Nicola here. Today it's my huge pleasure to welcome to the blog historical novelist Helen Hollick. Helen has a rich and varied writing (and life!) experience, summed up in her own words as: “I wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with my Arthurian Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, and the 1066 era book Harold The King (UK title)/I Am the Chosen King (US title), I became a USA Today bestseller with Forever Queen.” Helen also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based fantasy adventures, so if you enjoy the Pirates of the Caribbean films, they should be right up your street (or quayside)!
Today, Helen is going to talk about a fascinating subject, the question of what makes writers write. Maybe we all have different answers to this and it will be interesting to see in the comments what everyone thinks. She also speaks up very fervently and persuasively for the hero that was Harold Godwinson and transports us to Saxon England.
Over to Helen, who asks: Why Do We Do It?
Writing that is. What is it that makes writers write? It certainly isn’t the possible fortune (unless you’re one of the rare multi-million best sellers. Which most of us aren’t). Nor is it the fame, most of us, particularly where historical fiction is concerned, are not ‘household names’ – although that isn’t for want of trying!
The answer is somewhat similar to asking a mountaineer ‘why climb Everest?’ The answer is usually, ‘because it’s there.’ For us it is the same sort of thing but in reverse: we write because the story we want to tell isn’t there. Writing stories, books, novels (whatever you want to call it) is compulsive. We get an idea and it squats in our mind, expanding and taking shape, morphing into something so large that it cannot be ignored. The characters troop in, and then the plot (or sometimes the other way round). But once those characters have been given life, it is darn hard to be rid of them. They are inclined to nag. Persistently. The only way to exorcise them is – write their story.
For me, writing Harold The King (titled I Am The Chosen King in the USA – same book, different title) was what is commonly termed ‘a lightbulb moment’. I had completed my first trilogy, my version of the Arthurian legend, and the publisher wanted something else. But what? What could I do next? I was a relative newcomer back then in the 1990s, inexperienced, nervous, not very confident. King Arthur had not been easy to research, because there are no facts about him – let’s face it, he probably never even existed!
I based my trilogy on the period of the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, the 400-500s A.D. I researched Roman Britain and early Anglo-Saxon England as best I could, and for the rest, I made it up. For my fourth novel, however, I wanted something more concrete for historical accuracy. I searched through several academic text books and one thing struck me, over and over. English history seemed to always start with the Norman Conquest. There would be a brief mention of Alfred the Great, a little of Æthelred the Unready, then a condescending annihilation of how poor a commander Harold II was – and how wonderful William of Normandy, the founder of the equally as wonderful Plantagenets was.
Hmm. I didn’t agree with that. I was rather fond of Harold. He had, after all, built the Saxon church at Waltham Abbey, Essex, my neighbouring town back then. At around the same time I went on a day trip to Battle Abbey in Sussex. The abbey dominates a little town called ‘Battle’ because, well, that’s where the battle was. THE battle. The Battle of Hastings between Bill and ’Arold.
That same week I had a vivid dream. It was one of those dreams that rolled out like watching a movie. The scenery was vivid, I could see three men riding their horses beside a river, could hear the younger two arguing, the older one, their father, telling them to stop squabbling. Then the scene changed to a young woman, little more than a girl, hiding beneath the trees on the far bank, watching them. I knew, simply knew, that this was Edyth Swanneck who was to become the common-law wife of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Essex and later, King of England. Knew, just as firmly, that these men were Earl Godwin and two of his sons, Tostig and Harold. (This dream eventually became chapter two of my novel).
And that was it. The questions started flooding into my mind. Why did history start at 1066? Why was Harold so often made out to be a poor commander, a man who made mistakes and lost England to the Duke of Normandy? Why in 1066 did Harold set Edyth aside, after twenty or so years of marriage and at least six children, in order to take another as his queen? Why was he king anyway? And why – how – did Edyth have the courage to walk among the thousands of the dead to find what remained of the man she loved? For that was another myth. Harold II, our rightful King of Saxon England was not killed by an arrow in the eye, but was hacked to death by four of William’s cronies. And Edyth had to identify his remains amongst that dreadful carnage on a hill in Sussex, seven miles from the sea.
I started to research, unravelling all the Norman victory propaganda, and discovered a man who ended up as my hero, a man who cared for his country, his kingdom and for the woman he loved. A man who was overtaken by circumstances, and a man who gave his life defending his realm, and his people, from a tyrant who had no right whatsoever to invade, and as it turned out, terrorise England under his ruthless rule.
So back then in 1999, why did I write my novel about Harold Godwinson, the last English King of England? All these years later, I think it is probably still the best novel I have written, and, Harold is still, very much, my hero.
But I wrote it because his was a story that had not been told.
And I wanted to tell it.
Helen Hollick is the author of Harold the King (UK edition title) / I am the Chosen King (US edition title) the story of the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings
Newsletter Subscription: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick
Main Blog: www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com
You can find out more about stepping back into Saxon England with authors Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick here.
Thank you very much, Helen, for visiting the Wenches today, for sharing your thoughts on why writers write, and for making such a compulsive case for King Harold II. Our question for Wench readers today:
If you are a writer, why do you write? And if you are a reader, which historical stories would you like to see told, either for the first time or in a different way?