6 May 2022

Special Guest post by Wendy J Dunn ~ On the cheap: A survivor’s guide to writing historical fiction


Wendy J Dunn on Amazon UK, Amazon US 

Let me begin by telling you a story. In 2016, I spent my first ever healthy royalty payment (yes, these things happen!) on a month-long research trip to England. I had three book projects to research, including a work based on the early years of Mary Shelley. 

My imagination well fed by images and information provided by one of Mary Shelley’s most respected biographers, I had a London address where Mary once lived with her father, William Godwin, stepmother, her half-sister, half-brother, and stepsiblings. I was also staying with Valerie, a long-time London friend. Born and bred in London, Val is an embodiment of a living, walking London map and history book. On our Mary Shelley day, we took three London buses from Val’s flat, walked down a few roads, and then stood in front of a three-storey brick building. It was the right address—but it didn’t feel right. Mary’s biographer had described the childhood home of her subject in detail. The house before me left me feeling bemused, and strangely out of place.

"There’s no blue plaque,’ I said to Val. Blue plaques are a common feature in London streets, proclaiming the birthplaces and homes of the famous.

‘Perhaps they thought Mary Shelley didn’t deserve one,’ my friend replied.

I stared at her. ‘What?’ I blurted out. ‘The author of Frankenstein doesn’t deserve a blue plaque?’

Val shrugged. ‘London has many famous people. Being a woman might have caused them to decide against giving one to her.’

I looked back at the building again. ‘I don’t believe it. And what about her father? There isn’t even a plaque for him, and he was a famous author and philosopher.’

We stood in silence, looking at the building and the neighbourhood all around us.

‘I suppose we better locate Mary’s church,’ Valerie said. ‘What was its name again?’

I glanced at my notes. ‘St Sepulchre.’

‘Are you certain?’

‘Yes. Why?’

‘Didn’t you say the church was close to where Mary Shelley lived as a girl?’

‘That’s what it said in her biography.’

‘That church is closest.’ Val pointed to a church spire a short distance away. ‘It must be that church. But I don’t think it is St Sepulchre.’

We walked to the church and once again I felt at a loss. ‘It is so different from what I expected from the descriptions of Shelley’s biographer.’

Val frowned and shook her head. ‘I don’t think much of this biographer.’

That evening, back at Val’s flat, we talked about why our day’s field research had seemed so off target. We pulled up our computers, began a Google chase, and found old city maps and legal documents belonging to Mary’s family. The address on the legal documents was the same as one I had brought from Australia. By 11pm, I was still protesting that the places we had visited that day felt wrong and Val was still blaming it on Shelley’s biographer. 

I bid Val good night, not realising that I had left behind a woman on a mission to solve the puzzle. In the morning, over breakfast, Val set out before me the findings of her research—findings that showed, over one hundred years ago, the names of London streets had shifted. The address we had was correct, but not the location. In Mary Shelley’s time, that address I had noted down in Australia was elsewhere.

‘What do you want to do?’ Val asked. ‘Do you want to find the right place?’

By this stage, I had been in England for over three weeks. Taxed by weeks of touring Suffolk and now London, my health was giving me grief. Forced only two days ago to visit a major hospital for medical care, I just yearned to go home and curl up in my bed. I shook my head. ‘I’ll use Google Earth, and search for period paintings and drawings on the internet.’

And that’s the thing. While it has been wonderful to go overseas to research my historical novels, I know I can also write—especially now, thanks to the resources available on the internet — my European-based historical novels at home in Melbourne. In fact, if I hadn’t been so focused on my trip to England to take me to where Mary Shelley grew up as a teenager, I would have searched more thoroughly on the internet and discovered the photos taken by others in search of Shelley, photos of a property that would have made me question whether I had the right location.

So, please believe me, if you don’t have the money to go to Europe to research your historical novel, you can still write it.

Here are my tips to help you:

  • Read lots of historical novels set in the period and location that you want to write about. I call this feeding your imagination—and your writerly compost. Reading historical fiction is an important step to help your own world-building. By reading historical fiction, you feed your imagination so you can write your own stories set in the past.
  • Read excellent biographies and history books that include primary materials describing settings. For my Tudor fiction work, ‘In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn’, co-authored by Natalie Grueninger, and ‘On the Trail of the Yorks’ by Kristie Dean, proved indispensable. I am currently writing my first full length biography for Pen and Sword Books. I loved drawing from the research in ‘The Boleyns of Hever Castle’ by Owen Emmerson and Claire Ridgway. Books like these make brilliant companions for armchair travel.
  • Make use of the internet. It is truly a gold mine of resources that helps to bring alive the voices and places of the past.
  • Study period paintings, drawings, and maps. Once again, the internet is a great resource for this. Many museums now provide digital libraries. For the Tudor period, I particularly love the details provided in royal books of hours. The paintings of the court painter Holbein are also brilliant for their very human studies of the people of Henry VIII’s court.
  • Join Facebook historical groups where you can post research questions. 
  • Consider joining the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). The wealth of historical knowledge offered by its members is amazing. The SCA puts on regular events where you can take part in workshops to increase your own learning and expertise.
  • Find a historical group with an interest in your time. For example, the Richard III’s Society.
  • Keep an eye out for history themed conferences — always a great place to learn and network with other writers of historical fiction.
Wendy J Dunn.

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About the Author


Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian author, playwright and poet who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally. Wendy tutors at Swinburne University in their Master of Arts (Writing) program. Find out more at her website http://www.wendyjdunn.com/ and find her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyjdunn

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for an interesting article. Although I always like to visit the places that appear in my stories, it's not always possible or convenient, so online research can be invaluable... and just as helpful.

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  2. And thank you for your lovely comment, Penny! Yes - online research offers an absolute gold mine of fantastic information for the historical fiction writer.

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