‘Mum, there is someone at work, I’d like you to meet.’ My adult son announced.
This was odd. I eyed him curiously. Adult sons don’t normally introduce middle-aged mothers to their colleagues. ‘What exactly do you think we’ll have in common, son?’
‘Her name is Felicity. She has written an historical novel with a Welsh character.’
I met Felicity, who writes under the name A. J. Lyndon, in the city and was pleased to be handed a complimentary copy of her historical novel, The Welsh Linnet, which is set during the English Civil War. We had a wonderful time swapping research and middle-aged-always-wanted-to-write-a-novel tales. After reading The Welsh Linnet, I asked Felicity to answer a few questions for my blog.
What made you want to write a novel?
Like many people I have often thought about writing a novel. But I never got a strong enough urge to put pen to paper, or a subject. The decision was quite sudden. I had borrowed the usual crop of assorted novels from the local library (I generally get through a book in about a week). The last one on the pile was by an unknown author. It was a light modern detective story. I won’t say who the author was as I struggled to get through it although it was quite short. Finally skipping to find out “who dun it”. I closed the book with relief, thinking “I have wasted x hours of my life reading this.” Unexpectedly the next thought was, “I have got to be able to do better than that!”
The initial idea was no more than a visual scene which had been floating around my head for several years. It was a girl in a long dress dancing. Not just any dance, it was the medieval circle dance Horses Brawle. I could see her dress floating out as she spun. I had no idea who she was!
How your arrived at your time period?
I had always assumed the visualisation in my head was the Tudor period. However I have a long- term interest in the Stuarts who came after the Tudors, especially in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. More practically, every man and his dog from Jean Plaidy to Philippa Gregory has written about the Tudor period. Before moving to Australia, I belonged to a re-enactment society called the Sealed Knot, which refights the battles of the English Civil War every summer.
My heroine was, as you may have guessed, the girl in the long dress. She turned out to be Bess Lucie, musical, adventurous and naïve teenage daughter of Sir Henry Lucie. She had to have brothers who would take part in the war. They ended up as cautious and disciplined (Bess’s words) Will, and fun loving, reckless Harry. Harry started writing his own scenes after a while. Will is doing the same in book two, which is now in progress.
The hero took a lot of thought. I knew he was musical, also Welsh, but who was he? He started off as a court musician to King Charles 1, but after writing a couple of scenes I changed my mind. He became a cavalry officer with a dark secret, but the lute stayed!
What is your relationship with Wales?
I am Welsh born. I spent the first 21 years of my life there, returning briefly a few years later. I still have family there and visit it from time to time. I have a particular affection for Swansea University, where I studied English. Sadly, I only know a few words of Welsh, but love to join in the Welsh National Anthem and Cwm Rhondda at rugby matches. Although I have now lived in Australia for more years than I lived in Wales, I still think of myself as Welsh.
Tell me about your research and how you juggled this with work and family?
I have to say that I woefully underestimated the amount of research that would be required to write an historical novel. Having picked a time period which I was familiar with, I thought I knew it all. How wrong could I be. The very first scene I wrote (which ended up on the cutting room floor apart from a brief reference) featured twelve year old Bess deciding to run away from home. She had got no further than the kitchens when she encountered one of their dogs, and I encountered my first two problems. The dog was a sheep dog. Did they have sheep dogs in 1640s England? Dive on to the internet! Answer -no! The dog was hastily transformed into a spaniel. What was its name? Another dive – type 17th century dog names into Google.
Those were two of the smaller problems, easily fixed by an internet search. Researching the war began with buying a couple of history books “Brief History of the English Civil War” and similar. That was okay for background, but there was usually not enough detail on the particular events, or the day to day details reenactors call “living history”.
What sort of uniforms did the soldiers wear? Being used to the Sealed Knot, where everyone wears one, I was surprised to discover that at the start of the war, the rank and file were lucky if they had a uniform coat and officers never wore uniform of any sort, relying on a sash of a particular colour (red for the Royalists, orange, blue or yellow for the parliamentarians) to show that they were an officer, and which side they were on.
