Sharan Newman, medieval historian and author, has been intriguing readers with her Catherine LeVendeur medieval mystery series and her Guinevere trilogy for many years. Now she has some nonfiction on offer: The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code and an upcoming book about the Templars.
Margaret Frazer writes the very popular Dame Frevisse series. She was a finalist for an Edgar Award for Best Original Paperback for both The Servant's Tale and The Prioress' Tale. She just recently released the third in her Joliffe series, A Play of Knaves. She is currently working on the page proofs for her next Dame Frevisse novel.
Both women have an extremely loyal following and both were gracious enough to answer my questions.
How did you get into writing medieval mystery?
Sharan Newman: I started out as a medievalist. My first books were Arthurian fantasy, based on my first voyage through grad school in medieval lit. I started writing the mysteries when I went back to finish my PhD in medieval history. There are so many holes in history that we simply don't have the information to fill. These make great sites for novels. And historians are all really detectives.
Margaret Frazer: I came to write medieval mysteries through my long-time desire to write straight historical novels. Toward that end I'd been researching into late
medieval English life for decades, writing when I could around the edges of
motherhood and other pastimes. A friend who already was published with modern
mysteries wanted to branch into medieval ones, but while she had done much research
into medieval nunnery life, she was not in depth on other aspects of England in
the 1400s. I offered the use of my research, glad to have someone to enjoy it
with me, but when she came down with severe writer's block, I offered to take
over the book I'd been helping with and she accepted. Then, when her
writer's block broke, we made a partnership of it, with me discovering how much fun
writing mysteries could be while we made great use of all that research. After
six books in the Dame Frevisse series, she tired of the Middle Ages, left
Dame Frevisse and all to me, now writes modern mysteries again, and we're still
friends, each happily in her own century.
What keeps you going?
SN: My mortgage.
MF: Various things keep me going. One is that I love telling stories and,
moreover, have had a compelling need to write them down ever since I was about nine
years old. I wrote for decades before being paid for it and know that I
would still be writing even if no book of mine had ever been published. It is, in
its way, an addiction, and if you have it, you can't escape it, only learn to
live with it. Which I very happily do!
Also, I have been unbelievably lucky enough to make a living with my
writing. The thought of having to go back to "a regular job" has kept me at the
computer keyboard through some very flat times.
What is your writing process like? How long do you spend on research, on writing? What is a routine day like?
SN: There is no routine. I work all day, sometimes writing sometimes in research, sometime just staring at the screen muttering curses.
MF: My routine day begins, if all is going well and my health is holding, between 4:30 and 5am but at very latest, hopefully, by 5:30. It's a lovely time of day when no one is likely to want me for anything; and if I've gone to bed properly about 9 pm the night before, getting up is easy then, even without an alarm clock (the lack of which is one of the pleasures I have). Feed the cats, brew the pot of tea, boot up the computer, start music playing, get to work within 20 minutes of shuffling out of bed. Then I write for as long as the brain holds out, with a break for breakfast along the way. When the brain decides it simply can't face anymore prose, I do something else -- like clean house, hang out laundry, watch a video, run errands -- anything that isn't writing. Then, sometime in the afternoon I settle down to research: reading, taking notes, organizing what I already have. That goes on through the evening, usually to bedtime, when I go to bed, usually with some heavily-prosed research book, thereby assuring I go fairly promptly to sleep.
Research is the key to a successful writer, whether for historical fiction, standard fiction, and nonfiction. What excites you the most about research for your novels?
SN: Primary research is the most interesting for me. I do the same sort of research for a novel as I would for a non-fiction book. There's always the excitement of a possible discovery in the archives or even a new connection of known material that no one else has ever made.
MF: Happily, the two things I enjoy doing most are writing and researching. I think what excites me most about the research is the quest for and acquiring of Things I Didn't Know. And despite (the fact) I've been researching 15th century England for nigh to forty years, there's always something more to learn and the excitment of learning it never lessens. Even when, as for The Sempster's Tale, I had to learn about international medieval banking. The plot needed it, so I buckled down to learn it -- and became enthralled and had a delightful time. And then there's the reading of scholarly books "on spec" as it were, when I take up the book not for a particular purpose but because it's interesting. I never know what may come out of that book that will spark an idea, if not at the time, then later. It was something from a book on medieval agrarian life that, years later, became the basis of the plot for The Reeve's Tale. A book about the household accounts of a pair of medieval chantry priests provided interest a decade later for life in Dame Frevisse's nunnery -- and I hadn't even begun to write medieval mysteries when I read that book. So I suppose it's the treasure-hunting aspect of it all: I never know what's going to interest and excite me when I set out on a research-quest. And there's the thrill of when all the pieces come together in an unexpected way, and history gets blended into the plot as it does with The Bastard's Tale and The Widow's Tale.
