As part of his stop-over on A Fantastical Librarian on his The Queen’s Vow blog tour, Christopher Gortner was kind enough to write a guest post on his research practices. I asked him about this from both a personal and professional interest. The different topics of research that can be done with a collection, the details each researcher takes away from a particular document is endlessly fascinating. I wanted to thank Christopher very much for giving us a peek in the historical novelist’s work room and telling us about the way research can shape a narrative. This is actually the second half of my stop on C.W. Gortner’s blog tour. I posted a review for the book this morning. You can find an overview of all the stops on this tour on the author’s blog. Now onto the guest post!
C.W. Gortner on Research
Writing historical fiction is an arduous process; in order to fulfill the task, we must be part-detective, part-psychologist, part-actor, while at every moment having to remain first and foremost a novelist. The past is shrouded in obscurity. Facts aren’t always clear, motives and emotions less so. Though we want to know who these people were and how they behaved, for me the most important concern is always: Why? Without the why, who and how become meaningless. For example, history has established that Isabella of Castile, the subject of my new novel The Queen’s Vow, revived the Inquisition. We know this to be a fact, but what remains controversial is why she decided to take this approach. It has been said she did it because she was pious and sought to eradicate all non-Catholics from Spain. While this one act has defined her in history, my research found a lesser known explanation— one that is more complex and in keeping with facets of Isabella’s personality. Because of my research, I was able to craft an arguably more nuanced depiction of the queen. And I owe it all to the work I did in libraries.
Research is a historical novelist’s tool in the struggle to bring the past to life, for unlike nonfiction, in fiction we must discover the why in order to create a living canvas. Much of my initial research for each of my novels begins at home. I’m an ardent bibliophile and own an extensive library of secondary sources, including innumerable biographies, accounts of various eras, and a multitude of architectural, costume, hunting, music, medicine, and gardening books. But when I need to drill further into the specifics of a character, the elusive ‘why’ of her behavior, I rely on the extensive wealth of information found in libraries. I have had the incredible privilege to research my books in places as varied as the Archives of Simancas in Spain; the Vatican Archives in Rome; and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. And within those walls, I’ve made unexpected discoveries that significantly altered my perception of my characters. In libraries, I have read letters, diplomatic dispatches, and eye-witness accounts written by those close to the character. While bias must always be taken into account, these fragments of information, carefully pieced together with a timeline of facts, can begin to elucidate a character’s motivation; insight into the character’s emotional state can be inferred through a judicious exploration of reactions to triumphs and tragedies, which can provide clues as to what kind of person she might have been. For example, Isabella’s trajectory shows a cautious and prudent woman, who grew up in an impoverished household with an unstable mother and therefore displayed a frugal approach both in her lifestyle and actions, except when it came to exalting her realm. Her few extravagances are therefore noteworthy, including her infamous gamble on an unknown Genovese navigator named Columbus.
In a cache of correspondence found in Simancas, I read some letters that went between Isabella and a council she’d set up to investigate heresy in her realm, which finally shed light on her motivations. These letters dispute the popular account and indicate that she in fact doubted persecution would achieve her aims. She thus delayed her momentous decision for years, despite pressure from her husband and ministers, and with the means at her disposal. In the end she made the choice and its terrible ramifications blackened her and Spain. Yet without a crucial key of evidence that unlocked her reasoning, to me she might have remained a fanatic blindly devoted to her faith, who never felt doubt. And as easy as that may be, the possibility of another truth is, I found, invariably more interesting.
Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I sincerely hope your readers enjoy THE QUEEN’S VOW. To learn more about me and my work, please visit: www.cwgortner.com