One or two books such as Worship and Theology in England I had to borrow from universities through inter library loan. Others I bought second hand via the internet from specialist shops in the UK and USA. Two years down the track I must have close on 40 books about the civil war and other relevant topics such as history of food. Also a collection of Renaissance music which I acquired as I researched the musical background.
I am lucky I have an understanding husband, and two teenage children who are at the stage where they have their own interests and don’t need me standing over them. I wrote The Welsh Linnet while working full time. This meant that most evenings I would come home from work and after dinner I would shut myself away with my computer and a collection of history books and write for a couple of hours. At a conservative estimate, I probably wrote for about 10 hours a week. That excludes reading time (commuting and lunch breaks).
Did you visit the sites of your novel? How did that influence your narrative?
Half way through writing the book, I realised I had too many unanswered questions and I wanted to see the places I was writing about. Even places like Warwick Castle, with a wide range of photos on their website, still couldn’t answer all my questions without a visit. So I began phoning and writing to sites, booking tours and pestering experts to give me their time, which in several cases they did (free).
Talking to guides and historians added a whole new level of detail, and corrected many misconceptions. Sometimes I found I had been correct about something I made up. Visiting the quarters of the Civil War governor at Warwick Castle (still as they were), I discovered that the rack where a sword hung, grabbed by one of my characters, was just where I had placed it, right next to the door! More spookily I discovered the hero’s fictitious ancestral home in Crickhowell, South Wales, existed, along with his two wives (same names). This led to a major architectural redesign of the house in the book to match the real one.
Did the eventual story match your initial ideas? Or did the story take on a life of its own? If so, in what ways?
The plot evolved as I wrote. It began as a few scenes and a group of central characters. I was about half way through before I knew how the story was going to end. As I wrote, the characters dug themselves in, and I frequently found, as I mentioned with Harry, that they took over. Sir Henry Lucie writes all his own speeches! There are a number of letters in the book. I thought it was important, as that was how people communicated in those days, but I discovered that some of the characters loved writing letters. The hero decided to sign his with a drawing.
More seriously, the main change I noticed after the research trip was that the story became much darker. Visiting battle sites like the wide plain of Roundway Down and the sad ruins of once great Basing House brought it home to me that these were real events and thousands of men died violently at those spots. Memorial plaques in the floors of various churches to men who died in the fighting were particularly poignant. A twenty three year old captain killed in the last battle of the civil war led to my hero making his will before departing to join the army. New scenes sprouted, including a spy hanging in Oxford, where Bess’s planned afternoon stroll is disrupted by bound and ragged men being chivvied towards the gallows.
Who are your favourite authors? What did you learn from reading them?
Having studied English at university, I have to mention (of course) Jane Austen and George Eliot. Also Thomas Hardy (I named my hero Gabriel in tribute to the hero of Far from the Madding Crowd). If I think about those three authors, all feature heroines faced with similar dilemmas. Who should I marry? Should I be a dutiful daughter/niece or insist on my independence? Making a living versus sticking to one’s principles – also applies to male characters such as Lydgate in Middlemarch and Troy in far from the Madding Crowd. Claims of family, duty, conflicting with the desire to be free to attain personal dreams, still there today.
My favourite modern author (who is also interested in claims of family, duty etc) is Diana Gabaldon, author of the historical fantasy time travel series Outlander. I adopted her writing approach in that like her I write odd scenes, sometimes only working out later where they fit in! (She calls it “daily lines”.) More recently I have discovered the excellent Tudor who dunnit series writer SJ Parris, who writes about historical figure Giordano Bruno. Excellent attention to historical detail (torture scenes to make your eyes water). I am always interested in observing how other writers of historical fiction blend in the facts. Is it interesting? Or is it a history dump? (Interesting and you won’t notice it, history dump tends to stick out.)
This is an impeccably researched novel. With a little more attention to story-structure and the law of diminishing returns, the authors flowing prose and era-authentic voice, will shine in subsequent instalments.