Conference Presentation 3

Transcript from Kaleidoscope 7 conference in
Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Other presentations are here.

KALEIDOSCOPE 7
ACROSS TIME

Writing the historical novel:
Discovering the ways in which the present echoes the past, the past foreshadows the future

When I wrote down the subtitle to this talk and then looked at it, I was struck by how accurately in my case the past has foreshadowed the future.

I had been writing and selling short stories for about ten years when I decided that I finally had learned my craft well enough to attempt a full-length novel. But what to write about? You hear it said that an author’s first novel is often biographical, and in my case this turned out to be true. I was a big-city girl, early conservationist and environmentalist, and married into about the huntingest, fishingest family you could ever imagine. There wasn’t a month in the year when they weren’t fishing or shooting something. And usually I had to eat it! Bear burgers, moose burgers — yuck! Venison wasn’t quite so bad but ducks I truly hated. I never took a bite that I didn’t grind down on a piece of shot. I saw no reason at all to kill wild animals when you could go to the supermarket and buy a nice, tidy plastic-wrapped chicken there. It hadn’t really occurred to me that someone had had to kill that bird. I didn’t realize either that in his way my father-in-law was more of a conservationist than I was. Each spring he hatched out 200 mallard duck eggs and introduced the breed to the shores where we live now. He also incubated pheasants and quail and released them. He hunted and fished only for his own food and replaced far more than he killed. He was also responsible for saving a marshland that was a migratory stop for ducks and geese and that was almost turned into a parking lot.

When I was casting about, wondering what I could write about, I began to think of this period in my life. What if, I thought to myself, what if a young boy - Robbie - was sent to live with his grandfather for a year while his parents went to work in a country where they couldn’t take him? What if Robbie were a big-city boy, conservationist and environmentalist, as was I, and his grandfather was a man who hunted and/or fished during just about every season of the year? How would they get on? How would they learn to understand each other? Robbie would consider his grandfather not much better than a murderer. His grandfather would consider him a bit of a wimp.

My first book, WRONG AGAIN, ROBBIE, was born. (It was originally called A YEAR FOR GROWING, by the way. I still prefer that title, as do my children.) Of all my characters Robbie is the most like me — or, the most like me as I was when I wrote that book almost 30 years ago even though, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been a 13 year old boy. I have no idea why I chose Robbie as the main character. Actually, I didn’t choose him. He just walked into my mind along with the original idea.

The grandfather is my husband’s father, exactly. My father-in-law was more like a father to me and I loved him dearly. I wrote about him with truth and honesty, but with great affection. The house that I wrote about in that book is the house on the shores of Georgian Bay that he built almost 50 years ago. And it is the house in which I live now. I sit in my office and look out the window to see descendants of the ducks that he hatched and raised. Descendants of the beavers that tormented him, gnawed down his trees and insisted on building their lodges in his boathouse now torment us, gnaw at our trees, and build their lodges in our boathouse. My writing life has come full circle and with it has come a great sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

I went on to write 16 more books after that first one - and am still going strong. I was talking to a 4th grade class a few years ago and one boy put up his hand.

“How many more books are you going to write before you die?” he asked. Of course I don’t know the answer to that question, nor do I know what kinds of books I will write, but I do know that some or many of them will be historical novels.

In their book, THE NEW REPUBLIC OF CHILDHOOD, Sheila Egoff and Judith Saltman state:

“Perhaps the greatest contribution the historical novelist can make to children’s reading is to show them that an event in the past did not happen in isolation but was part of a continuous series of events that have influenced and given meaning to the present time.”

I did not know this when I began writing historical fiction or, if I did, I wasn’t aware that I knew it. In fact, I began writing historical fiction quite by accident.

I had written my first novel and it was in the long process of being submitted and rejected, submitted and rejected, and I was wondering what to write about next. One hot summer day when my kids were lumping around the house, bored, I piled them all in the car and took them down to Upper Canada Village on the St. Lawrence - a typical pioneer village with buildings and houses from years gone by. At one point, after my kids had gotten tired and decided they were about to die if they couldn’t find some ice cream, I found myself in the old schoolhouse. By chance I was alone. I looked around at the slate blackboards on the walls, the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room, a bucket for firewood and a bucket for water. Beaten-up wooden desks with initials carved into them sat there as if just waiting for children to occupy them. Then I looked at the solid piece of log that formed the doorstep. Worn down in the middle, I started wondering how many feet had gone in and out over that log? How many children had sat in this room and learned to read and write and do arithmetic here?

