Guest post: Wendy J. Dunn on writing historical fiction

Today I’m delighted to welcome historical novelist Wendy J. Dunn to my blog, with an intriguing guest post about how she approaches creating the imaginative landscape of her books, whilst also recreating a very particular historical period.

Wendy is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten years old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel.

While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder (Tom told the story of Anne Boleyn in Dear Heart, How Like You This?), serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.

After successfully completing her MA (Writing) at Swinburne University Wendy became a tutor for the same course. She gained her PhD (Human Society) in 2014.

As a committee member of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia, Wendy was also part of the team who put together the very successful inaugural HNSA conference of historical fiction writers and readers, recently held in Sydney.

Welcome, Wendy!wendy dunn

Some Thoughts about Writing Historical Fiction.

by Wendy J.Dunn

I have now written two novels inspired by the story of Anne Boleyn. My first published novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? tells her story through the voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder. A real historical person, he was not only a Tudor diplomat, but also a very gifted and important Tudor poet. Reconstructing him in fiction became my means to explore the nature and cost of love, as well as how Tudor women’s lives were controlled by their gender. The Light in the Labyrinth, my first young adult novel, as well as being a coming of age story, also casts a light upon women’s lives.

Why two novels about Anne Boleyn? Well, she has fascinated me since childhood, from the moment I first watched the movie Anne of The Thousand Days, and came away inspired by its construction of a strong, intelligent and very brave woman. By the movie’s end, Anne had become my hero, alongside my very first hero, her daughter, Elizabeth Tudor.anne boleyn

In my teenage and early adult years, I immersed myself in novels to do with the Tudor period. I also immersed myself in history books to help me learn more about the context that shaped the people of this era. These non-fiction books made it very clear that women in this period had very little ownership of their own lives. Even their identities came from their fathers, and then their husbands. More and more, Anne Boleyn stood out as a woman who was able to claim a true identity. While years of research have helped me to recognise her imperfections, it has also increased my reasons to love and respect her. Through my research, I now believe Anne’s insistence of her right to own and use her voice resulted in her death. This is the woman who lives in my imagination.

And this is the thing. Whilst my characters are birthed through research, and the knowledge I gain by research, I am a writer of fiction. Research is the key that opens the door to my imagination, when I begin typing up my daydream of another time and place. A time and place where my characters step forward and tell their story. For me, doing historical research has four main purposes: it deepens my well of historical knowledge; it gives me ideas turn into fiction; it takes me from the threshold of conceiving my first idea to the actual task of constructing historical fiction, when I build a world through imagination, and, finally, it continually fuels my imagination in the act of writing. It is my response to research that produces an imaginative reaction that takes me deeper into the process of story writing.dear heart

Writing The Light in the Labyrinth, a young adult novel, brought with it particular challenges. Young adult novels tend to be written in first person, and I tried to do this with Kate’s story. However, I decided to challenge myself by switching to third person limited. While the story was still revealed through Kate’s perspective, it was a very different structure to my usual way of writing.
Another challenge was giving voice to a 14-year-old girl from the Tudor period, a time very different from our own times. 14-year-old girls in Tudor England were considered old enough to be married and have children. The life of Catherine Willoughby, the Duchess of Suffolk, provides an example of this. Some historians claim Catherine was as young as fourteen when she married Charles Brandon, a man close to fifty. Kate’s experiences had to evoke that of a Tudor girl, yet also speak to girls today.
History seems to know very little about Katherine Carey’s early years. Like her aunt, Anne Boleyn, even her birth year is the subject of debate. This historical ‘silence’ allowed me imagine, at the start of The Light in the Labyrinth, Kate living with her mother at Rochford, a property owned by the Boleyns, and at least two days of riding from London. My research suggested this property was not well liked by the Boleyns (in the 16th century, it was situated in a very unhealthy area). Yet Mary lived there with her second husband, William Stafford, rather than be too close to her immediate family. I don’t believe it was simply because Mary had disgraced her family by her choice of a second husband – a man without wealth or title. While she seems to have married for love, her marriage could also be also be seen as an act of defiance, the claiming of her own life and identity.
I wondered what kind of mother she could have been for Kate – imagining that Kate saw her as a soft mother, but really Mary was not soft, rather too aware of the hardness of life. Through my knowledge of the lives of Mary and Anne Boleyn, I was able to imagine my Kate Carey, a girl influenced by admiration for her aunt, Anne Boleyn, and rebellious against what she saw represented by her mother.
the-light-in-the-labyrinth-coverThe silences of history offer historical fiction writers those vital gaps to enter by use of their imagination; a time they can use “historical circumstances with the greatest economy” (Kundera 2003, p. 36). In my own practice, I also deepen my understanding of what William Styron means when he writes: “while it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations” (2010: 428).
By this I mean I know have done my research about the Tudors and their period. This research has had time to soak into the depths of my unconsciousness. These gaps in historical record are my invitation to allow my imagination free rein, when I can let my characters speak, and re-construct their lives.
This is why the “curious, alluring space between fact and fiction” (Parini 1998, p. B4) is vitally important for me as a writer: it gestates imagination. It takes me “back then” (Thom, 2010, p. 26). And if I am taken “back then”, as a writer, I believe it also follows I have the possibility of taking back my reader through the construction of my text.

Works cited:
Kundera, M, 2003, The Art of the Novel, Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Parini, J 1998, ‘Delving into the World of Drewww.wendyjdunn.comams by Blending Fact and Fiction’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 27, p. B4.

Styron, W, 2010, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Kindle edition: Open Road.

Thom, J. A. 2010, The art and craft of writing historical fiction, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Wendy’s website: www.wendyjdunn.com/
Like Wendy on Facebook: www.facebook.com/authorwendyjdunn
Goodreads author page: www.goodreads.com/author/show/197156.Wendy_J_Dunn

Follow on Twitter: @wendyjdunn

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