Last year, a fellow author friend of mine suggested I find an "accountability partner", another author to whom I would become accountable to for writing goals. Since I belong to an author support group, I inquired if anybody would be interested in working with me in that capacity. Immediately, Wendy Dunn, an author from Australia, responded.
Wendy and I have only known each other for a year or so, but we have become fast friends and though there are thousands of miles between us, a difference in our periods of historical writing, and most assuredly other differences, we work to challenge one another, listen to each others' writing frustrations, and make suggestions for solutions, goals, and marketing strategies.
Wendy is a cherished member of my inner circle of author friends. She is also a specialist in Tudor history, and her work is much respected internationally. I most recently read her book The Light in the Labyrinth, finding it to be a brutally realistic and well-researched novel surrounding the demise of Ann Boleyn.
Several months ago I asked Wendy to share a blog on my site. I told her to write what she felt like was on her heart and mind, and I thought this was so appropriate. Authors have felt the pinch of not being able to do field research during the pandemic and readers will be interested in how many of us--including Wendy--have handled it. Plus, she'll give us insight regarding her current work and love for all things Tudor. She is to be congratulated, for she's currently short-listed for the Chanticleer International Book Awards (Chaucer Division).
An Author's Thoughts on Historical Research During the COVID Era
By Dr. Wendy Dunn
Recently, I watched the last series of ‘A Discovery of Witches’. Yes. All right. I’ve a soft spot for witches and vampires (if the story is coloured by romance)—and I confess, the Alpha Vampire in this series has me well and truly in his thrall. I gaze at his graceful, dance-like movements, and drool. I digress. In the last episode, there is a scene (warning to read no more if you haven’t seen this series yet) when the main character (the witch who is the lucky partner to the gorgeous vampire) spellbinds a witch well deserving of being spellbound. This scene spoke to me because I am feeling spellbound because of this COVID world of ours.
I am writing two books—one, I hope, will be my next novel, the other a biography. The biography is my first full length exploration of a Tudor personage. Amazingly, at the end of 2019, Pen and Sword commissioned me to write about Catherine Knollys (nee Carey) — the woman whose teenage life I imagined in The Light in the Labyrinth, during the months leading up to the execution of her aunt, Anne Boleyn
Research takes many forms. Our own lives form vital repositories for research. Culture, gender, and society, not forgetting the time in which we live, all shape us, and filter and construct our writing. My imagination draws from the context of my own life: a fabric woven with thick threads of historical and experiential research through the claiming of my writerly identity. Filtering my story through the context of history creates the distance and separation I need to draw from my past for storytelling. But by the time I finish writing, the story has become no longer mine, but that of my characters.
Our writing reveals our passions absolutely. This is true for all genres of writing. Clearly, writers of history are passionate about history. For me, this passion embraces the depth and breadth of history. I love my collection of Tudor history books. I love my books so much I sometimes worry about what will happen to them when I die. Fortunately, my eldest son is a booklover too. So, I think I can trust him to sort out the problem of his mother’s books in the future.
The study of primary materials is also something I love, as well as engaging in some of the practices of my historical people to deepen my layers of knowledge. I even did my best to learn how to use a distaff when I was writing The Duty of Daughters, the first part of my Katherine of Aragon story. Why? Isabel of Castile made certain all her daughters knew how to use a distaff. I needed to learn how to work one too because my life experience failed to provide the words I needed for these scenes.
I have been fortunate as an Australian to have managed five research trips to England. Each trip enriched my human experience and increased my knowledge of the past, which then fed into the crafting of my novels. I always returned home thankful I had walked in the footsteps of my characters. It helped me avoid big mistakes in my world building of the past. Before walking the coronation route from Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, I believed these two amazing historical places were near one another. Yes—I am that hopeless at reading maps.
During my 2019 research trip to check my world building for All Manner of Things, I discovered my description of Ludlow Castle needed far more work. My research books at home had made me believe the rotunda chapel was separate from the main part of the castle.
It was my time exploring Ludlow Castle and asking questions about it which opened my eyes to what the chapel was like in the times of the Tudors. Once upon a time, the chapel had a wooden nave, long gone, connecting to the castle. I still sigh with relief that I had discovered my mistake before my novel was published. I rewrote the scenes when I had my characters steeling themselves to step out into the cold of winter to go to the chapel.
