Date: 1688 Reel position: Wing / 853:61
Fans of Sherlock Holmes may be intrigued to know that the first known female sleuth in England was Anne Kidderminster (nee Holmes), a seventeenth-century widow who tracked down and brought her husband’s murderer to justice thirteen years after the crime.
To find out more, check out my guest blog over on Criminal Element, found under the excerpt of A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.
Lovely cover, don't you think?
I'm delighted to be joined today by the talented Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown and The Chalice, historical thrillers set in Reformation England.
From the official blurb:
In 1538, England is in the midst of bloody power struggles between crown and cross that threaten to tear the country apart. Aristocrat-turned-novice Joanna Stafford has seen what lies inside the king's torture rooms and risks imprisonment again, when she is caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting the King. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna understands she may have to assume her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each more omniscient than the last.
Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lays at the center of these deadly prophecies…
"In the midst of England’s Reformation, a young novice will risk everything to defy the most powerful men of her era."
The other day, I came across a comment you'd made about The Chalice. “I wrote a novel set five centuries ago, in a country I don’t live in, about a religion I don’t practice.” So, tell us, what in the world inspired The Chalice?
NB: Both The Crown and The Chalice come from my lifelong passion for English history, which defies all explanation. I know that the conventional wisdom in fiction is “Write what you know,” but I always love entering new worlds in my reading, far from my daily experience. There have been plenty of novels written about modern life in New York City and I am sure they’re quite good but I haven’t read them. I’d rather watch “Game of Thrones” than “Sex in the City.”
The Chalice, set at a key moment in the English Reformation--in 1538--is a carefully researched novel. What was your favorite part of doing the research? Least favorite?
NB: I have a sizable home library of nonfiction books on England, acquired at a steady clip since I was a teenager. I drew on that base of knowledge when coming up with the broad outline of the plot for The Crown and The Chalice. Then I would do deep dives into certain areas that I needed detail on: life in a priory of Dominican nuns; the mystery behind the missing body of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury; the menu of a dinner in an aristocratic household; travel by boat from England to Flanders. All sorts of things! I love finding the little details that I can use to make a scene come alive, such as what would be served as breakfast to Dominican friars in the 1530s. My least favorite is when I can’t find what I need and it’s delaying the writing. But I am stubborn; I keep going until I learn enough to help my story.
Joanna Stafford—a former novice—is an unconventional heroine for any time period. Tell us about your thought process as you developed her character.
NB: I wanted her to be genuinely pious but to be a real person too, with frailties and flaws, such as a quick temper. Strong but sometimes reckless. Intelligent but naïve. It was important to me that I create a dimensional person.
What's going on here?
You'll have to check out my post on A Bloody Good Read: Where Writers and Readers of Mysteries Talk Shop to find out!!!
Writing about life on the lam in the 1660s... An Interview with Deborah Swift, author of The Gilded Lily
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to win a free copy of Deborah Swift's atmospheric The Gilded Lily (St. Martin's Griffin, 2012), a historical novel set in Restoration England. She was gracious enough to let me interview her on my blog today.
The official synopsis:
Ella Appleby believes she is destined for better things than slaving as a housemaid and dodging the blows of her drunken father. When her employer dies suddenly, she seizes her chance--taking his valuables and fleeing the countryside with her sister for the golden prospects of London. But London may not be the promised land she expects. Work is hard to find, until Ella takes up with a dashing and dubious gentleman with ties to the London underworld. Meanwhile, her old employer's twin brother is in hot pursuit of the sisters.
Set in a London of atmospheric coffee houses, gilded mansions, and shady pawnshops hidden from rich men's view, Deborah Swift's The Gilded Lily is a dazzling novel of historical adventure.
What inspired you to write The Gilded Lily?
When I originally began The Gilded Lily I was interested in the fact that the ideal of women’s beauty has changed over time. The years when England was suddenly released from the grip of Puritanism seemed an ideal choice to set a novel about beauty and greed. In many ways the 1660s were like the 1960s and at that time there was a great flowering of interest in fashion, the theatre, beautiful women (and men!) and a more laissez-faire lifestyle. The Gilded Lily in the novel is the name of a place where women go to buy perfumes and potions, an enterprise I thought fitted well into this new culture of hedonism.
