Today I welcome Louise Turner to my series of author interviews. Louise is both a historical novelist and an archeologist. Her novel, Fire and Sword, is set in fifteen century Scotland.
Elizabeth: Welcome, Louise. Can you tell us more about Fire and Sword?
Louise: It’s based on real historical events that occurred in the west of Scotland in the late 15th century, during the early reign of King James IV. James arguably went on to become Scotland’s greatest Renaissance king, but his reign began in typical early Stewart fashion with a bit of skulduggery. His father, King James III, was very unpopular because he made a mess of the economy and surrounded himself with ‘evil counsellors.’ Things came to a head in the spring of 1488 and by June of that year, there was an armed rebellion that ended in a battle which saw James III murdered and his son made king in his place.
It’s the very turbulent events which unfolded during the aftermath that form the focus of both Fire and Sword, and its follow-up, The Gryphon at Bay, which will be published next spring by Hadley Rille Books. The story of Fire and Sword revolves around the trials and tribulations of John Sempill of Ellestoun, who fights for James III and finds himself having to rebuild his fortunes following the regime change. Historically speaking, he’s quite an obscure local figure who merits just a brief mention in the wider story of Scotland’s past, which meant there really wasn’t much to go on when I started to explore his life story.
Elizabeth: So what inspired you to write about John Sempill in particular?
Louise: I’ve lived in west Renfrewshire all my life: the landscape, the history and the archaeology is very familiar to me, and it’s an area which I think should be more widely appreciated. When I first explored the idea of writing a historical novel, it seemed obvious to look close to home for inspiration, and since the Sempills were one of our prominent local families they seemed an obvious place to start my research.
It was while reading one well-known local history source (The Parish of Lochwinnoch by Elizabeth Anderson), I discovered an intriguing paragraph which related how, only a few years after John Sempill’s father died during the battle fighting for James III, Sempill himself enjoyed an astounding change in fortunes and was made a Lord of Parliament. I wanted to find out more about the circumstances behind his dramatic change in circumstances.
I soon discovered an intriguing link between John Sempill of Ellestoun and one of the more notorious local characters at the time, Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie, who was one of James IV’s most loyal followers and who was appointed to the Privy Council in the early years of the new reign. The events which unfolded clearly demonstrated that Renfrewshire and Ayrshire, normally thought of as cultural and political backwaters well away from the intrigues and powerplay of Edinburgh, were the scene of pivotal events which helping secure James IV upon his throne.
Right from the start, I found Sempill a fascinating figure. He was definitely ahead of his time: in a world where disputes were settled at the point of the sword and where feuding was the widely accepted method of finding justice, he seemed determined to keep the peace and put his faith in the legal system. He was a builder: he left a secure legacy for his descendants and he was fond of the finer things in life, too. He was a patron of the arts, and he seems to have been a pious man: he founded a Collegiate church and ‘sang school’ (i.e. a school for choristers). Perhaps this was his most enduring legacy: its ruins still survive and can be visited by the general public.
It was only at a comparatively late stage that I discovered I’m not the first writer to have found my curiosity piqued by the Semple family! In a literary sense, John Sempill’s family punches well above its weight, with the Sempills/Semples having achieved notoriety in literary circles for their place in the work of the celebrated historical fiction author Dorothy Dunnett.
Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your story?
Louise: I’d say it’s about 20% fact, 40% educated conjecture and 40% fiction. The framework, everything which underpins the story, is fact, and I populate the narrative was as many recreated historical characters as possible. It’s the interaction of these various individuals which drives the narrative, and recreates history. Or at least, that’s the theory…
Elizabeth: What does your research process look like?
Louise: Very long, and tortuous! I approach historical novel writing in a multi-layered way, because my final aim is not to tell a story, but to experience a story. My first task is to read up on the literature, and listen to the music, so I can get an impression of the way they might have been thinking through the metaphors that dominated their thinking and language. For my late medieval gentry and nobility, this includes both Biblical and religious analogies, some Classical thinking as well as chivalric ideals (we’re in the era which saw the increasing popularity of King Arthur and his nights of the round table) and more mundane practical things like hunting. And of course I’m writing a story set in medieval Scotland, so I have to balance the fact that the characters communicate in Middle Scots (think Rab C Nisbet meets Geoffrey Chaucer) with the needs of the reader.
Then there are the physical and material aspects of their lives, which I explore from the top down, so to speak. What was the physical environment like at the time, including settlement distribution, natural environment, agriculture and architecture? And what was the material culture like? This covers a vast range of topics, from textiles to horse harness to weaponry to the tableware that graced their boards each night. In that respect, a lot of my research was archaeological, as opposed to historical. I’ve worked on a few medieval urban excavations in the west of Scotland myself, so that provided a good starting point, and I’d also made a few useful contacts in my profession who were more than willing to help point me in the right direction.