“What if...?” I thought, (the writer’s magic words, those), “What if a young girl from our time stepped into this schoolhouse, just as I have today, and suddenly found herself back in time? Found herself taking the place of another girl who had lived in those days?” Elizabeth was born and I had found my story. But writing that story would require research into the past, and in doing that I found something else - I found a bit of my own history.

My mother had often told me that we were descendants of United Empire Loyalists, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to that. The pioneers who settled along that stretch of the St. Lawrence after the American War of Independence were United Empire Loyalists and in researching their history I found myself discovering my own roots. It gave me a sense of belonging, a sense of being connected to Canada, that I had never had before. At nine years old my parents and I had moved to Argentina and I grew up there until I returned to Canada to go to University. Immediately upon graduation I married a young man who subsequently became a Foreign Service Officer with the Canadian Government and we spent the next 34 years travelling and living all over the world. My Canadian identity was pretty well non-existent, but writing THE OTHER ELIZABETHl helped me find it.

Writing THE OTHER ELIZABETHl gave me another gift, too. I had approached doing the necessary research for it with gritted teeth and an attitude of, “Well, this is going to be the boring part, but it has to be done, so I’ll get on with it.” I had hated history in school - just a bunch of dates and dead people as far as I was concerned. Imagine my surprise when I found myself being drawn into the discovery of this past world and captivated by it.

I went back to Upper Canada Village - without the kids - and found that they had a small library there, not open to the public, but open to anyone doing research. In there I discovered the names of the original people who had settled there and plans showing who had settled where. Research began to be more interesting. I went back to Ottawa and started poring through old books in the library, then went on to the Archives in the National Gallery. There I found a plan of the American ships as they had anchored in the St. Lawrence River the night before the Battle of Crysler’s Farm - the period I was going to write about. The position of each ship was drawn in. They even had the time the first shot was fired the next morning. Seeing that plan, the ending for the story suddenly came clear to me.

Learning the story of Elizabeth’s family, and the story of their life well over a hundred years ago, helped me to learn about Elizabeth. Get to know her. I found out that one of the first tame apple orchards had been planted there. Elizabeth’s father’s problems growing those apples mirrored the problems my husband’s father had growing his apples in his Ontario home. When I read about the cider Elizabeth’s father made, I could taste the cider my father-in-law made every fall, with a wooden press that had to be about 100 years old then, and on which my husband still makes cider every fall even now. I learned about sturgeon and muskilunge that swam in the St. Lawrence and grew up to six feet long. My husband and I and our children had houseboated in this river but had not caught anything so noble. They’re all gone now - how sad. No sturgeon at all, catching a muskie is a rare occurrence, and they’re sardines compared with what they used to be. I looked at the St. Lawrence itself, so changed now after the completion of the Seaway, and imagined what it must have looked like then.

Sad changes, so many of them. Lessons, perhaps, if we want to read them?

When I wrote THE OTHER ELIZABETH, there was a hard and fast rule in existence that if you wrote a back-in-time story you could never have your characters do anything that would change history. Being a contrary sort of person, I decided to challenge that. In my story Elizabeth goes back in time and saves the life of a boy who will become her grandfather. The book ends:

What had happened? Somehow or other she had gone back. Gone back and taken over that other Elizabeth’s life for a little while, just when she was needed. Or had that other Elizabeth unknowingly called her back? Her grandmother...Sarah...Was the past so inextricably linked to the present then? If she hadn’t gone back Jamie would have drowned. If Jamie had drowned she would never have been born.

“Elizabeth married Jamie and that was the end of it,” her grandmother had said. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t ended until she had walked into Cook’s Tavern that morning. It had happened over a hundred years ago.

It had happened this morning.

Therein began my fascination with the past and how the past can influence the future. And I became enamoured with history and went on to write several more historical novels.

One of our postings was London, England. When our kids had school breaks my husband and I would load them and the dog into the car and go bed and breakfasting. Wales quickly became one of our favourite destinations. One spring we were driving along the clifftops of the west coast. It was March, cold, rainy and dismal. Far below I could see waves crashing against the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. Small black dots bobbed up and down and, looking more closely, I could see that they were seals, playing in the surf. Then we passed a big, gloomy, grey stone house. It was dark and forbidding. The slate roof shone blackly in the rain.

“I have to write a ghost story about that house,” I thought. I loved reading ghost stories, but had never attempted to write one. I never imagined how difficult it would be.

