Barbara Gaskell Denvil is an award-winning author with eclectic tastes in that she’s written historical, fantasy, mystery for both adults and children. At one point in her career, Barbara worked at the British Museum Library amongst the collection of ancient folios and manuscripts. A perfect background for writing historical fiction. Let’s see what she has to say about her writing.
MKT: You write both historical fiction and fantasy. How are these genres similar and how are they different?
BGD: Both are certainly escapism. I make every effort within my writing style to bring these worlds alive but of course, the difference is that medieval England really existed, and therefore I am attempting to recreate truth whereas with fantasy I am attempting to create believability from scratch. But until a Tardis is invented, we cannot really be sure what the medieval world was like. I have adored walking those narrow cobbled alleys in London, wandering the Tower and the castles of the north, and imaging the bustle of folk around me. That is what I try to convey. But documentation from that period is scarce, and it does not relate everything by any means. With fantasy, on the other hand, I make my own rules and I walk those roads in my mind – not in fact. So both are escapes into my own imagination and yet both are serious attempts to turn imagination into reality.
What ‘magic ingredients’ do you try to weave into your novels to make them unforgettable and irresistible?
This is where I rely on inspiration. The magic is in my head. I try to make that magic believable, but it continues to dance in bubbles inside my mind as I write, I suppose I simply put on paper what comes into my thoughts, but I never feel I can write about a place in history until I can smell it in my imagination.
Characterisation is even more important to me. My principal characters, and even most of the minor characters, must leap alive in my head before I can write about them. Then they seem to write themselves.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Yes, I think there is an inherent difference, for the way a character must act, believe and think is so varied in historical fiction. What is expected from people 500 years ago is certainly not the same as that expected nowadays. Therefore the general direction of historical fiction is different from the start. There is also the limitation of historical accuracy, the fascination of genuine historical characters, the warfare and the poverty. When writing of crime (as I often do) we enter a world of confusion and ignorance, for not only were there no forensic aids (no DNA, finger prints, understanding of blood or stains nor even of exactly how someone must have died) but there was no actual police force. The Constable of an area did not DO investigations himself and there were certainly no detectives. Therefore in historical novels the author has both the advantage and the disadvantage of writing under a whole new set of rules, and this offers us some very unusual plots and storylines, and the reader will find himself walking through a strange new world indeed.
In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
I have been researching that period of history for many, many years. I have read so much non-fiction that there are times when I feel I live in the 15th Century, and I even dream of it. I love the medieval castles and villages of England and Europe and have travelled extensively to those places. It is therefore comparatively easy for me to slip back into those times, and recreate them in my novels. I feel I understand the difficulties and the ways of thinking which existed back then. However, there are also problems. I do not agree with attempting to re-create the manner of speaking since it would prove completely unreadable to our modern world. However, I do try not to include words which would have been out of context back then, or references to ideas, scientific or medicinal, which would have been entirely unknown. I try to keep a balance with characters speaking in a modern fashion, but without absurdly modern ideas. There also needs to be a balance when referencing 15th Century religious practices. Because many of our surviving documentation was written by the priests of the time, some people believe that folk were wildly religious. However, we also know that humanity tries to escape the limitations of strictly confining practice, and in spite of the clergy’s teaching, sexual infidelity and other so-called sins were widely practiced even by kings. I therefore use my own careful standards in keeping accurate detail without making my books unreadable. After all, even in the call of accuracy (which I believe extremely important) what would be the point in writing a book of boring confusion?
Which authors have inspired your writing? Why?
So many authors have inspired me since I was a child and I could probably say that every single book I’ve ever read has given me inspiration of a sort. I adore Shakespeare – then discovered Dorothy Dunnet, migrated to Mary Renault, on to the simple delights of Georgette Heyer, deeper into C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkein – and a hundred and more non-fiction books drawing me deeper into the English medieval.
Rather than list so many authors, I should say that the written word and the creative genius of so many just sets me on fire. But life is my greatest inspiration. Just looking up at the sky, watching a sunset or dawn, the amazing chaos of India where I have recently been visiting, the gentle glory of the Eastern countries, and the shimmering flutter of wisteria, rose petals, magnolia and irises in my garden. The astonishing variety of everything, both the kindness and the brutality of people, and the strange motivations we have for every action.
I reach out for inspiration when I first wake each morning – and it continues through my colourful dreams at night. I have been known to forget what is real and what is fanciful. Oh dear – sometimes I think all authors are simply crackers.
Have you ever been inspired to write a modern novel? What is the main difference?
Because the modern world is so well known and understood by us, there is no scope for describing it, nor attempting to bring it to life. And there is less scope for creating believable adventure. In the past the battles and extremes of everyday living were far more brutal, and the struggles were more common. I find that many modern novels offer us plots concerning a life even more drab and boring than those we live ourselves. There is less personality and less colour, whereas in the bustling escapism of both history and fantasy, both the writer and the reader can use their imaginations without being confined to dreary routine. Of course, some books set in modern times are remarkable and wonderfully composed and written, but I prefer the inspiration of turning the unknown into believability.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
After many years of writing for adults, I have been inspired to write a new series for children, combining history and fantasy. These are books of adventure and excitement in two worlds – medieval England – and the fantasy world I have invented. The series is BANNISTER’S MUSTER and Book 1 SNAP is already published while Book 2 SNAKES AND LADDERS will be out soon. They are aimed at an age group of roughly 8 to 12, So far they are proving very popular.
I have frequently felt sorry that so little history is taught in schools these days, and I wanted to re-create a fascination for the past in young minds. More but simply, I just wanted to write some good old fashioned adventure, and I also wanted to try my hand at writing for children.
I have also created a new website for these children’s books, so please do drop in and visit both my adult website – http://barbaragaskelldenvil.com
And my children’s website – http://bannistersmuster.com
All will be revealed ———-
Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on writing, Barbara. And yes, sometimes we writers are crackers!
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (either through WordPress or by using the widget on the left sidebar)
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.