I’ve been busy over the past week or so. Oh, not too busy to think and write, but still busy nonetheless. The fact that it is a business of my own creation and choice makes it a thing very different from those days when “busy” meant running to meetings I didn’t want to attend, with people I didn’t want to talk to, in places I didn’t want to be…
In that life, busy meant miserable. Busy also meant trying to pass the day ever more quickly so I could get to those few hours of “non-busy” in the brewery taproom, spending time with those with whom I did want to talk. Compared to those days, nothing will ever be “busy” again…
This busy-ness — the busy-ness of the last few days — has been a thing important to me on both a personal and a professional level. And, no, before you ask, I have not shared it here on the blog. It isn’t yet time. When that time does come, however, you can rest assured that I will talk — probably non-stop! — about it here.
Even in the midst of all that busy-ness, however, I have been making time for myself to do more reading. Now, as is usual for me, I have been focusing that reading on history. I know, I know…you are very surprised by that. I mean, who would ever have thought that I read history? My God, before you know it I’ll be talking about crazy shit like astronomy and cosmology!
Ahem. Never mind. Let’s just /sarcasm and move on…
My reading of late has gone back to what is perhaps the greatest well in all of European history for stories of power politics and intrigues and ruthlessness: the English Wars of the Roses. Look, there is a reason why Shakespeare’s most impactful characters and plays comes from his cycle about this period. Hell, it was for the very same reason that modern writers take the Wars of the Roses as the basis for something like, oh, a million stories. Shit, every single bit of Game of Thrones came from this freaking period! Even the dragons!
Err…well…maybe not the dragons…unless, of course, you want to postulate early canons and artillery as “dragons”!
Err, sorry about that. Give me a moment to /nerd too…
There, that’s better.
So, I’ve been reading about the Wars of the Roses and, well…shit. What writer can not think about characters and plots with that particular bit of history in front of them?! Even better — or worse, depending on your point of view — I’ve been diving back into the stories and details about the death of Edward IV; the machinations of his queen, Elizabeth Wydville; the ambitions of his brother, Richard of Gloucester (yeah, I pretty much refuse to give him the royal styling of Richard III — sue me, I’m convinced of his guilt); and all of the ruthlessness and maneuvering around the fates of the Princes in the Tower.
If you don’t know, by the way, that final phrase refers to the 12 year old King Edward V, and his nine year old brother Richard, Duke of York. Now, no work of history can get into the reality of those two boys because, quite simply, all we can definitively say about them is that their uncle imprisoned and murdered them in order to seize the throne. And in that simple sentence I just typed there lie literally millions of words of stories and characters and conflict as inspiration for a fiction writer!
There is a record, from a contemporary writer unaffiliated with either political faction of the day, about how people used to gather across the Thames from the Tower to watch the imprisoned princes come outside to play everyday. Then…one day…the boys just never reappeared. It was only after that disappearance that everyday, average Londoners turned against Richard Gloucester. It was only after that disappearance that people began to question whether a man so popular and respected could be so ruthless and evil.
I’m sorry, but just how can you not take something like that and run with it?
One of the things I find most compelling about the whole story is the fact that not a single one of the players involved gave a damn about anything other than their own power. Elizabeth Wydville was a grasping, ruthless woman committed to cementing her own (unofficial) power and influence over the government of England at all costs. Richard of Gloucester had more official and legitimate claims to power — as regent, not king — but that most certainly wasn’t enough for him. Hastings and Buckingham (if you remember them from your Shakespeare!) wanted desperately to cement their own power…
And not one of those people, trusted with the care of two young boys unable to defend themselves as much as they were trusted with the care of England itself, cared one whit for any of their charges. Nor did they, to get more to the point in terms of today’s world and politics, ever bother to pause and think about what was best for the nation or the people.
And in all of that you have…everything. You have characters who are sympathetic, and characters who are detestable. You have conflict and tension on multiple levels, from the personal to the international. You have scheming and murder; evil deeds and cowardice; manipulations and mistakes; hell, you have a dude executed by being drowned in a barrel of wine (!). You have, when you get right down to it, an illustration over just a few short months of everything that makes humanity so fucked up and miserable…and so very human.
Oh…also…if you extend the window out a bit, you do get a touch of justice, too. Hastings and Buckingham were executed by their former master, Richard of Gloucester. Not much later, Dicky 3 himself died at the hands of a man whose claim to the throne was laughably thin; a man who barely spoke any English; a man whose grandfather was nothing more than a Welsh groom with the good luck to marry a (former) queen…
That man, who became Henry VII, had his faults and problems, but let’s be honest here — he not only killed Richard of Gloucester, he married the dead princes’ sister and gave eventual rise to a magnificent grandchild in the form of Elizabeth I. So well done, Hank.
Err…on a pointless history-is-complicated note: Hank7 didn’t actually turn out to be a terribly nice guy. He wasn’t a hugely bad one, mind you, but he was certainly no shining, chivalric hero. His mother, on the other hand, was one of the strongest and most remarkable women you’ll ever come across. Which leads inevitably to a whole separate character-inspiration rant.
Anyone who says history is simple, and writing easy, is either crazy, or lying their ass off.