Katherine Longshore is a former travel agent, coffeehouse barista and preschool teacher who has finally found her calling writing novels for teens. She is the author of GILT, TARNISH and BRAZEN, a series of novels set in the court of Henry VIII, published by Viking and the “Downtonesque” MANOR OF SECRETS published by Scholastic. After five years exploring castles and country manors in England, she now lives in California with three British citizens and one expatriate dog. Visit her online at www.katherinelongshore.com.
What typically comes first for you: A character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I typically begin with character. That said, characters come to me because of the historical era, so it becomes a question of the chicken or the egg. For me, however, the story doesn’t begin without the character, so that’s where I start.
My first book, GILT, came about because I thought, “Catherine Howard was a teenager when she married Henry VIII. She’d be a great character for a YA book!” But my narrator, Kitty Tylney, was born out of a news item about a rape at Richmond High School in California—one observed, but not reported, by as many as twenty other people. And I decided I wanted to write about a character who observed atrocities and wrongdoings, and for whatever reason, didn’t do anything until it was too late.
Anne Boleyn in TARNISH came to me on a long drive one Thanksgiving weekend—I’d been pondering writing about her, but didn’t find the courage until I thought about how she might have felt, as a teenager, being transplanted from her adoptive home of France (where she’d lived for seven years) to the very foreign world of the Henrician court.
The only book where I did the opposite was BRAZEN. I began with the historical figure—Mary Howard—a woman who became quietly independent in later years, avoiding court machinations whenever possible. But I didn’t know who she was—that is, who my fictional character needed to be—until I’d written the first draft. This was definitely a case of the story—and the writing of the novel—informing the character rather than the other way around.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
I like to tell people that I researched Henry VIII, his wives, and the Tudor era for ten years before I started GILT. This is absolutely true, but invites a misconception. I didn’t do the research with the idea of writing a novel in mind, I did the research because I was fascinated and wanted to know more. Ultimately, I wanted to understand the characters, so delving into their psychology through fiction seemed a natural transition.
Once I have made the decision to write a book, however, I usually research for about a month before I begin to write. I reread histories and find new ones to look for new insights. I take notes on index cards, even though I don’t always refer back to them. I’m a visual and tactile learner, so the act of writing something down cements it more firmly in my mind.
I continue to do research throughout every draft, finding specific details like Where was Henry VIII’s court on July 25, 1535? Or What kind of dress would a kitchen maid wear in 1911? Some of the answers can be found online (the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII is an invaluable resource!) and others have to be gleaned from more books. While finishing the third draft of BRAZEN, I read Alison Weir’s wonderful book about Anne Boleyn’s last days, The Lady in the Tower, which helped me write a key chapter using the vivid details Weir is so adept at providing.
What is your favorite thing about research?
The sense of discovery, and being able to pass that on to readers. One of the things I love about reading history and historical fiction is feeling immersed in this world that no longer exists. So discovering bright details that can make the world come alive is utterly inspiring. Which tapestry Henry VIII had hanging in the great hall of Hampton Court. What the upstairs rooms in a country manor smelled like to a downstairs maid. The name of Anne Boleyn’s lap dog, the view from Greenwich Palace…Details give us the greatest impression of the reality of history—that people actually lived and died and loved like we do.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
Dates and numbers. I was always pretty good at math, and I don’t mind it—in fact, it keeps my mind sharp. But I don’t have an affinity for numbers. I don’t remember them, and sometimes I transpose them (782 can become 287 very easily—in fact, I can look at one number and say the other out loud. Made people very nervous when I ran a cash register!) I’ve been reading about Henry VIII for fifteen years and writing about him for five of those, and I can’t tell you his birth date or year without looking it up. But I can tell you who his mother’s father’s brother’s daughter was (Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury). To me, the real meat of history happens between the people—in the gossip and their personalities and interactions. The numbers and battles never interested me, which is why I think is disliked history as a teen—that’s how our knowledge was tested.
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?
One of the reasons I love writing historical fiction is to make sense of some of the “muddy” historical characters I’ve come across. You would think Anne Boleyn would be straightforward—after all, there have been biographies, novels, plays, poems, operas, songs and movies made about her. But we still don’t know when she was born. It’s generally believed she was born in 1501, but I had to accept a later date (which some historians support) in order for her to be a teenager during the time period I chose to write about.
Mary Howard’s biography is even muddier. We know she married Henry Fitzroy (Henry VIII’s illegitimate son) at the age of fourteen. But no one knows for sure where she was for the next three years. Was she at court, serving Queen Anne Boleyn? Was she at her father’s (the Duke of Norfolk) home of Kenninghall? Or was she somewhere else entirely? Was she ever allowed even to see her husband? No one knows. There is no record. I decided to keep her at court because of a single mention of her being close to Anne Boleyn—and therefore occasionally coming into contact with Henry Fitzroy. Through this decision, I was able to explore the question, “How do you fall in love with someone you rarely get to see?” It became one of the central questions of the book. So for BRAZEN, history in some ways made the story easier to discover. The very muddiness freed me up to write a story that wasn’t hampered by all those dates I find so frustrating.
Unfortunately, history is also incredibly inflexible. I found it heartbreaking to have to write some events into my books. Deaths, arguments, poor decisions. I have used some choice words to rail at history over the past five years, but I always succumb eventually.