Digging for Gold: Historical Research and Story Gaps
"Writing historical fiction can be a strange endeavour particularly if, like me, your novels are woven round real people. Readers frequently come to your work with considerable knowledge of the period, passionate opinions about the people (woe betide anyone in the current climate who paints Anne Boleyn as a black-hearted witch) and a pretty clear idea of how it all ends. I was once advised to imagine my audience as a room full of Sherlock Holmes clones who all have a starred first in the subject I’m writing about – it was good if terrifying advice!
No matter what period you write about (and my chosen area is medieval) research is king. A reader has to feel, taste and smell your timeframe and they have to be able to trust that you have done your job thoroughly or they will walk away. Your credentials have to be made clear in the details but there must be a balance in how research is used: if your reader needs a PhD to work out what you’re on about, you’ve overdone it; if they can’t tell whether your soldier is slugging it out with a sword at Towton or dodging machine gun fire at the Somme, you need to have a think about your ingredients mix. It’s historical fiction but the key word is fiction: we are story-tellers not professors.
So we writers head to research to underpin our novels but we also head there with shovels at the ready to mine it for gold. The art of historical fiction is accepting the limits the genre imposes and then wriggling through the facts to find the wow. In other words, you cannot change the end but you can look deep into the sources and find the ‘I can see what they did but why on earth would they do it…’ moment. That’s where the stories lie. Very often both primary and secondary accounts of a time or a specific event will give you the deed but not the reason.
Or they will give you the reason wrapped in a thick coating of propaganda: ‘history is written by the victors’ is a truism not a cliché. The job of a writer is to look at what was done and then dig into the character’s head and work out what the triggers were for the murder or the betrayal or the so-carefully planned late-arrival at the battle. Social conventions and attitudes change and they need to be respected – no medieval queen mistook herself for a suffragette – but people’s motivations remain fairly constant and there’s usually sex, jealousy, money, hatred, love or sex somewhere in the mix. Shakespeare got a lot of history wrong but he got people very right.
When I was researching my first novel Blood and Roses about Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses, I knew I was dealing with a women who had suffered badly at the hands of propaganda. The Shakespearean She-Wolf portrayal was what he was paid for, it was clearly a long way from the truth. So I had a character with plenty of dimensions to explore, including her relationship with her husband (complex and politically frightening) and her son (a deep bond not an incestuous one), but I knew that was not enough to turn a plot on. So I went digging and a little fact started nagging.
At a crucial point in the ongoing conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster (Margaret’s side), at a moment when victory looked to be in Margaret’s hands, her army was refused entry to the city of London and her campaign fell apart. She should have been admitted, she expected to be, but she was refused. Not by the Mayor, not by the House of York but by Jacquetta Woodville, her one time friend and ally. All the sources record it but no one explains why. So I started to wonder: why would a strong female friendship collapse to the point where it ended in devastating, calculated betrayal? I had my story…
My second novel, which I have just completed, went through the same process. This time my story centres on Katherine Swynford and her long-standing affair with the twice-married John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III. There are lots of interesting things about Katherine’s life, not least that she was the poet Chaucer’s sister-in-law, but one of the most fascinating is that she is incredibly absent from the period’s chronicles.
Now you might be rolling your eyes and thinking: that’s because she was a woman and didn’t hold any office or importance, doh. (There’s always a doh). Fair comment but it doesn’t wash. Katherine lived in a time when propaganda was beginning to emerge as a strong political tool, when royal mistresses were not well-treated by the chroniclers and when John of Gaunt was widely-reviled as the cause of everything from plague to poverty. Change the angle of your gaze and her absence starts to look rather strange or, perhaps, rather deliberate. I got my spade out; I have a story.
Perhaps one day one of the awards given for historical fiction will be in the shape of a little golden shovel. I hope so, it would be fitting and there are a lot of writers out there who know exactly how to wield it. While I wait for those who know about such things to tell me whether book two has cracked the right seam, I’m working away on book three. I’m deep in the twelfth century, I’ve spotted something and there’s a Disney soundtrack on a loop in my head: “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go…”
Thank you so much, Catherine!
Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories - she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine - and regularly blogs as Heroine Chic
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