By Jeremy Burns
The Middle Ages were full of fascinating and often shocking episodes, and few authors are as talented at bringing readers into this intriguing period of history as Karen Maitland. A veteran thriller writer and a member of the Medieval Murderers, Maitland digs into the political intrigue, sabotage, subterfuge, revolutions, conflicts, and secrets of the medieval era like few others. Her latest book, THE VANISHING WITCH, looks to thrill fans once again with her unique take on this tempestuous period of history.
The author recently sat down with THE BIG THRILL to give readers a glimpse into her upcoming medieval thriller.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’ve been writing full-time since 2000, and THE VANISHING WITCH is my fifth medieval thriller to be published. As well as my own historical thrillers, I also write a joint medieval crime novel ever year with five other authors—Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight, and Ian Morson. Together we are known as the Medieval Murderers and our tenth book, THE DEADLIEST SIN, is also published this summer.
I’ve recently moved to the beautiful county of Devon in England, not far from Dartmoor, the wild moor that was the inspiration for the famous Sherlock Holmes case—‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. When the mist comes down, you can almost hear the terrible black hound baying across the moors. I’ve converted an old blacksmith’s workshop in which to write, which still has the old anvil and I’ve filled it with things that inspire me like an old witch ball, a saxon drill, and stuffed owl.
Tell us about THE VANISHING WITCH.
The book is set in Lincoln, England in 1380/81, during the reign of the boy-king Richard II. It was summer of the Peasants’ Revolt when thousands of men and women marched on London and seized the Archbishop of Canterbury who was Chancellor of England. They hacked off his head, starting an orgy of rioting, murder and destruction that swept across England. But Robert, a wealthy wool-merchant in Lincoln has his own problems the rebels want him dead, the sheriff questions his loyalty and when people around him start being murdered, who can he trust—his impetuous son, the dark-haired widow, her bewitching daughter or his superstitious servants?
What was your initial inspiration for THE VANISHING WITCH? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?
Three strands came together over many years to inspire the book. First, years ago, I was in Ireland when I came across the records of a wealthy medieval woman who was accused of murdering three husbands by witchcraft and attempting to the kill the fourth. She wasn’t the kind of helpless old crone you normally expect to be accused of witchcraft, and I was left wondering if she really was wicked or entirely innocent. None of the characters in the book are based on her directly, but it gave me the idea of exploring why such accusations might be made.
Then, in 2011, I watched the coverage of the London riots, when thousands of people, many who’d never broken the law before, suddenly started rioting and looting. It was so like the events of 1381. Both in 1381 and in 2011 the rioters expected to be stopped and when they weren’t, like small children, they committed ever more outrageous acts. But in 2011, the worst that could happen to rioters was fines or prison, in 1381, to riot was treason and you could expect to be executed in the most painful and gruesome way, with no court of appeal. So why did the medieval citizens risk it?
The third strand of THE VANISHING WITCH came from living in Lincoln, a city full of ghosts—from legions of Roman soldiers to medieval monks and Victorian ladies. The most haunted street in England is said to be in Lincoln. Do these ghosts ever meet or talk? That idea is gift to a novelist.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered in writing novels set hundreds of years in the past?
Language is one. If you used the language of the time you’d be writing in the language of Chaucer, which few readers would understand. So you have the find the balance between writing in way that allows the reader can identify with the characters, while at the same time making sure the characters don’t use words that refer to modern concepts they wouldn’t have known about such as bacteria or the subconscious.
That also means trying to understand the world as they did, when astrology was seen a vital part of a medicine and maggots didn’t come from flies but were generated from the decaying flesh. As an author, this also means trying to unknow what as a modern person you know. I know that the head of a hive of bees is a female queen, but I must believe while I’m writing that it’s a male king, as they did.
The other challenge is not to make assumptions about medieval times. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because women rode side-saddle in Victorian times, they must have ridden side-saddle in previous centuries. They didn’t in medieval times because the side-saddle hadn’t been invented.
How closely do you tend to stay to the established historical record when writing your historical novels?
You can’t change well-known facts, such as who was on the throne or the sequence of events of the Peasants’ Revolt, and I try to make sure historical detail such as food, clothing, and places are as accurate as possible.
But there is one incident concerning a theft which I use in THE VANISHING WITCH. It did really happen in Lincoln, but I suspect very few readers will have heard of it. The actual theft took place five years earlier than I have it in the novel, and I have added a comment in the Historical Notes at the back of the novel to make this clear. But I thought it was a justifiable shift because it helps to illustrate the on-going hostility between the two warring groups in the town which continued for many years.
