A Voyage of Discovery Five Aspects of Writing Historical Fiction by Paula Lofting-Wilcox

Today I introduce Paula Lofting-Wilcox, author of The Sons of the Wolf Trilogy, set circa 1066. It is a wonderful story. Here is a taster of Paula’s writing story with a few sterling writing tips worth reading.

1) Keeping it Real
Since I started writing Sons of the Wolf back in 2005 after being inspired by a battle re-enactment and the purchase of a book called 1066: Year of the Conquest by David Howarth, much has changed in terms of how I see history, writing, and interpreting the sources. No one is perfect. No one is a total villain.

Many past authors of Historical Fiction, I have found, have written characters as they would like to see them, painting them just a little nicer than they actually were, often excusing or excluding the dastardly deeds done by them for the sake of their story. After all, no one wants to love a murderer, or an oppressor, a fornicator, a liar, a killer of children. We cannot view historical characters with the morals of the 21st century. Everyone is a product of their time, influenced by their surroundings, environment, the people they were brought up by, their experiences good and bad, and what has been indoctrinated within them. This is how we view people today; why should we not view historical people likewise?
As I researched, despite a dearth of information about my protagonist’s personalities, I had to look at their actions, the events that impacted their lives and their roles in these events. if there was anything written about them at all, I was lucky. Often, we can interpret the actions of a character and come up with a reasonable portrait of them: Harold Godwinson who is one of my main supporting characters, comes across as preferring diplomacy to war through most of his career until he finally ‘snapped’ and dealt with the Welsh in 1063 rather harshly. My interpretation is whilst all evidence suggests a man who is fair-minded, peaceful and a great diplomat he could still be aggressive, ruthless even. Yet, for the most part, he comes across as affable, intelligent and charming. His handfasted wife Edith Swanneck seems to have been the love of his life. They were together for around twenty plus years. Although he abandoned her for Aldith of Mercia for political reasons much later, she seems to have not been entirely forgotten, for she was supposedly there when he died, searching for his body on the battlefield. To me this implies that he loved and honoured her throughout those years of marriage, remaining faithful to her until it was expedient for him to take Aldith of Mercia as his queen. This is what noble men did in those days and Edith may have expected to be abandoned one day, which cannot have been easy for her. Norman sources had him down as a fornicator and black-hearted, though there is no evidence to support this opinion.

One thing I have learned, is that people are rarely good or bad. They have have elements of a dark and lighter side. Harold was not totally this or that. He could be ruthless if he needed to be and when he invaded Wales, he was not averse to razing homes and crops and slaughtering its people, especially anyone who had reached the age of manhood. This might seem very harsh, and it was, but this was not unusual at this time, and considering what Gruffudd of Wales had got away with throughout the 1050s, one might imagine his contemporaries saying, ‘it was about time’.

Despicable acts do not always mean the medieval protagonist was the worst man on earth, akin to Satan or comparable to someone who has committed genocide. Sometimes, it simply means that the character was a man of his time. The Medieval mindset was not the same as ours and we cannot judge the people of the past as we would today.

The same goes for my fictional characters. In the case of Wulfhere I never set out to make him flawed. He started as noble, honourable, someone who would always do the right thing. It soon became apparent as I was writing him, that he was, like anyone, flawed. I had this idealistic view of how I wanted my MC to be, and soon found that he was doing things that most ordinary men would struggle to contain themselves with, especially given that he comes from the warrior class where you had to have a certain temperament to be able to kill with impunity. Despite the fact that higher status women were not viewed as chattels in this era and had a certain amount of rights that later societies didn’t, it was still a society led by men. Wulfhere’s status is comparable to the upper-middle class, though most probably he was at the bottom of that pile. Writing from his point of view soon made me realise that he was never going to be the perfect epitome of a knight in shining armour, no matter how likeable I made him. Nor was his wife going to be the lady we all put on a pedestal. Considering her husband’s behaviour, it’s not surprising it had a profound affect on her character – of course it would. So flawed characters are realistic.

The Coronation

2) Trusting The Sources
Much of history, we know, comes from sources. Sometimes one has to sift through the myths and legends to find the facts. We must work out what is reliable and what isn’t, and often it’s difficult to know whose version is the right version. Due to the time period my books are set in, I have to choose carefully what sources I can trust. Those that are written in much later periods often mean that although they may have originated from earlier sources that no longer exist, they may have been twisted, changed or completely rewritten in the words of the author. It might be that they come from a verbal history handed down through the generations like Beowulf was before it was put to paper. By the time it got to the Christian author in the tenth or the eleventh centuries it was Christianized and might have been very different from the original pagan version.

