This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Marty Ambrose. Her writing career spans over fifteen years. She has written nine novels,including Claire's Last Secret, a nineteenth century historical memoir/mystery that centers around the Lord Byron/Percy Bysshe Shelley literary circle. Her most recent release, A Shadowed Fate, is the sequel and the second of a planned trilogy. Ambrose was our featured writer on October 14, 2018.
Now that I write historical memoir/mysteries, I am often asked how I manage to include “real” figures into my books who are believable within the story. It was daunting to take on this task, to say the least, as I wrote my latest book, A Shadowed Fate—the second work of a trilogy about the nineteenth-century Byron/Shelley circle. Bringing in actual writers from the past requires a lot of research, a delicate balance of the real and the imagined, and a fresh perspective—especially if that person is someone as famous (and infamous) as British Romantic poet, Lord Byron. He, and the other members of the brilliant literary group, presented quite a challenge to me as an author—one that kept me up at night as I mulled over how to include enough historical details about these beloved literati while making each one come alive within my plot.
Okay, it was beyond daunting—more like impossible.
First of all, including Lord Byron as a character required massive amounts of research. His lover, Caroline Lamb, once defined him as “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know,” and this scandalous phrase has lingered throughout the last two-hundred years. Yet, he was a much more complex man than the rakish image she portrayed. I found that moving beyond this “celebrity cliché” meant plowing deeply into the man behind the mask. I’ve studied Byron during much of my academic career, but making him into a character required including subtleties that, initially, seemed elusive. One of his acquaintances, Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, captured this dilemma perfectly when she wrote:
Byron is the perfect chameleon, possessing the fabulous quality attributed
to that animal, of taking the colour of whatever touches him.
What to do to accomplish my task?
I read the latest biographies. I studied his poetry. Most of all, I devoured his letters and journals. The latter seemed to provide the most insight. Often written late at night when Byron was alone, he would pen his innermost thoughts. When I was researching A Shadowed Fate, some parts of the book take place when Byron lived in Ravenna in 1821 and was part of the Carbonari revolutionary movement that sought to free Italy from Austrian rule. Byron was hiding guns in the cellar, writing poetry about Dante, and visiting his mistress, Teresa Guiccioli—but underneath all of this frenetic activity was a restless, discontented exile. In Byron’s Ravenna Journal, he describes a wistful longing for his years in London and dismay that, in spite of his love for Italy, he still felt like an “outsider.” Those thoughts provided insight to “shade” Byron as a character: he was a lonely man in spite of his messy life in Italy.
Aside from knowing the multi-dimensions of real historical figures, I found that, while I had to “frame” my characters with actual events, I had to add scenes that could be true. That’s a tricky balance. Back to Byron. I know the basic events of his life, but they are simply facts. I had to create conversations and conflicts that had narrative impact. For example, when he lived in Ravenna in 1821, he had his young daughter, Allegra, with him. Her fate is a central part of my book’s plot—as is her relationship with Byron. I decided a way to show that connection was by creating a scene when Byron decides to send Allegra to a convent school; I set their parting at Dante’s Tomb since it is an evocative place in Ravenna, full of poetry and depth—the perfect place for a father to express his deep regret over parting with his daughter. There is no documentation that records he ever took her there, but it’s always possible. Even more importantly, the setting provides a way for readers to emotionally connect with Byron’s sense of loss.
Lastly, avoiding the “same old, same old” vignettes about someone discussed and dissected as extensively as Byron was the ultimate challenge: including the well-known escapades in a novel can feel stale to readers. To avoid that trap, I decided to have Mary Shelley’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, narrate my trilogy because she was the “almost famous” member of their circle, and her voice was relatively unknown. Using Claire as a narrator gave me a chance to create a fresh image of Byron (she was his mistress and mother of Allegra) from the perspective of a woman who felt she had been wronged by him, even as she loved him passionately. Claire gave me a chance to have the creative freedom to explore how celebrity can create highs and lows for those drawn into their orbit—not always a pleasant way to live, but always dramatic. Also, I decided to have Claire tell her story from two stages of her life: a young woman of seventeen (when she first met Byron) and an older, wiser lady in her seventies who has mellowed somewhat with the passing of time. The dual narrative voices provided me with even more opportunities to give new insights into Byron not just as a character, but a legend who haunts Claire. It was a fascinating creative process which I savored as a writer.
Of course, aside from Byron, I included the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and novelist, Mary Shelley, as characters in A Shadowed Fate as well—each of whom presented the same problem (though to a lesser extent) of finding the person behind the celebrity. But surprising nuances were there to be found in the same way I delved into Byron: discovering that fragment of a thought or brief moment of reflection which pointed the way in their letters and journals. It felt like digging for treasure, except these riches held value only in the imaginative landscape of my writing.
Still, a pearl beyond price.
Would I do it all again? Absolutely. I found once I started including real figures in my books that I would never want to go back to all imaginary characters. Historical people are just so compelling to research, and I want to keep hunting for new slants on the rich and famous. And maybe, just maybe, my readers will have a new awareness of how time and notoriety can twist the truth of a person’s true nature. Hopefully, they will be intrigued enough to keep reading.
For more information, visit the author’s website at www.martyambrose.com.