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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Q&A with historical fiction author Karen Harper

Q: An Irish princess in the Tudor Era? I didn’t know the Irish had royalty.

A: The heroine’s Fitzgerald family were considered the “uncrowned kings of Ireland.” They controlled much of the country for decades. The heroine’s father, the Earl of Kildare, managed to get along with the Tudors for a while, until his heir rebelled against King Henry. The English king then declared war on the Fitzgeralds and invaded Ireland. His military general arrested many of the Fitzgerald men who were sent to the Tower of London and executed. The king took the Earl of Kildare’s daughter, Elizabeth (Gera) into his court. (Trivia for the day: one reason President John Fitzgerald Kennedy liked to use his middle name was that the Irish, even American Irish of the 1960s, would still feel loyalty to that name.)

Q: So the heroine, Gera Fitzgerald, and her family were all real people. Were they hard to research?

A: They were a prominent enough family that there is much written about them, though, of course, the women members were not as well known. But Gera escaped the devastation of her home and family, made a life for herself and worked to avenge her family’s losses during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I. When Gera’s life starts to intertwine with these historical figures, including the important man she eventually married, she is easier to trace.

Q: So, if she was living in England after her family fell, did the Irish rebel marry an Englishman?

A: She did, and it was quite a love-hate relationship for a while because she hated the English and the king for ruining her family. And the hero, High Admiral Edward Clinton, worked for the Tudors. Besides, both Gera and Edward were “forced into” arranged marriages before they could finally persevere and marry each other. Even then, their life together and the times were dangerous and turbulent.

Q: As best you can tell, what was ‘The Irish Princess’ really like?

A: First of all, she was a survivor. The two portraits remaining of her show a pretty red head with a very determined look. Gera was once sent to the Tower of London for “plainspeaking to the queen” [this was Queen Elizabeth] but was quickly reinstated as one of Elizabeth’s closest friends. That led me to her feisty nature, her insistence on the truth, her strong backbone and her amazing ability to be a friend of Elizabeth Tudor when Gera had hated the queen’s father. That shaped much of the plot and Gera’s main motivation--revenge. Also, Gera was a beautiful woman, who inspired some of the Earl of Surrey’s poetry. For Queen Elizabeth to allow a lovely redhead to be her friend when she wanted to be the center of attention and the most beautiful woman at court really says something about Gera’s powers of persuasion.

Q: So Henry VIII emerges as the villain in the book?

A: Absolutely! The more I use him as a character, as I have in THE LAST BOLEYN and THE QUEEN’S GOVERNESS as well as in this novel, the more reasons I find to detest the man. I keep coming back to that old saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” King Henry VIII dealt with many noble families, especially those with any royal ancestors, by finding ways to utterly destroy them. Of course, I must admit now that I’ve just completed a novel about his parents, I can see why he became so paranoid about anyone who had a drop of royal blood and could threaten his throne.

Q: For those of us who love to travel, what are some of the Irish or English sites associated with the Fitzgeralds?

A: Their stronghold was Maynooth Castle eleven miles from Dublin in County Kildare, but it is much changed from Gera’s time. It was damaged by a siege when King Henry’s forces attacked it. The keep and newer manor house are available to tour. Pictures can be found at In England, Gera would have known many of the typical Tudor places such as Hampton Court and the Tower of London.

Q: You also write contemporary suspense set in Amish country. Isn’t that a real stretch from Tudor England?

A: I love to take my readers into places that are different, and clashing cultures make for fascinating reading: the English vs. the Irish; the Amish vs. mainstream culture. It also works well for the romance angle of the story to have the hero and heroine come from opposing world views. They learn to appreciate and overcome their differences and, hopefully, the reader does too.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add about THE IRISH PRINCESS?

A: Only that it makes a great St. Patrick’s Day reading. Erin go bragh!

Thank you Karen! And feel free to visit Karen Harper online for more information about her amazing new novel THE IRISH PRINCESS.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author William C. Hammond

Tell us about your novel, FOR THE LOVE OF COUNTRY.

Richard Cutler, the main protagonist in the Cutler Family Chronicles historical novel series, hails from the seaside town of Hingham, Massachusetts. His extended family, which lives in both England and Barbados during the 1780’s, manages a shipping business, its principle source of income the sugar, molasses and rum produced on the family plantation on the island of Barbados. Early on in A Matter of Honor, the preceding novel in the series, Richard sails to Fareham, England to learn that side of the family business. There he meets the beautiful Katherine Hardcastle, a self-described “Daughter of the Royal Navy” who has grown up in the shadow of English aristocracy. She ultimately marries Richard, forsaking the love and devotion of a young English sea officer named Horatio Nelson. Together the newlyweds sail to Barbados where their first son, Will, is born while Richard is serving the infant republic at the Battle of the Chesapeake and the Battle of Yorktown.

