Historical fiction, and why it grips us so…

By Sandra Heath Wilson

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that . . . . Well, the famous Jane Austen opening line is one of the most memorable of all time, and not only in historical fiction, which is what Pride and Prejudice has now become. It was, of course, current when written.

To me, it is a truth universally acknowledged that once an author becomes enthralled by the past, whether a person, famous event or quarrel, or something as fascinatingly complicated as the Wars of the Roses and the machinations in Renaissance Florence, it’s very difficult indeed to change genre.

The past beguiles us, and leaves us with so many intriguing puzzles that weaving one’s fictional plot through the known facts can be very rewarding. Whether you’re a gifted writer of thought-provoking books, as is Hilary Mantel, or a teller of tales, like me, the passion is the same. I am entranced by the Plantagenets. The thought of all that pageantry, bloodshed, dangerous love, wicked plotting and heinous treason fires me with interest. I’m alight with it. The colour, fashions and romance join in, and everything melds into a wonderful microcosm that is contained within the pages of a novel. Begin to read, and you’re carried back into those hazardous times, you meet the kings, queens and nobles, you accompany them on their adventures, into battle . . . and into love.

Richard III's skeletal remains discovered under a car park inspired a wave of Plantagenet fiction.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains inspired a wave of Plantagenet fiction.

I do not suggest for a moment that Hilary Mantel approaches her works in the same way, but this is how I write, and my Cicely trilogy is the result of that imagined time-travelling excitement. My characters—both real and fictional—are there, in the thick of it. I’m there too, and so are my readers, being part of everything. We can’t possibly know what those real people said and did in private, so when they slip away secretly from the floodlit stage into the novel’s shadows, it will be for purposes that the author has invented.

This is where fiction blends with fact. The imagined events are woven intricately through the cloth of truth by the storyteller, and the result is a tale of what might have happened. Not what did. Provided the author makes sure the reader is never deceived into thinking the book tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then the world of imagination awaits.

The discovery of Richard III’s remains in Leicester has made him the most talked-of King of England, at once notorious and tragic, and the TV serialization of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen sparked a lot more interest in his life. An antidote to Shakespeare’s monster. I first became fascinated by Richard back in the very early 1970s, when I read a little detective novel called The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. Tey was clearly convinced Richard had been lied about throughout history, and her detective hero set about getting to the truth. His conclusion was that Richard was a good man and king who had been betrayed at the Battle of Bosworth.

There has been a huge increase in fiction and non-fiction about this last Plantagenet monarch, and judging by reviews at Amazon and similar sites, the trend is set to continue. The market is there, and publishers have responded, although whether individual publishers are presenting their fiction titles in the most advantageous way is another matter. Some do, some don’t.

6a010536b33b69970b01a73dbf3ee3970d-400wi  The Dance of Love  9781910208069  9781910208052

Historical fiction from Buried River Press

In these days of increasing self-publishing, traditional publishers need to be one step ahead. Their clout is their distribution, marketing, production, well-honed editing and, of course, their reputation. Their authors expect their support and advertising, but with the Internet and social media, have to do a lot of self-publicizing as well. It’s up to all concerned to tap into the growing, hungry market, which does await its next meal! Thus it is even more incumbent upon publishers to do all they can to see their books do as well as possible.

Richard III and the Wars of the Roses may be almost fashionable now, but other figures and periods have just as strong a grip on the imagination of writers and readers alike. The Tudors, the Romans, Roundheads and Cavaliers, the Regency, the Victorians, Edwardians, the Roaring Twenties and the two World Wars. I’m sure I’ve missed many more that cry out to be mentioned, but the point is that the past — even the recent past— bewitches us.

This Victorian novel by Michael Faber (2002, Canongate) was adapted as a BBC series in 2011.

Will this continue? Mediaeval storytellers entertained with tales of King Arthur and his knights, who inhabited a glorious, golden age that should be emulated in the mediaeval present, and since then every age has produced stories that look back longingly at what has been lost. So yes, historical fiction is going to continue to be popular. It may ebb occasionally, but the tide always comes in again and often stays high for a long time. Richard III may be the man of the moment, but if the remains of King Harold are discovered, as is expected, then there could be a trend towards Saxon/Norman-set novels. Ditto King Alfred, or even King John, should his lost treasure be found in the Wash. Publishers have to be ready to second-guess what will take off next—as will authors—and those with this prescience will steal a march on the rest.

