How Do We Know What to Leave Out?
Research, for a historical author, is the most exciting part of the writing process, with the added benefit of travel. Research is where we find our inspiration, settle on our plots, come up with our characters and, of course, travel to locations where our heroes could have lived out their lives. Historical novels, for the most part, combine realistic settings with fictionalized characters, although they frequently include recognizable names from the past.
For me, a writer of Celtic fiction, the researching process begins and ends with travel, usually driving the country roads of Scotland and Ireland, countries rich in history. When I spy one of the ubiquitous brown markers indicating a historical site, I turn in to explore it. I’m intrigued by ancient castles, especially the unrestored ones in a state of ruin. These allow my imagination to soar.
CATRIONA began in just such a manner, with an unplanned trip to Stirling Castle. That particular day was windy and blinding in its brilliant blueness, an unusual occurrence for Scotland, the land of mists. After exploring the grounds, I climbed the stairs to the watchtower where Margaret Tudor, daughter to Henry VII of England and James IV of Scotland, waited for her husband to return from the Battle of Flodden Moor. This was a particularly difficult time for her because her husband and father fought on opposing sides. I’d read in the small brochure handed out when I turned over my nominal fee for visiting the castle, that she had carved a poem into the wall. The poem is no longer legible and no one really knows what her thoughts were, but standing there with a death grip on the parapet because of the terrifying wind, I imagined what they might be.
Jamie Stewart was a handsome, charismatic king who spoke 8 languages, fathered 38 illegitimate children, founded universities and demanded that the nobility learn to read. History tells us the marriage was not a love match, I decided, for purposes of my novel, that it was. That very day, the idea for CATRIONA was born. Why not, I thought, create a woman, a cousin, with ties to England, who needed Jamie’s protection for her own purposes? Why not pair her with her equal in intelligence, Jamie’s favorite, a border lord, who’d helped him win the crown? Why not set the two of them amidst the intrigue of the Tudor and Stewart royal courts?
Now my research gained focus. Had there been such a lord? Where could I find him? This is where the heaviest part of research takes place, locating information, reading, reading and more reading, learning about the time period, the political situation, alliances, religious affiliations, clothing, architecture, food preparation, weapons and flora and fauna of the time, familiarizing myself so that all of the above become second nature. Thank goodness for the Internet.
Sure enough there was such a man. His name was Patrick Hepburn, Laird of Hailes and his castle, Hermitage, a ruin, still stands, a sentinel of the fractious borders between England and Scotland.
At this point, when I find my focus, I create my fictional characters, filling in plot points, conflicts and resolutions. The best novels are those which combine internal and external conflict. History makes a historical writer’s external plot very easy to come by. Determining what to include and what to leave out becomes the challenge. My rule of thumb is, does the event or scene move the story forward? Is it necessary for the plot? Will it be interesting to readers who don’t have my background or stake in the subject? This is when I need the opinion of a fresh reader. Fortunately, I have people I can ask, usually my critique group, but others as well, to read and comment on my works in progress.
Finally, when everything is in place, once again I make my travel reservations and visit the actual sites of castles, villages and battles. Times have changed enormously in 500 years. The great forests and boglands once filled with oak, yew and animals of every kind are now fields and pasture lands. But with a little imagination, I find a spot away from everyone else, lean against the stones and close my eyes. Then the images come.
I hope you enjoy reading CATRIONA as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Check out the blog tab on my website, www.jeanettebaker.com, and read about my thrilling discovery of the forgotten, vine and lichen-covered tomb of Gerald Fitzgerald, last Earl of Desmond, beheaded in 1592, one of the characters in my novel, NELL.
Jeanette graduated from the University of California at Irvine and holds a Masters Degree in Education. For the remainder of the year, she teaches in Southern California, reads constantly, attempts to navigate the confusing world of Facebook and, more recently e-publishing, concocts creations from interesting cook books and enjoys the company of friends and her grown children. She is the RITA award-winning author of NELL.
Click here to find out more about Catriona and Jeanette's other novels.
**A big thank you to Pump Up Your Book and Jeanette for letting me be apart of Catriona's tour. I really enjoyed the book and I'm excited to read more about Scottish history and more by Jeanette! Be sure to check out my review of Catriona if you haven't already.**