Dramatic tension as the storm brews

Before The Storm 1685 by Paul C. R. Monk – an object lesson in creative historical fiction writing

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This free novella covers the same dramatic events as my work-in-progress, Gédéon. In my opinion, Paul C. R. Monk has not only written a captivating prequel to his trilogy, The Huguenot Chronicles but presents a masterpiece in regard to character, location setting and atmosphere.

These short chapters contain invaluable examples of how to draw a reader inexorably into the depicted scene, reveal the contrasting temperaments of the protagonists, and conjure a vivid feel for the horrendous experience of having one’s home commandeered by unscrupulous dragoons.

I’d like to quote some passages – narratives as well as dialogues – to illustrate these points.

A sense of time and place

They were seated in the dining-room of their tall townhouse that stood in the southern French city of Montauban. Jeanne, her head gracefully poised and coiffed in an elegant, lace-edged cap, now cast her gaze around the linen-clothed table at her goslings: Paul, seven, two-year-old Louise sitting in her highchair chewing on a piece of crust, and Elizabeth, eleven, straightening Lulu’s frilly pinner apron. Jacob continued carving the leg of lamb roasted with fresh thyme and inserted with slices of garlic.

Without being over blatant, the author uses a combination of straight facts and intimations to reveal we are in the home of a loving family in the south of France. The woman’s clothing suggests the early modern period. The children care for each other and we soon learn that number four is imminent.

Jacob was sitting, his back arched, behind his kneehole bureau in his ground-floor cabinet. The shutters were half closed to retain the coolness of the peach-brick room that was lined with leather-bound volumes of law, agriculture, and his late father’s books on Medicine...

Jacob unlocked a drawer in his bureau and pulled out a piece of paper to write on, along with his writing material and a leather drawstring pouch. He counted out a handful of Louis d’ors…

So it’s warm. And Jacob is a well-to-do, well-educated ex-lawyer, who has recently ventured into business.

Revealing vivid personalities

No one wants to see your MC described as tall, humorous and sloppy. Or timid and dishonest. So how should you present your players’ characters more subtly, through their words and actions? Let’s see how Paul C. R. Monk does it.

With another flourish of the knife, in his didactic and confident voice, he said: ‘June, my dears, is clement yet without the sting of high summer. It is when fledging birds leave their nests and flowers bloom. It is also the month of the longest days, during which one is able to camp under the night sky without the dampness of spring. Indeed, travel in June and you will have a whole summer to arrive at your destination!’

‘That depends on where one is going,’ said Jeanne calmly

‘But you cannot deny, my pretty wife, that wherever it be where one is headed, June is such a generous month for travel. Therefore, I am an advocate of the month of June for our travels. And June starts today!’

‘Nonsense,’ said Jeanne with a laugh in her voice, though dismissively all the same. She was becoming fed up with Jacob’s insistence. Every newsletter from the banned Protestant consistory reinforced his proposal and brought with it a new pretext to lay it down on the family table. She might well seem unreasonable but she was still not having any of it.

Pragmatic Jacob adopts poetic language and draws parallels from nature in his attempt to convince his wife it’s time to flee. Persecution of Huguenots is increasing and many of their despairing fellow believers have already left.

‘No, Jacob, our roots are here, this land is our home, it is the home of our ancestors and it will be the land of our children and their children. Besides, you know what Robert says.’ Jeanne was referring to a conversation with her brother-in-law, Robert Garrisson, who was also an esteemed lawyer. ‘How can they possibly prohibit our faith when the vast majority of the townsfolk are Protestant?’

‘And what if they all recant? For that may well be the price to pay for remaining here,’ said Jacob, pointing to the bread.

‘Then we shall cross that bridge if we come to it!’ said Jeanne with finality.

Calm but headstrong Jeanne resists; nothing will persuade her to move from her familiar surroundings. She’s sure things won’t turn out as bad as the rumours suggest.

Business practices

Contrasting attire, realistic dialogue, as well as some explanatory details, divulge not only the nature of the protagonist’s commercial activities but offer a glimpse into his and his client’s motives and principles.

‘I trusted you…’

‘Then you should have listened to me when I told you that any such investment is risky.’

‘You told me the greater the risk the greater the gain…’

‘That may well be, but I did not in any way advise you to invest your money in slaves! Goodness gracious me, whatever next!’

Jacob was referring to a slave ship headed for Martinique which had been scheduled to return with barrels of highly prized New World delights and dyes, including loaves of sugar and bricks of indigo and roucou, the latter known to fetch as much as four pieces of eight per eight pounds. It had sailed out in the spring and now was thought to have been lost between Barbados and Saint Lucia.

Monsieur Boudoin, in his fashionable waistcoat of orange and yellow damask, blames Jacob, in sober browns, for his apparent loss. As a man of faith, Jacob is horrified at the idea of financing the rampant and very profitable slave trade. His client seems to have fewer compunctions.

A change of scene introduces a change of mood

In chapter four, we move to a different town, 100 miles south-west of Montaubin. The new assignment for troops returning from repelling Spanish incursions is to wipe out heresy.

Ducamp knew too well that having men of war sitting on their testicles all day long while being fed meat and wine would eventually make them taut as an unmilked goat’s udder. It was his constant worry, for he well knew that men of war, when idle, could boast of having the most furtive and obscene imaginations.

