It is funny how the act of writing is the same as creating a new fantasy world. I used to do that as a child, create my own worlds peopled by fantastic characters from pop culture and the books I read, and dinosaurs! Always dinosaurs!
Having decided to write the book and then immersed myself in learning something of the world of the Anglo-Saxons I found myself living in an alternative reality on occasion. I take this as a positive sign that I was establishing a degree of empathy for my subject matter, not just that but for the characters as well. There were two distinct forms of characters; historical and fictional. Of the two I found the historical to be the hardest to write about, for obvious reasons I think; they were real living people!
The gap of almost 1,000 years made penetrating the psyche of those people a little difficult, although others before me had made an attempt by writing biographies or fictional stories about them. I could have dipped into these works but there was a little voice inside my head saying “whoa there!”
For awhile I left the historical characters as names only and concentrated on the fictional heroes. This was much more fun! I had a basic manuscript to work with, the first (very rough) draft and from this I plucked those characters that I thought could be developed further. I tried to write biographies on them but to be honest this just did not work for me even though I know it does for other writers. Nope, for me it was using my imagination. They all came alive inside my head. I must have a good imagination because I did not find this part very taxing and I found that the more I thought of each character the more they seemed to define each other.
Back to the historical chaps. I realised now that there was a problem in so far as if I applied a strict interpretation of other people’s analyses of people like King Harold of England then I risked the historical jarring with the fictional. In fact I have read a book or two where this very thing seemed to happen. To avoid this hurdle I decided to read general rather than specific accounts of each character and then rewrite the biographies in my head alongside the fictional characters. I encouraged my imagination to let the two interact and define each other.
I found that the benefit of this system is that both sets of characters took on the same flavour of imaginative creation. King Harold seemed to me to fit seamlessly in with my main protagonist Coenred. I think that is because I used to the fictional characters first to define and shape my imaginative interpretation of Anglo-Saxon England and then repeated the procedure on the historical characters so that they could fit into the background that I had created and not appear as if they had been simply inserted to add some historical authenticity.
Now I can perceive a problem with this and I think it is one that purists may be the first to complain about; the accuracy with which I have represented historical personages! An expert on 1066 might just not agree with my interpretation of any of the historical characters. I understand that and I accept it. In my defence I would claim the Bernard Cornwell principle; I fitted what facts I had about these people to suit my story.
Is this a literary crime? I do not think so. The point is that no one knows exactly what these people from a millennia back in time actually thought, planned, believed, felt, feared or dreamt of to the degree that we know of people more contemporary. These are the bits of the psychology that the writer has to fill in; it is also part of the fun of writing historical fiction!