Research is an intrinsic part of writing historical fiction, and I have relied on the interlibrary loan system at my university for everything from a jewel-like book that contains an inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe (The Queen’s Wardrobe Unlock’d)—an atlas-sized tome I have yet to return which helped me enormously as I apprenticed myself to learning about sewing and embroidery in the period!—to books of Renaissance cookery, midwifery, and medicine. Integrating research so that it feels natural, an organic part of the narrative and not baggy or obvious, is the key to success in my view. The research, especially in historical fiction, should be present enough to enable the reader to inhabit that particular period—to walk into it and breathe the air, catch the glint of the language, hear the street noises or their absence. In this post, I thought I would concentrate on a few examples from recent historical YA fiction by Libba Bray, Lisa Klein and myself in order to make two key points, and then look at the way Megan Frazer brings research into her fabulous contemporary novel, Secrets of Truth and Beauty.
Written in the first person, Lisa Klein’s lyrical first novel, Ophelia, retells Shakespeare’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view. It’s a natural novel with which to begin this discussion because almost every high school junior knows who Ophelia was. She might not have the archetypal cache of Eve, but I’m not sure there is another woman in Western literature who is as well known. To an extent then, Lisa Klein was blessed with not having to do all the work in establishing background and contextual history because she could safely assume most of her readers would be familiar with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Klein taught Renaissance literature to college students for many years and wrote her dissertation on Elizabethan poetry, so she was already extremely well-versed in the period and its literature—its voices—when she came to her novel. In an interview published with Klein (and included in the Bloomsbury paperback), she reveals the following origins for Ophelia: “…I became interested in the lives and works of Renaissance women and wrote articles about the needleworks of Queen Elizabeth and not-so-famous women of the period. I read (and taught) women’s journals, letters, and poetry. I studied so-called “nonliterary” works such as conduct books….” All of these helped Klein understand how sixteenth century people experienced their world.
What intrigues me about Klein’s decision to tell Ophelia’s story is the fact that the desire grew out of her own disappointment—and her students disappointment—at the passive presentation of Ophelia in the play. “Well,” Klein asked, “if Ophelia was so dim, what on earth made Hamlet fall in love with her? How would the play have been different if she had not drowned? If Ophelia could tell her own story, how would it differ from Shakespeare’s version?...These [questions] wouldn’t let go, so I began writing.” The strength of this very strong novel (which I read over the course of two nights) IS Ophelia’s strong character and her hypnotic voice. I quote at length from this conversation with Lisa Klein because it exemplifies a key element of integrating research successfully into a novel: One must MUST live with the material for a time in order for it to become familiar. The research needs to click within the psyche of the writer before she can use it naturally in the story.
Klein’s coming to the story resonates deeply with me, as I, too, lived with the story of Katherine Parr, the mother of Mary Seymour, the main character in The Red Queen’s Daughter, for several years before I wrote Mary’s story. Like Klein, I did graduate work in the Renaissance, writing my masters thesis on representations of women and women’s bodies in John Webster’s violent tragedy, “The Duchess of Malfi” (a phenomenal play by the way by one of Shakespeare’s successors). Long after I finished my doctorate and began teaching college literature, I read several biographies of the Tudors and stumbled about Katherine Parr’s story. This last queen of Henry VIII was well-educated and loving, and she was the wife of 3 old men before she finally married for love after Henry VIII’s death. She married Thomas Seymour, brother to the late Jane, and bore a single daughter, Mary. The tension in this story begins with the fact that Katherine Parr mothered the late king’s children successfully and was a role model for Queen Elizabeth. What Katherine wanted, desperately, was a child of her own. Unfortunately, she died within a week of giving birth, and Mary most likely died within the first three years of her life. Like Klein, I was compelled by questions: what would have happened had Katherine Parr lived? What if Mary didn’t die? What options would there have been for a woman of her time other than marriage? (Given her mother’s experience, a non-too-happy one, I did not want to surrender Mary up to marriage.) Anyway, by the time I sat down to tell Mary’s story, I, like Lisa Klein, had been living with the Renaissance for several years. The language of the day, the customs, and especially the very real and usually restrictive codes associated with class and gender were deeply familiar to me. So, my first word of advice in integrating historical research: live with the material for a while before you begin writing.
One helpful exercise to try, as preparation, is to take a piece of research and bring it to life. For example, in researching the world of Elizabeth’s Court, I stumbled upon the fascinating reality of its need to be nomadic. The Court, a sprawling ensemble of lords and ladies and their servants, along with the army of human beings necessary to feed, clothe, doctor, beautify, and clean up after them and their animals, was unbelievably large. One practical reason the Queen went “on progress” for part of the year was the simple fact that her palaces needed to be cleaned. Hay was usually strewn underfoot, within doors, to keep the air fresh. Imagine how a 16th century palace would have smelled after a month’s time. Then there was the fact that the Court would quickly exhaust the food and other resources within a region after a few months. So, one exercise that draws upon this research could look at the day of departure from one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting. What would preoccupy the woman in charge of the transport of the queen’s wardrobe, for example? What would concern a groom? A cook? A maid made pregnant by a departing noble? You get the picture.