Building the actual story was also quite a challenge. In this case, I wanted to establish what was happening on the national scale, and to figure out how the information derived from local historical sources fitted into this wider picture. The local sources were all rather blinkered, going along the lines of ‘they were all a shocking bunch of angry lawless men who kept on fighting and feuding with each other.’ The overall impression I got was that the west of Scotland was like a late medieval version of America’s Wild West! But when I juxtaposed these local feuds against the wider political landscape I discovered that most of the unrest unfolding here in Renfrewshire had their roots in grievances that stemmed from decisions made much further afield in Edinburgh. That’s when things began to get interesting!
As this narrative started to take shape, I was creating a network of characters, based on real individuals who often little more than references in the historical record. To make these characters authentic, I mapped their life-paths – what age were they when the action took place, who were their parents, who did their children marry, how many children did they have both inside and outside wedlock, and what distinguishing actions did they performed in their life, whether it was being charged and acquitted of murder, or serving on the Privy Council or building a church or whatever- and at that point I could start to see how they interacted with one another in the ‘real’ historical world. The final test was when I was able to set them loose in the scenario history had created for them and see how they reacted in these circumstances. Thankfully, things mirrored the (known) historical reality rather well!
Elizabeth: What is your writing process?
Louise: The first draft usually slips out very easily, but at this stage, everything’s quite skeletal. I often hear the conversations before I see the actions and the reactions of those doing the talking. Then once I start to ‘see’ what people are doing, I’ll pan out and take in more of the surroundings, ‘re-writing for atmosphere,’ so to speak.
I usually spend a lot of time editing, to get things just right. Then the final stage is like trimming a bonsai. I clip, clip, clip away at all the excess growth (usually going through the manuscript three or four times), until I have a tight paced narrative which springs along at a sprightly trot (though I don’t believe in pushing it on into a gallop).
I’m a firm believer in sending the finished manuscript on to my publisher when I genuinely think I cannot do anything more to improve it. This does not mean it doesn’t need any editing – of course it does, because every piece of writing benefits from being scanned by a fresh pair of eyes – but it certainly eases everyone’s workload!
Elizabeth: Tell us about your short story, “The Lay of the Lost Ministrel.”
Louise: Originally intended as a short introduction to Fire and Sword, it proved really interesting to write. I wanted to explore the events in the novel from a totally different viewpoint character, but one who was, nonetheless, integral to the action.
William Haislet was an excellent choice because he’s always there or thereabouts, providing John Sempill of Ellestoun with a rather stoical supporting presence whatever the circumstances. At the same time, he keeps his own counsel and I always found him quite reserved and unassuming. Actually getting into his head was quite an adventure: I’d always known that he was English, and that he’d originally lived an itinerant life before marrying a local girl and settling down to life at Ellestoun. He also gets on extremely well with the novel’s irascible anti-hero, Hugh Montgomerie, and the exact nature of this relationship was something I was able to pursue further. The odd thing is: I always tend to write short stories in a completely different way, and The Lay of the Lost Minstrel was no exception. It was much more literary in tone (the need to drive the narrative onwards was less of an issue, so I indulged myself a little…) and it was written in the present tense so I was quite literally seeing the world through William’s eyes and ears.
Although William’s a fictional character, even he has his origins in historical fact. John Sempill kept a talented harpist named John Haislet amongst his retinue, who played to James IV on the king’s visit to Ellestoun in the early 1500s. He was also one of 574 named individuals ‘put to the horn’ with William 2nd Lord Sempill (John’s son) in the 1520s, following riots in Edinburgh which resulted in the death of a Dutchman. William’s the fictional father of John Haislet, who himself appears briefly in my second novel and who will I suspect become more prominent in the future!
Elizabeth: What are you working on at the moment?
Louise: The follow-up to Fire and Sword (The Gryphon at Bay, mentioned earlier) will be published next spring, and in the meantime I’ve taken a short sabbatical from historical fiction to write a historical fantasy called A Black Ship Into Hades. It’s a time travel novel where a young man from Ancient Sparta finds himself brought to modern (i.e 21st century) Wiltshire. So many time travel novels feature young heroines from the modern world traveling back to a Past which is in so many ways simpler and more appealing than the Present. I wanted to turn this trope on its head to some extent: Lysander, the hero of my novel, knows he’s better off in the modern world (for all its faults) and there’s no way he’s going back. He is, in essence, seeking political asylum from the Past.
