Sunday, October 28, 2012

Writing the Past

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ is the opening line of ‘The Go-Between’, a novel by L.P.Hartley.

By this, he meant that the world of the past is as strange and unknowable to us as a country to which we’ve never been and whose language we cannot speak.

Yet that it is what historical fiction authors do – we bring the world of the past to life, we bridge that abyss of the unknowable. To do this, we not only have to re-create places and times that are long gone, but imagine ourselves into the minds and hearts of people whose mindset were very different from ours.

A difficult challenge for any writer.

Imagine then, if an author set out to not only illuminate the past, but also to write about a foreign country whose language she doesn’t speak.

Not yet enough of a challenge for you?

How about writing a book that is set in TWO different foreign countries, in TWO different historical periods?

That is just what I did in my latest novel.

‘Bitter Greens’ is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first told the tale, the scandalous French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

'Bitter Greens' by Kate Forsyth

The sections told from her point of view are set in Paris and Versailles in the late 17th century, during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

The Rapunzel narrative is set in Venice and Lake Garda in the 1590s.
And then, just to make things more complicated, I wrote a third strand of the story, told from the point of view of the witch, which is set in Venice in the early 16th century.

Three different narrative threads, three different time periods, three different points of views.

Was I mad?

Sometimes I truly thought so.

My task was complicated by the fact that I speak very little French or Italian, and that one of my characters had truly lived, yet but was nothing but a footnote in history. 

Every reference to her in every book I could find was no more than a line or two long. 

And I wanted to write a novel about her.

At times the challenges seemed insurmountable.

Apart from anything else, I needed to keep all the historical minutiae straight. For example:

In 16th century Venice, women wore stiff, long-waisted bodices and heavy skirts over cone-shaped farthingales, with gabled hoods on their heads. On their feet they wore totteringly high, wedge-shaped, wooden chopines to protect their fragile silk slippers from rising water.

In 17th century Paris, women wore loose mantuas with unboned bodices, the skirt pinned back to show lacy petticoats, and towering fontanges on their heads made of lace and ribbons sewn over wire. The height of one’s heel was strictly controlled by sumptuary laws – the king’s heels were the highest, and then the queen’s, and so on down to the peasants who were allowed no heels at all.

In 16th century Venice, latrines emptied directly into the canal.

In 17th century Paris, women employed pages to carry their own personal close stool to parties.

In 16th century Venice, people drank rough red wine and ale (beer brewed without hops which were not yet commonly grown).

In 17th century Paris, pink champagne was all the rage.

Character development - sheer hard work behind the scenes!

So how did I do it?

Quite simply, the answer is I wrote each narrative thread in its entirety before moving on to the next.

I began with the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who was a maid-in-honour at the court of her second cousin, Louis XIV. Her story begins in 1660 and ends in 1697. I read everything I could find about the court of the Sun-King – its fashions, its food, its customs, its etiquette – and I hired a French translator to help me since many of the first-hand accounts of the Versailles court had never been translated into English. Similarly, the only book ever written about Charlotte-Rose’s life was written by a French academic, and never translated. With her help, I was able to read the letters and diaries of noblewomen at the court, and I was able to read Charlotte-Rose’s own writings – her fairy tales and her autobiography. I wrote her entire story from beginning to end, indicating where I thought I could break to insert the other narrative threads.

Then I wrote the Rapunzel sections. My heroine was called Margherita and her tale begins in Venice in 1590 and ends in Florence in 1600.

Once again I immersed myself as fully into the historical period as I could. I began a new notebook, keeping all my notes, ideas and research separate from the notebook about Charlotte-Rose de la Force. I read books with titles like ‘Daily Life in Renaissance Italy’ and ‘Inside the Renaissance House’. I studied books on early opera and Venetian beauty regimes. I read articles about Rapunzel syndrome (a life-threatening illness caused by tricophagia, or the eating of one’s own hair). I cooked Italian food.

When Margherita’s story was told in its entirety, from first word to last word, I wove it into Charlotte-Rose’s story, making sure the chapters echoed each other in same way, and were balanced in length and pacing.

Only then did I begin to research and write the story of Selena de Leonelli, the courtesan who locks Margherita away. Her tale begins in 1504 and ends in 1582, and features the great Italian Renaissance painter Tiziano (known in English as Titian). This time I immersed myself in the world of the Venetian courtesan. I read up about stregheria, Italian witchcraft. I spent hours examining Tiziano’s paintings minutely for every hidden symbol and painted-over brushwork. I read about the Venetian Inquisition, and the practise of castrating young boys to preserve their youthful voices. 
I wrote Selena’s story, and then found the exact right place to put it – in the very middle of the book. It became the dark heart of the novel. Charlotte-Rose and Margherita’s story weaves into it, and then weaves out of it, the whole understanding of the novel inverted and changed as a result.

Dedication to accuracy: Kate in Florence

It was like writing three separate novels - each one its own small foreign world, with its own language and laws, customs and conventions.

I’ve always liked a challenge, though. 

Kate Forsyth


  1. I also write historical novels. It is certainly a labor of love. Thanks for sharing your process. Joanne Lewis

  2. That's my pleasure, Joanne. I wish you all the best with your own writing :)

  3. Thanks for sharing your process, Kate, and for finding time to write the blog post for HNSS. Despite the challenge of your research I sense you loved delving into the detail. Bitter Greens sounds wonderful. I look forward to reading :)

  4. What an extraordinary journey and commitment to accuracy and story. How long did it take you, Kate, to write, from planning to final edit?

    Now I'm heading off to find Bitter Greens, to purchase and read.

  5. Thanks so much Kate for your essay. So glad I'm not alone in researching slightly obsessively. (Currently trying to find the name of a cafe in Cape Town in 1917 and reading everything I can get my hands on about the Scottish Womens Hospitals in Serbia.
    Looking forward to reading Bitter Greens.

  6. Your approach is fascinating, Kate. Bitter Greens sounds wonderful. As a new writer of historical fiction, I find the research to be great fun and giving up my modern day perspective the most challenging.

  7. Kate-

    Thank you for sharing, I loved this post and it will be helpful somewhere down the line with my own historical fiction writing. I am curious to know more about your work with the translator. If you have time, could we exchange more by email? I also love your novel book cover!

    Many Regards,

    Stephanie Renee dos Santos
    email: stephaniereneedossantos at