For the past three years, I’ve been writing (and rewriting, and tearing my hair out over, and rewriting again) my first work of historical fiction, a novel about a woman artist set in the 19th century. If I had known how difficult it is to write historical fiction, I would have thrown myself onto the fainting couch with a cold cloth over my eyes, hoping the impulse to write it would go away.
Of course, if I’d had the sense to ask my friend Anne Easter Smith about the process of writing historical fiction, I would have been better prepared for the task ahead. But never mind. In life, as in historical fiction, hindsight is everything.
Anne’s newest novel, This Son of York, tells the story of King Richard III and concludes her best-selling Wars of the Roses series. The book will be published November 10, and you can order it here: https://bit.ly/2MqMMKP
As we prepare to celebrate her book launch at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport on November, 15, I decided to ask Anne about her research and writing. I also wanted to know why her novel’s protagonist, King Richard III, provokes such a strong reaction in anyone who knows of him. Was he a ruthless power-grabber who murdered his nephews to keep their hands off the crown, and an “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,” as Shakespeare called him? Or was he actually a loving, loyal man who was, as Francis Bacon said, “a good lawmaker for the good and solace of the common people?”
Here’s how our conversation went. Enjoy!
Q. In 2012, human remains accidentally discovered under a car park in Leicester, England turned out to be the bones of King Richard III. Why was this such a remarkable discovery, and how did it set you on the path toward writing this particular novel? I know you were working on something completely different at the time.
Indeed, I was! I had a juicy macabre tale about a Portuguese prince and his lady-in-waiting lover partly written when Richard’s bones were discovered. I need to correct you on your “accidentally” discovered phrase though! In fact, the Richard III Society (of which I am a member) helped fund a dig by the University of Leicester in the spot where one of our members was convinced Richard had been hurriedly buried after the battle of Bosworth in 1485. His gravesite had remained a mystery ever since, although we did know his body was given over to the Grey Friars to be buried, and we know roughly where that church and monastery grounds had once been. On the very first day a skeleton was found, but no one thought it could possibly be so easy to find Richard, as many hundreds of monks must have been buried around the grounds over the centuries. But there was something about this skeleton that rang many bells for the osteologist called to examine it. Its size, the extreme degree of scoliosis, and the many head wounds that spoke of someone who had died in battle and not peacefully, as a monk might have done, were her clues. Six months later, DNA evidence proved the bones were Richard III’s. I cried buckets, as I have had an obsession with this king since I was 21! It took a good friend and my first “reader” to persuade me to drop Pedro and pick up Richard again. “This is the book you were meant to write,” she insisted. And so I did.
Q. Once you’d made up your mind to write a novel featuring King Richard III, what was your next step? Did you have to go back and reread the notes from your earlier books, or did you plunge into fresh digging and research? What was your most exciting find as you wrote?
As I always do for my books, I create a timeline for characters in a grid to make sure I have people in the right place at the right time. I don’t mess with history, and it is the skeleton on which I flesh out the bones of my story. As all my five books have been about Richard’s family (all with female protagonists giving their POV of Richard) I had 20 years of material amassed from previous research of the Yorks and the Wars of the Roses. It was finding Richard’s own voice that proved the most difficult for me—I do think it’s hard to get into a man’s head, ha!ha!—but writing around him all these years, his voice began to come through, and I enjoyed getting into my understanding of his head.
Q. Probably the thing most people believe about King Richard III is that he murdered his nephews to keep them from taking the crown. It sounds like you don’t believe he did this. Why not? Was this a change of heart on your part?
I had a change of heart from the day I finished reading Josephine Tey’s mystery novel “Daughter of Time” back when I was 21. I was astounded that she had done all her research and convinced me that Richard was not the evil, hunchbacked, usurping murderer that my history books at school in England had told me he was. I could not get my hands on enough non-fiction to see where this erroneous portrait had arisen. If I tell you that Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare are personae non grata in my house, you can guess the origin of the propaganda that stuck with writers and historians through the ages. In conclusion, no, I do not think Richard murdered his nephews—if you read my book, you will know who I think did and why! It astonishes me that there are still people (especially in the UK) who believe the Shakespeare portrayal, although little by little the work done by our Society (including my books) is gradually changing the narrative about Richard, using the word “alleged murderer” in much of the new reference material about him. But until we find that hidden confession or overlooked evidence that the princes were indeed murdered—and we don’t even have their bones to help us—Richard will always be a suspect. I just don’t happen to think he’s the right suspect! I think I have achieved a far more nuanced look at this man, and after reading everything I have over the decades, it was not in Richard’s nature to commit this heinous crime.
Q. One of the toughest things about writing historical fiction is to NOT make it sound overly researched. For instance, I might read four books about a certain character and end up using three facts from those books. How do you write and winnow out the stuff that sounds too much like an information dump? How do you know when you’ve done enough research?
Yikes, that’s a thesis in the making! When I decided to write my first book that would try and right the wrong done to Richard by history, I spent a couple of weeks back home in England walking in his and my female protagonist’s footsteps. I do that for every book, BTW. Every castle, village and church I have written about I have visited—except for one! Yes, not sounding as though you are regurgitating research is tough. I am probably guilty of it, too. But I try to pepper it into conversation and letters and characters’ thought processes, because my books for the most part are biographical historical fiction, and I do like to stay true to the history and whatever we DO know about a person who lived then. Dramatic license is what spices up a story, but I don’t flout facts that might have a reader fling my book across the room in disgust. My readers are very smart—some more knowledgeable about my period than I am. And they let me know when I slip up (which I am happy to say has been very rare)!
Q. If you had to give new writers of historical fiction one golden rule to follow, what would it be?
Please do your research, but unless you are only hellbent on being sure of making a million, please write with passion and not with your pocketbook. How was I supposed to know, after five successful books set in 15th century England, that the medieval and Tudor periods have gone out of fashion. THIS SON OF YORK is my most important book, because finally I have written Richard’s story from his POV with all the passion I have harbored for this much maligned king all my adult life, and I could not sell it to a traditional publisher in this current historical fiction market. (It’s all WWII or early 20th century.) I truly believe the passion for your subject will bring you more satisfaction and be a better product than knocking out a book to follow a trend. (A controversial viewpoint, I am sure, but that’s my golden rule!)