Why did you set your story in 166o?
I have always been fascinated by the Restoration – I used to design theatre costumes and did a couple of plays from this period and just loved the whole look. It was a very narrow period of celebration between Puritan rule and the outbreak of the Plague and then the Fire of London in 1665 and 1666.
But also London in the 17th century had a much darker face hidden beneath the glamour – it was a much less tolerant society than our own, a magnification of all our vices of bigotry, fear of another’s differences and cruelty to others less fortunate than ourselves. Class structures were more fiercely guarded and it was hard to claw your way upward to a reasonable standard of living.
How did you go about researching your story? Did your work as a set and costume designer for the BBC inform your research?
I usually spend about six months altogether researching before writing. Most of the research is about ordinary every day objects we take for granted – such as the price of a pair of gloves, or how far a hired horse can gallop in a day. (I spent a lot of time figuring out this conundrum too!-SC). My previous job helps in that I already have research methods in place, and a good basic knowledge of most periods from my experience designing plays. I also have some contacts who are experts in their field who I can ask when I'm stuck! I use books, the internet and museums. Sometimes I need to write to people or interview them for the information I need. For this novel I had to research pawn-broking, wig-making and gunpowder manufacture as well as the apothecary’s ingredients for beauty products.
If you had lived in the 1660s, what kind of occupation/station/life could you imagine yourself having? Or put another way, if you wrote yourself into the novel, what kind of character would you be?
Well not gunpowder manufacturing or wig-making, that's for sure! Ella and Sadie try these and they are not my idea of fun! Most working women worked cripplingly long hours for little pay so I think I would prefer to be the rich daughter of a man who could afford to send me to The Gilded Lily for my perfumes and potions. On second thoughts, perhaps not, as most of the skin creams contained white lead, mercury, or other dangerous substances. But I did read that there were lots of bookstalls in St Paul's Church, so perhaps I'd be a bookseller! Or even print up my own anonymous chapbooks or pamphlets.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned while writing your novel?
One of the most surprising was that the average age of the population of London at that time was very young. Of course people generally died younger, and 85,000 men had been lost in the Civil Wars, and young men took their places. Some men were sitting in Parliament at only 16 years old. Large gangs of youths - displaced from their homes or who had been soldiers in the armies - roamed the city searching for employment. What a place to put two naive country girls!
How long did it take you to write The Gilded Lily? How many drafts did it take?
It took just over eighteen months, though I had been mulling the idea for longer. I do a rough draft first with only basic research to draft the storyline. Then I research in more depth and the storyline develops and deepens. Sometimes it changes if the research leads me in a different direction. A third draft is about smaller details and characterisation. After that I draft and edit until I think it's ready, which can be about changing whole sections, or about worrying over a single word.
What advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Don't be in too much of a hurry to get the book out there. Editing is vital. In your editing process you can check through each character's scenes for consistency to make sure they are real people. If you are self-publishing make sure you get a professional editor. I'm lucky in that I have a publisher and a great editorial team behind my books. There are many good books being self-published now which could have been GREAT books, given an outside editorial eye. We need great books and great new writers so why settle for anything less?
And what are you working on now?
My next book is called 'A Divided Inheritance'. It is set in Stuart England and Golden Age Spain and tells the story of a lace trader's daughter who has to travel to Seville to save her beloved home and rescue her inheritance from her firebrand cousin. It will be out in October 2013.
It will be hard to wait till October, that's for sure! Thank you, Dee!
Deborah can be reached through her website (www.deborahswift.co.uk), Blog (www.deborahswift.blogspot.com)or through twitter @swiftstory.
So my son recently received a cribbage game--a game I didn't know too much about but which looked fun enough.
When we started to play, however, I happened to read this blurb on the packaging:
"Cribbage is believed to have been invented during the 17th century by an English poet."
What? Whoa! Cribbage is a 17th century game? Invented by a poet? What poet?! I had to look into this.
So, of course, I typed in "History of Cribbage" into the almighty Google, and sure enough I found that "Cribbage was invented in the early 1600s by Sir John Suckling, an English courtier, poet, gamester and gambler."
