Writing historical fiction in the digital age can be a perilous art.
The Internet offers a big megaphone to the self-appointed watchdogs of authenticity who love to pounce on and ridicule mistakes they find in novels based on history.
So when Rockridge resident Patricia Bracewell decided to write a historical novel based on a relatively obscure queen and other real people in Anglo-Saxon England a thousand years ago, she knew she was in for a lot of research.
And now — after extensive reading and trips to England, Denmark and France, along with a Cambridge University class and sojourns to the archives of UC Berkeley and Stanford — her first published novel, Shadow on the Crown, is being issued by Viking Adult with an official release date of Feb. 7.
She's holding a launch party at Diesel bookstore, 5433 College Ave., in Oakland, on Feb. 8 at 7 p.m.
She will also be selling, signing and reading from Shadow on the Crown on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2 p.m. at the Oakland Hills Tennis Club, 4575 Redwood Road, Oakland. (No Berkeley book signings are scheduled to date.)
The novel revolves around a woman from Normandy named Emma, whose marriage at age 15 to the Anglo-Saxon king paved the way for the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
Bracewell — a former high school English teacher and composition instructor for Herrick Hospital – traces her long-held desire to write novels to a childhood spent reading. She discovered the subject for Shadow on the Crown when she "stumbled across Emma in an online bulletin board," she told Patch in an interview.
Bracewell found that Emma, who became a queen, had commissioned a book about herself, Encomium Emmae Reginae, written about 1041, and that it was available in a bilingual Latin-English version through the local public library.
That was 2001, and Bracewell was still far from carving out time and resolve to write a novel, in part because her two sons were still living at home.
She was daunted also by the need to get the history right.
"I didn't really commit for several years," Bracewell said. "I kept putting it off because I was terrified by the research. I was an English major, not a history major."
By 2007, when both sons were in college, she had begun extensive reading.
"I decided I needed more," she said. That summer, she went abroad for a two-week intensive course in Anglo-Saxon history sponsored by the University of Cambridge. Other trips included Normandy, origin of both Emma and her history-changing great nephew, William the Conqueror.
And since the wars with the Vikings also played a prominent role in that period, she ventured to Denmark, where her research included the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde near Copenhagen.
She said her husband, Lloyd, who accompanied her on all her trips, "was really glad we were there (in Denmark) in October since it was too cold to go out and row the Viking ship. I was disappointed."
It turned out that the historical digging wasn't so bad after all.
"I love the research," said Bracewell. "The research is the best part."
"I'm still researching," she added, noting that she's almost finished with the second volume in a planned triology.
Bracewell, a native of Los Angeles who's lived in Rockridge since 1981, said she's always felt drawn to England.
Asked if she has English ancestry, she said there's a belief that the family roots go back to the time and place she's writing about, though she lacks proof. "Supposedly if you go back far enough, there was a connection to William the Conqueror," she said.
She supposes her interest in English can be traced to the books in early childhood, beginning with Black Beauty and The Secret Garden. The clincher, she said, was a picture book of Shakespeare. "That pretty much did me in," she said.
Shadow on the Crown will be available Feb. 7 in hardcover, with a list price of $27.95. Amazon.com is releasing a Kindle version the same day for $14.99.