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.

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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.

 

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.

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.

 

Shaping story and character with Jean K. Carney

Jean K. Carney is the author of “Blackbird Blues”. She spent eight years as an award-winning reporter and editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal, covering Children’s Court, City Hall, and Roe v. Wade. She’s also been in full-time private practice as a psychotherapist for thirty years, which certainly provides a rich foundation for understanding character. 

The first character who sprang to life in what was to become my novel “Blackbird Blues” was Benny, a young man who is the son of Maureen Rieger (before she becomes Sister Michaeline) and Lucius Claremont. I was watching a drummer at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago whose furious hand and arm movements threw me back 33 years earlier to the Children’s Home in Milwaukee to a boy who was “making music,” shuffling grit on the floor with his feet and sweeping his hair and hands across the table. A reporter at The Milwaukee JournalI was the only person besides his public defender who attended his court hearing and the only person who ever visited him at the Children’s Home, where he was held for years. After many conversations, I believed him when he said he had no idea why he had killed his teacher.

My character Benny does not kill his teacher and — other than his physical attributes — he is not modeled on the boy I covered as a reporter so long ago. But my work as a reporter had tremendous influence on the creation of the plot and characters of the novel. When I started at The Milwaukee Journal, the first thing my city editor told me was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The habit of checking and rechecking stuck with me as a novelist. In every exchange of dialogue, in every turn of the plot, I heard my city editor’s “check it out,” meaning, not only “Is this plausible?” but also “Is this exactly what this character would truly say at this particular moment?” I remember feeling the characters were truly becoming real when one night, while we were washing dishes, I asked my husband what he thought Lucius would think of Donald Trump’s latest tweet.

Looking back on my time since 1970, I feel privileged that literally many hundreds of people have confided their deepest secrets to me, first as a reporter and then as a psychotherapist. As a reporter, I put those secrets in the newspaper long ago. As a psychotherapist, I was bound and am still bound by Illinois law never to disclose them. I have not and will not use these secrets as materials in “Blackbird Blues” or any future novel. However, as a therapist, I had to listen very closely to the people who confided in me, let myself feel whatever I was feeling, and imagine my way into each person’s sensibility and experience. That was an invaluable experience. It greatly expanded my capacity for feeling and imagining. I owe my former patients a great debt of gratitude for that. I don’t think I would have been able to feel my way into the characters in “Blackbird Blues,” or imagine their lives as I was able to do, had I not been tutored, so to speak by my patients.

“Blackbird Blues” is chock full of historical data, including the 1960s Civil Rights movement, some of which I knew from reading newspapers as a child since the late 1950s. It was with great joy that I researched the life of Lucius, the 60-year-old jazz man, Benny’s father, and Sister Michaeline’s former lover. Lucius befriends the other main character, Mary Kaye, an 18-year-old Irish-American who must deal with an unwanted pregnancy just as Sister Michaeline, her mentor and jazz coach, dies.

Lucius was one of the African-American men who served under French military command during World War I because the American military did not mix races. Having killed a man in a boxing match, Lucius shoots over the heads of the Germans. As it happens, his commanding officer sympathizes with him, assigns him to learn cooking, and becomes his mentor in French culture. Lucius returns to Chicago from the war just in time for the 1919 race riot, memorialized in Carl Sandburg’s classic “Chicago Race Riots.”

On the subject of illegal abortion, I relied to some extent on my coverage of Roe v. Wade from my time at The Milwaukee Journal. I also found most helpful the following books: “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Feminist Abortion Service” (which took place in Chicago) by Laura Kaplan; “Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America” by Marvin Olask; and “Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era” by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May.

Two books that were incredibly useful guides to the lives of nuns in Chicago were “He Sent Two: The Story of the Beginning of the School Sisters of Saint Francis” by Sister M. Francis Borgia, O.S.F., and “Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past” by Suellen Hoy.

It was important to me that the characters in the novel would be historically plausible in terms of time and space. And I tried incredibly hard to make sure references to historical events were as accurate as possible. As my city editor’s voice urged, I was constantly checking my memory and my hunch. I wanted “Blackbird Blues”to be a literary novel, but also truly a historical novel.

Many thanks, Jean, for sharing the background to writing Blackbird Blues. I now know who to consult when digging deep to understand character.

Blackbird Blues by Jean K. Carney ~~ With the help of sixty-year-old black jazz man Lucius, Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American woman and aspiring jazz singer in Chicago, finds her way toward dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and the death of Sister Michaeline, her voice coach, jazz mentor, and only guide through the bedlam of her childhood.

Mary Kaye’s neighbor, Judge Engelmann, introduced her to the work of James Baldwin and the nuns exposed her to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person Mary Kaye comes to really know. They bond over Sister Michaeline’s untimely death. Over time, Lucius helps Mary Kaye launch her career as a singer in his jazz band. He also gives her Sister Michaeline’s diary from her early cloistered years, saying it was the nun’s wish. In reading the diary and in conversations with Lucius and Judge Engelmann, Mary Kaye discovers disillusioning aspects and secrets of her beloved mentor.

This is Mary Kaye’s coming-of-age story as she weighs her options based on the diary, her faith, and her music, set against the background of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. It is entirely a work of fiction, but in today’s political climate one could imagine something similar becoming real.

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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.