Today, I have a fantastic post to share with you from Barbara Greig on the historical research she undertook to write Discovery.
What was my research process for writing Discovery? I need to think carefully about this as there are so many strands which need unravelling!
First of all, I have a background in teaching history where I often had to research a new syllabus every couple of years. At the time, it could be very frustrating and time-consuming but now this is a great advantage when writing historical novels. Several of my ideas came to me when I was actually teaching a lesson e.g. about the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain or Mary Tudor’s religious policies and I can still visualise the class and the room.
I use a variety of resources including historical scholarship, primary source material e.g. journals from the time, textbooks, guidebooks, maps, and pamphlets. I adore museums which are an incredible resource with their comprehensive displays. One, among many, which needs a special mention with regards to the writing of Discovery is the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont with its very informative displays about the Iroquois and Samuel Champlain. I carry a notebook with me wherever I go and take photographs when it is permissible. This is invaluable when I return home as it might be months before I need to refer to that information.
A key part of my research is travel. I have a very tolerant husband, Mike, who is happy to use our holidays to be my research buddy. It is not all note-taking and we do lots of fun things not associated with my writing e.g. Ben and Jerry’s Factory Tour when we were in Vermont. I originally had the idea of writing about Samuel Champlain from a book I had had for a while. We visit Canada as much as possible as we have relatives there and we always have a great time. Several years ago I bought, in Canada, the reference book Canadian History for Dummies as I knew very little about the country’s history. There I read about the couriers de bois who had been sent by Champlain to live among the Huron. It triggered a research adventure.
‘Relaxing on Lake Champlain’
I try to make my characters’ world as authentic as I can and I aim, where possible, to walk in the footsteps of my characters. The part of France which features in Discovery is one I know well. Mike introduced me to it early in our relationship and it is an unusual year if we don’t spend some time camping there.
‘Bridge at Cahors’
The old city of Cahors is inspiring. It transports you back to another time and it is easy for me to believe my characters walked its uneven streets. The small house on the corner of Place St Urcisse is now a restaurant, usually full of locals enjoying the excellent menu, while Ysabel’s house is inspired by a wonderful old house facing the River Lot. Many farmhouses in Quercy retain their old features although I had to be careful not to include the distinctive dovecotes which didn’t make an appearance until the late seventeenth century. The Gaulberts’ home is modelled on the farm where I tasted my first glass of Cahors wine (some time ago) and where we camped as a family when our children were young.
‘Cahors grapes (Malbec)
In the English places my characters visit, the medieval remains are not so numerous but there are some gems for the novelist. The old streets of Lewes are still discernible, especially if you have a good map, and Anne of Cleves’ house gave me the idea of Edward Mercer modernizing his substantial property.
To research for Discovery in Canada and the USA we travelled along Gabriel’s route. I walked around Quebec until my feet hurt, we drove along the St Lawrence to Tadoussac and then followed Lake Champlain south through Vermont (as mentioned) to New York State.
‘Habitation at Québec Plaque’
I studied possible battle sites, enjoyed the glorious open spaces, and read countless information boards. I had a marvellous time, and Mike did, too! One disappointment was the first French trading post at Tadoussac. It was closed so I could only take a photo of the exterior. However, it was still a worthwhile visit as it makes an appearance in the novel.
‘Trading Post at Tadoussac
One point which might be worth mentioning is the spelling of names. To help with authenticity I have used the sixteenth/ seventeenth century spellings, although with the caveat that there were variations e.g. Ysabel and Alyce. For place names in the Pays d’Oc, I have used the Occitan versions which are regularly seen on signs in France. Hence, Caors (Cahors), Olt (Lot) Bordèu (Bordeaux), and Marsilha (Marseille) amongst others. In the New France sections of the novel readers will see Kebec (Quebec), Tadoussak (Tadoussac), The Great River of Canada (St Lawrence) and The River of the Iroquois (Richelieu River).
As a historian I have a bit of a thing about authenticity and when I wrote my first novel Secret Lives I said, to anyone who would listen, that I wouldn’t mind criticism of my prose but I didn’t want my historical background to be inaccurate! Do I sound pompous? I do try and research meticulously (although I’m very aware that I’m not infallible) and was impressed when my proof-reader pointed out that in a conversation I had used a sixteenth century proverb (I had checked that) several years before it came into usage! Yes, I was very impressed!
In Discovery there are several extracts from a journal written by Elizabeth Gharsia’s mother. I wanted to write these in a different voice and to give a semblance of the sixteenth century. Many moons ago, as part of my first year university studies I took a course in English Literature pre-1600. Fortunately, I had kept the books from that time and for two weeks, instead of reading my latest book club choice, I exclusively read them. One in particular, Hakluyt’s Voyages was most useful as it contains logs written by explorers and sailors rather than being the work of poets and playwrights. I was reminded of the more prosaic language of the sixteenth century.
My ‘go’ to resource that I always have to hand when writing is my old paperback Thesaurus which dates from the 1980s. It has come apart between Q and R but I wouldn’t replace it. It never lets me down – if I’m ever stuck for a word it comes up trumps. This coupled with a pen and something to scribble on (ignore what I said earlier about always having a notebook with me sometimes it is the back of a receipt) is also a must. I jot down anything that catches my eye, from the colour of the sky to the song of a robin, from one word describing the moonlight to a sketch of a river bend. Below is a winter sky which makes an appearance in the novel. The list would go on so I’ll stop writing and thank you for reading my guest post.
‘Cold sky at sunset’
Thank you so much for such a fascinating post. Good luck with Discovery.
Here’s the blurb:
Discovery: An epic tale of love, loss and courage When Elizabeth Gharsia’s headstrong nephew, Gabriel, joins Samuel Champlain’s 1608 expedition to establish a settlement at Quebec, he soon becomes embroiled in a complicated tribal conflict. As months turn into years, Gabriel appears lost to his family.
Meanwhile at home in France the death of her father, Luis, adds to Elizabeth’s anguish. Devastated by her loss, she struggles to make sense of his final words. Could her mother’s journals, found hidden among Luis’s possessions, provide the key to the mystery?
The arrival of Pedro Torres disrupts Elizabeth’s world even further. Rescued from starvation on the streets of Marseille by her brother, Pedro is a victim of the brutal expulsion of his people from Spain. Initially antagonistic, will Elizabeth come to appreciate Pedro’s qualities and to understand the complexity of her family?
Also available on Kindle Unlimited.
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Meet the author
Barbara Greig was born in Sunderland and lived in Roker until her family moved to Teesdale. An avid reader, she also discovered the joy of history at an early age. A last-minute change of heart, in the sixth form, caused her to alter her university application form. Instead of English, Barbara read Modern and Ancient History at Sheffield University. It was a decision she never regretted.
Barbara worked for twenty years in sixth form colleges, teaching History and Classical Civilisation. Eventually, although enjoying a role in management, she found there was less time for teaching and historical study. A change of focus was required. With her children having flown the nest, she was able to pursue her love of writing and story-telling. She has a passion for hiking, and dancing, the perfect antidotes to long hours of historical research and writing, as well as for travel and, wherever possible, she walks in the footsteps of her characters.
Discovery is Barbara’s second novel. Her debut novel Secret Lives was published in 2016 (Sacristy Press).
Connect with Barbara.