How Research Leads to Authentic Writing of Historical Fiction
Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague, as the subtitle suggests, tells the story of three women- Emmott Sydall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock- who were alive to see plague arrive from London and decimated the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England. Emmott, Catherine and Elizabeth really did live during that harrowing year of 1665-1666 when a plague-infested box of cloth from London introduced the universally-feared arrival of Yersinia pestis– bubonic plague- to the quiet village of Eyam. But what facts are known about them, both contained within the historical record and the oral tradition, are somewhat limited. It is possible to place them in specific houses, identity their family members and the key dates for their lives. In order to begin writing the book that I wanted to, I needed to do extensive research before I could even think about putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keys!). Toni Morrison once said, ‘If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it’ and I really think that is what happened for me. But writing a historical fiction novel takes an incredible amount of effort to understand the time period and the characters you plan to use within your plot. So, how exactly do you go about doing that?
Tracy Chevalier is one of my favourite authors of historical fiction. She’s also very generous with her time and advice and has responded to me on a few occasions when I contacted her with questions about how to get started. I particularly wanted to find out how she went about finding a focus for her writing. She said “Usually I am sparked by something- a painting, a cemetery, apples trees, a fossil hunter. Once I’m hooked on the that I look into the time period. So it always starts with an interest outside of the time.” That advice was so helpful. I needed to find my spark and there were enough potential sparks on offer in Eyam village to start a small fire!
Take Photographs and Get a Map
I took photographs of all these ‘sparks’ and had them to hand when I began writing. When you are writing about a place that isn’t always accessible to you, having a collection of photographs is vital. Not only does this help to instil in you a sense of place, it also allows you to use that geography creatively within your plot. Things happen to people in given places and the characters in your novel are no different. They will interact with their surroundings in meaningful ways, so you need a strong sense of setting.
Alongside the photographs of the village I had taken and several more visits I paid to Eyam, a village map was an essential document when writing. The physical village itself functioned like another character within the story. This allowed me to identify locations for potential interactions between characters, plan novel events for my characters in different parts of the village (such as when I have Emmott assist with a birth in Townhead) and track the path of the pathogen through the chapters. Such was the strength of the map as an important writing support, after writing the book I commissioned a map linked to the novel where readers can walk in the footsteps of the three protagonists (available to download from my website or to purchase from Eyam Tea Rooms).
Gather Your Sources
The photographs and the map help to capture ‘sparks’, but what you need next when writing historical fiction is that real sense of the time period your novel is set in. So I began ‘looking into the time period’, as Tracy had suggested. The Eyam Museum’s sources, available on their website, were invaluable to me as a writer. From these I was able to find out who had died, over what time period and in what order. This was a great resource for making sure my chronology was precise and authentic. There was also a population record for the time, which I used to find out who was getting married and having babies (life goes on, even in times of crisis) and to create plausible friendships, based on where characters lived and their age at the time of the outbreak. Finding a museum or library that holds the necessary information you will need for writing is a great early step to take.
Read, Read, Read!
In addition to these sources, I read books about Eyam. I devoured everything I could find; plenty of non-fiction books and some fiction novels set in the village at the time of the plague. I’m certainly not the first person to write about the Eyam plague; it has inspired many authors. I was conscious I was writing a story that others had told in a myriad of different ways, so I needed to make sure the angle I took gave it a sense of authenticity rather than repetition. For me, that meant a focus on the lives of those three women, placed centre stage where often the village rectors were privileged in other retellings. I did not want to deviate too significantly from the historical story but to do as Emily Dickinson put it; Tell the truth but tell it slant. Knowing how you want to tell your story is an important thing to have clear right from the start; know your slant.
Collating Your Research
I collated my research into a series of notebooks, numbering each page. When my research was complete, I catalogued all the research onto A5 index cards according to theme (e.g. families, characters, the village itself, the epidemiology of the plague, the quarantine plan, plague symptoms, etc), referencing back to pages in the notebooks and giving each card a title. This was probably the single most useful thing I did to bridge the gap between research and writing. It meant when I needed to check something (which at the beginning was happening ALL THE TIME, until the main facts finally established themselves in my mind) it was relatively easy with the historical evidence there at my fingertips.
Read Part 2 of this article here.
(c) Jennifer Jenkins
About Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague
In 1665 a box from London brought more than cloth from plague-ridden London to the quiet village of Eyam in Derbyshire. For the next year the villagers had to learn to live with a silent enemy. ‘Three’ tells the story of three very different women in their courageous attempts to keep themselves and their loved ones alive as Eyam closed its doors to the outside world, instead facing the malevolent danger alone. Emmott Syddall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock were each determined to live and the courage each of them found was as unique as the women themselves. Will 1666 bring salvation?
This work of historical fiction, written during a pandemic whilst reflecting on another, fuses creative imagining with historical fact to bring three female protagonists to life…
Order your copy online here.