Historical Characters in Fiction: To Exist or Not To Exist?

 

Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes - print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes – print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

At the moment, somewhere inbetween using Nanowrimo to finish my paranormal novel and knitting small white and red stocking decorations for Christmas, I’m also writing my first historical novel, Daughters of Brigitania, that will (eventually!) be under the pen-name ‘Miranda Christon’. It’s going well, but I’ve found that, compared to the paranormal novels I put out, it’s going really well.

This isn’t me boasting, by the way. I’m just amazed at how much easier it flows. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the paranormal genre being something of a fluke/phase for me, and I’m supposed to be writing historical novels, but I suspect it also has something to do with the fact that the characters within the book (with some exceptions) actually existed. All other characters I’ve used in any book might hold traits of people I know, or actually be very similar to someone I’ve met, but they’re nowhere near real. Whereas with the historical characters, even if I have to use a bit of creative interpretation in their conversations and movements, there is also a solid basis to use for their character, their essence.

And sometimes it isn’t a lot to base them on, either. Take Cartimandua, one of my main characters. She was a client queen of Rome when they invaded Britain, and ruler of the Brigantes, the ancient British tribe who pretty much cornered the market on owning northern land in what is now England. All we know of her is literally summed up in two paragraphs, written by the Roman historian Tacitus, about 50 – 100 years after the events of her reign actually occurred. He’s pretty damning about her (as he is about Cleopatra, and I suspect, though I haven’t read his Annals and Histories cover to cover, about a few other women in charge as well. He didn’t seem to like the idea much). I’m also studying history at the moment, and the first thing we learn is that one source does not a conclusion make – in other words, he is putting his own spin on things. This makes the two paragraphs which are our only source for her life, pretty weak in terms of saying, “Yeah, this is how she was and when stuff happened. Fact.” But nevertheless, she did exist, she was a ruler of the Brigantes tribe, and she did exist in what is now the north of England.

As I’m writing, this does give me a certain basis to work from. By knowing what events occurred during her life, however accurate the times might be, I have a ready-made framework from which to pad out her story. I try to put myself in the mindset of an Iron Age ruler (because we’ve all been there, right? Ha, ha), and work out why those events happened. What other real-life events took place at that time? Who else was around her? What external events may have forced her hand in some situations? But then it also comes down to my own personal opinion, which I feel does have a bearing on how I’m going to portray her. I’m trying to be fair and balanced, but I’m wary of falling into the same trap as Tacitus did – for practically the opposite reasons – and creating a woman that I’m wholly sympathetic to without offering bias. But being able to refer back to the real-life events, historical knowledge from that time, and the little we know of how Roman writers thought, it’s possible to reconstruct something fair and balanced that helps with the writing. I’ve found this means there’s something gritty and permanent about the story once all of this is included, something that – in my humble opinion – doesn’t exist in a purely fictional novel. Because no matter how many people a fictional character is made up of, there’s nothing truly rooting that character down. And the ‘real, existing character’ doesn’t just apply to historical novels, of course.

So to go back to the original question – does writing about a historical person who actually existed make the writing easier? Yes, I believe it does. Because there’s a root for them, a template that writers can refer back to. We also have the indulgence of hindsight, and that allows us to look back over their decisions, and try to work out why they did such-and-such a thing. If it’s a fictional character, often this gets applied backwards. We want them to do a certain event, or make a certain situation happen, so we have to invent decisions for them that will fit. Real life doesn’t always include decisions that fit neatly, so this is – my hand firmly held in the air – something that can be worked into a purely fictional novel to create a story that is more realistic, I imagine. The reason I think this is that the method of working with hindsight for Cartimandua’s decisions is rubbing off on the characters I’ve invented around her, as well. (If I went with just those we know of, she would rule a tribe of three people, and that’s just silly). Because of her ‘real-life’ decisions, the invented characters suddenly also have a framework to work backwards from, like a vine gripping to a parent plant. When a situation happens that was unexpected, they have to change their plans. “Alrighty, then,” they say. “I guess we’ll put the pub crawl on ice, for now. The Romans are attacking. Drat.” Or something Iron Age-y.

