Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Holiday Gift...From the Future!

by Sam Thomas

I know what you're thinking:

"I'd like to give copies of THE MIDWIFE'S TALE to all my friends for Christmas, but it doesn't come out until January. What should I do?" 

(Okay, you might not have been thinking this, but one person was, and he wrote about it after reading The Puzzle Doctor's review of my book.)

Fret not - I've got you covered.

Send me an email letting me know that you've pre-ordered a copy of The Midwife's Tale, and I'll send you a nifty postcard (shown here) with a picture of the cover and some of the nice things people have said about the book. It's got a nice glossy front, and the back features a bit of the jacket copy, and a blank area where I can write a personal note, or you can write your message.

Put that in an envelope (which I'll include free of charge!) and you're all set.

You can reach me through my webpage, Facebook, or the old fashioned know, email.

Happy holidays everyone!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When cases were solved by a corpse’s pointing finger….

Recently I came across the Detective’s Oath, written by Dorothy Sayers and first administered by G.K. Chesterton, as part of the initiation ceremony for the London Detection Club. The club, convened in 1930, included the likes of Sayers, Agatha Christie, and a slew of other Golden Age mystery writers.

The oath was this: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

While I think we’ve all seen authors—well-known ones at that—break these principles regularly (after all, why can’t a ghost solve a crime? Or for that matter, a cat?), there was something to these expectations that made sense. A reader should be able to work out whodunit, at least after the fact, to be fair.

But when I first read the oath, I had to laugh.  All three of us—Nancy Bilyeau, Sam Thomas, and myself—have situated our mysteries in early modern England, a time when divine revelation, providence, acts of God (or the Devil, for that matter) often served as the explanation for most mishaps and misfortune.  It would have been so easy—and realistic—to have our sleuths solve crimes in that fashion.

After all, there are many incidences of a community “solving” a murder when a corpse’s finger pointed to its murderer. Or when the corpse’s eyes would open and stare in the direction of the murderer’s house.  There are even examples of corpses bleeding from the nose or ears, indicating that their murderers were in the vicinity.

Sometimes, logic and reason and evidence would prevail and sometimes…they did not. There are many examples of superstitions, hearsay, and feelings making their way into court testimony, especially in ecclesiastical courts.

I can’t speak for Nancy and Sam’s protagonists, of course, but I wanted Lucy Campion, my chambermaid in a A Murder at Rosamund's Gate, to be someone who was resourceful and intelligent, despite having little formal education. But it wasn’t just about creating a character who would use her wits and evidence to solve a crime; I wanted her to question how the community identified murderers in the first place.

I also wanted Lucy to be someone who rejects the notion of providence as a means to explain murder. I wanted her to dismiss the idea that divine revelation could be a reliable way to identify a murderer—even if that meant challenging the expectations of her community.  

I’d like to think that Lucy would approve of the Detective’s Oath, even if everyone around her was convinced that the murderer could be discovered by a corpse's pointing finger.

But what do you think? If you're a writer, do you adhere to this oath? Or gleefully stomp all over it? If you're a reader, do you mind if the detective doesn't use logic or wits to solve a crime?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Exclusive Cover Reveal: The Chalice (plus a Giveaway!)

By Nancy Bilyeau

Here, at A Bloody Good Read, a first look at the Touchstone/Simon&Schuster cover for THE CHALICE, the sequel to THE CROWN. This historical thriller continues the adventures of Dominican novice Joanna Stafford in a story that has more twists, higher stakes, and more romance than THE CROWN. As you can see, the mood is EERIE...

This novel, like "The Crown," is based on careful research into the period in English history when Henry VIII ripped the country away from Rome. We've sent the book to some advance readers, and I'd like to share a quote from C.W. Gortner, who wrote the fascinating historical novel "The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile" as well as the engrossing "The Tudor Secret."
"Rarely have the terrors of Henry VIII's reformation been so exciting. Court intrigue, bloody executions, and haunting emotional entanglements create a heady brew of mystery and adventure that sweeps us from the devastation of the ransacked cloisters to the dangerous spy centers of London and the Low Countries, as ex-novice Joanna Stafford fights to save her way of life and fulfill an ancient prophecy, before everything she loves is destroyed." -- C.W. Gortner

I have another advance copy of THE CHALICE to share before its on-sale date in early March. If you'd like one mailed to you, please comment on the cover that the design team at Touchstone/S&S created.

