A Channel for Odysseus: On Wine-Dark Seas by Tad Crawford
BY AJ LYNDON
Before writing his two novels, On Wine-Dark Seas (Skyhorse, 2023) and A Floating Life (Arcade, 2014), Tad Crawford had a successful career as a writer of business books. Although it seems a surprising change of direction, “Passion for the material is the common thread,” Crawford explains. “In the case of my business books, I was moved by a strong desire to help artists with titles such as Legal Guide for the Visual Artist. With A Floating Life I wanted to delve into the nameless narrator’s midlife crisis.”
The impetus for On Wine-Dark Seas he says, “came from a dream of my father as a Greek youth wounded in the ankle. As I carry my father down into a necropolis, he ages and becomes lighter and lighter in my arms.” Trying to understand the dream, Crawford revisited The Iliad and The Odyssey and became immersed in the larger myth of the Trojan Cycle.
The story of his novel is set after Odysseus’ return. Crawford’s interest was in a father and son long separated. When Odysseus first sees his adult son Telemachus, he enlists him as an ally in the killing of Penelope’s many suitors. There is no slow building of a relationship between the warrior forced to go to war and his son who was a babe in arms when he departed. “The issue of how the long absence—twenty years, basically Telemachus’ entire life—will be bridged and the connection made real between these two men is left for after The Odyssey,” Crawford explains. How will Odysseus, and Telemachus, be able to live on an island where they have killed the sons of so many families? Some of what the future holds is in the prophecy given to Odysseus in the Underworld by Tiresias, who foresees a gentle, seaborne death when Odysseus had reached rich old age with his countrymen at peace around him. But what will be the relationship of father and son as each moves forward with his own life?
The decision to make Telemachus (rather than Odysseus or Penelope) the protagonist was largely due to Crawford’s starting point, the dream, which was a father-son dream. “That my father was wounded in the ankle immediately brought Achilles to mind and pointed me toward The Iliad and The Odyssey. That Odysseus didn’t want to go to war but went anyway touched the impossible predicaments with which life can face us,” he says. “Think of a boy who has dreamt all his life of a father he doesn’t know. He has his own story to tell, a story he can no longer contain.” The forceful voices of Penelope and Odysseus sound clearly in the narrative when they speak of their experiences and feelings to Telemachus.
On Wine-Dark Seas gives a portrayal of this time far different from what is offered by The Telegony, a lost epic poem which comes chronologically after that of The Odyssey, and is the final episode in the Epic Cycle. In writing his own version of events, Crawford rejects the version in The Telegony, which fails to incorporate the prophecy of Tiresias, invents sons not referred to in The Odyssey and has the son Telegonus kill his father Odysseus. On Wine-Dark Seas follows the events envisioned in Tiresias prophecy, resulting in a very different portrayal of what follows The Odyssey.
The Trojan wars continue to act as a magnet for modern novelists. Troy’s fall is covered in minimal detail in The Odyssey, Crawford says, with the endings of both The Iliad and The Odyssey leaving the reader with a sense of truncation. Other poems of the Trojan Cycle tell of the fall of Troy with the famous stratagem of the Trojan Horse. Odysseus recounts much of this to Telemachus, so the fall of Troy comes into On Wine-Dark Seas. However, to focus on the destruction of Troy would not have fulfilled Crawford’s goal to tell of an absent father whose adult son has no recollection of him when he returns from the war, he says.
On Wine-Dark Seas feels more like the epic poems it is based on rather than prose. Crawford explains that this was due to the nature of the source material that “overtook me. Often I felt I was a channel for the voices of Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope.” Writing the novel was a remarkable experience, he says.
With regard to future projects, Crawford does not rule out any theme. In his previous novel, A Floating Life, the narrator finds an older man who dreams of harnessing the force of water in service to humanity. That man, who runs a difficult-to-visit model boat shop, becomes a mentor, and helps the narrator find a new way forward in life. Currently he is writing a novel about another life passage—that of grief. “Perhaps the wind will fill my sails and bring me to harbour in another nautical-themed fantasy,” he says. “Then, if the winds are good, I might like to write another book about grief as portrayed in mythology (for example, Demeter and Persephone).” But Crawford’s readers will need to wait and see.
