Because Elizabeth spent most of her time in the London area, and London has grown into a monster-sized city, much has been swallowed up or changed beyond recognition from her day.
Nonetheless, some of her world lingers on. The river Thames itself, though embanked, tamed, and spanned by many bridges rather than only one, remains a constant. It is still possible to go from Greenwich, through the city of London, past Richmond Palace, and on to Hampton Court, travelling the way Elizabeth did—by boat. There is no more delightful way to spend a summer day, and it’s a popular excursion. As in Elizabeth’s time, there are still swans on the Thames.
Here are some highlights of my time in England while researching Elizabeth’s life:
Before she became queen, Princess Elizabeth spent much of her childhood and early adulthood in country houses. The most famous of these is Hatfield House, about 15 miles outside London.
It was there that Elizabeth learned, in November of 1558, that she had become queen. Tradition has it that she was seated beneath an oak in the grounds when she received the news. Today there are still oaks at Hatfield, and I was lucky enough to be there on almost the anniversary of her accession. The park had a misty and romantic feel to it.
Later she held her very first council meeting in the Great Hall at Hatfield House where she appointed William Cecil as a councilor. Today the Great Hall is used for banquets and other events. I attended one; some of the other attendees were dressed in full Elizabethan costume; all I managed was a velvet jacket and cape.
Today, the Cecil family still owns the mansion nearby; see it beyond the maze.
Elizabeth tended to keep the same attendants; loyalty and steadfastness was one of her leading traits. Her nurse, Blanche
Parry, served her almost all her life, dying in 1590 at the age of 80. Elizabeth gave her a state funeral and had her buried at St. Margaret’s church (near Westminster Abbey). She had a lifesized effigy set up over the door that lets us come as close as we ever will to seeing a dear friend of Elizabeth’s.
When Sir Francis Drake was exploring the world, much of what is now everyday to us was exotic to the Elizabethans. Upon his return from a voyage, he presented Elizabeth with a coconut, which she converted into a memento; the elaborate device can be seen in the Greenwich Maritime Museum.
Westminster Hall, which is part of the old Palace of Westminster and now included in the Houses of Parliament complex, had a long, dramatic history. As an all-purpose celebration and condemnation chamber, it served as the setting for both coronation banquets and state trials. Anne Boleyn and Thomas More were condemned here, and during Elizabeth’s reign, the Earl of Essex was tried here. It is famous for its medieval hammerbeam roof, one of the finest in the land.
Many an event was held in Hampton Court, and it stands today as a favorite site for Tudor fans. Plays (including ones by Shakespeare) were presented in the Great Hall.
Hampton Court was and is very dramatic approached by water, and today that is still the best way to travel there.
Hampton Court also has a magnificent rose garden. Here you can glimpse the Great Hall rising behind it.
Elizabeth put great stock in her astrologer, Dr. John Dee. He had recommended the best date for her coronation (January 15, 1559) and certainly her successful reign seemed to bear that out. So when he told her in December of 1602 that she must leave London and go to Richmond, because death was waiting in London, she obeyed. But it was in Richmond that she died, 3 months later. Today there is not much left of Richmond Palace, but the old gateway, through which Elizabeth entered but did not leave alive, still stands.
In Elizabeth’s day, London was much smaller and even Chelsea was a village, not part of London. Going upstream on the Thames, Kew was a countryside place, and some courtiers had houses there. Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, may have been one of them, and Elizabeth may have visited his home there. In the 1700s a garden was established there that grew into the Royal Botanical Gardens and has a fabulous Victorian greenhouse. It is also connected with the Georgian kings, who made a red brick house into their country palace retreat. Today it’s Kew Palace, the smallest of the royal palaces.
Feeling that I needed to expand a bit from the sixteenth century and venture into the eighteenth, I attended a dinner at Kew Palace that featured a Georgian themed meal and a talk on George III.
Now if you are an American, most of what you know about George III is that he was the king that the noble Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington wanted to get free of. Or, if you’ve seen “The Madness of King George” you know he ran around shrieking in his nightshirt and so you thought, “Well, no wonder he lost the colonies.”
