Review of Perilous Passages published


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My review of Perilous Passages: The Book of Margery Kempe, 1534-1934, Julie A. Chappell (Palgrave 2013) is up on “medievally speaking,” the blog of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism:

Academic sleuthing at its best. You’ll remember Julie as one of my guests on A Writer’s Retreat this past December. Now that I’ve had a chance to spend time with her book I just want to say, Brava, Julie!

Morning Meditation



Early morning. I take my place on my cushion, set the timer, close my eyes, and breathe deeply. Nothing to do but sit. In a while I’ll go down to my office, but not yet. Now I’m simply present. Breathing in, breathing out.

My heartbeat is calm, steady. I begin a slow, gentle scan, relaxing tension in my face, my neck, my shoulders–oh, so sweet. Quiet. So quiet. Such sweet stillness. A jolt of pain in my knee. I imagine I’m sending my breath there to release it. I imagine warmth, space. The pain dissolves

Maybe Owen didn’t say what he said in that scene yesterday. What if he just glanced at Chaucer, a look that silenced his companion?

No, not now. This is my quiet time. Relax jaw. Relax forehead. Breathe.

Does Muriel think her husband’s been unfaithful? Is that why—?

Not NOW. Deep breath in, longer breath out. Breathing in 1-2-3-4, breathing out 1-2-3-4-5-6. Quiet. Stillness. Breathing into the knee.

Oh, this is good. Beatrice’s late husband had a pack of hunting dogs. Dogs she feared.

NOT NOW. Deep breath in, longer breath out. Imagine my mind as vast as the sky. Thoughts are drifting clouds. I just watch them drift by. If the idea is important, I’ll remember it.

But what if I don’t?

Just passing clouds.

That’s just it. Passing. Capture it before it dissolves.

Here’s my problem. Owen Archer, longbowman, captain of archers, blinded in the left eye, now distrusts his aim–that idea came to me while doing a headstand in yoga class. And even though I was able to keep it in my head, elaborating it as I drove home, I always wonder whether I ever would have been published if I’d forgotten the idea by the time I arrived home.

Doubt is tricky–it feels like wisdom.

And it’s a fact that the inspiration comes in the pauses. When my mind eases all effort.

Sprong! What about this?! Hey! Pay attention! This is IT!

I open my eyes, pick up my notebook and pen, jot a few notes, set the notebook aside. Breathing in, breathing out.




The Pestilence Graveyard in London


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From an article in Saturday’s issue of The Guardian:

“Archaeologists and forensic scientists who have examined 25 skeletons unearthed in the Clerkenwell area of London a year ago believe they have uncovered the truth about the nature of the Black Death that ravaged Britain and Europe in the mid-14th century.

“Analysis of the bodies and of wills registered in London at the time has cast doubt on “facts” that every schoolchild has learned for decades: that the epidemic was caused by a highly contagious strain spread by the fleas on rats.

“Now evidence taken from the human remains found in Charterhouse Square, to the north of the City of London, during excavations carried out as part of the construction of the Crossrail train line, have suggested a different cause: only an airborne infection could have spread so fast and killed so quickly.


“The Black Death arrived in Britain from central Asia in the autumn of 1348 and by late spring the following year it had killed six out of every 10 people in London. Such a rate of destruction would kill five million now. By extracting the DNA of the disease bacterium, Yersinia pestis, from the largest teeth in some of the skulls retrieved from the square, the scientists were able to compare the strain of bubonic plague preserved there with that which was recently responsible for killing 60 people in Madagascar. To their surprise, the 14th-century strain, the cause of the most lethal catastrophe in recorded history, was no more virulent than today’s disease. The DNA codes were an almost perfect match.

“According to scientists working at Public Health England in Porton Down, for any plague to spread at such a pace it must have got into the lungs of victims who were malnourished and then been spread by coughs and sneezes. It was therefore a pneumonic plague rather than a bubonic plague. Infection was spread human to human, rather than by rat fleas that bit a sick person and then bit another victim. “As an explanation [rat fleas] for the Black Death in its own right, it simply isn’t good enough. It cannot spread fast enough from one household to the next to cause the huge number of cases that we saw during the Black Death epidemics,” said Dr Tim Brooks from Porton Down.”