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in the Victorian Central Highlands in Australia. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil Wars. Her second novel, The Tawny Sash, will be published by Tretower Publishing on 30 May 2023. You can follow updates on her blog.
This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website https://historicalnovelsociety.org/a-channel-for-odysseus-on-wine-dark-seas-by-tad-crawford/
A Long-Running Island Love Affair: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman
BY AJ LYNDON
Sara Ackerman is unlikely to stop writing novels set in Hawai’i any time soon. This is good news for fans of her books. They could almost be called a series, but in fact each story features different characters and sometimes different time periods, although World War II is a recurring theme.
In many ways, as in her previous four novels, Hawai’i is the real hero of The Codebreaker’s Secret (MIRA Books 2022). The book’s dedication (Hawai’i has my heart) is an early indication of this, but many linguistic and other references to Hawaiian culture permeate every scene.
Ackerman says that Hawai’i is ‘both unique and misunderstood’. The islands were deeply affected by the war years. Both sides of her family were there during those times. She grew up on their wartime stories. Despite martial law, rationing, blackouts, racism and exploitation, people banded together to support each other through the tough times.
‘I really do feel like Hawai’i is its own character in the books,’ Ackerman agrees, adding that she tries her best to portray it realistically, as the multi-faceted place that it is, a place of great raw beauty. Yet it is not ‘all rainbows and coconut trees’.
The Codebreaker’s Secret is her first dual timeline novel. The earlier of the two timelines is set in 1943, during her favoured time period of World War II. Ackerman says that she has always enjoyed a good dual timeline novel, and ‘I figured it was time to try my hand at it’. It proved to be an even harder challenge than she expected. After talking to other authors to see how they approached the writing, she decided to write the 1943 story first, ‘so that I knew what happened’, and then layered in the 1965 storyline.
Events during the second timeline take place 20 years after the end of the war, during the grand opening of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller it was the first resort hotel on the island.
Deciding where to slip in the 1965 chapters was tricky she says, because of the need not to give things away – all ‘part of the magic of fiction’.
Linking the two timelines is the character Matteo Russi, the starting point for the plot. Ackerman wanted to write about a pilot on a top-secret mission and show him during the war, and then years later.
Ackerman has a graduate degree in psychology, so has always been interested in the psychological effects of war on combatants. ‘The things that these men went through was unthinkable,’ she says, and in this particular mission, (based on a true story), there was also some moral ambiguity. Trauma was not really talked about at the time. No one knew how to deal with shell shock, nor with the effects of war on internees, POWs and the civilians dealing with war on their doorstep on a daily basis.
Her interest in codebreaking emerged while working on her second novel, The Lieutenant’s Nurse (MIRA Books 2019). Reading about a shadowy, underground, top-secret place called the Dungeon, and its importance to the war effort, she knew she would like to write about it. A later discovery of the huge role that women played in codebreaking on the Japanese codes and ciphers gave her the Hawai’i tie-in that she needed.
Ackerman’s personal library provided much of the necessary detail on Pearl Harbor. But codebreaking was a whole new research area. In addition to reading specialist books on the activities and training of the men and women codebreakers, Ackerman took on the added challenge of learning the difference between a code and a cipher and trying to gain a rudimentary understanding of JN-25, the Japanese Naval Code that was allegedly unbreakable. ‘That these women were able to learn all of this in such a short time is nothing less than amazing,’ she says.
Her next book, Her Most Perilous Flight, will be set in 1927 during the golden age of flight and is loosely based on the infamous Dole Air Race. A dual timeline story, the events will take place on Hawai’i Island (the Big Island, as it used to be known). ‘It’s been fun veering away from the war years,’ she says, but as to veering away from Hawai’i? Ackerman says she has many other book ideas, but all are set at least partly in Hawai’i. ‘To me … it is simply home.’
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in the Victorian Central Highlands. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil Wars. She is currently writing her third novel. You can follow updates on her blog.
This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website https://historicalnovelsociety.org/a-long-running-island-love-affair-the-codebreakers-secret-by-sara-ackerman/
I Could Do Angels – An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets
BY AJ LYNDON
Jude Deveraux is the author of forty-three New York Times bestsellers, including Sweet Liar, the Nantucket series, and A Knight in Shining Armor. While she was first known for historical and contemporary romance novels, she also writes murder mysteries, time travel and paranormal.
