The Wisdom of Magda Digby (part I)

Robert Newman, a longtime reader of the Owen Archer series, recently shared with me, for my approval, his study of Magda Digby’s wisdom. With his permission, I will be serializing it as a prelude to the publication of THE RIVERWOMAN’S DRAGON (Owen Archer bk 13). I’ve refrained from editing. These are his thoughts, and I’m always fascinated to learn how readers see my work. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Happy reading!

My guest author: Robert Newman grew up in Freeport, Long Island, where his ancestors arrived from England in the sixteen hundreds.  After completing a Ph.D. in metallurgy he was a university professor, researcher, missionary, and computer programmer.  Since retiring he spent time woodworking with hand tools, bread baking, listening to early jazz, and reading fiction.  Magda Digby spoke to him in different ways during the last ten years and her wisdom guides him in his eighties as he struggles with difficult illness.  He wrote this essay last winter.  Bob lives in Smoke Rise, Georgia, with his wife Spomenka and their corgi Duga.

The Wisdom of Magda Digby

Robert Newman
27 March 2021

Owen asked Magda, “What did you mean by the question about what folk see when they see a wolf?  How could it not be the animal?”
“A riddle for thee, Bird-eye.”

I wish I could say that I have solved this riddle to my satisfaction, but even after three readings of the book I have not yet done so.  I don’t recall exactly when I began reading Candace Robb’s books, nor do I remember what attracted me to that first book.  Fortunately, I began with The Apothecary Rose, the first in the Owen Archer Mystery series.  I have read all twelve of the books multiple times over the years and have found myself making check marks in the margin when I encountered texts that caught my attention.  Although the protagonist in these historical novels is Owen Archer, I discovered that those most often marked were the wisdom statements uttered by the character Magda Digby. 

While I was reading the last two books in the series, which were written after a ten year hiatus during which time Candace Robb had written the Kate Clifford trilogy and two novels about historical characters who had appeared in the Owen Archer novels, it occurred to me that it would be a worthy project for me to write an essay about Magda’s wisdom statements.  I have taken some liberties with the text to condense the dialog and set the context, but I have made every effort not to change the meaning intended by the author.

The Players

We have limited knowledge of Magda Digby ⸻ the Riverwoman, the healer, the midwife, the herbalist ⸻ except that she lives in a small hut outside the city walls of York that is built on a rock along the bank of the River Ouse.  As the stories progress we learn that she is not only a mother and a grandmother but soon to be a great grandmother, which gives us at least some idea of her age.  Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Magda is that she speaks in archaic English and always refers to herself in the third person.  She also makes a practice of assigning metaphorical names to people that reflect their position, their vocation, their behavior, or their physical appearance.  These names are not meant to be derogatory, but descriptive and intended to convey meaning to the hearer.

The central character in these stories is Owen Archer, a Welshman who was captain of archers in service to Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, who is an historical character (1310-1361).  During a campaign in France, Owen lost the sight in his left eye, which limited his ability, in his opinion, to be an effective soldier.  Because of his partial blindness, Owen found it necessary to turn his head from side to side to better see everything around him.  For this reason Magda calls him Bird-eye.  In order to keep him in his service, the Duke saw to it that Owen was properly educated, taught to read and write, and then used him as a spy, a term that has a broader meaning than we would assign to it today. 

Before his death, the Duke of Lancaster suggested to John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York, also an historical character (1305-1373), that he engage Owen as his personal spy.  Owen is actually an information gatherer and problem solver rather than an espionage agent.  Because of his age, the mystery surrounding him, and his flowing black robe, Magda refers to Archbishop Thoresby as Old Crow.

