I often wonder why so many of us are ‘taken’ with fictional stories woven around historical fact and legend. Perhaps it’s the fantasy of it all, being able to put one’s self in the shoes of the characters or perhaps it’s the opportunity to be an armchair editor with the critical voice that says, ‘don’t do that, it makes no sense whatsoever and it’s not accurate.’ In any case, no matter what the reason, so many of us love to read historical fiction as travelers surreptitiously peeking into the past with our imaginations. And so many of us, myself included, love to create stories that take place in the past while the phrase, ‘what if…’ constantly whispers in our head.
For me, writing historical fiction is the best of both worlds. It’s a fascinating journey that can be intensely personal as surprises can take you into the realm of unexplored self-awareness. Nevertheless, the excitement comes in the magic giving oneself permission and time to research landscapes where there’s the possibility of discovering small treasures that have been hidden away for centuries…treasures that can spark the fire of the story.
Such was the case when I wrote ‘A Murder of Crows’, represented by my agent, Peter Miller, CEO of Global Lion Intellectual Property Management and currently under consideration by several major houses. When I first thought about the broad story, I knew for various reasons that I wanted it set around 1186 or so in England. Although I’d decided on one of the story threads, I needed that obscure (or nearly obscure) treasure to add to the mix, something that hadn’t been used or overused by other writers. So I went on the hunt and happily found it.
In 1184, the astrologers of Toledo Spain discovered the forthcoming and unusual configuration of planets for September 15, 1186. What was so significant about this event was that the astrologers interpreted the alignment as a sign portending ‘the end of days’. The alarm was raised through the legendary “Letter of Toledo”. Addressed to the Cardinal who would become Pope Clement III along with many scholars, this letter metaphorically set all of Europe on fire with its prediction of storms, pestilence, earthquakes, floods…you get the picture.
Aside from the fact that the end of days happily did not occur and that the ‘Letter of Toledo’ resurfaced several times in history after September 1186 (with change of dates predicting the end!), I was thrilled to discover this myth as it provided the perfect ‘historical’ thread to add to my story. Writing historical fiction takes perseverance, no question. You have to dig and dig and even if you find a small treasure, there’s always the possibility that the information is skewed. Memories fade, accounts are edited for various reasons, access to resources may be difficult, things get lost…not much has changed in 900 years. As the renowned British historical writer, Alison Weir states, ‘you just can’t make stuff up.’
THE END OF DAYS
SEPTEMBER 15, 1186