Catherine McGrew Jaime

Author, Historian, Lifelong Learner, Teacher, World Traveler

Tag: writing historical fiction

The Joys of Researching

Enjoying Research

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, Writing Historical Fiction, it’s a good thing I like to write historical fiction as much as I do. Otherwise, I’m fairly sure I could spend all my “writing” time doing research. I get the impression that researching comes more out of a need than a sense of joy for some authors. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I get very excited being able to dig up the facts I need in order to fill in the holes of my novel. In fact, I have to make sure that the time I spend researching doesn’t get away from me, so I generally only allow myself to do research after I’ve done my writing for the day. That way, if (or better said, when) I get carried away with the research, it hasn’t interfered with the day’s word count goal.

Simple Searches

Oftentimes a simple search will uncover the facts I’m needing. How old was Salai when he became Leonardo’s apprentice? And how old was Francesco Melzi when he joined Leonardo’s entourage? Facts like those were fairly simple to track down.

Complicated Digging

But at other times it seems to get a little more complicated. How would Leonardo have traveled from Florence to Milan and back? (And what routes would he have taken and where would he have stayed along the way?) Where was he staying each time he was in Milan or to Florence? (And were those the same places each time he was in those cities, or different places at different times?) Needless to say, the questions like that can go on for quite a while.

Historical Facts

As a historian, I want to get my facts straight. And while I realize it’s a balancing act, I’m very troubled by historical fiction that puts so much more emphasis on the fiction than the historical. I work hard to keep the balance in my writing, and my love of research certainly makes that easier to accomplish.

Machiavelli and the Militia

For my current da Vinci novel I needed to fill in some blanks about Machiavelli and his role with the Florentine militia. Going into this novel Machiavelli and Leonardo had interacted numerous times – though never at Leonardo’s initiation from what I’ve been able to tell.  They worked together for months for the ruthless Cesare Borgia (in my novels that happens in Leonardo: A Return to Florence); Machiavelli talked Leonardo into accepting the assignment for an extremely large battle mural and together they attempted to divert the Arno River. (I include those latter two in my most recent novel, Leonardo: A Return to Painting.)

Current Work in Progress

This novel that I’m currently working on, number six in the Life and Travel of Da Vinci series, starts with Leonardo having to figure out how to go forward from his failed battle painting. Where does he go from here and what will he be doing? Those decisions will be complicated by the lawsuits that he is suddenly dealing with: First the city of Florence threatens to sue him, then there’s a monastery in Milan that apparently wasn’t happy with an altarpiece he had painted almost two decades earlier, and then, not much further down the road, he finds himself in court with family members (half siblings) who are angry that he is named as the sole heir to their uncle’s estate.  A complicated legal time in Leonardo’s life, to be sure.

Leonardo and Lawsuits

But, what does any of this have to do with Machiavelli and a militia, you might be asking. Well, at this time in Leonardo’s story, Machiavelli is secretary to the Florentine city council. As such, he will likely interact often with Leonardo yet again. And while I don’t really want to make Machiavelli my antagonist, because I do think he and Leonardo at least had mutual respect for each other, I think it will work well in this story to have him working for the main antagonist. The head city councilman at this time is Pier Soderini and he is likely the one who either threatens or initiates the lawsuit against Leonardo for the uncompleted battle painting. But I don’t think Soderini would have had many direct dealings with Leonardo; I think he would have left the dirty work to his secretary, Machiavelli.

More Machiavelli and the Militia

Ah, so now we can at least see the importance of Machiavelli in this next story. But maybe not the connection to the militia. This story starts in May 1506. I had read somewhere that Machiavelli was busy trying to set up a militia for Florence until sometime that year and I wanted to have an idea when in 1506 that was. If Leonardo and Machiavelli are interacting several times while Machiavelli is focused on setting up the militia, surely the topic would come up between them, especially after they worked together for so long with Borgia.  But if the militia was already a thing of the past for Machiavelli, any conversations about it would certainly have a different feel to them.

But, it turns out, when I finally found what I was looking for, that Machiavelli was just getting the militia going in 1506, and actually continued to work with it for some time after this. So how to use the militia in defending the city, and the advantages of militia over mercenaries will definitely be an important part of conversations Machiavelli and Leonardo have during the early chapters of the story. (And, likely, any future conversations, as well.)

