Kate Braithwaite’s historical novel Charlatan is set in 17th century France. Trouble is brewing at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, as his long-term mistress, Athenais, rails against being replaced by an eighteen-year old beauty new to court. What Athenais does not realise is that she is about to be implicated in a poisoning scandal that has become known over the centuries as ‘The Affair of the Poisons.’ Published by Fireship Press it’s available now.
Kate grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award and Random House Student Writing Prize, she writes atmospheric historical fiction exploring dark secrets and unusual episodes from the past: the stories no one told you about in history class at school. Her novel, CHARLATAN, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015. Kate and her family live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
|Photo courtesy of Kate Braithwaite
If, like me you enjoy reading historical novels, you might have wondered just how much research has to be done by the author to ensure that it's historically correct. Today, Kate is sharing some of the research she did for her novel.
5 steps to researching my historical novel
Historical fiction is sometimes compared to an iceberg or the movement of a swan: what is visible to the reader above surface shows nothing of the mass of ice or the frantic kicking of legs that is going on below. Research needs to be worn lightly, but no good book of historical fiction will work without it. Here are the 5 steps I took in writing my novel of poison and intrigue in 17th century Paris.
1. Reading books
Writers begin as readers, right? There might be some writers that don’t read very much but it’s pretty unlikely that there are many historical novelists in that number. In fact many historical novels (particularly those centred around actual events and people) are inspired by a mention - even just a one-line reference - to something in someone else’s book. Suddenly there’s that spark. In my case I came across the Affair of the Poisons in a non-fiction book about Louis XIV which I picked up second hand, not so much because it was about 17th century France as because it was written by Nancy Mitford of Cold Comfort Farm fame. Mitford covered the ‘affair’ but not in depth. I immediately wanted to know everything about it. Poison, witches, devil worship and Louis XIV? It definitely merited investigation.
2. Reading a lot more books
The first thing I did was to read more books. In my case, I went straight for secondary sources: by which I mean non-fiction history books about the period of interest. This was a fun time for me involving a lot of googling, reading of references and bibliographies, library visits and shopping at Abe Books, my favourite place to find brilliant and affordable books. And as well as the history of events, I needed to know about music, clothes, food and drink, housing, medicine… the list seems endless some days.
And novelists don’t only read non-fiction: reading fiction can be research too. First there is fiction written at the time. In my case, for Charlatan, 1670’s were too early for novels, but there were plays by Moliere and Racine to be read instead. For a current project, I’m researching 1880’s New York so I’ve read Henry James’ Washington Square. Another fictional avenue is to see how other current authors have treated your period but that’s an approach that many authors treat with caution. I’ve heard other historical novelists say that they can only read other fiction when they are NOT actually writing and that makes a great deal of sense to me. Each writer needs to have their own vision of the past. I read Sandra Gulland’s The Shadow Queen after I had written the bulk of Charlatan and loved it because it was different from my take on the some of the same events and characters and yet comfortingly familiar at the same time.
3. Finding primary sources
Primary sources are wonderful and can almost make you feel like time travel is possible. A primary source can be anything written at the time: letters, diaries, newspaper reports and medical records are just a few examples. They can be harder to find, mind you. Right now I’m desperate for a copy of an article written by Nellie Bly in the Pittsburgh Gazette in 1887 and it is not proving easy to find.
For Charlatan, I had three favourite primary sources from 17th century France:
The diaries of Madame de Sevigny
The archives of the Bastille
The autopsy of Angelique de Fontanges
The diaries I bought in book form but the other two were available on-line. In French, of course, so that was another challenge.
4. Asking experts
I’m including this step but must admit that I could have done more here. There are lots of wonderful people in this world with immense knowledge of particular historical events, periods of places and a novelist can learn a great deal from them. Also, experts are often extremely generous and ready to share their time and knowledge. I wish I’d known sooner, for example, about Aurora von Goeth who describes herself as “a German Mademoiselle with a passion for the time of Louis XIV.” Aurora has a great blog called Party Like 1660 and she very generously read and reviewed my book and only found a couple of notes for me about how courtiers used each other’s titles. I so wish I had found that out sooner! I did though, get in touch with historian Anne Somerset, a major expert on the Affair of the Poisons, who read my book and gave me a big thumbs up. That was wonderfully encouraging.
5. Going on location
Ah ha! Possibly the best bit. For me this was an opportunity to get away from the desk and the solitary life that writing demands and I was especially happy to take a long-suffering husband with me. My parents stepped up to look after our three children and my husband and I flew to Paris for a long weekend. Taking photographs is a great way to capture details that can be used later, as well as just walking and thinking and looking and soaking things in. If I had one note for anyone visiting the Palace of Versailles for research, though, it would be to resist the huge beers for sale at the cute bar just outside the train station and only a step or two from the Palace. I spent way too much time at Versailles looking for the bathroom!
Charlatan is available now in both eBook and paperback:
If you'd like to find out more about Kate and her novel you can use the links below:
I'd like to say a big thank you to Kate for stopping by today and for writing such an interesting post. I wish you lots of luck with your book.