Somehow, and I have no idea how, I’m about to release Book X (yes X) in the Earls of Mercia series, and that doesn’t include the three direct side-stories, or Lady Estrid, which could also be said to be a side-story, books. I decided it was time to take a hard look at myself, and why my very first historical fiction project is proving to be the longest so far.
The Earls of Mercia inspiration
The last century of Early England is a place well-trodden by non-fiction and historical fiction authors, so why did I choose to tell it through the eyes of a handful of people who almost slip through the historical record unnoticed because of the ‘giants’ of the period?
History is filled with those who get swept aside because other events overtake their achievements, and so it is with the Earls of Mercia. They were a family who ‘ruled’ continually from 993 to 1066 – a feat not even achieved by the Wessex royal family, begun by King Alfred, during the same time period. In the annals of the time they’ve been pushed to the side by the likes of Eadric Streona, King Cnut and the family of Godwine, by the events of both 1016 and 1066, and also by the fact that when the family married into royalty, it was destined to be short-lived.
I ‘discovered’ my first character – Ealdorman Leofwine – while meandering down the aisle in a university library. By rights, I shouldn’t have been there, not in that section, and equally, I shouldn’t have gone on to write my dissertation about him, but I did, but only after I’d made him into a fictional character. So just what was it that made him so appealing as a character?
As I read about the family, in Stephen Baxter’s, The Earls of Mercia, Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England, I was flabbergasted that this character existed and yet hadn’t been put to good ‘use.’ Ealdorman Leofwine, his sons, grandsons, and great-grandchildren were witnesses to all of the events I’ve mentioned above. Not only did they witness them, but they were involved as well. I remember picking up and reading Frank Barlow’s book on the Godwines and being disgusted that Ealdorman Leofwine, Earl Leofric, Earl Ælfgar and his sons and daughter get little more than the odd mention. The desire to tell a story only about the Godwines excluded the perfect foil for them. I couldn’t allow that to stand.
But, how to tell the story of a century, of four generations? Initially, my idea was to tell a retrospective story, through the eyes of the great-grandson who did survive the tumultuous events of 1066, using the idea of a scribe writing down the family’s history while he was imprisoned at the request of William the Bastard for well over a decade. I still have the words I first wrote. But, that was not the route I eventually went down. No, I wanted to make Ealdorman Leofwine more than just someone’s ancestor, I wanted to make him a person in his own right, even if I do harbour the suspicion that he might have been retrospectively given greater influence than he might have claimed.
And that is the path that I’ve continued to tread. My overarching ambition is to tell the story of the years from 993-1066, but each player must have their own story, they must all be allowed to live, before they die; they must all be people in their own right. And now, as I begin to retell the story that so many are familiar with, that of the reign of Edward the Confessor and the events that led to 1066, I’m pleased by my decision to ensure the Earls of Mercia have their own story to tell – and also by the fact that because of that, other historical characters are also having their story retold a little – the oft-forgotten or misunderstood characters, and that means kings as well as earls and great ladies.
I’m pleased that people who read about the Earls of Mercia are able to consider that the Godwines were not quite the ‘top-dogs’ they might appear to be from such a distance. Not that it doesn’t involve playing around with what some might call the ‘facts’ but that is the joy of historical fiction – in getting to know my characters, in playing around with the information that we do have, I can find other possibilities, and they are not quite as far-fetched as it might be believed.
I began writing the first book in the Earls of Mercia series in 2011. Since then I’ve been slowly working my way backwards through Early England, as well as slightly forwards in Denmark. It has meant that the first two books in the series have undergone some subtle changes as they’ve been rereleased in paperback and the copyright returned to me by my publisher. So, for any who haven’t started the books yet, it isn’t necessary to start with book 1, or even book 2, but if you’re going to, then the paperback version – The Earl of Mercia’s Father – is the correct edition to read. But I genuinely hope, that it should be possible to pick up any of the books and still be able to understand what’s happening and enjoy the individual title.
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