October can be a beautiful or a sad month. The autumn colours here in the UK are glorious, and we have been having a bit of an Indian Summer in Devon. But the prospect of winter approaching is not always a good one, and for me, the annual Battle of Hastings is always one of muted remembrance for the last English King who gave his life defending his kingdom against foreign invasion.
Yes I know Harold Godwinesson was not pure English
- technically, he was half-Danish, his mother, Gytha being from Denmark. But he was born in England, lived in England, spoke English (well, Olde English). He was crowned as King in Westminster Abbey on 6th January 1066, and died on the battlefield at what is now the site of Battle Abbey, Sussex on 14th October 1066.
There has been a flurry of novels about the Norman Conquest recently, although the majority are from the Norman point of view: I would recommend James Aitcheson
for these, a really nice young man whom I met a few years ago at the English Heritage Battle re-enactment
- and I will be meeting again this year at the same event. He was also at the Historical Novel Conference in London last month. I don't agree with his supporting the Normans of course (everyone knows how I feel about Duke William!) but I do recommend his books.
However, I write quite a bit about the Matter of the Conquest and Harold on my blog www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com
(hop across on October 14th for a post or two) so I'll leave chatting about 1066 to that link, and move on to a different subject.
What is it, I was wondering a few days ago, that is so addictive about novels? Why do we, as avid readers, become so engrossed in the text that is printed on pages, or our e-readers?
Surely, it is not just the fascination of following a well-written story? Prepare for a shock revelation: fiction is made up. It is not true. Most historical fiction is based on fact, the actual events and people of the past forming the skeleton framework of the story, and those researched facts being - well, factual. The story part is the author's interpretation of what, and who, made those facts become facts. That is why I like writing historical fiction, I enjoy the challenge of filling in the blank spaces between the known bits.
I am somewhat alarmed, however, to hear at least one top agent saying that only historical fiction about kings and queens are wanted in the mainstream publishing world. Where do these so called 'experts' get their information? We want to read about the ordinary people as well; the men and women, the poor people, the merchants, the middle-classes; the everyday lives of everyday folk who lived and loved. laughed and cried.
But there is more to fiction than the historical novel. Thrillers, science fiction, horror, fantasy, romance, adventure, nautical, westerns, contemporary - the list goes on. Short novels - the novelette - or epic tomes. The stories that grab you from the opening line, and the ones you have to plod through the first couple of chapters to 'get into'. (I haven't met anyone yet who was hooked by Lord of the Rings
until a few chapters in.)
So what is it that pulls us into a novel? That "I'll read just one more page" feeling - and then several hours later, we are still engrossed, completely lost in that fictional world? Why do the characters interest us so much that we must find out what happens next? Or is it the plot, the excitement of what is happening that hooks us?
For me, as a child, I read because I so wanted a pony of my own, but we couldn't afford one so the pony stories I devoured were the next best thing. I became the protagonist character - I was Jill Crewe in Jill's Gymkhana
, I was Jackie in Jackie Won A Pony.
In early adulthood I discovered the fascination of fantasy. Is this genre the adult version of children's make-believe? Adult fairy tales? Perhaps the lure of a good book is escapism? But why the need to escape? Depression, loneliness? A general disappointment with the reality of the everyday? I was very shy as a child, had few friends and no confidence, but you don't need friends or confidence with fictional characters. They don't care that you never know what to say or that you feel awkward because of your short sight and those awful glasses with bottle-bottom lens. Characters are your friends - and they become even bigger friends when you meet them as your own creations when the pleasure of reading expands into the joy of writing.
For me, a good book, then, is one that absorbs my attention, one that sticks with me while reading, wondering what is to happen next, living hour by hour with the characters and their lives.
And then there are the very special novels that grip your emotions. Those books that you want to read quickly because you cannot restrain yourself from reading another chapter, then another. Books that, even when you've finished the last page, remain with you for days, weeks, months, years. Books that bring the characters and events so alive that when you read that last page and close the book, you feel grief because you must part company with the adventure you have shared with a close friend.
The greatest compliment you can give an author? "I cried so much at the end".
I cried so much at the end.