York as Inspiration

A reader who follows me on Facebook requested a post about why I chose York. I chuckled, because as a historian of late medieval England my immediate response is, “Why not?!” But that’s no fun, is it? Today, on the 35th anniversary of the horrific fire in York Minster,  I’m filled with gratitude that within four years, the minster was whole again. It seems an appropriate day to answer the question, Why York?

It’s no secret I love the city of York. I talk about it any chance I get, and I’ve written about my love of the city and how it inspires me–in fact, here’s the link to an older post on this blog in which I explained why I was beginning a second series set in York.

More? Here’s a draft of a talk I gave at the University of York St. John in June 2009, York as Inspiration:

I write a series of crime novels set in 14th century York—10 so far . From my first published book, and the first in the series, The Apothecary Rose, to the latest book in the series, A Vigil of Spies, York has been the portal for my storytelling. The series has three main protagonists: my sleuth Owen Archer, his wife Lucie Wilton who is an apothecary, and the city of York. Owen and Lucie have changed as the series moves through time, but York is constant.

A few years ago I returned to York for a three week stay after having been away for 3 years, focusing on a trilogy set in Scotland. I arrived in York late on a Sunday afternoon in early July. After an 11 hour flight across the North Pole and then the train journey into London, the cab to King’s Cross, and the train to York, I felt the need to stretch my legs with a long walk through the city. Jet lagging and with that odd sense of disorientation that travelers often experience late in the day in the  in-between of daylight and twilight, I was startled by the emotions that rose up in me, and the memories, both real and from the books I’ve set in York, as I passed familiar places. I felt as if I’d arrived home after a long separation. It was a bittersweet feeling, both joyful and melancholy.

How can this be? I live in Seattle, Washington, on the Northwest coast of the United States, halfway round the planet.

Yet I was overcome. Here was the side street where Owen’s men Colin and Alfred were run to ground. There was the bookstore where I found the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal with the list of names from the 1377 Poll Tax, so many names I’ve used. Here in Merchant Adventurers Hallthe minster yard was the rose bush that had the ice-encased bud that Christmas—I often look at that photo and remember that magical Christmas—it was on that trip that I learned I’d sold The Apothecary Rose, the first Owen Archer novel. I was rounding this corner when the Town Crier was calling “Murder in the Minster!” on publication day of The Lady Chapel. Betty’s—the scene of many wonderful teas, and the location of Owen and Lucie’s house and apothecary. And just beyond, the York Tavern, Bess and Tom Merchet’s establishment. I felt guilty for not featuring Bess and Tom much in the more recent books. The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall in which I had a great launch party, and where Owen met John Fortescue, clerk of the Mercer’s guild, featured in the short story The Bone Jar. All these thoughts rose up in the course of an hour walk, such a variety, and nary a thought, at least looking back on it, about my flight over, the work I’d left undone, all the things that had seemed important the previous day. York had reclaimed me.

Again I ask, how can this be?

It’s simple, and complicated: my muse for a long while has been the city of York, this fair city in which I stand this evening. I am here tonight to celebrate this magnificent, complex city and to explore with you the concept of a writer’s muse, my glimmers of understanding about how York inspires me.

The city of York is more than simply the setting for the Owen Archer novels. It serves me as a holder, holding the space for me to return. I think myself into York and the characters are there, waiting. There is a hitch—I write other things besides the Owen Archer crime novels, and when I’m not writing about York I feel bereft of an anchor, a portal. I spend a great deal of time flailing round to find one. But with the York books I sink right in, all the layers of my characters’ stories right there.

How did this come to pass? Though I travel here often in the flesh, I have spent far more time here over the past 20 years in spirit. In fact, it’s been longer than that, for York has tugged at my imagination ever since I first set foot in the city in 1977.

On that first visit I came from the hotel by the station, under the city wall and onto Lendal Bridge, and I fell in love. The magnificence of York Minster before me, the sense of history all round me, the Ouse flowing beneath the bridge, the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey in the park. I knew that the afternoon, evening, and morning allotted to the city on that trip would be merely a cruel tease, leaving me with a hunger for return. York Minster, the city walls, dinner at the restaurant that was then in Guy Fawkes House on Petergate. That was the first day and evening. The next morning I climbed up to the top of one of the minster towers and gazed out on the city of York with the Vale of York beyond. Then I walked down the Shambles with my arms stretched wide, wondering what size carts managed that street.

second Shambles photo 001The calculations had begun. On my next trip, 15 years later, I took advantage of the empty streets on a Christmas morning of hoarfrost and bone-chilling mist to time the walks between various destinations. I had already completed a draft of the first book, and sold it to a US publisher, but I wanted to make certain the setting was as accurate as possible.

