year in review, year to come

Strange days, the weeks around Christmas and new years. I find it difficult to keep motivated due to the disruption in schedule (and a nice cold I’m working on – achoo!) Certainly not a time to start anything new. So I thought I’d review:

For the coming year:

  • Attend the HNS conference in June
  • Have a proper second draft in time for this conference if it kills me
    • To this end, write a bit every day, even if it kills me
  • Keep meeting with critiquers and critiquing in turn
  • Guest blog post(s?)

And this is just off the top of my stuffy head.

Happy holidays to those that celebrate. Don’t worry, I’ll see you one more time before the new year, with a tidy link dump for next Wednesday.

the problem (and opportunity) of Joanna Kelley

You’d think that by this point in the book I’d have a stronger grip on all my characters.

On good days it’s almost like channeling. Edward Kelley’s con-artistry, Jane Dee’s frustration, and John Dee’s obsession all spring easily to mind at this point but Joanna Kelley eludes me.

Which is nonsensical because of all these historical figures I probably know the least about her and so have the most leave to make things up.

Dee didn’t have a strong opinion about her; Edward Kelley “loves her not, nay, I abhor her”; Jane Dee apparently took her side in arguments with Kelley. Charlotte Fell-Smith’s 1909 biography of Dee describes Joanna as “lively and docile” but Fell-Smith tended to speculate.

It’s not clear why Kelley married her – the “angels” ordered him to marry but didn’t specify a bride. Wooley suggests someone (who?) might have paid him marry her in order to legitimize children she had with an aristocratic lover; Bassnett argues she was the widow of a clerk named John Weston. It doesn’t seem she brought any status or money into the marriage. Only two things are clear: she was only 19 when she married Kelley and he didn’t like her.

Why would she marry someone like Kelley, a volatile man with few (legal) prospects who didn’t want to get married in the first place?

I’ve mixed bits and pieces from the scholarship for Joanna’s backstory, but even if I know how she got into the Dee/Kelley household I’m still not clear on how she manages once she’s there. Optimism and resilience would help her endure Kelley’s tempers. Smarts and adaptability wouldn’t hurt, given dangerous travel and domestic strife.

The idea of “Firefly”‘s cheerful engineer Kaylee Frye sprung to mind. A fictional sci-fi character may be an odd inspiration for an Elizabethan housewife but I can imagine that someone of Kaylee’s uncultured enthusiasm would charm everyone around her but get on grumpy Kelley’s last nerve.

Beaming girl in fluffy, ruffled dress.
I imagine Joanna being just this sweet and gauche when she comes to Mortlake for the first time. Less floofy dress though. The only linkable version of this pic I could find.

My hardest plot challenge of all is why does Kelley hate her so? No one else seems to. I’m considering several possibilities (no spoilers) but even at this late stage I’ve not got this crucial factor ironed out yet.

Maybe it’s difficult for me because while I know fear, anger, and obsession, I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine.

Fortunately I’ve completed the day job certification that ate most of my time for the past couple of months and am eager to get back to editing. Hopefully I’ll get into the zone and she’ll evolve organically out of rewrites.


Bassnett, Susan. 2006. “Absent Presences: Edward Kelley’s Family in the Writings of John Dee.” In John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought, 285–94. Dordrecht: Springer.

Wooley, Benjamin. 2001. The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Henry Holt and Co.

structure and the leaky plot

ship as drawn by John Dee in the margin of one of his books
One of Dee’s marginal doodles, shown in the Royal College of Physicians exhibit “Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee”. More about the exhibit design here, including the joyous news that there will be an exhibition catalog.

Keeping it short this week because I’m up to my knees in story slurry.

The plot fell apart once I got put everyone on a boat to the continent. Effects with nonexistent causes abound, stuff happens without consequences, and useless character tail-chasing brings the action to a crashing halt.

So many craft books talk about the pitfalls of the “mushy middle” but I honestly thought that the sheer amount of stuff I have to cram into the second act would prevent it happening to me. Yet somehow boring departures/arrivals, exposition, and wheel-spinning are all in there and I have to hack them out.

