Thursday, 24 September 2015

COMMERCIAL HISTORICAL FICTION: A New Voice




For my monthly post on The History Girls blog I am interviewing Joanna Courtney about her debut novel, THE CHOSEN QUEEN, the first in a trilogy about the women of the Norman Conquest.  Its general target is the commercial sector of historical fiction aimed at the female market and I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone setting out in this arena for the first time.

Disclaimer:  I have to say right here at the beginning that I haven't read the novel because at some point there may be a conflict of interest and I want to keep my own way clear, but that doesn't prevent me from welcoming Joanna and asking her about her experiences.


So first things first: What is the book about Joanna?

I went round various explanations to answer this but they were full of spoilers and in the end I think the blurb probably says it best:


As a young woman in England’s royal court Edyth, granddaughter of Lady Godiva, dreams of marrying for love. But political matches are rife while King Edward is still without an heir and the future of England is uncertain.

When Edyth’s family are exiled to the wild Welsh court, she falls in love with the charismatic King of Wales but their romance catapults her onto the opposing side of a bitter feud with England in which Edyth’s only allies are Earl Harold Godwinson and his handfasted wife, Lady Svana.

As the years pass, Edyth enjoys both power and wealth but as her star rises, the lines of love and duty become more blurred than she could ever have imagined. Then, as 1066 dawns, she is asked to make an impossible choice. Her decision is one that has the power to change the future of England forever…

How did you come to write The Chosen Queen? Was it a subject you were keen to write about initially – i.e were the women of the Norman Conquest always on the cards? 

The trilogy was not so much a game plan as an evolution. I’ve always been fascinated by the past. I remember, as a child, visiting Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh and standing over the (presumably re-touched) bloodstain where David Rizzio was murdered by Lord Darnley, and being forcibly struck by the reality of standing on the same spot – the very same boards – where the killing had taken place.

That sense of the layers of human experience through time has remained with me always and when I studied English Literature at university, I found myself gravitating towards Medieval and Arthurian Studies. I was fascinated by the idea of context – of the cultural lives that surrounded these stories. A story told out-loud to a post-feast crowd of Vikings would have very different aims to a nineteenth-century novel, designed to be read in private. I wanted to understand more about those differences and inevitably, I guess, that led me into learning more about the way lives were lived in the past. The more I learned, the more I was gripped and I wanted to explore that in my fiction.

Then, a few years ago I was commissioned to write a local history book about a village in Leicestershire near where I grew up and during my research I discovered that the Domesday Book assigned the land to Queen Aldyth, wife of King Edward, later to be known as ‘The Confessor’. I looked into her life and was instantly gripped by the fascinating Godwinson family. When I decided to write historical fiction, therefore, I turned to her and my first novel was about her life as King Edward’s queen. My agent and I didn’t manage to find a publisher for that novel but Natasha Harding at Pan Macmillan enjoyed it and so, thankfully, looked out for my future work. When, therefore, I submitted my second novel – what would become The Chosen Queen – she was on the alert for it and to my delight she really liked it and Pan Macmillan offered to sign me.

Did you have a game plan in mind? 
In truth, The Chosen Queen was originally written as a single novel but then, about two days before she was due to submit it to publishers, my agent, Kate Shaw, phoned me up and said ‘by the way, everyone is after trilogies at the moment – do you think you could come up with the blurbs for two more books?’ Needless to say I had a bit of a panic at first but then I had a flash of inspiration – there were three kings fighting for England in 1066 so there must have been three queens. Some swift research led me to Elizaveta of Kiev and Matilda of Flanders and within the hour I knew that I had my other heroines. Now I really cannot imagine any of the books without the others as the three seem to fit together so well to tell the story of 1066 from all angles, so I’m eternally grateful that Kate thought of it.


How did the title come about?

The title was a problem for ages. I originally called the book The Half Year Queen as Edyth was Queen of England for more or less half a year. I liked it as a title but the problem was that Edyth was also Queen of Wales for nine years so it didn’t seem to do her justice. We worked on different ideas for ages and in the end it was really a team effort byt Pan Macmillan to come up with The Chosen Queen, The Constant Queen and The Conqueror’s Queen as a nicely matching set.


