Mom is responsible for my love of historical fiction. It began when she suggested I read a favorite novel of her childhood. In Marie McSwigan’s Snow Treasure Norwegian children ferry bars of gold on their sleds under the noses of the Nazis to a ship waiting to take the gold to America for safekeeping. Later, Mom recommended one of her favorite authors, Victoria Holt. I don’t recall which title I started with, but the two that made the most impression on me were Bride of Pendorric and The Shadow of the Lynx. From these early books, I formed a passion for historical fiction and, in time, developed a list of my own “keepers” and favorite authors (to see my list visit http://www.cindyvallar.com/histfic.html).
It’s not the time, place, or subject that particularly draws me to a historical novel. It is how the author weaves his/her research into a captivating tale that sweeps me back to another period in history so I can forget the world in which I live, at least for a short while.
That may sound like a simple task, but it’s not, as I discovered when I first set the idea for the opening scene of The Scottish Thistle onto paper. I knew exactly three things about Scotland at the time: men wore kilts, people spoke with a brogue, and the country was divided into the Highlands and Lowlands. Certainly not enough information to create even a picture book. So using my training as a librarian, I selected and read authoritative non-fiction books about Scotland and Scottish history. That process, combined with the actual writing, would take me twelve years to complete. Why? Because a good historical novelist immerses herself in the time, place, and culture in which she sets story. As Rafael Sabatini explained in his article “Historical Fiction”:
The writing of historical romance certainly makes heavy demands upon an author. Before he can come to it, he must have rendered himself by study and research so familiar with every phase and detail of the life of the period chosen that he can move at ease within it, and produce his effects so that his narrative, without being clogged by a parade of the knowledge he will have assimilated, will yet be fully informed and enlivened by it.
I borrowed books from my library and through inter-library loan. I purchased other volumes to add to my personal research collection. I amassed two filing cabinets worth of articles, went to Highland games, and attended a curling match many years before it became an Olympic sport. Although the internet was in its infancy when I wrote The Scottish Thistle, it has also become an important tool in my arsenal of resources.But doing the research isn’t enough.
The historical novelist must understand the difference between writing history and writing fiction. In Irish Love, one title in Father Andrew Greeley’s Nuala Anne series, and in James L. Nelson’s The Only Life that Mattered, these authors (respectively) explain this difference:
History and historical fiction are necessarily not the same thing. The purpose of history is to narrate events as accurately as one can. The purpose of historical fiction is to enable a reader through the perspective of characters in the story to feel that she or he is present at the events. Such a goal requires some modification of the events.
The place where the novel differs from the straight history is in the extent to which the “web of imaginative construction” is indeed imagined, or made up, if you will. The historian will tell you that Caesar traveled to Gaul. The novelist will tell you what he (most likely) ate, drank, thought, and felt along the way. . . .
I’ve discovered that in doing the research, I often learn information that helps me better understand other historical novels. Back in high school, my parents gave me The Hammer of God by James H. Hunter for Christmas. I had a hard time understanding this story, in part because I had no knowledge of Scottish history. (I probably kept reading it because the protagonist is reminiscent of Zorro or the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, masked figures who right wrongs and help the persecuted.) When I reread this book after my twelve years of research, I finally understood all that I hadn’t the first time, and The Hammer of God became a favorite book.
Doing research, though, has a way of becoming addictive, and the novelist must at some point stop one to write. There is no rule as to how we know when this time comes, and until we immerse ourselves in the history and culture, the story we write won’t be more than mediocre. Once our immersion is complete, that is when it’s time to write. Since I write fiction, rather than history, only a tenth of my acquired knowledge, actually appears in the novel. The other ninety percent allows me to realistically portray time and place so the tale transports the reader back in time.
Sabatini was a master at practicing this technique. Although Errol Flynn actually introduced me to Peter Blood when I was a teenager, Ballantine Books reissued Sabatini’s historical novels when I was in college. Captain Blood was the first one I read, and while I enjoyed this pirate tale, I had no idea the depth of the author’s research until a reader of my monthly history column, Pirates and Privateers, asked me to write about the history behind Sabatini’s novel. What I thought would be a simple, one-and-done article turned into a six-part commentary. His research encompassed far more than I ever imagined, but my own research for my Scottish novel and my maritime piracy articles enriched my rereading of Captain Blood and made it a fascinating journey into how another author wrote. (If you’d like to read this article, you’ll find it at http://www.cindyvallar.com/captainbloodhistory.html.)
Although I thought my research for The Scottish Thistle was complete when I finished the manuscript, my husband surprised me with a trip to Scotland to visit all the places I had written about in my story. That’s how I realized that Scottish mountains aren’t the same as those here in the States. At the first of sixty-four visits to castles, I discovered Doune Castle played a role in the Rising of 1745, the principal event in my story. This also permitted me to insert Gregor MacGregor of Glen Gyle, as well as the sons of Rob Roy MacGregor, into my tale. At Carlisle Castle, we found a miniature recreation of the city and castle at the time of the uprising, while our visit to Dun Telve allowed me to see and explore the architecture of a broch so I could recreate the fictional one that serves as the smuggler Thistle’s hideout.
My immersion in the history and culture of eighteenth-century Scotland and the Highland clans helped me craft a tale that I hope transports readers back to the last civil war fought on British soil. The back cover blurb entices the reader to look inside, but merely hints at the research behind the story:
Loyalty and honor. A Highland warrior prizes both more than life, and when he swears his oath on the dirk, he must obey or die. Duncan Cameron heeds his chief’s order without question, but discovers his wife-to-be is no fair maiden. Although women are no longer trained in the art of fighting, Rory MacGregor follows in the footsteps of her Celtic ancestors. Secrets from the past and superstitious folk endanger Rory and Duncan as much as Bonnie Prince Charlie and his uprising to win back the British throne for his father. Rory and Duncan must make difficult choices that pit honor and duty against trust and love . . .
The nine-tenths of the research that I didn’t use accompany the pictures of my trips to Scotland, which you’ll find on my website and can be found in my Scottish Highlands Workshop. If you’d like to know more about Highlanders and the Highlands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, won’t you join me at SavvyAuthors Forums as we journey back to the Scottish Highlands of yore?
A retired librarian, Cindy Vallar writes feature articles and book reviews for the Historical Novel Society’s Historical Novels Review. She also pens the biannual “The Red Pencil” column where she profiles authors and compares a selection from their published historical novels with an early draft of that work. She is a freelance editor, the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, and a workshop presenter. Aside from The Scottish Thistle, she has written “Odin’s Stone,” a romantic short story of how the Lord of the Isles settled the medieval feud between the MacKinnons and MacLeans on the Isle of Skye; and “Rumble the Dragon,” a historical fantasy that appears in A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. Rumble is a young dragon, a misfit whose intelligence gets him into trouble. When a sacred chalice is stolen, Rumble must work with outlawed Vikings to recover the chalice before the thieves endanger the world. She invites you to visit her award-winning web site, Thistles & Pirates, to learn more.
Loyalty and honor. A Highland warrior prizes both more than life, and when he swears his oath on the dirk, he must obey or die. Duncan Cameron heeds his chief’s order without question, but discovers his wife-to-be is no fair maiden. Although women are no longer trained in the art of fighting, Rory MacGregor follows in the footsteps of her Celtic ancestors. Secrets from the past and superstitious folk endanger Rory and Duncan as much as Bonnie Prince Charlie and his uprising to win back the British throne for his father. Rory and Duncan must make difficult choices that pit honor and duty against trust and love…Read an excerpt.
Buy a copy of ‘Scottish Thistle’ at Amazon.