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.
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.
I’ve been having one of those weeks with the writing.
It’s been a struggle to cough up more than a couple hundred words a day, not because inspiration is lacking but because I can’t complete a thought without having to put in placeholders for something I haven’t researched yet:
…the large table in the center of the room. It groaned with food, [what kind? how much?]…
He shifted to and fro in an attempt to keep his blood flowing. “Besides it’s cold as [16th c. equivalent of “a witch’s tit”]-“
Approaching the throne, Jane dropped a low curtsey [how does one correctly greet the Queen?] …
And so forth. These pauses not only derail my thinking but illustrate the gaps in my knowledge that I need to place the story in a concrete-feeling time and place. This doesn’t include the list of general questions I need to answer before I know if some of my plot points are even possible.
Currently I have over 80 sources but it still doesn’t seem like enough; my fear of anachronism looms large but I don’t want to put off my narrative ideas until the research is complete (opinions on how much research to do pre-writing differ).
Even so, this often feels like too big of a project to face, as though there are too many details and dependencies to get my head around to do the story justice, and the temptation to just quit is great. But that’s not how books get written so I press on, trying to break it into manageable pieces and keeping my […] in to address in the next draft.
I’m also giving Scrivener a whirl to try to impose some order on this beast. Currently the book is in a series of Word files in a single folder on my desktop, none titled clearly enough to know their content or sequence. Hopefully this will also help with the dreaded outlining.
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.
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.