From my blog...

The Ghosts of Christmases Past

12 NOVEMBER, 2014 Christmas Window, London

12 NOVEMBER, 2014 Christmas Window, London

Did you notice that, this year, the Christmas shopping season began considerably earlier than in the past?  Christmas decorations now appear in store windows right after Halloween – pumpkins to pine trees in the blink of an eye. Many shops ignored the traditional start of holiday sales known as Black Friday, and had their doors wide open even on Thanksgiving Day.

This frenzy of shopping throughout November and December is relatively new, if you consider the past 1200 or so years of Christmas traditions. In centuries past, the four weeks before Christmas – Advent – were a time of prayer and fasting, culminating in a feast on December 25. In the 9th century, it was the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, Boarwho extended the Christmas Day feasting into January, so that the celebrating lasted a full twelve days, starting on Christmas day and lasting until Epiphany on January 5. The Anglo-Saxons must have needed all the carbs (from beer) and protein (from boar) they could get to last them through the long, lean days of winter until the next great feast at Easter, but the celebration did not start until December 25.

The medieval Christmas feasting that was embraced in England from the time of King Alfred (9th century) all the way through the reign of Charles I (mid-17th century) stopped abruptly, though, when the Puritans came into power. The stern Puritans believed that the celebration of Christmas was an abomination, and so they cancelled it. From 1644 until 1681, there was a law on the books in England forbidding excessive celebrating at Christmas.

PILGRIM_FATHERSAnd it was those same stern Pilgrims who founded the New England colonies across the sea. They must have been admirably courageous, stoic and resilient to endure those early, desperate years in the American wilderness. But they were also hard-nosed, flinty-eyed, no-nonsense, religious zealots. (I write this as one who, my genealogy-minded sister has informed me, had an ancestor on the Mayflower.) On Christmas Day in 1620, at Plymouth, the Pilgrims showed their contempt for Christmas by spending the day building their first structure in the New World. No feasting, no singing, no holiday, and not even a religious service. It stands to reason when you think about it. The need for shelter against a cold New England winter must have trumped any thoughts of celebration. Nevertheless, even as late as 1870, Boston public schools were open on Christmas Day, and students were expected to attend or else.

In the southern colonies of America, the story was a little different. Jamestown was founded in April, 1607, not by Puritans but by members of the Church of England. Their first Christmas was not recorded, possibly because by Christmas of that first year, only 38 of the original 104 settlers were still alive. The deaths of two-thirds of their company over eight months must have been a bitter blow. But the intrepid John Smith describes a 1608 Yuletide feast of shellfish, meat and poultry that he celebrated with the Indians when he and a dozen of his companions were foraging for food outside the settlement. Bleak as it may have been, Christmas Day was observed in early Virginia.

ChristmasTraditionWhen the later colonies were founded, they celebrated Christmas with the traditions they brought with them from the old world, whether they were Dutch or English, Polish or Portuguese. As the colonies became a melting pot of nationalities and religions, the earlier Puritan prohibition against celebrating Christmas faded, and even in Boston folk kept Christmas however they wished. Thomas Jefferson described his 18th century Virginia Christmas as “a day of mirth and jollity”.

DickensChristmasOver in England, where the Industrial Revolution had emptied villages, the exhausted, dispirited urban populace had no energy for celebration. Luckily for all of us, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1853, and he is credited with reviving the spirit of Christmas in Britain. In America, the March girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) celebrated the season not by shopping, but by making presents for Marmee, giving us a tender picture of a thrifty New England Christmas. By the time President Grant declared Christmas a Federal holiday in 1870, the kinds of excesses that had offended the Puritan settlers no longer characterized the feast. It had become a time of nostalgia and hope, of family warmth and communal ties, of tradition and good cheer. Alas for us, it would become the Season of Shopping soon enough.

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The Greatest Gift I Ever Gave

Some months ago, the editor of my university’s alumni magazine called with a request: “Could you write an essay for us on the theme of ‘The Greatest Gift I Ever Gave’? Is there a story like that in your past?” Continue reading

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Celebrating Book Clubs

PegasusIf you belong to a Book Club, raise your hand. See? I knew it. Lots of you. I have this theory that Book Clubs deserve a good deal of credit for keeping the publishing industry (and their authors) going. Continue reading

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The Literary Feast at Gladstone’s Library


Gladstone's Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales

I am into my second week as Writer-in-Residence here at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales. Continue reading

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The Splendid Bookshop

“The book shop is just here.” The clerk at the Grande Hotel do Porto penciled ‘LELLO’ on the city map in front of me. Continue reading

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A Personal Reflection on Fatima

The old basilica at Fatima.

The old basilica at Fatima.

