the stupidest Slytherin

I’ve been re-watching the Harry Potter movies of late. I find myself still impressed again at how engaging the saga is and how the stories grow up with the characters: as they mature to into a more nuanced, less black and white outlook the stories gain complexity as well. And damn if she doesn’t know how to world-build!

And I got to thinking about The Book (hell, I’m always thinking about The Book). Rowling rolled at least one historical magician into the Potterverse (are there more I’m forgetting?) so surely there are others. So:

If John Dee were any more Ravenclaw he’d live in a library OH WAIT. He certainly embodies wit, learning, and wisdom, even if he’s a bit gullible. What do you wanna bet his wardenship of Christ’s College Manchester was just cover for his real trip north for a Hogwart’s fellowship?

Edward Kelley may have all the ambition of a Slytherin but he’s not together enough to carry out his wildest schemes…or is he? I think the Snapes and Malfoys of the world would disown him if he didn’t get himself kicked out of Hogwarts outright.

Jane Dee is a muggle, period. She doesn’t approve of all this magical nonsense–it’s dangerous and unseemly besides.

I imagine Kelley’s brother Thomas is clearly Hufflepuff. He’s loyal and patient to though Kelley often doesn’t deserve it.

Joanna Kelley may well be the only Gryffindor. She’s got to be brave to see all of their continental travel as an adventure rather than a hazard, and she’s determined to put a bright spin on everyone and everything.

Elizabeth Jane Weston (Lizzie), Joanna’s daughter? She’s about four years old during the story – too young to sort, certainly. But she’s definitely got some of her mom in her.

The spies Sledd and Pucci are Slytherin through and through. Sledd would make a stone-cold Death Eater but Pucci would be a toady like Peter Pettigrew and possibly less competent than Kelley.

Draco Malfoy sitting under the sorting hat
Pucci would make Draco Malfoy look strong willed. Courtesy Giphy.

Of all my characters Joanna is possibly the only truly likeable one of the lot (but are there any unlikeable Gryffindors?). But at least my less-than-savory characters aren’t dull.

How do your characters (or your favorite fictional characters) sort out?

biweekly links 12-14-2016

Queen Elizabeth I’s Vast Spy Network Was The First Surveillance State: repeats old myths about John Dee as the inspiration for 007 but the rest of the article is rock solid factual. I used Alford’s “The Watchers” as background for the “Dee/Kelley as spies” angle and discovered enough about intelligencer Charles Sledd to make him a well-rounded antagonist for my book.

Oil painting of dour Elizabethan man in dark clothes and stiffly starched ruff
Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, attributed to John de Critz the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Pretty glum, no? He was probably only happy when fighting Spain and the Catholic Church.
Through foreign eyes: the forgotten ambassadors to the Tudor court: English espionage got organized under Liz but there was plenty of spy vs. spy at her dad’s court too. Diplomats spied on the king, courtiers, and each other, with varying degrees of success.

In the 16th Century, People Went Crazy for Portraits Made Up of Fruits and Veggies – delightful thumbnail sketch of Rudolf II fave Giuseppe Archimboldo and a nice selection of his proto-surrealist portraiture.

Why the Stone Age could be when Brits first brewed beer: hops only came in during the late medieval period but fermenting was going on long before that. Heather ale? Why not – evidently it has a long tradition in Scotland. Article links extensively to archaeologists’ CVs and publications, and even a few historically-inspired brews. Don’t you just love food archaeology?

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.

References:

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.

going there – the importance of (quality) sex scenes

When writing about Dee and Kelley’s time together it is impossible to avoid the infamous “crossmatching” incident. The “spirits” hold out the promise of great secrets if they agree to share everything in common – including their wives. After much angsty soul-searching, they agree, and even wrote up a pact outlining their commitment to the act (I could not make this up!)

Sure, it’s attention-getting for salaciousness alone, but in the context of the WIP it’s a major plot point. Are the “spirits” good or evil? How far – and why – are Dee and Kelley willing to go to achieve their ambitions? How far – and why – are Jane Dee and Joanna Kelley willing to compromise themselves for their husbands’ mad schemes? And what are the repercussions?

So of course I have to include it.

I’ve been asked whether I’m really going to “go there”. Wouldn’t a “fade to black” be more tasteful? Don’t you worry about putting off potential readers? Aren’t you afraid of the narrative minefield erotica poses?

No, no, and yes. Which is why I’m taking a class on writing love scenes.

