Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin
Margaret Frazer is the author of the best-selling, award-winning, long-running Dame Frevisse medieval mystery series and the spin-off series featuring Joliffe, player and spy.
Liz: Let’s start at the beginning, when two mystery authors collaborated to write the first Dame Frevisse mystery. Or is it Sister Frevisse? Is your former co-author’s name a secret?
Margaret: No, my co-author is no secret. We’re even friends! Of course right after we went our separate ways, people would ask one or the other of us, “Is she still alive?”, supposing mystery writers would know how to kill each other, I guess. But we parted amicably. After six books together, Mary simply got tired of the Middle Ages and left the series to me. Her own first mysteries were published under the name of Mary Monica Pulver. Now, as Monica Ferris, she’s writing a cozy series of modern needlework mysteries.
As for Frevisse, I’ve always called her Dame Frevisse, but the publisher got stuck on Sister Frevisse at the first and took a long time to get past it. Hence the confusion.
Liz: Your website bio mentions that you met at the Society for Creative Anachronism. SCA is the organization whose members role play medieval characters. It resembles historical reenactment groups, except the geography and wars are imaginary. Did you have a particular character? How seriously did you take SCA? Are you still a member? And to what extent did your SCA experiences help you create Dame Frevisse’s and later, Joliffe’s 15th century?
Margaret: I did have a particular character: Ailis FitzUre, daughter of a merchant family in York, England, who became knowledgeable about the wool trade during her first, arranged, and very happy marriage to an older man. When widowed, she married a knight interested in becoming involved in the wool trade: he had the wool; Ailis had the connections. As you can see, I was even then of a practical, rather than a romantic, bent in my approach to medieval life. I came into medieval England by way of the big events of the time, but soon became fascinated by the minutiae of everyday living that made up most people’s lives.
I took the SCA quite seriously, separating the fantasy elements of it from what aspects gave me insight into medieval experiences. I no longer belong, have not belonged for a long time, because after I began spending all day of most days “in the Middle Ages” with my writing, going medievaling on the weekends just didn’t have the appeal it once did. But by then I had got a great deal from the SCA. Wearing the clothing was invaluable. So much changes when you wear long skirts and keep your head wimpled and veiled for decency’s sake. When I returned to modern clothing after one long weekend event, I actually felt indecent with my head all “naked”. Even wearing the soft-soled shoes tells you a lot – the way you walk and your relationship to the ground is different. And using the manners of the time taught me so much. When I came to write the first draft of The Novice’s Tale I kept having characters curtsy and bow, and not only curtsy and bow but do it in gradations according to whom they were encountering. Because I kept doing this and couldn’t stop it, I became quite impatient with myself – until I realized that in the SCA I had taken to practicing exactly that kind of respect to those around me in a hierarchical society and it had become engrained in me just as it would have been for medieval people.
Those are only some of subtle things I learned in the SCA that have been useful in the books. I’ve yet to use my experience of fighting in a melee in armor on a July day, but one of these days . . .
Liz: The late historian Barbara Tuchman called the 14th century “calamitous.” How would you characterize the 15th century, and what prompted you to choose it?
Margaret: Would it be facetious to characterize the 15th century as “not as bad as it might have been”? I didn’t so much choose it as come to it by chance. I was in my mid-teens when my mother took me to see a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. (It remains one of my favorite plays – the language is beyond wonderful and the characters complex, and when I had a chance to write a Shakespearean mystery for an anthology, I based my short story “Death of Kings” on it.) It was my first encounter with medieval England, and I wanted to know more. While reading up on Richard II’s time, I happened on a mystery novel that I thought was about him but turned out to be Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time about Richard III.
I promptly abandoned the 1300s for the 1400s, but found that to thoroughly understand what happened to Richard III, I needed to understand what led up to his time and how and why people thought as they did in medieval England; and before I knew it, I had fairly well abandoned Richard III in favor of being fascinated by his parents. The reign of Henry VI became my focus of research, so when chance came to set a novel in medieval times, I had my time and place, and I deliberately chose the 1430s to start Dame Frevisse’s series because things were fairly peaceful in England at that point. The Wars of the Roses were decades away, the Hundred Years War was across the Channel in France, and there were no great outbreaks of plague. I could explore daily medieval lives and relationships in a time of ordinary living (up to the point where someone gets murdered, of course) instead of belaboring the plots with political machinations and plague and other familiar elements of historical mysteries and novels.