So yes, having historical characters who actually existed doesn’t just make the writing better for them, it also applies to all the fictional characters around them. Mostly because a lot of the decisions made in real life throughout history would make a fictional book seem ‘implausible’, sometimes. So I’m going to try this with my paranormal stuff – I’ll make decisions for the characters, and they’re just going to have to work around it. Sod ’em.

 

Do you agree, or disagree with the idea of real-life characters having a better basis for writing? Can it be applied to purely fictional characters? Let me know what you think in the comments below, it’s always great to see what everyone thinks. 🙂

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Thursday Teaser – Daughters Of Brigitania!

Good mortenoon, folks! 😀 Yes, I’ve had a wee break over the last week from blogging due to some personal stuff, but never fear! We’re picking right up where we left it last week (and including a cover reveal I’ve reblogged from the Tarasphere, be sure to check it out), and continuing with a wee snippet from Daughters Of Brigitania. Enjoy! 🙂

There was a creak as the wooden door to the hut was flung open, and a breathless Aiia burst into the room. Her cheeks were flushed from sprinting, and she gasped hard for breath. Cartimandua resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her sister’s impudence. Instead casting a wary eye towards the watchful druid, she forced a smile onto her cold face, and urged her sister forward. “Yes, Aiia? Do you bring us news? I’m afraid you must not excite our atmosphere. As you can see, we have a visitor.”

Aiia glanced over towards the white-robed old man, giving a hasty nod before rushing across to the Queen’s side. Falling to her knees at the side of the throne, she gripped onto her sibling’s sleeve, pressing her forehead into the fabric so firmly it would leave a mark. “Cartimandua, my Queen, I beg of you to rethink your battle against Venutius. It is tearing your people apart.”

Taking a mere second to think through Aiia’s words, Cartimandua sharply looked over towards the group breathlessly watching them, waving them away with a hasty sweep of her arm. “Please, leave us. I must speak alone to my sister.” Murmurs of contrition rose up amongst the advisors as they stood, and they swiftly made an exit with the druid in tow, leaving the hut with nothing more than the hint of the scented smoke hanging in the air. As the door banged shut behind them, the guards taking up their place once more at either side of it, Cartimandua roughly dragged her sleeve away from the young woman at her feet.

Aiia stumbled back in shock at the force of the movement, correcting herself as she rose to her feet, wiping at her eyes hurriedly. Cartimandua spat into the flames in front, an ugly scowl marring her perfect features. Twisting so rapidly her dress nearly sank into the embers, she grabbed Aiia by her tunic, pulling her in closely. “You stupid girl! What do you mean by running in here and acting like a common servant? Are you not royalty? Are you not a princess? Then act like one, and do not embarrass me by weeping at my feet!” she hissed, releasing her sister with a hard motion.

“Cartimandua, I’m sorry. I have spoken to you about this every morning, and every evening, and I no longer know the words to turn you back from this wretched decision!” Aiia cried out, wringing her hands in despair. It was so unlike her to fall to this depression, but it was perhaps the only way Cartimandua would listen. “And it is a wretched decision—the Carvetti at this moment gather outside with their King, ready to tear their own families apart! You will have no tribe to rule over soon.”

The Queen was about to retort when she halted herself, understanding sinking into her mind. Aiia was right. Regardless of what the druid had told her, there was no point in being Queen of a desolate landscape. I will hear her out, then throw her out. Circling the room, she pursed her lips, keeping Aiia in her sights as she did so. “And how do you know this? Have you seen it with your own eyes?” she snapped.

With a resigned sigh, Aiia cast her eyes to the ground, and nodded. “I have indeed. Many of the crops are going untended as the farmers who came with Venutius have once more joined him. Two of our healers have also left, and many people grow sick without their aid. We have very little food to see us through the rest of the month, Cartimandua, and Venutius’ men prevent and traders from entering the fort.” She gave a sideways glance towards her sister, who stood frozen, staring out towards the doorway. Aiia knew that Cartimandua had barely been outside since the siege had begun, instead choosing to hole herself up and only receiving the druids. Outside, her people were falling apart as families divided over their rulers’ quarrel, splitting fathers and sons.

