For the past year I’ve been simmering a few different ideas for my next big novel project. I’m learning that I do best when I let lots of ideas hang out in my head until eventually one steps forward and takes the lead.
Right before I had a baby last December, I went to my local bookstore Parnassus (such a gem, Nashville is so lucky to have this place) and bought a new Elizabeth I biography, Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton. I have written an Elizabeth I picture book biography, and I was interested to see Lisa Hilton’s focus on gender, imagery, and education.
A few weeks after Everett was born, I was mentally ready to read a book, so I started hanging out in his nursery with the space heater keeping it nice and toasty, and the noise machine whirring away, and reading while he slept. I called it my warm cave of silence.
I adored the book. Lisa Hilton writes with great style and her sentences would often knock me over, like this one: “How often in her childhood did Elizabeth hear the word bastard?” (Lisa Hilton 40). I had to stop and read that one aloud just to let it sink in. I really loved the way Hilton zoomed out frequently to consider the big ideas and larger context, and the way she approached each of the “characters” in Elizabeth’s life.
I realized then how much there was to Elizabeth’s life that I wanted to explore. I bought Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Children of Henry VIII, and The Life of Elizabeth I. I started listening to podcasts while I pushed the baby in his stroller during maternity leave, in particular I was so happy to stumble onto The History Chicks. They, and many others, mentioned David Starkey’s biography of Elizabeth. So I ordered that. Then I ordered the beautiful The Public and Private Worlds of Elizabeth I by Susan Watkins, so that I could see some images of the places and things in Elizabeth’s world.
I also realized that I needed to know more about the details of Katherine Parr’s life. For that, I read the lovely biography by Linda Porter, Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, the Last Wife of Henry VIII. As someone who has fallen down a rabbit whole of Tudor and Elizabethan era bios, I have to say that this one was my favorite and I enjoyed Ms. Porter’s writing the best. (If I ever met her, I think I’d be too starstruck to speak.)
I was now becoming quite the consumer of biographies of Elizabeth and those associated with her.
The most intriguing part was the differences I started to notice between the different biographies. I started reading completely different interpretations of, say, a letter to Katherine Parr in 1544. How could that be?
The logical next step was to read the primary sources and decide for myself. So, I ordered The Collected Works of Elizabeth I and The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents. In reading those, I started to wonder what the original manuscripts looked like. Now I was searching out images of original manuscripts in Elizabeth’s own hand. There really is something special about seeing words that she herself put on paper.
I also started looking for the original state papers and privy council documents that I read snippets of in the various biographies I’d read. What other parts of the letters and documents was each biographer leaving out? Maybe there was something in those unquoted parts that would tell me something that I might find significant. I’ve now learned how to use the British Library’s digital collection, and the British History Online‘s collection of state papers. I really knew I’d hit the big time when I put in a special request to the British Library for digital images of some of the original manuscripts that weren’t available online–and I have to wait longer because the librarians need special permission to access those manuscripts. Oh for a plane ticket to England and white gloves! (Side note: I am still shocked that there are things that aren’t on the Internet. I will tell you, there are things that aren’t on the Internet, including digital images of all of Elizabeth’s original letters.)
And then something funny happened as I researched. I developed an opinion of my own. Read one biography and you will presumably accept that biographer’s take on the subject. Read a second, and you will notice the contradictions but feel somewhat flummoxed by it all. By the time I was transcribing and translating 16th century primary sources and zooming in on JPEGs of manuscript photographs, I started to hear a new voice among all the clamor of biographers I’d read: my own.
This was a new experience for me, as far as researching a historical figure.
Through all this reading and research, I was outlining my story. I put Elizabeth’s life up to her coronation into an outline. After I did that, though, I realized that I was particularly drawn to her life from age 13 to 15, namely the Thomas Seymour incident. Most people have never heard of this, and even most historians, unless this era is a focus, have not delved into these events.
When I realized this was becoming a focus, I got another biography, The Young Elizabeth by Alison Plowden which focuses in on Elizabeth’s younger years. This was helpful as I really worked hard to make sure that I was right on all of my details.
As I was outlining these years of Elizabeth’s life, it just so happened that a teenage girl from my state made the national news when she was abducted by her 50-something high school teacher and a nationwide manhunt ensued. I had an eerie feeling when I recognized the similarities between what was happening on the news and what Elizabeth went through at that age herself.
This Spring I had lots of conversations with students and colleagues about this project. When I summarized the Katherine Parr/Thomas Seymour events when she was 14, it seemed to strike a chord. Maybe I was on to something.
I returned to my outline and zoomed in on those two years, stripping everything else away. And then I started waking up in the night with a sentence or two in my head that I’d quickly type into my outline. I would have ideas at red lights that I would dictate into my phone. I started to feel like a racehorse in the gate at the Derby, the ones who start getting restless before the gun goes off. (Those are always the horses I cheer for.)
And when the school year ended, the gates opened and I started writing.
But what, exactly, was I writing? If I said “historical fiction” people immediately mentioned Philippa Gregory. No disrespect to Ms. Gregory (I love her books), but that didn’t feel like what I was trying to do. I also couldn’t really say “Oh, I’m writing Hamilton, except not a hip hop musical,” because that’s like saying you think you’re the next Hemingway. It makes you sound a big like a yahoo.
It came to my attention that a book was recently sold that was billed as a biographical novel. It was about a famous woman, but it focused on her teenage years. I’ve done some more research and I’ve seen some other projects also categorized as biographical novels, and that feels like a good fit.
I could really get into a great discussion about the shifting line between non-fiction and fiction is. Because here’s what I’ve learned this year: there isn’t one agreed upon Truth. There’s discrepancy and different interpretations among the biographers. So, isn’t there an element of choice and fiction in each of their biographies?
My other priority is my audience. I’m writing for teenagers, and I know that from my experience as a teenager, and now teaching them every day, they don’t really love biographies as a genre. There’s the occasional student who enjoys them, but she tends to be the exception. But they also love Hamilton, because Hamilton made a founding father feel real, current, and relatable. So, I’m not Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I’m trying to make Elizabeth I feel like that for teenagers.
So, I’m writing a multi-genre, modern vernacular biographical novel with primary sources woven throughout. I am approaching this project the way I approach my teaching. Next year I’m going to teach a series of units on Elizabeth I in my World Literature and AP Language and Composition classes. The kinds of tasks I might assign are the kinds of things I’ve written in my book: make a playlist for a historical figure, write a short play that dramatizes an event described in a letter, write a scene where you imagine a scenario that answers a question we have no answer for in primary sources, transcribe a historical document and then translate it into today’s vernacular. If it helps, I’d say both Hamilton and McSweeney’s are big influences. I have lists and satirical FAQs. Rather than a rap battle like Hamilton and Jefferson have, I’ve written a boxing match between Elizabeth and Sir Robert Tyrwhit.
I am so excited to bring this book into the world. Stay tuned!