Reader Interview Series – Denise has her say

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

I’m delighted to have Denise on the blog today talking about her reading habits and historical fiction. Denise sounds like a remarkable woman. She’s studied many languages, been a pastry chef and worked in the antiques trade. How cool is that! Leave a comment, I’m sure she’ll be happy to respond.

Tell us a little about yourself.   I am a female, who just turned 60 years old. I live in Canada, in the rural part of Hamilton, Ontario. I graduated from McMaster University with a BA in French and German and then from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Education. As well as French and German, I studied Italian, Russian and Polish. Of course when I graduated, there were no teaching jobs, so I joined the family business of antique dealers. In the 80’s I went back to school to get a degree in Culinary Management from George Brown College. When in school, I won in a chocolate competition and a First Place in the Taste of Canada competition. I then worked as a pastry chef for several years and returned to the family business, when my mother became paralyzed. I love to garden, cook and read.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.   I never really counted how many books, I read per year, until I learned to use a computer and joined Goodreads (about 2 years ago). I learned to read as a 3 year old, when my mom would read books to me and point to each word as she read. From that time on, I collected books, many, many, many books. I live in a 16 room house and I still have few book shelves. Almost every room is filled with books. In the room I eventually hope will be my library, I have counted over 300 boxes of books! I am lucky, since being in the antiques trade I was able to buy boxes of exceptional books from estate sales and also from private homes. When we shipped containers of antiques from England, I was able to obtain real treasures, very early editions of Dickens, bound in leather with gold edging.

I collect and read all sorts of books, fiction and non-fiction, classic literature (all the Victorian classics in England, France, Germany and Russia), not so much American although I do read John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and the American mystery writers, Erle Stanley Gardner, Michael Shayne and the Thin Man, Dr. FuManchu stories, etc.. I love traditional English mystery writers, such as Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth and company and now the modern English style mysteries such as Ian Rankin, Quintin Jardine, Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, Elizabeth Peters, Bartholomew Gill, etc. I love all history books, some science too, gardening books, biographies most definitely, travel books, plays, signed first editions, special editions, and of course cookbooks! My books are in many languages, even Chinese and Arabic (neither of which I read) and Harry Potter in Icelandic. I prefer novels and plays over short stories, although novellas aren’t bad. Medium length books, 400 pages or less over those over 800 pages, since the story in long books has to be exceptional for me to finish all at once. If it isn’t, I get bored sometimes and have to start another book. Also, with arthritis in the hands now, those 800 pagers can be too heavy and cumbersome. I don’t finish one book completely, as a rule, before I start another. I have been known to have up to 6 books on the go at once, a habit formed in university, when you read books from many courses during the same time period. Sometimes, I will read in a marathon, say all the books a writer wrote or at least a dozen before I switch to another topic.

Forty years ago, before the advent of computers I would actually catalogue my books in ledgers. As I read a book, I would check it off. Now, I have started doing this on my laptop in Goodreads.

From Goodreads, I see that I read well over 150 books a year. This year, I have already read over 90 books. Now, I usually read at night, in the living room or kitchen. I typically read 400 pages per day. Almost all my thousands of books are hardcover, my preferred book choice, although, now the trade paperbacks are better quality than the old regular ones. Last year I read under 10 ebooks, since I was reading them on the computer. For Christmas my husband bought me a Kindle Fire HDX, so I am now reading more ebooks. I have over 600 downloaded. But I still prefer hardcovers. Unfortunately they are getting harder to find in local bookstores. I can’t ever see myself choosing strictly ebooks over real books, like some of my cousins have done. I love the feel of the pages too much, the dust jackets, the different textures of bindings ( I even have some books bound in suede, cloth and wood!) and the smell of books, old and new! On my tombstone, maybe will be, “She died from Librarian lung!” Yes, there is such a disease!

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Well disposable income, naturally, is the biggest factor. Since used is cheaper than new, I buy that way, in stores catering just to used books, from charity shops like Value Village, from antique shops, from auction sales, from garage sales, online from Ebay. Sometimes though, you see a new book that you just have to have. I can’t pass a book store without going in! And then there is Amazon! And that one click buying! And those beautiful covers of real artwork from the Masters! They just scream, “buy me, buy me!” I’m a sucker for maps too! And those gorgeous, colour pictures in non-fiction books!

