Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: historical novels

The Welsh Linnet – an interview with A J Lyndon

‘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.

The Welsh Linnet is available through Amazon and in hard copy from Tretower Publishing

Britain, the end of a fantasy – some thoughts on identity

  • You post an article from the New York Review of Books on Facebook. Among other things the article says:

“Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

You make a comment about ‘little England.’ You figure you have a right. But you are told in no uncertain terms that, as an Aussie, you do not. This is British politics, none of your business. You are shocked, not so much by the objection (put a comment on Facebook and you invite a response) but by the monochromatic assessment of your situation. It doesn’t even come close to the schizophrenic sense of identity you live with.

See, you were born in England and, although you migrated to Australia during your childhood, you were raised by parents who called another place home. Your father supported the English cricket team, you stayed up late to watch the FA Cup final on television, your weekly viewing consisted of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Are you Being Served? In school you learned about convicts, and ANZACs and the bombing of Darwin. But at home you heard stories of Shakespeare, the Blitz, and how you grandfather worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. In a grade four project about Beef Cattle, you wrote “Aborigines make good stockmen” because, your dad told you, before the white man, Australia’s first people wandered about aimlessly.

But there is another aspect to your identity. You see your mother is Welsh. So you are not allowed to call yourself English. You are British, your parents tell you: no need to be naturalised like all of those lesser European migrants. Australia is one of the pink countries on the map. Of course, you never use the word British. You instinctively know you will be laughed out of the playground. You drop the Pommie accent, try to blend in. Though in your spare time you read books by Enid Blyton, Malcom Saville, and Arthur Ransome.

Then you grow up and all your historical myths are all blown apart. You learn that the Aboriginal people did more than just wander about, that the men of Gallipoli were no braver than any other soldiers, that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their mothers. That the British Empire wiped out whole nations and cultures. The full implication of this hits home while you are living in Fiji. You see an indigenous people living on their ancestral land, speaking their own language and enjoying their age-old but still evolving customs and you think: my God, what have we done?

With this history, it is no surprise that when you have a mid-life crisis (one of several) and decide you want to write a novel that you start with an emigration novel, set in the colonial period, that focuses on the experience of poor people, like your family would have been if they had emigrated in that era. You also decide to include Welsh and English characters. And although you know those decisions are personal, you also know you are trying to come to terms with the whole messy business of being a white Australian.

Despite this, you are not prepared for the effect your Welsh characters will have on your life. You know very little about Wales prior to starting your research – apart from coal mining and a passion for rugby. But before long you realise Wales has a language, that is still spoken, with incredible words like sglodion (chips) and gwdihw (owl) (which sounds like twit twoo) and pendwmpian (to drowse). That in Welsh  a peach is called an eirinen gwlanog (wooly plum) and ladybirds are called buwch goch gota (short red cows) and before long you are wondering how you have managed to live without the soul-song of such words.

You learn about Welsh myths and fairytales too, about eisteddfodau and poetry. About the experience of being annexed and incorporated, the Welsh struggle for independence. The even-now fight to keep a much-loved language alive. This touches a deep chord in you and, although it is tempting see it as a simple reconnection with your heritage, you also know there is also something intrinsically Australian in your response. See, we tend to back the underdog down under.

Over the years, you make regular trips to Wales, even live there for a while. Acquire a National Insurance Number and a bank account, get your name on the electoral roll. You have Welsh friends and places to stay. You read English and Welsh newspapers along with Australian ones and know the sense of divided loyalties you grew up with are still strong. Except, you are no longer proud of the Empire (life has knocked that out of you) and when you speak Welsh with your friends you feel like you belong. Yet you also know your life, your manners, your worldview are somehow foreign. Perhaps this is what the friend on Facebook objected to? This foot-in-two camps, belong-in-both-worlds mentality?

You fly back and forth, relate in two languages and straddle both worlds, because you don’t know any other way to live. For although you no longer sound like a Brit, or take pride in Empire, the tiny island on the top of the world is still important to you and, although one day when you are too old to travel, the land at bottom of the world will inevitably claim you, you know the hiraeth will remain, along with the interest and the outspoken Australian tendency to comment. Because, although on the outside you may sound like an Aussie, on the inside you still sometimes feel a long way from home.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. For news on the release date follow this blog, or simply fill out the form below:

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