• www.inkwellwriters.ie

Researching and Writing Historical Fiction by Wanda Whiteley

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
Wanda Whiteley 2.jpeg

Wanda Whiteley

As with any world-building fiction writing, one false move and the reader is jerked out of the historical world you’ve painstakingly created. That world into which you’ve gently enticed them has to be consistent within the lines you’ve set. I am lucky enough to be married to the sharpest pair of eyes, an excellent writer and editor who is kind enough to trawl through my first drafts where others would be less inclined. However, he never quite understood the extent to which I huffed and puffed over dates, or how long it took characters to travel from A to B in a horse and cart on poor roads. ‘You have magical ravens delivering scrolls, for goodness sake.’ True. But that wasn’t the point.

There has to be a coherence, a consistency that cradles the world of the historical novel. That being said, you, the author, are in charge and have great freedom. While I didn’t allow myself to play with the important dates and historical facts, I did feel free to invent a fast-flowing river running through Thetford Forest where no such river exists. I needed it for my story, and trusted that the reader would understand the necessity for that imaginary river.

One problem that besets most of the historical novelists I’ve worked with (when I’ve been wearing my ‘manuscript doctor’ hat) is a tendency to let what should be social/political/geographical backdrop take over and creep to centre stage. The writer needs to have the protagonist’s essential conflicts/quest under the spotlight. It’s a good exercise to put aside the ‘history’ part from your mind when you’re assessing whether the protagonist’s journey has the power to hold your reader. Could the story – whether it’s one of thwarted ambition, romantic desire, the hunt for treasure, or wanting to shore up position through a military campaign – stand on its own, out of time? Macbeth or Hamlet could be rewritten as twentieth century dramas, and no doubt have been. One element that often keeps a reader on the edge of their seat is a protagonist wanting something very badly – a heart’s desire which they cannot easily achieve because obstacles are in the way of their getting it. Does your story naturally fall into a useful narrative shape? That’s what you have to ask yourself.

Goldhanger DogResearch is a wonderful thing; it sparks the imagination. If a writer is stuck, all they have to do is to spend a bit of time researching and you can be sure they won’t be stuck after that. However, it has its special perils. Once you’ve gathered your shining nuggets, you’re reluctant to relinquish them. Every writer knows the horror of ‘killing your little darlings’. On reading my final draft, a trusty friend mentioned that a certain two-page section lagged a bit. She couldn’t exactly pinpoint why – she just knew she had lost concentration. If you are given that sort of feedback, never brush it aside with ‘I know I’m right. It’s a fantastic bit. What do they know anyway?’. On further perusal, I realised that a short digression describing what a ‘drive hunt’ entailed, which I’d spent a happy afternoon researching, had got in the way of my two shy lovers. The reader was waiting with bated breath for a first kiss, and a piece of arcanery on Tudor hunting was hindering their progress. It does make me wonder how many works of historical fiction could happily be pruned to two-thirds of their size – for just that ‘little darlings’ reason.

Research is best enjoyed, then digested, like several meals spread over a lengthy period of time. Reading a few good books on Tudor life, sometimes more than once, meant that when it came to creating an authentic sixteenth-century world it seemed to shape itself quite naturally when I sat down to write The Goldhanger Dog. I think it helps to immerse oneself thoroughly, so that you’re almost living and breathing another century. Imagination is king, however. Like Geraldine McCaughrean – who had never visited the outer Hebrides before or during the writing of her wonderful eighteenth-century adventure ‘Where the World Ends’ – I shied away from visiting the place I’d set my book, fearing that navigating mini roundabouts and shopping malls might ruin everything. Better to read books, research on the web and let the imagination have free rein. I visited Colchester Castle after I’d finished writing, and it was easy enough to rewrite those bits where I’d got the layout wrong. I was relieved that the three buildings I’d set a good part of my action had long since been pulled down with little record of what they were like. With Kenninghall Place, in Norfolk, a kindly soul had described the manor from the inventory taken after the Duke of Norfolk was sent to the Tower, and had written chapter and verse on its chambers and furnishings.

In terms of creating flesh and blood characters, I tended to grasp little details gleaned from my research into the historical figures. William Cecil was chippy that his grandfather was a Stamford innkeeper; Mary Tudor loved gambling; her lady-in-waiting Susan Clarencieux was a greedy snob. What I enjoyed the most was putting flesh and blood on the barest of bones. With Lucretia the Tumbler and Jane Foole, all we have is mentions in household accounts: barber’s razors for Jane (from which we presume she had her head shaved, though it’s possible it was a case of nits!) and the matching clothes ordered for Lucretia the Tumbler which leads us to speculate that the pair formed a double act, and that Lucretia was quite possibly the minder of the ‘natural’ Jane.

My advice to any historical writer is to allow their imagination free rein, because only that way will they create an engaging story. A novelist has to be the master of invention.

(c) Wanda Whiteley

The Goldhanger Dog by Wanda Whiteley is published by Lammas Publishing.

About The Goldhanger Dog:

Goldhanger Dog“Wanda Whiteley has conjured one of the most singular and memorably endearing dogs I have ever come across in literature.” – Juliet Blaxland, award-winning author of The Easternmost House

In 1553, Tudor England is on the precipice of change, with young King Edward in ill health and the religious fate of the country hanging in the balance. But far from power, in the wilds of the Essex Marches, fifteen-year-old Dela meets Turnspit, a scruffy and morose dog sentenced to a life of drudgery turning a kitchen spit.

After Dela frees Turnspit, the pair of misfits flee from persecution, seeking sanctuary with Princess Mary Tudor. Little do the two friends realise that the princess is facing the greatest trial of her life, and they soon find themselves in grave danger, with only friendship to protect them.

The incredible story of a turnspit dog, a mainstay of Tudor kitchens which has since gone extinct, The Goldhanger Dog is a magical story which explores the power of friendship and family in the face of adversity and misfortune.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Wanda Whiteley is co-author of the memoir, Streetkid, which spent three months in the top 10 of the Sunday Times non-fiction bestsellers list. The Goldhanger Dog is her debut novel.

In addition to her role as founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscript Doctor, she is an independent consultant for Writers and Artists, and previously worked as a Publishing Director at HarperCollins for over a decade. This year, she will be running her first life-writing workshop at the Atelier de Scriitori retreat in Transylvania.

  • www.designforwriters.com
  • allianceindependentauthors.org

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books