I’ve never met Louise but I follow her archeology blog because she’s always got something interesting going on. I’m pleased to hear about how she used her work and love of history to come up with her debut novel, Fire and Sword (Amazon US, Amazon UK).
First of all, a big ‘thank you’ to Jennifer Brozek for her invitation! Deciding what to write has been quite a challenge: I wondered at first if I should talk about why I actually write historical fiction, when my background as a reader and a writer is grounded firmly in science fiction and fantasy. But I’ve decided instead to focus more closely on the plot of my debut novel, Fire & Sword (published by Hadley Rille Books) and the research which underpins it.
History is littered with drama and intrigue, undertaken by a plethora of sometimes quite unsavoury individuals. And yet I chose to write my novel about a relatively unknown individual who is hardly mentioned in the national story. Why I took this difficult path and the work involved in pursuing it is what I’d like to talk about today.
I live in Renfrewshire, just west of Glasgow. When I started writing Fire and Sword, it seemed practical to write a story set close to home, mainly because I was unemployed at the time and the wealth of on-line archival resources that we have now was unheard of.
The local history books were full of inconsequential details along the lines of, “See those Semples? They were dodgy characters, always feuding. See those Montgomeries? They were a right bad crowd, always feuding.” After wading through page after page of this kind of stuff, I must admit I found myself wondering how I’d ever find something worth writing about.
Then something caught my eye. A brief passage, referring to John, 1st Lord Sempill. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went somewhere along the lines of, ‘His father Sir Thomas Sempill died defending the King at the Battle of Sauchieburn in June, 1488, and a year later John was made 1st Lord Sempill.’
Now, King James III was murdered after Sauchieburn, which meant that John Sempill’s father was killed while fighting on the losing side. This meant that his son and heir, John, was back in favour with his successor James IV just a year later.
I was intrigued. I continued my research, and learned that the constant feuding was invariably an aggrieved response to specific political events. By weaving together the national picture with the local historical accounts, I unearthed a story which was very interesting indeed, but much was inference and supposition. As a historian or an archaeologist, I couldn’t take the next step which linked all this together.
But as a novelist, I could.
The facts formed a rigid framework around which I had to build a story, but everything else depended on the characters. The process of creating characters who seemed realistic and compelling and true to their time was another major challenge. With some individuals, including John, I didn’t even know their date of birth. Some major detective work ensued. How many siblings did they have? Who were their closest relatives? What did they achieve in their lives? Who did their children marry?
In John’s case, he was the only son in a family which included at least three girls. While his father was clearly allied politically with the Cunninghame clan, John became increasingly linked with their local rivals, the Montgomeries. The Montgomeries and the Cunninghames were at each others’ throats in nearby Ayrshire. But during John’s life, while he was Sheriff of Renfrew, these same two families maintained a peaceful co-existence.
I like to think that John, 1st Lord Sempill was ahead of his time. While most of his contemporaries were happy to feud and burn, John was a builder, a supporter of the arts. His legacy includes one of the few privately funded collegiate churches to be built in the west of Scotland, a site which still can be visited today. He was, in effect, a true Renaissance man.
Even the most accomplished of historians can’t give John much of a voice or an identity. With just a scattering of charters to his name, his was a fleeting presence in a world dominated by much louder, more strident personalities.
But a novelist can take a leap of inference, and travel to places that the historian or archaeologist can only dream of. And what an adventure it has been, trying to accomplish this in a manner which is entertaining to the reader, while remaining plausible and convincing and sympathetic to the facts!
Louise Turner’s debut novel Fire and Sword is set in late 15th century Scotland and has recently been published by Hadley Rille Books. For further information about Louise and her work, see www.louiseturner.co.uk.