Paul Clayton: Research and Roanoke Island

It is my pleasure and honor today to welcome Paul Clayton, author of multiple novels, to talk about researching historical fiction, and particularly about the fascinating story of Roanoke Island and the disappearing colonists.  Also, today is the last day to follow or leave a comment on this blog, or like my facebook author page, each of which is an entry for the gift card drawing.

And now, from Paul:

I’ve always been interested in history and was destined to write historical fiction. I know this because when I was faced with having to write an essay about automobile safety back in the third grade, I wrote about the cavemen (you can’t get more historical than that)--something about a guy named Blorg, who drops his donut, and as he’s chasing it down the street, gets this idea for a wheel, which leads to a cart, which-- .

Yeah, the more I think about it, I’m fascinated by, and addicted to, what was.

Take ruins, for instance. When we were nine, ten, and eleven-year old boys, back in Southeastern Pennsylvania, we’d go on long bike rides. This was back in the day when parents let their pre-teen boys ‘go out and play’ and they wouldn’t show up until nine or twelve hours later at dinner time. We must have covered fifteen or more miles on those rides. And we’d ‘discover’ things. Back then in the late fifties, the government had taken over a large swath of land using eminent domain, for the construction of a new interstate, Highway 95. We didn’t know that, of course. All we knew was that if we took a certain route, we came upon this strange, dead zone where all the houses and buildings had been mysteriously abandoned, many with the furnishings still inside. There was even an old airfield and ‘Flying Club.’ We broke in and pounded on the old broken upright piano, and sat at the bar, playing cowboy western with the mugs and glasses we found there.

Moving along, I grew up, got through high school, got drafted, and was sent to Vietnam in 1968. That experience propelled me further toward a writing career. There were so many strange things, frightening and wonderful, that I encountered, that I felt like I had to write it all down. I remember one long patrol deep into a jungle valley where we came upon some ancient ruins. (There was an ancient civilization that straddled what is now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It was recently mapped from space using infrared satellites.) We saw gates and steps, columns with faded carvings of symbols and scenes, all riddled and broken up by bamboo and vines. We couldn’t hang around to explore, but my Lieutenant, who must have been a history buff too, tied a sixty or so pound vase he found to his rucksack and hiked it back up to our mountaintop firebase. By the way, that Vietnam tour became the subject of the first book I wrote (but not the first I managed to get published). Interestingly, my Vietnam book (Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam), when it was finally published in hardcover by St. Martin’s Press, probably qualified as ‘historical fiction,’ although I based it on my own tour of duty.

The writing of my Nam novel led to my second book, Calling Crow, a historical about the clash between the coastal Muskogee Indians of the Southeast and Spanish conquistadors and slavers. The kernel of it came to me during a walk along the beach on Amelia Island in northern Georgia while on a business trip. I had already visited a few local museums and libraries during my off time. And prior to that I had read a book that theorized that during the first encounters between the two groups, the natives might possibly have been stricken into a state of paralysis by the extreme ‘power imbalance.’

As I walked the beach I imagined my character, Calling Crow, a member of that simpler, mostly stone age culture, spotting a huge sailing ship. He watches as a boat is put out and makes its way to the beach. The shiny-skinned (armor-wearing) gods (?) disembark. There’s a friendly wave to approach. Going closer, my character notes the long, beautiful sticks some of the gods carry. They are part wooden and partly shiny, reflecting sunlight like a fish’s silvery sides, and they are decorated with carved scenes (go online and look at the pictures of the harquebuses from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; some are works of art). One of the gods lowers the stick. There’s a little click of sound as the ‘match’ strikes the firing pan, flashing the powder, exploding the charge, and the ‘thunder’ stick erupts, spitting out lightning and black smoke.

When I write a book, I strive to get all the details as period-correct as possible. I study period paintings, listen to period music played on period instruments. I read actual accounts by those involved. I prefer to use print books rather than getting my information online because what’s been published has usually been fact checked by the publishers. Since a lot of what I write about takes place on the east coast, I’ve had to buy a lot of books that were not available in area (The SF Bay Area) libraries and bookstores. Sometimes I go to historical parks and re-enactments (I went to the Renaissance Faire to get the details for a joust that was featured in Calling Crow.) I go to museums and, if allowed, love to hold period artifacts in my own hands. I went to the UK in 1999 with my family to visit my wife’s relatives. When I had a free day, I took the train to the museum and asked to see John White’s work. I felt myself transported as I looked down at these wonderful paintings and sketches. John White was a naturalist painter in the sense that he worked with naturalist, Thomas Harriot. White had been hired By Walter Raleigh as a ‘recording artist’ for two previous expeditions to Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island before he was named Governor for the third. While in England I’ve also spent many hours visiting The Tower and its museum, and I’ve also visited the Mary Rose on two occasions.

