Posted By Claire on October 22, 2012
Today we have a guest post from one of my favourite historical novelists, Jeane Westin, whose latest novel, The Spymaster’s Daughter, I have just reviewed over at our reviews site – click here to read the review.
Over to Jeane…
Thank you Claire for asking me to give readers a look behind the scenes of an historical novelist’s life. I hope the following will interest the readers of this (my favorite) historical website.
When I finished His Last Letter about the long love story of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, I didn’t have a good idea what book I wanted to write next. I knew the story would have to include that brilliant queen and her court, but how and with whom and doing what?
I flirted with several ideas until one day while reading about Sir Francis Walsingham, I became curious about his only child, a daughter, Frances. Other histories noted her marriage to the Earl of Essex, Elizabeth’s last favorite and her first marriage to Sir Philip Sidney, the great poet of love sonnets before Shakespeare. Philip’s great love was Essex’s sister, Penelope Rich. His famous Astrophel and Stella (Stargazer and Star) was written after Philip lost her to another man. What a tangle!
All that was enough to arouse my curiosity about Frances. What was her life like? Was she loved for herself by Sidney or only as second best? Did she love and who was it? What had she to do with her father’s extensive spy system which eventually brought down Mary, Queen of Scots and saved Elizabeth from multiple assassination attempts? Did this daughter of a brilliant man inherit his brain and interest in codes and spying? And how could Frances be involved in that underworld when she was one of the queen’s ladies? Historical novels always begin and turn on what if questions and I had a multitude.
Who was Frances Walsingham Sidney Essex really?
My own earlier work as a cryptographer in the Pentagon during wartime informed some of my story. Wouldn’t Frances, surrounded by code clerks, handwriting experts and messengers carrying secrets to and from France, Spain, the Vatican and even Constantinople be curious, even involved? The more questions I had about what might have been Frances’ life, the more the outline of the story evolved.
But who would be the central male figure, the lover? It couldn’t be Sidney who was away fighting in Holland and possibly still in love with Stella. I didn’t want it to be Essex, an historical figure I’ve never cared for, especially for his having brought about the drawing and quartering execution of the queen’s Portuguese-Jewish doctor in a trumped-up poisoning plot. After more research, I became intrigued by one Robert Pauley, one of Walsingham’s operatives AND a man her father placed in Frances’ entourage. A wonderful coincidence.
There are no physical descriptions of Pauley. This allowed me an opportunity I’ve long wished for…I could give him a physical flaw. A romantic interest who was not golden, not physically perfect…the idea had always intrigued me. How would this change his view of himself or a beautiful woman’s view of him? The physical flaw could not be great, but just enough to attract negative comments and disdain especially from someone like the exceptionally handsome, Essex.
I read many books about the substitution codes of that era, fairly simple compared to modern times, but complex for their day and used by Walsingham and Mary, Queen of Scots, one of them finally bringing her down.
From these facts: adventure, spying, love, jealousy, desire…there was more than enough to be woven into a story.
Hilary Mantel in a recent article said: “I try to make sure that everything I make up could plausibly have happened.” I think every historical writer does that or we drift off into fantasy-land. Still, it’s up to the writer to make every aspect of the story plausible and to weave enough real facts and atmosphere to give it plausibility.
Curiously, once the story is written, it’s real no matter how far out on the historical limb I’ve climbed.
P.S. When I finished The Spymaster’s Daughter, I had every intention of writing about Stella, Penelope Rich. I did considerable research and wrote an outline. Then, quite suddenly, I found myself in France in a World War One trench. Strange things happen to historical novelists.
Jeane has kindly offered a copy of The Spymaster’s Daughter to one lucky winner. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by the end of Friday 26th October 2012 and one person will be picked at random to win the book. I will announce the winner on Monday 29th October.
Click here to read my review and to find out more about Jeane’s novel.