Background on A Triple Knot: Joan and Thomas—a few deleted scenes

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Everything about the creative process intrigues me. A colleague once told me that he saves every discarded bit as he works on a book and reviews all of the material with care when he’s doing the last revisions, just to make certain he didn’t reject something because of a mood that he might now find brilliant, just the right phrase, sentence, scene. I thought it an interesting concept until he told me that what he’s discarded by then is at least five times what’s left—so… if the novel is 80k words, that would be 400k discarded words. Intimidating. I save almost everything, early drafts, scenes that I remove but want to save just in case, but I rarely go back to review them, and certainly not at such a late date. I fear the urge to start over.

But once a book is well and truly published, no chance of revising (no no no, don’t revised Triple Knot_cvrremind that with an e-book I could fiddle forever), I enjoy taking a peek. Before I came up with one of my favorite early scenes in A Triple Knot, in which Joan meets Thomas on the deck of the ship taking her to Antwerp, I had introduced Thomas, and Joan’s interest in him, with this scene. So the brief dialogue is Joan of Kent, then Thomas Holland.

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“Sir Thomas! Have you caught any thieves of late?”

“Alas, you witnessed my last great moment, my lady.”

Several months earlier, another of the household guards, Sir Roland, had escorted Joan to the market in Antwerp, and as they’d watched the crowd she’d noticed a bold young thief slipping in and out among the chattering folk, growing in girth beneath his loose jerkin as he’d made his way toward a clutch of her escort’s fellows in the king’s household guard. Quietly a small dagger disappeared from one guard’s belt, but as the thief reached toward another his wrist was rendered immobile by Sir Thomas. Joan had noticed Holland before, darkly handsome with a way of smiling that spread slowly from a subtle widening of his mouth until the skin crinkled on either side of his laughing eyes, and a walk just loose enough in the hips to call attention to that part of him a woman tried not to notice. He’d pulled the boy close and spoken quietly to him, words which she could not hear, and once the lad returned the dagger to his victim Thomas had escorted him to the church just beyond, where, she later learned, he convinced the lad to donate his spoils to the church.

______

Not bad, but I much prefer the shipboard scene in the published version.

In an earlier draft (much longer than the final version), I made more of the similar fates of Joan’s and Thomas’s fathers. It was something they had in common, but such an emotional topic that they wound up arguing about the similarities in this abandoned scene:

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Thomas kept telling himself it was the bond he felt with Lady Joan, the tragedies of their fathers, that made him feel so protective of her. Yet that bond was the one thing they had argued about.

She’d been telling him what she’d learned about the various squares through which they walked on their way to the Van Artevelde house. “Father would have enjoyed this city,” she said. “Mother said he enjoyed learning about new places, exploring them.”

She’d never mentioned her parents to him before. “Did you know your father? It is said that your mother was with child when your father was executed.”

“Murdered. He was murdered.”

Thomas wished he could take back the question. By her tone he knew he’d entered forbidden territory. But he had asked.

“Forgive me. Murdered. By the Earl of March.”

Her nod was more of an irritated snap. “It was my brother John who was born after Father’s murder.”

“So you remember your father?”

Her expression softened a little. “They tell me that as I was not yet four years old when he was taken from us I cannot really remember him. But I have a clear memory of my parents singing together, Mother’s high voice carrying the melody, Father’s supporting her from below. I remember how Mother’s head bent over her lute and Father watched her, singing to her. Mother was admired for her voice and her skill with the lute, but she has not sung since Father’s murder. I do remember both of their voices.”

Thomas could not think what to say, how to honor such a glimpse into her heart, her pain.

“And you? What do you remember of your father?” she asked.

“He was large, loud, and had a clever wit. And like your father, he was no traitor.”

She’d reacted to that with a wince only someone watching her as intently as he did, and as sensitive to the slander against his father, would have noticed.

“Like your father, mine changed his mind for the good of the realm.”

“Not the same thing.” Joan made a little face. The small gesture showed him the possibility of disliking her. Perhaps she was not so different from the other Plantagenets.

