Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Bull At The Gate – Walking on History: Modern York as a Setting

Freebies! As part of the blog tour for the launch of The Bull At The Gate, comment on this post to be entered into a draw for a free e-copy of Books 1 & 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy.

The Bull At The Gate: Book 2 launched a few days ago. Its blurb is pertinent to this post, so please bear with me:

Nick has moved to York, a walled mediaeval city of crooked half-timbered houses and tight cobbled streets where historical re-enactment groups of Vikings thrill the tourists. Yet deep in the crypt of York Minster sit the foundations of an earlier occupation, the Roman fortress of Eboracum that garrisoned both the infamous Ninth Legion and the Sixth Victrix, and the stains of sacrificial deaths lay buried deep in modern cellars. When a female student disappears the police start asking awkward questions about Alice, and Nick finds himself a suspect. Why has an artefact from the Temple of Mithras appeared on his desk? Could Alice and the girl be trapped together, and if he frees the girl can he return Alice to him?

Is all this in the book? Yes it is. And it’s available for readers to visit in York.

Early in the research for the trilogy I made the decision to set the books in university cities within easy travelling distance to the North York Moors, central to the premise. The first novel was set in Hull when I realised the university’s student accommodation had been named after Celtic settlements in the area. It made sense to move the historical context up a notch, so for Book 2 it became Roman and York; for book 3 it will be Durham and Mediaeval pilgrimage.

I knew the Roman Empire referred to its northern capital of Britannia as Eboracum and that there were exhibits in the Yorkshire Museum, but beyond the gothic Minster and the city being a shoppers' paradise, what was viewable in modern York seemed more mediaeval and Regency. On my first research visit I joined a York Walk guided tour focusing on Roman York. It proved eye-opening, and when I do the same in Durham I’ll take along a voice recorder to make notes as I go; it’s so much easier than frantically scribbling in a notebook. 
York's mediaeval walls on Roman foundations

York is known for its mediaeval city wall, its embankments covered in daffodils any time now. I had no idea that beneath those pristine blocks and grassy banks laid the foundations of the defensive wall to the Roman fortress. Mention 5,000 men in terms of today’s small towns and it won’t raise an eyebrow, but seeing it marked on the ground is to realise the fortress alone was huge. The walls south of the river which cuts through the city guarded the colonia where an unknown number of civilians lived among its tenements, temples, Forum and administrative buildings.

My biggest leap forward was acquiring a copy of the out-of-print Ordnance Survey map of Roman York (1988) showing a wider river and excavation sites up to that time. The Temple of Mithras lies buried beneath the path of a mediaeval church in Micklegate. Artefacts from leather workings were found in what is now known as Tanner Row (!) beside the site of the Roman bridge which crossed into the modern Riverside Gardens.

Few Saxon-built churches survive in northern England, but since research undertaken for Torc of Moonlight I’ve been fascinated by the positioning of All Saints churches. Nearly all are close to water, some known to be obliterating pagan religious sites (the feast days correspond with the turning of the old year, the Halloween period beloved by horror movies). Close to where the Roman bridge crossed the river in Eboracum now stands a mediaeval All Saints church. It’s a lovely place, light and airy, with a 20th century anchorage attached replacing the mediaeval annexe destroyed during the Reformation, and a row of 14th century chancery cottages beside it. Inside, the church roof is held aloft by several slender columns, two of which date back to the Roman period. Does All Saints sit on top of a Roman temple? I’ve ensured it does in The Bull At The Gate.

Statue of Roman goddess Minerva above a doorway
Weaving historical and contemporary data into a fast-paced novel helps to add depth, but I am very aware that I am writing a romantic thriller and not a ‘guide to York’. However, I do want readers to be able to visit the city and walk its streets with book in hand, just as Nick walks them, and if it’s too far to travel, via Google Maps Street View.

And the Viking re-enactment groups? The novel needed to be set in February for the contemporary and historical threads to mesh. What better time to choose than during the annual Jorvik Viking festival when reality slips into the surreal?

