I started out on the Hildegard of Meaux and the current Brother Chandler series with no intention of writing anything historical, nor, indeed, of writing a series – but as is the way of these things, some mysterious force came into play so here they are, Hildegard and Brother Chandler in their separate but adjacent realms.
Both series are set in late fourteenth century Europe, although Hildegard is based in a specific little-known abbey in the East Riding of Yorkshire and Rodric Chandler is an out-and-out medieval Londoner. York figures quite often as do other still-standing medieval locations.
The first thing I discovered was how much research I needed to do. Not wanting to write fantasy or alternative history, clearly facts were needed.
A million years ago history was one of my top subjects at school but at university it gave way to philosophy and then slipped into the background, so it was a question of starting from scratch. My own fault it was – and later joy – to plunge into the relatively unknown world of Richard II.
In pre-lockdown days research would follow a pattern along this path of discovery. It involved answering basic facts like what did the characters begging for attention actually do for a living. Mostly they are not kings and queens but ordinary people – cooks and cloth-makers, monks and nuns, friars, farmers, fishermen and shepherds, mayors, market traders, crafts people, young, old, married and unmarried or contentedly celibate, and I had to find out how and why as well as who they were as well as what clothes they wore and where their garments came from – no M&S then – which opened out into discoveries about trade with the rest of the world. Simple questions like what did they call their drinking vessels came up, and inevitably what they ate, how they travelled – because they did travel, extensively, many of them – and as the series went on I needed to know about law and order, politics, dynastic wars, papal schisms, money, poverty, sickness, plague, herbal remedies, and the best way to kill a pig. And so it went.
In those now halcyon days before lockdown it was a question of hours in various archives, in bookshops leafing through the historical non-fiction shelves, reading anything and everything I could lay hands on. Living in central London as I did I was spoilt for choice when it came to libraries, the British library, the London library, my little local in Marylebone and, most useful of all for this period, the wonderful Dr William’s library in Gordon Square. I will forever rate librarians as the highest in kindness and patience with an uncanny ability to take on one’s own enthusiasms without a blink.
How I miss them and the booksellers of Gower Street!
These are not the only resources, however. I found re-enactors, sometimes unfairly maligned by academics, extraordinarily helpful in their knowledge of hands-on daily life. Among other things they taught me to dance a farandole, how to make ink, how to roast venison over a fire pit, how to shoot a (relatively) straight arrow, and how to handle birds of prey.
Remember the actress who said that the clue to discovering a character lies in finding out what shoes they wear? I find it’s much the same when inventing a character for a story. More, I always want to know where they walked, and in pre-lockdown one of the first things I used to do was walk the location before starting to write. This can be wonderful. Among many places I’ve been to are the site of the Abbey of Meaux, York Minster (often), Salisbury Cathedral for The Scandal of the Skulls, the Palace of the Popes for The Butcher of Avignon, and I remember several glorious weeks in Florence for The Velvet Turnshoe.
What to do now when it’s impossible to get out and walk the ground? How can we find what we don’t even know we’re looking for until we find the missing piece that fits the jigsaw?
No doubt you’ll say there’s always wiki, and indeed, the randomness of the internet can sometimes yield interesting stuff. To be honest I find it rarely does more than give a general outline, but best are those footnotes which can be followed up and give more detail. Amazon and Abe and other more specialist booksellers and one or two online academic sites are now my main resource and, believe it or not, the experts on twitter are a real joy with their church crawling and passion for the past.
After all this and despite the pleasure of research I find I use only a tiny fraction of any of it in the series because, after all, what always comes first is character, story and plot, but I hope it’s there in the background to give a sense of place and time – like the salt you might add to flavour a dish.
About The Hour of the Fox:
Introducing spy-sleuth Brother Rodric Chandler in the first of a brand-new medieval mystery series.
London. July, 1399. As rumours spread that his ambitious cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, has returned from exile in France, King Richard’s grip on the English throne grows ever more precarious.
Meanwhile, the body of a young woman is discovered at Dowgate sluice. When it’s established that she was a novice from nearby Barking Abbey, the coroner calls in his friend, Brother Chandler, to investigate.
Who would cut the throat of a young nun and throw her body in the river?
And what was she doing outside the confines of the priory in the first place?
Secretly acting as a spy for Henry Bolingbroke, Chandler is torn by conflicting loyalties and agonising self-doubt.
As the king’s cousin marches towards Wales and England teeters on the brink of civil war, Chandler’s investigations will draw him into affairs of state – and endanger not only himself but all those around him.
Order your copy online here.