This thing may never map out to a predictable plot structure but A must lead to B because C and have D lingering effects. Trying to include all the facts only left me with enough red herrings to stock a fishery and I’m having to cut out every one to avoid confusing the reader. I’m re-outlining to clarify themes and character arcs, which probably adds as much new junk as I’m cutting out.

The book’s taking a new shape I can’t define yet, but taking this wider view has already answered some long-standing plot questions. Repeated “edit-edit-edit, walk away” cycles tend to make fixes obvious, to the point that I can almost feel when another bit is about to snap into place.

Has anyone else experienced slump in the middle of your WIP? How did you straggle through?


Dee, Kelley, and – Shakespeare?

When writing about lesser-known historical figures it’s tempting to insert some “stars” to keep the reader’s attention. Dee and Kelley moved in exalted circles, so I have plenty of courtiers, alchemists, nobles and other characters to play with if I so choose.

I didn’t expect William Shakespeare could be one of them.

While it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Bard was aware of Dee – many sources agree he likely based “The Tempest”‘s Prospero on him – it didn’t occur to me that he might have known him personally until I found sources that propose that Shakespeare was a spy working under the name “Francis Garland, he acted as Dee’s courier, and witnessed one of Kelley’s transmutations.

Sound implausible? I thought so too. Only Burns and Bridges have put forth a connection between the three men and even they admit it sounds farfetched.

But consider:

  • Dee’s mentions of Garland in his diaries correspond with Shakespeare’s “lost years”.
  • Acquaintance with Dee (and his connections) would explain Shakespeare’s apparently sudden popularity with Elizabeth’s court in 1593.
  • Kelley dedicates his alchemical poem “Concerning the Philosopher’s Stone” to one “G. S. Gent.”, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon baptismal record lists him as “Gulielmus Shaksper”.

Burns asserts that Shakespeare’s plays show familiarity with alchemical imagery and secrets; I’m no expert on Shakespeare or alchemy so I don’t feel competent to judge. She also suggests that Kelley reference to G. S. as his “especiall good Friend” might mean Shakespeare was Kelley’s student and thus an alchemist himself – again I can’t say.

Bridges theorizes a connection between Kelley and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in his text for exhibit at the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. I still can’t decide. Given multiple suggested identities for the Dark Lady, maybe one could fit. Somehow, it still smells like one connection too many.

I find the idea that “Francis Garland” was a spy the easiest to believe. Sixteenth century travel was dangerous, difficult, and rare. Any mobile, learned man would be a catch for Burleigh and Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymasters. If Garland was a courier this reinforces the notion that Dee and Kelley were spies as well – or perhaps being spied upon, given Burleigh’s attempts to lure Kelley back to England to make gold for his queen.

All tempting to play with, but Shakespeare’s not going to cameo in my book. I’m not writing a sixteenth century spy thriller (though that would be awesome). Also I’m in the process of deciding which secondary characters stay and which go – it’s no time to add more!

What do you think – was the Bard a spy? If so, for who and why? Or is this all wishful thinking? As ever, I’d love to hear your take.


Burns, T. (2008). Francis Garland, William Shakespeare, and John Dee’s Green Language. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition2(15). Retrieved from

Campbell, J. S. (2009). The Alchemical Patronage of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Awarded Research Masters Thesis). Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Vincent Bridges. (n.d.). [Mp3]. Retrieved from


bright, clear, and glorious – John Dee’s “shew stones”

Tradition and folklore show Dee and Kelley viewing spirits in a crystal ball. But was this the case? As with everything Dee and Kelley-related legend and rumor obscure reality so what Dee’s “shew stones” looked like and whether they still exist is open to debate.

The most well-known scrying receptacles associated with Dee are the crystal ball and black mirror in the British Museum. Many authors attribute them without question but recent scholarship shows no provenance for either object. We only have Horace Walpole’s claim that the black mirror belonged to Dee and the crystal ball has no obvious origin.

I’m a little more convinced by the Wellcome Collection’s crystal. It claims a reliable chain of custody from Dee through the mid 17th century.

