York as Muse


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Here’s a link to a guest post I wrote for the blog, Raven-Haired Girl. I reused a title from a talk I gave at York St. John University six years ago, but that’s where the similarity ends. I had fun with it!


St Mary's mortar & me 001I mention the mortar from St. Mary’s Abbey. Here’s a photo–the beautiful pattern isn’t as clear as I’d like, but you can see the size of it.

Sadly, I didn’t copy edit the post as carefully as I should have. Two typos jumped out at me as I read it the morning it was posted. Can you spot them?

An Appreciation of the Art of Editing


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Editing is an art.

Before I was a published writer, I worked as an editor of scientific and technical publications in a university laboratory. I came to the job without a strong background in the lab’s research area, oceanography, underwater acoustics and polar science, but with a curiosity about how things work, and a skill for seeing patterns. So I would ask questions about an object until I understood it, and questions about the manuscript until I understood what the writer had intended to say, and then helped the author(s) fill in the missing steps so that readers (often administrators who had long been away from hands-on work in the field) could grasp the intention, the process, and the results.

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~  Arthur Plotnik

It might not seem as if scientific and technical papers are written from a fire burning inside the researchers, but you’d be wrong. Those who are passionate about their work devote their lives to small aspects of the larger picture. I respected the people I edited, was often in awe of them–and a bit jealous. I wanted to pour my passion into something of my own, as they did. But mostly I enjoyed the work and found it deeply satisfying.

Editing is the same as quarreling with writers—same thing exactly. –Harold Wallace Ross

I began this post just after I’d finished working with my editor’s first pass on The Service of the Dead, the 1st Kate Clifford novel. This part of the process of writing involves a dialogue with the editor. She calls something out, either questioning it or asking for more information, and I look at the passage, puzzling out whether she just didn’t get it, or I didn’t say what I meant to say, or I skipped a vital point, and, as I read, I often find myself wondering just what I did mean. By this time I have gone over the manuscript many times, and it’s been edited by three careful readers. yet there will still be passages that don’t stand up to a challenge. A good editor teases all this out by asking questions that occur to her as she reads.

Step two: I revise, clarify, then send it back. She reads, still paying close attention to the questions that arise as she reads, because quite often clarifying one passage illuminates a slight problem in another.
Editor: Why hadn’t she considered this?
Author: Oh, good point. Fixed.
Editor (or Author): Uh oh, now that she’s considered that, wouldn’t she do this?
And so it goes, back and forth, until we’re both satisfied. In the process, we develop an appreciation for each other’s dedication to getting it right. That’s a good author/editor relationship, and I’ve been blessed with several, including the current one.

So I don’t agree with the quote from Harold Wallace Ross above. An editor who quarrels with the writer has forgotten that he or she is an advocate for the writer. Or, as James Thurber put it so well:
Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ”How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?” and avoid ”How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?” –James Thurber

My editor and I have now resolved the manuscript. Between the two of us we teased out several subtle but rich threads that were there, but hidden. It’s now with a copy editor.

When I described this process to my husband, he nodded. “You’re writing for the reader; the editor is reading for the reader.” He’s right. As I was for the administrators on whom the lab depended for their funding.

But back to my first statement: Editing is an art. There is nothing simple about reading another’s words and gleaning precisely what it is they mean to say, then helping them add or subtract or clarify in order to allow it do say just that. And how to do this with compassion—the scientists often hated writing, suffered over the first drafts, but (most) knew how crucial it was that the report was not only clear, but communicated the brilliance, the significance of their work. Asking them to rewrite was asking a lot. So, too, with a novelist. Our characters come out of our psyches, we pour our hearts into the work, and a novel is a long undertaking. So the editor must not only be gifted in the art of shaping a story and felicitous language, but must also be perceptive, psychologically astute.

So let’s give editors a hearty cheer for working so brilliantly behind the scenes! Time for you to take a bow!


Two Interviews on the Margaret Kerr Blog Tour


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I’m momentarily distracted by an ongoing, quite heated argument between Kate Clifford and her mother. While I deal with them, I thought you might enjoy reading two interviews that appeared this week as part of Maggie’s tour. In the first, I’m interviewed; in the second my characters are interviewed. Enjoy!



And, in celebration of autumn, a photo of my beloved red bud putting on its annual display of Halloween colors.


