I am often asked: "How do you write your historical books? Choose your topics? Do your research?" and other such queries.
Strangely enough, each one of my chosen subjects about whom I have written has led me to the next. While researching I would fall upon a little known fact -- or just one which intrigued me about a peripheral character in my story. Curiosity would take me down an unexpected path to find with delight, the heroine of the next book.
Until the final book of my Anjou Trilogy to be published next year, I have not dared tackle the life of a man. I find few men write well about women, and few women write convincingly about men. Nevertheless, with caution, I accept the challenge and shall try to do justice to that great merchant of 15th century France, Jacques Coeur, a man who made the mistake of being richer than the king -- and paid for it dearly.
I am a night-writer. It is the only time I am undisturbed and often at my laptop until three or four in the morning. Many of my writer friends do the opposite, getting up at four or five in the morning, writing until ten, and then starting their normal day until crashing out early to bed. For me, the night feels like an embracing cocoon of black velvet, welcoming and warm; also mysterious -- layer upon layer of shifting thoughts allowed to overlap. Sometimes, quite late, I take the dog out to the field next door and although I admit she does not exactly inspire me, there is something curiously settling in following a dog meandering around a meadow while she sniffs at quite ordinary clumps of grass. Watching her empties my mind in almost the same way as meditation does, and ideas slip in.
Once I have decided on a new heroine for a book, (to date, all my subjects have been women), I find out what has been written about them already. I prefer finding a relatively unknown subject and check how well-known she might be. Could there be more fascinating facts to be discovered about her life? If she passes those tests positively, I turn to the references in the published works. Then I pick my way through them to find any original papers stored in great or small libraries.
For the Anjou Trilogy, the first volume "The Queen of Four Kingdoms" published a year ago in UK by Constable, and now in USA by Beaufort Books, I haunted the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris but I also used several other private libraries which I leant contained letters and documents. This is always a treasure hunt of sorts and such a joy when something important is found. It was the same for my previous book, "The Serpent and the Moon", a biography of Diane de Poitiers, since both my heroines' stories were based in France. Now much of the archives of many museums and libraries can be accessed via the internet, but just the smell of a great library inspires me and I enjoy the atmosphere as well.
And then there are the locations. I never write about a place I have not visited, and therefore I do travel a great deal. When he can, my husband joins me -- his viewpoint is often quite different from mine -- another plus. Even if buildings have been altered or sometimes torn down, just breathing the air of a particular place of significance to my characters will stimulate my imagination -- and I "see" them there.
Research is rather like becoming a detective. Every clue, no matter how small, is exciting and can lead one on to the next, another piece in the jigsaw found and I continue trying to form a picture of a personality. This is the part of my journey as a writer which I enjoy the most -- discovering the essence of a character through tiny little asides and titbits of no apparent significance but which can, on occasion, add something significant to their persona.
The story line -- all my stories are factually true -- is my first objective. Who was she; where did she come from; where did she go; where did her life end and how? And all this played out in an accurate portrait of the time in which she lived. Much of this might not be interesting or relevant to the angle I have chosen for my book and is later eliminated, but I need to know it all until the arc of my heroine's life emerges like a clear rainbow. My first line of research is always the medical histories of the main characters. It is quite astonishing how much one can find out about a person's character just by studying their health and its treatments. Depending on the period, and all my stories are of lives from before the 20th century, medicine was more or less primitive -- and this leads me onto torture -- an inevitable part of the history of the winners and the losers, the conquerors and the defeated. In most societies, torture was used for the most part as a deterrent, rather than the result of twisted and evil minds, although much of what we know of the methods used in the past rightly fill us with horror. And yet, with the knowledge of medicine having been both basic and often the result of ignorance, torture had to be worse or it could never be effective as restrictive to crime or treachery! Imagine the all-powerful Queen of France, Catherine dei'Medici, having her chest scraped to the bone to remove her cancer -- not once, but three times! If that was not torture, what is? And the palliatives of the period were helpful but hardly effective.
The childhood of my principal characters is another area which I find not only fascinating but also very instructive as to their development. The king, Charles VII, at the centre of "The Queen of Four Kingdoms", is so sure that his son, the future Louis XI, will poison him, he dares not eat and starves himself to death! He was the third son of his father and became king after his two older brothers had been poisoned by an ambitious uncle and this fear of a vengeful blood relative never left him.
Until I wrote The Anjou Trilogy (vol. I "The Queen of Four Kingdoms" and vol.II "Agnès Sorel: Mistress of Beauty" both published in UK by Constable, and vol.I in USA by Beaufort Books), my accounts were all verifiable history. I was often told I wrote in a narrative style and should move to writing historical fiction, but I scorned this for "the truth". A few years ago when I was some four years into the research for The Anjou Trilogy, a well-known pathologist proved to me that my second heroine had been poisoned. This presented me with a predicament: how could I end a biography with "P.S. Now we know she was poisoned." And how could I find the poisoner some 550 years after the event? The result: I moved into writing historical fiction. All the facts and personalities of The Anjou Trilogy are true. I have only added dialogue, details of dress, domestic decoration, dogs, servants and spies -- they surely had them all. Only in the last pages of volume III (to be published in October 2015 in UK) will I give the reader my premise as to the murderer of Agnès Sorel... Stay with me!
Both Vol. 2, 'Agnes Sorel Mistress of Beauty' and Vol. 1 'Queen of Four Kingdoms' of Princess Michael's 'Anjou Trilogy' are available in the UK in all good book stores and online, published by Constable & Robinson.
'Queen of Four Kingdoms' was published in the USA in October by Beaufort Books.