All reputable historical novels are backed by research. Love it or loath it, research is an essential tool for the historical novelist. Myself, I revel in it, so I thought I’d share some of my experiences with you. My love of history and of historical novels developed hand-in-hand, so for me delving into a new historical period or exploring unusual byways of a familiar period is pure joy.
The research into the historical background falls into several general areas: major historical figures, general and political history, social life, housing, clothes, food and drink, religion and belief, weather, geography, and so on.
Then there will be certain specialised areas for particular books. For example, when writing Flood, I needed precise information on the notorious witch-hunts of Matthew Hopkins as well as details of how the women of the time were involved in the fighting against the speculators trying to appropriate the common lands of the Fens.
For the third Christoval Alvarez novel, The Portuguese Affair, I needed (amongst many other things) details of ships, the progress of building the new fort at Coruña, and the style of architecture of a sixteenth-century solar (country manor house) in a particular region of Portugal. Throughout the entire Christoval Alvarez series I have used the state of Western and Arab medicine at the time.
I also collect visual details. For clothing, a picture is much more helpful than a description. If you look closely at the paintings of both women and men in late sixteenth century dress, particularly the shape of the doublet, it is clear how easy it would be for Kit to carry off her disguise as a man. The rounded, padded shape of the doublet would disguise the figure of a young woman, combined with the loose-fitting (and sometimes padded) breeches. For a long time I have stored images of clothing, as well as buildings, furniture, dishes, and the like in folders on my computer. Just recently I have started using Pinterest, but I’m still a beginner there.
Faces! You can’t beat faces. Isn’t it interesting, the way certain types of face seem to belong to certain eras? How does that come about? In the past, we might think that painters had a certain way of looking at their subjects, but we can see the same evidence in photographs. I swear there is a distinctive kind of face that we can see in photographs of the 1920s and 1930s. Where did these faces come from? They weren’t around before World War I. They had vanished by the 1950s. Women who were young in the 1930s were still around in the 1990s, and it wasn’t just age and hairstyles which had changed them. The very structure of their faces seems to have changed.
Men’s faces, of course, can be altered considerably by facial hair. Those mutton-chop whiskers of the nineteenth century! They seem faintly ludicrous to us now, but were clearly admired at the time. Or the neat little pointed beards of the Elizabethans, which must have required a lot of attention to keep them in shape. I’ve recently discovered that one of the earliest men travelling with the Muscovy Company to Russia was admired by the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, because his beard was more than five feet long. The Russians at the time disapproved of men who shaved off their beards.
I am particularly fortunate with my books set in the sixteenth century, for we have inherited a wealth of portraits and the incomparable Holbein drawings of faces. Spend time with these paintings and drawings and the people of the period leap into life.
Although the central characters in my Christoval Alvarez series are fictional, many of the secondary characters are not. Walsingham, Dr Nuñez, Ruy and Sara Lopez and their children, Thomas Phelippes, Arthur Gregory, Thomas Harriot, Poley, the Burbages, Drake, Essex – all are real people. Where portraits exist, I study them. Sometimes there is no portrait, but a description has survived. For example, there is no portrait of Phelippes, but we know that he was slight, fair-haired and short-sighted. He also wrote a minute hand, which is consistent with his short-sightedness. If there are biographies of the major historical characters (like Walsingham, Drake, Essex, even Lopez) I read them. Other characteristics can be gleaned from other sources, such as Dr Nuñez’s mercantile dealings and the fact that he was an examiner for the Royal College of Physicians.
It’s an easy matter to read up the general history of a period, but more detailed knowledge may require further exploration. The Fenland Riots are not widely known, but the details can be tracked down, including some of the scandalous treatment of the fenlanders in the courts. Many histories of the mid seventeenth century focus solely on the Civil War, but we need to remember that other aspects of life continued as well, not only the Riots and the witch-hunting, but the day-to-day life in villages and on farms, during a period when there were a number of bad harvests and instances of starvation. For This Rough Ocean, I was lucky enough to be able to use surviving family letters, which reveal the personalities of the real-life protagonists.
