Characters Stranger than Fiction by Maryka Biaggio

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. Maryka told me that she enjoys the challenge of starting with actual people and dramatizing their lives and motivations while recreating their emotional world through dialogue and action. With the release of her latest novel, The Point of Vanishing, she reflects on the characters she’s discovered whose lives are stranger than fiction. Over to you, Maryka!

Who hasn’t tossed out the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” after hearing some absurd but true tale? In fact, the saying has turned cliché from overuse. But when it comes to fiction writers, reanimating the lives of real people is a serious matter. And many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on actual persons. Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? 

If we agree that one particular fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it is not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real characters. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances may seem, these people actually lived. Witness the popularity of a spate of novels based on real characters: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her resilience in seeing her and her husband through their strange history; Ariel Lawhon’s I was Anastasia tells the fascinating story of Anna Anderson’s battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov; and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is based on the true story of a young woman given ownership of another human being in the early 1800s.

I specialize in writing historical fiction based on real people. My own recently released novel, The Point of Vanishing, recounts the tale of the gifted writer Barbara Follett, who disappeared without a trace at age 25. My debut novel, Parlor Games, tells the tale of beautiful and cunning May Dugas, who conned her way from America to Shanghai, London, and points in between. I continue to be amazed by the number of readers who tell me that knowing May was a real person made the novel all the more fascinating.  And I expect those who are interested in Barbara Follett’s story will feel the same about The Point of Vanishing.

So I believe readers take a particular delight in the stories about real people. For if some real character could mastermind the most daring plot to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If another could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve? 

According to Italo Calvino, it all began with the first chronicler of the tribe: “The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but . . . in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative.” We humans are meaning-making machines, and it is stories that grease the gears of our turning minds. In its most basic form, story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims that “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.” What better way to explore the possibilities than through actual lived experiences?

Of course, comparing ourselves to others doesn’t happen only in fiction, or even in such other narrative forms as biography or memoir—witness the popularity of polls, those ubiquitous instruments of public opinion and habit. And if there is any doubt about this need to compare, consider what happened when Alfred Kinsey released his highly technical and research-laden 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Thinking this tome would be of interest only to the scientific community, W.P. Saunders printed just 5,000 copies. Against all expectations, this book so intrigued the public that the publishing house had to keep two presses rolling to meet the demand. Within fifteen weeks of its release, the 800-page volume had shot to near the top of the bestseller list. Of course, the fact that the topic was sexual behavior helped propel sales, but this doesn’t undermine the point. In fact, it confirms a variant—the more taboo or personal the content of the “story,” the more appeal it will hold for our story-hungry minds. 

I don’t expect the urge to compare ourselves to others, to take the measure of people who created their own success—or demise—will ever end. There will always be a demand for novels based on characters stranger than fiction. 

Congratulations on the release of your newest novel, Maryka. And thank you for sharing thoughts on the eagerness readers have for fiction based on true characters. I love novels based on real people and can’t wait to read your latest. Readers can also enjoy my conversation with Maryka about what makes historical fiction tick.

THE POINT OF VANISHING by Maryka Biaggio is based on the true story of author Barbara Follett. On a December night in 1939 Barbara Follett fought with her husband and stormed out of their Boston home never to be heard from again. Now novelist Maryka Biaggio provides a captivating account of Barbara’s enigmatic life—and disappearance.

Barbara had all the makings of promise and success. Early on, her parents recognized her shining intellect and schooled her at home. At age twelve, she published the novel The House Without Windows to much acclaim. When she was fourteen, her charming account of a sailing journey, The Voyage of the Norman D, was released. But when tragedy struck the family, Barbara floundered. Watch the trailer for more!

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Character – the Catherine Yale example

As part of my ongoing series on the 7 elements of historical fiction, I recently challenged author David Ebsworth – aka David McCall – to do a guest post featuring Catherine Yale and how he developed her character for his trilogy. David responded to the challenge with gusto.

Character, the Catherine Yale Example

I didn’t even want to write it! A novel about Elihu Yale? The man is a historical celebrity here in Wrexham, North Wales, where he’s buried. Perhaps the first real nabob, a hundred years before Clive of India, carving the foundations for what would become – with all its contradictions – British India. A famous philanthropist – who would later gift his name to one of the world’s finest educational establishments. But one who, as the Governor of Fort St. George in old Madras, oversaw the East India Company’s despicable trade in Hindu and Muslim slaves throughout the 1680s.