Of course as Dame Frevisse’s series went on and the years passed for her, I began to get into more troubled times and have had fun weaving those into the plots now. After all, how could I have resisted involving her in the mysterious (and historical) death of the heir to the throne in The Bastard’s Tale, or bypassed the upheaval of Jack Cade’s Rebellion in The Sempster’s Tale, or the multiple political murders of 1450 in The Traitor’s Tale? And of course now with Joliffe becoming a spy, there’s more of that sort of thing going on, but I still try to write in depth about ordinary life as a frame to the rest, because it’s the contrast to the ordinary that makes murder so much more a wrenching apart of people’s lives.
Liz: In a recent interview (on being given Malice Domestic’s Lifetime Achievement Award), Sue Grafton said, “I hate giving anyone else a vote about my work.” Yet a collaboration that clicks can be magic. What was the collaborative process like for you? How did it differ from writing alone? Was the transition a moment of crisis for you? Did you consider giving up the series?
Margaret: The collaboration was a fascinating experience. It didn’t set out to be the two of us writing together. Mary was already the published author of several short stories and a modern murder mystery when she got the chance to write a medieval mystery novel. Her persona in the SCA was a Benedictine abbess of the 1400s, and Mary had researched monastic life but realized when she came to start plotting that she didn’t known nearly enough about any other aspects of England at the time. I had been researching (and trying to write about) the century for decades and eagerly offered to provide information and ideas. We even did a little plotting together – Mary wanted to set the book (it wasn’t a series then, just a book) in Oxfordshire; I knew about St. Frideswide being popular there and I found Frevisse’s name as a variant of Frideswide; we decided to play against the grain and set the small nunnery in the countryside and have the nun protagonist want to be a nun, without some dire backstory, loaded with angst, having brought her to it. And so forth. But when Mary came to start writing, she got writer’s block, could not get past the first few pages. Half-joking, I offered to write the book instead. She was so desperate, she gave her notes and everything over to me. I completed the outline and set to work, but after a few chapters shared with her what I’d done. That broke the block, and after that we eventually developed a routine where we would discuss a planned book, I would do the outline and start the first draft. After a few chapters, I would give those to Mary to start rewriting while I continued forward. Then, when I was done with the first draft and she was finishing writing the second (close on my heels, as it were), I took her version and wrote a third. Fortunately we lived about five miles apart, so we couldn’t hear what rude and complaining things we said about each other’s work at that point. But then, for the fourth and final draft, we would get together at her computer. Her husband used to wander past the door of her workroom, checking to see if we’d blown up at each other yet. It never came to yelling, but there were some tense moments during the first two books. An author’s creation is a very personal thing – and this other person was messing with my/her vision of things.
Then we made a major conceptual breakthrough: when we had a scene where Mary’s version was widely different from mine, if we stayed calm and made a blended version of that scene, it came out both better and shorter than what either one of us had written alone. We thought that was great, and everything went far more smoothly for us thereafter.
For me the collaboration was both a growth and a learning experience that I am the better for. That said, I have been very happy continuing to write alone. At the beginning of our collaboration, Mary was the one of us who was published; I had no such credibility and so she could “pull rank” on me, as it were. As I came to take an increasingly stronger hand in the stories, Mary’s interest in the series waned, to the point she did not want to be in the Middle Ages anymore. So she returned to modern times, while I never had any urge at all to leave the 1400s and have stayed there happily ever since.
Liz: How much research did you do in the beginning, and how does it compare with the amount you do now? Where do you find such details as the daily life and routines of Joliffe’s company of players? What resources do you use besides books?
