After a brief blast of sunshine this weekend, German weather has returned to form: cold, wet, Novemberish. With the last few autumn leaves lashing the windows, this is perfect snuggle under the covers and read weather, and luckily I have a piles of lovely books to do just that.
One book I have just finished is Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The De Lacy Inheritance. Set in 1192, the year Richard the Lionheart was captured in Austria, its central character is Richard FitzEustace, an aristocractic soldier who has returned to Lancashire from the Crusades with a damning disease – leprosy. His family cast him out, but at the same time, place him under obligation to seek out their relation, Sir Robert de Lacy, rumoured to be near his deathbed, and press the family’s claim to his estate.
Roger, his headstrong bully of a younger brother, is now head of the family and is determined to marry off their sister Joanna to a wealthy and unattractive old landowner. Joanna takes matters into her own hands and follows Richard on his quest, where, to complicate things, she falls in love with Geoffrey whose father, the arrogant Dean of Wallei, is the other claimant to the De Lacy Inheritance.
Richard is a fascinating character, who, despite his leprosy and the fact that he has been cast aside by society, still manages to secure his family’s future without wanting the rewards for himself. It is quite odd to read a book where the main male protagonist is a hermit and outcast, but Ashworth makes him appealing by recalling his lost love in the Holy Land and showing his deep warmth towards his younger sister. At the end he is offered a chance to rehabilitate himself, to claim his land and his birth-right, but he chooses a spiritual path. He is an unlikely hero, but all the more admirable in contrast to the venial Roger and Dean of Wallei.
The De Lacy Inheritance is a delicious, complex web which Elizabeth Ashworth deftly weaves for our reading pleasure. As a historian with a special focus on Lancashire, her writing is lit from within by the acuteness of her historical detail and her love for the county and its history makes the novel all the more vivid. This is definitely one for the Christmas list.
Elizabeth kindly agreed to answer some questions about The De Lacy Inheritance and her writing process. Many thanks, Elizabeth!
Charlotte: The De Lacy Inheritance is your fourth book, but your first novel. After writing three history books, how different did you find the novel-writing process?
Elizabeth: I think the important word that’s missing there is first ‘published’ novel. It isn’t the first one I’ve written. When I was a child I used to churn them out relentlessly, and a few years ago I wrote a modern day novel but never pursued publication because it was too personal in content. I’ve always been a story-teller, though my fiction work has been mostly short stories. I used to think that a novel would be much harder than a short story, but surprisingly I found it easier. I find that I can swap from non-fiction to fiction fairly easily because my non-fiction work does tend to have a narrative style and the historical fiction does include facts – so the books overlap rather than being distinctly different.
C: Part of The De Lacy Inheritance is based on fact. How did that come about and how did you weave fact and fiction together?
E: It began when I was writing Tales of Old Lancashire. I discovered a legend about a Holy Hermit who lived in a cave under the castle at Clitheroe and the legend says that he was a member of the de Lacy family who was a leper. I was fascinated by the idea and went off to dig deeper into the factual history. After writing a short account for the book I kept thinking about this man who was a leper and who could have inherited a fortune except for his disease. I felt compelled to tell his story. So, using the facts as a backbone, I began to add detail which was fictional. I found that I liked having a ready-made story to build on although it was also a challenge because I had to write within those facts rather than letting my imagination take over completely.
C: Although TDLI is set in 1192, I thought it had a modern sensibility, espoused by the main female character Johanna FitzEustace. Could you talk about how Johanna’s feistiness and refusal to kow-tow to family pressure is essential to the novel?
E: I don’t think Johanna was the only girl in 1192 to refuse to give in to family pressure. In medieval literature there are girls just like her. One named Christina, for example, who was determined to become a nun and refused to marry no matter how much her parents tried to persuade her. I don’t think Johanna was typical, but I hope that she is believable and although she is ‘modern’ in some ways I tried to keep her contemporary to the times in which she lived. How essential she is to the storyline is an interesting question because for me this was always Richard’s story and Johanna wasn’t in the original version. It was only when I realised that the novel was far too short, and that I probably needed a female character and some romance if I was to interest a publisher, that I threaded her story around Richard’s. It’s reassuring that the join doesn’t show and that she is seen to play an important part in the eventual outcome.
C: Your central male character, Richard FitzEustace, is a leper who is condemned to live alone for the rest of his life. He is, however, a very appealing character. How did you manage to strike that balance?
E: I don’t think of Richard as a leper. To me, he is the handsome and attractive man that people saw before he contracted the disease. As a leper he is viewed differently because of his outward appearance, but that does not change who he is – only how he is perceived and how people treat him.
C: You are now writing your fourth novel. Can you tell us anything about it? What is the status of novels two and three?
E: I’m currently wrestling with a novel about a later member of the family, Alice de Lacy. The factual history that surrounds it is very complex with barons and earls changing allegiances more often than their underlinen – and it’s proving challenging to explain the necessary facts without becoming boring. It’s very much a work in progress at the moment and I’m enjoying stretching myself but some days I cross out more than I add to it.
Novels two and three are currently with my publisher and I’m hoping to share some news about one or both of them quite soon. One is based on another Lancashire story about Sir William and Lady Mabel de Haigh. The other centres around a little known fact about Richard III and identifies a possible identity for the mother of his two illegitimate children. Perhaps I should have people vote on which one they want next, though I hope that both will make it into print eventually!
C: What is your writing process? Do you have any particular routines or methods that help you write?
E: I’m not sure I have a writing process. I have scenes that run in my mind like a film and when I’ve imagined them for a while I try to write them down, though what I write often has no resemblance to what I was thinking. It’s rather like going into a trance and it all comes tumbling out. I try to sit down to write whenever I can find the time. It can be hard to begin, but it’s even harder to finish and if I can’t write I become very frustrated.
C: As a much-published author, do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? Any pitfalls that we might avoid in our writing, or in our approach to agents and publishers?
E: Persevere: lots of people give up after a few rejections.
Write: the more you write the better you will become.
Read: you can learn a lot from seeing how other people do it.
Be lucky: try to be in the right place at the right time. It helps.
Make your own luck: seek the opportunities that will ensure you are in the right place at the right time.
C: You have been writing since you were 11, when you had your first article published in Diana magazine. What are the aspects of storytelling that particularly appeal to you?
E: I enjoy making a connection with readers. I want them to come and share my fictional world and enjoy themselves there. I want them to meet my characters and get to know them, and I like to send them away with something new to think about.
C: Are you a keen reader? Do you have any favourite authors? What is the best book you’ve read this year?
E: Do you want to see my groaning bookshelves? Yes, I love to read. I read fiction and non-fiction. I’ll try anything and I like to challenge myself by reading books that wouldn’t always be my natural choice. Best book this year? It’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to pick two that complement each other: Agincourt by Juliet Barker (non-fiction) and Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (the fiction version).
C: When you are not reading and writing, what do you do?
E: If I’m not either reading or writing I’m often in a state of frustration wanting to do either one or the other. The only things that distract me are old castles and bookshops – though I do quite like eating as well.