BackStory: Five Questions with Carys Crossen
Author of God’s Image
What inspired you to write ‘God’s Image’?
I discovered Eleno’s story by accident. I had Googled the Inquisition after watching a film featuring the Spanish Armada. I saw the name Eleno de Cespedes in one of the results, clicked on the link and uncovered his fascinating life. It was such an amazing story and to the best of my knowledge hadn’t been written about in fiction, so it was an easy choice in that respect.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
I love everything by Laura Purcell, who writes Gothic fiction set in the Victorian era. Her work focuses on complex, flawed women who find themselves entangled in horrifying situations, not to mention being excellent reads. I’ve also enjoyed everything I’ve read by Sarah Waters. She’s a fantastic writer and her work (which was ground-breaking when Tipping the Velvet was first published) has highlighted neglected aspects of history, such as queer lives and relationships and the day-to-day lives of women.
And Philip Pullman, though best known for His Dark Materials, has written a quartet of books set in Victorian London and Europe. They’re marketed at children but deal with topics such as the legal status of women, the political upheavals of nineteenth-century Europe and the plight of the urban poor – not to mention being fantastic adventure stories.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
Eleno’s whole life is surprising! I researched his life and its happenings so as to get an idea of the character, as the piece is written from his perspective. The line about his having married ‘in God’s service’ is taken from a translation of records of his tribunal (in which he faced charges of sodomy, witchcraft, and pretending to be a man). What stood out was how brave he was to live openly as a man in an era when people were being tortured and imprisoned for less. He must have had a very strong sense of his own identity, which is what I tried to get across in the story.
I did research what his tribunal would have been like also, but this is where I took some liberties. As I had less than 500 words to convey everything, I cut out most of the formality and made it into a simpler opposition: Eleno versus the interrogators, his fluid worldview versus their implacable certainties.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
My favourite part is when inspiration strikes, and the story pours out of me. It’s wonderful. My least favourite is the editing – mostly because I’m a terrible editor! I find it hard to judge what needs trimming, what needs more exposition, where words can be cut. I have to beg my writer friends for feedback.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
Very! But it’s not the only thing a writer must consider. If you want 100% historical accuracy, there are superb historians out there who are doing a far better job than most fiction writers can (and even then, it’s subjective). I think it’s very important for a writer to do thorough, rigorous research into their historical setting but at the same time if you get too pedantic about it, a lot of drive and vigour gets sucked from the tale. It’s a balancing act. Too little research and you wind up with Braveheart (which I loathe for numerous reasons). Too much and you lose sight of the writer’s role, which is not 100% accuracy but to tell a compelling, imaginative story which, whatever liberties have been taken, rings true and is respectful to the historical source. And then there’s the annoying fact that even the most dedicated research cannot provide every necessary detail for a writer – some stuff just isn’t recorded, or it’s unclear what actually happened. So, invention is always needed.
Carys Crossen has been writing stories since she was nine years old. Her fiction has been published by several online and print publishers, and her monograph The Nature of the Beast is available from University of Wales Press. She lives in Manchester UK with her husband.
Photograph of detail of the creation of Adam (detail) from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photographer unknown.