A time machine is something for which many of us long, to go back to witness it all. But in the meantime, there are novels, where our imagination, not the skills of a film or TV director, or even Shakespeare, gets to work and recreates it all. For writer and reader alike, historical fiction is a wonderful escape from present woes.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers and the reading public are enthralled by centuries gone by, and I for one do not think it will ever change. Authors and publishers need to be on their toes to satisfy demand.

OUT NOW: Cicely’s Second King by Sandra Heath Wilson

9780719812613Sandra was born in South Wales, but spent a great deal of her childhood in Ulster and Germany. She has lived in Gloucestershire for over forty years. Published worldwide, her early books were set around the Wars of the Roses. Her other books, also published by Robert Hale, include her Regency
novels The Makeshift Marriage, Lady Jane’s Ribbons and Hide and Seek.

Cicely’s Second King

After the bloody death of her uncle and lover, the
Yorkist King Richard III, at Bosworth Field, Lady Cicely Plantagenet is grief-stricken, alone, and with child.

Clinging to Richard’s memory, and ensconced in the court of his Lancastrian successor – the dangerous, enigmatic Henry Tudor – Cicely faces a strange new England, where her bitter elder sister, Bess, is to be Henry’s queen.

And Henry is advancing, with a serpentine charm and lascivious determination, to lay claim to both Plantagenet sisters, threatening harm to her loved ones if Cicely resists. But Henry killed Richard, and poses a mortal threat to her secret son. How can it be
possible to find pleasure with this ruthless and relentless man?!

To buy Cicely’s Second King now, click here.

OUT NOW: Cicely’s King Richard by Sandra Heath Wilson

cicely's king richardSandra was born in South Wales, but spent a great deal of her childhood in Ulster and Germany. She has lived in Gloucestershire since marrying forty years ago, and has one daughter and two grandchildren. Published worldwide, her early books were set around the Wars of the Roses. Her other books, also published by Robert Hale, include her Regency novels The Makeshift Marriage, Lady Jane’s Ribbons and Hide and Seek.

Cicely’s King Richard by Sandra Heath Wilson

It is 1483, and the children of the late Yorkist King Edward IV have been declared illegitimate by their own uncle, the new King Richard III. His second niece, Lady Cicely Plantagenet, hardly knows her uncle, but from the outset is fiercely drawn to this charismatic man, with whom she shares tremendous affinity and rarest of all, his trust.

But there will be complete, unconditional passion and the loss of all innocence for Cicely before Richard has to defend his realm, his cause and his life against the invading force of the Lancastrian pretender, Henry Tudor, at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

A new and compassionate look at the much-maligned, misunderstood Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Sandra Heath Wilson explores the intensity and sensitivity of history’s ‘wicked’ King and his illicit relationship with his young niece: the perceptive and enticing Cicely. The first in an impressive historical trilogy.

Praise for Cicely’s King Richard

 ‘Cicely was really brought to life, with her heart and soul bursting from the pages’ – Novelicious

Cicely’s King Richard by Sandra Heath Wilson is available to buy now

cicely's king richard

Sandra Heath Wilson on bringing Richard III and his niece Cicely together

Sandra Heath Wilson - new greyscaleSandra was born in South Wales, but spent a great deal of her childhood in Ulster and Germany. She has lived in Gloucestershire since marrying forty years ago, and has one daughter and two grandchildren. Published worldwide, her early books were set around the Wars of the Roses. Her other books, also published by Robert Hale, include her Regency novels The Makeshift Marriage, Lady Jane’s Ribbons and Hide and Seek.

Here, she discusses why she is so drawn to Richard III and why his niece, Cicely, was the right woman to tell the story.

With the imminent publication of CICELY’S KING RICHARD, the first in my Cicely trilogy, I have to wonder – again – what it is about both Richard and his second niece that draws me so strongly to them both. They weren’t really lovers in life. Well, not as far as I know. If they were, discretion was certainly the word. But seriously, they have an appeal so strong that, for the scribe in me, NOT to write their story would be very difficult.

The fascination with Richard III is known world-wide. How many other medieval kings – kings of any period, come to that – still have legions of supporters today? But believe it or not now, there was a time when I was as taken in by Shakespeare’s ‘Tudorised’ version of him as everyone else.

Then, when I was in my twenties, I happened upon a book that was somewhere between historical novel and contemporary. This book was the famous DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey, in which her police detective hero is laid up in hospital with nothing to do to pass the time. A friend brings him a selection of portraits, and invites him to use his detective skills to assess each subject. It is when he gets to King Richard III that he finds himself disagreeing with everything he had ever been taught of that ultimately tragic king. By the end of Tey’s book, Richard had been exonerated of all the terrible crimes allotted to him.