“But the druids have told me I would win,” Cartimandua murmured, pacing across to the flames. There was a heavy pause as she hovered her head over the flickering heat, swaying her palm through the orange tongues. Snapping her fingers abruptly, she crooked her fingers over to one of the guards by the door. He stepped forward, bowing low as she murmured something to him. He gave a gruff reply, and beckoned to his companion, before both of them left to head outside.

Aiia smiled for the first time in days, relaxing her tense shoulders. “You’re going to call your men back,” she said with relief.

Cartimandua glanced over her shoulder, sending her a cold glance. “Certainly not!” she cried. “I will not admit defeat, otherwise Venutius will choose to do this whenever he feels wronged. I am sending an envoy to Piercebridge, he cannot stop an envoy, he knows this. I will send for the might of Rome, and let him understand that I am right.” Her tone was icy as she finished speaking, twirling the beads around her neck with calculated pulls about her fingers.

Slumping against the throne, Aiia’s face fell. Her brows crossed as her sister’s words sank in, and dread pulled at her guts. Venutius was right. Cartimandua fully intended to let the Romans have their way, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. At least, not from Stanwick. As Cartimandua strolled across to peer outdoors, Aiia’s face creased with tension once more. Then it would have to start away from Stanwick. Her resolve doubled.

Like this snippet? Why not sign up to my newsletter here, where you can be kept up to date with all my releases, including Daughters Of Brigitania. 😀

(Taken from ‘Daughters Of Brigitania’, Copyright © 2013 Miranda Stork and Kathryn Northwood. Do not reproduce, use, copy, or include in any way in any format, digital or print, without prior permission of the author.)

Manic Monday Once Again!

Merry morning, everyone! 🙂 Well, I was away over the weekend, and WP didn’t bother to put up my scheduled posts. Will I ever get the hang of this internet thing? LOL So, anyhoo, the Manic part of Monday is…that Scrumptious Saturday and Sunday Snippet are both part of today’s post! Scrumptious Saturdays will be from some of my favourite book-related recipes, and Sunday Snippet is…well…a snippet. And it’s from Daughters Of Brigantia again, as this WIP seems to be taking over for now. Well, let’s move on! Or should that be backward? Anyway, enjoy! 😀

 

Scrumptious Saturday

Two of the books I loved most as a child were Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass. (Not to mention pretty much every other book and poem by Lewis Carroll, but that’s for another day.) A recipe mentioned within, that was a firm favourite with the Victorians, was Mock Turtle Soup. Now, I’m not about to get a turtle, OR a chicken for today’s dish, so vegetarians don’t worry! This is 100% veggie-friendly. 🙂 (However, there ARE eggs in the recipe. Please use a vegan egg substitute for a vegan-friendly version.)

Mock ‘Mock Turtle Soup’

Ingredients

  • 1 lb potatoes, or other starchy vegetables
  • 3 qts water
  • carrots (chopped)
  • 3 stalks chopped celery
  • onions (chopped)
  • 12 ozs catsup
  • 21/2 ozs worcestershire sauce
  • lemon (quartered)
  • 11/2 tsps salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • flour (browned)
  • hard-boiled eggs (chopped) (Or use Vegan Egg Substitute)

 

  1. Boil the potatoes to a firm but soft-at-the-edges consistency; add all ingredients to the potatoes in a large pot; cook 1 to 1.5 hours.
  2. Keep lid on for first 1/2 hour.
  3. Add browned flour gradually, stirring constantly.
  4. Add 2 chopped hard-boiled eggs; cook another 1/2 hour.
  5. Browned flour: Brown 10 tablespoons flour in a skillet, stirring constantly. Add a little water to make a thick paste.