“I should have thought your experience would have made you wary of judging others,” he said.

“My father was defending his brother. He tried to save him. To do the honorable thing.” Her face had become quite flushed and her breath shallow. She was angry.

So was he. “And not mine?”

She looked away.

“What have you heard?”

“He betrayed the lord who raised him up.”

“He chose his king over the lord who wished to overthrow his sovereign.”

“A belated switch.”

Thomas could not hold his tongue. “As with your father. Until his half brother fell, the Earl of Kent supported Isabella and her damnable Mortimer.”

“He did not! How dare you!”

Her face blotched with anger, she’d been an unlovely thing.

Thomas had growled. “Why did I think I might befriend someone from your house? God’s blood I’ve been a fool.”

She’d apologized later that day, and they’d spoken of it no more. But he’d seen her pride. He should remember that when his foolish hope took hold.

______

white hartHm… I still enjoy that argument. In this earlier version of Joan and Thomas they remind me of Lucie Wilton and Owen Archer, from my crime series. Lucie’s prickliness when they first met.

PS: For e-book readers in the US, A Triple Knot is on sale for $1.99 from 22 Feb to 8 Mar 2015!

A Writer’s Voice

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Rainwater-dripping-on-the-windshield__37335-480x320Driving through the city in the rain, listening to Tom Waits’s Blue Valentine, I thought, that voice–no one sounds quite like him. Critic Daniel Durchholz described Tom’s singing as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Perhaps. Yet I take delight in it, and so do millions of fans. How did he know that his unusual voice would appeal? Did he? Or did he just belt it out because of his love of singing?

Rain blurring my windshield, I was grateful that Tom Waits believed in his unique voice so that I could enjoy his company as I negotiated the slick city streets. And I thought about how of late I feel more relaxed about my own “voice,” the one in which I write. It’s a tricky business, finding, then being comfortable with our own voice. So often we stall out with the unskillful, unhelpful, undermining habit of comparison. Our uniqueness is our gift, particularly in the arts. But in moments of self-doubt that very originality is what we call into question.

I read my work aloud as I go along, listening for sour notes, the wrong rhythm, a minor key when the context calls for a major, an abrupt sound in what’s otherwise soothing. Louis Menand describes this so well:  “What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time….  What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice–except that it comes out as writing.” (“Introduction: Voices.” The Best American Essays 2004. Houghton Mifflin 2004)

Three incidents inspired this little essay: listening to Tom Waits, a conversation with my husband about Margaret Atwood (I’ll return to this), and reading a poem by Luci Tapahonso, the poet laureate of the Navajo nation, particularly this verse:
“When you were born and took your first breath, different colors
and different kinds of wind entered through your fingertips
and the whorl on top of your head. Within us, as we breathe,
are the light breezes that cool a summer afternoon,
within us the tumbling winds that precede rain,
within us sheets of hard-thundering rain,
within us dust-filled layers of wind that sweep in from the mountains,
within us gentle night flutters that lull us to sleep.
To see this, blow on your hand now.
Each sound we make evokes the power of these winds
and we are, at once, gentle and powerful.”
(from “Sháá Áko Dahjiníeh: Remember They Things They Told Us,” published in Saánii Dahataal: The Women are Singing, University of Arizona Press)

My voice arises from my life, all that I have lived, all that has touched me. Sometimes I notice borrowed rhythms in my work. In a graduate seminar in literary stylistics I worked with Anne Sexton’s book of poems based on fairy tales, Transformations, memorizing many of the poems. Their rhythms became a part of my own rhythm, and they arise now and then in my own writing, particularly in wry asides. The cadence of the repartee between the eponymous antiheroes in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shows up at times when I’m writing dialog; I have seen the play, read the play, and watched the film so many times that, this, too, has become part of my own rhythm. I know authors who say they refrain from reading anything but research when they’re working on a novel so that they don’t absorb someone else’s voice. I applaud them, but I don’t follow suit. I love reading far too much to deny myself the pleasure. I’ll take the risk.

