I have been writing fiction for a long time – all my adult life, on and off, in between work and family life. But it was when I decided to study for an MA in Creative Writing that I took the first step to becoming what I now think I am – a writer of historical fiction.
Why historical fiction? Well, when I had to choose what to write as the creative piece for the MA, I chose historical fiction mostly just as a change from the contemporary women’s fiction that I had been writing. But the choice was somewhat serendipitous. For, in my twenties, I had written about 10,000 words of a novel set in the fourteenth century and, by chance, I rediscovered the fading handwritten draft languishing in a box of old scribblings. Although, to be frank, the novel’s plot was pretty dire, I found myself drawn to its period and setting. The discovery gave me one of those light bulb moments and, a few days later, I was drafting an outline for the historical novel that is now Fortune’s Wheel.
It was true that I had long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and understanding, and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the present-day perception of the Middle Ages as ‘nasty, brutish and short’ and the wonders of the period’s art and literature. I wanted to know more about the period, and, through writing an historical novel, I would have the opportunity both to discover the mediaeval past and to interpret it, to bring both learning and imagination to my writing, which is I suppose what all historical novelists do.
But what kind of story would I write? What sort of historical novel would it be?
There are so many different sub-genres of historical fiction... Yet I somehow knew that I wouldn’t write a medieval mystery, or crime, or romance, or adventure (although mystery, crime, romance and adventure would surely all play a part?). It would not be alternative history, or alternative biography, or time slip. But, if it were none of these, what would it be?
What I did know from the start was that I wanted to write a ‘naturalistic’ novel, one that portrayed the lives of medieval people – and in particular ‘ordinary’ people – as naturally and “authentically” as I possibly could. I soon became excited by the idea of building an imaginary mediaeval English village society and populating it with a variety of interesting, albeit ordinary, characters.
To make a story, I would of course have to give them challenges to meet and problems to solve, private agonies to bear and public disasters to face. Nonetheless, I thought my novel would be more about the people than the events, more about their interactions with each other than the twists and turns of whatever situations I put them in.
And so it has proved to be. I sometimes think of Fortune’s Wheel as a kind of ‘relationship’ novel, but set in the fourteenth century. It is also a novel that focuses mostly on the relationships of women, and the story is told through the voices of women. Although we do hear the words of men, it was the women’s viewpoints that interested me most, if only because women in history often do not get much opportunity to speak. In future Meonbridge Chronicles, the novel series of which Fortune’s Wheel is the first, it will undoubtedly continue to be the women of fictional Meonbridge who will be revealing their lives to us, and whose voices I hope we will all come to know – and perhaps even love.
Genre: Historical fiction
Release Date: 7th November 2016
Publisher: SilverWood Books Ltd
Plague-widow Alice atte Wode is desperate to find her missing daughter, but her neighbours are rebelling against their masters and their mutiny is hindering the search.
June 1349. In a Hampshire village, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population, including Alice atte Wode’s husband and eldest son. The plague arrived only days after Alice’s daughter Agnes mysteriously disappeared and it prevented the search for her.
Now the plague is over, the village is trying to return to normal life, but it’s hard, with so much to do and so few left to do it. Conflict is growing between the manor and its tenants, as the workers realise their very scarceness means they’re more valuable than before: they can demand higher wages, take on spare land, have a better life. This is the chance they’ve all been waiting for!
Although she understands their demands, Alice is disheartened that the search for Agnes is once more put on hold. But when one of the rebels is killed, and then the lord's son is found murdered, it seems the two deaths may be connected, both to each other and to Agnes’s disappearance.
Alice atte Wode, the Millers’ closest neighbour, was feeding her hens when she heard Joan’s first terrible anguished cries. Dropping her basket of seed, she ran to the Millers’ cottage. She wanted to cry out too at what she found there: Thomas and Joan both on their knees, clasped together, with Peter’s twisted body between them, sobbing as if the dam of their long pent-up emotions had burst. Alice breathed deeply to steady her nerves, for she didn’t know how to offer any solace for the Millers’ loss.
Not this time.
It was common enough for parents to lose children. It didn’t mean you ever got used to their loss, or that you loved them any less than if they’d lived. Few lost five children in as many months. But the Millers had. The prosperous family Alice knew only six months ago, with its noisy brood of six happy, healthy children, had been swiftly and brutally slaughtered by the great mortality.
Every family in Meonbridge had lost someone to the plague’s vile grip – a father, a mother, a child – but no other family had lost five.
The great mortality, sent by God, it was said, to punish the world for its sins, had torn the village apart. It had struck at random, at the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the innocent and the guilty. Some of its victims died coughing up blood, some with suppurating boils under their arms or next to their privy parts, some covered in dark, blackish pustules. A few recovered, but most did not and, after two or three days of fear and suffering, died in agony and despair, often alone and unshriven for the lack of a priest, when their loved ones abandoned them. After five months of terror, half of Meonbridge’s people were dead.
When the foul sickness at last moved on, leaving the villagers to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, Thomas and Joan Miller went to church daily, to pray for their five dead children’s souls, and give thanks to God for sparing Peter. Then the arrival of baby Maud just a few days ago had brought the Millers a bright ray of hope in the long-drawn-out darkness of their despair.
But Peter hadn’t been spared after all.
ABOUT CAROLYN HUGHES
Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government. She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.
Fortune’s Wheel is her first published novel, and a sequel is under way.
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