Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest, and last(!), interview guest.
My guest this month is Tracey Warr, a writer of fiction and nonfiction who was born in London and lived there for a substantial portion of her life—but these days can be found in Pembrokeshire, in the south west of Wales; on the Aveyron in southern France; or in transit.
Actually, Tracey is more than just a guest; from next month onwards, she will be assuming the reins of the Location, Locution column. I’ve enjoyed my time interviewing a variety of talented expat authors, and I thank you all for your comments and for being part of my writing life.
I know you will be in good hands with Tracey, who already has lots of interesting interviews lined up for you. But first, like Jill Marsh and I before her, Tracey will introduce herself and her writing by answering the Location, Locution interview questions.
Tracey has enjoyed two illustrious careers. Her day job for many years was as an academic specialist in contemporary art history and theory. She studied English Literature at Oxford University and holds a PhD in Art History. She held the post of senior lecturer for 15 years, teaching art history and theory in not only the UK but also Germany and the Netherlands. She has been involved in art curation projects all over the world, including in Australia, the USA, Spain, Lithuania, Norway and Finland. She has a long list of published books and articles and contributes art book reviews to Times Higher Education. Her most recent publication in the contemporary art field is the edited volume Remote Performances in Nature and Architecture, which came out last year with Routledge.
But if Tracey’s head is in the world of contemporary art, her heart belongs to historical fiction. After earning an MA in Creative Writing at University of Wales Trinity St Davids in Carmarthen, she entered her second career: writing fiction and biographies inspired by the landscapes and medieval histories of southern France and south west Wales.
Thus far Tracey has published two novels set in early medieval France, Spain and Wales: Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011) and The Viking Hostage (2014). Her new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, due out later this year, focuses on the 12th-century Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys and the Welsh resistance to the Normans. In addition, Tracey is working on a biography entitled Three Female Lords, charting the lives and interactions of three medieval sisters who ruled in 11th-century southern France and Catalonia.
Tracey has already garnered numerous awards in her new career as a novelist and biographer. I won’t go on to list them because I am eager to get to our interview, but I urge you to read about her accolades on the page created by her publisher, Impress Books.
And now let’s meet Tracey Warr and hear her views on location, locution.
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Welcome, Tracey, to Location, Locution, a column that will soon be yours! You have a strong sense of place in your historical novels, but tell us, which comes first, story or location?
Thank you, Lorraine, for hosting me and I look forward to assuming the column reins next month. In answer to your question: location! I was staying in a friend’s house in a remote village in the Tarn Valley in southern France for four months during a very cold winter. I visited the nearby medieval castle and village of Brousse-le-Château with my nephew, who was around 10 at the time and asked me to write a story about the castle. He loved it when I made up stories, and actually had me under a “contract” to write him at least one story a year—a hard task-master! During my research I came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche—and realised she would make a fascinating adult novel. The incidents of her life astonished me and I had to become a self-taught historian to discover more and more about her and then imagine what had happened during the gaps in the historical evidence. The landscape in this part of France is littered with spectacular castles and medieval bastide towns clustered around hilltops and connected by rivers, which served as highways in medieval times, so it became a process of location initiating and then feeding the development of the story.
During her research on the castle, Tracey Warr came across an extraordinary real woman, Almodis de La Marche. Photo credits: Brousse-le-Château and Almodis cover art (supplied).
I’m particularly fascinated by watery landscapes—rivers, estuaries, coasts and islands. My second novel and the third one I’m working on now also began with landscapes—the Welsh islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire and the great triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay.
What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.
If possible go there, take photographs, experience it, make notes on how it smells, sounds, feels, looks. The small details you gain from walking the ground are invaluable. The novel I’m writing at the moment centres around a number of medieval castles in Wales. I spent a few days staying in the village of Llansteffan near one of the castles, walking the cliffs and looking down on the spectacular river estuary and the dangerous tides and sandbanks of Carmarthen Bay. Watching birds hovering in the wind, seeing the weather lowering and rain coming in fast—I’ve used all those details in the novel. Although I’m writing historical fiction and many things have changed in a place, there are also many things that don’t change.
Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
I use all of those, with landscape probably dominating, but I also use objects in museums, the literature of the times and places and medieval cookery books to help me evoke places. My characters need to eat, sleep, work, travel, use the garderobe and observe the rhythms of medieval life. A map of 11th-century Toulouse, a model of Viking Dublin, a Viking serpent brooch, medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel, a medieval book of hours, the poetry of the female troubadours—all have been vital in helping me to create my fictional locations.
Medieval objects such as the Dunstable Swan Jewel have been vital in helping Tracey create her fiction. Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) The Viking Hostage cover art, Dunstable Swan Jewel (British Museum), print from a Viking brooch (all supplied); Labors of the Months: May, from a Flemish Book of Hours (Bruges) via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Books such as medieval historian Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, which treats that distant time like the Rough Guide series, are full of helpful details on everyday life. I do a lot of historical, literary, material culture and visual research, picking out details that I can use and adapt to my story to create a credible world for my readers to step into. I started writing medieval fiction as a kind of holiday in time away from my academic work with contemporary art, so I try to recreate that experience for the reader. I hope that when they have their noses in my books, sitting on the Tube in London, on a train going to Birmingham, in their modern bedrooms and living rooms or on a crowded beach, they find themselves travelling with my characters to 11th-century Barcelona, 10th-century Tallinn (in Estonia), 12th-century Pembroke—or they are on a Viking ship or a medieval passenger boat plying up and down the Thames.
Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?
In The Viking Hostage I used my knowledge of traditional markets in France and modern-day Tallinn to help me create the opening scene in the 10th-century Tallinn slave market:
A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild, but my name is Sigrid Thorolfsdottir. I am for sale along with my brothers, Thorgils and Olafr, who stand either side, holding my hands.
‘Ease up Sigrid,’ Thorgils whispers to me, ‘you’re crunching the bones of my hand. It will be alright.’
I try to relax my grip on his knuckles and look out at the few buyers staring up at the platform where we stand barefoot. Most of the crowd have gone since we are the last and least interesting item. Around the edges of the market square tall, thin houses are painted in gay colours. Awnings above the stalls flap in the slight breeze, their colours leached out by sun. Apples, nuts and cheeses are carefully arranged in small mounds and circles. Chickens are panicking in wooden cages. If I squint my eyes I can just see the sun sparkling on the sea in the distance, beyond the square and the buildings, and the buyers.
‘Three fine children of the Northmen, already growing muscled and hard-working,’ Klerkon, the slaver, shouts to the sparse audience, pushing up the grimy sleeve of Thorgils’ shift and pinching the flesh of his bicep, leaving white fingerprints against the brown skin. I glance up at the angry muscle shifting in my brother’s cheek.
“A list of items for sale was called out in the marketplace. I was described as one female Northchild…” Photo credits: Talinn, Estonia (Old Town) via Pixabay; Villefranche-de-Rouergue market (supplied).
Later on in the novel my heroines are held hostage by Vikings on a Welsh island. I blended together the real Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer, which were actually occupied by Vikings, to create my fictional island.
We climb the hill in the direction Thorgils indicated. As we move up the path we alarm plump brown curlews with long curving beaks like darning needles that are nesting in the brilliant green bracken. Large dragon-flies fly towards us swerving at the last minute. From the top of the hill we can discern the rough diamond shape of the island, cliffs spearing out erratically into the blue sea on all sides and ravines full of white flowers. Our eyes crease against the brightness of the light reflecting from the surrounding water. There is an overwhelming sense of space. The grey cliffs are dotted with short bright green grass and yellow lichen. To the left comes the regular boom of the sea in a rocky blow-hole. The white foam of waves studded with black boulders look like a thin necklace slung around the coast. Thick green and yellow seaweed rolls back and forth on the strand. The irregular patchwork of fields established by the monks where the thralls now labour, blanket the rocks and undulations of the island. Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks. Strings of other islands in the distance look as if they have been dropped out of the sky from a giant’s hand.
The island is teeming with life. Raucous screeching seabirds wheel around us, sit on nests on the narrow ledges of the guano-streaked cliffs like a great shrieking city, skid across the surface of the ocean carrying flapping fish in their beaks, plunge-dive at dark clouds of mackerel. Aina and I lay on our bellies on the edge of the cliff, watching the birds. There are fat black and white birds with striped beaks and long talons like the fingers of a lute player.
“Planes of colour are visible in the sea—greens, dark blues, grey-blues, grey-greens and blacks.” Photo credits: (top) Sea cave right through Skomer; view of the sea through Llansteffan Castle (both supplied).
How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?
It helps to know a place well from living there or visiting and making detailed research. But I also sometimes completely imagine a place without going there, or I transpose my knowledge and experiences of one place to somewhere else. In my first novel I had to write about a journey across the Pyrenees. At the time I’d never been there so I used maps together with experiences of the Scottish Highlands to conjure it. Now I have spent quite a lot of time in writing residencies in the Pyrenees and would probably write it differently—but I hope the ‘Scottish’ version still worked in the novel for the readers. I find that if I really imagine a place or a building in my own head, such as the Norman motte-and-bailey castle at Cardiff that I’m writing about at the moment, this can drive the plot. Certain scenes and events happen because of the layout of a place, because I’m imagining moving through that place with my characters.
Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
Donna Leon—in her Commissario Brunetti series, she makes me feel that I am in Venice, wandering the streets, riding boats in the canals with Brunetti, dropping into a corner bar for a glass of wine or a quick coffee, accompanying him on his way home for a delicious lunch with his smart, Henry-James-loving wife. Being in Venice with Brunetti is at least 60 percent of the charm of reading those books, and the murder mystery is the rest. British historical crime writer Antonia Hodgson—her 18th-century London in her recent novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, is absolutely believable and alarming. And Wilkie Collins—in The Moonstone, he creates a vivid landscape and mansion that his story unfolds within, and he infuses place with emotions and suspense.
Tracey’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place
Thanks so much, Tracey!
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Readers, any questions for Tracey? Please leave them in the comments below.
And if you’d like to discover more about Tracey before she begins her column next month, why not visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.
And with that, I bid you a fond adieu!
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Thanks, Lorraine! You’ve introduced us to so many fabulous writers, an experience that has touched all of us who have been inspired by the landscapes we’ve visited, or in many cases, have made into our homes. We hope you’ll drop by the Displaced Nation every so often and see what we’re up to. Don’t be a stranger!! —ML Awanohara
Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.
STAY TUNED for the next fab post!
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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).