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How Curiosity Can Spark A Story Idea, by Jane Johnson

Curiosity may have killed the cat but it’s essential to the historical novelist. After all, if we’re not curious about the past why should it interest our readers in our writing? Good research will always throw up fascinating surprises. The more bizarre the better: it’s those really weird connections that drive a great plot. Find yourself sidetracked? Go with it and trust your instincts.

I wrote my first historical novel, The Tenth Gift, largely by accident. That is, I never meant to be a historical novelist. When I started to write The Tenth Gift, in 2006, I’d been a publisher for over 20 years and had published 7 adult fantasy novels under a number of pseudonyms. I had also just done a significant deal for a trilogy of children’s books under my own name: so I had no plans at all to devote myself to a year of in-depth research and another year of tough writing about the seventeenth century, about which I knew little.

It all came about because of a bit of family research. My mother, Cornish back through many generations and with the Celtic gift of spinning a tale, had told me stories throughout my childhood. One involved a family member ‘stolen by pirates’, taken away and sold overseas. Of course, I thought it was as fanciful as any of the rest of her stories, until I heard about raids by Barbary pirates on the Cornish coast in the seventeenth century. Apparently, in 1625 corsairs from North Africa had sailed into Mount’s Bay and taken 60 men, women and children out of a church and carted them off to be sold into the white slave trade.

My curiosity was piqued. Perhaps our family legend was based on a grain of truth? I headed for the parish records and, after a lot of digging, found a hole in our family records that coincided with the raid: a missing Tregenna woman (my mother’s side of the family). All were accounted for except one: Catherine, born 1606. After that, nothing: no marriage or death records, not in Cornwall (which keeps its parish records meticulously) nor anywhere else.

Catherine Tregenna would have been 19 years old when the raiders came…. if they came.

I went online and made a number of Google searches like Barbary+raiders+Cornwall and found a remarkable patchwork of data. Certainly, it appeared that Barbary raiders had been active in the seventeenth century – although most of the accounts came from later in the era, from 1640 onwards. Then I turned up a reference to a letter to the king’s Privy Council, from the Mayor of Plymouth from April 1625. I’ve reproduced the letter in full (it came from the Calendar of State Papers, held as part of the National Archive at Kew, which was my next stop, since you can’t necessarily trust the accuracy of things purported on the internet):

To the Right Honorable Lords of his Majestie’s most honorable Privy Council. 
Haste, haste, posthaste. 
Plymouth, the eighteenth of april, eight in the eve 

—Thomas Ceely, Mayor. 

May it please yr honors to be advertised that this daie I have heard of certaine Turks, Moores, & Dutchmen of Sallee in Barbary, which lie on our coasts spoiling divers such as they are able to master, as by the examination of one William Knight may appeare, whose report I am induced the rather to believe, because two fisherboats mentioned in hys examination were very lately found flotyng on the seas, having neither man nor tackle in them…  
I am also credibly informed that there are some thirtie sail of shippes at Sallee now preparing to come for the coasts of England in the begynnyng of the summer, & if there bee not speedy course taken to prevent it, they would do much mischeef. 
Hereof I thought it my dutie to inform yr honors. 

And so I rest, 
Yr honors in all dutie bounden, 
Thos. Ceely, Mayor 
Plymouth, the 18th daie of april 1625 

Two months later, he was writing once more to the Privy Council, reporting the taking of 60 people from Mount’s Bay and a further 80 from the fishing port of Looe, further to the east.

And that was that: I had fished in murky waters and hooked a whale. It was too big to throw back in: I knew I was going to have to commit myself to bringing the story of young Catherine Tregenna – my 19 year old Cornish ancestor, taken by ‘certaine Turks, Moores, & Dutchmen of Sallee in Barbary’ to light. I would have to embark on a remarkable journey – learn to research and translate the reams of raw information I unearthed into fiction that would feel alive and authentic to a reader, fiction in which you could see the glow of gorse on a Cornish cliff, see the blood seeping into the deck of a corsair caravel, smell the scents of a North African slave market.

It was to be a remarkable voyage, a journey that would change my life in more ways than on. In my next post, I’ll take you to Morocco with me.


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Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I do so feel a kindred spirit with Jane Johnson, whose Tenth Gift influenced my first (as yet unpublished ) novel. Like her, it was curiosity after reading an autobiography written by a Arab Princess living in Zanzibar circa 1850s, who had an affair with a German diplomat, got pregnant and eloped with him, but with scant to no details about the affair in her biography that started me wondering how on earth the couple managed to conduct the affair and from that, Sayyida’s Legacy was born. The journey down that rabbit hole was enriching and rewarding in many ways, though the frustrations were and continue to be many.

    August 6, 2013

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