Susanna here, with thoughts about the captains and the kings...and pawns.
“History,” Sir Winston Churchill reportedly once said, “is written by the victors.” True enough, but we should also be aware that history, until recently, was written by the privileged, and the privileged had a certain way of looking at the world; of judging what—and whom—deserved to be recorded, and remembered.
In research I once came across an account of the Battle of Preston, in 1715, written by one of the Jacobite chaplains. “There were taken at Preston seven Lords,” he wrote, then thought to add, “besides 1490 others…”
The way he wrote that, so easily dismissing those more than a thousand men while he focused on the fates of the noble lords, made me think of the scene in Shakespeare’s Henry V, when, after the Battle of Agincourt, King Henry asks his herald: “Where is the number of our English dead?” When he’s handed the list, he reads aloud the names of two nobles, a knight, and a gentleman, and then concludes: “None else of name.”
The thing is, it’s those “none else of name” who make history, for me, and it’s their stories I want to put on the page. Not the kings or the queens, but the little-known, ordinary people who fought and took risks, and whose lives made a difference that’s never been noticed by most of the history books.
I find them most often by chance. A stray name in an article might catch my interest, and I start digging, and find not a name, but a life—still preserved in the journals and documents kept in the dustier corners of archives; in churchyards and land records, small scattered scraps that together reveal a whole person. I learn where they lived, who they loved, and sometimes more revealingly, who loved them. And if I’m fortunate, I find a letter they wrote in their own words. Their own voice.
The best part of writing my books lies in giving those people their voices again, and restoring their place in the history they helped shape.
These people weren’t inconsequential. They mattered to the friends and family round them, and their influence at times went far beyond that. A king might make plans, but the ordinary men are the ones who must turn plans to action, and having delved into the lives of these people it seems wrong to me that the things they have done and accomplished and sacrificed don’t get acknowledged.
Many of the characters I write about don’t warrant half a line in any history book, but in my novels I can let them live again, and let their true-life stories drive my plots.
Do you prefer to read about the kings and queens, or ordinary people, or a bit of both?