When her agent suggested the multi-award-winning author might like to write a trilogy, he said that he would get her a co-writer if she came up with an outline. The stumbling block was his suggestion that it should feature vampires and she declined. “He said, ‘Zombies?’ Nope. I don’t like them either. I said, ‘I could do angels.’”
Within hours Deveraux had come up with the basic idea that a person had done something bad but for a good reason, so angels let him/her have a second chance. She could already see where the story was set. “Plotting has always been easy for me,” Deveraux says. Her mind was working so fast that she didn’t sleep that night. At 3 a.m. she started typing the outline of the series. Thus began the story of the Providence Falls trilogy, featuring a romance set in two different centuries, two different countries – and angels.
Keeping to his half of the bargain, her agent gave her a shortlist of three different authors to work with. Deveraux chose Tara Sheets, whose debut novel, Don’t Call Me Cupcake (Zebra Shout 2018) received the 2016 Golden Heart® sponsored by Romance Writers of America. Its plot also featured the paranormal.
Sheets, who has always been fascinated with “fables and fairy tales” says working together on the trilogy is “a fascinating collaborative journey. Jude has a wonderfully vivid imagination, and she’s the one who came up with the idea of Liam and Cora’s star-crossed love story as well as the setting in 1844 Ireland”. Deveraux laughs when she says that she believed her “outline was perfect. Tara had the wisdom to see that it had several plot holes. The list of questions and suggestions she sent me made so much sense that I did a major overhaul of the plot. Also, she came up with names for people and places — something that I struggle with.”
An Impossible Promise (MIRA 2021) is the second book featuring Irish rogue Liam. Transplanted from 19th century Ireland to 21st century North Carolina, he has one purpose in this life—to push Cora (the woman he loved in their previous life) into the arms of another man, Finn. The angels have warned him this is the last chance to save his soul. Cora doesn’t remember Liam or their past lives, nor is she impressed with his attempts to guide her in any way. In An Impossible Promise, Liam and Cora, now police officers, are partners on a murder investigation, drawing them closer together —exactly what Liam is supposed to avoid. There will be a final book, tying up the series and filling in the past of Finn, himself an intriguing character.
Sheets had not written a novel set in 19th century Ireland before, but she “jumped at the chance to help bring Liam O’Connor’s character to life” when Deveraux told her the premise. The small town of Kinsley, Ireland immediately began taking shape, and “the rest was, well, history”. Deveraux provided Sheets with “photos of houses and clothes, things that I love”. Sheets did most of the research, scouring historical records, news articles, and artists’ renderings from that time period.
Given their shared interest in the supernatural, it is no surprise to discover that both Deveraux and Sheets have been influenced by strange things happening in real life. Sheets describes her family living in a house in Cairo. “Lights turning on and off by themselves. Footsteps in empty bedrooms and hallways. The scent of old-fashioned rose perfume wafting through the library when no one was there. That experience definitely helped shape my interest in supernatural elements later when I began writing.”
Deveraux has also lived in Cairo, but in her case it was a 1709 house in England where she experienced “a ghost that made us all crazy for 3 days at April Fools. Tom thought it was hilarious to play annoying tricks on us. We got used to him, but he scared the daylights out of workmen. Telling them, ‘Tom will turn off the lights at 4,’ made them roll their eyes. Gravel flew as they sped out at 4:05.”
This romance/thriller/fantasy trilogy has perhaps created a new subgenre of historical novel. Sheets calls spinning so many elements together “an interesting challenge” but says that she would be happy if there were more books that straddled the line the way this trilogy does.
“I love mixing fantasy in my stories,” Deveraux adds. “Spirits from the past and angels helping people suits me completely!”
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th century England during the English Civil Wars. She has recently completed writing her second novel, The Tawny Sash. You can follow updates on her blog.
This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website https://historicalnovelsociety.org/i-could-do-angels-an-impossible-promise-by-jude-deveraux-and-tara-sheets/
Why churches are better than pubs
Nothing to do with praying although, back in lockdown for the sixth time in Melbourne, we could all do with a little prayer. But this is, of course, about writing. And, specifically, about recreating the past. Most churches, especially in Europe, have been there a very long time, 5,6, 7 hundred years and more. There are quite a few old pubs too but, unlike the pubs, churches usually retain their original names.