Field research feeds my imagination. During my 2012 research for The Light in the Labyrinth, one place I visited was the beautiful, peaceful garden belonging to Syon House, once known to the Tudors as Syon Abbey. Engulfed in green, alive and light, I strolled with my friend on the narrow footpath, following the man-made lake. With its water mirroring back the verdant colour of leaves of elms and oaks, I felt like I had stepped into a fairy world.
The peace of Syon House encased me. Even my footsteps seemed soft and silent, giving homage to the long-ago people who once walked this way, too, making me think about the religious order ruling these grounds during the time of the Tudors. I knew the gardens were very different in their times, but then I asked myself, Is it so changed?
Later, Katherine likely came to pray to God to save her marriage.
Anne Boleyn also came to the Abbey in the last months of her queenship, determined to convince the nuns to embrace religious reform and save their order from the destructive force of the reformation now sweeping through England (Ives 2004, p. 256). I do not doubt she would have enjoyed the grounds of the Abbey too.
There was another Katherine, too. On that day in 2014, my mind’s eye saw her before me. Like a caged animal, she paced up and down the pathway, a girl of probably nineteen years (Fraser 1992, p. 350)—a girl terrified of what the future had in store for her. The summer day of my visit dissolved into winter. Katherine solidified before me, tugging her fur cloak tighter around her thin, tiny body. Snow shifted and crunched under her feet. She looked over her shoulder at the nuns following her, guarding her. I heard her pray, “God. Dear God, save me. I do not want to die.”
Field research gives writers of history access to “human patina” – “marks and wear that are left on everyday items” (Ross 2012). Talking about her response to viewing nineteenth century costume that showed signs of human sweat and blood, Ross writes:
"Suddenly, discarded clothing was imbued with many layers of meaning, for what could show
humanity more vividly and intimately than stains on a piece of cloth once worn against the
skin? For me, these costumes suddenly became people, who come into the room to stay vividly
in my imagination (2012)."
So—here I am, in Australia, with two books that call for field research in a country far from my shores. At the end of last year, I thought seriously about going to England in September, but this COVID, uncertain world of ours, soon shut down those thoughts. I was unwell in England in 2016 for my entire trip. It is not an experience I ever want to repeat.
I find myself thankful for all the great YouTube videos people have put up about their own Tudor or other historical research in England. I am also thankful to the people I have reached out to with my many questions who have helped me. Fellow historical author Elizabeth St John gave me access to her recent photos of The Tower of London. Every time I have sent email to an archivist in England they have patiently replied to my inquiry.
Even A Discovery of Witches has been of help. I am not writing about witches, or sexy vampires, but much of the first series of A Discovery of Witches happens in Oxford — a place that plays a big part in my novel, and a smaller part in my biography.
So, if I cannot get to England, there are still ways for me to do my field research from afar.
There may even be more sexy vampires to discover in my armchair travels. Perhaps I should not wish for that. I have two books to finish. Best not get too distracted.
Fraser, Antonia 1992 The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
Parini, Jay, “Delving Into the World of Dreams by Blending Fact and Fiction,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 27, 1998,
Ross, Dr. Jacqui, ‘Module 8: Lecture 8, Research Case Study 3 – Writing for Children and Young People’, Swinburne University, Copyright 2011, accessed October 24 2012
All About Wendy
Wendy J. Dunn is an award-winning Australian author, playwright and poet. Her first Tudor novels were two Anne Boleyn novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This? and The Light in the Labyrinth. Wendy’s most recent publications are two novels inspired by the life of Katherine of Aragon: her Falling Pomegranate Seeds duology: The Duty of Daughters (a finalist in the 2020 Chaucer Awards) and All Manner of Things (2021), silver medalist in Readers’ Favorite for historical personage, short listed for the 2021 Chaucer Awards, a Silver Medalist in The Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award (Tudor and Stuart category) and a Gold medalist in the Historical Fiction Company awards for fiction set in England, Ireland and Scotland.
Wendy tutors in writing at the Swinburne University of Technology. She’s currently writing a novel set in 2010. Of course, it includes a Tudor story, too! She is also writing her first full length Tudor biography, commissioned by Pen and Sword.
Connect with Wendy
Instagram: wendyjdunnauthor Facebook
*Dear Heart, How Like You This?
*Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters
*Falling Pomegranate Seeds: All Manner of Things