Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—Relating to Psyches Long Dead

“All that She’d Need” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT

This post is based on a presentation about writing historical fiction I did for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “Relating to Psyches Long Dead: Developing Characters in Historical Fiction”

Here are some questions concerning setting that I consider when developing a piece of historical fiction:
*What were the differences, both opportunities and limitations, in the roles of females and males, both as adults and children?
*Was there a class system in place and how did it work?
*What were the prevalent religious and social beliefs of the time?
*What moral strictures were in place concerning religious faith, sexual activity, social conduct, and social mobility?
*How did people find happiness?
*What were the common ways in which life and happiness were endangered?

The key to helping audience relate to characters in a story, whatever the setting, is the emotional aspects of the tale. How we respond to the world has a lot to do with personality, but our time and circumstances have some influence on who we are as well. In developing characters within a historical setting, its important to know something of how people within the chosen environment were affected by events of their time. Also important is considering how characters’ knowledge of their environment’s history prior to their respective births might effect their thinking. That seems like a lot, and perhaps it is. The good news is that we’re basically the same creatures we’ve been for thousands of years, with all the same emotions. What stimulates those emotions varies for all of us, and we’re used to interpreting others moods within the context of their experiences. Dealing with emotion in historical fiction is no different. We just have to know the context.

Research gets me only so far within a reasonable amount of time and effort. Therefore, it’s good to have an overarching sense of history, to knowing something of when and how technological advances occurred and how they effected the lives of human beings. Something as simple as the electric drill, has an elaborate history. The tool is descended from various hole-making devices made of wood, sometimes tipped with stone, turned by hand power alone at first, later turned with the help of bows. With time, helical metal tips or bits were developed. These were turned by hand cranks. Later added leverage was provided by hand-driven cogged mechanisms. Eventually drill bits were powered with steam, electricity and compressed air. An electric drill could not exist in a tale about ancient Egypt without serious justification for its existence being provided. Perhaps the device is the invention of a genius of the period, and the advancement was later lost to history. Perhaps it arrived in ancient Egypt with a time traveler. The latter justification takes the story into the realm of science fiction or fantasy. Reasonable explanations are possible, but whatever is used, it must be important to pushing the story forward.

Those descriptions and events that help build a sense of time and place within a story should not be added arbitrarily. I shouldn’t have the hanging of a witch occur as backdrop for a town square scene in my 15th century tale about Salem, Massachusetts unless it has some bearing on what the story is about. The descriptions of objects within an environment, the actions and words characteristic of a time period, and the use of vernacular within dialogue are helpful for setting the scene, but should only be added to give atmosphere if they also help move the story forward. I must find ways to make the introduction of such things incidental to the action and dialogue to lighten the load of describing them in summary narrative.

Dear reader, what are the historical flaws and possible solutions to the scenarios below? Each scenario has at least two flaws, and some have numerous. If you’d like, use the comment feature to list them. Number three has one flaw in particular that is very subtle. See if you can figure it out.

1) In the year 1500, renaissance painter, Antonio da Roma, loses his job decorating the ceiling of a church because he’s become too obese to climb the extension ladder used in the job. He’s dissected enough cadavers to know about plaque buildup in blood vessels. Fearing a stroke, he decides to lay off all high cholesterol, fatty foods. His family can’t get along on his wife’s income, and they are about to enter the poorhouse when an opportunity arises. An insurance adjuster who knows of Antonio’s dissections, hires him to perform an autopsy. The adjuster wants to know if his client committed suicide or died of natural causes.

2) In 1820, Melody, the unwed sixteen-years-old daughter of a plantation owner outside of Atlanta, Georgia, wants to have a sleepover party with three girlfriends on an evening when the servants have the night off. Her parents agree. The night of the sleepover, Melody’s aunt Alice, her father’s sister, comes to the house to call the parents away. “Mother is very ill,” Aunt Alice says. “The Doctors says she will surely die tonight. Please hurry. We have 50 miles to travel to get to her.” While Melody’s parents are gone, four young men the girls don’t know crash the sleepover party. They spend the night, and, on a lark,  Melody has sex for the first time.

