Sunday, June 12, 2011

Guest Post from Evan Ostryzniuk, author of OF FAITH AND FIDELITY

OF FAITH AND FIDELITY: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter’s Throne is the first book in the English Free Company series set in the late Middle Ages, by Evan Ostryzniuk. The English Free Company is led by Geoffrey Hotspur, an orphan-squire and ward of the mighty Duke of Lancaster, whose driving ambition is to become a knight and serve a great lord. Of Faith and Fidelity takes place in 1394, at the height of the key to winning the throne of St. Peter was control of the Patrimonschism of the Western Church when the throne of St. Peter was contested by rival claimants in Rome and Avignon. Unable to settle the dispute peacefully, both sides resorted to war, and the y, a band of territory stretching the breadth of Italy that owes fealty to whichever pope who can rule it. Before Henry V won his miraculous victory at Agincourt, before the Borgias had done their infamous deeds, there was Geoffrey Hotspur, a man as tall as Charlemagne and armed with a sword that rivals Excalibur. Thrown off the established path to knighthood, the ambitious and hot-tempered Geoffrey finds himself caught up in the war between the two popes, where he must adapt his beliefs and apply his training as a squire in order to survive.

Please join me in welcoming Evan Ostryzniuk!

Imagining the setting one step at a time
by Evan Ostryzniuk
One of the most difficult tasks for the writer of historical novels is reconciling the fictional setting between what it looks like today, what you want it to be, and how contemporaries saw it. This acquires greater importance when spatial relations have to make key contributions to the plot. Because Of Faith and Fidelity features a number of castles, cities and battlefields, I had to make sure that I understood the physical relationships of urban and rural topographies if I was to offer a convincing portrayal of the challenges my characters face when negotiating them. If I can’t run up a set of stone steps to reach a parapet without huffing and puffing, then I cannot in good conscience have my man-at-arms, weighted down with a sword and armor, probably suffering from some sort of chronic ailment, racing aloft and confronting his opponent in full readiness, no matter how much his medieval adrenalin is pumping. Finding the logical range of action for a (non-superheroic) character is the duty of every historical fiction author.

Wandering around a medieval castle today can be a sullen experience because of how thoroughly so many of them have been hollowed out, leaving the author with a negative impression of castle life. At the northern Italian city of Marostica, which is famous for its chessboard main square, the medieval curtain walls and gatehouses survive intact, although they are worn and barren but for a small museum. At first glance, the fortifications look dull, and they are practically isolated from the town proper, as though today’s residents are embarrassed by them. If I were to transpose these initial impressions to the fictional page, I would be misrepresenting their true relationship with the objects of its protection. On close examination I found that the main gatehouse was full of holes – not from the impact of cannon fire, but rather from the insertion of timber. Studying how these mysterious apertures were aligned, I discovered that the beams that were once there must have supported extensive terraces of several levels that projected well into the city. These terraces, I assume, were rented by merchants, patrolled by sentries, and used by the town fathers for important announcements. Building on this knowledge, I imagined canopies, balconies, curtains, and all sorts of decoration that eventually adorned the naked walls with rich and dynamic structures. The fortifications not only protected Marostica – they were well integrated into the life of the great city.

All authors need to imagine their settings in great detail, of course, but the physical presence of him or her at these locations, regardless of changing uses and structural alterations, can do wonders for building that fictional environment, supporting its veracity, and offering opportunities for discoveries that deepen the narrative. It’s the little things that matter, and more to the point, the things that are left out by contemporaries. Cities are a major challenge in this regard. We live in an age of the metropolis, where everything – simply put – is bigger. On my tour of medieval Italy I was astounded by just how compact and isolated even the great cities were. Their former citizens must have felt this. Siena, for example, is a marvel of form and function, with an enormous cathedral, magnificent main square (which is round) and enough houses for the city to be divided into competing districts. It was one of the centers of banking and a stop along the great pilgrim route, yet at a casual pace I crossed the breadth of Siena in an hour! Even considering Siena’s modest urban sprawl, I can’t help but be convinced that the average medieval citizen felt dwarfed and isolated from the endless forests and fields that would have surrounded his or her city. As a writer of historical fiction, I feel compelled to emphasize this essential distance, for it affected contemporaries’ worldview, and from that how they interacted with city and country.

The author of historical fiction has to take especial care when reimagining battlefields because he or she has to consider so many factors and conditions. Few medieval battlefields are preserved in any meaningful sense, and contemporary chroniclers tended to focus on the deeds of great knights, unless the conditions had a critical impact on the battle, like the mud at Agincourt or the heat at Hattin. Every reader wonders what it must have been like to be laden with armor, packed in dense ranks and brandish a heavy weapon in the face of an enemy. I know what fascinates me is the intensity of the combat experience. Understanding strategy is fine, but what I want to know is how much did the men-at-arms sweat as he stood for hours on an open field, what kind of traction did he have, or how difficult it was for him to move in full harness. When I walked around the fields of Anghiari, I tested the resilience of the ground, hazarded the distance to the surrounding hills and the town itself, and I tried to create for myself the perspective of a Florentine foot soldier who might have stood in 1440 where I was standing in 2010, awaiting the charge of the Milanese on that fateful June day.

Evan Ostryzniuk was born and raised in western Canada, where he attended the University of Saskatchewan. After graduating with a B.A. in History and Modern Languages and an M.A. in Modern History, Evan did post-graduate work at the University of Cambridge, concluding five years of research with a doctoral thesis on the Russian Revolution. He eventually found his way to eastern Europe, where he took up positions as a magazine editor, university lecturer and analyst in the financial services sector before finally settling on writing as a career. He currently resides in Kyiv, Ukraine. Of Faith and Fidelity: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter’s Throne is his first novel.

1 comment:

Pricilla said...

An interesting topic and I've not seen it covered before in historical fiction.
thank you