Over the years, I’ve heard many people point out that truth is often stranger than fiction, that one is limited in fiction to writing stories in ways that actual people were not limited, such that if one wrote a story about such-and-such a real historical figure, nobody would believe it.
I am pretty dubious about this idea, to be honest. Over the years, I’ve wrestled with how to do it, and–not that I’ve published any of the projects–I have a few stories I’ve been pruning and tidying and cleaning up lately which I think demonstrate how to do this.
The figures in the stories I am talking about are Moura Budberg and Crown Prince Sado (aka Sado Seja). Budberg was in the British news for a while back in 2007, because she was related to UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg. Of course, Budberg got onto my radar a couple of years before that, for a different reason: she was the last long-term lover of HG Wells. But she was also a former lover of several other very famous writers and figures, including R.H. Bruce Lockhart (a UK spy in Russia during the Russian Revolution, sent there to disrupt the shift to Communism) and Maxim Gorky, the Russian writer. Budberg spent her life weaving all kinds of tales about herself, charming men and implying she was a spy… and she might have been, too. (There are a few unanswered questions about things she did with Gorky’s papers, how she managed to get sprung (along with Lockhart) from prison after an arrest on espionage charges, and a photo of her with Stalin floating around out there. For the record, I suspect she might have been involved in something, when she was young, but that she made much more out of it because doing so was of use to her later in life.) Nonetheless, Budberg is certainly one of those larger than life figures, even if the double-agent mythology remains unclear and possibly untrue.
Another such historical figure is Crown Prince Sado, a famous and doomed eighteenth-century personage from the history of Korea’s last Dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty. Crown Prince Sado is famous for how he died: after basically going bananas and engaging in a kill-and-rape spree in the palace, his father ordered him to allow himself to be locked into a rice chest in midsummer. He spent the last eight days of his life there, broiling in darkness, until a thunderstorm struck, and he finally expired.
Well, and if you look closer, there is all kinds of stuff that pushes Sado Seja right to the borders of the unbelievable, especially among the details recorded the apologist writings of his widow, Lady Hyegyeong: for example, rumors of black magic having been practiced in the palace a few years later, in the Pavilion across from the one where Sado spent his early childhood. An extended discussion of young Sado’s fascination with Taoist magical texts, especially one called The Jade Spine Scripture. Sado’s father (then-King) Yeongjo’s obsession with cleanliness (including verbal cleanliness and verbal corruption of his person by those around him), and his strange fixation upon his offspring, especially those who had died. Sado’s secretive trips up into the North of Korea–yes, to Pyongyang–and his notable affairs with a corrupted female monk and a clever palace woman; his obsession with his clothing; his fear, discussed by his widow, of The Thunder God.
These kinds of historical figures are the sort that people often say one could never write about, because the audience would not be able to suspend their disbelief. Well, that may be true when it comes to mainstream fiction: in fact, the popular “received” version of the story of Crown Prince Sado, as I’ve heard it from people who know only what they learned in high school, is far less interesting than the reality.
But when you’re writing speculative fiction, this kind of claim seems to me unrealistic. Maybe because I’m compelled by these weird stories themselves, or maybe because I wanted to see if it was possible, I’ve written stories about both of the characters. They are among the hardest writing projects I’ve taken on so far, and both have taken years before they even approached what I would consider successful completion (though I did in fact send them out earlier, when I foolishly thought they were complete).
Still, I have one thing I can say that I’ve found works for this task, and that is:
Your speculative elements need to blow away whatever was unbelievable in the “real” historical narrative.
That is, whatever fantastical notions or conceits you fit into the story need to outweigh the stunning, unbelievable, but non-fantastical details so much that nobody would bother to doubt them, that they feel believable and make sense in the context of the mind-blowingly fantastical stuff.
Of course, this is just a theory. The closest I’ve come to selling a story written this way was in “Lester Young and the Jupiter’s Moons’ Blues” where the protagonist was a somewhat fictionalized version of Miles Davis. But I’m pretty happy with the (current versions of the) stories I’ve written about Moura Budberg and Crown Prince Sado.
While we’re at it, though, I’ll add one more thing:
The speculative and the historical need to mesh deeply, and intertwine inextricably.
The speculative elements you add to these stories need, in a deep way, to bind to the unbelievable-but-true elements. In other words, the fantastical stuff that you introduce into the narrative and the nonfictional-but-unbelievable elements should mesh together well, so tightly that the crazy-but-true gets some of the benefit of the suspension of disbelief that readers are trained to effect in speculative fiction narratives.
In fact, in some ways in both of the stories I mention above, I found that puzzling out what was “really” (in the speculative fiction sense) going on was a bit like playing a game of connect the dots, where I had to assume a lot of the dots implied a far different picture offstage, behind the curtain, and had to figure out a way of drawing in dots that could imply that bigger, hidden picture to readers, leaving just enough visible that whose who know what they’re looking at will get it, while those who don’t know what they’re looking at will still get creeped out, and maybe not even realize they’re missing a bigger, and highly referential picture.
I suppose I’ll only feel the stories successful once they’ve been published somewhere, but I feel the two insights above have helped me to produce a take on writing fiction about characters who are unbelievable-but-true… and that makes me think that, similarly, one ought to be able to use them when writing about characters who are unbelievable-but-compellingly-and-believably-fictional as well. At least, in a speculative fiction context.
This is probably not a new insight–I suppose anyone who’s called for characters to be “larger than life” has said some of the same thing–but the specifics of how speculative features of a tale relate to that has proven useful one to me, so I figured I’d write a bit about it here.