Truth or Dare

A few months ago, I read The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St. John, a wonderful story set during the time of James I. Today, Elizabeth weighs the balance of truth and fiction in historical fiction. Welcome to A Writer of History, Elizabeth.


“The trade of the historical novelist doesn’t seem so reprehensible or dubious; the only requirement is for conjecture to be plausible and grounded in the best facts one can get…Every time the author writes, “He thought that . . .” or “She felt that . . .”, she’s making it up. We never know what people thought or felt, unless they kept frank and full journals. And the world is full of people who lie to their own diaries.” – Hilary Mantel

When I first approached writing an historical fiction novel based on an ancestress’s diary fragment, my biggest challenge was not in the prose (that came later!) but in establishing which parts of the work would be truth, and which I would dare to fictionalize. After re-reading some of my favorite historical fiction authors (Hilary Mantel, Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, George Garrett, Margaret George) I felt I had a good handle on how to navigate those dangerous waters. What I didn’t want, more than anything, was to be caught in an obvious fabrication of the facts, twisted to suit my own needs.

So, truth based in fact, and dare to be bold in interpreting emotions, motive and outcomes. That was a rule I established and scrutinized my writing against every day. Going a step further, I decided that I would approach my research from two perspectives. Firstly, immersively, where I would read any and every fiction and non-fiction book that caught my eye that was relevant to the period. I was fairly widely read in the preceding 16th century, but most of the action in The Lady of the Tower takes place in the 17th century. I needed to brush up on my Stuarts. This involved a voracious consumption of the driest text books (try Divine Right and Democracy – An Anthology on Political Writing in Stuart England) to the wonderful biographies of Antonia Fraser, Anne Somerset, Paul Sellin, and Roger Lockyer, to reams of good (and not so good) fiction.

What was most fascinating to me were the footnotes, for from there emerged the original source documents. That was my second research methodology – going deep into the contemporary documents of the times. Subscribing to British History Online and the National Archives opened up the world of digitalized manuscripts; and Google Books unlocked the Calendars of State Papers. Now I was humming! The hunt was on for every single character that would be making an appearance in my book, and the riches provided by these online sources were boundless. I quickly realized the need to have a pretty accessible filing system to be able to store and retrieve all the documents that were emerging – letters, pleadings, court appearances, dispatches. Some were written by my characters; others mentioned them in passing. Each provided a clue to the personality and motivation of the people of my book.

The six St. John sisters who feature in The Lady of the Tower, from a Polyptych at St. Mary's Church, Lydiard Park
The six St. John sisters who feature in The Lady of the Tower, from a Polyptych at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Park

Now I could read their own words, or speeches that had been transcribed by clerks, and plot their character arcs. I could start to see why one married another, or how Barbara would always be a survivor, and Eleanor was a sweetheart. I was fortunate to have access to family portraits, and as I wrote, I chose desktops and images to constantly rotate on my computer to inspire me. Each day, they became more real, and their voices more insistent to be heard. The research that I had done fell into the background, a foundational knowledge that dared me to now allow my imagination to take flight, knowing that I had solid groundwork in accurate fact.

Next – the landscapes. I am fortunate inasmuch as having been brought up in England, so my sense of the countryside and climate are innate. But, I still didn’t know how long it would take to ride from Swindon to Castle Fonmon, and the route, and the scenery along the way. This is where Google Maps came in so handy – sitting at my desk in San Diego, I could drop into a footpath in Wiltshire and know exactly how my heroine would have seen the land.

More than anything I felt I owed it to my distant family to bring them to life in an honest account that would retain the atmosphere of the time, without making the writing too inaccessible to the modern reader. This is where, after several false starts, I determined Point of View (First) and a reading / language level that would appeal to my potential audience. I knew I wasn’t writing romance (although there are love stories intertwined), and I didn’t want twenty-first century attitudes and language to creep in. I settled in on…Jane Eyre. Although written a couple of centuries later than The Lady of the Tower, I felt the sentence structure helped convey a sense of an earlier time, while the restrained passion in the writing and the heroine’s character make us relate completely to her and her plight. Of course, lengthy run-on sentences suffered greatly in the editing, but they were fun to write in the first draft.

Finally, I have a confession. Back to the original diary fragment, I had a big problem. Mention is made of the heroine’s first love in the following way…describing his arrival as such… “all the suitors that came turned their addresses to her, which she in her youthful innocency neglected, till one of greater name, estate and reputation than the rest happened to fall deeply in love with her, and to manage it so discreetly that my mother could not but entertain him…”. The problem – his name was never mentioned. So I had a pivotal plot point in the book, but no character’s name. Back out came the research, and after a few weeks of digging around, I found an estate (Charlton Park) close by the location of my work, and a young man (Theophilus Howard, future Duke of Suffolk) that could match the hero. Then, I found that two of his children married into my heroine’s family. That, to return to Hilary Mantel’s credo, was enough fact to establish plausible conjecture. And thus, “Theo” was born.

To summarize, writing this work of historical fiction has been a glorious journey. I’ve read extraordinary books, delved into personal correspondence and diaries, visited their houses, castles, graves, and gardens, and gazed at portraits, daring the sitters to walk out of their frames and talk to me. And, during the three years that it took to write, edit and prepare The Lady of the Tower for publication, I felt that I had honored my ancestors and written a piece that brought them to life. As I say in my summary for the book … it may have been four hundred years ago, but they are not so different from you and me.

The-Lady-Of-The-Tower-by-Elizabeth-St-JohnThe Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth St. John – Orphaned Lucy St.John, described as “the most beautiful of all,” defies English society by carving her own path through the decadent Stuart court. In 1609, the early days of the rule of James I are a time of glittering pageantry and cutthroat ambition, when the most dangerous thing one can do is fall in love . . . or make an enemy of Frances Howard, the reigning court beauty.

Lucy catches the eye of the Earl of Suffolk, but her envious sister Barbara is determined to ruin her happiness. Exiling herself from the court, Lucy has to find her own path through life, becoming mistress of the Tower of London. Riding the coattails of the king’s favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, the fortunes of the St.Johns rise to dizzying heights. But with great wealth comes betrayal, leaving Lucy to fight for her survival—and her honor—in a world of deceit and debauchery.

Many thanks, Elizabeth. I can attest to your ability to create the sense of time and place so crucial to successful historical fiction. Your characters truly came alive for me.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


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