I’m having great fun writing it because, once again, it requires an awful lot of research because I want my Spartans to be as authentic as possible. Which means that they come across as slightly strange, and slightly alien, while at the same time remaining recognizably human. And I get to pay homage to all sorts of archaeological sites and schools of thoughts and even artifacts. It is becoming, I suppose, my archaeological novel…
Elizabeth: What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?
Louise: I spent the last couple of years grappling with Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, and finally I’m hooked on Dunnett. I can’t say it was love at first sight: I’d read Niccolo Rising twice and was halfway through Spring of the Ram before Dunnett’s writing finally clicked, but now I’m finally a convert. I don’t always agree with how she portrays the Scotland of James III and I’m irritated at the suggestion that the root of Scotland’s woes at the time was a brilliant and mischievous Flemish merchant, but the way she uses history to weave a story is magnificent and her breadth of knowledge in terms of what’s happening on the world-wide stage at the time is staggering. Next year, I plan to batter into the Lymond Chronicles, which will be another epic reading task….
Elizabeth: Can you tell us more about yourself?
Louise: I’m an archaeologist by training: I work for a medium-sized commercial archaeology company in the west of Scotland. This is really quite beneficial for my writing, and a bit strange at times because sometimes these two facets of my life overlap. I’ve worked as an archaeologist in locations which feature in my books, and I often write about places and people I’ve stumbled across at work.
Though medieval archaeology was something I discovered rather late – I specialized in prehistory and the study of Bronze Age metalwork hoards for my Ph.D. research. I now spend much of my working life working with finds, in particular medieval and modern ceramics, and I also do a lot of historic building recording and industrial archaeology, too. Castles are a regular destination these days, and what’s more of a bonus is that quite often I find myself working with conservation architects and incredibly talented stonemasons. It’s always very rewarding to be taking part in a historic building’s long-term survival and preservation.
And when I’m not working or writing, I enjoy gardening, horse-riding and hill-walking, so I’m never bored, or at a loss for something to do.
We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?
Louise: Coffee, please. Almost every time. Except perhaps when it’s a hot and sunny afternoon, in summer…
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Louise: Ooh, mountain. Definitely mountain. I love the Lake District, and the Scottish Highlands, and the Welsh mountains too. A trip to the Lakes and a bit of fell-walking does wonders to invigorate me! Scottish mountains, however, I prefer to admire from afar. I went walking in Glencoe a few years back and realised, during an ascent of the unforgiving Bidean Nam Bien, that I’d finally met my hill-walking nemesis. I didn’t quite reach the summit, but at least I got down safely, without the aid of a helicopter…
Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?
Louise: See above – I love my hill-walking, I think there’s nothing quite like venturing up on to the fell tops in the Lake District and getting a completely new perspective on the world. I don’t suppose I collect summits, but I do collect views! Every fell top is slightly different, and I’ve walked up so many fells now that they all seem like old friends. And they have wonderful names. Like Helvellyn, and Blencathra, and Ullscarf, and Thunacar Knott. And Barf. Let’s not forget Barf…
I’m not entirely impervious to shopping, though. I do like garden centres. And I love bookstores, too…
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Louise: Can I play Devil’s Advocate here and say ‘French Horn?’ I was very musical in my youth. I played piano, violin, viola and French Horn with varying degrees of competence and seriousness. The French Horn was always my favourite, by a long chalk, and at one point in my life I was planning to become a professional orchestral musician. Before I discovered archaeology. Though if I really must choose between the two, I do have a soft spot for the piano, too.
Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?
Louise: Most definitely fantasy. I’m a Tolkein fan, and I was brought up with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.
Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?
Louise: Heathcliff. He wins hands down. All that smouldering! But here’s the caveat – I’d rather he stayed safely confined within the pages of a book. I mean, having to put up with such a high maintenance Significant Other in real life would be just impossible, wouldn’t it?
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Louise: Hard to say, really. I’m inclined to say ‘death scene,’ because that’s where you strip your characters right back and make them confront their own mortality. It’s not really the character who’s just kicked the bucket who faces all these problems – it’s those left behind. They have to renegotiate their place in the world, and sometimes the seismic shift that ensues (particularly on the political level, when you’re dealing with members of the nobility or whatever in the late middle ages) can have profound consequences which must be dealt with along with the more ‘mundane’ aspects like grieving and loss. Gosh, I’m talking like a theoretical archaeologist now, aren’t I?
Elizabeth: Louise, thanks for visiting my blog today.
Louise: Thank you very much for having me! It’s been a pleasure.
To learn more about Louise Turner, visit her website http://www.louiseturner.co.uk or visit any of the links below: