The summer of historical reality

It’s been a while, but summer is a good time to take in historical realities on a practical level. When my four year-old told me I was banned from going in churches with a camera, I knew that perhaps, I’d done one cathedral too many for his liking. However, being in the Pays Cathare, for me, was like being a child let loose in the proverbial sweetshop. So many castles, churches, cathedrals, relics, reconstructions, remains – I came away overstimulated and feeling that I needed another lifetime at least to explore everything I wanted to see.

It also brought home to me the importance of landscape. In the shadow of the Montaigne Noire, surrounded by the garrigue and driving through mountains dominated by castles in the sky, I truly appreciated the lives and labours of those who had lived here throughout the centuries. Scaling the last hundred or so feet to the majestic ruin of Peyrepeteuse reminded me of the Eyrie of Lysa in Game of Thrones. I could have done with a basket to haul me up. However, such experiences are excellent for gaining a feeling for the settings we use in our fiction. I can use the sparse beauty of the hills and mountains, the effect of seeing such an amazing structure and the age old solemnity of the old cathedrals. And it’s not just the visual prompts we can store for a future chapter, but the smells, the sounds and the insects that abound. All of this contributes to the rich tapestry of a good historical novel.

Museums are also a fantastic resource for whatever period you are writing about. The very successful author Elizabeth Chadwick often talks about the props she has had made, or how visits to museums help her to recreate the worlds she inhabits for her novels. At a recent visit to the Science Museum in London, I took photographs of many of the displays or items from spinning wheels and a jacquard loom, to older medical instruments and household items. Rumaging around cheap book shops, I have come across books on histories of knives and swords, clothing in Europe, spinning and herbal lore – all extremely useful for background and more importantly, to prevent the sort of anachronisms that will spread on social media quicker than a plastic water bottle on a mantelpiece in Downton.

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