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Octagonal chapel in the Aachen cathedral

Photo by Maxgreene, via Wikimedia Commons, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license

Even today, more than 1,200 years after its construction, Charlemagne’s octagonal chapel at Aachen Cathedral is awe-inspiring, as the entire palace complex must have been.

However, Aachen was the site of a mere royal villa in the 770s, when The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar take place. The year 788 is the first time the Royal Frankish Annals call the royal residence a palace, and construction on the chapel didn’t start until 792.

So what is a novelist to do? How close to stick to the known facts is a matter of never-ending debate among writers of historical fiction, and the subject led to lively discussion during a recent meeting of the Historical Novel Society Great Lakes Chapter.

My own opinion is to be true to the culture, historic personages, and the times as best as you can – my medieval characters do not start their mornings with coffee, for example – but feel free to take minor liberties for the sake of the story. It is fiction after all. And this comes from someone who consulted several sources to find out whether eighth century bishops wore miters (they didn’t).

One liberty of mine is to have the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the pagan Continental Saxons, near the fortress of Eresburg and its village. No one really knows where the Irminsul was, what it was made of, or even if there was only one, so placing it near Leova, the heroine of The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, makes sense for the story.

In the case of Aachen, I kept it a villa, although Alda, my heroine in The Cross and the Dragon, admires it and the spring-fed baths that were already there at the time. In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Leova is too worried about how to keep her family intact to pay much attention to her surroundings. I wanted to be accurate to the history and not jar the readers familiar with the events, but my other reason is that to use the distinctive octagonal chapel, as beautiful as it is with imported marble and a mosaic ceiling, would not have benefitted either of these stories.

Besides, the palace’s construction plays a small part in my third novel, tentatively titled Fastrada, which takes place from 783-792. Visit Unusual Historicals to find out more about how Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen was a great building of the era.

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