Writing secondary characters

Riddle: How does an author use historical fact to create and describe secondary or minor characters in historical fictional?

 Secondary characters are often used to develop the main character(s) and/or move the plot. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person these characters are frequently fictional constructs, and, like minor characters, in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable; meaning they should develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to.

An example of this is the character Marcos Alonso Almendro in The Chosen Man (Penmore Press, 2015).

Here’s a scene from the novel where the main character, wicked, wily Genovese merchant Ludo da Portovenere is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in Holland during the 1630s. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee.

Amsterdam, early June 1635

‘Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.

“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”

Marcos gulped, the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness: an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.

Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.

“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.

“So people can’t see each other I expect.”

Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”

“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”

“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like …” He was interrupted by the serving girl.

Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?

“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”

“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.

“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”

“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”

“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.

Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.’

***

Without knowing it at the time, this scene follows author Helen Hollick’s tips for writing historical fiction. I tried to put myself into the setting to create the atmosphere and imagined what it must have been like in a Dutch tavern in 1635. I needed the secondary character, Marcos, to start acting on his own, and I needed to show the protagonist, Ludo, was not to be trusted. Fact in historical fiction is vital: accuracy in setting and detail is essential. But when it comes to the plot and fictional characters take Hollick’s advice, “Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story”.

Avoiding ‘gadzooks vocabulary’ is both easy and difficult: employing diction that is appropriate to the time and setting, while also being in the modern lexicon sometimes means looking up words to find out when they were first used, and making some surprising and disappointing discoveries. In this scene I use the word ‘waitress’. It sounds like a relatively modern term for the setting, but I wasn’t happy about using ‘serving girl’ all the time, it was awkward; and the idea of ‘serving wench’ carries vulgar implications that distracted from what was happening. The term ‘waitress’ slipped in and felt appropriate because it reduces the girl to her function, making her less relevant to the incident and maintaining the focus on what Marcos is doing, and is about to do.

When I did finally check ‘waitress’, I was delighted to find the term waiter goes back to the 14th century and was used for males waiting at tables in taverns in the 17th. Unfortunately, the term waitress wasn’t in common use until the early 19th century – but it might have been . . .

(This was originally written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog.)

Historical Novel Society Review of The Chosen Man November, 2015

Be prepared to be immersed in this book. The research into the tulip trade in 1636 (the story is based on a true event) and the manor house life of 17th-century England add depth to the storyline.  A well-written period novel that I highly recommend. Jeff Westerhoff for the HNS.
See the review.

Click on this link for Amazon preview

J.G. Harlond

See: www.jgharlond.com

 

For sale – the Crown Jewels

King Charles 1st and his French Queen, Henrietta Maria by Anthony Van Dyck

 

Henrietta Maria and the English Crown Jewels

Who owns the British Crown Jewels? If asked, what would you say: the monarchy; the reigning monarch of the time; the State or the people of Great Britain?

The question itself represents just about everything in dispute in the United Kingdom during the period leading up to the English Civil War (1642-1646), a time when ‘ordinary people’ were trying to limit the power of a monarchy that considered it reigned through ‘divine right’. Charles 1st believed he could rule without Parliament and had the right to raise taxes as he saw fit to cover his expenses. That is an over-simplification, but it is how many commoners in towns and villages interpreted his actions. Ongoing disputes finally led to a vicious war between Parliamentarians, known as Roundheads because of their short hair, and Royalists, who fought to keep Charles 1st on the throne.

As a means of raising funds for the Royalist cause and her husband in particular, King Charles I’s French-born Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), tried to pawn and sell a large part of the Crown Jewels during the early 1640s. Her attitude was that they were the property of the reigning monarch, not the State. When considering Henrietta Maria’s attitude one must bear in mind that she was the youngest daughter of Henry IV of France and the much loathed Marie de Medici, and that she was married to a Stuart, who, as mentioned above, believed entirely in the divine right of kings. Other factors that may have led Henrietta Maria to take financial matters into her own hands were the knowledge that her husband was not ‘good with money’ and her Medici ancestry. Needless to say, her actions met with major opposition from the British Parliament. But it became more than a question of ethics as Parliament actively tried to thwart Henrietta Maria’s attempts to finance the Royalists.

In July 1641, a year prior to the actual start of the war, the House of Commons drew the attention of King Charles to the fact:

That the House of Commons have received Information of great Quantities of Treasure, in Jewels, Plate, and ready Money, packed up, to be conveyed away with the Queen, not only in such a Proportion as the present Occasions, with due respects to Her Majesty’s Honour, may seem to require; but a far greater Quantity; and that divers Papists, and others, under the Pretence of Her Majesty’s Goods, are like to convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace. (JHC 2: 15 July 1641)

It was already evident to Parliamentarians that Henrietta Maria was in the process of obtaining money or credit with the aim of acquiring guns, ammunition and mercenary support for the Royalists. The view of the Commons was that all gemstones, regalia and plate in the possession of a monarch were part of the Crown Jewels, ‘owned’ not by the monarchy but by the State.