3) Characters have their own minds.
One thing that has astounded me throughout my writing is the fact that at times, I struggle to get my characters to behave as I want them. Its quite creepy sometimes that I find myself berating them out loud, asking them why they won’t do what I want them too. They often end up writing the script themselves and the first time this happened I was so surprised! It was a character who was meant to be minor. He was not fictional, but very little was known about him other than who is was and when he died. Even so, it seemed he had a story to tell. He wouldn’t allow me to ignore him. He took the thread, and completely ran off with it, making himself one of the leading characters.

4) Sometimes filling in the gaps is not as easy as one thinks.
The period I write in, the 11th century, is not as well documented as what came after 1066. Its there, but what is there is often little more than a few lines. This, you might say, is brilliant for an author of historical fiction, a writer’s dream! As they say, when the evidence is scarce or missing, one just simply fills in the gaps. What I found was that it was not as easy as you think! My conundrum was that in the year of 1058, there was a bit of an event that, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, didn’t add up too much. But in the Irish Annales it was a large-scale invasion which caused much devastation. It took a lot of reading, a lot of combing through what evidence was available carefully and then trying to fit a thread in with my main character that made sense, was not implausible. I have to say, it took me a long time to fit that passage together and make it work.

5) Changing facts to fit the story is not always necessary.

Following on from filling in gaps, which is in truth, ‘making it up’ based on what was conceivable, to sticking to the history as we know it:
There is a case for some historical fiction writers to change the facts of history in order to suit their story. If not changing the facts, embellishing or making characters villains when the evidence shows otherwise. It depends on what you want to do with your story. If you are inserting a fictional character amongst the real ones, you are bound to change what happens, for example, Bernard Cornwell does this with his books. Let’s take Cornwall’s Saxon Warrior books. Uhtred, his main character, invented, interacts with real people. He even becomes a famous lady’s lover, completely changing a perspective regarding her character, in the way she acts, thinks, and speaks. But, is it plausible that she might have had a lover? Perhaps, and I cannot see why not. Yet, it’s unlikely, given what we do know of her. On the other hand, we don’t really know her character; there’s nothing in the records to tell us what she was like as a person, not really. So, whilst it isn’t likely, it’s not implausible that such a romance could have happened.

It’s these instances that allow an author wants to create an exciting, interesting, exhilarating storyline for his character. Thus, there are authors like Cornwall, who will fiddle with the facts so he can imbibe his storyline with as many fascinating ‘plausible’, or ‘improbable’ threads as he wants.
In my view, history is already exciting enough, so do we really need to change the facts to fit in with our characters. Do we need to portray characters as something where there is no evidence to say that there was such events? I accept that it is horses for courses and as authors we are not writing facts, we are writing ficts! (New word, my invention). Therefore, everything we write is to a certain degree made up because we weren’t there. The sources are not necessarily correct. In fact, many of them are proven not to be. But, in every era, we have some sort of framework to go by, and there is often more than one interpretation of the ‘facts’. If we start bastardizing the frameworks, we are in danger of presenting a totally different story all together – a work where the flavour has been added to and it now tastes very different.

Personally, I endeavor to keep to the facts where they are known, and to keep my interpretations plausible wherever I need to use them, however I am not totally against fact changing as long as there is an author’s note! As an author, I do think I have a responsibility to the historical people I am writing about to not defame their characters and to treat them with dignity. I also believe I have a responsibility not to mislead people, so if I write something that didn’t happen, then I must have an author’s note.
So, my answer to creating a fantastic story-line for a historical character that never happened and completely changes the plot, why not just use a fictional character, or write fantasy?

Author Bio
Paula has always wanted to write since she was a little girl coming home from school to sit at the table with her notebook. A prolific reader, her earliest influences were Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, C.S.Lewis, inspired an interest in history. It became her lifelong wish to one day write and publish an epic novel, but not being able to type, and having no funds for a typewriter to learn on, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold. Later in life, with the advent of the PC, this old ambition was rekindled. Her début novel, ‘Sons of the Wolf’ was first published with the assistance of Silverwood Books in 2012. More recently she has republished it with her new publishing company Longship Publishing, on kindle and paperback. It is a story set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the first in the Sons of the Wolf series. The second book, The Wolf Banner, has also been published. She is working on the third, Wolf’s Bane.
She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, a great source of research for her writing.

Paula can be found on Amazon: Author.to/SonsoftheWolf
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Paulalofting?lang=en-gb
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/Wulfsuna/
Website: 1066: The Road to Hastings and Other Stories www.paulaloftinghistoricalnovelist.wordpress.com

2 Comments on “A Voyage of Discovery Five Aspects of Writing Historical Fiction by Paula Lofting-Wilcox”

  1. Thank you so much for having me, Carol! This was a very thought provoking excersize and am grateful I got to air my thoughts! And grateful that you manage to get back in to your website!!!!

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