Keeping Up with the Tudors: Kathy Lynn Emerson

The cover story of our December 2013 issue is a new Lady Appleton tale by Kathy Lynn Emerson, “A Wondrous Violent Motion.” Kathy Lynn Emerson has appeared frequently in our pages with stories from her Facedown series, featuring 16th century herbalist Lady Appleton and from her Diana Spaulding series, set in the 19th century, built around a young female reporter in a Maine logging town. Ms. Emerson has drawn on her skills as a historical novelist to write How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries (Perseverance Press), and in her guest post below she writes about how she taps old letters for ideas and period color. As Kaitlyn Dunnett, she also writes a series set in present-day Maine. We’re particularly looking forward to next year’s Malice Domestic Conference in Bethesda, Maryland, where Kathy Lynn Emerson will be the Guest of Honor.

I admit it—I’m fascinated by gossip. It’s just that, in my case, the rumors and innuendos are over four hundred years old. Keep up with the Kardashians? No interest. But find some juicy tidbit about the Tudor kings and queens or their subjects? That makes my day . . . and might just become the germ of a story.

There were no supermarket tabloids in sixteenth-century England. No paparazzi lurking or chasing after the celebrity’s car (no car, either!). Not even the equivalent of People or USA Today. And, of course, with no modern media, there was no Entertainment Tonight or Twitter feed or other social media to track. However, there were still plenty of people reporting the latest news from the royal court and writing about the doings of lesser mortals, too.

Letter writing has gone out of fashion in the twenty-first century, but in the days of the Tudor monarchs—Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I—that was still one of the most important means of communication. Courtiers wrote letters to family members and to friends who were not at court. Ambassadors sent reports home. Sometimes what they wrote was wildly inaccurate. In addition, printed pamphlets and broadsides reported the juicy details of crimes, trials, and executions. All of this “news” was closer to what we would call “gossip” and it is fascinating to read. Details of love affairs, duels, business dealings gone wrong, and political machinations abound in these writings. Sixteenth-century Englishmen (and women, too) were also deliciously litigious and left behind a wealth of court cases, many of them quite scandalous.

I’ve been collecting gossipy tidbits for years, using much of the information in my online “A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.” There always seems to be more. Even after all this time, previously unpublished documents still turn up. These delight scholars and form the basis of new nonfiction, but interest in the period and its people isn’t limited to those living in an ivory tower. Tales from the Tudor era appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. They devour them both on screen and in books. Personally, I think the gossip factor is responsible. Let’s face it—those Tudors led colorful lives.

For my short story in the December issue of AHMM, my inspiration was a gossipy account of the earthquake of 1580 contained in a letter from Gabriel Harvey to Edmund Spenser, later to become famous as a poet. Today we know that this quake probably had a magnitude of between 5.3 and 5.9 and that its epicenter was in the English Channel. Back then, pamphlets (at least six of them) promoted the idea that the earthquake was a manifestation of God’s wrath against sinners. Harvey’s letter has a lighter tone. He tells of playing cards in a house in Saffron Walden with another gentleman and two ladies, so intent upon their game that they at first thought the earthquake was just someone moving furniture on the floor above. Then their host stumbled into the room, terrified by the “wondrous violent motion and shaking” that had just taken place. That quote gave me my title. Reports of collapsed chimneys and walls provided the other essential I needed to start writing—a great place to hide the body.

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