Three-Legged History: Paul Almond on Researching Historical Fiction

By Paul Almond

With an introduction by Barbara Burgess and David Stansfield

Paul Almond

On April 8, Paul Almond’s last book, The Inheritor, an autobiographical novel, was published by Red Deer Press. Almond, a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation, intended to meet many of his fans and fellow writers this spring and summer, but he passed away on April 9.

Almond spent the last twenty-five years of his life researching and writing The Alford Saga, the eight-volume series of adventure novels which culminated in The Inheritor. The series depicts the lives and loves of his Gaspesian ancestors. Even in his eighties, Almond crisscrossed North America, talking about his books on radio and TV. He did over 100 book launches in the last five years of his life, often donating half the proceeds to charity. But what about all the months and years of research that precedes the writing?

Almond consulted Canadian historians, linguists and scholars; combed through Library and Archives Canada; pored over Canadian soldiers’ diaries and his ancestors’ letters; read archived newspaper columns and essays; and even referred to daily weather reports recorded by historians. For the autobiographical The Inheritor (book eight), Almond also returned to his own letters to his mother.

On October 30, 2013, Almond drafted the following piece for QWF Writes, sharing his vision and experience of historical research in writing The Alford Saga. Barbara Burgess, Almond’s publicist, recently found the piece among her letters from Almond. She and David Stansfield, one of Almond’s main literary consultants, prepared this piece for publication. Paul Almond:

“I have been asked how I do my research. This Saga, written over the last dozen years, has indeed taken a lot of research, mostly arduous and thorough. I liken it to looking through binoculars based upon a tripod of three legs: Oral Tradition, Documents, and Intuition.

Oral tradition

In rural communities all across Canada, the oral tradition is strong: grandparents love to tell stories of their own grandparents. In cities, such a thing may not be possible, but in tiny Shigawake, Quebec, we have many such stories.

About fifty years ago, an aged cousin told me shortly before he died that the first Almond climbed through a porthole of a British battleship in Port Daniel Harbour. That intrigued me. I did more research. (The story of the porthole is in the beginning of The Deserter – book one.)

The Inheritor - Paul AlmondDocuments

Now, as anyone might imagine, almost no English documents from 1800 exist on that largely unexplored coast off modern-day eastern Quebec. Archival material tells only of prime ministers, treaties and so on. Nothing explains exactly how a farmer drank water when clearing land. (Answer: a Piggin). But in New Carlisle, the county seat, an old box in a basement under a hat rack produced a paper from 1816, which revealed that a terrible famine had affected the Coast, caused by a volcanic explosion on Mount Tambora. A schooner had come from Quebec City to relieve the starving inhabitants; in order to get your barrel of flour to survive, you had to say who you were, how many were in your family, and so on. The paper noted that one Thomas Manning, aka James Almond,* had fought on the battleship Bellerophon, and had settled in East Nouvelle, as Shigawake was then known.

Intuition

In due course I discovered that behind Port Daniel, true wilderness then, a Mi’kmaq settlement thrived. If you deserted the British Navy in the early 1800s, your punishment was death. So the Marines would have chased deserter Thomas Manning. And where would he have gone? Back into the interior. What was there? The Mi’kmaqs. Bingo. There’s the story.

This third leg of the tripod involves not just your own intuition and common sense, but advice from others. No Mi’kmaqs on this side of the Bay really knew anything about the 1800s. However, in New Brunswick, I found an Elder whose grandfather, and the grandfather before him, had been shamans. And there was an ethnologist at the Gaspe Museum, an Iroquois who had studied the Mi’kmaq all his life. And so gradually, my first book, The Deserter, grew out of their oral traditions, documents I found, and from what I intuited.

And so I went, looking through my binoculars on their tripod. I looked into the 1850s, when my grandfather trekked on snowshoes six hundred miles to Montreal (described in The Pioneer). Then to 1900 when my uncle went to the Boer War (in The Chaplain), and from there on to 1914, when my father fought in WWI (described in The Gunner), and on…”

* James Almond was Paul Almond’s great-grandfather. He settled in Shigawake in 1810 or thereabouts, founding the oldest homestead there.


Paul AlmondIn addition to the eight volumes of the Alford Saga and several other books, Paul Almond produced, directed and in many cases wrote over 120 television dramas for the CBC, BBC, Granada (where he created the documentary Seven Up!) and various networks in the U.S., plus a number of feature films. www.paulalmond.com

Photo (top) of Paul Almond © 2012 Northernstars.ca

Photo (headshot) of Paul Almond © Joan Almond


David StansfieldDavid Stansfield, a close friend of Paul, wrote 400 television scripts for TV Ontario in Canada, the Public Broadcasting Service in the U.S., the Discovery Channel, NHK, Encyclopedia Britannica and Time-Life, plus half-a-dozen feature film screenplays and nine books, seven of them novels. www.davidstansfield.com

Barbara BurgessAuthor Barbara Burgess worked with Paul Almond for the past two and a half years, helping him arrange book launches, copy-editing and handling some of his literature-related correspondence. www.burgesswrite.com

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