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Dare To Be Different

October 9, 2013

I’ve been looking over my brief lives sketches (I’m not sure who the next one will be — possibly Jane Seymour, which is a depressing prospect) and if there’s any one take-away message from them, it seems to be “We know virtually nothing about this person, but there seems to be an unspoken pact to portray them as being a crazy bitch/helpless victim/smouldering bisexual/blinding idiot in ninety percent of the works in which they appear. Why not consider portraying them differently?” Since reading the same thing over and over can get tedious, this week is devoted to slightly more varied if equally unsolicited advice for those who would like to write a novel featuring someone in the Boleyn family. And why not? It’ll be November before you know it!

1. Put a chart on your wall/computer/smartphone which contains the names and birth dates of your lead characters. No, you won’t know the exact date for many of them, but if it’s a Tudor courtier you’ll be at least be able to find a “circa 15xx” for him or her. Now start using your novelist’s imagination and invent a birth date for each and every one of the “circa” people.

This exercise will serve two purposes. First, it will help to remind you that the Henry VIII who was at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 was in his late twenties and thus probably had little resemblance to this eldritch abomination, that Catherine of Aragon was thirty-two when she had her last child and not fifty-two, and that when Wolsey separated Anne from Henry Percy, future supporting players like Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton were approximately ten years old. This way everyone in the books ages and grows up (even if they don’t grow old) instead of the all-too-common scenario in which Anne’s and Henry’s character arcs, aging, and eventual separation play out against a static backdrop of unchanging courtiers.

Second, it will help you avoid continuity errors in which a minor player like, for example, William Stafford, is twenty-two years old in June of 1534 and still twenty-two by May of 1536.

2. Read poetry, and more poetry. Not just Thomas Wyatt (“Whoso list to hunt” has been so overexposed that it’s almost impossible to use effectively) and not even just John Skelton, though you’ll do well if you’re using poetry of his which isn’t “Why come ye not to court.” Try the often-anonymous late-medieval English poems and ballads, and French poetry as well. If your Renaissance French has grown rusty for some reason, look up the translations. Have you ever read the poems of François Villon? There’s a good chance Anne did. Try to avoid anachronistic books — when Anne read the Bible in French, she wasn’t reading the King James Version, though when she read Tyndale she was effectively reading the first draft for it. There’s no way to re-approximate what was in Anne’s mind, but giving her a good store of literary references from both of her languages can help give it shape and colour (not to mention some safe yet flirtatious topics of conversation with the king).

3. Avoid prophecies, except possibly the “Book of Prophecies” episode which George Wyatt mentions. Or rather — since this was a time when people loved fortune-telling and astrology, unlike our own sober and rational era — try to avoid overly-explicit prophecies of Anne’s future greatness. They’re inevitably as clunky as a five hundred dollar beater and seldom add anything to the story. Now, if you want to have someone prophesying to her that she’ll be queen and that she’ll also bear six sons, convert Cathay to Christianity, and through sheer power of prayer defeat the flaming terror that will descend from the sky in a comfortably distant year, then go right ahead. Anne wouldn’t have heard of Nostradamus, since he didn’t publish until after she died, but he was born within a couple of years of her and if the Nun of Kent’s recorded utterances leave you hungry for more, it can’t hurt to check out Les Propheties .

4. However you want to portray Jane Seymour, having Anne sneer at her as “whey-faced” will yank the reader right out of the sixteenth century and into an era when tanned skin symbolizes that you’re healthy and athletic and whey-coloured skin means you’re a valiant indoorsman who shamelessly eats processed foods. A dead-white face on a woman was considered beautiful, and it’s incumbent upon your characters to remember that. Better yet, consult the medical texts floating around then to find out how to whiten their own skin (not to mention treating piles, conceiving male children, and other possibly relevant feats). The Trotula and The Birth of Mankind are both good places to start.

5. And on a final, non-book related note, it bears pointing out that Mark Smeaton was first attached to Cardinal Wolsey’s household and later to Henry VIII’s. Notice how he was part of the King’s household, not the Queen’s. He was never part of Anne’s household, he was never her family’s cowhand, he was never her special protege whom she raised from the dust. He knew who she was, she knew who he was, they had at least one conversation, and that’s the extent of their documented relationship. Obviously you can expand on that however you wish (it was a rather strange conversation, after all) but please, for once keep Smeaton in the king’s household where he belongs.

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From → Miscellaneous

  1. *mad applause*
    This is fantastic! So much so that I may just reblog it all over my social media!

    What I love about this is that I had never actually thought about any of these. (Not that I’ve ever made an especially concerted effort to write something historical) but when I’ve played with short stories I’ve always just treated it with the same research I do with an essay. Brava!

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! There are lots of tongue-in-cheek lists out there which are always fun to read, but I wanted to do something a little different with this one. I may write a Part 2 one of these days once I can get more constructive than “Please stop quoting Shakespeare before Shakespeare to prove how educated you are, it’s annoying as hell.”

  2. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    Excellent points! I will bear them in mind.

    • sonetka permalink

      Oh, come on — you should be writing this article, not me!

  3. Clare permalink

    You could actually extend this article into a book in it’s own right. There’s certainly enough ammunition out there!

    • sonetka permalink

      It would be the ultimate “Those who can’t, teach” wouldn’t it? 🙂

  4. Annalucia permalink

    Coming to this thread again rather late, but it just occurred to me …

    The few times I’ve made fresh cheese, the whey was always a watery yellow – not white. Someone who was whey-faced would look unhealthy, if not downright jaundiced. So you can still retain it as an insult.

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