Industry Insider: How to research historical fiction

Industry Insider: How to research historical fiction
Posted on June 30, 2017

Industry Insider: How to research historical fictionThis week, I’ve passed over the Industry Insider reins to Kirsty Manning, debut Australian author of The Midsummer Garden.

With a background in journalism and book publishing, and a passion for food and wine (she is co-author of We Love Food with Peta Heine as well as being partner with her husband Alex Wilcox in Bellota, a popular Melbourne wine bar, and the Prince Wine Store in Sydney and Melbourne), Kirsty is, perhaps, uniquely placed to have written her deeply sensual historic novel.

Full of not only historic detail but the lush, poetic imagery that immerses the reader in another time and place, The Midsummer Garden is perfect for escaping the Australian winter.

Here Kirsty answers some of the questions that come up over and over for her about researching and writing historical fiction.

Why did you decide to write historical fiction?

“I’m not sure I made a conscious decision to write historical fiction, but I adore books that take me into different worlds. Books that I can curl up with and lose myself for hours.

Possession, by A.S. Byatt, was a formative book for me a million years ago at university. The mystery, the great detail about the gardens, the poetry and the process, and the twin love stories in dual timeframes stayed close to my heart.

“The idea of a medieval cook and herbalist came upon me because of my own interest in cooking and gardening. I have a garden brimming with sage, rosemary, thyme and lavender and I’ve always been interested how herbs can transform a meal, to heal or be used to brings a lovely scent to a room. I have vases filled with herbs at home in every room. Including the bathrooms and rosemary on my desk to help with concentration.

“My books all start from a place that has inspired me. Place comes first for me, then I imagine who would live there. How do they live there, and why?

“When we were on holidays in France, I came upon an old Chateau with a walled garden and I knew at once I had found the home for my story. I wanted it to feel authentic, but also inject a little whimsy.

The Midsummer Garden is a contemporary twist on the courtly love Roman de la Rose trope. I wanted to capture  a girl in the walled garden (and yes, I do have a Rose!) but I wanted to give that medieval story a twist so that the story is told from the POV of the invisible woman. The Midsummer Garden is about a servant confined within chateau walls.

“This device was a perfect launching pad for the contemporary storyline of my clever contemporary protagonist. Pip is like so many women I have known. Strong, curious, passionate but totally bamboozled by the conflicting choices confronting young women. It’s no coincidence she’s named Pip. I wanted it to be a study of the great expectations we place on ourselves, as well as those placed on us by our loved ones, and society at large. It questions what ‘success’ looks like.

“Pip is ambitious, but she’s a marine biologist, so success to her is discovering the answer to protecting a section of waterfront of her beloved pippies and clams. And that’s okay. The key theme of this book is about accepting that it is reasonable for a women, essential, to elbow out a corner of her life to do something she loves, to thrive.

“So really, The Midsummer Garden came straight from the heart. And I’ve been overwhelmed by people at events and in emails telling me how ‘heartwarming’ the books was, how much they adored the herbs, the food … the settings and the characters. One lady even came to an event and presented me with a bouquet of herbs, including Artemisia, to say thank you for the book! I was so very touched.”


Historical fiction is very popular at present – did you start out writing it? 

“At the time I started writing I thought I should write crime fiction, or contemporary women’s fiction. I thought nobody would be interested in medieval herbs and a contemporary marine biologist who spent her days elbow-deep in mudflats. I mean, how can mudflats be sexy?

To my astonishment several publishers bid for this manuscript at an auction held by my agent … so there you go! Focus on the writing, on your story, not the result.

“There’s really no formula for what publishers will like, so best to just put your head down and polish your own story, find your own voice. To me, the pristine channels and beaches of Tasmania are magical, and I wanted to give reader’s that strong sense of place. People want to feel authenticity when they read. Give them that.”


How do you start to research historical fiction?

“It starts with the spark of an idea, and a particular setting. I dive deep just really trying to immerse myself in that world so it starts to feel real.

“For The Midsummer Garden, I decided to use the device of a single auspicious day (Midsummer) and show the movements of the chateau in the preparations for a wedding banquet. So we see my main character, Artemisia, collecting herbs with the dawn and doing the preparations, while also casting light on the wider social contact at the time, and scattering the secret plot throughout. The trick is to be both tight and specific.

“For example, I needed to know what a medieval walled garden would look like. What flowers and herbs grew in what formation. What would it smell like, What were the colours, and importantly – what herbs and flowers would be in season for Midsummer.

