|In the original French!|
My appetite whetted, I began to read historical fiction, something I hadn't really done before. My reading tastes had always been wide-ranging, but historical fiction hadn't particularly featured. However, as I became immersed in Thibaud's 12th century world, I began to seek out medieval and other period tales of romance and derring do. If Desert Crusader was the spark to ignite my desire to write historical novels for a living, then the novels listed below (just a small sample) were the books that entertained me, became good friends, and taught me about the craft of writing during my years in the wilderness. I wrote my first novel for my own pleasure when I was 15. It took me another 17 years before I was eventually picked up by a leading London literary agent and obtained a mainstream publisher.
With my interest in all things Holy Land, I loved The Knights of Dark Renown by Graham Shelby. I loved his gritty, realistic take on the dying years of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Around this time I also discovered the works of Roberta Gellis. Her protagonists were imaginary, but very firmly embroidered into the history of the period and she used primary sources as part of her research. The books straddled the line between historical romance and meatier historical fiction and I was captivated by her blend of romantic realism. She showed me that it was possible to write historical fiction with a love story and avoid making the characters modern types in fancy dress. These were living, breathing people of their time, so real that I swear they almost materialised in front of me. Forget the typical cheesy cover. I cite Roberta Gellis as one of the writers from whom I learned a great deal.
One author with whom I struggled was the late, great Dorothy Dunnett who has an MBE for her services to literature. On a couple of occasions I would borrow her books from the library, give them a go, and struggle to find the magic. But something made me persevere, and one day, (probably when I was grown up enough!) I suddenly got it. It was as if a key had turned in a lock and admitted me to a magic garden full of wonderful language and history unlike anything I had ever known. I was hooked, and Francis Crawford of Lymond became one of my 'must have' heroes along with Ian de Vipont from Gellis' Alinor. Dorothy Dunnett remains in a league of her own. I particularly enjoyed her work for the creative and lyrical use of language. She was a true painter with words, and she made me stop and think about choice of words and imagery.
Dunnett, Gellis and Penman all painted their novels in rich, bold colours, sumptuous and vibrant. Another favourite author of mine, Cecelia Holland, tended to use colours that were starker, more wintry, but nevertheless so gutsy and powerful that once again her characters walked off the page and into my room. I learned from her that everyone has an individual voice and that the writer must play to his or her own strengths. Cecelia Holland's novels are gritty and unconventional, and that's part of what makes them must reads. You end up caring about and being fascinated by people you would not expect to like in a million years. The squat, ageing Mongol hero Psin in Until The Sun Falls, for example, or the grizzled old earl Fulke of Stafford, world-weary and harsh, struggling to stay alive in the Stephen-Matilda conflict in Hammer For Princes. I became so involved in their lives and troubles that I didn't want to say goodbye at the end of the novel. Again, here is an author writing so vividly that the history lives and you want to be part of its fibre.
Readers often have comfort reads. Books they turn to when they are in the reading blahs, books they have enjoyed so much that they will stand any number of re-reads. I so wish that Grace Ingram had been more prolific. She has less than a handful to her name. As Grace Ingram she wrote Red Adam's Lady and Gilded Spurs. As Doris Sutcliffe Adams she wrote No Man's Son, Power of Darkness and The Price of Blood. The latter three all cost an arm and a leg on the second hard market and I haven't yet read them because of that. Red Adam's Lady though is a small but wonderful historical novel, part mystery, part romance. Witty, engaging, clever and thoroughly researched. It's also a deceptively easy read. You don't have to work at it the way you have to work at Dunnett, and really there is no comparison because they are both shining examples of their place in the market. This author's work deserves to be made available again. Any publishers reading this, take note!
Another of my influences was Ellis Peters who was a lot more prolific than Grace Ingram. Under the name Edith Pargeter, she wrote meaty historical novels, such as the Brothers of Gwynedd quartet, The Heaven Tree trilogy, and stand alone novels such as the fabulous A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury. In the full light of the mainstream though, she is best known as Ellis Peters, author of the Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries. I first came across these when I bought One Corpse Too many from a book club. It was still early days, Cadfael was barely a speck on the horizon of reader awareness. I loved this book from the start, although taking the whole into consideration, my particular interest was with young Hugh Berenger, Cadfael's sidekick, who became one of the crushes of my reading life. I still have a soft spot for him today. Again, it was the author's grasp of the history of the period, her descriptive skills and her vivid characterisation that made me a fan. As with the others, I would sit down to try and analyse how she did it, and end up forgetting to do that and just reading the novel for itself. That's the mark of a skilled author.
To finish my run through of the books and novelists that inspired me before I was published and also brought me great joy as a reader, I have to mention two great ladies of the genre - Anya Seton and Norah Lofts. Already well known, Seton became a household name with one of the 'big' books of historical ficiton - Katherine, the story of royal mistress Katherine Swynford, who then became wife to John of Gaunt and an ancestor of the Tudor dynasty. I enjoyed Katherine, but have to say that my favourite Seton is Avalon, perhaps because it covers life in 11th century Scandinavia, and that makes it very different. Once more, the vivid, descriptive story telling shines through.
Norah Lofts was slightly more prolific than Seton, she was also often mentioned on the same page as Jean Plaidy, but in my opinion, she far outstrips Plaidy in the richness of her prose and her story telling ability. My favourite of all her books is Madselin, the tale of an English wife, forced to come to terms with the Norman invaders and the knight who comes to take her former husband's lands. I confess to using Norah Lofts as a yardstick against which to measure my own writing abilities before I was published. If wanting to write like Dunnett was an impossible dream of touching the stars, then Norah Lofts was a slightly closer constellation only just beyond my fingertips.
Certainly all the above inspired me, encouraged me to strive, and one day I might just get there!
Elizabeth's latest novel The Summer Queen was published by LittleBrown in hard cover and e-book on the 20th of June.