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Words Do Not A Book Make

December 4, 2013

Well, as promised, I spent a fair proportion of my November evenings (those which weren’t spent cooking or collapsing from a persistent cold) turning out 40,000 words about George and Jane Boleyn. 10,000 short, but I’m still pleased that I got even that much done, because I find writing fiction about two hundred percent more exhausting than any other kind of writing. Of course, what I have written is in no way worthy of being called a novel, not even a very bad novel — it’s more like a loosely connected series of scenes which start and end at odd moments and have random pieces of information left out because the point of the exercise was to get the words out, not to fiddle about with things like ensuring complete internal consistency. Since I hope to get more work done on the story in the coming months, I’m posting a list of Things To Remember for the benefit of myself and the entertainment of any writers who didn’t like my assessment of their earlier efforts in writing Boleyn-centered fiction.

1. I know nothing. I knew I wasn’t a world-class scholar but I had no idea how little I knew about these people until I started trying to write about their daily lives. How many servants did they have, exactly? Where would they have slept on a routine basis? (A tricky question when both of them were technically attendants on those greater than themselves and weren’t always in the same place). What time did they get up? How did they get dressed? How many books did they own, realistically? It wasn’t long before I was running out for more books to tell me the answers to these questions. Which leads to my second item —

2. I have read nothing. Or rather, while I’ve read a fair number of histories, I have read almost nothing which George and Jane Boleyn might have read, and it’s safe to say that George at least would have been pretty well up on the controversial literature of his day (and Jane, daughter of a classics scholar, was unlikely to be a total slouch either). I’ve read summaries and extracts, but damned if I’ve ever sat down and inhaled Henry VIII’s defense of the Seven Sacraments, A Glasse Of The Truthe, or The Obedience Of A Christian Man in their entirety. Similarly with the Supplication of Beggars. The Tyndale/More polemics? Somehow failed to make it into my beach bag last summer. I’m on firmer ground for poetry, but even there I could use a little more background reading. There were literally thousands of poetic works which were not “Whoso List To Hunt” or “Why Come Ye Not To Court”. And now that I’m not trying to get fifty thousand words cranked out in one month, I’ll be able to read quite a few of them, along with the polemics, God help me.

3. I can’t read everything. There are a number of works out there which I simply can’t read (French, no translations that I can find) or which I’m pretty sure were never published, and since I’m currently on the wrong side of the planet there’s no real prospect that I’ll be able to see them. And that’s all right. The things I can get hold of promise to soak up most of my free time for the foreseeable future anyway. But of course …

4. I shouldn’t show too much of my work. Characters who converse entirely in quotes are a pain, though not quite as much of a pain as characters who archly drop a few Shakespearean phrases decades before Shakespeare was born. Of course, I might want to double-check and make sure that none of my characters are doing that accidentally. Shakespeare coined a lot of phrases in his lifetime.

5. I am allowed to make things up. This is especially necessary for Jane, whose life as recorded largely consists of a series of blanks punctuated by one or two instances of incredible folly. If her life isn’t to consist entirely of being at her sister-in-law’s elbow witnessing things that happen to her, it’s entirely all right to give her a failed pregnancy or strong religious opinions or anything which gives her her own story. And considering the various crimes with which writers have loaded her down over the centuries, it’s even all right tilt the scales and give her some flattering attributes!

6. I am not allowed to have anyone commit un-historic rapes, murders, or poisonings. All right, I am technically allowed, I just don’t want to.

7. I have an irrational dislike of Thomas Wyatt and must resist the urge to take it out on him by breaking #6.

8. Yes, I really do have to read those polemics. If my characters read them, so can I.

I’m going to enjoy this — polemics, Wyatt and all.

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From → Miscellaneous

12 Comments
  1. Annalucia permalink

    “There are a number of works out there which I simply can’t read (French, no translations that I can find)…”

    ::ears prick up::

    What works? If there are modern-French versions of them, I’d be happy to have a look at them for you.

    Welcome back, by the way. I’ve missed your postings.

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks! I have no idea what’s in modern French and what isn’t, but I’ll look. Matheolus’s satire on marriage ought to be a good place to start. (George Boleyn owned a copy which is still extant, and I’ve seen snippets of English translations but nothing more). There were also those early French Bible translations which Anne had and which George must have read; he translated a number of things from French on his own account. One thing I’m really enjoying is the chance to let Mary Boleyn speak French as well as her sister and brother do, as well as having George entertain himself by winding up Chapuys when they have dinner together by talking up the glories of Lutheranism :).

  2. Clare permalink

    Claire Ridgway has had Edmond Bapst’s biography of George and Henry Howard translated from French into English. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re writing about our George.

