11 October, 2011

Writing About the Anglo-Saxons: History and fiction in the age of Sutton Hoo

I will be taking part in a one-day event "Writing About the Anglo-Saxons: History and Fiction in the Age of Sutton Hoo", to be held at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, UK on 23 October 2011.

No charge for admission. Book places in advance at Sutton Hoo Reception (01394 389700), or ask at Reception on the day.

Full details here

  • Talks on aspects of Anglo-Saxon history and culture and the challenges of recreating the world of early mediaeval Britain in fiction and non-fiction

  • Panel discussions

  • Question-and-answer sessions

  • Book signing

  • Carla Nayland, author of Paths of Exile, historical novel set in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria

  • PM Sabin Moore, author of Stormfrost and Brightfire, historical novels set at Sutton Hoo

  • Paul Mortimer, re-enactor and author of Woden's Warriors, a non-fiction study of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture

  • Steve Pollington, author of numerous non-fiction works on Anglo-Saxon history and culture

  • Connie Jensen, proprietor of Trifolium Books UK, publisher of historical fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England, including Paths of Exile and Bride of the Spear


Nicola Griffith said...

Oh, I'd love to be there! I'll be there in spirit.

No doubt you've already planned what you'll say, but if we were at the bar with other writers, I'd want to talk about the particular difficulty of writing 'realistic fiction' set in early medieval Britain. Reality, for most, would have been miserable: hunger, illness, uncertainty, parasites, violence, cold, fear... Who wants to read hundreds of pages of that kind of thing?

In writing Hild, I did my best to sidestep ordinary misery, and talk mostly about moments that are out of the ordinary. But this leaves me open to accusations of romanticisation. Even though the end result is far from romantic.

Any thoughts?

Carla said...

I see hardship (not quite the same thing as misery?) as part of the world the book builds for the reader to step into, same as other historical details like clothes and food and beliefs. It's part of the way the world works, but it wouldn't be the focus, any more than you'd write hundreds of pages on jewellery styles or the mechanics of a warp-weighted loom. Story is about the people and their interactions with each other and their world. The world matters (including the hardships) because it shapes people's options and expectations, but it's the background - the stage, if you like, rather than the play. If that makes any sense? So the 'ordinary misery' is part of the background and the 'moments that are out of the ordinary' are the story in the foreground. I wouldn't call that approach romanticisation, myself, unless it was so sugar-coated that everybody lived in comfort and plenty with nothing to fear and no problems at all. Most fiction sidesteps the mundane, in part because everyday activities are repetitive (they happen every day...) and repetition tends to the tedious. That's sort of romantic, I suppose, but it's a condition of storytelling.

I also wonder if there can be a tendency to overstate the miserable by looking at it from a modern perspective. Most of us wouldn't last five minutes in early medieval Britain because we don't have the knowledge or skills to live in their world, so naturally it looks like a frightening and miserable place to us, but that may not be entirely how it looked to the people who belonged in it and understood it.

Gabriele Campbell said...

That sounds like a cool event. I'll be there in spirit, too (since I can't afford to travel there right now).

Rick said...

Alas for geography!

Surely much of the misery is subjective, or at least relative. You don't miss central heating if you don't know it exists, and you're accustomed to bundling up against the cold as best you can.

Carla said...

Alas for geography indeed, it would have been great if you could all have come along. I shall be glad to have you there in spirit :-)
Some miseries/hardships are objective - pain, cold, hunger, illness/injury - some are subjective and some are a bit of both (fear might come into this latter category; it's a subjective emotion in response to objective dangers). Even the objective ones vary in their impact depending on how well they can be managed with available technology. Without doubt an acute infection is a lot more miserable and dangerous in a world without effective antibiotics than with them; an economy without much in the way of efficient long-distance transport is more susceptible to local famine in the event of a sudden reduction in local food resource (e.g. a poor harvest); cold can be a minor nuisance or a severe threat depending on how severe it is and the availability of shelter, food, fuel and warm clothing. Resource pressure and distribution also make a big difference to the impact; if the population only just has enough to eat in a good year, things get very miserable in a bad year, and very miserable in spades for anyone who is excluded from the available food.

Nicola Griffith said...

A lot of these questions are obviated by writing about royal characters: they get the food, warmth, medicine, shelter etc. that's available. And they get to call on aggregated resources, not just hyperlocal ones. That tends to even out variations.

Later, of course, this also obtains for ecclesiastical characters.

Nonetheless, I did find myself spending a huge proportion of my thousand pages talking about the weather...

Carla said...

In 'normal' times, yes. Circumstances can happen to anyone though, even ecclesiastics and royalty. It's not known what happened to Hild during the 'Black Year' of 633/634, but Bede's account suggests it was not a good time to be in Deira and on the losing side. Unless she had married into another kingdom by then (she'd be about 19 or so) and watched it all from a safe distance.

Weather is a major topic of British conversation today when people mostly live indoor lives - it wouldn't have been any less important 1400 years ago when more people spent more of their lives outdoors and livestock and grain harvests were central to the economy.

When is your book going to be published?

Nicola Griffith said...

It goes to my agent tomorrow, along with all the nifty supplementals such as map, glossary, and family tree. (That last, in itself, was an exercise in choice...)

I have an editor waiting at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, but as he hasn't actually read the thing yet, and as it's such a difficult book (length, subject-matter: it really does get, ah, medieval in places), I wouldn't like to swear that he'll actually publish it. But he's published two of my other novels, so the odds are decent.

So my guess? 2013. But that's just a guess.

I expect I'll know in two or three months. (Publishing is such a glacial business.)


So how did the event go?

Carla said...

2013 - I shall look forward to it :-)