Which brings me to the conversation about Margaret Atwood. After rereading Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake for the third time, my husband decided to move on through the two books that follow. As he was reading After the Flood he kept saying, “I can’t wait until you read this. I want to discuss it!” I love discussing books with him, so while he’s reading MaddAdam, I’ve finally begun Oryx and Crake. We can’t discuss much yet–I don’t want to know what’s coming. But we can talk about the sense we both share of Margaret Atwood’s enjoyment bubbling up from the pages. Not that these are cheerful books. But we both sense her absolute engagement in and deep enjoyment of her work. What a gift to her readers.

That’s part of a writer’s voice as well, and certainly nothing than can be taught. But oh, we know when we hear that sincerity, that authenticity, that delight, don’t we?

 

 

 

Why I Do What I Do

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In case you missed it, Michael Evans recently interviewed me for the Medievally Speaking blog. He caught the flavor of the exchange so well in the title, using a quote from one of my responses: “My fiction is the natural outgrowth of my fascination with the times.” So true!

You can read the entire interview here: http://medievallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2015/01/my-fiction-is-natural-outgrowth-of-my.html

I’ll be exploring some of the issues that arose more fully here. Stay tuned!

And, in case you’ve forgotten who Michael Evans is, here’s a link to the Q&A he did for my blog: https://ecampion.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/interview-michael-evans-on-the-mythic-eleanor-of-aquitaine/

Delight in Community

Looking back on 2014, I want to thank you, my wonderful readers and contributors, for such a lively and enjoyable year on A Writer’s Retreat! I didn’t expect blogging to be fun–but the sense of community you bring to it makes it so.

Toward the end of December WordPress creates an annual overview of activity on my blog. Some highlights: “A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.” Not sure about that particular comparison, but the numbers are nice! And “The busiest day of the year was December 23rd with 118 views. The most popular post that day was ‘Q&A with Paul Strohm, author of Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury.’ ” Very satisfying.

But that post was only the 4th most read post for the year. For the second year in a row,
#1 was a post from July 2010, shortly after I started the blog: Lincoln green and Robin Hood.
#2, my interview with Michael Evans, The Mythic Eleanor of Aquitaine, celebr15228ating his new book, Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
#3 was The Beguines of Medieval Paris, a guest post by the author of that book, Tanya Stabler Miller.
#4 the Q&A with Paul Strohm,
and #5 was Background on The King’s Mistress, also from July 2010.
Hm, the second month of my blog was rather stellar!

The blog has been viewed by readers in 79 countries, the greatest numbers from the US, UK, and Italy.

Looking forward, I have already approached several guest bloggers, and hope to host even more than last year. My mission is to spread the word about what scholars in the fields I mine for information and inspiration are up to, primarily in womeUS trade paperbackn’s history, but not exclusively.

And what else? What you would like to read about here regarding writing,  medieval history, folklore, literature, women? My goal is to complete two crime novels this year, so I can’t promise I’ll get to everything you suggest, but I’d love to see your ideas!

Shoptalk: Use the Energy That’s Present

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Welcome to a new year on A Writer’s Retreat!

I’ll be back with a longer post later this week, but do check out my essay published in Biographile’s “Write Start” series. I was fortunate to meet a wise,  perceptive dharma teacher as I was tackling the first draft of The King’s Mistress, a project I’d been stalling over for a long while. In this essay I share her simple advice that turned fear into joyous engagement.

http://bit.ly/1u2RwdK

Q&A with Paul Strohm, author of Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury

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It is my great pleasure to welcome Paul Strohm to A Writer’s Retreat for a Q&A about his new book Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (Viking 2014).