Margaret: I started researching the 1400s in my mid-teens, slightly at first but with growing intensity (or – less charitably – obsession). By the time The Novice’s Tale was published, I had been at it for about 30 years, had a file drawer for every decade from the 1420s to the 1480s with 3x5 cards with chronological information of events and people, half a dozen large notebooks of biographical information, file cabinets of notes and photocopied articles, shelves of research books. I would like to say that, with all of that, I no longer need to do research – but that would be a lie. I continually come up against “No, wait, I don’t know that” and have to go looking for it. It is gratifying to have so much to hand, but there’s always something I don’t know. And when I needed to understand something about Jewish life in the late Middle Ages for The Sempster’s Tale, the notes I took made a pile of paper almost as thick as the finished manuscript. And so it goes. Happily, I love to research.
For Joliffe and his company of players, I’ve drawn, first, on my own experiences as an actor. I’ve mostly done period plays and usually on outdoor stages, with the audience very close. The skills needed by actors -- like those of other craftsmen whose crafts go back for centuries – remain fairly steadily the same, but there is very little actual detail to be had about medieval actors – players, as I call them, since “actor” is a later word. We know they were there in medieval times, that they were professionals, and that they traveled around in companies, often with patrons. That much shows up in the records, but not much else about them. We have a surprising number of the quite sophisticated plays they performed but few details of performance. So I extrapolate a great deal about both the performances and their daily life, drawing every ounce of information possible from sources like the Records of Early English Drama.
It was grand to find that so much of what I had been imagining and creating for Joliffe in A Play of Heresy was substantiated by what I saw when I went in 2010 to Toronto to see the twenty-three plays of the Chester cycle performed on wagons moving from place to place. Not an exact medieval experience but one from which a great many possibilities could be drawn.
Liz: One criticism that is sometimes leveled at writers of historical fiction is that they give historical characters a modern sensibility. You have avoided that with Dame Frevisse. One detail that impresses me is that where most modern women would rebel against the restrictions of the convent, Dame Frevisse likes the contemplative life and gets a little cranky when she has to travel in the outside world. To what extent are you conscious of this issue? How does the medieval sensibility differ from the modern?
Margaret: I was highly conscious of the issue from the very first. One benefit of all the research I had done before ever “meeting” Frevisse was that I could go some way toward seeing the world from the perspective of the time. I’d read not only studies about medieval England but actual medieval literature, their books on manners, their accounts and chronicles and philosophical works, even – heaven help me – their government documents as reprinted in the Rolls Series. (You know you’ve been at it too long when you start reading bureaucratic language with ease.) I wanted to be able to think medieval. How otherwise could I understand the motivations and emotions that underlay their overt actions?
From all of that I was able to see what deep value was placed on the spiritual life, how people approached it and lived in it. Religion permeated medieval life, and I thought that if a nun was to be the protagonist, how much more interesting it would be to experience her as someone completely engaged in her nunnery life by choice and heart-desire, rather than weighing her down with a heavy-duty backstory. For Frevisse the tension comes not from having come to the nunnery unwilling, with dire secrets in her past, but from being taken unwilling out of a life she has freely chosen. Of course not all nuns were happy to be nuns, but that adds texturing to the stories, and by telling all the books from two points of view – Frevisse’s and the title character’s – I get to explore not only Frevisse’s approach to her world but that of a wide array of people across the spectrum of medieval society.
Human emotions are apparently the same across time, but what may cause a particular emotion, and the value placed on that emotion, do differ with time and place. So my characters move and feel in the context of their time, rather than in ours.
Of course, since I’ve become so immersed in medieval thoughts and feelings, I do occasionally behave rather oddly in the 21st century. Just ask my family. Or – better yet – don’t ask them; I’d rather they didn’t say.
Liz: How much of what you know about your period ends up in the first draft? How much remains in the finished product?
