed his lines stiffly, as if it was taking all his effort to maintain a believable falsetto. A pity, as this has put me off going to see Twelfth Night, in which he plays the key role of Viola.
One difference from Elizabethan practice is that the actors playing female roles were a lot older than they would have been in Shakespeare’s day – Barnett, for example, is 32. Some actors did indeed continue in such roles until their early twenties, but the majority would have been around fifteen or sixteen, an age at which many an undernourished Elizabethan apprentice might still have an unbroken voice. These days, finding boys young enough to have such voices but old enough to play leading roles in Shakespeare must be practically impossible!
What struck me, though, during the play was that I soon stopped thinking of them as “men in drag”. On the one hand, they clearly weren’t actual women, but the combination of the artificiality of the stage environment and the contrast between male and female Elizabethan dress made them so distinct from the men as to seem like women by virtue of that fact alone. It gave me a striking insight into the Elizabethan mindset, whereby a person’s identity (both in gender and status) was judged very much by their clothing and far less by the human body inhabiting that clothing.
The play ended, as all Globe productions do, with a traditional jig performed by all the company. The dancing was superb, with so much leaping, stamping and clapping that I almost expected the men to start break-dancing any moment! It also reminded me a great deal of the ball scene in A Knight’s Tale where they suddenly start boogying to Bowie. Anyone who thinks that an Elizabethan ball would have been as sedate an event as its equivalent in Jane Austen’s day should think again – this was seriously sexy stuff!
All in all it was a wondrous experience, and well worth the considerable sum I paid for the tickets. I’m already starting to eye the coming season at the Globe Theatre with interest…
One of the fun things about writing historical fantasy is that it’s a great excuse to visit (or revisit) historic locations. Sadly, most of the Tudor palaces that appear in the Night’s Masque trilogy are long gone, but one of the best—Hampton Court—survives, albeit with some 18th-century modifications. Hampton Court Palace makes only a brief appearance in The Merchant of Dreams but I wanted to make it as authentic as possible, and since I hadn’t been in at least fifteen years I thought another visit was in order.
Rather than do the tourist thing of following itineraries, my main aim was to orient myself within the sprawling palace complex and try to imagine where my characters might have found themselves. I therefore wandered around taking lots of not-very-artistic photos, designed more to jog my memory than to show off the palaces’s finer features. Unfortunately my camera battery, which had appeared to be half-charged when I left home, decided to conk out after a handful of photos, so I had to take the rest with my phone.
Although a fair amount of Henry VIII’s palace remains intact, particularly the public places, most of the private apartments were pulled down and rebuilt by William III and Mary II, and the gardens were extensively remodelled. However the Tudor gardens have been recreated in miniature in Chapel Court, complete with heraldic beasts on striped poles. Old-fashioned red and white roses fill half the garden, whilst the other half is given over to herbs: mint, thyme, marigolds and a number of others I had trouble identifying. All the beds were edged round with heirloom strawberry plants, and the temptation to pick and eat one of the tiny fruits was almost overwhelming!
No visit to a historic location would be complete without souvenirs, but so much of what is sold is cheap tat aimed at tourists. I searched the kitchen shop for a book on Tudor cooking to no avail, which seems a dreadful oversight given that Henry VIII’s kitchens are a major exhibit. In the end I selected a more general book—the heavily-illustrated official history of the palace, in the same series as the Tower of London history I bought last year—and a rather handsome pewter cup (right). The latter is pleasingly plain, with just a simple inscription around the base: “Make goode cheere who wyshes: Faicte bonne chere quy vouldra”. I look forward to drinking wine from it whilst working on the final book in the trilogy!
Way back in the early days of the internet, one of my favourite sites was Mark Rosenfelder’s Metaverse. Drawn there by the Language Construction Kit, I stayed for the geeky fun, which included a series of “culture tests“. It started with “How to tell you’re American”, but soon expanded to many other nationalities. In the spirit of internet continuity, but mostly because it’s a lot of fun, here’s my Elizabethan version…
If you’re Elizabethan…
You believe in the Divine Right of Kings and the authority of Queen Elizabeth, albeit advised by the lords of the realm and a parliament of commoners (after all, she’s only a woman!).
