My family history gave me the courage I needed to start my career as a novelist. I can remember a decade ago writing down in Julia Cameron’s The Writer’s Way that I really wanted to write a novel and learn French, but in the years before Amazon I had no idea how to make that a reality. I finally got the opportunity when I stumbled across a story about my three times great grandmother Arabella.
“Hmmm..that last name sounds French,” I muttered when I read it. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions. I have to confess that during my all of my training as a historian, I took only one French history course, and it was about Napoleon. I assumed that my ancestor was fleeing from the Revolution. I was about a century off, and learned later that they immigrated after participating in a rebellion against the King of France in the 1600s. As French Protestants, known as Huguenots, they were convinced that doing so was a great idea, and that “great idea” led them to exile to the British colony of South Carolina.
Horrified at their choice, I put my training as a historian and archivist to good use and started tracing them back as far as I could. When I worked as an archivist, I seethed with jealousy when patrons came in to do research. After leaving the profession to become a writer, I had my chance to do research myself. I found my earliest ancestor in the 1530s, almost to the day that the Huguenot movement began. My folks were big into the movement, it would seem. Other than a few records scanned by the Mormon church, there were few records of my family, so I used a historian’s trick of researching the “big picture” to see if my folks fit into the story of Protestants in the 1500s and 1600s.
I’m one of those historical fiction authors who loves research as much as I love writing.
My professors taught me that once you have a large body of research, you have to do something with it: publish it in an academic journal, write a book, present a paper at a conference. Once I had reams of research in my files, I realized that the time was right to take a chance and start writing historical fiction. We’re taught to dig and find stories that haven’t been told before, ones that add to our understanding of the past. Like a reporter, we develop a nose for what will make a great story, and I found plenty of stories that historical fiction readers had not been exposed to yet. I knew that I had found something that would sustain me as a writer. As an added bonus, I got an opportunity to improve my high school French.
Along the way, I became obsessed with Henry IV of France and his many, many mistresses. “I have got to write about this guy,” I told myself. My career writing biographical fiction was off to a raring start, and I decided that I would use my writing as a way to memorialize my ancestors. Any time I had a minor fictional character, I gave them my ancestors’ names, placing them in my work. Most of my ancestors were physicians and lawyers, so it’s been relatively easy to place them in those positions. Others have become majordomos or fictional noblemen at the royal court.
I currently place my books in the 16th century, and I plan to follow my ancestors through the 16th and 17th century, from France to the wilds of the American colonies. Luckily, the closer I come to the present, the more records I have, and I’ll have an opportunity to tell a more accurate story about them. I get to be the researcher using primary documents in the archives as the basis for my stories. It’s a dream job for me because I’ve finally come full circle.
For now, I’m having a great time placing a servant named Morel in Catherine de Medici’s privy chamber. Since some of my ancestors were named “Gaillard” and the word also means a dance, I have my characters dance often. It’s one of those prerogatives that I have as an author that I could not take advantage of as a historian. If a character in one of my books isn’t a historical figure, it’s a good bet that they’re one of my ancestors in disguise.
I strive to make my stories as historically accurate as possible. Given my background, I couldn’t bring myself to make up most of my stories. My thesis committee would probably kill me if I did that. Minor characters are a great “wiggle place” where I can use my creativity without violating my desire to stick to the historical facts.
Laura du Pre writes biographical fiction set during the French Renaissance. After finishing a B. A. in English and an M. A. in History, she worked full time as an archivist and records manager. A displaced Texan living in the Deep South, she lives with her elderly and cantankerous cat, Owen. Her parents are terribly proud of her for putting all of her expensive schooling to good use.
After a short stint as a freelance writer, she turned towards historical fiction, using stories of her own ancestors as inspiration. Her books feature women who have gotten lost in the “big picture” of history and who make for a terrific story.
Buy Laura’s books here.
Find out more about Laura on her Website