Diana Gabaldon and Margaret George on the importance of historic sites for their writing

Richard Lee

Margaret George, author of some of the finest biographical historical fiction of recent years, and Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series and the Lord John Grey novels, will both be speaking at HNSLondon12. In addition Margaret has her very own ‘In the Footsteps of the Tudors’ tour in October, run by the excellent Academic Travel – and HNS members are entitled to a $200 discount. As they revisit the Old Country, I wanted to ask them about what they look for on their travels.

RL: How important is the spirit of place in your books?

Diana: Oh, very important.  I think the spirit of place is important in any story—whether it’s the stultifying, claustrophobic confines of an office or the whispering stones of hermitage or abbey.  Quite aside from the effect on the people in the story, the sense of place affects the reader.  A good evocation of place pulls the reader into the page and makes them share and empathize with the sensations of the people they’re reading about.

Margaret: In my books, very important.  That’s how I convince myself that I’m there.  And the setting is really influential on the characters, molding them and giving them a certain outlook.  Also, writing about the spirit of the place gives readers a stage to set the action on, so they can picture it. 

RL: Do you find place defines your characters? Do they change nature when they change locale?

Diana: Well, their essential characters don’t change, but of course their occupations do—and with that, some of their overt behavior and definitely their circumstances, and those affect a lot of what you might call the incident level of the story.

Margaret: Elizabeth defined herself in terms of being ‘mere English'; she was proud of having both parents from England.  (She was the last British sovereign who could make that claim.)  She never left England and did not travel even very far from London, so she never had to adapt to any other place, and her motto was ‘Always the Same.’

Although born in Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots was brought up in the French court (her mother was French), and she defined herself almost entirely as a Frenchwoman; her first language was French.  When she arrived back in Scotland, at the age of nineteen, she was a fish out of water.  She could not speak Scots and never seemed to be able to make a mental switch to her new environment and country.  This led directly to her downfall, as she never understood her subjects’ mentality and was seen as a ‘foreigner’ who surrounded herself with other foreigners, insulating herself from her people.

RL: Margaret – Elizabeth II calls Buckingham Palace ‘the office’ and Windsor Castle ‘home’. What feelings did Elizabeth have about her different residences?

Margaret: Elizabeth I did not like the Tower of London (for obvious reasons; her mother was executed there and she herself had been imprisoned by her sister Mary there), and after the obligatory, customary, stay for her coronation procession, she never spent another night there.  She also did not much like Hampton Court (perhaps again, because it was too linked to Cardinal Wolsey and her father’s early passion for her mother), but did recognize that it made a good setting for holiday festivities, especially Christmas.  But Whitehall in London was her ‘working’ palace, (her version of Buckingham Palace) and Richmond Palace her most ‘homey’ palace, where she felt comfortable, and even installed the one and only flush toilet, designed by her godson, Sir John Harington.  Windsor she had mixed feelings about; her father and Jane Seymour were buried there, but she did spend time there, especially in summer.

RL: When visiting historic sites, do you have any specific ways of trying to feel the past, or strip away the modern?

Diana: I don’t really have an agenda or fixed set of procedures, no.   If there are historic structures that go back to my period, I want to see those as thoroughly as possible, with an eye to things like light and temperature, as well as actual construction and furnishings (if any).  If not, I look at the vegetation, the seasonal light—and how things smell.  That’s one thing you just don’t get from library research. <g>

One basic principle—and it’s not limited to research; I do it whenever I’m out walking in a strange city—is to head for water.  Something interesting is always happening near water, be it a lakeshore or a seafront.  And from a historical perspective, while rivers do occasionally change course, get filled in or covered over, large bodies of water don’t change all that much.

Beyond superficial/sensual observations like that, I check national monuments/parks, etc., which tend to preserve landmarks or buildings—and spend a lot of time in the bookshops of such places, as they often have very specialized publications that you can’t find anywhere else.

Margaret: I try to go when it’s empty of modern visitors, so my imagination doesn’t have to work so hard to erase them.  If that’s not possible (and it often isn’t, if it’s a restored, official, historic site), I try not to interact with them.  I will photograph parts of the site when there aren’t other people there (even if that’s only for an instant) so I can revisit it later ‘uncorrupted.’  Some people advise wearing ear plugs so I don’t hear the chatter of other people or tour guides!

RL: What would have been most different if we could go back in time? What would have felt most alien – in setting or mindset?

Diana: It would depend on what time period (and geographical location) you went back to, I expect.  To say nothing of one’s social position.   Being a serf in 15th-century Russia would have a completely different set of shocks to being a hair-dresser in Paris in 1789, but they’d both be pretty horrifying to a gently-bred American of the 21st century.

Margaret: Tudor times would not be as familiar as we think.  First, we would have trouble understanding the language; it would be English, but not the English we know.  All the inflections would be different, and the word usage alien.  And people would be talking fast, making it difficult to follow even the words we know. 