Katherine Cutler is the love of Richard’s life, as is ever more evident in For Love of Country. Richard is often away at sea, but separation serves only to intensify their relationship. Two more children are born before Richard sails in an armed family schooner to Algiers to try to ransom his brother Caleb and his shipmates, seized by Barbary pirates and imprisoned under horrific circumstances. From Algiers Richard sails to Toulon, France after a savage sea battle with two Arab xebecs, to confer with Thomas Jefferson, American consul in Paris, and John Paul Jones, his former naval commander and President Washington’s choice as American emissary to the Barbary Coast. While in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, Richard discovers that a former lover is in danger of heading for the guillotine. You’ll have to read the book to find out how that comes out.

How important is history to your stories?

Nothing is more important. Although I majored in American history in college and have read many books of historical significance since graduation, I invested three years of research before starting chapter one of A Matter of Honor, my previous novel. There is more history in these novels than in most works of historical fiction I have read. And this history has been vetted by highly regarded historians. Simply put, I believe I have a commitment to my readers to present the history as accurately as possible in every scene of every chapter I write.

How do you undertake your research?

By reading and taking notes and maintaining files. In doing research for A Matter of Honor, for example, I read perhaps a hundred books, many of them original source material such as the log of Bonhomme Richard, not to mention countless articles on the internet. Research does not end when I start writing a novel. It continues right up to the point of reviewing the final page proofs. I pledged the same dedication to For Love of Country, as I will to every book in the series.

What intrigues you about the early American period in which the Cutlers lived?

First there is the Revolutionary War, a period that has long fascinated me, and in which I concentrated in college. How a ragtag band of farmers, shopkeepers and silversmiths could take on the world's mightiest military on land and sea, and carve out a new country in the process, is truly a saga for the ages.

On a societal level, this period is one in which the notions of loyalty, duty and honor were taken quite seriously. Men dueled and died over a perceived affront to one's honor. While I certainly am not advocating dueling as a means of settling disputes, I salute an era in which a handshake meant something, and a promise, even by a politician, was expected to be fulfilled.

What’s next in the Cutler Family Chronicles series?

At this point, four more novels are planned in the Cutler Family Chronicles. Book III, entitled The Power and the Glory, is set primarily in the West Indies during the Quasi-War with France. That novel is completed and with my agent. Book IV, A Call to Arms, on which I am currently working, is set primarily in the Mediterranean during the war with Tripoli. Book V has as its backdrop the War of 1812, and Book VI, the war against Algiers in 1815. All novels will feature the same supporting cast of characters as is found in Book I, and all novels will emphasize the strong interpersonal relationships that define the Cutler family in both America and England and make my work appeal so much to women readers.

For Love of Country was originally due to be published in Spring 2009. Can you tell us what happened?

In late January of 2009, just six weeks before For Love of Country was to be released, my then publisher, Cumberland House, went out of business. I was as surprised as anyone by this decision, but because Cumberland had posted the original cover of the novel on Amazon months before publication, the impression in the marketplace was that the book was available. In fact, it was not available then, nor has it been available at any time since then. Fortunately, I have an excellent agent, Richard Curtis, who immediately set about searching for a new publisher. We had several expressions of interest before gratefully settling on Naval Institute Press.

Can you describe your writing path to fiction set at sea?

I have always been interested in the navy and dreamed as a lad of attending the naval academy. (Alas, a serious high school football injury earned me a 4-F classification.) I have also been a reading addict since my early days, a gift I inherited from my parents and grandparents. So it seemed natural to combine those interests in reading sea stories of all descriptions, including nautical fiction. In the 1970s, I joined Little, Brown & Company.

William C. Hammond is a novelist, literary agent, and business consultant. A lifelong student of history and a sailing enthusiast, he frequently sails on Lake Superior and off the coast of New England. Bill lives with his family in Minneapolis. Visit the author at and join his friends on Facebook.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author C. W. Gortner

How did the idea for THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI originate?
Anyone with an interest in famous women of history will have heard of Catherine de Medici: she’s that evil queen who allegedly poisoned her enemies and orchestrated a massacre. Or so the legend says. Initially, I was attracted to her because of her legend. I figured, when someone has garnered such a reputation there has to be more to their story. I wanted to know who Catherine de Medici truly was, to search beyond the lurid accusations and hyperbole for the person she may have been. Of Italian birth, Catherine was the last scion of her legitimate Medici blood; she dominated France in the latter half of the 16th century, a contemporary of Elizabeth I and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Left a widow with small children and confronted by one of the most savage conflicts of the time, she fought to save France and her bloodline from destruction. As I researched her, I realized that, as with most dark legends, there was far more to her than popular history tells us. I thought how interesting it would be if Catherine herself could tell the story of her life. If she had the chance to explain herself, what would she say? All stories have two sides; and Catherine’s is no exception.

