Questioning Reputations

Fed Ex just delivered copies of the Broadway trade paperback of The King’s Mistress. Out this coming Tuesday, 24 May! My editor’s handwritten note ended “Here’s to a whole new life for her!”

Whole new life. Fresh look. That’s what appeals to me in questioning reputations. With Alice Perrers, I saw again and again “greedy” “ambitious” and thought, okay, but why? What motivated her? What was so worth the risks she took? Once a reputation solidifies, we stop asking those questions. What a loss.

With Joan of Kent it was her confusing marital history that piqued my interest–the long legal battle, the implications for her son, King Richard II. So for A Triple Knot my questions began with What happened here? It’s not just about the rivals  Thomas Holland and William Montague. It’s about the beginning of the Hundred Years War, the execution of Joan’s father, the Earl of Montague’s part in Roger Mortimer’s arrest. It’s also about Prince Edward, who is often portrayed as having been duped by a pretty face. But he’d known Joan all his life. And, considering his record, he hardly seems a man who would be so passive in courting.

Racing toward deadline I’ve been thinking about other reputations that intrigue me –Queen Isabella, the she-wolf, Edward II’s rebellious wife. Did she enter that marriage expecting romance? I hardly think so. Wondering about her expectations, what was the line she drew in the sand.

Who do you wonder about?

Medieval Dissection

Katherine Park, the Samuel Zemurray Jr. and Doris Zemurray Stone Radcliffe Professor of the History of Science, has discovered that dissection was not a Renaissance invention, and, most fascinating to me, that women’s bodies were of greatest interest–so mysterious.

Debunking a myth

My Most Painful Scene (so far)

Avril Field-Taylor wrote recently, “It’s a long time since I cried at the death of a character, but I did at Thoresby’s death in Vigil of Spies.”

In the Author’s Note of Vigil I mentioned the little tricks I used to cheer myself up while writing the book in which one of my favorite characters was dying–a houseful of interesting characters, the country house mystery plot. Even so, when it came time to write the ending scene, I stalled. In fact Joyce, my first reader, called me after reading the full draft to ask where the end was. I assured her she had the entire ms. She assured me that my readers would feel cheated if they were not present at the deathbed for which they’d been prepared throughout the book. I suggested that everyone would be happier if Thoresby died in between books. She sighed.

Another good friend suggested that I meditate on what Archbishop Thoresby meant to me, what significance he’d taken on during my years with him, and then use a ritual to thank him and allow him to pass away.

I realized he’d taken on bits and pieces of many wonderful people in my life, that I’d enjoyed how he sparred with Owen, and that I’d appreciated how accessible he was as a character. I always knew precisely how he’d react, what he’d say, always got him on the first draft, even in the very first scene in which he appeared. I performed my little ritual, thanking him for all this, and assuring him that he would remain in my heart.

Still, I found it an incredibly painful scene to write. I cried all the while.

I still miss him.


As Emma is absorbed in writing The Hero’s Wife and reading Jonathan Sumption’s 3 vol The Hundred Years War (I admit, I’m gulping it down as well–marvelous!), I thought I’d take the opportunity to post a little something.

Funny how little things trigger memories. Seeing a photo of the decorations down the high street of Windsor for Catherine and William’s wedding, I remembered an encounter at a bookstore event in Windsor years ago. A member of the audience rose in the Q&A period to comment on Owen Archer’s personality. I can’t recall precisely what he said, but the essence was–“archers don’t think like Owen Archer does.” Several people in the audience protested or laughed, but I used his comment to talk about one of my missions being to dispel myths about the middle ages including such things as “all archers were [fill in the blanks],” and how I therefore never write about Everyman per se. With Owen Archer (and all my characters) I enjoyed creating an individual, with a unique history, but solidly grounded in the 14th century. The commenter shrugged and sat down. Later, when he handed me a book to sign, he asked me to write, “I’m sorry I published a mystery about an archer first.” I shook my head. “I’m not sorry.” I don’t recall exactly what I wrote, but I believe it was,  “Good luck with your archer.”

But he wasn’t the only one who lumped all archers into a generalization. Not long afterward at a signing in Seattle  a woman approached saying she hadn’t read any of my books so, “Tell me what your archer is like.” I described Owen. She shook her head. “No no no. Archers are all nasty, antisocial jerks.” I asked her if she based that on experience. “You bet. I’ve traveled all over the country to SCA* events and all the archers are jerks.” Well, there you go. Needless to say, she didn’t buy a book.

By the way, I’ve since met someone who is an archer in SCA and she’s anything but nasty and antisocial.

* SCA =  Society for Creative Anachronism

Shop Talk: Patience In Writing Scenes

I’ve been thinking and writing in scenes this week, which brings back memories of Jack Cady.

Once upon a time, before I was published, I became aware that I rushed through scenes, sketching them out like line drawings, with little detail, and never entirely completing them. I decided to take a class in writing the short story. Surely that’s where I’d learn to take my time with each sentence. Jack Cady was teaching it, a writer I’d never read, but it was at a convenient time and place, so I registered. I’ll always be grateful for that leap of faith.

The class met once a week. For the first week he told us to work on one paragraph, a scene, the same paragraph/scene for an hour each day, deepening it, adding detail, thinking about what else we might say about it, what else it could do. And we couldn’t go beyond a page with it, double spaced. At first I thought I’d go mad. But by the end of the week I had learned patience. I’d learned how to embody the scene, be there, experience it, visually, intellectually, emotionally, kinetically. I looked forward to that hour each day.

I’ve been working on a particular, important scene this week (it’s much longer than a page, but I’m also working on it far longer than 1 hour a day), putting it together, sitting back, thinking about how to enrich it, bring it to life. I’ve trashed it a few times and begun again. At first I’d forgotten to set the scene, give my characters a landscape in which to move about, so it was all dialogue. Clever dialogue floating out in space. Little of that dialogue is left, but it’s there in a subtext in my mind. And now my characters are moving about in an environment just detailed enough that a reader can envision it but not get sidetracked by it. Lots of balancing work.

I get high on writing like this. I’m in a wonderful, peaceful space all day. Deep engagement. It’s tough to give myself this space when a deadline looms. But I know that rushing through the scenes isn’t going to help the manuscript. When I’m rushing, I start writing what EM Forster called story: “The king died, and then the queen died.” But a novel calls for a plot, which, according to Forster is: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” Now the why is in there, the heart of the matter.

That’s my problem with Anne Lamott’s theory of the first draft—write anything, just get it down. In theory I agree with this and I really really wish I could work like that. ( I am an Anne Lamott fan.) But when I use that approach I create scenes so sketchily written that on rereading weeks or months later I am left guessing at their significance. I need to go quite deeply into each scene before I move on, fleshing it out sufficiently so that on the next round I see what I was after. Thanks, Jack.

Jack Cady ’s gone now, but his teaching lives on in all the writers who studied with him. More of his gems later.