I attended a local class on historical fiction last weekend. It covered challenges specific to the genre (time/time frame, historical figures vs. fictional characters, POV) but the most useful discussion regarded the balance of documentable fact vs. creative license.

I approach my historical fiction the way I approach historical costume: there’s room for a spectrum of accuracy long as I know where and how I’m cutting corners. So far my inner history nerd has adhered closely to the timeline of Dee’s diaries. After discussing my approach with the instructor, she suggested I may be limiting myself out of fear of writing actual fiction.

The short version: she suggested that Jane Dee, not Edward Kelley, should be my protagonist.

I am not convinced she is wrong.

When I start I wanted Jane to be my central character because I imagine her life with two occultists as a strange and stressful one seldom (never?) examined fictionally. Then I had difficulty finding an obvious story arc for her and my research led me down the rabbit hole of Kelley’s motives so I abandoned the idea.

The instructor pointed out that Jane Dee’s lower profile in the diaries is a perfect excuse to make things up. There’s more freedom to create a story that isn’t slavishly locked into Dee’s day-by-day spirit diaries. The possibility that a female protagonist might sell better to a readership that is mostly women is a nice bonus.

This is exhilarating and scary at the same time, and I’ve spent the last week in a shaky creative exhale. I still need a story arc, so I’m playing with the seven point outline and identifying gaps where Jane might be acting without Dee’s knowledge. I’ve not abandoned the story of Edward Kelley’s descent into madness, but I’m experimenting with him visiting Jane’s world rather than the other way around.

Essentially I’m writing two books at once, and trusting that the protagonist will reveal themselves in rewrites.

reboot

dude, seriously?

I cannot count the times I’ve said this during my research.

John Dee and Edward Kelley were two borderline heretical Protestants traveling in hardcore Catholic Europe during the wars of religion. When does it get smart to tell a Jesuit they talked with angels (seriously?) or try to show a priest their records of the same (dude!)?

Right now I’m wrestling with a scene in which Kelley tells a papal representative – in detail – what he thinks is wrong with the Catholic church.

Dude, seriously?

I know – in reality people sometimes just do stupid things, but in fiction actions need reasons lest the reader shut the book in disbelief.

Dee never described Kelley’s motive in his account of this incident. While this gives me freedom to make something up, I’m pulling historical and personality threads from everywhere to plausibly explain this blind spot.

Kelley’s not the only one to leave me scratching my head – these guys sometimes baffle me to the point that I stammer like a stoned surfer! I doubt “Dee and Kelley’s Excellent Adventure” would sell to the historical fiction crowd but I’m tempted to write it just to get the “OMG WTF were you thinking?!” out of my system.

what is it?

I’ve been secretive about the details of my book out of irrational fears of being scooped and having a stupid premise. Then I remembered I’m not the first person to write about these people, and the informal feedback I’m getting suggests I’ve found an interesting angle so I thought I’d come clean:

My novel is about the strange working and domestic partnership of the 16th century mathematician/magus John Dee and his crystal ball gazer (or “scryer”) Edward Kelley. The short version: Dee was one of the geniuses of the Elizabethan age and still Kelley managed to convince him for almost 10 years that he talked with angels. This delusion led them to create a magic system still in use today, scold the Holy Roman Emperor, piss off some clerics, have a seance with the King of Poland, and ultimately swap wives.

Most scholars seem to write off Dee as a rube and Kelley as a con man, which they undoubtedly were to some degree, but on closer examination the story is much more complicated. Kelley questioned the veracity of his own visions and tried to leave Dee more than once, and the sheer volume and variety of their output suggests there was something more going on.

In my research I’ve only found one article that explores in depth the idea that the “angels” were the product of fraud combined with mental illness, and that’s my premise.

My story assumes that Kelley pulled a con that got out of hand when he started actually seeing things. With Dee’s encouragement this turned into a kind of “folie a deux” and they dragged their wives along with them.

Kelley is my protagonist, as he seems to have the most obvious story arc and because I’m personally fascinated by his motives and his possible perspective of Dee’s obsession with their “actions” (seances).

Dee’s wife Jane is my other POV character, as she’s been given short shrift in the other fiction I’ve read (when she appears at all), and given what must have been her demanding responsibilities managing an experimental household, I figure she’s got good reason to be angry at both Dee and Kelley = conflict ahoy!

It’s turning into a bit of a genre bender – it’s certainly historical but not clear-cut military or romance (though there is sex), with elements of ambiguous paranormal/psychological horror (are the angels real or shared madness?), then there’s the adventure on the Continent and domestic drama…

So, kinda hard to pin down. But never dull.

I don’t even know these people

Last week I gave another friend my “elevator pitch” about the novel and the historical characters on whom I’m basing my story. While most people express surprise at how strange and unlikely the reality was, she asked a question that I’d not heard before:

“Do you like any of your characters?”

It’s a good one, especially considering that part of what made me want to write this story is that none of the people involved seemed like they’d be overly pleasant to deal with, even before taking fictional liberties. As it stands now my protagonist is an unstable con man, the man he is conning is pious and obsessive, the pious man’s wife is an angry control freak, and the con-man’s wife is shaping up to be timid and naive.

As such, these people are lots of fun to write (because happy, stable characters are boring), but I can’t say I’d want to hang out with any of them!

