Sunday, July 18, 2010

Author Greta van der Rol discusses researching the historical novel

I'm always curious how other writers of historical fiction research not just events, but the people they're writing about. Greta van der Rol, author of Die a Dry Death, was gracious enough to write two guest posts for me. The first one here will examine how she uncovered the detailed events that provided the framework for her fascinating book. The next post will discuss how she got into the minds of the historical figures who took part, to weave those events into a plot driven by said characters.

Here is the first installment:

"Gemi has asked to write about the historical research that went into ‘Die a Dry Death’ my novel about the wreck of the Dutch merchant vessel Batavia in 1629, and then to talk about characterisation in said novel. Now I’ve written this, I find it isn’t a generic ‘this is what you do’. It’s very much a personal story of what I did for this book. So take it as a case study. Maybe there’s something in here for the student.

Research and characterization feed off each other, of course. Especially in this case, where all the people in my book were real. They lived and died and their story has resonated down through the centuries. For me, that gives the author an added responsibility, to try to get it as right as can be.

Having grown up in Western Australia, I heard about the Batavia and the other Dutch wrecks of the 17th and 18th centuries at primary school. That was a long time ago and I think I’ve read most of the non-fiction about all those wrecks. I’ve been to the maritime museum in Fremantle and seen the artefacts recovered from the site, including the Batavia’s actually keel, rebuilt in the basement. I’ve been on the Batavia replica built in Holland (there are some pictures on my website) and I’ve stood on the forbidding cliffs the longboat sailed along. So I’ve been immersed in the story for a long time.

But back to research. Any book about the Batavia is based on one main account of the events – Pelsaert’s journal. Francisco Pelsaert was an employee of the Dutch East India Company, the Upper Merchant in charge of the fleet of which the Batavia was the flagship. So while Adriaen Jacobsz, the ship’s captain, was in command of the ship he was beholden to Pelsaert. (Who was not a sailor.) After the Batavia was wrecked, Pelsaert started a journal to record events. On his return to the Abrolhos islands to rescue the remaining survivors, he documented the trial of Cornelisz and his band of thugs.

Apart from the journal, the only other known contemporary document is a letter written by Predikant Bastiaensz to his family. It is about the only source for what happened in the last few days when the thugs made their final attacks on the soldiers.

Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s Voyage to Disaster (UWA Press, 2006) contains a translation of Pelsaert’s journal, Bastiaensz’s letter and other documents she was able to procure from Holland and Jakarta, such as Coen’s orders to Pelsaert. As an aside, Drake-Brockman, an amateur historian, actually deduced the whereabouts of the wreck from reading the descriptions of locations in the journal and the Predikant’s letter. Archaeologists had been looking on the wrong reef. The ship was finally found in 1963, when her book was first published.

Mike Dash’s wonderful book Batavia’s Graveyard (Phoenix, 2002) is a much more recent work written by a trained historian. The book provided details about life on the ship and life in the colonies. I found out what people ate, discovered the soldiers would have had to buy their own equipment and got a real feel for the rigid layering of society. Dash used records from the other Dutch wrecks to deduce what life might have been like for the survivors; what they may have eaten – and who would have eaten what. He also researched the backgrounds of the main players in the drama – Pelsaert, Cornelisz and Lucretia van der Mijlen in particular. For me, this was fantastic. I could start to see what I was dealing with and put the people into historical context. I augmented impressions with the paintings of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ where one can see clothing, food, interiors – both in Holland and in the city of Batavia. The Dutch national gallery proved to be a wonderful resource. I could see drawings of the fort, sketches of Batavia street life, paintings of the wealthy burghers.

My third main source was The First and Last Voyage of the Batavia by Philippe Godard (Abrolhos Publishing, 1993). Godard’s lavish coffee table book provided photographs and sketches of the Abrolhos islands and its wildlife, coloured pictures of paintings, the layout of the fort at Batavia, the marine archaeology and cross-sections of the ship itself. The author commissioned paintings of the main players, too. But I ignored them. No one knows what any of these people looked like, not even Pelsaert."

Thanks, Greta! To be continued . . .

Until later,

1 comment:

Toby said...

Wonderful blog ladies, so interesting!