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Talking historical fiction with Robyn Cadwallader

First published on my Lou Greene website May 2020

As I mentioned in my previous newsletter, at the beginning of the month there was an awesome event run on Twitter by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman for Authors for Fireys to raise money for our incredible firefighters in Victoria. The final confirmed donations amounted to an impressive $515,324! Although I was not fortunate enough to win any of my bids, Robyn Cadwallader very generously contacted me to enquire whether I would like to have a conversation with her about writing historical fiction regardless. It was such an unselfish and kind gesture. As with the entire Authors for Fireys initiative, I have been astounded and somewhat overawed but the collaborative and generous spirit of the Australian writing community.

I made a donation to our brilliant fireys and would like to share some of Robyn's insights and responses to my questions:

How did Robyn's writing career begin?

One of the first things Robyn admitted was that the feelings of 'not being good enough' held her back when she first started. (So many of us writers seem to be afflicted with 'imposter syndrome' and it's always reassuring to hear that we are not alone.) Initially her writing practice consisted of keeping a journal, working with a Jungian therapist, writing lots of 'angsty' poems, until eventually she got things going beyond the internal with short story writing.

(At this point, I was thinking of the first journal I wrote at about the age of seven when I went to boarding school. Although I have long since lost it, I can remember the entry for most days being, 'No best friend .... still no best friend etc. ...' A bit excruciating. I have tried to start dozens of journals since, but I never seem to be able to maintain the practice. Perhaps I should revisit this ...)

How does Robyn make decisions about authorial voice, characters' voice, perspective and point of view?

When Robyn first came across 'anchoresses', she quickly realised she wanted to write about them, but (much to my reassurance again) it took her several goes and false starts, before she found her own authorial voice. Initially Robyn felt she was being too consciously 'writerly' and didn't like that. When she first tried to get an agent, she was rebuffed, but wrote asking for feedback. One of the things the agent mentioned was that she appeared to be 'straining for effect'. That sort of feedback was useful to Robyn, who then learnt to pare back her writing. (I think it is an eternal question that writers grapple with - getting that balance between straining and making their work appear effortlessly powerful.)

Robyn went on to explain that finding the voice of her fictional characters took some time and exploration. Eventually, writing The Anchoress she found that using the first person allowed her to sink more deeply into the character of the person she was inhabiting, whereas with another character, Ranaulf, she chose to use third person in order to step away from all that the interiority.

Robyn also said she worried like crazy about rendering a medieval voice contemporary, but after all she was not 'writing for a 13th century audience, so clearly writing like Chaucer would not work!' In the end, she settled for a few words and terms to lend authenticity to her writing, a few well-chosen phrases that gave a nod to the difference in language, but still allowed her writing to sound natural and readable.

(I've taken one example, from The Book of Colours, which seems to transcend the barriers of time: ‘Your words are turds, don’t go shitting them around here!’ It works so well, I think it's probably advice I should have pinned above my desk!)

What does Robyn believe is more important, historical accuracy or the story?

Robyn also confessed to getting a little bit razzed by some of the social media conversation that insists on absolute accuracy in historical fiction. 'Some people need to settle down a bit,' Robyn advised. She advocated Stephen Carroll's approach and quoted: 'If it's a choice between story and history, choose story.'

(Easy for me to agree on this point! It's been a really important lesson that I have learnt the long and hard way! Like Robyn, I am concerned with the business of writing historical fiction, not writing historical text books. To quote her: 'We must let the history work for the story, rather than the other way around.'

Is Robyn a plotter or pantser?

Robyn conducts thorough research into the relevant period of history for her fiction writing, but she says she's not much of a plotter as such. The research, the characters and incidents which she knows happened gives her a framework to work with, but she has no idea how her fictional characters will act. However, the historical framework enables her to play around with what happens in between what is known. She believes in handing over the reins to her characters and says, 'the best stuff happens when you let the characters lead the action.' Robyn also lets the themes come out of the characters. Rather than plotting, or being formulaic in her approach, Robyn's preference is for 'a bit of chaos' so that she is forced to deal with the consequences and be creative in handling it.'

How does Robyn portray female agency in her fiction?

Robyn is interested in the lives of ordinary people and how women got on, but not so interested in writing about the women who were absolutely amazing. 'If there is any kind of feminist mindset in me and what I write about it is that ordinary women need to be given the guernsey not the occasional exceptional.' So the female characters in Robyn's novels tend to be 'ordinary' intelligent women, dealing with whatever circumstances they are given, within the contains of the time. She would rather honour these types of women and give them voice. In medieval times, she explained, surviving was no easy thing for women, and it would be too easy to assume women were simply downtrodden and therefore not capable of doing or thinking much, or having ambitions for themselves.

It was a wonderful, rare opportunity for me to talk with Robyn and learn first hand about what has shaped her as a writer and the historical fiction she has created. She is currently researching a very exciting topic for her next novel and I wish her every success (and some speed under her wings - I cannot wait to read it!). If you have not yet read The Anchoress or The Book of Colours, I wholeheartedly urge you to go out and beg, borrow or buy a copy. My wholehearted thanks again to Robyn. For me as an aspiring writer, it was a great privilege to share this time; our conversation was both enlightening and reassuring. I shall revisit it whenever I am having doubts about my own writing!

You can get hold of a copy of this wonderful novel here:

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