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Who does that? Building character in historical fiction by Kate Braithwaite

It is a pleasure to welcome bestselling author, Kate Braithwaite today to discuss how she builds characters in her fabulous novels. Thank you for your time, Kate. The floor is yours!

Writers are often asked where we find our characters. Are they people we know or people we’ve entirely made up? For a historical novelist like me, they’re neither. In my novels (so far anyway) almost every character named was once a real, living and breathing human being, and I’m as true to their character as it’s possible for me to be.

I started with a woman called Athénaïs (a name I struggled to even pronounce!) who was mistress to Louis XIV. She was incredibly clever, well-educated, witty and beautiful but her only way to be successful in 17th century France was by becoming the lover of the King and the mother of his children. By the time she was forty, Athénaïs had born him 9 children and been his mistress for years. But Louis had grown tired of her.

In a dark period of French history, known as the Affair of the Poisons, Athénaïs was accused of involvement in a poisoning and infanticide scandal, all with the aim of using dark arts to keep Louis faithful to her. Could it be true? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all. Reading everything I could find about the scandal, I developed an understanding of Athénaïs – from her childhood, through a disastrous marriage, her friendship with Louis’ previous mistress and through her own reign as his maîtresse-en-titre, encouraging the arts and working side by side with Louis as Versailles was transformed from a rural hunting lodge to the glorious palace and gardens we can visit today. And all the time, I asked myself, could the woman who did all that, really be a poisoner? Could she condone – or even participate in black masses using the blood of infants? The result was my first novel, Charlatan (Fireship, 2016).

Who would do X? What kind of person chooses to do Y? How do the people around them react? These are the questions that I’m always trying to answer when bringing real historical events and people to life in my fiction. Titus Oates was an unknown preacher, a nobody, yet he managed to throw London into crisis in 1678 when he claimed knowledge of a whole raft of plots to assassinate Charles II and make England a Catholic country again. How did he do it? What was it about him that made this possible? And how petty and vindictive, how sniveling and unpleasant, could he manage to be as he did it? Oates is the villain of the piece in my second novel, The Road to Newgate (Darkstroke, 2018), and spending time in the head of the ‘bad guy’ can be a lot of fun for a novelist.

For my next fictional adventure, I turned to Nellie Bly. For those who don’t know her, Nellie was a groundbreaking journalist who secured a coveted job at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper in 1887. Women were not generally welcome in newpaper offices in those days. Nellie was told to her face that women would disturb the men working there, that she couldn’t report from criminal courts, and that her long skirts would prevent her from running down the stairs fast enough to report from the scene when something big was happening. She was only twenty-three but she was already a force to be reckoned with. She talked her way into the World’s offices and agreed to feign madness and report from inside the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. And that was just the first of her many stunts as a journalist. Her life, however, had many ups and downs. She spent her last days operating an unofficial adoption service out of a hotel room just across from Macy’s department store. In The Girl Puzzle (Darkstroke, 2019), I’ve told the story of her asylum adventure, but also looked at her life overall. She was an exceptional person – at times contradictory and controversial, but I hope readers of the book will find her every bit as fascinating as I do.

So what is next? Right now I’m working on a novel about two sisters in Colonial Virginia, and a scandalous possible love triangle involving the two women and the older sister’s husband. Again, these were real people and I’m reading their letters, the notes of a trial that resulted, and a range of published statements, accusations and rebuttals that kept the story very much alive in Virginian society for more than twenty years. What really happened? What was the sisters’ relationship? How did they continue living together for more than ten years after the initial scandal broke? Who were they? These are the questions I’m trying to answer by understanding their characters and then bringing them to life on the page and in dialogue. At the moment my working title is The Randolph Sisters but I’m not sure it will be by the end of it. Choosing a book title is a whole other kettle of fish, but I’ll leave that one for another day.

Thank you, Val, for the opportunity to talk about my books and their characters!

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Twitter – @KMBraithwaite

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