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Not quite a world away: creating the dual settings of The Serpent House

Somewhere very deep under the streets of the village where I live, lie the remains of an old leper hospital. It was here in the tenth and eleventh centuries – so around a thousand years ago – and it’s how my village got its name of Spittal.

It’s something I always wanted to write about. There are some ancient documents relating to it, but not many, and there are some fascinating local legends too. I drew on some of these when I was creating the fantasy worlds for The Serpent House.

I say ‘worlds’ because, technically, there are two settings for my main character, Annie, to explore. Serpent House is a historical time fantasy, but unlike many time slip books, which start in the present day, this one has the late Victorian period as its primary time and the early medieval era as the period of the past. Linking the worlds proved surprisingly easy: the Victorians were fascinated by the medieval period and you can see this in their art and literature. They were also very interested in illness, often in quite a rather morbid way.

Three of my great-aunts were in service in large houses in Newcastle and Cumbria at the turn of the twentieth century, so I mined some of their stories, passed down through my family, and backed up these accounts of daily life with historical records from places like Cragside in Northumberland.

Writers of historical fiction face something of a dilemma: how much fantasy can they use, and how accurate do the details need to be? For me, it was important to start with as much carefully researched fact as possible, for both the medieval and Victorian worlds.

In my head, I plotted out the leper hospital as it might look, and I drew upon as much research and documentation into these places as I could.

But the novel is also a fantasy, in which the reader has to accept a certain degree of magic in order for the time travelling to take place. So I also felt I could take a little bit of writer’s licence with parts of the setting.

The large aristocratic house when Annie works is filled with emblems and images of snakes, and these become the portals by which she is able to travel through time. One room in the leper hospital is full of strange and exotic creatures, collected by the mysterious doctor on his travels and used in his magical experiments.

If it were not for these extra, magical elements, I think most of these worlds would be recognisable to anyone who lived at the time – if my research is correct, of course!

It rather goes to show that many fantasy worlds have their roots not too far from the writer’s real world. In my case, somewhere just beneath my feet.

The Serpent House by Bea Davenport will be published by Curious Fox in June 2014.

About barbarahenderson

Degree Programme Director, Multimedia Journalism, Newcastle University. Former newspaper and BBC journalist. Commercially published novelist for adults and children.

One comment on “Not quite a world away: creating the dual settings of The Serpent House

  1. kateormand
    September 13, 2013

    Great post, Bea!

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on September 13, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , .

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