This chapter on Aldred at Brunanburh reading Boethius has been one of the more difficult and longest to write, perhaps because of all of the controversy surrounding the battle. The draft chapter I just posted as a page probably will stir up more, since I had to make some choices about the locations of the battle and people movements. I am still tinkering with names, places, and dates. Feedback is more than welcome.
My aim overall is to get a feel for the cultural atmosphere and inner life more than the outward appearance, though as a historian I am compelled to get both right. As I noted in an earlier post, I see a need to take my writing a step further in terms of language and depth of meaning. I am not there yet.
Meanwhile, I will try to keep revising and listening to comments. Next week I start teaching a six week online class on the Vikings!, so I might be a bit preoccupied. Then off to England, including more wanderings around Lancashire to see the sites where I have placed Aldred and the battle.
Addition (May 25):
I just read an insightful review article interviewing the authors of two novels set in recent Central American history (Paula Huston, A Land Without Sin, and Shirley and Rudy Nelson, The Risk of Returning). At one point in the article (in Books & Culture here), Paula Huston comments on how to include historical context in fiction:
While I agree that the inclusion of too much historical detail can wind up hijacking a story, I think much contemporary fiction suffers instead from not having enough of it. Unfolding events might provide a bit of atmosphere, but the true focus is on the individual-as-individual…. Yet when we novelists relegate historical context to atmospheric backdrop, we unnecessarily limit the sorts of challenges we can throw at our characters. I think history can be a sort of meta-character, its dynamism and energy generating conflict on a grand scale and highlighting the moral weaknesses and strengths of those who must deal with it…. So how did I decide what historical facts to include and what to leave out? I tried to treat history as a character. And this gave me a helpful anchor-point when it came to the inevitable detail-sifting process.
Shirley Nelson then quotes Italo Calvino and adds her own thoughts:
“The book I would like to read now is a novel in which you sense the story arriving like still vague thunder, the historical story along with the individual’s story.” [Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, translated by William Weaver (Harcourt, 1981).] I love that, but the question, obviously, is what you do when the historical thunder starts to get louder. We finally developed one rule. Include only the facts that the characters need to know in order to function within the story. How they learn those facts must be part of the action.
Both of these insights certainly inspire me to consider history as a character in my novel, but to do so through the eyes of Aldred as he experiences the events. This is admittedly tricky, since I want to reveal what I know and he does not–but in some ways I am saving that for my meta-narrator, the modern historian whose researches uncover Aldred’s trail of crumbs in the manuscript record (none of those sections I have written so far are included online).