The Bone Jar and The Cross-Legged Knight in E-books


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At long last, the 8th Owen Archer mystery, The Cross-Legged Knight, is out in The Cross-Legged Knight_cover KNIGHTe-book formats on 12 April! This was the one book not reissued in e-book and trade paperback in the US and Canada last summer because the rights were still held by the original publisher. But they’ve just reverted the rights back to me, and I gave Diversion Books the go-ahead to start the process of preparing it for publication in e-books (all platforms) and trade paperback. They amazed me by accomplishing the e-book conversion and cover design in the course of precisely ONE WEEK. An incredibly efficient team and a pleasure to work with. The trade paperback will be available shortly. As ever, this will likely show up on amazon first, then spread out to all e-book platforms by mid-week.

TheBoneJar_coverLARGEAnd, in case you missed it, last week we published an e-book version of an Owen Archer and Magda Digby short story, The Bone Jar. Chronologically it fits between The Nun’s Tale and The King’s Bishop, as Owen is awaiting the birth of his first child. I was invited to write it for an anthology marking the Nottingham Bouchercon, and it’s a joy to make it available to a wider audience. All English-language rights, so it should be available to all of you who read my books in English.


And, soon, the debut of the Kate Clifford mysteries!

In the Stillness of the Storm



On the 13th of March a windstorm came up the lake, ravaging my beautiful wooded neighborhood. It’s been a fall and winter of record rainfall, the ground saturated. The high winds uprooted majestic firs and junipers. We lost power 45 minutes into the storm. damage

At first the silence was eerie. My cat, Ariel, walked round warily, then decided to hide in the windowless bathroom. We know the drill, bring out all the battery-operated lights, assemble the camp stove to make hot tea (no heat–the house gets cold–hot tea warms the hands), put on fingerless gloves.

tree across roadHours later we needed a few items for a dinner we could make in one pot. That’s when we discovered the felled tree blocking our main access road. Our alternative, a winding one lane road through thick woods, was gridlocked by people discovering the blockage up above and trying to turn around. We improvised.

It was a dry storm, all wind and no rain except for a brief squall late in the afternoon. Neighbors shared information as they walked their dogs up and down our little cul-de-sac (with the gridlock and no sidewalks it was too dangerous to venture farther). We caught up on the news of the street. As I talked to one neighbor, her mother called out and waved from a few houses away. It was like a block party.

At nightfall, Ariel was spooked by the darkness, coming to get me to light her way to the litterbox–a cat! But a cat accustomed to some light at all times. Our neighbor’s lamppost lights our upstairs hallway at night in a soft glow. She did not trust the darkness. Or was it the silence plus the dark? The moving lights?

We read by camp lanterns, listening to a battery-operated radio. We talked a lot, laughed a lot.

In the morning we walked up to view the damage. We stopped to talk to the neighbor whose closeup of treehouse was just missed, asking if there was anything we could pick up for him at the grocery. He was trimming some of the large branches just brushing his garage. He was worried that the power company might jostle the fallen giant and crush his garage after all. While talking to him we realized the miracle that had him saying, “Close call, close call.” His own huge firs showed the scars of the branches clipped by the falling tree; they’d deflected the tree’s trajectory just enough so that it landed beside his house and garage. (The eventual removal was done with great care. His garage is fine.) We walked on up to the grocer, enjoyed the warmth in the store.

Twenty-eight hours without power (most importantly, without heat), grew old. And yet… Neighbors took turns going up the street to see whether City Light had arrived to clear the tree and work on the wires. They’d call out the news on their return.

When it was my turn, I was hailed by a neighbor who was recently widowed. He stopped in the middle of the street, in his car, and took out his laptop to show me photos of when he and his late wife first met. I leaned through the opened driver’s side window to see them. Neighbors good-naturedly skirted around us (the one-lane road was open–someone had the sense to put a sign down below about the blockage), teasing us about being the neighborhood wifi hotspot. His memories of their first dates, how smitten he was at once, the hurdles they jumped to make it work–all so vivid. Would we have taken the time on an ordinary day?

