The tools for research available to historical novelists have changed considerably over recent years with a wealth of data now available online and search engines making access to it appear relatively easy, but basic methods have changed little. Research still requires diligence and patience and the investigative skills of a detective, and Catherine Gaskin would have known all about that.
Every author will have their own approach to accessing the information needed for writing historical fiction. Here’s a snapshot of how I go about it – at least for now!…
I begin with the internet. Of course I still use reference books and libraries, but the internet has become the quickest and most direct way of gaining an overview of most subjects. It’s fast, although not very reliable; anyone can post anything on the web, and instances of mistakes appearing in Wikipedia are legion. So in researching my latest novel, ‘The Lost Duchess’, I moved rapidly from an internet trawl to the history books after my interest in the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke was sparked by a reference in John Sugden’s biography of Sir Francis Drake (a book I read while researching my first novel). The internet pointed me to works of reference, and it gave me leads to ongoing investigations such as those conducted by The Lost Colony Center for Science and Research. While I was still in the midst of unravelling the history, the news broke of an intriguing discovery: a patch on a map in the British Library was found to conceal the icon of a fort – could this mark the spot where the ‘Lost Colonists’ had relocated? I decided I’d try to work that finding into my story as well – a good example of historical fiction keeping up with the latest findings!
As a novelist I invent stories, but I always strive to begin as close to the known facts as possible. My story-writing fills in the gaps while the historical evidence provides the framework. For this I start with the first-hand accounts, as many as are extant and relevant, and I’ll read them in their original unmodernised form. I was fortunate to find most of the first-hand accounts relating to the Lost Colony compiled in ‘The First Colonists’ edited by DB and AM Quinn. This became my bible and was always on my desk. It contains Governor John White’s record of the 1587 expedition which endeavoured to establish the first permanent English colony in America. White kept this as a kind of diary and it’s the only first-hand account of the expedition that we have. I’ll confess to taking a particular delight in exciting episodes in history for which there are few records. The less that’s known for certain, the greater is my freedom to imagine!
The reference books may make the history accessible and put it in context, but they’ll always be interpretations. My story is yet another kind of interpretation which takes the primary sources as a starting point. I soon whittled down the non-fiction texts to a handful that were really useful to me, and Giles Milton’s ‘Big Chief Elizabeth’ was amongst the best of them. Just as important were two catalogues of paintings by John White with expert academic analysis of his work and its significance. Thanks to Amazon’s supply of second hand books, I was able to acquire most of the salient reference material and keep it ready to hand. So I have ‘A New World: England’s First View of America’ and ‘European Visions, American Voices’, both edited by Kim Sloan, the latter edition stamped with ‘Dawson UK Charity Book’. (Quite what will happen when all ex-library stock books are sold into private hands I don’t know – perhaps then everyone will have to rely on Project Gutenberg!)
Once I was sure of the background to the story I wanted to write, I set about sketching a detailed outline which I refined with the help of input from my agent and editor. Then the next stage of research kicked in, and I set off for North Carolina to spend over a week exploring the Island of Roanoke, the Outer Banks, and the wider area around the Pamlico Sound. This was followed by trips to Puerto Rico and the sites of some of the old royal palaces in England, at Greenwich and Richmond, and the still glorious Hampton Court. I also went to Plymouth, and the tiny village of Fifield in Oxfordshire, and a host of other places with a connection to the story. It’s really important to me to get a feel for the narrative settings on the ground, even though they may have changed hugely over time. I like to ‘be there’ and soak up a sense of the lie of the land, the climate, and atmosphere through what traces remain that shed light on how these places would have appeared in the past.
The next and final layer of research is all to do with detail and the recreation of the experience of living in the late sixteenth century and through the events at the core of the story. I try to take the reader into the beating heart of the history, and that means being sure of the minutiae of daily life, just as much as the macro events that make up most historical ‘fact’. Books such as Liza Picard’s ‘Elizabeth’s London’ are helpful in this, but there are many more resources available to a novelist intent on conjuring up the past. I visited museums and art galleries, castles and period houses. I went back to the ‘Golden Hinde’ reconstruction near London Bridge to remind myself of how damp, dark and confined it must have been below decks in a galleon, and I pored over volumes of Elizabethan maps, costumes and recipes. I listened to the music of Tallis, Byrd and Dowland, read Shakespeare afresh (and reflected on the performance of Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Tempest’), planted a quince tree and rubbed rosemary for the smell.
I even acquired a working caliver, a kind of prototype musket, made to order as a faithful replica of the firearms that would have been used by Elizabethan adventurers. I found it helpful to handle such a weapon, learn how it would have been fired, and hear the violence of its report. I became like a magpie picking up anything that gleamed of the Elizabethan era. Much of this kind of research had to be done as I went along, aided by the fact that my first book was set in the same period so I was already familiar with much of it. Even so, the wealth of detail needed in order to make an historical novel convincing is immense, and far more than can be committed to memory (at least not mine!), so I found myself hunting for information again and again with each new scene. I needed to know how an Elizabethan lady dressed, and how an Algonquian Indian applied body markings, White’s techniques of limning (painting in watercolours), and the protocol observed during an audience with the Queen. In the details, historical fiction comes alive, and getting immersed in it, and the mind-set, is all part of the writing process – I think of it as method acting for authors!
Then the story takes over…
Jenny Barden’s novel The Lost Duchess is published by Ebury Press and is available from Amazon and all good book stores