Cue repeated moans about the Globe Inn, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. Definitely old, 16th century without dispute. Was there when the roundhead army of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, arrived in 1644 in the middle of the civil war. Next to the bridge over the Fowey. Appearing in my second book as itself. But had to be “the inn by the river”, because the owner told me it had only been The Globe for a couple of hundred years. Then there is The Reindeer in Banbury, dating from 1570. In the absence of evidence of a name change I have assumed The Reindeer is the original name. But I have my doubts, and feel a little anxious whenever I reread the scene in my first book, The Welsh Linnet.
Even churches can be problematic. I have found quite a few that were rebuilt at some point. Usually the tower which may now be square and previously had a spire, that sort of thing. Fonts and pulpits may look ancient- but are they the originals? If only all churches had been left untouched with the original bullet holes, like St Lawrence in Alton.
As for the changing shape of old houses- probably one of the most famous is Hampton Court which has a Tudor front and a William and Mary back. Two totally different styles. Many owners of stately homes decided to improve and modernise, losing all trace of the original features in the process. In the late 17th century (Charles II era) a wave of Restoration optimism (or the damage of the civil war) caused the knocking about of many gentlemen’s houses. The better off remodelled and expanded (Boconnoc House for example) while many others such as Loseley House demolished a wing, either through dilapidation or to cut costs.
Basing House, pulled down on Cromwell’s orders after its capture in 1645, was ironically, falling down at the time. Its owner the Marquess of Winchester had been living elsewhere and only moved back into the immense Basing House when the civil war made him seek a more secure and defensible residence.
Using Boconnoc House as a setting for part of the plot would have been impossible if it hadn’t been for the kindness of the present owner and a recently written book on the history of the house. Writing a novel set in 1644 entailed reconstructing a house which faced west rather than east and was s-shaped with towers instead of square with no towers. But it is still surrounded by the deer park which was clearly visible on a contemporary map.
The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night…Gabriel and the remaining men crept in single file up the southern slope from the deer park (The Tawny Sash)
Sometimes I strike gold. The staff at Loseley House showed me a painting of the house with the west wing intact. The details of the layout are quite clear so that I was able to write things like
First removing their shoes so they would not make a clatter on the wooden floors, the brothers crept through the door from the west wing into the stables. They were crowded with tenants’ horses and wagons. (The Tawny Sash)
At Cardiff Castle a helpful guide was a bit surprised when I showed very little interest in the beautiful rebuilding and decoration from the 19th century but insisted in climbing to the top of the spartan but intact Norman keep and taking photos of it from all directions.
Terrain can be just as frustrating. Google maps is wonderful (especially satellite view) and where possible I tramp or drive around a location. But even visiting a location doesn’t always help. Trees for example are a perennial problem. The view from Edgehill in 2016
Apparently in 1642 there was a good clear view from the top. Sometimes a river has silted up (Fowey in Cornwall) or a canal has been driven through an area (Basingstoke Canal at Basing House in 1794). After all the mucking around in the Basingstoke area over the last 200+ years, the River Loddon is little more than a stream. But in 1644, wider, deeper and dammed to stop the enemy crossing, it would have been different. How different? After all the research, in the end I must fall back on my imagination.
This was no great stretch of water like the Severn. In summer it ran clear, and children picked the wild watercress, but not since damming the river had muddied its crystal waters, not since the war began. (The Tawny Sash)
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.
Why Flavius Ferox left Vindolanda: The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy
BY AJ LYNDON
Adrian Goldsworthy studied at Oxford, where his doctoral thesis examined the Roman army. He became an acclaimed historian of Ancient Rome, author of numerous works of nonfiction including Caesar and Hadrian’s Wall. But it is as a novelist, author of the Vindolanda trilogy, set in Roman Britain, that he has gained fame among readers of historical fiction – those who want the historic background to be a major player, not just light window-dressing.
In his new novel The Fort (Head of Zeus Ltd 2021), Goldsworthy once again features fictional Roman centurion and Prince of the Silures, Flavius Ferox, along with his usual entourage of “Vindex, Enica, Philo and co.” But this time the action takes place during the Emperor Trajan’s Dacian wars (modern-day Romania).
