Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Ride in My Time Machine

As a writer of historical fiction based on the lives of real people, I'm often asked how I know so much about these people's private lives. My answer is always that it isn't that I know so much as I intuit based on careful research and study. It's impossible to know exactly what people thought, felt, or what went on in their relationships behind closed doors, but there are ways of researching that can give one a pretty good idea, at least enough to write a plausible, historically accurate story based on the facts and events in people's lives.

The way I start is by obtaining the facts. These form the foundation or the skeleton of my story and of my characters. Facts are things like documented dates, places, and events and physical evidence such as letters, documents, and first person testimony. Once I've established these things as the foundation, then I begin to search for clues that can give me more insight into the culture in which the characters are living their lives, the time in history, the region, the customs,
the prominent religious, spiritual, and philosophical views of the culture, as well as the history just preceding the time-frame of the story and the history just following. I also research the fashions, foods, and popular entertainment. The next level of research involves a study of basic human psychology and behavior and how that fits with the culture and history. I can then predict how a certain character could and most likely would handle any given situation and/or crisis that he or she might encounter in their lives.

I also devote a lot of time and research into the study of people who history might not have necessarily deemed as important in a character's life, but who may add some perspective to the character that might easily have been missed
because of research that is too focused on one central character and/or event. A good writer/storyteller knows that people aren't islands. Life is about relationships and how human beings respond to the different relationships that they develop within their lives. To focus one's research on one person is to create a one-dimensional story that omits other truths and perspectives.

After all the research is done, the creativity comes in. I combine my research with my intuition and skill as a writer to tell the story. I've had several readers of my So Faithful a Heart novels say to me that they had a difficult time separating the facts from the "fiction" because the two were combined so seamlessly that they simply got lost in the story and in the lives of the characters. Many have said it was if they were there - that they were literally transported back in time and into the various salons, ballrooms, bedrooms, gardens, and palaces where these people lived, loved and worked. That's what a good writer of historical fiction does; we give you a "fly-on-the-wall" view of the intimate, private lives of the people and events that you've read about in history.

In a real sense, I'm giving you a ride in my very own time machine!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Amadeus: A Guilty Pleasure

The 19th of September, 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the brilliant Milos Forman film, Amadeus starring Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham as the Viennese Court Composer, and Mozart nemesis, Antonio Salieri. In celebration of the upcoming anniversary, a large group of Mozart lovers all over the world gathered yesterday in front of their television screens for an international "watch party" sponsored and promoted by an event registered on Facebook.

It had been several years since I had indulged in watching one of my all-time favorite films, so I decided to join in the fun. I popped a large bowl of popcorn and put our copy of the Director's Cut version of the film in our DVD player and sat back to watch 180 minutes of this not-so-historically-accurate-but-wonderfully-addictive tale, once again.

It is here I will note that as a Mozart historian, it is not "politically correct" for me to love this movie. In fact, the world of musicology is riddled with elitist snobs who would label me as a "dilettante" for even uttering the title of the film.
To them I say, "bite me". It wasn't intended to be a documentary or a biography. Like Mozart's operas, it's a  farce--a comedy (although like Don Giovanni, it has its elements of dark tragedy). I know the difference between Mozart fact and fiction. Now thirty years after the film's debut, most people know that Salieri didn't conspire to murder Mozart. They also know that Mozart probably wasn't quite as socially awkward and over-the-top as he was portrayed in the film. But there are some other things that were portrayed in this film that people take as fact, that weren't such, so I'm taking the opportunity to list some of them here.

1. Mozart never had an affair with the singer, Caterina Cavalieri, though it is almost certain that she was the mistress of Antonio Salieri (despite the character's claim in the film that he "never laid a finger on her").

2. There is no evidence to suggest that Mozart ever borrowed money from Salieri, nor would Salieri ever have known about Mozart's financial affairs. Mozart actually experienced a very prosperous period between 1784 and 1787 when his popularity in Vienna soared through a series of subscription concerts for which he composed and performed some of his finest piano concertos. He did fall into debt, that is true, but he borrowed money from a textile merchant and fellow Freemason, Michael Puchberg. His borrowing didn't begin until 1788, two years after the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro, and shortly after his next opera Don Giovanni, failed miserably in Vienna. There is also recent evidence to suggest that most of Mozart's largest debts were completely
paid off by the end of 1790 and that he entered once again, into a very prosperous period in 1791, which was the last year of his life.

3. Mozart did not die in poverty, nor was he buried in a pauper's grave. Contrary to the impression that the film leaves that the apartment was literally ransacked and everything sold to pay off debts, that is simply not true. As I stated above, by the end of 1790, Mozart was, once again, entering one of the most prosperous periods of his life. At the time of his death he was living in a fashionable apartment in a high-rent district in Vienna. He had a full staff of house servants, including several maids and a cook. His oldest son, Karl (the Mozarts had six children, with two surviving), was attending a very expensive private boarding school, and Mozart was maintaining the rent and household expenses for an apartment for Constanze at the spa in Baden (where she spent most of the last two years of their marriage).

Mozart's funeral and burial were paid for by the Freemasons as a benefit to his widow. The common grave was standard for a man of Mozart's educated working upper-middle class station. And unlike what was portrayed in the film, Constanze did not attend the funeral (nor did Salieri, for that matter).

4. The whole scene where the opera director, Herr Rosenberg, rips out the score of the "ballet" in Figaro, never took place. There was some controversy over whether or not the dance in Figaro and Susanna's wedding could be considered a ballet, resulting in a mild dispute between Rosenberg and Lorenzo da Ponte (the librettist). However, da Ponte, who was highly favored by the Emperor went directly to him and settled it in favor of keeping the dance in since it contained a major plot point in the story.

5. Mozart did not die suddenly after conducting a performance of The Magic Flute. He had actually fallen quite ill and took to his bed for two weeks before his death at 1:00 a.m. on December 5th, 1791. Constanze had to be summoned from the spa (as she didn't just suddenly sense that something was "wrong" as the film portrayed). Salieri was not present at Mozart's death bed, nor did he contribute to any part of the composing of Mozart's  Requiem (although that scene is probably one of my most favorites of the entire film).

If you get a chance during this 30th anniversary of the Amadeus film premiere, I encourage you to watch it again, and when you do, enjoy it for what it is; a beautifully made film filled with some of Hollywood's finest acting and memorable lines, costumes, sets, scenery, and of course, the music. We can't forget that, for in the end, it really is all about Mozart and his miraculous and beautiful music. And well...there it is.