weird Prague – the ghost and witch tours

Most walking tours hit the highlights: places, dates, battles. All of which is good and interesting, but I wanted a flavor of the local folklore that doesn’t make it into history books. I find ghost tours are the best way to learn about the weird history of a place, and I found two I enjoyed.

I discovered the Prague witch tour last minute and accidentally, and booked with the thought this will be either the cheesiest thing on earth or a window into contemporary pagan Prague. Definitely more beef than cheese, with servings of morbid history and a dash of ritual.

Our tour guide, Martina, was a modern pagan and a dedicated entrepreneur to boot. The witch tour is her labor of love, and she offered alternative perspectives on some of the usual sights. For example, she explained how Christian elements on the astronomical clock’s face can be interpreted as old pagan symbols to those in the know. While I don’t fully grasp the nuances of the occult “green language” (every word has seven meanings) it certainly lends another layer of history I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.

She also introduced us to the legend of 17th century executioner Jan Mydlář. Short version: the role of executioner traditionally stayed within families, but Mydlář committed a murder so grisly that they spared him the axe and gave him the job. He went on to an, er, prolific career and a friendship with the anatomist Ján Jesenský, to whom he supplied cadavers for dissection. Their friendship came to an end when Mydlář’s superiors ordered him to behead Jesenský along with 26 other Protestant leaders, thus kicking off the Thirty Years War. The execution site is still marked in the Old Town Square:

crosses of the martyrs in Old Town Square
One cross for each man. Very sobering.

Mydlář went on to drink away the loss of his best friend at a pub that still exists today. It’s somewhere behind the Old Town Hall, though for the life of me I couldn’t find it a second time:

front of the executioner's pub
The sign over the door. If you squint you can see some of the swords and other weapons hanging on the wall

The rest of the tour was a long walk through landmarks familiar and not: the surviving gothic architecture of Charles University and the “devil’s” fungus that tears the stone apart; the convent of St. Agnes, haunted by girls pressed into the nunnery against their will; the executioner’s storage and training house. Always the symbols passed through a pagan lens, revealing an enduring alternate belief system.

She even conducted a brief ritual of intent for us in a chalk-drawn circle, and I did my best to focus on my goals. The evening wound up in a local pub with excellent local spirits and a wide-ranging discussion about pagan thought. This tour is truly unlike anything else in Prague, and Martina is a delight. Highly recommended.

The underground ghost tour took us under the city hall into chambers that were at ground level hundreds of years ago but were slowly buried by later construction. Only hand-held lanterns relieve the complete dark, creating a still, close atmosphere that’s great for storytelling. Mydlář came up again as a man who tried to save his lover from the axe only to have things go disastrously wrong. Allegedly he also worked with a vampire hunter (how is there not a graphic novel somewhere about Mydlář & co? The black humor writes itself!). Our tour guide was a New Jersey native and the unfamiliar words sounded even more so in his familiar accent, but he knew his stuff and claimed to have had some experiences of his own.

Both tours claim that tourists have gone home to find wisps and ghostly “orbs” in their photos. Alas, the ghosties didn’t come out for me. Though, I did have a devil of a time uploading these images, so make of that what you will.

a tale of two alchemy museums part 1: Speculum Alchemiae

I took this trip hoping to get a stronger sense of place for my characters and settings. How do cobblestones feel underfoot? Are the winding streets cramped or pleasantly busy? How high are ceilings?

Though many of the sites in my book still exist their use has changed dramatically: the Charles Bridge is full of vendors and performers; a former house is now a pizza joint, etc. So I itched to visit Speculum Alchemiae, an extant sixteenth century alchemical lab open to the public.

The museum is a short walk north of Old Town Square in the old Jewish quarter. From the signage and oddly-shaped bottles you’d think it’s a quaint novelty shop.

Speculum Alchemaie entrance, with signage and plants and bottles on display

Given alchemy’s sketchy reputation (rife with charlatans but with high possible payoffs) practitioners had good incentive to hide their activities. In this case an apothecary’s shop served as the “front”:

Cabinet of curiosities and bookcase
Books and curiosities. “We’re just humble apothecaries, not doing anything weird, I swear”

When the docent said Tadeáš Hájek owned the original shop my ears perked up. He served as Rudolf II’s personal physician and he vetted all alchemists bidding for royal patronage…including Dee and Kelley.

At this point I was so busy having an “OMG they could have been here!” squee that I almost missed the explanations of the frescoes and the very strange chandelier.

Chandelier featuring multiple horned heads of Moses
All of these are Moses’ head; horns are due to erroneous translation of “halo”.

Spikes in the earth, air, fire, and water frescoes directed “energy” (go with it) to the central spire on the chandelier that points to the labs below.

