Today I’m delighted to welcome Mercedes Rochelle to the blog with a fantastic post about her new book, The Usurper King.
Your book, Usurper King, is my sort of historical fiction book, offering a retelling of the past, with people who existed and lived, and caused themselves all sorts of problems. As a historian first and foremost, and then a writer, I’m always interested in how people research their historical stories.
Can you explain your research process to me, and give an idea of the resources that you rely on the most (other than your imagination, of course) to bring your historical landscape to life?
Do you have a ‘go’ to book/resource that you couldn’t write without having to hand, and if so, what is it (if you don’t mind sharing)?
Thank you for hosting me on your blog! Oh, yes, research is my favorite thing. I couldn’t imagine writing any other type of book, since research is such a big part of the process for me. In fact, I’m always sorry when I do have to rely on my imagination, because the “real” history always seems more interesting to me. To repeat a well-worn phrase, “you just can’t make this stuff up”. History never ceases to amaze me.
Back in the days of my 11th century work, I started writing about ten years before the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. If the local library didn’t have a book, as far as I was concerned it didn’t exist. That’s one of the major reasons I moved to New York in my mid-20s. The New York Public Library was a treasure trove. I also remember my first trip to England; back then, used bookstores still had plenty of old hardbacks and in Hay-On-Wye I discovered the full 6-volume set of Edward A. Freeman’s History of the Norman Conquest of England. Who cares that they weighed a hundred pounds? (Well, by the time I bought all the other books my suitcase probably weighed that much.) This is in the days before they had wheels on suitcases! But I digress. That set was truly my go-to source for all my novels of the period. Of course I eventually supplemented them with more modern scholars, but I never found a historian with more exhaustive knowledge.
That is, until I jumped forward 300 years. Now my exhaustive historian is James Hamilton Wylie, with four books on Henry IV and three books on Henry V (vols. 2 & 3 published posthumously). Wow. But try finding him! The best you can get is a poor scanned copy, or an even poorer printed copy of the scan.
When I moved from Harold Godwineson to Richard II, I had to start all over again with my research. It took me a year of daily reading before I even began writing about Richard II. I’ve learned that the fat books (in page-length) are the best starting points. They give us a broad brush-stroke (like a landscape painting) and create the structure for the story. The huge books tend to be sparse on details. Then I slowly get more specific, finding books that are more focused on a particular topic.
By the time I delve into academic articles, I am ready to sort out the fine details of a scene. I learned to pay close attention to footnotes; this is where I find most of my articles. These treatises are specific to a particular subject, so the author puts every bit of knowledge into an event (including all contradictory source material). For instance, in my last book, THE KING’S RETRIBUTION, I had to tackle the death of the Duke of Gloucester before the 1397 Revenge Parliament. As is usually the case, historians were all over the place trying to decide what happened (at the time, it was a well-kept secret). Thank goodness for Professor James Tait. He wrote an article, DID RICHARD II MURDER THE DUKE OF GLOUCESTER? in which he gave us the most detailed description of this whole episode, tracking all the dates and highlighting the missing passages in Gloucester’s written confession. As far as I can tell, this is still the most definitive argument on the subject, and he concluded that Richard was guilty as charged. I probably read that article a dozen times before I wrote the scene.
If I’m lucky, I often find these articles online. JSTOR.org is a fabulous source; I pay $10 per month for a subscription and it’s well worth it. Sometimes I have to pay for the article. Otherwise, they might be bound in a compilation such as Fourteenth Century Studies or The Fifteenth Century (in fifteen volumes) and can’t be had elsewhere. These can get very expensive, and alas, sometimes each volume only has one or two articles I need. If I’m desperate enough, I’ll bite the proverbial bullet and hope they will provide more help in future projects!
So over the course of a novel, I usually consume well over 30 history books and fill two loose-leaf binders full of articles. After I’ve run my course, I go back to the beginning and re-read much of the material to pick up stuff I missed the first time through. You just can’t absorb it all when it’s new. The reading never stops while I’m writing; occasionally I’ll be able to insert something in my editing phase. Unfortunately, I never learned Latin so I can’t go to the source material (if it’s even accessible to non-scholars). But I’ve found that the important stuff is repeated in secondary sources anyway, which frankly is the bulk of what I would need for a work of fiction.
Each century has its definitive scholars. In late 14th-early 15th century England you absolutely must read Kenneth McFarlane; he opened up new scholarship on the period in the 40s and 50s. My favorite historian is Chris Given-Wilson, who did write a “fat” book about Henry IV. He also gives great background on the royal household and English nobility. Without the background, the history will fall flat.
Needless to say, if I’m not enamoured with a subject, I’m not likely to write a novel about it. I would say I’m spending an average of two years thinking about and writing each book; with a series, I’m already researching one or even two books ahead. It helps foreshadow certain events. When I get to the end of a series, it’s like falling off a cliff!
Henry Bolingbroke with Richard II at Flint Castle, Harley MS 1319, British Library (Wikipedia)
Coronation of Henry IV, Harley MS 4380, F.186V, British Library (Wikimedia)
Thank you so much for such a fascinating post. Good luck with the new book.
Here’s the blurb;
From Outlaw to Usurper, Henry Bolingbroke fought one rebellion after another.
First, he led his own uprising. Gathering support the day he returned from exile, Henry marched across the country and vanquished the forsaken Richard II. Little did he realize that his problems were only just beginning. How does a usurper prove his legitimacy? What to do with the deposed king? Only three months after he took the crown, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard’s disgruntled favorites. Worse yet, he was harassed by rumors of Richard’s return to claim the throne. His own supporters were turning against him. How to control the overweening Percies, who were already demanding more than he could give? What to do with the rebellious Welsh? After only three years, the horrific Battle of Shrewsbury nearly cost him the throne—and his life. It didn’t take long for Henry to discover that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it.
Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Her first four books cover eleventh-century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy about the struggles and abdication of Richard II, leading to the troubled reigns of the Lancastrian Kings. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story. Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Connect with Mercedes Rochelle.
Don’t forget to check out the stops on the blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club.