Books are at the top of my gift list, both to receive and to give. The local bookstore is my one stop place to buy all my Christmas gifts for others.

My grandmother grew up on a farm in pre-World War I in Poland. When the war came, there was no school, since they were located on the front. She never went past elementary school. When she would see me with all my books, she would shake her head. My reply to her was, ”Books are food for the mind! A necessity of life!”

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    Historical fiction is a category, that I have just started to delve into. Although strictly speaking, that isn’t true. In public school, I read “the Odyssey and the Iliad”. Then in high school, there was Rosemary Sutcliffe and books about Mary Tudor (sister to Henry VIII) and Desiree. Amongst the old books from auctions were many historical fiction works like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather Stocking tales, Jack London, Pearl S. Buck and many book club books from the 50’s were historical fiction.

But now, I have started reading authors who write specifically for the historical fiction market. I tend to like authors who write historical fiction that is fairly true to real history and don’t re-write history to make it closer to a fantasy tale. For example, there was an author who made up historical events and wrote chapters about these events to add to the life of Mary Queen of Scots, how she visited the Pope in Rome and what happened there.

You can identify those, who have done a lot of research, in order to encompass all the sights and smells of the period. I don’t mind fictional characters in a story about real people, as long as the story is believable and does not become far-fetched. Historical fiction brings different dimensions to the personalities of people, who really lived. It makes you think about how these people actually were. You also learn your history.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    I like historical fiction from all time periods, from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans up to World War II. I like stories about war. I’m not squeamish! After all, war is war. You can’t sanitize, if you want to be credible. Male heroes and female heroines, young and old, I like them all. I don’t mind historical romance stories, as long as they are not short on history and closer to a straight romance story. I love the historical books with time travelling in them and no, it wasn’t invented by Diana Gabaldon. Daphne duMaurier, Jack London and others before them did it too!

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    There are so many great ones out there. Where to start?

  • Alan Furst and his spies stories about World War II and France
  • Elizabeth Fremantle, Queen’s Gambit
  • Anna Belfrage, the Graham Saga
  • Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown
  • R.W. Peake, his Marching for Caesar with Titus Pullus – He wore a complete Roman soldier kit (quite heavy) and marched in Death Valley for miles. How’s that for research?
  • Victoria Wilcox, her Doc Holliday Saga
  • Sarah Morris, Le Temps Viendra 2 volumes
  • Robert Parry, Virgin and the Crab and Wildish
  • Bernard Cornwell, Oh yes!
  • Maria Duenas, The Time in Between
  • Dornita Rogers, Faces in the Fire: The Women of Beowulf
  • Ben Kane, Spartacus series
  • Julie K. Rose, Oleanna
  • Maureen Jennings and Hugh Brewster, Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic, two great Canadian authors, whom I had the pleasure to talk with
  • Heather Webb, Becoming Josephine
  • Bad Elephant, Far Stream by Samuel Hawley- the most heart wrenching book, I have ever read, about a circus elephant from 1903. I could not stop balling at the end. The elephant, named Far Stream, is the heroine and the story is told through her eyes.
  • And last but not least, your own book “Unravelled”, by M.K. Tod

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I come from a very large family with all levels of education. Many in the family are avid readers, with all diverse interests and reading habits. When I finally learned to use the computer and went on Facebook, one of my younger, distant cousins, told me about Goodreads.

It was love at first sight! At first I just had a handful of relatives, who were my friends on it and I just used it to catalogue my extensive book collection. Then I started entering the giveaways. I won some books. After I wrote the reviews, some people would like them and asked to be friends. From there it blossomed! I joined some Goodreads book groups, learned about and read new books and re-read old friends. I wish I had more time to devote to all these groups.

I would add interests on Facebook, learn about and follow different blogs, start entering those contests and win a few, all the while learning about lots of new books, new authors and making new friends. To enter contests, I learned about Twitter and how to spread the word, always spreading the word! My cousins and friends would thank me for reminding them of books, that they heard about and wanted to read, but forgot about, or thanked me for suggesting books on topics I knew they liked.

I would join Facebook groups like the English Historical Authors group, Tudor History group, Richard III groups, Women in European History and then the re-enactment groups.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    Please research your books well. It shows. All the little details add to the enjoyment of the book and make the reader feel that they are actually living in the time period.

