Monday, March 02, 2015

Creating a Mosaic: Adventures in Research and Writing, an essay by Margaret Redfern

Margaret Redfern, whose novel Flint I highly recommended back in 2009, is here with an essay that takes readers through the often serendipitous research process involved in writing her latest book.  Flint told the story of two brothers, Will and Ned, making their way across 13th-century England to Wales as part of King Edward I's campaign to build fortresses in the land he plans to subjugate, and the second book is set two generations later.  In The Storyteller's Granddaughter, which begins in Turkey in 1336, a young woman encounters numerous adventures and obstacles as she makes her way to England in search of Will, her storyteller grandfather.

Margaret's own journey in search of details on how her characters lived is equally fascinating, and she has provided many gorgeous photos of historic sites in Turkey.  Flint was published by Honno in 2009 (£6.99), and The Storyteller's Granddaughter, also published by Honno (£8.99), appeared in 2014. 


Creating a Mosaic: Adventures in Research and Writing
Margaret Redfern

The process of writing – my writing – is a bit like creating a mosaic: lots of little coloured stones that have to be shaped and ordered to create an imagined picture. So where do these 'stones' come from? I wanted to separate this into 'headings', nice and orderly, but it doesn't work that way. Everything is interconnected. Maybe serendipity plays a part, or synchronicity...

The Storyteller's Granddaughter (SGD) is a sequel to Flint, 60 years later but flicking back in time to various points in the characters' stories, that ill-assorted group of travellers heading for Antalya and the autumn sailing to Venice. There’s more of Will's story, the narrator of Flint.

Flint’s central theme was of music, in the Welsh bardic tradition; SGD's is storytelling, in the Chaucerian tradition, but also the more ancient tradition of the Welsh bards and Oghuz Turks.

Everyone has a story to tell: everyone has secrets.

At the end of Flint Will, the legendary storyteller, says, 'for all I know I've a brat or two in this world.' So the idea for a sequel came about, sixty years from the end of Flint, two generations later. The central character is the granddaughter of Will, but where Will told stories, the granddaughter elicits them from those around her.

The setting is Turkey, a country I've known since the early 1970s: then (my first teaching job in a girls’ lise in Adana) it was the old southern Turkey of dancing bears in the street and nomads coming down in camel train from the mountains in September for the cotton harvest…

My travellers came in through this gateway. Walled, then, of course. The
fountain is just beyond, in the process of being excavated.

I made a special recce in 2012 to Antalya, and a pilgrimage to Konya and the Turkish Lakes. Antalya and that part of the coast is now very much in the 21st century, with dual carriageway and heaving traffic – until you are inside the Kaleici, the Walled City, and then you are in the Antalya that Kazan and Dafydd and their friends visit. Inland, Beyşehir (SGD uses its old name of Viranşehir, which itself means ‘the desolate city’) is old world, almost the 1970s Turkey of my memory. The Eşrefoğlu Mosque is real, a remarkable – and rare – wooden mosque over 700 years old.

Inside Eşrefoğlu Mosque
Turkey retains the same hospitality I remember from my first time there, and that described by the traveller Ibn Battuta, the Man from Tangiers, in his Travels, 1325 – 1354. He travelled further and for longer than Marco Polo, and his account of Turkey is first-hand evidence. I gave Ibn Battuta a walk-on part, and Dafydd became the translator Battuta mentions, the one who leaves him in Turkey.

Eşrefoğlu Mosque, Taken from the women's gallery

Jehann Yperman is another ‘real person’. I wanted a character with a harelip: Rémi. I Googled ‘medieval harelip’ and came up with the name of Jehann Yperman. He is remarkable, and so sadly bypassed. His books on surgery – written by choice in Flemish not Latin – deserve recognition. At the time I met a check-out girl in my local Tesco. I saw the unmistakeable lines of harelip reparation. She was more than happy to talk about her operation, her speech therapy…and so, synchronicity being alive and well, I was able to think through the life of my character Rémi, minus the speech therapy. A battered copy of Medieval Prose came in handy too; it had a section on the elaborate hand signs used by Benedictine monks.

Couldn't resist this one, looking westwards from Antalya.
Freya Stark explored those mountains.

There was a problem. I'd chosen a time which is an eye-blink in Turkish history. After the end of the Seljuk Empire but at the very beginning of the Ottoman Empire, for less than 100 years, Turkey was governed by beyliks of small 'states'. It’s a piece of history too complicated to tell tourists and casual historians. I've always liked 'in-between' times and places, but now there seemed little information.

Not a very inspiring photo, but this is the water pool in the mosque. There
is a light well above and a Turkish couple explained to me (in Turkish!)
that the stars were reflected in the water, and astronomers could thus study
the heavens.

And here is where synchronicity again comes knocking: Cambridge University Press had just published a History of Turkey, and volume 1 covered 'my time'. A million blessings on the head of Kate Flett, the editor, and also for her own book, with the snappy title of European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State. From that, it was a tiny step to find Nomads in Archaeology by Roger Cribb.

Another book that was bedtime reading was Peter Brears' fantastic Cooking and Dining in Medieval England. I had met Peter Brears in Bangor at a weekend symposium, The Impact of Edward I's Castles in Wales, just in time for the final draft of Flint. Brears must have been finalising his book as it was published soon after, in time for my research on SGD.

