A tribute to Sharon Kay Penman

In the spring of 2012, I conducted a reader survey focused on historical fiction – the first of 6 such surveys. Among the questions on reading habits, I asked readers to identify their favourite historical fiction authors. Sharon Kay Penman was at the top of the list. I’d read and loved many of her novels, so I plucked up my courage, found a way to contact her and asked if she would agree to be interviewed. To my delight, she said yes.

A few years later, Sharon also agreed to write an endorsement for Lies Told In Silence – what a thrill that was! And at the 2015 Historical Novel Society conference in Denver, I had dinner with Sharon and Margaret George – a real highlight.

The HF community is reeling from news of Sharon’s passing. As a tribute, I thought I would share that original interview. You will see that her personality and character shine through it.

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I am extremely pleased that Sharon Kay Penman is here today talking about writing historical fiction. This spring’s survey placed Ms. Penman in the number one position with readers – a truly wonderful accomplishment. I remember being captivated by Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour and my current read, Time and Chance, her novel about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, is equally captivating.

Why do you write historical fiction?     I always wanted to write, scribbled my first story at age six.   In my teens, I did a novel that mercifully has vanished from the earth, for I am sure it would be very embarrassing to read.   But I didn’t have a story burning to be told, and so my writing efforts were sporadic and random.  Then I stumbled onto the history of Richard III, and my life changed—literally.   I felt compelled to write his story, if only because my friends quickly grew tired of listening to me preach to them about the terrible injustice done to this long-dead medieval king.    The end result was The Sunne in Splendour, my first novel.  By that time, I’d spent twelve years in the fifteenth century with Richard, so it never even occurred to me to write of another time period.   And I’ve been happily ensconced in the Middle Ages ever since.

You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction.  What do you think attracts readers to your books?     I wonder that myself at times.  I feel very fortunate to have such amazing, devoted readers.  From what they’ve told me, they appreciate my efforts to be as historically accurate as humanly possible.  Obviously, any novel is a work of the imagination, but I believe very strongly that it needs a strong factual foundation, and this is what I strive for when writing.  If I do take any liberties with known facts, I clear my conscience by reporting that in my Author’s Note.   My readers also seem to like that I am writing of people who actually lived and events that really happened, for there are very few purely fictional characters in my novels.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?     I research on two levels, general and specific.  For example, I researched the life and reign of King Richard I before beginning the first of my two novels about him.  This enabled me to know what I would need to dramatize.  I also do specific research as I write, usually about a particular battle or castle, etc.   I am now following that pattern in the sequel to Lionheart, A King’s Ransom, which entails doing considerable research about Austria and Germany, where Richard was held prisoner on his way home from the Holy Land.   I love researching, so my concern is to rein my enthusiasm in.  I became so fascinated with medieval Sicily and Cyprus in Lionheart that I probably went overboard with my research of their societies, and I am trying to show a bit more self-discipline with A King’s Ransom.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?     I don’t think I have been influenced by other historical writers.   There are many writers I admire, of course—Anya Seton comes at once to mind.   Among my contemporaries, I am a fan of Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George, Elizabeth Chadwick, C.W. Gortner, and Steven Saylor, just to name a few.  I also enjoy historical mysteries very much, my favorites including Priscilla Royal, Margaret Frazer, and Sharan Newman.

What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author?  Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?     Truthfully, I have no idea!   I can tell you what I look for as a reader.  Historical accuracy is very important to me, both as a reader and a writer.   I also believe that we owe a debt to the people we are writing about.   My fellow writer, Laurel Corona, expressed this perfectly when she said, “Do not defame the dead.”  I think that ought to be the First Commandment for all writers of historical fiction!