The excellent essay Show Me, Don’t Tell Me – Unless it’s Sex over at Remittance Girl’s blog (which I highly recommend – not safe for work, so be smart) explores some of the reasons why writers shy away from sex scenes: societal hang-ups about sex, the impression that sex scenes are automatically porn, the fear that sex is so commercialized that sex scenes won’t elicit a real response in the reader – just a memory of the latest tv ad.

All of which are valid concerns. But for me, in this case, omission would represent a narrative “flinch” of the kind I’ve always abhorred. Telling the reader about it after the fact would be like telling the aftermath of a fight after putting away the swords: I’d sacrifice all the emotional punch. I also imagine the “pulling back” of telling after a novel of close 3rd person showing would jar the reader right out of the story.

Ultimately good sex scenes aren’t about tab A into slot B but are about emotions, in all their messy glory. I’d cheat my readers if I left out such a rich opportunity for character development.

Will explicit content put off some readers? Yes, most likely, but not all books are for all people and I’m fine with that. However, I don’t want to drown the right readers with purple prose, hence the class.

I’m setting aside rewrites for the next 2 weeks to focus on learning – a break in momentum, but a worthy one.

 

 

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.

References:

Burns, T. (2008). Francis Garland, William Shakespeare, and John Dee’s Green Language. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition2(15). Retrieved from http://www.jwmt.org/v2n15/garland.html

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 http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/1269.

Vincent Bridges. (n.d.). [Mp3]. Retrieved from http://occultofpersonality.net/vincent-bridges/

 

dude, seriously?

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.

Dude, seriously?

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.

writing by the seat of my pants

Last night was my first class in a 3-week workshop on character development. As in, a real, live, in person class, with a classroom and everything.

I was iffy about signing up for it at first; I prefer online instruction because it gives me time to think about my answers, and I’m always cagey about adding another non-moveable item to my cluttered calendar, but I am ultimately glad I did it.

Turns out the instant back and forth is something I need, because it short-circuits my tendency to over think. On my own I’ll constantly refer to notes (would they be in this room? What are they wearing? What time did X take place chronologically?), but the exercises were timed and specific: Take a news headline and expand on it in 3 minutes; Look at a picture and describe the character’s mindset in the same amount of time; generate a fake name from the phone book and write a first-person paragraph.

I expected these to be nerve-wrackingly difficult but they weren’t simply because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I think perhaps the most useful exercises were how to base a character on your own experiences without it becoming a Mary Sue (use a different name, write 3rd person, and change the situation slightly to build emotional distance) and how to build a character around an object (who owns this? How did they get it? Why is this important to them?). The latter in particular I’m going to use to build a character in world I tentatively built years ago but couldn’t populate.

My classmates are few but enthusiastic; one of the things I love about adult continuing education is that everyone in the room wants to be there. Everyone also got there by different side doors: one is a teacher who wants to write for kids, another is a journalist who wants to write fiction, yet another has her own historical fiction thing going on.

Also, the teacher is clearly excited about stories and storytelling, and with the small class size there’s a lot of good back and forth.

This week was “building characters from personal experience”, next week is using psychological insights, which is why I signed up in the first place. Keep ya posted.

characterization

I’m looking at the local community college’s Character Workshop for Fiction Writers for this fall, as I think it would help me with what I consider to be my biggest weakness – I can’t design a character to save my life.

Full disclosure: in a past RPG I did have a couple of original characters, but I don’t think they were very good – introductory descriptions felt like I was ticking off check boxes just to get it out of the way, and then I wrote whatever fit the plot/my whims. I just couldn’t get in their heads (“what would x do in y situation based on z personality characteristics?”), and I don’t think I developed them well.

I confess this is why I’ve tended to lean on fan fiction as my writing outlet: characters are already established, and I’ve read/seen them in action so I can better imagine what they might say or do. Additionally, fan fiction audiences are already familiar with them/the property to which they belong, so I can be lazy and forego introductions/”establishing shots”.

I don’t mean that as a criticism of other fanfic writers (it’s fun to play with characters in worlds you already know and love), just noticing that I happen to use it as a crutch to avoid improving the things I’m bad at.

Truth: I’m more comfortable inventing worlds, but then I don’t know how to populate them. Which bugs me because I tend to find that characters and dialog are what make or break a story for me, and if I’m going to bother with this at all I want to write stuff I’d actually want to read, dammit!