Setting the Owen Archer series of crime novels in York was no accident. On that first visit I saw the bones of the medieval city beneath the modern façade. I recognized a portal into the time I yearned to explore.

Wanting to write about the 14th century, York was a practical choice. Situated on the River Ouse—at that time a tidal river—and halfway between Edinburgh and London, this was considered the capital city of the North politically and financially through the 15th century. This was an important city to the Romans, who called it Eboracum and housed a legion here; to the Vikings, who called it Jorkvik and settled here; and to William the Conqueror, who burned much of it to convince the rebellious northerners that he was indeed king. He built twin castles to guard the river, York Castle on one bank and what is known as the Old Baile on the other.

As a crossroads, York was an important market town and trading center. Ouse Bridge was the only bridge between the Ouse and the sea large enough for carts to pass over it. In the fourteenth century the York quays bustled with the wool trade that finance King Edward’s wars.

Holy Trinity GoodramgateYork was also an important ecclesiastical center. It boasted 10 religious houses, 47 churches, 16 chapels, and the cathedral. York was the seat of the second most powerful Churchman in England, the Archbishop of York. All of England was divided into two metropolitan provinces, Canterbury and York. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York sat in the House of Lords, at this time known as the Great Council. The Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St Mary’s in York also sat on the Great Council.

For a crime series all this hustle and bustle, coming and going, strangers, wealth—an embarrassment of potential victims! That’s the irony—I stand here declaring my love for York and its citizens, but I have wreaked a shocking amount of havoc in its streets. I considered counting up the corpses, but it was too disturbing. I’ve slaughtered Archdeacons, pensioners, I’ve ruined the reputations of schoolmasters and mayors.

A muse was one of the Greek goddesses or spirits who were said to inspire the creation of literature and the arts. When I say that York is my portal into my work on the Owen Archer books, I am speaking of it not simply as a sense of place, or the genius loci, but for me a broader classical sense of genius, that is, a tutelary and controlling spirit. My inspiration. It is from details of the city, its history, its organization, topography, demographics that I derive my stories.

My appetite for setting stories in the 14th century comes from a desire to experience the past, to imagine myself there, to experience what it would have been like. Perhaps part of a muse’s magic is stirring the writer’s curiosity. Once I’d seen York I became curious about its history. As I learned more, studied a map of the city in the medieval period I began to imagine the people who had lived here. I wanted to put them into motion.

I laughed when I went back to check my first description of York in The Apothecary Rose. There is a little bit in the voice of Brother Wulfstan, an infirmarian at St Mary’s Abbey, but just little comments in passing as he hurries from the Abbey to Nicholas Wilton’s apothecary in St Helen’s Square. The longer description might make a reader think I disliked the city: it’s Owen Archer’s first impression of York.

Owen arrived in York weary, cold, and predisposed to hate the city. He entered from the south, through Micklegate Bar, across Ouse Bridge with its stench of fishmongers and public privy, through King’s Square and up Petergate, making first for the minster. The city was a warren of narrow streets darkened by jutting second storeys, stinking of night waste and garbage, much like London and Calais. He wondered how so many fools could be coerced into living in this crowded place, huddled up against the north wind that howled off the moors.

But the minster impressed him. It would be a great cathedral when finished. He stood York Minster southback and gazed upward, imagining the spires that would crown the two square towers at the front. At least the Yorkshiremen knew how to give thanks to the Lord for seeing them through the long winter.

To be fair, my protagonist was grumpy about everything, but I did pile it on.

And yet—I do recall the chills it gave me to imagine the awe that would fill a person in the 14th century as they gazed on York Minster. Aside from castles and cathedrals, and some parish and abbey churches, architecture was on a far more human scale than today, limited for the most part by the size of the timber.  Of course Owen would have been impressed by the minster.

Speaking of all those churches, when in The Cross-legged Knight Lucie Wilton’s elderly Aunt Philippa felt the need to pray in every church in the city, Lucie almost despaired of finding her—where to begin?!

