Friday, June 8, 2012





            from Peter Faulkner’s Website      

When we catch up with William in the second part of Fly Out of the Darkness he is in a little round boat that doesn’t fit him, knees uncomfortably up to his chin. His problem is that it is made to his friend Marion’s measure; she has given it to him to escape from their enemies who are hot upon his trail. These Crocodile Militia are notorious for their wickedly constructed boats, prows carved like snarling crocodiles and sharp knives set along their keels to slice anyone trying to elude them.  I invented those cruel boats; coracles, on the other hand, came to me ready-made.

            That’s why using an invented world rather than an historical setting is so much fun: I get to take what I like from history and make up the rest!  It all began when I was brooding about self-sustaining communities. Surely, as in the case of Native Americans on our continent, there had once been sustenance enough for all in England’s green and pleasant land? How had they gone from self-sufficiency to wealth so concentrated in the hands of the few that many poor went starving? Had it always been that way? The history of the fen dwellers’ resistance, with their intrepid Fen Tigers pitting themselves against Merchant Adventurers and Dutch Engineers (they were actually called that)  for hundreds of years before their marshes were finally drained, gave me both my setting and my plot for The Marshlanders Series.

         I wanted to invent a world for my Marshlanders in order to create a swift narrative line uncluttered with historical detail.  Besides, I had spent so many years canoeing and kayaking marshes and rivers in the United States that I didn’t want to limit myself to either American or English flora and fauna; I wanted to celebrate the beauty and solace of both.

        On two trips to East Anglia I saw a huge, flat, drained landscape, richly arable, but very bleak under a vast, forbidding sky, swept by cold east winds off of the North Sea.   I looked at the hydraulic plans of the Dutch Engineers,  maps of their drastic changes to the landscape over the centuries,  at spinning Jennies and looms, peat shovels and eel baskets, punts from which I would invent the Marshlanders’ longboats and, yes, an exhibit of coracles.

         I stood entranced before the little round boats, made for just one person out of willow that was dampened, bent into curves, and held in place by a seat athwart the middle.


                              From Data Wales  

These ancient craft, which Caesar mentioned and which are plied by river and marsh folk all around the world, are covered with animal skins or cloth treated with waterproofing before being stretched over the framework. A coracle can be used for long distance travel, during which the one small paddle is plied in figure eights from the bow; or for netting fish, with the fisherman holding the net in one hand and deftly paddling with the other.

             Eustace Roger’s Coracle

There was a personal element underlying my entrancement with little boats.  In 1946, the war over at last and my father able to take the summer off, we lived on a motor boat in the harbor of Southport, Connecticut, moored in an estuary sheltered from Long Island Sound.  I was nine years old, deemed too young for sailing lessons, but I was wakened every morning by the shouts and laughter of sailing classes rigging up their cat boats for racing competitions, which was all, I noticed, that they were used for. These were known as “one-man” craft because the single sail could be easily handled by one child alone at the tiller. I used to sit on the deck munching my breakfast and just longing to sail one of those handy little boats all by myself  into the marshes that lay astern. 

            We had a little dinghy to row ashore and I usually took it to the dock, tied it to a cleat, and sped off on my bicycle for a long summer day of adventure and mischief with my friends.  But one afternoon when there was nobody to play with I took my dinghy the other way, into the salt marsh, moving gently in and out of the reeds  under that comfortingly warm afternoon sun. There were all kinds of creatures to  keep me company: spiders crafting intricate webs between frond and frond; eels going about their mysterious business among the underwater grasses; a soft shelled crab scuttling along the bottom, and blackbirds chortling far above the sedges, bending and swaying over my head.  Best of all,  pervading everything, the most  marvelous aroma of tidal sludge was exuded from great banks of  bluish black mud in  all that heat, acrawl with snails and hermit crabs.   

            So that, too, is where it all began.

“Say what you will about light on the lagoon at high tide, I’ll take a redolent mud flat at any time,” remarks Father Robin toward the end of Fly Out of the Darkness.  “Now that’s the Beauty of Holiness.  When all is said and done, yes, when all is said and done, there is a very great deal that can be said for low tide mud.”

            Did I mention that he’d gotten out there “bobbling and scuttling across the lagoon in a coracle, paddling away for all he was worth”?



  1. How utterly fascinating. I love these little coracles. You were a lucky girl to discover water's edges so young. Your posts lead me to an hour reading up on East Anglian fen marshes and the struggles of the natives against the king and his developers. What imagination you have to draw on that and your own experiences in creating the stories of Clare!

    1. Thanks, Joy. It's always so useful to get some feedback!