Robbing Graves For Fun and Profit

My name is Sarah Hoyt and I’m a grave robber.  I do it tastefully, with pen and ink, not with a shovel in the dead of night, and the parts I’m looking for to refurbish and build into my own creations are not the decaying physical bits of dead men, but the ideas and events of their lives, at least as reported.

Do I have a twinge of doubt?  Oh, often.  I was reading TX Red’s post on my blog this week, and it somewhat soothed my jaded conscience that I was not in fact alone in this weird perversion.

It started with Shakespeare.  Before I sold my firs novel, in fact before I went to the workshop where I sold it, I had the bright idea of writing a short story about Shakespeare.  It was just going to be a short story and I figured, what the heck.  I spent my teenage years reading Shakespearean biography (look, drugs were really expensive in my area, okay?  And I had to do something.)

So I re-read my not inconsiderable Shakespeare library and sat down to write the short.  Which in point of fact sucks raw eggs, because I was so much into the history I forgot things didn’t have the same resonance for normal non-Shakespeare obsessed human beings.  (Or even human beans.)

And then – I went to the workshop and sold a novel based on Shakespeare, largely because that was the one novel I could outline, because his is the life whose details I remember.

(I realize as I write this that I lie.  It didn’t start with Shakespeare – it started with Manfred von Richthoffen.  I’d written half a novel about him.  More on that later.)

Weirdly Shakespeare never came alive for me as an independent character.  There’s too much about him (yes, yes, I know what the Oxfordians say, but really there’s a lot about him, particularly for his time) and he wrote a lot, and though we know next to nothing of his internal political life (well, duh.  TUDORS.  Letting your internal political life hang out means you get beheaded.)  BUT his plays are internally consistent and have a personality to them.

So I wrote him, and I passed on.  The secondary characters were more fun, because I had leeway with them and Marlowe fell into all the books, which I’d later realize was an issue (Grin.)

Meanwhile – while researching for the Shakespeare short, my husband woke me in the middle of the night (you don’t want to know.  I hate it when he reads late) to read me passages from a book we’d bought at library sale: Dale Titler’s The Day The Red Baron died.

And of all people in the world in all of history, Manfred von Richthofen came alive in my head, and I wrote half a science fiction novel that starts with his death.  (Whether that will ever be published or not is a question.  The editor who bought Shakespeare turned it down because “He fought Snoopy” and also “He was a Nazi.”  This being olden days and my lacking the ability to go indie, I bit my tongue almost in two, but I did NOT talk back.

Why him?  I don’t know.  I think part of what attracted me was how different he was from me, how different his abilities from mine, how different his time from mine.  Because of Richthofen I read everything I could about WWI, a subject that up till then left me cold.  It’s like when you get a boyfriend and suddenly you find out you like Bond movies or Star Trek the Original Series, even thought you could have lived your entire life without checking them out.

It was a little like being in love.  Oh, heck, it was a lot like being in love.  I had to discuss it with my husband, because I wasn’t sure it was right to be doing this.

My husband says I’m allowed to be in love with any guy provided he’s been dead more than fifty years and isn’t a vampire.

Speaking of vampires, then there was Marlowe.  The man was avowedly trouble in life, and he still is.  He’s taken up residence in the back caverns of my brain, and he won’t let go.

The thing about Christopher Marlowe is that he’s protean.  You can see him as anything you want to depending on the sources you pick.  Most of his reputation as a scary dude is based on someone saying he used to give people “private nips.”  No, it’s not what you think.  It’s not what most people think, either – that he fought and nicked people in duels.  What it actually meant is that he was fond of a cutting come back that cut you to the quick, so most people didn’t care to argue with him.  On his danger – look guys, even rakish Elizabethan England wouldn’t call a dangerous dueler “The muses’ darling” – there’s imagery there.

He probably was a double agent or even a triple one, and the problem with that is that we don’t know which side he was really on, which changes everything, of course – and also it’s entirely possible he didn’t know which side he was on.