Margaret: I’ve learned (the hard way, I have to add, by having it cut out by my editor) what period information doesn’t need to be in a book, so any more the first draft usually has as much period knowledge as the story seems to require. That of course can vary from story to story. Then in the rewriting I cut away what still seems extraneous – but also will add anything needed, remembering that what seems clear to me may not be to a reader. But always I work to blend the information into the flow of the story so there’s never a break while I explain things. Interestingly, I’ve found that if I can’t slip in any extra bit of explanation with no more than a parenthetical phrase, then I don’t understand the thing clearly enough myself and I’d best read up on it. When I understand a thing clearly, I can make it clear to the reader without interrupting the story.
That said, I hold with the truism I’ve seen elsewhere – that 95% of what I’ve researched never makes it into a book. But it’s necessary that I know that 95% because it informs me about what I shouldn’t have in the book. With the example I mentioned before – of all the research I did for The Sempster’s Tale, very little of it surfaced in the actual story, but it’s there in how the characters think and behave, their relationships and fears, much of which I would not have understood well enough to make clear if I hadn’t done all that research.
Liz: How much revision do you do?
Margaret: I usually have three drafts of a book. The first, rough draft I try to write straight through from beginning to end, not going back to fix or change anything. Even if – along about Chapter 18, I’ve changed my mind about something or someone in Chapter 3 – I don’t go back. I post a note by my keyboard and keep going. If I have a question about a word or a type of cloth or what food there is at a feast or anything else not immediately germane to the plot, I don’t stop to look it up; I put ^ beside it and keep going, getting all the action down and the characters developed before worrying about the rest. The second draft is when I do all that looking up and filling in and correcting of the plot, so all the pieces fit together, beginning to end. In the third draft I polish, polish, polish. Then I accept it’s never going to live up to my absolute vision and I let it go.
Liz: Who reads your manuscripts besides your agent and your editor?
Margaret: Since I’ve been writing on my own, I’ve never had anyone read my manuscript other than my agent and editor. In the first draft, things are too messy. By the third draft, I don’t want to be distracted by other people’s ideas of “how it should be”.
Liz: Do you change any of the actual history?
Margaret: I never, never, never change the actual history. Books where the author changes history to suit her/his convenience (“I have tightened eleven years of King Alfred’s reign into two for the sake of the story.”) become historical fantasy novels, in my opinion, and there ought to be a particular category of that name to accommodate them. Once, when I was complaining that there was no way I could logically have Frevisse on board ship with the duke of Suffolk when he was murdered, someone said blithely to me, “Oh, we’re writing fiction! We can do whatever we want!” Which for her included having a king of France allow his sister to travel abroad attended by a handful of men and no women. Fantasy.
That said, there are places where the chronicles give contradictory reports of what happened. In that case, I have to use my best judgment, sorting events out into some coherent order. For instance, the chronicle reports of what happened in London during Cade’s invasion in 1450 have generally the same events but not in the same order. When I dealt with those events, I had to decide which order made better sense. An historian can slide over the contradictions; a novelist has to deal with them. In The Traitor’s Tale, I had to forego dealing with one historical murder because – even though I had the whole scene laid out in my mind -- there was just no sensible way my characters could have been present. The best I could do was have them hear about it. The waste of a perfectly good murder -- so aggravating.
Liz: Have you ever been caught out in an egregious error or anachronism?
Margaret: I’ve more often had “errors” pointed out that weren’t errors, and so far (fingers crossed for luck and knocking on wood) no one has told me of any major flaws. The one that still grates on me – and I found it myself long, long after the fact – is that in The Maiden’s Tale I repeatedly referred to a physician as a doctor, which is not what he would have been called. This will be changed in the e-book!
Vocabulary is one thing I particularly enjoy with all my books. As Frevisse’s series went along, I tried increasingly to keep all vocabulary to words in use pre-1500. This is an excellent way to discipline myself into staying within medieval parameters of thought. Of course that means I occasionally come up against things like “Agh! The plot depends on an allergy but the word didn’t exist until after 1900! They had to have had allergies! What can I call it!” Or having a title character in The Clerk’s Tale who is a nervous man, but while the word “nervous” existed in the 1400s, it didn’t mean at all the same thing is does to day, so “Agh, how do I describe him!”