Sometimes research can throw up some real surprises. Until I started, I had no idea that so much was known about Yeshûa’s (Jesus’) world. I absorbed the work of historians and archaeologists, and the many books by Geza Vermes, who puts Yeshûa in his contemporary context. This gave me not only material for domestic life but opened my eyes to the real situation in the Roman occupied province of Palestine, such as the highly dangerous and volatile situation in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. It shaped my understanding of the real-life story, for no one with Yeshûa’s intelligence could have gone into that tinderbox situation and made trouble (like overturning the money-changers’ tables) without knowing exactly what the consequences would be.
Incidentally, the money-changers were not some grubby little entrepreneurs. The Temple would only accept cash offerings in one particular trusted coinage. Therefore the pilgrims (who came from all over the Roman Empire) were obliged to change their money into the acceptable coinage before they could make their offerings. Knowing this does alter one’s perceptions of the incident. An attack on the money-changers is effectively an attack on the (probably corrupt) priestly caste which ran the Temple.
Reading The Dead Sea Scrolls and books about the Essenes was an eye-opener. They practised what we would call mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and a kind of hypnotherapy for the mentally disturbed (amongst many other medical treatments), practices which are also attributed to Yeshûa in the New Testament, who (it seems) was known primarily as a healer amongst his contemporaries. The Essenes also celebrated a ritual meal for a select few, incorporating sacred bread and wine.
I am particularly fascinated by domestic life, including food and drink. Mariam bakes bread in a typical shared oven of the first century, and complains as a child about the endless hand-grinding of wheat which fell to the womenfolk, day in and day out. Mercy runs a seventeenth-century household and farm as well as belonging to the “rioters”. Like most rural women of the time, she is obsessed with storing provisions for the winter in the form of cheeses, fruit preserves, salted beans, pickled eggs, smoked and salted meat, fish and eels. It is an endless battle.
On the other hand, after the death of her father, Kit in sixteenth century London lives – like the bulk of the population – in lodgings, where she has a small fireplace, but no real cooking facilities. She can heat up spiced wine or fry a bit of bacon or toast bread, but little else. Like many present-day New Yorkers, she eats most of her meals outside her home, at taverns or “ordinaries” (inexpensive places serving simple food). When Mercy’s brother Tom is living at Grey’s Inn in London half a century later, he shares chambers with a fellow lawyer. When they can’t afford to eat in Grey’s Inn Hall, they send out for food to a nearby inn.
I like to know just where my people are living and going about their daily lives, so I love maps. (A bit of an obsession of mine.) Always at my elbow is The A to Z of Elizabethan London, based on a contemporary map, enlarged and annotated, full of wonderful detail. It is still valid for London up to the time of the Great Fire. I had a struggle to find a map of Lincoln for the time when Mercy was taken there – I wanted a detailed plan of the exact layout of the castle in 1647, and pestered several record offices. When Kit goes to the Low Countries in The Enterprise of England, the pinnace (small ship) in which she is travelling makes its way from the coast via inland waterways to Amsterdam from the south, instead of making the long journey around to the north. With the help of a Dutch friend I worked out a possible route. The terrain has changed enormously over the years, but we think it was feasible, except during the worst of the winter, when everything froze solid.
Probably the most difficult thing to research is the way people viewed the world. Religion, superstition, belief – these were much more vital a part of people’s lives than in this modern, secular age. All one can do is to read contemporary letters, poems, works of devotion, accounts of superstition, in order to absorb something of the flavour of our ancestors’ minds. It’s not possible to know whether one has got it right, but I do my best. I do not subscribe to the view that all women in the past were downtrodden mice, and it annoys me when people think that the fenland women could not have done what Mercy does. It is in the contemporary documents. There were women who abandoned their homes and joined Yeshûa’s following, as Mariam does. It is in the New Testament. The Marranos fleeing the Inquisition adopted many disguises, and there are documented cases of women living disguised as men throughout history. I therefore make no apologies for Mariam, Kit and Mercy.
So where is research taking me now? In the sixth Christoval Alvarez novel, provisionally titled Voyage to Muscovy, Kit is sent on one of the Muscovy Company’s expeditions to trade with Russia. By this time Ivan the Terrible is dead, his feeble-minded son is Tsar in name only, while the country is effectively ruled by his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov. As you can see from the small selection of books in this picture, I am deep into exploring the Muscovy Company and Russian history of the period. It isn’t only Kit who is embarking on a new adventure!
Till next time,