First of all, you have to have a reason for the ghost being a ghost. Then you have to have a reason for the ghost making itself known. Then you have to figure out what you’re going to do about it all. How you’re going to make a satisfactory and credible ending. After innumerable false starts and unsatisfactory drafts I hit upon the idea of having the future mirror the past. A young Canadian girl, Alison, and her widowed father come to spend the summer in a gloomy old house that he has inherited. Alison is very close to her father and is jealous of his interest in a young woman living nearby. She, Alison, finds a diary hidden behind a brick in the fireplace. It is the diary of a young girl, Bronwen, who was just her age and who had lived in that house almost a hundred years ago. Bronwen calls to Alison, begging for Alison’s help in righting a terrible wrong she had committed during her lifetime. Unwittingly, Alison is walking along the same path that Bronwen had trod, making the same mistakes, and with the possibility of facing the same tragic end. It is Alison’s realization of the lesson the past is trying to teach her that ultimately saves her and enables her to save Bronwen.

Another place that fascinated us was Cornwall. One day while my husband babysat, I set out to explore. I climbed over a stile into a meadow and saw a megalith, a standing stone, in the middle of the field. I made my way over to it. It was a hot, sunny day, but when I stepped into the shadow I was suddenly cold. There was such an ancient feeling to that stone. Who had erected it? What was its purpose? I knew I had found another story and this time I plunged into the research with enthusiasm and excitement. I discovered a world about which I had previously known nothing. The world of ancient Britain and the Druids.

The inn where we were staying, high on a cliff overlooking the ocean, was owned by a man who had an intense interest in what had gone on in the land around him. His house was filled with artifacts. He walked me around and showed me features in the land that gave hints of the people who had lived there before. An uninvestigated mound nearby was a barrow, he was certain, but he would not allow any digging to be done.

“Let the dead rest in peace,” he said. But the spirits of the dead seemed to me to haunt every hollow and cave in the place. Not far away was Tintagel, the legendary site of King Arthur’s castle. I walked around the ruins and rebuilt them in my imagination. King Arthur, so the myth goes, had united all the tribes of England for a short period. The story of Camelot comes down to us with its message of hope and the ability of humankind to join together and live noble lives. Could we do it again?

Camelot finally fell, betrayed by the frailty of the very humans who had created it.

Another lesson to be learned, perhaps?

While living in England I also heard the sad story of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days when she was only fifteen years old. Jane was never crowned officially - the rightful Queen, Mary, saw to that by beheading her upstart cousin - so the history books don’t have much to say about her. I was intrigued by her story, though, and determined to learn more about her. Jane was first cousin to the young King Edward, Henry VIII’s son. When Henry died, Katharine Parr, the only one of his wives clever enough to outlive him, brought Jane to live at court with her and her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, the eldest sister, was also there from time to time. When Edward died, under suspicious circumstances, Jane’s parents and the Duke of Northumberland hatched a plot to marry Jane to the Duke’s son, Guildford, and have her declared Queen of England. This they did, basing her claim on a document that the Duke had tricked Edward into signing before his death, proclaiming his sisters bastards and appointing Jane to succeed him. Jane would have nothing to do with this plot, indeed she was already happily engaged to another Edward, the Earl of Hertford, and was stunned to find herself proclaimed Queen of England. After being beaten for three days, however, she was forced to go through with the marriage and assume the title of Queen. Queen Mary then led an uprising that swept down from the north and imprisoned Jane in the Tower of London. Even then Jane might have been spared, but her father led another uprising against the Queen which failed, and he, the Duke of Northumberland, Guildford and Jane were all sentenced to execution.

All this I had learned through my research, done mostly in the Reading Room at the British Museum. (Sitting in a carroll next to the one where Marx had written Das Capital). I crossed time and read letters from Edward to Jane, from Jane to Edward and to her sisters. I even read an anonymous account written by a man who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London at the same time as she was. He recounted a dinner that he shared with her and described the mournful roaring of a lion held captive in a cage at the gate. I visited the Tower numerous times. I stood outside that same cage, now empty except for a few swirling bits of litter, and heard that lion roar in my mind. I imagined Jane hearing it on the evening of her execution. I visited the house inside the Tower where she was held prisoner, walked the ramparts she must have walked as she waited to die. I saw her name inscribed by Guildford in the stone of one of the tower walls while he was awaiting his execution. Finally, I stood on the spot where her execution took place. Echoes of the past surrounded me.