I never intended to visit Fatima when I planned my recent trip to Portugal, mostly because I had no notion of where Fatima was. Continue reading

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Guest Post at English History Authors Blogspot

Ermine Street. Photo: Wikimedia

I’m guest posting at the English History Authors Blogspot, writing 4 consecutive posts about England’s Royal Roads. Part I, The Icknield way appears Sept. 7. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

Part II, Watling Street. Sept. 8

Part III, The Fosse Way. Sept. 9

Part IV, Ermine Street. Sept. 10.

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The Historical Blog Slog

Whenever I put together a history-related blog post, it’s not something I’m writing off the top of my head even if the material springs from research I’ve been doing for the past nine years. I need to double-check everything to make sure that I have my facts straight. Sometimes I’m writing about something that is only tangential to the novel I’m working on, so I have to research it in as much depth for the blog post as I would if I were going to include it in my book. It usually takes several days, so I do not commit to such a blog post lightly. I am absolutely certain that I am not alone in this. If you’ve read history-related posts on any of the historical sites on the internet, you are probably seeing the results of a great deal of hard work. The website English Historical Fiction Authors a website to which many wonderful historical novelists contribute, is an excellent example.

Sometimes, as in the piece I posted on this site last December about Anglo-Saxon Art, the research material is right on my bookshelf.

A selection of my research books.

A selection of my research books.

Other times I have to go further afield for information. The essay titled Mapping England that appeared on the EHFA website in January, for example, demanded a couple of trips to UC Berkeley to pore over their map collection using books I couldn’t possibly afford to have on my shelf.

The bucolic UC Berkeley campus.

The bucolic UC Berkeley campus.

Once I’ve gathered all the necessary information it has to be distilled and combined into a thoughtful (I hope) essay that is not so terribly long that readers will give up half-way through. I try to keep my posts under 1000 words, preferably closer to 600. (This one is almost 400 words.)

And that brings me to a 4-part series of historical posts that I’ve written for the EHFA website that will appear there on Sept. 7, 8, 9, & 10. The series is about medieval Britain’s 4 royal roads. If I’d combined their fascinating histories into a single blog post it would have been so long that a reader’s eyes would cross. Therefore, at my request, author and web-mistress Debra Brown has given me permission to spread my posts over those 4 days. So, starting this Sunday and continuing through Wednesday, I will be, essentially, hijacking the EHFA website. I will post a link on this page, and I hope that you will come along for the 4-day ride.

Coming Sept. 7: Britain's Royal Roads

Coming Sept. 7: Britain’s Royal Roads

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Into the Woods…Again

OSFThere is a timeless quality to my journey to Ashland every year. Granted, attending six plays over three days sweeps me into a make-believe world, even if the plays haven’t all been penned by The Bard. But there are other elements to the timelessness as well.

Memories of earlier visits hover around me while I’m there, some from so long ago that they seem like another lifetime.

Playing around at OSF in...2003?

Playing around at OSF in…2003?

Lithia Park, my destination every morning before breakfast, appears unchanged from year to year, as if it had been placed under a sleeping spell.

Lithia Park, Ashland

Lithia Park, Ashland

And then there is the 1883 vintage McCall House, the inn that was once a home, where Lydia McCall’s tintype portrait graces the wall of my bedroom and the furniture is as Victorian as a set from an Ibsen play.

Captain & Lydia McCall Room. McCall House, Ashland.

Captain & Lydia McCall Room. McCall House, Ashland.

Toss in an outdoor theater that resembles, however vaguely, Shakespeare’s Globe, and it’s no wonder that I feel like I’m in Never Never Land.

Elizabethan Theater, Ashland. Photo:

Elizabethan Theater, Ashland. Photo:

I love arriving. I hate leaving. We book our room two years in advance, just to make sure we can come back.

McCall House B&B. Full.

McCall House B&B. Sorry. Full.

And what about the plays? A few words about this year’s highlights:

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, Mark Bedard. Photo:

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, Mark Bedard. Photo:

The Cocoanuts: Two years ago the OSF production of the Marx Brothers’ vehicle Animal Crackers had me laughing so hard I was in tears. The same actors – none of whom, in real life look like Groucho, Harpo or Chico, but on stage…!!!! – returned for this production and once again they were brilliant. The story was completely silly, the music (early Irving Berlin) was gorgeous, the performances exceptional, and the ad-libbing and audience interaction had everyone in hysterics. Some poor man whose phone rang in the first act took some verbal ribbing and a long, cold stare from Groucho. The poor guy took it in stride. Then the phone rang a second time (!!!!). All three actors climbed into the audience and after merciless banter, they confiscated his phone. An added spark of genius: they worked his phone into the closing lines of the play.

