The parts of history I love best are usually the bits that most historians don’t mention. Nothing fuels my own imagination more than finding some stray reference in a document that stops me in my tracks and makes me say: “I didn’t know that.”
Many of my novels started growing from those moment of discovery. The Winter Sea, for instance, was a story that began to form the first time that I learned about a Jacobite invasion plot that came so close to working that I couldn’t understand why I had never heard of it before, or why it almost never made the history books.
And characters I came to know through researching The Winter Sea—the real-life men and women of that time—led me in turn to new discoveries, other incidents and people who don’t often get to have their stories told, and so I told them in The Firebird.
It can be very satisfying to take someone who has long been overlooked and try to set the record straight. I confess I can grow very fond of long-dead people through their letters and their journals and the glimpses of themselves they’ve left behind. I love when I can give them back their voices, and restore them to their proper place in history.
And I admit I feel a certain fondness for the Jacobites, who followed King James VII and his son, whom they and several foreign rulers recognized as Britain’s true king, James VIII, denied his rightful crown by what they viewed as a dishonest and illegal act of Parliament. These men and women risked so much and lost so much to stand for what they felt was right and just; and while the history books have often tried to paint them as a sad pathetic group of dreamers, Highlanders who came down from the hills to fight a battle they were doomed to lose, the letters and the documents I read from all sides told a very different story, showing me a movement that was not confined to Scotland but was spread across the whole of Europe, driven by a motivated group of men and women who were often just a step away from gaining what they wanted, and whose efforts kept the British government on edge and deeply occupied in keeping track of where they were and what they might be up to.
In fact, one of the things that becomes most apparent when reading the correspondence flying back and forth between the British spies and spymasters is just how serious a threat a Jacobite invasion was, in their eyes. Later historians might do their best to convince us the Jacobites were weak and hopeless, but those who were working against them in 1725, when the events of The Firebird take place, weren’t inclined to dismiss them so easily.
Neither was I, when I started my research. I tried to rely on their actions and actual words, not the words of historians, to bring the Jacobites living in Flanders and Russia to life once again on the page, and to hopefully give you, as readers, a view of their world that might make you stop now and then and say, “I didn’t know that.”