Women in Community–& a preview!


, , , , , , , ,

Ever since the Women’s March on Washington I’ve been thinking about the power of women in community.

I’ve been writing about strong, clever, resourceful women throughout my career. Even in the Owen Archer series I surround my male sleuth with strong women–Lucie Wilton, the Riverwoman Magda Digby, Bess Merchet, Dame Phillippa…  But it wasn’t until I was writing the Margaret Kerr novels that I realized how much I believe women’s power lies in their wisdom about the importance of community–in the middle ages and today. That was Margaret’s Achilles heel–even before she left her home in Perth she had no such community. Gradually she learned to appreciate the help of her serving woman Celia, her mother Christiana, her friend Ada, and, as we left her, she was on her way to seek the help of her Great-Aunt Euphemia. Margaret’s path to wisdom and power.

In between writing about Margaret and creating Kate Clifford I became fascinated with the Beguine movement–communities of lay religious women. [See two guest posts about Beguines here and here.]

Service of the Dead KD2b REVYou will recall that toward the end of The Service of the Dead Kate’s mother, Eleanor, arrives in York in the company of three Beguines from Strasbourg. Eleanor returned when she did so that I might use her as the catalyst for Kate’s cathartic outburst at the end. The Beguines are merely her companions. But Dina, Clara, and Brigida move to center stage in A Twisted Vengeance. In the US and Canada it will be published in hardcover and ebook on 9 May. (And The Service of the Dead will come out in trade paperback.) Here’s a sneak preview of the further adventures of Kate Clifford & community.



York, second week in July, 1399

The terror of the dream never abated. She opened her eyes in the dark prison of her childhood bedchamber. Heard his ragged breathing, smelled his breath—cloying sweetness of wine, rancid stench of bile—as he leaned down, reaching for her, whispering of his need, his hunger. She opened her mouth to scream, but she was mute. She struggled to push him away, but her arms were limp, heavy, dead to her.

Why do you not strike him down, my Lord? How can you abide such abomination, my Savior? Are you not my Savior? Is he right, that I deserve this?

It is a dream, only a dream, now, tonight, it is truly only a dream, he is dead, he can no longer hurt me, it is a dream, wake up wake up wake up.

She sat up, panting, her shift clinging to her sweat-soaked body. A noise. Someone moving about on the other side of her door, in the kitchen. Outside her window it was the soft gray of a midsummer night. Who would be moving about the kitchen in the middle of the night? Why had Dame Eleanor lodged her here, across the garden from her sisters, all alone? But they did not know she was alone. They thought Nan, the serving maid, would be here. Perhaps it was only Nan she heard, returning early.

He had sworn that he would find her, rise from the grave and take her, that they were bound for eternity. Whoever it was, they were at the door. The dagger. She slipped it from beneath her pillow. The door creaked open. Not Nan—much too tall for Nan. A man’s breath, a man’s smell. He took a step in. She leapt from the bed, throwing herself on him, forcing him to fall backward into the kitchen. Stabbing him, stabbing, stabbing. Not speaking. Never speak. Never make a noise. He will kill me if I wake the others.

“God have mercy. Have mercy!” he wheezed.

She stopped. This voice was soft. Frightened. God forgive me. It is not him. Not Father.

She dropped her dagger in the doorway as she backed into her room. Heart pounding, fighting the fear and confusion clouding her mind, she dressed, stumbling in her haste. She must think what to do. Berend. He was strong and kind. He would help her. She would go through the gate to Dame Katherine’s kitchen and wake Berend.

She retrieved her dagger. Bloody. Slippery. Wiped it on her skirt. Tucked it in her girdle. Stepped to the door, lifting her skirts to step over his body. But there was no body. God help me!

A hand over her mouth. He spun her round and clutched her so tightly she felt his blood flowing, soaking the back of her gown, the warmth of it. She gagged on the sickly sweet smell of it, like her father’s wine-breath. He dragged her outside into the garden. The great wolfhounds began to bark. Salvation? She struggled, but he did not lose his grip; even when he stumbled he grasped her so tightly she could not breathe. Her feet skimmed the grass, the packed mud of the alley. I am dying.

A jolt. She was pulled free, falling forward.

“Run to the church.” It was the soldier who watched all night from the street. More than a soldier, a guardian angel. He kicked the wounded man in the stomach.