Who better to explain the character John Thoresby than the author, Candace Robb.  “When I cast John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, in the first Owen Archer novel, I did not expect to grow fond of him.  Now I sit here mourning him.  I’ve learned, through him, a drawback of writing about real historical figures their lives can end all too soon, before I’m ready to part with them.  Once he caught my heart, I dreaded the years ticking over towards his historical death.  He was one of those rare gifts to a novelist, a character who seemed to write his scenes.  From the beginning, he flowed from my imagination.  He was always reliable.”[ii]

Not surprisingly, Magda Digby expresses very similar impressions about Old Crow“She chuckled to herself.  John Thoresby had proven to be an unexpectedly complex man of quiet wisdom, surprisingly inspiring love.  She was honored that he trusted her to care for him [when he was dying] she had not expected to feel so.  She would mourn his passing.”[iii]

Another important character who is a frequent recipient of Magda’s wisdom is Lucie Wilton, an apothecary who marries Owen Archer after the death of her husband.  Lucie is the daughter of an English knight and a young French woman who was a war prize for the knight.  After her mother died, Lucie spent her early years in a convent until she married the master apothecary Nicholas Wilton, many years her senior, who had previously become enamored with her lovely French mother when he was a young apprentice and was ultimately responsible for her untimely death by an accidental medicinal overdose.  Magda knew the family during this time and was the midwife who delivered the baby Lucie.

The final character associated with Magda is a young girl named Alisoun Ffulford. Alisoun’s family died in the plague when she was eleven years old, and she later becomes Magda’s apprentice and learns to be a healer in her own right.

Magda’s Way of Knowing

You bring calm with you Dame Magda.  It is a gift.”
“Nay, it is a skill learned by observing, listening, trying, and discarding.  Thou couldst do the same.[iv]

Magda’s way of knowing can be conceptualized as tacit knowledge.  Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) believed that discovery was the most illuminating, significant part of science.  He believed that there was a subjective, intuitive aspect to discovery in which the discoverer perceived the particulars, but by employing skills learned over a long period of time was able to integrate these particulars into a fuller picture of reality and truth.  Hedisagreed with the logical positivist philosophers of his time who thought that science was simply verification and proof of explicit, objective facts.  At some point he began referring to this acquired skill as tacit knowledge.[v]  In the vernacular, it is knowing more than we can tell.

The following exchange with Alfred, Owen’s second in command, is an illustration of Magda’s tacit knowledge.  Magda simply knows more than she can explain to Alfred.  She’d learned long ago to heed such a gut-deep feeling.  Magda and Alfred are sitting close to the fire circle in her small hut, sharing a fish stew; he asks her about living on the river.

“Do you never feel too alone here, when the river rises round you?”
“Nay, then the Ouse is Magda’s protector, and her ears can rest easy.  Magda will notice sounds out of place.”
“Why do you live here?”
“It is home.  Magda can no more explain that than thou couldst explain why thou art so loyal to Captain Archer.”

Magda intuits that with Alfred here to protect her, Owen’s household is unprotected.

“Magda is worried about Dame Lucie and her household tonight.  Magda thinks they might be in danger.”
“Why do you think so?”
“A fair question, but Magda cannot satisfy thee with facts.  She fears this.  Strongly fears this.”
“That is good enough for me.”

In a similar vein, Magda says.

“Be patient, Bird-eye.  Alisoun will come to Magda or thee in her own time.”
“How do you know?”
“Some things cannot be otherwise, Bird-eye.”

Perhaps it is simply knowing in one’s gut.  Owen commentson Alisoun’s progress as a healer.

“Alisoun is maturing in your service.” 
“She is,” said Magda, a smile in her voice.  “She is a lesson in trusting thy gut about someone.  Magda doubted up here,” she tapped her head, “but believed down here,” she pressed her stomach.”

Developing tacit knowledge, like developing wisdom, takes time, but Magda is in no rush.  A year has passed since Archbishop John Thoresby died, but eleven years have passed since that book was published.  Magda is still seeing the particulars and integrating them into a whole picture, and she is still speaking in riddles.  She is comfortable with uncertainty, and I wonder if she knows the answer to her own riddles.