What would you say from your point of view have been the main challenges in writing commercial historical fiction? 

I sometimes think that us historical writers must be mad as we are setting ourselves the task not just of creating a good story but of trying to create one that is, in some way, ‘true’. That makes it more complex in many ways (though not necessarily more difficult) than writing contemporary novels. For me the key challenges were probably:

· Voice. I really struggled with getting this right at first and I think the awkwardness of the voice in my first novel about Queen Aldyth was the main reason that it was rejected. It’s vital to find both a narrative style and a way of writing dialogue that sounds natural to the modern reader but not too modern. It’s really an issue of being convincing. Readers need to be able to get under the skin of the heroine, so I feel it’s important not to make the language too stilted or clumsily archaic so that it draws attention to itself, but it’s also got to feel appropriate. In fact, of course, my characters would be speaking a totally alien language – something akin to Norse, more like Scandinavian than modern English – so it’s a conceit anyway, but the feel of the novel still needs to be correct to allow readers to immerse themselves in the historical world. It’s a very fine balance and we did a lot of tweaking on tone and linguistic style during the editing process.

Names. Some Saxon and Viking names can be very hard to pronounce and they run the risk of jarring on a modern reader’s internal ear and breaking the flow of the read. In the end, we chose to modernise some of the trickier names. Some readers don’t like that, and I do sympathise as this was one of the hardest decisions we made, but equally I’ve had a lot of readers come back to me saying that they don’t usually read historical fiction but really enjoyed The Chosen Queen and I think that is in part because we’ve tried to make it very accessible. Changing names does feel a little like messing with history but it’s also true that many names, especially of women, are not recorded or are recorded differently depending on the scribe so I don’t think it’s a real problem. I also chose to change some names because so many of them tend to be called the same thing and that can get very confusing in a novel. There are, for example, a lot of key ‘Edyths’ in the Saxon period which is why I chose to have Edward’s wife as Aldyth and why I adapted Harold’s handfast wife from Edyth Swan-neck to Svana. Similarly, when it comes to the Normans it’s rare to find a man who isn’t called William, so I’m having to juggle with that issue at the moment as I write the third book.

Cultural attitudes, especially when it comes to women. The feedback from my first, rejected, novel about Queen Aldyth was that publishers wanted a ‘feistier’ and ‘more relatable’ heroine and I do think that readers of commercial historical fiction – myself included – want to really drop into the heroine’s world so it’s all about finding what makes them human within their world. Telling the women’s side of history inevitably means that it is going to be less about the key facts as we know them – the battles and political issues that were documented – and more about behind-the-scenes conversations and influences. This, inevitably, has to be made up by the author and again it’s a juggling act between drawing the reader in and not seeming anachronistic. 

I think it comes down to how much emphasis you put on story and how much on history. For me, although it’s vital to get the history right, my key aim is to give my readers a really good, dramatic story. I like to find a strong shape to events and to keep the ‘cast’ as tight as possible and explore their interrelations and motivations to create an emotional pathway that brings the documented events to life in a believable and exciting way. It’s possible that in doing this I create more overtly emotional relationships than would truly have existed but I still feel that real history is about what happened between the headlines and that means a lot of time in which people talked and joked and danced and ate and went to bed together. It can’t all have been stilted and formal. People were living their lives, just as we do, not sitting around waiting to become ‘history’ and drawing on that is probably what makes my work much more ‘commercial’ than ‘literary’. As a result it may be less pure in creating a true feel of the past, as Wolf Hall, for example, does so well (or seems to do – how can we ever know?) but if it entertains and grips a reader and offers a vibrant sense of a fascinating period then I’m satisfied.

How much research did you have to do to feel confident enough to write about a period as far distant as the 11th century? Did you research first and write afterwards, or were the two intermingled?