She curled over herself, gasping for breath.

“Get up. Run to the church. Do not stop. Do not look back.” He nudged her, gently. “Run!” Suddenly there were more men. They rushed at her savior.

She rose and ran, her breath a searing knife in her throat and chest, but she ran, ran for her life. She heard the men attacking the soldier, bone against flesh against bone. Surely an angel could not suffer mortal wounds. But she would pray for him. To the church across Castlegate. Door locked. Stumbling round to the side, where the sisters entered. Footsteps coming her way. She fled, and there it was, the door, opening, the candle by the lady altar. She crumpled to the floor, the cool tiles. She stretched out upon them, bloodied, cursed, saved.


If you’d like a chance to win one of three galleys of A Twisted Vengeance, sign up for my publisher’s giveaway on Goodreads (giveaway runs 7 Feb – 7 Mar).

Performing Medieval Music: the Medieval Women’s Choir


, , , ,

As you might recall, the launch for The Service of the Dead at the University Bookstore was graced by members of Seattle’s Medieval Women’s Choir raising their voices in exquisite harmony. I loved the sound and the women so much that I joined the choir in September!

So during the darkening days of autumn I was buoyed by the rehearsals for our join-choirChristmas concert, Monday nights becoming beacons of light, laughter, song, and camaraderie. Our performance in St. James Cathedral on the first evening in December was truly a magical experience for me. Our voices soared, while  musicians accompanied our voices with lively harp, vielle, and percussion. Such a gorgeous venue, and we received a standing ovation at the end. Icing on the cake! (Photo is from a past performance by the choir.)

I’m hooked. I cannot wait for rehearsals to resume in January.

And what a fabulous way to dive into the topic of medieval music. Our choir director, Eric Mentzel, is not only a specialist in early music, but a gifted and congenial musical coach; he is an associate professor of voice at the University of Oregon. Even when he’s correcting us, he inspires laughter and ease. My two favorite quotes from recent rehearsals: “Sing as if we’ve been singing this together in the convent for 40 years”; and, when instructing us in how to build on repetitions in a melisma*,“never repeat, insist.” So evocative. Marian Seibert, soloist and rehearsal director when Eric isn’t available is equally warm and humorous, even when drilling us.

Here’s a link to the choir website if you’d like to learn more about it: http://medievalwomenschoir.org/

6a21f0cfc30f69e020fcd0de044fe169And, yes, I’m sure that as I learn more I will discover a character just waiting to step into York Minster and raise his? her? voice. The minster choir would have been male, but perhaps the nuns of Clementhorpe Priory…

For now, I’m simply enjoying the experience.

Serendipity: This explanation of the medieval origins of the Christmas carol was just posted on the British Library blog!

I welcome recommendations regarding books/articles on medieval music. And if you’re in Seattle in March, come hear us!

* A melisma is a run of notes, quickly sung, on one syllable of text.

Gazing Inward, With Friendly Curiosity


, ,

Our most important writing tool is trust in our own unique vision, our own voice. Stop comparing. Look within. I wrote that in my journal after a friend, a poet, confided that she was experiencing a storm of self-doubt. As I reassured her I smiled to myself, remembering times she’s done the same for me.

Here are some inspiring quotes with a similar message (italics mine):

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient. –Hilary Mantel The Guardian 22 Feb 2010

[When asked, what’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift]: The Professional, by W. C. Heinz. It profiles a boxer before a match in the 1950s. I reread it before taping a stand-up special. Preparing to perform comedy in front of hundreds (or thousands) of people and telling jokes that may or may not make them laugh is just as terrifying as getting hit in the face while boxing. I boxed for a while a couple years back, and the fear of getting punched was a big hurdle I had to get over. But you know what helped? Getting punched. Just one time was enough to learn that the fear of pain is worse than the pain itself. That’s like stand-up. I learned to just get up there and own my jokes. Relax and take the punches. The crowd will forgive you for less-than-perfect jokes, but nobody likes to watch a fearful performer.  –Amy Schumer NYT 8/11/16 By the Book

Wright Morris said that “Writes have an island, a center of refuge, within themselves. It is the mind’s anchorage, the soul’s Great Good Place.”

