How the Great Plague might change your writing

For a writer, no experience is worthless, however bad. No more immune from tragedy than the rest of us, writers can at least share that experience with readers, hoping that by doing so they may dull their pain, or that of others. Shakespeare lost his only son and in her enthralling novel Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell suggests it inspired him to write his greatest play, Hamlet.

Not long before Covid hit, I was reading another historical novel set during London’s Great Plague outbreak in 1665. Growing up in the UK I had learnt in primary school of the bare facts, the date, the Great Fire which followed in 1666, but it had no particular emotional significance for me. And reading that novel in the heady days of 2019, the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since 1348 was no more than an interesting backdrop to a murder mystery. I shuddered at gruesome and heart rending facts, thrown in as historical colour- the mass burials, the nailing up of doors of infected houses, condemning the healthy to die with the sick. But it had happened so long ago in another world. Nothing lingers in British folk lore other than (perhaps) a grim glimmer of memory filtering down the centuries through the prism of the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring of roses”.

And now, in the stark light of this 2021 day? I picked up my first novel The Welsh Linnet recently and reread the sections on “camp fever” (probably typhus) in 1643 Oxford.

“Stanley’s small and gloomy room stank of sickness… I would not have recognised Matthew … His eyes were immense in his face with the fever. There were tell- tale purple spots on his chest and arms. He felt very hot to the touch... As it began to grow dark, … the sick man spoke his first coherent words. “Nicholas, don’t die. Hold on, I’m here.” 

The Welsh Linnet by AJ Lyndon

The deadly sickness brought by armies to Oxford during the civil war was a convenient tool I used for development of the characters’ personal relationships, but if I were writing the book now, I believe those nursing the sick would be more fearful; and would spend time brooding on the random nature of the pestilence and praying for its end.

Perhaps it is natural that the reality of outbreaks of dangerous contagion, common throughout the world until discovery of vaccines, should have been forgotten by most people, even those born before the last polio epidemic in the 1950s.

Somehow I doubt that when this war against the 21st century plague is over, those of us who lived through it and survived will spend time reminiscing about the “good old days” of Covid. But for those of us who write fiction, whether we choose to omit any reference to these events from our fictional worlds or include them as a backdrop to thriller or romance, I do not think our stories will mirror those we might have penned in that parallel universe where Covid-19 did not exist.

It’s not only memories of diseases which disappear from collective memory. I have often wondered why the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the usual subject of this blog, have been forgotten more completely than Plague or Fire, almost as if airbrushed from history. They killed a greater percentage of the British population than the First World War.

Was it fear that dredging up any talk of the recent conflict might reignite the smouldering embers of discontent and revolution? Might bring back the days of daily fears – that today would be the day that brought death or starvation to their town or village in the shape of marching troops from either side. Or was it relief that with the Restoration of Charles II it was all over and best forgotten? An “enemy” had been defeated, but it was an enemy within and a brief flirtation with republicanism – the short-lived English Revolution which preceded those in America and France by a hundred years, had failed.

A literary critic, writing during the Franco era, dismissed George Orwell’s passionate account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia with the comment that “the Spanish are a fine people” and it did not do to dwell on the past. That patronising comment made me cringe. Yet I think I am a little more able to understand than I was 18 months ago, why those in England, Wales and Scotland who lived through the horrors of brother killing brother and friend friend, wanted only to resume whatever remained for them of “normal” life. Why they kept their memories to themselves and did not pass them down the generations.

The Rider of the Black Horse

I was quite content with the rider of the black horse scene until a member of my writers’ group suggested it could do with a little more tension in between the unpleasant enemy officer condemning the hero to immediate death and the timely intervention of a more principled (and historical) figure.

The scene took place near the English River Cherwell and the intervention took place beside a nearby, and imaginary, watermill. Several hours later I confessed to my husband I was having problems with the revised watermill scene. I had spent most of that time on Google, calling up photos, designs and online brochures of English watermills dating from Tudor times.

“They’re really quite simple,” he soothed. “No they’re not,” I wailed. “Where do I put the mill pond and the weir?”

“Are you writing an engineering manual or a scenic backdrop?” he asked. If he were the hero in a period drama he would have said it with a raised eyebrow, a curl of the lip or a flick of his tail coat. But this was 2020, so he grinned and went back to watching soccer on tv.

Suitably chastened, I decided the top floor of the mill could be referred to simply as “the uppermost floor” instead of spending a further half hour researching whether it was called the “bin floor” in 1644, because were they in fact using bins?Did any of this add to the tension? Probably not. And so, returning to my hero’s peril, I rewrote the scene and forgot about the weir.