3) In 1854, during the Crimean War, the medical facilities near the front lines are overburdened with the wounded as well as with those having unseen wounds. Dr. Martin Roberts says to his superior, Dr. Susan Lee, “If they have no apparent wound, they are simply malingerers, and have no excuse not to return to battle.”
“Perhaps their wounds are of a subconscious nature.” she responds.
Doctor Roberts nods thoughtfully. “I hadn’t considered that.”

Here are links to some of the historical fiction novels I’ve written:

A Parliament of Crows

ebook

paperback

The Door That Faced West

ebook

paperback

Novels in my Jack the Ripper Victims Series:

Of Thimble and Threat

paperback

Say Anything But Your Prayers

paperback

Click the link below for both of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novels in one ebook.

Jack the Ripper Victim Series: The Double Event.

 

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Historical Terror—Horror that Happened

Interior illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT

What Were They Thinking? How could the people of Jonestown drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid? How could Jim Jones ask them to do it?

How did Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. decide to fall on a grenade during fighting in Bougainville in WWII? Surely, he didn’t do it for the posthumously awarded Medal of Honor. No doubt he did it to save his fellow soldiers, but that’s a pat answer that leaves out all but the barest glimpse of the emotions involved. When it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of the people making these sorts of mind-blowing decisions, their choices can become a fascination for me.

This post was originally developed as a presentation about writing historical fiction for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “What were They Thinking: The Drama Available in History.” The driving force of human emotion can be quite mysterious when we’re not present to see it in action. If the emotional context is missing, I am frequently befuddled by the decisions of my fellow human beings. History is filled with dramatic events that involve momentous and pivotal choices, some heroic, some dastardly, taken by human beings under great emotional strain. Those situations that ended in tragedy were often a result of decisions made, often hastily, based on a poor selection of choices, none of them good, or in the pursuit of a desperate agenda. Those that ended well often resulted from a persistent hope, faith, love, or just dumb luck.

Here are some of the types of choices human beings make that are difficult for me to understand on the surface.

1) Suicide (sometimes there’s no explanation left behind).
2) Maintaining relationships with those who are emotionally difficult, abusive, or dangerous.
3) Engaging in activities that are known to easily lead to addictions.
4) Unusual risk-taking or other self-destructive tendencies (sometimes referred to as a death wish).
5) Self sacrifice (a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others).
6) Courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
7) Striking out for the unknown with little but hope to sustain the effort (Christopher Columbus comes to mind).
8) Acting on intuition alone (trusting oneself to anticipate something of great import).
9) Willingness to pursue a course despite the obvious pain endured or caused to others.
10) Unwillingness to consider anything but one’s own agenda or beliefs in the face of obvious reality (Hitler comes to mind).
11) Collective belief systems that seem obviously harmful to others (South African Apartheid comes to mind).
12) Falling in love with highly flawed, even destructive individuals.
13) Hating individuals for reasons that seem to have little depth.
14) Scapegoatism.

For this paper, I’ll refer to these quirks of human decision-making as “fascinating choices.” Most of the choices seem unreasonable on the surface, so why should I trouble myself to understand? I’ve certainly made some weird, even bone-headed decisions in my life, but then, I know why, at least most of the time. If hindsight is 20 20, I should be able to evaluate others’ fascinating choices objectively, right? Of course not. If there’s no record left behind of what the actors involved were thinking and feeling, a lot of information is missing. Should I dismiss my astonishment with the notions that those who made the fascinating choices were insane, ill-informed, or merely bad at decision-making, some lucky and some unlucky? No! I think the fact that I’m left scratching my head in wonder is an indication that something particularly human and emotionally complex has occurred in these situations, something that holds great drama. Sometimes, we have the pat answer—he gave his life to save his fellow soldiers—but that doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. Was he motivated by patriotic fervor or was it a special relationship with those particular men that motivated him? If the latter, what events led to such strong feeling?

HistoricalFictionI’ve written five historical fiction novels in an effort to explore how certain seemingly unreasonable choices, or, as I’ve called them, fascinating choices, became reasonable for those who made them.