Elihu Yale involved with slavery

Friends had put the suggestion to me, all the same. There has, after all, never been a novel about Yale. But I dismissed the suggestion, until I came across a copy of his will. And this wonderful line: To my wicked wife… Then, nothing. No bequest. Not even a name.

In a moment of epiphany, I knew that here was the story I might want to write – Elihu Yale’s story, but told entirely through the eyes of this woman, damned for all eternity by her husband’s own hand.

But who was she? Would I be able to find enough to at least begin to fill out an Elizabeth George-style character sheet or, in my usual way, to try and pursue Ian Irvine’s 55 Ways to Create Compelling Characters.

I started with Yale’s biographies – most notably, Hiram Bingham’s seminal 1939 study – and found no more than a few references. To Catherine. To her previous marriage with a man called Joseph Hynmers, another official of the English East India Company. But as I checked for records of her birth, her wedding, her family, I realised that almost everything else written about her was simply wrong. Most notably, she was not half-Indian, for example – which seemed to be the most common reason, apart from her gender, for earlier writers to dismiss her significance.

So, here was the first thing. If I was going to write a credible account of this person, I’d have to dig deeper. I’d have to explore Yale himself much further too. Serendipity. An obscure reference to letters in Yale University’s archives. Fifty-seven letters to be precise. Written by Elihu, after his return to London in 1700, to the mistress he’d left behind in Madras, a woman called Katherine Nicks. Lots of references to yet another mistress, Hieronima da Paiva. But almost no mention of Catherine. Except this one: I have got my old affliction by my side, a hair-brain’d, craz’d, ill-natur’d toad that loves nothing so well as her bottle. God ridd me of her, for she makes me so very uneasy. Oh, dear. References to laudanum. Conflict between Catherine and her seven surviving children – four sons to Joseph Hynmers, three daughters to Yale.

I have got my old affliction …

A decision to be made. Just how “fictional” might this yarn be? Well, I quickly decided that I would actually have very few truly fictional characters in the story. Catherine’s actual background, I now knew, was filled with a mass of ready-made, real-life and well-rounded personalities – each equally neglected by historical fiction. Too many to mention here, but including her father and mother, Walter and Anne Elford, proprietors of one of London’s most famous coffee houses. Or another acquaintance from Fort St. George, Governor Streynsham Master, who would later have some connections to early Jacobite plots. Or her father’s friend, William Penn. Or the first Duke of Devonshire, whose son James would marry Catherine’s daughter, Nan – and who was also a driving force in the Glorious Revolution. All these people helped me shape her.

Second decision. How might I create Catherine’s voice? Perhaps because of those Elihu Yale letters, I began to think of diary entries. I’d been reading Deborah Swift’s Pepys novels, but wondered whether Pepysian-style accounts would answer. After all, she’d have to be a pretty prolific scribbler to cover all the ground I needed. But then a separate batch of research opened up yet another new world. More journal writers of the period, and especially the Puritan Reverend Roger Morrice. There he was, writing copiously about everything under the sun. Impossibly detailed. Lengthy entries. No television, of course, to fill his evenings. And precisely the medium I needed to create Catherine’s inner thoughts, her beliefs, her politics, her conflicts, her choices, her passions, her most treasured possessions, her taste in clothes and her prickly comments about the fashion of others, her intimacies – and maybe just a hint of unreliability. After all, I know from personal experience that diary entries – as honest and first-hand as we’d like to pretend they might be – can sometimes be terrible self-deceptions. And thus the title for the novel, The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale.

Third decision. One book, or more? By the time I’d filled enough pages for a novel of my normal length – after I’d hacked out the requisite 10% of superfluous stuff – I had still only told Catherine’s story, all of it set in old Madras, from 1672 until 1689, the year she’d finally had enough of Yale’s philandering and came home to London – just in time to become embroiled in the Glorious Revolution. So, a second novel, Mistress Yale’s Diaries, The Glorious Return. That one took me from 1689 until 1699, and Elihu’s own return to England, somewhat in disgrace but determined to bring a now independent Catherine back into marital line. Part Three, Wicked Mistress Yale, The Parting Glass, carries us through to 1721, Elihu’s death, and perhaps – just perhaps – a final twist, an explanation for that reference in the will. To my wicked wife…

Not one novel, therefore, but three. The Yale Trilogy.

Final decision. How to fill the many, many gaps in Catherine’s real-life story. To add my trademark love of intrigue and mayhem. And to do it in a way that would resonate with modern audiences. A woman of her time but still relevant today.

