I’ve always loved history. To me the past is like a giant jigsaw crazed with missing pieces which I feel compelled to find. However, despite trawling through countless records and digging in archives, it’s often a case of having to admit that the piece has been lost to time. Except I’m addicted to solving mysteries, that’s what draws me to the past.
At this point I should make it absolutely clear I’m not an historian. Although I love history I lack the focus and discipline to be an academic. When there’s a hole in my knowledge I rely on instinct to fill in the details. Which is the reason I write stories. The need to find answers, even when the truth is clothed in myths and lies. Or rather, because it’s cloaked in myths and lies. History blazing with colour, not boring black and white.
It’s only recently, through liaising with crime-writing friends, I discovered historians are very like detectives. Both have to consider every piece of evidence in order to reconstruct what actually took place. Using this analogy during my research proved a revelation. First-hand sources are just like eye-witness accounts, both are written after the event and flawed with discrepancies. Historians base their research on ‘primary’ materials which are habitually contradictory but treating the past as a crime-scene gave me a fresh perspective.
Just as a detective always goes to the scene of the crime so must a writer of historic fiction. Obviously in my case any evidence has long since disappeared but visiting a particular location gives a unique experience of place, even if the site has been damaged by time and tide. For years I believed Mary Queen of Scots watched the Battle of Langside from a nearby hill – but when I visited that hill it proved too far away, and too low, to allow her such a view, even when seated on a horse.
But the most enlightening aspect of treating the past as a crime-scene came when I turned to seeking motives. The past is always out of reach but motives haven’t changed – greed, lust, envy, pride and vanity. Considering who gained what and why proved a revelation.
For example, on the very same day Mary Queen of Scots escaped from forced banishment on the fortress isle of Lochleven, her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, was delivering her precious jewels to the highest bidder – who just happened to be Queen Elizabeth I. The Medici pearls were priceless and now they belonged to a woman who coveted them so much they feature in every subsequent portrait. Not merely did this leave Mary penniless it gave her half-brother and Elizabeth very strong motives for keeping her out of Scotland.
Also, on 8th December 1567, while Mary was cooped up in Lochleven Castle, she celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. Another critical motive. A long royal minority was traditionally used by the Scots aristocracy as a time for self-aggrandizement. When Mary reached twenty-five years of age she had the right, under Scottish law, to demand the return of any wardships and property which had been commandeered during her minority. Mary couldn’t be permitted to win back her throne or half the Scots nobility would be made penniless. Much better to retain a ‘bairn’ as the kingdom’s legitimate monarch and take advantage of another twenty-five years of minority rule. So it seems the poor girl was doomed from the day she returned to her homeland.