Firstly, a happy bit of news: I’ve delivered the manuscript of Owen Archer 13, The Riverwoman’s Dragon, to my publisher, who loves the story–hurrah! Severn House has set the publication dates for the hardcover & ebook: UK 31 August 2021, US & Canada 2 November 2021. Christmas gifts in the US and Canada!
And now for the feature: While working on a short item for a friend’s blog I unearthed a paper I presented at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo eight years ago. The audience was largely academic; many were people who have been generous in sharing their research. Browsing through it, I thought readers of my blog might enjoy this glimpse into a writer’s process, including her relationship with publishers. Caveat: the publishing industry information is from 2013.
A TRIPLE KNOT: UNRAVELING THE MARRIAGES OF JOAN OF KENT
I begin with a caveat for those of you who don’t know me, I stand here before you not as a scholar, but as a novelist who plumbs the riches of the 14th century for my work. Four years ago I presented a cautionary tale in these sessions about the changing times in publishing, knowing how many of you have written or are planning to write historical novels. This time I come to offer what I’ve learned in the process of fashioning the type of historical novel publishers currently want.
When I set out to write a historical novel about Joan of Kent and the Black Prince, three years ago, I had already used Joan in two novels, A Vigil of Spies and The King’s Mistress, and thought I knew her. But in both those books she was already or about to be the wife of Edward of Woodstock, and she was a secondary character. To carry a book I needed to understand her life leading up to that marriage. I honestly thought it would be a snap.
But the very things about Joan’s story that intrigued me quickly frustrated me: Her secret (and quite scandalous, even in our day) betrothal to Sir Thomas Holland when she was but eleven years old, and he twice her age, and, according to papal records, the prompt consummation thereof; her formal marriage to William Montagu while Holland was fighting in Prussia, and especially the fact that she bore no children in her eight years with Montagu; and yet, she bore Holland a son within a year of being reunited with him, bearing three more children in their eleven years together; within three or four months of Holland’s sudden death her secret marriage to Edward of Woodstock, a love match on both sides, so it is said; but she chose to be buried with Thomas Holland.
What potential, right?
Let me pause a moment to give you some background on the current state of big publishing houses—bear with me, it’s relevant. Between contract and original delivery date of the book I’m finishing now, my publisher decided that a 175,000 word book scares off readers unless you’re a blockbuster name; I was to keep it to 100,000 words, or certainly no more than 120,000. That’s a serious slimming. As some of you may recall, when I started writing my previous novel The King’s Mistress my British publisher told me she wanted a big doorstop of a book. But by the time I delivered it eighteen months later she wanted just a big book. We cut it to 225,000 words. Then I sold it to the US and they gasped at that word count; the contract department demanded I cut it to 175,000 words, or there would be no contract. And now, a few years later, I was being told that they wanted 120,000 words max. Just a bit over half the size of my previous novel.
In short, what my publisher wanted was not the sort of historical novel I’d envisioned when I chose to write Joan’s story—filled with sumptuous detail about the life and times, the political scene, the cultural scene. This was more on the order of one of my crime novels. Focused. Pruned of any detail that led away from the crime and its solution.
But this was Joan of Kent’s story. Even if I limited myself to her marriages, that was still a lot of detail. So I split it in two, shifting the bulk of Joan’s marriage to Edward to a second book. I would focus on the Holland/Montagu years and the very beginning of her marriage to Edward in the current one.
Still a lot of ground to cover. Clearly the concept of a historical novel that I carried around in my head was outdated. This was about the time that I started yearning to toss Joan aside and write another Owen Archer mystery—I knew how to structure those—murder, investigation, solution. But a novel based on a real woman’s all too eventful life, a life so tied into the early years of the Hundred Years War that I needed to explain what that was about—how on earth did I prune this great oak into a bonsai?
My editor asked, What’s the story question? My immediate thought was, Why did Joan choose to be buried with Thomas Holland? Like a crime novel, only instead of who killed fill-in-the-blank, why is Joan buried beside Thomas.
But I still didn’t know the answer to that. I had theories about What Really Happened, but I knew that did not mean I knew how to spin it into an absorbing, engaging, plausible story. I’ve learned through experience that no matter how plausible I find a theory, once I start writing I discover huge holes in it. What makes sense in the abstract doesn’t in the energy of the moment in which the character makes the life-changing decision.
And it was very tough for me to get my mind around what Joan did at the tender age of eleven.
There are those who believe the whole story about an early betrothal was bogus, something Joan and Thomas cooked up after falling in love while she was wed to William. That never felt right to me.