I noticed you two were on several panels at the last International Congress on Medieval Studies. How are you generally greeted by academia? Do they welcome you?
SN: I initially worried about how other medievalists would feel about my making fiction a career. They have without exception been supportive and actually I think a bit proud of me. They may also be a bit jealous because I'm not bound by the school calendar to do my research. But my academic papers have been greeted with the same respect given to anyone in the university.
MF: I've gone to the International Congress on Medieval Studies for a number of years now (missed 2006 due to ill-health and am still chafing about that). It's a 4-day convention with about 3,000 scholars from all over the world and hundreds of papers being give on medieval topics -- my idea of heaven! But I must confess that when I first went, I had a strong desire to hide my name-tag in case anyone recognized me for a novelist and expressed their disdain, scorn, and disapproval. Instead, I've found myself welcomed with enthusiasm. (Those who may disapprove have not revealed themselves to revile me to my face anyway.) Two presenters, learning during the question period at the end of their session that I wrote mystery novels, even declared that their subject -- Bishop Pecock -- would make a great detective! I am pleased to report they were very correct: Bishop Pecock has now appeared in two short stories and plays a large part in The Bastard's Tale.
Does academia generally embrace historical novelists?
SN: It depends a great deal on one's attitude to established facts. People who do honest research and don't simply repeat popular myths about the period are usually welcomed.
MF: I really have no idea about academia's majority reaction to historical novelists. Ideally, response would be based on how historical the novelist actually is. Some "historicals" are an insult to scholarship -- and don't get me started on that! Any time a novelist blithely announces they've changed events around to suit the story better, I become very wary. I do know that at least several college professors include some of my novels on their class reading lists, which greatly pleases me.
Sharon, you recently published a book debunking the research in The Da Vinci Code. Do either of you plan on making more forays into nonfiction? Is fiction still more fun for you?
SN: I am currently writing a follow-up book called The Real History Behind the Templars that will be out next July. This is much more in my field than the Da Vinci Code book and I'm having fun doing it. However, I couldn't live without writing fiction. My ideal life would be to do first one and then the other. It would be like getting paid once for the research and again for the novel.
MF: I have no plans for a foray into nonfiction. That is work of a very different nature from what I do. Better that I spend the time reading other people's non-fiction and turning it to use in my story-telling.
What is it that you are most proud of in your writing?
SN: I'm really never satisfied with my work but I think that I have always made the story fit the facts even if it meant changing the plot. I won't fudge to fit a story line.
MF: As for what I am most proud of in my writing -- it's that people not only read my books but go back and read them again and want to keep them. That tells me I've created characters that readers enjoy spending time with as they would with living friends. One of my longings, long before I was ever published, was to be able to write stories that other people would enjoy as much as I've enjoyed my favorite authors. I wanted to be able to give to other people what some authors have given to me. That I've done so is a deep, deep joy.
Do you think a series needs a finite number or can it go on indefinitely?
SN: As a reader I hate to get involved in a series and not have all the loose ends tied up somehow. Maybe every writer should write a first and last book and then fill in with as many as the readers will take.
MF: Concerning the longevity of series -- whether one can go on forever or not -- there are various "right" answers. If an author is simply writing the same book over and over again with only superficial variations and his readers want nothing more than that, then apparently a series can go on as long as the author can. Then again a series' characters may grow and circumstances change to the point where the series reaches a logical end. Interestingly, someone just lately got their master's degree with their thesis that my Dame Frevisse books are not so much a genre series as a multi-volumed literary novel that continues to change as characters develop from book to book.
Are you interested in writing in any other fiction genre?
SN: I love mysteries but will write in any genre that fits the story I want to tell.