“Magda, how do you know?”
“Not the question, Bird-eye.  Open thine eyes.  Trust thyself.  The wolves circle their prey.  Thou hast the sight to see what awakens.  What do folks see when they see a wolf, Bird-eye?  The animal?  Think again.  Trust thyself, Bird-eye.  Thou art called.”

[i] A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 166

[ii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, Author’s Note, p 281

[iii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 8

[iv] The Guilt of Innocents, © 2007, p 138

[v] Everyman Revived, The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi, Chapter 2 © 1985 Drusilla Scott.

[vi] The Guilt of Innocents, © 2007, p 116-118

[vii] The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, © 1997, p 27

[viii] A Vigil of Spies, © 2008, p 141

[ix] A Conspiracy of Wolves, © 2019, p 11


Thank you, Bob!

Watch for part II next week!

Re-Readings: The Apothecary Rose & The Cross-legged Knight


As I write away on the 14th entry in the Owen Archer mysteries I am using small details and insights recently gleaned by re-reading two of the earlier books in the series, The Apothecary Rose (#1) and The The Cross-Legged Knight_cover KNIGHT 300pCross-legged Knight (#8). It’s a strange experience to return to one’s own books as a reader. It’s long been a guilty pleasure for me to listen to the audiobooks of the series—new US editions of the first 3 and older British editions of the first 8, hearing the characters come to life. But until this year I’ve read the texts only in bits and pieces, searching for details to ensure continuity or, in the summer of 2015, proofreading old copy-edited typescripts. Reading for pleasure is another matter entirely. Earlier this year, with the idea that the arrival in York of William Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester, might be the catalyst for the central murder in book 14, I decided to read The Cross-legged Knight as I do any novel, for pleasure. And it would refresh my memory of the story.

You see, though I recall the overall narrative arcs and the pivotal scenes in each book, I cannot be certain that my memory of just how the story played out in the final draft is correct. In the course of writing I create many scenes that wind up cut or heavily revised. I delete characters, change their names, sometimes their sex, remove incidents, reorder how the events unfolded, and, far more often that you might guess, change the solution.

To my delight (and relief) I enjoyed The Cross-legged Knight, and came away with a sense of Wykeham separate from Owen’s opinion of him. The experiment proved not only enjoyable, but useful.  

The Apothecary Rose (Small) 300x453In April of this year a virtual book club in London (I love Zoom!) chose the first Owen Archer mystery for that month’s book, and I was invited to be their special guest. Having had such a good experience with one book, I chose to try reading The Apothecary Rose—a book I wrote 25+ years ago—for pleasure. Not only did I enjoy it, but I was excited to talk about it with the book club. In fact I had so much fun talking that I started losing my voice after an hour–well, that was partly seasonal allergies. Reading it after all these years was like looking through a family album and revisiting the past, dredging up snatches of memory, re-experiencing moments. Each night when I finished reading I would fall asleep to the dance of memories–how I chose a particular scene, why I added a little detail, why I changed someone’s name. With Owen’s and Lucie’s odd courtship fresh in my mind I’m able to hint at it in their conversations about another couple’s troubles in the current manuscript. Best of all, I came away proud of my first published book. Dear reader, I enjoyed it!

Serendipitously, both books have been selected for Kindle deals right now: The Apothecary Rose is a Kindle Big Deal in the US from Memorial Day to 6 June, and The Cross-legged Knight for a Kindle Daily Deal on 4 June—both $1.99. What a treat to see the book that began it all to be ranked 39 in Historical British and Irish Literature on amazon as I write this on 2 June 2021, just 3.5 months short of it’s 28th anniversary. That’s staying power. The Cross-legged Knight holds a special place in my heart as the last Owen Archer for which my British editor was the incomparable Lynne Drew—we had worked closely since the second book, and she also edited the first Margaret Kerr. If you’re in the market for the ebook editions of either or both, check them out on amazon!

