trust no one: the (un)reliability of historical sources

Given the sheer oddity of Dee and Kelley’s story (two men talking to angels!?) it’s no surprise that wild tales grew up around them. But, I want to write something historically accurate so I’ve been slowly winnowing out the facts from the legends. The further I go the stranger it gets, and Stephenie Woolterton’s post on bias in historical research reminds me that “facts” are always filtered through those relating them.

Trust no one
Yes, I was X-Files fan back in the day. Courtesy

I’ve found two broad interpretations of Dee and Kelley’s partnership:

  1. Kelley was a fraud, full stop. Espoused mostly by Dee’s biographers, it makes sense at first glance but on closer examination seems inadequate. Their partnership went on for 7 years – if it was a con Kelley deserves credit as the best actor/storyteller of his age! It also ignores Kelley’s repeated attempts to leave Dee’s employment and his doubts about the holiness/usefulness of the spiritual messages. Why question it if he had Dee fooled? Why start the fraud in the first place?
  2. Kelley channeled something outside himself and the seances can be taken at face value. A minority opinion embraced by some modern-day occultists, it sidesteps their work’s resemblance to earlier magical systems (even Kelley points this out) and the English grammar and structure of the alleged “angelic” language.

If the historians can’t be trusted, the primary sources aren’t much better. Save a few letters and other miscellanea we only have Dee’s account of 1582-1589 and he’s not completely reliable.

Dee’s “private” diary was written in the margins of almanacs and wasn’t all that private. Erasures suggest that Kelley edited it with Dee’s knowledge and one can infer Dee expected that it might be read by others. Susan Bassnett points out that Dee left out significant information about Kelley’s stepchildren and brother – who and what else did he leave out, and why?

The spiritual diaries appear to be verbatim transcripts of Dee and Kelley’s seances, but they are incomplete. Not everything has survived to the present, and some pages were destroyed before their importance was known. We only have what Kelley saw fit to share with Dee and have little notion of any communications he received/created without Dee’s direction.

Indeed, very little is certain about Kelley at all. His early life is a series of rumors (did he raise the dead? Did he lose one ear, both ears, or no ears for forgery?) and almost everything else is from Dee’s diaries. He often comes off as a selfish, temper tantrum-throwing brat but given their tumultuous relationship  it’s fair to say Dee had his own biases.

And here I show my own. I think Sledge comes closest to the truth when he suggests that Dee and Kelley’s work was the product of a mix of fraud, mental illness, and self-hypnosis. My hard-headed modern mind can’t accept a supernatural explanation but I doubt Kelley came up with 7 years worth of prophecies and magic on his own. I also suspect the more heretical material wouldn’t have shocked him so if he’d consciously invented it.

Dee pushed Kelley into frequent altered states and documented the “spirits’” every word. Is it unimaginable that with Dee’s constant encouragement Kelley might start to believe his own lies, but be resentful and angry from overwork? In this sense I don’t think Kelley was the cardboard-cutout con artist put forth by Dee’s biographers. Far more likely that Enochian magic came out of a shared madness between the two, with Kelley’s delusions directed by Dee’s obsessions.

In the end, does any of this really matter? I’m writing fiction, after all, and am free to make up what I can’t prove. Much as my inner history geek wants to know “the truth” I have to accept that reality is often subjective – one of the themes of my novel. Just because a thing isn’t objectively real doesn’t make it any less relevant.

Selected sources:

Bassnett, S. (2006). Absent Presences: Edward Kelley’s Family in the Writings of John Dee. In John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought (pp. 285–294). Dordrecht: Springer.

Laycock, D. C., Kelly, E., Dee, D. J., & Duquette, L. M. (2001). The Complete Enochian Dictionary: A Dictionary of the Angelic Language As Revealed to Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley. Weiser.

Sledge, J. J. (2010). Between Loagaeth and Cosening: Towards an Etiology of John Dee’s Spirit Diaries. Aries10(1), 1–35.


more show vs. tell: the subtle art of subtext

Imagine a story in which everyone lies left and right, to each other and themselves.

