It’s interesting to think about how contemporary details find their way into historical fiction. I’m not talking about errors and anachronisms, but how writers use what they see and hear around them and turn it into something else in their fiction. The locusts kept in a classroom by the creepy tutor in my new novel, for instance, are based on my own schooldays in north London when we had a huge vitrine of chirping locusts down one side of the classroom.
A lot of detail in my early medieval novels comes from historical research but equally a lot is contemporary experience that I’ve transfigured and transported back in time. I saw a couple parting from each other at a bus stop in Oxford and transformed that into an 11th century French countess separating from her Catalan lover at Narbonne Harbour. I had lunch with my Dutch neighbour and was transfixed by the beauty, verve and humour of one of her gay friends. He became the model for the Fleming lover of a 12th century Welsh princess. The appearance of the 10th century Count Audebert de La Marche in my second novel, The Viking Hostage, is based on a dear friend who died a few years ago. A scene where a 12th century lady is surprised by King Henry I with a magical birthday punt on the Thames at midnight, is based on my own midnight birthday punt with friends many years ago in Oxford.
Two of my novels are set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where I breathed the atmosphere of castle ruins, studied the lay of the land, their relationships to rivers, imagined how to break in or break out. I gazed at Carmarthen Bay seascapes from train windows and walked the Wales Coastal Path. I lurked in medieval ruins, accompanied by my long-suffering best friend, who had to frequently suppress the urge to say, ‘can we go home now?’.
I walked into the nave of the medieval church of Eglise Saint-Jean at Najac in France, and stepped on the coloured light patterns projected by stained glass windows. I imagined how it might feel for one of my heroines, to be stepping in silk slippers on these pools of coloured blue, red and yellow light, walking towards the altar to marry a man she had only met once before in a childhood betrothal. You never know how the present will turn out either, when you start making things up in fiction.
Tracey Warr’s new novel Conquest: Daughter of the Last King is published by Impress Books today.
*My blogpost title is a quote from Maria Loh’s marvellous book on Renaissance Artists (Still Lives, 2015).