I too looked at that same portrait and believed Richard to be innocent. None of his portraits were created during his lifetime, but they all show that same fine-boned face, slight build, long dark-chestnut hair and haunting eyes. And now his remains have been found, we have the modelled head that has become world-famous. It’s the same face, so we know for certain that Richard III really did look like that. A slender man, affected by scoliosis, but more than able to unhorse the gigantic Sir John Cheyne at the Battle of Bosworth. A sensitive man who liked music and books. A just man whose one and only Parliament did more for the people of England than any other monarch, no matter how long the reign. An ill-fated man who lost his child, his wife, and then his life, defending his realm against a foreign invasion by the usurper Henry Tudor.

cicely's king richardThe more I sought to learn about Richard, the more involved I became. I found all the books I could, fiction and non-fiction. I was hooked, beyond all shadow of doubt.

Everything about him told me he was a truly exceptional man who would have done so much for England if he’d been allowed the chance. I was five centuries too late to support him when he needed it, but I could do all I could to put matters right at a distance, so to speak. And so I started writing, and my very first novel – eventually a trilogy – was published by Robert Hale.

The heroine I chose was Richard’s second niece, Cicely. She interested me because, as far as I knew, no one else had written about her. Sir Thomas More called her ‘not so fortunate as fair’, and she was once destined to be Queen of Scotland. Instead she made a recently-discovered first marriage that was swiftly annulled after Bosworth in order for her to be wed to Henry Tudor’s half-uncle, John Welles. And when he died, she committed the heinous sin of marrying a commoner. Henry was infuriated by this, which gave the novelist in me pause for thought. Why was he quite so livid and vengeful? But that is for another time.

Having written that early trilogy, I did not expect to write about Cicely again, until Richard’s remains were discovered. The urge to write everything again was impossible to resist, but when the words began to flow, something happened that changed everything. Instead of loving Richard’s illegitimate son, John of Gloucester, as she had in the first books, she began to love Richard himself. Authors sometimes tell you their characters will do as they want, not what they are told. It’s true. I simply could not ignore the rapport between Richard and his spirited niece. They wrote their own words and feelings, and the result is what I hope will be read as a beautiful but doomed love story.

So, in CICELY’S KING RICHARD, you’ll read of forbidden love between an uncle and his niece, strangers at the beginning, lovers at the end. They cannot help but love, and it’s a passionate, deep, enduring emotion they both know is wrong. Most of us know he’s to be cruelly taken from her at Bosworth, but Cicely does not. She awaits good news of his victory. Her heart and life are shattered by his loss, but her love continues. It will never end.

This is my view of a love story that might have been, and explains my attachment to Cicely and Richard. I have brought them together in a way that probably did not happen in life. But when I look at the modelled head that has been made from a copy of his skull, and I see what a truly handsome young man he was (just imagine him smiling!) I find it very easy indeed to believe Cicely would be fatally drawn to him. He was not a married man straying from his wife, but a lonely widower in need of the comfort only an understanding woman could give. If he found it in an illicit love with Cicely, I can’t condemn either of them. Love is love, and doesn’t always observe the rules.

Those rules are to be broken again in the next book, CICELY’S SECOND KING. That king being Henry Tudor.

– Sandra Heath Wilson

 Cicely’s King Richard is available to pre-order now

Sandra Heath Wilson visits Richard III’s funeral crown at Tewkesbury Abbey

Before I even begin to describe the delights of Tewkesbury Abbey’s “Armour at the Abbey” event, let me say it was a truly enjoyable occasion. Simply wonderful. Praise to all concerned. But I have one reservation, which will be described in due course.

So, it’s Saturday, 3rd May 2014, the English spring weather is perfect, and I arrived early, 10.30, to look around the abbey before the official opening at 11. Surprisingly, there were not many people around, but the atmosphere was humming with excitement. There were a lot of beautiful flower arrangements, some of which were particularly impressive.

Then folk started to arrive, people of so many different nationalities, as well as British stalwarts. Footsteps and voices rang through the great church, and the sense of anticipation began to grow. There was some disgruntlement because a number of people had wanted to buy John Ashdown-Hill’s book, The Third Plantagenet, and expected him to be there to sign copies, but they discovered he wasn’t signing anything until 3 p.m. So perhaps some sales were lost.

richard III crownThere was quite a long queue at the ticket desk as 11 approached, and everyone was chattering. At last the moment came, and we were allowed in. It wasn’t quite the opening of Harrods’ sale, but the thought did pass through my mind. The first person I saw then was John Ashdown-Hill, which surprised me, considering I’d been hearing the grumbling. I spoke to him (not about disgruntlements, or indeed about signing my copy of his Clarence book, which I’d brought with me!) He told me to look out for his coming book on Lambert Simnel, and I promised I would. Well, I have all the others, so must go for the full set.