One man stood at the tape barrier glowering at the City Light workers. They’d arrived with their equipment and someone to work on the tree, but were waiting for the all clear, no power in the lines. The man was furious. He’d gone up to the tree earlier, in his truck, ready to use his chain saw on the tree. They’d warned him off. Fire danger. Disaster. He was fuming about it. “Of course there’s no power, the lazy idiots. Did any of us have power? Our taxes paying their overtime. What a racket.” Actually…trees were down all over the area, and as the streets around us were reconnected there was danger in a surge according to my widowed neighbor, an engineer, and my husband, ditto. He was a lucky man to have been warned away. I thought of the neighbor with the tree so close to his house, how careful he’d been to stay away from the lines as he trimmed those branches. Had the angry one cut through the trunk and dislodged the wires… His anger was so noticeable because he was the only one I encountered in the 28 hours who expressed any anger at all. Imagine that.


March is Women’s History Month!


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Last night, sublime music, women’s voices soaring in a Medieval Women’s Choir concert at Trinity Church. I was transfixed, transported by the voices. During the instrumentals I closed my eyes and watched all my beloved characters dancing to the vielle and harp. Members of the Medieval Women’s Choir will perform at my book launch on 4 May at the University Bookstore in Seattle!


When I began my career in crime writing, my library from graduate school was light on women. I scrambled for information about women in the 14th century, sifting through mountains of books, documents and papers hungrily copying down the smallest of gleanings about women and their lives in the period. But as you know if you keep up with the field or if you’ve followed this blog, that has changed. Radically. Historians are writing brilliant books about women in the middle ages. Hurrah!

unnamed-1Where to begin?! If you’re just starting, I can’t think of a better introduction and overview than Susan Signe Morrison’s new book, A Medieval Woman’s Companion (Oxbow Books 2016). A few weeks ago, as a guest on this blog, Susan treated us all to a lively discussion about how we might make use of her new book in writing novels about medieval women. So you’ve already sampled Susan’s engaging style and the range of women she discusses.

Not only does Susan introduce the reader to a grand assortment of women from a wide variety of backgrounds, but she discusses the broader themes touching on women’s lives at the time—attitudes about women’s bodies; women’s occupations; religious movements; women in the arts, including playwrights and troubadours and Japanese writers. Each chapter includes a resource guide for further exploring the women and the topics. The resources include websites, videos, novels, as well as source documents.

Who can resist a book with chapter titles such as: “Textile Concerns: Holy Transvestites and the Dangers of Cross-dressing”? The chapter isn’t solely about cross-dressing, though that isn’t just a come on. Susan discusses the political implications of clothing including the sumptuary laws, how water-powered mills for grinding grain freed women to work in textiles—and all facets of that production, and, yes, the women who dressed as men to protect themselves or to protect their cities and kingdoms—women donning armor!

One of my favorite parts of the book is the final chapter, “Looking Forward” Contemporary Feminist Theory and Medieval Women.” Susan states at the beginning: “Medieval women’s lives and writings prefigure many issues that have arisen in more recent times. Indeed, the medieval period helped form current beliefs and attitudes toward women.” In this chapter Susan cites a wide assortment of writers on the importance of revising what we consider the “canon”, that is, the works considered worthy of study in schools and universities, as well as the necessity of questioning attitudes we’ve carried forward through the ages—women’s work is unimportant, women’s innocence is best protected by ignorance, how women have been considered the Other. The chapter is thought-provoking and engaging, not angry. If you are using this book for a class, this is the chapter I’d imagine inspiring the liveliest discussions with support from the earlier chapters.

As if all this weren’t enough, Susan has created a companion website for the book that will be continually updated—in fact, she’s already adding material.

If you’re writing about medieval women or teaching medieval history or literature, this book is an essential. What a resource!