How long did it take you to write, and what special research was involved?
It took about two years to write THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI. The research itself began several years before that; I actually first began researching Catherine de Medici while still in college, as she was part of my Master’s thesis. For the novel itself, I took several trips to France, including one in which I visited the beautiful Loire Valley châteaux where Catherine resided and followed in her footsteps on the long progress she undertook to visit her eldest daughter on the border with Spain (though of course I did my trip by rail and car!) A friend of mine in Paris guided me on marvelous evening walks through the City, showing me specific sites associated with Catherine, including a lone tower that she evidently built as an observatory. I also read her letters, many accounts of her and her court, and the memoirs written by several of her contemporaries, including the fanciful memoirs of her daughter, Marguerite, known to history as Queen Margot.

Catherine’s surviving letters constitute one of those rare treasure troves for the novelist. Letters offer an invaluable glimpse into the person’s thoughts and personality and I found some of Catherine’s letters to be particularly poignant: her impeachable love for her children, her despair over the chaos wrought by war, her pragmatism and discomfort with overt fanaticism, as well as her compassion for animals—unusual for her time—all point to a woman who was very different from the archetypal Medici queen with her arsenal of poisons. Her letters helped me to envision the flesh-and-blood woman behind the legend and understand the challenges she faced both as a person and a queen.

What is one of the greatest misconceptions about Catherine de Medici?
Without doubt, it has to be the accusation that she nurtured a “passion for power.” Catherine was not raised to be a queen, true, and she did in fact rule as regent for her sons until they came of age; but it is unfair to accuse her of a ruthless drive to retain her power at any cost. Catherine faced a unique set of circumstances that would have challenged even the most skilled of rulers: she had under-age children to protect and a kingdom being torn apart, literally, by the nobility. The clashes between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation became especially intense in France; it was Catherine’s great misfortune to be caught up in them. Her alleged passion for power was in truth an attempt to retain control over the destiny of her adopted realm and safeguard the throne—both of which may have suffered far more, had she not been there. I find it quite sad that to this day, Catherine remains tainted by actions that in essence she did not take of her own volition. She made several serious errors in judgment, without a doubt, but she was motivated most often by the urgent need to salvage a crisis, rather than some coldblooded urge to eliminate those who stood in her way.

How do you strike a balance between depicting the reality of the times with modern day sensibilities? Do you think issues Catherine faced in her era still resonate today?
The balance is always a fine one to tread. It can even become tenuous, in particular when you are confronting issues of religion, race, sexuality, and gender. Many of the freedoms we take for granted today were unknown to people in the 16th century. Religious divisiveness in particular was a brutal part of daily life during Catherine’s time; Catholics and Protestants were willing to martyr themselves for their cause, destroying countless others in the process. This is something that many of us, much like Catherine, may find difficult to comprehend. Yet that type of extreme righteousness remains very much a part of our modern landscape, as evidenced by acts of terrorism and genocide in several parts of the world. While we are in many ways a more enlightened society, we still carry vestiges of the past with us, and leaders throughout the world grapple with some of the same issues that Catherine did, in terms of placating anger and restoring harmony among people whose lives have been affected by war.

That said, I always consider the needs of my reader to be engaged by my story. While historical accuracy remains a primary obligation—in that the writer should not deliberately alter or distort known facts or have characters behave in an overtly modernized way—I do sanitize certain aspects of the reality of life in the 16th century. We tend to romanticize the past; we forget the lack of adequate hygiene, running water, antibiotics, etc. While I strive to retain the flavor of the past in my work and avoid the tendency to convert a brutal, quixotic era into a “costume drama”, it is necessary to remember that we can only take so much of the less savory aspects of 16th century life in novelized form. In the final say, I write fiction. My principal function is to entertain.

What is one of the secrets that Catherine “confesses” in this novel?
For one, the truth about her relationship with the Protestant leader, Coligny. I find it intriguing that so few of Catherine’s biographers have looked more closely at this most enigmatic of friendships. Coligny was at court when Catherine first arrived from Italy as a teenage bride; he was the nephew of the Constable of France, a very important man, and therefore she and Coligny must have met long before they assumed their political roles. They were close to each other in age; they shared a history, as Coligny later served her husband, King Henri II; they probably witnessed to a certain extent each other’s trials and triumphs, before circumstances arose for them to join forces. Coligny and Catherine could not have been more different, both in upbringing and outlook, yet they shared for a time a united response to the conflict threatening France and a mutual desire to seek accord. In this novel, Catherine tells us what brought them together, and what led to that definitive, tragic moment between them.

What do you hope readers take away from your work?
I seek to reveal secret histories, and in some small way restore humanity to people whose legends have overshadowed them. I also hope readers will come away from my work with the experience that they’ve been on an emotional journey. I want them to feel the way these people lived, their hardships and joys, and differences and similarities with us. Though a Renaissance queen faced issues we don’t, love, hatred, power, intolerance, passion, and the quest for personal liberty remain universal themes.