The Riverwoman’s Dragon: Cover Reveal

So excited to unveil the beautiful cover for the 13th Owen Archer mystery, The Riverwoman’s Dragon and give you an idea of the content. For the first time in the series, Magda Digby, the Riverwoman, is the primary character. Yes, Owen and all the others are on stage and active in the sleuthing, but Magda Digby has center stage. Publications dates: hardcover, 26 August UK; 2 November US & Canada; ebook worldwide 2 November.

May, 1375. Owen Archer returns from London to find York in chaos. While the citizens are living in terror of the pestilence which is spreading throughout the land, a new physician has arrived, whipping up fear and suspicion against traditional healers and midwives. With the backing of the new archbishop, he is especially hostile towards Magda Digby, the wise woman who has helped and healed the people of York for many years.  At the same time, Magda is uneasy about the arrival of two long-lost kinsfolk. Though they say they are seeking her help, she senses a hidden agenda.

Magda’s troubles deepen when she discovers a body in the river near her home – and finds herself under suspicion of murder. Days later, fire rips through a warehouse in the city.  Amongst the charred debris lies the body of a man – not burned, but stabbed in the back. Could there be a connection to the corpse in the river?

Determined to prove Magda’s innocence, Owen sets out to find answers amidst violent outbursts within and without the city walls– but the more he uncovers, the deeper the mystery becomes … 

I have been so happy with my Severn House covers (books 11,12, & 13 so far), and this is no exception. Evocative, enticing, mysterious. And the dragon!

In the UK, Blackwells, Foyles, and Waterstones already sport preorder buttons for the book on their websites! Preorders help the bookshops, the publisher, and the author, and assure you that you will be first in line for a copy. Thank you so much for your support!

Shop Talk: using Clothing To Shape Story and Character

A Conversation with Dr. Laura F. Hodges

In Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue (DS Brewer 2000), Laura Hodges presents in wondrous detail how in “Chaucer’s descriptions of textiles, as well as styles, garments, and accessories worn by his pilgrims… [he] weaves a web of costume signs and fabricates characterizations.” (3) Laura knows something about using clothing to enhance a text, and that is why she has been my go to person regarding medieval clothing ever since we met. The following is an attempt to encapsulate years of rich conversations with Laura and her written thoughts about how those of us writing historical novels might emulate medieval writers to enhance our work.

Our first collaboration concerned gloves. For The Cross-Legged Knight (Owen Archer 9), I needed an item a tawyer might make with the small hides he prepared, an item sufficiently unique that it could be traced back to him, making him a suspect. Laura suggested gloves for all they would suggest about the owner and the circumstances in which they were found. Gloves had meaning? She recommended Gloves, their Annals and Associations by S. William Beck, published in 1883. I hunted it down online, ordering it from a small shop in the UK. It is a treasure I still hold dear, crammed with the history and lore of the glove. “In the history of dress, gloves stand out distinct, unique. True, some other garments have had part and lot in material affairs, and have been made indicative of weightier matters than mere wear and tear…in every several respect in which [other items of clothing] have been the outward and visible sign of hidden things, Gloves have outweighed them.” After an extensive history of the glove he provides chapters on gloves as pledges, gages, gifts, and favors. As I worked through this delicious tome, Laura helped me design the gloves.  From The Cross-Legged Knight: “Tucked at the back of the shelf was a delicate pair of gloves, made of butter-soft leather. …Tooled leather, with jet beads on the outer wrist of each…” Costly. Unique. They told a tale, not only becoming an integral part of the plot, but also tying together several themes and subtly enhancing the characters.

I leaned on Laura even more while writing The King’s Mistress, with Alice Perrers being the daughter of a cloth merchant, and marrying another. When she went to court, I wanted Alice to use her background to help dress the queen. Clothing was part of setting, character, and filled with symbolic meaning in the book. I would not have dared use it as such a strong theme without Laura’s guidance.

So I’ve recently engaged Laura in an extended conversation about how she moved from her work on the clothing in medieval literature to making suggestions for modern fiction.

