Annie Whitehead is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017.
Annie’s latest novel, The Sins of the Father, releases today and I’m delighted to have her on the blog – the topic is conflict, an ingredient at the heart of successful novels.
Conflict is one of the seven elements of historical fiction outlined in Mary’s blog post. It has to be present in any novel, but of course it means many different things. I’ll start with the most obvious, and the one involving the most people, and then reduce the numbers of participants:
It’s likely that, if you write historical fiction, you’re going to be writing about a period in which a war or battle was fought. The period I write about has a lot of battles; not outright wars, but every so often one kingdom would turn on another and fights occurred. In the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period, there were Vikings to contend with. War is bloody, brutal, and traumatising and that’s true whether it’s a Viking incursion in the ninth century or a battle in WWI. The thing to do, I feel, when writing about battles, is to make it personal. That might mean showing why it matters so much to certain kings, or tribe leaders, that they win a particular fight and what’s at stake, or it might mean showing the story of individual soldiers at the front, or the stories of those waiting for them at home. I’ve read many books set during the ‘Great War’ and it seems to me that by focusing on one or two individuals and their stories, the tragedy can become more affecting, as they come to represent the millions who were involved.
Conflict within the setting
Not all historical fiction will focus on, or even feature, any kind of pitched battle. Yet conflict will still be present as a major element of the story. Perhaps mill workers are badly treated by the mill owners. Tenants might be evicted, on a small scale – perhaps the family who are the main focus of the story – or on a larger scale, such as the highland clearances. Warring families, such as the Poldarks and the Warleggans in Winston Graham’s novels, who are on a more equal social footing, are still locked in conflict which drives the drama long after Ross Poldark returns from war. The Industrial Revolution era will provide rich seams for such conflicts: businessmen seeking opportunities and coming up against opposition from others like them; the struggles of movements which would eventually become the trades unions. In nineteenth-century America, the conflict does not just come in the form of the civil war which fractured the country, but the tension surrounding slave ownership and the abolitionists where again, focusing on one small group, family, or individual, makes for a powerful drama.
It’s always worth remembering, too, that conflict among people on the same social stratum can arise from misunderstanding, by one or both parties. In my novel Cometh the Hour, the first in my two book series of which the new novel is Book 2, two kings went to war because they both believed the other was harbouring an enemy. Conflict born of misapprehension can add a level of pathos to the story.
Conflict within the setting would also include those who rail in some way against the status quo, against the accepted thinking of the age, or against their perceived place in society. The pitfall here is that the character might step too completely out of their time period. The historical novelist must think about the mindset of the period, but within that there is scope to have a character trying to step beyond the confines of their prescribed life. In the time in which my latest novel is set, women ran the abbeys, which were sociable places, and were ‘double houses’ where both monks and nuns lived. The religious life was a good one, often readily chosen, but in later periods, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Young women with no protectors, no dowries and/or no great social standing, might find that was the only option for them but it doesn’t mean they welcomed it. A woman seeking to escape this life would be in conflict with the norm, but would not be stepping out of her period and nor would she be introducing modern attitudes to the story.
Conflict Within the Family
A truly universal theme! Inter-generational conflict can be found in any period, and will be recognisable to modern readers: the son who does not wish to follow his father into the family business, or who wants a better life, the daughter who wants to work for her own living where her mother was not able to. There is also conflict between siblings, another familiar aspect to life. In my latest novel, two brothers are extremely close and love each other immensely. They are bound together by the tragedies which befall their family, yet each has a different idea about the path he should follow. One wishes to emulate their father and he is driven by a need to prove himself just as capable and, though he does not admit it, by a fear of failure. The other is more circumspect, feeling that the past should be left alone, and that old mistakes should not be repeated. He is also in awe of his elder brother and feels inadequate, living life in the shadows as it were. Their different approaches to life lead to conflict, made more bitter by the fact that they love each other so dearly. This, I think, hurts so much more than conflict between natural enemies.
This is a special sub-branch of conflict, which leads to self-doubt, anxiety, and moments in the story where the main character reaches a point of despair, feeling thwarted or hide-bound by an inability to make a decision. My main character in the latest novel, the younger brother mentioned above, has moments where he is frozen by doubt. The youngest of nine children, he feels that his elder siblings have it all figured out, and he constantly questions why he feels differently about the things that matter most to his family. Then, around three-quarters of the way through the novel, there is a nasty twist and he finds himself having to act against his own principles, and in the process alienates himself from several family members. He’s placed on the horns of a particularly troublesome dilemma, where taking one path will hurt those he loves, while the other will also hurt people whom he cares for. Battling with one’s emotions, with a heart versus head scenario, or where duty must come before love, adds deep layers to a character’s story and offers the reader a chance to sympathise and empathise.
Thank you for your take on conflict, Annie. The examples you’ve given are truly universal, and, as Alma Katsu discussed in her recent master class on conflict, ‘upping the ante’ in terms of multiple levels of conflict really adds to a story’s success.
The Sins of the Father by Annie Whitehead ~~ A father’s legacy can be a blessing or a curse…
AD658: The sons of Penda of Mercia have come of age. Ethelred, the youngest, recalls little of past wars while Wulf is determined to emulate their father, whose quest to avenge his betrayed kinswomen drew him to battle three successive Northumbrian kings.
Ecgfrith of Northumbria is more hostile towards the Mercians than his father was. His sister Ositha, thwarted in her marriage plans, seeks to make her mark in other ways, but can she, when called upon, do her brother’s murderous bidding?
Ethelred finds love with a woman who is not involved in the feud, but fate intervenes. Wulf’s actions against Northumbria mean Ethelred must choose duty over love, until he, like his father before him, has cause to avenge the women closest to him. Battle must once more be joined, but the price of victory will be high. This stand-alone novel is the second of the two-book series, Tale of the Iclingas, which began with Cometh the Hour.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier 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.