Today I’m delighted to welcome Nancy Northcott to the blog with a post about the research she undertook to write The Steel Rose.
Your book, The Steel Rose, is set in not one, but two historical time periods. 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?
Hi, MJ, and thanks for having me!
My research process starts with reading general histories of the relevant period, then narrows to the issues and conditions I intend to use in the story. I rely primarily on books but sometimes consult websites. When I feel that I have a reasonable understanding of the era, I refine the story to eliminate any misconceptions. Then I start writing. As I write, questions often arise. I keep a list and check those every week or two.
I knew this book would be primarily set during the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in England. I’ve read quite a few books set during that period, but reading about it is very different from writing about it. This was a time of social codes that seem very elaborate to me, and I didn’t feel well versed in those rules.
I read several books about England during this era, including Jenny Uglow’s In These Times, which is about life in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, and Roy & Lesley Adkins’s Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England. I looked at several sourcebooks on Regency social activities and manners. Because they weren’t always consistent, I consulted two authors who’ve each written numerous Regency romances. They very generously answered my many questions and cleared up some inconsistencies. I did cut down on some of the requisite bowing and curtseying in the interests of moving the story along.
Characters need clothes, of course, and I’ve been interested in historical costume most of my life. I always like playing in a new era. The Art of Dress by Jane Ashelford and Dress in the Age of Jane Austen: Regency Fashion by Hilary Davidson were particularly useful for this book.
The action in The Steel Rose climaxes at the Battle of Waterloo. As you’re probably aware, there have been enough books written about that battle to fill a library, possibly with double or even triple shelving! I read enough to feel that I had a general sense of what happened. There seems to be some dispute about what actually was decisive in the battle’s final hour. I went with the option that best fit my story and gave a nod to the Prussians, who drew off Napoleon’s reserves at a critical time. They inspired the hero and heroine’s actions toward the end of the battle.
I also read Stephen Coote’s Napoleon and the Hundred Days, which focuses on the period between his escape from Elba and his defeat at Waterloo. Coote’s book and a similar one had a lot of useful information on conditions in France and the reactions to his return. Coote also included information about Napoleon’s time on Elba.
I consulted a number of books and a few websites about the different military units at Waterloo and their uniforms. There are people devoted to the customs of English Regency society, historical reenactors and others who pore over accounts of Waterloo, and people who immerse themselves in both. I wanted to do everything I could to get this right.
I’ve never been to Waterloo, but I did find commemorative art in the subway (passage under the street, for my fellow Americans) at Hyde Park Corner, the Tube stop for the Duke of Wellington’s residence, Apsley House.
The second era that comes into play is the late medieval period, which we see briefly via the heroine’s seer vision. The trilogy follows the descendants of a wizard who unwittingly helped murder Edward IV’s sons, who’re known as the Princes in the Tower. He didn’t realize the agents he helped sneak into the Tower would murder the boys on the orders of his liege lord. Horrified by what he’d done, he threw himself on the mercy of the boys’ uncle, King Richard III. The king told him not to say anything until given leave, but King Richard met his fate at Bosworth Field before ever telling the wizard to reveal the truth.
The Tudors who came after Richard III blamed him for the boys’ deaths and anything else they could. Speaking up while they ruled would’ve been considered treason. The wizard would’ve been executed and his information suppressed. So he cursed the heirs of his line to not rest in life or death until they cleared the king’s name. After death, their souls are trapped in a wraith-filled shadowland between the worlds of the living and the dead.
In each book of the trilogy, that generation’s heirs seeks the information that will lift the curse and release their kinsmen’s souls.
This is Middleham Castle, sometime home of Richard, Duke of Gloucester:
I’ve been reading about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses most of my adult life, so I was already pretty familiar with that part of the story and the period. One of my unpublished novels is set during the late 1400s.
One of the women from that era, Lady Eleanor Butler, appears in The Steel Rose. Edward IV clandestinely married her before he wed Elizabeth Woodville, who became his queen. Lady Eleanor was still alive when Edward and Elizabeth wed, which meant this later marriage was bigamous. After his death, his prior marriage to Eleanor was revealed. His union with Elizabeth was declared invalid and their children deemed bastards. They were thus ineligible to inherit the throne. Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester, was the next male heir and became king.
That’s a long road to get around to saying I didn’t know a lot about Lady Eleanor and so did some research on her. I found only one book about her, Eleanor The Secret Queen by the late Dr. John Ashdown Hill, MBE, who was also a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society and a member of the Richard III Society in addition to other groups.
Not to toss a cat among the pigeons, but I’ve come to believe Edward IV’s sons outlived their uncle. The Tower was not only a prison but a royal residence. If those boys had disappeared overnight, there would’ve been people to attest to that, people the Tudors would’ve trotted out on public display, which didn’t happen. Matthew Lewis’s The Survival of the Princes in the Tower is an excellent look at the various theories about their fates. He presents the evidence for each, notes the strengths and weaknesses of each theory, and lets readers draw their own conclusions. He also has published an excellent biography of Richard III, Richard III: Loyalty Bids Me.