But in context, it’s a lot more complex than that. (It usually is.) I came away from the evening actually sympathetic to George III. At least he spoke English as his first language (unlike his father and grandfather) and he was king for a very long time, sixty years. His madness may have been due to a metabolic disease, porphyria. He was interested in astronomy and science. He had a very happy marriage (no mistresses!) , and 15 children. And during his reign, England had to contend with Napoleon, as well as us. He had his hands full.
I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want to escape into other personas. By writing historical novels I’m admitting I feel at home in other eras and yearn to go there. So it’s natural that I’d enjoy wearing clothes from the long ago and faraway. It’s just acting out in real life what I do on the page.
Naturally ancient history is a prime source for costume fun, and I’ve dressed as Cleopatra and Helen of Troy at book launch parties, a gladiator at the Gruppo Storico Romano gladiator training school in Rome, and Greek racer at the Nemean Games in Greece.
A medieval gown was just the thing for a castle in France where the Abroad Writers Conference was held, and for the fashion parade at the Historical Novel Society Conference.
Moving into more modern times, I’ve collected reproductions of the costumes from the film “Titanic” and have worn them to formal events.
In Japan, there are special costume establishments that will attire you in authentic geisha wear. I was in Kyoto during cherry blossom time when scores of Japanese are out in borrowed finery, and joining them was a lot of fun.
How do I write my books? At the very start, I am ‘called’ by the possible subject. It’s hard to explain but it’s a little like the first stages of falling in love. You know how you pay just a little more attention to the person, you are just a little bit more aware of his or her presence, you feel a little different when he or she is in a room? That’s what it’s like when my historical characters begin to stir. I become aware of them; suddenly every article or TV ad or interview seems to touch on them in some way. When that happens, do I feel excited, even a bit possessive? That’s the real test.
From the first tickling of interest until I commit myself to the subject, there’s a long fallow time. While waiting, I ask other people how that topic strikes them—if everyone shrugs then I know it appeals only to me, but if people’s eyes light up, then I know I am being invited to travel down that road.
Now all this time I have been reading and thinking about the possible new subject, indulging in a sort of clandestine time-travel affair of the mind with him or her. When we are finally ready to announce our engagement, I present the new project to the world and go about openly with him/her.
I try to divide the time I am allotted to write the book into equal parts of research and writing. The temptation is to keep on and on researching—there is always one more book to read—and so run out of time for the creative part, which after all is the most important aspect. If a book fails in its creative mission, then it doesn’t matter how much research anyone has done, no one will relate to it.
Because I like both phases of the project, both the research and the writing, I tend to want to keep doing whatever it is I am doing and not switch. So I have to keep a strict timetable and be schoolmarmish with myself.
My research methods are old-fashioned and low-tech. I enjoy hunting on the internet for facts and doing searches to see what comes up in relation to my character, but I still rely primarily on printed material for my sources. I try to own all the books I will need, so I can always have them at hand at home, and also to make notes in them. I copy pertinent references onto 4″x 6″ cards and keep them in a file box. I also have chronological spiral notebooks with one page for each month of a subject’s life, as well as space to enter events taking place in the larger world. I have no research assistant; I do it all myself.
After mastering as much of the material as I possibly can, I then go to the places where the subjects have lived. I try to walk in their footsteps as much as I possibly can. Sometimes their haunts have been preserved as historic heritage sites but other times the sites have vanished or been turned into something else entirely. I try to go to the places in different seasons so I can better understand what it was like to live there. Scotland is very different in February than in June! Once I am there I buy all the onsite booklets, which often contain facts not available elsewhere, and I take lots of slides. Later I will use these slides to reconstruct a site, because no matter how observant I try to be, it’s impossible to take in and retain all the details. I don’t use videos because the moving image is less helpful in checking for details than a still photograph. But I will buy onsite videos if they are available, because they can help. I also take a notebook so I can record what the site ‘feels’ like.
