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How research brought Mira’s Way to life

Research rabbit holes inspired the sequel's plot

Those of you who have followed my path as an indie author know that the first book in my historical fiction trilogy was The Girl from Oto. The second book, which will be published in a few months, is called Mira’s Way. And while I had the plot sketched out a long time ago, it wasn’t until I started doing research that the story became was it is today: richly layered with historical lore and characters whose ghosts prowl the shadows of history.

I love blending the true and the invented in my writing. History is an endless retelling of the past. What is told varies tremendously based on who is doing the telling. The gaps in history, the silenced stories—those are the places I drill down to in my research. The voices we haven’t heard from yet are the ones I’m interested in.

Who’s real and who’s not?

There are a few characters in my stories who really existed. For example, the “Great Captain,” Gonzalo Fernández de Cordóba, was a military hero and confidant of Queen Isabella of Spain during the 15th and early 16th centuries. Bartolomé Bermejo was a Spanish Renaissance painter of the 15th century whose work was heavily influenced by the style of Flemish masters. These real figures in history populate my fiction alongside fabricated characters who are based on living people. Chief among these fabricated homages to reality is Cornelia van der Zee, the portrait artist based on real-life portraitist Caterina van Hemessen. In Mira’s Way, I chose to add a character who flagged me down in the course of my research and insisted that she be part of the ensemble cast. Her name is Deedit, and she is a Cagot.

The Cagots, silenced and forgotten

What is a Cagot, you ask? The Cagots were a mysterious people who lived in and around the western Pyrenees, first entering the historical record during the late Middle Ages. The scant documentation about them offers conflicting accounts of their origins, customs, and characteristics. What is generally agreed upon is the fact that they were ruthlessly segregated, demeaned, and abused. Today the Cagots have vanished, mostly by quietly assimilating into French society, their stories buried under layers of time and history. A grisly scene in the book involving a group of Cagots recounts an event which I stumbled upon during my research. Oftentimes real life serves up drama so bizarre that there’s no reason to try and invent something more eye-popping. Here’s an article about a woman who claims to be one of the last Cagots in France.

One of my challenges in The Miramonde Series was finding clever ways for Zari Durrell, my modern-day heroine, to track down Mira de Oto through 500 years of history. For Mira’s Way, I had to find twists and turns that kept the tension building and drama rising while Zari was essentially just gathering data. Let’s face it, reading about the protagonist scrolling through online documents gets old quickly. In The Girl from Oto, Zari’s focus was mainly on the portraits that she believed had been painted by Mira. In Mira’s Way, Zari is focused on piecing together a paper trail for Mira.

How far back do paper trails go?

As you might guess, paper trails were few and far between in 1500. However, they did exist: Birth, death, and marriage records; notary records; letters and journals; meeting minutes. I tracked down examples of all of these things and they play starring roles in Mira’s Way, except for the ones I’m keeping up my sleeve for the third book in the series.

Like Zari, I got chills when I saw the elaborate signatures in a Toulouse notary’s record book dating from 1505, and again when I saw the delicate pen etchings of 15th-century wool sellers’ trademarks in the archives of a Zaragoza sheep-breeders’ collective. These precious materials somehow made it through the centuries despite the ravages of heat, cold, humidity, war, and neglect. The human touch apparent in them makes it seem as if someone is reaching out through time to share their ancient world with us. These brushes with history’s real people, so different from reading about historical figures, made my research thrilling.

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