Sounds good, right? So full of conflict and hidden suggestions, misdirections and bad decisions.

But how exciting is it if you’re told that they are unreliable lying liars?

This is why I’m going through my first draft* with my head in my hands.

Saga’s Lying Cat, courtesy

Saga (a wonderful space opera comic series I highly recommend) has Lying Cat  announce every falsehood. She’s perfect for Saga’s comedy/drama/surrealism but I can’t get away with something so obvious. I’m not that clever and clever isn’t my book’s “tone” anyway.

Hence my need to master subtext.

How can I show Edward con everyone without pointing out every time he invents a story? How do I show Jane play the gracious housewife while struggling not to slap everyone in sight? How do I show Dee’s nervousness even as he follows every insane angelic order?

I’m barely 2 chapters in and I’ve already found multiple spelled-out instances (“My name is Talbot,” Edward lied; Jane hid her anger behind a smile). I don’t want to hit readers over the head like that. At the same time I don’t want to hint so feebly that readers wonder what the hell just happened.

The Emotion Thesaurus has proved invaluable in my efforts to say the unsaid. It’s organized by emotion and includes not only definition and physical, mental, and internal indications but examples of efforts to suppress that emotion. Rage expresses through violent acting out, clouded vision, and a need to take control, but suppressed rage plays out through gritted teeth and tense silence. I don’t read body language well so having it laid out in a tidy list is helpful for me beyond the page.

So I’m going through looking for opportunities for my characters to show their inner conflicts. This will take a lot of work.

*I think I’ve finished my first draft (!) It lacks a few scenes from my outline, but on second look they seem like filler. The first draft may be a major achievement, but it doesn’t feel like one. I now have a ton of sand, but it’s still not a castle.

Field Trip! Deborah Harkness at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Research for the WIP involves such narrow, specific subjects that it’s a rare treat when there’s a lecture or something else for the public about any of them. When I learned Books of Secrets: Reading and Writing Alchemy was only 3 hours away I knew I had to go. If this weren’t reason enough, a related lecture by author Deborah Harkness tipped the scales. So last Tuesday I day-tripped to the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.

Book of Secrets sign

The CHFM is a little gem, not as well publicized as Philadelphia’s better-known science museums like the Mutter or Franklin Institute, but it should be. Their focus is the history of chemistry, and besides two floors of exhibit space they have an extensive library with many rare books. It supplied most of the books in the show and many of the paintings of alchemical labs. Afterwards I discovered several episodes about alchemy in CHF’s Distillations podcast archives.

“Books of Secrets” is small but excellent, and the books are displayed so it’s possible to get close and read the (often painfully tiny) text. All volumes appear heavily used; in an informal chat in the exhibit hall Dr. Harkness clarified that these books saw constant use both in and out of the lab.

soot stained book of secrets
Soot stains from hours over a burning furnace?

Alchemical laboratory equipment is situated alongside the books and paintings. I don’t understand their use any better but now I know what they look like in three dimensions!

alchemical lab equipment
Still don’t know what those triangular cups are for, or why they’re triangular
Unexpectedly, this furnace was only the size of a can of house paint.

Dr. Harkness’ lecture was impressive. I enjoy her All Saints Trilogy for its well-developed story, so full of things I like – magic, vampires, history, romance, occult weirdness! – but I discovered her research before her fiction. Managing an Experimental Household inspired me to make Jane Dee a POV character, and  The Jewel House provided much-needed context about the Elizabethan scientific community. She spoke about the intersection between the writing and reading of alchemical texts and laboratory experimentation.

Alchemical books were rare, often expensive, and full of “trade secrets”. Practitioners copied and shared their texts, and, to my vague horror, also wrote all over them. The idea of defacing a book made my inner 5th grader flinch until Dr. Harkness pointed out that they functioned as lab notebooks, full of observations, emphasis, and additions.

book with heavy marginal notes
This alchemist carefully boxed off the original text…and filled up the margins with notes.

This makes even more sense when I learned that alchemists thought of writing as a way to change reality. By Judaeo-Christian reckoning God wrote the world into existence (“In the beginning there was the word”). Alchemical experimentation was a way to read this “book of nature” and by extension understand God himself. Based on this assumption writing could be a divine act and even a means for the alchemist to transform the physical world.

