On UK publication day of A Conspiracy of Wolves, the 11th Owen Archer, I find myself thinking back to the story that started it all. I’d slipped away from my graduate studies to think about what I really wanted, and moved across country. While job hunting, I spent my days exploring the wonders of the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound from Seattle and wrote short stories. In one of those stories—the only one that was neither fantasy nor science fiction!—lurked the kernel of The Apothecary Rose.
Two women of the rising merchant class in medieval York, a taverner and the wife of an apothecary, sharing a secret, one supporting the other in a warm, motherly way. Lucie Wilton is running the apothecary while her husband lies ill, frantic to keep it all going smoothly so that no one notices her husband’s absence. For she is not officially his apprentice, though she has learned everything from him in such detail and depth that she may just pull this off. But for how long? Her neighbor, Bess Merchet, watches over Lucie, coaxing her with food, ale, and watching out for hours at a time so that Lucie can rest. Though she suspects Lucie spends the time pouring over her husband’s records for garden and shop. In the York Tavern Bess talks loudly to her husband Tom about Ambrose Wilton (the ailing apothecary) as if he were up and about, just using Lucie as his public face in the shop. A shadowy figure begins to snoop around, and both women become more desperate. I used it as a backdrop to talk about women’s roles and the power of guilds. The story was “Managing,” and the magazine editors to whom I sent it all said it wasn’t really a short story, but the first chapter of a book they would like to read. Encouraging rejection.
So I wrote a book with Lucie as the central character; the snoop who most threatens her is a man come north on behalf of his lord to find out more about the long-ago death of her mother. This unsavory spy becomes too curious about the invisible Ambrose. Tall, handsome despite a scarred face, he was the predecessor of Owen Archer. A villain in this version, and not blind in one eye. The manuscript was rejected by several agents on the grounds that it fit no particular genre. “A period piece is difficult to sell.” They suggested I rewrite it as historical romance or a crime novel.
I put it in a drawer and stewed about it as I wrote something completely different. A post holocaust story. Long before they were everywhere. And while I fiddled with that, I picked up some crime series and began studying how they worked. Hm… If I could come up with a sleuth… I realized I might already have one—that scarred creature of darkness, if I could find a tormented soul within. I happened to also be reading Robert Hardy’s book on the longbow. Taking the stance of an archer, I realized the left eye was of vital importance. And so the villain morphed into my one-eyed archer.
At any step in the way I might have given up or taken a different direction. But something about the story compelled me to keep trying. Once I met Owen, I realized I’d met his shadow before I’d met the man as he wished to be in the world.
It irked me that my publisher insisted on calling it the Owen Archer series rather than the Owen and Lucie series, but I was too excited about being published to fight hard. And by now you all know how important Lucie, Bess, Magda, and Alisoun are in these stories.
Hard to believe how many years I’ve lived with these characters. I am so grateful to Lucie and Bess for appearing in my imagination and compelling me to explore their stories. And to Owen for showing me that he deserved to be brought out of the shadows and find redemption.