critique week

I’ve hit a roadblock.

The mood and emotions in my latest section keep eluding me. I’m still hammering out 200+ words a day, but none make me happy and I’m falling into another editing tail-chasing cycle trying to get it just so.

I could continue this flailing or get feedback, painful though that might be.

I’m a member of two critique groups: one local and one online, and I don’t take advantage of either as often as I should. Part of it is nerves, certainly: good test readers don’t sugar-coat their criticism, and will likely advocate killing darlings I’ve sweated over for weeks.

But more than anything else it’s my stubborn “if you want it done right do it yourself” urge to work alone. Once I get deep into a particular thing I forget that the writing process isn’t inherently solitary. In fact, I need to share with others to improve, or at least figure out if I’m on the right track.

As both groups require reciprocation I’ll be critiquing more than writing this week, but that’s ok. I’m not making much progress and I don’t see this changing without a swift kick in the pants. Besides, sometimes it’s good to just walk away for a bit.

drinking from the firehose

Research for the Great Work (TM) includes a wide variety of subjects to get the details of sixteenth century life in a gentry household just right. My grip on the architecture, food, household economics, technology, and day-to-day life is firm enough to get the story moving. However, a magical household isn’t ordinary. I’ve run into a topic that is impossible to crash-course: Enochian magic.

Dee and Kelley invented (or channeled, take your pick) an entire magical system during their years together. “Enochian” includes:

Prophetic and apocalyptic visions are sprinkled in throughout, and don’t get me started on the ritual furnishings…

I’m never going to get my head around this material. There’s so damn much of it, and I lack the necessary background in Renaissance occultism and numerology/mathematics to appreciate its context. As such I’m confining myself to identifying the different parts, creating a timeline of their delivery, and figuring out their supposed functions.

When were they building furniture? Would a certain table lend itself better to Kelley faking it, or being possessed as the angels speak through him? Which visions made the biggest impressions? What did they expect to accomplish with all this stuff? These are the narrative questions I need to answer even if I never understand how the system works.

I’d love to be able to describe spoken Enochian as dramatic and musical, but I can’t. Recordings of the calls [YouTube] sound so ridiculous I have no problem believing Kelley generated the language while speaking in tongues. My dreams of writing Kelley weaving elegant angelic poetry are dashed!

So I plow onwards through waking dreams, countless tables of strange characters and names I suspect no one can pronounce. It’s interesting but brain-breaking, so I’m rereading the Dresden Files as a well-deserved break.

Four questions for writers

This is my reply for the “four questions for writers” meme that’s been floating around. Heather Rose Jones was kind enough to tag me when she posted her answers, and I’m tagging Shawn Humphrey and Day Al-Mohammed.

What are you currently working on?

A historical fiction novel about the adventures of the Renaissance mathematician/magus John Dee, his medium Edward Kelley, and their wives.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

I’ll let you know when I figure out my genre! It’s largely historical fiction but includes a love story and elements of fantasy and gothic horror.

It’s different from other fiction about Dee and Kelley because everything else seems to paint Dee as a deluded genius and Kelley as a callous fraud. Dee’s surviving diaries suggest their personalities and collaboration were far more complicated.

Also, I’ve not seen much written from the perspective of their wives. I can’t help imagining they had difficult and confusing lives.

Why do you write what you do?

I’ve always been interested in both history and the weird/occult. The ways people deal with strange experiences and the subjectivity of reality intrigues me, and the odder corners of history are ripe for speculation and invention.

How does your writing process work?

I’m still on a massive learning curve. I research and write at the same time, so I start with what doesn’t need much historical input, often dialogue. As I get a grip on the time and place I add setting details and description. I take extensive notes and comment my first draft in an effort not to constantly rewrite (though that still happens).

I write scenes out-of-order and keep each in a separate file in Scrivener, so I can move them around as needed and keep track of the whole thing.

Aeon Timeline software is invaluable for keeping track of what happened when – I think it would be impossible to track their activities over 7 years and as many countries otherwise!

I have a full time day job so my progress is slow, but I get up early to write. I try to do at least 200 words a day every day, and more when I can. I figure I need this kind of self-discipline both to practice my writing and to finish this beast!

distillation

In the past few weeks I’ve attended several writing-related activities: a book festival/local historical writers meet up, a sci-fi con with a quality writing track, and my monthly critique group. I’ve immersed myself in discussions of writing process, self-promotion strategies, and how and when to edit.

It has been fabulous – I’ve received some good advice and feedback, and have some useful plans for the future. But all the advice comes down to the same thing:

Finish the book.

There’s nothing to promote without a completed book; there’s not even anything to edit without a first draft (my tendency to tail-chase notwithstanding). And I do tend to wallow in the research because it’s comfortingly familiar in the way that a blank page is not.

As such, I may be scarce around here as I make a concerted effort to get things done.

 

reboot

I attended a local class on historical fiction last weekend. It covered challenges specific to the genre (time/time frame, historical figures vs. fictional characters, POV) but the most useful discussion regarded the balance of documentable fact vs. creative license.

