Susanna Kearsley | Filling the Holes: The Challenge of Writing Historical Fiction
December 20, 2010
In his memoir, I WANTED TO WRITE, Kenneth Roberts, famous for his
bestselling historical novels of the American northeast, pointed out (quite
“Historians have a great advantage over a novelist in that they can state a
supposed fact without explaining it…An historian can announce that a hitherto
unmentioned Indian suddenly appeared in the ranks of a lost and bewildered
[army] detachment and guided it to safety; he is not required to explain how the
Indian got there, or who he was, or why he hadn’t acted as a guide before the
detachment was lost. The novelist can’t be so mysterious.
“An historian can state that an army has provisions for only fifteen days;
then coolly permit that army to exist for twice that length of time without
explaining the miracle. A novelist must find out how the army escaped
starvation, and explain it to the complete satisfaction of the reader. Otherwise
his story doesn’t, as the saying goes, hold water. Each omission is a hole in
his tale. Most histories are filled with holes and leak like sieves.”
Filling these holes can be one of the greatest challenges I face when writing a
book like THE WINTER
SEA, with a story that’s based on real incidents, because often the
details I need can’t be found in the history books.
Sometimes, I can fill the holes with research of my own. For example, the hero
of my past story, John Moray, was wanted by the English, who had offered a prize
of £500 – a huge sum in those days – to any man who captured him. I knew this
fact because it was included in the very detailed memoirs of Nathaniel Hooke,
with whom Moray was traveling in the spring of 1707. But Hooke never said why
the English wanted Moray so badly, and most historians never even mentioned it
(or Moray) at all. I had to do some digging of my own, through journals and
letters and the records of the British House of Lords, to learn how Moray came
to have a price upon his head. In the process I was able to fill in some missing
details of his family – some I’ve never seen in any other history book – and
what I found helped me to understand Moray a little bit better, and allowed me
to give him a more interesting backstory in my novel than he would have had
Sometimes, depending on the nature of the hole, there’s nothing that can guide
me in my research but my knowledge of a character, and so I have to guess.
Another of the real-life characters in the past story of THE WINTER SEA is a
naval captain, Thomas Gordon, who’d been commodore of the Old Scots Navy before
the Act of Union passed in 1707 and the few Scottish ships were absorbed into
the combined Royal Navy of the newly-created Great Britain. Gordon, an avowed
Jacobite, was instrumental in keeping the waters around Slains Castle clear for
the French ships that came and went during the preparations for the invasion. He
was also a great friend to the Countess of Erroll and her son, the earl, and he
was loyal to the Stewart cause his whole life, choosing to resign his commission
in the Royal Navy in 1714 when they would have required him to take an oath
renouncing James III’s right to the throne, and instead joining the Russian navy
of Peter the Great at St. Petersburg, where he rose to be an Admiral while
continuing to act as a very active liason between King James III and the Russian
Jacobites. That’s a fact.
Yet it’s also a fact that, when the French fleet carrying the young King James
to Scotland in the spring of 1708 was intercepted at the Firth of Forth by the
Royal Navy, there was a fierce battle that lasted all day and all night, and
when it had ended the only British captain who had claimed a French ship as his
prize was…Captain Thomas Gordon. Which made no sense to me, since his background
and loyalties ought to have made him the one British captain who wouldn’t have
wanted to capture a French ship. Nobody, not even Gordon himself, has explained
why he did this – but as a novelist, I had to explain it, because if I was
surprised by Gordon’s actions in that battle, I knew my readers would be, too.
So I had to make a very careful study of the facts, with what I knew of Gordon’s
character, and try to come up with a logical reason why he, of all people,
captured that ship.
I still have some holes I can’t fill, yet. The Countess of Erroll, a brave and
intelligent woman who risked her property and life in support of the Stewarts
and stood at the centre of much of the intrigue that went on around the failed
’08 invasion attempt, disappears from the history books afterwards. The
historians, who’ve moved on to new events, don’t seem to notice her missing. But
I do. I’m still sifting letters and documents, trying to learn what she did
after that, when she died, where she’s buried. I’m mildly obsessed, since I came
to admire her so much while doing my research, and one day I’d like to be able
to finish her story the way she deserves.
But some days I do envy historians, who can just skip to the next part without
explanations and say, “Meanwhile, over in France…,” leaving holes that they
don’t have to fill.
THE WINTER SEA BY SUSANNA KEARSLEY – IN
STORES DECEMBER 2010
History has all but forgotten…
In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish
soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to
reclaim his crown.
Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel.
Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for
one of her own ancestors and starts to write.
But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if
she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person
who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and
that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…
About the Author
After studying politics and international development at University, Susanna Kearsley worked as
a museum curator before turning her hand to writing. Winner of the UK’s
Catherine Cookson Fiction prize, Susanna Kearsley’s writing
has been compared to Mary Stewart, Daphne DuMaurier, and Diana Gabaldon. Her
books have been translated into several languages, selected for the Mystery
Guild, condensed for Reader's Digest, and optioned for film. THE WINTER SEA was a
finalist for both a RITA award and the UK's Romantic Novel of the Year Award,
and is a nominee for Best Historical Fiction in the RT Book Reviews Reviewers
Choice Awareds. She lives in Canada, near the shores of Lake Ontario. For more
information, please visit her website.
37 comments posted.
Re: Susanna Kearsley | Filling the Holes: The Challenge of Writing Historical Fiction
the winter sea sounds great
(Debbi Shaw 11:44am December 20, 2010)
Wonderful blog, Susanna. I love the cover for The Winter Sea. I already own a MM paperback copy with different cover art - it's grey/blue. I picked it up at Shoppers Drug Mart in Halifax almost a year ago. Fantastic book!
