When I first started writing, I took a historical fiction course and I still remember the advice that the instructor gave us, which can apply to any fiction: Consider how the character moves around the page. This breathes life into the character as he/she goes about the business of achieving their personal story quest. I quickly found out that it was not enough for them do random actions; instead, the action should do double duty to reflect back on character.
Traitor’s Knot, is the story of two fictional characters, James Hart, a former Royalist officer, and Elizabeth Seaton, a herbalist, who fall in love against the backdrop of the English Civil War.
James hasn’t been able to put the war behind him. After the execution of King Charles I, the regicide Parliamentarians are now in control of the country. James refuses to swear allegiance to the new regime, nor will he return home to Coventry to repair his severed relationship with his father. Everyone in Warwick knows him as the ostler of the Chequer and Crowne, but few realize that he’s the highwayman who has been preying on Roundheads.
The first scene that I wrote with that advice in mind is still in my novel today. The scene has been modified through subsequent drafts, but this particular piece survived as it initially written:
“The war’s over, lad. Put it behind you, and look to the future before it’s too late.”
James studied his chipped tankard. “You have tables to clean.”
Henry merely snorted and left.
Put it behind him? He’d have to accept defeat first. James traced his thumb along the hairline cracks in his cup, then rotated it until he found a smooth, unblemished curve. If only he saw this section, would he fool himself into believing the tankard was undamaged? Frowning, he took another swig of ale. The brew failed to wash the bitterness away.’
Here is a man who spent long, bitter years fighting for the king, but now he’s forced to accept that the usurpers have taken over the country. James has had to pretend to pick up the pieces, but he can’t let go of the past. He’s had to swallow his pride while biding his time for the return of the new king, Charles II, to regain his crown. James’s apparent compliance to the new regime is as precarious as that tankard, and any moment he will shatter.
James’s frustration is manifested in many ways. After being rejected by Elizabeth and having to deal with annoying enquiries from the new constable, Lieutenant Hammond, James’s agitation escalates through the scene. At first, as he’s grooming his horse, his brush strokes are harsher than normal:
‘James reached for a brush and started running it through Sovereign’s coat with brisk strokes. He made several passes before the horse tossed his head and took a step back. “Easy,” James said, and grasped him by the halter. When the horse continued to agitated, James grimaced and eased the pressure.’
Later on the scene, when Henry tries to drill into his head, ‘The war is over, and nothing you do will change the fact that these Roundheads control our lives, from that horse brush you’re holding to the ale that flows through my kegs.” James’s temper boils over:
“I will not accept that,” James snapped and whipped the brush into the bucket. The tin rattled and nearly tipped. “If I could, I’d have gone back to Coventry, belly exposed, to take my kicks there. I am not a beaten dog…’”
He then kicks the bucket and sends it clattering across the straw.
But it’s not all teeth grinding frustration for James. Even in a quieter moment of reflection, I use his actions to demonstrate that:
‘Through there were a number of chores he needed to finish in the barn before he turned in, he couldn’t muster the will to leave. Instead, he picked up a long twig and started drawing shapes in the ground with its tip. It was only when the door opened and Elizabeth stepped outside that he realized he had been waiting for her.’
My heroine, Elizabeth Seton, is a young woman who has had her family ripped apart during the war. She and her mother have been shunned in her community after her father was killed during a failed Royalist uprising. After her mother passes away, she is determined to carve out a new life out for herself and moves to Warwick to live with her aunt.
Elizabeth is subtler in how she walks around the page, but her actions reflect her character. Being a healer, she’s keenly attuned to the sense of touch. When she first sees her aunt’s stillroom, she connects to the wonders through touch.
‘Elizabeth’s fingertips brushed over the labels: monkshood, foxglove, and sweet woodruff. I could lose myself in this place. A thrill rippled through her.’
Even her aunt’s coveted collection of herbal recipes is handled with reverence, and as she examines the volume, she’s careful not to crease the pages.
The first time that Elizabeth finds herself alone with James, she’s on a riverbank working out her frustration by throwing rocks in the river. Later, when he’s managed to take her hand, she responds to the awakening of new emotions:
‘His touch was warm and stirring, the contact intimate. His fingers explored her palm, following the gentle curves to its hollow, then lingering on the tips of her fingers. The way his fingers brushed over her skin felt as she imagined a kiss to be.’
Elizabeth is a woman who has to maneuver between living within the rigid constricts of society and expressing her individuality. I often show this in a number of ways, from the way she dresses (she opts for a blue woolen skirt, over more serviceable greys or browns) to even how she deals with her hair.
Women at that time would have worn a coif with hair sedately bound. Elizabeth is no different, however, there is always one dark lock that will not be pinned back or confined, and she is often trying to tuck it behind her ear. I intended this to represent Elizabeth’s streak of independence. While she attempts to subdue it, its nature is otherwise.
Even a first meet market scene provides an opportunity to show her individuality. When James sees Elizabeth wending her way through the market, he notices what draws her attention amongst the stalls:
‘While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference.’
Literacy was growing amongst women during this century, but her interests would have still marked her as unique, and James was struck by this.
I believe it’s important to reveal characters through a variety of different ways, not just through dialogue. How they walk around the page and their reflective actions often reveal more than any declarations they make.
Cryssa Bazos is an award winning historical fiction writer and 17th century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the Romantic Novelist Association and is a co-editor and contributor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, is published by Endeavour Press. For more stories, visit her blog.
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