Today I welcome author Patricia Bracewell to discuss her debut novel, SHADOW ON THE CROWN, coming from Viking/Penguin on February 7. SHADOW ON THE CROWN is the first in a trilogy of novels about Emma of Normandy, whose marriage in 1002 to an English king set in motion events that would culminate in the Norman Conquest of 1066. Publishers Weekly calls it "an enthralling debut," and having read an advanced copy, I can assure you that it is all that and more!
1. SHADOW ON THE CROWN is based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. How much did you know about eleventh-century England prior to undertaking this novel? Why does this period appeal to you?
I knew very little about eleventh century England until I started my research. I’d taken a course in British History in college, so I had a vague knowledge of pre-Conquest England but not specifically the details of that eleventh century world. In my literature classes I had studied some of the better known Anglo-Saxon poetry – Beowulf, for example, and The Wanderer, which has always been one of my favorite poems. But I’d been drawn more to the stories of Arthur and the historical era associated with his legend. The century before the Conquest, and the events that led to it, were a mystery to me, and I suppose that mystery was what intrigued me about the period as much as anything else.
2. What was it about Emma of Normandy that inspired you to write about her?
The more I learned about Emma, the more I realized how significant a role she must have played in the events that occurred in England in the early eleventh century, and how perilous, at times, her position must have been. The bare fact that she was married to two different kings of England and that those two men were mortal enemies is pretty stunning. She must have faced enormous difficulties – physical, emotional, political. The more I learned about her, the more astonished I was that today she is virtually unknown. I wanted to change that.
3. How do you maintain a balance between history and fiction in your books? What principles guide you as you write?
I suppose the image in my mind is of a tree with a trunk and naked limbs. That’s the history. In writing the story, I’m drawing leaves on that tree – filling in the blank spaces, imagining the events, the conversations and the intentions that nobody bothered to write down. Sometimes I come up with questions about historical events that are really very difficult to answer, and I have to make certain that the answers I come up with fit the story and fit the history as well, at least as far as we know it. My guiding principle is to not change the facts that are known, but I may interpret events in a way that adds to the dramatic action. In the end, I am a storyteller, not a historian.
4. Can you give an example of how you re-interpreted an event?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that a certain high ranking nobleman committed a traitorous act. As a result, his son was brutally punished, yet the ealdorman remained on the king’s council with no loss of stature or power. This didn’t make any sense to me, and I decided that there must be more to the story than the annals were telling us. So I made up a back story that put the treachery on the shoulders of the son rather than the father. Is that what really happened? I don’t know, but it works much better in my story.
5. What was something you learned about eleventh-century Europe that surprised you?
I was surprised by the distances that people and goods traveled. It’s common to think that someone born in a village in England would never stray more than ten miles from home, and that’s very likely how it was for most people. But goods, silk for example, made their way to England from Constantinople. Furs from the north and spices from the south were traded in London, Paris, Rouen and Aachen. Men appointed to the archbishopric of York or Canterbury traditionally journeyed to Rome to receive confirmation of their office from the Pope. In 1027 a king of England made that trip, and he was one among many pilgrims, men and women alike, who went to Rome or to other pilgrimage sites like Santiago de Compostela in Spain or Lough Derg in Ireland. The journeys would have been difficult and hazardous, and may have taken months, but the elite, the clergy and the traders made them. And the Vikings, of course, went everywhere.
6. What is your favorite scene in the novel? Which scene was the hardest to write?
My favorite scene is probably the Prologue. It was one of the last scenes that I wrote and was not even part of the original manuscript. It came to me at one sitting – one of those writing moments when you almost feel as if Someone Else has taken control. The hardest scene to write was one that takes place in a tunnel and is seen through the eyes of a viewpoint character who suffers from claustrophobia. I wanted to make it terrifying reading without making it over-the-top melodramatic. Readers will have to tell me if I succeeded.
7. What has been the most difficult part of your journey to publication? The most exhilarating?
The hardest times were the moments when the writing was going badly or I had received another rejection letter, and I asked myself if I wasn’t merely wasting my time – even wasting my life. Perhaps my time would be better spent volunteering in an after-school reading program or going back into the classroom. My friends, especially my writer friends, helped me through those rough spots. The most exhilarating moments were my visits last fall to New York and London to meet with my agent and my editors. Their enthusiasm for the book was overwhelming.
8. What do you hope readers take away from reading SHADOW ON THE CROWN?
First of all, I hope that they will fall in love with Emma of Normandy, as I have, and that they will recognize her as a strong female character in a brutal world and in a particularly brutal time. I also hope that they will recognize that England’s history extends back before the Norman Conquest, and that what happened prior to 1066 is every bit as fascinating as what came after. Finally, I hope that they will want to read the next two books in the trilogy and learn more about the characters who have become so much a part of my life.
Be sure to return on February 7 to read my review of SHADOW ON THE CROWN. In the meantime, visit Patricia's website and view photo galleries of the locations she visited while researching the novel. She recounts her travels and shares fascinating tidbits about life in eleventh century England on her blog.