Writer Tech: Connecting historical dots

While working on each of my previous six novels, I assumed it was either the only or the last story I’d ever write. Even follow-on books like Children of God and Epitaph came as a surprise to me. So I’m amazed to find that I’ve begun to do the research for an eighth novel.

I am still immersed in writing Number Seven. Unremembered Lives is now a little over the halfway point. Ordinarily, 175 pages would be a long enough sample for my agency (Dystel, Goderich and Bourret) to offer publishers, but for any author, every new book is a separate roll of the dice. Even if you write a series with the same characters, each addition to the pile might be the one where readers figure out your formula and get bored, with a subsequent fall in sales.

I routinely jump genres and styles and topics, which makes every new book a gamble for me, the agency, and a publisher. Given the current political upheaval, I’m not sure if a novel about the early American labor movement will be thrillingly topical or dead in the water when it eventually goes out for consideration.

So far, my test readers seem genuinely enthusiastic about Unremembered Lives, but I plan to complete it before my agency tries to place it. At the very least, waiting to shop it around will decrease the probability that an acquiring editor will die or quit or get fired or leave the industry before I can finish a novel.

In the meantime, I seem to be coping with my anxiety about all this by indulging a lifelong interest in something that might develop into another book.

I’ve been fascinated by the family of Henry II since Peter O’Toole starred in “Becket”  and then in “Lion in Winter.” And I love Shakespeare’s histories as well, particularly Kevin Branagh’s “Henry V” and Ben Wishaw in “Richard II.”

I’ve never quite understood what the War of the Roses was about and why England and France are so enmeshed. I was already trying to figure that out when the History Channel’s “Vikings” series brought us up to the point where Rolo’s Vikings became France’s Normans.

I decided it was time to connect the dots for Western European history after the fall of the Roman Empire. I began sorting out various barbarian hordes and was surprised by how influential the Vikings were in the development of the modern nation-state. I’m pretty sure I now have all the big pieces connected, including the Norman Conquest of England and why Plantagenet kings kept invading France.

This was all just personal curiosity until I got to a biography of the knight William Marshal — a medieval Zelig.

He died in his 70s, having known and served everyone in “The Lion in Winter” cast: Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Philip Augustus of France, and John Lackland, who lost all of England’s French territories.

William Marshal not only prevailed upon King John to sign the Magna Carta, it was he who was called upon to decide if England would remain separate from France or return to the fold after John died without a clear heir to the throne. We speak English because of his decision.

I’ve considered two ways into this story. I might have done a series of chapters focused on Eleanor of Aquitaine, each of which would take place during a Christmas Court when the Plantagenets came together, whether they liked one another or not. Mostly not.

Eleanor’s death would truncate the story before I get to William Marshall’s final days. It’s always useful to have a Point of View character who is insightful and knowledgeable about the other characters — particularly one who’s got skin in a dangerous game. So now I’m thinking it would be interesting to create a readable but period-sensitive narrative by Marshal himself. We’ll see…



17 thoughts on “Writer Tech: Connecting historical dots”

  1. I’m very excited about the possibility of a new book about this time in history. I love the fact that your books are so varied in topic. Can’t wait.

  2. I just finished reading a great book about Sir William. If already traded it back in to the book store for new books. I think it was the same author who did the War of the Roses. Great minds think alike.

  3. “I might have done a series of chapters focused on Eleanor of Aquitaine, each of which would take place during a Christmas Court when the Plantagenets came together, whether they liked one another or not. Mostly not.” Typical behavior among extended families during that time, and once the myriad characters are sorted out, would make a fascinating read.

  4. I vote for Marshal as the narrator, unless you can contrive someone who’s with him every step of the way.

    Eleanor has too much skin in the game to be a reliable POV.

  5. I think I’m already in love with the Marshall, even if you don’t proceed with your idea.A medieval ZELIG? (I had to Google it, you know… excellent.) 12th Century England, near Salisbury? (Berkshire is close to Wiltshire… great! And Ireland? Normandy? Some of my favorite places… yep.) I absolutely loved Ken Follett’s novels about the era and the Wiltshire vicinity. I haven’t read any more novels with anything close to that setting, and I don’t know exactly why not, but I haven’t… I’d love to. Jousting knights, The Crusades, the Magna Carta… all that! We’ll see… keep us posted!

  6. I’m sure there are several million Bernie fans that would eat Unremembered Lives up once they learn about it.

    Could novel 8 be titled: What’s up with them white people?!?!! Why they speak to freedom but embrace rule.

  7. What a fascinating premise for your next book. There is so much history and so many fascinating characters during that time. I can’t wait to read your take on the intrigue and drama.
    I have read and thoroughly enjoyed all of your previous works, and greatly appreciate the research and storytelling that goes into each unique tale. As a librarian, I often recommend them to our patrons. Thus far, no one has been disappointed. I do so look forward to your next gift for reading public.

  8. I have just finished reading “A Thread of Grace” and could hardly put it down. I found it difficult to read the part of the prison torture of Osvaldo Tomitz and I can’t imagine how you suffered writing it. Who can do this to another human being is beyond me!
    Thank you for writing this book! What insight I received from reading it.
    I just moved from Lyndhurst and feel proud that I taught in the SEL school district where you live.

  9. Readers getting bored??!! With one of YOUR books??!! NEVER!!!!! You are too bright and have a magical way with words, Mary! Time cannot pass fast enough while we wait for the next book!! Peter O’Toole was one of my favorite actors! 🙂 God bless you for going through what you do to feed our hunger…! 🙂

  10. How ’bout alternating between the both. Hopefully it would be that more stressful, but if you could pull it off it might be considered your masterpiece. Thank you so much for all your fine work, so far. You’ve giving me many hours of reading pleasure.

  11. When I read, “This was all just personal curiosity until I got to a biography of the knight William Marshal..” I got a brief flash of goosebumps and thought, “Yes! Do it, do it.”

    Let me know if you need further motivation.

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