The fact that the writer must rely on language to recreate a period poses other challenges and advantages. A filmmaker has the advantage of costume at set design, but for the writer, it’s the written word. Here, I find another excerpt from the conversation with Lisa Klein valuable: “I did lengthy word searches in my gigantic Oxford English Dictionary, in order to use words that were current in Shakespeare’s time. I read sixteenth century herbals and books about convent life.” If one turns to the plays of Shakespeare, for example, or to the poems of Herrick and Donne and others of the period for that matter, readability does become an issue. I have always been a bookworm, and yet I know that I struggled through Shakespeare well into college. How then does the writer successfully integrate vocabulary from the period without making it stiff or unwieldy? The following passage from Ophelia illustrates how quite beautifully. In this scene, Horatio has just recovered Ophelia who only pretended to be dead (thanks to a concoction she drank).
“You were put into the ground late in the day, [Horatio said] and I
returned just as night fell to dig away the still-loose earth. I dreaded that the
grave robbers would arrive first, for they do not respect those that are self-
I gasped, for I had not considered that I might be stolen from the earth
and my body opened by robbers. I crossed my arms and shivered at the memory
of Hamlet’s book, with its drawings of the corpse laid open, the parts within it
revealed like a pirate’s booty in a torn sack.”
“Fortunately,” Horatio went on, “no one was about then. But I could not
rouse you from this deathlike slumber. I feared you were lost….”
What is immediately apparent about Klein’s prose is its lack of embellishment. With the exception of “still-loose” and “deathlike” and “torn,” her prose is remarkably free of adjectives and adverbs. She wises chose to use “self-murdered” instead of the more contemporary “suicide” which does not enter the English language until early in the 18th century. (The thorough copyeditor at Hyperion caught my own use of a post-16th century word in A Sweet Disorder and wisely drew my attention to this error.) In addition, Klein uses vivid, strong verbs like “dread” and “shivered” and “laid open.” “Put into the ground” is a very natural, colloquial-sounding phrase. Ophelia’s mention of Hamlet’s book very naturally integrates the learning taking place in the period—the first autopsies were being done and a clearer understanding of anatomy was taking shape.)
At this point, I would like to bring Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, the first novel in a trilogy set at a girl’s boarding school in late Victorian England and in a parallel, fantasy universe. (For the purposes of this discussion, I will not focus on the fantasy). Bray’s lively, almost feminist heroine, Gemma Doyle, at times comes dangerously close to seeming too contemporary, for she has such a strong voice and character, one that can feel at odds with the heroines of such classic Victorian novels as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Ultimately, however, Gemma IS convincing as a Victorian girl who grew up in India and therefore was not subject to the same strict rules as her England-bound contemporaries. And although I do not know for certain, I sense Libba Bray is well-versed in the novels of Jane Austen, for there is a wit to Gemma that reminds me of Elizabeth Bennett and the younger sister in Sense and Sensibility. But to return to the point: how does Bray make her research feel natural? Once again, the best way to dramatize this is by example.
Chapter Three opens with Gemma Doyle’s arrival in London in the company of her older brother, Tom. Following the violent death of her mother, she comes to England from India to attend a girl’s boarding or finishing school. Here is how Bray sets the stage:
“Victoria! This is Victoria Station!”
A burly blue-uniformed conductor moves through on his way to the
back of our train, announcing that I’ve arrived in London at last. We’re slowing
to a stop. Great billowing clouds of steam sail past the window, making
everything outside seem like a dream.
In the seat across from me, my brother, Tom, is waking, straightening his
black waistcoat, checking for anything that isn’t perfect. In the four years we’ve
been apart, he has grown very tall and a little broader in the chest, but he’s still
thin with a flop of fair hair that droops fashionably into his blue eyes and makes
him seem younger than twenty. “Try not to look so dour, Gemma. It’s not as if
you’re being sent to the stocks. Spence is a very good school with a reputation for
turning out charming young ladies.”
A very good school. Charming young ladies. It is, word for word, what my
grandmother said after we’d spent two weeks at Pleasant House, her home in the
English countryside. She’d taken a long, appraising look at me, with my freckled
skin and unruly mane of red hair, my sullen face, and decided that a proper
finishing school was what was needed if I was ever to make a decent marriage.
“It’s a wonder you weren’t sent home years ago,” she clucked. “Everyone knows
the climate in India isn’t good for the blood….”