Three of the novels are part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, and Say Anything But Your Prayer, about the life of Elizabeth Stride have been released. A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, has not been released yet. Of Thimble and Threat and Say Anything But Your Prayers are available separately, but they’re also published together in the ebook volume Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event. All three novels are inspired by my fascination with what seems unreasonable choices on the part of the women involved. Surely, all three knew about the dangers hidden in a Whitechapel, London night. Since the Ripper killings had already begun and were widely reported, Eddowes and Stride would have been well-aware that a murderer stalked the city looking for victims, yet they were willing to stagger drunken along the streets at night, looking for strangers to pay them for sex. What sort of desperation leads one to take such risks to earn a crust? What level of disregard for oneself is required to allow that kind of vulnerability? People don’t set out in life to become drunkards and prostitutes, so what in their lives led to such a fall from grace? These are a few of the questions I’ve addressed in the novels. There being five canonical victims, I have two more novels to write for the series.

A Parliament of Crows is my historical fiction novel about the Wardlaw sisters (I changed their name to Mortlow in the novel). The sisters were the daughters of a

Cover art for A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS

Supreme Court Justice of South Carolina. They were born in the 1840s and ‘50s, and would have been teens during the Civil War. After the war, they stuck together. Though two married and had children, the sisters most often lived with each other, and apart from their families. They took positions in women’s colleges, teaching primarily social graces, and bilked those institutions of funds. Mourning clothes, including veils, seemed to be their perennial dress. They had homes in 3 or 4 states of the United States. The houses and apartments had virtually no furnishings. Taking out insurance policies on certain of their children, the sisters did them in for the payouts. The media circus of their trail at the beginning of the 20th century was only rivaled by that of Lizzy Borden’s almost a half century earlier. As they awaited trial, one went insane and was institutionalized, and one starved herself to death. I wanted to know how they saw the life they led as reasonable. How could it be? I had a lot of fun with that one.

Interior illustration for THE DOOR THAT FACED WEST

Finally, there’s The Door That Faced West, which involves dreadful events from early Tennessee and Kentucky history.

I am from Tennessee, and learning about my State’s history when younger, I happened upon the tale of Big and Little Harpe. They are consider some of the earliest serial or spree killers in America, having committed their crimes around the year 1800. As land pirates, they haunted the trails in what was at the time the frontier territory of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky, robbing and killing to earn a living. They had three wives who traveled with them. Life on the trail was tough, but being wanted, the men had little choice but to keep moving, and the women went with them. One of the wives, Sally Rice, was a minister’s daughter. What we know of the young woman from history is that she traveled the wilderness trails with the Harpes and was witness to terrible violence. The Harpes killed virtually everyone they robbed, at least fifty human beings. At one point, as the outlaws attempted to escape the law, the wives became separated from them. Instead of escaping the frightful life on the trail and seeking asylum in the nearest settlement, the three women traveled one hundred and eighty miles through the wilderness to the agreed-upon rendezvous point to be reunited with the Harpes. They really wanted to be with those guys!

When the wives were finally separated from the men for the last time, Sally Rice, the minister’s daughter, remarried, settled down, had children, and lived out her life in an unremarkable, seemingly normal fashion. That is virtually all history tells us about her. As far as we know she committed no violence herself, yet she had a role in terrible events, a witness at bare minimum.

I wanted to know what she was thinking. How had that life become reasonable? What sort of emotional gymnastics were necessary for her to live with herself? Having come from what people of the time considered a good, spiritual background, why would she endure the hardships of life on the trail with the horrible Harpes? How could she go on with a peaceful life after witnessing and benefitting from their most terrible deeds? What of regret, guilt, and shame did she experience or was she secretly filled with glee for what she’d seen and done? The possibility exists that she felt both extremes.

I wrote The Door that Faced West to explore through character and story development the emotional evolution of one who found herself in such a state of affairs. Adding up what’s known about the circumstances in her story provided me with some indication of the emotions experienced by those involved. Also helpful was knowing something about the environment in which those feelings emerged, the religious, political, and social beliefs and pressures of the time and place. Creating the characters to move through that environment and make the decisions that we know about helped me to understand. Once my characters were well-developed, I could see what rang true in their fascinating choices.

