What is my Novel About? Here’s the Answer.

Image of Empress Matilda (far right) from a 12th century manuscript

These days, I tend to get the same question time after time. “What is your novel about?” People ask this question after they learn that I have written a novel. If they were to ask it before receiving that piece of information, I would consider them rather odd…or maybe psychic. In any case, it’s a natural sort of inquiry. They no doubt wish to know if I am the sort of person that writes Stephen King-esque horror novels (in which case they should avoid me), or one who writes teenage chick lit (in which case they should also avoid me), or even one that writes science fiction epics (which in my husband’s case would make me his ideal woman).

Alas, I write none of these things, and thank God for that! The only one I might attempt some day is the sci fi epic, and then only because my husband is already begging me. No, my domain is that of historical fiction, if indeed I can refer to it as “my domain”. It must be noted that it was never my life ambition to write novels, and I did not receive the level of academic and/or professional training that is common among many of those hoping to break into that industry. I am simply a person who wrote essays and academic papers, only to one day be seized by a particular story…and then wait a few years before doing anything about it.

Some people know they want to write a novel, so they go searching for a story to tell or create one on their own. That was not my experience. It all started back around the time I graduated from college (the first time). I developed an interest in family history and decided that I would attempt to trace my bloodline back as far as I could in any and all directions. I was rather fortunate in this enterprise, for a few relatives had made a start at gathering records in years past. This allowed me to quickly discover some of my heritage, though in the cases where I had less information at the start, the task was that much more difficult. Nevertheless I progressed to the point where I was able to identify approximately 2,000 of my ancestors.

Early on I realized that a few of these lines were particularly interesting. When you reach a certain point in history, the record keeping is just not as good. Births, marriages, and deaths were somewhat forgotten unless the people in question were very rich. For this reason, I have had difficulty tracing many lines back past the 16th century. Lucky for me, some of my ancestors were rather important people, and as a result, I was able to follow the line not 100 years, nor even 500 years, but well over 1,000 years into the past.

One day, I was sitting in my dorm room in London (for I was a student at King’s College at that time) and came across a rather interesting name: Empress Matilda. She was clearly a member of the English royal line, but I was quite confused as to why she should be called “empress”, as that is not a normal title for British monarchs. (Technically, Queen Victoria did have herself styled Empress of India.) I quickly went to that source of all questionable wisdom – Wikipedia – and what I read there ended up changing my life.

Another image of Matilda from an old manuscript. Note that these are not true likenesses. I think it’s safe to say she looked something like yours truly.

Empress Matilda, who also went by the name Maud, lived in the 12th century. She was the daughter of King Henry I of England and the granddaughter of King William I of England, better known as William the Conqueror. Is this ringing any bells? When I tell people that it was Matilda’s grandfather who led the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 A.D., I often get blank stares, but this was an important event in world history. It was the last time that England was conquered by a foreign power (provided you don’t count the Glorious Revolution), and it had a major impact on all areas of English life, including the language in which I am now writing.

If William the Conqueror means nothing to you, perhaps I can point you to another question that I am often asked. “Was this the period of the Crusades?” In general, people don’t know that much about the Crusades, but they know that they happened. It is a mental marker that they use when thinking about history, much as the Norman Conquest would be for anyone who went to school in Britain, or perhaps as the Reformation or American Revolution would be for people in this country. To answer the question, yes, this was indeed the period of the Crusades. The First Crusade took place shortly before Matilda was born, the Second Crusade occurred when she was middle aged, and her grandson (Richard the Lionheart) was one of the primary leaders in the Third Crusade. Having said that, Matilda herself did not take part in the Crusades, and they are not the major focus of my series of novels.

Empress Matilda is significant for a few reasons. (Here you will find some plot spoilers.) First, she was sent at the age of eight to marry the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, who was in his 30s. As I am anxious to tell people, don’t be grossed out! They waited until she was twelve to actually finalize the marriage, so it’s all good, right?

