When I decided to take a stab at writing, my mentor gave me this one first, and best, piece of advice: “Write for yourself, not for the market, not for publishers or editors, and not for readers.” The idea was that if you don’t love your writing first, why would anyone else want to read it? If what you write doesn’t make you happy, fulfilled, energized and excited, what on earth are you doing it for? And how will you sustain it as a career (or even as a hobby, for that matter)? With these words ringing in my ears, I took up my pen and started drafting. Eventually The Scribe’s Daughter was born. It’s a book that mucks about, in and out of genres while not remaining true to any single genre. In fact, pegging it as a specific genre nearly topped the list of Things That Were Really Difficult To Do when trying to decide how to market the book. It feels like historical fiction, but there is no history in it. So that makes it fantasy, right? Except there are no fantastical creatures and no magic. I had created something hard to define, neither one nor the other, defying the genre gods by its refusal to commit.
Why does research take so much time, you might ask? Good question. If a fabric is mentioned… say, cotton… I want to be sure that cotton was really used in the time and place of my story. That takes research. Multiply one fact by pages and chapters, then multiply it again for all the little details in a book, and you get the idea of how much research it takes to write truly historically accurate historical fiction.
Here’s an example: “William surveyed the field, searching for the remnants of the vanguard amongst the carnage of battle. As he walked the edge of the meadow, the boundary between an unspoiled world and the territory trampled by horses and men struggling at the height of their blood lust, his hand brushed the tops of a profusion of bright yellow black-eyed Susans. It struck him just then, the juxtaposition between perfection and chaos on either side of him.” Nice detail – the black-eyed Susans -- right? You could almost see where William walked. But let’s say my book is set in 13th Century Devon. I’d be in trouble. Black-eyed Susans weren’t introduced into Britain from North America until the early 16th Century. While they are common enough around my house, William wouldn’t see them for another three centuries! Readers might not notice or care, but I would know, and I would care. So why not just leave out mention of black-eyed Susans and refer rather generically to flowers instead? While a reader might not consciously recognize the detail, our brains still processes the information to paint a picture in our mind’s eye as the story unfolds. So… yes, it might be just me, but until I am able to commit to research and be true to what I think historical fiction should be, I will stay away from it in its purest form.
Enough about what my book is not. The inspiration for my writing is definitely history, and there is enough historical feel to my book for historical fiction lovers to feel right at home. So much of our fiction culture is bathed in historical feeling, particularly the Middle Ages, that it’s almost commonplace. Think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, Martin’s Game of Thrones, and even your local Renaissance festival. Here are some of the ways that I borrowed from my love of history and historical cultures to write The Scribe’s Daughter.
Corium, Kassia’s home, feels Mediterranean and medieval, in look and climate -- like Viterbo, Italy for instance, but on the coast like Naples. She moves on to the country of Elbra, a place reminiscent of Turkey. While in Islay Bay, Kassia meets Serdar Janko Barbaros, a man with a name and title echoing Eastern European culture (a serdar is an Ottoman noble rank). Throughout the book, Kassia dresses at various times in homespun (wool), cotton, and silk, all of which were known in medieval Europe, and were worn regularly, depending on one’s social class. While I stay away from detailing the various wefts and weaves of each, I did some brief research on brocades, samites, and taffetas, just to make sure I didn’t misspeak when mentioning a particular outfit (remember my black-eyed Susans example?). Kassia encounters herbs and the medicinal use for each: elderflower, feverfew, belladonna, yarrow… all of which were commonly used in the medieval period for infusions or poultices, to treat fever or other illnesses.
Outside the tangible details of food and clothing, the reader also encounters historical social norms throughout the book. Kassia experiences life in several noble households, and much of it isn’t to her liking.
Once she reached a marriageable age, a noble woman could expect to be used as a bargaining chip to advance her family’s wealth, land holdings, and social status. Marriage and love did not automatically coexist. After she married, the noble lady wasn’t free to do as she pleased. Rather than pass her days idly reading poetry and daydreaming, duties awaited: from overseeing all things domestic – food, clothing, and household management – to serving as her husband’s representative and hostess when he was away. A noble lady lent her hand to stitching and needlework, engaged in charitable work, and oversaw aspects of her children’s domestic education. To what degree she did these things of course depended on her social rank, but even a queen had work to do.
And finally, I come to plot. Oh, history definitely played a role in the storyline, but I’m afraid this little gem will have to wait until everything is revealed in the next book. Suffice it to say that the stories of several prominent medieval families heavily influenced aspects of Kassia’s family’s story. Hopefully I can tell all at some point in the future, once the story of Kassia and her sister Irisa is all told. Until then…
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