We asked H for History authors SD Sykes and Karen Maitland to interview each other – find out what drew them both to the medieval period, why it continues to fascinate and how it has inspired their writing…
Here are Karen’s answers to SD’s questions…
SDS: You write with such energy, truth and feeling about the Middle Ages. What is it specifically that drew you to these times? Have you ever considered writing contemporary novels, or novels set in a different time period?
KM: Thank you! What first drew me to the Middle Ages is that it is a period so like our own, from rapid climate change and pollution to the Christian-Islamic conflict. But, as I think you mentioned, virtually every aspect of society was turned upside down over the course of the medieval period – the role of women, feudalism, the basis of the economy, medicine, science – which really makes it an exciting period to explore.
The medieval period was a world of contrasts. It was full of vibrant colour, lavish feasts, music, bawdy entertainment, breath taking buildings and exotic travel and yet it was also a world of darkness, demons, starvation, plague and brutal slaughter.
And how could any thriller writer not be drawn to the Middle Ages? No electric lights, no phone to summon help, no police force, but 100,000 interesting ways to kill off your characters. And if your characters want to survive, they have to find a way to fight the darkness and its demons alone.
Would I write in any other period? My first published novel was a futuristic thriller, but I learned from writing that novel that events can quickly overtake what you write.
I love reading novels set in the Victorian underworld, but it’s a period crowded with brilliant writers, so I probably wouldn’t attempt it. I am very drawn to the early Celts and Saxons because the contrast between their often brutal and bloody lives and the exquisite works of art and jewellery they produced makes them intriguingly complex people. I am also fascinated by the Inquisition in Europe, which I wrote about in The Falcons of Fire and Ice. But I still have so much to write about in the medieval period first.
SDS: We both talk about the importance of the supernatural to the people of this age. In my books, the supernatural exists purely as a belief, whereas, in your books, the supernatural is very real. Was this a decision you made early on?
KM: The supernatural seems real in my novels, because my characters largely believe it is real. Most, though certainly not all, medieval people would have seen no other possible explanation for certain events other than supernatural occurrences, any more than they would have questioned whether Jesus brought a corpse back from the dead or walked on water. In The Raven’s Head, when Vincent sees the alchemist summon a demon he tries to convince himself this is simply a trick played with smoke and sound. Medieval people were familiar with conjuring tricks and with stage effects. But there are other supernatural events which Vincent cannot explain away and I want the reader to feel the terror of that realisation.
Having worked in Nigeria, I’ve seen bizarre ‘supernatural’ events at tribal ceremonies which, even though I know they must have been a trick or even mass hypnosis, I cannot explain. I’ve even experienced weird things in England too, so I know how easy it is to fool the rational 21st century mind, even when you are telling yourself there must be physical explanation. But I want my readers to experience the world as the medieval people would have done, where there was no distinction between science and religion, and the supernatural was as tangible and important as the natural world. I took this approach because I didn’t want readers to feel that the medieval people were credulous children. They were just as sophisticated and intelligent as us, but they analysed reality and the world around them differently.
SDS: You write medieval mysteries, rather than historical crime fiction. Does the crime genre hold any appeal to you? Could you imagine writing a more typical work of detective fiction, but set in these times?
KM: I write historical crime fiction as one of the Medieval Murderers. We are six authors who together write joint novels, in the form of interlocking novellas in which an object or place passes down through time, and in each period a crime or murder is committed in connection with the object. These crime novels have been great fun to write, not least because as an author you have to work backwards as you plot. Like many authors, I generally have a starting point for a novel and plot the story forward from there. But the Medieval Murderers write our novellas at the same time. So it means we have to tell the author who comes after us in the sequence what the ending of our novella will be before we have even thought of a plot, so that the next author can pick up our ending and continue their story from that point. So for the Medieval Murderer crime novels, we start by knowing how our story will end, and then have to create a murder, murderer, clues and suspects that will lead to that ending. It’s great fun.
SDS: Do you have a favourite point of reference that helps you to evoke the sense of history in your books? A document, historic place, image perhaps?