9780670026432MA little background: Paul  has taught medieval literature at Columbia University and was the J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. You’ll find a list of his books embedded in the following interview. Chaucer’s Tale is a microbiography of Chaucer that tells the story of the tumultuous year that led to Geoffrey’s creation of The Canterbury Tales. In 1386, Chaucer was swept up against his will in a series of disastrous events that would ultimately leave him jobless, homeless, separated from his wife, exiled from his city, and isolated in the countryside of Kent—with no more audience to hear the poetry he labored over. This is the story of what he did about that, and how he came to that decision.
Q (Candace): You seem comfortable moving between medieval literature and medieval history in your writing, your works often a unique mixture of the two (thinking of Social Chaucer, England’s Empty Throne, and, of course, Chaucer’s Tale). Did you begin your studies with the dual interest, or did the literature lead you to a curiosity about the history?

A (Paul): Well, I was an undergraduate history major but kept wanting to write about literature and so I switched to English for graduate school. But I kept coming across questions in literary texts that seemed to require some historical knowledge for an answer. I’m a great believer in the pressures the world beyond the texts exerts on the text–expressed not just in the kinds of factual things you footnote, but also on textual deformations and even on the text’s whole configuration. History’s effects are sometimes veiled–I talk about its influence on the text as an “absent pressure,” but it’s still there.

Q: Your subtitle succinctly summarizes your thesis. Because of a confluence of events in 1386, Chaucer wound up living in the Kent countryside, far from the stimulations of London and his familiar audience. And that’s where he began writing The Canterbury Tales in earnest. Which came first, your curiosity about why he chose to write such a collection of tales toward the end of his career, or your awareness of what an annus horribilis 1386 was for Chaucer?

A: I was initially interested in what a terrible year it was, that practically everything that could go wrong went wrong for him. But then I asked, how did he handle it? And that’s when it dawned on me that at the end of this year he began the Canterbury Tales, and I started looking for a connection. The absence of his customary audience and the importance of his invented one is where I went with that.

Q: Chaucer the royal esquire, controller of customs, member of parliament, and husband of Philippa Swynford comes off as a bit of a sad sack in Chaucer’s Tale. For example, wrapping up the chapter “The Wool Men,” which chronicles business antics rivaling anything we read about today, you conclude that: “a balanced view of Chaucer’s performance in office [controller of customs] would have him neither as a hero nor a villain but as a man who kept his head down, an enabler. ” (p. 136) Is this what you expected to see when you started looking into his career in the customs? Were you surprised, disappointed? How has this deep research affected how you read Chaucer?

A: He was more of a survivor than an ethical hero. But that’s what we would want from him, isn’t it? That he survive, to write those wonderful poems! Maybe the first obligation of a great artist is to find ways to keep making art.

Q: Chaucer was writing in an environment as uncertain as the one in which we write today. As you note: “The 1380s were a crucial decade for literary change in England, and Chaucer’s literary situation was as volatile as everything else in his world. New ideas about writing authorship, audience, circulation, and personal renown were in the air. Writing in English—an unusual decision when Chaucer made it in the 1360s—was taking hold, and demand for works in the native language beginning to grow. Technologies of literary circulation were in rapid development, encouraging the copying and circulation of manuscripts to larger and farther-flung audiences. Chaucer’s literary contemporaries were beginning to think differently about claiming credit for their work. Taken together, these developments began to suggest new ways of being a writer, new stagings of a literary career. (p. 185)” So I just have to ask, did you find his solution, “to maken vertu of necessitee,” encouraging in your own approach to the changing environment we face today?

A: For Chaucer, the idea of an anonymous audience out there reading his work and forming conclusions about it when he wasn’t there to gauge response was extremely unsettling. You can see that at the end of Troilus, when he realizes that he’s written a poem with a potential for more general circulation and goes kind of haywire about the whole thing, troubling himself about scribes miscopying it, and praying (although not very hopefully) that it be properly understood. He was accustomed to a more intimate author-audience situation. Of course everybody then got used to absent and anonymous audiences in the age of print. But now electronic circulation is throwing the situation up for grabs in another way. In the era of the bound book, an entire apparatus of publishing houses and print advertisements and respected book reviewers played a role as cultural go-betweens, directing books toward the audiences most likely to appreciate them. Now, with the internet and e-books and readers encouraged to do their own pop-up reviewing, it’s more of a free-for-all. Everybody has a say, or can have a say if they want one. You can bet I’m taking some nervous looks at Amazon and Goodreads reader reviews, and that’s a factor that didn’t exist five years ago.