Rachael Warren, Miles Fletcher, Javier Munoz, Robin Nordli, Jennie Greenberry

Rachael Warren, Miles Fletcher, Javier Munoz, Robin Nordli, Jennie Greenberry

Into the Woods: This was the outstanding production for me this year. It’s one of my favorite musicals, and everything about this OSF production was exceptional and magical. The director and cast made this play their own. Standout performances, especially, by some of my favorite actors here: Anthony Heald (Mysterious Stranger), Miriam Laube (the Witch) and John Tufts (Rapunzel’s Prince). But really, you know, every performer was awesome. (And yo, OSF, I caught the nod to Maleficent.) If I could I’d drive to Oregon tomorrow and watch it again and again.

Crab, played by Picasso; with actress K.T.Vogt

Crab, played by Picasso; with actress K.T.Vogt. Photo: OSF

Two Gentlemen of Verona: An all female cast made this play intriguing. I’ve seen female actors take on male roles before – Helen Mirren as Prospero, for example, but this was a first. I enjoyed it, and had no problem translating the female actors on stage to men. I have to tell you, though, that the huge white dog who played Crab stole every scene he was in, with actress K.T. Vogt’s help.

Kate Hurster, Dan Donohue. Photo:

Kate Hurster, Dan Donohue. Photo:

Richard III: This was the final play that we saw, and it was a perfect ending to our stay in Ashland. It was very, very well done. Only the wooing scene between Richard and Anne Neville did not quite work for me, but since IT NEVER HAS I fault Shakespeare, not the actors.

Do I want to go back and do it all over?
I wish—- ♫

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Interview with Emma Campion, Author of A Triple Knot

A Triple KnotToday I am delighted to welcome my good friend, the critically acclaimed author Emma Campion, to discuss her newest book, A Triple Knot. This is a novel set in the 14th century, and it’s about Joan of Kent, renowned beauty and cousin to King Edward III. She is a young woman who is destined for a politically strategic marriage arranged by the king, except that Joan has other ideas. She secretly pledges herself to a knight, one who has become a trusted friend and protector. When the king—furious at Joan’s defiance—prepares to marry her off to another man, she must defend her vow. To complicate matters further, the heir to the throne—a man who would be known to history as Edward, the Black Prince—has his own plans for his beautiful cousin. The result is an enthralling story of political intrigue, personal tragedy, and illicit love.

1. Emma, I’m intrigued by the epigraph at the beginning of your novel—a quote from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it.
Would you explain the thinking behind that choice, and how it sets the theme for your book?

This comes at the very end of the play when Guildenstern’s fate is clearly sealed, and I end A Triple Knot with Joan coming face to face with her fears about Ned’s (Prince Edward’s) true character. She might voice the same lines, but in first person singular. And just as it’s not at all clear that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ever truly could have refused a summons by the King and Queen of Denmark, I intend the reader to doubt that Ned would have accepted a definitive no from Joan. Deep down she’s known that all along, but refused to see it.

2. Your earlier novel The King’s Mistress about Alice Perrers was written in the first person. For this novel, though, you’ve used the third person shifting viewpoint, and we see into the minds of several of the characters. Why did you choose this structure for the book?
Alice was an outsider at court, so it felt right to tell her story from her point of view. And my editor at Century felt first person would inspire my readers’ empathy, combating her difficult reputation.

I wanted to tell Joan’s story from multiple viewpoints to convey a sense of the wheels within wheels turning around her, influencing her choices and her fate. And, to be honest, I felt horribly limited in first person; I’ve always written from several points of view except in one short story. I enjoy shifting perspectives.

3. You have written a dark edginess into the relationship between Edward the Black Prince and his cousin Joan. Did you base this on evidence that you discovered about Ned through your research, or was it a purely creative decision?
Prince Edward was ruthless in war; his raids across Gascony in the mid 1350s BlackPrincewere so destructive that one wonders what he thought would be left for his father to rule. And though we now have a letter proving that Froissart’s account of a massacre of the people of Limoges was an exaggeration, his troops did wreak significant damage to the town, including the cathedral. Reading between the lines, I’ve always felt he modeled himself after his great grandfather, Edward I, who took pride in being “the Hammer of the Scots” and also spent a fortune fortifying Wales against the Welsh after he’d done his best to break them. Prince Edward’s style of rule in the Aquitaine is wildly inconsistent, with bursts of violent suppression. He turned a deaf ear to his most experienced counselors. I mixed this with how long he’d delayed marriage (quite late for an heir to the throne), the suddenness of his wooing Joan (within a few months of Thomas’s death), and Joan’s choice to be buried not beside him but beside Thomas, and came up with the character of Ned in my book. I love his complexity, I love the edginess.