Once you’ve begun, look back at the non-fiction I’ve featured on this blog:15228
A Poisoned Past by Steven Bednarski
Perilous Passages: the Book of Margery Kempe by Julie A Chappell
Inventing Eleanor by Michael Evans
The Beguines of Medieval Paris by Tanya Stabler Miller
Defending the City of God by Sharan Newman
Queenship in the Mediterranean by Elena Woodacre (be sure to look at part 2 as well)

My graduate school reading that was so light on women—that is happily a thing of the past.


“A Medieval Woman’s Companion” as Inspiration for Novelists


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It is my great pleasure to welcome Susan Signe Morrison to A Writers Retreat. Her new book, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, just out from Oxbow Books, is a snappy, engaging exploration of remarkable individuals as well as themes in women’s studies, grounded on solid research and yet also providing links to popular art based on the historical record. You’re in for a treat! Feel free to ask questions or add your own thoughts. I’ll pass them on to Susan.

Candace Robb asked me to explore how writers of historical novels might use the unnamed-1material in my new book, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, to spark ideas for creating fictional worlds featuring these women or women like them. While I dare not mention all the ideas my fertile brain can conjure up—I do need to keep some in my literary mental cupboard for future works I might pen!—I can think of many ways these lives and the information the book provides can lead to natural ways of crafting and imagining worlds in the medieval past. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Heloise d’Argenteuil, Hildegard von Bingen, and Joan of Arc have been richly appropriated in literature and film. They are not the only women of the Middle Ages worthy of attention.

Viking women start off the book and their stories as presented in Icelandic sagas need no augmentation to make them exciting. However, some of their lives deserve more focus, as seen in Donna Jo Napoli’s Hush: An Irish Princess’ Tale (NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007) which tells the story of the teenager Melkorka, daughter of the Irish king, when she was kidnapped and enslaved by Vikings. Melkorka’s father ultimately offers the throne to her son. While the Laxdaela Saga dealt with her later life, this Young Adult book explores her teenage years in a gripping and poignant adventure. Unn the Deep-Minded, one of the original claimants to land when Iceland was colonized, fascinates me. Older with grown-up children, she manipulates her death to make sure her beloved grandson inherits her wealth. Her ship burial is an elaborate affair, attesting to her importance. What about her earlier life? What made her so strong and willing to embark to a strange, new land? She reminds me of those pioneer women of the American West, who defied the odds to settle in a bleak environment. Given recent discussions in the media about the erasure of older women from film, Unn would be a dramatic character in a fictional telling of this dynamic woman’s life. The original crone of power and determination, Unn surely deserves her own book.

The witches who make an appearance in the Icelandic sagas also tantalize, from the cleverly deceptive Katla to Thorgunna, who shows up naked, calmly cooking dinner, after she has died. Surely the violent Freydis deserves her own tale. When no man is willing to kill innocent women in her attempt to gain money and power, she speaks: “Hand me an axe.” After her massacre, she is “highly pleased with what she had accomplished.” Cold? Calculating? Yes. But fascinating.

Saxon women always seem so boldy Germanic. Queen Aethelthryth had two chaste marriages. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, “To have one chaste marriage may be regarded as good fortune. To have two chaste marriages looks like calculation.” Aethelthryth must have been one strong character to have managed unions with powerful men who abided by her decision. What was her story beyond what we find in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and saints’ lives?

shadowThe Anglo-Norman ruling women of the 11th and early 12th centuries demand attention, as we have seen lately in Pat Bracewell’s series on Emma of Normandy. What about poor Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor? I’ve always felt sorry for her, childless, sent to a nunnery for a year after her marriage of six years. Was she resentful of her bullying (as I imagine him) father, Earl Godwin of Wessex? What about the devout Saint Margaret of Scotland? She became mother to three Scottish kings, founded hospices, and established a ferry for pilgrims still named after her: Queensferry. We often mistake piety for softness or weakness, a passive devotion, rather than recognizing such spirituality as it would have been perceived in the Middle Ages: the intense strength of steadfastness.

