We have an honored guest today at The LadyKillers: historical mystery author Margaret Frazer. Margaret is the author of the nationally best-selling, Edgar Award-nominated Dame Frevisse series of medieval mysteries, the nationally best-selling Joliffe the Player series, and numerous short stories, including the award-winning "Neither Pity, Love, Nor Fear", all now becoming available on-line after appearing in various anthologies. Published internationally, she is known for her meticulous research, well-crafted prose, and compelling characters.
LadyKillers own Priscilla Royal conducted the interview.
1) When you began your first series, did you know how Dame Frevisse would evolve? Did you plan an open-ended series or was the original plan to write a limited number of books?
When I began with Dame Frevisse, my then-co-author and I thought we were doing one book. All the basic elements were developed with that in mind – an ordinary nun who had gladly chosen to be a nun, living in the small, well-run, rural nunnery, with no dark back story complicating her life. So she would have some experience of the world, I gave her parents who traveled widely when she was a child, and when we wanted someone well-placed in society to bring news into the nunnery, I suggested Thomas Chaucer for an uncle-by-marriage because it would be fun to have someone in the book who was real but not a major historical figure.
Then we were offered a two book contract. Oh. Okay. We had a nice nunnery and interesting characters and we could very happily write a second book with them.
Of course when we were asked for more books after that, this small, rural nunnery began to be a problem. It wouldn’t take too many murders to seriously depopulate the neighborhood. Fortunately, medieval English records show that nuns were not as closely cloistered as they became in other countries after the Reformation. (Of course after the Reformation there were no nuns at all in England.) So long as their superior approved and they went accompanied, nuns could travel outside the nunnery for a number of reasons, and Frevisse has accordingly occasionally travelled. Her relationship to, first, Thomas Chaucer and then to his daughter Alice, duchess of Suffolk, became useful in ways I never anticipated at the beginning, taking Frevisse to places and into situations she would otherwise never have gone. At the same time, she was encountering murders and murderers and the sorrows those bring into people’s lives, and there was no way she could be unchanged by that. So as the series went on (and my co-author tired of the Middle Ages and left to write other books), Frevisse grew, changed, deepened as a person as the years went by and her experiences accumulated.
From planning to write one book, I had become enmeshed in an on-going series and loved it. But the time came when I began to feel the series was coming to an end. The publisher was letting all the middle books in the series go out of print, and I supposed the day was coming when they would suddenly declare “No more” and the series would simply, arbitrarily stop at whatever point that was. Being a tiny bit on the cantankerous side, I decided I would end it where I wanted it to end, and so there is a rounding off in The Apostate’s Tale, the 17th book of the series.
That has proved to be not an absolute end, of course. The e-book revolution has not only allowed me to put the out of print portions of the series back into print, it’s also giving me the freedom to write what I want, when I want. That’s how the novella Winter Heart came to be, letting us see what Frevisse is doing after The Apostate’s Tale. And I have to say that I found myself so happy to be back with Frevisse, writing about her and other “friends”, that I daresay more stories will follow.
2) When you introduced Joliffe, how did he persuade you to give him his own series?
Joliffe persuaded me to give him his own series by absolutely, positively refusing to leave me alone. When he appeared in The Servant’s Tale, the second book in Frevisse’s series, I thought our acquaintance would be brief – that one book and no more as he went on his way with his company of travelling players. But he wasn’t having it. When a plot needed complicating in The Prioress’ Tale, there he was, and it was clear that in the years since last encountering Frevisse he’d been up to more than being a player. But what? I knew, and wanted to pursue it, but my then-agent was unwilling to propose it to my editor. She said she didn’t want me to “shoot myself in the foot.” So, in the fullness of time, while still writing about Frevisse, I wrote the first of Joliffe’s books – A Play of Isaac – without telling my then-agent what I was doing until it was done. Having shown I could work on two books at once, I was able to interest both agent and editor in giving Joliffe a chance.
Of course this has proved to be a challenge in a way I had not foreseen. By the time I came to write A Play of Isaac, Joliffe had made a third appearance with Frevisse, in The Bastard’s Tale, a story set in 1447. But A Play of Isaac was set thirteen years earlier, just a few months after we first met him in The Servant’s Tale. So while in Frevisse’s series I had established certain events in his life, in his own series I was writing about a younger, less experienced Joliffe, living before those things had happened to him. And then I truly messed my mind over by writing A Play of Knaves at the same time I was writing The Traitor’s Tale, with Joliffe as the main character in both – but with about fifteen years between those two parts of his life. I was kept very much on my mental toes keeping the younger Joliffe from knowing things only the older Joliffe knew, and not letting the older Joliffe give away to readers too much about those fifteen years he had lived but the younger Joliffe had not.
And people wonder why authors go around muttering to themselves and looking distracted.
