Shop Talk: Uses of History in a Novel

I’ve been thinking about the various ways I use history in novels. In the Owen Archer novels, I (as Candace) make use of the history to create the motivation for the crime and the circumstances–political, cultural, local–that led to it and that create obstacles during the investigation–including whether, in the end, justice is served. In the Margaret Kerr novels the history is even more to the forefront, informing everything. The conflict between Scotland and England is the occasion for the upheaval in Margaret’s life. In The King’s Mistress, my focus is on the history of a specific woman, exploring a plausible scenario for Alice Perrer’s rise in status from the daughter of a merchant to the notorious mistress of the king. So the larger historical backdrop is significant as it pertains to Alice.

I am thinking about this as I rewrite this first novel about Joan of Kent*,  A Triple Knot, chronicling Joan’s marriage complications, caused in part by King Edward III’s determination to wage a costly war with France. I touched briefly on her “scandalous” history in A Vigil of Spies, then again, in a bit more depth, in The King’s Mistress. But I didn’t realize then the extent to which Edward’s war was one of the catalysts for the mess. The war is an antagonist in this story, as it is in the Margaret Kerr books.

Poor Joan. I keep thinking about what Guildenstern says toward the end of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:  “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it.” For Joan it isn’t so much that she misses her chance at no, but that she impulsively chooses a way out that leads to–well, in the long run the War of the Roses. I certainly wouldn’t want that on my conscience. Even so, it’s a beautiful love story.

You’ll see what I mean.

*The Hero’s Wife is the title of the follow-on book, covering Joan of Kent’s life after her marriage to the Black Prince. As publishers seek leaner novels, I split Joan’s story in two in order to do it justice. And I know, I know, I’ve been writing this book forever.

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