Wednesday, 7 October 2015

#Welcome Wednesday with Mark Patton

For my #Welcome Wednesday slot, I'm delighted to welcome back Mark Patton. 
Mark's Crooked Cat historical novels are excellent novels and I'm sure you'd love to read them, too. The settings in Mark's fiction are extremely descriptive and his writing is highly evocative of the sights, sounds, and yes - even the smells that his characters are experiencing. He's here today to share some of the strategies he's used in his writing to enhance the overall reader experience. I'm enjoying the images Mark has sent and hope you will, as well. I've made the Psalter really big to see the details more easily.

Welcome again, Mark, and over to you...

Birds in Historical Fiction
By Mark Patton
A writer of historical fiction has to take particular care in describing the natural landscape through which his or her characters move. Most writers, in researching their novels, spend time in the landscapes about which they are writing, the aim being to imagine how our characters might have perceived those landscapes through all five senses. The further back in time we go, however, the greater, inevitably, will be the contrast between the landscape we experience in the present moment, and that which our characters would have experienced millennia, or centuries, or even merely decades ago, and this is where we have both to conduct research and exercise our imaginations. 

Even at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, before the age of the motor-car had seriously begun, and when agricultural production was far less intensive than it is today, anyone walking or riding through, or simply sitting in, the countryside would have noticed far more birds than are evident today. Species that we rarely see today – linnets & yellowhammers, stonechats & shrikes – would have been far more abundant than they are now (in fact, they were even more abundant in my youth than they are in 2015). We get a hint of this from the margins of Medieval manuscripts.

The prayer-book of Bonne of Luxembourg, 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
New York (image is in the Public Domain)
This is the prayer-book of Bonne of Luxembourg, a 14th Century noblewoman. The artist clearly knew his birds, since he has painted them accurately enough to be recognisable: they include a jay, a chaffinch, an egret, a blackthroat and a barn owl. My guess is that Bonne would have recognised them, too.

The Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus).
Photo: Tim Strater (licensed under CCA).
There are some birds that have vanished altogether from our landscape. In England these include the Great Bustard on Salisbury Plain; cranes and pelicans in Somerset. A few years ago, I had a discussion with my fellow author, Manda Scott. She knew that there were pelicans in Roman Britain, but kept them out of her Boudica series, because she didn’t think people would believe this. I was writing my own Roman novel, An Accidental King, at the time, and decided that I had to find a place for them.

On the waters of Harbour Channel, a flock of pelicans floated, as stately as a fleet of galleys … the sun shone brightly, its heat reflecting off the calm water, and a light breeze from the west carried the aromas of freshly mowed hay in from the fields behind the shipyards.”

The metaphor seemed apt, since my protagonist, the British client king, Cogidubnus, is standing on the wharf of Chichester Harbour as he notices them. I was actually sitting there as I drafted the passage – I could see the water and feel the breeze, but I could see no pelicans and smell no hay. These were known differences between my own world and that of my characters (pelican bones are found on archaeological sites, and livestock farmers of all periods up to the late 20th Century made hay as fodder for the winter), and so it seemed to me that writing them in was simply part of my job as a writer.

Metaphors and similes are always culturally specific: we draw them from the world familiar to us, and people in the past would have drawn them from the world familiar to them. My first novel, Undreamed Shores, is set in 2400 BC, and the greatest challenge that I faced in writing it was to imagine the world through the eyes of someone who lived in a world without books. If I found myself in the same situation as my protagonist, Amzai (swept off course by the tides, and stranded on an unknown shore with no obvious means of returning home), I might compare my predicament to that of Odysseus, but how would Amzai make sense of things?
The Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus).
Photo: Dixi (licensed under GNU).
I opted for a bird, the golden oriole (then, as now, a “vagrant” bird in northern Europe, seen and heard here only when it is swept off course by the winds):
What if he had the courage to face his fears, but could not see the way ahead? A bold enough creature, but swept into a world that had no place for it, like the bright yellow bird with black wings that had arrived in the woods behind his village, and called out its lilting tune for a season, only to die as the winter approached.”
As the story unfolds, Amzai is repeatedly drawn back to this simile, a comparison (my own are almost invariably literary ones) that helps him to make sense of his place within the world.

Growing up on the island of Jersey, birdwatching was a passion that I shared with my mother, so birds have always been a part of my world, and that’s another part of the writer’s job – sharing with the wider world those parts of our own individual experience and knowledge of the world that have defined who we are.
Mark Patton’s novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon (

Thank you for such a great post, Mark. It makes me want to re-read your novels right this minute... and I look forward to reading your future novels. 



  1. Fascinating blog Mark. Thanks for sharing some great tips and images.

  2. A minor correction to my own text. I referred to "the artist" of the psalter as if he were a man - in fact, this book was illuminated by a father/daughter team, and we don't know which one was responsible for the birds. These artists were secular, operating in a commercial world. A generation earlier, most illuminated manuscripts were produced in monastic scriptora - we imagine monks pouring over them, but nuns are just as likely to have been involved in their production.

    1. Hi, Mark. The addition makes the post even better. :-)


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