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>> Survival in the Dark Ages

Survival in the Dark Ages
01/07/2020

Survival in the Dark Ages


THE SHORT KNIFE follows sisters Mai and Haf as they navigate the fall of Rome and the arrival of the Anglo Saxons onto the shores of Britain. How will they survive in this new landscape? Author ELEN CALDECOTT tells us more!


Q: What is The Short Knife about?

A: It's a story about two sisters trying to survive the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain and the start of the Anglo-Saxon incursions. Their ways of life is under threat as the newcomers expand their territory.

But worse, the sisters' relationship with each other is under threat as they find they have very different ideas of what a good life might look like in their new circumstances.


Q: How did the sisters, Mai and her older sister Haf, develop?

A: Mai came to me quite early on; I knew her personality from the beginning. Haf was a bit trickier, because I knew that I needed a female character who had a different perspective on how best to survive. I needed her to contrast with Mai. But it wasn't clear exactly how she could be different.

Mai is quite angry, quite ferocious. She wants to be a warrior. I needed her sister to see a different route to power - or at least, a different way to feel like she had control over her own life. I tried lots of different options before settling on her role as a storyteller.


Q: Why did you decide you wanted to write an historical fiction novel?

A: I wanted to write a book about language and identity, more than anything. Mai and Haf, the two girls in the story, speak British Celtic. I wanted to explore what happens when you are forced to change language - in their case to Saxon English.

I'm really interested in multilingual identities. So, the time period emerged from the experiment I wanted to do with language. The 5th century is when the British Isles stopped being 'Celtic' and started being 'English' (heavy quotation marks around both those terms as I know they are disputed!).


Q: Why did you decide to write the novel from the perspective of the Britons, through Mai's experiences?

A: I wanted to use the Welsh language as the source material for the voice. So, my viewpoint character had to be British, rather than Saxon. I've used the Welsh language throughout the text to inspire the way Mai thinks and speaks, even when she becomes bilingual.

There are translated idioms, Welsh grammar, some Welsh words and Welsh poetic forms scattered throughout the text. It was my intention that the piece feel as if it might be a translation of something older.


Q: Other than the opportunity to explore the language, what attracted you to write about the 'Dark Ages'?

A: All kinds of reasons. The language element was huge, as I mentioned. But also, I have long been fascinated with the end of empire as an idea. I studied Ancient History at university and specialised in Late Antiquity.

But, I also feel we're still living through the end of the British Empire (at least, history is likely to judge us so). I'm interested in what happens when what appears to have been a stable, reliable system fails. What replaces it? How do people cope with the change, at an individual level?

There's also the question of Saxon immigration and the arrival of the 'English' (again with the quotation marks!). It's interesting to reflect on the mutliple movement of people onto the island.


Q: There is a strong sense through the novel of being rootless and needing to belong. Were you also reflecting on how we respond to refugees today?

A: Not so much refugees as all people who chose to move, for whatever reason. Somehow we have stigmatised something which has been an entirely normal thing to do before this point. People have always moved - whether that's in search of opportunity, or to escape something that they hope to leave behind.


Q: There is a huge amount of detail about how Mai and Haf would have lived and survived at that time. Where did you go to research lives like theirs?

A: Lots of reading! So much reading. I re-read the extant texts I remembered from my university days: Gildas and Bede. I read secondary sources. I read archaeological reports.

But what was most useful, actually, was to go to sites where Early Medieval homes have been reconstructed by experimental archaeologists - places like the West Stow Anglo-Saxon village and St Fagans in Cardiff. I talked to the people who worked there and sat with a notebook, letting the setting inspire the writing.


Q: Did anything you find out particularly surprise you about how people lived during this period?

A: Yes. There was a 50-70 year period where people moved out of towns and started living in old Iron Age hill forts. The forts had been abandoned for hundreds of years before this period and everyone had settled nicely into an urban economy. But, as civic life fell apart, people reverted to this much more ancient way of life, drawing up their defenses. I wondered how that must have felt - like us suddenly living like Tudors. Weird.


Q: You also explore how women of the time were treated; what would you like contemporary readers to take from the novel?

A: It was tricky to write female characters with hopes and ambitions and independence, without it feeling anachronistic. But, I hope I have a range of female characters who each take slightly different paths through the same troubles: some get angry, some get wily, others see a route to power through family connections, others just remain hopeful, or accepting. There's no 'right' way to do femininity.


Q: Do you plan to return to Mai's story?

A: I've no immediate plans to do so. At the moment I'm writing something quite different, but it's too early to say exactly what it is yet; it's still at draft stage.


Q: Where is your favourite place to write, and when do you get your best writing done?

A: I'm a morning person, so I like to get up and be at my computer for as much of the morning as I can manage. Usually I write in an upstairs bedroom that is sort-of a study. But, for The Short Knife, I actually went to an Iron Age hill fort and did a lot of the writing on site. I found the landscape extremely useful as an inspiration for the writing.


Q: You also teach creative writing - so what are your top tips for writing great historical fiction?

A: I think the voice matters more than anything. Deciding on how your character is going to speak and think is so important. What will their language register be? How can you best represent that using an English that your readers will still be able to understand?

I love knowing the etymology of words, to know how and when they came into our wordhoard. I quite like the idea of a 'manifesto' for language - for example, will you only use idioms which would have been familiar at the time (a crass example is 'even a stopped clock is right twice a day' is an idiom you might have to look up - when would people be familiar with clock faces?). What other rules might you make for yourself, as part of your language manifesto? I have found that creating artificial limitations encourages creativity.


Q: Are there any other historical fiction novels you've read recently that you would recommend to our members to try out?

A: I am a huge fan of Catherine Johnson's work - I've re-read The Curious Tale of the Lady Cariboo many times. I love Tanya Landman's historical fiction. Laurie Halse Andersen's 'Chains' series is also fantastic. And, of course, I can't forget the classics: Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth has long been a favourite of mine.
 
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