How do you select new stories to tell?     I usually have ideas marinating in my brain for years before I actually begin to write.   If I did not have another novel in mind as I came to the end of one, I’d probably panic.   I tend to write trilogies, so that makes life much easier for me.  What my readers call my Welsh trilogy is set in the 13th century, and dramatizes the clash of cultures between the Welsh princes and the English kings.  I then did what was to be a trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  But as I finished the final book, Devil’s Brood, I realized there was still so much of their story to be told, and the result was Lionheart and now A King’s Ransom; so my trilogy turned into a quintet.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time or creating a series like you have done?  Any disadvantages?     I feel so comfortable in the Middle Ages that it would feel strange to write about another time period.  After so many years, I am familiar with medieval customs, beliefs, superstitions, and the details of daily life.  So I would find it somewhat daunting to start from scratch in writing of another era, ancient Rome, for example.   I know some writers who do shift from one time to another and do it very well; Margaret George certainly does, writing about the Tudors, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy, just to mention some of her books.    But I’ve put my roots down in the Middle Ages for thirty years now, and have no plans to move.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?     I have an established routine by now.  I begin with an outline of the novel, and then I do a chapter at a time, staying with it until I am satisfied.   Some of my writer friends do several drafts, but I’ve never tried that approach.   Of course I always do some last-minute pruning and polishing, but once I’ve completed the novel, that is the final version.  I don’t do any rewriting unless my editor requests it.

Do you think of yourself as having a brand?     No, I do not think of myself as a brand.

What do you do to connect to readers?     I have always responded to letters and then to e-mails, but social networking sites like Facebook have made it so much easier for writers and readers to interact.    I confess that I was hesitant about venturing onto Facebook at first, but I soon became addicted.  In addition to my personal Facebook page, my readers have set up three Facebook fan clubs, and I try to stop by as often as I can.  I had formed friendships with readers via snail and e-mail, but Facebook makes it so much easier.  This past week I had a phone chat with my Australian Fan Club, who were holding their annual meeting, and it was so much fun.   I feel as if I know them all by now, and I have moved a visit to Australia to the top of my Bucket List as a result.   So far I have avoided Twitter, but writer friends tell me I should give it a try, so that will probably be next on the agenda.    I have also formed friendships because of my blogs, for blogs are inter-active, too.    And websites like Goodreads and LibraryThings are another way for writers to meet with readers.

What do you know about your readers?     Well, they have good taste in books!  They are also well educated and, to judge from their letters and Facebook comments, quite articulate and often very funny.  They share my passion for the past.  And my publishers have told me that I am unusual in that my readers are split about evenly between men and women; apparently most of historical novel readers are women.  But I’ve always had a fair share of male readers, too.

What data do you collect about your readers?     I do not collect any data about my readers.  I am not that organized!

What strategies guide your writing career?     Truthfully, I’ve never had a strategy.  I was just following my passion, the need to write.  This led to The Sunne in Splendour and after that, the dominos seemed to fall naturally into place.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?     I have been so fortunate in my writing career that I don’t think I would change anything.  I love writing and still feel blessed to be able to do it.    I have a wonderful editor, who has been my editor for all twelve of my books, which is almost unheard-of in publishing.  I have very gifted agents on both sides of the Atlantic.  And I have never been required to meet a word quota, as some of my writer friends are.   This is both remarkable and rare and I feel so lucky.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?     If at all possible, I would try to find an agent.  I know that can be quite a challenge, but I think it is well worth the effort.   And of course publishing is very different now than it was when I first began my career.   Writers today have options that writers never even dreamed of in the past.   E-books are becoming more and more important, so I would advise writers to educate themselves about this phenomenon.   Some writers are choosing to bypass publishers altogether and to publish their books themselves.  This was once a high-risk venture, and it still can be a bumpy road.  But in the era of e-books, it can be an enticing option and I think it is one worth exploring for those just starting out, as long as they remember how time-consuming it can be.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?     Actually, there is one.  What are your favorite research sources?

That would be the medieval chronicles, which are a fascinating mix of the foreign and the familiar.   The chronicler will be complaining about high prices, bad roads, and corrupt sheriffs, stories that could be found in any of today’s newspapers.  And then I will come across an account of green children found in Kent!     The chronicles cannot be taken as gospel, for the chroniclers often pass on rumors and gossip.  I also have to take personal bias into account.  The vast majority of chroniclers were monks, so they tended to look upon women with a skeptical eye, as daughters of Eve.  Nor were they free of nationalism; French chroniclers were highly critical of English kings and vice versa, and the English were hostile to the Welsh, who returned the favor.    But the chronicles open a window to these distant times and offer us personal glimpses of people dead for centuries.  This was especially true for my last novel, Lionheart, much of which was set during the Third Crusade.  The Lionheart of legend smolders like a torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous.  But the chroniclers who accompanied Richard I to the Holy Land and the Saracen chroniclers give us a very different man—sardonic, playful, unpredictable.  I worry that Lionheart has spoiled me for future books, as I will never have such a rich treasure-trove to draw upon again.   I had eye-witness accounts of the battles fought between the crusaders and Saracens, told from both sides, and for a novelist, that is beyond wonderful.  For those interested in reading them, too, I list them all in the Acknowledgments of Lionheart.