It’s possible to go to the sites first and do the reading afterward, but I believe you see more if you have trained yourself as to what to look for.
Now on to the writing itself! I do not work with outlines as such because my subjects already have a known storyline to their lives. (We all know Mary Queen of Scots gets executed.) Instead I work in scenes: ‘we need a scene where Mary Magdalene first realizes the idol harbors a demon’: ‘we need a scene that shows Cleopatra’s iron will, even as a child.’ Then I make flow charts for the scenes. Sometimes one scene morphs into two. I am usually sketching 5-10 scenes ahead, but of course these follow the broad outline of the character’s life. I always write in sequence, because that way references and plot ideas can grow as I go along.
I try to write the first draft very quickly, to keep moving forward and sketch out the story and action, rather than revising each section before moving on. I find that by the time I reach the end the revisions I will make are quite different from the ones I would have made in the beginning. Too much revision makes the project seem stale to me.
I always try to write one entire scene at a time. You may have noticed that most of my scenes tend to be about 5 pages long—that’s because that’s my natural day’s output! I don’t agree with Hemingway’s rule that you should break off in the middle of a scene because it makes it easier to start the next day. I find if I do that I can never recapture the mood of the original scene. But each writer has his or her own method of working.
One personal tag: I try to have a tortoise in each book.
Everything about being a writer is contradictory. We work alone—yet we get validation from our fellow writers and from our readers. We live and breathe and have our being in words, yet often are not good conversationalists, as anyone who has witnessed a radio or TV interview with a tongue-tied writer can attest. We are supposed to be modest (in public) yet are known for checking our Amazon rankings several times a day, and for writing anonymous good reviews for ourselves.
Writers are also supposed to be fierce rivals, pulling out the stops to sell a few more copies than the next guy. But there are many famous literary friendships. And on and on.
The writers I’ve met and become friends with have made my life richer, and I haven’t seen any claws out yet. I’m blessed to have them in my corner. Thanks, everyone, for your support, friendship, and good ideas!
At the Historical Novel Society Conference in June 2009, I had the opportunity to meet a number of writers and to renew my friendship with others. At the Henry VIII Talks in Hampton Court, May 2009, commemorating the 500th anniversary of his accession, a panel of historians and novelists discussed “Who was Henry VIII?” (You can listen to the Podcast in the link in “About Margaret”).
Other writer friends in my home area include Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton; unfortunately I don’t have photos of them. Next time we’re together I’ll remember to bring the camera.
On Sunday afternoon I attended a sung evensong at Westminster Abbey. Not only was it a chance to see the Abbey without throngs of tourists, it
was a chance to sit quietly and just absorb the grandeur of that building, to look carefully at the site where Elizabeth had been crowned and where she had been entombed. My seat was near the Poet’s Corner. I had set a scene there, the funeral of Edmund Spenser, who was buried next to Chaucer. Not far away was the tombstone of Old Thomas Parr, who also has a scene in the book. He was reputedly 152 years old when he died, and had lived through the reigns of 10 monarchs, from Edward IV to Charles I. He died in 1635. So he was already over 100 during Elizabeth’s reign. He became famous because at the age of 100 he had an affair and an illegitimate child, and had to do public penance. In my scene, he tells Elizabeth he’s thinking of marrying again and asks if she’ll send him a wedding gift. Supposedly he remarried at the age of 122, three years after Elizabeth’s death. So he didn’t get his gift from her.
During this particular service, the choristers in training got their promotion into full membership. Their voices were exquisite, and their faces innocent, but I couldn’t help remembering that the boys in “Lord of the Flies” were choristers of about that age. How brilliant of William Golding to have chosen such a group to represent original sin and how it’s always lurking just beneath the snowy choir robes.
Come into our garden and meet Troilus, the tortoise featured in my illustrated children’s book, LUCILLE LOST.
The story is a true story. Our pet tortoise lives in this outdoor garden-pen during the summer months, and sometimes other turtles come to visit. Since there are no turtle boarding facilities or turtle kennels, owners often babysit for one another’s pets.