What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel? Any interesting stories there?
I was lucky enough to be living in Lincoln at the time I wrote the novel, so I was able to walk the streets my characters walk and explore old buildings. While many medieval streets and buildings still stand, the area around the old wharf has been completely redeveloped. So I had to invent the location of my character’s warehouse and the route of the track leading to it. I had just finished the novel when I got a call from the local newspaper, who knew I was interested in medieval Lincoln. It seemed that archaeologists examining a site prior to a new shop being built had just discovered a medieval track leading to the remains of a medieval warehouse and it was exactly where I had put it in the novel—so that was a magical moment.
I also had to do a lot of research into medieval old spell and charm books known as grimoires, snippets from which I’ve used as chapter headings. I normally try out any of the medieval dishes my characters eat and their occupations, so that I know the practical difficulties involved, but I’m afraid I didn’t try out any of the spells, such as how to make someone fall madly in love with you. But if any reader tries it and it works, I’d love to know, though since it involves some rather unpleasant ingredients I wouldn’t recommend it.
How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in THE VANISHING WITCH do you most identify?
Since all the characters come from my imagination, there is a little bit of me in each of them. I guess Leonia, the merchant’s stepdaughter is the girl I longed to be when I was a child, but wasn’t—beautiful, assured, and able to twist adults round her little finger. Robert the merchant is probably me when I’m in a grumpy mood. Beata the maid—plain, utterly determined and much put-upon—is probably the kind of person I would have been had I had the misfortune to be born into those times, and she is the character I most identify with. But I most admire Gunter, a boatman who has lost his leg, but refuses to be beaten and will do anything to protect his family.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?
The ghost who narrates parts of the novel, because he derives great amusement from watching the living walk into the danger he can see coming and they can’t. He feels no moral obligation to warn them. I really enjoyed trying to imagine the way a ghost would see the world he still inhabits, but can no longer be part of. Normally villains are the most fun characters to write, but most of the people in this novel have their villainous side so it would be hard to choose.
When sitting down to write a new book, how much of an outline or plan do you usually create before launching into the first draft?
The publishers ask for few pages of synopsis before I begin, though the final book rarely resembles the synopsis except for date, setting, and general idea. Using that, I write a third to a half of the novel until I feel I’m losing my way. Then I take a week off and summarise all I’ve written so far, in bullet points using three bullet points per chapter.
By that stage, I’ve got to know my characters, what they fear, what they desperately want and I know what they would and wouldn’t do. So, this is the point at which I abandon the synopsis, because characters I originally thought would be minor are now major and vice versa.
Then I spend the rest of my week off plotting the rest of the novel using the same bullet point system. Once I’m happy, I start writing again and finish the first draft of the remainder of the book. This time the writing is much faster, because I know exactly where I’m going, though the ending often takes me totally by surprise when I get there, because it’s rarely what I plotted.
Other than THE VANISHING WITCH, what is your favorite book that you have written (or co-written)?
COMPANY OF LIARS was a favorite because it was the first historical one I wrote, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going back to it recently to write the novella LIARS & THIEVES about the same characters. It was like having dinner with old friends you haven’t seen for ages.
I loved writing THE GALLOWS CURSE because a mandrake was the narrator, and THE OWL KILLERS because it told a story about the beguines, the vast movement of women which until recently was virtually erased from history. FALCONS OF FIRE & ICE I liked because for so many years I wanted to set a story about that mysterious thermal cave in Iceland. Sorry, your books are like your children, it’s impossible to have favourites.
What is your favorite book by another author? Why?
That’s hard too. It changes according to what I last read. Different moods and different times in your life need different books. I think it would still have to be Graham Greene’s THE POWER & THE GLORY, because it was the first book I read as a teenager that had an antihero who was flawed, unattractive, and actually scared of being killed, someone you could really identify with. In all the children’s books I read I just knew the hero was going to be saved in the end, which really frustrated me as a child, because I knew life wasn’t like that. So, to read a book that had a real sense of danger because you knew the central character could die was utterly enthralling.
What is your favorite travel destination? Why?
Iceland. The scenery with black rocks is wonderfully dramatic, but with all the volcanic activity and the rushing water the whole atmosphere feels energized as if the land itself is alive and growing.