MF: As for whether I'm interested in writing any other fiction genre, well, the intent to write the big historical novel (that got me into all this research at the beginning) is still with me. One way or another I do plan to stay in the history section of fiction because it's the exploring of mindsets in other times that interests me. Not for the escapism of it -- there's very little "escapism" in trudging through volumes of medieval bureaucratic documents or medieval theology written in Middle English -- but because moving so completely into another way of seeing the world, into standing aside from our own time and place and looking at from the "outside" as it were, can give a clearer view of where and how we are than we can have if we never see any other way of looking at life than just the one.
You write historical fiction, that is, your own fictional plot set against an historical background with real figures from the past making guest appearances, with the occasional factual event as a motivating factor for the characters. With all the furor over novels like The Da Vinci Code, what do you feel is the responsibility of the novelist? Do you worry that readers take fiction for fact?
SN: I worry about this a lot. Most of us (including me) don't remember where we learned something. I believe that a historical novelist has a duty to be as accurate as possible, not just in dates and clothes but also in attitudes and beliefs. If nothing else, there should be a disclaimer like "All I know about this period, I learned in a high school class taught by the hockey coach and the rest I made up." I could live with that.
MF: Since that is my approach to historical fiction, I do have trouble with authors who play fast and loose with facts to make their story-telling easier. And with authors who rely on cliches for the same reason -- or because they've never done enough research to know any better. I have a game where I count the number of "medieval cliches" an author gets into the early pages of their book. Streets deep in filth is maybe the most common (and extremely tedious; what DO people think all those laws for keeping streets clean and repaired in medieval London were about?). The Black Death of course turns up far too often (mentioned even if it's not part of the action -- although tediously often it is; and I do mean tediously). Lawless violence as a given of everyday life (which in England at least it was not for most of the late Middle Ages; outbreaks, yes; daily and universal, no). Heads on London Bridge (even when it has nothing to do with the story). Get enough of those elements in the first few pages of a book and you know you're in cliche-land. But people believe those cliches and then think facts, when they meet them, are false. So that's annoying for those of us who work to get it right. On the other hand, it is fiction, and authors fictionalize. What I see -- and there are others who don't -- is the difference between fictionalizing and distorting. If you write dialogue between, say, your main character and King Alfred the Great, and keep it within the boundaries of King Alfred's time and place, that's legitimate fiction. If you decide to compact eleven years of King Alfred's reign into two for the sake of the story (it's been done), then that is a degree of distortion that goes past historical fiction into fantasy. At least in that case, the author said in her Author's Note what she had done. Other authors don't explain what they've deliberately distorted, which is a cheat on the reader, I think. That, and giving characters modern perceptions and sensibilities, as if people in different times and places were just us in funny clothes. That's fantasy, and to call it historical is a cheap cheat. I read a lot of fantasy books; fantasy at its best is rich and evocative. I've read historical-fantasy authors who say that's what they are and enjoyed them. But I confess I get rude and want to write notes in the margins of books where the authors claim they're writing historical fiction when what they've done is really cheap fantasy.
Let’s talk a little about the publishing industry. When the blockbuster is king, is there still a place for the midlist medieval mystery?
SN: I think there is. But the thing about the midlist is that one can't stay in it forever. Every few years the people at the bottom of the midlist are dropped and new ones added. One can live without writing a 'breakout book', but sales still have to be respectable.
MF: Is there still a place for the midlist medieval mystery? With readers, yes, there certainly is. With publishers? Who can say? I've long since given up the delusion that big publishing companies are run by rational people. Editors -- they're fine; I appreciate and admire the editors I've had. Publishers? Another matter altogether.
Are you still edited as stringently as when you first started publishing novels?
SN: I haven't noticed any change in how I'm edited, but it was never stringent, more just suggestions.
MF: Am I edited as stringently as when I started? Either my editor is become more tolerant or I've better-learned my craft -- and I rather think it's the latter. My first copy-edited manuscript came back with so many yellow post-its fluttering from the edges that it looked like Big Bird had moulted on it. Now the notes are much fewer. I may be getting the hang of this writing stuff!
Does being an established author create problems with new editors or do the advantages outweigh the problems?
SN: I've had several editors and a problem only with one, who I still think was certifiable. I think it always helps to have enough experience to be seen as a professional. If you don't have the experience you can still act professionally. It gives you lots of brownie points.
