Please welcome my guest, Saskia Walker!
The joys and challenges of creating historical worlds
by Saskia Walker
As writers of historical fiction we aim to create historical worlds that are as believable and accurate as possible, in order to enhance the reader’s experience of the story. This is a challenge, but a rewarding one when we feel we’ve done a story justice. The scary part is getting it as accurate as possible, knowing that it’s so easy to slip up.
When I think about the historical world my characters are living in I tend to think of it from two different angles. Firstly there’s the everyday world, and this is the one where it’s easiest to make a slip up. We need to know and understand the minutiae of everyday living in the period in such a way that it becomes second nature to describe it appropriately, even when we are swept away with the writing of the story. Secondly there’s the external world, the greater history of the period and how that impacts on the character’s lives. Much like my hostess, Victoria, I enjoy researching both the minutiae and the greater historical picture. It’s part of the gift of writing, always learning and being able to share that through our imaginary worlds.
In my most recent publication, The Harlot, the central romance characters—Jessie and Gregor—are what I tend to call “grassroots” characters. They aren’t privileged, and they’re tough because they’ve learned to survive on their wits. Jessie is an impoverished Scottish woman who is under an accusation of witchcraft. Forced to become a whore, she’s trying to save enough money to escape to the Highlands, where people with “the gift” are not shunned the way they are in the Lowlands. Gregor is a man who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps after immense tragedy. He’s been away at sea, and has returned with his savings in order to reclaim land that was taken from his family a decade before. Both these characters have big personal agendas, but they don’t play an overt part in the history of their time. The history of the time does, however, impact their lives. This is the challenge of the writing, to indicate how the greater world affairs of the period impact even the lowliest people living in that world.
Jessie scarcely gives any notice to the greater history of the period in which the story is set—the union of Scotland with England—and yet the charge of witchcraft she is under is very much a product of the time. The Witchcraft Act was in force between 1563 and 1736, and nearly 4,000 individuals were accused of witchcraft in Scotland during those years. My story is set towards the end of this tragic period, when humanity and justice began to replace the fear and condemnation of the years before.
Gregor also exists largely outside the larger historical picture. He left Scotland a decade earlier and has had no part in its history during that time. Yet when he returns he inevitably looks for the changes that might have been brought about by the Union with England, and he encounters suspicion when he tries to buy land as a stranger. The man who Gregor considers his enemy is attempting to raise funds to support the battle for independence. Gregor is surprised when he discovers this because it is a cause he too supports, and he never believed they would have anything in common. He also discovers that the people who used to hold power no longer do so, and he wonders if his plan might be more difficult to implement as a result. It is this positioning of the historical character in their everyday as well as the greater world that fascinates me as a writer.
One of the best bits of advice I read early on was that your research should show as much as the tip of the iceberg—the bulk of your knowledge being the mass that underpins it—making it a seamless read that easily transports the reader back in time. That is a great analogy, and it’s helped me immensely to think of it that way. If you pick up The Harlot I hope you enjoy Jessie and Gregor and the way they interact with their world.
It is a Dark Era, one when a lusty lass will do what she must to survive. Even if it means bartering flesh for a palmful of coins…
Forced to watch her mother burned at the stake and separated from her siblings in the aftermath, Jessie Taskill is similarly gifted, ripe with a powerful magic that must stay hidden. Until one night when she’s accused by a rival, and Jessie finds herself behind prison walls with a roguish priest unlike any man of the cloth she has known.
In reality, Gregor Ramsay is as far from holy as the devil himself, but his promise of freedom in return for her services may be her salvation. Locked into a dubious agreement, Jessie resents his plan to have her seduce and ruin his lifelong enemy. But toying with Gregor’s lust for her is enjoyable, and she agrees to be his pawn while secretly intending to use him just as he is using her.
Thanks, Saskia, for visiting!