You’re familiar with Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Edward Alleyne, Will Kemp, Robin Hood and King Arthur.
You know how kicking camp and skittles are played. If you’re a member of the upper classes, you may also be able to argue the finer points of cricket or tennis.
You count yourself fortunate if you get Saturday afternoons off work. No-one works on the Lord’s Day.
If you died tonight…
You believe in both God and the Devil, but only those pesky Papists believe in saints.
You think of oysters and beer as cheap food.
Your place might not be heated in the winter and probably has an outdoor privy. You send your laundry to the laundress. You don’t kill your own food, unless you’re a member of the upper classes with a large estate. You might have a dirt floor; even if there are floorboards or tiles, you still put rushes down. You eat at a table, sitting on benches or stools (though the children might have to stand). You don’t consider insects, dogs, cats, monkeys, or guinea pigs to be food.
Between “black” and “white” there are no other races. Someone with one black and one white parent looks black to you (not that you’ve ever seen a black person, unless you live in London).
You respect someone who speaks Latin because they’re better educated than you, but anyone who speaks French–or worse still, Spanish–is probably a spy for the Papists.
You don’t take a strong court system for granted. You know that if you commit treason (or are merely suspected of it) you can legally be tortured, and the sentence if found guilty is to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
School isn’t free, but your nearest town’s grammar school may offer scholarships to bright boys. You can go to university (Oxford or Cambridge) as young as 12, but 15 or 16 is more usual. If you’re a Catholic, you can attend university but not graduate; if you’re a girl and your father is progressive, you might have a private tutor since you’re not allowed to be educated alongside boys.
Everybody knows that
Mustard comes as seeds or powder; milk comes in buckets from the milkmaid
The date cometh first, and may be measured in terms of the current monarch’s reign: xxviij day of July, in the thirtieth year of her glorious Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s reign (and you know what happened on that date).
If a man has sex with another man, he is a sodomite and liable to prosecution (but nobody really worries about that sort of thing unless minors are involved).
If you’re a woman, you don’t go out in public with your hair uncovered unless you’re young and unmarried.
Marriages are made for practical reasons like having a helpmeet and siring an heir; love matches are all very well in plays but they don’t put bread on the table. Only very rich people marry before their twenties, and then only for dynastic reasons.
Marriages are normally conducted in church, although in theory you can just exchange vows before witnesses and then live together
Giving gifts to important people is an accepted way of oiling the wheels of state, not bribery and corruption
Contributions to world civilisation
You’ve given the world Shakespeare – what more does it want? (although you prefer the city comedies of Middleton, Dekker and Jonson).
Your navy is the envy of Europe, although mostly the other countries accuse your captains of being nothing more than pirates.
The Queen’s father invented the Church of England and her brother turned it into a thoroughly Protestant sect, though not as extreme as those strange fellows in Switzerland and Germany.
You’re the only country in Europe ruled by a woman, which also puzzles the foreigners. The Pope has declared her a heretic, which only makes you hate Catholics all the more.
Your capital, London, is the largest city in northern Europe and one of the fastest growing.
Your country hasn’t been conquered by a foreign nation for over five hundred years.
There are no police, only poorly paid, elderly watchmen who patrol the streets after curfew. If you’re a man, you carry a weapon for self-defence, most likely a cudgel (a stout stick about three feet long) or a dagger, or both. If rich, you might wear a rapier, but if the blade is more than forty inches long the city guards will break off the excess before allowing you into London. Of course you can always bribe them not to…
The biggest meal of the day is dinner, eaten around noon (or a bit later if you’re upper class).
If a woman is plumper than average, it doesn’t harm her looks. But gentlemen definitely prefer blondes – or redheads like the Queen. Only peasants have suntans.
You’re probably a farmer; if not, you’re a shopkeeper or artisan.
You care very much which family someone comes from, although it’s possible for a clever man of humble birth to rise to the highest (non-royal) offices in the land.
You’re used to limited choices in what you can buy, and you probably make a lot of items at home, particularly shirts and underlinens.
