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.