But since I tend not to believe what I read on the internet, I double-checked this information with the well-regarded Dictionary of National Biography. The DNB confirms the circumstantial evidence concerning the invention of the game, citing the biography of Suckling (1609-1641?), written by 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-1697) in his collection called Brief Lives.
Sir John Suckling -Courtier & Cribbage Creator
Aubrey portrays Suckling as quite a merrymaker, anecdotally recalling him as "the greatest gallant of his time" (287).
Suckling was, too, alleged to be the "greatest gamester, both for bowling and for cards." He had such a reputation for gambling, it would seem, that "no shopkeeper would trust him for 6d, as today he might by winning, be worth 200 pounds, and the next day he might not be worth half so much" (287-291).
Surprisingly, Suckling wasn't actually very good at cards...a bit of a problem for a compulsive gambler. To make up for this deficit, he would "by himself abed, and there studyed how the best way of managing the cards could be."
Indeed, he figured out a variation of an existing game--Noddy--which he called "cribbage."
Apparently others liked cribbage as well, and he came to make a lot of money off of his reinvention. As Aubrey tells us:
"Sir John Suckling invented the game of Cribbidge. He sent his Cards to all Gameing places in the countrey, which were marked with private markes of his; he gott twenty thousand pounds by this way."
However, Suckling had a weakness for "Ladies of Quality, all beauties and young." This weakness ended up costing him "many hundreds of pounds," apparently because he enjoyed lavishing them with "silk stockings, garters and gloves." (Brief Lives, 289).
Fun guy, to be sure!
Suckling, however, was more than a courtier and a ladies' man. He found time to write--quite prodigiously--and demonstrated some fine insights into the larger political context of the day. All told, he wrote seventy-eight poems, four plays, a few political tracts, as well as at least fifty letters, which according to Aubrey, displayed great intelligence and a "sparkling wit." (287-291)
It's actually interesting to consider Suckling's personality when you reflect on the game. After all, cribbage offers a funny balance of strategy and luck, as well as a carefree leapfrog quality. Suckling's dual love of gambling and carousing at play? Just a thought.
Eventually, his bad luck at gambling and in love seem to have caught up with him. Sadly, at age 28, when faced with great financial losses, Suckling poisoned himself, "which killed him miserably with vomiting" (291).
A sad end...but at least he gave us cribbage. We think.
I'm excited to have historian Sam Thomas join me today to discuss his first novel, The Midwife's Tale, a historical mystery set in mid-seventeenth century York.
Sam and I connected about a year ago, when we realized that (1) we're both trained as early modern English historians; (2) we both have debut novels coming out with Minotaur Books this year; and (3) both our mysteries are set in nearly the same time period. (I'm encouraging Sam to think about doing a cross-over piece, so that his midwife can bring my Lucy Campion into the world. But I digress.)
The Official Description:
It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.
A midwife at work
The Midwife's Tale is told through the first person perspective of Lady Bridget Hodgson, a 30-year old twice-widowed midwife and real historical figure. How much is known of the true Bridget, and how much of her personality/character did you invent? Did you ever feel constrained writing a fictionalized account of a real person?
That’s a great question! We know a fair bit about Bridget, and I include some of it here. A lot of the basics are true: She was twice widowed, first to a man named Luke Thurgood, then to Phineas Hodgson, who was the son of the Lord Mayor of the York. (And yes, Phineas seems to have been every bit the loser I portray him as.) Bridget also had a deputy named Martha, though I had to invent much more of her background.
It is also pretty clear that she was a very strong woman. She came from an ancient family and wanted people to know it. She also named all of her goddaughters (as well as her own daughter) ‘Bridget’, presumably after herself. Who does that?
I did, however, make some cuts. For my first book I had a heck of a time writing her home life, so I made her childless, though the historical Bridget was survived by two daughters. There are also rumors that she had two sons, both of whom were hanged as highwaymen, which is amazing, but I’m not sure I believe it.
Similarly, is the case at the heart of The Midwife's Tale based on a true case from the archives? How did you go about doing your research?
The case itself is entirely fictional, though a lot of the supporting characters are real.
