Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Subconscious Is a Scary Thing

As a writer, I've learned to trust my subconscious. If I'm having trouble with a plot, I'll go off and do other things for a few hours (or a few days) and let my subconscious work on the problem (sort of like an alcoholic turning things over to his higher power). The answer always seems to pop into my head eventually in some mysterious but helpful fashion, and while I'm always grateful, I've never questioned the alchemy involved too closely.

Yet even after all these years, the process can still sometimes take me by surprise. Remember the cross-dressing Frenchman, La Chapelle/Serena Fox, in WHY KINGS CONFESS? At the time I wrote that book, I could not have told you where he came from. All I knew was that he was a great character, particularly for a murder with a mysterious female shoe print left at the scene of the crime.

But then the other day when I was doing some research on French spies in London, I ran across a reference to the Chevalier d'Eon and went, "Oh, yeah!" You see, I now remember reading about d'Eon some thirty years ago (Jeez; was it that long ago? Yikes.) when I was doing historical research in Paris. But I had totally, totally forgotten about him.

So who was he? Born into an impoverished noble family, he joined the army, fought in the Seven Years' War, was a noted fencer,  and dressed as a woman to serve as a spy for Louis XV in Russia and England. In fact, for the last 30 years of his life he dressed as a woman. There is no doubt in my mind that he inspired the character I created, but it all took place in my subconscious.

And that's scary.

P.S. I've also been criticized by people who found Sebastian's easy acceptance of Serena in that book an anachronism. Yet a betting pool was actually started in London about d'Eon's true sex, with the Chevalier himself being good-naturely invited to take part. He was even allowed to attend court dressed as a woman when he returned to Paris. He claimed to have been born female, but after his death he was discovered to be anatomically male.

13 comments:

paz said...

Great story!!!

I did not find La Chapelle/Serena to be implausible at all. The fact that he was unquestionably successful at such manly pursuits as soldiering and sword fighting would have earned him certain freedoms, and protected him (her?) from social censure or punishment. I wonder also if her noble birth might have also worked in his/her favor?

She reminded me of a similar figure in Spanish colonial history. The Lieutenant Nun, as she became known, was born female but dressed as a man and assumed a male identity to escape to the Americas. She gained reputation as a fierce soldier, rising through the ranks of the military and became something of a local hero in 17th Century Peru. Her fame was such that when the truth was finally uncovered, instead of being burned at the stake (like poor Joan of Arc) she became a celebrity. I remember reading that in the end she was given official dispensation to dress as a man (by no other than the Pope!), and in fact assumed a man's name until death.

Lynne said...

I'm with Paz in that none of this seems implausible. History is probably filled with people like these two. But they had, for the most part, to hide their cross-dressing tendencies from society. Who said once "There is nothing new under the sun"? You do something that I have done more than once, Candy - take a tidbit you read or saw years before and use it, not remembering where it came from until years later. Our memories are wonderful things for storing trivia, don't you think?

Helena said...

I have just realised that maybe not everybody does this, as I had assumed! Whenever I'm not sure about a decision after I've given it some thought, I deliberately stop thinking about it and do something else. The answer will appear almost obvious next time I do think about it.

I've now extended the process for when I can't remember something specific (like the name of a plant); I continue what I'm doing (usually a conversation) and the forgotten word will come to me after a while. Thinking about that, it is actually a different process; this is my information retrieval system continuing to work in the background. But they are similar in that I know that my brain continues to work on something subconsciously, and I let it get on with it.

Charles Gramlich said...

What's interesting is that we probably all do this all the time but almost never figure out the connection as you've done here.

Anonymous said...

C- nothing would surprise me in history because who could believe that things that we do now were not done before. and Paz’s story is great too. as for the subconscious, well I’m a big believer in that as well. considering they say we only use a fraction of our brain. and many believe the subconscious has the power to heal. Considering how useful your subconscious mind is (I loved La Chapelle/Serena) – keep using it!
best, Ali

JustWingingIt said...

What an interesting bit of history! I loved La Chapelle/Serena's character and didn't find any of it implausible. History is full of people who were more open-minded or, at the very least, less openly judgemental than their peers. If not, attitudes about this or that would never change and that clearly is not the case.

Veronica

cs harris said...

Paz, i hadn't heard about the Lieutenant Nun. Fascinating story.

Lynne, there was also a cross-dressing governor of New York who used to parade up and down the battlements before the Revolution. Talk about a colorful character!

Helena, I'm not sure I did that deliberately until I started writing and realized that my breakthroughs usually came when i wasn't trying so hard.

Charles, it's a subject that really fascinates me.

Ali, the problem is, I'm a control freak, so just letting go has been hard to learn.

Veronica, I find I'm often smacking up against people's misconceptions about history, particularly when it comes to attitudes.

Sphinx Ink said...

Interesting. Loretta Chase uses the Chevalier d'Eon as a minor character in 2 or 3 of her books.

cs harris said...

Sphinx, he was quite a character.

Susan J. said...

I just read Elizabeth Longford's biography of Lord Byron. He certainly challenged all historical stereotypes and some! There are some people who stand apart from the times in which they are born and thank God for them. La Chapelle sounds as if he was one of those.

cs harris said...

Susan, Byron really was a fascinating figure. Not necessarily likable, but fascinating. One of those characters you'd love to have met.

Susan J. said...

Yes, Elizabeth Longford said that he somehow seems to be 'one of us'. I had never thought of it before but that may be part of his appeal. He was far from perfect and his treatment of women and his poor little daughter Allegra was not good, yet he believed in freedom and he helped many of his friends and his servants were loyal to him.

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