I cannot imagine anything more “Twilight Zone” than writing a novel set 800+ years ago and discovering you had written accurately about your own family of whom you had known nothing.
After I wrote Martin of Gfenn, I wanted to write a “prequel” about one of the characters in the novel. I did write it. In the second novel he was going to be the oldest son of a minor noble, a simple knight, who bred horses and lived on the, on the, on the? I decided he would live in Aargau. I put his castle on a hill (small castle, more fort than castle) and using some cool information about a ruined castle near Solothurn, I built my character’s childhood home.
I gave him a brother named Hugo, a father named Ulrich, a mother named Beatrice, but I changed it to Anna and a fiancee named many different things I can’t now remember, but her name became Gretchen. The protagonist was named Rudolf, but he changed his name after certain important events, to Johannes.
He and his brother happily went to the Crusades — Rudolf to save his soul and Hugo to have an adventure. At a certain point in my writing, their father’s name, Ulrich, no longer seemed “right” so I changed it to Heinrich (bear with me; I know you feel like you’re in the Twilight Zone with this half-assed plot summary and a Tolstoyan list of changing names coming at you). The family became: Father — Heinrich. Mother — Anna. Sons — Rudolf and Hugo. Fiancee — Gretchen.
Meanwhile, Martin of Gfenn came out and I got a fan-email from a man in Switzerland asking if I had Swiss ancestry. I believed I did, but I had no proof. I gave it another shot and I found…
The earliest known of my grandmother’s progenitors came from the Albis region between Zurich and Aargau. Some of them lived in what is now Aargau; some in Zürich. They were a large family of knights in the service of the rising Hapsburg family. My grandmother’s — and my — progenitors names were….
Heinrich, married to Anna, with children Rudolf and Conrad. Heinrich’s BROTHER was named Hugo. Rudolf married a girl named Margaretha which is normally shortened to Gretchen. They lived in a castle on a hill looking over the Reuss and the village of Affoltern am Albis. There were visible ruins of the castle until the early 20th century; now there is just this wall (see photo). It was a small castle, mostly a fort, and, apparently, judging from the supports and old records, it had had a large tower. Of Heinrich and Anna’s two sons, one, Rudolf, lived a very long life (well into his 80s) and the other, Conrad, was lost to time. In my novel, Rudolf survives and his brother is killed. I changed the name of my character, Hugo to Conrad. That was one change I made to adapt my “creations” to historical fact. The other?
The original ending of the novel really didn’t work, but it seemed to me to fit and to be effective and sufficiently mysterious. It seemed to leave the door open to possibilities. A big fan of French film, I prefer equivocal endings to those that are neat and tidy, but having learned that the REAL Rudolf lived into old age, I felt a responsibility to him to extend his story, to give him one more chance to fight and win over his demons. He had also had children, the “real” Rudolf. I loved “my” Rudolf and I didn’t want to shortchange him of his future. He would have to do the same. As I thought about it, it seemed more and more that equivocal or even sad endings can be as big a cop out as happy ones.
My ancestor was pushing me as a writer to do something new. I will not say what, as you might want to read the book someday! There are three chapters here.
I also remembered how, in 1994, on my first trip to Europe, I had been taken into some old hall in Zürich and told to look at all the coats of arms up around the wall. I remember not caring one bit. The Twilight Zone aspect is that the coat of arms of my own family was on that wall. You can see it at the top of this blog. Heinrich’s older brothers (Heinrich was the youngest of three) became very powerful and their sons even more powerful in Zürich and in Bremgarten. In Aargau there is are towns that bear their name.