Frazzled much? The challenges of writing fact-based fiction

Frazzled much? The challenges of writing fact-based fiction

I’ve been stuck for nearly a week over a chapter in the WIP. (The whip, I think ruefully, as I type those letters.) The problem has many causes. One is that I have a stubborn need to know where-the-heck my heroine (Elizabeth Tudor, in this instance) is, in fact. It’s a period of only two days, and historians don’t provide the details—which should lead me to suspect that the information simply isn’t available.

Edward VI with flowers by William Scrots, circa 1550

It’s an important moment, so I’m surprised not more is known. Fifteen-year-old King Eddie VI has died, and (after something of a bloodless battle) his half-sister Mary has been proclaimed queen.

Portrait of Queen Mary I of England by Antonis Mor, 1554.

Mary’s much younger half-sister Elizabeth (not yet twenty), is now the heir to the throne. She is riding out to meet Mary—to bow before her sister queen.

Elizabeth, a good ten years later.

First, the frazzled timeline

This is what is said:

On Friday, July 28, 1553, news of her sister Mary’s accession reaches Elizabeth at Hatfield. (Tudors—Twenty-eight Days to Wanstead by Alan Cornish)

This website account is fantastic, but this one date is unlikely, in my view, because Mary was proclaimed queen in London on July 19.

According to historian Tracy Borman in Elizabeth’s Women (page 136), Elizabeth wrote Mary on that day to congratulate her, but also …

Showing all due deference, she also humbly craved Mary’s advice as to whether she ought to appear in mourning clothes out of respect for their brother, Edward, or something more festive.

(This is the type of detail I relish.)

It would have taken time for Elizabeth’s missive to reach Mary, for she was in the northeast, at her Framlingham castle, already attending to matters of state business and debating whether or not to go to London. Some advised her that it would be wise to return soon while the public was so enthusiastic about her. On the negative side, it was stinking hot in London and there were rumours of plague.

Mary was apparently prepared to be magnanimous in her triumph. She therefore invited Elizabeth to accompany her to London. (Borman’s Elizabeth’s Women)

Mary set out for London on Monday, July 24. It was a long journey: Ipswich (two nights), Colchester (one night), Newhall (three nights), Ingatestone (two nights), Havering (one night), finally arriving at Wanstead House on Tuesday, August 1, where she welcomed Elisabeth the next day, on August 2. (This overnight stay is rarely mentioned in biographies.) Together they set out for London on Thursday, August 3—with a combined entourage of over twenty thousand—arriving late that afternoon in London.

Elizabeth set out to meet Mary on Saturday, July 29, and by most accounts, she stayed for only one night in London before heading out the next day, Sunday, July 30, to meet Mary.

The puzzle

The journey from the London gate to Wanstead takes but a few hours on foot. (See my note below.) If Elizabeth was in London on July 29 for only one night, and met Mary on August 2 near Wanstead, where was she on July 31 and August 1? She was travelling with an entourage of over a thousand, so it was not as if she could drop in just anywhere.

This question foolishly cost me several days of work. I finally found support for the likelihood that Elizabeth had simply stayed at Somerset House, her new (to her) manor in London, for the full three nights. (Elizabeth I; The Word of a Prince, by Maria Perry, page 83.)

Second, the frazzled meet-up

A few historians state that Elizabeth stayed with Mary for one night at Wanstead House, and the consensus seems to be that they met on the road, and that Elizabeth dismounted and knelt in the dirt before Mary.

The problem with writing fact-based fiction — at least for me — is that things have to make sense. So now my question was: If Mary was expecting Elizabeth at Wanstead House, why did she meet her on the road? I didn’t want to spend another week on this, so I decided to sketch out a draft where they meet on the road, Elizabeth kneels, and they move on to Wanstead House from there.

But then what?

However Elizabeth and Mary meet, the sheer size of their entourages boggled my mind. Elizabeth had an entourage of over a thousand, but it was nothing to compare with her sister’s following. Imagine:

In the late afternoon of 3 August, Mary Tudor set out in procession from Wanstead to take possession of her kingdom. Those who stood along the processional route to London were astounded by the great number in her party. Mary had an escort of some ten thousand people with her – ‘gentlemen, squires, knights and lords’, and not to mention, the various peeresses, clergymen, judges, heralds, and foreign dignitaries come to pay her tribute.

—The Turbulent Crown: The Story of the Tudor Queens by Roland Hui (p. 322).

This is an image of the coronation procession of Elizabeth’s brother, King Edward VI. Imagine the traffic congestion!

This was at a hot time of year: the dust clouds of Mary’s procession coming through rural Essex must have been horrendous.

It did not take long to run into another time-consuming research question: Once they reach London, followed by well over ten thousand, what route do they take to the Tower of London? I decided that one hint might be to find out what the traditional route for a regal procession to or from the Tower of London might have been. This (eventually) led me to an amazing book (in four volumes): The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth by John Nichols on https://books.google.ca. On page 115 of Volume 1, there is this map:

Knowing this, I was able to chart the route on the fabulous interactive Agas Map of Early Modern London: Entering at Aldgate, they would wend their way down Aldgate Street, take the left fork onto Fenchurch Street, left onto Mark Lane, right on Tower Street and right again on Petty Wales to the entry into the Tower.

To the Tower!

My second puzzle, also solved today, was to determine where were the queen’s apartments in the Tower of London. Several maps later, including the one below, I discovered that the queen’s apartments were in the lower right-hand corner of the Tower premises, fairly cut off from any unpleasantness.

For what queen’s apartments might have looked like, I found an excellent blog post on The Tudor Travel Guide: The Royal Apartments at the Tower & the Scandalous Killing of Anne Boleyn.

In addition to great details, the site provides this image of what the Great Hall at the Tower likely looked like:

This helps give me a feeling for what the rooms beyond might have been like.

How much of this is likely to end up mentioned in the novel? Likely very little, but knowing what’s what helps me imagine the scenes.


Confession: two research tricks

To estimate approximate walking distances, I find it useful to use maps.google.com.

(Too bad maps.google doesn’t have an “on horseback” option. For this, I suspect that somewhere between “walking” and “by bike” might be an approximation, given all the stops horseback travel requires to give the horses rest, food, and water, or possible exchanges.)

Another part of knowing what’s what is determining when the sun rises and sets, and (particularly in this time) when the moon is full. I can’t track that for 16th century England, so instead, to at least keep the sun and moon on realistic trajectories I’m using the current calendar for the UK using this fantastic site: timeanddate.com.

And so? So now “all” I have to do is write the #%&@ scenes.


Resources mentioned

Books Google

Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman.

Elizabeth I; The Word of a Prince, by Maria Perry.

Google Maps

The Agas Map of Early Modern London

The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth by John Nichols.

The Royal Apartments at the Tower & the Scandalous Killing of Anne Boleyn, a blog post on The Tudor Travel Guide.

The Turbulent Crown: The Story of the Tudor Queens, by Roland Hui.

Timeanddate.com

Tudors — Twenty-eight Days to Wanstead by Alan Cornish. This website post is a wonderfully detailed account.

On outlining and constructing a timeline/calendar

On outlining and constructing a timeline/calendar

In preparation for NaNoWriMo‘s blast-through-a-first draft-November, I’m following K.M. Weiland’s roadmap on constructing an outline. I’ve outlined my last three novels, but each time it’s like starting from scratch. In any case, I like learning something new.

I began last winter with Weiland’s software, Outlining Your Novel, which is the computer version of her workbook by that name.

I didn’t like it initially, but I dug it out recently, and I’m finding it useful this time around. I’m pairing it with Weiland’s (free) Scrivener template, which in turn is paired with her book:

Children's Publishing Blogs - How To blog posts .

All this to say that reading her book this morning, she mentions using old calendars to establish a timeline for a novel. I’ve been working all month on a detailed timeline on Scrivener, but using printout calendars is an excellent idea. Ms know-it-all Google directed me to this useful site, and I now have color-coded printouts of the years 1549 to 1559 with the significant events highlighted. I especially like that I will be able to know the phases of the moon since this was all-important pre-electricity.


Four other blog posts on outlining that may be of interest:

The advantages of phase or scene outlining

The joy of being at the beginning of writing a novel

How to begin to write a book

A writer’s routine: on resisting an outline

“Exceedingly pleasant and healthy” — Discovering the village of Adisham

“Exceedingly pleasant and healthy” — Discovering the village of Adisham

One of the most challenging things for me in writing a YA novel based on the scant (and most likely apocryphal) stories “Mary of Canterbury” has been figuring out where to place her. I needed to find an old village in the countryside close to Canterbury and not far from the cliffs of Dover. Proximity to the Pilgrim’s Way of Chaucer fame would be a plus. Also, because of how my story was evolving, I needed proximity to a pond.

I had originally thought that I would “simply” fabricate such a village, but I discovered that that was far from simple—at least for me. It appears that I need a real place to dig into. Ironically, without facts, I am creatively lost.

In researching the turbulent years leading up to the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, I learned of a tiny village not far from Canterbury that was rife with conflict. Like a story-seeking missile, I had found my village.

Adisham (pronounced—I thinkAD SHAM), is an old village not far from Canterbury, not far from Dover, and not far from one of the Canterbury Pilgrims’ paths. And it had had, in former times, a “dangerous pond.” How good was that?

The more I learned about Adisham, the more fascinating it became. A poltergeist in a house near the church? A witch dunked in the pond? A main street called “The Street”?

The biggest bonus was the discovery of John Bland, Protestant rector of the church of Adisham.

A “Canterbury Martyr,” John Bland was one of the first to be burned alive at the stake under the rule of Elisabeth I’s half-sister, “Bloody” Queen Mary. It is also claimed, likely falsely, that he was 103 years old when executed!

I’m about to embark on a research trip to the UK and will be visiting Adisham, talking with people who live there. I’ve already learned that they warn new rectors of what happens to those who run afoul of the churchwarden and the people of the village. :-)


Here are two links on Adisham:

This one shows numerous photos of the church, along with historical details.

Here is a link to a description of the parish, published in 1800, opening with the charming words: “This parish lies exceedingly pleasant and healthy … “

On beginning (again) with Sarah Waters

On beginning (again) with Sarah Waters

In Canada, I have a tall narrow bookcase of books—one of many I have in our house. This one includes poetry, novels I’m either reading or would like to read, and an embarrassing number of books on writing. I am a collector, apparently, a collector of books on writing.

This morning, as I was drinking my delicious mug of decaf, I took three black binders down from the top shelf. I was curious: what were they?

One was a collection of printouts of writing exercises by the New York agent Donald Maass. Another, a thick, heavy binder, was labelled Truby. In it were printouts from master story guru John Truby. I have a lot of Truby—including a series of tapes and his book The Anatomy of Story (which overwhelms me at the first chapter every time I open it). I recalled that at one time Truby offered interactive story analysis on his website; I think it was free, an amazing offering. All the printouts were from his website.

The third binder, labelled Story Tools, was of a middling size. The first page was a list of Sarah Waters’ instructions on how to write a historical novel. Her wise words are no longer online—at least not that I can find—so here it is, my gift to you. (Click here to see the full pdf.)

In the corner I had written: 6 mos min to write 180,000 words.

I wondered when I had written that note. The second page in the binder gave a clue.

Notes before putting away.

I must have written this after I’d been offered a contract to write the Josephine B. Trilogy. Several months before I had finally completed an acceptable draft of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first novel in the Trilogy. While my agent was looking for a publisher, I had started work on what was to become, nearly two decades later, Mistress of the Sun. On signing a contract for a trilogy, I reluctantly put the project away.

So: all this was Very Long Ago, as I was setting out on this 32-years-and-counting writing adventure.

Sarah Waters’ advice on how to write a historical novel is a treasure. I’ll be returning to it.


The photo at top is of Sarah Waters, 2010, by Sam Jones, as seen in the article in the Guardian on Sarah Waters’ 10 rules for writers (rules which are, of course, spot on).

A Practical Handbook for … writers?

A Practical Handbook for … writers?

One of the books I have in San Miguel is A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Bruder, Cohn, Olnek and Pollack. It was a useful book to consult when writing about actors in The Shadow Queen, but it’s now and again also mentioned as a useful book for writers. This morning, I scanned through it, before returning it to the shelf.

It’s true that many of the passages are relevant to writing. I especially like this one, for example:

The only talent you need to act is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of acting.

With writing in mind, it becomes: The only talent you need to write is a talent for working—in other words, the ability to apply yourself in learning the skills that make up the craft of writing.

So true!

Here are some others:

You must understand that acting, like carpentry, is a craft with a definite set of skills and tools. By assiduously applying your will to the acquiring of those skills and tools, you will eventually make them habitual.

It’s as if I …

I found Chapter 2, on Analyzing a Scene, particularly useful. As writers, we “experience” the scene we’re creating. These craft tools for actors are useful for writers as well:

  1. What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
  2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (The “essential” action is the purpose behind the literal actions, i. e. Physically stopping a horrendous thing from happening.)
  3. What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (For example, “It’s as if I were trying to stop my baby from being killed.” This third one is key to being able to put yourself emotionally into the character.)

The second step of defining the essential action can have a number of possible answers, and each one will require a different response to the third.

For example, it could go like this:

  1. What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Tackling a man.)
  2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? (Hoping to get a promotion by proving herself the hero of the hour.)
  3. What is that action like to me? It’s as if … (“It’s as if I would be fired if I didn’t prove I could do a man’s job.)

Just tell the story!

Here’s another sweet spot:

The crucial thing to remember is that the actor is not on-stage to have an experience or to expose himself to the audience, but to help tell a story.

Converting this to writing: The crucial thing to remember is that the writer is not writing in order to have an experience or to expose himself to the readers, but to help tell a story.

Another bit of advice I like is:

Choose something that makes you really want to act the action you have chosen for the scene. … The better your as-if, the stronger your action, and thus the full strength of your humanity will be brought to the work.

The through-line

The through-line is the one action that all the individual actions serve.

You must decide what your ultimate goal is and then construct each individual action to bring you a step closer to achieving that goal.

That through-line is often difficult to discern when it comes to writing a novel. Margaret Atwood once described it as the skewer running through the meat and veggies that make up a shish kebab. That’s a very useful image to keep top of mind.

Where have I been?

Where have I been?

Where have I been?

When we arrived in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) over five months ago, I went on a blogging spree. I was inspired, in part, by the refreshing wonder of fast internet. A month later, I stopped writing blog posts, getting down to the business of writing the keynote speech I was to give at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference mid-February.

As well, The Shadow Queen had been chosen as the Conference’s “Big Read” and an event was organized presenting it to book clubs. The event ended up including a video interview of me on writing The Shadow Queen, two lively short lectures by experts on the historical period, and a dramatic performance from the novel—plus champagne and authentic French beignets.

Being an all-or-nothing sort of person, I got very involved in scripting the film, which you can see here. Denis Lanson, the film-maker, did a wonderful job.

The short dramatic performance was my suggestion (in lieu of a reading). I discovered that it was quite a challenge to write. Wonderful actor friends Marilyn Bullivant and Rick Davey performed it. We went through several rehearsals (necessitating rewrites) together with Karen Kinney, head of the committee (a creative committee from heaven, IMO).

In short, a good part of December, January and early February was entirely taken up with writing the keynote, preparing readings for several Conference panels, and scripting the film interview and dramatic presentation of The Shadow Queen. All very exciting!

On stage before my keynote.

The Conference went wonderfully well. I still glow thinking of the reception to my keynote—a standing ovation from an audience of about five hundred—this in addition to the thrill of so many people reading The Shadow QueenIt was a highlight of my life as a writer.

In the weeks that followed, I struggled to get back to work on the WIP, an increasingly curious little novel about a young falconer in Elizabethan England. I went through all the stages of the writing process, including the requisite, “This is garbage, I should just retire” phase. (“What! You’re on Chapter Four already?” one writer’s husband would say whenever she voiced that thought.)

I made a self-appointed deadline mid-April to deliver an outline and character “bible” to Allison McCabe, the wonderful editor of historical fiction who worked with me on The Game of Hope. I delivered it Saturday morning, then celebrated with a lunch margarita at Casa Blanca, one of our favourite restaurants in San Miguel this year.

The working title of the WIP is now Raptor Wild, which I rather like. The “outline” is a mix of bare-bone scenes (mostly dialogue) and narrative plot points, weighing in at a hefty 14,392 words. The character “bible” is simply a page or two on each of the thirteen main characters, including a gyrfalcon and an elderly English Water Spaniel. A significant number of the characters die or are killed off rather early on in the story—somewhat too grim for a YA, I suspect.

falcon

“Beauty,” one of the WIP characters.

Although this was only an outline, I developed all the usual symptoms of being in final draft mode. Invariably, at that stage, I become obsessed. I get little sleep, cancel all activities that are not work-related, and become convinced I have a fatal illness. That’s when I think: Ah, almost there. How wonderful to send files off and experience a miraculous cure!

Now that Raptor Wild has been wrapped up (for now), it’s time to prepare to leave San Miguel—never easy. I love getting back home to Canada, but I hate leaving Mexico, too. We’ve had a wonderful winter here this year.

Next up, the paperback release of The Game of Hope, all gussied up in a beautiful new cover!