I sat on my chair, reading, the afternoon sun pouring through the windows. My dog, a big goof of a Labrador/Newfoundland mix, came into the living room and I watched as he walked around the room, sniffing at things. I had to watch him carefully; at this stage in our lives together he was known to not stop at sniffing, but to take the next step of grabbing some treasure in the hopes of inducing a mad chase around the house as I attempted to get the treasure back. But no, he was content to wander and sniff this time, circling the coffee table a few times as he did so. I watched him carefully, seeing that he was circling the table counter-clockwise, and he did it three times, before settling down, and I thought about “widdershins” – circling counter-clockwise – and the number three. I wondered the deeper meaning of this, what sign could I read in it? Three is the sign of the Trinity, true. The movements of Creation, in this case my dog, often held deeper meanings than the obvious, so why counter-clockwise? What did it all mean?
It was a brief thought, fleeting, only, and in the next split second I snapped back to modern-day rationality. But I treasure that small split-second, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse into the mindset of a Celtic Christian back in the 7th century.
At that point I had been studying the Celts and their unique take on Christianity for a couple of years, on and off, all part of my research for my Traveller’s Path trilogy. I had also started writing the book (which turned into three), and had come smack up against one of the great difficulties of writing historical fiction: how do I, as a 21st century novelist, truly represent the worldview of a 7th century person?
The short answer is, I can’t. Not really. If you think about the gulf that exists between here and then, the changes in the world, the history that lies behind us which the 7th century people could not even imagine, it becomes pretty clear that to write with the “true” point of view of someone from that time and place is nearly impossible. However, I believe that this element of historical fiction is often where the “bad” is separated from the “good”, and the “good” from the “excellent”. When I finish a historical novel, do I feel like I have truly visited that time and place, or do I feel like the characters reacted in a far too “modern” fashion to the events of the day? Writers come their work with lots of ideas about religion, equality, wealth, democracy, etc that, for most people in most of the world’s history, would be utterly incomprehensible. If they are not careful, those ideas can leak through into a story in inappropriate places.
So what is a historical novelist to do? How do you step into the mind and worldview of a time so far removed from your own?
Well, I don’t want to speak for all historical novelists, as I’m sure every one has a different method, but I can tell you what I did.
First of all, I cheated. Hah. I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do justice to the time and place in a way that I would be satisfied if I tried to make my POV character someone from that time. And besides, the type of novel I love to read is the portal fantasy, in which a person from our time/place is somehow transported into another. Think of the Pevensies going through the Wardrobe, or even Harry Potter entering Hogwarts. So I decided that my main POV (point of view) character would be from our time, who, on Halloween, has an unfortunate encounter with demons and ends up in the 7th century.
This enabled me to write about the 7th century from a modern mindset, and allowed me to insert some explanations of events or culture that the person native to that time and place wouldn’t think twice about. And I could do that without too much difficulty or awkwardness in the narration.
After I got going, I did some writing from the POV of some of the characters in the book, just to help me get into their heads, so to speak. Some of those made it into the book, eventually. Hopefully they will “sound” realistic to the readers!
Secondly, research. Which goes without saying, of course. I found this fascinating, but also harder than I expected. For example, one of the best ways a historical novelist can learn about the mindset of people who actually lived in the time they are writing about is to read documents and letters actually written during that time period. There isn’t much of that available for 7th century Northumbria. This wasn’t an especially literate age. So while you can extrapolate a certain amount of things, in the end a lot of what the scholars have to say about the lives of ordinary people is speculation. So at times I felt like I was skating on thin ice as I wrote, but I consoled myself with the fact that, hey, this is fiction, after all, not a strict historical survey of the times.
Immersing myself into the people and times of the book, and imagining in fictional form what life was like from their point of view brought me to that day as I watched my dog wander around the living room.
The Celts practiced a polytheistic religion, worshipping many gods which controlled many different aspects of life, especially nature. When they converted to Christianity, this sensitivity to the natural world was enhanced, for now they recognized God Himself, the Creator, as being responsible for everything around them.The pagan Celts would see significance in the direction a crow would fly, so too would the Christian Celt, but in a slightly different way. God created all and directs all, they reasoned, and since God is a loving, intelligent, all-powerful Being, it is obvious that everything that happened was directed by Him to happen. Christians today still believe this of course, but the Celtic Christians took this very seriously. So, in their view, if my dog was circling around the table counter-clockwise three times, he was prompted by God to do so, and therefore there was divine significance in it, and if I would meditate on this, and prayerfully ponder it, the message might become clear.
To live as a Celtic Christian was to live in a world that was hyper-saturated with God’s presence, where the natural world was a form of revelation to us in a way we find hard to understand today. It takes a certain form of seeing which we dismiss now as superstitious, but in reality was far from it. As the title of this post say, basically Everything Means Something, and not just “something”, but in particular, Everything is a message from the God of Creation to us, if we would but have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Which is why, that day in my living room, when I got a tiny flash of what it would mean to live in a world like that, I was profoundly grateful. It was a very small link to some of my ancestors in the faith, and it gave me a glimpse of a world drenched in meaning and haunted with God’s presence in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
I don’t have the ability to stay in that world for too long, my mind has inherited the Enlightenment and the Age of Rationality and Materialism and all the other schools of thought between that time and our own.
But that’s why historical fiction is so much fun. For a short time we can leave our time behind and enter another one, and get a taste of what it was like “back then.” And for the writer, this is both a terrifying challenge and a deeply satisfying exercise, if your words come out just right.
Photo credit: Celtic Cross, St. Patrick’s, Drumbeg, by Albert Bridge