As for the research it was a lot of digging. I stumbled across Bridget’s will when I was working on another project, and it provided dozens of names for me to chase down: friends, family, and best of all, godchildren, which allowed me to identify a handful of clients.
Once you have names, you can then dig into baptismal registers, tax records, probate documents, legal records, histories of York…it’s endless, really.
I also got very lucky that Bridget was once sued for defamation, which allowed me do dig even further into her social life and the history of her practice.
Besides being a compelling read, your story gets at some of the larger historical themes around gender, politics and religion that shaped this time period. In what ways did you consciously try to illuminate these larger trends? How did you balance the need for historical accuracy with creative license?
I consciously wanted to connect ‘big’ and ‘little’ history. The novel takes place in the midst of a rebellion against the king, so I made the crime at its heart a domestic rebellion in which a wife is accused of murdering her husband. This was a time when people were intensely concerned about maintaining order at the national and domestic levels, and I wanted to see how they would react when that order was challenged. (Oddly – or not – I do much the same thing in my historical work, favoring microhisotry, in which big stories are told through the lives of average individuals.)
In doing your research, what was one of the most interesting things you learned?
I think it was how complicated life as a midwife could be. Not only did they deliver children, they were part of the legal system, investigating crimes ranging from infanticide, to rape, to witchcraft.
It really makes midwives the perfect sleuths!
Wing / 2705:15
A recent post by author Eric Beetner on Holly West's blog has made me deeply reflect on the way I think about writing. Eric, a musician as well as a writer, was discussing the important role that music plays in his crime fiction.
Eric uses music to add dimension to his characters, explaining "Music can be an effective way to get to know a character since music is very personal." We see this all the time in film, especially to set a mood, but I'm not sure how common this is in novels.
But as I thought about it, I have used music to emphasize key themes in my writing, but in a very different kind of way from what Eric describes.
The murders in my first novel, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate, are largely described through ballads, broadsides and other penny pieces... which is how 17th century Londoners would have learned about crimes within their community.
Murder was literally described in verse, sung by booksellers on street corners, in a sort of a half fictional, half truthful way.
Take, for example, this 1660s ballad which I chose at random from the Early English Books--a large collection of penny press from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
As always, the title provides a synopsis to the reader (or listener, as neighbors and friends would read these ballads out loud): The downfall of William Grismond: or, A lamentable murder by him committed at Lainterdine in the county of Hereford, the 22 of March, 1650, with his woful [sic] lamentation.
If you just look at the first part, you'll see the author specifies that the murder ballad should be sung to the tune of "Where is my love."
(Ironic, of course, given that his love is lying on the ground, having been murdered at his hands. The audience would have gotten the joke).
But the point is that the story wasn't meant to be just read, but sung according to a well known popular tune.
Somewhere along the way we may have lost this connection between music and fiction-writing. Obviously, a lot of musicians are story-tellers, but I'm not sure how many novelists frame their stories musically.
So I'm curious...If you write, do you deliberately use music as a way to develop themes, characters, mood etc? If you are a reader, do you hear a soundtrack play as you read? Do you want to?
Watching my five-year old play hopscotch the other day got me wondering--where did this simple game come from anyway?
I mean, if you think about it, doesn't HOP SCOTCH sound like it's connected to beer and liquor? Maybe the game came from kids watching adults stumbling out of taverns, under the influence, trying to hop on one foot while picking up stuff they'd dropped, without toppling over. Maybe kids mimicked the grown ups and over time--voila!-- the game of hopscotch emerged. (Okay, I'm writing this entry on a Friday night after a LONG week, so I could be reaching.)
so these guys played hopscotch?
Indeed, a quick internet search informed me that no, hopscotch has nothing to do with alcohol (darn it! I thought I was onto something there).
Instead, a jillion sites claim that the game actually derived from an ancient Roman military training exercise. Roman soldiers, wearing full body armor, would hop through a hundred-yard field in a precise way, to help improve their footwork in battle. (Cool, hey? Shall I stop here?)
Wel-l-l-l, I'm always a bit skeptical of what I read on the internet. Especially since many of these sites seemed to be just parroting the same tidbit over and over without any evidence. And there didn't seem to be any evidence of the term before the seventeenth century.
