Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Not only is writing time consuming, challenging, and creative, it is also a rational process. As  part of the process, the writer makes innumerable decisions. And those decisions go beyond the appearance of the characters, the setting of the novel, and the unfolding of the story.

I had to make many decisions in writing my trilogy THE NARBONNE INHERITANCE.  I began the novels in the first person. Then I decided that wouldn’t work as well as the limited-third person.

Initially, my novels had only one point of view. Now I have have three points of view.

Since my novels are set in what is now the southern part of France, I decided my sprinkling of the French language should be langue d’oc. I started off using Occitan equivalent for a few terms. I stumbled, however, when I came to the word knight. In Occitan it is “cavalier.” To any fan of historical fiction, cavalier has a particular meaning and it isn’t a reference to medieval southern France, but rather to the Cromwell’s England and the wars in between Roundheads and Cavaliers. Although it may be more accurate, the modern reader would probably end us confused and dissatisfied. So I decided to go with standard French terms.

But that was only one of the problems I encountered. The castle of the Count of Toulouse was called the Chateau Narbonnais because it was situated at the gate that led toward Narbonne. But how confusing to have a castle of that name in Toulouse and not in Narbonne.

Another problem I faced was that today the heroines of novels are expected to be strong, gutsy women, masters of their fate. This wasn’t the usual case in the twelfth century. Anya Seton’s Katherine written in 1954, gives great insight into the role of most medieval women.  Yet I was writing about an actual historical personage who was strong and gutsy, unusual for her time. So I had to keep reminding readers how unique my heroine was.

If all this wasn’t enough, the life of Ermengarde of Narbonne, my heroine, is controversial. Historians don’t agree on the events of her life.  So as I worked through the  historical accounts, I had to decided what was the most likely scenario for her life. Although there are a number of documents extant from her time, the documents are not very forthcoming. It’s likely a great number of documents from her times were destroyed during the French Revolution.

Writing the novel was complicated further by names. I had to make many decisions about what to call the people. For the most part twelfth-century people didn’t have last names, and there was a great tendency for members of a family to all have the same names. I decided to designate a number of characters by their holdings. For example, I called the Count of Toulouse, Toulouse. Did contemporaries call him Alfonse Jourdan (because he was born near the Jordan River) or did they call him Toulouse as I chose to do? I also invented nicknames. Nicknames were popular in medieval times, and even kings had them. But the actual nicknames of lesser historical personages are largely unknown.

One of the main characters in Ermengarde’s story is Bernard of Anduze. But historian aren’t sure exactly who he was because there was a long line of Bernards who were Viscounts of Anduze. And there was even a Bernard of Anduze who was in a collateral line of descent from the Viscounts of Anduze. I had to chose the most likely Bernard for purposes of the story.

We think today in terms of geographical territories with boundaries like modern states. That is, a count or a viscount should have a certain territorial holding. But that really wasn’t the case in the twelfth century. Ermengarde, Viscountess of Narbonne, illustrates the point. She only controlled half of the city of Narbonne, the archbishop controlled the other half. And her territories were widely spread throughout the area with holdings of the archbishop interspersed. She had rights, privileges, holdings, and fiefs throughout the area. But her lands–and her wealth–can not be confined to a single block on a map. At her time, there was no “France” or “Spain” as we know them today. I had to decide how to present this chaotic configuration of power to modern readers.

Religion was the greatest cultural force of the middle ages. Although I do not believe people change, times change and I had to decide how much religion to put into the novel.   It’s surprising to me when I read medieval novels where there is little or no mention of religion. So, I had to decide, like with the language above, how much religion is necessary to accurately portray the flavor of the times.

And these many decisions were only for writing the novel. More awaited me when I began the publication process.


About medievalphyllis

I love history and I love writing. I've been working on an historical novel about a medieval viscountess, Ermengarde of Narbonne since 2009. It has been quite a journey and the journey isn't over. Previously I written 6 historical novels for kids, but this is a new challenge.
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