History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

25 July 2007

JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM: Researching and Writing Historical NON-Fiction

My first book as a newlywed is all about adultery.

Nell Gwyn (or is it Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine?) with one of her her royal bastards by Charles II

During the past few weeks I’ve been a fly on the wall in the glittering, debauched court of King Charles II. I’ve spent my summer vacation cavorting with Windsor and Wallis, and with Charles and Camilla, with The Fair Rosamund, and with The Jersey Lillie. And I’m preparing to climb into bed with the Tudors as I write this post. My historical fiction publishers have afforded me the opportunity to flex my authorly muscles, with my first non-fiction contract. I’m to deliver—by November 1—a 320-page (published pages, not manuscript pages) book on British ROYAL AFFAIRS, from Henry II to Charles and Camilla.

I’ve never been given a strict page count before. Now I understand some of the challenges that “category” authors face. Writing ROYAL AFFAIRS is a daunting task, made no less scary by the tight deadline, the mandated page count, and the vast amount of research necessary to do the job. Every morning I wake up and glance (and sometimes glare) at the piles of books on and around my desk and wonder how the heck I’m going to do this job to my own demanding standards.

Given the parameters of the contract, how do I deliver 50-plus entries with (doing the math) a proscribed page count for each entry, when there’s often so much juicy information about these royals and their paramours? How do I decide what to keep and what to (very reluctantly) omit because of time and space issues? How do I deliver a delicious-but-nutritious bit of amorous history, full of flavor and spice, in an appetizer-sized portion?

And most importantly—how do I get it right?

And what if there’s just no “there” there?

My publisher asked for a table of contents before I began my research in earnest, so I pulled together a list of more than fifty affairs. I reminded them that the list was just a draft because my research might uncover some juicy liaisons I hadn’t previously known about (and therefore weren’t listed in that table of contents). Conversely, I cautioned that I might have to scrap some of the relationships if I just couldn’t find any legitimate sources to confirm them.

Richard I

The love life of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionhearted, is one such case in point. He may, or may not, have had a passionate relationship with King Philip II of France. I added Richard to the table of contents based on scenes from the film The Lion in Winter, and from historical tidbits I have read for years about Richard’s homosexuality. This is not what is considered legitimate research! So far, I have not found a single credible source (though I keep looking) to substantiate the supposition, other than a lone paragraph written by a medieval historian, which can be parsed to suggest that Richard and Phillip were lovers, but is more easily explained by many other historians as exemplary of the customs of the day between two monarchs demonstrating their détente. And the rest of their story—political adversaries during the bloody and brutal Third Crusade—does nothing to suggest that the two of them shared a romantic backstory. Yet, history is colored by the times; no one in 1199 was about to eulogize their late king as a great gay warrior. Yet a historian looking back from 1999 might have an agenda they want to promote, and consequently will look for, and manipulate, what little facts exist in order to support the tale they wish to tell.

Well, obviously, a non-fiction book cannot be written based on scenes from a movie, or chapters of historical fiction. So, after giving myself a good amount of time to look for it, if it turns out that there’s no academic justification for an affair, I’ll just have to jettison the entry and move on to the next one, or I’ll never meet my deadline.

In historical fiction we have the privilege and the joy of making things up, of filling in the gaps in a person’s life story with colorful scenes of “what if?” We are novelists, not historians, who bring our own prejudices to the narrative and put our own spin on it. In fiction, when we choose to illuminate the lives of characters whom history has judged more harshly than we do, we give them vulnerable warm and fuzzies, so that readers will feel for them.

You don’t get to do that in non-fiction. I’m a newbie at providing just the facts, and am afraid of psychoanalyzing these people the way I would do if I were writing a novelization of their lives. But what I can’t be afraid of is showing their warts; and if they apparently had few, if any, redeeming features, well, that’s what readers will be presented with.

What I’m getting to is, I can’t make stuff up.

And yet that’s one problem I have encountered in the numerous research books and biographies I have been poring over, and will continue to plough through: how do I know they’ve got it right?

We all know that internet research is dodgy. In this most democratic arena, anyone can post something, regardless of their credentials, and very often the information is not entirely bona fide. If a date is wrong, is it because of bad research, or is it a typo that no one bothered to catch? Online, there’s an abundance of blatantly incorrect information slyly masquerading as truth. I’ll never know what’s accurate unless I check several more sources. Given my short deadline for ROYAL AFFAIRS, I must resort to internet research, but only as a backup for vetted and published works of non-fiction.

Yet, who vetted the books I am holding in my hand? Academics, journalists, novelists—suddenly all of these people are considered historians because they have a non-fiction work on the bookshelves. How good is their research? Editors and copyeditors are supposed to make the manuscript read well; it’s not in their job description to make sure the author got it right. Chances are, no one reviewed the manuscript as a fact-checker, unless the book is a published version of someone’s PhD thesis, where the candidate was severely grilled by a committee.

And how am I to know that the research done by these so-called scholars is impeccable? How do I prevent myself from regurgitating “bad history” in my own book?

Among the pile of books on my desk is a book about European royal scandals. This one is now collecting dust because I’m afraid of using it any more, wondering what else the author got wrong. Here’s why: as soon as I got the volume, I turned to the alphabetical index at the back of the book and looked for the name of someone I “knew.” In the course of my research for my next historical novel, ALL FOR LOVE (to be published in Feb. 2008, I believe), I’ve spent more than two years with the 18th-century actress and royal mistress (and oh-so much more than that) Mary Robinson. I’ve read at least a half dozen biographies of her, including her own memoirs. The author of the non-fiction book I refer to in this paragraph gave Mary Robinson a child by the Prince of Wales!