I had read that Jane’s body was left on the scaffold for the whole day after she was beheaded, while a decision was made as to what to do with it. Finally, she was entombed in the small chapel within the Tower of London. I attached myself to a group of tourists and went in there. A Beefeater guard was giving the history of the place, but he did not mention Jane. I stayed behind after the others had left and asked him if he could show me whereabouts in there Jane Grey was buried.

“I don’t rightly know, luv,” he said. “But let’s have a look.” He locked the door and we started to search. Ended up on our hands and knees under the altar where we finally found a stone with her name on it.

My book, THE NINE DAYS QUEEN, opens with Jane sitting on a hillock above her house, watching deer browse on the path below her, and seeing the messenger arrive who was to give her the news that she was to go to live in London. I sat on that same hillock and watched descendants of those same deer browsing. I wandered the ruins of her estate, which is now a Crown property, and saw the small tower where she had had her room, filled with books. I had read that the prayer book Jane carried with her to her execution, and in which she had written a forgiving letter to her father in the margins - because she was denied paper to write on - was kept in the most innermost innersanctum of the British Museum, the Manuscript Room. With considerable difficulty, I obtained permission to go there and see that book. I was shown into a leather-lined cubicle. I was not allowed to bring anything in with me. I was given lined paper and a soft-lead pencil, then a sheaf of typewritten papers outlining all the rules I was to follow. Needless to say, by the time they actually brought the little book in, I was totally psyched out. They placed it on the leather desktop in front of me, then left. I stared at it. A small, very fat, black book. Finally I summoned up the courage to pick it up and open it. It fell open with a crack and I thought, “Oh, no! I’ve broken it!” Then I looked and saw that it had fallen open to the place where Jane had written the letter to her father. She must have leaned on the book and cracked the spine herself whilst writing. Holding that book in my hands, was probably the most awesome, in the true sense of the word, experience I’ve ever had.

It took me two years to write that book and during that time Jane became very dear to me. That is why the book is dedicated To Jane, herself. Several years after the book was published I revisited London. I went back to the spot where she was executed, and this time, when I stood there, I cried. I felt as if some very near and dear member of my family had died there.

There is a strange codicil to this story. Makes you think that sometimes, truly, the past does reach out to you. As I was writing the last chapter of this book, I was trying so hard to put myself into the mind of Jane Grey as she ascended the steps to the scaffold, spoke her last words, took off her outer garment, handed her prayer book to her weeping lady-in-waiting and, finally, knelt to place her head on the block. I was trying to write as simply and honestly and strongly as I could. I was immersed in Jane Grey.

The phone rang. I picked it up, not really aware of it.

“Mrs. Bradford?” a voice said.

“Yes?” I replied.

“This is Jane Grey calling.”

It was the secretary from my son’s school, calling to find out why he was absent that day. I had to call her back and explain why, perhaps, I hadn’t made much sense when I was talking to her.

In 1985 my husband, 15 year old son, Christopher, dog and I moved to Germany. I soon found out that Germany is a land suffused with myths and legends. We lived near the Rhine River and I walked the dog there every morning. Across the river were high hills - mountains. They were called the Siebengebirge, the Seven Mountains, and they were the hills where Snow White slept and the Seven Dwarfs went high-ho, high-hoing off every day to work. (To mine for tin, actually). Nestled in them was the small town of Konigswinter and, towering above that town, a cliff called the Drachenfels, with the ruins of an ancient castle on its summit. It was called Drachenfels, Dragon’s Cliff, because in ancient times a dragon had lived up there. And what does a village that lives under a dragon have to do? Send a young maiden up as sacrifice every spring, of course. Finally, the villagers got tired of doing this every year, and losing all their best and prettiest young maidens. Luckily for them a young man named Siegfried turned up. As far as I could discover, Siegfried spent his whole life saving maidens from dragons and, sure enough, he slew that dragon and cast it down into the Rhine.

A little further down the Rhine was the place where the legendary treasure of the Niebelung had been thrown into the river. A fortune in gold lay there, so it was said.

Further down yet was the cliff where the Lorelei sat, combing her beautiful long hair and singing so sweetly that sailors gazed up at her, forgetting to watch where they were going, and were dashed to pieces on seven rocks just around a bend that were, actually, seven young maidens whose hearts were so hard they had been turned into stone.

The whole length of the Rhine from Bonn, where we lived, to Koblenz was lined with ancient castles, and those castles fascinated me. Some were restored and made into museums, some left in rubble. I explored castles every weekend for the first few months that I lived there, and walked around them immersed in the past. My son, Chris, accompanied me at first but finally announced that he had seen enough castles to last him a lifetime, and abandoned me. To my knowledge he has never set foot in a castle since.