This, of course, is the Tower of London, where so many of my characters’ troubles started!
A third historical era also figures in the book, again in the heroine’s visions, but discussing it would spoil part of the mystery for readers. I’ll just say I did some brief research in books and checked some aspects online.
As readers may have gathered from looking at the photos in this blog, all of which I took, I like to walk the ground where the story takes place, to stand in the places the characters do. Topography changes over time, of course, and landmarks disappear. Still, being in those settings helps me imagine what they would’ve been like during the story’s period with people moving through them. Sometimes those visits give me ideas, and sometimes they just make me feel closer to the characters.
Walking the ground isn’t always possible, of course. Travel is expensive and more complicated than it used to be. There are places I plan to use for books that I may never see. Books and travel websites can be satisfactory substitutes as sources.
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)?
I don’t mind sharing at all, but there isn’t really one book I turn to. What I keep close depends on what I’m writing. I’ve found books by Osprey Publishing invaluable sources for military uniforms and equipment of different eras. They’re written for military history buffs, so they include wonderful detail and color plate illustrations. www.ospreypublishing.com.
For The Steel Rose, I kept The Waterloo Companion by Mark Adkin, Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815, Volume 2, by John Hussey, Waterloo: Battle of Three Armies by Lord Chalfont, and the Osprey series on Waterloo handy. I was lucky to have most of this research done before the public health crisis shut down interlibrary loan.
The new series I’m starting is set in the world of the Boar King’s Honor trilogy. The first book ties into The Herald of Day, which is set during the reign of Charles II. Much of the action in this new book takes place at Whitehall Palace, so I kept Whitehall Palace: The Official Illustrated History by Simon Thurley by the computer with the Restoration era reconstruction bookmarked. I also relied heavily on Liza Picard’s Restoration London.
I frequently turn to a National Trust book I’ve had for years, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking & Eating by Sara Paston-Williams. It covers food preparation and dining from the medieval to the Edwardian periods. I’m not a foodie, so food isn’t a huge part of any book I write. The characters have to eat sometimes, though, and I want to feed them appropriate food.
As you can see, my main sources vary by the project. It’s fun to look at so many.
Thank you again for having me, MJ! I’ve enjoyed this.
Thank you so much for sharing your fascinating research. It is good to visit the places you’re writing about. Good luck with the new book. (All photographs are the property of Nancy Northcott.)
Here’s the blurb:
A wizard’s misplaced trust
A king wrongly blamed for murder
A bloodline cursed until they clear the king’s name
Book 2: The Steel Rose
Amelia Mainwaring, a magically Gifted seer, is desperate to rescue the souls of her dead father and brother, who are trapped in a shadowy, wraith-filled land between life and death as the latest victims of their family curse. Lifting the curse requires clearing the name of King Richard III, who was wrongly accused of his nephews’ murder because of a mistake made by Amelia’s ancestor.
In London to seek help from a wizard scholar, Julian Winfield, Amelia has disturbing visions that warn of Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape from Elba and renewed war in Europe. A magical artifact fuels growing French support for Bonaparte. Can Amelia and Julian recover the artifact and deprive him of its power in time to avert the coming battles?
Their quest takes them from the crowded ballrooms of the London Season to the bloody field of Waterloo, demanding all of their courage, guile, and magical skill. Can they recover the artifact and stop Bonaparte? Or will all their hopes, along with Amanda’s father and brother, be doomed as a battle-weary Europe is once again engulfed in the flames of war?
The Steel Rose is the second book in the time-traveling, history-spanning fantasy series The Boar King’s Honor, from Nancy Northcott (Outcast Station, The Herald of Day).
This novel is available to read with #KindleUnlimited subscription.
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Meet the Author
Nancy Northcott’s childhood ambition was to grow up and become Wonder Woman. Around fourth grade, she realized it was too late to acquire Amazon genes, but she still loved comic books, science fiction, fantasy, history, and romance. She combines the emotion and high stakes, and sometimes the magic, she loves in the books she writes.
She has written freelance articles and taught at the college level. Her most popular course was on science fiction, fantasy, and society. She has also given presentations on the Wars of the Roses and Richard III to university classes studying Shakespeare’s play about Richard III. Reviewers have described her books as melding fantasy, romance, and suspense. Library Journal gave her debut novel, Renegade, a starred review, calling it “genre fiction at its best.”
In addition to the historical fantasy Boar King’s Honor trilogy, Nancy writes the Light Mage Wars paranormal romances, the Arachnid Files romantic suspense novellas, and the Lethal Webs romantic spy adventures. With Jeanne Adams, she cowrites the Outcast Station science fiction mysteries.
Married since 1987, Nancy and her husband have one son, a bossy dog, and a house full of books.