necromancy: why, how, and why not to do it

Coincidentally, it’s just when the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest that I passed the point in my book where the Papal Nuncio accuses Dee and Kelley of necromancy. Mind, they probably didn’t do it (or Dee didn’t–too goody goody for that), but why would anyone want to raise the dead, and how would they do it anyway?

Black adn white engraving of two men in a nighttime churchyard standing in a magic circle, a skeletal ghost before them.
Fanciful nineteenth century portrayal of “Edw[ar]d Kelly, a Magician. in the Act of invoking the Spirit of a Deceased Person” from Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, M.D. F.R.H.S., Embellished with Curious Copper-Plates, London, 1806, courtesy Wikipedia

Technically early modern Christian necromancers weren’t trying to raise the dead–that was seen as something only God could do. No, they just conjured demons who looked like spirits, and used them for a variety of things including finding lost objects, telling the future, controlling other people, or creating illusions.

Kind of mundane, considering the spiritual sketchiness of necromancy and the sheer inconvenience of performing it. You had to consider magic circles, moon phases, and offerings before you even got to the incantations. Check out this bit from Reginald Scot’s 1584 best-seller “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”. Though Scot rejected the reality of witchcraft bits of it read like a how-to, with a surprisingly pious bent:

…I conjure thee spirit by the living God, the true God, and by
the holie God, and by their vertues and powers which have created
both thee and me, and all the world. I conjure thee by these
holie names of God, Tetragrmnmaton Adonay Algraniay
Saday Sabaoth Planaboth Craton Neupinaton…

…etc. What happened if you forgot or mispronounced a name isn’t recorded.

But why did Kelley perform necromancy, if he did it at all?

The story goes that long before he met Dee he was arrested in Walton on Dale for conjuring a spirit, but a local squire named Langton managed to get him released. Given that so much of Kelley’s history is legend I’m unsure how seriously to take this, and even the legend doesn’t have much about Kelley’s’ reasoning.

So I’m just making something up. It’s historical fiction, remember?

fizzle to a bang

The third act. The moment of truth, the home stretch, the part of the book in which I bring the reader to the climax of the story by throwing everything I have at my protagonist so he has no choice but to face his demons and cut them down.

Which is great when your historical timeline fits nicely into a three-act structure but when it doesn’twell.

Most fictional treatments of the Dee/Kelley partnership fudge the timeline, I suspect because thumbnail biographies of Dee imply that he parted ways with Kelley right after they swapped wives–a well timed climax (ha!) if ever there was one.

In reality they–and their wives– limped along in the same house for another year and a half and I really want to milk those 18 months for all the dramatic tension they’re worth. Unfortunately, this is the part of the book where I’m supposed to tie up loose ends and race for the finish.

So I have to either make this drawn out angst into a rollercoaster or cut it completely. If the latter it’ll break my little black heart but I’ll do it in the name of art. Besides, I can write short outtake vignettes if I still feel the need to punish my characters just that little bit more.

How about you? If you write based on real events, how do you work with (or against) the timeline? Or if you’re a reader, how much accuracy do you want in your “based on a true story”s?

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.

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.

NaNowriMo?

It’s impossible to write without considering National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m new enough to serious writing that I’ve never participated before and I’m getting encouragement from all quarters to give it a try. It DOES sound like a good way to get words down, but I have to ask – does it really count if I’m just doing prep/background?

Don’t misunderstand me: I will still be writing key scenes for the novel and doing exercises to improve in general but I’m in no way ready to force a multi-thousand word first draft.

Part of this is because I’ve not completed my timeline of the historical events on which I’m basing my story. These cover 6 years and several countries, and while I already know I’m going to have to deviate from the reality to make a ripping yarn, I want to have this complete before I start the main writing so I know exactly how and where I’m breaking off from fact.

Figuring out a compelling story arc is the other problem. History seldom unfolds in a tidy seven-point story structure or the like, so once I have the fact down I have to hammer it into a readable fiction.

As such I’m going to end up doing more of a NaNoOutlineMo/NaNoResearchMo in order to get everything lined up. I suppose this is illustrative of how much writing doesn’t have much to do with actual writing, at least when I’m not done with my research.