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  • Writer's pictureElaine R Kelly

Interview: Research in Historical Fiction

Updated: May 30

I am thrilled to share my fall 2022 interview with Andrew Knowles, of Regency History. While the podcast focuses on the regency era of the late eighteenth century, and my book is set in the first century, there are many commonalities about how women are treated and what freedoms or restrictions they experienced in the two time periods. While I came to the project thinking women in the first century had no freedoms, I discovered there were situations where women did have authority over their own lives.

My novel is a book with a message, but more importantly, it is a story. I tried really hard to make this an engaging story about women who have problems and trauma that they work very hard to overcome. They experienced abuse and racism and need to make an effort to recover and heal. I believe a story is an effective way to show that Jesus didn't limit women, but lifted them up, empowered them as equals, and equipped them to go out and speak and lead.

In writing historical fiction, research is absolutely important. It is possible to write about things you haven't personally experienced, but it means reading and learning from others. Writing about a time and culture different from your own requires a lot of research. First, I had to research the culture and foods of the middle east, and second the culture and foods of the first century. I am a naturally curious person so as soon as I read a piece of information, I would think of another question to research. Historical fiction is a genre of imaginary stories set in a historic time and place and based on historic events or people.

I started from the perspective of a financial advisor, finding out more about the women who were financial supporters of Jesus, possibly underwriting his whole Galilean ministry. I learned that Jesus accepting women as patrons meant that Jesus accepted these women in the role of disciples and authorized them for full participation in the church and society. I've received quite a bit of support from people who agree with the themes of the book and are basically saying it's about time that the church realized that equality for women and men means equal opportunities at home and in society.

I found it very interesting to hear the different ways a story can be perceived and understood. I looked at the Bible narrative as well as Jewish or Arabic sources to see different ways of looking at things. We as Christians have looked at them often from the dominant culture and male perspective. Retelling the biblical account from a woman's perspective breathes new life into old stories.

As to looking for sources written by a woman, nobody knows who wrote the Book of Hebrews in the new testament. It is possible that Priscilla wrote that letter to the Hebrews. She worked in partnership with her husband Aquilla and is mentioned as a leader in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. I also looked at the Gospel of Mary, which was probably not written by Mary Magdalene but was apparently written by followers who were in the church when Mary Magdalene was a leader.

My biggest research challenge likely came from having Jesus as a character in the story. People don't want you to make a mistake with what Jesus says or does. Since my novel is a religious historical fiction, there was added research into the interpretations of the Gospel stories so that my story was plausible and believable. I was walking a line presenting a new perspective of Jesus lifting up women and at the same time showing the Jesus that Christians are familiar with.

When I was having trouble with what Jesus would say or what was meant by a certain passage, I would look at a dozen different Bible translations as well as commentaries and devotionals to get the full meaning. Each Bible translation has its own focus: sometimes word for word, sometimes general meanings, sometimes poetry, sometimes modern language. Translation teams each work under certain parameters or guidelines. For example, the King James Version focussed on passages to endorse honouring the King and upholding moral behaviour. It often uses the word wife when it would be more accurate to say, woman. Other teams translate humanity as men or add the word men when it's not in the original.

One of the things some people are still surprised to learn is that the Bible does not say Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. When I looked at Mary Magdalene from the Bible's perspective, she is an honourable devoted disciple, she followed and travelled with Jesus, she was healed of seven demons and she had the financial resources to support Jesus out of her personal means. There's nothing there to say that she had a sinful life of any kind. She might have been a virgin her whole life. In some eras, Mary Magdalene is called an apostle to the apostles because she told the men that Jesus had risen. Mary Magdalene is one of the most well-known women in the gospels and it seems men through history were more comfortable seeing her as a penitent sinner, a prostitute or a wife of Jesus. They seemed to want to discredit her memory as a devoted woman disciple and a leader in the early church. My novel portrays her as being from the town of Magdala, which is the traditional view. The Bible actually says she was called 'the magdala', which could have been an honorific title meaning 'the tower", 'the great' or 'the fortress of faith' or simply 'the tall one'.

Lastly, I also had to research and learn the craft of writing. I took some online courses on writing and how to add tension, plot and character development, what kind of dialogue tags to use, and how to keep the dialogue moving. I chose from the beginning to use today's language rather than ancient language because I wanted this whole story to be easy to read and relevant to today. If you imagine a precious gemstone, it's not shiny until it's buffed and ground and broken up and polished some more. It does take quite a bit of time - it took as much time to edit as it did to write.

It's true people sometimes don't keep clear what's fact or fiction. My novel is built around the facts in the Bible but it is still fiction and readers would need to go back to scripture to compare facts to fiction. To make it easy, I have a section at the end of my novel saying what is biblically true, what is traditionally known, and what is totally fiction about my two main characters. I don't want people to misconstrue my words to be 100% fact - this is not a theology textbook. All of the fiction that I wrote is consistent with the facts and it is plausible that it could have happened this way.

The title of my book is meant to show that the many women who followed Jesus were disciples and apostles and have been forgotten by history. They haven't been included in the theological or post-secondary theology programs. They were broken by trauma, abuse, and racism and Jesus helped them become bold. I believe that all of us can have the confidence and the healing we need to become bold.

Watch the entire interview on YouTube.

My Info Sheet for Podcasters and Youtubers is here:

Info Sheet for Podcasters and Youtubers
Download PDF • 445KB

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