I recently read this in an interview with Marisa Silver, whose book Mary Coin is based on the photographer Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of her famous photograph, Migrant Mother. The question was what she owed the people whose lives she based the novel on. “I think I owed them the seriousness of my purpose, a deep consideration, and clarity…. And I think I owed them affection, which I felt and continue to feel.” (https://themillions.com/2013/04/the-space-between-the-millions-interviews-marisa-silver.html)
The trouble was, even though I couldn’t accept that it was all a lie, it was painful for me to imagine Joan making the choice of the betrothal and consummating it, yet I couldn’t believe Thomas Holland had raped her. Not only because she chose to be buried with him, but because her testimony in his favor was the deciding factor in the pope’s conclusion that her marriage to Holland was the legitimate one. I know she might have decided he was the lesser evil, but my gut didn’t buy that. Call me a romantic, but I believe she loved Holland. That’s what hooked me in the first place. But I hadn’t looked closely enough to appreciate the difficulties in the story.
So I searched for Joan’s motivation. I found a possibility in a betrothal recorded in 1340 between Margaret of Kent and Armand, the eldest son of Bernard, lord of Albret, a liaison that would benefit King Edward, creating for him a solid ally in Gascony. Someone suggested that the clerk had confused the names and it was Margaret’s daughter Joan, my Joan, who was betrothed to Armand. Nothing more is ever said about this union. What happened? What if Joan did not want to be wed to Albret? What if she’d found someone to hand, preferably someone she already liked very much, and convinced him to rescue her? This was something I could work with.
But I still had to deal with an eleven year old having sex, the legality of it, the plausibility of it, what that said about Thomas Holland’s character (did he know her real age?)—the most uncomfortable issues I’ve dealt with in over twenty years of writing novels. I wrote myself in circles until I accepted that this was just one of those things that would never be entirely comfortable. I had to make her very frightened to strike out in this direction.
I also had to motivate Thomas Holland, a man whose father, like Joan’s, had died branded as a traitor. How did he dare go against the king’s intent—Joan’s marriage to Armand of Albret? He had to find Joan’s fear plausible, or have an ulterior motive like greed, ambition, which didn’t fit my concept of their relationship. I also had to decide what Joan’s mother, Margaret of Kent, and William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, knew about Joan and Thomas and how they justified ignoring their vows—if they knew of them—and wedding Joan to Salisbury’s son. And what about the young groom, did he know? How would he feel about all that? What part did the king play in this marriage? The queen? Of course, none of this was recorded. We can look at what honors and privileges were bestowed to venture some guesses, but they are all guesses.
Yet this is exactly what my readers would want to know—how did my characters FEEL? While I was struggling with all this I did something I hadn’t done since teaching creative writing in the 90s—browsed through books about writing fiction. Yes, I was doing everything to avoid dealing with Joan. I won’t bore you with the drivel that’s out there, but one book echoed so much of what my editor was saying that I read it with care and have been recommending it to anyone who asks me about writing fiction ever since.
The book is Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron (Ten Speed Press 2012), who backs her advice with recent breakthroughs in neuroscience as well as examples from novels, screenplays, and short stories, and I think it’s the real deal. At least it’s reinvigorated me.
Her main point for writers is: “A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) who is trying to achieve a difficult goal (the story question), and how they change as a result (what the story is actually about). In other words story isn’t about what happens externally, it’s about what the protagonist must confront and overcome internally in order to achieve her goal. [don’t] mistake the plot for the story—the plot is constructed to force the protagonist to face an inner issue that’s holding her back.” Another point: “Let us know how the protagonist is making sense of what’s happening to her in the moment – not just what she sees and smells or what she decides to do, but why she’s doing it, why it means something to her, how it’s changing the way she sees the situation and her next move.”
None of that’s in the historical record. Which is part of what’s so enticing about historical novels—a good one gives us the experience of what it was like to live in earlier times. I knew that. But Cron was helping me focus on Joan’s internal struggle rather than my broader idea of the life and times of… helpful, if a bit frustrating.
Lisa Cron writes that our brains are hardwired to respond to stories because they teach us the way of the world. Stories are a way to share specific information that might be useful to us in the future, to see how others coped in threatening situations without putting ourselves in danger. We listen because we enjoy it, and we’ll remember it if we become engrossed in it. Our brains respond as if we’re actually experiencing what we’re reading. So it’s as if we’re remembering something that we not only heard, but experienced.