Paula Fox (Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 181) “I never felt any sort of egocentricity about my writing. I think I felt that it was a dispassionate gift that some force had given me. And I still think that. It’s as if something speaks through me, and then I have to sit up there every day for it to have a place to come and speak through me.”  Also:  “Everything you write is autobiographical, even science fiction, and the planet Ork. In some way even that is a reflection of you—who you are. You write about yourself as if you were a specimen, as if you were a specimen of a human being, and so you write about being human. The only one you really know, reasonably well, in some cases unreasonably well, is yourself.”

“…not only must we wake the sleeper in our self, we must help her enter and reenter the state of wonder.” Jonis Agee (The Daily Beast, “The True Secret of Staying Young,” 13 Aug 16)

Richard Wilbur: “Step off into the blank of your mind, something will come to you.”

October Sunrise

October Sunrise

Mostly importantly, enjoy your own wonderfully crazy imagination. Untether it. Later, you’ll edit.

An Interview, a Talk, a Book Club, a Reading


, , , , , ,

Lithia Park, Ashland, OR

I’m back in my office after a week in Ashland (southwestern Oregon), home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The photo is Lithia Park in the center of town.

Geoffrey Riley got my week off to a great start with a wide-ranging interview on the Jefferson Exchange, a morning show on Jefferson Public Radio, a service of Southern Oregon University. Listen here! He is the sort of interviewer every writer dreams of, so well prepared.

reading-at-bloomsbury-booksAt the Ashland Public Library later that day I talked about the historic Richard II, prelude to an evening performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Christopher Liam Moore’s Richard, though at odds with my own impression of the man, was riveting. Here’s a quote from a review in the Ashland Daily Tidings: “Mr. Moore presents a bewildered and snotty little Richard; a spoiled princeling not nearly ready for prime time. Decked out in assorted hilariously inappropriate outfits (a jester-like crown that doesn’t quite fit the head, a pair of pretentious leopard-print shoes) and seated on a leather Chesterfield throne that is a conspicuous nod to the absurdities of the London gentleman’s club, Moore’s Richard is less a king and more a spoiled and isolated product of the grandiose bubble in which he lives. He makes horrible decisions. He rages against his few remaining loyalists. He irritates, alienates, and discreetly obliterates every sympathetic éminence grise within a 200-mile radius.” I agree. What they don’t mention is his sardonic presentation of the tragic monologue at the beginning of V.v. It will be a while before I can read it with the pathos I usually find in it–his biting, scornful tone is still in my head. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

nightingales-book-clubOn Thursday, I spent the afternoon with members of a book club that meets at Nightingales Inn. They had read The Apothecary Rose and many had also caught my Tuesday morning interview, so they didn’t limit their questions to Owen Archer and Lucie Wilton but were very curious about Kate Clifford. Here we are on the porch afterward.

describing-at-bloomsbury-booksNightingales Inn also hosts a literary salon on Thursday evenings, and afterward a group walked me up to Bloomsbury Books for my evening reading  and talk about my new sleuth Kate Clifford, introduced in The Service of the Dead. Ashland is such a wonderfully literary town.

Huge thanks to my friend Sharan Newman for her hospitality and bloomsbury-books-audiencewonderful cooking, as well as not only setting up all the book events, but also scoring tickets to the sold-out Richard II and to The Winter’s Tale in the outdoor theater (magical).

Tea and Book Talk at the Bellevue Library: Mysterious England (and more)


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I cannot believe it’s September already! A busy month for me. Coming up in a week mysteriour england flyer sep16(10 September), Alice Boatwright, Marty Wingate and I will be at the Bellevue Library, 2-3:30 pm, to talk about our books, our love of England, and serve tea. Check out the poster in a larger format here!

Shortly after that I take off to New Orleans for Bouchercon (World Mystery Convention). Going to be there? My panel is on Thursday, 15 September, 1:30-2:20pm–Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is? with Larry Sweazy, Dana Chamblee Carpenter, Eleanor Kuhns, Laura Joh Rowland, and Verena Rose (moderator). Book signing immediately afterward!

