An editor sent me the following questions for an event that didn’t happen. But as I took the time away from writing Owen Archer 13 to answer them, I can’t let them go to waste. Enjoy!
Q: Your new book, A CHOIR OF CROWS is set in 1374, when the Plantagenet King Edward III was on the English throne, and England was in the midst of the Hundred Years war against France. Why do you choose to set your novels in the past, and what attracted you to this particular period?
A: The present is too much with me. I much prefer to spend my days imagining what it is like elsewhen. In graduate school I discovered the richness of Chaucer’s description of medieval England and thought it would be fabulous to spend my life teaching his works. But as I continued to research his century I found myself imagining my own tales. I’ve been happily writing about the period ever since.
Q: Candace – you are American, based in Seattle, Washington state. What inspired you to set your series in the northern English city of York?
A: A trip to York while in graduate school piqued my interest. In researching the city in the 14th century, learning of its importance in the church, the realm, and economically I was surprised so little fiction was set there. It begged for an author. I obliged.
Q: In your novels, you depict real historical characters who co-exist and interact with your fictional cast. For example, the action in your new novel, A CHOIR OF CROWS, kicks off with the all-powerful nobleman Alexander Neville – a real historical character – having been appointed Archbishop of York, and the city in a state of high alert at his imminent arrival. He is a character to be feared in the novel, a real Machiavellian schemer. Is this a purely imaginary portrayal of the man, or have you or have you found any historical evidence to back up your theory as to his character?
A: I have found no historical record regarding Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, that describes his as anything but an ambitious, spiteful man wholly unworthy of his high appointment. His vindictiveness results in battles with many religious houses in his archdiocese, and his eventual banishment from the realm. He is a gift to a writer. But the real power behind Alexander is his brother Sir John Neville, Lord of Raby, admiral of the North, and the king’s steward. He is every bit the Machiavellian I portray. Delicious!
Q: Without giving away any spoilers, A CHOIR OF CROWS poses an intriguing theory as to the cause of the untimely death of Edward III’s son, the Black Prince – who was supposed to have died of dysentery. Do you have any evidence to suggest that he was, in fact, murdered?
A: I came up with the theory based on many historians’ conclusions that dyssentery just isn’t a satisfying diagnosis. I was reading about the poisonous effects of a particular chemical element (as crime writers do) and realized how well it fit his symptoms. He might have done this to himself over time, but considering who he was and the politics of the times, someone administering it to him for a long while seemed highly plausible. I’ve tried it out on a few historians who encouraged me to run with it.
Q: Which author has most inspired you in your own writing – and why?
A: Ursula LeGuin, not only because she encouraged me to stick with the European middle ages in my writing, but also because of her lean, emotionally clear writing and fearlessness.
Q: If a TV series or feature film were to be made of your book, who would you see playing your protagonist, Owen Archer?
A: A popular question! My answer changes as time goes by. My current choice would be Aidan Turner (Poldark).
Third Place Books in Seattle hosts a virtual book event for A Choir of Crows on Thursday afternoon 13 August, 5:00-6:00 pm PDT As it’s online, you don’t need to be in Seattle. The event is free, but you do need to sign up here in order to receive the Zoom invitation.
Join me in conversation with my friends in Seattle’s Medieval Women’s Choir for a lively discussion! I’ll be talking about what it’s like to base an important character on a good friend, and Molly (Marian) will share what it’s like to BE that friend. Michelle will talk about what we know about music in medieval convents. And we’ll all laugh about our teamwork in sorting out the basic concept and the detail.
Want a signed and personalized copy? Order online from Third Place Books and mention in “Notes” what you’d like. Once they have the orders ready, I will sign the books and add personalized notes before shipping!
At the heart of the 12th Owen Archer mystery, A Choir of Crows, is the tension in the city when the corpses of three strangers are found at dawn after a heavy snowfall that isolates the city. Two of the bodies are found in the yard of York Minster, both deaths violent, one clearly murder. The timing could not be worse. The lay and religious communities in York are already frantically preparing for an influx of Northern nobles and their traveling parties for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as Archbishop of York. Owen Archer’s task is to find the murderer (s) before Neville’s powerful older brother arrives. The family worked hard to elevate Alexander to the post, calling in many favors to achieve it. Readers who have been following the series will know that Alexander Neville’s elevation to the post was strictly political. As time goes on it became clear to all that he was singularly ill-suited for the position.
