The Accidental Historical Novelist – by Hilary Shepherd

Albi, Hilary Shepherd‘s third novel, has been nominated for the Not The Booker competition. When Hilary was twenty-three, she went out to Ghana with a baby and one suitcase to join her new husband. That experience prompted a novel titled In A Foreign Country. She’s also the author of Animated Baggage based on the two years she and her young family lived in the Sudan when her husband was working for Unicef. Recently, Hilary has completed Albi, a historical novel inspired by … well, let’s let Hilary tell us about that.


There are some places – and certain periods in history – that get under the skin and demand to be written about. Even so, when I came to write a novel set in the area of Spain where we bought a house in 2001, my storyline was firmly contemporary. There is so much history here it’s impossible to ignore it – indeed, our house has a large hole in the back wall where they used to hide the maquis, the resistance fighters who held out in these hills until the 1950s.

But we are foreigners, the stories are only the ones people choose to tell us, and sometimes language gets in the way. So I shied clear: the main protagonists of my novel were British, as we are, and their preoccupations were entirely contemporary. My focus was on the extraordinary landscape with its wild rocks and narrow gorges, the extraordinary light and very particular atmosphere of this part of Spain.

And then Alberto walked in. An imaginary character, and incidental, he looked like any one of the old men who still keep a handful of sheep all over this area of southern Aragon. He was short and stocky, with a quiet sunburned gravity and a beautiful smile. He appeared in the margin, served a small purpose, and then I sent him back out with his sheep. But he wouldn’t go away. And when he started to tell my protagonist stories of his past, based on some of those that had been told to us, he took on a life of his own until I was forced to acknowledge that really this book was his story entirely, and to write it I had to go back to 1938.

Why 1938? There is a statement in faded pencil on the wall of the village cemetery, written by the Nationalist commander who took over the village and surrounding area and dated September 1938. At this point the Battle of the Ebro was still on-going. The official end of the Civil War wasn’t declared for another six months, but in this village it was already all over and the long years of attrition began, the villagers trapped between the Guardia Civil and the resistance fighters, known as the maquis, who they were hunting down. This went on until well into the 1950s.

The ‘facts’ have blurred with telling now. Those who were there and witnessed this time have grown old and few of them are left. As younger generations re-tell the stories a certain romanticism creeps in, but the politics at the time, in a Republican village like this one, must have been muddled and shifting. Between individuals, even within families, the struggle to survive would have confused boundaries. Especially for a child.

This is rich ground for a novelist, and by exploring it through the eyes a child I could slide through the space between facts and fiction: nine-year-old Albi observes things, but he doesn’t necessarily comprehend them. Far more important to him than politics is whether he is doing the right thing in the confused circumstances he finds himself in, and will he go hungry tonight.

There’s a freedom in taking such a limited viewpoint but it’s important that the ghost of history is always there, and the detail must be totally convincing.

I’m one of those writers who is easily distracted by facts and research but I had one accidental gift at my disposal: our house, little changed since it was built in 1756. It came to us complete with the hay in the attic and the old ploughs in the basement. The beds and the chests were probably in use during the 30s, and the hand-sewn petticoats in the cardboard box in the larder would have been very like what was worn back then. The mangers and feed-troughs are all still there down in the byre. This is a house you can sit in and feel how people once lived in it, the rain coming down the chimney, the voices by the fireside, the draughts fierce under the doors. The sound of passing sheep bells, still audible even now, and a shepherd calling. The strangely precise timbre of voices of people in their best clothes going up the street to Mass. Yes, the cobbles have gone, replaced by concrete, but the water still rushes down the irrigation channels and fills the village with its music all through the growing season, as it has done for centuries, since the Moors were here.

How could I not write about history when it comes up so close?

Albi by Hilary Shepherd – A poignant, compassionate glimpse into the life of a child caught in a country at war with itself

Albi is nine years old when Franco’s soldiers arrive in the village and his life begins to change in confusing ways. It’s not clear quite who should be trusted and who should not. Some neighbours disappear not to be seen again, others are hidden from view in cellars and stables – like his brother, Manolo, who left long ago to join the resistance. Albi is charged with shepherding not just his own sheep, but also those of El Ciego who sends him on errands requiring a good memory and the ability to keep his mouth shut at all times.

Alberto, at 88, is haunted by what he did and what he may or may not have said. And then the daughter of his old friend Carlos turns up wanting stories of old times. Albi’s day of reckoning may be at hand…

Many thanks for letting us in on the secret of your inspiration, Hilary. And best wishes for the Not The Booker competition.


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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


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7 Responses

    1. Thank you Roberta – I hope it is! It’s been fascinating writing about history that is still tangible.

  1. I recently read ‘Albi’ and can thoroughly recommend it. It’s a wonderfully engaging story, poignant and beautifully written – I really felt for little Albi, the child go-between.

    1. I love the cover too! I only learned recently that the photo is Belchite, which has been kept in its ruinous state since the Civil War as a memorial.

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