In total contrast though, I also love the Greek islands, the warm balmy nights, eating grilled fish in a tavern with the waves lapping at your feet, and walking in the ruins of the ancient Greek cities, realizing almost everything we now do or write about from science to the arts was first imagined and created there, thousands of years ago. That fills me with awe and restores my faith in the ability of man to achieve great things.
If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you talk about?
Mary Shelley. I’d love to have been with her that summer on Lake Geneva in 1816, when she created FRANKENSTEIN. She had a life that was so beset by terrible tragedy, even her passionate love affairs. She lost so many people she loved, including children, and yet was able to write a book that would influence so many other writers and filmmakers for generations to come, not easy for a woman of that time. I’d love to talk to her about where the idea for Frankenstein came from and whether she identified with the monster or his creator. Did she see herself in them?
What is your favorite period in history? If given the opportunity to time travel there, would you go? Why or why not?
If I had to travel back in time for a visit I’d go back to the Saxon period in Britain. Such amazingly beautiful objects of exquisite craftsmanship came from that period, yet we know so little about what they thought. I’d love to ask them.
But if I had to live somewhere in the past, it would be have to be the era of P.G. Wodehouse’s creations, JEEVES & WOOSTER, in the 1920s. I’m not sure if that England ever really existed of society balls, country house weekends, jazz-clubs, and tea with cucumber sandwiches, but that’s where I would live—but only if it promises I can be one of the society ladies, of course, with a town house in Belgravia and another in the country. The trouble is I would probably find myself there as one of the scullery maids.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
That my job as a writer is to spend time finding out about things that really fascinate me—what could be better than that? I love it when a reader says, I found that fact really interesting or I got so lost in your book I almost missed my train stop. Then you feel you really shared something. Best of all is when a reader tells me they enjoyed something I’ve written. It’s like when someone says I liked that meal you cooked for me. You’ve made another human happy.
What is one thing that would surprise your fans about you or your writing process?
I can’t watch horror movies or any films with any real violence. I’d choose The Waltons over The Terminator every time. Readers often think that because my novels are very dark and the deaths nasty, that I must be fan of that sort of film, but actually it’s just too real for me. I saw a lot of bloodshed in Africa when I worked there and in Belfast and I can’t watch it. Fortunately, I can write about it.
What advice would you give to new or aspiring authors who look up to you?
I don’t think any one looks up to me, I’m only five foot three. Most people look down.
Simon Brett wrote a wonderful novel a few years ago called THE BOOKER BOOK, in which an aspiring author tries to win the Booker Prize by imitating the style of the last winner. The trouble is it takes so many years to write it that every chapter of her novel is in a different style of the latest winner.
It is tempting to try to write in the style of your favorite authors or write a book in a genre that is currently popular. But you will only get through the sticky patches if you tell the story you are burning to tell. Learn techniques from other authors, but let the story and the characters tell you what style and voice it should be in. And the only way to discover that is just to start writing, even if you start with a scene from the middle of the novel because that’s clear in your head. In fact, that’s often the best place to start.
What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?
I am doing the final read through of THE RAVEN’S HEAD a new medieval thriller which Headline plans to publish in Spring 2015. It is a dark thriller that centres on medieval alchemy. The raven’s head is the symbol of death and putrefaction in alchemy.
A young apprentice scribe tries his hand at an unusual form of blackmail and it works well, until he tries it on a wealthy but highly, dangerous man who is conducting some nasty and lethal experiments. The book is set in France and England in 1224, during the reign of the bitter enemies King Louis of France and Henry III of England.
It may have been gruesome, passionate, brutal, dangerous, and, at times, disgusting, but one thing that the Middle Ages certainly were not is boring, as any reader of Karen Maitland knows. Though she says she didn’t try any of the spells in the book, her writing holds a special magic that may well hook you in for life. Be sure to check out THE VANISHING WITCH when it hits stores this month.
Karen Maitland is fascinated by the murder and magic of the Middle Ages. Her dark medieval thrillers include COMPANY OF LIARS set at the time of the Black Death, THE OWL KILLERS, THE GALLOWS CURSE and FALCONS OF FIRE & ICE. Her novella LIARS & THIEVES in which the characters of COMPANY OF LIARS face a deadly new threat is published by Headline as an e-book. Karen is also one of six historical crime writers, known as the Medieval Murderers, who together write joint murder-mystery novels. Their 10th novel, THE DEADLIEST SIN, is published this summer.
For the latest news about books and events please visit Karen’s website.