And then, at month’s end, I’ll be in Ashland, OR, where I’ll be interviewed by Emily Curitan at JPR radio; give a talk at the Ashland Library at 2 pm Tuesday, 27 September, The Enigma of the White Hart: Who Was Richard II?; and chat with readers about The Service of the Dead at Bloomsbury Bookstore on Thursday evening, 29 September, 7-8:00 pm. I’ll also be talking to a book club or two and seeing some wonderful theater, especially Richard II (by you-know-who–I mean, this IS Ashland, after all). This full schedule in Ashland is courtesy of my friend and fellow medievalist-in-crime, Sharan Newman. Thanks, Sharan!


My Unruly Characters


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

At first it surprised me that the characters I created in my books chatted and interacted with each other even when I stepped away from my desk. While I weeded the garden, walked with friends, washed dishes, fell asleep, I eavesdropped on Owen Archer, Lucie Wilton, Bess and Tom Merchet, Archbishop Thoresby, Magda Digby… . Occasionally I woke in the morning recalling entire scenes played out in my dreams—some useful, some not. I had never imagined such strangeness when I first tried writing fiction, but I welcomed it with open arms—what writer wouldn’t?! The continuous exposure deepens the characters for me. It’s especially helpful when writing a series in which many characters appear in each book, and some return after long absences. It’s invaluable to me to imagine these people’s lives between their appearances, to glimpse what’s going on behind the scenes.

The Apothecary Rose (Small)As the characters settled in and began to feel as if they were part of my family, they developed autonomy. My first experience with this involved Potter Digby in The Apothecary Rose. He was a fishy smelling weasel of a character in the outline; but Owen listened to him, giving him the chance to reveal his individual moral code. This wasn’t planned. Owen Archer, my creation, took the time to talk to Potter, allowing him to reveal his humanity. I wound up deeply regretting how things were going to turn out for him.

Brother Michaelo, definitely not one of the good guys in The Apothecary Rose, alsoA Gift of Sanctuary (Small) changed my mind. John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, made him his personal secretary in an act symbolic of donning a hair shirt. But, in the course of ten novels, Michaelo developed a respect for the archbishop and a desire to redeem himself. He was a good friend to Lucie Wilton’s father, Sir Robert D’Arby, in his last days (A Gift of Sanctuary). By the tenth book, A Vigil of Spies, Brother Michaelo became a tragic figure—deeply flawed, but honorable and admirable. Just this week a reader messaged me on Facebook urging me to stop Michaelo from leaving York and returning to Normandy.

How does this happen? How did Geoffrey Chaucer, a man who annoys Owen, become his friend? How is it that Owen deeply mourns—well, best not say who, in case you’ve not reached book 10.

A Trust Betrayed (Small) - CopyThis isn’t just about flawed characters becoming lovable. Many of my characters aren’t planned, but arise in a scene and take on an unexpected significance. In A Trust Betrayed, when Margaret Kerr met her uncle’s groom, Hal, he was meant to be part of the scenery, needed for a few scenes but expendable. But Maggie and Hal formed a bond, and he kept stepping up to help her. In A Triple Knot (one of my non-series novels), Joan revised Triple Knot_cvrof Kent’s childhood nurse, Efa, was meant to appear only in memory; but she was just the person to step back into Joan’s life and help her cope with her unhappiness.

Most recently, Sir Elric, a knight in the service of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, popped up in a scene in The Service of the Dead. Kate Clifford was meeting her loathsome brother-in-law Lionel Neville and found he was not alone—not planned, Service of the Dead KD2b REVbut I found myself adding that detail. It occurred to me that it would be fun if Lionel were accompanied by someone who sees right through him, someone he’s desperate to impress. Sir Elric’s was to be brief walk-on role. But the chemistry between Elric and Kate—well, I couldn’t waste that. He’s back in the second book, and the third.

The eeriest one of all happened late one afternoon, just around quitting time. In the midst of an action scene late in The Service of the Dead, Kate pauses at the edge of the road, uncertain which way to go, and a little hand takes hers. I remember lifting my own hands off the keyboard and looking around my office asking, Who is this? It didn’t take me long to figure it out, but, as with Efa, this character was to be someone mentioned, but never met. Now I cannot imagine the series without her.

This is one of the joys of the writing life—I never know who will stride into the scene, or defy me.

