Why I needed to tell the story of an unknown man.
Do we ever wonder about our distant forefathers and mothers, those who lived before our great-grandparents, and even before their great-grandparents? What can we know of them? Beyond even our parent’s parents there is sadly just white fog - for most of us.
We can penetrate the fog a little. Family history research has never been more popular. Folk beaver away through the mass of data now on the internet. But what does it yield? Seldom more than the bare bones of names and the dates of baptisms, marriages and burials, and those only if you are lucky and persistent. Personality is not found; we don’t see tears or hear cries of joy, there are no flushed cheeks and beating hearts. No whisperings in the night time.
A few scraps of bone we might find here and there, as we search back through time – but then we reach a solid wall. That barrier is the darkness before the start of parish registers (in England, 1566). This is the end of the search for our ancestors - unless they were aristocrats or notorious rebels.
I’ve trodden this way, back to a mysterious ancestor: Lancelot Horsley (probably a fisherman). In 1573, he buried his first wife and two infants, then remarried and had two healthy sons. That is all I’ll ever know of him; his beginnings are on the far side of that barrier, so there is not a single mark on parchment to show that his parents ever existed.
But what if I write a story? A story about the life and times of people perhaps two generations before Lancelot? I can research how the ordinary folk of his district lived, how they spoke, what they believed to be true, and how events beyond their control swept them along. Why not? So I went for it!
One rare name stepped forward from the Hartlepool records and caught my attention – a little family called Fleck. I imagined their great-grandfather as a Thomas Fleck, a humble farm labourer. He would be a young man in a formative year. 1513 was the year of the Battle of Flodden, a conflict that gave rise to the haunting Scottish lament: "The Flowers of the Forest are a' wede away". Fine – so how could I contrive a situation where the humble Tom Fleck would have to leave his kindred and re-discover himself in the midst of international struggles beyond his comprehension?
First, I built his world from scraps of social history and old maps, gave him personality and a family, gave him troubles and yearnings, gave him turning points, cross-roads, helped him deal with enemies and make hard choices. His struggles with love across the boundaries of race and religion took me into fascinating areas of research. All this in order to try to understand how some of our ancestors might have walked the land.
It is done. A whole generation has come alive. They walk and run through the pages and I love them all - even the villains.
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