And, of course, if I can, I’ll go to the site of the story. In the case of Roanoke, I regret to say that I have not yet set foot on the island. However, I have camped on the hot, humid, tick-infested barrier islands of the Assateague Island National Seashore, just a hundred and fifty miles north, and I’ve marched the sandy savannahs and the fly and mosquito infested swamps of Fort Bragg, about a hundred and fifty miles to the southeast, as a young man in Basic Training. So, I think I’ve had enough experiences with neighboring terrains to ‘imagine’ myself and my characters on that island for the book I would title, White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

It was Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s The Lost Colony that cemented my interest in doing a book on the subject. I loved the fact that we just don’t know what happened to those people. We can theorize, based on supposition and anecdotal evidence. But there is no record. There is a somewhat official North Carolina drama on the subject, The Lost Colony, by Paul Green, which I’ve never seen, and there are several novels on the colony which I have never read. I do not want my ‘take’ on what happened to be colored by someone else’s. Anyway, the more I looked into the Roanoke story, the more intrigued I was. I especially liked the possibility of basing half of the plot on the historical record (White’s attempts in England to secure ships and rescue the colonists and his loved ones, specifically his daughter, Eleanor and his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child (that we know about) born in the New World). I spent about four to six months doing the initial research for the book. Then I put all my notes and my books with yellow post-its ™ aside and start writing. (You can always use place-savers in your draft and come back to it later to fill in the exact details.) It took me about a year to write that first draft.

I want to come back to Virginia Dare, the first English child (that we know about) born in the new World. I parenthetically state, ‘that we know about,’ to make a point. More than likely, she was the first. However, it is possible that she wasn’t. English traders sailed the eastern coast of the New World looking to trade with the Indians and Spanish settlements. English merchant ships sometimes carried female passengers, sometimes the Captain’s wife and children. And English ships left port never to return. We know the fate of some of them (the Sea Venture, chronicled in Hobson Woodward’s A Brave Vessel), but not all. So it is possible that Virginia Dare was not the first. I make a point of this because I’ve run into some folks who evidently believe one can only write historicals about ‘actual’ events, using only ‘real’ people. Anything else is, I guess, cheating, and not quite cricket.

Imagine one of these grouchy individuals pouring over the lists of passengers on the Titanic in some library or museum. He runs his finger down a column of names, comes to the end, slams the ledger closed, jumps to his feet and says loudly, “I knew it! There was no Jack and Rose!” Heads pop up to see who is responsible for this outburst, but he is already racing down the steps and out the door, mentally composing a fiery letter to director James Cameron about the fraud he’s perpetrated on the millions of people who’ve already watched and enjoyed his movie.

This is why I use a mix of historical and composite characters in my novels. I am not a historian, nor do I have a staff of researchers. I am primarily a story teller. And when I use a historical figure, I try to put their thoughts and actions into the proper historical context and not in our modern one. I try to be realistic, loading into the world I’ve recreated the ‘software’ of the day, i.e., the beliefs (religious and cultural) and biases. This is a tricky thing to pull off. Make your world too realistic and it may be unapproachable or too painful for the modern reader, especially minorities and women; make it too fanciful and ‘PC’ and it will turn off the realists. So this is where the writer must bring all his or her craft, intelligence, and research to bear. Hopefully he or she will come up with just the right mix to bring it all to life.

The novel I’m currently working on is not historical and this gives me a little break as far as research is concerned. When I get a little time off, I usually spend it traveling around Northern California’s Gold Rush country or the Reno NV area. I often see old ranches, farm houses, and mining shacks flattened by time and weather, with only a stone fireplace remaining. I want to pull over at every one of them and inspect the old hearth stones, touch the rusting iron grates and machinery, to imagine who lived here and what their lives were like. Maybe I will. And maybe my next historical will be set out here in the west.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a look at one of my books.


About the author:

Paul Clayton has written a three book series on the clash of the coastal Muskogee people and the colonial invaders-- Calling Crow, Flight of the Crow, and Calling Crow Nation. His last book, about his experience as a draftee infantryman in Vietnam, Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam, was a 2001 Frankfurt eBook Award finalist. His latest novel, White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, was a finalist at the International Book Awards.

Read more about Paul and his books at his amazon author page.

About White Seed:

The Lost Colony of Roanoke comes roaring back to life as Governor White pleads for ships in England, his colonists slowly starve, English soldiers mutiny, and Irish serving girl, Maggie, and Manteo, the Croatoan, fall in love.


  1. "The World of the Blue Bells Trilogy" has been included in this weeks Sites To See. I hope you like the image I featured, and I hope this helps to attract many new visitors here.

  2. Hi, FishHawk,

    Thank you for including me! What a pleasant surprise on New Year's Eve!



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