There are authors who claim that the books that have had most influence on them are very worthy works by authors such as Dostoyevsky, Plutarch or Sartre. They claim to reread Joyce’s Ulysses annually for inspiration.
I read it about ten years before I considered becoming a writer. It is a page-turning, brick of a book about Richard III. Ms Penman depicts the king as a good guy—loving husband, thoughtful monarch, totally chivalrous—who didn’t murder either his nephews or his brother Clarence. I enjoyed the book immensely, but it wasn’t the book itself that was to have the influence on me—it was the Author’s Note at the end.
Having been introduced to the life of Richard by W. Shakespeare in 4th Year English, I had assumed that Ms Penman made up this version of his life. Indeed, I assumed that anything written about such distant times would have been entirely reconstructed. I was, therefore, amazed to read that the author “tried to be as accurate as possible, not placing a scene at Windsor unless [her] characters were known to be at Windsor on that day, making sure that a Wednesday actually was a Wednesday”. The fact that there was that level of accuracy in the book astonished me. How could she have known that events hundreds of years ago happened on a Wednesday? She said that she drew on contemporary chronicles. I didn’t do history at school, and I was ignorance of the fact that such documents were still in existence. Ms Penman also said that Richard didn’t have a hunch back. Shakespeare lied.
That book led me to another book about Richard the Good Guy, this time a crime fiction book called The Daughter of Time* by Josehine Tey (who, writing in the 1950s, felt it necessary to go by the name of Gordon Daviot). The book was about a London policeman who wiled away weeks in hospital by proving that Richard wasn’t a murderous monster. He sent a young student visiting him off to the nearby British Museum where he could have a look at letters and decrees in Richard’s own hand. This was a revelation to me.
Looking back I can hardly believe I was so uninformed, and unaware of the amazing archives kept in Britain, and elsewhere.
When I came to write my first novel**, it was in fact a contemporary story about high school students putting on their own musical. My daughter, Lili***, had just been in a school musical based on the Odyssey, set to toe-tapping tunes written by her music teacher. She played Aphrodite. It was hilarious (“We'll go to Hell and back again, to get Helen back again”). I wanted something even more unlikely, so I had my group of musical misfits put on a rock-musical version of Richard III. I wrote my own lyrics. I even had one of the characters read Sharon Penman’s book.
Since then I have written my own historical fiction. I blame it on Sharon Penman that I have become such a research junkie, spending far too much time chasing down illusive facts and primary sources. I think that if there wasn’t such an enormous body of books set in medieval Britain, I might have written about that era too. Instead I went further back and further afield, starting in ancient Egypt, but settling into ancient China, happily trawling through translations of 2000-year-old Chinese books.
*I went to the library to get a copy to re-read and found that all the copies (four books, a large-print edition and an audio book) were all out on loan. Not bad for a crime fiction novel about Ricard III written in 1951.
** Stagefright, now out of print.
***She still hasn’t forgiven me for stealing this episode of her life.
Carole Wilkinson writes historical fiction and non fiction for young people. Best known for her award-winning Dragonkeeper trilogy, her latest book, Fromelles: Australia’s Bloodiest Day at War, tells the story of Australia’s disastrous first battle on the Western Front in World War I.