Truth or Lies?
Readers are often curious about the relationship between fact and fiction in a historical novel. Here’s how I like to describe it: history is like a tree with a sturdy trunk and many branches; the historical novelist pins leaves on the branches, filling in every blank space with characters, relationships, motivation and plot lines drawn from the history of the period – fiction sprouting from fact.
In the case of Emma of Normandy, the central character in Shadow on the Crown, the tree of historical facts was pretty scrawny and the branches mere twigs. Eleventh century chroniclers didn’t have much to say about women, even Emma, who was a queen for thirty-two years and the mother of two kings. They did, however, make note of one pivotal historical fact: Emma was married to two very different Kings of England who also happened to be mortal enemies.
When I first learned that, all kinds of questions sprang into my mind. What were the events that led up to her marriages? What expectations did Emma have going into them? How much control, if any, did she have over her destiny? In writing Shadow on the Crown I set out to answer those questions and to fill in a multitude of gaps on Emma’s historical tree, always with an eye to provoking conflict in the novel, because conflict is the engine that drives a story. Here are some examples of how I molded facts – or lack of them – into fiction.
How old was Emma when she married that first English king? This is conjecture because her birth date is not on any historical record. She may have been anywhere from 12 years old to 20. I chose to make her 15 – the most likely age historically and the age I that found most compelling as a writer.
What language did Emma speak? Norman French, for sure; probably Latin. Her mother was born in Denmark, so she may have learned Danish at her mother’s knee; at some point she must have learned English. I decided to make her a polyglot from the start, a skill that would give her an advantage at the English court.
Where, historically, did Emma live in Normandy? Emma’s family was associated especially with the capital, Rouen, and with the northern coastal town of Fecamp. Because Fecamp was the favored residence of Emma’s father, I placed the first scene of my novel there. That allowed me to complicate Emma’s life by having a Viking fleet drop anchor in the harbor. Rule of thumb: If you want drama and conflict, toss in a shipload of large men armed with swords.
Emma’s marriage to Æthelred was part of a treaty, and apparently it was the English who suggested the alliance. That much is fact, but it raised a long list of questions that needed answers. Who made the decision to agree to the marriage on the Norman side? Did anyone argue against it, and how was that resolved? Why was the younger Emma sent to marry the English king instead of her older sister, and how did the older sister feel about that decision? I would answer these questions and many more like them by digging into the history of the period, by drawing on my own understanding of family politics, and by addressing my story’s need for dramatic tension.
Of course, every relationship in the novel had to be imagined because no one at the time recorded how any of these people felt toward one another. No letters have survived, although rumors did sift down through the years to appear in histories written generations later. I have used those rumors whenever they suited my dramatic purpose, but no one can say now if they reflected real truth or merely some later historian’s political agenda.
Shadow on the Crown is a work of fiction, but I tried very hard to make it faithful to the world that Emma would have known, to the people in it, and to the events that she lived through. I tried to write a book that would meet the demands of good storytelling and at the same time shed light on a most remarkable woman and queen. It’s the first book of a trilogy about Emma of Normandy. There is a great deal more to come.