Monday 24 June 2013

WHEN I GROW UP: The authors that inspired my journey to publication by Elizabeth Chadwick

I was fifteen years old when I decided that I wanted to write historical fiction for a career.  I had always told myself stories out loud but until my teens had never written any of them down, and none of them were historical unless you count the occasional Western adventure.  Frequently they involved  horses, or fantasy worlds with dragons. Now and again episodes of Star Trek would inspire my bursts of verbal fan fiction and indeed, it was the medium of TV that set me on the path to becoming a writer of historical fiction rather than the written word. With adult hormones kicking in, I harboured a deep crush for the knight Thibaud in the programme Desert Crusader, a series dubbed from the French and shown on children's television by the BBC every Thursday at 5pm.  I was glued to every episode and while all my friends languished over Jackie magazine photos of David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, my own fantasies revolved around life in 12th century Outremer.  It was at that point that I put pen to purloined school exercise book and began writing what initially started as a work of fan fiction, but swiftly developed a life and story of its own.   I still have that first manuscript at home in my drawer - and that's where it needs to stay I can assure you!
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.

If Roberta Gellis showed me that it was possible to write the romantic historical about imaginary protagonists, then Sharon Kay Penman taught me that it was also possible to write about real people and bring their stories to life, involving romance, but without warping the facts out of true. I had devoured her work on Richard III, The Sunne in Splendor, but her novel about the marriage of King John's daughter Joanna to Llewelyn Prince of North Wales was the one that really inspired me. The number of readers who love that book are legion; it's still one of my all time favourites.

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.


Sue Purkiss said...

A lot of these are new to me - thanks, Elizabeth! I do admire Dorothy Dunnet, though. Never knew Ellis Peters was a woman!

And isn't it interesting to see how cover art changes?

Caroline Lawrence said...

This is great, Elizabeth! Coincidentally, I just posted 12 books that altered my life at my blog (see Roman Mysteries & Western Mysteries on sidebar, right). And Waterstones is doing a fun thing – The Book That Made Me – which anyone can enter!

Miranda James said...

Roberta Gellis and Anya Seton started me on a road that eventually led to a Ph.D. in medieval history. Interesting to see how historical fiction can influence one's life! I know we're all thankful that you became so inspired by your reading that you chose historical fiction as your career. Long may you write.

Jen Black said...

I agree with most of your choices - especially Dunnett - but never heard of Gellis until today. Will see if I can find anything of hers.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Elizabeth - always interesting to hear who writers of your calibre are inspired by.

You share two of mine: Dunnett and Seton. And I am particularly drawn to your comment that Lofts is a constellation that is just above your fingertips. Perhaps Dunnett needs the Tardis for us all to reach her excellence.

I haven't heard of Gellis or Ingram and shall follow through, so thank you so much for an excellent reading list.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I have heard of most of these, though really only read Pargeter/Peters, Lofts and Penman. I never did get into Drothy Dunnett, though I had a similar experience with Tolkien. My fannish experiences were similar, with so much children's historical TV - Richard The Lionheart, Sir Lancelot, Tales Of The Vikings, Ivanhoe, and of course Richard Greene's Robin Hood, IMO the best of them. but there was Sir Francis Drake too, and a delightful series with Edmund Purdom, set in Renaissance Florence, The Sword Of Freedom, and The King's Outlaw, a French Canadian show set in France during the Hundred Years War, which was a sort of French Robin Hood. If you didn't become a fan of historical fiction after those, you never would!

I'm surprised you don't mention Rosemary Sutcliff, but you can't read everything. ;-)

sue laybourn said...

Great post.

I love 'Avalon'! It's my favourite Anya Seton novel by a long chalk, although they're all great. Nice to see mention of Celia Holland, 'Great Maria' stands out for me. Not crazy about Penman.
There are several authors who inspired me: Rosemary Jarman Hawley (especially 'We Speak No Treason'), Sarah Harrison and Diane Pearson. There are others, but those are the three that spring to mind.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Sue, I'd have been writing this blog forever if I'd mentioned all the others! I do wish I'd included Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills because they were definitely influences too. With Sutcliff, I loved Sword at Sunset. I always enjoyed her as a reader, but I don't think she was one of my influences. Same with Rosemary Hawley Jarman. I really enjoyed Crown in Candlelight and The King's Grey Mare as well as We Speak No Treason.
Great comments and reminiscences coming through everyone. Caroline, I will check out yours.

Helen Hollick said...

Gosh some of those covers brought back a few memories!

Unknown said...

Margaret Irwin was a favourite of mine when I was in my teens - she was responsible for my crushes on Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the Marquis of Montrose, and Robert Dudley.
It took me a couple of attempts to get into Dorothy Dunnett, but she's certainly close to the top of my list. She wrote a wonderful book about Macbeth, called "King Hereafter" which I would love to see re-issued as my old paperback copy is falling to bits.
And can I put in a word for the late Diana Norman? Writing under her own name and later as Arianna Franklin, her books are an absolute delight with much humour and some of the feistiest heroines around.
I also have a soft spot for Georgette Heyer......

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I wrote down all the authors you mentioned because I'd never heard of them. It would be neat to read some works by authors I'm not familiar with. Many of the subjects sound really fascinating. Always great to get ideas to add to my to read list!

Anonymous said...

Some of your favourites are also my favourites, among them Anya Seton's Catherine, and all of Sharon Penman's. That being said, my bookshelf groans under all my Elizabeth Chadwick's. I think I have almost every book you have written.
It's a good thing I never aspired to write historical fiction, I simply could not have compared. I will stick to writing poetry, and enjoy just being a reader of medieval fiction. You have succeeded magnificently!

Unknown said...

I was so glad to see a Norah Lofts novel listed. I love eveything she ever wrote.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I must say I'm not taken with most of these. And Graham Shelby is appalling. His main source (Runciman) has not worn well: a great storyteller, but now largely overturned by later research. (This is a problem with older historical fiction – so much is a hostage to fortune in terms of advances in research). I cannot forgive Shelby for his treatment of Conrad of Montferrat, whom I've research and on whom I've written non-fiction: it was complete demonisation on no evidence, even worse in the US edition which depicted him as a sexual sadist.