And then I found this fascinating bit of detective work carried out by the "Rogue Classicist." Here, he essentially traced the origins of the hopscotch myth--and yes, it is a myth--to a misunderstanding. Apparently, in 1870 a scholar sharing his findings in an archeology journal made an offhand comment to the effect that some ancient tiles and disks might be 'admirably suited to our modern game of hopscotch.' But someone else misunderstood, and made an erroneous leap--reading a link from ancient times to modern game that was not there. This misunderstanding was picked up, and repeated so many times that eventually it became "fact".
Oh, and what's the truth of it all?
Hopscotch, originally called "scotch-hop", was a game which probably emerged in seventeenth-century England (although similar games can be found around the world.)
First mentioned in the Book of Games in the 1670s, Francis Willughby describes the game of "hopscotchers" in which children play with a little piece of lead on a floor with lines etched--or "scotched"--onto its surface.
So, a game. However, if you prefer, we can rewrite the history of hopscotch once again. Just cut and paste my imagined origins of the game--you know, where kids were laughing at drunk grown-ups--and pass it off as fact. What do you think?
Even though "Halloween" wasn't celebrated in early modern England, witches of course could be found.
You only had to seek out the saddest, most down-trodden, marginalized woman in the community, and voila! you'd find your witch. All the better if she were sickly in body or mind, and had no one to protect her.
And you could have turned her over to the authorities, and see if she could prove her innocence. (Will she sink or float when tossed in water? Remember, the godly will sink! Does she have Devil's marks--extra nipples--or odd shaped birthmarks? Could she recite the Lord's Prayer without stumbling?)
1670 Tract Supplement / A8:1
OR... you could have just taken matters into your own hands, and rid the afflicted of the curse. By thwarting the witch, she'll lose her power and die.
So if you--or any of your friends--had become cursed, here is what you would have needed to do:
Get a bottle of urine from the accursed. Bury the bottle in a dung-hill. Keep careful watch. The witch will be drawn to the dung-hill and will demand the bottle.
No matter how she pleads and curses, you can not give her the bottle. Eventually she will die, thus breaking the curse.
So simple to get rid of a witch, right? Sure.
But of course, the trials weren't about stopping her powers, at least not the supernatural kind. They were about asserting moral and patriarchal authority, and no amount of urine buried in dung would bring about the same ends.
Just something to consider this Halloween!
1631 STC /1476:06
Riddles, jests and other merriments always sold well in seventeenth-century England.
Then, as now, people enjoyed a good laugh--being surrounded by plague, terrible sickness, fire, Puritans, etc may have had something to do with that!
When I came across A Book of Merrie Riddles--claimed to be "very delightful for youth to try their wits"--I couldn't resist offering a few to YOU. Let's see what you make of these seventeenth-century jests. First, I'll give you few questions with solutions. Then, I'll give you a few without; see what you come up with.
Question: I wound the heart and please the eye. Tell me what I am, by and by.
Question: When I did live, then was I dumb, and yield no harmony: But being dead, I do afford most pleasant melody.
Solution: Any musical instrument made of wood.
Of course there are a few a little more inscrutable today:
Question: Who wears his end about his middle once in his time?
(I would let you figure out this one, but it's pretty contextually situated.)
Solution: A thief whose arms are tied with the halter, wherewith he shall be executed.
So here are a few more...what do you think are the solutions?
Question 1: I do walk, yet I do not go. I do drink, yet no thirst lack; I do eat, yet do not feed; I do wake, yet no work make. What am I?
Question 2: I was not, I am not, I shall not be, yet I do walk as men do see. What am I?
Let me know: Are you as smart as a 17th century youth?
I'll post the answers soon.....
*********SPOILERS!!! Solutions ahead!!!***************
I figure that's sufficient space, if you're really concerned.
Question 1: so, so, SO LAME. The solution is "Someone moving about in a dream."
Question 2: so, so, so, SO, SO, SO LAME! (or fiendishly clever, you decide). The solution is "A person with the surname of 'Not'." As in Susie Not. NOT!!!
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.