In the comments to this blog post, tell me what piece of music this cover image evokes for you. And don't forget your email address.

I will pick the winner on Friday, the same day that posts the first two chapters only of THE CHALICE...:)

Monday, August 27, 2012

How fast can you travel by horse anyway?

How fast could this horse go?
While working on my second historical mystery, From the Charred Remains, I came across a rather straightforward mystery of my own.  How long would it have taken to travel the fifty-plus mile trek from London to Oxford, by horse and carriage, in the mid seventeenth-century?

 I have some faint memory of an equation that claimed distance=rate x speed (and even worse memories of trying to apply that equation).  I don’t think that equation works, though, when you don’t know the weight of a cart, the strength of a horse, or the conditions of the roads. 

So I had to set some parameters. I needed the cart (wagon, really) to be able to carry two men and two women, along with two or three barrels or bags of miscellaneous supplies.  I needed the journey to take less than a day.   The wagon had to be decent, but more serviceable and sturdy, than luxurious. It had to be capable of traversing 50 or so miles of the muddy, unpaved London Road. Similarly, the horses had to be from a hearty stock, and affordable for hire by a journeyman. Not being an equestrian, a farrier, or a blacksmith (okay, let’s face it, I’m not even sure if I’ve ever even been on a horse), this has been a truly puzzling question. 

So doing a little digging into the Early English Books Online and a few other primary sources, I first learned what kinds of wagons would have been available to a London tradesman in 1666. Here, I relied mainly on woodcuts to show me pictures of how tradesmen conveyed goods.  Hackney carriages were available for hire, but those would not likely have been owned by a tradesman. Coaches (Berlins) were just coming into fashion, out of Germany, but again my tradesman would not have found such a vehicle suitable to his needs or budget. 

Wing / 1917:08 
As for the horses, I looked to Gervase Markham, a seventeenth-century self-titled “Perfect Horse-man,” who shared his “experienced secrets” on horse care and training. He mentions some different kinds of horses (or perhaps more aptly, the services horses can offer), including the “courier,” the “carter,” the “poulter,” and the “packhorse.”   

Unfortunately, throughout Markham’s lengthy 200+ pages of advice to the horse-challenged, I could only find one bit of useful information for my purposes.  He says: “In journeying, ride moderately the first hour or two, but after according to your occasions.  Water before you come to your Inn, if you can possibly; but if you cannot, then give warm water in the Inn, after the Horse hath fed, and is full cooled within, and outwardly dried.” He then went on to say something about applying copious amounts of “dog’s grease” to the horse’s limbs and sinews, but I think I wandered off the page at that point.

Then I needed to find out how fast two horses can even pull a wagon.  Throwing my question to the whims of Google yielded an oft-repeated response: a team can travel 4 miles an hour on paved or semi-paved roads. Horses can only travel a few hours at a time; so it looks like my fictional travelers will have to exchange horses several times at various coaching houses along the way. 

This would mean it would take my travelers 15 hours to travel from London to Oxford, which is FAR TOO LONG for the purposes of my story. Yet, I've always been extremely scrupulous in my attention to historical details. So my puzzle has resulted in another conundrum—bend the facts to fit my story, or bend my story to fit the facts? 

What to do? What to do? What would you do?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Todd Aken: Ignorant and Unfit for Public Office or Aristotelian Philosopher?

by Sam Thomas

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news of late, you doubtless heard about Todd Aken, the Republican nominee for Senate candidate from Missouri. In an interview in which he defended his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, Aken made the remarkable claim that it is extremely rare for a woman who is raped to become pregnant. (Ezra Klein makes the disheartening point that others, mostly pro-life politicians and activists, agree.)

“If it’s a legitimate rape,” he explained, presumably to any OB/GYNs who might be watching, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

To sane people, this smacked of sexism, misogyny, or ignorance. Some lawyer types wondered how a “legitimate” rape might differ from an “illegitimate” rape. And the biologists wondered what “that whole thing” might be.

They might be right, but I’d like to offer a different interpretation of Mr. Aken’s argument. Rather than being misogynistic, grossly ignorant, and manifestly unfit for public office, I think he’s just relying on a somewhat outdated conception of the human body. Aken is a closet Aristotelian.  

According to Aristotle (and medial experts for over a thousand years after), a woman could not become pregnant if she didn’t have an orgasm.

Why? It’s complicated, but kind of fun, and if you trot this out at your next cocktail party, you’ll be awesome.