Digging for Details

I spent several hours tracking down the information about Machiavelli and his role with the Florentine militia. And in this case, I can see it coming up numerous times in this upcoming book. But I have to admit that I’ve also spent hours trying to track down details of much less consequence, including where the gates in the city walls around Florence were located and which one he would likely have returned through, or where in Rome his good friend Donato Bramante would have been living when Leonardo first visited the city. Those are often hours of research that turn into a few paragraphs (or less) of actual writing.

How it Might Have Been

Leonardo’s Original Madonna of the Rocks

When I can find the information, I’m willing to invest those hours in order to do a better job with the historical part of my historical fiction. When I can’t find the information, that becomes much more frustrating. I’m still trying to track down more details on the Milanese monastery that hired Leonardo to paint the first Madonna and the Rocks altarpiece. These are the folks I mentioned above that threaten to sue Leonardo twenty years after the fact. But I’m currently having a great deal of difficulty tracking down even basic information on where the church was located, where the altarpiece hung within the church, etc. I will likely spend some more time this week trying to nail down some of those facts, but it may turn into another one of those times that I have to write a fictional version of that part of the story. (And then explain that clearly in the Author’s Note at the end of the book!)

Random Tidbits

Needless to say, I can’t really relate to authors who write historical fiction but who don’t enjoy doing historical research as much as I do. (I think the ones who can afford it, hire research assistants to help with that.) But for me, learning these random tidbits as I work on my writing is part of the fun! I consider myself both an author and a historian and the ongoing research for my historical novels is such a great way to combine those two interests.

Happy reading!

Cathy

Writing Historical Fiction

Researching the Facts

I love to do research on almost all things historical. For some topics that means sifting through a seemingly endless amount of information to find what is the most important/most interesting. Of course, for many other topics, it’s the opposite problem, and available information is scanty at best. But that’s also one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying writing historical fiction for the last seven years – it gives me an excuse to research AND an excuse to creatively fill in the blanks when I just can’t find the answers I’m looking for. At those times, it becomes important for me to write in such a way that “it could have happened this way.”

Finding Topics

In my journey as an author of historical fiction I’ve written on a variety of topics from both U.S and world history – always about something I was already interested in, and almost always about something I’ve been teaching. Along the way, I’ve done several single title historical fiction books – about the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Constitutional Convention, for example. And those were certainly fun to research and write.

But one of the advantages to the da Vinci series that I’m currently writing is that I get to keep building on the information that I have learned. And, when I discover something that could have fit into a previous book, it’s fairly easy to work it into another book, often in the way of a conversation – “remember when…”

Working in New Facts

That is happening some with the current book I’m writing. The previous book in the series, Leonardo: A Return to Painting, covered Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa and working on his extensive battle painting. I had quite a bit of information on both of those from my years of research on da Vinci, but I’ve still managed to uncover more fun facts in the few months since that one was completed. So guess what I’ll be working into this next novel I’m writing? Of course.

Hazy Timelines

In addition to discovering new information that went with previous books, another issue I sometimes encounter during my research are the historical facts that have to fit in somewhere, but for some reason the timeline seems a bit (or a lot) hazy. Years ago I ran into some tidbits about Leonardo helping a Florentine sculptor with his designs for a particular project. I almost worked those into a much earlier book, but discovered that the timing of that book was clearly too early compared to the event. As I’ve continued my research I’m not 100% sure whether the event happened before, during, or after 1506. Before would have put it (chronologically) in my previous book, and I didn’t get it in there, so either way it goes into the current one. (Authors Notes are great places to explain such problems, so I try to make good use of them with all my historical fiction.)

Historical Accuracy

As a reader and a writer of historical fiction, I am of the mind that it is a great way to both teach and learn history, so I strive to make my historical fiction as accurate as possible. One of my pet peeves with other historical fiction is when the author plays footloose and fancy free with the facts. And children’s books seem to be the worst in that regards. So, I take my role as an author of historical fiction very seriously.

Too Historical?

As a result, I’ve had some interesting reviews, everything from “It reads more like a biography” to “Learned more than from my old arts teacher.” But I would rather get the occasional complaint about it being “too historical” than take away from the historical accuracy. And yes, I do realize there is an expectation of a good story when someone reads a novel, even if it is historical fiction. And I do work to deliver that as well. When I write about someone like Leonardo da Vinci it isn’t that difficult to accomplish!

Favorite Authors?

Are you as big a fan of historical fiction? If so, do you have a favorite author of the genre? My favorite has long been Jeff Shaara – his American history novels are clearly well researched and he does spin a compelling story – whether he is writing about the Mexican American War, the American Revolution or World War I. (And numerous other wars as well.)

