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 turning 75, NaNoWriMo and Day of the Dead

On turning 75, NaNoWriMo and Day of the Dead

Tomorrow I turn 75. That will certainly be a milestone.

Which of course made me curious about the word milestone. As with nearly all historical explorations, it proved to be exceptionally interesting.

Milestones were originally stone obelisks – made from granite, marble, or whatever local stone was available – and later concrete posts. They were widely used by Roman Empire road builders and were an important part of any Roman road network: the distance travelled per day was only a few miles in some cases. — Wikipedia

One of the main characters of my WIP goes on a journey overland to London, following ancient Roman roads. Might she see a milestone? But of course.

NaNoWriMo

Yesterday was another milestone of sorts: I began a NaNoWriMo push to (try to) write 2000 words a day. Day one: check. Day two: check. (With only a little cheating.) Tomorrow will no doubt be more challenging, but that’s allowed on the day one turns—OMG—75!

Along with writing, I invariably get lost in research. Delving into the Tudors is just a bit crazy-making! At every turn, there’s a fascinating story, at every turn, a mystery to solve—mainly, of late, trying to figure out Queen Elizabeth I’s exceptionally complex family tree. Here’s a crude and over-simplified “chart” that took hours to make.

I’ve been scrambling a bit, trying to sort out my system—and naturally returning to a system I’ve often used before. I record the day, time and word count in a notebook first thing, along with the word count I must meet that day.

At the end of the day, I write the word count met, along with the appropriate smiley or frowny face. For some reason, I find this system motivating. Approaching the end of the workday, I will calculate how many words I have yet to go, and then I go for it—crash, bang, come hell or high! 

Mid-day I realized that the notebook I was using was too small so I went looking for a better one. I found one that had only been used a bit four years ago while working on a revision of The Game of Hope. It was moving seeing my scribbled notes. it feels like a decade ago to me now.

Meanwhile, Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead is a delight in Mexico, a beautiful tradition. Here are a few photos from Halloween, when people all over town were getting made up in fanciful ways.

 

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

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.