The detail is crucial.

For instance, I had a meadow of lovely flowers, but a landscape gardener friend read my manuscript and he informed me that there was no way those flowers would be in season at the same time. You may think that’s too finicky, but trust me … those details can really rile the reader and throw them out of the story.

“So for The Midsummer Garden I printed out flat plans of medieval gardens and looked at photos of old tapestries which showed me what flowers where in bloom, what the women were wearing, how the walled gardens were depicted, such as here. 

In that way I could feel what it was like to move through a medieval walled garden on a long summer’s day.

“I also researched the menus and rituals around medieval wedding banquets, plus the medieval uses of herbs. I also bought a couple of cookbooks with translations of French and Italian medieval dishes, and cooked a few samples (much to the disappointment of my family!) I used some authentic recipes (and had to get permission to use the translations).

“So I got a sense of what my character would be eating, seeing, smelling and then I put away my research. That’s right! I immersed myself in the world and then wrote the plot. I had to step away from the research to focus on the line of the story.

When I did let the research dictate on a few desperate days, the chapters went in the wrong direction. It is interesting that those chapters were scrapped almost as soon as I wrote them. It was only when I was happy with the line of the chapter that I went back and added in more layers of detail.”


How do you plot? 

“When I started The Midsummer Garden I did an online writing course. This was brilliant as it gave me both the tools and real-time feedback on my work, which is what you need to develop as a writer: candid, constructive feedback.

“I mapped out a plot and sent it off to my tutor, begging for her to tell me if it was correct! (yes, really!)

My very patient tutor pointed out that I was so stymied by my need for a mapped-out plot, that it was stopping me from just enjoying the freedom and creativity of writing. So I started to write, and then plotted a chapter or so at a time. The beginning for The Midsummer Garden changed several times, but I actually started the book with a critical ending scene so I had somewhere to write towards.

“About 50,000 words into the manuscript, I realised I needed a clever way to pull focus on my historical fiction part of the book. So I made Artemisia’s story in The Midsummer Garden confined to one day. I had to be careful with flashbacks. Rather than cram Artemisia’s backstory into the opening of the book (It was very tempting, trust me …) I knew from listening to numerous podcasts (like Allison’s) and my own reading experience that it would be better to scatter the backstory through the book like a trail of breadcrumbs, to help the reader follow the mystery, and discover her secret hopes and desires as the book progressed.

“As I wrote The Midsummer Garden, I’d use coloured sticky notes (a different colour for each timeline) mapped out like a storyboard or flatplan on the back of my office door. (This is my publishing background coming through). Each sticky note was a scene and I would move them around so I had the right balance. You can see at a glance if there is too much of one colour.

“I also wrote down random ideas and scenes on sticky notes and left them floating, waiting for the right point to add them into the story as I went. It was very useful if you are a visual person, like me.”


Do you research the contemporary storyline differently?

“Only insofar as the experts for the contemporary storyline are alive, so I can email or call and interview them about experiences. I find that if you are polite, and carefully explain why you need the information, most people are happy to talk about their work and area of expertise. I’d say my background as a journalist was helpful, but not essential. Just make a clear list of what you need to know so you don’t waffle on the phone and be polite. Don’t waste someone’s time. Always say thank you. If you are unsure of the end result, perhaps email them and ask if they would mind reading  the relevant chapter/s.

“This interview process is extremely helpful for authenticity. For example, I spoke with marine biologists and PhD students in Tasmania about the specifics of subjects, like what species of pippies and clams? What subjects would my character be an expert in?

“I also asked bigger picture questions like: ‘Why would someone walk away from a PhD after all those years of study?’ The answers were candid: funding cuts, governmental policy changes and a breakup or death in the family. So of course … they all went in as obstacles for Pip!

“Sometimes, interviewing experts can really add depth to your character in unexpected ways. For example, one marine biologist pointed out that often high-level scientists have a creative passion. My interview subject’s hobby was making frames from seashells. But I love food and cooking … so I made cooking Pip’s passion, and I think The Midsummer Garden has more depth because of this tip. No-one wants a one-dimensional character.

“I’ve repeated that pattern for the next manuscript (just delivered to the publisher). I had an ending, a beginning and several key scenes. But I’ve learned the best moments in writing come when you put away the plans and research, and just let the imagination fly. My opening chapter has been very clear from day one this time, I swear that is just experience and feedback!”

Find out more about Kirsty Manning and The Midsummer Garden here.


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