I’ve done loads of research. This is partly because I love it and partly because I feel I owe it to my readers to make my work as accurate as I possibly can. As to when I felt ‘confident enough’ to start writing – I’m not sure I ever did! I’m a novelist not a pure historian and I think there will always be someone out there who knows more about the minutiae of my chosen period than I do, but hopefully I can bring it to a wider audience through fiction.

For all three books I’ve done a solid period of research before I even started writing. I tend to start wide, absorbing everything I can find on the period, the country and the key characters, and then I hone in a little as the story starts to take shape in my head. As I’m writing, however, I definitely leave big question marks and notes in the text of things that I need to check – often small details like what they might eat at a particular feast or what the places they visit might look like. I remember when I first read your novels being fascinated by the detail that they all carried their own eating knife and I think it’s genuine touches like that, that can really draw a reader into your characters’ world.

The research for the three books overlapped, to some extent, but there was still lots to do that was specific to each one. Book 2, for example, The Constant Queen, is set in Kiev, Norway, Iceland and the Orkneys so there was loads to learn about those places and it was fascinating to have my boundaries opened up and to see the Saxon world in a wider European context. It makes you really aware of your own ignorance as it took me ages to grasp the nature of Norway today, let alone a thousand years ago, but I feel the richer for it and hope that I can translate that knowledge fluidly for my readers. Book 3, The Conqueror’s Queen is all about Normandy and, to some extent Italy. I didn’t realise until I started my research that the Normans were conquering in Italy at the same time as their eyes turned to England and I spent a lot of time looking for connections between the two that I could use to widen and deepen the storytelling.

The fact remains, however, that there is only so much research it is possible to do in this period. There are, and no doubt always will be, many gaps in our knowledge of the Saxon period. That’s a frustration as a researcher but it’s a gift as a writer. I love the process of sifting through facts and gradually creating a historical picture into which I can insert my own interpretation of not just how things might have happened but why and, perhaps most importantly of all, what impact that had on the people they happened to. I think that as a novelist, it’s important to remember that research is there to facilitate the story and not the other way round and at some point you have to draw a line around the study and just write.

Allied to this and again, with challenges in mind, did you think anything about the differences of a thousand years ago would be particularly difficult for a modern audience to assimilate and how did you deal with it?
For me I think the key problem, as discussed above, was establishing believable emotional attitudes for my characters, especially the women. In addition to that, though, I think there is a particular issue in writing about pre-conquest England as so little physical evidence of it remains in our landscape. Apart from a few grand churches, Saxons (as I’m sure you know) classically lived in wooden halls, their estates and villages protected largely by wooden, palisade fencing. Wood does not endure and so their structures have long since decayed back into the ground and whilst there are some wonderful reconstructions (for example Regia Angolorum’s Wychurst), I don’t think this mode of living is present in the general consciousness as much as, for example, Norman castles are. The first castles weren’t built in England until King Edward’s reign and then only in the Welsh marches by Normans who had come over with him and yet they are perceived as being classically ‘English’. Conveying an older way of living to a reader without sounding like you’re lecturing them is tricky.

That said, I am now writing my third book about William and Matilda and that is presenting me with a new challenge as many of their residences are still there. I’m planning a trip in the next few weeks to see Caen and Rouen and other key locations as it’s so important to get the setting right but it’s expensive and time-consuming and as I have school-age children it’s also hard to organise so I can’t do this sort of research as much as I would like. I’d love to travel everywhere I write about (I especially hanker to see Iceland) but that’s just not possible if I want to have a family life and actually find time to write the novels too! Luckily there are many excellent books and studies to help and the internet, although at times a precarious resource, is wonderful on providing pictures so that all helps.


And similarities? What unites us with that period? I often think that one of the strengths of mainstream historical fiction when at its best is to show us as we were then rather than distant beings under layers of dust, but still in full context of their period. Any thoughts? 