Down the Rabbit Hole: interview on The Big Thrill


, , , , , , ,

I’m interviewed in the July issue of The Big Thrill, the monthly publication of International Thriller Writers. George Ebey fed me questions and let me run with them–and I did, dear readers, I did. I talk about how I wound up in Seattle, why I left grad school, and how those choices led to Owen Archer, Lucie Wilton, Margaret Kerr, Kate Clifford, and my life in crime…writing. Come join me down the rabbit hole!

I also talk shop, of course. You know how I love to talk shop. A sample from the interview:

George Ebey: What elements do you feel are essential for a good suspense story?

Me: It is a cruel game we play. We create a sense of danger for characters about whom we’ve made our readers care, then pepper the narrative with life-threatening events and potential antagonists with plausible reasons for doing them harm, all while withholding information until the plot requires it be revealed. If we do our work well, the readers are hopelessly hooked.

NB: The title of Kate Clifford book 2 has changed, so forget what I cited at the end of the interview as the “working title.” I have a much better one.

Point of View: Whiplash!


, , , ,

Service of the Dead KD2b REVI’ve neglected my blog while caught up in completing Kate Clifford #2 and promoting Kate Clifford #1 (The Service of the Dead) at independent bookstores. The manuscript of #2 is now with my agent and a few careful readers, so I’m distracting myself from the nail biting wait for feedback by dusting off this post, begun months ago, and sharing with you some shop talk.

In my essay, “Embodying Medieval Women,” I began with a discussion of point of view. It was on my mind, having had cause to write some notes about the ins and outs of point of view just days before. I wrote in the essay:

I write my novels in the third person subjective point-of-view, which means that I present the narrative from within the minds of several chosen characters, telling the story from their perspectives. I embody them. I become my point-of-view characters as thoroughly as an actor becomes the character she’s portraying.

9780393300505_198I believe it was a literary agent I worked with for a brief time before I was published who urged me to get William Sloane’s The Craft of Writing Fiction and read what he had to say in the chapter “Fiction and the Means of Perception.” Essentially, Sloane says that a reader needs to identify with a character in order to enter the world of the book, and the easiest way for a writer to make this happen is through first person narration—but that’s limiting. He suggests that third person can be just as effective as long as the writer remembers this rule: 1 point of view per book or chapter or scene. “The question one must always ask is, who is the reader being as he reads?…The reader must always understand on any page in any sentence at any word…the nature of his relationship to the story.” That is, from what point of view she is viewing the action. He expands on this point: “With rare and tricky exceptions, there is in successful fiction one and only one means of perception to a scene. This singleness is tremendously important in dialogue, especially when a number of characters are on stage. It is a temptation for the writer to hop into one mind after another as his characters talk. To write successful dialogue the author must have access to the mind of all his characters, but the reader must not perceive any more than he would in real life.” Again, the reader must experience the conversation from the perspective of the point of view character in that scene.

I have found this of tremendous help in my writing, and in helping others polish theirs. It surprises me when I reread some of my earliest books and discover that every now and then I shifted into another point of view at the end of a scene. But maybe that’s all right. I’ve noticed other authors doing that, a bit of a fade out to check another perspective. Rules are helpful, but rigidity can kill creativity.

Being so aware of consistent point of view does cause problems for me when I’m reading for pleasure. The moment a writer begins bouncing around in the heads of the various characters as a scene develops—whiplash!—I’m no longer in the world of the book but wondering whether there’s a reason for inflicting such pain. And once I begin analyzing the writing, the author has lost me. An occupational hazard.

By the way, I highly recommend Sloane’s book.

Shaping the Foundation for the Kate Clifford Mysteries

Patricia Bracewell, author of Shadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood, two marvelous novels about Emma of Normandy (she’s at work on completing her planned trilogy), invited me to write a guest post for her blog, and here it is–I hope you enjoy it!

I’ll be expanding on these topics Tuesday evening, 24 May, 7-8 pm, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (Seattle area), and again at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland on 8 June, 7:30-8:30 pm. Come join me!


The Launch of the Kate Clifford Mysteries…the Video


, , , , ,

For the launch of The Service of the Dead, the first book in my new Kate Clifford Mysteries, I approached a member of Seattle’s Medieval Women’s Choir about performing at the event. Happily, they loved the idea, and the collaboration with them was a dream come true.  As if that weren’t wonderful enough, the University Bookstore created a You Tube video of the event!

And here it is– Enjoy!  Then read the book!