The setting for Empire’s Daughter, as I have written before, is mostly informed by the landscape of Wales, northern England, and Scotland. But there is one aspect of Lena’s world that comes directly from the place where I currently am writing this (the East Anglian county of Norfolk, my winter home), and that is the underpopulation of the land.
East Anglia is that part of England north-east of London that juts out a bit towards Europe. Norfolk (North Folk) is the most northerly bit of that section. In the 14th century Norfolk was the most densely populated and most intensively farmed region in England. Now, it ranks 40th of the 48 counties in population density, the number of people per unit of land.
The depopulation of Norfolk is evident in its countryside: huge churches in tiny hamlets; many lost medieval villages, now only lumps and bumps in the fields; roads degraded to footpaths and bridleways. Its relative emptiness, huge fields, hundreds of miles of paths and trails, and bird-filled skies are what bring me here to escape the Canadian winter, along with a deep familial relationship with this land. It has nothing in common with the part of the Empire Lena inhabits, except the depopulation.
The depopulation of the Empire is hinted at, addressed obliquely but never directly. But it’s an empty land Lena inhabits, villages scattered and distant, too few men to defend the land against threats from two directions. The reasons for the Empire’s depopulation and that of Norfolk are pretty much the same, although the mechanisms behind them are different. (And no, I’m not going into any more detail…not at least until Empire’s Hostage, due in mid-2017, is published! You can always google it, if you’re curious.) None of this is fleshed out in Empire’s Daughter, although it will become much more evident and developed in Empire’s Hostage. But it’s still there, a history that even Lena isn’t truly aware of, but that will influence her actions and choices, the way the stories we carry around with us influence what we choose and think and do, without us always knowing it. I wove Norfolk’s emptiness into the Empire unconsciously, only recognizing what I had done after it was written.
But as all writers condense and relive their own experiences when writing, there is one scene in Empire’s Daughter that has nothing to do with the landscape of Britain. When Lena stops at the top of the hills and stares down at the the rolling grasslands in front of her, awakening in her a longing she didn’t know she had – well, that is an almost literal transcription of my feelings the first time we drove east out of the Rockies in Colorado and I saw the High Plains spread out in front of me, all that space, all that emptiness, all that sky.