According to ancient and medieval medical thought, there were not two sexes as we now think of it. Yes, there were men and women, but women were simply imperfect versions of men. They had the same sexual organs as men did, but because women lacked the vital heat inherent in men, these organs were on the inside rather than the outside.

The vagina? A penis turned outside-in. Ovaries? Testicles, but on the inside. Logically enough, since they had the same organs, both men and women produced the same fluids. Conception took place when male sperm met female sperm.

This is the “one-sex model” made famous by Thomas Lacquer in his book Making Sex.

(Before you disparage this as the stupidest idea ever, it’s worth noting that our obviously true “two sex model” is, in fact, demonstrably false. It ignores individuals who are not clearly male or female, or who have both male and female sexual organs. By some estimates, intersex people are about as common as redheads. See this awesome article by Anne Fausto-Sterling.)

So, if Aristotle (and Aken) are right, in order for conception to take place, both the man and woman must have an orgasm, or else the male and female sperm cannot meet and form a child. And since rape victims do not have orgasms (I think even Aken would agree to this), pregnancy can’t be the product of rape. The body keeps pregnancy from taking place. QED.

So, if Aken attended a European university before 1700 or so, we can be pretty sure that he was schooled in the Aristotelian conception of the human body, and then he’s off the hook.

Let’s check.

He went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, probably in the 1970s.

Never mind. I guess he’s just unfit for office.

Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Annals of Awesome Historical Research

In other blog posts I have gone on at (too great) length about issues of historical accuracy. I do my best, and feel like the setting of my books is one of my book’s strengths, but I recently found en example of research that boggled my mind.
For those of you who don’t know him, Steve Hamilton has written a number of memorable mysteries, including a series about a former cop Alex McKnight, and The Lock Artist, a stand-alone novel that won the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Mystery. After reading The Lock Artist, I dove into his earlier novels, starting with A Cold Day in Paradise. (The McKnight series is set in the town of Paradise on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)
In Hamilton’s third book, 2001’s The Hunting Wind, McKnight is visited by an old friend with whom he played minor league baseball. Unlike McKnight, Wilkins was called up to the big leagues and pitched briefly for the Detroit Tigers. Here is where things got interesting, at least for me. Wilkins tells McKnight about his trip to The Show:
In 1971, when I went up to Detroit, there were a few of us who got called up together. You remember Marvin Lane, the outfielder, and Chuck Seelbach, the other pitcher? A couple guys from double-A, too.
 Do the names Lane and Seelbach ring any bells? Probably not, and if you’re like me, you assumed that Hamilton invented them. I mean he invented the rest of his characters, right? I mean why not make up names? They aren't actually characters, and who in their right minds would research the names of people who don't even appear in the novel?
I don’t actually know the answer to that last question, but in a tremendously strange coincidence, I do know Chuck Seelbach. After getting off to a great start as a pitcher, Chuck hurt his shoulder, and we now teach history at the same school (University School outside Cleveland, OH). 
This sort of attention to detail raised a variety of questions that I am still trying to figure out. First, given the long odds that anyone would recognize Lane’s and Seelbach’s names, why in the world would Hamilton go to the trouble of digging them up? In this, Hamilton seems to have two possible constituencies. The first of these is his readers, but the number of people who would recognize the names has to be vanishingly small. (I suppose it is possible that Tigers fans might be a bit more in tune with pre-Watergate roster moves, but there can’t be many of them who know that Marvin Lane isn’t a street in Ypsilanti.) 
Then there are the people (not many, I hope) who read that passage and then ran for their copy of Baseball Reference to see if these people existed. (Looks like they may not have had to go as far as I'd thought. I just checked, and the online version of Baseball Reference has been around since 2000. I find that kind of amazing.) In any event, I have to think that the number of people who a) recognized the players; or b) did not recognize the players, but cared enough to look them up is extremely small.
So we are back to the question, why did Hamilton bother? If it’s not for the readers, who is this detail for? The answer, I think, is that he did it for himself. He wanted to get every possible detail right, so he did the necessary legwork.
And that’s kind of cool.          

Monday, August 6, 2012

How to find a literary agent

Soon after you sign on with a literary agent (Welcome to Hell, by the way), you will discover that a surprising number of your friends are working on novels as well, and one of the first questions they will have is “How did you find an agent?”

