I had originally envisioned my novel taking place within the narrow confines of the monastery. The great advantage of staying inside is that life there is relatively simple. Yes, there are conflicts and sometimes even high drama, but compared to life outside the monastery, things inside are easy.
Everything was going according to plan, but in the writing, two monks saw fit to flee the abbey. They began a series of adventures that brought them back into the service of the abbey in the form of a “covert operation” abroad (you will understand, dear reader, that I am bound by an oath to keep the nature of this covert operation in the utmost confidence … for your protection as well as mine).
The monks stow away on a ship of the king’s, carrying an army of archers and horsemen, and journey across the Channel into France. The soldiers are off to do battle with the French, as part of what would eventually be known as the Hundred Years War. The monks are merely traveling under cover; they have no intention of joining the battlefield. The plan is to alight in France, part company with the army and go off to “do their own thing.”
So now the monks and I are standing on the beaches of Brittany, wondering what to do next. We have been camped out here for some time, rather afraid to move. And I admit that problem is mine, not the monks
You see, I, as the writer, was completely unprepared for this journey to France. I know nothing of Brittany except what Google and Wikipedia have revealed. I was in the region 28 years ago on my first foray to Europe, not long after graduating from university; I remember almost zilch about it. And now I feel duty-bound to launch a new round of reading and research about 14th century France and French monasticism. I feel tired thinking about it.
This, I think, is one of the great problems with historical fiction and invention: how enslaved must the author be to historical detail vs. taking liberty with the facts making up details into something plausible. I have found in the past year that the search for historical detail can be a major form of distraction from writing, “resistance” as our friend Stephen Pressfield (author of The War of Art) calls it.
A short while ago, I described this dilemma to a writer friend of mine, a superb novelist in her own right. She listened patiently, knowingly as I described the horrible quagmire I was in. Then she smiled and gently suggested that I simply get on with the writing instead of searching for the perfect set of historical facts that I can work with. “It’s time to make the Middle Ages, your Middle Ages,” she said. It was powerful advice and it freed me for awhile. But here I am again: stranded on a foreign shore, in the wind and rain, and nothing but a rough tunic and cowl for clothing.
The truth is, I don’t know what is scarier: leaning on the crutch of historical truth or groping around the void, hoping to put my hand on something solid. Well, dear reader, I will now step over the edge of this cliff and see what I can see. I will report back if and when I can pick myself up off the ground again.