Welcome to A Bloody Good Read
Hello, and welcome to A Bloody Good Read, new blog launched by me (Sam Thomas) and Nancy Bilyeau, another author of historical fiction.
I’m a professor in the history department at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, and the author of The Midwife’s Story: A Mystery, a historical novel set in England during the civil war between Parliament and King Charles I. The Midwife's Story is under contract with St. Martin's Press, and will probably come out in the fall of 2012.
Nancy's first book The Crown is will hit the shelves in early 2012, but is available for pre-order now. She has worked in magazine publishing, and written prize-winning screenplays. (I’ll let her introduce herself in greater detail at her convenience.)
Nancy and I are starting this blog largely as a way of communicating with readers, other authors, and to sort out our own thoughts about reading and writing historical fiction. Because I wear these two hats – that of historian and novelist – I also will use it to discuss the relationship between writing history and writing fiction, and how these endeavors compare.
As in my fiction, in my early posts I’ll focus on the past. I’ll try to explain how I came to writing fiction relatively late in life (I’m in my 40s), and how I got from idea, to agent, to contract.
The Midwife’s Story is a mystery narrated by a woman named Bridget Hodgson, a wealthy midwife in York, the most important city in northern England. She is based on a woman of the same name whom I discovered in 2001 while doing archival research for my doctoral dissertation. Since finding Bridget (we’re on a first name basis!), I’ve begun to write on the history of midwifery from a historical perspective. For many years, historians accepted the “ignorant old crone” stereotype of early modern midwives, but in recent years we have discovered that wealthy midwives such as Bridget Hodgson were not uncommon. But knowing who midwives were not is a far cry from figuring out who they were, and the role that they played in the local community. (I’ve got an entire section on the historical Bridget Hodgson on my website.)
To that end, I’ve written a few academic articles, and hope to write a history book. But about a year ago I decided to try my hand at fiction. As it happens, a midwife is the perfect protagonist for writing mysteries, for they helped investigate crimes involving women ranging from rape, to infanticide, to witchcraft. Moreover, if a woman were sentenced to execution, she could delay her execution by claiming to be pregnant, or “pleading the belly.” It then became the midwife’s obligation to examine the prisoner to confirm or refute her claim.
Writing about Bridget seemed equally perfect, for her marriage into one of York’s most powerful families positioned her perfectly to handle sensitive cases on behalf of civic officials. Added to this is the fact that the archives contain a wealth of information about Bridget – her will names her godchildren (whom she likely delivered), her deputy midwife, and the men she wanted to carry her to her grave. We also have testimony from a slander suit in which she was the defendant, so we can hear what her friends and clients had to say about her. The case provides vivid descriptions of her social affairs and the complicated social environment in which midwives operated. (I have transcribed some of these documents on my website, and plan to post more as time permits.)
Once I’d chosen my narrator, the only remaining question was when in history to set the book. Our first mention of Bridget comes from 1662, but it is clear that she had been practicing midwifery in York for several years before that. I decided to begin the story in 1644, in the midst of England’s civil wars, when the city of York came under siege by Parliamentary armies. The setting would provide a closed environment in which Bridget could work, and supplied a great deal of political in the background. More importantly, it allowed me to tell two parallel stories, one of treason, as Parliament rose against the King, and one of “petty treason,” the legal term for the murder of husband by his wife or a master by a servant. Thus, even as Parliamentary “traitors” surround the city, one of Bridget’s friends is accused of petty treason for murdering her husband.
After I had the setting, how hard could it be to write and publish a book?