And if you’ve done your due diligence (ie. Googled the question), you’ve discovered there are a couple of ways. First, you can have a friend or relative in the business. This, of course, is a disheartening piece of information to unearth because if you had a friend in the business, you wouldn’t have just googled the phrase “How to find a literary agent” would you?

Absent some sort of connection, you’re going to have to claw your way from the slush pile, past an agent’s assistant and into the rarefied realm of Those-Who-Have-Been-Asked-For-A-Partial-or-Full.

The question then becomes, how do I do that? The key here is the cover letter. The good news is that cover letters are really short, so you can rewrite them endlessly. The bad news is that writing a good cover letter is nothing like writing a good novel. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of excellent novels out there, unpublished, because the author can’t write a one-page proposal.

What I’ve got below is an annotated and slightly edited version of my own cover letter. I’ll mention at the outset that as letters go, it was pretty effective: I received manuscript requests from over half the agents I queried. (I would venture to say that my letter is better than my novel. Ah, well.) Note that this is formatted for email rather than a paper letter.


Josh Getzler
Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency

Dear Mr. Getzler,

Because of your professed interest in historical mysteries, I think you might like to see my historical mystery, The Midwife’s Tale: A Mystery. (Keep your opening brief. Do some quick research on your target agents, and pick ones who like books in your genre. Do NOT over-google agents. It is a waste of time.)

It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York . Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and – like other mutinous women – is sentenced to be burnt alive. Esther proclaims her innocence and begs Bridget to help clear her name. Bridget believes that her friend has been wrongly convicted, and sets out to find the real killer. (In the opening paragraph you have to provide a few things: the setting, the protagonist, and the central drama of your story. Make sure all three of these are compelling. If your reader doesn’t want to spend time with the main character, or in the time and place you have set the story, you are toast.)

Bridget is joined in her search by a new maidservant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York to start a new life. Martha proves a quick study in the delivery room, and Bridget has high hopes for her protégé. But when the two women are attacked in a dark alley, Bridget sees another side of Martha, as she shows herself far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be.

To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand. (Another couple of paragraphs summarizing the book. Do not go too long here, and if it is a mystery/suspense, don’t give away the ending. Your goal is to make the reader want to see more. N.B: If you write a synopsis, that is the place to give away the ending.)

The Midwife’s Tale is a 95,000-word historical mystery, and the first in a potential series set in Revolutionary England. I have a doctorate in history with a focus on early modern England, and have published articles on the history of midwifery in top historical journals including Social History of Medicine and Journal of Social History. (Let your prospective agent know how long the book is, and if it is part of a series. In certain genres, publishers want series. If you have any qualifications that make you a good fit for writing this kind of book, mention it here. Think a bit about this – there is probably a reason you chose to write the kind of book that you did.)

As a part of promoting the book, I would be happy to join in reading group discussions of the book. I can also give public presentations on the history of midwifery, and on the real Bridget Hodgson, who practiced midwifery in York during this period. Thank you for considering my work. I hope to hear from you soon. (I’m not sure how effective this was in my case, but if you have a platform from which you can publicize your book – a weekly radio show, for example – this is where to bring it up.)


Sam Thomas


So that’s it, easy-peasy. Now you shouldn’t have any trouble finding an agent. 


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery from Minotaur/St.Martin's. Want to pre-order a copy? Click here. For more on midwifery and childbirth visit his website. You can also like him on Facebook  and follow him on Twitter.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Deciphering a puzzle or following stepping stones--What kind of mystery do YOU prefer?

A librarian recently posed to me that question I suppose every writer must address at some point: "Plotter or pantser?" Having been exposed to this great debate now, I can say for the record that I wrote A Murder at Rosamund's Gate by the seat of my pants, while for From the Charred Remains, I've taken the more methodical "plotter" approach. 

Is the mystery presented as a puzzle from the outset?
However, I think the more interesting question is how mystery writers approach the central crime and the investigative process from the outset.  

Does the author present the story literally as a puzzle for the crime solver (and by extension, the reader) to decipher, or does the author evoke a puzzle throughout the narrative--asking the investigator (and the reader) to comb through motives and motivations in a systematic way? Does the author have the investigator leap from clue to clue, as one might step logically from stone to stone to cross a stream? In such cases, the reader can try to look two jumps ahead in the investigation and anticipate twists and turns. (Of course, when done well, the reader won't figure out the precise rocks in the path!)

