Friday, January 17, 2014

How Research Illuminates Story

by Wendy J. Dunn

There are so many times I find myself thinking that writing fiction constructed from history is a far more difficult challenge than constructing fiction inspired by our everyday experience of life. Writers write fiction because they have a story to tell; to tell a story filtered through history challenges writers to construct fiction through a context not their own.

While historical fiction writers don’t need to be historians, I believe it is necessary for writers to have a deep understanding of the history that forms the context for their writing. That means historical fiction writers research history.

Historical research not only deepens my well of knowledge, but also takes me from the threshold of conceiving my first idea into constructing and peopling a world through imagination, imagination continually fuelled by my knowledge of history and the historical personages I am writing about.

All through writing my first draft I am committed to research, simply because the writing of historical fiction will always lead me to more questions that cry out for answers. Research, deepening my well of knowledge, is then necessary to achieve a fictional work that will hopefully allow my reader to see my imaginings of another time and place.

But, for me, there comes a time during the writing of that first draft when I know I have done all the important research necessary to complete my work of fiction. Because this is what I write: fiction. The construction of my first draft illuminates my story. Once I know that, research gets put on the backburner while I focus on crafting that story.

What now follows is how the journey of research ignited the story of my new novel, The Light in the Labyrinth, now scheduled for publication with Metropolis Ink in 2014. It will be my second published novel set in the time of the Tudors. This time I have targeted my work to the young adult reader by giving voice to the teenage Katherine Carey, the daughter of Mary Boleyn.

Most historians today paint Mary as Anne Boleyn’s younger sister, but my own research sways me to believe, or perhaps I should say imagine, otherwise. Mary Boleyn appears to have been Henry VIII’s mistress for several years – possibly before her first marriage in 1520 to William Carey, a courtier close to the king, until possibly 1525. This period was also significantly marked by gifts of royal grants to William Carey (Ives 2004, p. 16), which spurred my imagination to construct the Carey marriage as a way to deal with Henry VIII’s involvement with Mary Boleyn.

Henry Carey
Research also stoked my imagination by providing evidence that many of his contemporaries believed Henry VIII fathered Mary Boleyn’s two eldest children, Katherine and Henry Carey. John Hales, Vicar of Isleworth, pointed out Henry Carey, then a child of ten, as the King's bastard (Ives 2004, p. 200). I can believe it. Henry Carey’s portrait shows a strong resemblance to Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, as well as his father, Henry VII.

Henry VII

Margaret Beaufort

Katherine was the eldest of these two children, and another historical figure whose birth date is lost to us, but historians put forward both 1522 and 1524 as strong possibilities for her year of birth. Henry VIII was still sexually involved with Mary Boleyn in the early 1520’s, which is why we are presented with this possibility that the King sired Katherine, rather than William Carey.

That possibility set my imagination afire – the fire blazed even brighter when I tossed at it what if? What if my Kate had no idea about her true parentage when I bring her to court in late November 1535?

I yearned to believe she was fourteen at her aunt’s execution, and that Henry VIII was her father. But I needed to feel utterly convinced that Kate was indeed fourteen before moving forward with my new novel. Only by research would my imagination be free to construct a fictional Kate by using the building blocks of believable history.

My next step was to study closely the paintings of Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn and Katherine Carey, trying to decide if there is enough physical evidence for me to present Katherine Carey as the daughter of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, the younger.

Reputed to be Catherine Carey

When I looked at paintings of Katherine Carey and Henry VIII, I was struck by the similarity of the eyes. Katherine’s eyes are so much like the King’s I could not help feeling that I was gazing at a female version of him. I also studied another painting, often identified as the very fertile (she bore at least sixteen babies during her lifetime) Katherine Carey.

The painting’s inscription has the sitter in her thirty-eighth year in 1562. Calculating a birth year of 1524, I groaned. We know from Sir Francis’s dictionary, which recorded all his children’s births, that Katherine was pregnant with their son Dudley in that year. But could this painting be of an earlier pregnancy, and 1562 a recording of the year the painting was completed? Would this painting help me, or hinder me?

Supported by the sitter’s resemblance to Katherine Knolls’s effigy with its similar jewelled-breast pendant, this painting “provides the first contemporary evidence to support the identification of a portrait known as ‘Probably Catherine, Lady Knolls’” (Varlow 2007, p. 9). Big bellied with child, the redhead woman in this portrait looks out at us with a regal gaze reminiscent of Elizabeth Tudor. Indeed, the subject of the painting is so like the Queen it could be her own sister. The Queen’s own sister...

Weir’s Elizabeth the Queen, Starkey’s Elizabeth and Somerset’s Ladies-in-Waiting all underline how important of Katherine Carey was to Elizabeth, even long before she became Queen. When Katherine and her husband, both of them Puritan, went into exile in 1553, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth wrote a farewell letter to Catherine “signed ‘cor rotto’ (broken heart)’ (Varlow 2007, p.8).

Providing more evidence of their close relationship, after Elizabeth succeeded her sister in 1558, she overlooked the fact her cousin Katherine was a Puritan – a member of an extremist sector of the Anglican Church, which Elizabeth disliked (Somerset 1984, p. 65), and placed her as chief lady of the Queen’s bedchamber.