The lack of privacy would come as a shock, too. People were never alone or unobserved.  
The suddenness of death and the lack of any explanation for many diseases and conditions would be creepy.  If we were time travelers and didn’t want to give ourselves away, we couldn’t blurt out, “That well is contaminated with cholera!” or “Give that man CPR!”  Attributing all illness or calamity to God’s punishment for sin would be alien to us, too.
The ‘localness’ of life would be so different from our world, and the lack of communication once you were more than 10 miles away.
And that’s just 500 years ago.  Going back to Roman times or Homeric times would be even odder, although probably those times have more in common with Tudor times than our own times have with the Tudors.  The most extreme changes have happened in the last 100 years, separating us from our ancestors very profoundly in mindset.  

RL: Margaret – which of the sites on your tour are you most looking forward to visiting?

Margaret: I especially want to see Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, because I haven’t been there in many years, and I set a pivotal scene there in my ELIZABETH I novel.  But I also want to see Kenilworth Castle and the restored gardens, since that is the place where Dudley pulled out all the stops to convince Elizabeth to marry him, when she stopped there on her progress of 1575. It was a progress extravaganza on steroids, according to the accounts.  (It didn’t work. But highest points for effort, Dudley!) 

RL: Diana, you do not endorse any OUTLANDER tours, but pople organise them anyway. Which would be the one must-see place if you were to take a tour?

Diana: Oh, that would have to be Culloden.  Quite aside from its historical importance, it has a fabulous new Visitors Centre.  And of course, the field itself is deeply haunted. [Diana has blogged about the new visitor centre here - well worth the read].

RL: UK sites are full of re-enactors and ‘living history’ these days. Do you like that development?

Diana: Well, they’ve been doing it in the US for decades, if not longer.  Yes, I think it’s a very good thing generally, as indicating that people are actually interested in history, and paying attention to at least the basic events and the sense of daily life (don’t know how much information they deal with regarding the political background, but likely some).

Margaret: I do like it.  It’s an opportunity for people to let their inner Roman or Tudor out, and it also provides audiences with the experience of ‘seeing’ these things in some way other than movies or TV.  When I put on a tunic and ran in an ancient stadium at a re-enactment of the Nemean Games in Greece in 2004, it was the closest I could come to entering that world.  

RL: I’m asking these questions on the 4th July – so I have to ask – if you had been born British, would you have been monarchist or republican?

Diana: Oh, republican, I expect—being a papist, I would have been much discriminated against, both in terms of religion and employment.   On the other hand, one of my great-grandfathers (Godfrey Sykes) was a Royal Artist to Queen Victoria, and that branch of the family is rife with clergymen (Protestant; the Roman Catholicism comes from the Hispanic side of the family) and artisans—all very dependent on the status quo– so who knows?

Margaret: I’ve just spent time in Boston, visiting the Freedom Trial, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and so on, and was in Washington DC for the 4th of July.  Although I have 2 ancestors who were Patriots (as they are styled), I suspect I would have been a monarchist, or Tory.  I think we rather over-reacted to George III.  (Forgive me, forefathers!)
And if I were born in the UK in modern times, no question—a monarchist for sure!

RL: Thank you both for your generosity and time – looking forward to meeting you in September!

Posted by Richard Lee

Responses

  1. Ellen Grogan
    July 17, 2012

    Absolutely wonderful and very enlightening. Thanks so much to everyone who participated.

  2. Bronwen Jones
    July 17, 2012

    Thank you so much for a valuable reminder of how ‘site’ is important for capturing the spirit of the location, time and characters – whether you can visit or stare at a photo. My historic site is a wetland farmlet on the shore of a rural coastal lake in New Zealand. Though it isn’t far, I don’t go there often enough. Every time I do, I feel something new. The first time standing on the place where the old house used to be, I felt the presence of my character very strongly, like a physical pull on my heart.

    Thank you for the reminder and for the insights.

  3. Christina Courtenay
    July 18, 2012

    Great interview with some very interesting answers! Looking forward to hearing you both speak at the HNS conference in September.

  4. Jane Shure
    July 20, 2012

    very interesting insight into how historical fiction is written. Is it difficult to deal with the harsh realities of life back then? You can visit places, research dress but how do you evoke whalebone corsets and plague?

  5. Alison Morton
    July 25, 2012

    A fascinating interview, especially the insightful comments about place.

    I like Roman roads and bridges in particular as I can easily imagine the carts, horses, crowds and traffic on them. And the noises and smells! Although well-populated with visitors, even in February, Pompeii and Ostia Antica gave me an unforgettable sense of peoples’ lives when I visited them this year.

    Margaret’s comment about characters changing nature when they change locale. is very interesting. People and characters react in different ways to new environments, sometimes finding strengths and abilities they didn’t know they had. This adds considerable richness to their story.