“A surprising twist on the familiar folk tales and Arthuriana”—Publishers Weekly
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I’ve been thinking long and hard about some of the things that came up in my discussion with Dr. Gillian Polack in the CoyoteCon workshop on writing historical fiction set in the middle ages. She asserted that people write historical fiction set in the middle ages to explore the pageantry of the time, explore a thesis or educate the readers. My position was that you wrote historical fiction in any age to understand the people who lived then. After all, you can’t understand what pageantry is without understanding the people who celebrated it.
We also disagreed on where you start in writing historical fiction. She posted that you start with the history, and I wrote that you start with the person and then look to understand them in their culture at that time in history. Now, I firmly believe that you can not separate people from their history, nor from their culture, so in a way, we were saying the same thing, like two sides of a coin. You can’t understand people’s decisions, nor can you make sense of their goals and what they were trying to achieve if you don’t understand the history and the culture they lived in. However, what does it mean to start with history and culture, or to start with the person? Especially since the history, the culture, both impact the goals and conflicts that a person will face in their life. History will also impact their lives, as known events overcome them as the characters strive for their goals.
A person is much more than their time and place, however, their time and place define what the expected options are and offer up the consequences from deviation from them. As an example taken from my own fiction, a person in the eighth century France is not likely dreaming of a marriage to their beloved, but a person in the thirteenth century is not only likely to be hoping for a marriage to their beloved, their social institutions are changing rapidly to support these hopes while many held onto traditional views of parents choosing the right spouse for their children. So many of the stories of the era show this conflict unfolding. And if the character is from the south of France, they may be daydreaming of having many lovers instead of a loving husband, and the stories and songs of the region reflect this regional difference.
As an example, in the south of France, in the mid 13th century especially in the aristocracy, a woman was expected to court many lovers, and a man of station to court such women. In my Garden at the Roof of the World, the Lady Elisabeth du Chauvigny was raised to believe that one sought lovers, courting many a man to serve and worship her as their lady, but she lives on the edge of the ideas circulating in the north of France that one should marry for love. She lives in a region untouched by the Albigensian crusade, but the confusion of what is the right way to live and love complicates her life and makes her story that much more authentic to the time. As we live in a time when the definition of the right way to live out a loving relationship is also being redefined in our society, it is worth looking at her life and considering the impact of such change and confusion on the people we know and love.
Before you ask what kind of character you are writing, you need to understand the era, the culture of that time and place. That will help you define how others in your story react to the person, if their actions and decisions are viewed sympathetically or with disgust. However, in the end, a story is about a person striving, and every time and place have an infinite variation in the people who lived and strove. If you start with understanding the person, their goals, their hopes, their fears, their relationships and then put those things into the context of culture and history of the era, you will have a well defined person who fits within the history of the age, the culture of their society, and a story that pulls you into the richness of lives past and deeds worth telling.
W. B. J. Williams is the author of THE GARDEN AT THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, a medieval adventure fantasy released by Dragonwell Publishing on August 30, 2013.
What do women most desire? The answer to this riddle threads The Loathly Lady, an enchanting medieval adventure epic inspired by the old Celtic myth about the Loathly Lady and the Arthurian tales of chivalry. Here is what some of the advance reviews say about the book:
Publishers Weekly called The Loathly Lady “a surprising twist on familiar folk tales and Arthuriana”
A SF Crowsnest reviewer Kelly Jensen says: “I had a hard time putting ‘The Loathly Lady’ aside and the last hundred pages disappeared in a blur.”
Stuart Clark, the author of the acclaimed Project U.L.F. series characterizes the book as “Beautifully crafted. Lawson has created a world that leaps off the pages at you…A classic coming-of-age tale in a not-so-classic fantasy world…Thoroughly recommended!…Lawson puts a whole new twist on the fantasy novel. A must read.”
Here is what John Lawson himself says about writing this book:
Back when I was in college, to complete my foreign language requirements, I enrolled in a Middle English class. I was tired of studying French, and perhaps it appealed to me the idea of surprising some drunken fanfaron at the Renn Faire with my fluency.
It was much to my surprise (and pleasure) when I discovered that the class was less about the language and more about the literature. Just enough of Middle English was taught to enable us to read the works in their original forms. Term papers dealt with researching words so old and obscure, they weren’t even in the OED. Most of it was very familiar–Beowulf, Chaucer, Malory, de Troyes–but one piece came as a great surprise to me, The Tale of Florent by John Gower (an analogue to his friend Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tale), and I carried that story with me for over 20 years, waiting for the opportunity to use it. I have even kept the text book in which I first read it. (But please don’t look it up if you’re unfamiliar with it. There’s no need to spoil things.)
In previous interviews, I explained that in addition to exploring new regions of the world of the Seven Kingdoms, each of the books in the Witch Ember Cycle also carried a theme. The first book, Witch Ember, was heavily influenced by Arthurian Romances. The sequel, The Raven, borrowed from the Norse Sagas and Eddas. And Sorrow drew from Regency romances and Gothic horror. For The Loathly Lady, I wanted to create a fairy tale. As a prequel to Witch Ember, and with its Medieval setting, the book also leaned heavily Arthurian myths and fables, but really it was the tone of the old style Grimm’s fables that I wanted to capture. So I adopted as many of the conventions as I could. The themes of three. The repetition of introductions and alliteration. The nesting of stories within stories. And the fantastic and the grotesque.
Back in 2000, when I was writing Witch Ember, I was still carrying that Loathly Lady story around, and as the book developed, it became clear that two of the minor characters (who in fact ended up have a major impact upon the protagonist) were the perfect vehicles for my fable. It is with great satisfaction that I was finally able to bring their story to light. I didn’t so much as want to write a fairy tale as I did tell a story that could become one after, say, a 1000 years of retelling. I’d like to think that characters like Esmeree and Squirrel could be easily imagined entertaining young urchins gathered around the stage of the Mill, regaling them with the tale of Brandywine, the White Lady, and a dragon.
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Anna Kashina’s GODDESS OF DANCE has been displayed in a prominent spot at the Frankfurt Book Fair on the past weekend, features as the silver medalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year award.
THE GODDESS OF DANCE is the second installment in Anna Kashina’s Arabian Nights-inspired trilogy “The Spirits of the Ancient Sands”.