Writing Family Sagas – the Next Generation by Derek Birks

scars-from-the-pastDerek Birks and I met in 2014 at the Historical Novel Society conference in London where we talked about our respective time periods and the passion we share for writing historical fiction. He’s the author of a family saga set during the Wars of the Roses. Today, Derek discusses about the unique challenges of writing family sagas.

WRITING FAMILY SAGAS – the Next Generation by Derek Birks

When I started writing historical fiction, I did not really intend to write a family saga but that’s what happened.

I intended to write a series featuring a small group of characters trudging a bloody path through the Wars of the Roses. What emerged though, even in the first book, Feud, was a story about three fictional young siblings and those who served and loved them. Creating characters within a family gave me all sorts of connections and frictions that were born simply of the blood relationship between characters. What difference does it make? Well, for example, it doesn’t feel great to be betrayed by anyone, but if you are betrayed by a brother? It just adds a special ingredient to the relationship – and the story.

However, writing about the family of a minor fifteenth century lord, meant that I was also writing about those who lived in the same household: the servants. So I actually had more than one family all interacting with each other.

In terms of research, I have to say that this is a nightmare.

Writing multiple storylines required me to research, for each one, the historical background, locations, local history – not to mention any real historical figures with whom my characters interacted! In my first book I had three main characters all in different parts of the country. This meant I had to research far more places and circumstances than if I had just followed one central character through the story.

I visited a lot of places, sometimes real locations such as Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, and sometimes completely untouched places. Once I stood on a hill at a place called Queenhill, near the river Severn, and asked my wife where she thought the fictional castle should go.

A family saga sees it all: birth, death and everything in between.

I need to research it all: medieval childbirth, Christmas celebrations, funeral traditions, manorial estate management, etc, etc. Now you might say that a writer of historical fiction has to do all those things anyway, but with a family saga the sheer number of characters is that much greater. With each new book I have to remember the detail of their backstories. You can’t ignore them for long either otherwise the reader wonders what’s going on. But hey, I’m not complaining – I love it!

The interaction with real historical figures is critical because it fixes your fictional characters in time, place and circumstance. In this respect I found myself asking the same research question over and over again: where is the real person at a particular moment in time? It’s no good having him meet up with your fictional characters if it is recorded that he is somewhere else at the time! Not so bad when you are dealing with one or two people but a bit trickier when you are juggling the whereabouts of a dozen scattered all over Europe.

So over a period of seven or eight years since I started writing, I had invested a lot of time and research in this saga centred on the Elder family, but after four books spanning 12 years of history, I decided to end it, intending that most of them would go out in one great blaze of glory. Well, the characters who survived the third book, Kingdom of Rebels, were not having any of that; they wanted to live on!

I was already writing the final book, The Last Shroud, and also looking at what the next project might be but, the more I researched other periods and other characters, the more the familiar ones pestered me. You know in the zombie movies where the hero thinks he’s killed someone and then – shazam! – they’re back! Well that’s what it felt like and so, finally, I decided to at least hear them out. Could I really take some of these characters into a whole new series?

The last thing I wanted to do with my ‘brand new series’ was repeat the stories of before, so I took my cue from the historical fiction author who most inspired me to write: Alexandre Dumas. With his Three Musketeers he decided to miss out great chunks of time, revisiting his characters twenty and thirty years later. Wilbur Smith, amongst others I’m sure, used a similar formula. So, I began to consider this as a possibility.

How would it work? First of all, though I could keep some characters, I would have to create a new and younger generation. If I was going to do that, I’d have to act fast because it would need to be written into the final book which was already half-written!. Children would need to be born to provide my next generation. Thus, I had to decide at once. I can tell you that it’s strange feeling when, as you are planning to kill off a few important characters, you are also trying to work out how the new ones can be born!

I needed to consider the dramatis personae of the new series as a whole.

I already had an enormous family tree for the Elders, not to mention sundry other families. If I wasn’t careful both I and the reader would be overwhelmed by the plethora of characters! The pollaxe had to be wielded, but how? I tried to look at it from the reader’s perspective: what would my existing readers want and what could I do that might attract new readers?

I tried to preserve at least some of the characters that I knew were popular with readers – others I’m afraid perished in The Last Shroud. (I still get complaints about that!)

I wanted a blend of old and young too – you can’t just replace one generation with another. As well as that, I needed new faces that could bring something fresh to the stories. One of the joys of writing Scars From the Past, was placing existing characters alongside or against new ones, thereby creating new conflicts and liaisons all over the place – great fun!

Because I was starting something new, I could also change the parameters of my storylines.

This new story had to be different. Of course I could age my characters, introducing subtle changes here and there – for few of us stand still, do we? But the most crucial change was to make the new story a love story – this was new territory for me, so dear readers, please be gentle with me!

There were elements of romance in my first series but Scars From the Past is centred upon a difficult relationship between two 17 year olds. Difficult because one is the heir to the Elder lands, John Elder, and the other is Lizzie Holton, the daughter of the manor housekeeper. They have spent most of their childhood together, but one is destined to be a lord and the other will remain a servant.

This ill-matched pair are clearly doomed to failure. When the story begins, John is pretty much at odds with the world and decides that everyone will be better off if he just leaves. Suffice to say, he gets that wrong…

The time period is obviously important because if I set the new series ten years after the old, that would take me to 1481 which was a bit of a lull in the Wars of the Roses. How could that work?

What I decided to do was to use the young Edward, Prince of Wales, as part of the story – an attractive idea because for so long he has been something of an ‘also-ran’ in the history of the period. I wanted to make him as real as I could and the second book will see him take centre stage even more…

Whilst it’s important for the new series to be different, I need to maintain for loyal readers the style and character of the first series: accurate history, a character-driven plot, fast moving story, unrelenting action and tension that builds as the story unfolds to its climax. Actually, all of that sounds a pretty tall order. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in blending the new generation with the old in the telling of the tale.

Scars From the Past: An unwelcome legacy. An impossible love. A relentless enemy.

By 1481, England has been free from civil war for ten years. The Elder family have discovered a fragile peace in the lands they fought to win back, yet scars from the past remain with them all.

Scars From the Past is currently out on pre-order as an e-book and will be published on November 24th with the paperback launching a week later. Also available in the US.

Fascinating, Derek. And you’ve given me some great ideas for the novel I’m currently writing! Wishing you lots of success with Scars from the Past.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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12 Responses

  1. Great post on what is probably my favorite type of historical fiction to read. An interesting family or, better, several intertwined families are just as important to me as the time period in which they are immersed. Derek Birks reflects so well on the chief aspects of both, the decisions and research involved. I am now eager to explore his work and read about that fictional castle he and his wife envisioned!

  2. Thank you for writing about how your historical fiction (family saga) evolved. I too began my novels, not realizing at first the tales would morph into a family saga. I wish I had read this several years ago! Your insights will help me shape (and reshape) the current works.

  3. I’m writing my family saga in a series of 4-5 books. Almost finish writing the historical book one with a setting in southern France in the late 1500’s to 1606.
    Thanks for the tip to ground my character to historical real people. Need to rewrite some area and expand the real character to my ancestor.

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