You might wonder why the Nevilles were so keen to have one of their own in this position. John Neville was already a Knight of the Garter, Admiral of the North, and Steward of the King’s Household. But now they would have power both among the secular establishment and the religious: as Archbishop of York, Alexander would be the second most powerful cleric in England (after the Archbishop of Canterbury.) “Appointments during the latter half of the century were particularly political: Alexander Neville (1374-1388), Thomas Arundel (1388-1396) and Richard Scrope (1398-1405) all came from influential baronial families who were closely involved in the contentious politics of the courts of King Richard II and Henry IV.” For more about how the archbishops were chosen in the 14th century, you can read this post on the blog for The Northern Way; it is the source of the quote above.
The Northern Way is a research project funded by the AHRC and based at the University of York in partnership with The National Archives and with the support of York Minster. Running from February 2019 to October 2021 the project aims to make the administrative records of the archbishops of York more accessible to both students and the general public, and to provide a history of the role of the Archbishops in governing the region over that period. You can be sure I am watching them closely!
Curious about the role in modern times? Earlier this month, a new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, arrived in the city for his confirmation. You can see photos of the 9 July celebration here (including a walk down the Shambles!) And here‘s another article about the day.
In anxious times, crime novels engage us and reassure us. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? A murderer is loose on the streets. We watch the sleuth(s), the more familiar the better, sort out the clues as they race against time to prevent more deaths. Although more people might fall, and the authorities might decide that the solution is inconvenient and choose to conceal the details with some vague palliative blather, the deaths are stopped, thanks to the sleuth. The community returns to “normal”, or very near—a new normal, or, as novelist Emily Wilson said “…creating a new, second-place vision for life after a terrible thing has taken first-choice hopes away. Justice can be part of that new hope, but it’s inherently a compromise. Justice is like a beautiful funeral: better than a terrible one, but the best would be not needing one at all.” [*] In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron cites a wealth of mind research to support her thesis that our brains crave stories because we learn via stories, trying out experiences to learn ways to cope with new challenges.[†] In a crime novel we follow the sleuth’s investigation, learning how we might do the same. We learn from their mistakes and their successes. We see how troubles might be resolved. We can even find comfort in realizing that everyone in a community has secrets, some more interesting or dangerous than others, but no one’s perfect. Even the familiarity of the regular ensemble of characters and settings in our favorite series is reassuring when calming down after a day of worries. All in all, it’s not such a crazy idea to pluck a crime novel off the shelf and curl up in our reading chair to read away the jitters.
As COVID-19 wormed its way into our lives I calmed myself before sleep by reading some of my favorite crime writers. For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I found them a comfort. Beginning in crisis, ending with order restored. To a degree. Donna Leon, Marty Wingate, Chris Nickson, Craig Johnson, Miranda James, Daphne du Maurier (suspense)… Some light, some a mix, some decidedly dark. Yet restorative. I have a good friend who once told me she wished I’d keep writing as Emma Campion because she could read those books; she can’t read my mysteries because they’re too scary. Time and again I’ve tried to explain to her why my novels about Joan of Kent and Alice Perrers are far scarier than my mysteries—Joan and Alice had so little control over their lives and I could do nothing to prevent their suffering. But she just couldn’t see it. Plenty do, thank goodness.
Of course, I have the added comfort of writing crime novels. I’m engaged in a new Owen Archer tale with some of my favorite characters, particularly Magda Digby. I find the plotting of crimes, followed by the investigation of a sleuth I love and trust, a curiously soothing endeavour. I know that Owen is determined to solve the crimes and that he will do everything in his power to do so.
It’s this commitment and deep sense of responsibility that pushes him to investigate. Compared with so many of the movers and shakers I read about in the news, Owen is an honorable, trustworthy person, a man who keeps his word and cares about others. I find him a reassuring companion in these troubled times. And Magda Digby, the Riverwoman…I would love to seek her out at her rock in the Ouse right about now to ask if I might just stay there under her care until COVID 19 spends itself.
How about you? What’s helping you cope?
(I hope one answer is reading A Choir of Crows! Out now!)
[†] Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Ten Speed Press 2012.
I’ll return to chat about my book and all things Owen Archer in my next post, but at the moment I want to bear witness to what is happening in the US and around the world in this month of June 2020. No preaching (I save that for my longsuffering friends). I’ll simply share a few items.
First, an thoughtful, savvy essay regarding both the pandemic and racism by M. Rambaran-Olm, “Black Death” Matters: A Modern Take on a Medieval Pandemic
Second, a powerful podcast from the PBS Newshour, ‘A very long, very loud existential scream.’
May we all be healthy, and live as one.