Available night and day, the women of the bedchamber were often drawn from the Queen’s own kin, and expected to put aside the needs of their families for the Queen’s (Weir 1998, p. 258). As one of this close knit group and positioned as the Queen’s chief lady, it is very likely Kate was with Elizabeth when she was crowned on a snowy, January day in 1559.

Katherine died on the fifteenth of January, 1569 – the anniversary of Elizabeth’s crowning ten years before, leaving Elizabeth grief-stricken (Weir 1998, p. 257). She died not at home with her husband, surrounded by her large family, but while at Hampton Court, serving the queen.

This unidentified painting, added to Kate’s similarity to Henry VIII, provided to me more evidence of Kate’s closer kinship to Elizabeth than that of simply cousins. I decided then to forgo its suggestion either early in 1523 or early 1524 for her birth year and (as a writer of fiction) to embrace 1522.

What Kate might remember as fourteen-year-old presented me with exciting possibilities, starting from her memories of her supposed father, William Carey. If born in 1522, my fictional Kate would have been five when he died.

William Carey
While he was a court official and spent much of his time attending to the King, surely Kate would have been aware of him as her father. Could his absences have built up in her mind a too golden impression of her father? Five is a very impressionable age. Losing a parent at any age strikes deep, but for a five-year-old? I suspect that loss would imprint upon their psyche to be carried to their dying day.

Reflecting about this, I came back to one of my most important themes I explore through writing – how identity is constructed. I thought again about the creation of my fourteen-year-old character. Kate was at a very important age, stepping towards adulthood. No doubt, the life changing events of 1536 would impact significantly on that. Scenes opening up in my imagination, I considered one other important memory that my fourteen-year-old Kate may have had – Anne Boleyn’s coronation, almost three years before Anne’s execution.

I thought about that, wondering how to use that in my novel. I wondered about many things. I especially wondered about Kate, my Kate – a young girl who comes to the court of her aunt, the Queen of England. Stepping from the threshold of research to my imagined Tudor world, I saw my Kate. An unhappy girl, she wanted to escape her home to be with Queen Anne, the aunt she idolised. She did not realise that by taking up her place as one of the Queen’s women she would also face her own destiny.

But while there was so much that my imagined Kate didn’t know, not yet, not until I finished my novel, I also saw a challenging and exciting narrative scope opening up before me. I saw her story, the story that will now be published sometime in 2014, in The Light in the Labyrinth.


Ives, E. W. 2004. The life and death of Anne Boleyn: ‘the most happy’. Malden, MA, Blackwell Pub.

Somerset, A. 2004. Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day. Edition. Booksales.

Varlow, S. (2007). ‘Sir Francis Knollys’s Latin dictionary: new evidence for Katherine Carey’. Historical Research 80 (209): 315-323.

Weir, A. 1998. Elizabeth The Queen. Jonathan Cape.


Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer obsessed by Tudor History and Medieval Castile. The author of the award-winning novel Dear Heart, How Like You This?, Wendy is working on her PhD in Writing.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, she is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen. Wendy is a literature support teacher at Eltham North Primary and also tutors at Swinburne University in their Master of Arts (Writing) program.


  1. Hope it goes well for you! I assume that, along with the research of the characters, you've researched the lifestyle, religion, etc., so you feel comfortable with the period? :) This is also very important. I never assume when I read a book that the author has done this - I have occasionally found a jarring anachronism or other glitch in a book by a well-known writer.

    1. Thank you, Sue. Yes - it is important that writers have a sound appreciation of all the important things you mention. Research not only makes a writer feel comfortable to write about a particular period, but also is vital for imagination.

  2. Oh fascinating stuff Wendy, this is a story I'm looking forward to reading. I've just finished The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory who also starts with the supposition that Mary is the young sister.

    I don't necessarily agree with that conclusion (why would Mary have been married off first?).

    However, to find out what happened to Mary and Henry VIII's daughter Katherine is intriguing indeed!

    I know what you mean about how real life events shape the tone of historical romances. When I started researching the early French Revolution politics for Moonstone Obsession, the real events of the day provided the dangerous and intriguing backdrop.

    In my current WIP set in 11th century England, I've shifted the action by half a decade because I read about another real life event that I can foreshadow.

    I'm so looking forward to your new book.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth! Your two novels sound so fascinating. Smile - and both set in periods I really love!

  3. A fascinating period of history and article. Henry VIII will always invoke colourful images and the web of relationships and intrigue, perfect for historical fiction. I love especially, the way you've been so inspired by paintings, almost reading the characters and surmising their thoughts. all the best

  4. Oh, this is fascinating. I love research for just this reason. I'll watch for your book when it comes out.

  5. Lovely. I too am working on a Catherine Carey novel!

  6. Thank you, Diana! And I utterly agree with you about Henry VIII!

  7. I am not really sure who the father is of mary boleyns children is but i do know Katherine Carey wasnt at her aunts execution and also the boleyns were related to the Howards they also had long faces and William Carey was a third cousin of King Henry he too had Beaufort blood I still think William could be the dad of Henry at least


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