The life of the twelfth-century Christina of Markyate hardly needs elaboration from a modern novelist. Abused physically and emotionally by her parents, she must hide for four years in a devout monk’s closet, let out only at night to relieve her physical needs. Yet I imagine more remains to be done with her. A middle-grade chapter book might explore that early part of her life, when she suffers so much from her parents’ schemes before she succeeds in becoming a respected nun. Other books for younger readers suggest themselves as well: what about the life of Saint Catherine of Siena before she became famous? Or a picture book of the young Hildegard von Bingen living in a cell with the holy Jutta? Hild, a seventh-century abbess and patron of the first known poet in the English language (Caedmon), has her own novel now, Nicola Griffith’s novel Hild (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), which traces Hild’s life from her girlhood and explores her impact on the Anglo-Saxon world. What about a book featuring a transvestite saint? Surely a girl could identify with a trouser-wearing non-conformist defying her parents!

Fictive lives penned by real medieval women writers might also be promising 9781785350092sources. Think of all the women Christine de Pizan cites in her opus The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she constructs an allegorical city populated by women from history and myth and reigned over by none other than the Virgin Mary herself. The young virgin martyrs and holy harlots in Hrotsvit von Gandersheim’s plays deserve further scrutiny. After all, the tenth-century Hrotsvit was the first playwright-male or female–since the Classical period. Surely she warrants some attention. Medieval imaginary works give rise to new literature today. My own recent historical fiction, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, tells the story of the Old English epic Beowulf from the point of view of the women. What about those suffering wives in Marie de France’s short romances called lais? Maybe a novel telling the story of the werewolf’s wife in Bisclavret whose nose gets bitten off warrants her own tale.

Trota of Salerno, of whom we know almost nothing, would be an ideal protagonist. Since material about her actual life is so scanty, the novelist can freely concoct a backstory. Trota must have had fascinating encounters with patients and medical personnel. What caused her to write the manuscripts ascribed to her? Did she have to defy authorities or was Salerno utterly unique in supporting women’s medical activity? Speaking of healing, what about Felicie de Almania, put on trial for acting as a physician in the 14th century? MarHer defiant testimony suggests an intelligent force of nature. Legal cases such as hers naturally lend themselves to fiction, as in the tragic stories of various heretics, such as Marguerite de Porete and Na Prous Boneta. Testimony still exists, off of which one could build a realistic and compelling narrative.

revised Triple Knot_cvrOne might consider unexpected approaches to these medieval women. Think about Margery Kempe by Robert Glück, in which the fifteenth-century pilgrim and visionary’s audacious life is paralleled with the narrator’s passionate love for a young man. Rebecca Barnhouse’s YA The Book of the Maidservant tells Margery’s story from the point of view of her serving girl. That’s a classic approach, of course: make up a character who has encounters with a famous figure, allowing us to see that renowned person “slant,” as it were. What about Margery’s story from the perspective of her confessor or her beleaguered and, considering what he endures, tolerant husband, John? Candace Robb has written numerous dazzling novels set in fourteenth-century England. Focusing on the women—fictional and historical—who influenced events and experienced love and betrayal, these books bring to life the lives of medieval women, such as the “Fair Maid of Kent” in A Triple Knot (Broadway Books 2014) and Alice Perrers, who really was The King’s Mistress (Broadway Books 2011).

Don’t be limited to the European Middle Ages. Anna Komnene, that Byzantine powerhouse, has often been called the first female secular historian. She had issues with her brother, who sneaks in to take the imperial ring of power off their dead father’s finger while Anna remains in mourning. He steals the throne from Anna before exiling her — his own sister! Margaret of Beverley’s story—born in Jerusalem to English pilgrim parents, returning only to be caught in a siege by Saladin’s forces—is more timely than ever, when the Middle East hits the headlines daily. Don’t forget those medieval women of Japan. We have many of their writings to guide us in the form of “pillow books” and the groundbreaking The Tale of Genji by Marasaki Shikibu. What if a Japanese woman visited Europe or visa-versa?

