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On Research To Write Historical Novels, by Posie Graeme-Evans (guest article)

When I was at Flinders University, Ralph Elliott was the professor of English and not only was he very funny, he was immensely learned – a great medievalist, and, as it turned out, an expert in Norse literature as well. Slowly, the callow nineteen year old I was sank deep into the sea of English letters with Ralph as pilot, guide and friend. And, when I began to write seriously, my first three novels were set in the world of Medieval England. His influence, of course, but more than that: for the preceding twenty years or so I had read and read all I could find about the medieval world. I was obsessed. And I loved, and still love, Chaucer and Froissart and Le Roman de La Rose… the list goes on.

So, reading – pure and simple – was my first approach to research and I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I still consume books like food – all kinds of books – but curiously perhaps for a novelist, I’m almost more interested in facts than fiction. Hilary Mantel might be a revelation (and she is. What a writer!) but Liza Piccard’s London, William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire, and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror have been enormous influences on me. Never mind eat, I drank them up. And Allison Weir! How she brings the past to life. It’s the details I adore. London’s elm sewerage pipes! Richard II’s bath with running water! The girdle of the Virgin in Westminster Abbey!

But the other research tool I adore, too, is just to go there. Not to take notes, not even to shoot photos – just to stand and smell and look and think. It’s discovery I like. Surprises, confusions, loose ends – more things to find out about when I’m back at my desk.

The Island House, my new novel set in Scotland in the present and 1,000 years ago, took five years, on an off, to write. There would be no words on those pages if I had not gone, first, to North East Scotland (Inverness to the Orkneys) at the end of 2005, and then, last year, to the North West (Lewis and Harris, chiefly). Those landscapes, the sound of the language, the modest grey houses, the stumps of old fortifications, the echoes of all those lives lived in wild, remote, glorious places… those images rolled like a film as I wrote. And then, there was the Viking Museum in Norway at Roskilde – those lethal, beautiful weapons of war. The grace of their lines! That was research, for me, at its most pure.

A publisher once said to me, “Don’t put research on the page.” And I aspire, I really do, to breaking my addiction to those yummy little factoids offered up by reading, and being, and looking in the service of the story. And I sweat nails and bullets, draft by draft, paring away.  But Louis Malle said, “We must all learn to kill our little darlings.”

After five drafts, and my editor’s pointed comments, I become convincingly homicidal though I suffer, I really suffer, for those crimes. It might be for their own good, and my career, but I hate murdering facts.


Posie Graeme-Evans’s author website:

Posie is the author of 5 historical novels, and has also worked in the Australian film and television industry for around 30 years. She lives near Hobart, Tasmania.

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The Island HouseThe DressmakerThe InnocentThe Exiled     The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))An Absence So Great (Portraits of the Heart)Fortress of Spears

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Do you, while telling tales of countries and cultures not your own, ever encounter criticism of the who-gave-you-the-right-to-come-in-here-and-tell-stories-about-us variety? If so, how do you deal with it, and how do you write to minimise that kind of reaction?

    February 19, 2013
  2. Actually, not so far, Ben. And, honestly, I don’t write trying to second guess what a reader might or might not like. That way paranoia lies, I think. So, the answer to your second question is that I write what I write… thanks for the comment. Always good to get feedback.

    February 19, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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