During this period of her life, Matilda spent most of her time in what is now western Germany. Her husband had a major disagreement with the papacy, which on one occasion led him to take the Holy Father and most of the cardinals prisoner until they would agree to his demands. Crazy stuff! This marriage did not produce any children. Henry V died at a young age, at which point Matilda returned to her native land.

The next very interesting thing that happened in Matilda’s life was on account of the untimely death of her brother, William. He and much of the young British-Norman nobility perished in a shipwreck. This left Matilda as the only legitimate child of the king. (He had something like two dozen illegitimate children, but by this point in British history, people did not approve of an illegitimate son gaining the throne upon his father’s death.) King Henry attempted to have another son through his second marriage, but in this he was unsuccessful. Therefore, he had all the nobles in the kingdom swear that they would make Matilda queen upon his death.

This was rather shocking for the 12th century, although not entirely unprecedented, as similar situations had occurred in one of the Spanish kingdoms and the Crusader states. You will probably not be surprised to hear that when Matilda’s father did pass away, one of her male cousins – Stephen of Blois – seized the throne after practically all of the nobles broke their oath. They were not interested in being ruled by a woman, particularly one who was married to a foreigner. Matilda’s second husband was from Anjou, and the British-Norman nobility did not like him one bit. (Neither did Matilda!)

Depiction of the fatal wreck of the “White Ship” from a medieval manuscript, which took down Matilda’s brother William and the hopes of England.

Why does this matter? Because what followed was an extended period of civil war known as the Anarchy. Matilda refused to accept defeat and eventually traveled to England to press her case for the crown. She thus became the first woman to attempt to claim the throne of all England in her own right. There were many ups and downs during the war. At one point, Matilda’s side was victorious, but she was unable to consolidate her rule, and things reverted back to chaos. After many years of fighting, she went to live in Normandy  (modern northwestern France) and allowed her son, Henry, to fight for the throne.

This last point is the third reason why Matilda is very important. Although she never became queen in her own right, she maintained the fight long enough for her son to grow older and take up the cause. He forced King Stephen into a truce. It was agreed that Henry would be Stephen’s heir, and this is indeed what came to pass. Matilda’s son ascended the throne as King Henry II. Every sovereign king and queen of England since that point is descended from Matilda.

It could have been very different. If Matilda had accepted Stephen’s right to the throne, it might have saved England some heartache in the short-term. However, Stephen was a truly awful king, alienating much of the nobility and the Church. While many of these people had initially hated the idea of a female ruler, Stephen ended up being so bad that they were willing to throw in their lot with anyone else, even if they happened to be the wrong gender. (We’ll call this the ‘nobody’s perfect’ school of political thought…) More to the point, had Stephen’s descendants continued to hold the throne, there would have been a domino effect on British history. Perhaps none of those kings and queens would have been the same person. How might that have changed any number of facets of English life? How might it have changed the world?

There is one other thing worth considering. Would I be here right now if Matilda’s line had not prevailed? It is entirely possible that I would not be. Marriages would have been different and produced different children. Thus, the history about which I write is something with which I am intimately connected, even if it seems as distant as the rings of Saturn. This is part of what has made this project so fun, even if the sheer amount of research and editing has been crushing at times.

When I first heard Matilda’s story, I honestly felt a little robbed that I never learned about her in school. She may well be one of the most influential women in history. My second thought was that someone really ought to write a book or make a movie about all of this. As it turned out, a few people have tackled the events of Matilda’s era in fiction, but there has been nothing that I consider to be a definitive treatment of who she was as a person or how events unfolded from her perspective. When I realized this, I began toying with the idea of attempting to write her story myself, yet I hesitated as I was not sure that I could actually write a novel, and I certainly did not believe that I could write a truly good novel.

This was when a few years went by and my life circumstances changed. I moved to a city where there were practically no jobs in my chosen career field. This forced me to reconsider my priorities and chart a different path. I was by this point leaving behind my mid-20s and heading for my late 20s. That may seem young, but in my head I began to hear this chant: “30. 30. You’re almost 30. Time to get serious. Time to do something that matters.”

