Hidden History Revealed by Mary Hoffman

I’m delighted today to welcome Mary Hoffman to the blog. As a writer of historical fiction Mary has some enlightening things to say about research.

Research – does it have to be dry?

One of the dangers of being a historical novelist, specially if you are one like me who doesn’t have a History degree, is overdoing your research. That doesn’t mean doing too much research: that’s almost impossible to do unless you do so much you never start writing the book. No – I mean overdoing the use of it in your novel.

The Info Dump

We’ve all seen it – the screeds of pages in which the author demonstrates that he or she has done the necessary homework. It’s a temptation when you have spent hours in libraries making notes from obscure tomes; you want to get the credit for all your hard work and thoroughness. But you have to avoid the Dump.

The worst form of it can be found when one character tells another something they both already know.

“Catherine, my father is Lord of the East lands and my brother Henry, the Prince, will succeed him in due course….” That sort of thing.

It’s perfectly acceptable if the listener is newly arrived at court from some foreign land and has professed ignorance of the situation. But not if she lives in the same milieu. It is extraordinary how often you find this is published novels and is a real tyro’s mistake.

Actually it isn’t confined to historical novels, now I come to think of it; it is an error in any work of fiction.

“Dry” Research

This is what I call the stuff that is the groundwork you need as background for your novel. I have no idea how other people do it, but I create a Timeline that covers the action of the book and about five years either side. I mean of the external historical facts: dates of monarchs’ reigns (and in my case Popes and Tuscans Dukes!), wars, invasions, birth deaths and marriages of public figures and other major events.

Once I have that Timeline, I can fit my own novel’s Timeline into the public one. That was particularly useful for David, my novel about the young man who posed for Michelangelo’s famous statue. I knew from my research a lot about the period 1501-4 in Florence, I’d seen the contract for the sculpture, knew the date that Michelangelo first took his chisel to the block of marble and had read the minutes of the committee meeting to determine where it should stand.

But no-one knew who posed for the statue or even if anyone did; it could have been entirely idealised. There was the hole in the middle of my “dry” research, just waiting for a lovely wet sloppy cake-mix of a story.


Even for a non-historical novel, I keep a card-index of characters and for my fantasy sequence Stravaganza (now six books) I certainly needed one. This helps enormously with physical appearance and things like ages,

Talking of ages, I also make extensive family trees, using the 20-25 year measure for a generation and for 16th century Italy, making the men usually a fair bit older than their wives. But I realise I should have included more second marriages, given the high rate of mortality in women in childbirth.

Being Open to the Unexpected

As I do my “dry” research and build up a thorough knowledge of the period and background I sometimes stumble across something that adds a luscious new layer to the novel, a character, scene or plot development. I was reading an academic article about a different David that Michelangelo was commissioned to make for France when I saw a footnote that listed the names of the four young men who stoned the Florentine one the first night it was moved.

One of them was called Gherardini. Connections started firing everywhere in my brain. The model for the Mona Lisa was called Lisa Gherardini; it was her maiden name. This young bravo might well have been a member of Lisa’s family. I couldn’t find any definitive proof of that but I took the not too great a liberty of introducing a character Gherardo Gherardini, cousin of Lisa, who played his recorder to entertain her while she sat for her portrait to Leonardo da Vinci.

Since the historical Gherardini had stoned a statue that was a symbol of the Republic, he must have been a pro-Medicean, which put him on the opposite side to my hero, Gabriele, who was by now a spy and double-agent as well as the most beautiful and desired young man in Florence.

But I wouldn’t have known about this real person and enabled my invented elaboration of him if I hadn’t been doing the leg-work of the basic research. The fun bits are always like this: they come out of the virtuous work of making sure your fiction is as credible as possible.

About the Author

Mary Hoffman moved from London to a big old converted barn in West Oxfordshire in early 2001 and lots of full-length novels have been written in her lovely new study there, which its green and white, with French windows opening on to the garden. She can watch the birds on the bird table and rescue them if they are attacked by any of her three Burmese cats. To find out more about her and her novels visit www.maryhoffman.co.uk.

David, The Falconer’s Knot and Troubadour are all historical novels, published by Bloomsbury. The Stravaganza sequence of fantasy-history is also published by Bloomsbury.

For more helpful advice on writing historical fiction visit http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com

2 thoughts on “Hidden History Revealed by Mary Hoffman

  1. ann says:

    Very interesting – amkes me want to rush out and read the book just to find out more.

  2. […] Hidden History Revealed by Mary Hoffman […]

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