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:
which includes a 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:

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.


In Celebration of the E-book Launch of the Owen Archer Series


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Today’s the day! And in honor of Owen Archer’s return to North America (an interesting feat for a mid-14th century Welshman, eh?), my friend Patricia Bracewell, invited me to appear on her blog for a Q&A about my mysteries. Check it out! I enjoyed answering her questions.

And Diversion Books has arranged a great deal to entice you:

I’m feeling pretty good about all this, can you tell?

Countdown to Owen Archer E-books in the US & Canada


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It’s Sunday afternoon. In two days Diversion Books will release e-books editions of Owen Archer 1-7, 9 & 10 in the US and Canada. I can think of little else (though I’m doing my best to mark up the York map for the first Kate Clifford mystery–Charlie is waiting to work his magic on the map).

It seems only fair that you, my readers, should be the first to see the beautiful covers the team at Diversion Books created for these–they’ll also grace the trade paperbacks, which should be available by late August.

So here they are, in order!

The Apothecary Rose (Small)The Lady Chapel (Small) (2)The Nuns Tale (Small)The Kings Bishop (Small)The Riddle of St (Small)

A Gift of Sanctuary (Small)

A Spy for the Redeemer (Small)The Guilt of Innocents (Small)A Vigil of Spies (Small)

And the two most recent, The Guilt of Innocents and A Vigil of Spies, are published in the US and Canada for the first time this week, in any format. So those of you who thought there were only 8 Owen Archers, surprise! The series didn’t end with The Cross-legged Knight after all.

Aha. I hear the whispers, But where IS The Cross-legged Knight? Aren’t there 10 books in the series? Yes, but #8 is still available in trade paperback by my original publisher, so it couldn’t be part of this package.

I’ll post links to special offers here this week, and a link to Patricia Bracewell’s blog–she cooked up a Q&A for the launches of both the Owen Archer and the Margaret Kerr e-books (Maggie, 11 August) that we both think you will enjoy! You’ll learn how I worked with the team at Diversion to create the fresh look, along with many other fun facts Pat teased out of me.

A Visit with Old Friends


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I’ve spent a few weeks working with the Owen Archer novels to be re-released in eBook 28 July, and in trade paperback a month later. The tasks have seemed endless—writing fresh “flap copy” for each book (what do you call it when it’s also used to describe e-books, which, of course, have no “flaps’?), spot checking the text files to make certain that I’d updated my own files with the copyedit and final proofreading corrections—in some cases trying to reconstruct this from years ago, finding old errors that can now (happily!) be fixed, suggesting major symbols from each book for cover copy. A busy time, and, although I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed going back over the books, I’ve felt overwhelmed. Until a friend’s comment helped me shift my attitude.

She thought it an incredible opportunity that few people have, to read back over my career, appreciate what I’ve accomplished, see where I’ve been. Few people have careers that are, essentially, written down and saved.

She’s right. Along with the work, I’ve been visiting old friends, some I’ve not encountered in a long while.

“Wulfstan believed that if he obeyed and did his best, he could not fail to win a place, though humble, in the heavenly chorus. To be at peace in the arms of the Lord for all eternity. He could imagine no better fate. And rules showed him the way to that eternal contentment.” Brother Wulfstan, infirmarian at St Mary’s Abbey, The Apothecary Rose

“A woman loves a poet’s praises, the promise of fame and immortality in his songs. But she lusts for a soldier and marries a man of property.” Dafydd ap Gwilym, bard, A Gift of Sanctuary

Others who continue to be much on my mind.

“I see. Either way, I am to lose you. Pity. I liked that you hated the work. It is what keeps a man honest.” Archbishop Thoresby to Owen Archer, The Apothecary Rose

“I have spies all over France and Brittany. And spies spying on the spies.” Archbishop Thoresby, The Lady Chapel

“All our mortal lives we totter at the edge of a bog, Archer. The higher we sit, the deeper we sink when we lose our footing.” John Thoresby The Lady Chapel

“Magda Digby once forgot that her gift as a healer was for all folk, not only those she thought worthy folk. She forgot that her opinion must count as naught, that she must step aside from herself. I is not for a healer.” Magda Digby to Archbishop Thoresby in A Vigil of Spies

And characters about whom I’d completely forgotten, such as Brother Florian, Thoresby’s chief clerk who’d expected to replace Jehannes as Thoresby’s secretary when Jehannes is promoted to Archdeacon of York. Florian resents Brother Michaelo for this.

Brother Florian arrived at Windsor on the third afternoon of Thoresby’s visit. He was soaked through, having shared a barge with a group of jongleurs who had contrived to fill the enclosed area with their gear and persons before the clerk boarded, forcing him to make the trip as unprotected as the bargeman. Fortunately the sleet of the previous few days had subsided to a chill mist and occasional drizzle, but it was enough moisture to weigh down Florian’s cloak and his mood.