Another connection to that is the annual Lincoln Christmas Market. Last year I found the spice stall in the Bishop's Palace. Fabulous. I'd puzzled over Grains of Paradise and here they were, also the long black pepper I'd never heard of and that was going out of fashion in the 14th century. It tastes quite different from peppercorns.

Me doing the Turkish bit, head covered with Turkish shawl - a modern one
though I have traditional white muslin ones with beautiful beaded edges -
some of them over 40 years old now.

Food is important because 1315-1322 in Europe were years of terrible weather, bad harvests, animal fatalities, starvation and death for thousands. I was researching this in 2010, when we had a desperate winter and spring and a sodden summer. The first haymaking was in August; cereal crops were ruined; root crops rotted; there was talk of a grain price-hike, shortages…how did those people of the 14th century survive?

Dai the Welshman is the grandson of Dic, the rescuer at the Mawddach Falls in Flint. He has no gift for storytelling. He says, 'my Welsh tongue is tied if I try'. This is a reference to an ancient Welsh poem. Throughout Flint and SGD, I include ‘implags’ – implanted plagiarisms – references to other writers as part of the narrative. Not plagiarism but a nod to ghosts, and a tease for the reader. I love the idea, and include references not only to Dede Korkut but old Welsh verse, the Bible, Nasreddin Hodja, the Mevlana – all these as well as the chapter headings. (The same is true of Flint but that also references the symbolism of numbers.) Mostly we learn Dai’s story from others, and from the narrative, and his thoughts. He is a mystery: he seems quiet but others call him ‘dangerous’. He is a compassionate man with a terrible past. It is compassion that forces him to tell Kazan and Niko part of his story, and even then we learn of it partly through his memory, not his words, and partly through the other characters who lived in those famine years.

Beysehir - the Viransehir of the story - lakeside with boats and reeds.

The girl Kazan is the central character, the Storyteller's granddaughter. I deliberately didn’t give her a name at first. It's an ancient idea that you have to earn your name. She was named Sophia after her Nene (Turkish), her Nain (north Wales), her Nan (northern England), but she's never called Sophia. Her mother's name was Çiçek (Turkish); Fflur (Welsh); Flower (English). The connection is with the old stories of the Oghuz Turks, and the story of Bamsi Beyrek and the Lady Çiçek who can out-ride and out-shoot and out-wrestle any man except Bamsi Beyrek. I wanted some of the old traditions of storytelling, interspersing the prose with song or verse. It's a Welsh bardic tradition, prose studded with englyns, and also a Turkish tradition. Kazan is a male name, from the stories of the Oghuz Turks.

The road along the lakeside leading to Egirdir (old name is Egridir)

There was a problem of the clichéd girl masquerading as a boy, and how to explode it. She could not travel alone so I questioned where she would sleep; go to the loo; wash, because this was the hamam tradition of Anatolia and not mucky England. I used this problem to create an intimacy between Dafydd and Kazan. There is a very useful and informative website on the hans of Turkey ( that proved an invaluable guide – I got to visit some of the real ones too, as well as the virtual.

Konya - the Mevlana museum and centre - easily identified by the turquoise
tower/dome which replaced the original after the time of SGD

As well as ‘real people’ having ‘walk-on’ parts, there is the influence of the travellers’ tales and the astonishing maps, especially the Mappa Mundi held at Hereford Cathedral. Created by a Lincolnshire man, ‘Richard of Haldingham or Lafford' (Holdingham or Sleaford) recent research suggests a date of about 1300. There may have been a second map kept in Lincoln – certainly Lincoln is clearly depicted on the map, Steep Hill, houses, cathedral. I saw the Mappa Mundi for the first time a few years ago; a small group of us were standing there in awe and the woman next to me said, 'Is that it?' The rest of us became a lynching squad.

Blue the Fenman is not blue with Lincolnshire woad because it wasn't a centre for woad-making back in the 14th century. I had fun with his dialect. It was not possible to keep it purely 'fenland', so it is an amalgam of Lincolnshire dialects, trying to avoid obvious anachronism but trying also to include superstition, such as the ‘shivery spiders’ as an antidote to fever.

Konya skyline, looking towards the two breast-shaped mountains.

One other connection amongst so many not noted here is that of Ontario. I was staying over Christmas and the New Year with my son and Canadian daughter-in-law. I had already found that the best book ever on the history of Flanders was in Chatham Ontario Library. Now I realised that a different country means different websites and there was a report on the Toronto archaeological excavation of Alahan, that site in Turkey that I longed to explore but knew I couldn’t, and that Kazan and her Nene visited to reap herbs, and where she found the amethyst ring that was listed in archaeological finds from an excavation, Chatham library ordered the entire report, express from Toronto, and it arrived on the eve of my departure. Skim reading and note taking has never been so rapid. But what a find!

Synchronicity is alive and well.

Margaret Redfern, February 2015

(Margaret Redfern’s last book in the ‘Storyteller’ series, The Heart Remembers, is to be published by Honno in August 2015)


  1. Actually, I think the water pool photograph is indeed inspiring.

    I wish women in those countries didn't have to cover their heads, though.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for the post....:)

  3. Anonymous8:33 PM

    Great photos and a fascinating post!