flimsy characterization

I found this deliriously titled how-to for writing supporting characters just as I’ve been struggling with creating my own. The point about “characters make plot” really hits home as I find I’ve been trying to force one to satisfy my vanity.

Because my protagonist and most of the other characters who Do Stuff(™) are men, I really want to write a female friendship in here to alleviate the sausagefest. My excuse is my other POV character, the control-freaky gentry lady, is stressed, overworked, and about to get a long-term guest she doesn’t like, so I’d like her to have a confidante in the house.

Turns out I’m jumping through narrative hoops trying to make this happen. I want the characters to be near equals, but there were genuinely no other women in the family, so I’m thinking, maybe a high-ranking servant like a housekeeper? And if I can make her a closet heretic of some sort (proto-Quaker? Cunning woman? [I’ve been reading too much Religion and the Decline of Magic]), she’d be an excuse to show off my mad research skills…

But despite multiple test drafts she doesn’t end up doing anything apart from react to the gentry lady. My efforts to give her depth are failing because while I can imagine what she is I’ve not been clever enough of a writer to make her do anything (housekeeping notwithstanding).

Unfortunately (?) my research reveals that most 16th century servants were men, and the real-life gentry lady’s brother is perfectly positioned to take the role of lead servant: he was caretaker of the house when she and her family left England so it’s not too much of a logical stretch to have him as the “steward” (many younger siblings acted as servants for their elders during this time). Also, as he becomes caretaker I already have a built-in finale for the 3 “beats” Wendig describes.

So, not a woman confidante but he’s certainly in her corner, and he does stuff (like flub the accounts so the gentry lady gets to show off her mad skills). Also easier to write, because I’m more familiar with the sibling dynamic than the mistress-servant relationship: I’ve tried both approaches and wound up with one colorless, stilted scene with the housekeeper but a delightful bickering 800 word ramble with the brother.

The real problem is that I’m letting my own obstinate desire to write someone I WISH were there instead of someone who will move the story forward.

There’s at least other woman in the story I can have her turn to, a former employer who’s unimpressed with her husband’s spirit conjuring, so there’s fodder there for complaint and conflict, but I’m not sure I can get her in there 3 times. Back to the drawing board…

getting at it

For obvious reasons historical fiction and research go hand in hand.  Libraries are my friends and I’ve spent many hours in online databases and dusty stacks pursuing all facets of sixteenth century life, from the religious and political climate to such everyday details like food, clothing, housing, and travel.

Book research is valuable and has helped me discover and clear up some major plot and setting questions but sometimes there really is nothing like the real thing.

Case in point: I’ve been struggling with Elizabethan interiors. No matter how many books I read or pictures I look at, my imagination still wants to put my characters in modern rooms with artificial light, controlled temperature, prefab uniformity, etc.  Given that the first two-thirds of the book takes place in a sixteenth century gentry home outside London it’s pretty crucial I get this basic setting right. Simply reading wasn’t enough for me to “get at it”.

The solution was obvious: visit an Elizabethan gentry home.

In the past I’ve done historical costume and swordplay for the same ease of mental access: why wonder how heavy all those layers of clothes are when I can just put them on? Why take descriptions of parries and footwork at face value when I can perform them myself? I always end up wanting to experience my passionate interests in a more immediate way and this time I have a real need.

I thought I’d have to wait until I could afford to travel to Europe, but fortunately for me I live relatively close to a transplanted Tudor house. I visited it with friends a few weekends back and it made all the difference in the world!

I’d looked at floor plans of a house wrapped around a central courtyard, but it didn’t prepare me for the simultaneous feeling of intimacy and sprawl: the house spreads further than I realized, but with all the windows my characters can see a great deal of household activity without leaving their private rooms. This layout solves some narrative problems and creates others.

Courtyard at Agecroft Hall
Courtyard at Agecroft Hall

All those windows also meant that the house was better lit than I’d envisioned. Even with lower ceilings and smaller rooms it didn’t feel as closed in as I’d expected. It turns out one character might be able to prowl through the library using only the light of a full moon as I’d planned, but I’ll have to remember that the dark was truly DARK without streetlights and lightbulbs.

A dozen little observations sunk in as the tour wound through the upper floors. The study was small and crowded with furniture, so I  can well imagine how stressful it was to work in such a tiny place. I knew servants often shared bedrooms with their masters, but the small size of the rooms and the need for drapes around the bedsteads highlighted the different concepts of privacy and how very difficult it would be to hide objects or keep secrets.

The “common areas” are also much different from what I’m used to due to the more formal manners of the time. The great hall was surprisingly public by modern standards, but only family and intimates made it to the rest of the house. My con man will have to use all his charms to get to the great parlor, and from there to becoming a guest/servant.

The least obvious but most important difference was the flooring: during my time period they were typically covered with rushes to soak up spills and dirt, so as the con man sneaks around he has to worry about rustling as well as creaking floorboards.

The exposure to the space, distance, and light really makes it easier to feel how my characters would navigate the house, how difficult it was to hide anything and how noisy and busy a private home could be. I hope to visit again in the spring to see the gardens, because the lady of the house often kept a herb garden (as my protagonist’s master did) both for cooking and home remedies.