Or does the investigation reveal the puzzle?
You could argue that some mystery genres favor one approach over the other. For example, in a police procedural, a detective might take a more direct approach to finding a criminal, while in a cozy mystery,  an amateur sleuth is likely to have stumbled on an interesting puzzle or been brought into the investigation because he or she possessed peculiar knowledge crucial to solving the puzzle.

Certainly, any combination of these approaches can work when crafting a mystery. Sometimes, however, the reader is left unsatisfied by the great reveal, or worse, insulted by the obviousness of the solution.  

The problem, I think, is when the author has not decided where the element of mystery--the heart of the puzzle--lies.  Simply identifying the criminal or murderer is not enough.  Is the puzzle in the crime itself? For example, consider the locked room mysteries, such as Poe's Murders in Rue Morgue or Christie's And Then There Were None.  Here, the goal is to understand how the killings occurred, as well as to discover the murderer.  Or, is the puzzle found in exploring different characters' motives for murder? (Kellerman's psychologist Alex Delaware, maybe?) Perhaps the puzzle lays in the investigation itself, such as in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, or in Cornwell's investigations featuring Kay Scarpetta.

Pantser or plotter--it doesn't matter to me.  I do believe though, when writing a mystery, that it's necessary to decide on the nature of the puzzle....the story will follow!  But what do you think?

Monday, July 9, 2012

All three of our books are now on sale!

Okay, it's not exactly the aligning of the planets, but you can now pre-order all three of our books. (Granted Nancy's has been out for a while, but now you can order it in paperback.)

Links below:

Nancy Bilyeau, The Crown (paperback)
Susanna Calkins, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate
Sam Thomas, The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery


Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Bloody Good Interview: Christopher Gortner on "The Queen's Vow"

By Nancy Bilyeau

I’m thrilled to share with you my interview with Christopher Gortner. I loved Chris’s historical mystery, A Tudor Secret, for the inventive uses he made of the last days of the reign of Edward VI. But Chris is also well known for his historical novels of famous women of the Renaissance: Juana of Castile and Catherine de Medici. His brand new novel is The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile.

I had a rather fixed view of Queen Isabella: warrior queen, devoted wife to King Ferdinand, sponsor of Christopher Columbus, and, because I particularly love the Tudor period, the mother of Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Chris’s book revealed another Isabella to me, and I highly recommend his book so that you can discover her too.

And now, my conversation with this amazing author!

Nancy Bilyeau: You’ve written about Juana of Castile and Catherine de Medici and now Isabella of Castile—all three of them are, in their different ways, controversial. You could even argue that they were in need of redemptive storytelling. Do you think that’s what drew you to them?

Christopher Gortner: Absolutely. I’m attracted to controversial women. It’s partly because I grew up in Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime and was taught censored history in regards to women; since then, I’ve discovered that most popular history is, in fact, censored. Historical women are often relegated to clichés: Juana is the mad victim, Catherine de Medici the evil witch, Isabella the devout fanatic. Yet these women were complex human beings. Like all of us, their contradictions define them. The women I’ve written about defied the odds and became far more than anyone expected. I admire their fortitude, their courage; I think they deserve to be re-accessed in light of their times and their accomplishments.

NB: I was surprised by how uncertain and difficult Isabella’s childhood was. What was it that surprised you most about her life in your research?

CG: That surprised me, too. I knew about her youth—that she’d been raised far from court in rural Arévalo— but I didn’t know until I researched her for this book how truly isolated her youth was. I also had no idea that she’d had such a basic education, not at all what you’d expect for a princess, let alone a future queen. But then, no one expected her to rule. She was slated to be someone’s consort, to live out her days in comfortable obscurity. What most surprised me was her tenacity; here was this young woman with almost zero preparation, who defied the odds and rose to become of history’s most famous queens, uniting her country under one rule—something no monarch of Spain before her had achieved.  

NB: After all your research and contemplation, do you feel that you understand the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand?

CG: Yes, as much as anyone can, given the extreme separation of years and dependency on documents. They appeared ideally matched: their temperaments complimented one another, with Fernando’s daring offsetting Isabella’s more measured approach. It wasn’t a perfect marriage by any means; what marriage is? They had their difficulties and he was very much a man of his time, with a roving eye. But there is no question that he loved her more than anyone else, or that she both loved and understood him to his core. The proof is in the way they lived and, perhaps most telling, the way he transformed after her death. He became a different man. Some say that Fernando of Aragón, not Cesare Borgia, was the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince; given how he acted following Isabella’s passing, it would not surprise me. Isabella brought out the best in him. While he lived for years after her, he was never the same. Something inside him, the part that was so admirable, died with her.

