By Wendy Laharnar (Guest Blogger)
The one subject I failed at school was History. This proved to be a huge mistake because now I am obsessed with it. I can’t get enough historical novels and research to fill that void. Novels by Antonia Fraser and Sharon Penman, for example, easily transport me to the time periods they write about. Imagining the people who went before makes me wonder how future historical novelists will portray us and how our history will impact on readers in the future.
While ‘studying’ the French Revolution at school, I wish I’d discovered Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, or Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution,. I would have been more able to understand the animosity of the populous against the nobility and form sympathies with parties on both sides. Maybe I wouldn’t have mixed up the National Convention and the National Assembly in the exam which, in spite of my ‘brilliant’ essay on the wrong one, earned me 0/20.
Historical novels and Shakespeare’s plays breathe life into History. There is a framework of circumstances already in place, but with the fictional characters and situations the author invents inside a community, relative to the times, the past is visible and has meaning. These novels educate and entertain me in a way history texts couldn’t do.
This obsession is probably why I write Historical Fiction, now. I haven’t tackled the French Revolution period yet. I prefer to stay in the Middle Ages for a while because I want to experience this era for myself. I never could grasp all those dates and battles and why they made homework assignments such a misery.
Since I can’t write realistic Romance, and I didn’t have the historical knowledge needed to be a person born into the medieval scene when I began writing The Unhewn Stone, I decided to turn the tables on history. I’d take my modern day Stefan, a disfigured innkeeper’s son, on a swashbuckling adventure by placing him inside the Wilhelm Tell Legend (Switzerland, 1307AD) and confine us to a small space in history, so I thought. Stefan would have ancestors who belonged to the wrong side, the tyrant’s side, the one Wilhelm Tell killed. As his main goal, I sent Stefan to prevent that legend from happening and save his ancestor’s life. That way, together, my hero and I could discover what life was really like back then, especially for an outsider, or tourist, in a time where Hospitality was paramount to an honourable man and peasants needed a Cause.
Researching the Tell Legend wasn’t difficult. There’s plenty of information about the hero Tell, and I read Schiller’s famous play. I gathered as much information as possible, not only from books but also from the Tell Museum in Bürglen, Switzerland, the birth place of Wilhelm Tell. While there, surrounded by the magnificent Swiss Alps, with my husband and granddaughters -- on two separate occasions -- I visited the relevant places around Lake Luzern, talking to the people, taking photos and soaking up the scenery for my setting.
The real research, however, began in earnest when my medieval characters appeared in my manuscript. There were peasants loyal to Tell, and yeomen who revered their lord, Stefan’s ‘uncle’. There were the nobles, Stefan’s ancestors, who distrusted him; some were charmed, but others considered him a fool. There were monks with strange attitudes about religion, and the alchemist’s science clashed with his catholic brother’s spirituality. An innkeeper did his best to keep the peace with a corrupt soldier and an ancient sibyl mistook Stefan for the alchemist. Stefan’s encounters challenged his (and my) concept of friendship, mercy, honour, faith, courage, pride and humility.
If I’d known how tough the times would be for Stefan, caught in the middle of this legend, messing everything up with his superior knowledge, I would have let him join Tell’s Cause instead. But how could I, when my purpose was to show there’s a thin line between Freedom Fighters and Terrorists in any age?
Anyway, I had no choice. I had to turn to the internet and the historical textbooks I once scorned. I collected information about the medieval people: their daily lives and attitudes, costumes, weaponry, castles, monasteries, taverns, forests and herbs, everything, even their horses. The monastery and town square were different to the ones on Stefan's side of time. Months of research turned into years. Medieval science led me to alchemy, the alchemist’s lab and the idea of changing base metal into gold. I researched the deeper philosophic layers trying to decide what I believed in. Was there really any difference between alchemy, religion, science, myth and magic? The more Stefan discovered about himself and his identity, the more I learnt about me and I came to the conclusion that Stefan and I now think pretty much alike.
If I could, I would write a modern day novel in which my contemporaries lived out their lives and loves and chased their goals. Then I would be providing a historical record of the early 21st century for those who come after. Fortunately, skilled writers are already doing this while I remain back in time, swamped in books and files of historical research. While I scan the pages of ‘Medicine in the Middle Ages’ I have to wonder, did I turn the tables on History or did History turn the tables on me?
Thank goodness I didn’t fail Maths.
A mother of two, Wendy lives by the sea with her husband, Teobald, and enjoys long walks on the beach with Spitzli, their Mini Schnauzer. When she's not writing, Wendy likes reading, dressmaking and travel. Her trips to Wilhem Tell's birthplace in Switzerland sparked her interest in the legend.
If you want to know more about Wendy and her obsession with history, visit her website http://wendylaharnar.weebly.com/ .
You can buy The Unhewn Stone directly from Muse It Up Publishing, from Amazon, or almost any other online book purveyor!