In this passage, Bray demonstrates what good research should do: multi-task or perform a number of roles without feeling tacked-on or obvious. Although we still travel by train today, we do so much more rarely (or most of us do). By opening with the conductor’s voice and his clothing, she captures a figure who is still recognizable though one who represents a time that is quickly passing. An ordinary Victorian who lived in London would not have singled out the “great billowing clouds of steam,” but this is Gemma’s first train ride. It makes perfect sense that she would notice this. One detail conjures the steam locomotive succinctly. In describing Tom’s waistcoat, Bray alludes to the formality of the time, especially for people of Tom and Gemma’s class (not aristocratic but affluent and definitely from families that want to be linked with aristocrats). Yet Bray not only captures class here and period clothing, but she nails Tom’s character: he is fussy and a bit vain, but he’s also boyish. That wonderful “flop of fair hair that droops fashionably” captures his boyishness and his vanity. The alliterative string of “flop…fair…fashionably” feels Victorian. And the paragraph that follows with its description of the school and its portrait of the grandmother manifest the values of this class. Gemma’s goal in life is to “make a decent marriage.” In order to do so, she must be the opposite of what she is. The unruly and the sullen must be made “charming.” The Grandmother’s second sentence—“Everyone knows the climate in India isn’t good for the blood” does sound like precisely what every know-it-all in this circle would say. What’s our equivalent of “good” or “bad for the blood”?
If there is a second necessity in integrating research into historical fiction, it is to make the research perform a number of roles, as Libba Bray does. Keep the research streamline: a conductor’s voice, his uniform, a billow of steam, a waistcoat, a flop of hair, and dialogue peppered with words like “dour” and “stocks” and “good for the blood.” Bravo!
Before closing this discussion, I want to look briefly at Megan Frazer’s use of research in her first novel, Secrets of Truth and Beauty. Dara Cohen narrates her story here. A former child pageant star with a dynamite singing voice, Dara is now an overweight, somewhat troubled seventeen-year-old (or at least one with low self-esteem). After putting together a disturbing autobiography project at her private high school outside of Boston, Dara drives to New Hampshire to seek out and stay with Rachel, the older sister she didn’t know she had. (Rachel was herself a troubled, runaway teen when Dara was born.) Although the narrative held me enthrall, what I want to focus on is the way Frazer integrates the making of goat cheese into the novel so that it becomes an intrinsic, really essential part of the narrative—and a subject that I absolutely loved reading about.
When Dara arrives at the Jezebel Goat Farm, she finds her older sister, Rachel, in charge of the rather extensive cheese-making operation there. Here is an excerpt that exemplifies research that the writer has obviously lived with for a while, research that performs a number of roles in the story:
In the barn I found Rachel dumping a huge metal bowl of milk curd into a vat. “Phase one,” she said. “Flipping the curd into the bags. It separates the curds and whey.” She explained how much to put into each bag, and I watched her fill one and then hang it over a slanted metal counter. “We collect the whey and give it back to the goats.” That sounded a little gross to me, but I didn’t say so. I just started working. My hands grew prunelike in the still-damp curds.
“What’s phase two?” I asked.
“We salt and season the cheese and then put it into molds or roll it into
We worked in silence for a long time, and it was satisfying and soothing as Rachel had promised. I filled nearly a dozen bags.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so pissy lately,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easier
than dealing with things….I didn’t mean to get so angry….You should have seen
me when I first came here. The littlest thing would set me off. Someone would
ask me to sweep out the stalls, and I’d act like they’d asked me to lick shit off
their boots. Sorry, that was crass.” She hung a cheese bag up on a hook.
“Anyway, after some time here, I guess I just saw how things worked, the pattern
of it, the way everyone chipped in—I don’t know, I guess it calmed me down.”
“That’s cool,” I said, because I didn’t know how else to respond. I thought
of how unstable Mom and Dad said she was. It seemed like maybe she had been.
She’d obviously changed al lot since then…”
The scene takes place early on in Dara’s stay at the farm, a period when her sister’s character is still a mystery to her. She doesn’t really know why Rachel left, all she knows is that her parents said she was unstable and had done some unforgivable things. Through well-lived-with research into cheese-making, Frazer brings Rachel’s character to life. We come to understand the therapeutic aspect of making cheese. Rachel opens up when she’s making cheese. “I’m sorry I’ve been so pissy lately…” Equally important, cheese-making is good for Dara, too. “I filled nearly a dozen bags.” Although Frazer doesn’t chart Rachel’s transformation from troubled, angry teen to successful, responsible, caring small business woman in the novel, this passage alone demonstrates how Rachel got there. “You should have seen me when I first came here,” Rachel tells Dara. Because Frazer takes us through the very soothing process of making cheese, a process she staggers throughout Dara’s stay at the farm, we understand how cheese-making and life at the farm helped Rachel. A further benefit of this scene is that Frazer is able to explain how the process works without stepping out of character and story. Rachel is explaining the process to Dara so it feels completely organic, just as Gemma’s observation of the billowing clouds of steam feels organic.
There is obviously so much more to say about integrating research into fiction for young adults, whether it’s historical or contemporary. Perhaps The Crowe’s Nest will invite me back for a follow up to this post. In the meantime, I invite questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. In my own experience, I learn best by example. If you see research working superbly well in a novel, look at it closely. Ask what roles it’s performing in the narrative and take apart the diction.