The balance between imagination and research: guest post by Anna Belfrage

I have had the pleasure of being whisked away to the past by Anna Belfrage, a writer and friend I only met seven years ago, but whom I feel like I’ve known forever. We share a love of medieval history and historical fiction. Anna is a most talented and prolific author, writing both historical fiction and time travel. We are celebrating her latest novel – book 3 of The Castilian Saga – with this post on connecting a vivid imagination with research. Onwards, Anna…

There are days when my imagination is something of a burden. Mostly, that is not the case—I mean, I enjoy grabbing a stout stick in the woods and yelling “charge!” as I attack a nearby oak which has suddenly morphed into an evil enemy—but there are times when said imagination wreaks havoc on almost everything in my life, because it is very hard to resurface to reality when my imagination presents me with a much more exiting alternative.

This, of course, is why I write. All those wild ideas can somehow blossom into life on my laptop, thereby ensuring I don’t go totally overboard in my daydreams. (It would eb unfortunate if the desire to attack an evil oak were to overcome me in the city park. . .)

But imagination by itself does not suffice if you’re aspiring to write historical fiction. Yes, imagination helps with the fiction part, and by now my readers will know I am very, very good at putting my fictional protagonists through an endless series of twists and turns as they attempt to navigate the warp and weft of the historical tapestry I’ve included them in. But to get that historical tapestry right, the aspiring historical fiction writer needs to do research. Not exactly a hardship for a history nut like me, but couple a keen interest in history with a vivid imagination and suddenly I am spending hours, days, weeks digging deeper and deeper into something that will, at most, breeze by my reader in a couple of paragraphs.

Sometimes, that research doesn’t even lead to a paragraph. In my recent release, Her Castilian Heart, my protagonists are in Bristol, and a bustling heaving town that was back then (Still is, as a matter of fact). Bristol boasted one of the major ports of medieval Bristol, and while little of the medieval town remains—that’s the drawback with busy vibrant places, they keep on reinventing themselves, burying one layer of history under the next—there’s a lot of information to dig out, be it maps, casual mentions, detailed lists of expenses on behalf of the constable of Bristol Castle, etc. etc.

Now, I had this idea that while in Bristol, my female protagonist would end up in something of a bind and be saved by a Jew—this because I knew that Bristol had a thriving Jewish community during the 12th and 13th century. So, off I went to discover just where the Jewry had been located, hoping also to stumble upon an account or two about some of the more prominent Jews in the last few decades of the 13th century. I spent a lot of time on this, and slowly it began to dawn on me that by the time my protagonist visits Bristol, there were no Jews in Bristol. They’d left—or been forced to leave—several years earlier, the Jewry abandoned for a while before taken over by new people in need of somewhere to live.

At this point, I abandoned this particular line of research, but knowing myself, I’ll have to go back and try to find out just why the Jews left and where they went. The thirteenth century was not kind to the English Jews. Men like Simon de Montfort, whom we so often praise for being the “father of the English Parliament” (Ha! The man wanted an exclusive little club of men who’d act as counsellors to the king) was adamant in that the Jews had to be expelled. He did his best to drive them out of his domains in England.

 In 1275, King Edward decreed that all Jews had to wear badges—and were forbidden from lending money to Christians. In 1290, King Edward went one step further and expelled the Jews. They were forced to leave with what they could carry, all 3000 of them. Anything they owned automatically became property of the king, but while Edward at the time was seriously pressed for money—he’d run up huge debts between 1286-1289 while on the Continent acting as a mediator between the pope, France and Aragon—what little the Jews left behind would not have made much of a dent in the king’s mountain of debt. But in return for evicting the Jews, Parliament granted Edward a new tax which did go a long way in paying off his debtors.  

None of the above has any bearing on Her Castilian Heart. Yes, Noor—my female protagonist—and her hubby, Robert, will find themselves in a series of dangerous situations, but at no point will she be saved by a brave Bristol Jew—because there simply weren’t any around to save her.  Medieval Bristol, however, plays a significant role in the story—as do a sequence of characters who live there, from the Welsh landlady of The Dragon Knight, through the successful Flemish merchant Master Pauwels all the way to the fair and seductive Tilly and the orphaned urchin, Jack. The city they live in, the churches they worship at, the massive bridge they cross so regularly to get to the Templars and back—those details are based on research.

Some would consider the time I spent researching something that never made it to my story a major waste of time. I don’t. I learned something new and who knows, in a future book I may very well have a Simeon of Bristol doing whatever needs to be done to save the day. My imagination has already presented me with a vivid image of Simeon: about as wide as he is tall, this man has a head of wild dark curls (only his wife sees those. In the day to day, they’re firmly held in place by his coif and hat) and dark eyes to match. When he laughs, he makes a rather endearing clucking sound, and God help anyone who challenges him at chess. See? Sometimes, that vivid imagination of mine can come in very, very useful!

Her Castilian Heart

Blood is not always thicker than water…

At times a common bloodline is something of a curse—or so Robert FitzStephan discovers when he realises his half-brother, Eustace de Lamont, wants to kill him.  

A murderous and greedy brother isn’t Robert’s only challenge.  He and his wife, Noor, also have to handle their infected relationship with a mightily displeased Queen Eleanor—all because of their mysterious little foundling whom they refuse to abandon or allow the queen to lock away.

Eustace is persistent. When Robert’s life hangs in the balance, it falls to Noor to do whatever it takes to rip them free from the toothy jaws of fate. Noor may be a woman, but weak she is not, and in her chest beats a heart as brave and ferocious as that of a lioness. But will her courage be enough to see them safe?


About the Author
Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with three absorbing interests: history, romance and writing. Anna always writes about love and has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England.  More recently, she has published Her Castilian Heart, the third in her medieval Castilian series set against the conquest of Wales. She has also written a new time travel romance, The Whirlpools of Time. Find out more about Anna, her books and enjoy her eclectic historical blog on her website, 

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  1. Anna Belfrage Avatar

    Thasnk you for hosting me, Char!

    1. Char Avatar

      Always a pleasure, Anna!

  2. Anna Belfrage Avatar

    And that should be Thank, not Thasnk…

    1. Char Avatar


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