KM: I like to spend time in medieval buildings when I am trying to think myself into the world of my characters. These are the gateways through which I can walk back in time. I stare up a wall painting of the ‘dance of death’, or a saint with a dog’s head or grimacing gargoyle on the roof outside and try to imagine myself as a child in medieval times, growing up seeing this monster staring down at me every day. What would that child be thinking? What would my mother be chatting to her neighbour about? I stand in a ruined castle and touch the carved edge of a stone and imagine I am watching the stone mason and his apprentice. What could they smell at that moment? What will they do after work that night?
Each of my novels has its own core object or image that I keep going back to as I write. For The Vanishing Witch it was tiny gold boar’s head, with a double line of red garnets running down the back. For The Raven’s Head, it was medieval diagram of a distillation flask over a burner and the tubes leading from it. The diagram itself was identical to the diagrams of apparatus we had to draw in science at school, and yet all around the edge were astrological symbols, snakes, mythical animals and herbs. This, to me, perfectly illustrated the medieval mind. They conducted chemical experiments using much the same equipment as do today, but imbued them with a spiritual meaning and symbolism that took them into a world of magic and wonder.
SDS: How to approach dialogue is a huge decision for writers of medieval fiction. We want to evoke the period – but cannot write our novels in Middle English! I wondered what rules, if any, do you set yourself for writing dialogue?
KM: When someone reads my books I want them to be totally immersed in the story and to feel that the characters are so real they could bump into them at their local pub. I never want to jerk the reader out of the story, by making them stop and say, ‘what does that word mean?’ When a character has to use a word which is no longer in use toda,y such as deodand, I try to make sure that it can be understood from its context without the reader having to look it up. I do put a glossary at the back of my novels, to give extra information on, say, the origin of a word or the folklore connected to a plant name for readers who are interested in that kind of thing, but I like to think no reader has to use the glossary while they are reading the story.
At the same time, anachronisms will also spoil the story for the reader. So I try never to have a character talk about a concept that was unknown at the time. They’d never talk about doing something subconsciously or a knife havinggerms on it.
Even if a word was in use in the Middle Ages, its sense and meaning has often changed. Conveying what a character means in dialogue is more important to me than using the historical word of the period. If a master is bullying his apprentice, I want the reader understand the hurt and humiliation that boy would have felt when a particular insult was flung at him. Using an arcane insult like ingle may be historically accurate, but the modern reader would not really feel the pain or fear that word might have inflicted, because it is not a word that carries those connotations today.
SDS: I love it that your novels concentrate on ordinary people who have extraordinary lives. Were you ever tempted to write more about the nobility? Even kings and queens?
KM: The novel I am currently working on does have some minor nobility in the manor, as well as the ordinary people, as did the The Gallows Curse. But, as you say, one of my main fascinations in writing historical thrillers is to reveal the lives of people who have been ignored by history. Those hidden and secret lives I find far more fascinating than the known lives of royalty: an alchemist working down in the dungeon; the boys castrated for the church choirs who were then thrown out; dwarfs who were bought and sold like animals and even the ordinary working people who had to punt great loads up the rivers or tread wool all day in stinking vats of stale urine. What were their hopes, their dreams, their struggles?
The great thing about writing about characters in history who were on the margins of society is that, being outcasts, they are able to reflect on the madness of the society they see around them, and that makes them characters that modern readers can relate to because we too stand outside that society looking in.
If I did write about kings and queens I’d want to go back to a time of Celts and early Saxons when the leaders lived and fought alongside their communities as part of it, so that you had that rich tapestry of life I find so enthralling in the novels – from beggars to butchers and maids to murderers.
SDS: How do you like to work? In bouts of inspiration, or more by routine?
KM: Deadlines mean I have to ensure I have my bouts of inspiration regularly every day, between 9am and 6pm. I try to keep the discipline of office hours, because there are days when, however much I love writing, clearing out the drains seem far more attractive than sitting down at my laptop. Unless I set myself strict working hours I’d find far too many distractions and spend hours procrastinating.
One of the tricks I’ve learned is never to edit what I write on the day I write it, so I spend the first hour in the morning editing what I did the day before. Fiddling around with something that is already down on paper is fun, and far less daunting than facing a blank page. By the time I’ve finished editing, I back in the zone again and writing.