Muslim and Jewish women intermingled with Christians in Spain. I can see a vibrant epic following three friends of differing faiths torn asunder by religion and rival love affairs. Wait–I have to go write it down–right now!

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In addition to short (5-7 pages) biographies of twenty medieval women, chapters also include an introduction discussing ways to approach the historical past using primary documents; a brief history of the English language and the role women played in its development; an analysis of the concepts forming medical theories about women’s bodies; and a journey into clothing and cross-dressing. The final chapter uses contemporary feminist theory to show how medieval women’s lives can be analyzed using such approaches and, in fact, deepen and augment current theoretical views, complicating gender theory. All of this information—and the works cited that I used as sources—can lead the 21st century writer through many a literary labyrinth, ending up with a writing project.

Some Links:
Margaret of Beverley
Celebrate Scotland/ St Margaret of Scotland
Grendel’s Mother
A Medieval Woman’s Companion
Oxbow Books


Thank you, Susan! This book has already inspired a subplot in Kate Clifford #2!

Embodying Medieval Women


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I think you will enjoy a post I wrote for the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon network, an international network funded by the Leverhulme Trust and centered at the University of Surrey. I feel it a great honor to be invited to contribute to their blog. My post is about how I embody my characters. You can read it here.


The Magic of Lists


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King_Henry_IV_from_NPG_(2)A few weeks ago I sat down at the end of a tiring day and picked up a biography of King Henry IV of England I’d been reading. It was that time of the evening when my mind skitters about for a while before settling on the printed page before me—stray thoughts about the day arise, reminders to add something to my calendar, or my to do list. Lists. At any point in time I have so many lists, particularly about the book in progress and future books. Yes, I am a list maker. There is something about adding an idea to a list that eases me, helps me let it go for the moment. And that evening what finally focused my mind was an amusing, fascinating list of some of the items Henry Bolingbroke, heir to the duchy of Lancaster, collected to take with him on crusade in Lithuania (from The Fears of Henry IV, Ian Mortimer, Vintage Books 2007):

7 lb. of ginger
11 lb. of quince jam
4 lb. of a conserve of pine nuts
2 lb. of caraway seeds
2 lb. of ginger sweets
2 lb. of preserved cloves
3 lb. of citronade
2 lb. of “royal sweets”
4 lb. of red and white “flat sugars”
6 lb. of “sugar candy”
3 lb. of “royal paste”
2 lb. of aniseed sweets
2 lb. of sunflower seeds
2 lb. of mapled ginger
2 lb. of barley sugar
2 lb. of digestive sweetmeats
1 lb. of nutmeg
2 lb. of red wax
and 2 quires of paper.

What a sweet tooth! In addition,
506 lb. of almonds
112 lb. of rice
14 lb. of cinnamon
10 lb. of sugar syrup
a huge amount of ale (960 pints arriving in 24 gallon barrels)
10 flitches of bacon
40 sheep
and he bought copious amounts of fish of all sorts along the way.

On crusade?! Reading the list lit up my imagination. All these items—I could see them, I imagined the shops, the haggling. I wondered about how they transported all this. This is how nobility traveled, even on crusade.

