My Unruly Characters


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the Rabbit Hole: interview on The Big Thrill


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

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

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

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

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

Point of View: Whiplash!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaping the Foundation for the Kate Clifford Mysteries

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

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


The Launch of the Kate Clifford Mysteries…the Video


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

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

Celebrating the Launch of the Kate Clifford Mysteries


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May–what a glorious month in which to launch my new sleuth, Kate Clifford. On Tuesday, publication day, I’ll be signing books at noon at Seattle Mystery Bookshop.  Wednesday evening, the Medieval Women’s Choir will help me launch the series with glorious medieval music at University Bookstore in the U District (Seattle). An exciting few days!

Service of the Dead KD2b REVKate has collected wonderful prepublication reviews.
“…what Robb really excels at are action scenes, and there are several sprinkled throughout the narrative. They really make this a rocket powered read. … The story of Kate’s brother’s death, threaded through the story, is especially horrific…. It’s wonderful to have a new novel and character to cherish from this talented writer.” Robin Agnew, owner of Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore

“The Service of the Dead by Candace Robb is a strikingly well crafted novel that is a compelling page-turner from beginning to end. Very highly recommended…” Midwest Book Review

“Robb’s deft hand creates a realistic political and commercial climate as King Richard II’s reign draws to a close in 1399…a satisfying historical read…with … its strong political setting and multiple plot strands.”  Booklist

“It is a winner!… The story has many surprises, betrayals, intrigue, danger, and death. All are expertly spliced into the main thread of the story, drawing historical facts and historical fiction into a tapestry well worth reading. I give the book five stars…” Raven’s Reviews

“…the novel resonates with its compelling portrayal of an England on the brink of crisis.” Publishers Weekly

Heady stuff!

The collaboration with the choir is a dream come true. Women’s voices—that’s been the theme of my writing of late, with the novels The King’s Mistress and A Triple Knot. After working with Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent, strong women trapped in the gilded cage of the royal court, I felt the need to return to the women of York—and Kate Clifford took shape in my imagination. From the first she refused to be a secondary character. So I gave her a history, a reason to be skilled in weaponry, ever vigilant, pragmatic about the dangers of being a woman determined to choose her future, scarred emotionally, and liable to have skeletons in her closet resurrecting in her life.

I also gave her an otherness, like Owen Archer. Like him, she’s an integral part of the city without being completely at home there, which I believe works well for a sleuth. Kate feels out of place in the city. She was brought up in the country, the far North of England, the border country with Scotland, with feuding, Scots raids, and the defense of the family manor a constant in her childhood. Her parents brought her to York for her safety. But, as my readers already know, York of the late medieval period is not a place of safety. Kate is a bit wild, with her Irish wolfhounds, her weaponry, the way she’s chosen her household help. But she’s determined to make the best of her life in York.

I hope you’ll enjoy her adventures!

(Rest easy. This does not spell the end of the Owen Archer series. This is yet another set of characters who, I hope, will capture your hearts.)


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!