If you fall ill, you’re probably safer if you’re poor; the local cunning man or woman knows a lot about herbal cures. Doctors are expensive and as likely to kill as cure you.
The normal thing when a couple dies is for the entire property to go to the eldest son.
You’ve probably never ventured more than a few miles from your home town. Anyone wandering the Queen’s highway without an official warrant can be arrested for vagrancy. If you wanted to travel overseas, you’d need to apply to the Privy Council for a passport.
Travel is horrible anyway; the roads are dreadful, and carriages with proper suspension are a new-fangled foreign idea that hasn’t really caught on yet. If you have to travel and you don’t own a horse, you might resort to hiring one from a livery stable.
Christmas is in the winter; if you’re a Puritan, you don’t celebrate it. There are no Jews, as they were expelled from England in the Middle Ages.
One of the issues that keeps coming up in reviews of The Alchemist of Souls is my portrayal of the non-straight characters. Readers who know the period praise the authenticity, whilst those who know little about Elizabethan culture seem surprised by it. Rather than comment directly on individual reviews (which seldom reflects well on the writer), I decided to discuss it here.
Partly it was a deliberate choice to play down any homophobia – I didn’t set out to write an LGBTQ novel, so I didn’t want that aspect to overshadow the plot. However the more I researched the topic, the more convinced I became that it would not be a big issue for my characters, for several reasons.
Firstly, there’s the matter of differing social mores. Nowadays men and women are more-or-less equals, but they remain differentiated by expectations of how they conduct platonic relationships. Women’s friendships are expected to be affectionate, and it is acceptable for such feelings to be displayed in public with no assumption that the relationship in sexual in nature; in comparison, men are expected to be emotionally distant, and any physical contact is limited to horseplay.
Elizabethan men, by contrast, were legally superior to women and had very different expectations from women as to their role in society, but the social behaviour of the two sexes was less well differentiated; strong, emotionally deep friendships between men (based on ideals from both medieval chivalry and the Bible) were considered quite normal, and male friends could walk arm-in-arm or even kiss without any sexual connotation. Also, in this period a brief kiss on the mouth was a normal social greeting, no more sexual than a peck on the cheek. Hence I considered it entirely plausible for my gay male characters to express their affection for one another without social approbation, as long as they weren’t too blatant.
In this period, male and female dress was distinguished by cut, not by the fabrics used. Silk, lace, embroidery and jewels were markers of status, not gender, giving rich Elizabethan men a decidedly effeminate appearance to modern eyes. Portraits of young men and women can be hard to tell apart!
Perhaps under the influence of Greek literature, homosexuality in this period was conflated with pederasty. In both the poetry of the time and the legal cases that have come to light, the relationship under scrutiny was nearly always that of an adult male and an adolescent boy. The sexualisation of boys was further entrenched in English urban culture by the theatrical practice of having female roles played by boys and young men.
Until relatively recently homosexuality was not seen as a permanent orientation, equivalent to heterosexuality, but as a pattern of temporary behaviour and an indicator of moral degeneracy. Satirists described the fashionable bachelor as spending the afternoon with his mistress and the evening with his catamite; both relationships were considered equally unmanly and foppish, transgressing normal, respectable standards of behaviour.
An additional factor was surely that this was a highly segregated society where female virginity had both moral and monetary value, and where formal education and most professions were male-only. As in modern-day boarding schools and prisons, many men must have resorted to homosexual practices as a physical outlet. As a result, a Renaissance man who had sex with another man didn’t consider himself gay, any more than does the guy in prison who makes you his bitch.
Indeed the Venetian authorities were so worried about the proliferation of sodomy that they decreed that prostitutes should bare their breasts in an effort to persuade young men to part with their money! The bridge where the prostitutes displayed themselves is still known as the Ponte de le Tette (above).
Given all these factors, I imagined a culture where gay relationships between adults could slip under the radar, or even be tolerated in certain circles: amongst the more intellectual coteries at court, for example, and most likely amongst the theatre fraternity, which has always attracted outsiders. In other words, exactly the social circles that my characters move in.