Celebrating Owen and Maggie with Virtual Tours


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I’m celebrating the reissue of the Owen Archer and Margaret Kerr mysteries in the US and Canada with two “blog tours” this autumn, one for each series. What is a blog tour, you ask? It’s a form of online publicity, like a traditional book tour except the stops are all virtual. Instead of going from bookstore to bookstore, the author goes from blog to blog–or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that either the author or the books go(es) from blog to blog. The tours are arranged by small businesses who maintain connections with active book bloggers–in my case TLC Book Tours and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. Some of the bloggers review the books, others interview the author or the characters, and occasionally they invite the author to write a guest post. The Margaret Kerr tour extends for two weeks from this past Monday, the Owen Archer extends through mid November–several bloggers are reviewing multiple books.

Here’s a guest post that I wrote before leaving for the world mystery convention (Bouchercon) last week, for the Owen Archer tour:

And an interview for the launch of the Margaret Kerr tour:

If you’d like to try your luck at winning e-books from either series, you can enter via any stop on the tours. The links are here:

It’s always wonderful to meet readers in person, as I did in Raleigh, NC, last week. But the blog tour is a delightful addition. Check it out!



Shop Talk with Susan Signe Morrison about Grendel’s Mother (2 of 2)


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And now, without further ado, talking shop with Susan Signe Morrison, whose novel Grendel’s Mother: the Saga of the Wyrd-Wife is just out from Top Hat Books!

Q:  In Grendel’s Mother you use a spare style, no psychological explorations, no in depth descriptions of clothing, customs, explanations of the culture as one often finds in historical fiction. Is this style book-specific, to echo the language of Beowulf, or might you use it again?

A:  When I began writing the novel, I want to echo the language of Anglo-Saxon 9781785350092literature. In terms of word-stock, this meant using a lot of Germanic words. More key, I felt, was the style. How could I replicate– but also update for a contemporary, novel-reading audience–the feeling of Old English conventions? Almost unconsciously, I layered the texture of the writing with many appositions–noun and verbal phrases that function like synonyms. For example, rather than just saying, “the fierce warrior,” a more Anglo-Saxon thing to do would be to write, “the fierce warrior, weapon wielder, war-like wreaker.” I tell my students that this poetic device increases the density and weight of such verse. A Picasso portrait might have three eyes for an individual in order to show how that person looks from all sides. It creates a 3-D effect. I think the Anglo-Saxon habit of doing this in writing does an analogous thing: conjuring up a multi-dimensional world. I ended up loving this spare style and might indeed return to it in the future. I hadn’t thought about a sequel until an Amazon reader’s review: “It would make a great mini-series. (And there’s room for a sequel.)” I’d certainly be up a mini-series. :-) So now I’m thinking: what should/would a sequel entail? I’m pondering poetic possibilities (to put it alliteratively).

Q: Chapter 3, Gobban’s God, is a delight to read, the priest’s awkward attempts to explain his Christian beliefs, the amusing puzzlement of Brimhild and her parents, her mother’s attempts to politely relate the wildest ideas to their own Norse gods. The Scylding beliefs sound like a far more pragmatic system. I wondered as I read whether this hilarious discussion evolved from classroom discussions. Did it? Am I right in guessing that this chapter was great fun to write?

A:  Thanks for seeing the humor here! The book on the whole is quite serious, so it’s important to spice it up occasionally with rough comic moments. Your asking this question makes me think: yes, it does stem from some classroom discussions. I remember distinctly a particular incident. A student was presenting an oral report on a song by Hildegard von Bingen, that great, multi-talented twelfth-century doctor, visionary, healer, theologian and musician. The student said, “I don’t believe in God, but if I did, I wouldn’t believe in three gods like Hildegard!” I furiously thought, “What is she talking about? There aren’t three gods in that song!” And then I realized: the student had never heard of the Trinity before, a key concept of Christian thought. Ever afterwards, I never assume prior knowledge about any religious reference in medieval literature that students encounter. This certainly influenced the scene with Gobban. I tried to imagine: why would anyone convert? Why would you change your religion if you had a perfectly fine mythology and panoply of gods? How would you understand your first encounter with Christianity if you were a pagan (a loaded term!)? Not only that, but Germanic peoples were not naturally given to “turning the other cheek.”   Sæwald is highly skeptical about Gobban’s awkward description of Christianity, but the young Brimhild is haunted by the thought of a little god born in a manger.

