To find out more, check out my guest blog over on Criminal Element, found under the excerpt of A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.
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!!!
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!
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?
Maybe the trick is to think like a monkey?
So I'm thinking about starting a new novel, since I'm still in the revision phase of From the Charred Remains. Even though I'm super excited to start book 3 in my Lucy Campion series, it could be problematic to do so. Especially if my beta readers or my editors tell me I need to rewrite the ending of book 2. That hasn't happened, but who knows?
So here are the questions I'm pondering as I procrastinate, er, reflect on this new novel. Most are questions I wished I had asked myself--but of course, didn't--when I began my other novels. There's a bit of choose-your-own adventure quality to this novel-writing business, I find.
1. Do I have an idea that can be developed over 85,000 words? Do I want to spend years with this idea, draft after draft? If yes, I'll continue. If I don't, then I'll stop now. If its not compelling enough to me, than why bother?
2. Where am I going to set this story? Since I like to set my stories in the past, I've been spending some time mulling over backdrop and scenery. While I expect to research details, I find it easier to frame my novel during a time period for which I already have a basic understanding of larger political, social, economic and gender developments and trends. Paging through history texts help me envision specific aspects of the setting. However, I do of course need to find ways to make the "real" world my own.
3. Do I have a point-of-view character? Is this a character I enjoy writing about? Have I thought about what motivates, scares, excites, infuriates this character? Where does this character fit--or not fit--into society? Do I have a sense of her voice? Do I have the image of this character in my mind? Only after I get a semblance of the main character do I feel I can move on.
(Here's where I cheat. I usually find a celebrity who looks something like the character I have in my mind; this helps me remember what I think this person is supposed to look like).
4. Do I have a main problem at the heart of my story? If it's a mystery, that's easy. Whodunnit? But I'm writing a different kind of story this time, so I need to think through the central problem. Until I've worked out why this is even a problem, I find I can't proceed effectively.
5. Do I have a general sense of what the other characters want in life? What kinds of quests, problems, motivations do they possess? Are the goals of my minor characters aligned with--or at odds with--those of my point-of-view character? I do figure this out along the way but I find it helpful to have some starting ideas.
6. Do I have a sense of the ending, and perhaps more importantly, a sense of the middle? I think most writers--and perhaps most readers--would agree sagging middles can really ruin a novel. So I like to think through the middle a bit before I start floundering. I've been in that morass before, and I don't like it. Jump in with a line to the other end, is how I like to think about it! (Yet, I've messed this up twice. Note to self: IN MYSTERIES, FIGURE OUT WHO THE KILLER IS BEFORE STARTING WRITING!).
7. And one last question...How will I ever string together another 85,000 words in a meaningful way? (There's a related question here: Why am I doing this crazy thing?) While I've thought about hiring 1000 monkeys to type for a 1000 years, I'm going to try the best approach I know: After figuring out the shape of my story, I will just take one scene at a time. If necessary, one paragraph at a time. And if really necessary, I will just-peck-one-word-at-a-time-until-the-first-draft-is-done. And that's it!
What about you? What questions would you (do you) ask, when you sit down to create a new novel from scratch? And how many bananas will you need to feed the monkeys?
After Newgate burned down, then what?
When I wrote the first draft of From the Charred Remains, I focused mainly on getting the story worked out--finding the heart and shape of my tale.
I didn't stress too much over language, description, and dialogue on the first go-round--I figured I could elevate my prose later. As for historical details, I frequently had to make my best educated guess about what might have been true in those first weeks after the Great Fire of London (September 1666)...and move on.
Now as I work through draft two, I'm doing the hard--I mean fun--part: Fixing and double-checking all the historical details.
I've already mentioned two of my recent questions (How plausible was the stated death toll of the Great Fire of London?) and (How far could a horse travel in the seventeenth-century anyway?), but here are a few other things that I've pondered:
Since my heroine is now a printer's apprentice (yes, unusually so!) I had to figure out a lot of specifics about the early booksellers and their trade. So I wondered, for example, how did a seventeenth-century printing press operate? As it turns out, the press operated in a remarkably gendered way--parts of the machine were referred to as "female blocks," which had to connect with "male blocks." The interconnected parts were supposed to work together harmoniously, but on occasion--usually when the female "leaked"--the whole press might stop working. (Naturally, the female part was to blame!)
And another question: Since three of the largest prisons--Newgate, Fleet, and Bridewell--were all destroyed in the Great Fire, where were criminals held? I had to make my best guess on this one. There were other prisons of course: Gatehouse prison in Westminster, the White Lion prison, the Tower, and my favorite, the Clink in Southwark. But I decided to invent my own makeshift jail--after all, in those chaotic days after the Great Fire, order had to be regained quickly, and it stands to reason that royal and civil authorities might have wanted lawless behavior contained as quickly as possible. I couldn't find evidence to the contrary, so an old chandler's shop became a temporary jail.
And were criminals still being hanged at the Tyburn tree immediately after the Fire? Executions resumed quickly after the Fire, conducted as they had been since the twelfth century, in the village of Tyburn (now Marble Arch in London). Prisoners were progressed by cart, from jail to the "hanging" tree, parading through the streets--often praying, preaching, repenting or depending on their personality, even swapping jokes with the spectators. Usually they stopped at a tavern for one last drink along the way, before being forced to do the "Tyburn jig," as Londoners cheerfully called execution by hanging.
Of course, I also looked up countless other details...Who used acrostics and anagrams to convey messages? What secrets might be conveyed in a family emblem? And most significantly of all: What happened when the first pineapple arrived in London?
Ah-h-h, but I can't tell you about these answers....I'd be giving too much away about Book 2!!! I don't really have a question for you to answer, so I'll just end with a maniacal laugh...
MWAH HA HA HA HA....!!!
When I teach history, I always ask my students to view every "fact" as relative and subject to interpretation. Inevitably, someone will ask: "Well, what about dates? Those are facts." But dating and calendar systems vary widely, and may not be consistent across different groups of people.
I've been thinking about this recently as I struggled with the timeline of my own novel. Monster at the Gate begins a few months before the plague struck London in the 1660s. I start the novel on Shrovetuesday in February 1665 (a crazy strange day before Lent) and end with the Fire of London the following year (September 1666). Two clear beginning and ending dates, spanning about nineteenth months in total. Easy enough?
NO! As I was writing, I kept running into odd inconsistencies with the historical records I was using (such as Pepys' Diary), trying to double-check details. I kept finding that Tuesdays should have been Sundays, or that Easter had occurred at a different time than I expected. I knew that historical records would say 1664/1665 or 1665/1666, but I couldn't remember the exact details of how contemporaries kept time.
(MUCH GNASHING OF TEETH!!!!)
Finally, I sorted it out. England was still on the Julian Calendar (which had been adjusted for a missing ten days), rather than moving to the Gregorian Calendar used by most of Europe (it did not reform its calendar until 1752). To make it even more confusing, the Julian Calendar year starts on March 26, not January 1. But luckily I found a historic date calculator to help me keep it all straight.
So, my book technically starts on Feb 7 1664, and ends September 3, 1666, and that's still only nineteenth months. You do the math!
But I'm wondering if it will confuse my readers if they think the book is starting in 1664, when by today's modern calendar, it would actually be 1665. What do you think?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.
Blogs I enjoy
Bloody Good Read (Where writers and readers of historical thrillers talk shop)
Cozy Mystery List Blog (great conversations about mysteries!)
Jungle Red Writers (Eight crime fiction writers)
Minotaur Art (Behind the scenes peek into covers!)
Nathan Bransford (agent-turned-writer)
Sleuths In Time (Eight writers of historical mysteries)