I've always found that there are certain characters in books of whom I get so fond that I don't want to say goodbye to them when the book ends. The hobbits were like that; when I finished The Lord of the Rings, I walked around in mourning for some days because I was no longer in a world where they were. Perhaps oddly, Horatio, in Hamlet, is another. There's something I really like about Horatio. He's on the edge of things, watching, but loyal and caring and clever. I picture him with a long scarf wound round his neck, glasses, a shock of dark hair, a wry smile. A bit like a French assistant we had when I was in the sixth form, as it happens!
And it's the same with the books I write. A few years ago, I wrote a book about Alfred the Great. It was called Warrior King. It's out of print now, but like Arnie, it'll be back. Soonish, I hope! There was a character in there called Cerys, a magic lady, a wise woman, with silver eyes. I really liked her.
She emerged from my imagination, but the other character from that book who stayed in my mind was real. She was Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed (though in the book I called her Fleda - it made it less confusing, because there were so many other Aethel-whatnots hanging around). I discovered her when I was looking for a child who could be my point-of-view character when telling the story of Alfred - it was such a gift when I discovered that his oldest child was a daughter who would be just the right age at the time of the events in my story.
But Fleda became much more than that. I grew very fond of her. She was warm, impulsive, brave, and she could be defiant when she was defending something she believed in. I knew she must have been like that, because I knew that later, after the scope of my book, she married the Lord of the Mercians - and after his death, she became the Lady of the Mercians, Myrcna Hlaefdige, their de facto queen. She led them into battle and rebuilt their towns, and after her death, she was named in the Annals of Ulster as 'famosissima regina Saxonum', that most famous queen of the Saxons.
So when I got the chance to write a story for an anthology called Daughters of Time, a collection of stories about remarkable women from British history, written by contributors to the History Girls blog, it took no thinking at all to decide whom I would choose. I wrote about Aethelflaed at a time of transition for her, when she went from being princess of Wessex to wife of the Lord of the Mercians. It was an absolute joy to spend more time with her.
The only trouble is that the more I read about her, the more interesting she became. She had one daughter, Aelfwyn. She fostered her brother's oldest (but not quite legitimate) son, Aethelstan (who later became a great king of England): her brother was Edward, who succeeded Alfred. She fought alongside her brother; they must surely have been close. Yet after Aethelflaed's death, when Aelfwyn should have succeeded her, Edward rode in and carried Aelfwyn away into Wessex... and nothing more was heard of her. Edward became King then of Mercia as well as Wessex. Maybe she was put into a nunnery - or maybe not.
How much conflict and conniving, triumph and sadness, lie behind those few bare facts! I'd love to spend more time with Aethelflaed - and with Aethelstan and Aelfwyn. I'd love to explore their stories and try to understand their lives. One day, perhaps!
Daughters of Time is published this weekend. My story of the Lady of the Mercians is in there, but so are twelve other fascinating stories, many by writers who have blogged on An Awfully Big blog Adventure: Penny Dolan, for example, has written about Mary Wollstonecraft, Joan Lennon about Mary Anning, Catherine Johnson about Mary Seacole, Dianne Hofmeyr about Elizabeth Stuart. If you don't know much about any of these - as I didn't - you know what you need to do!