Approaching research as a child

Melissa Addey is a PhD student in creative writing – way to go, Melissa! In her spare time (although with two children, spare time is no doubt a challenge) she has written a series about 18th century China in the Forbidden City and another set in Morocco in the 11th century. Today, she shares an intriguing perspective on beginning historical fiction research as a child.

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Approaching research as a child by Melissa Addey

When I teach workshops on writing historical fiction, I naturally talk about the research to be done, but when I pull out the first few books that I recommend I can see the audience stiffen a little, believing me to be patronising at best, at worst not taking the research seriously. This is because in my own research I always start, where possible, with children’s books: the likes of Usborne and Dorling Kindersley being particular favourites. Because I tend to begin research in a new era with very little knowledge at all, I find that these books are perfect for giving me a quick overview and grasp on key dates and events. But more importantly, children’s books tend to focus very much on daily life, and when writing historical fiction, you can find out all you like about great events of the day but unless you also know how your characters wash, dress, cook and eat, go to the toilet, get married, what class they belong to, where they live and so on, your story is going to stutter to a stop pretty quickly.

Having completed two series of historical fiction, one set in 11th century Morocco focused on the army that defeated El Cid, the other set in the Forbidden City in 18th century China, I am now about to embark on a series set in Ancient Rome. And this research period happily coincided with my eight-year-old son, in Year Three at school, also studying the Romans. We became a research team.

Because primary schools often include a lot of hands-on activities for their topics, he brought home a delightful little model of a chariot, while I found myself involved in potato-printing a toga’s trim for dress up day, making little honey cakes for the class ‘feast’, decorating a shield, colouring in mosaic designs and explaining that the Colosseum once had many statues decorating it. My son cheerily portrayed this as over sixty tiny stick figures, painstakingly added to his model of the amphitheatre, earning him a coveted opportunity to show his work in assembly.

Meanwhile, he benefitted from hanging out with an author in full-on research mode. He came on a research trip to Italy where he played ‘gladiators and exotic beasts’ with his sister in the amphitheatre of Ostia (a beautiful deserted Roman town similar to Pompeii, near Rome, but far less full of tourists), walked on real mosaics at the ruins of the Trajan Baths and was given a gold laurel wreath for playing a kind of Gladiator Top Trumps on the kids’ tour of the Colosseum I booked. We bought a replica oil lamp, drew the curtains and turned off the living room lights to see what we could see (answer: not much). I took him to see a re-enactment event where he and his sister could ride in a full-size replica of a chariot (pulled by their dad). At Easter we will be going to Pompeii, although he is genuinely concerned about Vesuvius erupting just in time to coincide with our visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He has been helpful in the past as well. I told him off for teetering precariously near a lake edge when we visited Beijing on a past research trip, only to realise that my protagonist, a boy emperor, grew up by this very lake and no doubt gave his own mother cause for concern while balancing on the rocky ledges looking for frogs and dragonflies. The whole family dressed up in imperial clothing for a cheesy photoshoot during which the photographer reminded me that we should absolutely not smile for such a portrait, a stern demeanour being more appropriate to ancestral portraits.

This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life. It means getting as close to the real thing as you can through trips to the locations, finding ways to re-enact the past through all your senses: food for smells and taste, clothes, sounds (I have not yet taken to replica Roman music!) and physical sensations. I have sat in a few saunas over the past months, but I must find someone to scrape oil off me with a strigil. To me, however serious and in-depth your research ends up being, there is also a need to play in the past as you go along. I have just finished a PhD in Creative Writing, where I suggested that we look at historical fiction as a ‘playframe’: the past providing us with a frame while the author plays (light-heartedly or seriously) within it, bringing their own unique vision of the past to create something new, a hybrid term for a hybrid genre.

And who better to play alongside than a child?

Many thanks, Melissa. I’ve never thought of children’s books as a way to kickstart my research.

