Addie Thorley is the author of An Affair of Poisons, a YA historical fantasy, which was chosen as a Spring 2019 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Authors title and received a starred review from School Library Journal. Her forthcoming novel, Night Spinner, will be released in winter 2020. She spent her childhood playing soccer, riding horses, and scribbling stories. After graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in journalism, she decided “hard news” didn’t contain enough magic and kissing, so she flung herself into the land of fiction and never looked back. She now lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband, daughter, and wolf dog. You can find her online at www.addiethorley.com or on Twitter @addiethorley and Instagram @addiethorley.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
My stories always seem to evolve from fascinating, little-known historical events. I love scouring history for incidents that haven’t been done to death in fiction, which is how my debut novel, An Affair of Poisons, came to be. I was elbow deep in research for a different project, when I happened across a notorious murder scandal that took place in 17th century France called, L’affaire des poisons. Members of the nobility began hiring witches and poisoners to get rid of their bothersome husbands and rivals at court, and it turned into a huge scandal that reached clear to the king’s inner circle. To me, it sounded like something straight out of a novel—I couldn’t believe it had actually happened—and I wanted to dive in deeper and put my own spin on it.
Once I find that moment in history that captures my imagination, I delve into finding the right characters to bring the story to life. Since I write YA, I knew I couldn’t tell An Affair of Poisons from the viewpoint of the leader of this group of witches, since she was a middle-aged woman, so I started imagining what life may have been like for the daughter of the most powerful witch in Paris, which is how my main character, Mirabelle, was born.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I generally research for several months before I start drafting. I like to have a good foundation in the time period, and it’s obviously important to know the ins and outs of the historical event at the center of the book, however, I usually save specifics for later. I find (at least for me) if I research every teeny tiny detail at the outset, I will never actually start writing. So I only let myself research until I have just enough knowledge to tell the story, then I continue to research as I’m drafting. All of the little details that really bring the past to life are usually added in second or third drafts. My first drafts often have dozens of brackets that say [add description of the food or clothing or architecture here]. It makes for an ugly first draft, but it’s the only way to keep that forward momentum. Plus, it’s so much easier to color a story once the bones are in place.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love everything about the research stage! I’ve always joked with friends that I was born in the wrong era, so nothing makes me happier than being buried beneath a mountain of books and articles that make the past feel vibrant and alive. I’m really fortunate to live near the fabulous library at Princeton University, so I’m able to get my hands on a lot of primary sources and books I would never be able to find or afford on my own, which has been a huge blessing.
I also love the new skills I learn vicariously through my characters. Mirabelle, the main character in An Affair of Poisons, is an alchemist, and it was absolutely fascinating to study the principles of alchemy, as well as 17th century herbalism and medicine. I wish I could be an alchemist in real life! I also know waaaaay more about poison than an ordinary person should.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
I think one of the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction, especially for teens, is making the past accessible and interesting for young readers. Viewpoints and sensibilities from bygone times don’t always resonate with modern ideals (and sometimes the choices and mindset seem out-right wrong by today’s standards) so you have to find those universal truths and experiences that resonate no matter the time period.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
As I mentioned before, I LOVED learning about poisons and alchemy, but I was shocked to discover the terrible and disgusting ingredients that 17th century practitioners used, not only in poison, but in love potions and healing tonics. It wasn’t uncommon to find spider webs, nail clippings, human blood, bone splinters, excrement, and blobs of hanged man’s fat in their most sought-after draughts. Yum!
I also learned that the reason people began clinking their glasses together when toasting was to exchange a part of the liquid—to make sure none of the glasses contained poison.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
I had to take quite a few liberties with the past, since An Affair of Poisons is technically an alternate history. A secret society of witches and poisoners did in fact attempt to assassinate King Louis XIV, but their plot was foiled and they were all burnt at the stake. But I wanted to reimagine what history could have looked like if they had succeeded in killing the king and taking over Paris. In order for this to work, I had to invent some political aspirations for the leaders of this secret society that may not have necessarily had in real life. I also had to age a few historical figures up or down slightly in order for them to be where I needed them to be.
While I always endeavor to be as historically accurate as possible, I do try to remind myself that, at the end of the day, I’m writing a novel, not a history textbook, so my job, first and foremost, is to tell the best, most-compelling tale I can. But maybe this is just my rebellious, alternate history style shining through. 😊