Inevitably, as I try to dramatize such events, I’ll get them wrong. I can only fictionalize, and, in the end, the telling of a good story has to be the priority, not telling the truth. I cannot know what people said or felt unless they expressed it somehow. Even then, their expressions may not hold the full truth. Still, the drama hinges most soundly on the fascinating choices. History as presented isn’t always the truth, but generally speaking, these choices are pivotal moments in time, after which things have changed. All evidence points to the fact that Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. did indeed purposely fall on that grenade. Afterward, he was dead and his fellow soldiers were still alive, and they knew why. Jim Jones didn’t have enough enforcers to compel all those people in Jonestown to drink the Kool-Aid. They willingly decided to die just because he asked them to.

What I get out of writing such a novel may not be an accurate portrayal of events, but I certainly find good drama and an answer to the question of how one might reasonably arrive at the fascinating choices in question. The writing itself is an incredible adventure of discovery.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Controlled Accident Painting

Exploration, Exhumation and a Sense of Wonder

(an excerpt from The Paint in My Blood, Fine Art and Illustration by Alan M. Clark)

I discover while producing it a portion of nearly everything I paint.  I pack the process of developing an illustration with as much opportunity for discovery as I can.  While working up an idea, I distract myself to promote free association and automatism.  I scribble when sketching and explore any line that suggests a new and interesting direction.  In painting I use what I call “controlled accidents” and “forced hallucination.”

“Controlled accidents” is my term for spontaneous image generating techniques I use to help me discover subject matter.  They involve pushing paint around on my painting surface—usually a smooth primed hardboard—with all kinds of odd thing such as rags, plastic sheeting, tin foil, stiff acetate, rollers and stiff boards—I even blow the paint around on a surface with my vacuum cleaner hose on exhaust.  The results are suggestions of texture, shapes and contrasts—at times almost photographic in their range of values.

Artists have explored “found imagery” throughout history.  Da Vinci referred to the discovery of pictures in a stained surface.  Toward this goal, the surrealists developed such techniques as parsemage, which used ground pastels or charcoal and water to stain a surface, sfumage, a candle flame used to apply carbon to paper in suggestive ghostly shapes, and decalcomania, the bending and warping of images in wet paint as they are transferred from one surface to another.  Rorschach ink blots are a well know decalcomania technique.

“Forced hallucination” is my term for finding potential subject matter within the intriguing, but often nondescript images generated by unorthodox painting methods.  Just as one might see faces in wood grain or animal shapes in clouds and rock formations, I find images in the paint.  I think of it as something like an archeological dig: There are vague outlines of structures covered in jungle or just buried beneath desert sands, waiting to be unearthed.   It is exciting.

"Aquatykes"

Using highlights and shadows, and adding color where needed, I bring what I see to life on my painting surface.  First I see it, then I capitalize on it and finally homogenize it into a composition. The parts of the controlled accident that do not work are replaced with contrived material.  This is where the “found imagery,” which is essentially meaningless on its own, is given context. The forced hallucination is often so elaborate that I must be accomplished enough with the use of my imagination and my brush techniques to match its rich detail.

There are times when an entire painting is generated using these techniques.  Other times I might start with a sketch, but large parts of the whole are undeveloped.  I have some idea what controlled accident techniques to use to complete the composition in those areas, but I do not know in advance just exactly what the results will be.

Raw Controlled Accident

"Warm Wooden Toys"

“Warm Wooden Toys”

Whether I am using these techniques to help develop a focal point or create middle- ground or back-ground subject matter for my painting, the process brings into my work the element of chance, an aspect that I would be hard pressed to achieve by careful planning.  The unpredictable element of chance in the world, in life, is what keeps me fascinated.  The excitement of discovery in this painting process spurs me to experiment again and again and to continually produce new work.