This was just the beginning. On 11 March, 1642, Henrietta Maria arrived in The Hague and set about selling and pawning precious objects she had brought with her from England. One contemporary report placed a total value of 1,265,300 guilders on the various items. (To get a perspective on this sum, an artisan and his family could live reasonably well for a year on the 300 guilders). The jewels, silver and gold came from three interlinked sources: items belonging to King Charles, jewels belonging to Henrietta Maria, and items forming part of the State collection known as the Crown Jewels. But while being astute in money matters Henrietta Maria had overlooked one important fact – her ardent Catholicism. As David Humphreys says in ‘To Sell the Crown Jewels’ *

“The sale of precious objects by an English Catholic (albeit not an English Catholic of average status) in Protestant Holland, under circumstances clearly motivated by political needs, was a task of enormous difficulty at best. That fact was brought home to Henrietta Maria when the first formal viewing of the items for would-be buyers was conducted at the New Palace in The Hague’s Staedt Straat in mid-March 1642. Many of those who attended were pro-Parliament in sympathy and questioned the queen’s right to sell any of the items on show—particularly those items considered to be specifically from the Crown Jewels collection. The queen insisted she had rights of ownership and could prove them with a document signed by King Charles and, therefore, had the right to sell. Those present baulked at the enormous sums expected for the most magnificent of the items on show: two collars, one of which was described as the ‘ruby collar’. Their response grew even more negative when it was made clear that payment for items was expected in specie.”

The Queen did manage to pawn a number of items while in The Hague, but the most valuable remained unsold. In the end she was only able to raise funds on that which was clearly in her personal possession. Unwilling to accept defeat, she then tried to pawn items on the Antwerp and Amsterdam markets, then either sell or pawn the larger of two hugely valuable ruby and pearl collars to the King of Denmark.

A letter dated 2 June, 1642, sent from Amsterdam, was read to the House of Commons on the 11 June by Sir Walter Erle:

That there were Jewels brought to Amsterdam, certain Collars of Pearl; which were sold; and the Product of them is the Sixteen thousand Pounds sent over hither; and the Residue is kept there, to pay for the Arms and Ammunition bespoken there. One great Collar of Rubies. The Jewels called the Three Brethren; Four or Five great Diamonds; with divers other Parcels; but no Money got upon them yet. … (JHC 2: 11 June 1642).

Another letter from an unnamed correspondent but someone close to the Queen was later read to the House of Lords.

I cannot learn that any Jewels more are pawned than I have formerly expressed, neither of the Sale of any jewels, save divers Collars of Pearls. (…) In writing hereof I understand, by an eyewitness, that all the jewels are brought here again to be pawned and amongst them the great collar fetched from Hamb. Also the three Brethren, four or five great diamonds, with divers more; but no money to be had thereupon in this place, as the party imployed therin doth tell me. (JHL 5: 11 June 1642).

Henrietta Maria did succeed in raising some finance, though. In Amsterdam a man named Webster advanced 140,000 guilders on her rubies and pendant pearls, the Burgomaster of Rotterdam offered 40,000 guilders on unnamed items and Fletchers of The Hague 126,000 guilders. Compared to what the Dutch had been spending on tulip bulbs between 1635 and 1637 these were not vast sums. By January 1643, Henrietta Maria eventually disposed of or pledged most if not all of the items considered to be her own, but when she set sail from Holland a month later she still had many of the items taken out of England, including the famed Three Brethren jewel.

The Three Brethren comprised of a massive pyramid-cut wine-yellow diamond surrounded by three square-cut spinel rubies and three large pearls set in pronged brackets rather than in elaborate goldwork. The centre diamond, of a most unusual cut, weighed approximately 30 carats. In the early 15th century it had been described as the largest faceted diamond in Europe. The jewel was said to have been commissioned as a shoulder-clasp for John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy from 1404 to his assassination in 1419. His grandson, Charles the Bold, owned it in 1467 when his inventory describes it as “Un Gros Dyamant Pointé a Fass”. It was then possibly sold to or via a banker called Fugger, and came into the possession of Henry VIII in England circa 1546. In 1551 it belonged to Henry’s only son, Edward VI.

On Edward’s death, the magnificent Three Brethren passed into the hands of his elder sister Mary, then became a favourite jewel of Elizabeth I. It features in several of her portraits including the famous ‘ermine portrait’. Subsequent portraits of James 1st of England, VI of Scotland show him wearing the Three Brethren as well.

 

What happened to the Three Brethren during the Civil War is uncertain. Various theories suggest it was sold, or pawned but not retrieved, in Amsterdam or Antwerp; that three more diamonds were added to it and it was renamed the Three Sisters; that Cardinal Mazarin, who collected valuable gemstones, acquired it along with the debts he purchased from Henrietta Maria. One theory says the jewel was adapted and offered for sale through Henrietta Maria’s agent, a ‘Monsieur Cletstex’ of the Bank of Lombardy in Rotterdam. What really happened to the Three Brethren is open for speculation . . . and this is where the third story in the Ludo da Portovenere trilogy begins.