Candles caused me to burn the midnight oil on other occasions (apologies). Those familiar with Jane Austen’s Emma may recall a character breathlessly extolling the virtues of a country house so luxurious that there are wax candles in the school room. Contemporary readers would have understood without explanation that inferior tallow candles were the norm for children, servants and the poorer classes.

Hours and hours of research ended with my characters trimming wicks and using snuffers and drip trays. Heady stuff! Did you know that self-trimming wicks were not invented until the 1800s? Or that “burning the candle at both ends” was literally that- setting fire to both ends of a rush light to maximise its feeble glow? My hero does this, poring over a hand drawn map of Cornwall as the roundhead cavalry make a daring midnight break for freedom.

And finally it was back to the point of that scene.

The mist clung to the fleeing horses and their riders, muffling the sounds of the 3000.

Another small victory during lock down, against the evil forces of Covid-19.

Original image by G Tozer

Bringing the dead to life

“He deserves to lie near his home, and not among strangers.”

“Nay, Sir. Let him lie. It will not bring him back; and making a great pother in the midst of war about one young lad is foolishness, when there are thousands like him who lie in mass graves.”

Writers are often asked why we write, or why we choose a particular subject. For me, the two are inextricably intertwined. Writing about 1640s England and Wales, I long to create a modest memorial to those who fought in a largely forgotten civil war which nevertheless shaped the freedoms that today we take for granted.

Those who died in the war were lucky if their place of burial was marked, or even known. The fortunate ended up in hallowed ground, a churchyard. Churches and cathedrals are sprinkled with memorials to gentlemen who died in the conflict. Inevitably it is easier to write about them because their names and families are known. One such memorial to a civil war officer in Cornwall and his sister inspired Daphne Du Maurier to write a romance, The King’s General, about the famous Cornish general Sir Richard Grenville and this real, but unknown gentlewoman, Honor Harris.

For me, a research trip in 2016 to the Cotswolds turned into something of a pilgrimage thanks to those memorials, one in particular. He was a captain in King Charles’s forces and he died in the last battle of the civil war. His father had him buried under the floor of the nave in the church a stone’s throw from where the fighting ended. It is an unusual grave because the metal plaque covering it had a full length carving of the young man. He is dressed in his uniform. His curly hair falls to his shoulders and his face retains a boyish roundness. Beside him is a musket, indicating he was an infantry officer.

I spent a long time standing beside his grave and when I got home to Australia, I Googled him and found his will online. In the 17th century it was unusual for men to make a will until they thought they did not have long to live. Most wills were written by fairly elderly men, not by a man of 21 who was unmarried and still living in his parents’ home. And then I realised he had done so because, in joining the army he thought, correctly, he might not have long to live. The date of the will may tell us when he received his commission.

As a gentleman’s son, he had money he had inherited from his grandfather, which was “still in the hands of my father”. I already knew the name of his father. From the will I discovered the names of his mother and numerous siblings. The will itself inspired my hero, Gabriel Vaughan, to make a will when he, too joins the king’s forces in my first novel, The Welsh Linnet.

But the young musketeer was not done with me. He became an important character in the sequel, and I have grown very fond of him, marrying off his sister Jane to one of my major characters, Harry. Here he interrupts Jane and Harry immediately after Jane has fallen from her horse and Harry has proposed to her.

He had clearly run all the way from the stables. He wore a torn leather tunic over shirt and breeches. From the smears on them he had been helping the grooms muck out the horses.

“Jane, have you been riding Beauty without my leave? She came back trailing a broken rein. What happened? Why are you laughing, Harry? It is no jest.”

His frown of annoyance was replaced by puzzlement as Jane, between gasps of pain, joined Harry in hysterical laughter.

It is August 1644, and he is about to join the army.

The new commission nearly came to grief as it was being passed from hand to hand and hot tallow dripped onto the parchment… The festivities in the great hall only ended when Jane belatedly remembered the sleeping puppies, now removed from her father’s closet to a corner of the disused minstrels’ gallery above them. The candles, in any case, were almost burned out.

The new officer has just over 18 months to live. He will be killed in action at the age of 23.