The city of Cologne was nearby, also, and it quickly became one of my most favourite cities. I drove there often and walked the old streets, investigated the wine houses, and enjoyed the museums and the marvellous modern art gallery. It was then that I discovered that the very first crusade of all, The People’s Crusade, had left from that city on Easter weekend on 1096. Pope Urban II had called for a Holy Crusade to liberate Jerusalem. The mightiest nobles and princes of Europe began to assemble but one man, a monk many called mad, named Peter of Amiens, could not wait. Under the cry of “Deus le volt!”, “God wills it!” he drew to him 20,000 followers and left before the official First Crusade had assembled. It was a motley crowd that he had gathered to follow him. Very few trained soldiers or knights. Faithful peasants who had no knowledge of warfare. But the bulk of his followers were rabble. The Pope had promised forgiveness of sins to anyone who went on Crusade, so the jails and prisons had emptied out and these were the people who attached themselves to Peter. None of them had any idea of where Jerusalem was or how long it would take to walk there. The peasants believed they would be able to reach Jerusalem, conquer it, and return in time to get their harvests in. Not surprisingly, this crusade ended in tragedy. They ran out of food and supplies within weeks and took to stealing and attacking the Christian villages they passed through. They swept through Europe like a horde of ravening wolves. The local populace, at first sympathetic to them, began closing their gates to them, which only incited them further. Finally, at a place called Civetot, on the south shore of the Sea of Marmora, they were attacked and almost all of them killed by the Turkish armies.

I had been thinking of writing something to do with castles but, after all my investigating, had decided that life in a castle in the middle ages, for a young girl, anyway, would be cold, drafty, uncomfortable and boring. There wouldn’t be much for her to do but tend her herb garden during the day and embroider until the sun went down in the evening.

This crusade sounded far more interesting. I researched for the three years I lived in Germany. I had known nothing about the crusades when I started, but the more I learned, the more I felt I had to write about them. I had planned one book only, THERE WILL BE WOLVES, but in fact I have written three.

Much of the research was done in Cologne itself. This is a city that was razed to the ground during the Second World War and, when they finally were able to rebuild, they discovered the ruins of an ancient Roman city, Colonia Agrippina, under it. Under the present day town hall, down two flights of steps, are the ruins of the town hall that stood there in the year 1. I was fortunate enough to get to know the woman whose father, brother and husband were the architects who restored all the wonderful old baroque churches in the city, and she showed me even greater wonders. She took me down deep below the present day cathedral, the Dom. Under it lie the ruins of the Bishopskirche, the church that stood there in 1096, the year I was writing about. I was able to walk around it, touch the stones, imagine it as it had been then. Under that were the ruins of a Roman barracks, and under those ruins, way, way down deep, a well dedicated to Jupiter that dated from the 4th century BC.

(It was just at that point, by the way, that the lights went out. Pitch blackness. We were all alone and standing on a swaying scaffolding. I didn’t need her warning not to move. I stood frozen while she retraced our steps, found the light switch, and turned it back on. Thank goodness she knew her way around there. It turned out that the workmen who had been working down there had finished for the day and, not knowing there was anyone else around, just switched off the lights when they left. It certainly gave me a few scary moments, though.)

Often, when I’m talking to kids, I’ll ask them if they think research is boring. Nearly all the hands in the audience shoot up. Then I tell them they’re all wrong. Research into the past is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. One by one, they fit together and help me create my story. Discovering the past helps me discover what my story is all about.

I was trying to learn German and had a teacher who came to my house every afternoon. She knew about my project and, in fact, brought many books about the crusades. Translating them became part of my learning the language. One day she told me about a winehouse she had discovered in Cologne. It was situated in an old cellar that dated back to the middle ages, with stone heads of fierce animals protruding from its walls. Under this, she said, was a smaller, dark cellar that was walled with rubblestone and dated back to Roman times.

I was excited by this. I didn’t quite know what I could do with it, but I was sure I could use it somehow.

“Where is the restaurant?” I asked her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t remember exactly.

Now, the streets of Cologne meander all around apparently totally without reason. It took me two weeks of researching winehouses until I finally found the right one. Two weeks of eating wonderful, hearty lunches of thick bread, cheese and sausage, all washed down with good Rhine wines. I had another great lunch in that restaurant when I finally found it, and when I was finished I called the waitress over.

“I’ve been told there’s another cellar beneath this one,” I said.

“Yes,” she answered, looking a little puzzled.

