We welcome Pat Walsh, writer and archaeologist to our blog today to talk about her novels set in the Middle Ages, featuring young William, a Hob, a Fay, a Dark King (he would say the Dark King), sinister Dame Alys and her white crow and several monks.
Pat agreed to answer questions on many aspects of her work, from writing sequels to the Black Death. Thanks for being such a patient subject, Pat.
HG You had a big success with your first book, The Crowfield Curse, which was a runner-up in the Times Children’s Fiction Competition. Had you really not written anything before? You seem to have sprung fully-armed as a novelist out of nowhere.
PW Far from it! I wrote several books before The Crowfield Curse which did the round of publishers and agents and garnered a nice big crop of rejection letters, and I’ve had a number of short stories and a novella published, in magazines and small press publications. Nothing is wasted, though, and those early books were a necessary part of the learning process.
HG Did you conceive the whole sequence as a trilogy from the beginning or did it occur to you in writing the first book that there was potential to extend the story?
PW It was always going to be a trilogy. The story would not have fitted into a single book.
HG Your training as an archaeologist might account for the number of things that are “dug up” in these books, sometimes with fearful results. Do you consciously draw on those skills when writing?
PW Not consciously, no, but all my life I’ve been fascinated by what might lie buried in the ground. On a dig, you never know what you’re going to find and that thrill of discovery has never left me. I think that sense of anticipation, of uncovering lost or hidden things, was inevitably going to find its way into my writing.
HG The Crowfield Demon is set very precisely in March 1348. Is there a special reason for this, which was a terrible plague year in Europe?
PW When I started the Crowfield Curse, the first book in the trilogy, I wanted to bring the Great Plague into it. It was such a terrible time in English history and so many strange ideas and beliefs grew up around the onset of the plague, that I thought it would make a very interesting backdrop for William’s struggles with the fay and the demon. However, it quickly became apparent that I would need to start the story a little earlier, and so the first book is set in the winter of 1347. The second book, as you’ve said, takes place in March 1348, shortly before the plague reaches England, so the plague does not make its appearance until the third book.
HG Poor William and the monks enjoy the most terrible weather! It seems always to be pouring with rain in this book as it was bitterly cold in the first. Will book three be set in high summer?
PW Yes, the third Crowfield book is a late summer book! Actually, the rain in the Crowfield Demon isn’t gratuitous – the spring and summer of 1348 really were that wet. Crops rotted in the fields and people were facing the threat of a very lean winter to come, with grain shortages for everyone, except the landowners and the rich, and starvation for many.
HG The History Girls would love to know how you set about researching the background for a novel set in the first half of the fourteenth century.
PW I’m lucky in that the archaeology unit I work for has a first rate library and several people who are experts in the medieval period. I made full use of both! The library has a comprehensive and up to date collection of archaeological books and journals and my research was, quite literally, from the ground up. One colleague in particular was immensely helpful. He is a medievalist with a special interest in monastic archaeology. He was able to point me in the direction of material that I would not have found on my own. A great deal of what I learned was not used in the books, but it is there in the background. I have also worked on a number of abbey and priory sites over the years, both on digs and post-excavation. You learn a lot about the day-to-day life in a monastic house that way. I even spent a year drawing the tiled pavements from a Cistercian abbey church, a job which drove me very close to the brink of madness!
I deliberately chose not to include the wider history of the period in the Crowfield books, but focus closely on the abbey and the two nearby villages, as I was not writing a straightforward historical novel. The fantasy element was always going to be the main focus of the story.
HG Can you tell us anything about how you found writing the sequel? Many of us have written trilogies and “middle books” are notoriously difficult.
PW I actually found it relatively easy writing the second book, probably because I thought of it as just carrying on with the story from first book. Having said that, I did reach a point where I had been with my characters for too long and needed to break away from them. I could not have sat down and started on the third book straight away. I’m writing a new book at the moment, set in the 10th century, and the change of voice and perspective has been wonderful. The third Crowfield book is planned out and partially written, but the break away from that enclosed world for a while means that I’ll return to Crowfield refreshed and raring to go.
HG We love the character of the Hob. He is funny, loyal and lovable, while remaining unpredictable. You hint as a separation to come from William, which would surely be as traumatic for readers as severing Lyra from her Daemon.
PW I think realistically, William and the hob will have to say goodbye at some point. William isn’t going to be a monk, so staying at the abbey for the rest of his life is not an option, and the hob is a forest fay. But who knows? Their paths may well cross again at some point. I have this image of Will as an old man, sitting by his hearth, mulling over the past with the hob...
HG Shadlock the fay is another great character. His destiny is now inextricably entwined with William’s. I don’t suppose you have give us any hints about book three?
PW In the third book, a fay war begins and Shadlok has no choice but to go up against the Dark King and to try and stop him from enslaving all the free fays in this world, but only one of them can survive. Meanwhile, the Great Plague reaches Crowfield. Who will live and who will die? And does the plague kill only humans, or are fays at risk too?
Pat Walsh was born in Kent, and spent her early years in Africa and Ireland. Her family eventually returned to the UK and settled in Leicestershire. From the age of nine, she knew she wanted to be an archaeologist, and she still works in archaeology today. Her first book for children, The Crowfield Curse, was shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House competition and the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, and was published in 2010. It is a historical fantasy, set in 14th century England. The second book in the series, The Crowfield Demon, was published in April 2011. Pat is now working on a new book, a ghost story set in the 10th century. A third Crowfield book will follow in due course.