I’d been reading Clare Mulley’s fabulous The Spy Who Loved and other books about contemporary women spies, tracked these back to perhaps the most famous Seventeenth Century example, the playwright Aphra Behn, who spied for Charles the Second. And then there was Catherine’s largely fictional involvement with the Dissenters and Quakers who, even in the 1680s and later, were already declaiming the evils of slavery. Themes of mental and physical abuse in marriage – in an age when, factually, the easiest way to get rid of an unwanted wife was still to auction her to the highest bidder. All of that kneaded together in a batter of England’s terrible divisions, worse than anything we’ve ever seen since – until now.

It wasn’t enough for me that readers should simply recognise Catherine Hynmers Yale as a character, as a person – as Stephen King advocates so well – but that they should actually be Catherine. But only readers will be able to say whether I succeeded or not.

Many thanks for elaborating on the topic of character, David.

David’s works – often with strong female protagonists – cover the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the Spanish Civil War, Zululand in 1879, the Napoleonic Hundred Days of 1815, and 6th Century Romano-Celtic Britain. His website has a factual biography of Catherine Hynmers Yale, covering his original research into her fascinating story.

Wicked Mistress Yale, The Parting Glass by David Ebsworth ~~ 

1700 and East India Company Governor Elihu Yale is back in London, seemingly intent on reconciliation with his wife Catherine after ten years of separation. But those ten years have given her a taste of independence that she’s not ready to easily surrender. The ghosts of her previous life continue to haunt her, however – yet another former foe returned with her husband and seemingly still intent on revenge. And a more evil enemy still, in the shape of that Jacobite Colonel John Porter who had caused such damage to her youngest daughter. Drawn back even further into espionage on behalf of her nation, Catherine must battle madness, her desires, the rifts in her family, riot, rebellion and assassination in this tumultuous third and final act of the Yale Trilogy.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

The Character-Driven Story by Mary F. Burns

Mary F. Burns is the author of several historical fiction novels and a book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. We corresponded back and forth on the topic of character in historical fiction and Mary has now set forth some of her ideas to explore this dimension, a critical element of the 7 elements of historical fiction. Over to you, Mary.

The Character-Driven Story – by Mary F. Burns

About twenty years ago, I wrote a couple of “cozy village” mysteries, literally set in my own “village” of West Portal in San Francisco, with the emphasis on the intricacies of untraceable poisons and evanescent nanotechnology that required significant outlining, planning ahead and scrupulous, detailed planting of clues as well as red herrings—absolutely a requirement if you’re writing a mystery that is plot-driven and complicated. But then I fell in love—with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and his friend Violet Paget (1856-1935, aka the writer Vernon Lee). I wrote an historical novel about him and his magnificent and at the time, maligned, portrait of “Madame X”, and Violet was a significant character in the story (Portraits of an Artist, 2010).

John Singer Sargent

Their individual, quirky, wonderful, interesting personalities, combined with their life-long friendship, made such an impression on me that after the novel was finished, their voices and charming ways would not leave my mind. I had read so many letters of theirs, and biographies, and spent hours gazing at Sargent’s paintings and reading Violet’s essays, that these two fascinating people had a hold on me that compelled me to continue writing about them—I wanted everyone to know them as I had come to know them.

So naturally, I turned them into amateur sleuths and started writing a mystery series! Unlike my West Portal cozies, I wanted these new mysteries to primarily portray the characters of these two real-life people whom I loved so much, in addition to being a good mystery, of course.

Violet Paget

Having decided this was going to be a series (and in six years I have now written three), I decided to start when John and Violet were both twenty-one. That way, each book would advance a certain amount of time and I would be able to present the changes and development of the young artist and the young writer as they made their way into the upper echelons of their artistic and literary worlds. Thus, the mysteries that came their way to solve—typically a murder—would serve as the catalyst to delve into and reveal their true characters: how they would react and respond to murder and danger, why they would feel compelled to investigate it, and how their friendship and their unconventional upbringings and education would help or hinder their investigations.

Violet Paget was by far the more pronounced, outgoing, feisty personality of the two, and I chose her voice to tell the stories, in First Person POV. While this has its drawbacks, it makes for a significantly “present” character, as the reader is addressed directly, drawn into her thoughts and fears and doubts, and her sarcastic and irreverent approach to a woman’s life, career and chances of literary success in the late Victorian Age.

Here is how I introduced the series, in the Prologue in the first book, The Spoils of Avalon: Violet is writing in 1926, the year after her friend John died, an event which she feels gives her permission to now finally relate the interesting tales of murder and mayhem in which they were involved:

Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only one who solves mysteries, you know. In our youth, I and my friend Scamps—more formally known as John Singer Sargent—engaged in a fair amount of sleuthing ourselves.

