Writing Medieval England from Australia
'Write what you know.' It's what everyone tells you when you first start writing fiction, and it's excellent advice, particularly if you want to cut down on time spent on research. It's a rule I intended to keep, particularly after the success of Ghost Boy, my time-slip adventure for children with a flash back to Sydney's Quarantine Station and its grisly past.
Unfortunately Rule #1 went out of the window when it came to writing the Shalott trilogy. The idea of an Australian teenager trying to save the Lady of Shalott and change the destiny of Camelot haunted me for years before I finally committed myself to writing the first novel. From the beginning, the task seemed overwhelming. I had little knowledge of Arthurian legend and its origins, medieval society, the English countryside or even virtual reality, the time-travel device I chose to use. But the idea wouldn't go away; the character grew stronger, her sister and friends joined me in my head and their chatter kept me awake at night. I was haunted by the 'what if' questions that writers so often ask themselves: what if it's possible to go back in time and change history, rewrite a legend and save Camelot? What if, by their actions, the characters rewrite their own destiny and change our world? What if they're actually creating part of the legend while they're there? And so I abandoned Rule #1 in favour of Rule #2: write what you feel passionately about; write the story you have to tell.
After finishing the Shalott trilogy, I was determined to go back to Rule #1 – but I couldn't. I'd become enmeshed in medieval time. It seemed more real to me than real time. Besides, I had this new character chatting away in my ear...
Since embarking on my new medieval crime series for teenagers, I'm again questioning why I'm writing novels set in medieval England when I live in Australia. I'm no historian. In fact, I gave up history early in school because I found it so boring: lists of kings and battles in places I'd never heard of and couldn't care less about. I thought the historian H.A.L. Fisher had got it right when he said that 'history is one damn thing after another.' It wasn't until I started researching and writing the Shalott trilogy that I realised that history is actually about people: about power and ambition, about love and greed and jealousy; about doing what you think is right vs getting what you want, whatever the cost and to hell with the consequences. That's when my love affair with history began, a passion that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I'd already done an enormous amount of research for the Shalott trilogy, reassuring myself that any errors could be passed off with the explanation that, for the most part, this wasn't 'real' medieval time. Now, I was proposing to set a whole series in the 1140s, at the time of 'the Anarchy', the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin and rightful heir to the throne, the Empress Matilda. It was a frightening prospect because, this time, I really had to know what I was talking about!
I'd become fascinated with this period when researching it for a few scenes in the 3rd novel of the Shalott trilogy, when my character finds herself back in our world but in medieval time, and she interacts with the empress. It was a period of bloody unrest, of high ambition, betrayal and treachery, of cruelty and wanton destruction. The consequences, for barons and peasants alike, were devastating. In fact, it was perfect for my proposed scenario. And so The Janna Mysteries was born – in Australia.
First, I had to find a location for my character, somewhere that had seen some action during the civil war. I knew I needed a royal forest near an abbey, not too far from Winchester where the royal treasury was located. The forest of Gravelinges (now Grovely Wood) was the only royal forest in Wiltshire listed in the Domesday Book. It is close to what was Wilton Abbey. (Thanks to Henry VIII, the Earl of Pembroke's stately home now occupies the site). It's also near enough to Winchester for my character to bear witness to the devastation and destruction of the city when the armies of the empress and Bishop Henry of Blois, Stephen's brother, hurled firebrands at each other.
Locating a possible site on a map wasn't enough. I knew I'd have to visit the sites, to walk in the footsteps of my characters in order to create a convincing setting for them. To date, I've had two research trips to England, which have been expensive but invaluable. In fact, I couldn't write this series without having been there. Ideally, it would be wonderful to live there for a year, to become completely familiar with the sites (or what's left of them), to make use of the many wonderful libraries, museums, bookshops and other available resources, and witness the seasons change in the English countryside. Alas that's not possible. Instead, I am building up a library.
Biographies of Stephen and of Matilda, the chronicles of Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, and fiction set in that time (eg Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael novels and Sharon Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept) all supply facts and help to set the scene. Everything is helpful, from the delightful and graphic drawings taken from the Luttrell Psalter illustrating medieval rural life and life in an abbey, through photocopies of maps and extracts from the invaluable Victoria County Records, to A.L. Poole's Domesday Book to Magna Carta and other social histories. I also use various writer's guides including Everyday Life in the Middle Ages (Sherrilyn Kenyon) and an as yet unpublished mss by medieval scholars Gillian Polack and Tamara Mazzei. Illustrated children's books on life in the middle ages are also great, particularly those with layered and detailed diagrams of e.g. water mills, castles, manor houses and farms.
In addition, I now own books on birds, wildflowers, trees, historical costumes, herbs and herbal remedies including Anglo Saxon leechcraft, plus countless pamphlets and booklets about various sites of interest which I've picked up on my travels overseas.
The internet, of course, is also a fabulous resource – where would we be without Google? Maps and esoteric information, all available at the touch of a button: it's wonderful. I'm hoping the next development in Google technology will be the virtual reality experience, where I can do my research in medieval England without actually having to get on a plane and go there!
My advice to fiction writers of history? Australia has a varied and fascinating past to write about, with plenty of characters and incidents to inspire you. But if your heart lies in another country at another time, give in to your passion and go there – in your imagination even if not in reality.
The Janna Mysteries are published by Random House Australia.