Sunday, 4 October 2015

Digging for Stories

Where do stories come from?

"An English civil war flag, captured by royalist Bernard Brocas to prove that his love for the daughter of parliamentarian Lord Sandys had not altered his loyalty to the king, is to be auctioned in April (2005). Taunted by the loyalist faction, Brocas swore an oath that he would give proof of his allegiance by winning a standard in the field. His chance came at the first battle of Newbury in September 1643. He captured a green silk damask banner with the motto "Constanter et Fiderliter" (Steadily and faithfully), but was later found dead beside the banner. Bonhams, which is handling the sale on behalf of a family descendant, expects the flag to fetch up to £5,000."

image - the telegraph

Well, there was a story waiting to be written - a tragic love story set against the backdrop of the civil war. I kept the cutting, intending to write the book, but I got distracted by other tales, other characters who clamoured for my attention.

Years ago, as an undergraduate with more summer holiday than ideas to occupy my time, I watched a documentary about the Ashburnham estate in Sussex. It wasn't a particularly inspiring story and I can't remember the main thread of the examination, but when the narrator told how one of the family commissioned the family crypt to be built, and that the last of the family line took the last available space in that crypt, my interested was ignited. I scribbled notes, I was going to write a book ...

A drawing by John Preston Neale of Ashburnham Place in 1828 showing the lake in front

... I didn't. I got a job, got married, had three children and changed career path.

But then one day I found the time to write. And it was another one-liner that came back to me. My wonderful tutor, Ann Williams, was talking about the background to the module for that term, which was 10th century Wessex. She talked about the preceding years, explaining what had led to the supremacy of Wessex and she spoke about Ethelred of Mercia. "No-one knows where he came from," she said. And I was captivated. I was going to write a book ...

... And I did. Although it turned out to be not the story of Ethelred so much as that of his wife, Aethelflaed, Lad
y of the Mercians.

Still I can't resist filing away little snippets; press cuttings, single sentences, anything that might one day make a fine story or novel.

Recently I was reading a book about myths and legends, and all things ghostly, and discovered that in 1820 the skeletal remains of a lady were found bricked up within one of the walls of the Captain's Tower of Carlisle Castle. "Three valuable rings remained on her fingers and she was still partially clothed in scraps of a tartan dress. It is unknown who she is, but evidence indicated that when she was walled up, she was still alive."

Even a friend of a friend's facebook lament:

"I apologise for last night. The lady you spoke to had one too many Calpols and was feeling ill at ease. I would text you but she felt the need to delete everything on my phone." Although in this case, I wonder if we don't already have the story in those 36 words. 

Sometimes novels start with a plot, a situation, a story to be told. At other times, they begin with a brief revelation, a tiny snapshot of another life that draws the novelist, particularly the historical novelist, down a path of discovery, collecting more and more pictures and vignettes until the whole album is ready to be laid open for other people to look at.

I'd love to hear from people who've been similarly pricked, provoked, or persuaded to write, from a single episode, sentence or fact. Please leave comments below:


  1. My novel Murder on Insel Poel came from a visit to a Museum in that tiny town and learning about a ship sinking.

  2. How wonderful - I just googled Insel Poel, so I've learned something new here too!

  3. I get inspired by gaps in history. I recently read about 6 apprentices who had brought a petition in favour of John Lilburne in 1653 and were arrested for it. When they were finally sentenced to hard labour in the Bridewell, one of the 6 remained unnamed because he refused to give his name. I have to wonder who he really was and how he thought to do that.

  4. Ooh, that would get me interested, too Cryssa; that he could remain anonymous and the lost details of his identity would intrigue me. Thanks for your comment :)

  5. My idea for the 'Wolf Spear Saga' that begins with 'Wulfsuna' came about while reading a book about Runelore. I saw 2 runes side by side and a spark ignited! The premise for ex-foederati returning to Britain came from reading about Germanic mercenaries stationed at Vindolanda and also gaps in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles. Historic voids are creative gems for writers!

  6. Yes, those lovely little 'what if' gaps are brilliant, especially if you then find some evidence that adds credibility to your supposition - I love those "ooh that really could have happened" moments! I also love the idea of two runes inspiring a whole saga ...

  7. DL Nelson, the famous Poeler Kogge?

    My novels-in-progress have different origins. Two plotbunnies I found on battlefields (the Varus battle aka Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and the recently discovered battlefield of Harzhorn-Kalefeld dating to the time of Maximinus Thrax), and one in a castle and the intriguing note that the first Sichelnstein, Wittilo, 'got the castle as thanks for the service he did King Henry the Fowler at the battle of Riade'. That one really has grown. :-)
    Two came out of images: a Roman standing at the Rhine and watching the German camp fires at the other shore, which later merged with another image of a Roman, bound and wounded, captive of a Caledonian tribe; and the other a lone man, clad in Germanic attire, walking a path in the Harz mountains and I knew he had been exiled for a crime he did not commit.
    The one starting with a duel between a Norseman and a Scot, with a vaguely 12th century setting which I wrote one night - I was supposed to work on my PhD but after some days I had a veritable, if badly written story on my hands - turned into some sort of historical Fantasy with a magic layer I found in Cardigan Bay and the legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod.

  8. Lovely to hear how your stories grew. And I love the connection to a Welsh sunken city. Flights of fancy are wonderful journeys :)

  9. DL Nelson, I checked the book. Of course, my head was in the Middle Ages. *grin* I've seen you use a different and more recent ship catastrophe.

    1. See, I just find it fascinating that there could be confusion about these catastrophes - I'm off to research them both!

  10. Annie, the Poeler Kogge (cog of Poel) is a wreck from ~1354 that has been found off the island in the 1990ies and was the model for a reconstruction in Wismar. We don't know how the ship sank. I've a got a relationship with the cog because I witnessed the reconstruction - well, a bit of it, it went on for years - work when I visited Wismar in 2004, and this year I had the chance to sail with her for a few hours. It was an interesting experience.

  11. Thanks for the info, Gabriele. To watch the reconstruction must have been fascinating.

  12. I was thumbing through a brochure about travel to Egypt, and I saw the photo of a colossal statue that had stood before a temple. It was horizontal now, and I found myself wondering what it would have been like to be nearby when that monolithic thing came crashing down... 350 printed pages later, I knew! (It took me a couple years to find out, though.)

  13. Marvellous - again, an image, something that might go unnoticed or unremarked upon by others, but people who write 'see' the story forming behind the image. Thanks for your comment Diana :)