writing advice

Behind the Medieval Historian a Speculative Fiction Novelist by Ian Irvine

This is the third part of Dr Ian Irvine’s wonderful introduction to Sara’s lectures. Hope you enjoy reading it as much I have. Karen

It was during the pre-tutorial meetings in the first half of 1994 that I first learnt Sara was also busy writing and submitting for publication numerous novels. Dr Sara Warneke, Historian was already on the way to becoming Sara Douglass, Novelist – specifically: Fantasy Novelist, though she preferred other terms, e.g. ‘Modern Romance’ i.e. story-telling derived from the Romance tradition of the Medieval era. I loved Medieval history and I was also a secret fiction writer, among other things, so we had lots to talk about.

I remember having a kind of epiphany one day in her office – it was soon after she’d told me she was also a novelist. Sipping coffee and laughing at one of her wry asides I looked around at her vast collection of books and realised for the first time that the Fantasy genre was bloody hard work. Although the common perception is that such fiction comes ‘straight out of the writer’s imagination’ in truth a quality Fantasy writer, and Sara was world class, needs to read and absorb much more material than just about any other kind of fiction writer. To illustrate the point I’d like to quote a section of narrative from The Nameless Day, one of my favourite novels by Sara:


And so Thomas rode on.the-nameless-day-us-1sted

This time of the year the road that wound north was busy with carts piled high with hay, or fruits, or broodily grumbling calves or pigs, heading for the markets and stomachs of Nuremberg. Pedlars jangled by, their carts packed with bright pots, cooking utensils, and ribbons and fripperies for goodwives to waste their hard-earned coin on. There were innumerable pilgrims, travelling in bands that were sometimes small, sometimes huge. Thomas counted four-score in one gaily chatting band that passed him late in the evening. And there were soldiers. Stragglers, rather than coherent units, and probably mercenaries moving to look for work. (…)

Among the carts of merchandise, pedlars, pilgrims and soldiers straggled the occasional peasant, perhaps wandering down to Nuremberg in the hope of picking up work somewhere. Since the pestilence, there were few people who could find no work, but there were always some: the sick or crippled, those lingering on the borderlands of insanity, and the sheer malingerers who preferred a life drifting from employment to employment …

Of all the travellers, Thomas hated the beggars the most. They were society’s pests – skulkers who had lost even the art of malingering – who no longer even wished to pretend an interest in work. Most had a missing limb, generally a foot, and they hobbled past on crutches, or rumbled by on ill-made, hand-propelled carts.’


I’ve quoted the passage almost in full because I want to emphasise the enormous amount of research behind such an apparently simple compressed time passage – working, ostensibly, to establish setting. Throughout Sara’s lectures on Medieval history and society we repeatedly come across lines that have been transferred, almost word for word, into passages like the one above. In perusing the various folders of overhead images she gave me I also note how key scenes and details from the overheads (often of original woodcuts by Medieval artists) ended up in her novels, e.g. scenes from bath houses, peasant banquets, torture dungeons, peasant revolts, knightly activities, hangings, weddings, relations between the sexes, work activities, etc. Many of the images are wonderfully domestic (ploughing, food preparation, sewing, etc.), others are deeply confronting (criminals in cages, beheaded war captives, realistic and fantastic images of the plague, etc.).[1] She tried to bring every lecture to life with images that illustrated the content.

In The Nameless Day, and the Crucible series generally, the ‘transfusion’ between her academic activities and her fiction is direct and obvious – given the book is set in the tumultuous 14th century. images-2However, the setting descriptions and authenticity of the fantastic worlds Sara constructed elsewhere also owed much to her ability to ‘inhabit’ European landscapes imaginatively at any point in time from the Dark Ages to the Ancient Regime of the 18th century.

As an historian Sara believed in the value of researching and teaching the history of the common people, this included the history of changes to their ways of raising children, their marriage and sexual customs, their work life, their popular superstitions, etc. – the subject matter of her Medieval World unit in particular. There was more to the past than the achievements, beliefs etc of the ‘rich and powerful’ and Sara was well-versed on key academic debates related to medieval social history. Some of the lectures reproduced here detail her interests in this area – lectures on Medieval understandings of time, childhood, sexuality, popular culture, popular magic, etc. to name but a few. Incidentally, this love of and belief in social history also fed inspirational historic ‘coal’ directly into the engine/furnace of her creative imagination


Magic is Most Evocative When Grounded in Reality


After 1999 Sara became a different kind of mentor/inspiration to me. Like her I’d felt the pull of other forms of writing outside of academic non-fiction. In my case I began publishing poetry in the late 1990s and in 1998 became a literary ezine editor. It was as co-editor of The Animist, that I interviewed her in 1999. During the interview it became clear that she had become preoccupied with the challenges of fiction writing – she was thinking a lot about the genre that had brought her so much success and understood what she wanted her own unique contribution to the genre to be. Interestingly, the historic realities of life in Medieval times provided the foundation for her efforts in this area.

One facet of Sara’s ‘realism’ was her knowledge of the lives of women, children, peasants and marginalised people in pre-industrial societies. Paradoxically then, one of her great strengths as a speculative fiction writer – evident from the first pages of Battleaxe – was her commitment to merging historical realities with traditional fantasy tropes

When I began teaching in the writing program at Bendigo TAFE in 1999, Sara often visited as a guest speaker for our Myths and Symbols, Novel and Writing Industry Overview classes. In these talks she shared her vast knowledge of fiction writing and the Australian and international publishing industries. Yet again I was learning from her. One day, in response to a question by a student about plotting she answered, ‘I write with cards – 20-30 cards. I know I have a novel when I’ve found 20-30 key scenes that I can see vividly in my mind. Usually I write straight through the first draft once I’ve settled on those key ‘dramatic’ scenes … Sometimes I’ll shuffle the card/scenes around a bit – changing the order as I write. Usually each key scene forms the essence of a single chapter. After that it’s just filling in the dots – i.e. linking those key scenes together into a narrative.’

I’ve never forgotten this wonderful advice to writers.