What is your latest project?
I am currently working on a historical novel about Isabella of Castile, tracing her life from her uncertain youth to her triumphant accession as queen of Castile and the first twelve years of her controversial reign. I covered the latter years of Isabella’s life in my previous novel THE LAST QUEEN, which is about her daughter, Juana; while researching that book, I realized I had a solid grounding in the facts of Isabella’s life but had not truly considered who she was as a person. She’s been lauded as a saint by some and a fanatic by others; she set in motion the horrors of the Inquisition yet she also financed Columbus’s vision of a new world and united Spain after centuries of internal strife. Isabella is truly the first queen of the Renaissance; yet few people know the incredible true story of her tumultuous rise to the throne, her love affair with her husband, or of the events that led to the most climatic of years: 1492. Isabella was fallible, and, like so many controversial figures in history, misunderstood. I hope to bring to life her incredible vision and strength, as well as illuminate her intentions. you, C. W.! And feel free to visit C. W. Gortner online for more information about his amazing new novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Karen Harper

Q: Why did you decide to base a historical novel on Kat Ashley when you usually focus on more major Tudor personalities? [Harper’s earlier novels include The Last Boleyn and Mistress Shakespeare.]

A: For two reasons. First of all, Kat (Katherine Champernowne Ashley, 1506 – 1565), was involved with most of the Tudor greats: King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Seymour, Queen Katherine Parr, and, of course, Elizabeth Tudor. Kat was Elizabeth’s governess and foster mother, so this is not only a historical novel but a mother-daughter story. Anne Boleyn was beheaded when Elizabeth was three, and Kat filled the emotional hole in her life as a foster mother. Kat is a great observer of the triumphant and terrible Tudors.

Secondly, Kat has her own great story to tell. The novel is a rags-to-riches novel, a mother-daughter book and a powerful love story with danger and daring throughout.

Q: Then why hasn’t Kat Ashley been the focus of Tudor novels before?

A: I can only guess at that, but I’m glad I have the first in-depth look at her. Of course, Kat has appeared in numerous novels that deal with Elizabeth as princess and queen, but only as a secondary or minor character. I included Kat as one of Elizabeth’s crime-solving companions in my nine-book series, The Queen Elizabeth I Mysteries. One reason that Kat may have not previously been “the hook for a book” is that her origins are obscure. She came from a somewhat impoverished Devon family, so how did she get so well-educated and how did she get to court in London? I think I have answered those questions in the book.

By the way, as you may know, spelling during these early English eras was not standardized. I found Kat’s first name, maiden name, and last name spelled a variety of ways. There is much ado over whether her married name was Ashley or Astley, but Elizabeth herself once spelled it Ashiley, so I’ll let the queen decide for me to use Ashley and not Astley.

Q: Speaking of her married name, who did she marry? Obviously, someone of whom the queen approved.

A: Yes, when I did the research, I was really excited to find that Kat has a bittersweet but triumphant love story. She married John Ashley who was a cousin of Anne Boleyn’s and who originally came to court to serve her. His talents with training horses helped him to survive the Boleyn downfall. He later served the young Elizabeth as secretary and bodyguard and, like Kat, had many honors and responsibilities heaped on him when Elizabeth took the throne. I like to think of John Ashley as the original horse whisperer because he wrote a book called The Art of Riding, which was popular for centuries. As far as I can tell, he was the first to suggest in print that horses not be “broken” to be trained, but be treated firmly and gently.

Q: Did Queen Elizabeth ever record what she thought of the Ashleys?

A: She did—more than once. When Kat and John were sent to the Tower of London to be interrogated about whether Elizabeth was part of Tom Seymour’s treason plot against her young half-brother King Edward IV, Elizabeth wrote a letter, begging the powers-that-be to be kind to Kat, “Because that she hath been with me a long time and many years, and hath taken great labor and pain in bringing of me up in learning and honesty…and be good to Master Ashley, her husband, which because he is my kinsman.” Later, Elizabeth also wrote, “We are more bound to them that bringeth us up well than to our parents, for our parents do that which is natural to them—that is bringeth us into the world—but our bringers up are a cause to make us live well to do it.” A ringing endorsement, I think, for the many grandmothers, caregivers and foster parents who bring up non-biological children even today.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found in doing your Tudor research for your novels?

A: That’s a tough one, but I’d say that, even though I knew Henry VIII was not a good husband (duh!) he was also a very bad father. It’s a miracle that his three children, especially Elizabeth, turned out as well as they did. I am in the camp of researcher/writers who believe that Elizabeth really was The Virgin Queen because she was so traumatized by her father’s behavior to her mother and stepmothers. Twice in The Queen’s Governess Elizabeth becomes involved in a passionate romance, but I think complete surrender to a man was always out of the question with her. She had seen many terrible royal and noble marriages at close range; the strong marriage of her “foster parents,” Kat and John, was an aberration for her. But I digress…as I am doing even as I write this, because I’m concentrating on yet another little-known Tudor-era character for my next novel, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the “Irish Princess” who lived amid the Tudors for decades.