Until next time, happy reading (and listening)!

Cathy

Seeing Stories Everywhere

The Stories Waiting to be Written

Do you see the stories around you waiting to be discovered? Waiting to be told? Does every location, event, or person bring questions to your mind? Questions that you want to find answers to, or in lieu of that, to write answers for?

That’s how I tend to look at things. It’s one of the reasons I can’t imagine that if I lived and wrote for another 40 years (fairly unlikely since I just turned 60, but one can dream!) that I would run out of stories I want to tell.

Fiction vs. Historical Fiction

Dred Scott

Occasionally I read or listen to a completely fictionalized story and think, “I would like to try my hand at writing “plain fiction” someday. But then I shake my head and remind myself that for every historical fiction story I write, three more seem to join the “want to write about” list. (Which currently includes specific people or events like Dred Scott, the Scopes Trial, the Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, to name just a few!) So it’s highly unlikely that I will slow down from writing historical fiction to write any other kind of fiction anytime soon. (Though I try to never say never.)

Starting the Life of a Writer

I wrote my first travel journal when I was a youngster, traveling through Central America with my family. But I didn’t really consider myself a historian or an author for decades after that.  The reality of both of those descriptive titles came to me when we lived in Wuerzburg, Germany for more than five years. It was there that, thanks to Helga, a wonderful German storyteller and historian, that history stories first came alive to me. And there I caught the desire to capture as many of those stories as possible.  (I wrote more about this in an earlier blog post, “My Growing Love of History.”)

As a homeschooling mom of many children (eight at that time), I didn’t do much writing for many years after completing my non-fiction book on the history of Wuerzburg, but the seeds had been planted. Even with little watering, they were there, and after many years and many more children (four more joined the family before we were done), the seeds finally blossomed.

More Non-fiction Writing

As with so many of my books, the next non-fiction books came from my teaching: Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. (Another previous post, “Falling in love with Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance Man,” covers much of my fascination with one of the greatest artists of all times.)

Historical Fiction at Last

From my love of all things da Vinci came my first attempts at writing historical fiction. As someone who has always been a fan of reading historical fiction (Jeff Shaara will likely always be my favorite author), and my love of stories, writing historical fiction should have seemed like a natural leap for me. But I had held back for many years, focusing my writing on the student books and non-fiction books that seemed to leap from my never-ending study of the various topics I seemed to always be researching for my teaching. An earlier blog post on my homeschool site, “Homeschooling with Topical Studies,” describes our journey away from textbooks and into topical studies and unit studies. One of the many joys for this author/historian of doing so many topical studies was the constant “excuse” for doing more research (one of my favorite things to do) and then finding ways to share that first with my family and later with a growing number of students in the increasingly large number of homeschool classes I found myself teaching.

When I finally sat down and tried my hand at writing historical fiction, I was quickly hooked. (It took me less time, one month, to write that first historic novel, Leonardo the Florentine, than it did to find someone to edit it for me, another two months.)

The series of historical novels on Leonardo da Vinci has grown to five finished books, with the sixth one on my writing schedule for later this summer, and at least several more to follow that one over the next couple of years. In between writing the da Vinci novels, I found time to tell other stories as well: the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition told from the perspective of Captain Clark’s slave, York; the story of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, told from the perspective of a fictional British spy; and the story of George, Edith, and Cornelia Vanderbilt and their amazing home, the Biltmore, told from the perspective of a young, fictional childhood friend of Cornelia.

Historical Short Stories

Several years back I also tried my hand at my first historical short stories. While visiting Cappadocia, Turkey and the surrounding area that included some amazing underground cities, I felt like the story just had to be told. Days of research and writing quickly became the first short story in what would become my Attack Trilogy: The Attack in Cappadocia. Soon after completing that book, I was turning my attention back to one of the stories of Wuerzburg – the allied attack of the city towards the end of World War II. I had known some basic facts of that event, but writing the short story of that attack required many more hours of research. For Christmas that year by son and daughter-in-law had already bought me a wonderful book, The Siege of Shkodra. Needless to say, reading that book on the plane heading home led to the third book in the trilogy, The Attack at Shkodra.

As I researched and wrote each of those books, I tried to do two important things – accurately portray as much of the history of the time and location of each event or person, and to tell a good story.   And I have found, as I write each book, the desire within me is to write more.

So, if the world around you seems filled with stories just begging to be told, don’t hold back! Someone somewhere may be waiting for just that story!

Happy writing! And researching!

Cathy

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