“Could I see it?” I asked.

“You want to see the cellar under this one?” she repeated.

“Yes, please,” I answered. “I’m writing a book.”

“About cellars?”

“Well, sort of.”

“Well, all right.”

She sounded very dubious, but led me to a door at the back of the room. She opened it and I looked in. A short flight of stone steps, a small room about 6 feet square, and rubblestone walls. Definitely Roman! I was delighted. But I realized why she had been so reluctant to show it to me. That was where the restaurant kept their garbage, and boy did it smell!

Back to my table for a cup of coffee...and David walked in. Of course! I had just been reading about the persecution and massacre of the Jews by the Crusaders before the Crusades actually began, and had learned that the citizens of Cologne had hidden most of the Jewish population there and thus saved them and I knew that I wanted to write about that, but wasn’t sure how. Ursula’s father could hide a Jewish boy down in that Roman cellar. Not even Ursula would know about it. And where better to hide the silver given to him by Count Emil? And what about that snippet I’d read about the rumour that the Emperor Henry IV had been abducted and hidden by the Archbishop of Cologne when he was a boy? It could have been in that very cellar! That cellar gave me all sorts of ideas.

Research boring? I don’t think so.

The most exciting part of my research was actually following the route that these first crusaders took from Germany, through Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and into Turkey. (This was in 1989 when these were still Communist countries.) My husband and I drove the route all the way. Many people have asked me what the point of this was. Things would have changed so much in a thousand years. True, buildings have been built, cities have arisen, but the land remains the same. As we drove I could put myself in the place of those 20,000 crusaders. I could visualize them strung out along the narrow paths beside the Rhine, the woods looming over them dangerous with bears, wolves and wild boars. I could see the flickering torches lighting up the windows of the Drachenfels castle. The procession would be so long that the poorer pilgrims at the end of the procession would just be straggling into camp by the time the leaders were ready to set off again each morning.

I had read how the townspeople, at first supportive of the crusaders, had become afraid of them and shut their gates against them as they made their way across Europe and as we drove along the Danube River I began to see why. It was the same time of the year. I saw fields planted with crops—full and lush, and I imagined what the result of 20,000 people encamped on them for days at a time would be. Whatever crops were not pulled up and eaten would have been trampled. The people’s food for the winter would have been destroyed; the fields themselves would have been left in a disastrous state. No wonder the villagers along their way turned against them as word of their destruction spread before them.

When we drove through the mountains of Bulgaria, the road we drove on even now was steep and treacherous. I could imagine how much more dangerous would have been the narrow, slippery, sometimes ice-coated paths that those crusaders had to traverse. No wonder so many of them perished there.

I was able to correct several mistakes I had made in my first tentative draft of the book, too. I had read that when the crusaders crossed the Danube many of them had drowned. I had seen how mighty and fearful the Rhine was in its spring floods. (My dog, a strong-swimming golden retriever had been swept away in front of my eyes when she leapt into the current one spring after a ball. She managed to swim back, but not before the Wasser Politzei, the water police, had been notified that a large blond dog was being carried down the river in the direction of Cologne and they had set out in pursuit.) I could well imagine what the scene crossing the Danube would have been like.

One day when I was writing that first draft, a friend called me up and asked me what I was doing.

“Drowning people!” I replied.

I spent that whole morning drowning people, cattle and horses. But when, on our trip, we actually got to the point where I had merrily drowned them all I discovered that it was very near the source and the river there was only about 10 metres wide and less than half a metre deep. I had to undrown them all and drown them later on where the river was much wider and more treacherous.

I had palm trees growing in Constantinople. And sand. There are no palm trees there. No sand. It’s a Mediterranean type of vegetation. For sure some eagle-eyed teacher or librarian would have spotted that mistake!

As we drove around the north shore of the Sea of Marmora I saw something shining on the other side, right where I knew Civetot would be. In my naivete I thought perhaps there was a monument there to those unhappy crusaders. It took most of the day to drive around the Sea and reach it and I was mad with impatience. Civetot is a triangle of land that juts out into the Sea of Marmora. In the days of the crusaders it was a flower-filled field. I had visions of standing on that spit of land, amongst the poppies and the wild daisies, and feeling the echoes of that tragic day. Instead, when we reached it, it turned out to be a military barracks, walled off with barbed wire, and the shining object I had seen was a radar installation. Echoes, yes, but far different from what I had imagined. War still goes on.

As I mentioned, I ended up writing three books about the Crusades. Although I did not consciously plan this at the beginning, gradually a theme began to emerge. How war affects the innocent, especially the young.