Contemporary depiction of Matilda’s marriage to the Emperor Henry V. We can tell it isn’t accurate, as Matilda is far too big and the servants far too tiny.

I’d like to think that some of the things I did earlier in my life were serious and did matter, but I came to the conclusion that if I waited for the perfect time to write a novel, it might never happen. Therefore, I took my first timid steps. I began researching Matilda’s life. I sketched out a very early plan of how the plot might unfold. Then one day I sat down at what was then Peet’s Coffee in Beavercreek, Ohio and wrote the first few pages of what I thought would be a single novel about the life of Empress Matilda.

I did not tell people that I was writing this novel – not even my blood relatives. The only person who was wise to my methods was my husband, and fortunately he was very supportive. In truth, I did not keep my writing a secret so much because I doubted I would get support, but because I doubted that I would finish. Remember: I had no idea if I could write a novel! I had no idea if I could truly write fiction of any length. In fact, part of me still doubts this, but I can at least say now that I accomplished the act of stringing together some chapters.

I quickly determined that I had far too much material for one book or even for two. No, I would need to write a trilogy. This was a hard pill to swallow, for it is a big enough investment to write a single novel. Writing three requires years of one’s life, unless you are James Patterson and can have other people do a lot of the writing for you. Nevertheless I persisted, as they say. When I wasn’t working at my part-time, paid job, I would continue working on the first novel. Finally the glorious day came when I completed the rough draft. You might think that was the end, but it was really just the beginning, and not only because I had two more novels to write.

For the next year, I wrote to agents attempting to interest them in my work, all the while writing the second book in the series. It was around the same time I gave up on the agents that I finished the rough draft of book two. (It was also around this time that I said good-bye to my actual paid job. Truth be told, it wasn’t paying that much.) As I started writing the final book, I decided to try submitting my first novel to Kindle Scout. This is a program that was started by Amazon for novelists who have not yet been published by a major publishing house or who are just starting out in the industry. Authors submit their books and people vote on which ones they find most interesting. Amazon then chooses a certain percentage of these submissions to publish as eBooks using a set of criteria that I still do not completely understand.

I was not expecting to be chosen. I could see that other books seemed to be getting more votes. I decided at the beginning that I was not going to endlessly pester everyone I knew to vote for me. I made one request on each medium – Facebook, Twitter, email – and then only followed up with people who expressed interest. I spent a very small amount of money on Facebook advertising and left a request for votes on one website for Kindle authors. Some of the friends I contacted went on to contact many other people, but that was their choice. I was quite afraid of becoming one of those annoying persons who use their friendships just to sell things. I did not want anyone to feel that they were being treated as a means to an end. My husband is more business-minded and encouraged me on many occasions to be very assertive with my requests. In the end, I chose a path based on my own personality and principles, and I simply allowed things to transpire.

As it turned out, Amazon liked my book. I was selected as a Kindle Scout winner, and I am now going through another much-needed editing process before my first novel gets released sometime later this year. This is exciting, not only because it serves as an indication that someone out there thought my work was halfway decent, but also because I have wanted from the beginning to just hand this off to someone and let them handle the publishing, marketing, etc. I can do that if I have to, but it is not what brings me joy in life. I love writing and researching. That is my strength. In fact, there are few people who can be masters of creative writing and marketing at the same time.

So you see, my novel is about the life of Empress Matilda, but it is also about the process that brought me to where I am today. At the age of 30, I did manage to get a novel published, even if it is unlikely to become a New York Times bestseller. I have done many other things in my life and plan to do many more in the future, but for now I must say thank you to Matilda for lending me her wonderful story and thank you to all those who have supported me in this endeavor. As it turns out, I am capable of writing a novel after all…I think.

You can read more about this series of books at www.chronicleofmaud.com.

One thought on “What is my Novel About? Here’s the Answer.

  1. Splendid! Maud would be pleased with your portrayal of her life. Congratulations for a job well done and for earning that elusive prize…a publishing contract!

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