Sarah opens up on the tortuous route of the author’s imagination…towards swordmakers
Every author needs it. Something that sparks the imagination and begins the tortuous route that leads to a full novel. It might take months, or even years, but we all have to start somewhere.
For every book.
This is the story of one such route to inspiration
It started with a castle. This castle to be exact. Dunstanburgh, standing proud on a windy, sea-battered promontory on the Northumberland coast.
Northumberland is thick with castles and one autumn, years ago, I went on a castle hunting holiday. I had seen Alnwick, Bambrugh, Warkworth, several pele towers and one or two hill forts, but it was Dunstanburgh that caught my heart and my imagination.
We started from Embleton and walked the long, sandy beach with the white-crested breakers rolling in.
It was cold as only the coast can be, but warm coats, sunshine and the enticing ruins ahead kept us going. I was already imagining my hero galloping across the sand.
Having read the history, I knew the castle had been built by Thomas of Lancaster in the early 14th century on the site of an iron age fort. It was improved at the end of the century by John of Gaunt.
A route to inspiration for poets and painters…
The castle changed hands several times during the Wars of the Roses, but the sieges it had undergone left their mark and by the 16th century it was already a ruin. It was owned by the Grey family and became popular as a romantic ruin in the 18th century, painted by Thomas Girton and J.M.W. Turner.
Raised high on a mound that castle frowned
In ruined pagean-trie;
And where to the north did rocks jut forth,
In towers hung o’er the sea.
Proud they stood, and darkened the flood
For the cliffs were so rugged and steep,
Had a plummet been dropt from their summit, unstopped
That plummet had reached the deep.
Route to inspiration continues…
Now all this medieval majesty could have inspired me to write a novel of knights and maidens in distress, but my thoughts were turning more to my favoured period, the 18th century.
As we walked around what is left of the castle, I could imagine a party of riders riding up to the approach, and guards watching from the battlements.
In my mind I rebuilt the castle into a stronghold for my villain, making use of the existing stone building and of course adding wooden ones into the bailey for minions, etc.
I also found a window from which my embattled heroine might look out for her hero — not a knight in shining armour, but a Georgian gentleman complete with tricorne hat and a sword at his side!
But here my imagination stopped. I enjoyed wandering around the castle, mentally repairing walls, building stables, checking out the towers and generally setting the scene but the story was not yet written. In fact I had no idea what the actual story was going to be.
And I had no hero. Who was he, what was he?
That had to wait until my next visit.
The following spring, we visited a quiet, leafy little spot in County Durham. Shotley Bridge is a small village beside the River Derwent.
In the 17th century a group of swordmakers left Solingen in Germany, to avoid religious persecution, and settled there. The area had good quality ironstone and a wonderful source of water. (The Derwent provides very soft water, good for tempering steel.)
Very soon these swordmakers were making the highest quality swords, rivalling both Toledo and Damascus steel. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, their swords were much sought after.
This was the site of one of the earlier factories for steel making but unfortunately, after the industrial revolution they could not compete with Sheffield. The sword works closed in 1840.
The very last of the swordmakers of Shotley Bridge, Joseph Otley, died in 1896, aged 90.
Apparently the last of the Shotley Bridge steel companies was eventually taken over by the famous makers of Wilkinson Sword.
He would be a man from a sword-making family. He would be taking a consignment of swords to a stronghold in the north of England, a castle held by an opponent of the king (a nod back to the original builder of Dunstanburgh).
Aaagh — what does he look like?
Well, he’s tall and good-looking (naturally) with very fair hair and blue eyes (the Shotley Bridge swordmakers had those German origins). I leave the rest to the reader’s imagination!
Well… the bare bones of it. I had real life places for my setting, although I fictionalized them so I could add/remove or rebuild as required.
I threw in a goodly measure of romance (of course) and an added pinch of Jacobite rebellion. It was complete!
All apart from the actual sitting down and writing it, of course.
Now, many hours of typing later, the story is written and published as The Bladesmith.
So that’s one story put to bed. Now searching for the next one….