Pigeons are fascinating, but they need context, a story and a conflict to be an interesting topic for a book. I thought and thought about how to frame pigeons to make them come alive for others. I wanted a battle. They’re always good for conflict and action. I needed human characters. I figured a book with battles and pigeons would make a great young adult book, so I picked a boy just entering his mid-teen years. He would be the caretaker of the pigeons. I’m good a boy’s points of views; after all, I had brothers.
Research revealed that girls more often than boys cared for fowl, including pigeons. How awesome. I now needed a female protagonist. A girl, also entering her mid-teens. Strong willed, but with a hard life.
Now I just needed to select which battle. Romans used pigeons extensively for messaging. Their use of them spread with the expansion of the Holy Roman Empire. Tentacles stretched throughout Europe, into England, and reached parts of Asia. Wherever they went, their buildings, customs, and culture followed, including pigeons.
Southern France, in particular, continued the culture of dovecotes and pigeons long after the Romans had been driven away. Southern France, I thought. A gorgeous area, a great setting for a novel, but I knew nothing of its customs or culture or language. Maybe something in England.
I asked some friends for important English battles. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was suggested. What a dramatic and interesting historic period. And it’s England. I know English, I know something about English culture and customs. I’ve read quite a bit about Alfred the Great (849 to 899 AD). What I didn’t know was that after Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon England and the region that is now Normandy underwent great changes. In England, Christianity had replaced the older, pagan, beliefs. Normandy had been carved out of the Frankish empire by Vikings. The Normans adopted many of the Frankish ways (such as feudalism and the Church), and they had already begun to have a great influence in England.
So much to learn. I research and read. I talked to a professor at the local university. I visited Hastings. And still I do not feel I “know” these Anglo-Saxons who lived and worked and loved and hated and breathed on the high cliffs above the Narrow Sea, or what we now call the English Channel.
If I had known how much I did not know, I might have selected some other time, some other place. But I’ve grown to love this medieval time period, sitting at a cusp in time with its complex culture and on the edge of a great conquest, which, in the end, did not replace the rich context of Anglo-Saxon England.