   “Might one ask, Your Grace, why these papers could not be entrusted to Brother Michaelo, your secretary, who sits so cozily in your chambers in London? Can he really have so much to do with the ordering and shipping of supplies to York that he could not be spared for this journey?” Brother Florian, white-haired and confident from years of experience, was not one to mince words.

   “You have asked, Brother Florian, and I am happy to answer.” Thoresby smiled. “I do not entrust the papers to Brother Michaelo because I cannot be certain that he will not trade their contents for some of the luxuries he finds irresistible. Whereas Michaelo is very good at the tasks to which I have set him because he knows that he will share in the enjoyment of these items if they reach my houses in Yorkshire. It is all actually quite tidy. Do you not enjoy being indispensable?”

   Brother Florian snorted. “Had I been truly indispensable, you would not have passed me over when looking for a secretary to replace Jehannes, Your Grace. It is no doubt Brother Michaelo’s Norman wealth that is truly indispensable.” Florian raised his cup to his lips, discovered it was empty, and thumped it down with a growl.

And then Florian seems to vanish from the books. Hm… I wonder what he’s been up to?

Owen Archer’s men Alfred and Colin first appear in The Lady Chapel—I thought their debut was in The Nun’s Tale. My, how Alfred changes over the years.

At some point I stopped Magda’s amusing practice of referring to people as the animals they resemble, except for a few—Thoresby is Old Crow, Owen is Bird-eye.

When I was experimenting with a new book last year I wondered whether Brother Michaelo had ever been on horseback in the books. I’d forgotten all about his playing messenger between Windsor and York in The King’s Bishop. And, of course, his journey to St. David’s on the west coast of Wales is largely on horseback.

Yes, I’ve been far busier than I’d imagined I’d be in high summer, but how can I resent spending time with such dear old friends?

Shop Talk with Patricia Bracewell, author of The Price of Blood


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On the occasion of the UK (HarperCollins) release of the second novel in Patricia 9780008104603Bracewell’s trilogy about Emma of Normandy, The Price of Blood, I’m delighted to welcome Pat back to A Writer’s Retreat for another Q&A [see the link to her previous visit at the end].

As I wrote for the US (Viking) publication of book 2: In The Price of Blood, Patricia Bracewell proves once more that she is an alchemist. She turns the leaden chronicle accounts of Emma and Aethelred’s embattled kingdom into a narrative thrumming with life, the historical figures heartbreakingly human. The epic battles of the Anglo-Saxon are rendered personal, tragic. The fated characters disturbed my sleep and haunted my walks. You have been warned.

Welcome, Pat! Let’s start with a few questions specifically about this book:

Q: When working on The Price of Blood did you experience anything that felt like a particularly “middle book” issue?

A: My agent and editor were very keen on making sure the book could stand alone, shadowso I had to bear that in mind while at the same time dealing with my own concept of this as the middle section of Emma’s story. I suppose that kind of double perspective is a ‘middle book’ issue of sorts. My critique partners had not read the first book, Shadow on the Crown, so they were very good at pointing out areas where a reader needed more back story to understand what was going on, and that was an enormous help. They made sure that I gave enough information about previous events and relationships between the characters to keep new readers engaged without slowing the story for those who had read the first book.

Q: You mentioned during the author Q&A at Kalamazoo that at some point in writing The Price of Blood you realized you didn’t have time to reach the year you’d intended. Could you talk about that a bit? What was involved in reorganizing the book?

A: I wanted to conclude The Price of Blood in December, 1013 because of some dramatic events that occurred in that year and that would have provided a tense, cliff-hanger ending. But so much happened in that year that I knew it would take me another 100 pages to describe it all, so I had to let go of that idea. As a result, I had to re-think my story arc and invent a new climax. It meant re-working the story so that a particular character – I’m not saying who – played a larger role than I’d first given him. I had to add some new scenes, delete others and re-write what became the final two chapters about, oh, thirty-five times. The story itself didn’t change, but the emphasis on certain characters and events did.

Q: You’ve just completed an extensive book tour for the US release of The Price of Blood, affording you a fresh opportunity to meet your readers. Did you learn anything from them about how your books are received? Did they tell you who were their favorite characters? Did any ask “what’s next for” a character? Or why something happened to a character?

A: That didn’t happen much at book store events – I suppose because we tried to avoid discussing specific characters and incidents for fear of spoilers. It happens a lot, though, when I meet with book groups. I sometimes ask them who their favorite characters were which has resulted in heated discussions about the challenges faced by Emma and Elgiva and the different ways that the two characters handled them. I love it when readers react so strongly to my characters.

