Event report

Conference 2012 - Tracing the Tudors

Report published 31 July 2012

Jenny Barden explained how she researched the history against which her forthcoming novel Mistress of the Sea is set, and supported her talk with an extensive slide show. The starting point for her research was Sir Francis Drake who spent years exacting revenge on the Spanish for the sinking of the English flagship at San Juan de Ulua. ”Vengeance always makes a good theme,” says Jenny.

In addition to using the works of modern historians such as John Sudgen (author of Sir Francis Drake) and Rayner Unwin, who wrote about the battle of San Juan in The Defeat of John Hawkins: A Biography of His Third Slaving Voyage, she turns to primary sources. For Mistress of the Sea she used the accounts of captain John Hawkins and the page Miles Philips, as well as the fire-damaged ship's log by Ballantyne Green, and an official Spanish report.

She considers the conflicting accounts carefully, because history is not an exact science but a matter of interpretation, she says. You have to build your story by filling in the gaps between the various accounts. Aware that many novelists find the amount of available material overwhelming, she reassured the audience the only things that matter are the primary sources.

Primary sources are also very useful when it comes to writing dialogue. Jenny writes her dialogue as she normally would, and then introduces the odd turn of phrase here and there to give it flavour, some of which are plucked directly from original sources. During the talk an interesting fact was highlighted: that the English language spoken on Plymouth Island in the US until recently was spoken like it would have been in Tudor times.

After showing us the slides from her research visits, including the mule tracks and mangrove swamps where Drake would have walked, she treated us to the feels, smells, and sounds of the past, passing around a pistol and bullets, a genuine 16th century key, some rosemary, a ruff, and a boned bodice (which I couldn't resist putting on – darned uncomfortable, I tell you!). This was all accompanied by the sounds of Thomas Tallis's music, which brought the period more vividly to life. Jenny also has a reconstruction of an Elizabethan musket on order which she is hoping to show at future talks.

Questions from the floor gave Jenny a chance to talk more in-depth about her cross-dressing heroine, Ellyn.

With thanks to Deborah Swift for her supplement to my own notes.

Written by Henriette Gyland

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