So much for tradition. What evidence did Dee leave us?

The spiritual diaries mention two roundish objects. The first is a “stone in a frame” he received from an unnamed friend. He sketched it in the margin:

Dee's first "shew stone"
The “stone in the frame”, taken from the diaries via Ackermann and Devoy

The other shew stone materialized in Dee’s study on November 21, 1582, several months into his partnership with Kelley. He described it as “big as an egg: most bright, clere, and glorious.” Author Aaron Leitch suggests it might have been a lens rather than a ball.

Of course I’d be tickled to death if the real deal still existed but this looks unlikely, or at least unprovable.

For inspirational purposes I keep this little thing on my desk while I’m writing:

my own shew stone
Found at the local renn faire

Not especially clear or glorious, but it’s egg-shaped and pretty to look at. It helps me get into my character’s heads, staring into something similar and waiting for the curtain to rise.

Selected Sources:

Ackermann, Silke, and Louise Devoy. 2012. “‘The Lord of the Smoking Mirror’: Objects Associated with John Dee in the British Museum.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43 (3): 539–49.

Leitch, Aaron. 2014. The Essential Enochian Grimoire: An Introduction to Angel Magick from Dr. John Dee to the Golden Dawn. Llewellyn Publications.

Whitby, Christopher Lionel. 1982. “John Dee’s Actions with Spirits: 22 December 1581 to 23 May 1583.” Ph.D. Thesis, Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

you’ll never walk alone (even when you need to): servants in Elizabethan households

I don’t think I’d have lasted 24 hours in the Dee household without tearing my hair out.

Paging through his personal and spiritual diaries I catch glimpses of people who, while colorful, I’d never want to meet: Dee’s cranky alchemical apprentice; two maids who accidentally set fire to their room twice in one year; the manservant he fired for getting drunk and cursing out the rest of the staff. That’s just a sampling and while there’s no full list it seems Dee had at least nine servants and probably more during my 1583-9 time frame.

The Dees weren’t unusual. Almost everyone of middling rank or higher had live-in staff. If you didn’t have servants you’d likely be one because up to a quarter of the population was in service. And even if everyone was nice as pie there was never, ever a break from their company. Servants worked in all parts of the house and some slept on their masters’ bedchamber floors (dedicated servants’ dormitories were rare). Houses were often designed with linked rooms so even if your maid or man had a private bedchamber they probably passed through yours to get there. Decorative elements like wooden screens and bed curtains compensated for this lack of privacy, but only just.

Great Bed of Ware
The Great Bed of Ware from the V&A website. A representative Elizabethan bedstead in all but size.

More on the Great Bed of Ware with photos and videos of assembly.

In short it was damn near impossible to be truly alone*, a fact that makes my inner introvert blanch while my writer’s mind reels at the potential mayhem.

Pro: lovely opportunities to endanger my characters! Dee and Kelley were into so many questionable things that any sudden walk-ins could easily create panic and rumors of Dee’s “conjuring” that Jane would struggle to explain away. Hours of amusement!

Con: a massive narrative hurdle. I’ve got to get the servants out of the house for their infamous “crossmatching” incident, which the Dees and Kelleys swore to keep secret on pain of death. Dee’s spiritual diary offers no details beyond a terse “pactu factu” (pact fulfilled) so I have free rein, but how do I empty the house believably? Send everyone to a market fair (if there was one)? Hide in an unused wing (ditto)? Bribe everybody (though they’re poor)?

I’m almost done with the first draft (!) and am still unraveling this snarly plot knot.

*Even more so if you take children and visitors into account.

Selected Sources:

Cooper, Nicholas. Houses of the Gentry 1480-1680. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Dee, John (author), Stephen Skinner (editor), and Meric Casaubon (Preface). Dr John Dee’s Spiritual Diaries (1583-1608): Being a reset and corrected edition of a True & Faithful Relation of what Passed for many Yeers between Dr John Dee…and Some Spirits.
 Woodbury MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2012.

Orlin, Lena Cowen. Elizabethan Households: An Anthology. Washington DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996.

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.