Period fiction? I won’t lie… I really didn’t want to go there.
Look at it this way: CJ Sansom, PhD in history. Me, A-level history, Grade D.
But you know what publishers are like: as soon I mentioned once thinking about a thriller featuring the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee, I was never allowed to forget it. After two years and something approaching a veiled threat, I finally returned from a dawn raid on Hay-on-Wye with a pile of secondhand books on Elizabethan England and a sense of deep foreboding…
…which proved amply justified.
Hell, it was far harder than I’d imagined. There wasn’t a single completed page which hadn’t sent me to the works of AL Rowse, or the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to make sure a certain word was used in 1560 when the events in The Bones of Avalon unfold.
Look, it’s important. I’d never forgotten a friend telling me about a medieval crime novel he’d read which opened with something like:
‘How far to the Abbey, sister?’ asked Mother Therese.
‘Why,’ replied the nun, ”tis all of seven kilometres.’
Of course, medieval England is easier. Everybody at Court spoke medieval French; we don’t know how it translated into credible dialogue. But 1560 is dangerously close to Shakespeare. Even if we accept that few people spoke in iambic pentameters, we do know the kind of words they used. A minor breakthough, for me, was the discovery that Shakespeare actually made up over a thousand words which sounded right. Hmm.
In historical fiction, you can only make things up when the facts don’t exist to expose you. Most of my story takes place in Glastonbury, a fabled town well-chronicled in the medieval period when the monks claimed to have found the bones of King Arthur and the reign of Henry VIII when the Abbey was trashed and its Abbot hanged on Glastonbury Tor.
But what was it like after the Reformation? Not a happy place, apparently, and not significant enough to be described by anybody. So who’s to say this wasn’t the period when the town first began to attract the kind of hedge-witches and mystic misfits who would eventually turn it into the official New Age Blackpool? I assembled a cast of real people, including the wonderful Joan Tyrre, who was accused of consorting with fairies and making a very iffy-living out of their predictions. I had Elizabeth’s chief minister, Cecil, send a young and virginal Dee to Glastonbury to find out what happened to the politically-sensitive ‘bones of Arthur’ after the Reformation.
With him goes his friend and patron, Lord Dudley – even younger but far more sexually experienced, possibly at the very highest level. It was actually fun discovering these guys. Coming to them not as a historian, seeing them not as historical figures but guys.
The way they came alive, with all their fears and failings, was fascinating. As soon as I heard Dudley use the, er, Shakespearean-type oath, God’s bollocks, I knew I was in business.
The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman is published by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books on 1st April, £16.99 hardback