Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A World Lit Only by Flame

I’ve always loved to immerse my imagination in the past, particularly medieval through Tudor times. Being English, I grew up absorbing the evidence of lives gone by: castles, manor houses, half-timbered cottages, churches, museums displaying everything from jewels to pots and pans, letters and books. Ancient bones are buried everywhere—even those of kings, ’neath parking lots*. On the darker side, any tourist can visit places like the Tower of London with its stocks, rack, ax, and other delightful remnants of bygone justice.

                                                             Uses for Rotten Food

So when it came to writing The Flame in the Mist – a medieval-flavored fantasy – the setting of a parallel version of Olde Englande was a no-brainer. True to history, there’s a castle, thatched cottages, and a general sense of the muddy unwashedness of jerkins, boots and breeches that the huddled masses wore back then. Tapestries adorn the walls of the evil rulers’ castle. People travel in carts and carriages, or on horseback. And casting its glow over everything is their one source of heat and light: fire.

This, to me, is probably the most evocative feature of medieval life. How did flame-light affect mood and tempers? Get up on a dark winter’s morning and light a candle or lamp rather than flicking a switch; there’s a stillness, a beauty, that the hard glare of a light bulb snatches away. The glow of flame hazes a face in a beautiful way, adding warmth and softness, instilling calm and commanding patience—something you’d need for the slower pace of pre-electric life. Imagine, for example, having to wait for water to boil on a fire or stove – bucketsful of it, if you wanted a bath – and the time it would take to light every torch of a dark corridor, every candle of a chandelier.


But while flame imbues the world with an air of tranquil, magical mystery, paradoxically—and wonderfully, for the historical author—it also ramps up drama and intrigue. Shadows and light dance off walls; dark corners hide lurking dangers; silhouetted figures wait in ambush. The mysterious becomes a threat, sparking deep, primal fears in our beleagured characters. There’s no phone for them to call for help, no alarm button, no battery-powered torch, even, to search out and reveal a would-be assailant.                                 

As readers and writers, we can always close the book on our heroes and heroines, abandoning  them to their dark ages while we scurry back to the 21st century in a blaze of fluorescence. But what if we couldn’t? What would it really have been like to live such a life, with only one’s wits to depend on, and only a lamp to light one’s way? I’m back to square one, immersing my imagination in new, historically-flavored fantasy ventures. But much as I enjoy rambling through Olde England, I’m glad I’m not actually there, huddled in the cold and scratching away with my quill by flickering candlelight. That, I’ll leave to my characters.

*In August 2012, the skeleton of King Richard III was found under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Originally posted 3/6/13 on the historical fiction blog Corsets and Cutlasses.