Sue’s on-topic post makes me a bit ashamed of myself for my fun, but less-than-useful offerings.
While I try to write something serious on serials, (not sure I can manage it), here’s another (already written) Song-and-Dance (my default voice). After this, I’ll try to behave myself.
In Search of (Silly) History.
Creators of brave new worlds, those folks have an awful lot to figure out, science, geography, physicality, political structure, all that in addition to the main event, the going-somewhere story. In a real-world setting, much can be taken for granted. The surround needs only to be tailored, not assembled from scratch.
You might think that one who situates a well-worn fairy tale in a well-documented age has it easy. Well, sure, if you write Disney-style. I reconfigure history around the antics of a talking cat, which certainly suggests that flavor of fantasy.
In historical fiction, research is a given. I research also, diligently. I play with history, distorting, knotting, shredding. John Dee, a truly crackpot figure, interesting as hell, is ripe for a goof. I had my assassination episode mostly written, then I discovered Dee. That work is out the window, because what I’ve learned of him is too delicious to pass up.
He was Elizabeth’s Royal Astrologer. (Good.) He was a foremost scientist, the inventor of break-through tools for navigation. (Even better.) He believed he could communicate with angels. (Yahoo! If a man thinks he talks to angels, he may not fall apart when confronted by a conversational cat.)
He left notebooks full of coded entries and mysterious symbols – I swear to God, one of them has a cat in it. (My wildest prayers have been answered.) Scholars of the period speculate that Dee was an undercover operative for Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s Spymaster. If I didn’t adore reading history, if I had chosen to conceive a crank for my guy to butt heads with out of thin air, he would be amusing, but I would have missed a boatload of gorgeous possibilities. I do not balk at changing horses in mid-stream.
Dee is a fairly blank slate. Elizabeth is the other side of the coin. Reams are written on her. We think we know her, dignified, decorous, above all, regal. Most descriptions treat her gently. A marvelous few are brutal:
As a young woman, Elizabeth had been striking: slender, pale skinned, with masses of auburn locks, but the years had done their dirty work. Her hair now grew in patches. She wore wigs, caked her wrinkled, pocked face with cosmetics, and seldom laughed. An open mouth revealed broken, blackened teeth. Seemingly oblivious to her decline, she play-acted nubile desirability.
She demanded constant reassurance that she had not decayed. If one would gain her favor, he must court her as if she were a girl of eighteen and honor her not only as the Queen of England, but as the Queen of Love. Her affectations, the ancient crepe-skinned bared breast, the ridiculous simpering, must be applauded. The sight of a gap-toothed crone, complexion smeared with the lethal white lead-based make-up of the period, must not engender other than an admiring fascination with the strange effect.
It’s the demented details of history that I adore, that I graft onto my critters and my plot. Biographies, in particular, can jumpstart a hundred ideas and most of them will be better than what you pull out of your hat.
I’ll wrap this up. Let others fret and sweat over the from-scratch world building, which I generally find as compelling as the painted backdrop of a stage play. I’ll tip-toe through the tulips of history and gather a sweet armful of easily-harvested grotesqueries, the intimate touches that bring a story to life.
I cannibalize history. It works for me. Give it a whirl.
I am researching Catholic sects of the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. My Inquisitor, blackmailed to perform a baptism on a cat for a dotty king’s peace of mind, will turn out to be a rebel, holding a heretical belief that animals have souls. He’ll be all for it, if it’s done quietly. He doesn’t want to endanger his cushy life as a high official of the established church. Beyond that, he’s pleased to cater to the king’s whims. It’s never a bad idea to make a firm friend of a monarch, even a minor one.
I could invent a sect, but, as I’ve said, I like my lunacy to have one foot (at least, one toe) in reality, and I’m sure that I’ll find other lovely stuff to sprinkle in.
It’s late, way after Vespers. Over an ornate font, used for every royal baptism of the past two centuries, a mysterious baby receives his splash in high style, in the traditional royal robe, cuddled in the arms of the king himself, no mother in attendance. Hmmm . . . Prince Bittor is here, a bit aside, looking very uncomfortable.
The few nobodies on hand are kept at a distance, none apprehending that the babe in arms is a cat. You know they’ve got to be muttering to themselves: “This is just as odd as it may be. Who can the child be?”
What a delightful question. I will most certainly think on it.