Which Came First? The History or the Story?

When I first conceived the idea of GILT, I wasn’t sure if I could write an entire book on Catherine Howard.  Then, through interlibrary loan, I got a fabulous, 40-year-old biography of Henry’s fifth queen that had been sitting quietly in a sister library in the sleepy little town of Colusa, California.  It still contained an old-fashioned check-out stamp card with stamps from the 70s on it.  How the book got to Colusa, I don’t know.  But I’m glad it did.  And I’m very thankful for interlibrary loan.  (The book, by Lacey Baldwin Smith, has just been revised and reprinted, and I now own a copy, but I read the one from Colusa twice.)

So does that mean I thought of the story first?  Before the research?

No.  And yes.  I’d been reading historical biography for years.  There are some incredible historians out there writing about Henry VIII, his Court and his wives.  Not just Lacey Baldwin Smith, but also David Starkey, Alison Weir, Antonia Fraser, Robert Hutchinson, Julia Fox.  I have read dozens of books –cover to cover, as well as footnotes and endnotes – and every time I discover something new and enticing.  Plus, some of them are a rollicking good read.  I “knew” a lot about my subject already.

So the research came first.

Yes.  And no.  I knew I wanted to write for teens.  I knew that Catherine Howard was the only one of Henry’s wives who was (probably) a teenager when he married her.  It seemed natural for me to put them together.  I’d done the research—or some of it—but I hadn’t really researched until I decided to write the story.

It was the same thing with TARNISH.  I knew a lot about Anne Boleyn.  I’d been to her house (Hever Castle).  I’d seen her handwriting.  But when I decided to write about her, I realized I didn’t nearly know enough.

I searched the journal archives of my alma mater’s library for articles about her birth.  I trawled through pages and hours of primary sources that have been paraphrased and published online.  I bought books and read dozens—maybe hundreds—or articles on the Anne Boleyn Files website.  I revisited Hever and Windsor and the Tower of London.  I made sure I knew which stories about her are fact (or as close as we can establish them to be) and which are fiction (probably—I don’t believe she had six fingers on either of her hands).  I research all of this—and more—because it is the detail and the historical record that gives me the ideas for my characters, and how I can have them grow throughout the novel.

But when I sit down to write the story, I have to forget all that research.  I have to trust that I know enough to write a first draft.  And I have to create a believable story against that backdrop.

Because the history is not the story.  And all the research in the world won’t make it so.

With GILT, I wanted to write a story about a girl in an abusive friendship—and her eventual escape.  I just happened to have the friend be Catherine Howard.  With TARNISH, I wanted to write the story of a girl who has to choose between love and her dreams.  She just happens to be Anne Boleyn.

I don’t need the research to write the story.  But I need it to write my books because of where I set them and who I write them about.  So it doesn’t matter which comes first, because I can’t have one without the other.

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About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her www.katherinelongshore.com

9 thoughts on “Which Came First? The History or the Story?

  1. catwinters says:

    “So it doesn’t matter which comes first, because I can’t have one without the other.”

    I love this quote! Thanks for the beautiful post about what it takes to write historical fiction!

  2. As a huge history buff and novelist researcher this is exactly right. I research until I don’t have to keep looking things up and I can write with confidence. 🙂 And I have GILT in my hot little hands. Can’t wait to read it.

    • Thank you, Kimberley! It’s amazing what our brains can hold, isn’t it? (I still need to look a few things up, though…)

      • Oh, yes, I still have things to look up too – hey, I don’t have photographic memory! But after many months – or years – spent reading about a place or time period or people, we begin to soak it up. Every book or article we read starts becoming familiar to us, because we’ve read the information in so many other places. That’s when I know I can sit down and start drafting, and the writing comes so much more easily. I’m sure that’s how it is for you, too. 🙂

      • That’s exactly how it is! It’s like I’ve been living with these people for years, but I still have to remind myself of what they eat for breakfast.

  3. Another great post, Cat! Adored Gilt. Can’t wait to read Tarnish.

  4. Thanks, Sharon! I’m looking forward to A Mad, Wicked Folly!

  5. Gussie Lewis says:

    Just learned of this link from a great Penguin Rep Dawn Zahorik. Jessica Spotswood will be at the Gaithersburg Book Festival May 18, 2013. Come join her if you are in the area outside of DC.

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