MF: I've had three editors over the years and never had any real problem with any of them. I try to send in final drafts that are clean enough of plot and prose to make no problems between us.
What do you think readers are looking for these days? Is it the same as what editors are looking for?
SN: If I knew the answer to this, I'd be busy writing whatever it was.
MF: Frankly, I've never tried to guess what either readers or editors are looking for. I write the stories I want to write -- the stories I want to spend months of my life creating -- and hope for the best. So far, so good.
Where do you think publishers might be failing authors?
SN: I think that inconsistency and lack of communication with authors are the main problems. Not every book can have a huge publicity budget but the author should know what she can do to promote and what to expect in the way of help.
MF: As for where publishers may be failing authors, I think the general answer you'll get from midlist authors is lack of publicity. Give some of the promotion to established midlist authors that they lavish on "literary" novels (note the qualifying "-") and the mid-list could become a far stronger part of the market. But see above: publishers vs. rational.
Do you find British publishers have different sales expectations than their American counterparts? In what way?
SN: British publishers are content with smaller sales figures.
MF: I'm told that British publishers have decided that there is "no market" for history mysteries. Therefore they don't publish many or promote them, thereby insuring there is no market. American publishers seem to think there's a market but see no point in doing anything to promote or expand it because it's "just sub-genre fiction".
What do you think about ebooks?
SN: I couldn't read one but I don't think form matters as much as content. I'm happy if you read my books in any format. (or listen to them)
MF: I've never tried an e-book. I spend too much time looking at a computer screen as it is to want to read from one. Besides, electro-magnetic fields don't agree with me and the ceaseless hum of machines gets on my nerves. All of which is ironic, given how devoted I am to writing on the computer. I freely confess it's not the technology's fault, it's mine.
Where do you see the industry heading?
SN: I think that there's a positive trend to small, serious independent publishers. The internet allows for good distribution without going through the normal bookstore channels. This will allow for more specialized books and also for fiction that doesn't fit into mainstream New York mentality.
MF: As for where the industry and I may be heading, who knows? Onward, ever onward -- whether to glory or over a cliff, who can say? In the past fourteen years I've gone five rounds with cancer and the mentally-debilitating after-effects of the treatments (which the doctors never warn you about; you only find out the hard way), so I do literally live from book to book, starting each one with the hope that cancer won't get me before I finish it. On the other hand, look at all the books I've finished under that sword: maybe it's more a goad than a guillotine. Besides, I've been able to use some of my experiences therewith in my books, particularly The Boy's Tale and -- um -- a more recent one that I can't name for fear of a Spoiler. But you'll know it when you read it! That sort of cannibalism is very common among writers, I gather. It's certainly been true of me all my life. Perhaps the most fun I've had using my past experiences in stories is in my new series, centered on the player Joliffe in A Play of Isaac, A Play of Dux Moraud, and A Play of Knaves. Elizabethan theater has been well-mined for stories, but Medieval theater has not been much used, so it's been a happy challenge to develop those stories, calling on my own acting experience that, over the years, was mostly on outdoor stages and close to the audience, along with several stints in professional theater as an extra that gave me chance to watch highly skilled professionals practicing their craft. But everything -- good, bad, ugly, and beautiful -- turns into grist for the creative mill. People will say my main character in my first series, the nun Dame Frevisse, must be me. To some degree, yes, she must be drawn from some aspect of myself, but so are all the other characters that have dimension in my stories, particularly the title character, who shares viewpoint with Frevisse in the course of a book. That fact may give you pause when you read The Prioress' Tale or The Murderer's Tale . I confess the days I spent in their heads when writing their chapters were very unpleasant. At the same time, though, there were moments when they weren't hard to write at all. And that gives ME pause. And now back to the 1400s with me. As one of my family once observed when I was complaining about not having a life -- I have one; it just happens to be six hundred and some years ago.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
SN: In a million dollar apartment on the Ile St. Louis in Paris. Hey, we all need to dream..
My thanks to both ladies for taking the time for this. They are both extremely busy and this is most appreciated. I would also like to note here that they were interviewed by email at seperate times (for the sake of complete accuracy).
I hope that you, Gentle Readers, will also visit my website, www.JeriWesterson.com where you can read a first chapter of my medieval mysteries, the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series. Cheers!