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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 August 2009

Welcome (back), Blythe Gifford

In The Master's Bed
by Blythe Gifford
Available Now!


She's disguised as a man in a place where women are forbidden. Now, she's met a man who, for the first time, makes her want to be a woman. What will happen when he discovers her secret and she's discovered IN THE MASTER'S BED?

Welcome Blythe! This is your fourth, fourteenth century medieval. IN The MASTER’S BED is set in Cambridge, England in 1388. Is there a particular reason you chose that setting?

The book is a spinoff from The HARLOT’S DAUGHTER. It’s the story of the sister, or the harlot’s other daughter, as I like to say. I knew I did not want a large gap between the stories, so this one starts just after the epilog of the previous book.

The location, however, did change. I knew I wanted Jane, my heroine, to run away disguised as a boy to study at University, but I originally planned for her to go to Oxford. As the story took shape and my research broadened to include the back-story for my hero, I knew that once again, King Richard’s court would play a role. I was delighted to discover that Parliament met in Cambridge (or, more properly, Caumbrigge or Cantebregge) in the fall of 1388. That fact brought the story into focus, as well as giving me some wonderful historical information about the city in that year.

Anything about the setting that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

First, because I incorporated real events (the Battle of Otterburn, the Parliament in Cambridge, a subsequent meeting of the King’s Council) I wanted to be accurate in my accounts of those events. And that turned out to be particularly challenging when I discovered that there is no historical consensus as to the exact date of the Battle of Otterburn actually took place!

In addition, I tried to be very conscious of the academic year and the daily schedule. Lectures started at 6 a.m. and as a master, my hero had to be up before that to unlock the church for morning worship. I was careful of the starting and ending dates for the terms and vacations, too, as well as the requirements and accomplishments for students at each level of study.

Not a plot constraint, but a character challenge was the search for a way to portray the medieval attitude toward women. I reined in some of the accuracy so as not to offend modern sensibilities.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

Absolutely! The University at that time was still largely a religious, not a secular, institution. To be a master, as my hero is, you had to take “minor orders” and wear a tonsure. If you’ve seen the pictures of monks at that time, that’s the funny hairdo with the shaved head and the fringe around it. I flat out fudged that one and let my hero keep his hair! Minor orders, fortunately, did not commit him to celibacy, so I did not have to fudge that.

Tell us a little about your hero.

Since my heroine had appeared in a previous book, I knew her story well. She was inspired by a real person, the illegitimate daughter of King Edward III of England and his notorious mistress, Alice Perrers. My research at that time said she married a “Richard Northland.” “Northland” was the beginning of a voyage of discovery to find my hero, Duncan. I decided that he had come from Westmoreland, the “north land” of England, which at that time was considered barbaric. In fact, Queens College at Oxford was founded especially for students from the “north land” because of the “waste, desolate and illiterate condition of those countries.” By coming south, he would have faced ridicule and certainly been made fun of because of his speech. The best parallel is the north/south divide we have in the U.S. The southern accent is generally looked down on by speakers of “standard English.” It was the northern accent that was disdained in medieval England. That really gave me a clue to his character. He’s a man with something to prove.

How about something fun, like his favorite childhood pet, or his first kiss.

My hero plays the guitar, or, as it was called then, the gittern. That comes in handy when rowdy young students want to sing drinking songs, but it is also a window to his character and a wonderfully romantic way for him to relate to the heroine.

In your research, did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

Always! Even though this is my fourth book set in the 14th century, I had much to learn about this particular period and medieval Cambridge. Since I’m talking with the History Hoydens, I’d love to share some of the fascinating bits and pieces that somehow didn’t fit into my story. If you read the book, however, you might find a phrase that captures the echo of this history.

· In 1381, just seven years before my story is set, the Cambridge townspeople, angry at what they saw as University privilege, stormed several of the colleges and even attacked the University church, dragging many chests of university documents and records into the marketplace and burning them. One woman is reported to have yelled “Away with the learning of clerks!” As a result, the documents that might illuminate the University’s history were largely destroyed. And the result was not what they were hoping for. The King gave more power to the University instead of less. The University received full control over weights and measures, and the right to punish offenders with fines and collect the fees.

· Students at medieval universities throughout England and on the continent tended to organize themselves in what they called “nations.” At Oxford, they were called the boreales, students from Scotland and the north of England, and australes, Welshmen, Irishmen, and those from the south of England. (There’s that north/south conflict I talked about.) Animosity between these “gangs” was so great that during the same school year my story is set, there were riots in the street at Oxford and students were killed.

· Cambridge was perhaps even dirtier than most medieval towns. So much so, in fact, that before Parliament met there, King Richard ordered “the removal of all pigs, pig-sties, manure heaps, trunks and branches of trees and other obstacles from the streets and lanes of the town.”

· There were seven “liberal arts” studied at University. The first three were called the trivium. Hence, trivia. “Cursory” lectures consisted of the master reading aloud from a book, a necessary and efficient way to transmit information when books were scarce.

What are you working on next?

Interestingly, researching this book lead me to my next. Learning about the “north land,” I became intrigued with life on the border of England and Scotland. My next book will be set there, only this time, on the Scottish side of the line.

Thank you for having me here. It’s a pleasure to visit the History Hoydens again. And I invite readers to visit my website, www.blythegifford.com, and check out my schedule. This is just one stop on my “Blog until you Drop” tour and I’d love to have company!


9 Comments:

Anonymous Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hi, Blythe! I'm doing the stalker/fangirl thing here, but you DID ask me to. I've posted about this at Win a Book. But I'm curious: would you tackle this gang warfare you mention? It'd make a horribly romantic backdrop...

9:39 AM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Susan: I originally thought the war between the "nations" would be my backdrop. It sounds sort of Romeo and Juliet, doesn't it? The "north-south" conflict remained as part of my story, but the rest developed in a different direction. Maybe there will be another someday and I'll explore that aspect.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Debra St. John said...

I am forever grateful that you "fudged" the heroes hair. I can't imagine a sexy, rakish hero with the monk's do!

3:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the great interview, Blythe! I love academic settings ("Gaudy Night" is one of my favorite books ever), but I can't off the top of my head think of medieval novel, let alone romance, set in a university.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Debra, yes, I'm typically a purist for historical accuracy, but even I have limits! Tracy, glad you enjoyed it. I can give you just a couple of medeival university novels. Keena Kincaid's romance "Art of Love" is set the abbey schools that became the University of Paris. And Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholemew mystery series is also set in Cambridge, though earlier than my story. Those are the only ones I know of.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've always wanted to do a romance in the Francois Villon Paris student milieu, but Cambridge sounds fascinating as well. Thanks for the interview, Blythe.

11:08 PM  
Anonymous Ingrid said...

What makes you think that the north-south divide is not alive and well in 21st-century England?

11:48 PM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Ingrid, didn't mean to imply that it wasn't, but it was fascinating to me to see the medieval roots. Pam, I really had fun creating the university world. Lots of good story opportunities there if you can work around the pesky prohibition against women.

5:48 AM  
Anonymous kathrynn Dennis said...

Very cool stuff, Blythe! I love the time and setting (where I write, too). Nice meeting you at Nationals this year!

Kathrynn

8:27 PM  

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