NB: Do you think most people today assume Isabella was a strong woman without much vulnerability?

CG: Oh, yes! I must admit, I’ve been taken aback by a few reactions to the novel. Some people apparently are determined to see her as this ruthless fanatic without redeeming qualities. I even got an e-mail recently from someone accusing me of glorifying a mass murderer. They blame her for things she had no control over, such as the rapine of the Americas. However, if you read her testament, you’ll see that she never wanted the New World destroyed as it was; that occurred under her grandson, Charles V, and his son, Philip II. She was human and extremely fallible; I do not seek to excuse her mistakes, which were grave and caused much suffering, but to assume she was a monster because of them is simply misguided. Her outer strength concealed inner conflict; anyone who researches her in depth will see that while she could be obdurate, she was not innately cruel. I think she hid her vulnerability because she was a woman, ruling a kingdom; and that she privately worried over some of her more controversial deeds. Her hesitation of years in authorizing the Inquisition indicates as much. But Isabella wasn’t prone to displays of emotion; she comes across, especially in her later years— the years we’re most familiar with—as remote, extremely pious, cold. She suffered the losses of her children, of her health, and the fear of her leaving her kingdom without a capable ruler with stoicism; you never hear her complain. This paints a picture of someone detached, when in fact she was deeply engaged.

NB: How much did Isabella’s mother remind you of Isabella’s daughter, Juana? They both were believed to have psychological issues. Do you think those issues are exaggerated in other books?

CG: I think they may have shared a familial tendency for manic depression. Research also indicates manic depression can be triggered by extreme stress, which in Juana’s case makes perfect sense. There is no question that Isabella’s mother slid into a depressive state that made her a psychological invalid; in those days, no one would have know how to treat her, and what treatments existed for mental illness were barbaric in the extreme. Isabella has been called callous for confining her mother in Arévalo—Juana herself accuses her of it in The Last Queen—but in fact, Isabella may have actually been protecting her mother from being subjected to interventions that would have done her no good. How much of Juana’s own derangement was exaggerated? It’s hard to say, though I suspect a great deal, especially at the height of her struggles. I personally do not think she was mad when she first went into Tordesillas. She had odd proclivities but her years of suffering were doubtlessly to blame for how she ended up. When you read custodial accounts of Juana’s later years, you find chilling similarities to reports about her grandmother. Isolated, each haunted by their pasts, denied access to what they loved most, it’s not surprising.

NB: One of the things I love most about The Queen’s Vow is how suspenseful it is. Do you need to work hard to make these women’s narratives so gripping or do the stories tell themselves?

CG: It’s a combination of both. I have to work hard to recreate events that have been calcified by the passage of time; facts can be dry as bone, so as a writer I have to clothe them in sensation again, in the tension and immediacy of life. But the history is there: none of the events in my novels are invented. Isabella had an intensely tumultuous youth; she was always on the brink of danger. And her early reign was fraught with drama. Again, it’s a testament to her fortitude that she survived.

NB: Was it hard to write about the sexual preferences of Isabella’s father and half-brother, knowing that those times were so different than ours when it comes to understanding and tolerance?

CG: Yes and no. I went into this novel with the understanding that 15th century people are not going to see a gay man in the same way we do. Actually, all I needed to do was examine what certain religious groups today say about homosexuality to recreate the mind-set. But I hope I gave these men dignity; though we see Isabella’s half-brother, in particular, through her eyes—and she wouldn’t have understood his preferences—I strived to portray him as an individual. I hold deep respect for Enrique’s dilemma, for he was an innately gentle man and ill-equipped to be a king; he would have been much happier as an ordinary man, as he himself declared.

NB: I think that one of the hardest things for 21st century people to grasp is the religious mindset of the 15th and 16th centuries. Did you ever struggle to convey Isabella’s religious fervor?

