About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Timelines, Killer Details and Thank God for Google: Researching Historical Fiction.

So many reference books ...
As usual, I'm reblogging my latest post for Authors Electric here on my own blog, for anyone who might be interested. This time it's about the process, the joys  - and the occasional pitfalls - of historical research.

Those of us who write historical fiction will be well aware that there are various ways of setting about it. There’s no single right or wrong way and the volume of research needed will vary not just according to how well you know the period, how immersed you are in a particular time and place, but will also depend upon the kind of fiction you’re writing, and reader expectations too. One reader’s unacceptable anachronism may well be excused by another reader who is happy to focus on the story rather than the detail. Most writers know their readers, know what they want and I’m not about to argue with that.

Personally speaking, I do masses of research. In fact I have to persuade myself to stop, give myself permission to get on with the writing, because there’s a part of me that enjoys the research too much, especially going back to primary sources: letters, contemporary accounts, old documents of the kind where you have to ‘get your eye in’ even to read them. It’s justified procrastination. But sooner or later, you have to write the book.

The book in question is a new novel called The Jewel, all about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, due to be published next spring. So you set the research aside, and immerse yourself in the world of the novel. Then two things happen. You realise that you have to go easy on what’s included. Historical research informs the novel, informs the way the characters behave, but if you try to put in everything you now know, the novel will suffer from great indigestible chunks of fact for fact's sake. At the same time – paradoxically - it's only when you begin to write that you discover all the things you really need to know, but that have somehow eluded you.

My favourite Jean and Rab:
Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie
When I was planning this post, it struck me that there are three key points to researching historical fiction. Well, in truth, there are lots more, probably as many as there are writers. But these three issues always loom very large for me, so it’s worth sharing them.

I think of them as TimelinesKiller Details and TGFG or Thank God for Google.

When you’re researching something that really happened, even if you’re going to allow yourself to make up all kinds of things that might or might not have happened, timelines are vital. Knowing your dates. And I don’t just mean what year something happened, but what time of the year something happened – and what else was going on at the same time. It is amazing how often knowing precisely when something happened in relation to something else gives you an interesting perspective on your subject: one that may even be counter intuitive. For example, it soon became clear to me that Jean didn’t actually fall pregnant for the first time in summer, even though the imagination loves to conjure pictures of outdoor dalliance among the mountain daisies, but in the middle of a damp, chilly, Ayrshire winter. Which immediately makes you wonder about the how and the where of it, especially at a time when houses were crowded, privacy was at a premium and both parties knew that her parents disapproved of the poet to the point of paranoia. I have plenty of ideas about the how of it, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I think! 


Time and again, the juxtaposition of dates and events either explained something satisfactorily, or threw up a conundrum that served to make the story more interesting.

Alongside these timeline issues though, are what I like to think of as killer details. These are more likely to come from primary sources: statistical accounts, parish records, surviving letters; and it’s vital to go back to them wherever you can. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite like seeing the real signatures of your protagonists, and knowing that the people you are writing about were once there in the flesh, holding a pen, making those marks on that particular piece of paper. (OK, I admit it, I shed a tear when I thought about that one!) There’s the fact that in another document, the word ‘child’ suddenly becomes ‘children’ long before the babies in question were born, suggesting that the midwife must have heard two heartbeats. There’s a contemporary description of the internal geography of an alehouse that allows you to ascertain the truth or otherwise of a particular piece of gossip. There’s the sudden realisation that you have - serendipitously, and while looking for something else - come across the details of another birth that has significance for the plot you want to construct. These are small details that may seem insignificant but they add authenticity. And the excitement of discovering them is incomparable.