I was lucky to attend lectures given by local authors and to get the opportunity to talk with them afterwards, one on one, about their books. During the lectures I was amazed at the lengths historical fiction authors go to, in order to prepare for and to write their works.

If your book is about a historical personage, like Mary Queen of Scots, don’t tinker a lot with known facts. It will turn off history buffs, especially those readers who read your non-fiction historical works too. They will not want to buy more of your historical fiction.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on? Your works bring so much pleasure to your reading public. Thank you!

Well, not only are we learning about individuals’ reading habits but we are also learning a lot about their lives! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Denise. For someone relatively new to using technology for reading, you have become very active. And for someone who began reading historical fiction more recently, you have a great list of favourites!

Edward IV’s Women by Anne Easter Smith

Royal Mistress by Anne Easter SmithI am delighted to have Anne Easter Smith guest post today. Anne is an award-winning historical novelist whose research and writing concentrates on England in the 15th century. Today, she’s talking about her research process and the women who surrounded Edward IV.

Thanks for hosting me today, Mary. I’ll begin by answering your question about my research process. It is rigorous! And it never ends!

Anne’s Research Process

First of all I get down on the floor with a big flip chart and make a graph with my main characters along the top and a monthly/yearly timeline down the side. Then I go to my favorite–and trusted–books on the period, turning to the index and finding my character (or her leading man, because as we know history is about men and written mostly by men!) I systematically go through every entry marking on my chart where she (or he) was at any specific time and what they were doing there. Once I have a goodly number of entries and have finished Part One of the book, I write down a list of all the places I have not been to and begin to plan The Research Trip. I need to walk the walk and see what my characters would have seen. Once I’m home again with a bag full of photos, brochures, maps and notes then I feel ready to start writing.

Edward IV’s Women

Now onto the meat of the matter. You asked me to write about Edward IV’s women. Perhaps we should explain that Edward is a major character in my new book Royal Mistress which tells the dramatic story of Edward’s favorite and final mistress, Jane Shore.

I know we are all mesmerized by Richard III at the moment, but as a king, his brother Edward IV was far more influential, being that he reigned for more than 20 years (give or take the 10 months he was in exile), while Richard reigned for only two.

So I set out to make Edward more prominent when I chose Jane Shore as my protagonist in Royal Mistress. Of course, he had appeared in three of my other four books, and I had formed a pretty good idea of who he was after all those years of researching the York family during the Wars of the Roses. It’s astonishing how much larger than life he became as I wrote about him. Had he lived today, he would probably have been a celebrated professional athlete or maybe a movie star–with the requisite trophy girlfriend on his arm.

He brought England out of a hundred plus years of war–first with France and then with his cousins, the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenets. I explain all this in Queen by Right (I hope!). Finally, in the 1470s and early ‘80s, England was able to concentrate on building up its economy at home, while the merchant class was thriving.

Trouble was, Edward was really better sitting on a horse and leading his men to battle than sitting on his throne leading politicians, and I think he got bored. By the time he was in his mid-thirties he was overweight and indolent. However, he never lost his lust for the opposite sex.

Although the names that have come down to us of his known mistresses number a mere five, Edward and his chamberlain were reputed to enjoy the pleasures of unsuitable young ladies on occasion during their forays into the city of London. Perhaps one of them gave birth to Grace, subject of my third book, The King’s Grace, a bastard of Edward’s whose mother has never been determined.

Sir George Buck, in his “History of the Life and Reign of Richard III” published in 1646 and who was the first historian to try and rectify the bad reputation the Tudors had foisted on Richard, mentions a little known first mistress of Edward, Catharine de Claringdon, but he is the only one who has.

However, the other four women are well documented. I shall skip over his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, as for most of Edward’s reign she was his acknowledged wife, although he did fall hook, line and sinker for her and thus marry her in secret to get her into bed, forgetting she was really not a suitable consort for the king of England.

So who were the three mistresses of whom Edward himself remarked that “one was the wiliest, another the merriest, and the third the holiest harlot in the land”? We are not sure which order the first two (and let’s throw Elizabeth Woodville in that timeline, too) came, but they were written about in 1460s, the early part of Edward’s reign.