In THERE WILL BE WOLVES I wrote about the massacre of the Jews that took place along the Rhine and the Moselle Rivers at the beginning of Peter’s Crusade. They were warming up for the crusade, as it were. Peter’s unlawful Crusaders, whipped to a frenzy, killed every Jew they could find. Their battle cry then was “Killers of Christ!” The Holocaust that took place during the last world war was certainly not the first. In Mainz, out of 800 Jews, only 8 survived. In Cologne, however, the people hid the Jews and saved them all.

Ursula, the heroine of this book, is the daughter of an apothecary. She, unlike many of the other girls in her town, can read. Her father is training her to be an apothecary as well. This would have been acceptable in that time - in fact many women had careers in the middle ages that we do not hear about. Perhaps because the historians were men? In any case, Ursula wants more. A priest has given her a book of healing and she wants to be a healer. This was crossing the line. She heals a dog’s broken leg, using the book, and is set upon as a witch. She is sentenced to die at the stake and is saved only when her father goes on the crusade and will take her with him. Ursula is strong-willed and determined, but so very certain she knows what is right. When she and her friend Bruno see a young man having his hand cut off because of stealing, she is not sympathetic and does not understand Bruno’s dismay at all.

“Stealing is a crime,” she announces implacably. “A crime against God. There’s no excuse for it.”

Words that come back to haunt her when she is forced to steal in order to survive and to ensure the survival of Bruno and the young child she has taken under her care.

Something very important happened during the writing of the final draft of this book. I had written another two drafts in Germany after my trip, then we were posted to Puerto Rico. After moving in, I settled down to write the final draft. (The first final draft, that is.) Then came the Gulf War. Because we were out of Canada during the Vietnam years, I had never seen “real” war on television. I wrote that final draft in between sessions in front of the TV, watching the bombing of Iraq. I was horrified beyond description at what I was seeing. As I watched, people were being killed. It was a traumatic time for me. And it affected the manuscript. I finished it, and reread it. And I was surprised to find that it had changed. My original manuscript had been cynical. The more I had learned about the Crusades, the more disillusioned I had become about these Holy Wars. This viewpoint had come through loud and strong. But the manuscript that I read this time was different. Same story, same characters, same outcome. But the tone had changed. Somehow, the cynicism was gone and in its place was compassion. I’m not sure how this happened, but it’s good that it did.

It took a modern war to show me the way to write about a war that had happened far in the past.

In my second book, SHADOWS ON A SWORD, I wanted to write about the effects of war on the young boys who took part in it. My heroes are two boys, Theo and Almaric, both 17 years old, and both filled with the excitement and glory of a Holy War in God’s name. Not so different from today, is it? I had in the back of my mind my own son, Chris Bradford, and his best friend from Germany, Chris Bradley. (And didn’t the coincidence of those two names give rise to a lot of confusion at their school!) They were alike in their enthusiasms when they were in high school in Germany, but they ended up going very different ways. Chris Bradley ended up a Captain in the Canadian army - a very good, competent, professional soldier. Chris Bradford became a paramedic, dedicated to saving people’s lives. In my book, at the end, Almaric discovers that war is, indeed, his chosen way of life. Theo, however, has had a very different experience. He looks at his bent and broken sword, leaning against the wall in the shadows of a flickering fire, and vows not to have it repaired. He will never fight again.

The final volume in this trilogy is LIONHEART’S SCRIBE. This is the story of the Third Crusade, led by King Richard Lionheart of England and King Philip of France. The leader of the Muslims was the great Sultan, Salah-ud-din, also known to Christians as Saladin. Both Salah-ud-din and Richard of England were strong leaders, excellent soldiers and cultured men. In this book I wanted to show both sides of the struggle. I wanted my young readers to learn that the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions all come from the same roots. That they all have good reasons for regarding Jerusalem as their holy city. My hero is a young boy named Matthew who cannot fight because he was born crippled. He has been trained by his father as a scribe, however, and after warning the King’s sister, Queen Joanna, of a plot to imprison her, as a reward he is taken on by King Richard Lionheart to be one of his scribes. Matthew also saves the life of a young Muslim girl named Yusra and, in the time before the battle for Acre begins, befriends a Muslim boy named Rashid. Through his friendship with these two, he learns what it is like to be on the other side. He learns that they share more similarities than differences, but the fact of war does not allow for friendship.

