Fictionalising the Past
Writing ‘The Price of Surrender’ a novel based on the siege of Colchester 1648
I write popular, ‘commercial’ historical fiction, and although I would love to be able to write like Hilary Mantel and have the credibility of a professional historian, I know my limitations. My key motivation is to write engaging stories that people will enjoy. Any writer of historical fiction, however, should try to recreate, as far as possible, an authentic and believable past.
The origin or starting point for a novel is often difficult to identify. For me, the beginning stages involve groping around for some time, perhaps a month, reading sources, note-taking and thinking. I usually start with reading a popular history text that has grabbed my attention. I have a particular liking for the broad period 1500 – 1800, which I believe is classified as ‘Early Modern’. My other preference is for social history and the lives of ordinary people. The undocumented experiences of ‘insignificant’ people hold more fascination for me than the lives of the privileged, the rich and the powerful. The other advantage of focusing on re-creating the lives of beggars, peasants, tradespeople, servants, craftspeople and the lower professionals is that there is greater scope for invention. These are the little people, mentioned as passing references in large sweeping historical accounts of events, but whose lives, we can assume, would have contained as much psychological richness, joy and tragedy and almost certainly more hardship than the well-documented kings, queens, princesses, lords and ladies of the time.
While reading for another novel, I came across The English Civil War by Diane Purkiss, a thoroughly engaging and excellent overview of the conflicts, with a very human dimension. This led to another, Charles Carlton’s Going to the Wars. Both books are full of ‘triggers’ for potential novels: stories of outstanding bravery and heroism and cowardice, unimaginable suffering, great victories and appalling defeats. However, finding a focus and setting limits are critically important in the development of a story from the stimulus material. In the case of The Price of Surrender, this process was suggested almost by accident, in conversation with Andrew Phillips, an eminent local historian. He told me that no one had ever written a novel about the infamous siege of Colchester, which occurred in the so called Second Civil War. These terrible true events had all the elements of a gutsy tale: violent battles, tensions between the townsfolk and soldiers, bombardments, starvation, sickness, riots and uprisings, then the ignominy and aftermath of surrender and defeat.
That was all I needed to make a start. Thanks to the excellent work of local historians, whose informative secondary sources and analyses of primary sources are readily available, I was able to begin. I started with acquainting myself with the background to the siege and the sequence of events as well as the main ‘players’ in it. Again, it was important to start selecting which real characters might feature in the novel and which events would work well as elements in the plot, to avoid creating an unwieldy mass of information that I was not capable of handling. A bolder more skilful writer might have been able to encompass the worlds of the enemy powers: the Parliamentarian besiegers, the Lord General Fairfax and his forces, set against the besieged Royalists inside the town and the unfortunate townsfolk themselves, the full social, economic and political context. However, my treatment inevitably involved the ruthless selection of material, narrowing and simplification in order for me to create a story that I could handle.This stage of narrowing ran alongside thinking about viewpoints and also the emergence of characters. Decisions had to be made about viewpoints, notably the number of key characters through whose gaze the action would be viewed.
During this reading stage, one man stood out from the rest as a potential hero, in the novelist’s sense of the word. Sir Charles Lucas, is variously portrayed in the sources as a loyal, courageous, honourable gentleman, a skilled professional cavalry commander and a virtuous martyr, or as a brutal, irascible, ruthless and uncultivated soldier. As with many primary sources relating to the Civil War, the views presented are highly biased and partisan. But here was a compelling, contradictory and controversial character. One of the best known portraits of him shows a rather stiff and ‘po-faced’ individual, but betrays a certain vulnerability in his gaze. So, I created a fictionalised version of Sir Charles Lucas, using some verifiable details about him as the basis of his character and imagining the rest, to suit the purposes of my story.
Next I needed a heroine and who better than the mysterious, unnamed Colchester ‘alderman’s wife’ referred to in one source as having informed the Royalists of a plot against them? Who was this alderman’s wife? Why did she want to save the Royalists? Here was the core of the conflict and tension and a romantic relationship, suitable for a novel in this genre. The story was beginning to take shape but I needed more characters to drive the narrative, create the horror and privations of the townspeople and the soldiers, so I invented a weaver’s family, the Sayers, impoverished neighbours of the more prosperous Wades (Alderman Wade and his abused wife Katherine, the informer). I decided also, to have five main points of view: Charles Lucas, Katherine Wade, Tobias Waterman (a Parliamentarian soldier), Beth Sayer and Jack Sayer, which some might think too many. However, given that the setting was very confined and the time frame too, I felt that readers could cope and that I could show more effectively how different people, on opposing sides and of different social classes were affected by the siege. I was also determined not to take sides.
By now I had filled at least one notebook with character descriptions, relationships, plot drivers and consequences, along with key points and incidents with dramatic potential. For example, there was the failed storming of the town by the Parliamentarian Colonel Barkstead’s regiment, resulting in the entrapment and slaughter of a troop of Parliamentarian soldiers by the Royalists in the town. Other striking incidents, such as the turd fired back over the wall by defiant Royalist soldiers, the desperate break out of women and children and the consumption of horses, dogs, cats and rats by the starving people, were all fruitful material for the structure of the story.
The style and tone of the narrative were also considerations, once I had started the first draft and I experimented with past and present tense for the main narrative. I settled on the present, with the aim of making it more ‘immediate’, using past tenses for backstory and flashbacks. There was the risk too that the whole novel would become an unremitting tale of misery and suffering, so I attempted to include some more hopeful and light-hearted elements in the form of the Sayer twins’ escapades during the siege.
This is a work of fiction and makes no claim to add to the historical interpretation of the events upon which it is based. I therefore apologise wholeheartedly to historians and other well-informed people, for the liberties taken with the known ‘facts’ and details and for any inaccuracies, which I may have inadvertently included. My hope is that readers will not be offended by the ‘manipulation’ of history and will enjoy the story. Perhaps it might even encourage readers to explore the accounts of the siege and the many excellent histories of this shocking period of British history, as well as exciting an interest in the town of Colchester with its rich and varied past, still present and visible today.
Note: I intend to self-publish this novel in the near future, resources permitting and after further editing and correction.
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