Liz: Short stories about your characters are available for Kindle and other e-readers. Were these published elsewhere first, or did you write them specifically as e-stories?
Margaret: All but one of the short stories so far published appeared previously in anthologies. “Strange Gods, Strange Men” appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. No, as I typed that, I realized that there’s an anomaly among the stories. With the e-version of “The Stoneworker’s Tale” there’s included a much earlier version of the story – “The Sculptor’s Tale” – written as an 800-word “minute mystery” for a German-language Swiss magazine. I never saw the German version, and the English version has never appeared until now.
Liz: How else are you adapting to the current upheaval in publishing? Has it affected your career? Do you expect it to?
Margaret: There is also soon going to be a Frevisse novella for e-sale – “Winter Heart” – written especially for the e-market. This is part of my adaptation to the changing world of publishing, and I’m encouraged to make the change by the fact that I get a larger percentage of the profit from e-sales than my normal publisher gives me. Beyond that, publishers seem to be presently confused, trying to decide which way to jump, and the more I’m able to do for myself, the better, while waiting for them to make up their minds and settle down.
Liz: Tell us about your latest release and what you’re doing to promote it. How much promotion do you do?
Margaret: My latest book is the sixth in Joliffe’s series. A Play of Piety. I haven’t done much in the way of promotion, I’m afraid. My life has been specializing in upheaval the past couple of years, and I’ve given my greatest energy over to writing rather than appearances and so forth.
Liz: To what extent is your publisher involved vs having to generate your own publicity?
Margaret: My publisher has never shown more than brief sparks of interest in promoting me – I was well into the Dame Frevisse series before I found out I even had a publicist there. They send out review copies, did have bookmarks printed up for me once, and paid my hotel bill and the cost of the dinner when I had an Edgar Award nomination. Beyond that, I’ve been on my own, and I’m afraid my greater interest is in the writing, not in being in public. To the good, one of my sons has lately taken me in hand. Not only did he design my latest bookmark and all the covers for my e-stories (as well as readying them and getting them up for sale), he’s pushing me to come out of the 1400s and engage with the present century. (“Look, Mom – the Internet – fantastic, isn’t it? Mom! Come back here! It’s not 1452 anymore! Face it!”)
Liz: What are you working on now? What does the future hold for Dame Frevisse, Joliffe, and Margaret Frazer?
Margaret: I finished A Play of Heresy, Joliffe’s next novel, a few months ago. While I was finishing it, I was sideswiped by an idea that came out of nowhere, knocked me flat, rolled over me, picked me up, gave me a shake, and said, “Write me!” It’s about neither Frevisse nor Joliffe, and is not a mystery. Instead, it’s a straightforward historical novel, presently called Never Remember Eden and set in the 1480s. I don’t know what this means for my two series. I feel I brought Frevisse’s to a satisfactory end in The Apostate’s Tale, but greatly enjoyed spending time with her while writing “Winter Heart”, so suspect there will be more short pieces with her. Joliffe, on the other hand, is just hitting his stride, I think. Plying his two careers as player and spy should serve to get him deeper into political troubles than Frevisse was ever forced to go. I have plans for him but am awaiting the whim of the publisher.
Liz: Are you ever tempted to write a contemporary novel?
Margaret: I’ve never had any urge at all to write a contemporary novel. There are still so many aspects of medieval life to explore in depth and detail (and so many misconceptions to try to counter) that I don’t see ever wanting to leave. Whatever I get up to next, it will be something to do with medieval England. But just to show that I’m not a complete recluse, I’ll be at the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego, CA, in June, 2011, moderating the panel “Keeping a Series Fresh”.
Having found her way into late medieval England while quite young, Margaret has stayed there pretty much all the time since then. Too busy researching and holding down jobs just long enough to earn enough money to travel, she never managed to get a college degree, and over the years her forays into various jobs were many and usually brief until she became a full-time writer about 18 years ago. (In other words, she finally found a job she didn't want to quit!) Her novels have twice been nominated for Edgar Awards, and her short story "Neither Pity, Love, Nor Fear" won an Herodotus Award.