Q: Who is your audience? is a question I asked of my students in freshman comp, the scientists and engineers I edited in a laboratory, and my creative writing students, and that my editors ask of me. Until Chaucer’s exile to the Kent countryside his audience had been Londoners and perhaps the royal court. Suddenly, he had no audience. When I came to the section “No Audience? Invent One.” I thumped the arm of my reading chair. Yes! Of course! “He will keep on writing—but for an audience of his own invention. Its members will be the vivid portrait gallery of Canterbury Pilgrims—hearers, tellers, judges, and occasional victims—a body of ambitiously mixed participants suitable for a collection of tales unprecedented in their variety and scope. It will live within the boundaries of his work, perennially available as a resource for the telling and the hearing of tales. Above all else, it will be a portable audience…” (p. 227) I confess that I took it for granted that this was a classic arrangement, but of course I can’t think of an example that precedes Chaucer. This is my favorite part of the book, because it drew me back into the tales themselves (which is why it took so long to get these questions to you). I’ll step back and let you elaborate on the brilliance and freshness of this structure, if it please you!

A: Tale-collections were common in the Middle Ages, but the premise was always that they contained one kind of tale: saints’ lives in this collection, comic fables in that one. And they were pretty much targeted toward a uniform sort of reader: devout laypersons for vernacular saints’ lives, noble patrons for arts of rule. Even Boccaccio’s Decameron, the closest precedent to Chaucer’s poem, strives for a kind of evenness in subject matter and delivery, nouvelles told in a kind of agreeable middle style by a socially-uniform group of gentlefolk. Whereas Chaucer mixes it all up: the different kinds of tales, and the socially varied group of Pilgrims who tell them. It’s not likely that any group as varied as Chaucer’s Pilgrims would have assembled in real life, but that’s how he wants it: the broadest imaginable collection of English folk, enjoying the widest imaginable collection of tale-types. It’s more a vision than a demographic or descriptive likelihood, but a wholly uplifting–perhaps irreplaceable–vision. The Pilgrims have their quarrels and problems but they work them out and stay on the road together. Still a pertinent message, I should think.

Q: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

A: Working with the Chaucer Life-Records. All 494 known records of Chaucer’s life have been published and are easily available, but even professional Chaucerians don’t usually spend a lot of time on them. Whereas I feel that almost every little scrap–a reimbursement, a reward, a trip taken, a passport, a lawsuit, a legal testimony–invites narration, bristles with narrative potentiality. So I wanted the book to be evidence-based, and I wanted the reader to share my sense of discovery, of those bits and fragments from which a life-story gets assembled. Biographers sometimes take it upon themselves to conceal the traces of their labor, to announce conclusions about their subjects without lingering over the bits of evidence and the interpretative processes that got them there. I guess I wanted my readers to see the work being done, so they’d see how I got there.

Q: This book feels like a natural extension or sequel to Social Chaucer. Do you see it that way?

A: It, like my earlier Social Chaucer, cares about history, but in a different way. In Social Chaucer and in books like Hochon’s Arrow I let myself linger over the uncertainties of my evidence, over its recesses, its obtuseness, its silences and evasions. But when you’re writing a biography–even a “microbiography” as my publisher calls it–you have to commit to narrative. You can’t endlessly wobble about, was it this way or that way. You have to go ahead and make your best choice and get the story told. And I don’t mind that. It’s a different way of knowing. Narrative–the arrangement of details into a coherent account–is itself a powerful tool of discovery. When you narrate incidents, configure them or string them together, you learn things. One friend who read my book said, “Oh, the Canterbury Tales was exile writing.” That hadn’t occurred to me at all, even when the book was written. But it’s there, in the narrative, something that narrative brings to light and allows you to see.

