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Omnimystery News: Interview with Sarah Kennedy
1. Why did you choose to write a recurring character into your books? Do you try to keep the character relatively unchanged from book to book, or do you expect to develop them over time?
When I began writing the book that would become The Altarpiece, I didn’t think of Catherine Havens as a recurring character. She was just a young nun who found herself in increasingly complicated and difficult circumstances. This was the first novel I had attempted, after writing seven books of poems and just the idea of writing about the same character for more than a few dozen lines was daunting enough! As I wrote, however, I found out more and more about Catherine’s dreams and disappointments, and I discovered that she had more growing to do. Of course the era in which she lives, Tudor England, is seeing rapid changes in both the government and the church, and there is still much for Catherine to experience. I do expect her to develop. She will age and grow. She will have to either adapt to the altered state of affairs in England or find herself in constant danger. She will likely do some of both!
2. One of the first rules of any writing class seems to be to write what you know. How much of you or your experience is in your book?
A writer’s experiences often come as much from reading as from life outside of fiction. For me, reading medieval and Renaissance literature, legal papers, and letters has created an entire “second life.” Sometimes I feel as though my friendships with the Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt and the fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe are almost as real as my relationships with living people. That said, I also know that my own interests in herbs and gardening, as well as my mother’s life-long hobbies of painting and illustrating, contribute largely to the interests of my main characters.
I honestly don’t know where some of my characters have come from. Ann Smith, for example, doesn’t really resemble anyone I know—or maybe she does and I’m just not aware of it. She came into the books fully-formed, and I love her dearly (as does my main character, Catherine) because she’s practical and sensible and mostly forgiving of folks who aren’t actively trying to hurt someone else. She doesn’t think much of the Henrician reforms, but she doesn’t much care for the rites and hierarchies of Roman Catholicism, either. She’s trying to make her way as well as she can. Sometimes I think Ann Smith is the person I wish I could have been.
3. What is the best advice you’ve received as an author? What is the harshest criticism? What have you learned, or can others learn, from either?
The best advice I’ve ever received was also the harshest criticism: stop writing like a poet. It took me a long time to learn that a novel has to have a plot that moves ahead, that scenes need not only to set tone and build character but to move events along. A poem, even a narrative poem, can linger on metaphors and it can move on character alone. Character revelation, in fact, might be the main reason for any plot at all. Not so with a novel, as I finally learned! Move it along, please!
4. Describe your writing process. Do you outline your plots or create biographies of your characters? Do you write a detailed synopsis then expand from there? Do you let the story develop as you write? Does your expected cast of characters expand/contract as you write the story?
I usually begin with a scene, and it’s difficult for me to get rolling without a clear place and event in my imagination. With The Altarpiece, that scene was Catherine Havens standing in the room over the church porch and peering through the window down the road, where the soldiers are approaching Mount Grace. That’s not the opening scene of the novel, but it’s what got me started writing. The scene that begins The City of Ladies, book two in the Cross and the Crown series, is currently still the opening scene.
I do try to let the story develop as I draft, adding characters when they appear of their own volition or seem needed for plot or setting. In draft stage, then, the cast of characters expands. In revising, I tend to cut characters, though if there is someone I’ve grown attached to, I may put her to sleep in a separate file until I figure out when to revive her!
The synopsis usually comes after the first completed draft, which may seem odd, but I use a synopsis to plot-check myself: is there a clear conflict? Do the secondary conflicts work with or against the main plot? Are there characters or events that are left hanging or unresolved? Are there contradictions? A synopsis really helps me clarify and refine what I have done—but I do need to have done something.
5. Discuss your setting.
The Altarpiece is set in Mount Grace, which was a real monastery, but I have made it into a convent because I was interested in English nuns rather than the monks. This interest came from my scholarly research, which showed that we don’t know very much about what happened to the nuns under Henry VIII, though we do know quite a lot about the monks. The village in my book is also called Mount Grace, which is a fictional name, for clarity and continuity. The characters are all fictional, as well, though the monastery at Mount Grace did own one of the few copies of Margery Kempe’s biography, and I have kept that detail because Margery was an interesting medieval mystic, and I have always been fascinated with records of mystical experiences. The stately home nearby is fictional, too though my conception of it is based on many visits to such houses in England.
I decided on a setting that’s far from London because there are many novels about the Tudor court itself, and I become interested in how the changes wrought by Henry and his ministers affected the whole country of England. Yorkshire is in many ways a different culture than the south of England, and I want to explore how this relatively small number of people changed the lives of an entire nation.
6. What is next for you?
When I’m not working in my garden or bird-watching, I am currently hard at work on books two and three of the Cross and the Crown series! As Catherine develops, she will find herself in places that are historically well-known, such as Hatfield House, where Elizabeth Tudor spent a great deal of her childhood, and Richmond Palace, where Anne of Cleves lived after her divorce from Henry VIII. She will always come back to Yorkshire, however, which is where she was born and raised—and where her greatest conflicts and triumphs will always be centered.