I also wanted to show how the history that we read today, all of it, is only one side of the story. Matthew comes to realize that the history he is writing for Richard will be different from the history King Philip’s scribe will write. And far different from the history Salah-ud-din’s scribes will write. Each will interpret the same events in their own ways. He determines to keep his own private journal - and try to write the truth of it all as honestly as he can.

The issues in LIONHEART’S SCRIBE are issues that are still with us. There is no victory in this book, but Richard and Salah-ud-din managed to hammer out a good working truce that lasted for many years. King Richard regarded it as a defeat. Matthew did not. Nor do I. Would that we could learn from it today.

I would like to read the poem that I chose as a foreword to this book. It was written by an American writer whom I am sure you all know well, Jane Yolen. I was pleased and honoured that she gave me permission to quote this from her book, O Jerusalem. It is called Stone Upon Stone.

Stone upon stone a city rises,
Stone upon stone it falls.
Man upon man each war surprises
Altars, buildings, walls.
David,
Solomon,
Nebuchadnezzar,
Maccabee,
Herod,
And Hadrian,
Constantine,
Khosrau,
Saladin,
And Suleiman.
This is a song we sing to conquerors,
A hymn we make to war,
The straight plumb line of rules and rulers -
That’s what fighting’s for.
Stone upon stone a city rises,
Stone upon stone it falls.
Man upon man each war surprises
Us all.

I had, at one point, intended to write four books about the Crusades. I had wanted to end the series with the story of the Children’s Crusade, surely the most obscene of them all. Two things prevented this, however. The first was when I wrote the last words of Lionheart’s Scribe, wrote describing the truce that had been achieved and how Matthew felt about it, I knew that this was where I should end. This was where I should finish. The second consideration was that I just could not bring myself to write about the Children’s Crusade. It was so terrible, there was no way I could find any kind of a positive story there.

But the idea of that Crusade would not leave me and I have now decided to write about a survivor of that Crusade instead.

By the year 1212, the Christians had once again lost Jerusalem and crusade after crusade had been unsuccessful in regaining it. Finally, in that year, two crusades of children as young as 9 and 10 years old set off, one from Germany and one from France. In their innocence they believed that their faith would conquer where the might and armies of the adults had failed. Of course, both crusades ended tragically.

The German children reached Italy, where most of them perished. The French crusade, led by a boy named Stephen, reached Marseilles. There they believed the sea would part and they would walk across it to the Holy Land. This did not happen, of course. Two seemingly honest merchants offered to transport the children by ship. They boarded five ships. The first two sank in a storm, the other three just disappeared. Nothing was heard of them nor of the children who had been aboard them for about 30 years. Then a young priest who had been on the crusade returned to France. He said that it had all been a trap. The children on those ships had been taken and sold into slavery in Egypt. However, their fates were not all tragic for all of them. The sultan at that time was al-Adil, brother of Salah-ud-din, and he was very interested in learning the western alphabet - learning to read and write the western way himself and having his nobles do so as well. Those young people who were literate were allowed to become tutors and made good lives for themselves.

Of Stephen, who led this crusade, nothing more was ever known. So, of course, he’s mine!

I’m beginning the research now for a book about what happens to him when he arrives as a slave in Egypt. As a poor peasant boy it is unlikely that he would have been literate, but what if he had befriended one of the young priests who accompanied them? What if that priest was able to teach him and teach him to teach others? What if...?

And of course I’ll have to go to Egypt to do the research! There’s all kinds of information about ancient Egypt in the libraries here and on the Internet, but I have not been able to find anything much about 12th C Egypt. For that, I’ll have to visit the libraries in Cairo and Alexandria.

I’ll close with this image: The image of a nine-year old girl, sitting at a long wooden table in the children’s section of the Runnymede Public Library in Toronto. Sun is shining through the window onto the book the girl is holding. It’s probably Dr. Doolittle. She is waiting for her mother to finish choosing her books and she is totally lost in the book she is reading.

The girl is me. Was me, 54 years ago. My library card was my most prized possession.

I was fortunate enough to be invited back to that same library a few years ago to do a reading. I wondered if it would be the same, could hardly believe that it would be. But it was. The same wide, wooden staircase leading up, the same big room with sunlight pouring through the windows. It even smelled the same. The wooden tables were gone, replaced with modern ones, but they were in the same place. The same fireplace in the smaller room that was off the big one. Even the Dr. Doolittle books were in the same corner. One difference, though. On the shelf under the “B’s” were a whole row of books by Karleen Bradford.

Whatever would that young girl have thought if she could have seen that?