Karen HarperThank you, Karen! And feel free to visit Karen Harper online for more information about her amazing new novel!!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Jessica James

Your novel, SHADES OF GRAY, tells the story of a Confederate soldier who meets his match in a Union spy. What drew you to this period in history?

Well, the easy answer is that I’m from Gettysburg, Pa., so I’ve been surrounded by Civil War history all my life. But the reality is, I didn’t have much of an interest in the War Between the States until I moved to Virginia in the 80s and learned about Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby. He is pretty much the epitome of the Southern cavalier – gallant, daring, romantic, and chivalrous. I began reading books on him, by him and about him, and, before I knew it, was a complete Civil War fanatic. Now I think I’m drawn to the era, not only because of the stories of gallantry and heroism, but by the morality, the manners, the patriotism and the principles that those on both sides of the war believed in and fought for.

How much of SHADES OF GRAY is based on fact, and how much is fiction?

The main characters are purely fictional, created against the backdrop of the war and interacting with real historical personalities such as Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. I believe fiction is a great way for people to learn about history so my goal was to keep the reader entertained while giving them a historically accurate foundation.

I gave copies of Shades of Gray to Civil War history professors and other Civil War authors to check it for accuracy, (and even to General J.E.B. Stuart’s great-great grandson, who gave it a favorable review). However, most readers tell me they feel like they’ve read a wonderful love story – not a Civil War story – so that balancing act between fact and fiction is really important.

Your novel goes into great detail about battles that took place during the Civil War. How did you do your research for this?

I really completely immersed myself in the era, reading everything from obituaries and newspaper articles to diaries and war records. Battle scenes were difficult because, needless to say, I’ve never been in one. Attending large-scale re-enactments helped me somewhat with the sights, sounds and smells of battle and camp life. But reading the actual words of soldiers and civilians was what really gave me a glimpse into the horror and chaos of battle.

Tell us something surprising about women's lives during the Civil War.

Those who have read Shades of Gray know that the female character dresses as a man, and serves as a courier and spy for the Union. The character is completely fictional, but I have since learned there are at least 400 documented cases of women dressing as men and serving on the front lines – a few even achieved the status of officers. Most of them were only discovered after being wounded or killed in battle.

While I’m on the subject, at least six soldiers are known to have performed their military duties while pregnant, and two Confederate prisoners of war gave birth while incarcerated.

For those cases that are documented by newspaper articles or letters, one can only guess how many went undetected. I think the role of females on the battlefield during the Civil War is one of the best-kept secrets of that historical period.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on another Civil War novel, called Above and Beyond, in which the heroine plays the part of a strong Unionist in Virginia while secretly spying for the Confederacy.

Unfortunately, she is so convincing in her role that friends, neighbors and even her brother believe she is a traitor to the South. I chose this plotline because I can’t imagine the courage and strong will it would take to be despised and maligned by family and friends while nobly serving a cause – even more so during the Victorian era when reputation and allegiance were everything. I think it could be argued that it would take more strength and fortitude than fighting an outright battle with hundreds of your comrades surrounding you.

Thank you, Jessica! And feel free to visit Jessica online for more information about her novel!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Guest Post With Historical Fiction Author Jeri Westerson

Elbows Off The Table Or It’s Off With Your Head!

As part of my blog tour to promote my new medieval mystery, SERPENT IN THE THORNS;A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir--I’ve been talking about the various myths about the Middle Ages that I’ve encountered through my research. Today I’d like to talk about medieval table manners.

Now I realize the very term—“medieval table manners”—sounds like an oxymoron. Surely we are talking about a violent exchange of knives, food being tossed about, sleeves wiped across mouths and noses—monkeys in a cage sort of thing.

But really, nothing could be further from the truth. At middle class and upper class tables, there were a host of rules and many rituals to follow. You had to know your place. And one of those places might be to know at which table you belonged and how far you were from the salt.

Obviously, you are seated at a place of honor if you were at the high table with the lord of the manor or at that of a rich merchant. But if you are a minor noble you might be sitting at a table slightly lower than the head table. And if you are merely a courtier or hanger-on, you would be at the farthest table from the high table.

The meal was begun with a prayer and the washing of hands. Two servants would be on hand: one with a bowl and another with a jug of water. Fingers would be cleaned because, after all, these were the tools in which you were mostly to partake of your food. Eating knives were also employed, but a servant might cut your meat for you, offering you the best slices from the platter. Forks were not yet in use on the dining table. A fork was a tool to cook with. It would be gauche to have it on the table to eat with. Napkins, too, were not yet part of the table. But you certainly did not wipe your face or nose on your sleeves. What do you think the table cloths were for, you cretin!

Very often, you were sharing a goblet with your neighbor, so it was considered very bad manners indeed to drink with your mouth full. No one likes backwash. And Seinfeld didn’t have the monopoly on accusations of double-dipping—dipping your food or bread in a sauce, taking a bite, and then dipping that piece of food again. That was considered a no-no. A lot of the plates were communal. Decorum had to be maintained.