You’ve probably all heard about mirror neurons, how ours fire when we watch someone do something. Similarly, the areas of the brain that light up when we read about an activity are identical to those that light up when we actually experience it.
So a historical novel is a bit like virtual reality for us, if done well. And what Cron and my editor were telling me was that my job was to give the reader an emotional experience of Joan’s life, what it was like to be her, with her problems, in the 14th century.
Okay. Now I had a definition for the story question my editor kept harping about, and I could see that the question I’d proposed, Why did Joan choose to be buried with Thomas Holland?, did not fit the bill. She certainly didn’t do what she did at 11 in order to achieve the goal of being buried beside Thomas Holland, but whatever her reason, it had to be tied to achieving her difficult goal. That helped.
And I had a structure—everything in the story revolves around the protagonist’s story question, her trajectory in reaching her goal—or not. And how everybody involved FELT about what was going on.
I came up with a question I could work with, not the tidiest thing, but hers wasn’t a tidy life, and I began again. With focus.
Now I better understood what I mentioned earlier about theories of what really happened and how those theories fall apart. Such as my wrangling with the question of Whose Garter?
Those of you who heard my paper last year in a session honoring Laura Hodges, the author of two books on the symbolism of the clothing of Chaucer’s pilgrims, know that she and I engaged in a lengthy debate about this in email a few years ago. I was a staunch supporter of the garter as an item of male attire, a strap with a buckle; I could not imagine the “garter” as we see it in the illustrations being worn by a woman. However, when push came to shove, I found that its being a lady’s garter, which Laura had convinced me might look just like that, suited my King Edward better. I was curious about the work of Francis Ingledew, who bases an interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on the garter being a lady’s, specifically Catherine Montague’s, Countess of Salisbury. (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter, U of Notre Dame 2006). I wasn’t convinced with his argument for reviving the old story that King Edward, after a long infatuation with the countess, took advantage of her trust in him during the siege of her castle and raped her. However, in the course of his argument he brought up some interesting points—Salisbury died shortly after being injured in the tournaments celebrating Edward’s founding of an order of the Round Table. Months after his death his widow took a vow of celibacy. And less than a year after the founding, after substantial investment in a hall of the round table at Windsor, Edward dropped the project. Ingledew suggests that rumors of his offense against Catherine and William soured the plan. He even tiptoes toward a conspiracy theory regarding Salisbury’s death. Then Edward waited more than four years to establish the Order of the Garter. All of this can be explained quite pragmatically, but I wound up using some of it. It flowed with what had gone before, and best of all, it carried an emotional charge. That the garter was an article of male attire, a strap with a buckle, is just a dull fact—that Edward chose it because of an emotional connection, and others used that as propaganda against him is far more interesting. And to show how people reacted to that, such as Catherine Montagu’s son William, well, that makes it still more interesting. Now the reader cares what the garter symbolized, and they know not everyone agreed just what the symbolism was. They might get curious enough to explore further.
Despite this new focus, I still found myself getting sidetracked in the richness of the historical world I was conjuring—Jacob Van Artevelde and his downfall, the siege of Calais, the Round Table, the Black Death, the royal family and what they’d done to Joan’s father, Holland’s history, the Order of the Garter.
Rachel Kushner had this to say about her first novel Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist in 2008 (https://themillions.com/2013/04/rachel-kushner-is-well-on-her-way-to-huge.html). It, too, is set in a rich and fascinating time, Cuba in the last years of the corrupt Batista regime, as Fidel Castro and his rebels are rising. She said “the great danger is emptying your notebook, becoming lulled by your research into forgetting that novels are, first and last, works of the imagination. …I had to disconnect completely from all that (research) and build a fictional structure and then adhere precisely to its logic and requirements, which meant only using what served my story. Just because something is true does not mean it has a place. Often it turned out quite the opposite, that the people and characters and details I imagined were much more fluid and true-seeming, and it was the ‘true life’ detail that stuck out and seemed awkward.”
This seems to me the key to how to whittle down the historical novel for today’s readers—stick to the story, forget about filling in the background with the detail of a Bruegel, fill in only what they need in order to understand—in short, leave them satisfied with the protagonist’s journey and hungry for more history.
The point is to never forget I’m writing a novel, and what I need to do is precisely what a historian can’t—write about how it all felt. When readers nag me for more history, I’ll send them to you.
Yes, the book was published under my short-lived pseudonym, Emma Campion. Same for The King’s Mistress. Trivia question: in what language were both books published under my own name?