(a “guest post” from Kate Emerson, Kaitlyn Dunnett’s “evil twin”)

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that research is never-ending. Another is that historical “facts” are not set in stone. This was recently brought home to me when I borrowed an obscure biography of a sixteenth-century nobleman via Inter-library Loan. I’d seen it listed in a bibliography in another book and was curious to find out if it contained any additional information on a bit of background I was looking into for my current historical mystery project. And, as always, I was on the lookout for more material for my A Who’s Who of Tudor Women (currently at 1,879 entries)http://www.KateEmersonHistoricals.com/TudorWomenIndex.htm, the collection of mini-biographies I maintain  online. David McKeen’s A Memory of Honour: the life of William Brooke, Lord Cobham (1986) delivered all that . . . and more.

the real Bess Brooke

Boy, do I wish I’d heard of this book before I wrote my third “Secrets of the Tudor Court” historical novel, By Royal Decree. The heroine of By Royal Decree is Elizabeth Brooke, William Brooke’s sister, a major player in court politics from about 1543 until her death in 1565. The novel covers the years 1542-1558. I did a great deal of research before I started to write, but as far as I know I never came across a reference to McKeen’s book back then. I assumed, as I set up my plot, that I could make up the events during certain periods because there didn’t seem to be any records of what the real people who are characters in the novel were doing.

Hah! It’s a good thing By Royal Decree is a novel and is therefore allowed a certain amount of poetic license. I suppose I didn’t get anything horribly wrong, but now that I’ve read the McKeen book (two volumes, 762 pages), I know I had Bess Brooke’s parents in the wrong place (heck, the wrong country) at least once, may have misinterpreted their reactions to the rumors that she was involved with the married man she later wed, and totally messed up the ages of her sisters and younger brothers because I wrongly assumed that no one knew how old they were.

Firm rule of writing fiction: never assume anything! It’s always the things you don’t bother checking because you’re sure they’re right that get you into trouble. Almost everyone who’s ever written a novel can come up with a example from their own work. Bloopers abound, but if we’re lucky, most readers don’t catch them. After all, it’s a pretty good bet that if I didn’t find this book until years after the fact, not too many other people will, either. In one way that’s a shame, because it’s an interesting read. But in another, all I can say is “whew!”

As for my online opus, the Who’s Who, I made a decision early on that it’s never going to be published as a print book. This way, any time I find more information, I can add it. I can add as many new Tudor women as I like, whenever I like. And if, in hindsight, I discover that I’ve gotten some historical fact wrong, I can correct it.

Kate Emerson and Kaitlyn Dunnett are both pseudonyms used by Kathy Lynn Emerson. Kate writes historical fiction based on the lives of little known Tudor women. The next one to be published under the “Secrets of the Tudor Court” banner will be Royal Inheritance, due in stores and as an ebook on September 24. You can find out more at http://www.KateEmersonHistoricals.com 


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6 Responses to Hindsight

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Great post! I had a similar research breakthrough this summer … UNCERTAIN GLORY, my historical to be published next April, “stars” two teenagers who (really) published a newspaper in Wiscasset Maine in 1859. I took the liberty of moving the newspaper to 1861 so it would coincide with the beginning of the Civil War. And I found a lot of information about what happened to one of the young men after 1861. The other I could find very little about. I knew he was called “Captain” in the future, so I basically invented/guessed at his future. Then, abut a month ago, by chance I found on line a research paper written for a Maine historical society, never published. It gave me all the answers to what happened to that second boy ….and his life wasn’t at all what I had imagined. Luckily, my book hasn’t gone to press yet, and I can change my historical notes. I’ve decided not to incorporate the new information into the plot of my book, though … it would change the whole story. And — you’re right — we are writing fiction!

  2. Triss Stein says:

    This was a very interesting look at the complexity of combining history and fiction. Though I don’t write historicals, I do write about a historian and history as it is all around us. Lately I’ve had the opposite of what Kathy wrote. Several times, newspaper stories appeared- in the NY Times, paper of record, mind you!- that were weirdly close to something I had completely made up. Nice to know what I imagine is not entirely improbable but it is a strange experience. In fact, I blogged about it here on July 19.

    Triss Stein
    Brooklyn Bones

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Hi Kaitlyn

    Lea called you Katmerson on Facebook which I kind of love. We need a handy nickname to refer to ALL your personalities.

    I love the way history changes. For example in college, I was taught that the Norseman who went to Greenland in 980 disappeared when they were cut off by the mini ice age in the beginning of the 15th century, even as the Inuit who also lived there survived. The idea was that the Norsemen were just too Christian and European to adapt to live as the “savages” and starved, the last women too weak and brittle to bear live children.

    But now DNA tells us at least some of the Norsemen did the sensible thing and lived and interbred with the Inuit.

    I still love the point of the story, though. The new world requires everyone to adapt to the huge and often difficult landscape, and to rub up against one another so that no matter when our family arrives, at some point we are not European or Asian or African anymore.

  4. Oh, boy. I had the same problem not long ago with the Sanson family of 18th-century French executioners. Sources on them are spotty, to say the least, and none of the published books about them have much about lesser members of the family, especially the daughters. So imagine my bafflement when I was allowed a peek at some family records–which revealed that one of my major characters, who I’d not been able to find much about beyond the names of her husband and daughter, and whom I’d married off at twenty-one for the timing of the story, actually married at fourteen, had her first child at seventeen, and died at twenty.


    And being the anal “get it correct” writer that I am, I agonized over it–even though very few people are ever likely to have any access to these records and learn the precise dates, and no reader of the novel will ever care. Finally I compromised–rather than rewrite massive chunks of the novel, I kept most of what I’d already written but killed her off toward the end of the novel. At least the fictional Madeleine got to live to twenty-six, poor thing.

  5. A terrific blog, Kathy, and thanks, Lea, for mentioning this in Dorothy L and pulling this Vermonter over to Maine to read it. As Suzanne Alleyn knows, I’ve made embarrassing, historical bloopers in novel drafts (she has invariably set me straight) and I panic that someone will find an error in one of my published historicals. It was after publication of The Nightmare, set in 18th-century London, that I read Lyndall Gordon’s brilliant biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, with her insights about why the latter went brazenly to artist Fuseli’s home and offered a menage a trois with Fuseli and (horrified) wife. It wasn’t passion, obsession that took her there, Gordon suggests but the deep, terrible need for family–a replacement for own drunken father and uncaring mother. If only I’d read Gordon before I wrote the novel. If only I’d thought of this myself! I would have written a far better scene! Alas, too late.

  6. Patrick Gomes says:

    It’s called historical fiction for a reason. You try to get the details accurate, but sometimes plot or narrative dictate where things go. And our knowledge of the past will continue to increase, which is a good thing. But also remember what Robert Altman said (of his historical film Gosford Park) We’re not showing it the way it was. We’re showing it the way it might have been.

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