The inspiration for my Daughter of Byzantium series and first book, Sigura
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In 2006 I was on holiday on the Aegean island of Lesvos, formerly Mytilene, and the final crisis of Sigura, its setting and main characters came to me over the course of a couple of days. It was the start of the tourist season, early June, and the beach was very quiet; there were only eight or ten sunbeds anyway, and it was so peaceful there you felt guilty having a quiet conversation lest you disturbed the other couple on the beach. So, apart from reading, I spent most of my time gazing out to sea at the islet and the reef where a yacht had run aground, along the bay to the castle, and watching the sky and sea.
Over the course of that fortnight I conceived the idea for the novel, but it was another five years before I set pen to paper in a systematic way. I used that time to research the wider history, the food and drink of the medieval period, the orthodox religion, and herbs that grew locally and may have been used in folk medicine. Unfortunately I could not find much in English on Greek medieval social history so, using artistic licence, I built up a picture of life in fifteenth century Greece by adapting what I knew of English medieval history to the Mediterranean climate and topography.
During these years before I retired I developed the central characters and wrote a few descriptive passages. I also took the opportunity to look at local textiles and embroidery, and important locations that would feature in the books. I was nervous of actually starting to write a novel, however. It was not until I began a Community Education course – Craft Your Novel with Jill Harris and Jane Elmor – that I felt I had the tools and encouragement to start writing. It took another seven years of review by my Bootcamp friends and Silver Crow Books, and three or four re-writes, but finally I reached the point where Sigura could see the light of day.
Lesvos is a surprisingly large island with limestone mountain ranges, pinewoods, fertile coasts and plains, and large wetlands. Sigura, based on the modern town of Sigri, is known as ‘the town at the end of the road’ It is really remote and must have seemed completely isolated in Medieval times – a truly blank canvas for the imagination to play upon.
So why did I choose to write in the Byzantine period? I have an abiding memory – I think from The Swift Annual of about 1960 – of a story set in Byzantium, with an illustration of a man dressed in black, on a black horse on a starlit cobbled lane (goodness knows how he could be seen!) I knew that the atmosphere that this scene evoked was one that I would love to re-create. Such tiny seeds planted in the memory, finally germinate.
And of course, the themes of making your way in the world, of taking your own decisions for good or ill, of exploring all the possibilities for your destiny, have to be among the most fruitful veins for any author.
© Liz Hutchinson 2019