By George Ebey
The historical novel THE SERVICE OF THE DEAD introduces Kate Clifford, a young widow forged on the warring northern marches of 14th century England. Political unrest permeates York as Richard II and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke fight for the crown. Struggling to dig out from beneath the debt left by her late husband, Kate Clifford must solve a series of murders linked to her guesthouse, crimes that could split the kingdom and spell her ruin.
The Big Thrill recently checked in with Robb to learn more about her work and what the future holds.
What first drew you to writing stories involving historical suspense?
I fell down a rabbit hole.
In graduate school my interests led me away from British literature to medieval studies, a combination of literature and history and early languages, which was not officially sanctioned by my program. But I believed I could convince a PhD committee to allow an exception in my case. Not so. My department would not approve a mixed medieval lit/medieval history/medieval languages/popular culture (Tolkien) topic, and even when I dropped the latter part I was still stonewalled.
In the midst of this frustration I heard about a contest—what would you give Richard Wagner for his birthday? The prize for best idea was two tickets to the Ring Cycle in Seattle. I disliked Wagner, and saw the contest as an opportunity to indulge my grumpiness, so I entered with the snide comment that I would present him Anna Russell’s interpretation of his Ring Cycle to give him an idea of what twentieth century listeners thought of his work. If you have never heard Anna Russell’s hilarious sendoff of Wagner’s precious Ring of the Nibelungenlied, let me just say no one could have mistaken this for anything other than an insult. (And you should go online and find it. Really.)
Lo and behold, I won the contest. Down the rabbit hole. I flew out to Seattle, laughed hysterically through two of the four nights of the Ring, then forgot about it as I explored the area. Within a month, I gave up grad school with an ABD and moved to Seattle, where I entered the world of technical writing/editing. To pay the bills—Seattle is expensive. I loved my job—university campus, access to a good research library, working with people who loved what they did.
I know, whence historical suspense. It’s coming, hang on. In my spare time, I continued reading and dreaming about late medieval England, determined to set a story in York, a city I love, the second most important city in England in the 14th century with a powerful merchant class and an archbishop who was also Lord Chancellor of the realm. My first attempt at a story was a discovery plot—an apothecary lay dying, and his young wife, whom he had trained as if she were his apprentice, carried on the business, attempting to hide the fact from the guild (who would not approve). I thought that was suspense enough. Agents’ readers liked the writing but said the story was really just a period piece with little suspense. Tough to sell. One reader told me that it would sell if it was either a romance or a mystery. I had no interest in writing a romance. Nor had I ever desired to write a mystery—however, it struck me as an exercise that would teach me about plotting and suspense, clearly my weak points. In the process of writing (and rewriting) The Apothecary Rose I discovered the beauty of the mystery genre—I could use all my beloved research as background, world building, then murder a likely suspect, and set my sleuth to work solving it in my richly imagined late medieval world. Building suspense was fun! And so the Owen Archer series was born. And then the Margaret Kerr trilogy, and now the Kate Clifford series with my new book THE SERVICE OF THE DEAD.
My dissertation angst? It dissolved long ago. Every May I attend an international congress on medieval studies—an academic congress—and hobnob with wonderful medieval scholars who love my books, feed me their latest research, and tell me that I was smart to choose the rabbit hole. They can see how much fun I’m having.
Tell us about your character, Kate Clifford. What has her journey been like up to this point?
Frankly, I’ve put Kate through hell so far, and that’s just her back story. Here’s why. As my medieval studies colleagues know full well, it’s difficult for students and casual readers to accept a strong, independent woman in this period. Even more difficult to accept her as the lead sleuth in a medieval suspense series. In order to make Kate Clifford credible to readers, I gave her a history, a reason to be skilled in weaponry, ever vigilant, pragmatic about the dangers of being a woman determined to choose her future, scarred emotionally, and liable to have skeletons in her closet resurrecting in her life.
Kate’s a schemer—she needs to be. Her late husband’s will was clear—he left her in charge of his business, but only until she remarries, at which time it goes to his brother, Lionel. A nasty discovery in itself—but then she learns that said late husband left her drowning in debt. A year later she is introduced to his two bastard children, now orphaned by the death of his longtime mistress in Calais. But Kate’s not one to be defeated—she’s angry and determined, and she develops schemes to not only prosper, but to strengthen her relationship to the worthies of York—she runs a guest house in which they schedule trysts with their mistresses. Not only does she charge them what she knows they can pay, but she can blackmail them if ever they think to turn against her. As Kate says, life is complicated.
I wanted Kate to be an integral part of the city without being completely at home there. I think that’s needed in a sleuth. Kate was brought up in the countryside, feuding, Scots raids, defending her homestead. She is a bit wild, what with her Irish wolfhounds, her weaponry, the way she’s chosen her household help. But she’s determined to make the best of her life in York, even as the city and all the realm are on the verge of a civil war. Rumor has it the exiled Henry Bolingbroke means to return to England to challenge his cousin King Richard II’s right to deny him his inheritance. And Yorkshire is a hotspot of Lancastrian intrigue.
Now cue the first crisis: In book 1, THE SERVICE OF THE DEAD, a man is murdered in Kate Clifford’s guest house. If this becomes common knowledge, the scandal will ruin her. It’s up to her to find out who he is, who killed him, and why. Clues suggest he’s a double agent for both Henry Bolingbroke and King Richard II. That’s about as bad as it can get. The game’s afoot!
What elements do you feel are essential for a good suspense story?
It is a cruel game we play. We create a sense of danger for characters about whom we’ve made our readers care, then pepper the narrative with life-threatening events and potential antagonists with plausible reasons for doing them harm, all while withholding information until the plot requires it be revealed. If we do our work well, the readers are hopelessly hooked.
When the summer weather beckons, what strategies do you use to keep your “butt glued to the chair?”
As long as the characters and the stories compel me, I am drawn to write every day—the farther along I am in the story, the stronger the pull. If I don’t feel that compulsion, I know something’s wrong with the work in progress. Time to shake it up. However, I’m not an advocate of “butt glued to the chair”—I need plenty of exercise or my mind fogs and I start going in circles. I know when it’s time to drop down onto my yoga mat and stretch, or head out for a walk. And I pace a lot as I’m plotting or working through a difficult patch. Weeding and pruning in the garden are great activities while untangling a problem in the story, or getting to know a new character.
It also helps that my deadlines at the moment are 1 July!
Do you have anything new in the works?
I do! I’m under contract with Pegasus Books for three Kate Clifford mysteries (so far), each due on the first of July. I am now revising my first draft of the second Kate Clifford mystery, working title: A Bloodied Angel. And I recently wrote the first paragraph of the third. I’m also fiddling with a partial manuscript that continues one of my earlier crime series.
Since doing her graduate work in medieval history and literature, Candace Robb has been engaged in bringing to life the rich culture of the period, from the arts to the politics. She is the internationally acclaimed author of thirteen crime novels featuring medieval sleuths Owen Archer (The Apothecary Rose to A Vigil of Spies) and Margaret Kerr (A Trust Betrayed). The first book in her new Kate Clifford series, The Service of the Dead, is published in May 2016. As Emma Campion she’s published two historical novels about the women of the English court in the 14th century, A Triple Knot and The King’s Mistress. Candace live in Seattle, though her heart resides in York.
To learn more about Candace, please visit her website.