We do know that Jane Shore was Edward’s last mistress, beginning in the mid 1470s and still in favor when he died, and the one Edward described as the “merriest.” Poor Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot, ended her life in a nunnery, which might suggest why Edward nicknamed her his “holiest” concubine.

By process of elimination, the “wiliest” must have been Elizabeth Lucy, nee Wayte, often called the elusive mistress. We think she was born in 1445, three years after Edward, and was the daughter of a landowning family from Hampshire. She became the wife of a knight named Lucy and was widowed young. She gave birth to two of Edward’s known bastards: Elizabeth, born circa 1463, who ended up marrying a Thomas Lumley; and Arthur “Wayte” in 1465 or 1467, who was finally recognized at court, surprisingly by King Henry VII, and rose to become Viscount Lisle. Why Elizabeth was wily, we aren’t sure, but she was never mentioned after 1467, giving rise to the supposition she may have died giving birth to Arthur.

The more interesting of the early mistresses is Lady Eleanor Butler, nee Talbot, daughter of the earl of Shrewsbury. This was no commoner, and her sister was the duchess of Norfolk, and both were known for their beauty. She married Sir Thomas Butler, heir to Lord Sudeley, at age fourteen or thereabouts, whose pedigree had connections to royalty. Sir Thomas died in 1461 leaving her childless and a wealthy widow. It was when she appealed the Crown’s confiscating her inheritance that she petitioned the lusty Edward in person and was soon being pursued by the handsome young king.

But did he or did he not promise her marriage in order to get her into his bed–commonly known as a pre-contract? That is the question that had enormous ramifications for Edward’s son and heir at the time of Edward’s death in 1483. Let me explain.

Today, there is nothing binding between a man and a woman promising to marry. We call it an engagement and it is usually the precursor to the actual binding of the couple in matrimony. In medieval times, the promise of marriage followed by intercourse was tantamount to a binding commitment or marriage and recognized by the church.

After Edward’s death, his brother Richard of Gloucester became Protector of his nephew, the boy king Edward V, who was awaiting his coronation. During those precarious weeks in May and June 1483, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, one Robert Stillington, stepped forward and declared he had been witness to a pre-contract between Edward and Eleanor BEFORE Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, making Edward’s marriage with the queen bigamous and thus bastardizing all the offspring of that union.

Ah, you say, but Richard of Gloucester had designs on the throne and probably paid the bishop to come forward with this preposterous story. Why did he wait until Edward was dead to announce his information to the world? Why didn’t Eleanor Butler come forward at the time of Edward’s announcement of his marriage to Elizabeth in 1464; surely she had a better claim to that marriage certificate? We have to remember that this was in medieval times and women had no power, especially a woman like Eleanor who had no father or husband or brother to step forward for her. It would be her word against Edward’s and Edward was the king. What about the good Stillington? He knew how to feather his nest: Was it coincidence that at the beginning of the year of Edward and Eleanor’s pre-contract, Stillington held only a couple of minor ecclesiastical appointments and was keeper of the Privy Seal, but later that same year he was given a handsome annual salary, and when the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth was revealed, Stillington became Bishop of Bath and Wells. Hmmm, a possible reward for keeping his mouth shut?

When all hope was lost to Eleanor by the marriage of the king to Elizabeth, she retired to a convent and died there in 1468. Poor “jilted” Eleanor. Edward managed to ignore the whole episode until it came back to bite him in his posterior–posthumously.

Edward’s final–and he is said to have declared favorite–mistress was Jane Shore, the subject of Royal Mistress. But I don’t want to spoil the drama that was Jane Shore’s rise and fall. You’ll have to read Royal Mistress to discover that for yourself! All I will say is that she was witness to some of the most compelling events in 15th century English history, was the lover of three powerful men, and the unfortunate scapegoat of my favorite king, Richard III. Jane’s story has inspired plays, poems, ballads and prose down the centuries, and her nickname was always The Rose of London.

Anne Easter SmithSuch an interesting story, Anne. It is always fascinating to me how many mistresses kings and nobles had in long ago times and the intricacies of court life, illegitimate offspring, the machinations of the church and so on. I am delighted to host you on A Writer of History. I’m sure that some of the writers who read my blog will also be fascinated by your research approach!

Anne Easter Smith is the author of five novels about the York family during the Wars of the Roses. She is a native of England who has lived in the US for 45 years and now makes Newburyport, MA her home.