His plays are brilliant… and immature.  The man died at twenty nine.  If I’d died at twenty nine, I’d have left behind a lot of belly-button gazing.  Which he by and large did, even if set in incredibly innovative and complex forms.  In some other world maybe he lived to be the greatest playwright humanity has ever known.  Or maybe he died old and bitter, his brain eaten-out by alcohol.  Who knows?

Heck we don’t even know his sexual orientation.  Yes, there are glimmers in his plays and in the poems he seems to have a stronger feel for the male body, but honestly, for a long time I drew females better than males, because I KNOW the female body better, for obvious reason that I have one.  In the same way, he was largely raised in a male environment.  Was he gay?  Who the heck knows?  That’s maybe the way to bet, but I’d like to point out that while we can raise several likelies for Shakespeare’s same-sex dalliance – whether it happened or not – we hit a stone wall with Marlowe.  Yes, there are possible, but there was no actual gossip at the time recorded anywhere.

Shakespeare seems a little more informed than the common herd when he reprises the cause of death of Marlowe in Twelfth night, seeming to allude to it both with “Great reckoning in a small room” (yes, I know it also has an off color meaning.  Come on guys, this is Shakespeare.  Do try to keep up.  But Marlowe was killed in a fight over the reckoning – supposedly.)  and with “Men have died and the worms have eaten them, but not for love” – since popular opinion attributed Marlowe’s death to a fight over a “bawd.”

He’s better than Manfred for obvious reasons.  He’s been buried longer (and someone built a church tower over his grave) which means that the parts have transmuted and there are various forms of the parts of his character that I can take and use.

Does that sound repulsive?  Well, it feels repulsive.  This is why I worry.

It’s more obvious with the Red Baron, of course.  He and I lived in the same century, even if he was at the beginning and I came in at the middle.  He’s somehow more real.  And I worry “So, I’m going to make him a dragon shifter.  Oh, my Lord, what would he think of that?  He’d hate it like poison.  But then he’d probably hate me like poison, anyway.”

Does that mean I’m not going to do it?  Oh, pfui.  Manfred has stayed dormant at the back of my head for years, but I made the mistake of writing a short story set in the Magical British Empire world, in which shifters are forbidden on penalty of death and in which he is a dragon shifter.

Having done that, he’s now alive and kicking.

There is the delicious contradiction of the setup.  There is the Red Baron as he was, disciplined, prudish, almost too strait-laced for words (he used to scold his men for unbuttoning their collars while in the officer’s mess.)  And there is the shifting, when he becomes a beast he can’t control, a thing that is, by nature – by existing – forbidden and which in this world as it’s set up makes him both despised and hunted, and a creature that is outside human rules.

Then there is the mess of WWI – people who have been hiding their shifter nature for years, people who have been living quietly and staying away from temptation in the form of eating humans, are crammed and shoved in the trenches, and incidents will happen – on both sides.  Hence the magical police develops an MP branch and, well…

Then there are the shifter laws themselves – I discovered when writing the short story that all civilized nations kill shifters.  Which is why the US isn’t civilized.  It has guarantees against “crimes of birth” in its constitution.  So it got a lot of shifter immigrants and it is rumored that the entire continent goes nuts.  (Lewis and Clark were dragon and wolf, I mean everyone knows that.  There is no proof, btw, that Lincoln was a werewolf, but there are suspicions.) You can see that when the US joins the war, things will get even more interesting.  I can see this as a series of books…

And there is the fact that Manfred finds a way to put his “deformity” to use by creating a were dragon fighting force.  Everyone in the flying circus is a dragon shifter…

Would Freiherr von Richthofen be heartily upset?  Well, probably.  But the novel will get written right after Through Fire (the next one of the Earth revolution.)  And then if Baen wants it, it goes to Baen.  If not, it will come out from Goldport, right after the Author’s Cut of the Magical British Empire trilogy.