Having a good rapport with an art director is very important, especially when working in this way on assignment from a publisher. The art client must understand the spontaneous nature of the process and be somewhat flexible.  Conversely, I must be willing to start over if the results do not work for the publisher.   In the end, I must be willing to set all this aside and be very predictable if that is what my client needs.  The majority, however, hire me because they like my vision. How I arrive at it is up to me.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

One of My Students


I have been teaching acrylic painting for the last year at the Emerald Art Center. I taught two sessions of Controlled Accident painting. Controlled Accidents is my term for spontaneous image generating techniques that I use. They involve pushing the paint around on a painting surface with things other than brushes, such as rags, plastic, tin foil or balloons, in order to create impressions in the paint that suggest subject matter.

The most recent class I taught was Acrylic Painting—Illustration. I wanted to teach methods of creating atmosphere and a sense of space through the use of shadow color and light. Also I wanted to encourage the students to create illustrations that compelled audience participation by setting up relationships within the subject matter that were highly suggestive.

The painting included in this post was done by one of my students, Phyllis Null. She took my controlled accident class and the illustration class. The painting’s title is “warty bliggins and archy,” It is an illustration of “warty bliggins, the toad” by Don Marquis. In it she succeeded in using controlled accidents to help her “discover” textures and incidental landscape elements. She succeeded in creating a sense of atmosphere and of space by systematically reducing the value range of objects as they moved farther into the background. And she succeeded in setting up a relationship between the figures in the piece that invites the audience to wonder what is going on and perhaps imagine the conversation.

This is her success, but it makes me feel like I did my job!

Thanks for taking my classes Phyllis.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Collaborating with Jill Bauman

In 2005 I flew to New York to work and stay with Jill Bauman at her studio for 5 days. During that time, we completed three paintings and started a fourth.

The first painting was one we had begun when she visited me in Nashville, Tennessee in 1992. She wanted to try some of the unorthodox painting techniques I call Controlled Accidents. I often use these techniques to help me generate subject matter. We had no idea what we were going to paint when we started and intended to see what the paint might suggest to us, something like looking for images in an inkblot test. I began the painting with a dark blue-black color covering a piece of hard board. Once this was dry, I put a light gray-blue on top of it and manipulated the wet paint with an acetate cylinder. This creates fantastic shapes and textures in the paint as you roll, pivot, compress or slide the cylinder.

(A further explanation of various Controlled Accidents techniques will appear below.)

We discovered within the paint subject matter we both wanted to develop and began to work, but ran out of time. We didn’t find time to finish “Locked in the Angel Closet” in 1992 and didn’t complete it until thirteen years later in 2005.

Locked in the Angel Closet

"Locked in the Angel Closet"

Our second painting was begun with a piece of hard board gessoed bright white, then stained with pastel color. When this was dry we put various rich blues and purples as well as muted darks on the surface and while they were wet manipulated them with one of those balloons you blow up and twist into animal shapes.  Once again, we looked for and found and agreed on our subject matter and developed it.  This painting we titled, “World of Waters Wild.”

World of Waters Wild

"World of Waters Wild"

Our third painting was on canvas. We started by staining the bright white surface with rich bright reds, oranges and yellows. Then we put dark, muted green and brown on top and while it was wet, pressed wrinkled cotton rags into it. Where ever the rag touched, the paint was lifted off in varying amounts, where ever there was a wrinkle, the paint was left behind. This provides very rough, rocky shapes.  In the paint, we discovered and developed the painting, “The Fall of Calculus.”

"The Fall of Calculus"

Jill had not ever collaborated before working with me. At the beginning of piece, after the controlled accident had been developed and we were looking for subject matter, she asked to know what my intentions were for the paintings—not just what I saw and might want to bring out of the spontaneously generated images, but what my vision was for each painting. I told her that it wouldn’t be a collaboration if I dictated these things, so we should develop the work together, discussing what we saw in the paint. I said my only intention was to come up with a reasonable composition.

Each time, after her initial reaction, she would relax and the work would proceed.

Afterward we discussed this and she seemed to find it all a little frightening, but an exciting process of discovery. Each painting, it seemed to have become easier for her.

I am very proud of the work we produced.

Below I’ve provided two excerpts from my art book, The Paint in My Blood. The first covers some of my views on collaboration. The second helps explain the spontaneous techniques we used to develop subject matter for the paintings.

