I am sorry it has taken me so long to get a new blog up, but I have had to make a choice between keeping current on Facebook or putting up new blogs, and since most of the action seems to occur on my Facebook pages, that is the road I’ve chosen. I am not the most co-ordinated of people, so my balancing acts end in a splatter more often than not—one reason why I’ve yet to venture onto Twitter like so many of my fellow authors. I just hope this will not make me such an anomaly that when I die, they’ll carve on my tombstone, “Only writer never to tweet.”
In my last blog, I recommended a number of books that I thought would interest my readers. But I forgot a few, so here I go again. Those who want to protect their bank accounts might want to stop reading here.
In that blog, I’d recommended a few series that I never miss—Bernard Cornwell, Dana Stabenow, Priscilla Royal, Sharan Newman, Steven Saylor, C.J. Harris, P.F. Chisholm—all but Dana’s set in bygone times–the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, Saxon, Elizabethan, and Regency England. But there are more, of course.
I was a fan of the Brother Cadfael series written by Edith Pargeter under her pseudonym Ellis Peters. And how could any reader not love Amelia Peabody, the marvelous creation of Elizabeth Peters? They both were very prolific writers, and I wish I knew their secret of continuing to produce books of such high caliber. So often a series begins to get stale if it goes on too long; I am sure many of you can name writers who’ve continued with a series beyond its natural shelf life. But Elis Peters and Elizabeth Peters were notable exceptions. Another writer whose books I eagerly anticipated was Margaret Frazer. I was lucky enough to call her a friend, and I miss her very much, for she was a wonderful human being as well as a very talented author; to learn more about her, see my blog here. http://sharonkaypenman.com/blog/?p=390 . It is very sad to think that we’ll never have another new Brother Cadfael or Amelia Peabody adventure or be able to sympathize with Sister Frevisse when her quiet convent life is interrupted yet again by the discovery of a body at her nunnery’s door. But it is some small comfort that all three of them have left a rich legacy of books for us to revisit and for new readers to discover.
I also highly recommend Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, set during and after the first world war. Her imaginative premise is that a brilliant young girl crosses paths with Sherlock Holmes, then in restless retirement in Sussex. It is the first time that the fabled detective has encountered a mind as agile and insightful as his own and he cannot resist taking her under his wing, first as his apprentice, then as his partner, and eventually as his wife. Yes, I know that very idea must sound heretical to Conon Doyle purists, but trust me—Laurie King pulls it off with panache, making their unlikely union both credible and fascinating to her readers.
I suppose Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone mysteries might be considered historical, for they are set in the pre-computer age, the 1980’s. Sue is another writer who has not only defeated the staleness dragon, she has gleefully trampled it into the dust. She has been moving through the alphabet—from her first, A is for Alibi to her latest, W is for Wasted—and the series is just as fresh and vital today as it was at its initial launch. The ending of this successful series is bound to be bittersweet for her legion of fans; I will certainly miss Kinsey and I confess that I’m curious to see how Sue manages to concoct a relevant title that begins with the letter X.
I’ve often praised Elizabeth Chadwick and Margaret George’s historical novels, but it is always worth doing again. Same for Brian Wainwright, who has written both an excellent historical novel in Within the Fetterlock and a wickedly clever spoof in The Adventures of Alienore Audley. I am not sure how Richard III would have reacted to it, for we don’t really know much about Richard’s sense of humor, and he has always struck me as a man who was firmly rooted in the Middle Ages. But I’d wager that his more irreverent brother Edward would have thought it was hilarious.
I’ve had readers tell me that my books introduced them to the compelling world of the Welsh princes, others who were unfamiliar with Simon de Montfort until they read Falls the Shadow, and still more who confessed that they had a totally different opinion of Richard III after The Sunne in Splendour. I cherish these compliments, for books have so often led me away from familiar roads and onto intriguing byways that I’d otherwise have missed. This is one reason why I want my writers to be trustworthy when it comes to research. I knew nothing of 16th century Japan until I read James Clavell’s Shogun. What little I know of the Valley of the Kings and 19th century archaeology comes from Amanda Peabody via Elizabeth Peters, who had a PhD in Egyptology. And thanks to Christy Robinson, I have become aware of a truly remarkable woman, Mary Dyer.
Christy has written two scrupulously researched novels about Mary Dyer, titled Mary Dyer Illuminated and For Such a Time as This, both of which are now on my towering TBR list. She has also crafted one of the best opening lines that I’ve encountered, a very important skill for writers as that first sentence is the bait, meant to lure readers in. I’ve spent a lot of time and trouble with those first sentences in my own books; my personal favorite is “Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods,” probably because it was my first such sentence. Mary’s is “Mary Barrett closed the wide gate of the farmyard behind her, and though she did not know it yet, this was the day she’d see her death.” After a beginning like that, who would not want to know more? I have asked Christy to write a few paragraphs about Mary, her compelling history, and the novels, and they can be found at the end of this blog.
I’m already on page three, so I will save the rest of my book musings for a future blog. I will end with a mention of another extremely gifted writer who has created her very own genre. A few years ago, I was doing a panel discussion at my favorite bookshop, the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, with Diana Gabaldon. Afterward, we were taking questions from the audience and someone asked me if I could offer only one bit of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be.
I admitted that I’d made a monumental error when I first began writing Sunne; I did not write in chronological order. At that time, I was writing for myself, not for publication, and so I felt free to hopscotch through the story of the Yorkist kings. If I felt like doing a scene between Edward and his icy Woodville wife, I did; if I then wanted to write about Richard’s turbulent childhood, I did. This scattershot approach spared me any attacks of Writer’s Block and was fun, too. I proceeded on my merry way for more than four years, only then to have the only copy of this opus stolen from my car, a loss so traumatic that I could not write for almost six years.
