Andrea here, breathing a happy sigh. It’s always a good feeling to finish a manuscript, fiddle and fret over the last little revisions, and then draw a deep breath and press SEND to my editor. The story is a new Wrexford & Sloane mystery, which is slated to publish in September of 2022. (Publishing schedules gets very disorienting for authors . . . my head is still percolating with the plots of this one, but as I gear up to begin promo for my upcoming September release, I have to return to a previous murder investigation . . .)
So, am I putting my feet and having my editorial assistants bring me melon by the pool? (I wish . . . but they’ve informed me that they are taking a summer vacation, leaving me to fend for myself.) The truth is, I already have snippets of ideas dancing around in my head for the next book . . .This is the time when I collect all those shiny little baubles—a place, a person, a “MacGuffin” that I think would be fun to weave into a plot—and put them in a folder. (That’s the easy part! When I get to the middle of the next manuscript, I’m usually gnashing my teeth and asking “Why did I ever think this was a good idea?”)
One of the baubles for my next manuscript is Oxford University’s Merton College, in which I set a scene in the book that I just sent off. Sometimes history is such fun in that it gives an author a perfect plot scenarios from real life. I won’t talk too much about the specifics, since the book won’t be out for over a year, but there was a wonderful gathering of foreign monarchs and dignitaries in Oxford for several days, which allowed for some very fun skullduggery to take place at the actual events that happened within university—especially in Merton College.
In a fun confluence of connection, a very good friend of mine from college spent two years doing a graduate degree at Oxford and was in Merton College. So when I’ve visited Oxford, I’ve spent a goodly amount of time exploring the courtyards and the famous chapel, with “insider” notes on things to see. And I snapped a lot of photos . . . so when it turned out that Merton was to make a cameo in my story, my research was already in hand!
Merton College, is one of the oldest colleges of Oxford University and was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, who served a Chancellor of England and then as Bishop of Rochester. Mob Quadrangle is the oldest courtyard at Oxford—and claims to be the oldest college courtyard anywhere (though Cambridge University disputes this!) It was formed with 20 Fellows, and undergraduates were admitted in the 1380s.
Sir Christopher Wren designed the screen and choir stalls for the Merton chapel, though only a few arches remain from the original design. Its organ is famous (I was lucky enough to hear it being played when I was there) and college’s choir is renowned—so it’s also known as a very musical college.
The Merton College Library is the oldest academic library that has been in continuous daily use, and is also one of the oldest libraries in England. Its treasures include a priceless collection of early printed books and over 300 medieval manuscripts. (photo of Merton Library by Tom Murphy VII, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Katharine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, stayed in Merton when she visited the shrine of St. Frideswide in Oxford to pray for a healthy pregnancy, and Elizabeth I and her court dined at the College in 1592. Queen Henrietta Maria lodged at Merton for a year during the Civil War—her quarters were named the Queen’s Room, which is still called that to this day.
Merton has an incredible list of luminaries who taught or studied there over the years . . . William Harvey, who ‘discovered” the pulmonary system, was Warden of the College . . . William Hartley, a Merton fellow, was the first member of Parliament to argue for the abolition of the slave trade in 1776 . . . JRR Tolkien was a Fellow and Professor of Literature . . . notable graduates include T. S. Eliot and Roger Bannister, who made athletic history by running the first sub-4 minute mile.
I’ll be talking a lot more about Merton College in the future, but for now I thought you might enjoy a little background in how story ideas come to life.
So, do you enjoy being taken to an actual historic place in fictional books, and have it come alive as part of an author's plot? Is it fun to learn about its history and get a flavor of its ambiance while you’re reading a story? Any particular favorite historical places that have captured your fancy as a great setting that became an actual "character" in a book? Please share!