So where do we get these notions that medievals were crossing knives and swords at the table or that they were particularly violent? Movies and novels have a lot to do with those notions. After all, it might have been that 1933 Charles Laughton film The Private Life of Henry VIII where we get the idea that medievals tossed their gnawed bones over their shoulders, littering their floors with refuse. But eating halls were general use rooms. They were used for all sorts of gatherings, from court trials, to parties, to religious ceremonies. Tables were portable trestle tables, set up when it was time to dine and stored along the walls to get them out of the way. Often servants slept in the halls when the day was done. They certainly didn’t want to live amongst bones and other detritus from meals. Who wanted maggots in their beds? It was simply not done.

Some of the medieval violence was attributed to lead poisoning garnered from the pewter plates they supposedly ate off of. But pewter didn’t become popular for dining until the fifteenth century, and even then it was only for the rich. Prior to that, the rich might eat off of silver plate, but usually use wood or trenchers, rectangular loaves of bread baked specifically as plates. You’d eat your meal, allowing all the juices to soak into the bread. And when you were done, the loaves would be collected by the almoner who would distribute them to the poor.

And by the way, to get the amount of lead out of a pewter plate that you would need for all that violent behavior would mean you would have to actually eat the plates. Not likely.

I remarked earlier about the salt and where you sat in relation to it. Salt and all spices—which includes peppercorns and sugar—were quite expensive. You were part of the privileged class when you sat above the salt. But if you weren’t so lucky, you were seated below the salt.

Everyone knew their place. So the next time you pass the salt, think about where you might have been sitting...and if you might have been sitting at the feast at all!

Jeri likes to feast with words on her blog of history and mystery at She also has more information about her Crispin Guest novels at And even her character Crispin has his own blog at

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Ruth Rymer

Ruth Rymer, tell us about Susannah, your second release.

Young college graduate Susannah Reed is brutally attacked in 1877 and nearly killed. While recovering, she vows to study law, although The United State Supreme Court has just declared that women are too timid and delicate to be lawyers.

Undaunted, Susannah reads law at a firm in Chicago as she struggles unsuccessfully to combine her career with a future marriage to a man who will not allow her to become an attorney. She passes the bar and is hired by the firm where she studied. Susannah’s handling of her cases brings her immediate success, but she must face the hostility and jealousy of male lawyers and threats on her life from a resistant public.

When did you first realize you wanted to write?

I've been writing since I was eight years old. As an outgrowth of my diary, I became a character, and everything I wanted happened to that character.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your stories?

With Susannah I read extensively about Chicago between 1870 and 1900, mostly books published by University of Chicago Press. I also read novels written during the period, and both the news section and the classifieds in the Chicago Tribune. I visited upstate New York north of Albany so that I could create the fictional town of Green Valley. It's very important, in writing historical novels to be as familiar with the period and its society as possible. In my mind, I lived in 1877-80 while I was writing Susannah.

What is your favorite writing devise?

I really like alliteration--using many words beginning with the same letter. For example: "Ethical edges easily erase in this effervescent and egomaniacal Eden.”

What was one of the most surprising things you learned while creating your book?

I learned about America in the nineteenth century to a depth I didn't know possible. I'd love to take a time machine there, but I would want to go as a man. Life was very difficult for women during that time.

What does your family think about your career as a published author?

They are all quite surprised!

What is coming up next for you writing-wise?

Maybe a sequel. Perhaps some short stories.

Thank you, Ruth! And please feel free to visit Ruth online for more information about her novel.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Sandra Worth
King's Daughter book cover

In your latest novel, THE KING'S DAUGHTER, you tell the dramatic story of Elizabeth of York. What was it about Elizabeth that compelled you to tell her story?

Thanks so much for having me. Michelle! It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to do an interview with you!

Elizabeth of York was the daughter of a king, sister of a king, niece of a king, and mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I – quite a pedigree. But oh so strangely, nothing much is known about her and she drops off the map once she marries Henry Tudor! Why is that? We certainly know more than we need about her husband Henry VII, her son Henry VIII and her mother Elizabeth Woodville, and even her mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. But Elizabeth of York is shrouded in mystery. When Elizabeth died, a nation mourned and her husband locked himself into his room to weep the heart out that no one ever knew he had and Elizabeth was given the appellation “Elizabeth the Good” by her people. This mysterious and forgotten queen intrigued me.

I wanted to know why we know nothing about her, and I came to believe that it’s because the Tudors kept her captive. That led to more questions—like, why did they do that? And what kind of a threat did she pose to them? Did she believe her uncle, Richard III, murdered her brothers, the princes in the Tower, or – since there’s evidence she loved her uncle – did she believe he didn’t murder them? In that case, one of the princes may well have survived, and the Pretender, Perkin Warbeck, may well have been her lost brother, Richard, Duke of York.

What drama here; what mystery; what heartbreak! Who can resist?

*Tell us something surprising about life as a woman in Henry VII's England.