While Goldsworthy was an academic first, he says that he has always enjoyed adventure stories and historical novels. His first attempt at writing a novel was after finishing his doctorate – “a cold and damp winter when I had lots of energy and no money”. Ten years later he got the urge again, but he was told there was “no market for historical fiction, which never sounded right.” That second novel got him a literary agent “and a better class of rejection letters from publishers”, before, a few years later, he succeeded in having a novel published. Surprisingly, the story was set not in the Roman world but in the Waterloo era, another period which fascinated him. “Ultimately,” he says,” I write the sort of books that I want to read, but that do not exist – you just have to hope other people like them as well”.
In the meantime, Goldsworthy taught and wrote nonfiction, becoming so successful that he gave up teaching to become a fulltime writer. His aim as a historian was always to “convey why history is exciting, and to look at the big figures and the big events”.
When planning the Vindolanda series, Goldsworthy “was careful to set the … stories so that they just preceded the Dacian Wars”. In other words, the concept of adventures for Ferox in other parts of the Roman empire was there from the start, although it was decided to keep the initial trilogy in Britain.
One of his themes, he says, is “what it meant to be a Roman”. Ferox is a prince of the Silures, but educated in the Roman empire, a citizen and a centurion. In The Fort, the first of a second trilogy featuring Ferox, Goldsworthy lets Britons, specifically the Brigantes, “loose in the wider Roman empire, trying to get to grips with … the way the empire worked when they’re caught up in a conflict that they do not really understand.”
He decided to stick with Ferox and other central characters in the new trilogy “because there were more stories I wanted to tell about them”. But while they feature Ferox, Goldsworthy has tried to write them so that they stand alone, rather than being an obvious continuation of the Vindolanda series. The idea behind The Fort was to explore sieges in the Roman world. Goldsworthy enjoys the opportunities of playing around with ideas about how the Romans might have done things. Whereas a historian’s duty is “to say when we do not know something”, a novelist can have fun filling in the gaps in history. He has just finished writing the second story, THE CITY, which sends Ferox off to the east. The third one will be called THE WALL!
Goldsworthy’s fascination with Dacian culture is an important element of the book. Frustratingly, he says, while the “Dacians clearly were a remarkable and militarily formidable people”, little evidence survives about them, or the wars fought between Dacia and Rome. He wanted them to be different to the Britons, and also from the Sarmatians who appear in The Fort.
While most chapters are told from Ferox’s point of view, The Fort also includes chapters from the viewpoints of up- and- coming future emperor Hadrian, and Brasus, a fictional Dacian nobleman. As a central part of the novel is about a siege, Goldsworthy wanted it to show events from both sides. He also wanted the Dacians “to be human and not just faceless enemies”. Brasus is “a decent man, young and a little naive, who is forced to challenge some of the things he has been taught.”
Hadrian on the other hand is portrayed as utterly ruthless. Goldsworthy says that while Hadrian was “probably a very good emperor”, he was, like many successful leaders, “not the nicest person”. He says that Hadrian was clever and capable, but “could not resist showing off”. Goldsworthy has tried to reflect the negative commentary on Hadrian that is apparent in the few literary sources about his reign.
Hadrian received rapid promotion around the time of the outbreak of the Second Dacian War, but the reason is unknown. The war took the Romans by surprise, so that Trajan only reached the Danube after a good deal of fighting. It gave Goldsworthy “enough leeway as a storyteller to create the scenario in The Fort.” His fictional version of events offers a compelling reason for Trajan’s sudden decision to promote Hadrian. Goldsworthy says that he always tries to make the story “something that could have happened and does not conflict with any of the evidence”.
Goldsworthy’s complementary passions for history and writing fiction are obvious to anyone who reads his novels. “You do not write well about something unless you care about it,” he concludes, “and unless the world you create seems real to you”.
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil War. She has recently completed her second novel, The Tawny Sash. You can follow updates on her blog.
This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website. https://historicalnovelsociety.org/why-flavius-ferox-left-vindolanda-the-fort-by-adrian-goldsworthy/
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 young musketeer became an important character in my second novel The Tawny Sash, 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.