At first the vulgar language and bestial behaviour disturbed me. Surely, this was a book about sincere Christian believers? But then: the men in this scene were dragoons with a free reign to do as they saw fit to induce the master of the house to convert to the King’s faith.

So, the change of tone was both deliberate and appropriate. And it prepared the reader for the ghastly acts that belonged to the ‘mission’ and lifestyle of these hired mercenaries.

Business … as usual

Back to Jacob Delpech in his new role as agricultural entrepreneur…

Thankfully, this year’s yield was more promising than ever, thanks to the extra ponds he had conceived and had built the previous autumn and that now assured an even supply of water to the new fields of maize, the crop from the New World that grew quickly in the fertile plains of Lower Quercy. Farming his land was what he had turned to for his livelihood now, ever since his licence to practise his profession as a notary had been withdrawn and he had been obliged to sell his practice to a Catholic. His structured thinking and talent for administration had served him well. Indeed, he had even planted a tobacco crop, which seemed to be flourishing now too. Next year he would try planting cocoa, which he knew was more accustomed to an exotic climate, but you could never know if a crop yielded well or not until you tried it.

The New World offered exciting new products. But did it in exchange have an adequate market for French lace, wine and tools? These business enterprises had to seek other sources of finance. Jacob’s wife had her own opinions on the matter.

With one hand on the arm of her chair and her other fist balled on her hip, with a stern look she said: ‘What would Papa say to your investing his dowry and my money in unethical commerce?’

‘It is not unethical, Jeanne.’

‘It is when those ships transport slaves! And you, Jacob Delpech de Castanet, would be part of it… up to the hilt!’

‘Then if what you suggest is true, why, everyone would be guilty, for even Robert has a stake, and so does virtually every merchant in Montauban,’ he said, regretting his exasperation the moment it escaped him. Regaining his composure, he said: ‘Look, Jeanne, I am a merchant farmer, I plant and I sell. I must also buy new plants to keep ahead of the game. Surely you understand that?’

‘Of course I do, Jacob, but we have principles, do we not?’

A history lesson

And what about Lieutenant Didier Ducamp and the King’s dragoons? Here, a narrative account with a personal perspective proves appropriate.

The long and short of it was, he and soldiers like him were being paid, fed and lodged to do the bishop of Lescar’s job for him. He had become a missionary dragoon, he thought to himself with a chuckle — he who cared not if a man prayed to Jesus, Jehovah or Allah!

Despite being given carte blanche, Ducamp’s ‘missionary’ approach followed a pattern. He first entered the designated house with billet in hand, then chased away the servants for their own good, and allocated any sprogs and their mother a bedroom in an attempt to keep them out of harm’s reach. This way he could apply maximum pressure on the master of the house, and coax him into recanting his heresy. But experience now told him there was a fine line between making a man yield and breaking him completely, and he was finding out just how soft the bourgeois caste really were.

Courage maintained through a life of faith

‘Come, children,’ said Jeanne with a clap of the hands. ‘We are all famished. Let us pray.’

The Delpech family gave thanks to God for their meal and prayed for protection during their imminent carriage trip to the country. Jacob inwardly prayed for the souls of those lost at sea.

Jeanne, especially, takes her Protestant faith very seriously. But things are beginning to get hot for anyone who refuses to accept the King’s religion…

‘The fact remains, they have arrested two more pastors and sent them to Toulouse prison where our dear Professor Martel is being held.’

‘Oh. I see,’ said Jeanne, her indulgent smile dying on her lips, the news pleating her brow. Men of God sent to prison? It was as unbelievable as it was outrageous.

There’s always a secret romance

Life goes on as it always has, in spite of everything, and young people fall in love…

So it was not Pastor Borie but Claire who gave Etienne a stony look of reproach. He knew what it meant. It meant there was no backing out now, not now that he was becoming increasingly overtaken by his fervour when petting. Only yesterday afternoon in the woods behind the saw mill, they had almost gone too far again. And she had felt such a visceral yearning to let him inside, it took all of her willpower to push him off.

‘Yes,’ said Etienne, ‘before getting married becomes… prohibited!’

Her father may feel it’s too early, but the young couple desperately want to be married – by a Pastor of their own Protestant faith. Perhaps that won’t be possible.

‘Bad news, Pastor?’ said Claire at last.

‘Bad news indeed, I’m afraid,’ he said, rubbing his furrowed forehead with his free hand. ‘Not good at all. It seems soldiers have been converting our brethren in Bearn… by the thousands!’

Conclusions

Perhaps Monk never intended it as such, but this short book is in many ways a very useful object lesson for writers of creative historical fiction.

It is also a brilliant introduction to the The Huguenot Chronicles trilogy.

Will Jeanne stay in the increasingly turbulent town for the baby’s birth or will her husband succeed in persuading her to return to their country residence? Will Louis XIV revoke the Edict of Nantes, which has granted so much liberty to the Huguenots? What will life be like if the dragoons arrive and take up residence? Will the children be seized, sent to a convent to be reeducated in the ‘true’ faith, or molested? Does the marriage of Claire and Etienne take place in time? Will Pastor Borie make it out of the country or, if he resists, face the galleys or a cruel execution?

I needed to buy the books…

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