Having said this, I have compassion for them as well: the con man gets in way over his head, the pious man’s needs drive him to compromise his principles, the control freak is lonely and frustrated, and the milquetoast may well be the sanest person in the room.

I suppose it’s good that I appreciate their strengths as well as their weaknesses. After all, if readers unconsciously emulate their favorite fictional characters, imagine what it’s like for those of us who write them.

My mixed emotions also come from the fact that all of the characters embody aspects of myself, and not always my best points. I suppose this is inevitable because the only head I’ve ever been in is my own. I’ve been obsessive, angry, questioning, and out of my depth; incredibly I’ve even been the sanest person in the room at times. While this may not make my characters pleasant, I hope it makes them relatable.

And they continue to take shape as I write them. Just this week I wrote one making a gaffe that embarrasses another and I’m still not sure how their different personalities are going to deal with the aftermath. I just keep referring back to my character profiles for cues and hope that something believable comes out in the narrative wash.

In short – do I like them? Sorta and not, but honestly I’m still getting to know them.

reticence

There are times when I find it uncomfortable to write.

I don’t mean physical discomfort or run-of-the-mill writer’s block, but a sort of anxious distress that has me doing everything from laundry to reloading Facebook to avoid having to face the work in progress.

What I always want (what I suspect all writers want) is that perfect state of flow where the words just pour out like water, the imagery and emotions so clear in my mind that I am merely describing the unfolding events and the character’s reactions to them.

For a long time I assumed “real” writers were in that state all the time; through discussion and experience I’m learning that this is definitely NOT the case and that part of learning to write is plowing through the times when you’re not “in the mood”.

I’m finding that the two main things that make me want to flee to the cuddly vapidity of YouTube cat videos are 1) I can’t get inside my character’s head, or 2) I feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Dealing with the first is easier – I created elaborate back stories and personality profiles of my main characters that I can refer to when I just can’t “go there”. It’s not the same but it does give me some direction when I’ve written them into a corner.

The other is harder because even though everyone says to “write what you know” it’s impossible to stick to my own narrow range of experiences and inevitably I wind up in uncharted territory.

This is especially true with historical fiction, and even though none of my potential readers have lived through the 16th century either I still cringe at the thought that someone who has done better research than I will read something I’ve written and realize I’m winging it.

This is my critiquing Kryptonite – I’m more self-conscious about someone catching me being clueless than I am about lousy grammar, poor plotting or anything else.

Of course I’m (over)doing the research to avoid that possibility, but I suspect the real lesson is how to get over my flailing and find a way into “the zone”. I know what to do once I’m there – it’s just the getting there I’m struggling with.

writing by the seat of my pants

Last night was my first class in a 3-week workshop on character development. As in, a real, live, in person class, with a classroom and everything.

I was iffy about signing up for it at first; I prefer online instruction because it gives me time to think about my answers, and I’m always cagey about adding another non-moveable item to my cluttered calendar, but I am ultimately glad I did it.

Turns out the instant back and forth is something I need, because it short-circuits my tendency to over think. On my own I’ll constantly refer to notes (would they be in this room? What are they wearing? What time did X take place chronologically?), but the exercises were timed and specific: Take a news headline and expand on it in 3 minutes; Look at a picture and describe the character’s mindset in the same amount of time; generate a fake name from the phone book and write a first-person paragraph.

I expected these to be nerve-wrackingly difficult but they weren’t simply because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I think perhaps the most useful exercises were how to base a character on your own experiences without it becoming a Mary Sue (use a different name, write 3rd person, and change the situation slightly to build emotional distance) and how to build a character around an object (who owns this? How did they get it? Why is this important to them?). The latter in particular I’m going to use to build a character in world I tentatively built years ago but couldn’t populate.

My classmates are few but enthusiastic; one of the things I love about adult continuing education is that everyone in the room wants to be there. Everyone also got there by different side doors: one is a teacher who wants to write for kids, another is a journalist who wants to write fiction, yet another has her own historical fiction thing going on.

Also, the teacher is clearly excited about stories and storytelling, and with the small class size there’s a lot of good back and forth.

This week was “building characters from personal experience”, next week is using psychological insights, which is why I signed up in the first place. Keep ya posted.

characterization

I’m looking at the local community college’s Character Workshop for Fiction Writers for this fall, as I think it would help me with what I consider to be my biggest weakness – I can’t design a character to save my life.

Full disclosure: in a past RPG I did have a couple of original characters, but I don’t think they were very good – introductory descriptions felt like I was ticking off check boxes just to get it out of the way, and then I wrote whatever fit the plot/my whims. I just couldn’t get in their heads (“what would x do in y situation based on z personality characteristics?”), and I don’t think I developed them well.

I confess this is why I’ve tended to lean on fan fiction as my writing outlet: characters are already established, and I’ve read/seen them in action so I can better imagine what they might say or do. Additionally, fan fiction audiences are already familiar with them/the property to which they belong, so I can be lazy and forego introductions/”establishing shots”.

I don’t mean that as a criticism of other fanfic writers (it’s fun to play with characters in worlds you already know and love), just noticing that I happen to use it as a crutch to avoid improving the things I’m bad at.

Truth: I’m more comfortable inventing worlds, but then I don’t know how to populate them. Which bugs me because I tend to find that characters and dialog are what make or break a story for me, and if I’m going to bother with this at all I want to write stuff I’d actually want to read, dammit!