How Blending the Past and Present Allowed Me to Ask: "What If?"
Along with being an author, Finian Black is a doctor who served in the British Army. He lives in Winchester, which is chock-full of medieval reminders of the time and story inspiration. In this article, he talks about how playing with myths and legends — stories steeped in history but often in little solid facts — gave him the freedom to weave elements of the past into his modern-day novel.
Every story, whether it's a parent making up a simple tale for a sleepy child or a sprawling saga, can be boiled down to a simple question: what if? So, whenever a new idea for a story starts to take shape, the first thing I do is look for the magical question that gets to the heart of it all, and everything flows from there.
Writing allows me to ask, "what if?"
I live in the beautiful cathedral city of Winchester near the south coast of England. It's a great place to wander around, and wonder about! The idea for my new historical fiction novel, The Final Raven, came during a visit to the Great Hall in Winchester, where an ancient round table has hung on the wall for centuries. As I looked upon that table, one question sprang to mind: what if a child discovered they are the last living descendant of King Arthur? Simple as that, I was ready to get started.
With the base idea established, I had to think about where the story might go. The "what if?" part is always the easy bit! What follows is countless hours of story mapping, character plotting, running up blind alleys and falling into bottomless pits as the story takes on a life of its own. I asked myself: Would it be set in the present day or recent past? Who is this child? What is their background? Why now, after so long, would it come to light that there is a living descendant? And, of course, how much of the existing Arthurian legend would I incorporate?
How my story blends the past with the present
Writing The Final Raven presented me with the interesting challenge of weaving fact and fiction, and past and present together. The idea of a brave warrior called Arthur dates back hundreds of years and has been adapted many times to suit the storyteller’s aims. Was he a Roman general? Was he Celtic or Anglo-Saxon? Welsh, French, English? He can be whatever we want or need him to be, and that’s a big help. I wasn’t constrained by facts, because there weren’t many to begin with.
However, being rooted in Arthurian legend, I knew that there were some road signs readers would expect in my novel: Merlin, a sword in a stone, the Lady of the Lake, and Morgan le Fay, to name just a few. But I didn’t want to just re-write what’s already been done so well before, so I purposely toned down the obvious Arthurian elements, bringing them subtly into present-day so as to not distract from the story I wanted to tell. Lastly, I knew I needed a very strong cover that would convey mythical history but also appeal to the YA demographic. The cover designer I hired through Reedsy, Edward Bettison, captured exactly that with the bold typography and visual of the Tower of London raven.
Pulling from the Plantagenets
Many of the kings during the Plantagenet period used the myths of Arthur for their own propaganda, and their stories are more incredible than any fiction. Furthermore, the Plantagenet period was hugely important in shaping what modern Britain looks like — which made it a great source of inspiration both regarding the historical aspects of my book and my modern-day characters. My historical research about this time period was extensive, delving into the lives of the different kings and what drove them to act the way they did. Two of the books that helped my research immensely were Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets and Desmond Seward’s The Demon’s Brood. Both brought to life the period and its individuals in a way that was invaluable.
The Plantagenet period saw great kings like Edward III, but also terrible ones like John — and it is the terrible ones that first come to mind when thinking about this period. The bloodletting, violence, and cruelty were beyond anything we see in Game of Thrones, and those who wanted to challenge the king had to be prepared to act abhorrently. Amongst the pool of eligible individuals, it was often the maddest that took the crown. All of these qualities provided ripe inspiration for my villain and clarifying his motives: which is to be king, at any means necessary — an ancient grievance of his. He is someone with medieval values in the modern world, and this combination makes him a lot of fun to write.
Drawing from the legendary Tower of London Ravens
As for the novel’s title, The Final Raven? Well, I’ve been fascinated by these wonderful birds for a long time. They are intelligent, beautiful, and mysterious. From the outset I knew that I wanted to incorporate the famous legend of the Tower of London ravens in my story as I find it to be a very powerful tale. The legend says that if ever the ravens were to leave the Tower, Britain would fall. There are different views on just how old this legend is. It has been said it only goes back as far as World War Two, when Churchill used it as propaganda to build national resolve. Others suggest it is a Victorian story. I like to believe the version that tells of King Arthur slaying a Celtic warrior called Bran at the site of the Tower. In this version, Bran turns into a raven and it is his descendants who still live there today. Magical!
This legend offered me another great chance to blend mythical pasts and presents by incorporating modern technology: in my version of the story, the ravens are implanted with microchips so that the villain can track their demise on his tablet — green, to amber, to red! I used the motif of the dying birds as a countdown through the book, culminating in a race to save the last bird… but if you want to know more, you'll have to read the book!
It was important to me to go back to the Tower while writing this novel — which was fine by me! I love it there. It’s a thousand years of history brought to life in front of your eyes (much like a well-written novel can be!), and of course, you can meet the ravens. The Ravenmaster is a real person, too — he’s active on Twitter. Check him out.
I've written stories since I was very young. Words are magical things — they can amaze, inspire, scare, and excite us. I love books that make me want to read one more page, then another, and another. To be a writer, I passionately believe that you also have to be a reader. Use of language shapes us, teaches us, and helps us find our own voice. I once read that the first million words we write *are* just practice for the proper writing that follows — in other words, keep going. Never lose sight of how to improve, and never worry if a paragraph or page doesn't flow. It might not make the final edit but it all improves our skills as writers.
This book is the first in a series of three, and will be continued in The Devil's Blood, due out April 2018.
Interested in learning more about conducting historical research? Sign up for our Reedsy Learning course: How to Research a Historical Novel or Nonfiction Book
Please share your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Finian Black in the comments below!