Read the entire article here:

And though the scientific conclusions are oddly missing from the text in this SF Chronicle article, the photos are wonderful:


Is the skeleton really Richard III?


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While some argue about where Richard III should be buried, others are still wondering whether the skeleton found in a Leicester carpark is indeed Dickon. In an article posted on BBC’s HistoryExtra online (27 March 2014), Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester, and Martin Biddle, archaeologist and director of the Winchester Research Unit, raise concerns about the DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and damage to the skeleton. Hicks points out that radiocarbon dating of the bones narrows the date of death to a period of about 80 years–not so precise that it can be said with any assurance that the death occurred at the Battle of Bosworth.


Hicks also points out that mitochondrial DNA is traced through the maternal line, so “the DNA match from the Leicester skeleton could equally be the result of the bones being those of someone descended in the female line from Richard’s mother, Cecily Neville, including her two daughters… or the other daughters of Cecily’s mother, Joan Beaufort, any daughters of her grandmother Katherine Swynford, and so on.”

Martin Biddle would like to see the field records from the dig, and suggests that “something akin to a coroner’s court should be set up to consider all the evidence.”

Philippa Langley, who commissioned and paid for the excavation, replies: “Taking a sceptical view is good for vigorous debate, but to say it cannot be claimed ‘with any confidence’ that this is Richard is quite puzzling. Given the totality of the evidence, it can surely be said with considerable confidence.”

In a poll at the end of the article, over 80% of readers express confidence that the skeleton is indeed Dickon.





The Aroma of York–oh my


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So…ever wonder what a ghost smells like? How about rotten eggs? You know, sulfur. Ah. So if you smell rotten eggs your home is either haunted or–at least in the States–you have a natural gas leak. Fire and brimstone (that’s often cited as the origin of the belief that one smells sulfur when visited by a ghost), or potential explosion. Neither terribly appealing.

What does this have to do with York? According to today’s Guardian, the York tourist board has published a guidebook that features the scents of York: “Among the aromas contained within its pages is the smell of York’s antiquities – “a musty infusion of leather, old books, gold, silver, wood and dust”; the city’s Railway heritage – “a nostalgic infusion of coal, steam, engine oil and iron”; and rural Yorkshire – “the scent of fresh wild heather as it grows on the moors”.” And, as I featured, the sulfuric miasma of ghost. Oh, la, I wonder who researched that one!

Think I’m kidding? Here’s the link:

York Minster from the city wall

York Minster from the city wall

I hope they simply failed to mention in the article the truly delightful scent of chocolate, one of York’s biggest industries in the recent past. Now, that’s a scent to lure tourists.

Alice Perrers’s Pearls


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Pearls. Beauty formed as protection for oysters and mussels from tiny stones or grains of sand. Layers and layers of a lustrous substance, nacre. Light reflected from the overlapping layers gives pearls their iridescent luster.

I’ll be talking about The King’s Mistress at a book club tomorrow evening. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been thinking about Alice Perrers and her pearls.

US trade paperbackIn my novel, pearls encrust Alice’s gowns, powder her hair, adorn her hats, her gloves, her neck—most of them gifts from her lover, King Edward. I took artistic license in imagining the occasion of these gifts, but that she had a remarkable collection of pearls is a fact, at least according to the records of the Exchequer: “When the pearls of Alice Ferrers [sic], the mistress of Edward III of England, were confiscated by his successor Richard II, they were appraised in May 1379 as 600 pearls worth 20d each (£50); 1700 pearls worth 10d each (£70 16s 8d); 5940 pearls, worth 5d each (£123 15s); 1800 pearls, worth 4d each (£30); 2000 pearls, each also worth 4d (50 marks); 1380 pearls, each worth 6d (£34 10s); 500 pearls, worth 2d each (£4 3s 4d); 3948 pearls, worth 3d each (£49 7s); 2000 pearls, worth 1 ½ d each (£25); and 30 ounces of pearls valued at £50 gross. Their total value was the huge sum [at that time] of £469 18s 8d.” (Mediaeval European Jewellery, R. W. Lightbown, V&A 1992, p. 30, attributed to  F. Devon, Issues of the Exchequer, London 1837)

That’s 19868 pearls, plus however many were in the 30 oz (I imagine these might have been tiny seed pearls too small to count). So many pearls.