The stairs to said labs are hidden behind the bookcase and accessed Batcave-style with a twist and pull of a small statue:

brick-lined stairway underground

The ceilings are low and the rooms compact. I imagine that when in use it must have been hell: the stink of experiments and bodies, lots of burning/breakable material in close quarters, and the constant threat of explosive accidents or prying eyes.

terraced furnace with lots of alchemical glassware. Stuffed crocodile suspended from ceiling
Most of the equipment is reproduction with a few extant pieces. Note stuffed crocodile at upper left – these show up in paintings of alchemical labs with ridiculous frequency

Whoever built this took the need for quick escape into account. Three tunnels lead out of the lab: one to Old Town Square, one to the barracks (the quickest way out of town) and one that goes under the Vltava River (!) and up the hill (!!) to Prague Castle.

Heavy metal door to tunnel
Door to Old Town Square tunnel. Appears to be bricked up – I don’t know if that’s before or after excavation

This last put my jaw on the floor. The difficulty and expense of construction plus the need to keep it secret illustrates how important alchemy was to Rudolf II and his court. If I weren’t so focused on my book I’d be tempted to research Renaissance mining and earthworks to figure out just how difficult…but I digress.

Archeologists found a recipe book during excavation, and a monastery in Brno distills the elixirs for sale in the museum store based on the old formulas (minus illegal/dangerous ingredients). The docents didn’t know what became of the original recipe book or, strangely, who did the original excavation of the labs.

This jarred me enough to follow up with the owner and the Museum of the City of Prague, neither of whom had answers. I find it difficult to believe there aren’t any records of a ten-year excavation! I don’t need the information for my book but I’d love to see the original field notes and discover who holds surviving artifacts. Anyone have any suggestions?

Even with these unanswered questions Speculum Alchemiae is a fantastic example of what a real alchemical lab would looked like and how alchemists hid their experiments. If Dee and Kelley diddn’t walk those very corridors they will in my book – it’s just too good not to include in overheated, sulfurous glory!

Next time: Kelley’s old house at the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague.

chasing Edward Kelley – Prague

I’ve been away.

Prague's astronomical clock
The famous astronomical clock

Two years and one first draft later, I finally made my long-coveted research trip to Prague.

I’d wanted to go since I started researching the book 2 years ago. Turns out many of Dee and Kelley’s old Bohemian haunts still exist and, as they say, there’s nothing like the real thing. Besides, any excuse to travel!

I did so much that the past 2 weeks feel like a month, but in a good way. Despite my efforts to not to do ALL THE THINGS at once I couldn’t resist the Prague Castle after dark walking tour my second night.

For three hours our guide took us through the huge castle complex and regaled us with stories of weird Prague: the golem, the imprisoned violinist, Tycho Brahe and his metal nose. Normally crowded with tourists, at night it’s fairly empty, and the cold and rain made it even more evocative.

Golden Lane at night
The Golden Lane at night, by Charlotte Dries. Imagine an astronomer on the roof, an alchemist toiling away underground…

And the view:

Prague skyline
Prague from the Castle, by Charlotte Dries

Historic Prague is geographically small – most of it is visible in the picture above – but so much is packed into those endlessly winding little streets!

More in the coming weeks: two very different alchemical labs, a gorgeous library, Renaissance science bros. But to keep this book related:

White Tower, Golden Lane
The White Tower in Golden Lane, one of the many places Edward Kelley was imprisoned.

Special thanks to my friend Charlotte Dries, who had the good sense to have a quality camera with her at all times!

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 (http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/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.

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.

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.

it’s too much

I’ve been having one of those weeks with the writing.

It’s been a struggle to cough up more than a couple hundred words a day, not because inspiration is lacking but because I can’t complete a thought without having to put in placeholders for something I haven’t researched yet:

…the large table in the center of the room. It groaned with food, [what kind? how much?]

or

He shifted to and fro in an attempt to keep his blood flowing. “Besides it’s cold as [16th c. equivalent of “a witch’s tit”]-“

or

Approaching the throne, Jane dropped a low curtsey [how does one correctly greet the Queen?]

And so forth. These pauses not only derail my thinking but illustrate the gaps in my knowledge that I need to place the story in a concrete-feeling time and place. This doesn’t include the list of general questions I need to answer before I know if some of my plot points are even possible.

Currently I have over 80 sources but it still doesn’t seem like enough; my fear of anachronism looms large but I don’t want to put off my narrative ideas until the research is complete (opinions on how much research to do pre-writing differ).

Even so, this often feels like too big of a project to face, as though there are too many details and dependencies to get my head around to do the story justice, and the temptation to just quit is great. But that’s not how books get written so I press on, trying to break it into manageable pieces and keeping my […] in to address in the next draft.

I’m also giving Scrivener a whirl to try to impose some order on this beast. Currently the book is in a series of Word files in a single folder on my desktop, none titled clearly enough to know their content or sequence. Hopefully this will also help with the dreaded outlining.

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.