Melissa was Writer in Residence at the British Library. She won the 2019 Novel London award for her book set in 18th century China, The Cold Palace. If you’d like to try her writing for free, you can pick up The Consorts on Amazon (http://getbook.at/TheConsorts) or sign up on her website to receive The Cup (www.melissaaddey.com). Each novella kickstarts a series.

The Consorts by Melissa Addey ~~ 18th century China. Lady Qing has spent the past seven years languishing inside the high red walls of the Forbidden City. Classed as an Honoured Lady, a lowly ranked concubine, Qing is neglected by the Emperor, passed over for more ambitious women. But when a new concubine, Lady Ying, arrives, Qing’s world is turned upside down. As the highest position at court becomes available and every woman fights for status, Qing finds love for the first time in her life… if Lady Ula Nara, the most ambitious woman at court, will allow her a taste of happiness.

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. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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 www.mktod.com.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George

Margaret George is a superb writer of historical fiction. Her novels are deep character studies, and she has tackled people from Elizabeth I to Mary of Magdalene. I had the pleasure of an early copy of her second and concluding novel about Emperor Nero.

Margaret introduces Nero and the novel:

The Splendor Before the Dark closes the life story of Nero, one of the most remarkable emperors Rome ever saw.  The era was indeed one of splendor, as well as passions, conspiracies, and outsized characters, none more so than the emperor Nero himself.   He was a complicated person, though, with many contradictory traits, and strangely modern in that he put self-fulfillment as his highest value.  In that way, I think readers of today will find him fascinating, and familiar.

My Review: Following The Confessions of Young Nero, Margaret George concludes her tale of Emperor Nero with an insightful and passionate novel of the final four years of Nero’s life. On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

Politics and power. Throughout the novel, these two are tangled in an intricate dance where one false step can lead to tragic consequences. Despite the warnings of those who know him best, Nero is unaware of, or willfully blind to, the false steps he takes. The people of Rome are fickle. Although Nero understands that “The crowd. They can turn to beasts in an instant,” he remains convinced of his people’s love far beyond the time when popular opinion begins to shift. And with his far-flung empire at relative peace, Nero fails to appreciate the fissures that threaten his leadership and Rome’s stature: religious unrest; rebellious territories; ambitious commanders; betrayals; and resentment of the costly and extravagant rebuilding of Rome.

Underlying all this complexity—and making crucial decisions more difficult—are Nero’s conflicting personas: the dutiful emperor, the idealistic artist, and the man who allows his dark side to take over. As the novel gathers momentum and urgency, I found myself wanting to whisper in Nero’s ear, to warn him before he stumbled into further danger; before it was too late.

Margaret George tells the story through three voices: the voice of Nero; that of Acte, a woman he has always loved; and that of Locusta, a woman who specializes in herbal medicine and poisons. Through Acte we see the young Nero and his idealist and artistic side, while through Locusta we see Nero’s dark side. The author’s research and interpretation of Nero has such depth that as the novel progressed, I felt I understood Nero on an intimate level.

Here’s Locusta reflecting on Nero:

“If, all those years ago when the prospect of being emperor was a poison mushroom away, did he have any comprehension of what was waiting on the other side? … Now he had entered fully into another kind of bondage, with no deliverance as long as he lived. Emperors did not retire into private life, like philosophers. There was only one retirement for an emperor—the grave. And if he is lucky, a natural descent into it at an advanced age.”

Near the end of the novel, Nero broods on what has happened:

“There is none so blind as he who will not see.”

The Splendor Before the Dark is historical fiction at its most powerful. Highly recommended.

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. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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 www.mktod.com.

C. Westcott writes about Ancient Rome

Today, Chris Westcott, author of In the Shadow of Tyranny – A Novel of Ancient Rome, has agreed to answer a few questions about his writing. Many thanks, Chris.

