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Monday, March 5, 2012


Historical research is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you must do enough to be able to make readers believe in your fictional world. On the other hand, if the novelist falls too much in love with her own research and puts too much of it into the narrative, she is in danger of boring readers.

Some years ago, I was asked to assess a manuscript for a beginning novelist. Her story was set during the Monmouth Rebellion (an attempt to overthrow King James II in 1685) and included a sub-plot involving piracy. One scene in the novel involved an attempted seduction, on a beach at night, while the pirates, unknown to the lovers, were unloading illegal alcohol. So the million dollar question is, will the seduction be completed or will the pirates stumble across the lovers and kidnap them or worse? So far, so good, until the author began describing the seducer removing his mistress’ clothing. This went on for several pages and listed in meticulous detail every item of clothing the girl was wearing. Long before the end of it I had almost lost the will to live! Clearly the author had undertaken meticulous research into costume, but had used it at the expense of the tension she should have maintained in the scene.

We must always remember that historical fiction is fiction first and history second, if at all. The novelist doesn’t recount history, she re-imagines it. Bearing this in mind, when I began to think about writing the book that became THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, I began by trying to think my way into the mindset of an eleventh century European (an anachronistic term, I realise, but one which I hope enables me to avoid the politically charged nomenclature which still surrounds the Norman Conquest). It struck me immediately that perhaps the biggest difference between us and our medieval forbears was something which needed no book research at all. The world in which they lived was dark and silent, ‘lit only by fire’, as William Manchester puts it in his idiosyncratic but entertaining summary of Europe’s emergence from medieval murk into the Renaissance. I had to begin by imagining my way into a world without electricity, telecommunications or the internal combustion engine and it seemed to me that, by our standards, this world would have been very dark and very silent. I was helped, I might add, by an opportune four day power cut in our village which gave me some limited practical experience of living without electricity!

Before actually starting on research into the Bayeux Tapestry itself, I also read as much medieval writing as I could find, on any subject, because I believed this would help to give me a sense of the workings on the medieval mind. I read Bede and Trotula, a thirteenth century bestiary helpfully glossed by Richard Barber, and most importantly, perhaps, the Norman propagandists Wace and William of Poitiers, and Orderic Vitalis, a monk who was among the first generation of Britons of mixed Norman and Saxon parentage, and who gives us our first considered opinion of Odo of Bayeux – a man ‘more given to worldly affairs than to spiritual contemplation’. From this eclectic set of sources, I began to develop a sense of how my characters might think, feel and believe, and what might have informed actions which, to us, seem eccentric, ignorant, barbarous and warped by chronic superstition.

Only once I had done all this background work was I ready to begin researching the Tapestry itself – only to discover that we know virtually nothing about it! There is no certainty about who commissioned it, although Odo is widely believed to have been behind it because of the frequency of his appearances in it and their invariably flattering nature. As William’s half-brother, he could be seen as an authentic and authoritative spokesman for the new regime, giving weight to the pro-Norman story it spins in its main narrative. Although its style seems curiously muted for a man with Odo’s flamboyant reputation, scholars have evidence that it is closely related to a type of narrative embroidery associated with Nordic culture. It may, therefore, have been chosen to emphasise the Normans’ Viking origins, to ram home the message of conquest on a subliminal as well as an overt level.

The liminal, if not the subliminal, is where the Bayeux Tapestry becomes most mysterious. While its main narrative offers a relatively straightforward, pro-Norman account of William’s invasion and the events leading up to it which, to his mind, legitimised his claim to the English throne, its upper and lower borders display a bewildering, anarchic mash-up of images. There are scenes from Aesop’s fables with double interpretations, suggesting, perhaps, that they were included as coded messages of resistance from English embroiderers working for a Norman patron. There are scenes of rural life, quite ordinary on the face of it but skewed by details which don’t quite fit. Ploughing with a horse, for example, at a time when ploughs were generally pulled by oxen. Using a horse for this purpose would be a bit like herding sheep in a Rolls Royce. There are overt and grisly images of battle, only to be expected, but equally visceral and distorted sexual imagery, both boisterously funny and somewhat unnerving, and subversive whichever way you look at it.

The more I read about the Tapestry, the more intrigued I became by its borders, and ways in which I could use these to represent the marginalised people in society. Having begun with the idea of Odo as patron, I found myself seduced by the idea of the embroiderers who worked for him. But how to put all my ideas together? I had begun the novel three times, in three different ways, when I was introduced to Marina’s Warner’s study of fairytales, From the Beast to the Blonde – and it was like the end of the power cut, when all the lights suddenly flooded back on. I realised that what I wanted to do was to tell a kind of fairytale, that would in some way reflect the mysterious marginalia of the Tapestry and shift the focus away from the main historical narrative of the Conquest. This led me to start subverting history myself.

Let me give you one example. There is a scene in the novel in which Gytha, the working woman who has lived in poverty for most of her life, is being dressed for a party in clothes provided for her by her wealthy lover. It is a Cinderella scene, a transformation of pauper into princess. I gave her high-heeled shoes. I know high heels, apart from patens, were not worn in Europe until the 17th century, but I made this deliberate distortion because I wanted the symbolism of being unbalanced by forbidden love and sudden change, and I wanted the reader to understand that this scene is not quite believable, even to Gytha herself.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you some of the thinking behind THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, and I hope it adds to your enjoyment of the novel.



Dawn said...

Your book sounds great. I like the idea of how you change the "history" to create your own unique story.

Debby said...

I liked reading about your thoughts. I imagine you can get caught up in the research.
debby236 at gmail dot com

Sarah Bower said...

Just stopped by to tell you THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD has its own Facebook page, so do 'like' it if the book or my comments here interest you.