Laura: I begin with the premise that in a work of fiction no description of costume should be gratuitous or a cliche’.  Each detail of literary dress should serve one or more purposes, be informative, and be capable of inviting interest.  The obviously seductive “Lady in Red” does well enough for a popular song title, but, standing alone, is trite and too obvious for modern fiction.  And when that fiction is set in the Middle Ages, the author needs to know a lot more about the color red than that it is an eye-catching hue.

William Langland (PP.B, Passus 2, l. 15) gives us the maid Mede in a “robe … full riche, of red scarlet engreyned.”  She is a lady in red for sure but also a good deal more.  Mede wears a “robe,” diction that shows up most often today in the term bathrobe, but which in the Middle Ages is not a single garment, but an ensemble worn at home and for social occasions, comparable to a dress or suit, topped by a cloak and hood.  Because “scarlet” is actually the name of a medieval fabric, the most expensive woolen woven in the 14th century, and because the fabric might have been dyed any color, Langland is not redundant in specifying red, as the actual choice.  But he is yet more specific in supplying the dye stuff used in the adjective “engreyned.”  He signifies here that Mede wears a most expensive robe of scarlet wool that is dyed with the most costly of red dyes, Kermes or Cochineal, derived from insects (Hodges, Chaucer & Costume, 175, n.57), as opposed to any number of cheaper red dyes, such as madder, available to cloth makers of the period.

The line is part of a tour de force costume depiction that epitomizes and allegorizes conspicuous consumption, excess, what Robert of Brunne, in Handlyng Synne, calls “Harlot’s attire” (ll.  3449-54).  Each detail in Langland’s poetic lines supports and illuminates this meaning to such effect that the narrator viewer of this array declares himself to be ravished:  “Hire array me ravysshed; switch richesse sauz I neuere” (l.17).

The fan of economic prose, perhaps, cannot imitate this reveling in riches that allegory enjoys.  Still he/she should note that the passage lacks repetition, indeed celebrates variety, even in its overload of details which elaborate excess.

Candace: You reminded me recently of a Marie de France tale, Le Fresne, in which a piece of embellished fabric identifies a child given away shortly after birth. What other examples are there?

Laura: The author of historical fiction can make an item of costume and/or fabric essential to the plot.  In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the “broche of Thebes” (II. 1370-71)  is such an item.  Criseyde gives this brooch as a pledge of her love to Troilus, marking a significant step forward in the trajectory of their love.  For Criseyde the brooch provides an allusion to her family history and gives warning to both Troilus and readers of this story that tragic consequences form the context of this family keepsake.  Later, when Troilus gives a keepsake jewel to Criseyde before her departure from Troy, and then finds that she subsequently bestowed it upon the lover, Diomede, who succeeds him, this romantic betrayal signals the most cruel, cutting end of Criseyde’s love for Troilus (V, 1040, 1660-90; Hodges, Chaucer and Array 75-78, 83, n.75).

Candace: As with my pair of gloves in the mystery as well as a number of clothing items in The King’s Mistress, much of the story is in the details. 

Laura: I agree. The medieval author of romance often enough provides an exotic and quite revealing provenance for the materials used in their characters’ costumes, a practice that might be useful today.  For example, note Benoit’s description of Briseida’s traveling ensemble as she leaves Troy:  it is made of enchanted fabric, produced through enchantment in “India the Great.”  Its colors are five or six times as bright as a normal lily. Such exaggeration of color indicates the depth of its dyeing process and consequent high value of the finished product.  Further, in the patterns woven into the fabric, there are seven colors used to picture all the beasts and flowers of the world. The provenance includes the source of the fabric: a gift from a wise Indian magician, a fellow teacher with Briseida’s father Calchas, who honored Calchas with this priceless treasure.

Briseida’s cloak made of this fabric is lined with Dindialos fur described as having no seams (seamlessness being a special characteristic, indeed, as it is a feature of Christ’s tunic).  In addition, the Dindialos is most difficult and dangerous to hunt, thus rare to capture. Still hunters risk death to acquire this very large beast for its exceptionally perfumed and uniquely colored fur, characteristics found nowhere else.  It makes an exotic lining for an enchanted fabric cloak — a magical bedecking of Briseida as she departs Troy to join Calchas, her seer father. These details reflect splendor on her as her father’s daughter, on him as the acquisitor and then giver of such a garment, as well as provide background information about their wealth, education, and worldly status.