What is it about ancient Rome that fascinated you enough to write a book on it?    When I was about five years old my parents gave me a book that had belonged to my Dad, it was a children’s book describing the history of Romans in Britain.  The illustrations were incredible and, as children tend to do, I read the book a hundred times.  Agricola, a key character in my novel, was prominent in this children’s book and I guess this must have stayed buried at the back of my mind.  In 2005 I read Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series and it was literally a life changing event, from that moment I wanted to understand as much as I could about every element of life in ancient Rome.  Later as my new found passion lead me to history books I learned about the incredible events in Judea and I realised I wanted more people to know about that often overlooked piece of Roman history, when I discovered I could combine that with telling some of Agricola’s story I couldn’t grab my laptop quick enough!

How much of the book is based on fact and how much is fiction?    All the key events in the book and the majority of the major characters are based on real people albeit I have imposed my own take on their personality and character.  The main character is a fictional creation that I have placed in that world to tell the story.

Tell us something surprising about ancient Rome.    I have always been fascinated by how much ancient Roman history impacts on us today – the calendar we use, the names of the months of the year, the legacy of Roman architecture and engineering, the influence on our political and legal systems to name but a few examples.  Learning about ancient Rome has allowed me to view the world around me today with a fresh pair of eyes.

Tell us about the main character.    The main character is fundamentally a good man who is caught up in the events around him.  I deliberately gave the character an unusual upbringing as I wanted him to view Rome and the Empire with a naivety that would both endear him to the reader and to allow me to describe the emotion of someone faced with loss, love and achievement.  As much as possible I wanted to create a character a reader could engage with albeit in the context of a story set 2000 years ago.

How do you research your novels?    Initially my research consisted of reading as many fictional and non-fictional books on the time period as possible.  As the story began to solidify in my head I started to target the research to the specific time periods and geographical locations.   I find it challenging to tread the fine line between having enough detail to create the world of ancient Rome for the reader and disrupting the pace of the story with description so my research tends not to be overly detailed.

Do you write about any other periods of history?    Not at present but I am fascinated by the idea of a series of novels based around the exploits and achievements of Sir Francis Drake , Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Richard Grenville.  It was an age of exploration, conquest, heroic military achievement and political intrigue – in short all the ingredients that make for great historical fiction.

Who are your favourite historical fiction authors? Who is your work influenced by?    There are a few but the legend that is Bernard Cornwell for me stands head and shoulders above all others.  His ability to educate on a specific time period while creating the most captivating characters and storylines is nothing short of genius.  With regards to ancient Rome, Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow and Steven Saylor are the real standouts.  It was Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series that first sparked my interest in Rome and from there I haven’t looked back.  I must also make mention of David Gemmell.  Although primarily known as a fantasy writer his trilogy based around the stories of Troy were some of the finest historical fiction novels I have ever read.

What are you working on next?    I am currently finishing another novel set in ancient Rome. This will be the first in a two-part story of brothers caught in opposing factions in the ‘year of four Emperors’.  The time period is similar to my first novel but this new series allows me to really explore the incredible events that took place in what is arguably the most eventful year in the entire history of the Roman Empire.

Inspiring thoughts, Chris. I wish you lots of success with In the Shadow of Tyranny. Your research process must be so much more difficult than mine which focuses primarily on WWI.

In the Shadow of Tyranny by Chris WestcottWhen the Emperor Nero causes the death of his parents, Gaius sees his future dreams and aspirations brutally shattered. Unexpectedly thrown a lifeline by Vespasian, his father’s closest friend and a celebrated military leader, an offer of a role in the campaign for Judea, finds him playing a pivotal role in the epic battle for Jerusalem. Summoned back to Rome by Domitian, the new Emperor and his lifelong friend, Gaius finds his friend a changed man, a man capable of cold-blooded murder, and Gaius is swiftly dispatched to distant Britannia with orders for the island’s legendary governor, Agricola. 
Forming a mutual respect with Agricola, Gaius embarks on a campaign that will end in triumph and terror, as with the opportunity to expand the Empire within their grasp, Gaius will find himself facing a choice on which the lives of his family and the fate of an Empire will hang.

Available on Amazon.