I attempted to include some dissenting voices, through characters who openly disapprove of Ned and Gabriel’s relationship as well as through Mal’s ambivalence about his own dealings with Ned, but perhaps between subtlety on my part and lack of historical context on the readers’, I have perhaps not struck the perfect balance. This is always a problem for the writer of historical fiction – how to portray people from another era, whose attitudes were in many ways alien to ours, in a way that readers can relate to. But if the past was just like the present day, where would be the fun in writing about it?
A lot of the fun of writing fantasy is in the world-building, which consists largely of taking a bunch of ideas that you find cool, and fitting them together into something new and interesting. When creating a secondary world, you’re free to take absolutely anything you like and try to make it work, but in historical fantasy, you’re somewhat more constrained by facts. Note that I say “somewhat more” – there’s still leeway to make connections that would have you laughed out of your undergraduate history class, but as long as you can make a convincing case to your readers, you’re good to go.
The “connection” I made in the world of Night’s Masque is that there is somewhat more continuity between the Viking voyages across the Atlantic and the later voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries. Whereas in our world the earlier voyages seem to have been largely forgotten, in Night’s Masque at least some of this history has been preserved, albeit in garbled form.
My original impetus was that I needed a name for my New World non-humans, and I liked the anglicised version of the Viking skræling (their word for Native Americans) that I’d come across in Michael Moorcock’s recent Elric novels. It suggested something otherworldly and slightly sinister – just the thing for my fanged and tattooed traders!
I decided that the Vikings of Night’s Masque had brought back stories of these enigmatic people, and that the name had been preserved in folklore for five centuries, until John Cabot’s voyages to Newfoundland revealed them to be real. However this was the only historical link I foresaw between the 11th and 16th centuries – until earlier this month.
According to Viking legend in our world, their ships used magical “sunstones” to navigate, but until recently this was dismissed as just another fanciful storytelling element. However, careful research into the polarising properties of a piece of calcite crystal found in a shipwreck have shown that it could indeed have been used for navigation.
So far so cool – I love anything to do with ancient technology, particularly when it turns out to be far more advanced than we like to give our ancestors credit for. But what really gave me a Twilight Zone moment was the identity of the ship on which the sunstone was found. Not a Viking longboat, but a 16th century warship that sank near the Channel Islands.
The Elizabethans were using sunstones, just like the Vikings.
My immediate reaction was: whoa, cool! And then, damn, why didn’t I think of that first? The trouble with realistic world-building is that you don’t want to push the coincidences too far, or you risk breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction…
The mundane explanation is no doubt that sunstones continued to be used in Northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. But I like to think that, in my alternate history at least, the Vikings took their sunstones over to the New World, and the skraylings adopted this new technology for their own navigation and traded the stones with Elizabethan sailors. Let’s face it; it’s a much more interesting explanation!
This year my focus has been on the second book in the Night’s Masque trilogy, The Merchant of Dreams. As the title hints at, this installment is set (partially) in Venice, a favourite city of mine. However I haven’t been there since 2003, so I was very keen on making another visit to do some research – and of course enjoy some fabulous Italian food whilst there!
We flew out the evening after FantasyCon, which was perhaps a mistake – I soon discovered that I had a dose of “con crud”, and the flight over the Alps was rather painful with bunged-up sinuses. However I kept my cold under control with regular doses of echinacea and paracetamol, and overall the trip was wonderful. The city was as beautiful and atmospheric as I remembered, the perfect setting for a historical fantasy novel.
First up: our accommodation. I found this place online, and the idea of staying in a real Venetian house rather than a hotel was irresistible. I haven’t decided yet whether this exact house will appear in the book or whether I will just use some of the details, but either way, it was a useful part of my research as well as a brilliant place to stay.
