Tag Archives: Scottish

DO Sweat the Small Stuff!

It is often the “small stuff” that loses me in historical novels. Just once the author writing that a character in 13th century England used a spinning wheel or that the knight left the castle riding his destrier is likely to find a novel hurled at a wall. (They used a distaff and spindle and it’s like riding a Sherman tank to the grocery store) If you throw in that a longsword is so heavy a normal woman couldn’t lift it, I’ll probably stomp on the novel, also.

Well, maybe I’m more emotional than some readers, but a lot of people know the difference. If you get the small stuff wrong, it doesn’t matter how right you are on the big stuff, you’ve lost your credibility with me.

It is hard to research, I admit, and writing historical a historical novel can take on a life all its own. I advise always at least handling a weapon you are going to write about. The Society for Creative Anachronisms and reenactment societies can be very nice about letting you pick up their weapons which are generally good copies. You can also find classes in using swords which is, by the way, quite different from fencing.

Otherwise, here is where I do sometimes depend on the Internet. It doesn’t take much of a search or much time to find out when spinning wheels were introduced in England, for example, or what spinning methods were used. There are blogs devoted to horses, although I might argue–as a horsewoman–with some of their ‘facts’, you will sound a lot more credible. There are also some books aimed at writers on these topics which can be a good investment if it’s something you include a lot in your novels.

Sometimes the search for details can be rather amusing. In my recent novel (still unsold *sigh*) about the Scottish hero Andrew de Moray I wanted to refer to the smell of gorse which grows quite commonly in Scotland. To me it smells very much like–coconut. In 12th century Scotland, he would NOT make that comparison. I posted on a forum (mainly with US members) asking for help and received the reaction: What the heck is gorse?

Visualize me as bemused. I finally decided to describe it as a “spicy” scent. But I could have said it smelled like coconut if I hadn’t sweated the small stuff. Hopefully, an editor (my agent is a fiend for such things) would have caught it. But if they let it slip through–like the idiot on his destrier which could have easily ridden down the children in the village square not to mention was about as expensive as a Ferrari–it is me who would have looked both lazy and ignorant, not the editor.

Because SOMEONE would have noticed.



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Do I really need to do research?

Short answer–yes.

It may be the best part of writing the genre–the chance to really learn about the people. It is also an essential part of writing historical fiction. I am often asked how to go about it.

That’s a hard question to answer because it depends on what period you are researching and whether you are starting from knowing nothing about the period (except that you want to write about it) or any range from knowing a little to being an expert. My first advice is to not depend on Wikipedia. That can be a good starting point to get a list of resources and a general overview. Then you need books. I do consider the sources listed in Wikipedia to be an excellent starting point, however, so I am not totally discounting it.

As much as possible, I strongly recommend depending on original (sometimes called primary) sources. These are sources produced within the time period you are studying. While this term can be fuzzy, for fiction purposes I don’t think you need to draw too fine a line. As an example from my own work, I consider The Brus by Johne Barbour to be a primary source even though it was written about forty years after the death of Robert the Bruce. A historian might quibble that he wasn’t at the events he chronicled. Well, neither were the friars who wrote The Chronicle of Lanercost which was exactly contemporaneous. Both, however, talked to people who were at those events.

All sources, both original and secondary, have to be looked at with an awareness that they had a certain specific political viewpoint. The Chronicle of Lanercost, for example, was written by friars who believed in the right of the English to conquer Scotland, and Lanercost was occupied by and paid tribute to Scottish armies. They could hardly be expected to be friendly to the Scottish cause. Barbour was, of course, a loyal Scot with good political reason for praising the Bruces and the Douglases.

This does not invalidate what they have to say, but has to be taken into consideration with ALL sources. I know of no historical period that doesn’t involve controversy. Later secondary sources might, for example, want to denigrate the independence of Scotland or defend Scotland’s right to independence as well, so political opinions have to be weighed when sources differ. And you can bet sources are going to differ!

Of course, there is also the difficulties of translations. Some source material is difficult to find in translation if you don’t read the original language and translations can (translators being human) contain errors. Some source material is impossible to find and you at times have no choice but to depend on secondary sources.

If you wondered, in my own work about the Scottish War of Independence, I used a pretty wide range of sources. I’ve mentioned The Brus (or The Bruce) and The Chronicle of Lanercost. I also used as primary sources Bower’s Scoticronicon, The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, and The Chronicles of John of Fordun. Some of this material was not easy to obtain.

