Happy New Year! Wishing you all peace and joy in 2020.
I have no appetite for year end “best of” lists, but I appreciate a December tradition at the literary website The Millions (themillions.com), “A Year in Reading”. Writers share short lists of books they’ve read in the past year, often with a theme or trend, and almost never all new books, but a variety. Far more eclectic and interesting to me. In that vein, I share a list of highlights from my reading this past year (not by any means a complete list!).
The White Nuns: Cistercian Abbeys for Women in Medieval France, Constance Hoffman Berman (University of Pennsylvania Press 2018)
The first three chapters upend all I thought I knew about Cistercian convents—i.e., that they were few and far between, poor, and badly managed. All wrong. Why? Here’s the jacket copy: “Modern studies of the religious reform movement of the central Middle Ages have often relied on contemporary accounts penned by Cistercian monks, who routinely exaggerated the importance of their own institutions while paying scant attention to the remarkable expansion of abbeys of Cistercian women. Yet by the end of the thirteenth century there were more houses of Cistercian nuns across Europe than of monks. [!] …[Berman] charts the stages in the nuns’ gradual acceptance by the abbots of the Cistercian Order’s General Chapter and describes the expansion of the nuns’ communities and their adaptation to a variety of economic circumstances in France and throughout Europe. While some sought contemplative lives of prayer, the ambition of many of these religious women was to serve the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Focusing in particular on Cistercian nuns’ abbeys founded between 1190 and 1250 in the northern French archdiocese of Sens, Berman reveals the frequency with which communities of Cistercian nuns were founded by rich and powerful women, including Queen Blanche of Castile, heiresses Countess Matilda of Courtenay and Countess Isabelle of Chartres, and esteemed ladies such as Agnes of Cressonessart. She shows how these founders and early patrons assisted early abbesses, nuns, and lay sister by using written documents to secure rights and create endowments, and it is on the records of their considerable economic achievements that she centers her analysis.” I love this book! The women are so remarkable and inspiring that it’s astonishing to me that they were almost forgotten. Fascinating reading.
Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries, Anne Bagnall Yardley (Palgrave Macmillan 2006)
The 12th Owen Archer has a musical theme and I wanted to know how music was taught and organized in medieval English nunneries. I’ve learned a great deal about singing medieval music as a member of the Medieval Women’s Choir, and observed how our director composes additional voices and rearranges some pieces to suit our talents. I was curious about how much original music a cantrix might have composed for her abbey. As I suspected, a skilled cantrix shaped the music to meet the abilities of the nuns she led in song. This book breaks down the roles of the various obedientiaries involved in the singing of the Daily Office, and how they functioned according to the records of specific abbey. This is a wonderful study, rich in detail, an absorbing read.
Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner (Princeton University Press 2019)
Speaking of detail, this biography is so rich I’m reading it slowly—I read a few chapters quickly, then go back and read them again. I’m storing up bits and pieces to use in my novels, of course! I’ve read several earlier, acclaimed biographies of Chaucer, yet Turner’s book contains much that is new to me, and valuable insights. Highly recommended!
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick 2007)
Just for fun, I chased down this Newberry Award winning book after someone mentioned it as a good introduction to the middle ages for children. It’s a delight, written for the classroom so children can take on the roles (with some stage directions) of the individuals in a medieval village.
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD 2018)
A modern retelling of Beowulf, mind bending and powerful. As with Susan Signe Morrison’s fabulous Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife (Top Hat Books 2015), the retelling enriches my reading of the original.
I love folktales retold, especially by women, and devoured the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, Russian folktales enriched by her beautiful imagination. (The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, and The Winter of the Witch Del Ray 20178-19)
And for an absolutely brilliant and engaging retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, do read Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Ray 2019). Feminist. Wonderful.
I also read a number of Agatha Christie mysteries and a chunk of her autobiography in preparation for an event in September, celebrating her birthday, focusing primarily on the Poirot series. A long while since I’d read her books. My takeaways:
I was impressed with her cleverness. A master of misdirection.
I was surprised by how little she dwelt on the consequences, the lives lost.
Poirot does ethically questionable things with the confidence he’s in the right.
There is little depth to the books, which is what readers have come to expect.
So a mixed review: All in all, clever, but with little heart.
Just a quick note to let you know that this morning I delivered the manuscript of Owen Archer 12 to my publisher! Watch this space in the new year for a title and cover reveal and publishing dates!
In other news…the trade paperback of A Conspiracy of Wolves will be available in the UK at the end of January 2020, and early April in the US, Canada, and wherever my books are sold!
I will be back in action on this blog in the new year. Right now I intend to kick back, relax, and enjoy the holidays. I hope you do as well!
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 the 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.
The 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.
York 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 back 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.
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.
Being 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.
I’m back from the UK and working on a post about my adventures in York, Leeds, Pontefract, and London. But first I want to alert you to the news that the English language ebook of A Conspiracy of Wolves is now available worldwide!
And I want to share with you a wonderful review from Kirkus Reviews for A Conspiracy of Wolves that will appear in their mid June issue:
“A man with a deep sense of justice and a passion for crime-solving must make a series of life-changing decisions.
“The year 1374 finds Owen Archer, former captain of the guard (A Vigil of Spies, 2015, etc.), still mourning the death of Archbishop Thoresby as he returns to York with his apothecary wife, Lucie Wilton; their family; and Geoffrey Chaucer, a spy for Prince Edward. Upon the road they meet Bartolf Swann, coroner of Galtres Forest, and Brother Michaelo, who was Thoresby’s secretary. Swann begs them to find the killer of Hoban, the son he claims was savaged by dogs or wolves. Hoban’s own dogs and horse are missing, and when Owen examines his body, he finds that although Hoban was indeed bitten, someone had cut his throat as well. Back in York, Owen is torn between the mayor, the aldermen, and merchants who want him to become captain of the city bailiffs and a more generous offer from Prince Edward, who’s invited him to become a member of his household so that he can keep an eye on the powerful northern families who are enemies of the throne. While Owen ponders his choices, he seeks information from several people and comes to suspect that Alisoun Ffulford, apprentice to Magda Digby, midwife, healer, and wise woman, is holding something back. Soon after a mysterious man with a large dog is spotted in the city, Bartolf Swann is found murdered. Owen becomes convinced that the Swann, Tirwhit, and Braithwaite families are all connected not only by marriage, but by a dangerous secret from the past that may provide the motive for the murders in the present. Real-life historical figures mix with fictional characters in a portrait of a deeply dangerous time that Owen must navigate with care if he’s to solve the murders and settle his own future.
“History and mystery combine in a fine, complex tale of love and hate.”
I’ll take that!
And just an FYI, at the time of writing this (Monday, 3 June), the US publisher of the first 10 Owen Archers, Diversion Books, has a sale on 5 of the earlier Owen Archer ebooks: The Apothecary Rose, The Lady Chapel, The King’s Bishop, The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, and A Gift of Sanctuary are $1.99 on all platforms!
(Why they skipped The Nun’s Tale is a mystery to me. But some of the Margaret Kerrs are on sale as well!)
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.