My main research consisted of visiting a few locations I intend to use in the book, as well as just soaking up the atmosphere for inspiration. First up was a visit to the Doge’s Palace, where we took the Secret Itineraries tour: a look behind the scenes at the offices, torture chamber and “the Leads” (i Piombi), the attic cells where Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned in the eighteenth century. The torture chamber was surprisingly civilised in appearance, just a high, narrow wood-paneled room, with a heavy rope hanging from the ceiling above a set of wooden steps. The Venetians’ approach to torture was very simple: suspects were placed in adjacent cells where they could see and hear everything that went on, then one victim was subjected to the strapado, i.e. hauled up on the rope by his hands, which had been tied behind his back. Very, very painful, and thus very effective at loosening the tongues of both victim and observers. (Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the palace or even make written notes, so I will have to rely on my memory for any details I might use in the book.)
We also visited the Fondaco dei Turchi (now the Natural History Museum), for reasons that will become clearer when the book is published! I was more interested in the building than the museum exhibits, which range from the fascinating (dinosaur footprints) to the macabre (a collection of stuffed animals formerly belonging to a big game hunter), It wasn’t all dead things, however; in the garden area outside we spotted a hummingbird hawkmoth, though sadly he moved far too fast to be photographed.
Whilst not exactly research, I did make the most of our trips to various restaurants, including trying out local specialities like sarde in saor (sardines in a “sweet-and-sour” marinade). I can particularly recommend Ai Assassini, tucked away in a side street near La Fenice, where I enjoyed some amazing prosciutto crudo, as rich and soft as butter; and Poste Vecie, said to be the oldest restaurant in Venice. At the latter I had another delicious Venetian speciality, seppie in nero (cuttlefish cooked in its own ink) – the restaurant is right next door to the Rialto fishmarket – followed by a glass of grappa di prosecco in lieu of dessert. Poste Vecie was founded around 1500, so don’t be surprised if it makes a guest appearance in The Merchant of Dreams
Of course the reason Venice became so rich was that it was the nexus of a vast trading network transporting luxuries from the East into Europe. No trip to Venice would be complete without buying a few luxuries of my own, including some that you may see me wearing at a future convention! (see photo)
I also bought a gorgeous leather-bound journal – almost too nice to use! – and some comestibles: a small packet of chocolate-covered ginger, a jar of enormous olives, and a bottle of Prosecco to toast the handover of the manuscript of The Merchant of Dreams. I guess it’ll be a while before I get to that one…
Savvy historical writers have long known that children’s non-fiction is a great resource. Books like Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections Castle or Man-of-War provide visual references unparalleled in adult history books – perfect for helping you plan out that seige or pirate attack! Children’s books also include many of the minutiae of daily life that get overlooked in discussions of the decline and fall of empires. It’s this attention to often bizarre detail that makes Horrible Histories a must-watch show for any writer of historical fiction. It also happens to be damned funny…
When the BBC expressed an interest in adapting Terry Deary’s wildly popular children’s history books for television, he was naturally a little apprehensive. Surely the venerable institution wouldn’t be able to replicate the anarchic humour of the books – or wouldn’t want to? Fortunately a wise BBC executive handed the project over to Caroline Norris (Dead Ringers, The Armstrong and Miller Show) whose used her experience in adult comedy to brilliant effect. The result is a cross between Monty Python and The Fast Show, except with the sexual innuendo and swearing replaced by jokes about poo and farting. Well, it is aimed at 6 to 12 year olds!
It succeeds by never talking down to its audience; whether parodying reality TV or explaining the English Civil War in a manner more reminiscent of an election night broadcast, it always acknowledges that kids are well aware of the adult world and want the same quality of entertainment as their parents. And with a cast of familiar faces from comedy shows like Gavin and Stacey (Mathew Baynton), Jam and Jerusalem (Simon Farnaby), That Mitchell and Webb Look (Sarah Farland) and of course The Armstrong and Miller Show (Martha Howe-Douglas and Jim Howick), adult viewers can be forgiven for forgetting they’re watching kids’ TV at all.
The show has become a huge hit, and has even been revamped (with Stephen Fry doing the between-sketch links) and given a new Sunday evening primetime slot. Ironically, the “grown-up” version is far nearer what Deary anticipated in the first place. Fry’s avuncular delivery of the linking material is ill-suited to the tone of the sketches at best, and patronising at worst. It’s as if the BBC is afraid that adults won’t think the show educational enough unless they inject some solemnity into the mix.