If you’ve enjoyed this post please give it a Tweet (below). If you leave a comment or ask a question you could win both ebooks. This post is part of a listed blog tour. Last: Does Romance Need A Happy Ever After Ending? On Friday 14th: Crime Elements in a Non-Crime Novel.

Torc of Moonlight Book 1 is discounted to 99c/99p for a limited period.
The Bull At The Gate Book 2 is available in ebook only, paperback to follow
All Formats now – filtering through to iBooks, Nook, Kobo in a few days

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Linda Acaster said...

Thanks to British Romance Fiction for hosting this blog-tour stop. I have only touched using York as a setting, so if anyone has any questions, or experiences of detailing a real place in books read or written, please leave them here. Do you think it makes a difference to the reading experience?

Lindsay Townsend said...

Excellent post, Linda! Very suggestive re All Saints/Samhain and older sites. There's an All Saints church in Almondbury nr where I live and I'll be looking at it closely. I loved the way you used the York setting and its pagan/Roman/Viking elements in Bull at the Gate. Looking forward to how you use Durham as a setting!

On a slightly different tack I think it's wonderful that these 'older' aspects of Northern places are now being explored. Where I live the industrial heritage is rich and celebrated but it has tended to overwhelm the older history, espec when it comes to writing popular fiction. I was once told by an august body that because I came from the North I should write Sagas. I love Sagas but to write them is really not my thing. So power to you, Linda, for exploring these ancient aspects!

Alan Wilkinson said...

I'm interested in the strategy you have evolved - namely, to find a historical (and locational) theme to unite the three books. Setting them in places the reader may visit is also a canny move. Can you say a little more about the genesis of this strategy? How early in the process did it form in your mind? And would you now make the location (or a set of places) a starting-point for a future trilogy?

Linda Acaster said...

Lindsay: oh tell me about the "you're Northern so therefore should write Sagas". Give us a break! Pigeonhole the book into a genre if you must, but not the writer by location of birth. "You're female so should concentrate on a female point of view" is another I've had to contend with. Going indie was a delight in the face of all this. Has anyone else come up against this due to their location/sex?

[will now step off soapbox]

Durham is beginning to come together for the last in the trilogy, but at the moment it might not be as city orientated as the last two. That could be a problem for the symmetry so it is still up in the air. Never did I think I'd be weighing esoteric points like symmetry.

Thanks for calling by.

Linda Acaster said...

Alan: Strategy? I think the word to note here is “evolved”, because that’s what it did. ‘Torc of Moonlight’ was never meant to be based in Hull until I visited its university for research purposes, and when I looked at the wider aspects of a city that is primarily known for its deep-sea fishing fleet, I realised that it was ideal as a setting in this lesser known context.

With that working as well as it did, it made sense to carry the premise on to the next book. York is a gift for any period, including contemporary, as its centre is so walkable. There’s no having to travel by car (were would you park?). For ‘The Bull At The Gate’ it was just up to me to make it seem more claustrophobic than it is, and its hidden history helps immensely with that.

Would I use a set of locations again? If I were writing a trilogy or series, then certainly. I might even for a stand-alone. I had a reader who’d just finished ‘Torc of Moonlight’ tell me that knowing Hull really helped visualise where the characters were and what they were doing, and I think as writers we tend to forget that most people find it more difficult than we do translating words into imagery.

Thanks for calling by. You’re name is in the hat!

jean hart stewart said...

Very interesting to anyone who adores the British Isles, as I do. Have been to different locations many times, and love learning about it..Thanks

Linda Acaster said...

Hello, Jean! Thanks for calling by and saying so. Yorkshire, with York at its heart, is a large county by UK standards with an extremely diverse landscape, from green Dales with tiny stream fords, to windy moorland spread thick with purple heather (and now, alas, wind turbines more often than not), to the craggy coastal towns of Whitby dominated by its ruined monastic buildings and tales of Vampires. Something for everyone! I'm very lucky to live here.