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“Making Choices and Bridging Gaps: Writing Historical Fiction” by Anna Castle

 

Anna Castle writes two historical series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty Mysteries. She has a BA in Classics, MS in Computer Science, and PhD in Linguistics, and has worked a variety of careers (including in waitressing, in software engineering, as an assistant professor, and as an archivist). Here she talks about writing historical fiction and her story “For Want of a Book” from the current issue.

This post was prompted by Linda Landrigan’s question about the way I spelled the name of an historical figure in my short story, “For Want of a Book,” set in the late Elizabethan period. The character in question is the well-known Sir Walter Raleigh, who evidently spelled his name “Ralegh” more often than not. Spelling wasn’t fixed in those days; a standard English orthography took centuries to achieve, not beginning in earnest until long after Raleigh’s death. Historians these days write “Ralegh,” so I did too, in my first Francis Bacon mystery novel. Linda’s question made me revisit that issue and decide to go the other way. Readers of fiction don’t care that much about trends in historiography. Next time someone asks that question, I’ll probably flip back again—which, come to think of it, is the most historically accurate response of all!

Writing historical fiction is full of such minor leaps. The historical record is rarely complete enough for the full quotidian texture of a short story, much less a novel. I’m a bona fide Elizabethan history nerd with an excellent university library at my disposal, but even so, I make something up with each new person or place. My goal is to make my inventions blend invisibly into the documented realities.

Walking through my story in this month’s issue supplies an array of examples. I invented Francis Bacon’s desire to re-read Lucretius’s De rerum natura. No list of Bacon’s books exists, alas. He must have had an extensive library, but it apparently disappeared onto the shelves of his friends upon his death. It’s impossible that he wasn’t fully familiar with Lucretius, however, like every other well-educated man in England.

I know how bookshops smelled, thanks to works like James Raven’s The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.) But I have to invent the layout of the shop, which nobody bothered to describe. I also assume they shipped books and paper in barrels; they used barrels for everything in those days. Plus I like the word—it sounds round.

Happily, titles and authors of books of all kinds are preserved for all time in many places. I snag the ones that catch my eye as I’m reading history books and keep them in a list. I like to know what my characters are reading. And once I have a title, I can often find the document itself, either at Google Books or Early Modern Books Online. Yes, it’s a distraction, but I’m curious, and sometimes it’s fun to deploy a quote to give readers a taste of the real McCoy.

I can look at the images from Pietro Aretino’s Sixteen Postures, still shockingly explicit, on my screen while Bacon and his bookseller turn the pages in the shop. I can snag images from the Grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes for my blog, thanks to the British Museum. But again, I don’t know what the interior of a mercer’s shop really looked like. I know they sold all sorts of luxury items, so I invent a few for show.

From “the grotesque alphabet in mythological landscapes.” The British Museum.

I do know where to put an upscale shop—in Thomas Gresham’s beautiful new Royal Exchange. I can look at a drawing of that important building made in the mid-seventeenth century on Wikipedia. How cool is that! I can pick a place to put my shop, upstairs on the corner, away from the whores and above the dust. I adore location-hunting in the past.

The Royal Exchange. Wikipedia.

I can chart a course from Gray’s Inn on the western fringe of the metropolis to St. Paul’s and from there to Billingsgate and back with perfect factuality, thanks to Adrian Proctor and Robert Taylor’s indispensable A to Z of Elizabethan London (Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent, 1979.)

Edward de Vere, 1575. Wikipedia.

Thanks to that resource, I know where Edward de Vere lived, some of the time. I have to invent the interior, but not the earl’s atrocious character, thanks to Alan Nelson’s biography, Monstrous Adversary: The life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford ( Liverpool University Press, 2003.) Many of the earl’s letters were preserved. They’ve been transcribed and annotated, thanks in some part to the Oxford Authorship Society, a group of people who believe Edward de Vere wrote many of the plays commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. And now we’ve arrived at an interpretation requiring far greater leaps over historical gaps than I would ever dare to make.

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