I’m delighted to welcome Annie Whitehead to my blog today. Annie is both a historical novelist and a historian, and here she lets us into her writing secrets. Over to Annie:
September 15 2018 saw the publication of my first full-length nonfiction book. I’m incredibly proud of it, and sometimes look at the pages and think, ‘Did I actually write this? How?’
But then, sometimes I look at my historical novels, and think the same thing, so perhaps it wasn’t that difficult.
I do remember that the research process for the nonfiction book was difficult and, at times, frustrating. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that authors of historical fiction don’t do diligent research, but this was different, somehow. There were many points at which I had to think not ‘Why did this character behave in this way?’ but ‘Do we definitely know that he did this?’ I had to be absolutely sure, or it couldn’t go in the book, at least not without some exploration of the veracity of the source in question. I found the research very stop-start, whereas the fiction research could sometimes be left to one side: I’d write the chapter, and then go back to fill in the details about what the characters would have been eating/drinking/wearing.
I’m sure all fiction authors will be familiar with the brackets, or the red text that will prompt them to go back and fill in exactly how many hours a certain journey might have taken at a given time of year and precisely which type of carriage/horse/train would have been used.
I did find though, that once I had all the research in place, the writing process for the nonfiction was perhaps easier because I had everything I needed; it was then just a question of putting it all in the right places.
So my experience would suggest that:
Fiction = do as much research as you need in order to get the scene written, but don’t let the research slow your flow.
Nonfiction = don’t write a word of your book, not even the introduction, until all your research is done.
Which do I prefer? Well, that’s really difficult. Writing fiction, there were times when I was happy that there was a gap in the records. When characters disappear from the pages of the chronicles, the author is at liberty to make up all sorts of stuff about them behind their backs. Gaps in the records don’t help the nonfiction author much though, leaving little choice but to say, ‘We simply don’t know.’
The reverse is also true: When we know for a fact that a person was in a certain place at a certain time, it makes piecing together the nonfiction story so much easier. But it’s very inconvenient if that person’s known and recorded presence gets in the way of a good fiction story arc. Then comes the difficult choice of removing them altogether or changing the dates. Either of those decisions might be frowned upon by readers.
My nonfiction book is a history of Mercia, and by the time I wrote it I’d written three novels all set in this ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom and all written about characters who actually lived. In the course of my research, I discovered new (to me) evidence about some of these people, which I thought might be at odds with my original portrayals, but I found that I was able to keep my nonfiction, historian’s hat on throughout the writing process, and could separate my fictional characters from my factual subjects.
I’d come to an especially tricky period of Mercian history, where kings chopped and changed almost with the days of the week, and at a time when murder was still as good a way as any of removing ones’ political rivals.
In the early eighth century the royal dynasty which had retained power from the middle of the seventh century was on the wane. A successful king, Æthelred, son of the famous pagan king, Penda, had won supremacy over the powerful Northumbrian kings, and decided that his latter years would be better spent in contemplation, so he abdicated and retired to a monastery. He had a hand in choosing his successor and, though he had a son, Ceolred, he chose his nephew, Coenred, to take his place. The nephew reigned for a few years, to be succeeded by Æthelred’s son. It seems Æthelred was right not to pass the kingship immediately to this son, who turned out to be rather feckless and Ceolred seems to have been pretty much universally loathed. Some even think that he was poisoned.
The official history then declares that the crown passed to Æthelbald, who was no direct relation of the previous kings and reigned successfully for the best part of half a century.
There is one – just one – mention of another ‘C’ king, by the name of Ceolwald. Was he another son of Æthelred’s? If not, where did he come from? What happened to him? Whoever he was, his reign, according to this particular list, was sandwiched between that of Ceolred and Æthelbald.
Ceolred died in 716, and Æthelbald succeeded in 716. So where did Ceolwald fit in? If he had indeed been related to the ‘C’ kings, and if indeed he became king, then he surely didn’t reign for very long and this hints at some kind of palace coup. And for the historian, that’s it. That’s all we can say about him, unless we follow the example of one eminent historian who simply declared that the one and only source which mentioned him had ‘simply got it wrong.’
But oh, how the novelist part of my brain was whirring! Of course, if he were to be included in the plot of a novel, he’d have to be introduced so much earlier. Was he the brother of the feckless king? Was it he who administered the poison? How did he then get bumped off? I got quite giddy with the possibilities and, who knows, he might just make an appearance if I write a third novel in my series about Penda and his family.
Research is never wasted. Whether it involves the chasing down of every charter issued by a certain king or finding out when the fork was first used at English dining tables, it all adds to the files. For nonfiction, we can try to pin down every known detail, which is extremely satisfying, and for fiction we can base chapters and chapters on one single record. Both are equally rewarding.
Photograph above is Annie’s own, the Repton Stone, said to depict King Æthelbald.
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