The Somerset Tsunami

Guest Post by Emma Carroll.

I’m always on the lookout for story ideas. It’s pretty normal for me to have half a dozen stacked up in my head like aeroplanes waiting to land. I might not use them all, but they’re there, and that’s something I find very reassuring. Ideas, for me, are like reading material: if I haven’t got a healthy pile to choose from I get nervous, that these worlds, these inspirations might run out, and then what? That’s a point I do all I can not to reach.

History, for me, is a great starting point for finding writing inspiration. When choosing an era or an event, I’ll first consider if it would’ve interested my twelve-year-old self: is it dramatic, mysterious, a bit grim and gory, the sort of situation where an unlikely hero might flourish? 

I’m drawn to the personal, human stories embedded in history. These might be a family anecdote, an old photograph, the name of a distant relative. I’m always digging about in my family’s past for anything that might add to a story- just ask my mum or my aunt, who I’m constantly pestering for information on who did what, when! It’s amazing what brave, crazy things ordinary people got up to in their everyday lives. That love of personal narratives is also probably why I enjoy TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and This House, for their focus on the smaller, more private aspects of people’s lives.

And let’s not forget that history and personal stories are just a springboard, a starting point for a writer’s imagination to get to work. I’m not writing textbooks or memoirs: I’m writing fiction that happens to be set in another era, where characters might face different challenges, but their hopes and dreams will – fingers crossed- ring true for a contemporary reader. In short, I’m making stuff up.

Inspiration for ‘The Somerset Tsunami’ came from a story I’d heard snippets of in passing, but hadn’t really engaged with until, I suppose, my brain was ready for it. I’m Somerset born and bred, a fact that’s often influenced my choice of story settings, so the true account of a catastrophic natural disaster that took place in my home county, had to be worth investigating. It certainly appealed to my inner twelve-year-old, so already passed the first test.

On the morning of 29th January 1607, a devastating flood hit the Bristol Channel coastline of Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and South Wales. Over 2000 people drowned, homes and livestock lost, entire communities swept away. The sea travelled 14 miles inland, reaching as far as Glastonbury Tor. It was, and still is, one of the worst flooding disasters Great Britain has ever seen.

In 2002, Professor Simon Haslett of Bath Spa University, and Australian geologist Ted Bryant of the University of Wollongong found evidence to suggest the water had travelled very quickly and with great force, indicating a tsunami. Their research is the subject of a fascinating Timewatch documentary ‘The Killer Wave’, which can be viewed on Youtube.

Though convinced by the story merits of this incident, I didn’t want to just write a straightforward survival tale. I needed a plot parallel in which my main character would develop, and so I turned to other seventeenth-century narratives, namely those of superstition and witchcraft. The climate at this time was experiencing a ‘Little Ice Age’, which meant extreme weather events were more frequent. These were often considered to be punishments from God, and that something- or someone- was to blame.

Also around this time, in 1604, harming another person by ‘magic’ became a crime punishable by death. Although witch hunts in the UK weren’t as widespread as in Europe, I came across a fair few accounts of witch trials in Somerset in the early 1600s. 

It was at this point, I left history behind and began to ‘recreate’ my imagined version of this world. Much of the story is a classic bildungsroman, as Fortune learns about herself and those she cares about. There’s also a sense of the picaresque, in that despite her lowly status, she manages to outwit three rich and powerful men. 

I’ve moved the flood’s date to 1616, to include King James and Essex witch finder Matthew Hopkins in my story, even though there’s no evidence either visited Somerset: I did so to ensure a sense of gravitas and true peril in Fortune’s final scenes. Also, I’ve included a nod to gender issues- witch hunting being an explicit, violent example in history of where extreme views on female identity had terrible consequences. Despite living in a time of rigid gender expectations, my child characters all manage to develop their own sense of who they are and want to be, which is a message I’m keen to convey to my readers. After all, they’re the ones who’ll change our troubled, confusing world. I’m counting on them.

Competition: For a chance to win one of two copies of The Somerset Tsunami up for grabs from Faber&Faber answer the following question – Where was Emma born and bred? send your answer to blog@fcbg.org.uk. Competition ends 31st October and the winners will be notified by email.

The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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