This garden was built especially for turtles. Its walls are high enough that they can’t get out (that’s what we thought), and the wood is treated with non toxic preservatives. A lot of plants, like azaleas, tomatoes, and daffodils are poisonous to turtles, so we were careful what we planted.
Tortoises like to bask in the sun, but too much sun can overheat them, so we built this house they can retire into for shade. Sometimes they like to sleep out under the plants once they grow tall enough.
When we entertained two guest tortoises, Tanky and Lucille, Lucille managed to get out of the pen. A neighbor relocated her to a nearby wooded area, thinking that was her natural home. Wrong! She came from a much warmer climate than Wisconsin. So the race was on to rescue her before the first frost.
It all turned out safely, and after ten days missing, a hiker recognized her—very lucky, since her camouflage made her almost invisible in the woods. She was none the worse for her adventure, except for being very hungry.
Lucille’s owner and I wondered what she had done during those ten days in the woods, and how it would have seemed from her point of view. Of course we’ll never know for sure, but all the things we describe in the book are really found in our woods—the snapping turtle, the skunk, the deer, the owl, the Native American effigy mounds.
Troilus stayed behind in the pen. We have had Troilus as a pet for 28 years now, and we think he’s about 55 years old. He’s a Hermann’s tortoise, and his native area is the Mediterranean. So he has to come indoors during the Wisconsin winter. Probably the happiest day of the year for him is the first day he can go out into the garden in the spring! He almost dances—slowly!
The most ‘hands-on’ research I did to explore Helen’s world was participating in the Nemean Games, and you can read about it in the ANEW magazine article. In July 2004, just two weeks before the Olympic Games in Athens, at the second full moon after the solstice, as in ancient times, I ran in a footrace sponsored by the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games. In this international event, we raced barefoot and in tunics in the original ancient stadium in Nemea, not far from Helen’s home. In Helen’s day, although women did not race with men, in Olympia there was a traditional race for sixteen women in honor of Hera. Since Helen was reputedly athletic, she may have run in such a race. In any case, going to Nemea gave me a chance to walk—or rather, run—in Helen’s historic footsteps.
Everyone connects ancient Greece with athletics, depicted in the red-on-black of vases, or in gleaming white marble. We instantly think of the runners, wrestlers, and jumpers in the stadiums, and of winner’s wreaths. In Athens the recent Olympic winners were crowned with the historic Athenian olive wreath, keeping the tradition alive.
Although the Greeks invented the athletic contest, there are big differences between their competitions and ours. First of all, their games honored specific gods, and were held at religious sanctuaries. There were four main ‘crown’ games—games in which the winner received a leafy crown, and the type of leaves were specific to the god being honored. In Olympia, sacred to Zeus, the winner received an olive crown, at Nemea, also sacred to Zeus, a wild celery crown, at Delphi, Apollo’s site, a laurel crown, and at Isthmia, sacred to Poseidon, one of pine. The big goal was to be a winner at all four games, and collect four crowns. People had the crowns depicted on their tombstones, it often being the highest honor of their lives. Winners of the contests were lauded in their hometowns and given a statue and free meals for the rest of their lives. In addition, time was measured by the contests. A year would be identified as “the third year of the Olympiad in which so-and-so was the winner.” No shoe endorsements (as they competed barefoot), no TV deals, but a nice sort of immortality.
The premier event at these games was the one that is still the big one today: the stadion sprint. (Even now the press loves bestowing the label, “The fastest man in the world.”) But the biggest difference between their champion sprinters and ours is that there was no comparison between the different performances. The length of the stadiums was not standardized, so the races were over different distances, and most important, they could not be timed. There was no way of establishing and comparing records. You could race against only the people in that particular race, not against any others. So it was impossible for anyone to know, for sure, that he was ‘the fastest man in Greece.’ This gave an immediacy and importance to each contest, because each was free-standing.
