HEAT. It's bad enough for those of us indoors, but as I sit sweating unattractively over my keyboard I can't help thinking of the British soldiers who fought under a baking sun at the Battle of the Alma. Laden with full kit, these men were so desperate with thirst that they stopped to scoop water from the river right under the fire of the Russian cannon. Those who passed through the Bourliouk vineyard snatched handfuls of grapes as they ran, and many of the corpses collected afterwards were found to have grapes still in their mouths, the skin unpopped between their teeth.
|The Alma the day I saw it
It wasn't the only fortuitous bit of weather. Travelling down from Simferopol Airport we passed through a section of fog so dense it made me think of the Battle of Inkerman, but when we stopped to ask directions the sight of a hitherto invisible road sign made the back of my neck prickle. Інкерман, it read. Inkerman. The fog lay as thick as it had in November 1854, and I was there.
|The battle of Inkerman
Luck, of course – but it’s the kind that seems to happen a lot with historical novelists. If you get five of us together with a bottle of wine then sooner or later the anecdotes will tumble out – lucky guesses with description, names and places we thought we’d made up and hadn’t, plot twists that turn out to have really happened. It seems at times more like serendipity – that moment where historical truth touches our own fiction, and the border between the two worlds melts away.
Nor is the phenomenon limited to novelists. My own first glimpse of it came 22 years ago when I was researching for a television project on the life of Woollarawarre Bennelong, and trying to find out what he saw and did on his visit to Britain in 1793.
Bennelong was an Aboriginal native of New South Wales, and the director was thrilled with the ‘culture-clash’ scenes of his hero visiting the theatre and being presented to King George, but we also wanted to touch something deeper – a trace of Britain’s own ancient heritage, and the way Bennelong might have responded to it.
The director was of the Eora himself, and simply desperate to do the scene, but unfortunately I found Bennelong lodged successively at London, Eltham and Frognal, and was rather unlikely to have taken a little daytrip into Wiltshire. Then I paid one last visit to the Newspaper Library at Colindale and found a little paragraph about Bennelong’s arrival in the London Times. Unusually, his ship had landed him at Falmouth, and a look at old maps told me the rest. The route he would have taken had been the regular Falmouth-London carriage road for centuries, and the relevant section is what we now know by the unromantic name of the A303.
I had a weird one with my first novel ‘Honour and the Sword’, when I needed a really good excuse for a French army to come charging over the Picardy-Artois border to help with my hero’s liberation. It was true the French crossed in 1640 in order to besiege Arras – but the location of my hero’s village was fixed by the plot-essential Forest of Lucheux some twenty miles to the west, and it was hard to justify an army going so far out of its way. In the end I came up with the idea of a distraction – that this was a second French army advancing on the Spanish strongholds at Aire and Béthune in order to fool the Spanish into drawing troops from Arras to meet them. It was maybe a little devious and far-fetched, but it was possible and it did the trick.
It was true, all of it. It really happened, and exactly for the reasons I thought I’d made up. Now that, as my Australian director would have said, is spooky.
Maybe literally. Lots of writers speak as if their stories and characters are real, and for historical writers it’s sometimes tempting to stray even further into belief. For ‘Into the Valley of Death’, for instance, I decided to make a plot character out of the mysterious ‘unknown officer’ who gave seriously dodgy orders at the Battle of the Alma, but when I set out to invent incidents to keep the story going I found he was already there. Balaklava, Inkerman, a strange cavalry patrol – the man had slipped under the historians’ radar for 150 years, but he was absolutely everywhere I looked. By the time I finished the book I was convinced the story I had written was more fact than fiction, and I’ve since been thrilled to find a couple of academic historians who agree.
|Maybe what my next book will look like...
But it’s not spooky. It’s deduction, that’s all, using the facts that exist to look for a pattern, and sometimes stumbling on one that’s real. If we start believing there’s more to it than that, then it’s time for the little men in white coats.
In my Crimean novel ‘Into the Valley of Death’ I established an English traitor and master villain with the innocent name of ‘Mr Shepherd’. For ‘Enemy at the Gates’ I’ve expanded his role to include the (genuine) network of local spies who did business round Balaklava, and needed the character of a young Crimean-Tatar wineseller to be one of those loyal spies. My knowledge of Crimean-Tatar is non-existent, so I googled to get a list of Tartar names and chose (randomly) the name 'Çobanzade’.
|Crimean Tatars 1862
As the book went on the plot expanded. I needed Shepherd to have had an affair with a Crimean-Tatar woman at least twenty years before the war, but for her to be still loyal to him now. It only took a minute to invent a reason for her continued loyalty – there was an illegitimate child and Shepherd is still supporting him. Better still, make the son the Tatar wineseller, link them all together and kill two narrative birds with one stone. Perfect.