Joan of Kent. Photo credit:

Joan of Kent. Photo credit:

4. How long did it take to write this novel, and did you face any significant challenges in putting Joan’s story together?
Three years, which is a long, long time for me, considering I write my series books in 9 months to a year. At first it was Joan who eluded me, which was a surprise, as she’s a strong secondary character in both A Vigil of Spies (Owen Archer #10) and The King’s Mistress. But in both books she’s a mature woman, and her singular act of disobedience is well behind her.Now, in telling the story of her knotty marital situation, I needed to understand her motive in disobeying King Edward when she knew full well the danger—her father had been executed for displeasing Edward’s mother.  The fierce Plantagenet temper was a point of pride. What could drive a twelve-year-old to take such a risk? Joan must have known she was being raised in the royal household for the very purpose of making a marriage that would benefit her cousin the king. So what drove her to disobey him and choose her own husband? Historians for whom I have great respect shrug off the story of her clandestine marriage as a lie that she and Thomas made up so she might escape an unhappy marriage. But the papal court believed their story, and I just did not find it plausible that the pope would be duped by such an obvious ploy. So it fell to me to find her motive. Once I found the proposed betrothal I felt confident I had a story.

And then…I learned about seven months before the book was due that my publisher wanted the book considerably shorter than my editor had originally indicated. She thought she’d told me…. So after a week of panic, I proposed ending Joan’s story just after her marriage to Edward, Prince of Wales and the Aquitaine. My editor loved the idea. The crisis was averted, but it meant starting over, because now the pacing was all wrong.

5. One of the difficult things about writing a novel centered on a historical figure is the decision an author must make about where the story should begin and where it should end. A Triple Knot covers only part of the fascinating life of Joan of Kent, albeit a very gripping part. Did you know exactly where the book would end when you began writing?
Hah! See my answer to the previous question! Once I’d found the betrothal I had a date at which I felt Joan and Thomas’s story began. I was tempted to end the story with Thomas’s death. But I felt I needed to play out Prince Edward’s obsession. So I tried out the ending with my editor and she loved it.

6. I suspect that most writers can point to a favorite scene in each of their books – either a scene that was a pleasure to write, or one that was so challenging that the finished product, after a great deal of effort, was enormously satisfying. Do you feel that way about any particular scene in A Triple Knot?
What comes to mind is the scene at the Round Table tournament where Joan witnesses her father-in-law Earl William collapse, and she watches as his wife Catherine lies down on the pallet beside him, trying to coax him awake. When King Edward enters the pavilion, Catherine rushes to stand in respect, her garter slips down, and Edward retrieves it. This is a variation on the rumor spread by the French that the symbol of King Edward’s “noble” order of the garter had been inspired by something so silly (and scandalous) as the Countess of Salisbury’s garter, which fell down while she and the king were dancing. After lengthy debates about “whose garter?” my friend Laura Hodges encouraged me to come up with my own story. And so I did.

7. Can you tell us a little about the title, A Triple Knot? Was there an earlier working title?
Third title’s the charm in this case. First came The Hero’s Wife, when I envisioned a much longer book in which Joan’s earlier marriage(s) served as a long prelude to her becoming the wife of Edward of Woodstock, the hero of Crécy and Poitiers. When the latter marriage was relegated to a possible follow-on book, I chose Rebel Pawn as a working title. I had some fun with that, creating chapter headings relating the action to a chess game. But I never warmed to the title. One day, as I was organizing my notes for the third (and final!) draft, I realized I was describing a triple knot—Thomas, Will, Ned.  And there it was.

8. I know that you have been to Britain several times for research. Was there a site that you visited that helped you envision a particular setting?
Although Windsor Castle has undergone significant renovations since the 14th century, the bones of the earlier castle are clear enough that scenes set within it are a gift, easily envisioned. For most of the royal palaces and noble residences I cobble together written descriptions with old drawings/paintings as well as bits and pieces from my frequent treks through medieval sites in England, Scotland and Wales. But Windsor is still a royal residence, so alive.

Emma-Campion-204x300Emma Campion did her graduate work in medieval literature and history, and has continued to study the period while working first as an editor of scientific publications and now for some years as a freelance writer. She was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, grew up in Cincinnati, and has lived most of her adult life in Seattle, which she and her husband love for its combination of natural beauty and culture. Emma enjoys walking, hiking, and gardening, and practices yoga and vipassana meditation. She travels frequently to Great Britain.

Emma’s current passion is exploring fuller and more plausible interpretations of the lives of women in the 14th century than are generally presented.A Triple Knot

Learn more about Emma and her novels at her website,, on her Facebook page, and on Twitter: @CandaceMRobb.

You’ll find A Triple Knot available for purchase at your favorite bookstore or on-line retailer.


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