(The following is excerpted from the chapter WORKING AND PLAYING WITH OTHERS)

From my experience there is no better situation for learning than collaboration, being involved in another artist’s work in progress and discussing the process. I have collaborated with other artists in photography, painting and drawing—both fine art and illustration—mixed media, sculpture, writing—short-shorts, short stories and novels—book design, book proposals, radio plays, and interactive CD-ROM.

Since each collaboration is unique, it is not easy to express the value in the difficulties, excitement, laughter, and camaraderie between artists. I can say that what draws me time and again are some of the same things I look for in producing my own artwork: The thrill of discovery, a powerful learning experience and the production of a unique and experimental piece of art.

When collaborating with another artist, whether he or she is a writer, visual artist, sculptor, or whatever, a new artist emerges, one who has the strengths we each possess respectively, but also is less encumbered by our respective weaknesses.

I try to approach collaboration with the view that no idea of mine is too dear to be tossed out. The best results come when my collaborator has this same humility (teachability). But even if our efforts fail, I have gained from the experience.

(The following is excerpted from the chapter EXPLORATION, EXHUMATION AND A SENSE OF WONDER)

I discover a portion of nearly everything I paint while producing it. I pack the process of developing an illustration with as much opportunity for discovery as I can. While working up an idea, I distract myself to promote free association and automatism. I scribble when sketching and explore any line that suggests a new and interesting direction. In painting I use what I call “controlled accidents” and “forced hallucination.”

“Controlled accidents” is my term for spontaneous image generating techniques I use to help me discover subject matter. They involve pushing paint around on my painting surface—usually a smooth primed hardboard—with all kinds of odd thing such as rags, plastic sheeting, tin foil, stiff acetate, rollers and stiff boards—I even blow the paint around on a surface with my vacuum cleaner hose on exhaust. The results are suggestions of texture, shapes and contrasts—at times almost photographic in their range of values.

Artists have explored “found imagery” throughout history. Da Vinci referred to the discovery of pictures in a stained surface. Toward this goal, the surrealists developed such techniques as parsemage, which used ground pastels or charcoal and water to stain a surface, sfumage, a candle flame used to apply carbon to paper in suggestive ghostly shapes, and decalcomania, the bending and warping of images in wet paint as they are transferred from one surface to another. Rorschach ink blots are a well known decalcomania technique.

“Forced hallucination” is my term for finding potential subject matter within the intriguing, but often nondescript images generated by unorthodox painting methods. Just as one might see faces in wood grain or animal shapes in clouds and rock formations, I find images in the paint. I think of it as something like an archeological dig: There are vague outlines of structures covered in jungle or just buried beneath desert sands, waiting to be unearthed. It is exciting.

Using highlights and shadows, and adding color where needed, I bring what I see to life on my painting surface. First I see it, then I capitalize on it, and finally homogenize it into a composition. The parts of the controlled accident that do not work are replaced with contrived material. This is where the “found imagery,” which is essentially meaningless on its own, is given context. The forced hallucination is often so elaborate that I must be accomplished enough with the use of my imagination and my brush techniques to match its rich detail.

There are times when an entire painting is generated using these techniques. Other times I might start with a sketch, but large parts of the whole are undeveloped. I have some idea what controlled accident techniques to use to complete the composition in those areas, but I do not know in advance just exactly what the results will be.

Whether I am using these techniques to help develop a focal point or create middle or background subject matter for my painting, the process brings into my work the element of chance, an aspect that I would be hard pressed to achieve by careful planning. The unpredictable element of chance in the world, in life, is what keeps me fascinated. The excitement of discovery in this painting process spurs me to experiment again and again and to continually produce new work.

Having a good rapport with an art director is very important, especially when working in this way on assignment from a publisher. The client must understand the spontaneous nature of the process and be somewhat flexible. Conversely, I must be willing to start over if the results do not work for the publisher. In the end, I must be willing to set all this aside and be very predictable if that is what my client needs. The majority, however, hire me because they like my vision. How I arrive at it is up to me.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon