04/25/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Writer Wednesday: Talking to Dead People

Charles Dickens used to say that after a morning of writing one of his novels, the characters in the book would clutch at his coattails, demanding to be heard, when he later went out for his afternoon walk. I know exactly what he means. Mine wake me up in the middle of the night. Only, as a biographer specializing in the Middle Ages, I am not dealing with figments of my imagination but rather with members of royalty who expired some six or seven centuries ago. In other words, I get called to account by a lot of dead queens.

Sometimes this works in my favor. For example, after I had finished one book, I was planning a party to celebrate. Just something simple, a few friends over, I would do the cooking myself. To save money, I decided I would bake a cake even though I am lousy at baking and find it incredibly time consuming for decidedly mixed results.

But then, a week or so before the party, as I lay sleeping peacefully in my bed, I was suddenly awakened by Joanna I, fourteenth century queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily and Countess of Provence, the subject of my biography. Joanna let me know in no uncertain terms that a homemade cake was unacceptable for a celebration in honor of someone of her exalted rank. She demanded a fancy decorated cake, as well as a medieval feast. I woke my husband Larry and explained the problem. Larry, who writes American history, and is not as impressed as I am by European royalty, was by that time used to dealing with the spirits of imperious sovereigns. "Joanna can have a store-bought cake but other than that she gets finger food," he grunted before turning over to go back to sleep.

But more often than not, these nocturnal sessions are less overtly useful. "You failed to accurately record the members of Our court," complained one dowager when, to avoid confusion, I left out the names of some of her numerous extended family. "We are not amused by your description of Our fourth husband," railed another after I had emphasized the disparity between the queen's lineage and that of her new spouse. "You got it wrong," announced a third flatly, referring to my political analysis of a secret conference between the lady in question and a papal legate.

Luckily, I have been doing this long enough now to understand that my queens aren't really talking to me, that this is just me arguing with myself. It is the inevitable by-product of trying to investigate and write about someone who lived so long ago. With more current subjects there are usually letters, diaries, or recollections by family members or intimate friends. Sometimes the focus of the biography is still alive, and can be queried directly to avoid confusion. Even better, the biographer can assume a minimum familiarity on the part of the reader with his or her subject's political, cultural and social surroundings. There's usually very little need, for example, to explain who the president of the United States is and what he does for a living.

Writers like myself, however, who deal with the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, do not have this luxury. There are generally large gaps in the documentation. Those letters that do survive tend to be political, rather than personal, in nature. Worse, all the really good stuff--the double crosses, the back door deals, the clandestine meetings--were handled by messengers who knew better than to write anything down. There is the additional problem that a general reader cannot be expected to know the difference between a duke, a count, an earl, and a prince of the blood. Finally, there is the unfortunate tendency on the part of royalty to name everybody Louis.

But conundrums like these are also what make this type of research and writing so rewarding. Trying to understand the actions of someone who lived in the distant past is like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle, or unraveling a mystery. Evidence doesn't come easily but instead has to be teased out of seemingly unrelated sources. This can be immensely satisfying. And, since the lives of medieval monarchs generally revolved around war, intrigue, sex, treason and fabulous parties, any necessary explanatory digressions are more than compensated for by the thrilling nature of the material.

I love what I do and recommend it highly to any writer interested in European history. There are many, many queens, not to mention duchesses and countesses, whose biographies deserve attention but who to date remain unknown. Only remember--if you find yourself being dressed down by an irate sovereign in the middle of the night, don't say I didn't warn you.