Hitting the Books

I finally finished drafting a scene in my most recent project, which I’ve been hung up on for the past two weeks or so. The play is a riff on Shakespeare’s Henriad (i.e. Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V), an alternate-history which I’m calling The Tragedie of King John Falstaff. (Because that’s just how I roll). I’d reached the point where, in Henry V, King Henry discovers a plot against him by three of his nobles, and arrests them for treason at Southampton. Since this is an alternate history, in my play, something…else happens. (Sorry, no spoilers.)

In order to figure out exactly what happens in this new version of the scene, I had to know what the three conspirators – the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey – hoped to accomplish in the first place. And here, the original play I’m riffing on is surprisingly little help. (Thanks a lot, Shakespeare.) The play doesn’t get into the traitors’ motivations at all – Shakespeare only cares about the King’s behavior towards them. Furthermore, in real life these three were acting on behalf of another character who Shakespeare had managed to kill off back in Henry IV Part I. (Again, thanks a lot.) So the immortal Bard of Avon had no guidance for me – I was on my own.

So I’ve been reading. Doing my homework. I already had Ardens of all those Shakespeare histories, filled with historical footnotes and reference material – to no avail. I consulted Ian Mortimer’s biographies of Henry IV and Henry V – which don’t appear to have been published in the United States, so I had to get Amazon to import them for me. I found a facsimile of Holinshead’s Chronicles, the primary source which Shakespeare himself used, and bought that along with a scholarly guide to reading Holinshed, because seriously, you try making it through Holinshed’s Chronicles.

And in the end, I used precisely none of it. In filling out the motivations of the traitors in this revised scene of mine, I wound up going exclusively by their characterizations. The political and details which I’d researched, and tried to incorporate, were too abstruse to be of any use. So I just discarded them, and hoped for the best.

Which raises the question – was all of that reading wasted? I have a submission deadline of August 1st for this play – did I squander precious time searching for some secret clue that doesn’t actually exist?

I don’t think so.

In order to make the command decision that some detail or other doesn’t matter, you have to know what that detail is. The point of research isn’t to use every single piece of information that you find, but to become conversant enough with that information that you know what is and isn’t valuable for your purposes. And in order to do that, you have to get that reading in, whether you use it or not. (Please remember this when you’re at your next national security briefing.)

Now on to the next scene…

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