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The history geek’s guide to A Place In The World

The inspirations behind the third novel in the Miramonde Series

The Miramonde Series tells the story of Mira, a Renaissance-era female artist, and Zari, the modern day scholar on her trail. But each book in the series also explores a deep vein of history.

Choosing a historical backdrop

In Book 1, The Girl from Oto, the Spanish trade in merino wool forms the backdrop for action along the spine of the Pyrenees mountains. In Book 2, Mira’s Waythe tragic and fascinating tale of the persecuted Cagot minority forms a gripping subplot to the story—and creates a devastating emotional journey for Mira. And in Book 3, A Place in the World (to be published this fall), the Basque cod-fishing and whaling culture of the sixteenth century provides a fascinating backdrop for Mira’s harrowing adventures in the coastal city of Bayonne.

Photo of Bayonne by Tom Sekula

People often ask me how I came up with the plots for my novels. Do I plan them in advance or make them up as I go along? It’s a combination of the two. I have a general idea of how I want the story to progress. But when I do research and make discoveries about history, I get my best ideas. For A Place in the World, I knew I wanted most of the action to take place in Basque country, along the Atlantic coast in what’s now Spain and France. So I focused my research there.

Bayonne and Basque Country

I knew Mira would settle in Bayonne, so I had to learn as much as I could about that city during the early sixteenth century. One of my most important resources was the book Histoire de Bayonne by Josette Pontet, which I borrowed via an interlibrary loan from a university. It’s only available in French. Luckily, my French is pretty good. Two other key books were Cod and The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky. I also studied online historical archives in Spanish Basque country.

A character in my series (Xabi the Basque) has relatives who live on the Basque coast and are whalers. I wanted to expand on this thread for A Place in the World. So I dove down that rabbit hole and learned as much as I could about Basque fishermen and the Basque seafaring culture.

I learned the Basques hunted whales up and down the Atlantic coast using small craft called chalupas to approach the animals at close range and impale them with harpoons. As you might imagine, this was extremely hazardous work and fatalities were common. But the rewards were huge. Whale oil was a lucrative commodity. Whale tongue was so prized that Catholic bishops required whalers to donate it to the church as tribute.

Photo by Trevor Cole

I was floored to discover that the Basques had been crossing the Atlantic to fish for cod since well before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World. Their seafaring and navigational abilities were unparalleled.

A real-life heroine of history

I learned about an extraordinary Canadian woman, Selma Barkham. She was so fascinated by Basque seafaring culture that she moved to Spain in the 1960s and devoted years to researching this topic. She found a treasure trove of archives documenting Atlantic crossings by Basque fishing and whaling ships during the sixteenth century. Thanks to her, archaeologists have unearthed evidence along Canada’s Newfoundland coast showing the Basques established camps while harvesting cod and hunting for whales there.

If you, like me, are a sucker for historical detail, you’ll love this gorgeous illustrated guide to sixteenth century Basque boat culture from National Geographic. I relied on it heavily as a visual aid when I found myself struggling to paint Mira’s world with words.

All of these resources helped me build a solid foundation for A Place in the World and anchor my story in an authentic historical backdrop. As I progress in my author journey, I can say with confidence that if I’m ever at a loss for ideas, all I have to do is dive down another research rabbit hole. Everything I need is already out there—I just have to look for it.

 

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