 

She goes on to mention that most of the people involved have also passed on, and then continues:

Modesty restrains me from naming the one who wields the Sherlockian mind, but let me just say, Scamps made an excellent Watson.

Paget writing as Vernon Lee

I wanted to place Violet, with her keen, curious mind and waspish, often self-deprecatory and humorous commentary, at the center of the reader’s journey in this time and space, and as a foil and contrast to Sargent, whose personality was much more reserved, congenial and mellow. As Violet goes on to explain, 

Nonetheless, as a detecting duo, we were extremely well-suited—he was observant with an artist’s eye for detail as well as the nuances of mood and tone, whereas I noticed things out of restless curiosity and, I must say, a suspicious nature attuned to finding fault.

In the first mystery, it becomes rather obvious after a short time who the murderer is, but events occur so quickly, with rising urgency and threat, that the emphasis on Violet’s and John’s rapid detecting is much more interesting and important (if I do say so myself) than that the killer remaining unknown until the very end. (The second and third mysteries are rather more complex, partly I think because I’m just getting better at writing mysteries!)

A young John Sargent

As I mentioned, I read so much of these two persons’ actual correspondence that I have been able to get a true sense of how they spoke, not only to each other, but about events of the day, their opinions, their friendships, successes and failures. John often refers to Vi as “old man”, a common jocularity of the youth of the era, both men and women. Nicknames like “Scamps” were also common among familiars. Sargent was known for his awkwardness in speaking, almost stammering at times, especially in more public situations, whereas Violet was voluble and incessantly talkative, as well as clever and opinionated. Henry James referred to her as a “formidable conversationalist.”

An important element of the lives and personalities of John and Violet was that they were both same-sex oriented; in writing about them I knew that this was a subject that had to be treated with subtlety, for a couple of reasons. First, the self-knowledge of their sexuality would have taken some time, both because of their unusual family lives, insular and peripatetic; and second, because of the mores, strictures and laws of the Victorian Age. Both of them, in later years, were well-acquainted with Oscar Wilde and other notorious gay men of the age—and they saw what happened to him because of his indiscreet behavior. Sargent’s career would have been in ruins if his same-sex inclinations were made public, although as long as men were discreet, nobody cared. Violet, given the separate lives that men and women lived in the Victorian Age, would have had more ‘cover’ for an intimate relationship with a woman friend. The “Boston Marriage”, so-called in the United States, and the necessity of “spinsters” having to live together to make a viable economic household, were too common for anyone to draw anything sexual (or “Sapphic”) from the occurrence. Neither Violet nor John were in any way religious, but social mores would have inhibited behavior that flaunted such activity.

John Singer Sargent 1924

Nonetheless, it has become clear in the scholarship of the last four decades that Sargent was definitely gay and engaged in physical intimacy with other men, from his own letters (not many of which are extant, as he destroyed much of his correspondence, like Henry James) as well as others’ letters and notes about him. The recent exhibition of drawings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum of Sargent’s African-American model Thomas McKellar are revelatory of Sargent’s sexual identity. It is less clear whether Violet engaged physically with any of the women with whom she formed relationships in later life, but she certainly preferred the company of women to that of men as intimate companions.

This sense of developing self-awareness is built into my characterizations of John and Violet in the mystery series, and I find it is important to interweave their growing consciousnesses into the stories themselves, which becomes more significant in the latest of the mysteries, The Unicorn in the Mirror, when they are both around twenty-six years of age.

An older Violet Paget

In contrast to my earliest murder mysteries, which were carefully outlined and plotted in advance, my approach to writing about Violet and John’s exploits is more fully organic—once I’ve done the necessary research, I just start writing—their personalities take over pretty quickly, and before I know it, they’re telling me what to write and leading me into all sorts of interesting adventures. I start thinking and feeling like them, especially Violet, and as I work through the investigation along with them, I find out almost at the same time they do, who-done-it and why! Their particular ways of thinking and acting, in their own historical contexts—in short, who they are as persons of their era—have become critical and instrumental elements to solving the murders and crimes they investigate—truly character-driven historical fiction.

What fascinating people, Mary. You’ve certainly made me want to learn more about them. And thank you for exploring the topic of character with me. 

 

You can find Mary’s novels through her website or on Amazon.

The Spoils of Avalon by Mary F. Burns ~~ The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings–including the legendary Arthur–as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different–the industrialized, Darwinian, agnostic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.