Today it's my very great pleasure to welcome author Clare Marchant to the Word Wenches. Clare is a history addict and author of the USA Today bestseller The Secrets of Saffron Hall, a dual time historical mystery set in the present and the Tudor era. Clare joins us to talk about her new book, The Queen's Spy, history, research, writing and so much more!
Clare, welcome to the Word Wenches! Please tell us more about The Queen’s Spy – where did the genesis of the idea come from?
When I write a book I always do quite a detailed plan before I get started, I don’t like any surprises! But when I was writing The Secrets of Saffron Hall, one day Tom appeared in the still room with no prior warning and I instantly fell in love with him, this silent, solemn child. So when I started researching and planning The Queen’s Spy I knew that I wanted Tom to be the historical protagonist, to explore how his disability could then become his strength.
What drew you to write about the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth 1st?
I find Elizabeth and Mary fascinating. Cousins who never met and yet both with, to their eyes, a valid claim to the throne of England. If Henry VIII hadn’t split from the Catholic faith then the whole relationship between the two queens would have been quite different. But because he did so, the Catholic divisions of the nobility wouldn’t recognise either his marriage to Anne Boleyn nor Elizabeth as a legitimate heir. In their eyes Queen Mary was the successor to the English throne. With this warring backdrop there could only ever be one winner; so Mary was imprisoned for nineteen years, ultimately losing her head.
The hero of the historical thread of The Queen's Spy is Tom who is a deaf mute. It's a very interesting insight; how did you research this in a Tudor setting?
Well of course Tom just appeared as a deaf mute, he was always just a shadow hiding in the corners and it was lovely to be able to continue his story and see him grow into a strong independent man who could use his disability as a talent. I was lucky that whilst researching I discovered a piece of a primary research describing the wedding of a deaf-mute man which was just wonderful and I was able to use the actions described for Tom when he married. This then gave me an insight into how he would have used hand signs and signals in the rest of his life. Also, as I knew that they used wax tablets in Tudor times this was very useful for Tom to communicate! I can’t deny though that when I first started writing The Queen’s Spy I did question my decision on more than one occasion because it meant having to find ways of describing how Tom experienced things by just using the senses he had which made life difficult for me as a writer!
There is a fascinating understanding and knowledge of herbs in your books. Is this one of your own interests?
When I started planning Saffron Hall it was an article about the growing of saffron which first caught my interest and I realised it would be perfect for my story, and this then led on to other herbs and medicinal plants in the sixteenth century. And although I hadn’t known much about it at the time, I then became more fascinated and began to actively seek out monastic gardens where I could find the different herbs and how they were grown. I was delighted to discover that Hugh Morgan, the apothecary to Elizabeth 1st had introduced vanilla (pictured!) to the Tudor court and who better to have brought it to the palace originally than Tom Lutton?!
Tell us how you research your books.
When I first set about writing a new book, I only ever have a couple of tiny threads of ideas, and I start to weave these together so
they begin to form something akin to a plot. From this I usually have a long list of questions that need answering and I dive into the research books for about two months following rabbit holes as they lead me far away from the original subject! But whilst I am doing that, I slowly begin to piece together little snippets, events and people that form the backbone of the book, and then I can weave my own protagonist into the story. When I was researching The Queen’s Spy, as well as finding the lovely wedding report, I also discovered that during the Babington Plot there was a man in a blue coat who delivered a letter to Babington and is believed to have been one of Walsingham’s men – which is why I gave Tom a blue coat! And the part where Babington hid in Robert Pooley’s house and wasn’t discovered by the guards did indeed happen. For me, using all these real events help to bring the story alive.
Castle Acre priory, in the photo, is one of my favourite places to visit, (the castle at one end of the village and a wonderful monastic ruin at the other!) where they have a lot of information about the monks herbal medications and the ruins of an infirmary, and also a picture of the vanilla flower which has to be germinated by hand in this country because the bees that can germinate them are only found in certain hot parts of the world (hence why Tom couldn't ever manage to produce the pods himself – I really do find out all sorts of weird things whilst researching!).
What is it about writing dual timeline that appeals, and how do I weave the two together to make such a satisfying whole?
I really enjoy both writing and reading dual timeline. I love that the two stories begin with nothing in common but slowly they begin to reveal that even living five hundred years apart they are connected. I do this through both an object that is discovered and also a theme which connects the two timelines. Despite the years that separate the two protagonists, human relationships and emotions are still the same and I enjoy bringing this out in both story lines.
Tell us about your path to publication.
I joined the Romantic Novelist Association in 2016 under the amazing and supportive New Writers Scheme. I then proceeded to absorb all the incredible wisdom and help from the other members until in 2019 I had a 1-2-1 at the RNA conference with an agent who subsequently signed me. Whilst that was all happening, I had submitted The Secrets of Saffron Hall to Avon and four weeks after hitting ‘send’ on the email, I received an offer of a contract! So, I ended up with an agent and a publishing contract in the space of a couple of weeks, and eighteen months later I still have to pinch myself sometimes!
What is your writing process and what does a writing day looks like to you?
I’m very regimented when it comes to writing, it’s my job and I treat it that way. I sit down at my desk between eight and nine o’clock and (if I’m in the writing stage) write 1000 words, have a short break and then write another 1000 words. That usually takes me to about lunchtime, and after lunch there are always bits and bobs to do for social media and often some pieces of research to be done. I don’t like to stop mid flow to look details up, so I make a note and do the research later and add it in.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
The best advice I was ever given is the simple one of sitting down and writing, even if just a little every day. And to keep going even through the bits when you feel like giving up or you’ve had an idea for a new book which suddenly seems all shiny and exciting. By doing this you will eventually have a first draft and then you can start editing, knocking into shape. But you can’t edit a blank page so you need to keep getting those words down first!
Please tell us a little bit about your next book.
I’m now knee deep in writing the new book – what can I tell you about it? We’re back at the Elizabethan court, it’s another dual timeline this time set in both England and Holland. There’s sailing on the high seas, death, danger, and ultimately facing up to fears and truths.
We're looking forward to it very much! Thank you, Clare, for joining us on the Word Wenches today.
Buy links for The Queen's Spy are here:
Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/3imzoaD
Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3xRyGIU
You can find Clare on social media here:
If you have any questions for Clare about her books, history or writing, jump in and ask!
Clare is giving away a copy of The Queen's Spy to one lucky commenter between now and midnight on Tuesday. Her question for you is, "If you had to choose to support either Mary Queen of Scots or Elizabeth I in the struggle for the throne, which team would you be on? Or would you be the mediator, trying to bring peace to the divided kingdoms?"