In the Owen Archer series, the character Magda Digby, a midwife, a healer, provides in her person a history of York from the Vikings until the late Middle Ages, as well as bridging the life of the city and that on the moors. I wrote in the first Authors Note:

Magda Digby… lives in a world of her own. An old Viking boat from York’s past crowns her house. Her speech is the old speech. … Like the juxtaposition of pagan and Christian England in Beowulf, Magda encapsulates the past and present. She is outside time, like the city of York, which is part Roman, part Viking, part medieval, part Victorian, part twentieth-century [and now I add twenty-first century] tourist town. And therein lies the intrigue.

Magda Digby, Archbishop Thoresby, and the taverner Bess Merchet have always been the easiest character for me to write. I relax when I realize I’m working on scenes featuring one of them, because they seem to write themselves. I believe this is because all three of them are so deeply grounded in York for me. They are not the main protagonists, but they are ever present. The layers of their stories are background for me, ever ready to be used.

And isn’t that what the places that we call home become for us, the holders of layers and layers of the story that is our life? Layers that we put down—that is what I was touching that evening walking the city. It all rushed back to me.

Perhaps what we call homesickness, that terrible yearning for what is reassuringly familiar, is the result of our wrenching ourselves away from those layers of identity. They are difficult to pack. They don’t travel well.

When I took Owen Archer, Brother Michaelo. and Sir Robert to Wales I found myself dipping back into their stories in York to inform their responses on the road. I kept a grip on the threads that led them back home.

There’s an obvious explanation for York being my muse—we have such a wealth of information about the city. All sorts of fascinating bits that can inspire stories. Granted, many people would come to York and never find these bits, or find them and not be moved to spin them into a story. But that’s what I do. Not all of these bits necessarily took place in the 25 years or so in which I’ve set the series, but that doesn’t stop me.

Some confessions—John Thoresby stepped down as Lord Chancellor before the series begins—I lengthened his term of office. The incident at St Clement’s Nunnery that provided the story for the book The Nun’s Tale happened earlier in the 14th century than the time in which I set my book, but I thought it quite plausible that it might have happened later. That is the fabulous escape clause for my profession—this is fiction! I’m a novelist!

And yet I do try to get as much of it right as possible, because for me that’s the point of writing about the past, to explore it.

In King's Square near  the Shambles Jun17

As you might imagine, my research methods require a very wide net—I want to know everything that’s been discovered about the period. At a conference on medieval studies I was once on a panel with three other writers of crime novels set in the period. We were given 5 minutes each to describe our research techniques—5 minutes! And we were told this a few minutes before the panel began. I started jotting down cryptic notes about how researching this led to that which made me curious about him which led me to her. I wish I still had that slip of paper. But I’ll try to reconstruct that performance:

What did I know about York? The mystery plays. Guilds. St Mary’s Abbey. York Minster. Thoresby—Lord Chancellor and Archbishop. Huge old mortar from St Mary’s Abbey infirmary—Brother Wulfstan, infirmarian. Apothecaries. Lucie Wilton. Woman? More guild research. An article about the problems with pageant wagons—mystery plays again—and a boy assigned to grease the wheels. Jasper. Archbishop Thoresby built the Lady Chapel. Benefactors. Thieves being punished with hands cut off. No pigs in the city because they root around too much. What if someone buried a hand? The streets being so narrow an ordinance that one led one’s horse through the city. Children especially hit by carts. A little book about St Clement’s Nunnery. A runaway nun who faked her death at Beverley, then asked to return to the nunnery.

That’s the first three books. There’s such a wealth of information if one is willing to root around, like those pigs….

Various inspirations and coincidences—St Leonard’s, Patricia Cullum’s monograph on Corodies, Richard Ravenser being Master of St Leonard’s—Thoresby’s nephew.

The Guilt of Innocents (Small) 300pBeing in York in November 2000 for the great flood reminded me of the power of the river—The Guilt of Innocents. And there was a story I’d found in the newsletter of St Peter’s School, about the scholars annoying the bargemen on the Ouse, at St Mary’s landing.

The tour boats on the Ouse, thinking about traveling between Bishopthorpe and York—A Vigil of Spies.

The Muses were the daughters of memory. Nothing conjures memories for me so much as smells, sounds, the sense of walking along knowing the river is to my right, that here I’ll cross over a busy street, just in this stretch it always grows quiet.


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