Inspiration in the form of ideas, solutions to plot problem or lines of dialogue usually strike when I am not thinking about the novel, when I’m washing up, having a bath, taking a walk or chatting to friends. So, if I suddenly bolt from the table when I’m having dinner with you, please don’t be offended. It is usually because an idea has just popped into my head and I have to lock myself in the loo and write it down before it vanishes.
SDS: What novel are you reading now? Do you have any favourite authors?
KM: I always have several novels and an audiobook on the go at any one time. One book will be a bedtime read, another a train read. At the moment, my current reads are Emily Hauser’s debut novel For TheMost Beautiful about two little-known women who were pivotal in the Battle of Troy, Manda Scott’s Boudica – Dreaming the Eagle about the young warrior queen, River of Ink, another debut novel, this one by Paul M.M. Copper set in Sri Lanka in 1215 and The Silvered Heart by the wonderful historical novelist Katherine Clements, about a female highway robber at the time of the English Civil War.
I’ve just finished listening again to the audio of an old favourite – Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. And I have started a ‘comfort’ book on audio, one of Margery Allingham’s crime novels, The Case of the Late Pig. Her crime novels are ingenious, but also make me laugh. I love the relationship between the aristocrat private detective Albert Campion and his ex-criminal servant, Lug.
I’m a hugely eclectic reader, but I think that is a good thing for any author as you always learn something from another writer, even if they are writing in an entirely different genre.
SDS: Your novels often confront the intolerance and bigotry of the age – be that because a person is considered heretical, outspoken, foreign. It might even be just because they are a woman. This is a theme I also like to work with. Like me, do you sometimes look about our current world and worry that we haven’t moved on much?
KM: Sadly, whatever our technological advances and greater understanding of the natural world, human nature doesn’t change. Prejudices may be covered by political correctness and legislation, but they are still there or we merely replace one with another.
The starting point for many of my novels is something which is concerning people today, and I look back into medieval history to find where something similar has happened before and it is usually there. When I wrote The Owl Killers, the subject of women bishops was being hotly debated by the Church and it was shocking to discover that some of the phrases and arguments modern clergy and laity were using against women having authority were identical to those used against women in 1321.
The Vanishing Witch is set against the background of the Peasants Revolt, when in 1381 there was summer of senseless destruction, rioting and bloodshed in towns right across England. If you watch the similar riots on the TV news today, you could easily think you were watching a report on that summer back in the 14th century.
One of the books that first got me fascinated with medieval alchemy as a child was Mary Norton’s Bedknob and Broomstick. (The Disney film bears no relation to her wonderful book.) In her novel, a young alchemist is transported from the time of the Great Fire of London into the modern world. I’ve been reminded of that story in recent months and found myself thinking – what if we could transport a medieval person into the present day? They’d find modern technology baffling and might think some of it was ‘magic’, but I suspect if they watched the news, they’d think little else had changed since the Middle Ages.
SDS: Lastly, if you could just indulge me. A very specific question that I’ve always wondered about, ever since reading Company of Liars. Is the strange, pale-faced, cold-hearted child ‘Narigorm’ a metaphor for the Plague itself?
KM: I never set off to construct metaphors or symbols for my novels. I just create characters I find fascinating, wind them up and watch what they do to each other. I guess I am one of those authors who behave a bit like a malicious ancient Greek god, occasionally throwing in the odd golden apple just to stir the characters up. But when I’ve finished writing the final draft I begin to notice that metaphors and symbols have wormed their way in without me being aware of them at the time. Someone once said ‘I write to find out what I’m talking about’ which I think is a good summary of how I work.
When I first starting writing Company of Liars Narigorm was the embodiment of another insidious plague – the ruthless and destructive pursuit of what both we and the media convince ourselves to be ‘the truth’ something we witnessed again recently in the destruction of some people’s lives and careers in false sex allegations. It was only after the first draft, that I realised Narigorm was the angel of the Black Death too, without mercy and indifferent to who or what she destroys. Thank you for seeing that in her!
Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient;
Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave;
Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick
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