I approach my historical fiction the way I approach historical costume: there’s room for a spectrum of accuracy long as I know where and how I’m cutting corners. So far my inner history nerd has adhered closely to the timeline of Dee’s diaries. After discussing my approach with the instructor, she suggested I may be limiting myself out of fear of writing actual fiction.

The short version: she suggested that Jane Dee, not Edward Kelley, should be my protagonist.

I am not convinced she is wrong.

When I start I wanted Jane to be my central character because I imagine her life with two occultists as a strange and stressful one seldom (never?) examined fictionally. Then I had difficulty finding an obvious story arc for her and my research led me down the rabbit hole of Kelley’s motives so I abandoned the idea.

The instructor pointed out that Jane Dee’s lower profile in the diaries is a perfect excuse to make things up. There’s more freedom to create a story that isn’t slavishly locked into Dee’s day-by-day spirit diaries. The possibility that a female protagonist might sell better to a readership that is mostly women is a nice bonus.

This is exhilarating and scary at the same time, and I’ve spent the last week in a shaky creative exhale. I still need a story arc, so I’m playing with the seven point outline and identifying gaps where Jane might be acting without Dee’s knowledge. I’ve not abandoned the story of Edward Kelley’s descent into madness, but I’m experimenting with him visiting Jane’s world rather than the other way around.

Essentially I’m writing two books at once, and trusting that the protagonist will reveal themselves in rewrites.

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.

what is it?

I’ve been secretive about the details of my book out of irrational fears of being scooped and having a stupid premise. Then I remembered I’m not the first person to write about these people, and the informal feedback I’m getting suggests I’ve found an interesting angle so I thought I’d come clean:

My novel is about the strange working and domestic partnership of the 16th century mathematician/magus John Dee and his crystal ball gazer (or “scryer”) Edward Kelley. The short version: Dee was one of the geniuses of the Elizabethan age and still Kelley managed to convince him for almost 10 years that he talked with angels. This delusion led them to create a magic system still in use today, scold the Holy Roman Emperor, piss off some clerics, have a seance with the King of Poland, and ultimately swap wives.

Most scholars seem to write off Dee as a rube and Kelley as a con man, which they undoubtedly were to some degree, but on closer examination the story is much more complicated. Kelley questioned the veracity of his own visions and tried to leave Dee more than once, and the sheer volume and variety of their output suggests there was something more going on.

In my research I’ve only found one article that explores in depth the idea that the “angels” were the product of fraud combined with mental illness, and that’s my premise.

My story assumes that Kelley pulled a con that got out of hand when he started actually seeing things. With Dee’s encouragement this turned into a kind of “folie a deux” and they dragged their wives along with them.

Kelley is my protagonist, as he seems to have the most obvious story arc and because I’m personally fascinated by his motives and his possible perspective of Dee’s obsession with their “actions” (seances).

Dee’s wife Jane is my other POV character, as she’s been given short shrift in the other fiction I’ve read (when she appears at all), and given what must have been her demanding responsibilities managing an experimental household, I figure she’s got good reason to be angry at both Dee and Kelley = conflict ahoy!

It’s turning into a bit of a genre bender – it’s certainly historical but not clear-cut military or romance (though there is sex), with elements of ambiguous paranormal/psychological horror (are the angels real or shared madness?), then there’s the adventure on the Continent and domestic drama…

So, kinda hard to pin down. But never dull.

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.

internalization

I’m having a hell of a time thinking of myself as a writer.

I know, I know – if you write, however casually, you are a writer. I write a bit most days,  I conduct serious research in pursuit of my book, I take classes and critiques, I tell people I’m writing a book. But I still can’t square these with having never been published, and only recently considering that this hobby could be more.

This situation is not entirely unfamiliar.

Fencing is my other great hobby*. I practice 3 days a week, take lessons, compete nationally, and have a rating (kind of like a belt in other martial arts). I may never be an Olympian, but I am an athlete. I wasn’t always though – when I started out 12 years ago I was a relative couch potato, fencing once a week to stave off weight gain.

What made the difference?

Among other things, getting good instruction and setting aside time for practice (instead of straggling to club only when I had “free time”), but I don’t think I would have done either of those things if I hadn’t been both obsessed with improvement and believed that I could improve. Simply taking my efforts seriously inspired more disciplined habits that helped the fencing: adopting a healthier diet, cross-training to improve strength and endurance, and finding the elusive persistence to keep going even when it was difficult.

Even so, it took me 12 years to call myself “athlete” without laughing:

photo of my "Athlete" pass from the State Games

doG only knows what it will take for me to ever feel worthy of the label “writer”, but at least I’m going through the correct motions. I may never be a bestselling author, but I will be (am?) a writer.

Rick Castle in "Writer" bulletproof vest.
Credit: http://castle.wikia.com/wiki/WRITER_bullet_proof_vest

*I also sew/costume, but lately it’s taken a back seat to the writing. File under: not enough hours in the day.