Q: Moving into the third book of the trilogy about Emma of Normandy, have you any regrets? Corners you painted yourself into? Characters you wish you had not killed off so quickly? Characters or situations that you wish you had not created/engaged in the first place?

A: I wish I’d made it to the end of 1013 in The Price of Blood so I wouldn’t have so much to write now! Seriously, there are no regrets. Just the opposite. I’m quite grateful that I invented some characters for the second book – characters that weren’t part of my original plan – because I’m finding plenty of opportunities to use them in the book three.

Q: Is there anything you learned with the second that you’re bringing forward into your work on the third?

A: I’ve learned that I have to loosen my grip a bit on my characters and on the scope of the story. It’s still Emma’s book, overall, but it’s broadened. Elgiva has stepped forward significantly, and in The Price of Blood her character took on a life of its own that I’d never intended in my original concept. She went places I didn’t expect, and of course that has opened up more possibilities for the next book. I suppose it’s a matter of thinking outside of the box that I originally created for myself, and being willing to give my imagination free reign to explore ideas that weren’t part of my original plan.

Q: With time and familiarity your feelings about some characters may change—understanding deepens, quirks grow either more annoying or more endearing—could you talk about that? (Or am I generalizing something that’s peculiar to me?)

A: I think you’re absolutely right. Not with every character of course. I think the best example of that for me is Elgiva. It’s hard to explain it because she’s almost entirely a figment of my imagination. Whatever she is – I’m responsible for it because we know so little about the real person. The thing is, when I created her she was something of a monster – selfish, bossy, and ambitious. She was so bad that I loved torturing her. But in the second book she took whatever I threw at her and exhibited an admirable resilience. Maybe my subconscious took over and gave her that quality – made her so tough that it became a strength. Even as I write the answer to this question it’s occurring to me that she reminds me now a little of Scarlett O’Hara, but I promise you, she didn’t start out that way.

Q: In a similar vein, I’ve found that characters begin to dictate to me what they’ll do and how they could best be utilized. Do you find this happening, particularly after you’ve written about them in other books?

A: Certainly, as I mentioned above, Elgiva has done that. There are minor characters too – the king’s daughter, Edith, comes to mind – who have grown into larger roles that I found quite useful. In the third book I’ll be revisiting characters in Normandy who didn’t appear in the second book at all, and it will be interesting to see how that all plays out.

Q: Emma of Normandy is clearly the central figure of the trilogy, but you tell the story not only from her point of view but that of others. How do you choose the additional points of view? Are there any steps you consciously take to ensure that the reader remembers Emma’s centrality?

A: I chose the viewpoint characters very carefully, with an eye to telling pieces of the story that Emma could not witness, but also because I wanted to add conflict by playing them off of each other: Aethelred vs. his son; Emma vs. Elgiva. Really, any combination of those four characters squaring off against each other, even though they may not do it face to face. For example, Elgiva is still an antagonist of the other 3 in The Price of Blood, but she never shares a scene with any of them. As for ensuring Emma’s centrality, it’s very low-tech. I actually count the number of each characters’ viewpoint scenes and make sure that Emma has the most!

Q: Is there a particular point of view character you especially enjoy becoming?

Viking (US) cover

A: That would have to be Emma. I believe that the early historians who commented on Emma’s role in history never even attempted to put themselves in her place as a woman, a foreign bride, a mother, a queen, or, eventually, a widow. It’s only in the past several decades, as more and more women have entered the field and have begun to research that period of history that scholars have attempted to imagine the difficulties that Emma faced. Pauline Stafford, in particular, has been instrumental in raising these issues. With her groundbreaking work as my model I try to illustrate the complexities of Emma’s position, to step into her character and imagine the world as she would have known it, the difficulties that she faced and the heart-breaking decisions she was forced to make.

Q: Would you share with us five things that surprised you in your research about Emma’s era?

A: Free schools existed in England at this time, first begun in the 10th century by King Alfred of Wessex. They disappeared at the time of the Norman Conquest and would not reappear until the Elementary Education Act of 1870, almost a thousand years later.

Wives and daughters could inherit and hold property separately from their husbands or fathers.

Women could leave property in their wills, and often bequeathed land, clothing and jewelry.

The two archbishops in England, Canterbury and York, were appointed by the king, not the pope. Nevertheless, upon their appointment they had to make the expensive, arduous trip to Rome to receive their pallium, a white stole that was the symbol of papal authority. There was some grumbling about having to make that difficult journey.

An organ was installed in the Old Minster in Winchester in the year 994. It was the largest organ in England and needed 70 men to operate it.

[Imagine the task of calling together 70 pumpers not only for an event in the minster, but when you wanted to do a final practice!]


