The key to writing convincing historical fiction is remembering that your characters are the most modern people of their day.
So says Andrew Greig, author of the first in our series of interviews with writers starring at this year’s Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival.
Greig’s Fair Helen has made it onto the shortlist for the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
The Stirling-born writer has taken a well-known Border song, The Ballad of Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea, as the inspiration for his novel.
Set in the lawless Borderland of the 1590s, it tells how Harry Langton is called back to the country of his childhood to aide an old friend, Adam Fleming, who believes his life is in danger.
He’s fallen for Helen of Annandale and, in turn, fallen foul of her rival: a man as violent as he is influential.
Entrusted as guard to the lovers’ secret trysts, Langton is thrust into the middle of a dangerous triangle; and discovers Helen is not so chaste as she is fair.
But Langton has his own secrets to keep – and other friends to serve.
Speaking to The Southern from his home in Edinburgh, Greig says it was only when he went to stay with a friend near Lockerbie and got the chance to visit the real Kirkconnel, that the idea of a novel featuring the area really came alive in his imagination.
Greig, the author of 21 books of both prose and poetry, told us: “When I saw it as a real place, with the churchyard, gravestones and the burn, that’s when I knew I could make it into a novel.
“When I was there, I felt the same rain on my face as those people did in 1597, felt the same wind and sun as them and it was that sense of connection that I needed to be able to write successfully about the past.”
And he stressed that remembering 1597 was the present day for his characters was the secret: “The novel is set in 1597 and that’s not the past for the characters - it’s the present and that’s what I always had to remember.
“When they were alive they didn’t know what was going to happen next – to them they were the most modern people in the world.”
Greig says he didn’t stick totally to the language of the 16th century for his characters, using more modern English, but scattered with Scots and bits of Latin and French, like “salt on porridge”, as the main character works as a translator.
He said: “If I’d written all the dialogue in 16th century Scots no-one would have read it. Those books filled with words like gadzooks sound very dated now, although they wouldn’t have been then - if indeed they did speak like that.
“But because 1597 is the present day in the novel, I wanted the reader to share that sense and so needed to use more modern language.”
Greig is delighted his book has made it onto the shortlist and says there’s been plenty of published historical work on the time of the reivers, but less in the way of fiction.
And he sees ballads like Fair Helen as more akin to Norse sagas; often sung, but also spoken.
He commented: “These were being written when the subjects were still alive – they were being mythologised during their lifetime – kind of like the days of the old Wild West and Billy the Kid.”