I admit wholeheartedly that I am a lazy historian. As much as I enjoy learning about different eras, it’s so much more palatable when presented within the context of a great story. That is why I was so excited to read J. Anderson Coats book The Wicked and the Just, the story of two young women growing up in medieval Wales. Recently I got a chance to chat with J. Anderson Coats about her book and how to bring history to life for young readers.
What inspired you to write a story about medieval Wales?
Medieval Wales doesn’t get a lot of attention despite the fact that it was a complicated, dynamic place. The native rulers managed to resist outright conquest by their English neighbors until 1283, but then the victorious English fast-tracked a series of castles and walled towns to maintain control of the area and the people.
What interested me was this question: Even when granted a lot of special privileges – including significant tax breaks – how did English settlers live in a place where they were outnumbered twenty to one by a hostile, recently-subjugated population, and how did the Welsh live so close to people who’d done the subjugating, especially given the burdens placed on them by their new masters?
Both Cecily and Gwenhwyfar are unsympathetic characters at times during the novel. Did you ever worry that you pushed them to be too unattractive? How did you manage the balance of their personalities?
Cecily and Gwenhwyfar are products of their time, like we all are, and reflecting that was at the heart of the story for me. For all their faults, Cecily and Gwenhwyfar are both true to their context. But they’re also people; they have the capacity to be cruel and kind and stupid and thoughtful and loving and vindictive just like we do. Denying them the roundness of humanity because they lived in a more brutal age does a disservice to the past by rendering it one-dimensional and therefore easier to dismiss.
It’s important to me to capture the past as it probably was (to the best of my admittedly limited abilities) rather than how we in the modern era sometimes think the past should have been. These were real people, and it seems disrespectful if I purposefully alter their real lived experiences to suit modern sensibilities.
How does research for a fiction project differ from research for a scholarly work?
The process isn’t different as much as the way the evidence is used once you have it.
When you’re producing something scholarly, you’re interested in using evidence to make and support an argument. Everything needs to be spelled out in clear language and cited to the hilt. In fiction, you don’t want any of the evidence to be visible. Instead you want it to be felt.
There’s also the question of volume. You use more of the evidence you collect when you produce a scholarly paper. In fact, that’s why you’re gathering the evidence at all—to support your argument. In fiction, about one percent of all the research I do actually appears on the page. The rest informs the way I worldbuild and the way the characters develop.
What was the most difficult thing about bringing Cecily and Gwenhwyfar’s story to life?
Medieval people did and believed some weird stuff. When you set a story in this era, you have to normalize beliefs like women are property, animal cruelty is funny, and you can determine how sick people are by tasting their pee.
It’s one thing to understand a belief. It’s another to accept that it happened. But it’s quite another to write it in such a way that other people – and young people in particular – understand and accept it in the context you present. In other words, readers have to understand that a behavior is not okay where they are, but in this world it’s perfectly normal, and that’s okay. It’s not fair to judge the past based on our modern standards, but it’s perilously easy to do.
What is your best advice for other historical fiction writers?
Beyond the standard advice I’d give to any aspiring writer – don’t be afraid to write crap, develop a writing routine, read – there are a few things specific to historical fiction that come to mind.
Be patient. This applies to all stages of the process. You will be tempted to dash through a novel without researching thoroughly. This will show. It may be you get a detail or two wrong, but this is less significant than failing to properly recreate the tone of your historical time period. You will probably be told by agents and editors that historical fiction is a tough sell. Query until you find someone who loves your work as much as you do. Don’t be in a hurry. Create the right story and get it into the world via the right people.
Avoid anachronism. Unless you’re writing historical fantasy (which is a completely valid and awesome genre, but it’s not historical fiction), do your best to keep the characters and events in your story appropriate to their context. We’re dealing with real people and real lived experiences; changing them to be more palatable to a modern audience is disrespectful to them.
Research diversely. It’s easy and tempting to end your research with general histories of your subject matter, to learn what people ate and what they wore and what might have been in their pockets (or whether they had pockets at all), but in limiting yourself in this way, you won’t really get into the heads of people who lived in your historical period. You’ll miss out on what they thought, how they thought, how they viewed the world and solved problems. All of these are integral to how your character will behave. Otherwise they run the risk of being twenty-first century people in costumes.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the historical box. History is huge and complex and diverse. If you’re drawn to a time and place outside the typical canon of historical fiction subject matter, go for it. These are often the stories that most need telling.
You can find J. Anderson Coats book The Wicked and the Just at your local book store or online. You can learn more about J. Anderson Coats and her work at http://www.jandersoncoats.com.