I would never have made a real historian. It was, with English, my favourite subject at school and like English I dropped it firmly after ‘A’ level. My history teacher understood. He knew that while I could churn out an essay with relative ease, my heart wasn’t in it. My first reaction to any piece of information is not ‘why’ or ‘how’ or, most usefully, ‘when’, but ‘what if?’ And maybe that’s what marks out a novelist from a historian and a historical fantasy writer from a historical writer.
I have never been overly interested in facts and knowledge seems to slip through my mind as if my brain were made of teflon. I have difficulty researching - a terrible confession- mainly because I combine this urge to ask ‘what if’ with a terrifying lack of patience and real research takes time - a lot of time. I tend to read something fascinating and lose interest in the actual, sidetracked by the ‘possible, if wildly improbably,’ and indeed by the ‘probably impossible.’
I am not saying I can’t do it - as we all know it is a necessity, but it takes an effort of will unless what I need to know is absolutely essential to the story. When I persist I discover that fact is often more interesting than fiction and patience is not only a virtue but a prerequisite for anyone trying to write a historical novel. Facts however have to be more than merely true in order to find a place in a narrative.
In researching Wolf Blood my last book I discovered two things that I longed to include but which, though true, simply didn’t fit in the story I was trying to tell. I tried to weave them in but they didn’t work and in the end my firm inner editor consigned them to the ‘trash’.
The first was this wonderful story Petronius’ Satyricon:
Once upon a time, when I was yet a slave, we dwelt in a narrow street — in the same place as Gavilla's house is now — there, as the will of the gods fell out, I fell in love with the wife of Terence, the tavern-keeper, the sweetest little duck you ever laid two eyes upon; and, by Hercules! 'twas for her good humour, I took a liking to her, and not for any other reason. Anything I asked her for I always got. If she made an as, I got half of it, and anything I had, I gave up to her to keep, and she never failed me when I wanted it. One fine day, her good man died in the country, and so I plotted means to get out to her by hook or by crook, for you may take my word on it, it's only when you're in a tight corner you know your friends. For good luck it happened that my master had gone to Capua to transact some business, and I took occasion of the opportunity to persuade a guest of ours to come for a walk with me as far as the fifth milestone; he was a soldier, and as plucky as the very devil. We set out about cock- crow, and the moon shone as bright as day. Jogging along, we didn't feel weary till we found ourselves at a burying-place. My man began consulting the stars, but I sat down humming a song, and started counting them.
Happening to glance round at my companion, what was my surprise to see him take off his clothes and lay them by the roadside. My heart sank down to my boots at the sight, and there I stood, rooted to the
spot; but he made water all around his clothes, and was forthwith changed into a wolf. You needn't think I'm humbugging — no, I wouldn't — no, not for a million; but as I was saying, after he was transformed into the wolf, he commenced howling, and fled into the woods. I didn't know whether I was on my head or my heels for a while, when stooping to pick up his garments — they were turned to stone. Well, I may tell you, if ever any one was ready to drop with fright, I was that time.
However, I drew my sword, and hacked at imaginary spectres all the way till I reached my sweetheart's house. I got in pale as a ghost, not a kick left in me, and the sweat was running down my fork with dread; my eyes were glassy, and I had like never to have recovered from the fit. Melissa wondered what had me out so late, and says she: "If you'd been here sooner, you might have been some help to us. A wolf came into the farm and attacked all our flocks — a regular slaughter he made. But though he escaped, he didn't get off scot free however, for our serving-man ran him through in the neck with a spear."
After hearing all this, I couldn't lie wider awake that night if I tried, and as soon as dawn came, I got up and started back for my master's house, as if the devil himself were after me. When I came to the spot where the clothes were turned to stone, there was nothing to be seen but a few spots of blood on the ground. At last when I got home, there was my bold soldier stretched out on his bed, bleeding like a bull, and a doctor bandaging up his neck. It was only then I knew he was a were-wolf, and from that day to this, I couldn't bring myself to break bread with him — no, not if you were to kill me.
Now those that don't like to believe me can do the other thing ; but, so may your good genii help me, what I say's nothing but the plain truth.
The second thing that I was desperate to include was the winter festival of Lupercalia which persisted well into the Christian period. The origins of it seem a bit hazy, though it is linked to the founding of Rome and the myth of Romulus and Remus but who could resist a festival in which young men run round the streets naked or dressed only in the skins of sacrificed goats, striking people with thongs? In the original draft of my novel my soldier changed into a werewolf on the night of the festival and all kinds of shenanigans ensued, but, in the end, it proved too difficult to provide a context in which such a thing made sense.
As a novelist I have to select where I place my window into the past and discard what won’t fit my recreation of it. That makes me a bad historian, as my history teacher rightly recognised, but I hope it makes me a better novelist.
N.M. Brown's Wolf Blood is available in paperback and kindle.