Article published on November 2, 2015.
One thing that I learned from studying for my MA is that history is slippery, subjective and open to interpretation. There are not as many facts as one might think. Two people viewing the same battle, for example, would give two very different witness statements of what happened. So when it comes to researching a historical novel I feel it’s important to get the framework as accurate as possible within the known facts and to fill in the gaps with informed historical imagination.
Some writers shudder at the word “research.” Others of us shiver with excitement and then fall into the trap of spending so much time on research that we put off writing the book itself. The next temptation is to include all of that fascinating detail you’ve learned. It proves we’ve done our research and we think it’s riveting so why not? Well, the reader doesn’t need an information dump. They need a historical world crafted out of that knowledge.
I recently chatted with one historical author who writes her books straight through, noting in the manuscript the places where she needs to do further research: “What smell here, what type of furniture, what style of carriage.” Other authors do the research first. Neither is the “right way”. What is important is what works for you.
With House of Shadows I was fortunate in that I have worked at Ashdown House for over 10 years and during that time I have absorbed a great deal of the history of the house and the Craven family, who owned it for 350 years. Even so I did a great deal of research into the life of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, whose story is pivotal to the book. My most useful resource was her letters. Letters give you an insight directly into a historical figure’s thoughts and feelings. With Elizabeth it was complicated though. She was a political figure and so her letters were often cryptic and guarded. Getting to the woman beneath was a challenge.
My favourite historical source was material objects: Elizabeth’s hunting trophies, portraits of her with William Craven, and Ashdown House itself, which Craven had built specifically for her. Interpreting these in the light of her relationship with William Craven was fascinating.
In the end, though, it’s all about the book. Wear your research lightly, and write it.
Nicola Cornick, October 2015
House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick is out on 5th November (Mira, £7.99)
Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler