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 think—AD 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 … “
Have you heard of the Writers’ Blog Tour? (Goggle it, and you’ll see all the various writers on the Tour.)
Each writer tagged to join the Tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to the posts of writers who came before.
I was invited to join the tour by the wonderful literary writer, teacher, coach and editor Merilyn Simonds. (If you are working on a novel, consider a one-on-one immersion with Merilyn for a week in sunny San Miguel de Allende this coming winter.)
Merilyn’s answers to the questions on the Writers’ Blog Tour are deliciously inspiring. I especially related to this:
I am a slow writer. Perhaps not slow in crafting words and sentences but slow in worming my way to the heart of the story …
Which is exactly what takes me so long.
In turn, I’ve invited Lauren B. Davis (author of Our Daily Bread, The Empty Room, for starters) and Catherine McKenzie (author of Forgotten, Hidden, Spin) to come on board. I’m looking forward to reading how these two writers answer the questions.
Lauren and Catherine will each invite two writers to join the Tour … who will then in turn invite two writers. Writer power! All the writers will—if possible—post to Facebook and Tweet. (A Twitter hash tag is #writersblogtour.)
The four questions are intriguing:
Why do I write what I do?
What am I working on?
How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
How does my writing process work?
I’m going begin with the first:
Why do I write what I do?
I’m hopeless at plot, so I originally thought that by writing historical fiction I’d sidestep all that. Ha! If anything, crafting plot from facts is even more challenging—but it’s a challenge I’ve come to enjoy. I enjoy the puzzle of research, and I find working within the constraints of the historical record irresistible.
In a writing summer workshop I took in my very early days at the Humber School for Writers, taught by the venerable Margaret Atwood, she said, of my work, “You are attracted to other worlds.” And I am. Exploring other worlds is an adventure. I especially love the vocabulary of the lost. Everything is a discovery: imagining a world without reliable clocks, a world without refrigeration, a corner store, telephones.
So: why do I write what I do? Because there are fascinating stories to explore, and there is nothing more otherworldly than the past.
I recently read a review of the iSteve movie in the July 2013 issue of MacWorld. I quote:
Despite the movie’s liberties–and it takes a lot of them–it adopts at times a surprising fidelity to historical events. In the end, you might best describe the film as “truth-adjacent.”
I like the term “truth-adjacent” and may adopt it. Another description that seems to be used in the UK but not in North America is “biographical fiction,” which describes my work exactly. “Fact-based fiction” is a term commonly used here, but I dislike it: it has a medicinal flavor.
How would you describe fiction that is based on fact?
[From a portrait of Josephine, painted by Appiani during her first voyage to Italy.]
I’ve had very interesting comments on this blog from a reader in Russia, concerning Josephine. “La Reine Margot” raises a number of questions, which I’m going to attempt to answer here. (Please keep in mind that it has been over a decade since I was deep into research into Josephine’s world! There might well be new findings. Consider this an evolving discussion.)
Basically, La Reine Margot would like to know about the relationship between Josephine and Hypolite Charles. “I know that you have some doubts about a sexual relationship between Josephine and Charles.” She’d like to know why I have doubts.
First of all: lack of real evidence. There is only gossip. La Reine notes the saying, “Where there is smoke there is fire.” True, but one learns when studying history that gossip is often used as a weapon, often intentionally. (As when the English planted the rumour that Josephine’s daughter Hortense was pregnant by her step-father Napoleon.) Smoke clouds are sent up, if you will, to make people suspect a fire. One learns, too, that the partners of powerful men are often maligned—something one sees often now, as well.
“Of course the Josephine’s letters to Charles are fakes … but what is the story of this fake? … What is the reason for this hoax?”
It’s impossible to know who created this hoax, but it’s easy enough to see who financially profited from it: the biographer/historian who first printed it.
And from what sources come this affirmation? If I remember correctly there are two main sources: the dutchess d’Abrantes memoirs and those of monsieur Hamelin. Laura [d’Abrantes] and her co-author Balzac of course retold gossips. But were these gossips unfounded?
In short: I think yes.
Abrantes was mean in her memoirs with respect to Josephine, but keep in mind that they were published after Napoleon had been exiled, when she had a lot to gain by this stance. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) It’s worthwhile noting that in Abrantes’ letters to friends written while Josephine was alive, she was nothing short of worshipful in her descriptions of the Empress—a strikingly different point-of-view from that stated in her memoirs.
As for Hamelin’s memoirs… If he lied, what was the reason? Perhaps he invented some details. but what was his purpose to lie about the very nature of the relationship of Josephine and Charles?
Why would Hamelin lie? He was a notorious lier, for one thing. (For another: when was his memoir published? I tried, without success, to find out—but that might provide a clue.)
All Hamelin said was that he saw Charles’s coat outside Josephine’s room—and from that one thing, all is conjectured. Even if true, I think Charles and Josephine might well have had reason to be behind closed doors: counting the profits from their illicit financial endeavours and plotting future investments most likely (IMO). Remember: this was an ill woman going through a violent and early menopause. It’s not impossible that she was having an affair with Charles, but it’s not impossible that she was not.
Are there any others sources? if I remember correctly Bourrienne described that it was Junot who finally told the truth to Napoleon. I never understand the reason for what he decided to do it but I can’t understand his reason to lie too. Louise Compoint of course had this reason. But he?
What did Junot have against Josephine? Josephine fired her femme de chambre Louise Compoint for sleeping with him, for one thing. Louise did her best to malign Josephine after, and I wouldn’t be surprised that she recruited her lover into this effort. (Ironically, Louise, later in need of money, came to the then Empress Josephine, who, never one to hold a grudge, gave it to her.)
Josephine had a number of male friends, but most notably Barras and Charles. She was a modern woman in this respect: comfortable in the world of men. Someone once said to me a long, long time ago: “She enjoyed the company of homosexuals.” All this is conjecture, but I sense this might have been true. Before she became Empress, Josephine was a bohemian woman with artistic tastes.
And the nature of the relationship Josephine and Barras? They certainly were friends and partners. But were they lovers? As for me, I think that they were. I suppose that this man was bisexual, but not gay. If he was gay, who was the father of one of the children of Therese Tallien?
Therese only had one child—a daughter, Thermidor—and Tallien was the father. I don’t believe I’ve ever read that she had a child by Barras. (Again, let me know if I’m mistaken.) To my knowledge, Barras did not have any children.
This child if I remember correctly was born in the chateau Grosbois and it was common knowelege that it was his child. And personally I can’t believe that this canny and licentious man could help Rose without demanding sexual toll in return.
I’d be interested to know your source!
Barras was “repaid” for his help to Josephine many times over by the powerful financial contacts Josephine was able to provide to wealthy Island bankers she’d come to know as a Freemason. Dr Catinat told me that in the exchange of goods and favours between Josephine and Barras, Barras was very much the winner. There was no call for a “sexual toll” in return. The claim that Barras must have been enjoying Josephine’s sexual favours is based on the assumption, in part, that that is all a woman has to offer.
When did Josephine’s [menstrual cycle] stop? What was her age?
You can understand that this type of information is not revealed! We can only guess. What we do know is that Josephine said she was pregnant by Napoleon while he was in Italy. It’s later conjectured that she was lying in order not to have to join Napoleon in Italy. And then, again, it’s conjectured that she was lying when she wrote to Napoleon to say she was very sick.
But imagine that she was not lying: what if her menstrual cycle had stopped and she assumed it was because she was pregnant? If you look at the evidence—various letters, etc.—it’s clear that she really was quite sick during this period of time. Dr Catinat, who is a medical doctor (as well as a foremost expert on her life), suspects that she’d gone into early menopause at the age of only 32. Frankly: this fits. It would explain why she thought she was pregnant (missed period), and why she was so prone to tears at this time.
On top of that, clearly she had something amiss, for she suffered fevers. Quite possibly she had some sort of infection. All this is during that famous trip to Italy with Charles and Junot and Hamelin. I find it hard to imagine a torrid love-affair with Charles while in such a state, and in such company.
As for Charles: he married quite late and never, to my knowledge, had children. No doubt he and Josephine were close … and no doubt they were in secretly involved financially. It’s possible that there was a sexual relationship … but it’s also possible that there wasn’t.
When I was in Paris last summer for the filming of the documentary about Josephine, I chatted at length with Bernard Chevalier, former curator of Malmaison and co-author of a biography about Josephine. I asked him: “If you could ask Josephine one question, what would it be?”
He said, “I would ask her about Captain Charles.”
And I said, “Me, too.”
Because, frankly, we really don’t know.
Ever since we returned to our winter home in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico), I’ve been working like crazy, getting ready for the sprint-revision of The Next Novel, which I’ve promised to send to my agent at the end of the month. (It was last due in May!)
I’ve recovered from the 4th draft conversion from 3rd person to 1st. That seems easy in comparison to the challenge now, which is figuring out an emerging important character and what happens to him. His story has evolved into a fairly important subplot (at draft 5!).
To help figure it out, I’ve laid out all the scenes on the big dining room table, puzzling over the flow of the story. (More than once, I groaned over the difficulty of writing a fact-based biographical novel.)
I’ve laid the cards out using the filmscript-writing structure proposed in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat — a short, punchy and tad corny how-to book that offers quite a lot of helpful plot wisdom. (Scriptwriting and novel writing are two different beasts, but there can be fruitful cross-pollination. More on that later.)
But I shouldn’t be here, on-line — I should be figuring out The Story — but I got side-swiped this morning by the discovery that the opening line of The Next Novel made a shortlist of opening lines by agent Betsy Lerner in her irresistibly caustic blog: The Forest for the Trees.
Winter was coming — I could smell it.
Ironically, I changed that line yesterday to:
It was the season of turning, everything golden.
What do you think?