For secondary sources I used G. W. S. Barrow’s Robert Bruce & the Community of the Realm of Scotland (a wonderful work), Barron’s The Scottish War of Independence, Ronald McNair Scott’s Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots and I. M. Davis’s The Black Douglas.

Of course, the fact that one is telling a story must not get lost in the history, but the history has to be part and parcel of the story.

Or that is my theory anyway.


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Hello, All!

Historical fiction has a mixed and interesting history. Sir Walter Scott, who probably started the genre, managed to seriously mangle Scottish history with his. (I admit it. I dislike Scott) Dumas the Pere may have mangled French history but is still beloved by many of us.

It was out of fashion for a long time in spite of the successes of some writers such as Sharon Kay Penman. For those of us who love (and incidentally write) this genre, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award for her marvellous Wolf Hall is encouraging. There is hope for sales in this genre, I sincerely believe.

I, frankly, do not include historical romance in my discussion. While loved by many, I don’t read historical romances and have no real interest in novels in which the emphasis is on the romance, all too often at the utter cost of historical accuracy. For me, and you are free to disagree, historical accuracy is essential to good historical fiction. There is ample room for creativity within the confines of accuracy. Look at the complete divergence of A Man for All Seasons and Wolf Hall.

Expectation of a sale is not why I wrote my first historical novel, though, which is still being pitched by my agent. I wrote it because I love Scottish history and have spent years studying it and because years ago I fell in love with my main character, Sir James Douglas, who was widely referred to as the Black Douglas. Unfortunately, the story of Douglas has been largely lost behind those of such Scottish heroes as William Wallace and Scotland’s great king and savior, Robert the Bruce. As great as those two men are, Douglas should stand beside them.

Douglas was essential to the Scottish victory against the English in the Scottish War of Independence, and, in my opinion, was one of the greatest of history’s guerrilla leaders. He was also a fascinating man. It is of a lot of interest that in Johne Barbour’s The Brus (written in about 1370 some forty years after Douglas’s death) Douglas was as much the hero as the Bruce. In fact, Barbour gave one of the first physical descriptions in epic poetry with a paean to Douglas. Translated from its original Scots, it reads:

But he was not so fair that we

Should praise his looks in high degree…

His hair was black, so I heard say,

His limbs were finely made and long,

His bones were large, his shoulders strong,

His body was well-knit and slim

And those say that set eyes on him,

When happy, loveable was he,

And meek and sweet in company,

But those with him in battle saw

Another countenance he wore!

He wasn’t a hard character to love. Disinherited by the English after his father’s death (probably from starvation) in the Tower of London, Douglas returned from hiding in France where he had been sent to Scotland where he was a page to the patriot bishop, William Lamberton, a close associate of both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

When the Bruce began his rebellion against the English occupation of Scotland, Douglas, still a boy of only about eighteen or nineteen, was among the first to swear fealty to the new Scottish king. He followed Bruce through defeat, retreat, hiding, suffering and loss. Scots were not only killed in battle but executed by the hundreds, including three of Robert the Bruce’s brothers and most of their close friends.

However, through tenacity and unimaginable courage, the war was turned around. One of the first of the Scottish victories was Douglas’s re-taking of his own castle, an incident referred to by the Scots as the “Douglas Larder” when he burned the castle after executing the few English who survived the battle. Although he has since been accused of brutality in that execution, there is little doubt that from his perspective (and that of the time) it was a logical if regrettable action in order to hide the identity of the local population who aided him. And remember, he was at this point at most, twenty years old.

What followed was another twenty years of warfare in which he was one of three of the most important leaders of the Scottish army and many would say the man most feared by the English until he lead one of the four wings of the Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Anyway, that gives you an idea of the reasons for my fascination with the Black Douglas. I put a lot of work into making the novel historically accurate as well as in portraying a fascinating man. Will the novel sell is always a question. Darn if I know. It only portrays the first portion of Douglas’s career. There would be a lot more to tell.

However, whether that novel sells or not, (I do have another I’ve written since) in this blog I want to discuss historical fiction in general and some historical novels that have been published, as well writing problems and techniques.

I hope you enjoy and take part in the discussion.


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