Several years ago Patricia Bracewell introduced herself to me at the medieval congress at Western Michigan University. I’d just presented a humorous paper about the perils and pitfalls of writing a novel as my publishers on both sides of the pond were struggling to redefine the ideal historical novel. When she told me she was working on a novel about Emma of Normandy, the wife of King Aethelred (one of the Emmas who inspired my pseudonym), I hoped my paper wouldn’t scare her off. It didn’t. This past autumn I had the great pleasure of reading the ARC of the first in her planned trilogy about Emma, Shadow on the Crown.
Here’s the blurb I wrote when I finished: “Bloody portents in the sky, a blizzard burying villages ravaged by the Danes, with these chilling strokes Patricia Bracewell opens Shadow on the Crown, brilliantly mirroring the brutal landscape of the court into which young Emma of Normandy comes as Aethelred’s wife and queen. Bracewell skillfully shapes this tale of a young queen determined to establish her authority over her enemies as a thriller rich in complex, passionate characters and vividly realized settings. From the moment I picked up the book it captivated me, calling me back and back again until I abandoned everything to finish it in a breathless rush. Brava!” I meant every word. I can’t wait for the next installment.
Loving shop talk as I do, I asked if she’d be willing to answer some writerly questions for this blog to be featured during the month of publication. She graciously replied: “I am honored to be hosted by an author whom I have admired for many years. Thank you for having me.” You’re most welcome, Pat, and now, without further ado, here’s our exchange.
Viking, February 2013
Do you remember when Emma caught your attention? What was it about her?
I first read about Emma in an online history forum at least a dozen years ago. I was astonished to discover that there was a queen of England I’d never heard of before, never mind that she was married to two different kings of England. That alone piqued my interest in Emma. When I discovered that the book she commissioned to be written about the events that she had witnessed made no mention of her first husband, King Æthelred, I was completely hooked. I wanted to imagine the part of Emma’s life about which she was silent.
Sometimes I find it difficult to visualize a character and then suddenly, something clicks, something I hadn’t realized about this person, and there they are, vividly come to life. Did you find this with any characters? Which ones?
This happened twice. First with Athelstan, the king’s eldest son. One of the very first scenes that I imagined for the book is set among a circle of standing stones when Athelstan hears a prophecy about his future. His reaction to that foretelling – his determination to change his fate – defined his character for me. A similar thing happened with King Æthelred, as well, when I read William of Malmesbury’s 12th century Gesta Regum Anglorum. He wrote that Æthelred was haunted by the shade of his murdered brother, and that single sentence gave me the image of a haunted, brooding king.
You’ve fiddled with some historic figures to enhance the story. Was this a difficult decision?
This will sound somewhat cavalier, but I didn’t worry a great deal about that, especially with minor figures about whom very little is known. My goal was to create a good story, and so the dramatic elements of storytelling were a priority for me. At the same time, I tried to present characters and events that were plausible. We know very little about the relationships among the members of Æthelred’s court and nothing at all about the personalities involved or how alliances might have been forged. I tried to write within the historical gaps as much as possible.
[Emma says, Ah, spot on! That’s the trick of it.]
The beginning of the book is deliciously mysterious and atmospheric. Did you have this in mind from the start? What inspired it?
Certainly the seeress, as she appears later in the story, was in my mind from the very beginning. But the prologue that you are referring to was a very late addition to the novel. I wrote it in a single sitting, and it is one scene which has changed very little in subsequent drafts. I think it’s my favorite scene in the novel. It was inspired by that quote from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that opens the book: …a bloody sky was often seen…like fire in the form of misty beams; and of course by the many stone circles scattered across England.
You’ve managed to bring to life a period of history unfamiliar to most readers. Clearly you worked hard at evoking the times and subtly explaining the unfamiliar by context. Did you have a general strategy for this?
A great part of my strategy, and I have to credit my wonderful editor, Emily Murdock Baker for suggesting it, was the use of the quotes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to stitch the story together. That was a way to ground the reader in the history. Beyond that, I tried to portray Emma’s world as I imagined it, drawing upon my research into every aspect of early 11th century England that I could find. This included books and journal articles on architecture, religion, food, clothing, travel, roads, trade, literature, weaponry and much more. Films, too, gave me a visual feel for the period. I’ve seen every Beowulf film ever made, and I looked, too, at films set in later periods for inspiration: Lion in Winter, Becket, Visions, even the fantasy The Two Towers because so much of Tolkien’s work is based on that Anglo-Saxon world.
Moving into the second book of the trilogy, what are some of the challenges for you? (I’m thinking of things like keeping it fresh, explaining things just enough for someone who didn’t read the first book, showing Emma’s growth, trying not to repeat types of scenes….)
Because the second and third books are set during years of unrelenting conflict in England, the biggest challenge for me is imagining Emma’s place in that world. I’m not interested in writing battle scenes, although I can’t completely avoid them. Nevertheless I want my focus to be on the distaff side – the story of the wife and children of a haunted, beleaguered king in a time of great peril. The written history of that period is all about war. My job is to discern the stories behind the history. Setting is always a difficulty, of course. The last thing people want to read about is a queen who sits in a chamber and embroiders for hours on end! It’s been quite a challenge to take Emma out of that chamber and set her on a stage that is new and interesting for the reader, but at the same time appropriate for an 11th century queen.
For more background on Pat and the book, go to patriciabracewell.com. But first, read this book!