I totally agree with this and undoubtedly what fascinates me about history is not the differences between then and now, but the similarities. Next year will be the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and whilst in some ways 950 years is a long time, in terms of the evolution of humanity, it’s nothing. I can’t help feeling that it’s arrogant to assume emotions are a modern invention. Saxons, Vikings and Normans, I’m sure, would have loved their children, fought with their siblings, made and lost friends, laughed and cried, hurt and grieved, and fallen in love. Yes, they had to accept different rules about who they could marry, especially higher up the social tree, but the heady thrill of love is not new and there are plenty of unusual matches and babies documented to attest to that. 

Without getting too graphic, I cannot see how two people in bed together are going to be very different be they under Saxon furs or a 21st-century duvet and I don’t suppose ‘50-shades’ could teach your average Viking much either! I’ve read your books for years and I do think that your bedroom scenes are really well written and that they underpin your novels beautifully, not for the sexual content as much as for the chance to create emotional connections between the main characters. For example I remember in your William Marshal books, you using the idea of a woman going on top –banned by the church - to create a sense of a solid and real relationship that could forge forward in the outside world and I think that sort of intimacy can really bring historical fiction to life.

I firmly believe that the people living in pre-conquest Europe were similar to us in all the essentials of being human. A young woman having to meet her handsome suitor in muddy clothes would feel much the same then as now, and the fact that those clothes are a gown and cloak has little impact on that core experience. I feel that it’s the duty (and joy) of a commercial historical novelist to make the most of those touching points to bring history to life for the reader.

If you could take your readers back to that period for a day trip, what would you show them in 12 hours?


Wow – what a question! I often find myself thinking about the reverse – if you brought a Saxon to the modern day what would truly amaze them? Cars? Running water? Phones? Paracetamol? But the other way round is intriguing too and if there’s ever a trip on offer I’m first in the queue! 

I write mainly about high-born characters in this trilogy so I guess I’d like to offer people a chance to spend a full day at court during a key feast period. Highlights would be:

· The ladies’ bower - This fascinates me. The idea of a hall specifically for women is quite different to today in some ways, but I also suspect that it is not very far off, for example, a 1950s ‘sewing bee’ or even just a girls’ day out now. It would all, I imagine, be gossip and bitching and giggly friendships just as it is now, but it would be amazing to see it set around weaving looms and embroidery and with the different dresses and accessories.

· Martial training - I think we tend to have the idea that the men in these times were just natural fighters and it’s clearly not so at all. The high-born warriors were very much like elite athletes – they became good fighters from a huge amount of training, started at a very early age, and it would be wonderful to see that happening.

· Kitchens – I can’t begin to imagine how the poor cooks and servants fed halls full of important guests with just open fires to cook on and would love to see exactly how they did it.

· Latrines – I’m not sure I really want to see this but clearly toilets would have been a necessary part of life then, as now, and I imagine they would give the historical tourist a very strong sense of how life was!

· A feast - This would be the fun bit of the tour. I’d love to see and taste and smell a Saxon feasting hall. Modern life is very sanitised and I suspect this would be a much more sensory experience in both good and bad ways.

· Sleeping arrangements – Again I imagine this was much more rough-and-tumble then than now. I’d like to see a king’s chamber in all its fur-and-feather’s luxury but I would also love to see guest pavilions pitched beyond the hall and men sleeping on makeshift pallet beds within it. Humans all need sleep and I imagine that finding a bed at court would really help the time-tourist to feel part of their world.

· The Witan – If there was time I’d like to attend a ‘Witan’ or council. I’ve tried to create the feel of it in The Chosen Queen but as there are no contemporary descriptions of exactly how they worked (because why would there be – they all knew already!) but I’m not sure how accurate it is and would like to be present at one.

I think it will be a busy 12 hours!


Did you have any input in your book jacket? How difficult is it to navigate a path between historical accuracy and commercial concerns? (I have wrestled with this one on many an occasion!)

My editor at Pan Macmillan very kindly asked my opinions and involved me as much as she could in the process of choosing the cover, though at the end of the day the design was mainly down to their excellent specialist team. They arranged a full photo-shoot which was wonderful and I was sent reams of pictures of models to choose from beforehand which was really cool (my husband was particularly keen to help on that task!). They were all modern pictures so it was fascinating to pick out girls to be sent back in time and apparently they loved dressing up in the old clothes.

