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.

 

Character, a deeper dive Part 2

Whether your novel is set in World War II or Ancient Rome, historical events take on significance when we know the people involved with and affected by them. Tuesday’s post and this post are not about crafting compelling characters – I make no claim to being a master of the writing craft. Rather, these posts are my attempt to illustrate what’s different and unique about creating historical characters.

As one reader survey participant said:

What stands out for me in this comment: shared humanity, appropriate to their period, and resonates down the centuries.

Combine that with Elizabeth George’s comment about compelling characters.

My takeaway is that authors need to explore a character’s conflicts, miseries, unhappiness and confusion in ways that are true to their historical time period while still resonating with today’s readers.

How does an author reveal character? Through dialogue, events of the character’s past, through actions taken or not taken, through the opinions of others, through personality quirks and telling details. Even names can be revealing. Beyond these aspects, a character is what s/he wears, what they collection, what they read, the relationships they have, the possessions they collect or covet, how they spend their time and so on.

Furthermore, we can reveal character through what George calls the ‘external landscape of the person’ – looks, dress, home, vehicle, possessions, physicality. And through the ‘internal landscape of a person’: emotions, psyche, soul, wants, needs, reflections, speculations, obsessions, monologues,  strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, the voice of a character is shaped by their education, position in society, personal and family history, prejudices, biases, inclinations, desires, belief system, purpose, and goals.

To be historically believable, a character’s external and internal landscape as well as their voice have to reflect their time period.

Let’s return to Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet – not because an author must have all these details sorted out before beginning to write, but in order to appreciate how history has a bearing on creating authentic characters.

Political leaning – what were the politics of the day? How would a character’s position in society reflect those politics? Would a character be at odds with his/her family’s prevailing political stance?

Hobbies – no point choosing tennis as a hobby, if tennis hadn’t yet been invented. Perhaps a 19th century man might take up photography because it was newly invented? If reading is a hobby, the character in question must have been in a position to be educated enough to read. And so on.

What s/he does when alone – long hikes in the woods might be a forbidden activity for a woman whose maid always attends her. Defying that code of behaviour reveals more about a character than it might in another station in life or another time period.

Significant event that molded the character – here is another opportunity to reflect the historical period. Did Pompeii erupt when your character was a small child? Was the character’s father killed when the Japanese invaded China in 1937? Did the character’s mother abandon him on the church doorstep during the Spanish flu?

Significant event that illustrates the character’s personality – this too is an ideal opportunity to reveal character and history.

What other details about a character can reflect the historical time period? A few suggestions:

  • the kind of person s/he strives to be
  • lies and pretences
  • career/job
  • where s/he grew up and where s/he lives now
  • social circle
  • style of clothing
  • grievances both general and specific
  • what s/he does when thwarted or treated unjustly
  • what s/he excels at, his/her accomplishments
  • perceived flaws
  • habits and quirks
  • secrets
  • fears
  • social, political, moral and philosophical issues the character feels are important
  • taste in books, music, art, theatre
  • possessions
  • leisure activities
  • sources of happiness

I’m sure you can add more to the list! I’ll leave you with one more quote:And if, as Hemingway said, we’re creating people, we have to bring to life the times during which they lived.

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.

 

8 Tips from Guest Post Authors

During 2019, A Writer of History had the good fortune of securing many guest authors to discuss a range of topics related to historical fiction. Below are 8 tips that stand out for me.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times.

Mary F. Burns, author of The Love for Three Oranges

In Keeping Historical Figures Real, Mary Sheeran discusses how to weave real historical figures into your novels. She says that:

“we can’t just report; all characters need to drive the story and have something of the writer in them.

A Surgeon’s Advice … on how to Write Books with Andrew Lam

Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.

 

Marc Graham whose novel Song of Songs is about the legendary Queen of Sheba, writes of the challenges in going far back in time.

While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.

 

In Writing the Stories of History’s Powerful Women, Judith Cromwell tells us that:

such writing requires meticulous research.  Research resembles a mixture of jigsaw puzzle and mystery.  The writer must identify clues, track each to its source, evaluate each within the context of the subject’s life and character.  Original research brings the thrill of unearthing new information.

Donna Baier Stein, author of Scenes From the Heartland, discusses using actual images as a basis for building a story in her post Turning Images into Tales:

as a fiction writer, my desire was not to capture the truth of the actual image (the way a photographer might want to do), but to imagine a potential story behind this scene.

 

Luke Jerod Kummer is the author of The Blue Period, a novel about Pablo Picasso. He writes about examining the works of Picasso in order to gain a deep understanding of his character:

when I sought to reconstruct the look and feel of where and how a maturing Picasso lived in Barcelona and Paris, or what his households, friends or lovers were like, there were  paintings, pastels and drawings allowing intimate glimpses both of his surroundings and what was going on inside him.

 

Elizabeth Bell’s guest post The Importance of Warts brings out the theme of creating characters and stories that don’t gloss over the warts of historical events, culture and social mores. She says:

As historical novelists, we are tour guides and teachers … We do [readers] an enormous disservice if we’ve whitewashed that truth… If we don’t make our readers think, if we don’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, we’re not doing our jobs.

Important lessons. I’ll have a few more for you next time.

FOR MORE 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.