I’m a writer.  I can’t help falling in love with bits and pieces of people’s biography.  And it’s not always practical to just make them imaginary.

The subjects might not like it, but eh – first, they’re dead.  Second, it’s their fault for being fascinating.

Shut up and give me that shovel.

The story starts:

Freiherr Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen knew he’d fallen into a trap as he came out of the lake with the boar in his jaws.


  1. I love that you have Marlowe in your head, Sarah, because I do, as well. I think he rather likes hanging out in shadowy brains. 😛 A long time ago, I wrote a (dreadful!) stage play about him, in blank verse. He was also my Ren faire character for several years, and I went about signing every guest book I could find there, because I had learnt to perfectly forge his signature. Richtofen also tried to bunk in my brain, but I kicked him out, in favor of Louis X of France, who is a much more malleable and (for me, at least) understandable sort of guy. Also, because I can speak French but have only a few phrases in German, and I believe that a true understanding of a person and his culture requires at least a passing proficiency in his native tongue. You can learn a lot about a people by studying their idioms! I have a partially finished novel about Louis lying about the house, somewhere, along with sketches of him and tons of research materials in Old French, which is really fun to translate. Anyhow, this whole post just sings to me a very familiar and beloved tune. (^-^)

    1. Kai — I have killed Marlowe in two books (one after he was dead in the series) and in two short stories (I’ll share if you want to see 😉 Might help with depression to know other people are just as mad) I have him as main investigator in a series of plotted mystery books (and two, released, short stories.) And I have a half finished horror novel with him as a rather specialized revenant (like a non-rotting zombie.)
      I did, once upon a time speak German. It’s something of “once” but enough to get it.
      I was trying to figure out other dead people haunting me — but I can’t. Well Tesla has tried to take up residence, but I haven’t been able to give him the time he wants and I’m not 100% sure I want to.
      The musketeers are more comfortable because they’re IMAGINARY so I can play with them three ways from Monday.
      Another I’ve felt rounding just outside the portal is Richard III. For NOW i”m keeping that door locked 😉

      1. I would LOVE to see the stories! Kit doesn’t poke at me very much, these days, but I still like the guy and enjoy reading about him. I have WANTED Tesla to move in, but I think he’s too afraid of my cats to do so. They might eat that beloved pigeon of his, you know. Still, fascinating man, in all his weird genius-ness. RIII has some extremely aggressive fans (and enemies, even now), so I’d suggest donning lots of good armor, if you ever let HIM in. 😀 I’ve not felt a draw to many real-life people, at least, not enough of a draw to let them live in my brain beyond the time it takes to read about them, but I have tons of imaginary people in there, already. I couldn’t write all their stories, even if I wrote 24 hours a day and lived a thousand years. So I go by the “squeakiest wheel” method of choosing who to write about. Some of them remain squeaky for several stories, and others squeak only once, like dying swans. Lately they’ve all kept mum, or else I’ve got something stuck in my ears and just can’t hear them, properly.

      2. If you want to rob the grave of a historical figure, you could do worse than George Skanderbeg–aka the best military commander you’ve never heard of.

  2. I was 41 when I destroyed pretty much everything I’d written until then. OTOH, I’m **still** writing juvenalia, so it apparently didn’t do much good.


  3. That explains a lot about Uncle Von Richthofen’s decision to move to Denver and take up dairy farming. (I have the farmer’s book. Fascinating in it’s own way.)

    1. His reproduction of Schweidnitz was up for sale three years ago for a mere half million. Sigh. As far from me as the Earth from the moon. STOOOOPID powerball keeps picking the WRONG numbers.

      1. A “friend” clipped the sales notice and sent me a copy. Sadist. Because every historian needs their own castle, really.

      1. Thanks for the response. Now I know less than I did before. Oh well, I guess I will have to track down that book.

        Now for my good deed! If you haven’t already, find an read the book “The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & the Reality” by Charlton Ogburn. It is a life changing book for a lover of Shakespeare. After reading Ogburn’s book, if you like it, read “Alias Shakespeare” by Joseph Sobran.