Those clothes were also picked by Pan Macmillan. I did big boards of suggestions, as did my editor, but in the end we had to go with what was available at the costumiers. This isn’t re-enactment where (as you know) everything down to the materials and stitching techniques, must be authentic, but a way of suggesting the period to the reader and we couldn’t be too precious about it.

The first sight of your cover is an amazing experience for any reader and almost a little overwhelming. I found it very strange looking my heroine in the face at first and it’s strange having to wait to see what feels like such an integral part of the book but the team at Pan Macmillan design their covers with real love and I think they’ve done a fantastic job. Although I think that self-publishing can be a really strong way to go these days, what I have found so wonderful about being with a traditional publisher is being part of a team, with experts to help with different areas - cover design definitely being one of those. Pan Macmillan put a lot of time into analysing sales data and reader feedback so that at the end of the day the cover is decided by pretty much everyone in the company which is brilliant.

I wrote short stories for over ten years before getting my novel deal (and still do) and in that industry it’s normal for titles to be changed without the author being asked and unseen pictures to be placed with it, so I’ve long since accepted the input of a design team who know their visual audience. It’s tougher with a novel as it’s very much your ‘baby’, but with Pan Macmillan it’s been a very inclusive process and the end result is brilliant and seems to really appeal to readers which is perfect.

I understand this is to be a three book series. Can you tell us about the other two? (unless you’ve already addressed that in an earlier question.

The Chosen Queen is, indeed, the first in the Queens of the Conquest trilogy, with the next novels, which will come out in 2016 and 2017, following the same period but from the viewpoint of the two other queens. 

Book 2, The Constant Queen, tells the story of Elizaveta, wife of Harald Hardrada, the Viking king. Elizaveta is princess of Kiev, but that doesn't stop her chasing adventure. Defying conventions, she rides the rapids of the Dneiper alongside her royal brothers and longs to rule in her own right as a queen. She meets her match when Harald - already, at only 18, a fearsome Viking warrior - arrives at her father's court seeking fame and fortune. He entrusts Elizaveta to be his treasure keeper, holding the keys to his ever-growing wealth - and eventually to his heart. Theirs is a fierce romance and the strength of their love binds them together as they travel across the vast seas to Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. In 1066, their ambition carries them to the Orkneys as they plan to invade England and claim the crown . . . 

Book 3, The Conqueror’s Queen, is about Matilda, eldest daughter of Baldwin of Flanders, a key player in continental Europe, and granddaughter to the great King of France. Highborn and educated, she believes she is destined for a great marriage until her father betrothes her to the upstart young duke of the new, seemingly insignificant province of Normandy – an upstart young duke, what’s more, who is bastard born and far more warrior than courtier. Matilda, having looked for an elegant, cultured and powerful husband seems to get instead a rough-edged soldier with more of a warband than a court. She will have to fight to make her place there and to work out how to form a solid and true partnership with the husband who will, in the end, take her to far more glory than she could ever have imagined.

Joanna thank you for your detailed insights and replies. I recognize and empathize with so much of this!  I wish you well as your journey as historical novelist continues!

3 comments:

Sue Purkiss said...

Have only had time to skim this so far, but will come back to it - am very interested in this period. Matilda - hm! There's a very odd story about the first time she met William, isn't there - must admit it put me off her. But then, a friend who's recently been to Normandy tells me she's held in great affection there - so there's obviously a great deal more to learn about her! Will look forward to reading your books.

Joanna Courtney said...

Lovely to hear from you Sue and I think you're talking about the 'rough wooing', in which William allegedly dragged Matilda through the streets by her hair when she refused him for being a bastard! This seems, however, to have been largely a 13th or 14th century 'romantic' (some romance!) invention. Although I'm sure William was pretty commanding, I don't think even he would have gone so far with a count's daughter!

Catherine Hokin said...

Very interesting especially about the research - as fiction writers its always a challenge to balance what we research with what we write, giving the sense of period without over-whelming. Interesting period to tackle, will look this one up.