Research and Real People

The current draft of my work in progress (the paranormal romance that I keep talking about, working title Familiaris) is going about as well as you can expect, which is to say that I’m in the “everything sucks, especially me” stage. This shouldn’t surprise me, considering that this is all a part of the writing process and especially my writing process, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit betrayed by the brick wall out of nowhere. What happened to the love that we started off with, and why haven’t I been able to use it to move forward?

In all seriousness, I don’t think that I’d been more in love with a project. I voluntarily wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 more words than I needed to in order to win NaNoWriMo 2014 simply because I was having so much fun. I spent the entire month of October getting to know Jake (my protagonist) so intimately that he became a very dear friend rather than a fractured projection of myself. The world and his supporting cast weren’t quite as developed, but I made a frame to work within and build off of. Whenever Jake said “jump,” I pulled out the trampoline. Learn tarot? Absolutely. Break out the watercolors and paint your portrait? Done. Write in a genre that I’ve barely read, let alone written? Ok. Research everything under the sun? As you wish.

It’s that research part that has me ripping out my hair, though. Like I said, I’m writing a paranormal romance, and actually I have the central relationship and internal conflicts pretty well worked out. I even have some family drama thrown in the mix. What’s throwing me for a loop is the “B-plot.”

Without giving away too much, Jake isn’t the kind of lycanthropy sufferer (I’m avoiding using “werewolf” because the condition is more along the lines of a chronic illness and not a different species) who needs to worry about a pack telling him not to date outsiders or pressuring him to change his love interest. There is a conflict with a “pack” that I’m working in that indirectly threatens his safety and livelihood in that it’s a cult of people with lycanthropy who are using theological and historical justifications for their actions that ultimately harm the lycanthropy community as well as humans.

Yeah. We took a pretty sharp left on “Please, please let this work.”

At the moment, I’m doing a lot of looking into history and theology to see where this particular cult’s beliefs could have come from. Most of it is superficial as I try to figure out which parts to delve into more thoroughly, so the bulk of what I’ve been looking at is historic “werewolves,” both specific individuals and generally how they were dealt with. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this kind of stuff happened during the 17th Century, where suspected supernatural creatures didn’t get off easily: werewolves in Europe got about the same treatment that witches got in America. There were some commonalities in the (frequently coerced) confessions, especially when it comes to figures in black that evidently have nothing better to do than go around biting shepherds and making them renounce their baptisms.

I can’t remember when or how I first heard about Thiess of Kaltenbrun, but I specifically remembered his “Hound of God” claim that sounded like the perfect line of thinking for my cult to latch on to (long story short, werewolves aren’t minions of the Devil, and in fact go down to Hell three times a year to do battle with him for the sake of humanity). It was possible that the facts about this man that lived circa 1690 could be distorted in order to fit the needs of a cult in the 2010s, or even the bystanders looking for an excuse to persecute people with lycanthropy. Heck, I’ve never done much historical fiction, so researching and building a fictional plot off of a real person sounded like fun. So to Wikipedia I went, hoping that I could at least find a useful jumping-off point for further reading.

Based on what I found, though? I’m not what you would call a doctor, but he was an 80-year-old man who I’d say was definitely senile and possibly had a mental illness. His story changed in almost comical ways every time he was asked to provide details—everything from the vehicle for the changes to how often they happened was so dramatically different every time he spoke that it was hard to believe the accounts were coming from the same person (and to my admittedly limited knowledge, he wasn’t one of the people who was tortured into giving or changing information). At first, I was stunned at how useless this information seemed, but I think I’ve found a way to spin it (after all, your cult leaders need to be charismatic, not correct or consistent).

It’s kind of strange that this man is so far removed from me that I’m thinking of him and others in his situation as potential plot devices rather than people who actually existed and had genuinely tragic deaths. Adaptations of this nature happens to a number of historical figures: characters travelling back in time to attempt to kill Hitler is practically its own subgenre, as is preventing the assassination of JFK; Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is an entire cast of real people who lived and died during the Salem Witch Trials; and Faust, who was a real person that’s been adapted into countless stories and arguably the codifier for the “deal with the Devil” plot. There’s even an entire category of “based on a true story” stories in movies that range from Titanic (where the history is a loosely-adapted backdrop to a love story between wholly fictional characters) to countless stories set in Europe during World War II.

It seems like there’s a bit more leniency in adopting very famous historical events or figures, which makes sense: there were a lot of people on the Titanic when it went down and many more persecuted in Germany during the Second World War, so it’s not too much of a stretch to bring a character living there to life. Even having a specific figure being the lynchpin of the entire plot, especially in a speculative genre, doesn’t seem wrong if done well: whether good or bad, some legacies become public domain, and having the element of realism to ground a story in something resembling our world can add extra investment in a plot.

I just kind of wonder at what point it stops being creative license and starts being appropriation, or if that point even exists. Is my use of a real person from history any more or less appropriate because he’s pretty obscure relative to other historical figures? Can I be any more or less liberal with my interpretation of his character because Googling his name yields 1,300 results rather than Hitler’s 37,400,000? Is the time period in which he lived far enough removed from our own that I can get away with more? Is my world, by virtue of having lycanthropy as a real phenomenon, different enough from the real world that any differences can be chalked up to alternate history?

I don’t plan on having Thiess, or any other historical werewolf, play a big enough role in the present-day action of the story to worry about having to get every detail perfect. Whoever ends up being my “victim” here will end up being a historical figure whose legacy becomes twisted by the antagonistic faction and nothing more than that. I’ll probably learn and use knowledge about his trial, life, and death, even if I won’t need to know how he’d interact with any of my characters. In any case, though, he was still a person, and I owe it to him to give him the most faithful treatment that my work allows.