How I Researched Elizabethan England
An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason is set during late 1601 and early 1602, at the end of England’s Elizabethan era. To realistically portray the daughter of a recusant Catholic-turned-assassin and a writer-turned-spy living in a politically tumultuous and well-documented time 400+ years ago meant research—and a lot of it. While Assassin’s is my first true historical novel, I’ve been around the research block before: My first book, The Witch Hunter, was based on the mid-1500’s Reformation period in England. But as it took place in a fantasy world, I wasn’t beholden by the rules of the period: I used them as inspiration rather than regulation. And though Assassin’s bent a convention or two in the name of artistic license, I stayed as true to the history as I could.
When researching any time period, I like to start out by getting a general 30,000-foot view—the politics and social mores of the time, the issues that were important to people, the way they lived, food they ate, clothes they wore, and how they spoke. There’s no shortcut here; I read everything I can, fiction and nonfiction. This helps me narrow down topics that may or may not be relevant to the story I want to tell, things I may or may not be interested in, issues I need to learn more about. From there I dive deeper and for Assassin’s this meant learning more about the resurgence of anti-Catholicism in England, the spate of rebellions against the queen, the succession crisis, and the growing popularity of theater and its role as political satire.
It helps to get a visual, too and seeing what you’ve read about so you’re not relying on filtering everything through your own (and possibly erroneous) lens. To get a sense of the queen and the court, clothes and politics: Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. For the Bard and the theater, the humor and the Easter eggs, Shakespeare in Love. But the most useful visual for me was the Globe Theater’s 2012 version of Twelfth Night. It’s notable because it adhered to the Elizabethan custom of all-male casting—even for women’s roles—and was invaluable in teaching me about scene blocking, line delivery and timing, intonation, music, and costumes. Mark Rylance, who plays Olivia, is perfection (he won a Tony award for this role and the moment you see him swan onstage in his giant black dress and pitch-black wig, you’ll know why). Every scene you read about in Assassin’s was directly influenced by this production.
Travel was another arrow in my quiver of research. I spent two weeks in London knocking around Southwark where the Globe Theater is, attending plays and poking around backstage, looking at costumes and printing presses and props. I also spent time at libraries like the Guildhall and the British Library, specifically, combing through books about Elizabethan-era theater productions, how they were cast, how the stage and backstage (then called the tiring room) was laid out, what props were used, how plays were written (not divided into the act/scene structure we know today), and the presence and role of theater management and patrons. I also visited Temple Hall, where the first known production of Twelfth Night was held—and my fictional assassination of the queen was to take place.
But probably the single most important element to my research was the Agas Map. It’s an online, interactive map put together from the earliest true map of London, dated 1633. It allows users to zoom in and see specific buildings and streets and to search by location including wards, piers or wharfs, churches or halls or theaters. To see the city laid out as it was then was invaluable (Google maps is not helpful when Shakespeare’s infamous Mermaid Tavern is now a Vodafone store! A travesty). I spent countless hours virtually walking through the streets, planning where my characters slept, ate, worshipped, acted, and plotted. I’m not really a map person, per se (I prefer family trees), but I’m convinced I couldn’t have written Assassin’s without the Agas.
Research can be a bit tricky, it’s true—you’ve got to know when you’ve got enough, but you also need to know when to stop yourself. Rabbit holes are inevitable and even a bit deceptive: If you’re not careful, they can convince you that the story path you’re on isn’t as interesting as the one you could be on, if only you looked here, and here, and here…