The pearl is not the gem I would have chosen to represent Alice as it was a symbol of purity, and came to be used in medieval literature as a symbol of maidens and maidenhood. Aldhelm describes holy maidens as Christi margaritae, paradisi gemmae  (Pearl, E.V. Gordon, ed., Oxford 1953, p. xxvii).

Brazil TKMBut as I dressed Alice in pearls I imagined how subtly they catch the light, and how the beloved glows from within, how as she and Edward came to know each other they discovered layers upon layers of complexity, and it became for me a fitting gemstone for the story.

In one of my favorite scenes, Alice tells Edward about meeting a pearl merchant as a child. The inspiration from this story comes from Lightbown’s book: “The technique of piercing pearls was already well-known in the West in the early twelfth century: Theophilus recommends the use of a slender steel drill, turned on a lead wheel attached to a shaft of wood and worked by a strap, to make a hole, and for enlarging it a wire and a little fine sand. Oriental pearls often arrived in Europe already pierced, so producing a general belief in the West, in spite of Theophilus and his recipes, that these holes were natural, as Albertus Magnus … records. It was only in the fourteenth century that this legend was finally overset.” (30)

“Scotch pearls” were found in rivers in Wales, Ireland, Cumberland, and particularly Scotland. They were considered inferior to those from the “orient,” but richly encrusting a jacket or gown they must have made a gorgeous display.

Some additional pearl lore: Pearls are thought to give wisdom through experience, to quicken the laws of karma and to cement engagements and love relationships. They are thought to keep children safe. Early Chinese myths told of pearls falling from the sky when dragons fought. Ancient legend says that pearls were thought to be the tears of the gods and the Greeks believed that wearing pearls would promote marital bliss and prevent newlywed women from crying. (from

In Hindu culture, pearls were associated with the Moon and were symbols of love and purity. Hindu texts say that Krishna discovered the first pearl, which he presented to his daughter on her wedding day. Islamic tradition holds pearls in even higher regard. The Koran speaks of pearls as one of the great rewards found in Paradise, and the gem itself has become a symbol of perfection. (from

A Triple Knot Page Proofs Off to NYC!



Oh the joy of sending off the page proofs of A Triple Knot, three years in the birthing! The joy and the terror, actually…. As I handed them over to Jim at the FedEx desk I shivered, knowing that somewhere in that 4 pounds of paper with the purple post-its fringe there lurks a horrible mistake that we’ve all missed. What if I’d kept it one more day? Perhaps I should take it back. He’s asking if it’s a book–well, Random House as the recipient, and using their account number, he would guess that, wouldn’t he? And I hesitate–is it a book? Yet? “Yes,” I said after that brief hesitation, and thanked him for being so pleasant to deal with. He truly is a joy, always smiling and making small talk as he enters all the info, “and we’ll get rid of this 11th floor and put in the mail stop you’ve included, and let’s see whether they have a bulk discount… Yes! No wonder they’re sending this on their dime…” He gives me a moment to breathe. He said I wouldn’t have said he was pleasant if I’d come in the day before, actually 23 hours earlier, when he’d not had lunch by 2:30 in the afternoon. I laughed with him. And felt the tension recede. One human being to another. Thanks, Jim. By the time I walked out the door I was feeling great again.

The Magic and Wonder of Reading


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This passage in Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is so apropos for me and many of the writers I know. And it speaks of the delight of meeting fellow readers–even readers of our books–in person, online, in letters. We readers share wonder–Have you read…? Didn’t you love…? Who’s your favorite character in…? Wouldn’t you love to step through that door and discover…? We learn so much from each other by knowing what we’ve read and loved.

“Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation, and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

“These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. In children’s books there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, and most of all, there are doors….”

These wonder-filled stories gave us the courage to be who we are, didn’t they? I loved E Nesbit–The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Five Children and It, Mary Norton’s Bednob and Broomstick, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (so much that I wrote her a fan letter), Marchette Chute’s The Innocent Wayfaring, fairy tales of all sorts. Well, that’s a start. What were some of your favorite children’s books?


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