You would think that no woman stood a chance of wielding power in this kind of a man’s world. But you’d wrong. Margaret Beaufort, the king’s mother, was more ruthless, ambitious and hindered by fewer scruples than her son Henry VII. Only her grandson, Henry VIII, whom she raised, can lift a candle to her.

* THE KING'S DAUGHTER recently won Romantic Times's Best Historical Biography of the Year Award. What does this award mean to you?

Of course, I’m thrilled to bits, and very, very grateful! It’s such an honor. Philippa Gregory was one of the four nominees, along with Susan Holloway Scott and Jane Candia Coleman. I’m still pinching myself!

* How much of the novel is based on fact and how much is fiction? Was Elizabeth's mother really such a shrew?

I make it my policy never to stray from the historical record when information is available, and I only use my imagination to fill in the blanks. As far as Elizabeth’s mother is concerned, her actions speak for themselves—and yes, she was an incredible shrew! She seems to have been a possessive, overly ambitious, avaricious and destructive woman who wreaked terrible vengeance for every perceived slight. For this reason, history records her well. But in the end, some things have to be speculation because not everything survives five hundred years. For this reason, I cherish my review from Publishers Weekly: “Worth examines Elizabeth's life with a journalist's eye, an impressive feat given that her subject left little behind for study.” I do my best given the information available, but sometimes, it’s just not available.

*What are you working on next?
My next novel is on Lady Catherine Gordon and her husband, the so-called “Perkin Warbeck.”
With four marriages made for love at a time when men controlled the destiny of women, Catherine not only survived in the deadly Tudor court but managed to carve out happiness for herself. Her fourth husband was twenty-five years younger than her—and it was a love match! A happy ending is hard to find in this period of history, and I’m delighted to have one for my next book.

photograph of author Sandra Worth
Thank you, Sandra! And feel free to visit Sandra Worth online for more information about her new novel!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Eva Etzioni-Halevy

* In your latest novel, THE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH, you tell the story of Deborah, a judge in ancient Israel. What was it about Deborah that compelled you to tell her story?

Deborah was the most eminent woman in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament.) She was a national leader: sort of a president, chief justice and chief rabbi, all wrapped in one, and deeply adored by the people. But what is special about her is not only her prominence, but the intriguing tale the Scripture tells about her.

Deborah orders warrior Barak to launch a strike against the Canaanites, who threaten their people with destruction. His response is rather unusual: he demands that she accompany him to the battlefield. Over three thousand years ago--a woman in the battlefield?

I found this to be very strange and suggestive. I asked myself: why did he really want her there? Moreover, she ended up going with him to his hometown as well. Yet she was a married woman and a mother, and there is nothing to indicate that her husband accompanied her.

I began asking myself: what did her husband have to say to that excursion? What would any husband say if his wife suddenly went off to distant parts with another man, leaving him to do the babysitting? It makes good sense that this created marital problems between them. Would they be able to overcome those problems? And what transpired between Deborah and Barak when they were together with no husband in sight?

These were the aspects of Deborah's story that I found most compelling, and they prompted me to write the novel. The questions are there in the bible and in my novel I provided my own answers to them.

* Tell us something surprising about the life of women in ancient Israel.

There are several things that I find astonishing about women in ancient Israel, as depicted in the Bible.

For one, the Bible is full of the most dramatic and the most traumatic stories about these women who lived thousands of years ago, and yet are so strikingly similar to us in their anxieties, hopes and desires. This led me to identify with some of them, and visualized their lives as if they were my own.

Also, they lived in a male-dominated society, in which they had few legal rights and their position in the family and society was dismal. Yet they were strong personalities, who did not just sit around and bemoan their fate. Instead, they took destiny into their own hands and shaped it to do their bidding.

Thirdly, and most surprisingly, several of them are described as very sexual personalities. They were not merely "sex objects" but initiated sex. Occasionally they did so as part of what we might call "sexual politics," in order to gain power and obtain various objectives in life.

For all these reasons I decided to hand them a "loudspeaker" by writing novels about them, so that their voices could be heard loud and clear across the generations. I wrote about them as I think they deserve to be written about: stories of love, betrayal and redemption through more love, which are yet totally faithful to the Bible, for which THE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH is the most recent example.

*In what ways does Deborah defy the conventions of her time?

In the teeth of the conventions for women prevailing at the time, she "cracked the glass ceiling" over three thousand years ago and achieved the highest position of leadership in the nation. She led her people to war, when it was necessary and to peace, when it became possible.

Remarkably, she did so without losing her femininity. In "The Song of Deborah" (in the book of JUDGES), she refers to herself not as a prophetess, not as a judge, not as a leader, but as "a mother in Israel."

In all this, Deborah can serve as an inspiration for us today. Of course, not every woman wants to become a national leader. But what contemporary women can learn from Deborah—as portrayed in the Bible and amplified in my novel—is that no matter what the field in which they choose to realize their potential, no matter what is right for them, they can draw on their inner feminine strength to achieve their goals.