Jean lived in a room here. So did Rab - on and off.
Finally, there’s Google. Thank God for Google. Take the tiny, unimportant example of Ballachulish slate. I live in a house – a listed building - with a Ballachulish slate roof. (You can see something similar in the picture above.) This kind of slate is no longer available except in reclaimed and reconditioned form although substitutes are generally used. For a small and relatively unimportant detail in the story, I found myself assuming that Jean Armour’s father – a prosperous Ayrshire stonemason - would have used Ballachulish slate, especially on the houses of the wealthy. But rereading the chapter, it tripped me up. Just how old is Ballachulish slate? When did they start quarrying it? In the olden days before Google, I would have had to go to the library, look it up and waste precious writing time checking when the quarry was in its heyday and how likely it was that an Ayrshire stonemason and building contractor would have had his roofers using it some thirty years before our own house was built. Or - more likely - I would have deleted Ballachulish altogether and reverted to the simple word ‘slate’. Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. It was a minor detail. But in terms of authenticity, all the Ayrshire builders I know have used the description Ballachulish slate. So, it turns out, might Jean Armour's dad. Thank God for Google in dozens of small but interesting ways.

So those are my three important issues. But of course there are plenty more. If you're writing historical fiction, or even considering it - what's the most important challenge for you? 


Even more research books...

My historical novel The Physic Garden is still available
in paperback and as an eBook from most outlets.
If you want to see my first 'take' on Rab and Jean, you can read my play
  Burns on the Solway on Kindle and on most other eBook outlets too.
The Jewel is scheduled for publication next spring.
Watch this space!
Catherine Czerkawska
www.wordarts.co.uk 






Thursday, October 15, 2015

Physic Gardens, Gardeners and Poets

The Physic Garden is on special offer on Amazon at the moment - 99p for the eBook, and I'm not at all sure how long that is going to go on! It could go back to full price any moment, so if you're reading this and have missed the boat, apologies. Not that it's terribly expensive at full price. And because the cover is so beautiful - many thanks to Glasgow Museums for supplying my publisher, Saraband, an image of a sampler that was not only right for the novel, but pretty much right for the date too - the paperback is a lovely book as well. It's one you might be glad to have on your shelves, even if, like me, you prefer reading novels on a Kindle.

Did I really say that? Well, I'm afraid it's true. But sometimes, when I like a particular book a lot, I want to have it in both versions.

And I'm a small time collector of antiquarian books as well, so my shelves are fairly cluttered with old volumes, not even very valuable old volumes either: just extremely pre-loved.

Extremely pre-loved books.
I really do like the smell of those. I honestly don't care about the scent of new books, even my own new books. They sort of smell of paper and nothing else and so does bog roll or printer paper. But old books, very old books - oh, like old textiles, they smell of time, and the perfume of the past, and I can get quite sentimental over those.

When I was researching the Physic Garden - a book I sometimes think I ought to have called The Psychic Garden, because that's what so many people want to call it! - it struck me that my narrator/gardener/bookseller, William, of whom I'm still very fond indeed, would have known all about Robert Burns. The lives of the two would have overlapped, in terms of time although they would never have met. Burns would have died only six years before William first met his sweetheart, Jenny Caddas, taking her swarm of bees. So when William, whose narrative voice was so strong that I was never quite sure what he was going to say next, mentions Robert Burns, and the challenges he must have faced in the houses of the Edinburgh gentry, it seemed perfectly feasible. 'But then, I believe, the poet's father was a gardener too, and it was that work which first took him to Ayrshire where Rab was born,' writes William.
The cottage William Burness built. 

Much more recently, as regular readers of this blog will know, I've been finishing a new historical novel about Jean Armour, the wife of that same Robert Burns. This is no coincidence. I was already immersed in the time and place and had previously written a couple of plays about the poet, but had always wanted to write more, a lot more, about Jean.

Because the new novel, titled The Jewel, is primarily about Jean, the poet's father - also called William - only figures peripherally. He was dead by the time the family moved to Mossgiel farm outside Mauchline. He comes across in most of the biographies as a kindly father, intelligent and thoughtful but very strait-laced and rather grim. His son felt that his father was disappointed in him. Yet it struck me that William  Burness, as he signed his name, must have had some spirit of adventure as a young man. He moved from the North East where he was born, first to Edinburgh to work as a gardener, and thence to Ayrshire. Moreover, he met Agnes Broun, the poet's mother, at the fair in Maybole and married her with a certain amount of precipitation, so it must have been a whirlwind courtship! Perhaps the poet, whose chief virtue was genuine kindliness and who could be impulsive, was more like his father than he knew.

Greenside, Maybole, Ayrshire.