The Gentleman Poet: a Chat with Kathryn Johnson

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

Today Kathryn Johnson, author of over forty books in several genres, is stopping by for a chat.  I’ve known Kathryn for years through Washington Romance Writers and knew that she was a thoroughly versatile pro, but it was her most recent book, The Gentleman Poet, that brings her to the Word Wenches today.

I got an early read of The Gentleman Poet when Kathryn asked if I could KathrynJohnson look at the manuscript for a possible quote. Talk about getting lucky!  Her book isn't a romance, but it's romantic and has a fascinating blend of fact, fiction, and speculation.  The story is built around a real seventeenth century shipwreck in Bermuda—a wreck that might have been the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  (Plus, she has recipes!)

The real and the fictional threads are woven together into such a complex tapestry that I can’t do it justice, so I’ll turn the pixels over to Kathryn. 

MJP: Welcome to the Word Wenches, Kathryn!  You said once that this was a book of your heart that you’d been wanting to write for a long time.  What inspired you?  Tell us about your research!  How did you blend fact and fiction?  What intriguing tidbits did you learn about the Bard?  And where did you find out how to cook a turtle when stranded on a desert island?  <G>

TheGentlemanPoet_jpg250 KJ:  Wow! Lots of great questions! Let’s start with “book of my heart.” The thing is, I was a history major in college, so you’d think I’d immediately gravitate toward writing historical fiction. Right!

My first manuscript completed was a novel set in Constantinople in the 12th century. It was heavily researched and I was totally into the period. I was sure it would sell. It didn’t. No agent, no editor wanted it. Now granted, maybe my writing wasn’t ready to be published. But it might have sold if publishers were hungry for realistic historical fiction at the time. They weren’t. Historical romances were selling well, but the romance in this was way too thin and the research way too heavy.

So I gave up on that idea and went on to write other things—contemporary romances, juvenile and young-adult novels. But I kept thinking about using history somehow. I did write two mystery novels for young readers with historical settings: Secret of the Red Flame (set in post Civil War Chicago) and The Star-Spangled Secret (during the War of 1812).

But I had to wait a while longer before readers’ tastes shifted to welcoming the type of historical I wanted to write—lots of juicy historical details, a touch of fantasy and suspense, and a touching love story.

Map of Bermuda When people ask what inspired me to write The Gentleman Poet, I say, “My husband.” In a way, it’s true, because the germ of the plot occurred to me on our honeymoon in Bermuda.

Ours was a later-in-life romance and so the expense of a wedding would be shouldered by us, not by parents. We just couldn’t afford a big wedding and reception, so we looked for ways to do it as inexpensively as possible while still making it special.

We found a cruise line that would plan a very private wedding for us (just 8 guests allowed) and include our honeymoon cruise to Bermuda. So we were married in the ship’s library (perfect for a writer) and the cruise line supplied a gorgeous cake, champagne, and a lot of little extras that made the trip special.

Wreck of the Sea Venture While we were in Bermuda we toured the Maritime Museum and learned about a legend that connected a real ship wreck off the Bermuda coast in 1609 with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was said that he read an account of the wreck and of the following 9 months when the survivors lived on the deserted island while they built a new ship to sail the rest of the way to Jamestown, Virginia.

What a cool story! I thought. So I got to work imagining, with the help of that account written by William Strachey, what it must have been like for them during those terrifying months so far from England.

You asked about research? Well, some people shy away from the labor of digging up facts and details, but I love, love, love it. It’s like playing detective. The more details I uncovered about the real journey of the Sea Venture and its passengers, the more material I had for my plot.

I returned to Bermuda and holed up in a guest house there to gather more information and start writing. The guest house is the Granaway, and it was built by an 18th century privateer. It’s a wonderful (and reasonably priced) place to stay overlooking the harbor across from Hamilton.

Seaventure I stayed there for two weeks, soaking up the atmosphere. It was off-season, so it was chilly and rainy, just as it would have been for Elizabeth, my heroine, and the 149 others marooned there. I chose to blend fact and fiction, rather than write a historical novel so heavily embedded in fact that I had no freedom to fantasize.

The one big mental leap I asked my readers to make was to imagine the possibility that Shakespeare might have not simply read the account by Strachey; he might Shakespeare have actually been on the ship, eager for one last, great adventure as he moved toward the end of his life.

What tidbits did I learn about the Bard while writing this novel? Lots. Of course, I’ve never been a Shakespearean scholar by any stretch of the imagination, so as I read book after book about him written by people who have been studying him all of their lives, I was learning fresh material.

I was surprised to find as much information as there is about him. Yes, he’s still rather a mystery even to the scholars, but most agree that he was a real person who wrote the plays attributed to him (not a titled person writing under a pseudonym).

There are paper trails—court documents that prove he was in London or in Stratford-upon-Avon at certain times. He had a room in a house in London for several years and apparently went to bat for his landlord’s daughter and apprentice to facilitate their marriage, seemingly at the request of the mother. So this gave me a sense of his willingness to play matchmaker to young lovers.

He also was a good businessman, buying property as an investment and also investing in grain and other things as a hedge against, one can imagine, the economy or his theater being shut down. (As sometimes happened because of politics or an outbreak of plague.)

He was apparently a quiet man who kept to himself much of the time, and wasn’t into drinking and brawling as were other playwrights of the time. All of the little details I was able to dig up I used to create, in my own mind, a man who would be human, vivid, and interesting to the reader.

Bermuda Turtle Turtle Soup! How did I learn how to make it? More research. I decided that since cooking for others changed my heroine’s life, I needed to find out what sorts of foods the English in 1609 might normally eat.

Having researched that through reading good nonfiction accounts of the times, I then found a colonial cookbook that was reprinted for tourists by the Williamsburg Foundation. The trouble with using these recipes (or receipts, as they called them) was that my heroine wouldn’t have had access to many of the ingredients.

Once the crew and passengers on the Sea Venture managed to get themselves to shore safely, they discovered that virtually all of their food supplies had been destroyed. They had no flour, sugar, salt, and very little of anything else including vegetables and meat. So she had to improvise and use whatever was at hand on the island.

The real problem was flour, because a great deal of their normal diet depended upon bread, or its use as a thickener. However, there were wild hogs, a wonderful assortment of fish and wild birds…and sea turtles. The turtles provided meat, eggs, and oil for cooking.

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I found a turtle soup recipe in a replica of an early Bermudian cookbook and compared this recipe with the colonial recipe, and ended up using a little from each, adjusting the seasonings to what Elizabeth might have been able to find growing wild. And by the way, the recipes included in the book aren’t likely to produce dishes that would be appealing to our tastes today. In fact, I looked for those that were either humorous or strange sounding, thinking readers would find them that much more fun.

Well, I need to go off and work on a new novel, as well as catch up with my mentoring clients. I’m so proud of the new writers I work with. Such a talented crew they are. I sometimes think I learn as much from them as they learn from me!

Thank you, Word Wenches for inviting me to visit for a few moments. It’s been fun. Now, if I can just buy myself a little pleasure reading time, I’ll dig Mary Jo’s latest out from my to-be-read pile and follow one of her adventures!

Hugs, Kathryn

TheGentlemanPoet_jpg250 Kathryn Johnson will give a signed copy of The Gentleman Poet to one person who comments between now and midnight Thursday.  So feel free to ask about Shakespeare, The Tempest, Bermuda, and turtle soup!

Mary Jo