* How much of the novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?

Let me say first that the novel is not just for Bible lovers. It is for anyone who likes an enjoyable read. It is a light story of love and suspense, with a twisting plot, written first and foremost for reading pleasure. Yet it does not deviate from the Scripture by even a hair's breath.

At the same time, the story of Deborah in the Bible is brief, and I had to fill in the blanks. I did so through research, which included visiting the spots in which the plot of the novel took place. I did not have to travel far, since I am so fortunate as to live "on location" so to speak, that is, in the Holy Land. It was awesome to see, for instance, the castle in which part of the story takes place still in existence, though in ruins!

I also filled the gaps through my imagination, but most of all through my identification: the unfathomable feeling I had done some time travel, that I had actually been there, and that this is how things truly happened!

*What are you working on next?

I am now working on a novel about Tamar (the second Tamar in the Bible), the daughter of King David, who was the victim of incestuous rape by her brother. I want to show her trauma and how she rebuilt her life afterward, but I am still struggling with this and it is still far from publication.

Thank you, Eva! And feel free to visit Eva online for more information about her latest novel THE TRIUMPH OF DEBORAH.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Susan Holloway Scott
French Mistress

* In your latest historical novel, THE FRENCH MISTRESS, a poor young lady from the country arrives at the court of Louis XIV. What are some of the things which would have shocked your protagonist, Louise de Keroualle, upon her arrival?
I’d guess that the hardest thing for Louise to accept about the French royal court would likely have been its patent insincerity. The provincial Keroualles were pious and honorable, and Louise had been raised to be the same. She soon found out that life at Court was all about power, titles, and wealth; without any of them, she was virtually invisible, despite her beauty. Louise realized, too, that a great many unsavory secrets (marital infidelity and abuse, bisexuality, and homosexuality, were only a few that would have shocked a well-bred Catholic girl) hid behind handsome faces and beautiful clothes, and that if she wished to prosper, she must listen, observe, and adapt. In time the hard lessons she learned at Versailles and the Louvre carried her to great success in the English royal court in London.

*What drew you to the courts of King Louis XIV and King Charles II?
Louise de Keroualle’s position was a unique one. Once Charles II had admired Louise in the retinue of his sister, Henriette d’Angleterre, Duchesse d’Orleans, the French king was quick to see an advantage in his English cousin’s desire. Louis swiftly sent Louise to the English court, ostensibly to serve the queen, but really as a “gift” to Charles. Louis hoped the young girl would become a useful agent for France, directing the English king towards French interests by way of the royal bed. While Louise’s influence as a political agent proved limited, her unusual role did earn her the trust and confidences of both kings, and made her keenly observant of both royal courts. I’ve always been fascinated by the many differences between France and England, differences that have led the two countries to war so many times throughout history. For me, Louise became the perfect vehicle for describing this conflict in the late 17th century, and showing the differences between Louis and Charles, their courts, and their cultures. And, more importantly, her life makes such a great, real-life story!

* How much of the novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
All of the public scenes are historical fact. Royal courts thrive on gossip, and many of the best scandal-mongers of the time, both French and English, kept diaries and wrote letters that have fortunately survived for eager researchers like me. Even the raucous evening where Charles finally claimed Louise’s virginity after a drunken mock-wedding was lasciviously reported by several witnesses. In addition, newspapers and scandal sheets were beginning to raise their tattling heads, and Louise and the king were fair game. As for what exactly took place when the palace doors were shut and Louise and Charles were alone together –– that’s where my imagination took over. It’s an educated imagination, well-stocked with a great many facts from my research, but it’s still imagination. Which is why I write historical fiction rather than history.

* Tell us something surprising about women in 17th century France.
In London, the women involved in Charles’s extramarital intrigues were generally regarded as the king’s whores. No words were minced, not even if the lady were beautiful, rich, and raised to the peerage. Across the Channel in the French court, however, Louis’s chosen mistress was given the official title of maîtresse-en-titre. It was publicly considered a great honor (though likely the catty whispers were less kind), a way of serving king and country, and was rewarded with respect, regard, great wealth, and lavish apartments in the palace. As one court hanger-on declared, “Every [French] woman was born with the ambition to become the King’s favorite.”

* What are you working on next?
My next heroine has already made her appearance in The King’s Favorite as a ten-year-old girl, dancing jigs in the moonlight with Nell Gwyn. Catherine Sedley was the only daughter and heiress to the libertine poet Sir Charles Sedley, and grew into one of the most scandalous ladies of her time. Though her fortune made her much desired as a bride, she refused to marry and let any man take control of her life. Instead she remained independent, becoming mistress to a king, wife to a general, and a countess in her own right, keeping her place at the English court for nearly forty years and through five monarchs. Look for Catherine’s story next summer in The Countess and the King.

Thank you, Susan! And feel free to visit Susan Holloway Scott online for more information about her amazing new novel THE FRENCH MISTRESS.