Harry Nicholson, author of Tom Fleck, is my Friday Guest

Posted: August 26, 2011 in Friday Guest

The writing of Tom Fleck – an unexpected novel

I’m thinking back, trying to discern how I came to write an historical novel. When I was tapping out Morse in the pitching wireless cabins of tropical steamers, it was not in my mind – though I read all the books in the ship’s library. A career in television studios might have brought it about – thirty years working with stories in pictures soaks the mind with images. Now I’ve retired I have more time to imagine at leisure – perhaps I’ve just reached the proper age to be a teller of stories.

This tale is about ‘Tom Fleck’ and his struggles to be a free man in Cleveland, North Yorkshire, but a Cleveland of five centuries in the past.

***

The story of an unknown man.

It is the first session of a creative writing course at Whitby Coliseum. The tutor calls out: ‘I want a fifty thousand word draft of a novel from you lot by the end of term. You can take the theme: ‘something lost and something found’’.

I mutter, ‘In that case, I won’t be here next week, I’ve only signed on in the hope of sprucing up my poetry; a few bits of free verse, maybe – but not a novel!’

Four years later and it’s finished.

Tom is a young Cleveland (Yorkshire) farm labourer living in 1513, the fourth year of Henry VIII. I’ve drawn out a character from the unrecorded masses, so that we can engage with the lives of ordinary people of the Tudor North East. He lives before 1566 and the beginning of parish registers so, like his humble neighbours, he leaves no record. But this is a beauty of fiction; we can use it to breathe life into lost generations.

We find his rare surname eighty years later in the register of St. Hilda’s church at Hartlepool:

Baptisms 1596, September 19th: Christoferye child of Willm. Fleck.

I like to imagine that William heard tales of how his great grandfather, Thomas Fleck, loved a strange woman and stood with the army on the terrible battlefield of Flodden. This story brings him to life.

The characters seemed to manifest on stage as they wished and I was startled at how they came to inhabit and then to control the story. I chose the year 1513 because an international conflict would disturb the hum-drum lives of the Flecks.
I’d not expected that the struggle on Flodden Field would become such a dominant feature – but it drew me in.

Over four years of writing, the mood of the times was gradually built. The journey was rich; it led to fascinating places and sources:

I’ve squinted through glass at The Royal Armouries at Leeds, made notes of the footwear of archers and saw how they slung their arrow sacks, gawped at the metal work of the English bill and the Scottish Lochaber axe; wondered at the unwieldiness of the 18 foot Swiss pike.

A friend’s casual remark caused a rewrite. That fine historian insisted that only yeomen (men with investment in the land) were allowed the long bow. Common labourers were not trusted with the equivalent of the modern rifle. I had now to find good reason for lowly Tom Fleck to carry his grandfather’s bow.

The same friend was writing a learned work on the drovers and drove roads of the North country. Now Tom Fleck could wander these same forgotten tracks.

Each Christmas I’d chat up my son’s partner, who is a herbalist, to discover more about the old ways of healing among the peasants.

After the first draft was done, I discovered that Fleck is not in fact a Cleveland name – but hails from Galloway! Tom could have a change of surname or I could do a rewrite that would explain how he came to have Scottish forebears. I did the rewrite and found new and richer threads of possibility.

People sometimes said, ‘You can’t have Rachel Coronel in the story, the Jews had been banished and did not return until Oliver Cromwell’s time’. Rather than cut her fascinating character and that of her father, I dug and dug. Great joy when I found that just a few useful Jews were permitted in London. In fact, it was a later Iberian Jew visiting London who gave warning to Elizabeth that Spain was building the Armada.

And when you have hints of love between cultured Jew and Yorkshire labourer – what would be the outcome? This led to interesting issues in an England just a few years before the Reformation.

***

So – to the novel. Here are some excerpts from the novel. Fragments of Tom’s landscape and life:

He is with his father, about to dig into a Bronze Age burial mound on the Cleveland Hills:

They waited for a day of drizzling low cloud when they could dig the mound in secret. Clear weather would paint them, like standing stones, against the skyline. Francis sat on a rock in the clinging mist and, grey-faced, stared at the burial mound. His eyes closed and his face softened. Not for the first time Tom watched his father fall into a trance.

***

Tom has a sister, Hilda:

She fixed him with a desperate stare and struggled to speak. ‘Where else can we live? We can’t just wander the tracks from parish to parish. But I don’t want to stay here, not now Mam and Dad are gone.’ She let out a sobbing cough. 

Tom stopped eating and moved to her side. He put his arms around his sister and felt the trembling of her thin shoulders. ‘Now, don’t fret. We will have our own spot. There’ll be apple and damson trees, with hens of all colours scratching about underneath. Mind – thou will have to tend them. Meg can have some pups and they’ll have white stars on their foreheads like her own. I see a milking nanny goat to build you up and you’ll have a cosy bedchamber – with a mirror of polished brass so you can see to comb through your bonny locks.’ He stooped to kiss the crown of her head.

She straightened up and hugged him. Then, pushing him away, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hands and giggled. ‘Have a care! I might hold you to that! Now eat your supper.’  

***

They have a neighbour:

Agnes Humble stood, knife in hand, staring, as she often did, towards the single-toothed outline of Roseberry Topping. The hill reared up in isolation as though cast adrift into the Cleveland ploughlands from the dark crags of the moor edge. As a girl she had done some courting on the sheep-cropped turf of that hilltop. Each morning when she looked that way, she remembered him and those bright days. Where has all the time gone?    

***

He is tested on the Scottish border:

‘Form into a column fifty men wide,’ a breast-plated marshal shouted above the chanting of the priest. ‘Stay to this side of the beck. Follow Saint Cuthbert’s banner.’

But let’s not give too much away.

The novel took a while longer than expected. It trundled for a year while I studied creative writing with the Open University. I hit the keys for ‘The End’ twelve months ago, and went on to revise and revise and revise. I began to agonise over semi-colons and Mark Twain’s rule of: ‘When you see an adverb – kill it’; this was a sign that the actual storytelling might be done.

Tom is now free to walk out of the door and range across the North, over the Land of the Three Rivers (County Durham) and beyond.

 ***

Tom Fleck is listed on all Amazon sites (at £7.99 but often discounted). There is also a Kindle version that has been professionally converted.

The first chapter can be read on my Blog.

There are also poems, short stories and some art work.

May you find enjoyment.

Harry Nicholson

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  1. […] The long and the Short of it link to Tom Fleck guest post […]

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