CG: Again, yes and no. It may seem strange, because I’m both a very liberal person and not a religious man. But I was raised Catholic, in Spain during the final years of Franco’s regime; I was also educated by Jesuits. I studied for my first communion and participated as a child in Passion Week during Easter; to this day, despite my lack of affiliation with organized faith, I find myself entranced by the ritualistic displays of the Church. There were also women I grew up with, who’d been through Spain’s civil war and lost loved ones, and had turned for solace and comfort to religion; I drew on them to find Isabella’s fervor. I also have spent years studying the role of faith in the medieval and Renaissance world; these were people who believed in a retributive god, who believed in purgatory and heaven and hell; salvation of the soul was paramount to them. Their intolerance, their persecutions, are driven by the fear that God will strike at them personally for harboring heresy in their midst. It seems utterly bizarre but again, all we need do is turn on the television on Sunday morning and listen to some of the more extreme preachers, like I did for months while researching this book. You’ll find that same intolerance, the same fear, in a 21st century mind-set. As much as things change, sadly much remains the same.

NB: What about the anti-Semitism of the era? Was that hard to grapple with?

CG: Yes, of course. It terrifies me. But I understand where it came from, how it simmered, poisoned and corrupted; anti-Semitism was fueled by medieval society itself. I did find it hard to contend with; indeed, the most difficult chapters in the novel for me to write deal with Isabella’s deeds and thoughts concerning the Jews. I also had to move past the specter of 20th century atrocities to explore her particular anti-Semitism, which is connected to the era. Isabella grew up in a melting-pot culture where Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived together for centuries, but the golden medieval age of co-existence had ended in Spain by the time she arrives on the scene. Still, she had loyal attendants who were descendants of Jews. Fernando himself may have had Jewish blood. She was not consumed by hatred for the Jews. Nevertheless, she believed Catholicism was the only true faith and that unless a Jew converted, his or her immortal soul would burn in everlasting hell. I believe she hoped for mass conversion of her Jewish subjects when she issued the Alhambra Decree of 1492, because to her way of thinking, it would have been incomprehensible that anyone willingly forfeited the promise of heaven. It goes back to the previous question about her mind-set; like so many of her contemporaries, Isabella feared a vengeful god and thus acted in righteous ardor through her divinely-anointed role to safeguard her realm from heresy.

NB: Do you think the lives of 16th century English royals have been told enough in historical fiction? Is that one of the reasons you write about women of France and Spain?

CG: I think as long as fresh perspectives can be brought to bear, there are still stories to be found among 16th century English royals. I myself write the “Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles”, which are set in later Tudor England. I choose to write about other countries and characters because that’s what I’m most drawn to at the moment.

NB: What do you think is Isabella’s most lasting achievement?

CG: That she united Spain and set the stage for a world-empire that lasted well into the 17th century. Without her leadership, Spain may have had a very different historical outcome as far as a global presence is concerned. To this day, Latin America bears the stamp of Isabella’s decision to send Columbus on his historic voyage, and the legal codes that she and Fernando revised and implemented are the cornerstone of Spain’s current system. She modernized her nation, through education, art and literature, and her dynastic ambitions. Both for better and for worse, she left an undeniable legacy.

NB: Would you enjoy having Sunday brunch with Isabella of Castile?

CG: Yes, sure. I’d enjoy having brunch with any of my characters, as long as we don’t discuss religion J

Thank you for inviting me. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Bloody Vintner--or, a Pretty Botched 17th Century Romance

Wing (2nd ed.) / K625A
When I first encountered murder in the archives as a graduate student, I was intrigued by the way seventeenth-century English communities policed themselves and sought to regain order and find justice after a crime had occurred.  I was also fascinated by the accounts of these crimes which emerged in popular press, and what readers might be able to reconstruct about the nature of these “bloody acts.”
Take, for example, the story of The Bloody Vintner, subtitled Cruelty Rewarded with Justice, from 1684.  This is the “true account” (note the legitimacy conveyed by the term) of Edward (alias) Edmund Kirk, a Vintner, who “privately married” a serving maid, and then turned around and killed her only eight days later.  He was sentenced to death, and was duly executed by hanging within six weeks. (Check out Sam Thomas’ post on a botched execution). 