Thank you, Paul, and congratulations on the publication of Chaucer’s Tale!

 

Meeting a New Character

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I’m surfacing after being immersed in getting to know a character who just might start off a new series. I thought I had her, and then she dove down beneath my awareness, leaving a wake that eroded much of what I’d written. What had happened? As I sat with questions questions questions, I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. A memory. An aspect of her life I had written, then rejected as too complicated. Another flash of movement. Not a memory this time, but a piece of clothing with deep significance. I began a scene in which she donned the clothing and discovered a secret about something I’d already written. Patience, deep listening, a willingness to let go of what didn’t fit and pick up what seemed to resonate, though I didn’t yet understand why. Piece by piece, step by step, I redid the chapters. That’s where I’ve been.

Some Engaging Narrative Histories

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Until recently I’d never thought about writing historical novels as an extension of what is known as microhistory. Some examples of microhistory you might know are The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (Harvard University Press, 1984) and Montaillou (Penguin reprint, 2002) by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, two of my favorite such books. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend them—the first recounts a 16th century case of identity theft, the second is about a village in southern France caught up in the Cathar heresy. In both books, the authors use the historical record to chronicle the lives of common folk in a moment of crisis or controversy. It’s not so different from the aim of a novelist writing about a particular moment in history, though perhaps we (novelists) are as likely to focus on the powerful as on the common folk. Even so, in essence where we diverge is in how we write the tale—the microhistorian stays with the facts, fleshing them out only insofar as there is evidence to do so; the historical novelist takes the facts and fashions a story connecting the dots, creating fictional characters to fill the void, adding depth to actual historic figures with educated guesses. In my crime novels, I fashion stories that I feel are plausible given my research, and though I do include some actual figures, most of my characters are my invention, using characteristics and often basic storylines and lifelines encountered in my research–so in these I diverge even more from the microhistories, and yet I feel a stronger kinship with the writers of the genre than when I’m writing about royalty and the royal court.

I’ve been thinking about this while reading a recent publication in this genre, A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner by  Steven Bednarski (University of Toronto Press, 2014). I had the great good fortune to review it for the Medieval Feminist Forum. The story: On a fateful day in 1394, Johan Damponcii ate his breakfast in the company of his wife, friends, and servants, then went out to work in the fields, where he fell ill, stumbled home, withdrew to his bed, and died in mid-afternoon. BEDNARSKI_POISONED_frontAlmost immediately a rumor spread through the town (Manosque, Provence) that his young wife, Margarida de Portu, to whom Johan had been wed only a few months, had either poisoned him or killed him by sorcery. The rumor was spread by her in-laws, or, more specifically, her late husband’s half-brother Raymon Gauterii, a litigious citizen of Manosque who happened to be a notary. The book recounts not only the murder trial but the ongoing litigation between Raymon and Margarida; Raymon is quite the character, and Margarida a strong woman, a survivor. Or so it seems in this author’s interpretation of the records. What is special about this book (beyond a great story and fascinating background material) is that Steven Bednarski interrupts himself throughout the book “to interrogate how we know what we think we know about Margarida and her world…” and suggests how someone with a specific interest—perhaps in the history of law or gender history—might arrive at quite a different interpretation. (xvii) Novelists, historians–we all bring our own predilections to our interpretations of the historical record.

