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.

NaNowriMo?

It’s impossible to write without considering National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m new enough to serious writing that I’ve never participated before and I’m getting encouragement from all quarters to give it a try. It DOES sound like a good way to get words down, but I have to ask – does it really count if I’m just doing prep/background?

Don’t misunderstand me: I will still be writing key scenes for the novel and doing exercises to improve in general but I’m in no way ready to force a multi-thousand word first draft.

Part of this is because I’ve not completed my timeline of the historical events on which I’m basing my story. These cover 6 years and several countries, and while I already know I’m going to have to deviate from the reality to make a ripping yarn, I want to have this complete before I start the main writing so I know exactly how and where I’m breaking off from fact.

Figuring out a compelling story arc is the other problem. History seldom unfolds in a tidy seven-point story structure or the like, so once I have the fact down I have to hammer it into a readable fiction.

As such I’m going to end up doing more of a NaNoOutlineMo/NaNoResearchMo in order to get everything lined up. I suppose this is illustrative of how much writing doesn’t have much to do with actual writing, at least when I’m not done with my research.

this is what going mad felt like

The Historical Novel Project(TM) is creating a number of writing challenges that are above my pay grade, but it’s not the believable characterization, compression/abbreviation of real historical events or the need for creating an accurate world that intimidates me.

I think the hardest thing I’m going to have to describe is the mental state of a character who is slowly developing visual/auditory hallucinations through a combination of stress and overwork. I need to sell his slow decline to a modern reading audience while:

  • limiting myself to 16th century vernacular, as they didn’t have a vocabulary for mental illness the way we do
  • convincing the reader that the character does not realize he’s going mad – he thinks these visions are real
  • making it clear that there is no “voice of sanity” – everyone around him believes his visions are real too, and some actively encourage them
  • that in the context of the time/place this assumption makes sense.

This requires a huge amount of research. Not that I mind, but it’s hard to find sources for exactly the situation I’m trying to convey.

At the suggestion of my new historian acquaintance, I got a copy of highlights from The Anatomy of Melancholy, to get some idea of what language 16th/17th century people used to describe mental/emotional distress. I’ve also picked up Carl Jung’s Red Book, because though he does use modern psychiatric language it’s the only documentation I can find by someone who realized he was having a psychotic break but chose to interact with his hallucinations.

It’s also revealing the need for a lot of context about the mindset of the late Renaissance, when the scientific method was just being developed and a lot of superstition (such as the belief that it was possible and expected to talk to spirits) was still accepted as fact.

I’ve got my narrative work cut out for me.