Intrigue! Suspense! Protestant tracts! Wind instruments!

Years ago, as a bookish teenager, I was prone to periodic research obsessions: I’d get interested in a given topic and then read everything I could find on that topic. (I still do that, come to think of it.) My big research obsession at age seventeen was the theater of the English Restoration — the plays that Samuel Pepys would have seen. I had a grandiose plan (never realized) to write a sprawling historical novel beginning in the late 1630s, spanning the Civil War years and the interregnum, and continuing into the 1660s. I had a main character in mind: a boy player whose troupe fled to the continent when the Puritans shut down the playhouses and who returned, grown up, after Charles II officially reopened them. I even had a timeline drawn out on graph paper, and a bunch of shadowy secondary characters floating around in my head. Then I realized that while I loved doing the research, I couldn’t come up with a plot, and that was the end of that project.

But I still sometimes fantasize about writing historical novels. Last week I went to hear a talk about book history, specifically the history of sixteenth-century Protestant publishing in Antwerp and a few other places, and the speaker mentioned that a lot of the books in question were smuggled overseas, as contraband, to places (like England during the time of Queen Mary) where Protestantism was considered a dangerous heresy; he also said that some of them were stashed in empty wine casks for their journey across the Channel. And I thought, wouldn’t that make a terrific premise for a novel? Intrigue, suspense, and the early years of the printing press!

Then today I came across the Waits Website, a site devoted to the history of waits. (Waits were bands of official musicians maintained by British towns; their duties, as this site summarizes, "included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows, welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates, and leading the Mayor’s procession on civic occasions.") And suddenly I want very much to write a novel about a band of waits. Imagine doing that for a living, for one thing. And then think of the fictional possibilities if it’s true that in the seventeenth century, "musicians were sometimes employed as spies because it was not unusual for them to travel at a time when most strangers were suspect."

I mean, wouldn’t that be neat? Wouldn’t it? (Er, maybe it’s just me, then.)

4 Responses to “Intrigue! Suspense! Protestant tracts! Wind instruments!”

  1. qB says:

    It would be neat with knobs on. Hyperneat. If only….

  2. dale says:

    I think it’s a wonderful idea. You could thread it so many ways — picaresque, bodice-ripper, dickensian-down-and-outer, spy novel, foucauldian power analysis, portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man-or-woman-ish bildungsroman, or all of them at once…

  3. mjones says:

    I would certainly read it.
    Or, how about a fictionalized biography of Aphra Behn during her early years as a reputed spy?

  4. DianeMM says:

    As a “bookish teenager” did you read Dorothy Dunnett’s series that starts with the Game of Kings? Full of poetry, music, adventure, intrigue and occaisonally a spy among the music makers. A historical series that starts in Scotland and takes the reader across most of Europe and the Mediterranen.