Why I Write: Historical Fiction Set in the Middle Ages
by Elizabeth Chadwick
There are two reasons that I write historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. One goes back to Childhood and the other to my teenage years. If neither had happened I might still have been a writer, but who knows what my chosen subject would have been.
To begin at the beginning I need to tell you how I came to be a writer in the first place. I told myself stories throughout my childhood, but they were verbal – I never wrote anything down, and I didn’t tell them to other people; they were just for me.
My earliest memory of telling stories goes back to being three years old. It was a light summer evening and I had been put to bed but I wasn’t ready for sleep. I can clearly remember hearing my dad whistling and making ‘construction’ noises elsewhere in the house as he built a wardrobe for my bedroom. I can even remember the colour he was going to paint it – ‘Dawn Pink.’ That’s how vivid the memory is. I was comforted by the security of that presence, but still too wide awake to be lulled into slumber. To occupy myself, I took the cotton handkerchief from beneath my pillow and began telling myself a story about the fairies that were printed in each corner until eventually I was ready to go to sleep.
This became the pattern of my childhood, telling stories to illustrations and photographs in books. I would take a picture that excited my imagination and invent stories around its contents. An analogy would be the Mary Poppins film where Mary and the children step into a chalk picture drawn by Bert in his pavement artist persona, and go off to have adventures over the horizon. This is precisely what I would do. The foreground image would be my starting point but the characters (not always human – I had a thing for horses!) would go off and have new lives and adventures over that horizon. I realise now that I was teaching myself the art and structure of story telling. I would sometimes tell the same tale, but then change it round just for fun. I’d add in a new character, a different ending. I’d change a reaction or an emotion, just to see what would happen. I suspect I must have spent at least an hour a day at this game. It was my down time, my escape, my own world to arrange as I chose.
It was during this period of my life that the first of the two above mentioned reasons for writing historical fiction appeared on my radar. That first one was not a directly conscious thing at the time. When I was a child growing up in Scotland, history lessons were taught by the teacher writing the information on the blackboard and talking to us. We had to write down what was written on the blackboard and that was supposed to make it sink in.
I would have been about 8 and in Mrs Robinson’s class. She had a slightly different way of teaching history and clearly loved the subject herself. We had to do the usual blackboard lesson, but after that, out would come the dressing up box (a belt, a hat, a cloak, a bag) and we would be given the opportunity to make small, impromptu plays about what we’d just had to write. I loved being chosen to act the part and turn the words into drama. It brought the history to life. It made those people and their choices live again. Even as an observer if I wasn’t chosen, to see my classmates so involved, was a joyous and engrossing thing. Mrs Robinson taught us in the year that Scottish Medieval history was on the syllabus. The following year, we had moved on from that era, we had a different teacher, and it was back to the blackboard and no dress up fun.
Looking back, I realise that it must have left a subconscious impression on me that medieval history was perhaps more interesting than other periods. If the dress up had happened when we were studying a different time, then who knows, I might have been writing Georgian or Victorian novels!
The second reason why I write medieval fiction has two parts to it, but they are linked.
At the age of 14 I was still telling myself stories when the BBC aired a historical drama titled The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It starred actor Keith Michelle in the role of king Henry and I rather fell for the handsome actor, the costumes, the whole colourful pageant. It was the school holidays, I was bored, and for the first time I actually wrote something down. It was the story of Lady Fiona who comes to court and serves the Queen and meets a handsome young courtier with whom she falls in love – or that was the plan. I lost interest after the first couple of chapters after I’d described and illustrated all her clothes and her favourite horse. It was time to go back to school and I forgot about it.
The following year, however, the BBC brought out a children’s TV series. They had bought it in from France where it was called ‘Thibaud ou les Croisades’ and starred a gorgeous knight in white robes having adventures in the Holy Land during the time of King Fulke and Queen Melisande in the middle of the 12th century. The hero was half-Arab, half-European and moved between both cultures. Sometimes he was serving King Fulke. On other occasions he would have adventures on the pilgrim road or in a Bedouin camp. In its own strange way it was a lot more authentic than something like Kingdom of Heaven!
Fired up, I began writing a story based on the character. However, although it started as a piece of fan fiction it very quickly developed a life of its own. It was the Mary Poppins picture syndrome again. In my personal take, my hero married into a pilgrim family and ended up returning with them to his father’s homeland in Angevin England.
At the time of writing I knew very little about the 12th century, either England or the Holy Land. We had done a short section at school so I had some rudiments, and I had watched a few films and documentaries, but otherwise I was in the dark. Wanting my story to feel as real as possible, I started researching. I couldn’t afford a stash of books but the library was well supplied and I would ask for special titles for birthday and Christmas presents. The more I researched, the more interested I became in the period, rather than obsessing over my TV hero, and the more I wanted to write about the life and times. The Middle Ages became a passion just as much as the story telling and the writing and I realised that this was what I wanted to do for a job. Write historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. I do believe that interests that grab you as an older child or teenager are liable to stay with you for the rest of your life. They imprint on you as you yourself are changing and they become woven into the fibre of your being.
I was 15 when I wrote my first historical novel, improbably titled Tiger’s Eye after the stones in the hero’s sword hilt. My dad said it ought to be called ‘Crispin’s Capers’ after the hero’s best friend. Paul Jermain was the name of my hero. I wouldn’t call him that now since Paul is a name usually given to those of a monastic disposition, but back then I didn’t have the research to let that bother me. It has always been one of the addictions and joys for me – the finding out and it goes hand in glove with creating the story.
So there you have it. The reasons I write historical fiction set in the Middle Ages are because of an enlightened teacher – thank you Mrs Robinson, and teenage hormones reacting to handsome action hero Andre Lawrence playing hero knight Thibaud in Desert Crusader. Without them, as I said, who knows what I’d be writing now!
About Elizabeth Chadwick
Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling, award winning author of historical fiction. A born storyteller, her first novel The Wild Hunt won a Betty Trask Award in 1990. She has been four times shortlisted for the RNA Award in the UK for the best mainstream romantic novel. Her book The Scarlet Lion was selected as one of the top ten works of historical fiction of the decade by Richard Lee, founder of The Historical Novel Society.
You can find out more about Elizabeth at her website. Her books can be found at local UK book sellers and from online book sellers around the world. You can also connect with Elizabeth via social media: Twitter and Facebook.
You can find Episodes of Thibaud ou le Croisades on Youtube.