Saturday, September 29, 2012

That Historical Nugget & the Soul of a Story

As a historical fiction writer I am always looking for that historical nugget - the thread of gold buried deep in the dark substratum. To further extrapolate this analogy: my methodology is a labor-intensive one, and I spend months and months (sometimes years if deadlines permit - which of course they seldom do!) devouring non-fiction pertaining to my period of research. When researching my recently completed novel, The Goodwin Agenda, I read countless biographies of many of the main personages in my novel (Napoleon, Talleyrand & Pitt), as well as treatises on early nineteenth-century architecture, diet, fashion, cultural and political trends. I also needed to immerse myself within the psychological landscape that was Paris in the post-Revolutionary period. The Parisian characters in my novel remain deeply scarred by the decades of bloodshed and murder that characterized France during and immediately after the Revolution, and to adequately portray this ongoing angst and to make it believable, well...that was at least ten books worth of reading and research! But I hope that as a result my characters have a little more of an edge, a anxious frisson - life after all was precarious and their immediate history illustrated the dangers of making a careless alliance.

Some might say I took the historical details further than might be necessary, but with my academic background in history and archaeology, I am pleased to think that I might, in my own humble way, make the past a little more accessible for those that do not necessarily read non-fiction historical accounts. Every aspect of the book that could be historically accurate (from street names and how they connected, to architectural facades, to the renovations of the Louvre, the methods of torture, and the transfer of rotting corpses from the Cimetière des Innocents to the catacombs) was.

And here I come to the really interesting point (thank you for bearing with me!) - the main thrust of my story, around which everything else revolved, the nugget of gold, was the central plot itself. Napoleon Bonaparte's formidable army has gathered in Boulogne in readiness for a wholesale invasion of England. "A nation of shopkeepers," Napoleon derisively claims, from whom they are separated by a "mere ditch." This ditch, however, is effectively defended by the mighty English navy, and French vessels find themselves confined to various harbors along the coast. Convinced that if they can be ‘Masters of the Channel for six hours,’ they will become ‘masters of the world,’ Napoleon develops a plan to combine the French fleet and lure the English from its vigil. He secretly offers a substantial payment to any English captain who can lead the French invasion fleet through treacherous coastal waters of England, known as the Goodwin Sands. You can imagine my delight stumbling upon this little-known (at least to me!) historical nugget! If there was ever a 'truth is stranger than fiction' moment this was it! And from this little historical insight the book, all 530 pages of it, was born. Napoleon's covert agenda was just too juicy to let lie within the dusty pages of a historical tome, and the characters themselves (Talleyrand and Pitt) were too blissfully fantastic to resist. Primrose, the enigmatic female leader of the French Resistance, is a shadowed historical figure, and Wolfe Trant is based upon an Irish rebel by the name of Wolfe Tone who conveniently left hundreds of pages of personal diary for me to peruse. 

So now, reluctantly leaving my Goodwin characters (who have become intimate friends - Dickens would understand!) I turn to the next agenda: this time an American one. And true to form I am delving, with utter delight, into dusty historical tomes looking for another gold nugget. They are always there it is just a matter of persevering. A character that is already larger than life, an unlikely circumstance, a dramatic moment that could be elaborated makes my heart beat faster just thinking about it!


  1. I don't write historical fiction but I am still looking for the golden nugget to fuel my story. Nice blog.

    1. Good luck, Diana! Thank you for your contribution and support.