Edward Kirk’s story got some attention at the time, written up three times in the popular press in both ballad and broadside forms. While three other men were executed July 11, 1684 at Tyburn, certainly Edward’s murder of his secret wife was far more lurid and interesting than the two men who had broken into the house of the Duke of Ormand, or the man who had stolen a horse.  Those men's names are likely recorded in the sessions records of the Old Bailey, and perhaps their birth, marriage, and property information could be found in their local church records, but little else of their stories seems to remain.
What’s interesting to me is how so much, relatively speaking, is known of Edward Kirk, while so little is known of Joan Greene, the servant who came to such a pitiful end. Referred to mainly as “Mrs. Kirk,” what can be pieced together from Joan’s life are just shadowy glimpses.  In his “last dying speech,” Edward goes on at length about his birth and early years in Fetcham and Mucklam (both in Surry), his failed attempt to become a watch-maker like his brother, his desire to enter the vinter’s trade and his subsequent service at a few taverns, and his ambition to one day keep his own “vitualling house.”
What we know of Joan Greene is scant, and all our knowledge has been filtered through Edward’s moralistic, somewhat chagrined, slightly defensive narrative (which may be hard to distinguish from the perspective of the penny authors who “faithfully” recorded his “dying words”). The two met at The Leg Tavern where she worked and he used to go with friends—“Often going thither I observed this woman, and took the opportunity to being acquainted with her; my frequent visits having now made me familiar with her.”  That Edward had some amorous feelings towards her, at least initially, is clear: “I began to feel in myself a more particular respect and affection for her…she accepted my Love, whereupon I made her a promise to marry her, which she very soon and willingly embraced.”
Something changed, however, in their relationship soon after.  As Edward tells it, Joan began “haunting” his place of employment, a tavern called the Miter, and his employers were not too happy. They allegedly warned him that her continued presence at their tavern would prove “prejudicial to him” if he did not forsake her company. 
At this point, the narrative of their relationship takes a tragic turn. In some seventeenth-century hands, these events would have been written as a merry farce; here, the events are chronicled written matter-of-factly, and their nondescript quality is all the more poignant if you read between the lines.  
It seems that Joan then quit her job, and managed to get Edward’s employers to hire her on as a house servant (but notably, not to work in their tavern). They lived together there for “three quarters of a year” before she eventually moved to a merchant’s house in Thames Street.  Notably, they’re still not married at this point. Edward stayed on a year at the Miter before finding work at the Swan.  At that point he explains, “I had not been above three days there [before] she followed me, still urging and pressing me to marry her as she had done before, so often that I began to grow weary of her importunities and left that place.” He went to another tavern, where after two weeks she found him again. And so this pattern went on for a while, until he seems to have finally given up, and married her.  
They kept the marriage secret, but Edward does not say why. One can only surmise, though, that he had some immediate regrets, seeing the terrible change of heart that followed only eight days later: “I called upon her at her Master’s house, and desired her to go out and walk with me, and when we came to a field near Paddington I did that bloody act, for which I now deservedly suffer.” As he explains, “It has been with great trouble and affliction of my soul, that should be so barbarous and cruel to her… I first gave her a knock with my cane which beat her back, and falling down I cut her throat with a small knife I had in my pocket, without giving her the liberty of speaking one word of mercy.” (That last admission may have surely done him in with a godly jury, and have been seized upon by the ardent clergy who urged him towards repentance.) 
Why did Edward do it?  We can only surmise from a sole passage. “What was the first chief cause that was the occasion of my disagreement with my wife, was her humor to follow me from place to place, and to hinder my associating my self with Lewd and Debauched company.” (She doesn’t seem to have trusted him, perhaps because he was hanging out with prostitutes, even though they were engaged.).  This “small spark” became a “flame of dissention,” and as the Devil informed him, only her “innocent blood” could provide satisfaction. 
Regardless, after some weeks, her body was discovered. Edward seems to have denied knowing her at first, but as you can imagine that didn’t go to well.  We don’t have too many facts here, but the marriage seems to have come to light fairly quickly. I like to think the exchange with the local constable went something like this:
Edward: “I didn’t know this woman.”
Constable: “Oh really? Weren’t you secretly married to her?”
Edward shuffles his feet. “Well, okay. Yes. But I didn’t kill her.”
Constable: “Isn’t that a bloody knife in your pocket there?”
Edward: “Well, yes, but you can’t prove it.”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite like that. But we do know Edward confessed to the crime, and was hanged.  Just from the evidence, we’ll never really know what happened, or why. The historian in me sighs over such tantalizing details, and works to construct a plausible narrative where none can be found. But the writer in me loves to speculate and fill in the gaps.  Did Joan make one shrewish comment too many? Was she some sort of deranged stalker? Was Edward a womanizer? Or just suffering a mental break?  This is exactly the kind of case that inspired my novel, The Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the story of a young servant trying to keep her brother from being wrongly executed for another servant’s death…