What is it about lists? From a New Yorker article:

“…lists tap into our preferred way of receiving and organizing information at a subconscious level; from an information-processing standpoint, they often hit our attentional sweet spot. When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves. Lists also appeal to our general tendency to categorize things—in fact, it’s hard for us not to categorize something the moment we see it—since they chunk information into short, distinct components. This type of organization facilitates both immediate understanding and later recall, as the neuroscientist Walter Kintsch pointed out back in 1968. Because we can process information more easily when it’s in a list than when it’s clustered and undifferentiated, like in standard paragraphs, a list feels more intuitive. In other words, lists simply feel better.” (“A List of Reason Why Our Brains Love Lists” by Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker 2 Dec 2013)

The merchant Richard Lyons plays a prominent role in my novel The King’s Mistress. When I was still deep in research, a friend urged me to read the inventory of goods owned by Richard Lyons drawn up by the sheriffs of London at the time of the seizure of his property in 1376. “The spoons!” he said. “The cushions! You won’t believe it.” Reading it gave me such a strong impression of the man, how carefully he presented himself, how he valued presentation (“The Wealth of Richard Lyons”, A.R. Myers, in Essays in Medieval History Presented to Bertie Wilkinson, ed. T.A. Sandquist and M.R. Powicke)

nature03My files are full of lists of medieval herbal remedies. Here’s a collection from various sources for dog bites:
Betony for the bite of a mad dog—pound it very small, and lay it on the wound.
Plantain—If a mad dog bites a person, pound it fine, and apply it; it will quickly heal.
Vervain—for the bite of a mad dog, take it and whole gains of wheat. Lay them on the bite so that the grains are softened by the moisture and become swollen; then take the grains and throw them to some chickens. If they refuse to eat them, then take other grains and mix with the plant in the same way as you did earlier and lay this on the bite until you feel that the danger is gone and drawn out.
Burdock—for the bite of a mad dog, take the roots of this same plant, pound them with coarse salt, and lay this on the bite.
Cockspur—pound with grease and bake in bread—but takes far too long.
Yarrow—grind it with wheat seeds and put on wound.
Calendula—for the bite of a mad dog, pounds it into a powder, then take a spoonful and give it to drink in warm water, and the person will recover.
Black horehound—for dog bite, take the leaves of this plant pounded with salt. Lay this on the wound, and it will heal in a wonderful manner.
Bulbus (tassel hyacinth)—Mixed with honey it cures dog bites.

Your imagination lit up as you read those, didn’t it? Are you a list maker? Or a collector of lists? We’re not alone. Umberto Eco called the list “the origin of culture” in this article:

I have more articles about lists—a long list of them! But I’ll stop here.

Why Study History?


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What is the importance of doing history? I once posed this question to a friend, the historian AC (Compton) Reeves. His response, at once playful but also clearly sincere, resonated so strongly with my own feelings that I wrote it on the whiteboard in my office: “I think there are some among us who have empathy for those who lived in the past, and want to know more about them. History is the most humanistic of all disciplines, in that it includes all that folk in the past have done in all areas of endeavor. Doing history is an art, not a science, and it appeals to our creative instincts. Doing history also expands our specious present into what ever age and area of human history … catches our fancy. To do history, then, makes us more human, for only humans among the creatures can have history. For us it is a mystical thing, keeping in mind that ‘medievalist’ and ‘mystic’ are both ‘m’ words. Is it not of practical value to become as richly human as we are able to become? Is it not the purpose of life for each of us to grow in our individual humanity, and is not the study of past lives an exposure to the life pilgrimages of those who have gone before and can guide us?”

the life pilgrimages of those who have gone before and can guide us…  On this Winter Solstice, I’m taking time to meditate on this. Humbly, with gratitude.

Happy Solstice!


Warmest Wishes for the Holidays!


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Rises above Whitesands Bay, St. David’s, Pembrokeshire

My quiet street is alight in the evenings and the Christmas ships twinkle on the lake below. The longest night is near. For me the weeks surrounding the winter solstice share a magic with sites such as Carn Llidi, where the barriers between the mundane and the magical are so thin one might cross over all unaware. I’m steeped in dreams of otherwhere, otherwhen.

For those of you who haven’t yet signed up for my newsletter (on my website), here’s a link to yesterday’s issue, the first, to entice you.

Warmest wishes for your holiday season, dear readers!

Some medieval carols!

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!



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