History meets Fiction: Frances Quinn and the Smallest Man
My guest today tells us about the complications of writing historical fiction. Meet Frances Quinn and The Smallest Man.
Frances Quinn is the author of The Smallest Man. Her novel tells the story of Nat Davy. Nat becomes court dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1, just as England heads into the civil war. The war that will end in the execution of the king.
Who’s behind the Smallest Man?
I came across the real life character that inspired The Smallest Man quite by accident. I was working on a historical murder mystery, and I wanted to feature a character with a disability who, as a result of attitudes at the time, would be a bit on the edge of society.
I’d vaguely heard about ‘court dwarfs’, so I Googled ‘17th century dwarf’, and up popped the Wikipedia entry for Jeffrey Hudson. Jeffrey was a gift to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1, and he became a sort of human pet at the court.
Hudson went on to kill a man in a duel and survive an attack on the Queen during the Civil War. He was later captured by pirates and taken to be a slave in Morocco. He then came home and went to prison as a traitor – quite a life!
Real life v fiction
I instantly wanted to abandon the murder mystery and write a story about Hudson instead. It seemed to be a gift to a novelist.
Little did I know!
As I tried to plan the novel, I discovered that turning a real life into a novel isn’t as easy as it sounds. A novel needs a shape, and a direction. Real life meanders around, goes off at tangents and has no respect for the need to tie all the ends together in the last chapter.
If the interesting part about the person’s story focuses around one event, or even a shortish period, you can zoom in on that. But Jeffrey’s story had almost too much going on, with the key events stretching over 50 years. Long, boring bits occur in between the action and a vast cast of characters appear who were relevant historically but not necessarily very interesting. His life also had a sad ending – it’s thought Jeffrey died alone and in poverty. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel.
I was at the point of giving up on the story, when I re-read Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon . Maupin’s main character also has dwarfism and I wanted to remind myself how he’d treated her disability in the story.
I’d forgotten that the heroine, Cadence Roth, was inspired by the actress Tamara de Treaux, who played ET in the film. Maupin’s novel isn’t Tamara’s story, but it’s the story of an actress with dwarfism who played an iconic character in a children’s movie.
That gave me the idea of creating a fictional character, Nat Davy. Nat becomes a court dwarf and has some of the same adventures as Jeffrey did, and some of his own.
What to put in, what to leave out
Once I’d made that decision, the novel took shape.
However I still had to wrestle with real life events. The middle part of the story happens against the background of the build-up to the English Civil War and the war itself. That meant a lot of well-documented events that potentially needed to be woven in.
Fortunately, my early choice to write in first person meant that Nat only needed to talk about the events that touched him personally. I concentrated on the things that the real life Jeffrey Hudson might mention if you bumped into him in a tavern and he told you his life story.
That got me out of writing about a lot of very tedious political and religious stuff from the build-up to the war. I also made sure Nat was well away from the fighting, because there was no way I wanted to write battle scenes!
A final twist
It took me four years to research and write the book, going through six full drafts. But the real life aspect still had another curveball to throw me, even after the book was sold to a publisher.
From early on, I’d had my doubts about having Nat kidnapped by pirates and taken to Morocco, as Jeffrey was. That would have meant moving the action not just to a completely new setting but a new cast of characters.
Also, because it was first person, some familiar characters would disappear for many chapters, because Nat wouldn’t know what they were doing.
Everyone I spoke said no, it’s exciting, leave it in. So I did. As it turned out, my editor saw the same problem that I had, and asked me to ditch the pirate section.
That meant not only writing a new third section of 30,000 words, but also tons more research into the last years of the Civil War. I hadn’t thought I’d need to do that because Nat would be in Morocco and know nothing about it! It felt like a mountain to climb at the time, but the book is, I think, much better for it.
So building a novel on Jeffrey Hudson’s story turned out to be much more difficult than I thought when I read that Wikipedia entry. But I’m very glad now that I didn’t give up on him.
When should my story begin? Not when I was born, a butcher’s son, in a tiny cottage just like all the other tiny cottages in Oakham. Who’d have thought then that I’d ever have much of a story to tell?
Perhaps it starts when people began to nudge each other and stare as I walked with my mother to market, or the first time someone whispered that we were cursed. But I didn’t know then.
No, I think my story begins on the day of the Oakham Fair, in the year of 1625. When I was ten years old and I found out what I was.
Nat Davy is a dwarf. He is 10 years old, and all he wants is to be normal. After narrowly escaping being sold to the circus by his father, Nat is presented to Queen Henrietta Maria – in a pie. She’s 15, trapped in a loveless marriage to King Charles I, and desperately homesick.
Loosely based on a true story, this epic tale spans 20 years; during which the war begins, Nat and the queen go on the run, Nat saves the queen’s life, falls in love with the most beautiful girl at court, kills a man, is left in exile. Told from his unique perspective as the smallest man in England, with the clever and engaging voice of a boy turned man yearning for acceptance, this story takes us on an unforgettable journey.
He’s England’s smallest man, but his story is anything but small.