    • sonetka permalink

      I saw that and I was absolutely thrilled — I’m getting it for my Kindle and will actually have time to read it through now that I’m not working with that November deadline! A lot of what I need to know is just nuts and bolts — who was where when, who was with them, all those things, and a good bio (or even a not so good one) would help immensely. It won’t help much with creating a character for Jane Boleyn, though, poor woman.

  3. Welcome back! I’ve missed your postings too. 🙂

    And speaking as someone who didn’t even make 20k during my own, aborted NaNo, it sounds like you did pretty damn well to me. I’m in a bit of the same boat about the literature characters would have read, only for me it’s 17th-and-18th-century grimoires and witch-hunting literature–cheery stuff, and usually as thick as old cheese.

    On the plus side, I now know how to summon demons. Mom’ll be thrilled.

    Re the unknown: historical fiction is a bear that way. If you were writing an article about Jane Boleyn, it would be acceptable to say “Well, frankly, we don’t know what the hell she was doing for X years.” But in fiction, you have to fill in the blanks or you’ve got no story. It’s fun, but it’s also a challenge to patch the cracks in such a way that people won’t notice any inconsistencies.

    • sonetka permalink

      Julia Fox’s biography of Jane Boleyn does have quite a lot of that: “We don’t know where Jane was at this time, but there’s a good chance she was at X or Y location, in which case she was doing this.” It gets monotonous but the book is still very good and fully justifies its own existence when Fox gets down to work unraveling the history of the accusations against Jane.

      Inventing someone who’s otherwise a blank is a challenge, and an enjoyable one. The real issue I’m having right now is trying to keep her character consistent and yet nonetheless capable of ganging up with Anne against one of Henry’s mistresses in 1534 but cheering Princess Mary in 1535. The latter incident *may* not have happened, and if it’s left out it would certainly smooth the way towards keeping her consistent. On the other hand, it’s been part of the Lady Rochford mythos for so long (and unlike many other accusations against her, there is some vaguely contemporary evidence, even if it’s fairly fragile) that it seems somehow unfair to the Tudorphile reader to leave it out. Odd dilemmas, these.

  4. Way hey! Congrats! I got 15,000 words done and then when we moved house various things conspired to just keep me away from it, but even I was surprised at how many obstacles I came up against in terms of realising that I knew so little about their daily lives!

    I enjoy your point 5. I enjoy it a lot 😀

    • sonetka permalink

      Oh hell — which point 5? That’s what I get for writing late at night :). I’ll just jump in and renumber them now. But yes, there’s so much stuff that we don’t know and some of which I’m not sure anyone knows — but then you run into random factoids, like when I was reading Henry VIII’s inventory and they mentioned that napkins would be slung over the shoulder or the arm, not put in the lap. There are all sorts of little things like that out there, and I can’t pretend I’ll be able to read about them *all*.

      • Haha I didn’t even notice! The unhistoric rape/murder etc 😀 Good call!
        I found my biggest problem was thinking of certain nobles estates. I was writing scenes of them at their homes and then thinking…hang on…which home would they be at…what homes did they own? Which homes did they actually use? Aaahh!

        There’s also the balance between working in every factoid you know! I have read so much historical fiction when they’ve just thrown in a factoid as if to say, ‘bet you didn’t know this, did you?’ and it distracts a bit from the flow of the plot.

      • sonetka permalink

        Yes, striking that balance between painting a good background and infodumping can be difficult. The many and varied homes were definitely a concern, but a lot of that is stuff that I figured could be put on the back burner for later, and after NaNo was over there’d be more time for leisurely reading and correcting/amending scenes so that they take place at Grimston or Beaulieu or Hever instead of “Random Manor far from London / near London.” Also double-checking distances so I don’t have someone spending two hours getting to a place that was six days’ journey away, or vice versa. (My knowledge of English counties is very limited so I’ll have to be extra-careful about that. Knowing that Anne spent time in Kent and that George had a manor in Norfolk doesn’t mean I knew where on earth those two places are in relation to each other, or to London).

  5. Hi, can I just add that please check you get your flowers in the correct season. This is usually an American fault but I have seen so far:

    Roses bloom in March
    Primroses bloom in September
    Bluebells bloom in July

    Also English county names have changed over the years eg Shropshire to Salop and back to Shropshire again!

    • sonetka permalink

      I hope to avoid that kind of mistake, but if I don’t at least I’ll be in good company; A.S. Byatt and Jane Austen both did similar (as the latter’s brother wrote to her, “Apple blossoms in July?”) Also have to remember that they were on the Julian calendar, which can make a difference for things which have very short seasons — if Anne has a Richard III-like yen for someone’s fresh strawberries, she’d better get them in June and not July.

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