Everyone knows Geoffrey Chaucer, or do they?
What turned me to fiction was my dissatisfaction, not with medieval mysteries, but with the occasional portrayal of Geoffrey Chaucer in them. It seems to me that some writers have shoe-horned Chaucer into their work to create reader recognition, but Chaucer is always presented as the persona he created for himself in the Canterbury Tales: a roly-poly little man who comes across as a bit buffoonish, even though he may “secretly notice more than he lets on.”
Here is someone who had a fascinating life, going from the middle-class son of a wine merchant to a man who was given many lucrative positions and gifts from royalty. There was a time when he was young, fit, full of promise, ambitious, learning the ways of court and courtship, of lords and literature. Before the age of 20, he had been in a war, been captured and ransomed, and entrusted with letters from King Edward to deliver to the queen. He was developing rich relationships and value to the Crown.
Later in life, he went on diplomatic missions, perhaps secret missions; married; had children; had important positions; saw kings rise and kings fall. He also experienced the Plague, the Peasant’s Revolt, the replacement of French with English as the official court document language, the continuing Hundred Years War, and more.
He seemed like a perfect fit for a well-connected medieval sleuth. And I wanted to do this in first person, which is done so admirably by Mary Stewart in her Merlin trilogy.
And what about the rest of it?
And then there’s everything else about medieval culture. Dorothy L. Sayers described Busman’s Honeymoon as “A love story with detective interruptions.” I think of what I’m doing as a record of daily life in the Middle Ages with detective interruptions. In order to present a realistic view of life in 14th century England, my library has grown to include books on food, architecture, law, crime, peasant life, universities, court life, medicine, Judaism, the Tower of London, etc.
This research also supports my blog on the Middle Ages, www.dailymedieval.com. In it I attempt to present bite-sized pieces of medieval people and places, events and customs that are usually ignored in favor of Arthur and jousts in the Hollywood view of the time.
How I put it together
Stephen King can apparently write by starting with an image in his head and evolving it into a story as he goes along. I cannot do that. I pick a historical occurrence and then ask, “What if?” From there, I extrapolate an event that is worthy of discovery and exploration. Then I create a large spreadsheet where I lay out Timeline/Date, Chapters, Major Plot, Offstage Action (the things that Chaucer later learns about), Musings/Asides. That last one is, I think, what I agonize over the most. Some of these are fact: exposition to explain backstory; some are fiction: Chaucer musing on his own history and experience, such as when I have him recall the Plague when he was a child or explain to his audience the difference he sees between male pages and valets and female ladies-in-waiting. It is important to me that he not come across as an “enlightened” 21st century thinker, but as a young man of the mid-1300s.
For A Death in Catte Street, I looked at the expulsion of the Jews from England. Their property had to be turned over to the Crown. But what if some possessions were hidden; would anyone try to return for them, at a time when Jews were forbidden in England? How would they try to pull it off, and what might go wrong? I paired that hypothetical with an actual fortnight when Chaucer was in London and relatively free to move about.
For the sequel, in progress, A Year in Oxford, I am placing him in a university setting in a crash course on the Trivium and Quadrivium, teaching him (and the modern reader) about the subjects in medieval universities. In the process, he starts to look for a pattern in recent accidental deaths.
My chief goal in writing—both the blog and the stories—is to acquaint the reader as much as possible with what daily life in the Middle Ages was like. People think “medieval” and envision kings and castles, but there are a thousand small daily differences between then and now that I try to get across in the context of a mystery. I am happier about when readers tell me “I didn’t know that” than I am about whether they were on the edge of their seats.
Tim Shaw met Sharon Healy-Yang when they were both in graduate studies at UConn-Storrs. His degrees in Medieval Studies were the foundation for wanting to share his interests with others through writing. His narrator is an elderly Geoffrey Chaucer, telling stories of his youth to an unknown transcriber. His first novel is A Death in Catte Street. The sequel, A Year in Oxford, is expected in 2019.
Images of Chaucer: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=310511