A book signing followed the lecture, and Dr. Harkness was wonderfully approachable and often funny (alchemists as reliable as politicians – sounds about right)! Not only did she sign my copy of The Jewel House, but answered some of my questions about the manuscripts and recommended further reading.

Deborah Harkness signing book


After that came the long drive home. A busy day, but well worth it!

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.

giving up one thing to get another

I used to be a costumer.

Let me back up. I am a costumer. My love of costume and fashion goes way back, and I started sewing in high school as a means of getting EXACTLY the outfit I imagined. Over the years I’ve turned my hand to everything from modern patterns to science fiction and historical costume, the latter especially a wonderful outlet for my restless need to research.

Fitted Gown
English fitted gown, ca 16th c.
Elizabethan partlet with blackwork embroidery

I not only enjoy sewing but do it well: I can draft my own patterns and alter existing ones; I’m comfortable dyeing, hand sewing, and even the odd bit of embroidery. Given that my day job has me moving pixels around a screen 40 hours a week it’s a refreshing change to work with something physical.

So you have some idea how big a deal it is for me to set it aside.

Farscape duster
Duster from tv show “Farscape”
Sleeveless doublet with trim, ca. 16th c.

Once I got serious about The Book ™ I realized I’d have to stop sewing. Fact: there are only 24 hours in a day. Eight of those I must sleep (and I really must; one of the cruel tricks of being over 35 is that I can’t function on 5 hours a night anymore); another 8 I must work to keep a roof over my head. ~Two days a week I fence and giving it up isn’t an option because I get cranky if I don’t exercise regularly. I also have husband, family, and friends who I enjoy spending time with. Something had to give.

My coach once gave me a valuable piece of advice: you give up one thing to get another. He meant this in the context of fencing: if you go on the offense you give up defense; if you defend one side you automatically leave another open. There is no one perfect act that gives you EVERYTHING, and I’ve found that this holds true for other aspects of my life.

Once the first draft is complete I’ll reward myself with a sewing project even if it’s just garment dyeing or a quick and dirty commercial pattern. Until then all creative energies must go towards the book.

This will be even more true for the next 6 weeks as the HNS conference folks finally got their requirements for cold reads/critiques to me. I need 10 more-or-less finished pages by May 31 to send to my mentor, so even the “pouring sand into the sandbox” of first drafting will be taking a back seat.

Wish me luck.

as above, so below: the big messy subject of alchemy

One of the (many) subjects I’m researching for the book is Renaissance alchemy. Both John Dee and Edward Kelley practiced it and the latter made his name in Bohemia when he successfully “transmuted” gold. As such I need to have some idea of what they were really doing.

Getting my head around this topic remains a chore. I had to wade through a ton of books that looked promising only to discover they were about something completely different (nineteenth century and later “new age” fads using alchemical transmutation as a metaphor for self improvement) or only tangentially related (medicinal alchemy – fascinating! – but no). Facsimiles and translations of historic primary sources exist (the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Image Collection has high-res scans) but the language and imagery are so laden with symbolism that they are almost impenetrable to non-academics.

Finally I located what may be the only “beginner’s” guide to good old-fashioned gold transmuting-type alchemy, Lawrence Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy. It covers the history of alchemy (transmutation and otherwise) from ancient times to the twentieth century and clearly explains the rationale behind beliefs that seem ridiculous to modern minds.

To hilariously simplify: early modern alchemists assumed that all metals were compounded from salt, sulfur, and mercury. Starting from this incorrect assumption it followed logically that altering the proportions or qualities of one or more of these could turn one metal into another.

They weren’t just guessing or making stuff up randomly either. Practitioners were methodical in their experiments and recorded recipes and outcomes. Of course nobody really turned lead into gold but their results were dramatic enough to suggest it was possible.

Principe followed a few historic recipes himself and came up with results similar to what was described, provided he used period-accurate supplies (raw ore instead of purified modern chemicals). William Newman’s Chymistry of Isaac Newton project performed some of Newton’s experiments and includes both videos of their experiments and a modern explanation of what’s really going on.

