Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Susan Higginbotham on Why I Love Research

Today we are pleased to welcome back author Susan Higginbotham whose latest book, The Queen of Last Hopes has recently been released.

When I was in high school and undergraduate school, fighting off saber-toothed tigers on the way to my classes, there were few words that struck more dread in my heart than these: “research paper.” Most often, this meant going to the library to find out what I could about a topic that held no interest for me, checking out the library’s meager holdings on the topic, consulting my trusty World Book encyclopedia, and then cobbling together a paper which consisted chiefly of paraphrased sources and a lame concluding section where I struggled to present my own thoughts on the subject (other than my real thoughts, which generally ran in the direction of “Thank God I’ve almost done with that BS. Now I can listen to my new Jackson Browne LP.”). To add insult to injury, the thing then had to be typed on a typewriter (yes, a typewriter), a production which involved copious amounts of Liquid Paper, onion-skinned paper, and Coca-Cola.

But the world has evolved, and so I have I. Now I love researching my novels—and the deeper I delve, the happier I am.

Why is research so fun? Let me count the ways. First, when a novelist uses primary sources in doing research—such as wills and letters—she can “meet” a character in a way that’s not possible just through reading a biography. In researching my newest novel, The Queen of Last Hopes, I came across William de la Pole’s heartbreaking last letter to his little son, Margaret of Anjou’s starkly simple will, and RenĂ© of Anjou’s lovely romance, The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart. All of these documents played their part in my conception of my characters.

Research also allows a novelist to separate historical myth from historical fact. In researching The Stolen Crown, my last novel, I found that a number of stories about the Woodville family—for instance, that Katherine Woodville was twice the age of her husband Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham—were myths, unsupported by contemporary sources and often created by modern-day admirers of Richard III. Likewise, in researching The Queen of Last Hopes, I realized that stories about Margaret’s vengeance-crazed nature and sexual promiscuity were largely the product of Yorkist propaganda, brought to dramatic life by Shakespeare and mindlessly recycled by modern novelists. True, it’s disheartening to realize how many myths, half-truths, and assumptions unsupported by fact have collected around historical figures—but it’s also exhilarating to sort out the truth for oneself and to present maligned historical figures in a fresh light.

Doing research can also lead to fascinating surprises. For instance, in a notorious letter, Louis XI demanded that Margaret of Anjou’s dogs—the only possessions she owned that he considered to be of any interest to him—be brought to him. Historians writing in English have reported that this letter was written after Margaret’s death, but when I looked up the letter in the French source in which it appears, I learned that it was dated before Margaret’s death. Similarly, in Googling through French sources, I found a description of Margaret’s funeral and a listing of her goods—relics and cloth—that went to the Church after her death. Only one English historian whom I know of mentions the funeral, and only in passing, while none whom I have found mentions the list of goods. The relics in particular confirmed my belief that Margaret was a religious woman, who may have found comfort in her faith in her last years.

And finally, historical research allows me to buy books about my favorite historical subjects and write them off on my income taxes as business expenses. For a reader, that’s heaven.

So what’s not to love about doing historical research?

Susan's latest book The Queen of Last Hopes was released by Sourcebooks in January 2011. To find out more about this book, about Susan, or her previous books, explore Susan's website, read her blog, find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Stay tuned for our next post which is a review of Hugh and Bess, one of Susan's earlier books!


  1. What a wonderful post (and yes, I remember well the days of onionskin, carbon paper, Liquid Paper--when you were allowed to use it--and the wonderful sound of a typewriter followed by my screech when I realized the page was almost complete but there was a typo and I had to start over LOL)

    I too adore research and believe I was a librarian in at least one of my past lives ;-)

    and you are right--we writers can claim our research material off our taxes--how super-cool is that?

    now to go check out your website (and add to my TBR mountain, I am sure)

  2. A lovely detailed post - love how the real sources always provide some surprises. But we get a hint from your enthusiasm that the snippets you mention are just the tip of the iceberg.I'm looking forward to reading Queen of Last Hopes. Lovely cover.

  3. As an academic librarian who frequently despairs over the lack of research skills in our youth, I found this post a good reminder that t'was ever thus even before the internet made it so easy to cobble together a research paper on something you couldn't care less about. And it's a good reminder that some of those hopeless kids eventually do become research junkies. My transition from cribber-of-encyclopedia-articles to lover of research occurred in a first-year history course on Alexander the Great. The prof was great at explaining the differences between primary and secondary sources, and how ancient historians such as Plutarch wrote with an agenda, and therefore you had to read several accounts and decide on the balance of evidence which made sense. Muddling the waters was the fact that a wide range of people have tried to make Alexander's life and actions fit into their own ideologies, so he's variously portrayed as a bloodthirsty and crude warrior, and and enlightened despot who wants to create a sort of Pax Alexandria. I was hooked on the idea of looking through multiple sources and drawing my own conclusions about Alexander, instead of just stopping after two articles.

  4. hank one to make the tips! I wouldn't now have become this approach without help out! Can it be o . k in order to reference aspects of it in this little website basically if i include a back-link to this fact web page?

  5. I just discovered this post and so enjoyed reading it. I love researching my books as much as I love writing them, and your words are a reminder of the many various pleasures research offers. Thank you for sharing this.