Helpfully – although the two series are written to be read quite separate from one another, and every book is designed to be read alone, with no need to read them in order – on my website at the bottom of the page labeled “Books”, there’s a link to a time-line that blends the two series together in sequence, in case you want to know what mischief Joliffe is getting into while Frevisse is dealing with her own problems.
3) In addition to other life adventures (your website biography amazed me!), you have experience in theater. Does this particular expertise influence how you write and how you approach character portrayal?
It does indeed. For me, one of the great delights of acting has always been the becoming of someone other than myself. I love to explore and find out a character I’m going to be. It doesn’t matter how small the part. An actor needs to inhabit his character thoroughly; and to inhabit a part, I’ve always needed to find something in me that, if cultivated, could have made me that character, no matter how different they may be from who I am. Then I develop that part as far as it needs to go for me to be that character on stage. This is invaluable as a way of creating characters with varied personalities and depths, and I love doing it, both on stage and in books. People will say to me, “You identify with Frevisse, don’t you?”, but I have to honestly answer that I identify with all my characters as I’m writing them, that there’s something of me in all of them. In all of them – a thought which tends to give pause to anyone who’s encountered Giles in The Murderer’s Tale or Blanche in The Squire’s Tale -- or Dame Alys anywhere.
That ability to inhabit a character comes from my theater work, but so does my “setting a scene” in my books. When the story goes into a particular room, I see it in my mind like a stage set – where and what the furnishings are, the placing of the windows, the doors, the people -- and as I write the scene, I’m the director, always keeping before my mind’s eyes the physical relationships within that “acting” space.
All this undoubtedly comes from when I was sixteen years old and spent much of my summer reading all of Shakespeare’s plays aloud to myself, trying to change my voice and become each of the characters as I read them. My personality and vocabulary were probably permanently warped by this (and before you ask – no, I had no social life when I was in high school), but it certainly gave me an eye and ear for how to portray different characters, along with a readiness to be anybody except myself. Both on stage and in my books, it’s the chance to explore characters and their relationships that I enjoy.
Of course, because I write murder mysteries, I frequently have to kill someone, but that’s no problem. It just gives me more aspects of (surviving) characters to explore!
4) I am thrilled to see a new Domina Frevisse tale, Winter Heart, available on e-reader, but you have written some short stories that are quite different from your series. One is Shakespeare's Mousetrap and another takes place in Alexandria Egypt, Strange Gods, Strange Men. What inspired you to write these particular tales?
For a long while I was convinced that I couldn’t write short stories. Never tried. Was never tempted. Then, several books into Dame Frevisse’s series, I heard from Mike Ashley, an English editor of numerous anthologies. He wanted a short story for a volume of historical mysteries he was putting together, and because he was offering money and I was supporting myself (with college for two sons looming ahead!), I decided to access my inner-Kipling. I would learn how to write a short story! Imagine my delight to discover that, one, I could write a short story and, two, I enjoyed it!
The first story was The Witch’s Tale. Other offers to write for anthologies came, but not always on the theme of simply “historical mystery”. With my history in theater, I jumped at the chance to write a Shakespearean mystery, using my favorite play as the basis for Death of Kings. But with the second chance to do a Shakespearean mystery, I was belated in getting to the emailed offer, and by the time I eagerly responded, other authors had already put in their claims for plays and I was left with . . . Titus Andronicus. Now there’s a play that doesn’t need a mystery written about it – it’s over-flowing with executions, rape, mutilations, murders, bastard birth, and a touch of cannibalism. What to do, what to do? What I did became Shakespeare’s Mousetrap.
Then there’s Strange Gods, Strange Men. That was commissioned for an anthology of Egyptian mysteries because the plan was to have mysteries ranging across Egyptian history. But after I’d finished it, the decision was made to limit the anthology to ancient Egypt… which meant that my short story about medieval Egypt was left homeless. Not to fear, though– I sold it to Ellery Queen Magazine.
There have been other anthologies, ones centered on Shakespearean mysteries but others themed to medieval mysteries, religious mysteries, locked room mysteries, and royal mysteries. For the latter I wrote perhaps my favorite short story – Neither Pity, Love, Nor Fear – and along the way I’ve come to thoroughly enjoy the art of writing short fiction, and although anthologies seem to have tapered off, the e-market is giving all manner of new possibilities, not only to bring out older stories but to write new ones that won’t be constrained by editor-mandated word counts.
That’s what happened with Winter Heart. As my first venture in writing directly for e-sale, I meant it to be a short story, but it became a novella.
I think I’m going to enjoy this odd new world of the internet.
We're so glad to be a stop on Margaret Frazer's blog tour for her novella Winter Heart! Be sure to visit her website at http://www.margaretfrazer.com for more information and to see her entire tour schedule.