        For your husband, if he is interested in WWI history there is an amazing book written just after the war and revised multiple times by the author over much of his long remaining life: “Storm of Steel” by Ernst Jünger, tr. by Michael Hofmann.

        Dan Kurt

        1. There’s no question he was killed by the Australians — the problem is: Every account of his landing says it was a controlled crash-landing; yet the nature of his fatal injury ensured he would have been in no condition to make a controlled crash-landing (the pain would have prevented it); moreover, none of the Australians were in a correct position to inflict the wound which killed him.

          In short: Richthofen was alive when he hit the ground, but was dead when the Aussies found him.

          Conclusion: Richthofen tried to escape (it would not have been the first time he’d been forced to flee superior enemy forces — he did that a couple times when he was in the cavalry); the Aussies fired warning shots, and one of them got [un]lucky; when the Aussies realized what they’d done, they fell back on the heritages — and said ‘He was dead when we found him, Officer’.

          (As to who shot him down: Depending on where the target is hit, it isn’t necessarily an instant kill. Brown could have holed the fuel tank, shot off an oil line, or something else which would have let Richthofen fly on for a bit before he realized “something’s wrong” and attempted to get back to his own side — by which point, it was too late. What most folks don’t know: Richthofen *had* been “shot down” at least once before — while flying a Halberstadt D.II on 6 March ’17, he took a bullet through the gas tank, forcing a landing; then on 6 July of that year, he was shot in the head, which led to a forced landing. If he’d been shot down behind enemy lines, history suggests he would have done a runner if he thought he could get away with it.)

          1. “when the Aussies realized what they’d done, they fell back on the heritages — and said ‘He was dead when we found him, Officer’.”

            Ah, yes, the old joke about being questioned at Australian Customs: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime? I didn’t know it was still a requirement for entry …”

  4. At least you’re robbing dead people–and not live cultures–of their interesting bits, because that would be “otherizing the exotic”, which is evil.

    Me? Someday Paul Vorbeck will stride through the veldt of an alien planet, organizing a guerrilla resistance against a galactic empire. But he’s dead, and male, and white, so I should be safe.

      1. Oh great, now I have a mental picture of Not Eat in a little space suit, trying to adapt to 0-G.

  5. I wonder if one attraction of historical grave robbing is that a chunk of our work is already done. Someone else has written the “skeleton” for the character, and “all” we have to do is add flesh and difficulties. Having von Richthofen as a conflicted Shifter explains a lot of his behaviors that otherwise seem repulsive (at least to this airplane driver). Especially if he’s unable to contain certain aspects of the draconic side – why not have an engraved silver cup for each victory? Perhaps the human half is trying to buy off the dragon half, in a way.

    1. Actually he stopped after he crashed hard. His last 5? victories had no cup. I think he just didn’t KNOW deep down know he too could die. You know what I mean. He was, after all, a kid…

        1. Actually, not according to his family, etc. He seemed to have been profoundly depressed after his being shot down, and there was definitely some change in attitude.

    2. Though that’s a subject for a whole post or maybe a booklet: how to make your character sympathetic by explaining away or ignoring traits that might have been acceptable in his day but certainly aren’t in ours.

  6. Dead people, live people, fictional people. Dead peoples, live peoples, fictional peoples. Get bits off donors, fabricate some from scratch, and trim them to fit, in ways that work or are interesting.

    That said, current concern is that before long I’ll get really senile, and I’ll no longer be able to keep track of a score of variations on a single character or concept.

  7. I would think the fact that he ‘fought Snoopy’ would be a plus, name recognition for people.

    Possibly you can work in him fighting Snoopy in the Shifter stories about him?

    By the way I liked your short that started with the sentence you posted. You should have posted a link to the Baen website so others could read it, but I’ll cover for you.:)

    1. Well, that would explain why Snoopy was so human-like. He was really a dog shifter who usually stayed in animal form.

Comments are closed.