The description is highly self conscious, meant to be ornamental and significant.  In this dress Briseida presents herself to the Greeks, her new hosts.

Candace: Any other thoughts about how to use clothing in historical fiction, especially set in the middle ages?

Laura: Modern authors might, as does Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde, include a major costume sign at each significant plot turning, constructing and deconstructing the sign pattern, as he does, as the plot rises and falls. But no one should sprinkle such signs about indiscriminately. Medieval literary garments regularly carried volumes of literary and allusionary meaning, a fact that writers of historical fiction should know and might imitate judiciously. 

The King's Mistress German edition

And I would suggest that the writer of modern historical fiction should never pass up an occasion to include a depiction of an iconographic costume. A primary example is that of Alice Perrers as “Lady of the Sun.”  Such a costume was actually worn by Alice and mentioned in chronicles, but never described.  Chroniclers do describe textiles and costumes when they wish to add luster to, or convey richness of staging to an event they are recording.  They appear to delight in the details.  But no extant medieval chronicle, or wardrobe account, describes Alice’s Lady of the Sun costume.  And why not?

It had to have been an outrageous public display of King Edward III’s mistress, arrayed in a king’s ransom, to properly portray the allegorical importance of the Sun. Such royal favor, displayed so blatantly, was scandalous and won Alice no friends at court. It was noteworthy in chronicles, but no details were provided. However, you as a modern author of historical fiction could and did remedy this lack.  What might the Lady of the Sun wear?

Candace: Correction, we remedied this lack. I recall how you kept returning to refine the description. I merely shaped the words and Alice’s emotions. Here, in Alice’s internal thoughts, is the description in The King’s Mistress

“When all was ready I stood in awe of the robes, the sheer spectacle in which I was to be one of the central figures. My gown, like Edward’s, was cloth of gold. The background, or warp threads, were red silk and the foreground, or weft threads, were the most delicate gold wire. Red was for the rubies associated with the sun. Once cut and fitted, our gowns were embroidered with gold thread, sunbursts surrounding balas rubies and diamonds, which were also emblematic of the sun. Even my mantle was of cloth of gold, caught in back to free my shoulders and reveal the lining, the reverse of the gown, gold background with red foreground. From my neck to the low-cut top of my bodice, I wore gold tissue so fine as to be almost invisible, sprinkled with large rubies and diamonds set in gold sunbursts, as if even my flesh were transformed. For once I might feel like his queen as I stood by Edward’s side.

“On the morning of the procession my heart beat so fast I felt faint, all my earlier misgivings returned. It did not help that the elaborate headdress, of gold tissue built up to create a sunburst around my head, had to be firmly fastened to my hair, which was coiled beneath, to prevent it from taking flight. I felt the pricks whenever I made a sudden movement. Gwen needed six assistants to dress me. My hair, skin, everything, was covered in gold cloth. Finally the women stood back from me, their eyes wide. The sempsters, standing by to make last minute repairs, applauded.”

Laura: Perhaps this costume was even more extravagant than this?  We will never know. It remains a costume that we may only imagine.

Candace: And although historians now question whether the procession actually occurred, I stand firm in believing that it did, and was the final straw for those desperate to wrest Alice from the King’s side.

And therein lies the tale.


Background: Dr. Laura F Hodges is the author of  Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue (DS Brewer 2000), Chaucer and Clothing: Clerical and Academic Costume in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (DS Brewer 2005), and Chaucer and Array: Patterns of Costume and Fabric Rhetoric in the Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde and Other Works (DS Brewer 2014), as well as numerous articles and talks. She received her PhD in English Literature, and a BS in clothing and textiles.


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.


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.” (

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 ( 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?