Q:  Did you find it difficult to stay within the known structure? Any temptation to change someone’s fate? Perhaps someone you grew fond of? Or to change it for the sake of a good story?


A reconstructed Viking Age longhouse. (Fyrkat_hus_stor)

A:  Actually, having the confines of the known story of Beowulf was the most helpful thing of all in my act of writing. The boundaries of the narrative forced me to build the world of Grendel’s Mother within the walls of the hall of the Beowulf poem, so to speak. I chose to lurk in the obscure corners of that edifice, much like Grendel and his mother. Beowulf includes a lot of flash-forwards and flash-backs, what are sometimes called the “digressions.” These moments briefly and tantalizingly suggest violent and tragic events taking place, as it were, offstage. That’s where I went. I did change people’s fates. After all, Grendel’s Mother–my Brimhild–is not killed by Beowulf. Nor is Grendel’s fate exactly like the one as portrayed in the original poem. And making Grendel and his mother human definitely deviates from most readings of Beowulf. I believe the poem allows, even invites, alternative readings of history, mythology and story. After all, in lines 874 and following of the Old English original, the scop or minstrel tells the story of Sigemund and the dragon. There were many differing versions of this lore at the time the Beowulf poet wrote, so I feel doing my own take on a legend is even invited by the story itself. I did feel bad, though, about Freawaru’s and Inga’s fates, which were necessary to bring home the bloody fate doomed by the culture.

Q:  Some of the characters in the book do not appear in the poem, and all are more fully developed. I imagine the additional details and insight come from your research—other poetry/folk tales/history of the period, and some from your own imagination, building on that background. Could you talk about your process?

A:  I’ve taught Anglo-Saxon poetry, culture, and language for over twenty years. So I am pretty familiar with the Old English corpus of poetry and prose. Naturally this exposure, over time, bled into my writing process, even though I hadn’t originally read these works in order to include them in my novel. Once I began writing, I still had to do a lot of research. For example, how would have an Anglo-Saxon hall looked? I was toggling back and forth between research about Anglo-Saxon culture and what continental Danish culture was like from about the 4th to 6th centuries. I took the liberty of applying Anglo-Saxon traits–which date from later than the setting of the book–to the situation in Denmark around the year 400 C.E. I would interlace these discoveries into my narrative.

Q:  What was your inspiration for how Brimhild comes to Hildilid and Saewald? [You might have answered it in one of the other questions.]

A:  My inspiration definitely lies in the opening lines of Beowulf itself when the reader/listener hears about Scyld Scefing, who arrives among the Danes according to the floating founding legend. Scyld is the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, who is a central figure in the Old English poem and in my novel. As a feminist, I was interested in imagining what would happen if a girl child had arrived in a basket, much as Scyld had arrived. What would be the consequences? That’s where my novel begins.

Q:  Telling the story from the perspective of the women, you are able to explore the grim underside of the lives of “heroes.” It affords the opportunity for observations such as Freawaru’s when the queen tells her that the beheadings are “man’s business.” Freawaru thinks, “Surely…this is woman’s business, too. We are the ones married off as peaceweaving brides after the blood and gore have barely dried.” Was this the driving urge behind your writing it from this perspective, for a reality check?

A:  Absolutely. Two moments in Beowulf continue to haunt me. The first is the Fight at Finnsburg. The scop sings about Hildeburh, a Dane who marries into a Frisian family as part of a peace-weaving marriage between her clan and that of King Finn. However, as inevitably happens in Anglo-Saxon tales, that attempt at harmony falls apart violently. Not only do Hildeburh’s uncle and son die, but ultimately her husband as well. She is sent back to her own people, bereft of her marriage family and resentful of her blood kin. Another woman’s fate we learn at the end of Beowulf. This nameless woman laments about the fate of Beowulf’s people after his death; they are doomed to death or slavery. I wanted to explore what this culture was like for the women, compelled to participate in peace-weaving marriages doomed to failure and oppressed as victims of rape and bondage.

Q:  If you were using Grendel’s Mother in a Beowulf seminar, would you have students read it first, then the poem, or visa versa?

