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Research for Richness in Historical Storytelling (Part 2) by Jennifer Jenkins

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Jennifer-Jenkins

Jennifer Jenkins

Read Part 1 of this article here.

How Research Leads to Authentic Writing of Historical Fiction

Solving Mysteries, Educated Guesses & ‘Magpie-ing’

There was a degree of mystery-solving to do when it came to the historical record, which was another opening for my creative imaginings to be injected into the plot with what I hoped was a degree of plausibility. One of the big questions was around Emmott’s apparent immunity, where she did not succumb to plague when so many of her family members did early on in the outbreak. Why did that happen? I posed the question of what a person thinking they were spared for some reason would do, especially if they were motivated by kindness, as I had imagined her to be.

There were similar unknowns around the other two women, such as how plague found Catherine and how Riley Farmhouse was not the fortress Elizabeth likely hoped it would be. ‘Unknowns’ offer opportunities but respecting history and crafting authentic characters is a real balancing act! By magpie-ing (a term we used in primary school for stealing the ‘shiny’ good bits for writing), I ‘borrowed’ some features of my narrative from other real life events and plot devices used with great success in other works of fiction. For example, the singing of the afflicted villagers on Christmas Eve borrows from the scenes in Italy in the first lockdown in 2020 when Italians sang from their balconies, as well as the Christmas Truce in WW1 where, despite being embroiled in a devastating conflict, troops on both sides paused to sing Silent Night across no-man’s land. I also use a handkerchief as a plot device, an idea borrowed from Shakespeare’s Othello, where it was used with great effect to usher in the demise of a main character.

When I come across such ideas in other books, plays, television programmes, I make a note of them in my notebook. Also, those killer quotes that you can analyse and unpick just how they work to create such a strong impact on the reader. Set up a notebook for this purpose and take it with you everywhere you go- the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we will remember something later!

Crafting Personalities

When it came to the writing of the novel, I found Emmott the easiest to write, perhaps because she was the person who had originally drawn me towards writing this novel, but when it came to Catherine and Elizabeth, I was worried they would end up like another incarnation of Emmott or just a version of me. I particularly felt a barrier with Elizabeth as she broke a rule and as a rule-keeper, I found that hard to understand. But in writing her story I discovered a deep compassion for her and an empathy that I hope found its way into the writing.

In order to help me write these two other protagonists with clarity, I turned to the Myers-Briggs personality types. Using their known actions from the historical record and oral tradition, I used the descriptions to decide on a personality type for Catherine and for Elizabeth, began reading all I could about those two types and created mind maps from my research (I chose ISFJ for Catherine and ISTP for Elizabeth). I could then place all my characters in new situations and predict the ways in which they would act. Because the historical facts are so sparse, I needed to fictionalise what they spent that harrowing year doing but I was desperate to honour history and maintain authenticity for these women so important to the village’s history. Knowing the different ways in which introversion/extroversion, intuition, feeling and judging can be expressed in different personalities offers a toolbox for crafting characters and historical figures give you important clues through the actions you can find recorded in historical documents.

Manufacturing Emotion

One thing I wanted to do in my writing was to make my readers feel something other than just the horror of so much death. With a novel such as this one, retelling a story where three quarters of a village’s population perish, there was a chance the retelling of death after death could become too heavy or become so commonplace it lost all meaning. To help with maintaining the pathos and empathy I hoped to draw from my readers, I found the ideas in The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write with Emotional Power, Develop Achingly Real Characters, Move Your Readers, and Create Riveting Moral Stakes  by Donald Maas (Writers Digest Books, 2016) to be very helpful. From this I wove in techniques such as foreshadowing. I also found reading books about grief and loss, such as Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving by Julia Samuel and Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser, helped me to write from the characters’ perspectives. Such universally human themes are consistent no matter what time period your characters are living in. Think about the underlying themes you want to convey through your writing and read books that will support your understanding of those.

Structuring

When I wrote the novel, I first wrote Emmott’s story and then followed that with Catherine’s and then Elizabeth’s. I kept track of their stories using a chart that documented what each woman was doing in a chronological fashion. On here I also noted suggested interactions with other characters, where I would foreshadow and other important things. But telling each story separately was not how I wanted to tell the story. Telling their stories in a linear fashion reduced the reader’s ability to keep track of the plight of the whole village and also revealed some events too early. And so I made the decision to weave their narratives together. I had no idea if this would work; I might have just written 100,000 words for nothing! I had recently read a few novels that worked in the way I had in mind, with the narrative jumping between characters.  I resolved to help the reader by providing the name of the character and the date at the top of each page. Getting the order right was very tricky! When I read it through the first time I discovered I had events occurring too early or too late when sitting alongside another protagonist’s chapter, so I physically listed the content of each chapter in bullet form, cut the synopses up and moved chapters around until I was sure the order would work in terms of chronology and where characters interacted. There was a lot of reading, re-reading and editing to do. Not my favourite things but absolutely essential (while I’m on that subject, employ an actual proof reader; your enthusiastic friends are fabulous but they will get caught up in your fantastic storytelling and what you really need is somebody who can see where the micro of grammar and punctuation is going astray). Use charts, post-its, lists; whatever it takes to pin down your plot structure as you write.

And repeat!

Now I have written a book and I know 100,000 words can flow out of me, I am keen to get going with another. I don’t like to make things easy for myself, so this next one will take place over five time periods spanning one thousand years in the village I live in, a settlement recorded in the Doomsday Book. I have my ‘sparks’ (thank you Tracy Chevalier), my research is under way, I’ve bought my blank index cards ready and I have been busily crafting characters (entirely fictionalised this time) using some of the techniques that worked so well in Three. I will be weaving in real events and real people I have discovered in my research. There are rapidly-filling notebooks. There is much research yet to do. Every time period throws up such interesting possibilities. But a well-researched novel leads to a richness of writing. It was one of my happiest moments recently to discover Eyam’s village historian felt my book was well-researched. I can only hope I do justice to the historian of our own village, who sadly passed away during the pandemic.

So, find your sparks, grab your notebook, get reading and a historical novel is completely within your grasp.

(c) Jennifer Jenkins

Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague by Jennifer Jenkins is available from Amazon in Kindle, paperback and hardback formats now. Jen blogs regularly about her reading and writing process on her website: https://jenjenkinsthree.com

Read Part 1 of this article here.

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.

About the author

Jennifer Jenkins lives in a village just outside of Rugby, Warwickshire, with her husband David (illustrator of the book’s cover), her two sons & her dog. Jennifer loves all things literary (including writing her own poetry), in particular historical fiction and Shakespeare, and supports local schools with Religious Education & spiritual development. Jennifer’s first novel, ‘Three’, is the tale of three brave women who lived through the plague visitation of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire in 1665-1666. Jennifer originally taught the Eyam plague to her class of seven year olds, sparking an interest in the Derbyshire village that has led to her first novel.

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