Thomas Chayne has never managed to impress his overbearing father, and when a small act of rebellion has lasting consequences, Thomas finds himself exiled in disgrace. But with England on the brink of civil war, a larger revolution is in the air and Thomas has an opportunity to prove his worth by rallying a troop of royalists to defend Oxford
from the escalating violence.
Putting your home town into fiction. The Storming of Cirencester!
They say write about what you know…and if it’s historical fiction you’d better make sure you’ve done the research! Good advice, but even when you think you know your subject pretty well there can be pitfalls. I wonder if Ian Rankin ever makes mistakes about the places in Edinburgh that Rebus mentions, and if so, does he get picked up on it? Laurie Lee put real people in Cider with Rosie and famously some declared that he had got most people right but not them!
I like to think that I know my home town as well as Rankin does Edinburgh, but I write historical fiction, so I need to get the facts about events right as well as the geography of the town. Over hundreds of years roads and buildings change, or disappear. And then there’s the fact that I was working on a novel. Where to deviate from the truth and when to keep it real? Should I be searching for old street maps?
I was born and brought up in Cirencester, a market town in Gloucestershire, England. The area was valued for its cloth, and strategically it is a gateway to the South and West. These things were important during the English Civil Wars. It was largely a Parliamentarian town, and was stormed in 1643 by Prince Rupert and his brother Prince Maurice. It was the events on this snowy day in early February that I wanted to put in my second novel for Allison & Busby, The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne.
Fortunately, there are two very good eyewitness accounts of the action, one from each side, so it’s possible to have a pretty clear idea of what happened. But in fiction the story is the thing. Engaging and keeping readers turning the pages is far more than simply relating the facts. And the storming of a town doesn’t conveniently all happen in one place. Several streets in the outskirts will be attacked at a similar time. Where should the forces gather once they are in the town, and if they take prisoners, where can they keep them safely out of the action?
Instead of trying to give an overall picture I opted to stick with Thomas as he did his bit in his first engagement of the war. It helped that he knew the town, and so didn’t get lost. It also helped that he was new to warfare, and was under command. That meant I could use other characters to hint at action taking place elsewhere without becoming ponderous.
No one wants long descriptions during the heat of battle! But troops on horseback could get split up in the maze of narrow streets in the centre of a town that was ancient, even in 1643. It would be easy for Thomas, who knew exactly where he was going, to get ahead without meaning to. And there were other things to consider. What if he came face to face with someone he knew? That ghastly situation was no doubt faced by many during this terrible war.
I did look at street maps. And two very useful plans of the attack and movement of troops were to be found in an excellent publication by John Miles Paddock for the Cotswold District Council in 1993, which I already had.
I’m very glad I chose to tell this small, violent part of my town’s history. It was something of a journey for me, having first got interested in the event when I was young. It was also a journey for young Thomas Chayne, because of course this book is his story, not mine. He appears in Oxford, Bristol, Norfolk and Flintshire, even up into Scotland. From my comfortable chair in Gloucestershire I was taken aback at how far he roamed. I hadn’t thought he would do that, or have the life he eventually led. He took me to places I had never been before, and taught me things about human nature that I didn’t know.
This novel was all his but, he also appears briefly, and significantly in my other novel for Allison & Busby, The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan. In that novel he demanded silently that I take the time to tell his story, and so I did. I think I was faithful to Thomas, and in spite of some tweaks here and there I hope I was pretty faithful to my home town. If you know the town I hope you will recognise it in the book. If you have never been there perhaps you will read the book and then go and see for yourself. If you’re lucky you might find a lardy cake, and the coffee is good in the King’s Head Hotel!
Free Event. The Storming of Cirencester! 29th February at 3pm. Cynthia Jefferies will be signing and talking about her latest book, The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, and the storming of Cirencester at Octavia’s Bookshop in Black Jack Street, Cirencester, down which her hero cantered. Nibbles of traditional lardy cake may be available!
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About the Author
Cynthia Jefferies wrote for many years for children as Cindy Jefferies. Her Fame School series for Usborne Books attracted world wide interest, and was eventually published in 22 languages. The books remain in print in the UK. More recently, she has turned to her interest in the C17th to write historical fiction for adults. As a child of ten she wrote a play about the escape of Charles II after the Civil Wars in the UK, and performed it with her class at school. From that moment she knew she would be a writer, however difficult it might be to achieve her goal. Success as a writer was hard won and so, while raising her family she had a variety of jobs, from working in a china shop to raising poultry, pigs and sheep; trying her hand at being a DJ, working behind the bar in a pub and dealing in junk antiques. “I think I have always been pretty well unemployable,” she says. “I always wanted to work for myself!” Eventually she did just that, starting a bookselling business which sold to schools all over the UK. It was while building up the business that she sent her first children’s novel, Sebastian’s Quest to Barry Cunningham, who first took on J K Rowling of Harry Potter fame. To her great surprise and total delight he took it on. “It didn’t do terribly well for him, so he didn’t want any more from me, but he was a great first editor to have, and was very encouraging.” After twenty years of writing for children she is now writing historical fiction for Allison & Busby. Her first, The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan came out in 2018 and was reviewed by the American Libraries Association. Their Booklist publication gave it a starred review, saying it was “Outstanding storytelling”. Find out more at Cynthia's website www.cynthiajefferies.co.uk and find her on Twitter @cindyjefferies1