A:  Either way would work, depending on what you want to emphasize. Currently I picture-4am teaching a seminar called “Beowulf’s Literary Hoard: Contexts, Interlace, Allusion, Influence, and Intertexuality.” In it, we begin with an introduction to Old English and start doing basic translation. We read a number of shorter Old English poems in translation because I believe it’s best to come to Beowulf knowing some of the images and conventions that can be found in all sorts of Anglo-Saxon material, from elegies like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, to saints’ legends like Juliana with its totally kick-ass heroine. Next we read three different translations of Beowulf. One is by Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel-laureate. It works as an thrilling adventure and beautiful poem. We also will use Roy Liuzza’s facing-page translation so we can see what the Old English is for specific lines. And now Christopher Tolkien has just had published J. R.R. Tolkien’s own translation! This is incredibly exciting, given that Tolkien basically transformed the state of Anglo-Saxon studies in the 20the century. He drew on Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Germanic material for his own work. After reading Beowulf, we will read works inspired by that iconic poem, including Tolkien’s own Sellic Spell and The Lay of Beowulf and John Gardner’s Grendel. We’ll conclude with my own Grendel’s Mother. Then students will write their own creative responses to this amazing material. Many high schools teach Beowulf alongside Gardner’s Grendel, which has the perfect “emo” and angst-ridden protagonist that resonates with teenage boys. I hope teachers will include Grendel’s Mother to give the female point of view of girls and women in that culture, so that teenage girls find characters with whom they can identify or from whom they find inspiration.

Q:  There are a number of short poems/lyrics in the novel. Are all of them gleaned from manuscripts, or did you compose some of them?

A:  I composed them all, except for those indicated under Sources for Quotes (section epigrams and medical charms). I was inspired by some medieval short lyrics called Frauenlieder (women’s songs). There are a few in Old English: Wulf and Eadwacer is a very short poem voiced by a woman about fraught and erotic encounters with two males. The Wife’s Lament is uttered by a betrayed woman trapped under an oak tree. These compact verses affected my lyric composition. Originally I wrote them when I had a number of fantastic MFA poetry students in my Anglo-Saxon seminar whose own work became heavily affected by the verse we read. In turn, I found myself spontaneously writing short poems. Only later in my revision process did I integrate them into the prose of Grendel’s Mother. Fortunately, they expressed emotional states that would have taken many pages of prose to convey.

Q.  In your Note to the Reader you list the sources for the medical recipes, procedures, and charms, and warn readers “Do not try these recipes at home!” Hah! You add that you amended some. Could you give some examples?

ht_1000_year_recipe_tl_150401_16x9_992A.  That would be telling! Actually, a lot of these recipes can be found in Bald’s Leechbook–one of the best names of a work ever. I believe I would leave out an ingredient or two just so someone could not replicate such a recipe. Some recipes seem, from our modern perspective, “crazy.” For example, it is suggested that a woman who bleeds too much should find a horse “turd” and put it on a fire; she should stand over it to be fumigated by the smoke. I always wondered how someone would avoid being burned! So I wouldn’t try that at home. But other recipes and folk remedies may have been efficacious, and not just as placebo effects. After all, a tea made of willow bark is said to cure headaches–aspirin is synthesized from elements occurring in the willow plant. Many recipes involve chanting charms. Music therapy is said to be curative; the charms and their rhythms might have had a healing effect.

Q:  Also in you Note you remark that you have “set the story about one century earlier than the usual dating of the action [6th century] for dramatic purposes.” Could you elaborate?

ASpoiler alert!
I don’t want to give everything away, but I wanted the final scene to involve Hengest. The 8th-century monk Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People writes that Hengest and his brother Horsa were the original Angle chieftains to invade Briton in the middle of the 5th century. So that meant moving the (supposed) action of Beowulf back a century. It’s fiction, after all, not history.

This was such fun. Let’s do it again soon, Susan!

You can follow Susan on her website: grendelsmotherthenovel.com
which includes a blog: http://grendelsmotherthenovel.com/category/blog/
And Susan’s on Twitter: @medievalwomen

Susan Signe Morrison’s novel Grendel’s Mother: the Saga of the Wyrd-Wife (1 of 2)


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9781785350092This past winter I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of Susan Signe Morrison’s novel Grendel’s Mother: the Saga of the Wyrd-Wife. Here’s what I wrote after a few days of walking around with this wonderful book in my head:

In Grendel’s Mother: the Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, an emotionally rich retelling of Beowulf, Susan Signe Morrison reveals the tragically human monsters obscured by the heroic bravado of the original poem. Only a scholar and poet steeped in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture could conceive of such a lyrical extension of the poem from the perspective of the women in the mead hall. Reading it opened the poem to me as never before. What a gift! Grendel’s Mother is sure to become an integral part of every class on Beowulf.

Who is Susan? Though I made a point of having lunch with Susan at the medieval Women_pilgrims-210-expcongress at WMU this past spring and now count her as a friend, I’m going to feed you the great bio that appears on the book:

Professor of English at Texas State University, Susan Signe Morrison lives in Austin, Texas, and writes on topics lurking in the margins of history, ranging from recently uncovered diaries of a teenaged girl in World War II to medieval women pilgrims, excrement in the Middle Ages, and waste.

In a praise-filled review, Kirkus calls the book an enchanting, poignant reimagining of Beowulf,” the review also says:

….Morrison writes in alliterative, lyric prose that evokes the Old English of her source text: ‘There she saw the soft seaweed, barnacled bed, of a marine monster. Leaving her work, approaching with caution, she listened for linnets along the lime lane.’ An incredible world is spun out of blunt, staccato words: a world of customs and objects, of heroes and faiths, and, of course, of monsters. Morrison manages to update the medieval morality of the original poem while preserving its mournful sense of the old ways passing away.

And the blogger Andy Lloyd (Andy Lloyd Book Reviews) says:

[A] gritty, no-holds-barred epic….[A]n English Prof. doing ‘Conan the Barbarian.’

Conan the Barbarian. Hah! As Susan says, “never in my wildest dreams…” I can just see her grinning ear to ear.

So of course I invited Susan to talk shop here on A Writer’s Retreat. Tomorrow you can read it here!

You can follow Susan on her website: grendelsmotherthenovel.com
which includes a blog: http://grendelsmotherthenovel.com/category/blog/
And Susan’s on Twitter: @medievalwomen

Q&A with Sharan Newman on Defending the City of God


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Today I’m delighted to welcome Sharan Newman* to A Writer’s Retreat to talk about her book (nonfiction)  Defending the City of God: a Medieval Queen, Sharan bookthe First Crusades, and the Quest for Peace in Jerusalem (Palgrave MacMillan 2014).  When I began to read this book I realized just how little I knew about Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem, and her world. Her father was “a minor lord from northern France, Baldwin of Le Bourq,” and her mother, Morfia, an Armenian noblewoman. Melisende was born and grew up in Edessa, not Europe. This is a story about the crusaders who traveled to the Near East and stayed. It’s also about their wives and children, many of whom were not Westerners, but had been born in the East. It is a fascinating journey from the first to the second crusade, filled with entertaining anecdotes that put flesh on history—just what one might hope from a historian who has long experience writing novels.

Sharan has graciously agreed to field some questions for this blog post, so here goes:

Q  Speaking of the first crusade, called by Pope Urban, you write: “The majority of [the pilgrims] went in white-hot religious passion, ready to suffer for the Faith. What could have been missing in the lives of the thousands who answered the pope’s call? They could have mended their sinful ways and entered convents and monasteries at home or devoted themselves to caring for the poor and sick rather than undertake such a dangerous and difficult journey. I think that their response may have had less to do with faith and more with doubt. Perhaps what many needed was physical evidence of Christianity. …a desire to reaffirm wavering faith and to earn personal salvation.” Why, then, do you think they stayed on?

A  Actually, most of the pilgrims didn’t stay on. One of the myths about the Crusades is that the people who went were younger sons who wanted to carve out land for themselves. Whole families mortgaged their lands to go to Jerusalem. With them went their servants and often peasants living nearby. Although no kings took the first Crusade, many counts and dukes did, including Robert of Normandy. Of the people who stayed on, in some cases it was the lure of new (to them) lands. Others felt a responsibility to maintain their conquests for Western Christianity. There were large numbers of poor people who couldn’t afford to return or had nothing to go home to. These became farmers and craftsmen. Some integrated into the Syrian Christian communities. Reasons for staying were likely more numerous than reasons for making the journey in the first place.

Q  This might seem as if I’m repeating the previous question, adding a new angle, but I think in the previous quotes you were speaking about the knights and commoners, and this is more about the nobles who led them. Very early on, you set the scene with this statement: “When the Crusaders first arrived in the Holy Land in 1098, few people living there realized that these Europeans were an invading force.” They were accustomed to the raids of western mercenaries. It took them time to realize “that these warriors had come to stay. …Within a generation these newcomers would become the ‘new Syrians,’ integrated into the social religious, and political life of the Near East, changing it as it changed them.” It struck me as similar to the “invasion” of North and South America. Do you see similarities?

I see what you mean. There are some similarities but the greatest difference was the attitude of the invaders to the indigenous population. Valerie Flint wrote a wonderful paper on the debate as to whether Native Americans were human, since they couldn’t have “come out of Eden”. One thing the Crusaders were sure of was that they were going to the cradle of Christianity and Judaism. They were also aware that the Arabs and Greeks had a civilization in many ways similar to their own. Even the Aztecs and Incans were not accorded that respect.

Q Melisende’s mother, Morfia, might be treated by some writers as a tragic figure, married to the enemy, her father murdered shortly after she left by the people of her hometown, and then left for long stretches of time without her husband’s support while he was on campaign or a prisoner of his enemies. But you portray her as strong and practical. How did you come to see her in this light?

A I was fascinated by Morfia, who is largely neglected by historians and even contemporary chroniclers. She didn’t have an easy life, but there are hints that she made an admirable ruler. She negotiated for her husband’s release from captivity. She must have had property of her own for she sent Armenian archers to aid in the battles. And, she raised four strong daughters who seem to have loved her and certainly loved each other. Also, as I point out in the book, even though she had only daughters, there was no talk of her husband abandoning her and, when she died, he did not remarry. She would make a great heroine for a novel.

Q Melisende and her 3 sisters all come across as women who are confident, efficient, and accustomed to at least being an integral part of decision making. How much of that do you think came from their mother, Morfia’s, example, and how much from their own life experiences?

A  I think their mother’s example was important but there were so many strong, capable women at that time that they may have felt it completely normal.

Q In the first half of the book, you show how the Western Europeans who had come to Jerusalem and then settled in the area became integrated with the local populations. This had become their home. They were an integral part of its makeup and politics by the time Bernard preaches the second crusade. Yet Louis, Eleanor, Conrad and all the rest descend on the area without any clear plan, as if ignoring the vast source of information their kin in the region might have provided. Am I right in seeing it this way? If so, why do you think they chose to do so?

A  That’s a great question! I hadn’t looked at it from that point of view. Certainly Bernard was in contact with Melisende and his young uncle, Andrew, was a Templar in Jerusalem who wrote to him often. There has been a lot of work on families that extended across the sea; young relatives were sent out in much the same way nineteenth century British families sent their children to India to work. It is true that Louis VII and Conrad made a number of stupid mistakes because they didn’t listen to advice when they arrived and didn’t understand the situation. Hmmm… something to look into.

Q This book is a treat to read in so many ways. You manage to make sense of an extremely complex cast of characters while sustaining a light tone with droll asides in the text and even in footnotes. Anecdotes bring the characters to life and also provide background that might otherwise have been tedious. All of this makes the book an entertainment while yet instructing. Did you consciously decide on a light and breezy style for this book?

A  That’s very kind of you. Actually, it’s just the way I look at the world.

Q    What sparked this book? Contemporary events? A desire to correct the record regarding Melisende’s reputation?

A   This grew out of my research for The Real History of the Templars. I hadn’t realized how many women were important actors in the Latin States. I wanted to find out more about them. I also became interested in the ethnic and religious diversity among the native population. Up until a few years ago, this still existed. Now ancient Christian and pre-Christian populations have been either wiped out or forced to flee. I began this before the Arab Spring but it was impossible not to be affected by the horrors going on there now. I wrote a blog post about how ISIS is different from the Christian and Muslim fanatics of the twelfth century.

Q  Any chance you might use some of this material for a new novel?

A  I want to, but I need to go to the area and do very different research. As you know, novels require one to find out what was growing in the area, what the weather was like, the composition of pottery etc. etc. I have a plot but am still working on the minutia.

Q  You’ve written both commercial fiction and non-fiction. Do you prefer the work of fiction or non-fiction?

A  I like flipping back and forth. With novels I miss footnotes; with non-fiction I miss dialogue.

Thank for engaging with me about this remarkable book about Melisende and her world, Sharan.


* Sharan Newman is a medievalist and the author of the award-winning Catherine Levendeur mystery contentseries, set in medieval France [start with Death Comes as Epiphany]. She has also written non-fiction: The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code, and The Real History Behind the Templars. A mystery, The Shanghai Tunnel, set in 1868 Portland Oregon, is as close to modernity as she wishes to go. Her latest nonfiction is The Real History of the End of the World for which she has created a blog. All of her books are available in various languages, most of which she can’t read.  She likes the Russian best, where she is known as “Newmanova”. (I now have a new nickname for her!) You can keep up with her on her website and facebook.

Relishing New(ish) Research About William Wallace and all that


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Poking around in research about the English/Scottish border in the late 14th century (for the Kate Clifford series), I keep discovering bits and pieces of research that give me shivers of, oh, if only this had been published while I was writing the Margaret KJedburgh Abbey (doorway) 001err trilogy…. Such as the post:  http://www.breakingofbritain.ac.uk/blogs/feature-of-the-month/september-2011-the-guardians-in-1286-and-wallaces-uprising-in-1297/

But I quickly shake off the regret and store up the nuggets for a future project. Who knows when I’ll need it? I had no idea when I starting fiddling with the first Kate Clifford story that I would be revisiting research I began for A Spy for the Redeemer (the machinations of Dame Phillippa’s late husband), which fired my interest in the early years of the Scottish Wars of Independence, which led to the Margaret Kerr books.

Reconsidering this new information, perhaps my only real regret is that I couldn’t incorporate Richard of Lundie’s [possible] change of heart during the Battle of Stirling Bridge. But that would have added an unnecessary subplot.

Most interesting to me is how ideas and information I haven’t revisited in so many years–a dozen?–rush back, flooding me with half-glimpsed scenes as I browse through the literature and flip through my photos from my treks through Scotland and the borders. I smell peat, I hear pipes and drums. And all of this is just to provide glimpses of Kate’s childhood, and the political/social conditions on the northern borders that formed her.

My first glimpse of Margaret Kerr was from a train heading north


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On a warm summer day in the late ’90’s, I was staring out the window of the train from York to Edinburgh when I first encountered the young woman who would become Maggie Kerr.

This was the last leg of a book tour and I was worrying about my wounded kitty back home who was facing delicate surgery. Nothing had worked against an infection in a bone over his eye. The only recourse was to remove the bone. He might still lose the eye, but he should recover his health.*

To distract myself as the train crossed the border into Scotland, I began a game I played as a child on long car trips, staring out the window and imagining someone journeying through the countryside, someone on an urgent mission. I caught a flash of red hair, a dark gown, a muted plaid cloak swirling in the wind (though it was a sunny summer day in the present, my imagined Maggie fought against a stiff breeze beneath a sky threatening rain). A woman followed close on Maggie’s heels, keeping up a steady patter of complaint. I meant to be a lady’s maid and look at me, slogging through mud, sleeping in the open…. At some point they met a young man who had a way with animals, but was terribly shy with people. Maggie welcomed his company.

Before I knew it, Arthur’s Seat appeared and we pulled into Waverly Station in Edinburgh. I was once more an author on tour, Maggie and her two companions were forgotten.

And then, a few years later, a letter stirred my memory of the red-haired woman running through the Lothian countryside trailed by the petulant maidservant and the shy lad. The letter was from Brian Moffatt, PhD, who had read The Riddle of St Leonard’s (Owen Archer #5) and wanted to know more about the burning of juniper to ward off the pestilence. He was researching the ruins of the great medieval hospital of the Trinity on Soutra Hill in Lothian. The waste from the hospital was still in the great drain and buried in the soil; careful examination had revealed a wealth of information about the herbs and roots used in medicines. He had been puzzled by remnants of burnt juniper branches. His query began a correspondence which led to his giving me a tour of the site on a cold, crisp Easter Monday. After our meeting, as I sat in my car having a cup of tea before heading back to Edinburgh, Maggie showed up with a priest, her brother. They were being welcomed by the abbot, who remembered her brother. She was older now, sure of herself, calmer, less desperate. I’d begun to sketch out the story of A Trust Betrayed, but as soon as I returned home I fiddled with the idea to include Andrew, and his story. Finally I was ready to write the book.

*Puck came through the surgery and lived a long life with two eyes. When he died Puck in the garden 001in 2008, I wasn’t ready to say good-bye, but so grateful to have shared his life.

In Celebration of the Margaret Kerr Series in E-books (US & Canada)


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All three books in the Margaret Kerr series are now available as e-books in the US and Canada (11 August). This is the first publication of books 2 and 3, The Fire in the Flint and A Cruel Courtship in North America. So this is doubly exciting for me!

I’ll write more about the series later this week, but I wanted to share with you the cover art finalized today, one day before the official launch. The amazing production team at Diversion Books worked with me to create just the right feel—mysteries set within a young woman’s quest to find her place in a world turned upside down by war.

A Trust Betrayed

A Trust Betrayed (Small) - Copy

“Thirteenth-century Edinburgh comes off the page cold and convincing, from the smoke and noise of the tavern kitchen to Holyrood Abbey under a treacherous abbot. Most enjoyable.” —THE LIST

In the spring of 1297 the English army controls lowland Scotland and Margaret Kerr’s husband Roger Sinclair is missing. He’d headed to Dundee in autumn, writing to Margaret with a promise to be home for Christmas, but it’s past Easter. Is he caught up in the swelling rebellion against the English? Is he even alive? When his cousin, Jack, is murdered on the streets of Edinburgh, Roger’s last known location, Margaret coerces her brother Andrew, a priest, to escort her to the city.

She finds Edinburgh scarred by war—houses burnt, walls stained with blood, shops shuttered—and the townsfolk simmering with resentment, harboring secrets. Even her uncle, innkeeper Murdoch Kerr, meets her questions with silence. Are his secrets the keys to Roger’s disappearance? What terrible sin torments her brother? Is it her husband she glimpses in the rain, scarred, haunted? Desperate, Margaret makes alliances that risk both her own life and that of her brother in her search for answers. She learns that war twists love and loyalties, and that, until tested, we cannot know our own hearts, much less those of our loved ones.

The Fire in the Flint

The Fire in the Flint (Small) (2)“Intrigue abounds…. Robb’s captivating blend of history and mystery vividly evokes medieval Scotland.”  —BOOKLIST

Scots are gathering in Murdoch Kerr’s Edinburgh tavern, plotting to drive out the English forces. Margaret takes her place there as innkeeper, collecting information to pass on to William Wallace—until murder gives the English an excuse to shutter the tavern. The dead man was a witness to the intruders who raided chests belonging to Margaret’s husband and her father, the latest in a string of violent raids on Margaret’s family, but no one knows the identity of the raiders or what they’re searching for.

Margaret’s uncle urges her to escape Edinburgh, but as she flees north with her husband Roger, Margaret grows suspicious about his sudden wish to speak with her mother, Christiana, who is a soothsayer. Margaret once innocently shared with Roger one of Christiana’s visions, of “the true king of Scotland” riding into Edinburgh. Now she begins to wonder if their trip is part of a mission engineered by the English crown…

A Cruel Courtship

A Cruel Courtship (Small) (2)“This is history as it should be told!” —GOOD BOOK GUIDE

In late summer 1297, Margaret Kerr heads to the town of Stirling at the request of William Wallace’s man James Comyn. Her mission is to discover the fate of a young spy who had infiltrated the English garrison at Stirling Castle, but on the journey Margaret is haunted by dreams—or are they visions?—of danger.

He who holds Stirling Castle holds Scotland—and a bloody battle for the castle is imminent. But as the Scots prepare to cast off the English yoke, Margaret’s flashes of the future allow her to glimpse what is to come—and show her that she can trust no one, not even her closest friends.

A CRUEL COURTSHIP is a harrowing account of the days before the bloody battle of Stirling Bridge, and the story of a young woman’s awakening.

All three are available in an omnibus edition with its own brief summary of the trilogy’s arc:

MargaretKerrOmnibus_cover (2)
… the Margaret Kerr series chronicles one woman’s search for the truth amidst the Scottish struggle for independence against the tyranny of the English crown.

In A TRUST BETRAYED, Margaret searches for her missing husband after his disappearance in Edinburgh, but finds that the simmering rebellion has turned the ruined city into a web of lies and hidden motives that threaten anyone who digs too deep for the truth.

In THE FIRE IN THE FLINT, Margaret and her family become the target of a series of violent raids, but what the raiders are looking for remains a mystery. As Margaret becomes more deeply involved in the rebellion, attention turns to her mother, a seer who has had visions of the “true king of Scotland.”

In A CRUEL COURTSHIP, Margaret heads to Stirling Castle on a mission to discover the fate of a young spy for the rebellion. As her travels bring her closer to the castle, however, she begins to have dreams—or are they visions?—of impending danger. The historic battle of Stirling Bridge is nearing, and the fate of Scotland rides on the outcome…

Together, these stories offer a richly detailed and beautifully written account of medieval Scotland and a young woman’s awakening.



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