I also mine for gold in the Pipe Rolls and other government records.   There we learn that Lady Neville had to pay King John a fine of 200 shillings “to lie one night with her husband.”   What I wouldn’t give to know the story behind that cryptic entry!  Another favorite entry captures a royal temper tantrum for all time, reporting the cost of repairing the crown of Edward I, noting that it was damaged “when it pleased the king to throw it into the fire.”

As you can tell, Mary, I love researching!  To be able to spend time studying the Middle Ages and then to write about it and actually get paid for doing so—well, it does not get any better than that.

Thank you so much for inviting me to visit your blog.

January 2021 – Thank you, Sharon. Thank you for your kindness, your warm heart, your brilliant novels, and the wonderful example you’ve offered to generations of authors to come.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A Year of Reading – part 2

Last week, I listed a bunch of books that I either read or, in many cases, did not finish in 2020. Here’s the rest of the books from a confusing, stressful, distracted and unfocused year.

As in prior years, I’ve used the following rating scheme: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type. As I said in last week’s post, my apologies to those authors whose novels I did not finish.

  • A Well-Behaved Woman by Theresa Anne FowlerER – The title of this one appealed to me as did the peek into the lives of the Vanderbilts, specifically Alva Vanderbilt who married into the “newly rich but socially scorned family” this saving her own family from financial ruin. By the way, Alva Vanderbilt isn’t as well-behaved as the title implies.
  • The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff – DNF – This novel kept popping up on Facebook and other places and I’ve enjoyed other novels by Jenoff, so I gave it a try. I think I’ve read too many novels about women who become SOE agents in WWII and this one didn’t differentiate itself in the early chapters.
  • Marlene by C.W. Gortner – ER – I’m a big fan of C.W. Gortner’s novels. In this novel he’s written the fascinating story of Marlene Dietrich from her early schoolgirl days to her rise as a Hollywood star and her support for US troops during WWII.
  • The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee – ER – Memoir of a teenager who escapes North Korea’s brutal and repressive regime and ultimately reaches the safety of South Korea. A story of daring, ingenuity, perseverance, and triumph.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller – OR – A discussion of favourite historical fiction authors led me to a discovery of Madeline Miller and her novel Circe. I’ve never been a fan of mythology – I find all those gods, their powers, and their complicated relationships confusing. In Circe, Madeline Miller creates a compelling, action-filled tale that explores the intersection of gods and humans. Her prose is superb.
  • Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin – DNF – An American woman works for the French resistance during WWII “while playing hostess to the invading Germans at the iconic Hotel Ritz in Paris.” Unfortunately, the characters did not grab my attention, but that could just be the pandemic, as I’ve enjoyed other novels by Melanie Benjamin.
  • Double Cross by Ben McIntyre – GR – Non-fiction: the story of the double-agents involved in Operation Fortitude and how they tricked the Germans into believing that the Allies would attack Calais rather than Normandy. What detracts from the story is the huge cast of characters and the detail with which McIntyre explores each one of them, often going back in time at length before proceeding with the main drama.
  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan – OR – Non-fiction account of D-Day. I found it mesmerizing, superbly told, suspenseful and very satisfying.
  • The Library of Legends by Janie Chang – ER – I had the privilege of an early-release copy of this novel. Janie Chang’s tale of a convoy of student refugees who travel across China, fleeing the hostilities of a brutal war with Japan is quite wonderful. The students have been entrusted with a 500-year-old collection of myths and folklore known as the Library of Legends. Here’s the article I wrote for the Historical Novel Society.
  • Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan – ER – when the opportunity came along to read an early-release of this biography, I quickly said yes. Anya Seton is one of those novelists who got me hooked on historical fiction. During her tumultuous life she wrote multiple bestsellers. As I said my review, Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. 
  • Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig – ER – A story of a group of Smith College graduates who travel to France during WWI to help citizens whose lives have been destroyed by war. The novel compellingly tackles a central question: “What happens when you take a group of women with wildly different personalities and interests and set them down in the high-pressure situation of a war zone.” To be released in early March.
  • Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ER – Selected by my book club, this novel “looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.”
  • The Lost Girls by Heather Young – ER – From the six-year-old girl who disappears to her sisters, mother and nieces, everyone in this novel is lost in her own way. Through multiple timelines, Heather Young patiently and carefully reveals what really happened in this compelling story.
  • The Year I Made 12 Dresses by Patricia Parsons – ER – As Charlie sews her way through the year after her mother’s death, she finds wisdom and unexpected happiness while uncovering secrets from the past. This was one of those novels that grabs you slowly and suddenly you find yourself in that I-can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-it mode.
  • A Castle in Wartime by Catherine Bailey – ER – I was delighted to discover another book by non-fiction author Catherine Bailey. Catherine writes non-fiction with the drama and excitement of fiction. A superb story of one family, their missing sons, and the fight to defeat the Nazis.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain – OR – I began 2020 with Vera Brittain’s biography. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, she served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war’s end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. It is “both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation.”