Since the ancient Greeks saw all of life as a competition, there was no honor for the second and third place winners—no silver and bronze medals. You either won, or you didn’t. No molly-coddling to egos or handing out feel-good awards (“Everyone’s a winner” would make them scratch their heads.)
Although the modern Olympics purports to resurrect the ancient ideal of pure competition, in today’s world, with its enormous population, it has had the opposite effect: With the huge pool of potential athletes to draw from, the ones selected for the final competition are not mortals at all, but train and live in a manner completely impossible for most, shall we say—normal?—people. Athletics has become more and more a rarefied world for supermen and women, and beyond the reach of ordinary people—this at a time when health experts decry our increasing lack of fitness.
In our society, children play on the playground, but then get herded into organized team sports quite early—team sports that they will not be able to continue as adults, leaving them without any athletic endeavors past the age of eighteen.
In 1996, a group of Greeks living in the vicinity of the ancient Nemean sanctuary, and the classics department of the University of California at Berkeley, which was excavating the site, hit upon the idea of reviving the ancient Nemean Games. They had the original stadium, and they had uncovered the remains of an ancient locker room, as well as the athletes’ tunnel leading to the stadium. To truly travel back in time and experience what it was to be an ancient Greek athlete, they organized races in which the contestants would take the athletes’ oath, line up on the ancient starting line with the starting-gate device the Greeks had used to ensure no false starts, run barefoot in tunics, win the wild celery crown and the victory palm. This contest would be open to everyone, men and women, not special athletes, and of all ages. They called themselves the Society for the Revival of the Ancient Nemean Games.
The 1996 games were such a success that they were repeated in 2000, 2004 and 2008. In 2004, the same year as the Athens Olympics, they had more than 900 contestants from over 30 countries.I had the privilege and excitement of participating in the 2004 Nemean Games.
In the Footsteps of Helen of Troy
In ancient Greece, women did not participate in the contests. But in Olympia, they had their own event, the Maidens’ Race in honor of Hera, in which sixteen girls ran. In my novel, I had Helen run in a similar race before her marriage. I described the feelings and the experience of it, but wished I could do it myself to see if I had got it right.
Imagine my delight to learn that I could! The Nemean Games beckoned—and I went. You can read about it in the ANEW magazine article.
As a child I had been a fast runner on the playground, but honestly, what adult runs flat-out, except to catch a bus? Like so many women at the time I grew up, when we reached adolescence sports were out of our lives. (Note to women now: thank Title Nine for changing all that!) So I had a residual memory of myself as a fast runner, but had nothing at all to base it on.
July 31, 2004, was hot—very hot, probably in the mid-to-high 90’s. I was lucky that my race was held before it got too beastly. The 87-meter stadium had twelve lanes and they took twelve runners at a time, starting with the oldest and working down to the youngest. For the women, the oldest was 79; for the men, the legendary LeGrand Nielsen, at 97. (He had also competed in the 1996 and 2000 Nemean Games and planned to return in 2008 when he was 101.) The youngest boy was 4 and the youngest girl was 6. Some noted contestants were Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and the famed long-distance runner Kipchobe Keino of Kenya.
In the ancient locker room—the apodyterion—we exchanged our modern clothes for the white tunic, the chiton. We could help ourselves to olive oil to rub on our bodies like the ancient athletes did. We were then taken out into the tunnel, and administered the oath by a black-robed judge. “Do you swear to abide by the rules of the Nemean Games and to do nothing that would bring shame to you, your family, or the spirit of the ancient Games?” he asked, and we were to respond, “Orkizome”—“I swear.” The judge then said, “Now go forward into the stadium, and be worthy of victory.”
The tunnel is 120 feet long and in it the transformation takes place—you enter as a modern and emerge into another time. You step out into the stadium as the blue-robed keryx calls your name. You then go to the stone starting line, where your lane will be decided by lots cast in a bronze helmet.
The elaborate starting gate apparatus, the hysplex, is intimidating; you wonder how you will keep from tripping on the ropes and falling flat on your face.