When this mental log jam finally broke and I began again, I repudiated my earlier carefree method and embraced the traditionalist’s view—to write the book in chronological order. I then explained to the Poisoned Pen reader that I felt this approach provided the inner discipline I needed and—most importantly—it allowed for character development. I cited Edward as an example. The cocky seventeen year old we meet in Chapter One is very different from the weary, cynical wastrel who dies forty years and many chapters later, whispering to his daughter that the worst secrets are those about to be found out. If I’d written his story piecemeal, how could I have portrayed the slow deterioration of his character?
At this point, I became aware of the amusement of some of the audience members, who were glancing over at Diana and laughing. She then confided that she always wrote in that “scattershot” way, and the monumental success of the Outlander books certainly made a very convincing argument in favor of it—if you happened to be a writer named Diana Gabaldon. I was fascinated by her revelation, but remain convinced that the chronological approach is still the best approach for the rest of us. Diana doesn’t need to play by the rules, not with that sort of talent and imagination. So I am delighted that the Starz Outlander series has been getting such wonderful reviews, both from her devoted readers and those elitist critics who look askance at any book or film that can be labeled “historical.” Then along came a modest little series called Game of Thrones. As most of you know, I am a passionate Thrones fan, and I am sure I will enjoy Outlander very much, too. And I also harbor a small hope that somewhere a Hollywood producer is mulling the success of these breakthrough series and then calling out to his loyal assistant, “Hot damn, historicals sell! Who knew? Find me a historical for my next project, maybe one set in the 12th century.”
And now, Christy Robinson on an awe-inspiring woman of great courage, compassion, and strength, who blazed across colonial America like a comet and would be martyred for her faith.
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Thank you, Sharon, for the opportunity to appear in your blog. Even though my novels’ story is set in the 17th century, and half in England, half in New England, my characters’ lives were written somewhat in your fashion. They’re not light, fast reads: they’re chewy! I’ve ripped a few pages (metaphorically speaking) from your historical novels, and have constructed the missing bits by thinking through the events moment by moment, and knowing close associates and enemies of my characters. I developed an Excel spreadsheet with all the characters’ events, as well as national news (epidemics, wars, heads of state), plotted by year—for 50 years before my story, and 40 years after. This blew apart a number of myths, and filled in what must have happened in the quiet times. And it set me on a path to discover documents that have lain hidden in archives for 350 years. Those documents showed me that in Mary and William Dyer (to steal your book title for a moment), Here Be Dragons!
The two stand-alone but sequential novels center on Mary Dyer, 1611-1660, an Englishwoman who emigrated with her husband William to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1635. (Perhaps you’ve seen the Mary Dyer statue in Boston.) They were married as Anglicans, but after passing some strict requirements were admitted to the Puritan church in Boston. In a short time, they were part of a “grace” movement led by Anne Hutchinson. Mary’s third pregnancy resulted in the premature stillbirth of an anencephalic girl, which was later disinterred and pronounced a “monster” that was proof of Dyer’s and Hutchinson’s heresy. In 1638, they and other families were ordered out of the colony. They purchased several islands from the Narragansett Indians and formed the colony of Rhode Island. From the very beginning, though they were all religious people, the founders determined to form a secular democracy. (Governors John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley of Massachusetts disdained democracy. They had a theocracy, a church-state coalition.)
Mary gives birth eight times, six live to adulthood. William rises in government positions as well as in farming and trading. He’s appointed the first Attorney General in North America. He’s commissioned Commander-in-Chief Upon the Seas for the Anglo-Dutch war in America, and the Dutch city of New Amsterdam builds the “wall” of Wall Street to protect themselves from Dyer and his colleague, John Underhill. Mary returns to England for a visit in 1652, becomes a Quaker, and goes back to America via Boston in early 1657. Because she’s a Quaker and Massachusetts hates Baptists and Quakers with a murderous passion, she’s immediately cast into prison without trial, though the court meets several times to settle civil and ecclesiastical matters. William rescues her, and back in Newport, they become part of the church-state conflict roaring across New England. As many of her friends are tortured and executed, Mary determines that as a woman of high social status, her martyrdom for liberty of conscience will be so shocking that the persecution will have to stop. So she violates her banishment-on-pain-of-death to commit civil disobedience. Twice. The second time, in 1660, she’s executed by hanging. Friends write a protest letter to King Charles II, and he orders a stop to capital punishment. Meanwhile, William Dyer and colleagues are writing the Rhode Island charter for the king to seal and grant them. The charter, granted in 1663, includes religious liberty and the importance of secular democratic government. In the 1780s, the charter became a template for the United States Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment regarding freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. Even in today’s increasingly secular society, that right means liberty for all, not liberty for *some* who would impose their beliefs and behaviors on others.
So, Sharon, to bring it back to your blog—breathing life back into the legendary Mary Dyer, and telling William’s story for the first time ever (because Mary got all the ink!), has something of you in it through analysis of your research methods and writing style. History has to be seen in context, not in abbreviated quotes for political capital. I’m so excited about the 5-star reviews from readers, including English-lit professors (because I was a book editor before an author) and history educators. The books are found here: http://bit.ly/Church-State . I’ve written two other books, keep four blogs, and am plotting out a new novel, to be set in England in the 1650s. The main characters will allow a cameo appearance by Mary Dyer. Because I can.
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“Because I can.” The mantra of writers everywhere! Thank you, Christy.
August 12, 2014