Researching For My Teen Historical Novels, by Pauline Francis
I love doing research. Most historical novelists do.
When I first began to write about the Tudors, I read everything from text books to popular biography and other people’s novels of the same period. For example, you might know Philippa Gregory’s novels, especially The Other Boleyn Girl, which was made into a film.
Students are always reminded that there are primary and secondary sources of information. In other words, you can sometimes find out what you want from words spoken or written by people who lived at the time (primary) or written by other people who have studied those primary sources (secondary). Go for primary if you can. Historical writers are in luck. With no telephone and texting or email, people wrote letters, sometimes several times a day – or kept diaries. Both Lady Jane Grey and Princess Elizabeth did – but I had to remember that they might be writing in a bad temper, or worse, under duress, which might affect the truth of what they wrote. The love letters that Henry VIII wrote to Anne Boleyn are exquisite, making his murder of her all the more heart-breaking; but I was able to use them to have my Elizabeth character remember the love they had shared.
Historians using primary sources often have a particular point of view or argument to prove, so they might give a biased account of what they have researched.
If I can, I visit a place associated with my characters. This is sometimes worth more than weeks of research using books.
When I was writing Raven Queen, I was able to visit the ruins of Bradgate House, in Leicestershire, England, where Jane was brought up. By chance, I went in February, the month in which she was executed. The surrounding woods and parks were deserted because it was so cold. The ruins were shrouded in mist. On the railings, somebody had left flowers for Jane to mark her death. This completely overwhelmed me. The thought that somebody remembered her after hundreds of years certainly gave an emotional kick to the novel.
When I was writing Traitor’s Kiss, I visited Princess Elizabeth’s house, where she lived under virtual house arrest for some time and was interrogated. I saw what she saw when she was fighting for her life.
However, I didn’t visit America for A World Away. The island where the first colonists landed – Roanoke Island – is now a popular holiday resort. Instead, I found a piece of English coast which is completely undeveloped, as Roanoke would have been then.
You might remember from earlier posts that I don’t like putting too much historical detail into my novels. What I’m always looking for is the unusual or a small detail that will make a plot or character believable and acceptable. For Traitor’s Kiss, I needed a trinket that the stranger, Francis, could give to Princess Elizabeth in memory of her mother, Anne Boleyn. I wanted it to be perfume, because that is often how people remember each other. Elizabeth was only two years old when her mother was executed and she might remember her mother’s perfume. I gave up the idea because I thought ten years was too long for perfume to keep (although I think it might). Two pieces of research made my day… I discovered that, in the 16th century, perfume was always in a cream form (wouldn’t that be good now, for flying regulations?) and that Elizabeth had inherited her father’s keen sense of smell. When I read that sometimes poison might be added to perfume to kill – it all became part of the novel: both as a memory link between Elizabeth and her mother and for cruel allegations from Anne Boleyn’s step-daughter, Mary.
Sometimes, I go that extra distance for a result. In A World Away, I wanted to use five words of Algonquian (a Native American language of Virginia and the Carolinas) to remind the reader that the kidnapped Nadie would have spoken that language and that this is what the colonists would have heard when they arrived in America. I contacted an American language reprint series to purchase a small booklet from them. It was really important to me that my kidnapped girl should have a name in her language and I was able to choose Nadie, which means ‘wise one’. It gave me an extra thrill to remember that in Spanish, it means ‘nobody’, which is how her captors thought of her.
I really believe that if you dig deep enough, there’ll be a tasty bit of information that will transform the writing. So start digging.
Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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