(Without letting reality get in the way)
The challenge of crafting a novel from history — especially a biographical historical novel — is that a life does not unfold in chapters. There is rarely a clear villain, and usually there are swarms of main characters, not just three or four. Most importantly, there is no discernible character or story arc. Yet a novel should have most of these things.
I usually begin by constructing a timeline of factual events. If I'm lucky, I will be able to find resources that provide dates: what happened when, exactly. When that's not the case, and I must make a best guess. Often, too, historians differ. More guesswork.
Bit by bit, I cast my research net wider, looking into the lives of the significant people in my main character's life. These details, too, will be added to the timeline. (I format or code them differently from that of the main character, so that I can see the "threads" at a glance.)
Once I have enough information, I study what's there, looking for the story I want to tell. I look for arcs, a theme running through. I look for what might make an inciting incident, an "all is lost" moment, and then seek out a possible ending. Often, I end up with a stack of index cards that I shuffle around for weeks on end, puzzling over the structure of my novel.
And then, once the shape of a story begins to come into view, I'll begin to review the facts. Too many sisters? Out! A tragedy inconveniently timed? Well, maybe a slight shift might work better. It's important to stick to the facts — to know the facts — but it's even more important to tell a compelling story. Nips and tucks to the historical record can all be revealed in the Author's Note at the end. What's important is that the reader has been enchanted by a world of characters brought to life.
An American-Canadian, Sandra Gulland was born in Miami, Florida, and lived in Rio de Janeiro, Berkeley and Chicago before immigrating to Ontario, Canada, in 1970. There, she and her husband built a log-house on one hundred acres of field and maple tree forest where they cohabited with their two toddlers (now adults), two horses, a dog, three cats, twelve chickens and two pigs. All the while she was writing. Now an internationally published author of six historical novels, she and her husband live half the year in Canada and half in Mexico.