He showed me the funeral crown. It was in a side chapel, practically the first you came to after the desk. If he hadn’t said that was where the crown was displayed, I would have walked right past it, which, indeed, a lot of people did. It is the siting and set-up of this part of the event with which I find fault. Anyway, for the moment I will continue. There was a rope barrier to prevent us getting close, so the crown had to be viewed at a little distance, which prevented the detail being examined. Thank goodness for the invention of zoom on cameras! The crown was atop a red velvet cloth, as if on the summit of a blunt pyramid. I couldn’t help wishing someone could unite it for a moment with the reconstruction of Richard’s head. OK, it’s a funeral crown, but as it has been made to fit his head measurements, it seems such an opportunity lost. Unless, of course, someone already has this in hand? Hint.

Then I moved on, to the other enticements, which included minstrels (superb!), people dressed in costume—Edward IV, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville, Proud Cis, George of Clarence and . . . no Richard? If he was there, I did not see him. But Edward IV was splendid in black velvet and crown, if sporting a beard. The gentleman playing Earl Rivers was being prepared to wear full armour. He said that it weighed a great deal and took about forty minutes to don fully. He was right, but it was fascinating to see every lace tied, every buckle done up, every small piece of armour put in place that finally transformed him into a knight as we like to think of them. He looked magnificent. Hats off to him. Helms off?

The minstrels were very skilled, and had everyone’s feet tapping. They earned their rapturous applause. It was truly atmospheric to hear their music in such surroundings. Maybe it wouldn’t be the sort of music they would have played in church in Richard’s time, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine the building was a great palace, and all the onlookers were members of his court. It was also easy to think of dancing to such jaunty notes. Oh, the power of imagination . . .

20140503_145Viewing the little vault where George, Duke of Clarence is believed to lie with his duchess, is not usually possible. But it was open today. There are not many steps down, but they are steep. The bones are in a glass case, set against the wall opposite the steps, and there were a lot of tea lights shining. I did not have a sense of George and Isabel. The bones are jumbled up (they have to be, they were jumbled when found) but there was something oddly remote about them. I don’t know if anyone else has ever felt that way. Detached is probably the word I am looking for.

Next came the great highlight for me, the knighting of George, Duke of Clarence—or re-knighting, I am not sure—after he had left the fold to join Warwick the Kingmaker, and then come back in again. The sweet scent of incense drifted in clouds as George knelt before his elder brother, Edward IV, being ritually cleansed and prepared, praying all the while. He was dressed in armour, royal surcoat and plumed helmet, before Edward dubbed him knight again. Only then was George allowed to stand, and I thought his knees must have been sore. Kneeling for so long in armour cannot be easy! Finally was an opportunity for photographs to be taken of the royal family, who all looked regal. Still could not tell if Richard was supposed to be there.

I decided it was time to leave, and as I walked back towards the desk, and the side chapel where the crown was on display, I realized that the whole of that small area of the abbey was sort-of made over to Richard. I hadn’t noticed when I arrived. It seemed as if they’d started to prepare it, but run out of time. Or, because the crown was only on display today, it was not worth bothering with anything too lavish. Anyway, there was a likeness of him as the king’s “brothere”, and an old reproduction of the NPG portrait. His boar banner was there, and white roses, but it was all somehow abandoned. Like the crown, it was something people passed on their way to where it was really at. This saddened me, because, as is said in Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts Richard in a corner!”

But even so, I have nothing but praise for the event, which was superb entertainment and well worth seeing. I hope that by describing my experience, others can enjoy it a little too.

– Sandra Heath Wilson

Cicely’s King Richard by Sandra Heath Wilson is available to pre-order now with a limited time only discount of 30%

cicely's king richard

Novelicious calls Cicely’s King Richard ‘beautiful yet poignant’

cicely's king richardNovelicious have reviewed the first Buried River Press title: Cicely’s King Richard by Sandra Heath Wilson.

The reviewer said she was ‘immediately drawn into [Cicely’s] story‘ and ‘Cicely was really brought to life, with her heart and soul bursting from the pages in this beautiful yet poignant love story‘. She goes on to say that ‘as a woman, [Cicely] was ahead of her time‘.

Cicely’s King Richard by Sandra Heath Wilson is available to pre-order now.

For the full review, click here.