Not that I care. I have the DVDs of Series 1 and 2 on order, and Series 3 is still on iPlayer. I wonder if I can write the cost off as research expenses…?
I had planned to do a classic movie review today, but I got so caught up in planning Book Two of my Elizabethan fantasy series yesterday, I didn’t get around to watching any. So instead I’m stealing a leaf out of Mark Chadbourn’s blog and talking about how I research my novels, since that’s a topic uppermost in my mind at the moment.
Non-fantasy readers tend to think that the genre has an “anything goes” attitude, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. All good fantasy writers set limitations on what’s possible in their made-up world. What can magic do, and what can’t it do? Which fantastical creatures (if any) are real, and what are their characteristics/powers? Without limits, anything is possible and thus tension and suspense are deflated.
Historical fantasy is even more constrained, in that we have to take the real events of history into account and decide how closely we are going to follow them. You can’t fudge the facts entirely, or your setting will come across as a cheap Hollywoodesque pastiche of the period. Indeed, a careful adherence to fact will set off your fantasy elements far better, by anchoring the strangeness in a reality as solid as our familiar 21st-century world. On the other hand, you could spend a lifetime researching a well-documented era, just as a creator of a secondary world could spend all their time world-building, and never get around to writing the book. So what do you do?
I approach research in layers. To begin with, I know an awful lot of basic information about sixteenth-century Europe, and Tudor/Elizabethan England in particular. We studied the period in primary school (aged about 11) and again in grammar school (aged about 14), and ever since then I’ve read countless non-fiction and fiction books on the subject, watched numerous films, TV series and documentaries, seen eight or nine of Shakespeare’s plays performed live, and visited a great many historic buildings, from Hever Castle in Kent to Plas Mawr in North Wales. None of this was research for a specific book, just a general interest in the period. And yet it all builds up into an almost instinctive feel for place and character that you can’t get by doing six months or even a year’s intensive research.
Still, you do need specific research on top of that base layer. There are bound to be real locations you want to use but are unfamiliar with; before revising my first novel, I hadn’t set foot in the Tower of London since I was ten years old, an omission that I was quick to remedy! I ended up doing an awful lot of additional reading in order to nail the details for that book, because I wanted it to feel real. The two pubs mentioned in the first scene of my book? Both real – and the one favoured by the actors was one of Edward Alleyn’s known haunts. Admittedly I had to make up the descriptions of each place, because the buildings no longer exist, but the writer’s aim should be to merge fact and fiction so that the reader is never aware of the seams.
A lot of writers seem to be unable to resist the temptation to put every last bit of their research on show. Look how hard I worked! their book shouts. I always remind myself that the story comes first. If a historical detail is relevant to the story, or helps to set a scene without bogging down the action, then fine. I needed names for the two pubs, and authentic ones are no more intrusive than made-up ones. But if one reader in a thousand really wants to know all the different types of wood that go into making a lute, they’re going to have to read about it somewhere else, because I’m not going to bore the other nine hundred and ninety-nine.
At the moment I’m embarking on a fresh draft of a novel set at least partially in Venice. I visited the city back in 2003, before I ever conceived of writing Elizabethan fantasy, and fell in love with the place, so I drew on those memories when planning the first draft, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2007. At that time I also did some general research into Venetian history and politics, to get a feel for the kind of story that would be plausible in that setting. To me, a plot should grow out of the unique characteristics of a culture, not be imposed from outside. Otherwise, why bother to set it there in the first place?
For this next phase, I’m going to be doing some more reading and googling, but again, not so much that I put off writing the actual story. After the next draft, then it will be time for detailed research: accurate descriptions of buildings, fashions and artifacts, authentic names and titles. In other words, the set-dressing that will bring the city to life. Of course this is a great excuse to visit Venice again (and claim the expense against taxes this time!), but until I have the story sketched out, I won’t know which places I really need to visit when I get there, so I won’t make efficient use of my limited time.
You’re probably thinking this is a heck of a lot of work – and expense – for a fantasy novel. Perhaps it is. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.