What I need for my story are:

1) a process (or slight of hand) that produces convincing fake gold, and

2) a process that results in enough pure gold for Kelley to think he’s actually transmuted gold

And my chemistry-illiterate self needs to write these in a way that is both engaging and believable without getting bogged down in detail that will bore the reader.

Oh yeah. This will be fun.

Selected sources:

Harkness, Deborah. The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. Yale University Press, 2007.

Newman, William R., editor. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton ( Retrieved April 7, 2015.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

For the psychological angle: Jung, Carl. Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton University Press, 1977.

For the history of medicine angle: Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.


So, I went to my first writer’s conference last weekend.

I could do a blow by blow of the size (small and manageable), facilities (well-appointed community college), instructors (sterling), and classes (many and varied), but I thought it better to address the immediate impact it had on my approach to Inspired Melancholy.

The question of whether to blog at all has gnawed me since I started this thing. Despite reminders that authors need to self-promote I’m also aware that the prime concern is finishing the book – ya gotta have the goods before you sell them, you know? So I’ve gone about this rather half-assed, with infrequent posts under a hard-to-Google title.

The session I attended on blogging for writers convinced me that yes, I need to continue, but not as I have been.

In the coming months I’m likely going to change the URL to something easier to find (with redirects). I’m also going to take you down the research rabbit-hole with me, so alchemy and Elizabethan occultism is forthcoming.

Stay posted.

new year’s resolutions

About time, considering I’m halfway through February!

Not much to report since fall: still shoveling sand into the sandbox that is my work in progress, still doing research on an as needed basis. I hope to have a first draft done by the end of the year.

I’m attending two writing conferences: one small, localish in a couple of weeks for classes and tentative networking. The big kahuna is in June, the Historical Novel Society conference, where I’ve signed up for cold reads, critiques, and a sex scene reading.

Given November’s shock I waver between kicking myself for signing up for ALL THE THINGS and reminding myself that the point is to “go big or go home.” I don’t expect to find an agent or a book deal, but I do hope to desensitize myself to professional criticism and being in front of an audience.

For now, back into the trenches.

shit got real

Last month I read a selection from the novel in progress to an audience.

Understand: it was not my first time public speaking (much as I avoid it) or a large crowd (mostly friends/family of my critique group). Even so, those 4 minutes felt seismic.

Suddenly this “writing a book” thing became vividly real.

Somehow reading a scene of my own work in public threw obligation into my lap like a lead weight. Afterwards my subconscious screamed can I do it? Can I really do it?

Despite the week of shakes and self-doubt afterwards, I am still plugging away. I will finish this thing.

plot vs. fact

History does not fit into a tidy 3 act story structure.

Or 7 part or 9 part, for that matter. In lieu of writing tons of irrelevant junk I’ve been trying my hand at the dreaded outline, and it’s not going well. Indeed, I would say it’s the hardest and most frustrating part of this whole “I wanna write a novel” process.

Proper plots go like those above: problem, complication, midpoint, darkness before the dawn, dawn, resolution. Or some such.

Mine goes more like:

Bad thing happens to kick things off

Protagonist straggles up a notch and thinks he’s got everything under control until he abruptly doesn’t.

Then stuff gets exhausting and weird…but he gains an ally.

Then things get worse and weirder…but he gains a patron.

Then his personal relationships go to hell…but his professional efforts are spot on.

In the end he must choose between insane love or material success with uncertain personal happiness.

There are no simple troughs and peaks, which seems to be traditional story structures demand. Nor is there a single antagonist. Also there isn’t a simple One Problem(TM) – there are a couple of lies he believes that have to get resolved by different truths.

So I’m at a loss as to what to do. I’m already cutting characters and excursions that prevent the story moving forward, and I might be able to keep things on track by speeding up some episodes and stretching out others, but then my character motives don’t make sense.

I’ve signed up for an online plotting course in November, and struggling to keep my writing mojo going in the face of this frustration.

I suspect may be time for me to find a proper writing coach.