Please welcome friend and author, Marla Skidmore…
…to the blog this week. Hi Marla, thanks for being here and please tell me all about your interest in history and how it inspires your writing…
Since I was old enough to be aware of it, the past has fascinated me. Delving into historical events and the people whose lives were affected by them, is a favourite pastime of mine – it surprised no one when I chose to study History, alongside my first love English Literature, at University, since for me, the two complement each other. We writers of historical fiction, make history accessible; bring the characters and events of the past to life. So many readers get their first taste for history from novels written in the past and from present day historical fiction. I feel, therefore, that we have a special responsibility to respect history, to be true to the events and the people about whom we choose to write, and if we bend facts for dramatic licence to suit our story, we should always be sure to acknowledge having done so in our Author’s Notes.
This leads me to my own research for ‘Renaissance – The Fall and Rise of a King,’ my debut novel about King Richard III – the writing of which was completely unplanned and came about as the result of a challenge.
Anyone with an interest in English History will remember the buzz of interest when King Richard III’s grave was discovered in 2012 beneath a Leicester city car park, and also the fierce debate that raged on for a couple of years, about where he should be reburied – Leicester, York or Westminster. His final resting place turned out to be Leicester Cathedral – much to the disappointment of many, but what was of paramount importance to most Ricardians, was that finally, England’s last warrior king had a fitting tomb, something denied him for over half a millennium.
In the late summer of 2014, I met with a group of old friends from university, for our usual quarterly get together in York. Scientific testing had by then confirmed that the re-discovered remains were indeed those of King Richard III. The myth of the deformed hunchback king with the withered arm had been exploded – most of our group had always been sceptical about this anyway and about the monstrous image of him created by Shakespeare and the Tudor propaganda machine.
During lunch, the topic of his reburial came up. The opinion was that as an annointed king, he ought to be reburied in Westminster Abbey or in York Minster – believed to be his preferred choice. During a quiet moment, I speculated about what Richard’s reaction to the controversy would be – if he were alive – and also the defilement of his reputation. Another member of the group, a highly respected Medieval Historian – being aware of my love of weaving stories, challenged me to write one about him. Her words being: “write one about Richard – in blue jeans – bring him into the 21st century.” The seed was sown – fragments of a story circulated around my mind – but there was so much already written about him – fiction and non-fiction. How to entice readers into reading my story and avoid a ‘not another book about Richard III!’ reaction? I knew that a totally new approach was required, so I decided to begin my novel where most books about him ended – with his death on Bosworth Field. To enable readers to witness the key events in Richard’s life, I decided to put the story into the framework of his own reflections in the Afterlife. My Richard regains consciousness on the bloody battlefield of Bosworth to find himself in Purgatory, where he embarks on a journey of atonement, accompanied by his celestial mentor, Father Gilbert, a Franciscan monk. Setting my novel in the Afterlife enabled me to make a dead man speak – tell the reader himself what led him to that fateful battle on the 22nd August 1485.
The concept of a soul in Purgatory is not new, Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, ‘The Divine
Comedy’ written in the 14th century, tells of his soul’s journey through Hell, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil – I used this as my model. However, I also found myself facing a journey – a whole new and fascinating area of research – of Medieval theology and the mindset of Medieval Society. For the men and women of that time Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Garden of Eden were utterly real – this world was an imperfect representation of what was to come – only if you died in a state of grace of course – otherwise Hell or Purgatory were your soul’s destination. I found actual illustrations of Purgatory in the fragments of a medieval book on display at Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton. One depicts souls suffering in Purgatory and the other shows lost souls lifted towards heaven by the power of prayer.
As the writing of the novel progressed, I knew the question ‘did Richard III murder the princes in the Tower?’ would inevitably raise its head – this led me to the archives of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where I came across some little-known detail which allowed me to give, what I think to be a plausible answer to that question.
During my research about the life of Richard III, I also became fascinated by the myths surrounding his greatest friend, Francis Viscount Lovell – a man of peace who turned implacable avenger after the Battle of Bosworth – choosing the life of a hunted fugitive rather than swear loyalty to Henry Tudor. He continually fanned the flames of rebellion against him until his disappearance after the Battle of Stoke Field – the last battle of the Wars of the Roses.
For our summer holiday this year, we stayed close to home, revisited our favourite places in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. In Dublin I found myself standing outside Christchurch Cathedral and recalled that here, on the 24th May 1487, the coronation took place of a young boy who was the figurehead of a Yorkist rebellion of which Francis Lovell was one of the leaders. This boy became known as Lambert Simnel but his real identity to this day is the subject of much debate… and so another journey of research begins for the sequel to ‘Renaissance,’ the working title of which is ‘Renegade.’
…about the author I grew up in a small medieval city in North Yorkshire where I met and married my soldier husband. For a number of years, we lived a typical military life – in
various postings around Europe and the UK – until I returned home to study for a degree – I
emerged with a dual Honours degree in English and History and a Master’s degree in Literature and went on to become a College Lecturer.
Having dabbled in short-story writing and poetry, since university days, I began my first novel – a romantic murder mystery set during the Peninsula Wars – when a serious health issue forced me to take a prolonged career break. It was put aside when King Richard III’s grave was rediscovered. ‘Renaissance – The Fall and Rise of a King,’ is the end result. Promising myself that I would immediately return to my earlier novel once ‘Renaissance,’ was written. I find myself once again diverted. I am fascinated by the myths surrounding Richard III’s greatest friend, Francis Viscount Lovell.
When not writing, I can be found enthusiastically grubbing around in my large garden, clambering around ancient ruins and taking long walks with my West Highland Terrier, Stanley, in the North Yorkshire Dales.