We had been given instructions for toughening our feet to run on the hard-packed clay of the stadium. But honestly, I did not feel a thing as I ran it, although I had not done anything special to prepare my feet.
The white-robed starter, the aphetes, gives three commands: “Poda para poda”—foot by foot, our “ready!”; “ettime”—ready, our “set”; and “apite”—“go!” as he releases the starting mechanism. After it fell and I jumped over the fallen ropes, I was out in front but was sure someone would catch up to me any instant. But I knew enough not to turn my head and slow down, so I kept going, and was astounded and unbelieving as I crossed the finish line first.
Being crowned the winner was just about the most exciting thing I can recall, and impossible to imagine in the abstract. The philosophy of the Games, that modern people have to do them in order to understand them, was right. And most amazing of all, when I re-read my depiction of Helen’s race, I had described it almost perfectly, as if I had somehow known how it would feel.
I took home my celery crown and victory palm, now framed. (Art imitates life; I have an old athlete in Helen of Troy talking about preserving his crowns.)
Helen lived—if she lived at all—around 1200 BC, in an era we call the Mycenaean age of Greece. Helen actually came from Sparta, not Troy, but she became forever “Helen of Troy” when she eloped with the Trojan prince Paris, launching a thousand ships, (and today, a thousand hair-care products named after her).
I’d like to share some photographs I took while following Helen’s life in both Greece and Troy.
When Helen– the offspring of Leda, Queen of Sparta, and her tryst with Zeus in the form of a swan—was only a child, a Sibyl at Delphi foretold that she would cause a great war, and because of her many Greeks would die. The crone’s rock is still there, near the temple of Apollo where the oracle would later sit.
What did Helen look like? Today’s movies and paintings make her a blonde, but ancient Greek paintings show her as a brunette. Homer merely tells us she was “white-armed, long robed, and richly tressed,” leaving the rest up to our imagination.
Helen had twin brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, and a sister, Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra later grew up to be the classic avenging, murderous wife, stabbing her husband Agamemnon in his bathtub when he returned from the Trojan War.
In ancient times, different ruling houses had their own patron gods and goddesses. In the novel, Demeter and her daughter Persephone are the protectors of Helen’s household. In one episode, Helen is shown attending the mystery rites of the goddesses. These rites began in Mycenaean times and lasted in some form until recently.
Snakes were also considered sacred, and many households kept a sacred snake. It was thought that if a snake at a sanctuary licked your ear you would receive the gift of prophecy.
When Helen lived in Sparta, it was not ‘Spartan’ as we know the term. The military Sparta did not arise until some six hundred years after her time. In Helen’s day, it was a place of sophisticated music, poetry, and dining. The valley wherein it lay was very fertile, watered by the Eurotas River, and it was surrounded with the rugged Taygetus range of mountains; it was a beautiful, lush place with dramatic scenary.
The crown of Sparta passed through the woman, and so in choosing a husband Helen was also choosing the future king of Sparta. After the customary suitors’ contest, where more than 40 men competed for her hand, she chose Menelaus of the house of Atreus in Mycenae, the younger brother of Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon.
When Menelaus died, long after the Trojan War which he survived, he was buried in a stone mausoleum high above the river Eurotas. One legend says that Helen was also buried there beside him, and that a visit to her tomb had the power to bestow beauty on supplicants. Certainly the site today is powerful and evocative.
Helen and Menelaus lived peacefully for ten years, and had a daughter, Hermione. But when Paris, a Trojan prince, came to Sparta on a diplomatic mission, he and Helen became inflamed with love and ran away together. Paris was very handsome and allied with Aphrodite, the powerful goddess of love.
Sparta is some thirty miles from the sea; the first night Paris and Helen only got as far as a small island just off the coast, called Cranae. The photo, taken there, shows the spectacular sunsets they could have seen.
The Mycenaean world that Helen left behind has also left us many relics.
The first thing that would have struck Helen as she approached Troy were its famous formidable walls. Today they are only about a third as high as they stood in ancient times. Troy was lost for many centuries and only rediscovered at the end of the 1800s.