Mary Robinson (1782 portrait by Thomas Gainsborough)

Well! That just didn’t happen! And it’s not even a tiny gaffe on the part of the writer—it’s an egregious error of fact. So, because I’m not an expert on the lives of the other people discussed in that book, how do I know that anything else in it is valid research bolstered by solid facts? I don’t, unless I review several other sources and get a concurrence. I just have to do the best I can, and promise my readers that I am doing my due diligence—all within the time frame I have been given to write the book. My goal is to make it juicy and racy, informative and entertaining--and as right as I can get it.

ROYAL AFFAIRS debuts sometime next year. For now, as I prepare to join Henry VIII in bed, I’ll imagine that the serial beheader is the devilishly sexy, intelligent, and redheaded Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons) rather than the surly, churlish Jonathan Rhys Meyers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your project sounds fascinating, Amanda! I agonize so much over research for my novels, I've often thouhght writing nonfiction would be truly daunting. Esepcially when even the firsthand, primary sources don't always agree (two people who participated in an event may remember if differently or have different reasons for framing it diffeently or leaving details out or adding them in). It sounds as though you're doing a fabulous job!

9:13 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It always perplexes me when I see historical speculation presented as juicy historical fact in works of non-fiction. But they make great fodder for works of historical fiction . . . can’t wait for this book, Amanda. It sounds wonderful.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Checking in from vacation ... thanks SOOO much, Kalen, for posting my contribution ... it's been a bear (sorry to insult the bear) to get any consistent internet access where I am, despite the promises made by the landlords.

I'm so stymied that even the most reliable biographers can disagree so radically, not just in their interpretation of the facts, but of the facts themselves. For example, Antonia Fraser and David Starkey disagree on a lot of points on the Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII relationship, and all I can do is say that "historians diverge on 'X'" and just tell their story as best I can, otherwise it gets bogged down in a recitation of which biographer said what and my mandate from my editor is to write something entertaining for those who read PEOPLE, not to write a PhD thesis.

I am hourly daunted by my assignment and the level of research entailed.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This may not be much help, but since your audience are PEOPLE readers, I recommend reading Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. The book reads like an exciting novel. Of course, Seabiscuit was much easier to research, being twentieth century, but her non-fiction style is worth noting.

November 1? My hat is off in admiration of your writerly cajones. Best of luck, may everything fall into place.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Whoa, Amanda, sound like a fun book to write (albeit painful!).

You can do it.. . .affair by affair, chapter by delicious chapter! ;-)

I totally agree with you about fact checking. I am amazed at how many science papers are quoted over and over for decades, and when I go look up the original reference, I find it was an unsubstantiated, anecdotal "fact."


Best of luck!

9:59 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What a fascinating, yummy, and maddening project, Amanda. Best of luck, I'm looking forward to it, and thanks for sharing your issues of research and conscience with us.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh, and a suggestion. Why not include a final chapter, a kind of catch-all for the delicious but unsubstantiated bits?

8:45 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

OOh, are you going to have a section on Edward VII and his women?

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Camilla, if you're interested in Edward VII and all his women, Theo Aronson has a great book about them all.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

I'm so stymied that even the most reliable biographers can disagree so radically, not just in their interpretation of the facts, but of the facts themselves.

That's because chroniclers, diarists and others who wrote the historical record at the time often disagreed too, and sometimes they changed the facts to suit their propaganda purposes. Even today if you read about an event, various different reports in the media may give different interpretations and, sometimes, different "facts" (e.g. reports on numbers of protesters at a rally, who started the violence, what was thrown first etc.). If the primary sources don't agree, then modern historians are likely to disagree too. And there are always subtle nuances, the double entendres that might or might not be meant etc., so even a single primary source may be interpreted in different ways.

Chances are, no one reviewed the manuscript as a fact-checker, unless the book is a published version of someone’s PhD thesis, where the candidate was severely grilled by a committee.

Sorry to disillusion you, but I'm not sure you can absolutely rely on this either. I had a very, very good external examiner, who was extremely thorough and then acted as the editor for my thesis when it was published, but often examiners are not as careful (and some of the examiners will be experts in related areas, but not exactly the one covered by the thesis), and you can't depend on them to have been careful proof-readers. [There are also variations between different academic systems as to how vivas are conducted and how many examiners there are.]

If a thesis is revised for publication then new mistakes might be introduced at that stage, and that editor might not be an expert on the subject matter.

On the whole, though, I'd still expect a work published by an academic press to be more accurate than a webpage put up by someone who hasn't spent a lot of time doing research. And if mistakes are made in academic works, they'll tend to be picked up by academic reviewers.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks so much for everyone's insightful comments and reassurances. Yes, Camilla, I most certainly will have a section on Edward VII's mistresses, including Alice Keppel, your namesake's ancestor. A bit out of sequence, I've already written the Lillie Langtry/Edward entry.

Interesting tidbit re: the Tudors...a disproprotionate number of redheads ... We know that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were redheaded, but so were Catherine of Aragon (auburn), Anne Boleyn (sorry, brunettes, she was closer to an auburn chestnut than raven), and of course Kathryn Howard.

4:22 PM  

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