 

Enjoy your literary soup! 😀

Sunday Snippet – Daughters Of Brigitania

 

*Please bear in mind there may be some errors, as this is still a WIP. Enjoy! 🙂

 

Darting into her roundhouse, Aiia was glad to see it had been left as how she remembered it. Snatching up a fresh change of clothes, she pulled them on and reached for a jug of water, splashing it into a bowl. As she attempted to clean up her face and hair, a jolt of panic ran through her again. Of all the people who had been in that crowd, only Aiia understood the curious look Cartimandua had given the messenger. She’s going to say yes to their truce. Yes! To the same bastards who killed Gaisio, and would have killed any of us when they landed. After scooping up a hammered bronze mirror to check her reflection, she ran back outside, to make her way into the great hut. Cartimandua would not be happy to see her, but she had little choice—she had to be there.

Two guards were stood to attention at the main doors, but neither of them even blinked when she sped past, keeping her eyes downcast to prevent them recognising her. As she slipped into the darkness of the roundhouse, she ducked in behind the servant girls, perching herself in a dark corner to listen to what was said. Cartimandua and Venutius were seated in their thrones, the messenger sat on a bench the other side of the fire. It crackled and jumped, an unwelcome addition to the hot day, but necessary for the feast to be laid out in the evening.

After making sure that the messenger was given wine and food, Cartimandua settled back into her throne, and fixed him with a wry smirk. “I suppose you have been told we are barbarians and savages, yes?”

The messenger looked up from his drink with a stutter, feigning surprise. “Indeed not, your majesty. We have no knowledge of yourselves, with the exception of our late emperor Julius Caesar’s writings. He merely mentioned how your land was triangular was was at least two-thousand miles across.”

Venutius gave a frown, interrupting, “Excuse me…miles? What are these?”

Coughing on his bread, the messenger hid a smile, replying, “It is a unit of measure, your majesty. For example, it is about a mile from your gates to the very bottom of the valley below.”

“Ah, I see.” Venutius leaned back into his chair, stroking his moustache thoughtfully. Waving an arm he continued, “So I suppose you mi—“

“We did not come here to talk about measurements,” Cartimandua reminded him tartly, turning her attention back to the messenger and adding, “And my husband is not ‘your majesty’, he is merely Prince Regent. You may refer to him as ‘my Prince’. Now, what of these gifts? Are they to bribe us, then?”

The messenger scoffed at the statement, choosing to ignore Cartimandua’s jibe about her husband. Venutius himself bristled at the statement but said nothing, simply sending a dark glare into the back of the queen’s head. The messenger leaned up with a smug lilt to his dark eyes, and crooked a finger at one of the soldiers. They jumped up smartly and strode to the chest, bending down only to click the lock open.

Even Aiia let out an awestruck breath at the sight. Bright terracotta pots lay within, filled to bursting with glass beads in every hue, amphorae of wine and oils. Cartimandua tried to appear unruffled, but she slid forward on her seat to better view the luxuries within the chest. It appeared all the more like a treasure trove for the current situation the tribe was living through. She held her hand out as the soldier passed over a string of amber-coloured beads, running them through her fingers like a gift from the gods. “And all of these…are if we choose to join your empire, I presume?” she responded, ruefully placing the jewellery back down again and staring quizzically at the messenger.

He shook his head. “No, these are yours to enjoy. Rome does not offer up toys as if you were spoilt children. We merely wish to show you what Rome could give you. If you were to sign the treaty…there would be many more gifts.” He gave a charming grin, his stern countenance momentarily shattered. “Rome does not forget its friends. But, I should warn you. Neither does Rome forget its enemies.”

His words were not taken lightly, and the Queen rose her gaze to his, the fires casting dark shadows across her eyes. “Is that a warning?” she answered quietly, her tone ominous.

The messenger’s chewing slowed once more, and he gave a slow swallow, leaning forward on his worn seat. The fire reflected off his brass armour, giving him the impression of being made of fire. “Only if you choose to be an enemy.”

 

Like this snippet? Why not sign up to my newsletter here, where you can be kept up to date with all my releases, including Daughter Of Brigitania. 😀

(Taken from ‘Daughters Of Brigantia’, Copyright © 2013 Kathryn Northwood. Do not reproduce, use, copy, or include in any way in any format, digital or print, without prior permission of the author.)