(Julianne MacLean 11:52am December 20, 2010)
Your writing reminds me of Mary Stewarts. I luv the premise of your story in The Winter Sea.
(Joanne Hicks 1:00pm December 20, 2010)
The Winter Sea sounds awesome!
(Pamela Stewart 1:09pm December 20, 2010)
Thank you for your research to make your writing accurate, and most enjoyable!
(Marjorie Carmony 1:12pm December 20, 2010)
To be able to incorporate history with such accuracy is wonderful , makes your stories greatly fun to read
(Helen Conklin 1:29pm December 20, 2010)
I love the theme and would love to read it.
(Clio Teixeira 1:40pm December 20, 2010)
This sounds fascinating. Thanks for such a wonderful column and intro to your work.
(G S Moch 2:01pm December 20, 2010)
This sounds like a really good book.
(Sandy Giden 2:08pm December 20, 2010)
I think all the research that an author does to make the book authentic pays off with the readers actually learning something while they are enjoying a good novel.
(Sue Farrell 2:22pm December 20, 2010)
I'm amazed at the amount of research authors do in bring a book to print. This sounds interesting.
(Maude Allen 2:30pm December 20, 2010)
Just returned from a Week at Cape May, NJ, my second. It is a very lovely location with lots of history. Perfect location for research on your new book.
Smith Mt Lake, VA
(Pat Pascale 3:06pm December 20, 2010)
It's amazing to me how much we don't know about some of the past. It sounds like you must dedicate alot of time to research. I hope someday you will write the Countess's story. It sounds like it deserves to be told. I would love to read your book.
(Debbie Penny 3:37pm December 20, 2010)
This sounds like a book I would love to read......
(Joyce Bruner 3:44pm December 20, 2010)
I loved reading the difference between an historian & a writer. The Winter Sea looks like an amazing read.
(Mary Preston 4:16pm December 20, 2010)
I love historicals, esp when I know the history is so well researched! Thanks for the effort!
And of course the giveaway :)
(Victoria Colyer-Kerr 4:17pm December 20, 2010)
Good article on how you do your research! And for the giveaway!!
(Brenda Rupp 4:28pm December 20, 2010)
This sounds like an interesting book. It's amazing how much research you have to do. Just locating the documents you need would be a huge job. The information you gave makes me appreciate the work an author does to complete a good story.
(Anna Speed 4:30pm December 20, 2010)
Of course research is the basis of any written work but it takes a person of imagination to present that information in an entertaining way. Making the characters come alive and making the readers feel a connection with them is even more important. It takes a really talented person to combine all of that. Your book sound like one I will pick up to read and find hard to put down.
(Vickie McCarter 4:52pm December 20, 2010)
I would love to read one of your books. They sound very interesting. I love to read it is my fun time.
(Jean Benedict 4:54pm December 20, 2010)
I like reading books that are actually accurate in thier historical facts, it makes the book more interesting you can actually associate with it more and also learn your history lessons. Great Cover
(Cj Swier 5:15pm December 20, 2010)
My dad was in the navy. So was most of his and my mother's
family. I know I'll be picking up a copy soon.
(Gayle Oreluk 6:33pm December 20, 2010)
Your research sounds fascinating! I love history & often find myself looking for more information when a reading an interesting bit in historical fiction. It must be great when you connect some of the dots in your reasearch. Have a Happy Holiday!
(Diane Sallans 7:08pm December 20, 2010)
It sounds fascinating. A lot of work. Would love to check it out.
(Maria Antunes 7:24pm December 20, 2010)
This book does sound wonderful. i really admire people who
write historical novels for all the reasons you stated and
(Margay Roberge 7:49pm December 20, 2010)
I would love to read this book!
(Renee Pajda 7:54pm December 20, 2010)
I have the book and I am looking forward to reading it!
(Mary Perry 8:02pm December 20, 2010)
Wow, I am tired just reading about all the research. But that makes the book all the more enticing. I love the mystery and the history. I look forward to reading this book.
(Kathleen Bianchi 8:38pm December 20, 2010)
Interesting view of your process; sounds like a great read.
(Nan Zahar 9:31pm December 20, 2010)
Please enter me in this great contest on freshfiction.com
I love winning contests on Fresh Fiction and Happy Holidays to everyone too. Thanks, Cecilia
(Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez 9:38pm December 20, 2010)
This sounds like a very interesting book.
(Ginger Hinson 10:07pm December 20, 2010)
Thanks for giving me a chance to read your book. Happy Holidays to everyone.
(Linda Hall 11:06pm December 20, 2010)
This book sounds pretty interesting. I've never read any of your books. I've added you to my lists of authors to read. Since you've been compared to Daphne Du Murier I'm anxious to read your books. She is one of my favorite authors. Thank you for this giveaway.
(Lucy Pinto 11:48pm December 20, 2010)
When I research, I tend to go off on tangents and get lost in other worlds. I always love to read historicals, knowing what a lot goes into them.
(Penny Mettert 6:26am December 21, 2010)
I have to commend you for taking the time to do all the extra research for your book!! There aren't many authors that would take that amount of time to make their book as accurate as you did. It sounds amazing, I can't wait to read it, and I too, hope you find out the fate of the Countess of Erroll.
(Peggy Roberson 12:02pm December 22, 2010)
I love historical fiction. It has always fascinated me reading
about the day to day activities, the clothes, the parties and
just life in general in times before the mod cons that we have
(Lisa Richards 6:35pm December 22, 2010)
History already happened and many of the facts can be checked whereas in a novel, it's more of a compilation of fiction with a few facts thrown in for a measure. The facts give the reader something to anchor to depend on as the scenes change and the characters show their inner thoughts in their actions more.
(Alyson Widen 7:34pm December 27, 2010)
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