Stranger to the Truth

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Tombstone Arizona: The Truth is Stranger than Fiction. (Jerry Skinner Documentary)

What do I hear, see, touch, smell? In my research into the Florentine Renaissance, I read a thesis on a bookseller that was marvellously detailed. The site of his shop was identified, the rooms measured, the stock described. When, however, I walked through that shop in my imagination, I smacked into a wall. I told the author that she had forgotten to mention what must have been an archway in the wall separating the two parts of the shop. I can only record what is in the documents. As the story requires unity, so does each character, with all his different facets knitting together into a coherent whole.

The novelist must view all facets, read all the specialist literature and put the character back together again like Humpty Dumpty. There one finds not only a reflective philosopher but one who bears a deep love of humanity. Of course, you could create a character who is a mass of contradictions, but it is better not to.

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So you have to dig deeper, ponder, dwell, ask questions. There is always something, some deep principle, that will make a unity out of disparate detail. For example, the wife of Lorenzo, Clarice Orsini, is sometimes presented as being the docile and pious mother of eight; at other times as the bigoted persecutor of the poet, Angelo Poliziano.


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In fact, after the Pazzi Conspiracy of , in which Lorenzo was wounded and his brother murdered, mild Clarice underwent a change of character, suddenly becoming wilful and fractious. This is another problem with history books — characters are too often and simplistically tarred by traits that may have been momentary in their lives. No account I read of Clarice sought to explain the virago, but when I stepped inside her and had a look at the world through her eyes, all became plain.

Florence was at war with Rome.

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Clarice was Roman by birth and very pious. Being married to a Platonist such as Lorenzo would have been difficult for her — and what would she think when the house of Medici and Florence itself began to suffer catastrophe? With Lorenzo at war with the pope, who should she support? For the sake of her children she had to think for herself and act independently. She wanted her sons educated not in the new learning but in the tradition of the Church, and the person she attacked was not her powerful husband, but his companion, the vulnerable poet, Poliziano. Very few documents exist for women of this period.

For Clarice there are a few letters but they give scant insight into the nature of her character. It has to be the work of the imagination. I am, however, disciplined about getting my facts right wherever possible. Sometimes I discover something in research that can really upset my narrative, but I have found, time and again, that if I stick to the empirical truth then it is possible to reach a deeper, more rich level of understanding and the narrative benefits incomparably as a result.

It has happened often enough for me no longer to be upset by it but rather to look forward to discovering the solution that lies behind all such problems. A story, well-formed, must comply with certain rules of structure, just as most music complies with the Pythagorean scale. Indeed, the two things are very similar. A good story follows an octave, starting at doh and ending at a different doh , with many adventures in between.

Stranger to the Truth

My duty as a historical novelist is as much towards Story as towards Fact. Either because documentary evidence lets me down, or because the story demands it, I have to invent. Presumably writers of history are as familiar with these little miracles as novelists, but only novelists can depend on them. My interest in the Renaissance began when, reading a couple of lines summing up the character of Poliziano in a book on Lorenzo, I knew instinctively that they were not true.

We can get tunnel vision, researching our chosen subject to the bottom of the well while barely looking at the characters around him beyond checking their dates and repeating what everyone else has said about them. But facts should be facts, and not assertions that have gained authenticity by repetition over the centuries. Police found the truck Maria Jimenez-Rodriguez was driving, but there are few clues about what happened to the paralegal. Genealogy used to identify a murdered man found in a trashcan.

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