Oh, I do so love to talk shop. Thank you for answering all the questions I threw at you, Pat! But perhaps I’ve missed a question you, the reader, are burning to ask about Emma of Normandy. So ask away in the comments, and I’ll forward your questions to Pat.

[See Pat’s earlier visit here:]

One last note: if you haven’t yet picked up copies of Shadow on the Crown and/or The Price of Blood, well, I just have to ask, what are you waiting for?! And do check out Pat’s website:

Rough Around the Edges, Barrel-Chested, With a Big Heart


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On the 4th of July, a big day here in the States, I’ll be quietly celebrating the life of IMG_0652my Uncle Ted, on the 25th anniversary of his death. I remember the day he died, hot and sunny here in Seattle. My mother’s voice on the phone was husky with tears. Uncle Ted had been very ill, though not from the cancer that had been in miraculous remission for years (non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). Still, this was Uncle Ted, my tough, strong-as-a-bull godfather, and I expected him to go on and on. He had calmly said good-bye to the friends visiting him in the hospital the previous night, saying the 4th of July was a good day to die. He loved the 4th. Fire crackers at Coney Island. But no one there believed he meant that farewell. I would have. After I hung up with my mother, I went out to deadhead the climbing roses along our long fence. Hours later I came in scratched and bloodied, my tears spent. My husband had made the arrangements for me to fly to New York City for the funeral.

This year my time with Ted has started early. Gearing up for the re-release of all the Owen Archer and Margaret Kerr mysteries in the US and Canada this summer, I’ve been spot-checking the eBook files and generally rereading passages in all the books in order to write the marketing copy for each. And I keep meeting my godfather, at least aspects of him, in so many characters. Brother Wulfstan in the first five Owen Archers; the innkeeper Murdoch Kerr in the Margaret Kerr mysteries (her uncle); Brother Erkenwald, the soldier-turned-Austin canon in The Riddle of St. Leonard’s (no, Uncle Ted wasn’t a monk). I catch glimpses of him in other characters as well, even Owen Archer, at times, and even women—Bess Merchet, who runs the York Tavern beside Lucie’s apothecary, has more than a little Uncle Ted in her. Of them all, only Murdoch Kerr was planned as a tribute to my godfather. But there Ted is, in so many of my favorite characters.

He’s even in the new Kate Clifford mysteries, the wise and protective Berend, a former…let’s just call him soldier for now.

Uncle TedSo I’ve been wondering just what Uncle Ted represents for me. He was a barrel-chested, muscular, tough talking New Yorker who had nicknames for all his buddies like Ziggy and Moose. He wasn’t handsome in a leading-man way, balding early, with a bow-legged gait from knee injuries suffered in a jeep accident in WWII, and for most of his adult years, until the cancer, he sported quite the beer belly. He was a locksmith/safe installer, and in New York that meant he mixed with an interesting sampling of society. Family whispered that his gangster lingo wasn’t just an affectation. He was my mother’s brother, and she loved him dearly but often muttered a litany of his annoying qualities. When he came to visit us in the summer he entertained my friends—the whole block looked forward to “Uncle Teddy’s” visits. Oh, the tales he would tell, the magic tricks he’d perform, and the blunt, matter-of-fact way he’d talk to us, which made us all feel so grown up. (Magda Digby?) My friends’ parents loved him, too. The patio would buzz with conversations late into the night. He told me I was a great storyteller, and I should be proud of that. And he told me to be true to myself, not bother about what others said. When we went to Manhattan to visit my grandparents, I counted on adventures with Uncle Ted. He took me all over Greenwich Village and into the bars and coffee shops. He bought me things my mother didn’t want me to have and showed me how to hide them in my coat. He got a kick out of beatniks—the bongo drums, the goatees, how they chanted poetry as if they’re dying, and he enjoyed the folk singers in Washington Square Park. We had a falling out later, over “hippies” and “peaceniks”, but he eventually came to agree with me about a lot of my politics. And we agreed to ignore the rest.

The last time I saw my uncle in Manhattan I was there with my husband to spend time with his best friend who was dying of cancer. We were staying with our friend’s girlfriend in Brooklyn, and I didn’t have a chance to get together with Ted until the last night, when we were to catch the subway and meet him at a set time, a set stop. But our friend had a crisis that afternoon, and we stayed to see that he was okay. As we left for the subway I discovered I’d lost the notebook with Ted’s phone number and the subway stop (it had been a while since I’d been to his new apartment). So we were an hour and a stop late (maybe? I wasn’t sure), and I was panicking as we climbed up to the street. But there he was at the top of the steps, watching for us. He did that all the time. He knew how my mind worked? He had a hunch? Who knows? But my Uncle Ted was there, and everything was okay.


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