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Archival Research For Historical Novels, by Eva Stachniak

I’m not a historian. I’m a fiction writer, but history is my passion and my material; a treasure trove of stories from which I take freely. As a Polish immigrant to Canada, I’m particularly interested in stories that had been held back behind the Iron Curtain, hidden from our collective memory.

Eastern European history has been far from peaceful and that means loss. Many documents and artifacts have perished in major and minor wars, uprisings and skirmishes. What has been preserved was, for years, kept in sequestered rooms, accessible only to the chosen few, if at all.  Politics dictated which documents could be read and studied, and which should be forgotten. Now, even after Eastern Europe has undergone a profound political transformation, many of these archives are still being catalogued. But, even with all these losses looming large, in the course of my research I’ve uncovered countless treasures which have aided me in re-creating the eighteenth century world of my historical novels.

On one such visit I travelled to Cracow, to the Wawel castle, where parts of the Potocki archives are held. The Potocki family, one of the pillars of the Polish aristocracy, were of interest since I was researching countess Sophie Potocka, the heroine of my Garden of Venus.

Unlike other archives, the Wawel castle’s archives are quite intimate. In the small reading room which contained four tables, I made my selection of items from a handwritten catalogue and was soon presented with cardboard boxes and a pair of white cotton gloves. For the next few hours, I examined the content of the boxes, marvelling at the variety of material I had discovered there.

What did I find? Notes for speeches delivered during family banquets or read at funerals. Beautifully calligraphed name day and birthday wishes children prepared for their parents and other relatives. The children’s homework, corrected by governors or governesses and then carefully copied into notebooks. Housekeeping details: cooking recipes and notes on favourite dishes, which—a cook might note—needed more or less salt or saffron or nutmeg. A reminder that good lace should be washed in lukewarm rain water.

I have found prayer books with notes on family events, births, baptisms, and deaths. An envelope with dried flowers from the Holy Land. Books which contained details of servants’ allotted livery: six pairs of shoes per year, two pairs of breeches, a hat and gloves all “according to merit.” I have found leather-bound albums with watercolours and poems, bills from hotels, textile merchants, and the pharmacy, as well as locks of hair wrapped in paper and a silk sash with a silver thread. The last one came from a child’s coffin.

To my delight I have also found a passport which turned out to be a large sheet of paper carefully folded into a small leather purse. It contained the name of the traveller and her careful description: mouth, nose, chin listed as “all proportional”, the face described as “rounded.”

There was much more, all of it precious, for such relics of the past make the writer’s job much easier. A border crossing I subsequently described in the novel was so much more real to me when I imagined the act of retrieving and unfolding a passport. My ability to convey the hiring of a servant was enriched by an image of filling out a new servant book.

The most potent aid to my imagination, as I learned that day, is the chance to hold a bit of the past in my hands.


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The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Necessary LiesGarden of Venus     The Kirilov StarSektion 20Where Lilacs Still BloomThe Detroit Electric Scheme

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. julianstockwin #

    I find old newspapers from the time I write about (the Georgian age) useful and I own one dated the actual day my fictional hero is press-ganged into the Royal Navy. I also have found log books and diaries of the time invaluable in my research.

    Eva’s conclusion to her piece: “The most potent aid to my imagination, as I learned that day, is the chance to hold a bit of the past in my hands” is so true!

    February 15, 2013
  2. Thanks for this, Julian. Newspapers are wonderful, I agree. They let you get some of the chatter from the times.

    February 23, 2013

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