And all along the way Bednarski provides interesting facts. I’ll share one: although the Jewish physician brought in to testify regarding the cause of death concludes that that Johan had a bad heart, and as he found no evidence on the corpse of poisoning—swollen lips or tongue, swollen or protruding eyes—he concludes that Johan died not of poisoning but of a heart attack. However, he does not entirely exonerate Margarida. Concerning Margarida’s epilepsy, which, in that culture at that time was considered a curse sent by God, Vivas Josep explains that “Johan had married a tender virgin with whom, after two months, he still could not copulate because of her illness. He was, therefore, extremely worked up by his unspent passion. Since he could not have his way with Margarida, his lust generated in him an evil melancholy. His pent-up sexual passions accumulated and produced a Syncope, which turned his hot passion cold and singed him. Unhealthy humors formed and twisted around his heart, changing its complexion.” The bottom line: Johan’s sexual frustration led to tendrils of unhealthy humors that wrapped themselves around his heart and constricted. Johan died, literally, of a broken heart.” (47)

Raymon Gauterii failed to mention Margarida’s medical condition in his accusations, a condition that often left her quite debilitated. But the other witnesses filled in the details—the Jewish physician, the midwife, Raymon’s sisters, neighbors, the deceased’s servant. All of these villagers are wonderfully individual and their voices enliven the text. Can you tell I enjoyed this book?

So now you have three more books to add to your pile of to-be-read. Actually, I’m reading another book that could be classified a microhistory, Paul Strohm’s Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (Viking 2014). It’s just out–and Paul’s graciously agreed to a Q&A on this blog. So watch this space!

On This Day of Thanksgiving

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Here in the States we celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November, pausing to count our blessings. I have so much to be grateful for, work to engage me, nature to inspire me, remarkable scholars to shine a light on a period of time that intrigues me, readers who enjoy my work, family and friends and colleagues (and a feline) who buoy my spirits and share my life, the witch hazel that has burst into tiny yellow blossoms outside my office window, and all of you who follow my blog or pop in from time to time. For all this and much much more, I am grateful.

I am grateful, too, for the books of PD James. As you know, I just spent a month or more savoring her book Talking About Detective Fiction, and learning this morning of her death I felt as if I were receiving the news of a beloved house guest’s demise.  I’ve spent the past few hours reading the tributes popping up everywhere. I needn’t repeat them. But I’d like to share my favorite quote, one that echoes my own feelings about my work:

I think while I am alive, I shall write. There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too.

Thank you, all of you, for sharing the art of storytelling and the Middle Ages with me.

The Benefit of Feline Companionship

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After a deadline push I always feel a bit at sea, at odds with myself, uncertain what to tackle next. I felt it when I sent off the final proofs of A Triple Knot in late winter, I feel it now having just send off a proposal for a new series, including 3 chapters of the first book.

the white rabbit outside my window is all about deadlines

the white rabbit outside my window is all about deadlines

I have two fairly immediate deadlines, a book review for the Medieval Feminist Forum (a wonderfully engaging microhistory about a poisoning case in medieval France–more about that in a later post) and an essay for a Random House site about how I begin a project. And then, of course, there are the two crime novels I’m writing, an Owen Archer and the first in the proposed new series. I’ve also neglected the annotated bibliography that will reside on this blog as a companion to my published novels, providing background material for those who would like to explore more about the history and/or for those teaching one of my novels in a class. So much to do!

That’s the problem–too many choices. I was jumping from one to the next, accomplishing little other than creating chaos in my office. I’d made towering piles of books that are now threatening to slide off the top of my desk and the windowsill bookcases and spook my cat Ariel, who has just begun to spend time in my office, finally filling the void left by my beloved Agrippa. (She’s preferred the upstairs.) This is not the time for avalanches.

IMG_0070Fortunately, she took matters into her own hands this afternoon, settling on my lap while I was browsing in the first volume of The History of Parliament: The Commons 1386-1421 (J.S. Roskell, Linda Clark, Carole Rawcliffe, Alan Sutton 1992). I resolved to sit still as long as she wished–else she might not do it again. My reading extended a bit over 1 1/2 hours, during which time I read the introductory material and the specific background on York, all of which provided helpful insight into York politics in Owen and Lucie’s time as well as at the turn of the century (14th-15th), which is the period in which I open the proposed series. What a gift Ariel presented me–focus, stillness. After she departed, I pulled out my notes on both novels and added the insights I’d gleaned. Now to arrange the piles on bookshelves so that they won’t disrupt Ariel’s sleep. A good afternoon’s work.

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