This is the sixth year I’ve shared my reading. You can check our previous years: 2019 (part 1 and part 2), 2018 part 22018 part 1, 2017 (part 1 and part 2), 2016 (part 1 and part 2). A Year of Reading 2015 – Part 1 and Part 2. A Year of Reading 2014 – Part 1 and Part 2

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

2020- a Strange Year of Reading

This was the year of DNF. After the middle of March, I would find a book, read five to ten chapters and then say, “Nope. Not that one.” I tried historical fiction, my favourite genre, but that didn’t work. I tried beach reads, but that didn’t work either. I was able to lose myself in a few non-fiction selections like Samantha Power’s compelling memoir The Education of an Idealist and The Girl with Seven Names by Lee Hyeon-Seo, a memoir of a woman who escaped North Korea. If you think Covid is bad, try living in North Korea. I checked best selling lists and couldn’t even generate enough enthusiasm to get past the descriptions.

My reading mojo returned when I selected several books for a novel that’s brewing inside my head. In total, I’ve read 33 books give or take. See below for comments on the first bunch.

I apologize to all of the authors whose novels I did not finish. I hope 2021 will be a better reading year and that I’ll get back to each and every one of them.

As in prior years, I’ve used the following rating scheme: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

  • Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay – ER – A page-turner about toxic friendships between women, about obsession and what we can lose in the name of love
  • I’ll Never Tell by Catherine McKenzie – ER – A family-owned camp, a murder, and the unravelling that occurs after the parents’ will is read.
  • Scholars of Mayhem by Daniel Guiet and Timothy Smith – ER – Non-Fiction: The true story of an SOE team that commanded a ghostly army of 10,000 French Resistance fighters.
  • Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan – ER – Fiction based on a true story of a young Italian man’s courage and resilience as a WWII spy. See interview featuring Mark Sullivan.
  • The Old Success by Martha Grimes – DNF – Murder mystery set on the Cornish coast.
  • Ladies Night by Mary Kay Andrews – DNF – A woman discovers her husband is cheating on her and ends up in therapy.
  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – DNF – I wasn’t up for the gritty nature of this story about a Mexican woman and her child on the run from a drug cartel.
  • The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis – GR – An interesting look at the early part of the 20th century and an iconic building, although I found the back and forth timelines somewhat choppy.
  • High Tide Club by Mary Kay Andrews – LR – A satisfying story of old friendships, secrets, betrayal and a long-unsolved murder.
  • The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand – LR – Best friends with perfect marriages and beautiful kids form a backdrop for a rumor that almost destroys everything.
  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power – ER – A compelling memoir of Samantha Power’s journey from immigrant to war correspondent to presidential Cabinet official and ultimately US Ambassador to the UN.
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison – ER – I’ve never read Toni Morrison and a friend recommended that I start with this novel. Superb prose, compelling characters and deep insights into the Black experience in America.
  • The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal – DNF – Four generations of women grappling with family betrayals and long-buried secrets.
  • 28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand – ER – Explores the agony and romance of a one-weekend-per-year affair. A page turner full of emotion.
  • The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson – DNF – In 1936, a lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian.
  • The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes – DNF – Depression-era America. This story also explores the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and the women who made it a success. Apparently, the release of these two novels at about the same time caused a lot of controversy.
  • There There by Tommy Orange – DNF – A book club read and a story of twelve characters from Native communities who are all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Too much angst to read during lockdown.

More to follow in another post.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.