One of the blessings of writing historical fiction is that you can include the actual historical events and people of the time you are writing about. However, this is also one of the curses! I discovered this as I wrote The Traveller’s Path, my trilogy set in Dark Ages Britain.
The blessing side of that coin is that historical events can be a great source of plot points for novelists. While digging into the history of Britain in the 7th century, I found some interesting events that provided rich details and background that I otherwise wouldn’t have come up with, I am sure. For example, King Oswald was slain at the Battle of Maserfield, and his head and arms were placed on spikes as offerings to the victorious king Penda’s pagan gods. Urp. Yuck, right? Well, if you think it’s not very pleasant for you to think about, put yourself in the place of Oswy, Oswald’s half-brother, the Christian king of Bernicia. What would he have felt about it, do you think? A bit of a slap in the face, perhaps?
Out of juicy details like that a writer can come up a bunch of character motivation ideas. And having real-life timelines to work around saves you from having to make up your own, which can be very handy.
However, it is equally true that having to use actual historical facts and people in your books can cause a bit of difficulty to the writer, as well. Let me show you what I mean.
I discovered early on in my research that, although there are broad strokes of information known about life in the 7th century, such as the names of kings and queens, some place names, some battles, etc, there is much that is very much unknown. The broad structure of the society is understood, with the coerls at the bottom and the kings at the top, and the rest of the society, the thegns, eorldomen, and the like, falling in-between in a graduated line of ever-increasing status. Okay, gotcha. But what about details such as, what did the women do all day? What was a typical day like for a coerl as opposed to an eorldoman? How did their economy work? Coins were fairly rare, so a barter economy, but still…What about the children? What did they do? I mean, obviously everyone worked hard to survive, farming and hunting and making clothes and whatnot. But details? Some of this is mere conjecture and frustrating for a novelist. However, as Diana Gabaldon says, what you don’t know you can make up, so, fair enough.
One of the biggest difficulties that I faced early on, however, was the trouble with names. Take, for example, the royal seat of the Bernician kings, the fortress known today as Bamburgh. This originally was a fort of the native Britons, and called by them, Din Guardi. When the Angles invaded, and Ida, the Anglic King conquered the Britons, he renamed it Bebbanburgh (or Bebbanburg) in honour of his wife, Bebba. That has now morphed into today’s name of Bamburgh. So, what name should I use in my novel? Well, I have decided to stick with the name that would have been common in that time, Bebbanburg. The spelling of that varies, so you just have to pick one and be consistent.
Greater difficulty came as I wrote about Iona, the most influential Celtic Christian monastery of the time, situated on the north-east coast of Gr. Britain. The original Celtic name for this has been lost in the mists of time, some speculate it was Eoa, Ie, or even I Cholaim Cille (basically, the “island of Colum” or Columba, the first Abbot to establish a church there). In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede called it by the Latin name of Hii. Keeping in mind that I want my book to be as historically accurate as possible, while still making it readable for modern people, what on earth should I call this place in my book? Clearly Iona is out, that is too modern. But the others are unpronounceable to us. After some thought I decided to use Hii. Good enough for Bede, good enough for me. Even though I know that’s a strange name to our ears.
This discussion of Iona brings up another tricky problem of names. Today, we would place Iona in Scotland. However, in the 7th century, the Scotti was actually the name the Romans gave to the British tribes living there, whom we would call the Irish today. Yup, back then the Irish were actually known as the Scots, and the kingdom that Iona was situated in was called Dál Riata (or Dalriata or Dalraida. Sigh. See what I mean?). So, to be historically accurate I would have to completely confuse my readers. So, I fudged a little on this one. Because my main character is from the present time, he can call the monks Irish all he likes. I do not have any of the 7th century characters call them Irish, however. They are referred to as the British (meaning the native British tribes which included the Welsh, the Irish and the Picts), or the Dál Riatan Scots.
One of the biggest name difficulties came with, well, names. As in names of people. Unfortunately, the Saxons and Angles of the time did not come with familiar names such as Matthew, Mark, or John. No. More like Heahbeorth, Seoca, or Winedaeg. And to top it off, names like the last one, with the “ae” should properly be spelt with an “æ”, to be strictly correct. You see my problem? The Irish Celts are not much better, with their Caeoimhin, Fercetrniu, or Guiare. And then we have the Picts, whose names include Eddarrnonn, Ufeichir, or my personal favourite, Bliesblituth.
Readers do not like unpronounceable names, and I understand. I don’t much like them either. So the best I could do was to pick some authentic names from the ones available that weren’t too difficult for people. Names like Nectan, Celyn, and Siward. Not familiar, no, but at least the reader doesn’t have a mental breakdown every time he or she reads it!
One more difficulty raised its head as I put names to the people in my book: some of those people already came with names! In other words, they are real people who lived in the time and place I wrote about. People like Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Or Talorcan, Oswy’s nephew who was fostering with the Picts as the story opens. Those names aren’t too bad. But one of my real dilemmas cane along with Oswy himself. You see, his older brother is named Oswald. And his cousin, the sub-king of the kingdom to the south of Oswy’s, is named Oswine. As I looked into the list of kings in the various kingdoms of that period, I saw this more than once. The Angles and Saxons had a thing about alliteration when it came to names. Like the successive Kings of Essex, from 527 AD to 617 AD: Sledda, Saebert, Sexred, and Saeward.
Confusing. I know there will be readers who will wonder why I gave them such similar names. But as those are their actual names, I don’t have much choice.
This is just a little taste of the trouble with names when it comes to historical fiction. All part of the challenge, and all part of the fun!