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Guest Post: Capturing the Past by Joanna Courtney

I am delighted to have been chosen to participate in this exciting opportunity to host debut author Joanna Courtney on my Blog today. Joanna’s historical novel, The Chosen Queen (the first in her Trilogy titled Queens of the Conquest) was released by Pan MacMillan Australia in May this year and has been well received by both Australian and international bloggers alike.
Joanna has wanted to be a writer ever since she could read. As a child she was rarely to be seen without her head in a book and she was also quick to pick up a pen.
After spending endless hours entertaining her siblings with made up stories, it was no surprise when she pursued her passion for books during her time at Cambridge University – where she combined her love of English and History by specialising in Medieval Literature.
Joanna has won several writing competitions, had short stories broadcast on BBC radio, and written and directed several award-winning plays. For the last 6 years she has taught the excellent creative writing courses for the Open University as well as teaching privately around the country and doing a lot of work with schools. She also offers a critiquing service, helping others to hone their short stories and discover the undoubted joys of seeing their work in print.
She says that “being a writer is a tough job but a hugely rewarding one. Stories are in my blood and, however painful it may be at times, I love the process of mining them out and onto paper and hope to be doing it for many, many years to come.”
Joanna lives in Derbyshire in the East Midlands of England.
The Chosen Queen is available for purchase from the following links:
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I’ve always been fascinated by the past. I remember, as a child, visiting Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh and standing over the (presumably re-touched) bloodstain where David Rizzio was murdered by Lord Darnley on suspicion of having an affair with his wife, Mary Queen of Scots. I was forcibly struck by the reality of standing on the same spot – the very same boards – where the killing had taken place and that sense of the layers of human experience through time has remained with me always and is something I strive to capture in my fiction.
I love the tension of a modern woman sitting, say, on a high-speed train on her way to work in her heels and smart suit, reading a kindle and, through the alchemy of fiction, being lost back in the woollen gown and wooden palaces of the eleventh century. Obviously a reader can lose themselves in any fictional world but the added frisson with a historical one is the access to a time/place that no longer exists and that you cannot really visit any other way.
I studied English Literature at university but found myself gravitating towards Medieval and Arthurian Studies because I was fascinated by the idea of historical context – of the cultural lives that surrounded these stories. A story told out-loud to a post-feast crowd of Vikings would have been aimed at creating drama to rouse a live audience who might well have been about to try and emulate their heroes in battle so needed courage as well as entertainment. In comparison, a nineteenth-century novel, designed to be read in private, would seek to provoke quieter emotion and thoughts for serious discussion later. I wanted to understand more about those differences and that led me into learning more about the way lives were lived in the past.
The more I learned, the more I was gripped and I wanted to explore the people who might have lived in those past times in my fiction. This desire eventually led me to the queens of 1066, three fascinating women whose lives have, to date, gone almost entirely unexplored. For women are something of a rarity in history – shy, domestic creatures who peep out between the cracks of their husband’s ‘greater’ deeds.
If we believe the historians of their day, they were there to look pretty and to provide care and admiration and, of course, heirs. This, however, cannot be the whole story and that is why I chose to write my trilogy, The Queens of the Conquest, about Edyth of Mercia, Elizaveta of Kiev and Matilda of Flanders, the women fighting to be Queen of England in 1066.  Not that I don’t like the men – I’m a little bit in love with all my heroes – but theirs are the grand stories everyone knows and I was more interested in capturing what happened behind the scenes of the battles. Exploring the female side of a previous era allows access to those more intimate stories, but it is not without problems.
The first is the paucity of information about women in times past, especially further back. This can be a huge frustration for the historian but it is something of a gift for the novelist as it allows scope to create a character. That, however, leads to the second and crucial problem with attempting to capture the past – how to create a heroine who is believably of her time but to whom modern readers can still relate.
There is no way that women in the past could approach the world with the liberated, equal-opportunities attitude that we take today, yet throughout history there have been plenty of women with strong characters – Boadicea, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I to name just a few – who hopefully allow us to believe that it was possible to operate as an individual and not just as a secondary figure. So I see my challenge as establishing the differences in the world in which my characters lived, whilst at the same time drawing out the similarities between us all as human beings.
Next year – 2016 – will be the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. In some ways 950 years is a long time, but in terms of the evolution of humanity, it’s nothing and it is surely arrogant to assume that emotions are a modern invention? Saxons, Vikings and Normans would have loved their children, fought with their siblings, made and lost friends, laughed and cried, hurt and grieved, and fallen in love and these are all fertile ground for the novelist.
People back then would have certainly accepted different rules about who they could marry, especially higher up the social tree, but the heady thrill of love is not new and there are plenty of unusual matches and illicit babies documented to attest to that.  Without getting too graphic, two people in bed together aren’t going to be much different be they under Saxon furs or a 21st-century duvet. And I don’t suppose ‘50-shades’ could teach your average Viking much either!
I firmly believe that the men and women of the eleventh century were similar to us in all the essentials of what it is to be human and it is also important to remember that pre-conquest Europeans didn’t live from headline to headline. Battles, even in those times, were few and far between and in the intervening days people didn’t just sit around waiting to be ‘history’. They’d get on with the business of life – getting up, getting dressed, envying other people’s dresses, working, socialising, eating, drinking, drinking more, getting up with a hangover…
There are many gaps in our knowledge of the Saxon period. This can be a huge frustration as a researcher but it is a gift as a writer. I love the process of sifting through facts and gradually creating a historical picture into which I can insert my own interpretation, not just of how things might have happened, but why and, perhaps most importantly of all, what impact that had on the people they happened to. I very much hope that as a novelist I can use that wonderful gift of hindsight to impose some emotional shape on the events I write about so that they become not just history but story.
In the end, as with all fiction, I believe it comes down to knowing my heroine inside out. It’s my duty to research all I can about what makes her different from modern women – what she would have worn, how she would have washed, arranged her hair, cooked, or instructed others to cook. But then it is also vital that I explore all the things that make her the same – how she feels about her life, what scares her, what thrills her, who she loves. Only once I know all this can I inhabit her world and create her story and, in so doing, hopefully capture just a little of the past for my readers.
About the Book

As a young woman in England’s royal court, Edyth, granddaughter of Lady Godiva, dreams of marrying for love. But political matches are rife while King Edward is still without an heir and the future of England is uncertain.

When Edyth’s family are exiled to the wild Welsh court, she falls in love with the charismatic King of Wales – but their romance comes at a price and she is catapulted onto the opposing side of a bitter feud with England. Edyth’s only allies are Earl Harold Godwinson and his handfasted wife, Lady Svana.

As the years pass, Edyth finds herself elevated to a position beyond even her greatest expectations. She enjoys both power and wealth but as her star rises the lines of love and duty become more blurred than she could ever have imagined. As 1066 dawns, Edyth is asked to make an impossible choice. 
Her decision is one that has the power to change the future of England forever . . .

The Chosen Queen is the perfect blend of history, fast-paced plot and sweeping romance with a cast of strong female characters – an unforgettable read.
Joanna enjoys connecting with her fans so if you’d like to do so, you can find her at the following links:

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