Historical fiction – and research

I am researching my next book.  It’s always a fascinating, if slightly scary process. One of the huge delights of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to delve into a previously unknown, or under-researched area.  It seems to me that writers of historical fiction fall into two camps.  Those who, like me, prefer to tackle a subject, or a character about whom relatively little is known, and those who take a subject that is already well researched and find some extra dimension to explore. Perhaps the most famous exponent of the second camp is Hilary Mantel and her two novels about Thomas Cromwell – a man whose life has been exhaustively explored in biographies.

I fall into the first camp.  I prefer a subject about which little has been written before.  I think it’s the journalist in me.  I enjoy the opportunity to research, delve and piece a previously untold story together.  This approach has another significant advantage – one can extrapolate from the evidence without fear of too much contradiction.  This is not the same as ‘making things up’.  Both my novels involved considerable research and I am anxious at all times to ensure that the context and detail of my stories are as accurate as possible.


This was particularly true of the central character of my first novel ‘The Girl with Emerald Eyes’.  The novel was prompted by a personal experience.  My husband had a stroke whilst making a film about the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  He was taken to the medieval hospital of Santa Chiara on the edge of the Campo dei Miracoli.  I lived for several weeks in a tiny hotel on the other side of the Piazza whilst I cared for him – families are expected to feed and bathe their relatives in Italy.    My ‘commute’ each day took me past the Leaning Tower, the Duomo and Baptistery, and I became fascinated by these buildings and I resolved to write a novel based on our experience.   Several years later my husband (now fortunately recovered) introduced me to the Professor of Medieval History at Pisa University and world expert on the Tower. I had done a little research on the history of the Tower and asked him about Berta di Bernardo, the widow who famously left sixty ‘soldi’ (coins) to the authorities who ran the Piazza specifically to build the Tower back in 1172.  Why had she done it?  Her reasons appeared to be of no interest to him, but he showed me a copy of her will and I was surprised that the gift of money for the tower formed the central bequest.   I was also interested that the three men who had witnessed it included the Operaio (who ran the Piazza and its buildings), the notary of the Emperor Federico, and finally, the master mason who went on to build the Tower – Gerardo di Gerardo. Why was this man important enough to be with her at her dying moment? What might their relationship be I wondered? That was the starting point of the novel.  As virtually nothing further was known about this woman apart from her husband’s name, I had carte blanche to let my imagination run riot about Berta’s motivation.  But as the daughter of two architects I was determined that the architectural thread that ran through the book would be as accurate as possible.

My second book ‘Daughters of the Silk Road’ was triggered by my life-long interest in blue and white china.   I had purchased a collection of antique storage jars whilst working as a reporter for the BBC in Hong Kong.   They weren’t particularly valuable, and were certainly not Ming, but they provided the initial inspiration for the novel.  What if someone were to inherit a piece of china and not realise its true value?  And more to the point, what of its history?  Who had owned it over the millennia and how did it survive to the present day? I mulled on the story for several years, and then – as so often happens – reality caught up with fiction.  One day, I read a news story of a brother and sister who inherited an old vase from their uncle.   It turned out to be a valuable piece of late Ming and was sold at auction for a huge sum of money. I resolved to start writing before someone else got there before me!


Crucial to the story was the exploration of how Chinese porcelain came into Europe. Could an explorer have brought it back?  My first thought was to write about Marco Polo who had travelled to the Far East in the thirteenth century.  But the chances of any piece of rare china surviving more than eight hundred years would, I felt, stretch the readers’ credulity. In addition, I felt intimidated by the idea of focussing a novel on a man who was so well known and about whom so much had already been written.

Fortunately, I discovered a second, less famous Venetian merchant explorer named Niccolo dei Conti, who travelled widely in the Middle and Far East a hundred and fifty years after Marco Polo, returning to Venice in 1444 – a time that coincided with the early Ming dynasty.  Even more remarkably, dei Conti had left a diary, dictated on his return to the secretary of the Pope.  A copy of that diary, kept by the British Library, formed the basis of the early part of the novel.  A rich resource, it provided me with the skeleton of a story that took my characters across the globe to meet with one of the most famous Chinese admirals of the Ming period – Admiral Zheng He.  On their return journey the family travelled through Egypt, where they were briefly imprisoned, before the tragic death of dei Conti’s wife and two small children.  Dei Conti finally arrived back in Venice with his two remaining children – Maria and Daniele. Nothing more was known of dei Conti’s children after 1444, but I was interested in what sort of life they might have had after their fascinating upbringing.

It was likely they would have continued as merchants;  it was the only life they had known.  Would they have stayed in Venice, or travelled north, as so many merchants did at that time, to the major mercantile cities of Northern Europe – Bruges, Antwerp and Amsterdam. This progress formed the backbone of the story, as we track the vase through the hands of one family.

My next book will also be based in Italy.  Once again I am exploring a relatively under-researched subject and have found a real woman who, as far as I can discover, has so far eluded any novelist’s scrutiny. I just hope I get it written before anyone else finds out about her!


This post is brought to you by Debbie Rix.


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