In 1644, Henrietta Maria gave birth to her last child in England then, gravely ill, returned to her homeland of France. Despite ill-health and lack of a permanent home (she was not welcome in Paris at the time and moved between various towns until finally allotted a suite in St Germaine) she continued to pawn and/or sell items considered to be the Crown Jewels to raise funds for the floundering Royalist army in England. Parliament maintained watchful spies but Henrietta succeeded in raising money and credit in various European markets until her husband was imprisoned.

The remaining items of royal regalia left in England were broken up to finance the Roundheads, or melted down to be made into more useful items. The very last of the valuables kept in the Tower of London were then nearly lost forever in 1671 when the infamous Colonel Blood made a daring attempt to steal them, only to be captured at the east gate with the crown, sceptre and orb in a sack.

Numerous authors have incorporated these deeds into historical fiction, not least because somewhere there are antique, now priceless gemstones that once belonged to the English monarchy – or ‘the people’ – in private hands.

JGH

This post was originally hosted on the English Historical Authors’ blog in September, 2017. See:  http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.es

http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.es/2017/09/henrietta-maria-and-english-crown-jewels.html

  • *For a more detailed analysis of Henrietta Maria’s attempts to raise money for Charles 1st see: To Sell England’s Jewels: Queen Henrietta Maria’s visits to the Continent, 1642 and 1644 by David HUMPHREY: https://erea.revues.org/3715

Review of Charlatan by Kate Braithwaite

In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin. (Amazon)

This clever novel has been skillfully crafted from seventeenth century French prison archive material and official transcripts resulting from hours and hours, years and years of interrogations into what one might loosely term ‘witchcraft’.

The story opens with a flashback to a black mass, where a priest is conducting a ceremony over the body of a naked female. The reader witnesses the scene from different points of view and from that moment we are aware that a practised charlatan is at work. We are also invited to guess the identities of an aristocratic observer and her servant, although this is called into question later. Much is called into question later as little by little we come to know the people involved in this scene; their fears and motivations, their personalities and ambitions.

The story follows three principal players in the investigation into La Voisin’s trade, for she is who is far more than a mere fortune-teller: Bezons, a young, somewhat naïve police agent; the daughter of the fortune-teller, Marie Montvoisin; and Madame de Montespan, one-time mistress of the King of France and mother to seven of his children. As the story unfolds, we learn about these three very real people and start to understand what drives them, and this is where Kate Braithwaite’s skill lies. Madame de Montespan wants – needs – far more than a simple return to the King’s favours; she has her extended family’s future to consider – as her demanding sister constantly reminds her. She also wants the King to legitimize their children. It calls into question just how far she is prepared to go to achieve all this. Marie’s situation is less complex but far sadder, something the initially innocent young policemen picks up on, to his detriment. He feels sorry for the girl, allows himself to be seduced by her then begins to doubt how far she is prepared to go to achieve her freedom. Behind the scenes and acting almost as a running commentary on the events is the self-confessed charlatan, Lesage, whose cynical world view informs on what is happening in the prison.

Chateau de Versailles

Apart from the sinister background to the trials, there is no overly-dramatic action in this novel and at times it feels rather static. Madame de Montespan moves between royal apartments and a convent; Marie and Bezons’ interaction takes place in a prison room. Initially, I wondered when the story was going to get started, but then realised that the narrative is a form of trial or examination in itself. The dialogue is handled with such finesse that as I learned certain details I simply had to read on to confirm my suspicions. The characters are complex, and there are definite turning points, but on the whole this is a quiet, contemplative novel. Kate Braithwaite has crafted a compelling and convincing piece of writing out of a real-life scandal. I look forward to reading more of her work.

(This review was originally published for Discovering Diamonds on 5th June, 2017: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/p/our-reviewers.html)

Writing about 17th Century Spain

This month’s guest post on the writer’s craft is by Donald Michael Platt, a prolific author in diverse fields but perhaps better known now for his recent books on the Spanish hidalgo, Vicente de Rocamora. Donald has lived in California, Brazil, and now in Florida, so I asked him how and why he came to write a novel about 17th century Spain. Here is his response.

The Mystery of Vicente de Rocamora 

dm-platt-rocamora-1

Little-known historical individuals who led interesting lives arouse my interest. The less documented about them the freer I am to create character motivation and an entertaining story line. That is why I selected Vicente de Rocamora, 1601-1684, to be the protagonist of my two novels Rocamora and House of Rocamora. Several anomalies in his life piqued my curiosity, and the few available facts about him, especially in Spain, are unexplained. Continue reading “Writing about 17th Century Spain”

An interview with Ludo da Portovenere in 1640.

Historical background to Ludo da Portovenere’s business matters:

In this first third of the seventeenth century (now coming into 1640), Europe and Great Britain are experiencing significant changes in international politics and domestic life in general. Spain and the Holy Roman Empire are still fighting to keep the Netherlands; the Portuguese are conspiring to regain their monarchy; the French at at war with Spain and conspiring with the Vatican on all manner of issues; in England there will be a civil war that could change people’s lives forever if the king does not act to avert it. The bourgeoisie in northern Europe, however, flourish; in Holland they are already calling it ‘the golden age’. But we are surrounded by the plague and the winters continue colder and longer than they should. Continue reading “An interview with Ludo da Portovenere in 1640.”