Murder, Mayhem and a Midwife...An interview with historian Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife's Tale
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!
like a child...a book is born
What surprised you most about the process of writing this novel?
People will hate me for this, but it was really fast. (Hmmm, let me check. Yup, I hate you :-) -SC) About a year after I started writing I had a two-book contract.
Before you start throwing things at the screen, I admit that I was extremely lucky in a number of ways. First, my background as a historian meant that I’d already done a lot of the research.
More importantly, my step-sister used to work as an editor at a major publisher. She ripped my first draft to shreds and allowed me to write one that was publishable. If it weren’t for her, The Midwife’s Tale would never have seen the light of day. (Ah, I forgive you now. -SC).
What advice would you have for aspiring writers, especially those interested in writing historicals and/or mysteries?
Writing takes a ton of practice, and your first few drafts/books are not going to be very good. This is my first novel, but by the time I picked up my pen, I’d written (and thrice rewritten) a history book, as well as five historical articles – nearly 450 pages in all.
In the last year I’ve met dozens of published authors, and nearly everyone wrote books that have yet to see the light of day. It was in crafting those early failures (and I would count my first few drafts of my history book as failures as well) that these authors learned to write.
One of the perils of self-publishing is that it doesn’t allow this sort of private failure. Nobody leaves that lousy first novel in the desk drawer. Unless you recognize this first book as a failure, you won’t get any better.
Thanks Sam! The Midwife's Tale looks to be the start of a wonderful series...Too bad we have to wait a year until The Harlot's Tale is released!
For now, I will leave my readers now with an enticing little snippet from the book...
"On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King’s soldiers burned the city’s suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault...."
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Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.