Reading the Past

An Unlikely Partnership

Ghost of the Bamboo Road (A Hiro Hattori Novel) by Susan Spann

Susan Spann has recently published Ghost of the Bamboo Road, (Simon & Schuster 2019), the seventh novel in her Hiro Hattori series, set in 16th century Japan. “Spann is meticulous about the details but weaves in various aspects of this medieval, foreign culture so skilfully, the reader is never taken out of the story with mere information,” was the verdict of the Historical Novel Society reviewer, Mary Burns, on the second book in the series, Blade of the Samurai. In 2015 Spann was chosen as Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year.

This ability to include enough detail, but not too much, is something Spann is conscious of when writing.

“I try to focus only on the details I need to immerse the reader in the time, place, and setting—and to keep the story moving,” she explains, “While still ensuring that the historical details I include are both accurate and historically plausible.”

16th century historical novels are more likely to tread the well-worn path of subjects like the Tudors, but Spann has always been fascinated by what Japan was like during that turbulent century. She has loved, and studied, Japanese history and culture all her life. In college, she majored in Asian studies, with a focus on medieval Japanese history, art/architecture, and culture.

“I have always liked the 16th century in particular because so much was happening (culturally and politically) in Japan at that time,” she says.

Spann acknowledges Agatha Christie as one of her all-time favourite authors.  Fans of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (Collins Crime Club 1934) will enjoy the claustrophobic atmosphere of protagonist and characters trapped in a snowy village.

Each novel explores different elements of the culture, despite being set in the same time and country. Spann does this by choosing victims (and killers, and methods of death) that allow her to send her detectives—and, by extension, the readers—into those particular areas. Ghost of the Bamboo Road delves into the culture of the supernatural, as well as the troubles faced by villagers in the remoter regions of Japan’s medieval travel roads.

Although resident in the USA, Spann makes regular research visits to Japan. When writing Ghost of the Bamboo Road, she hiked one of the ancient travel roads three times to get the details right. The characteristics of the road are not just interesting background; they are important to the plot. Spann explains why.

“Japan’s historical travel roads were frequently-traveled and well-maintained, but also subject to dramatic changes as a result of natural disasters,” she says. In several places, historians and priests explained the way the roads would shift in the wake of these disasters, often as a result of falling trees or landslides that damaged portions of the roads that ran through mountainous areas. I wanted Ghost of the Bamboo Road to include a landslide to force the characters to deal with the way the changing physical landscape had an impact on the roads (as well as the people who lived and worked along them)”.

The detective duo who feature in each of the books are an unlikely combination – a Japanese ninja and a Portuguese Jesuit priest. The ninja detective, and main protagonist, Hiro, was not the result of preplanning.

“In a sense, my ninja detective, Hiro, chose me,” she says. “He jumped into my head fully formed.”

The Jesuit priest, Father Mateo plays Watson to Hiro’s Sherlock Holmes. While narrator Watson’s solid common sense serves primarily as counterpoint to Holmes in terms of solving a problem, the dramatic contrast between Hiro and Mateo serves a dual purpose. It is also entirely possible from the perspective of authenticity.

“Since the mid-16th century was not only the height of the historical ninjas’ influence in Japan, but also a narrow window when Westerners (Portuguese Jesuits) were permitted to live and work in Japan, a Portuguese priest seemed like an excellent foil for Hiro, as well as a useful tool for translating Japanese culture to the reader.”

Rather than narrative explanations of burial practices, village superstitions and Japanese concepts of honour, the Portuguese priest constantly questions what is going on and why. This is a similar approach to the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus modern detective novels by Faye Kellerman (HarperCollins) where orthodox Jewish practices are explained through the technique of having a man brought up as a Southern Baptist (Decker) marrying an orthodox Jewish woman (Lazarus).

Spann is very aware of the Holmes and Watson parallels, but explains that in the case of her characters,

“Father Mateo developed into a far stronger character than I anticipated. I originally planned him to play the role of ‘Western Dr. Watson’ to Hiro’s Japanese Sherlock Holmes. In reality, each one brings unique strengths (and weaknesses) to what has become a far more balanced partnership,” she says.

Spann is committed to portraying “the culture and its people honestly and accurately.” She acknowledges that there were many things that are difficult for modern people to accept in the culture of 16th century Japan, and which she personally disagrees with. However (in comparison to, say Tudor England of that period) Japan was more enlightened in many aspects.

“16th century Japanese women were allowed to own and inherit property, to own businesses, and to belong to many artisans’ guilds in their own right’” she explains. “While many women were subservient, many others were independent, and many even took a leading role in their communities.”

Beyond that, she aims to avoid stereotypes and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

A.J Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She is writing a series set in 17th century England about the English Civil War. Book 2, “The Tawny Sash” will be released in 2020.

(This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website in 2020.)

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