Not a Mystery . . . or is it?

Kate Emerson here, Kaitlyn Dunnett’s evil twin, the one who writes “non-mystery historical novels set at the court of Henry the Eighth.” With the sixth of these now available in trade paperback, as an ebook, and unabridged from, it dawned on me that my description may not be accurate. Oh, it’s true that Royal Inheritance is not a mystery novel, but by that I mean it is not a crime novel. There is no detective, amateur or otherwise, trying to solve a murder or rescue a kidnap victim or catch a gang of bank robbers. However, there is mystery. There’s even detecting, some done by the protagonist and some, of another sort, done by me.

Let me start with my definition of the novels I write as Kate. They are fictionalized biographies of little known women at the Tudor court. They do not fit neatly into one of the usual genres, such as traditional mystery or historical romance. When I first started writing them back in 2006, I told people I was writing in the “Philippa Gregory genre,” since her success with The Other Boleyn Girl was largely responsible for renewed interest in sixteenth-century England and the Tudors. Unfortunately, a great deal of what came out of that, in print and on film, was hogwash. My goal in writing was to be as accurate as possible about every real person I used as a character. Of course, the advantage of writing about little-known women is that there are large gaps in the historical record. For those periods, when no one knows or is ever likely to know what really happened, I could extrapolate. I won’t claim the result is 100% accurate. No work of fiction ever is (heck, no work of nonfiction ever is!) but I’ve done my best to paint a realistic picture.

So where does the mystery and the detecting come in? In Royal Inheritance the protagonist is Audrey Malte, allegedly the illegitimate daughter of the king. Some so-called nonfiction credits King Henry with dozens of mistresses and multiple bastards but, with the exception of his acknowledged son, Henry FitzRoy, evidence is sketchy and most often the rumors didn’t even surface for the first time until long after the “fact.” About Audrey Malte, however, there are intriguing hints in surviving documents. The will of her titular father, John Malte (the royal tailor), is so specific about claiming her as his illegitimate child that anyone reading it soon begins to suspect that he “doth protest too much.” I won’t go into all the specifics here, but you can read my entries for Audrey and several other real people who are characters in the book at in my A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, where she is listed as “Ethelreda, Audrey or Esther Malte.”

The first mystery I wanted to solve was how they got from Ethelreda (an English saint) to Audrey. Apparently, linguistically, this is a logical evolution but I don’t pretend to understand it. What is unquestionably true is that quite a few girls were christened Ethelreda in Tudor England and all of them appear to have been called Audrey.

In the novel, Audrey believes she is John Malte’s adopted daughter, although the king does appear to show a special interest in her, even giving her one of his highly-prized miniature beagles as a gift. King Henry sends her tutors and invites her to court and the more she interacts with courtiers, the more she realizes that people are speculating about her. You see, her hair is a very distinctive “Tudor red” in color and she bears a striking resemblance to King Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth. Audrey wants to believe Malte when he tells her she’s his illegitimate daughter (he calls her a merrybegot because there was joy in her making) but the evidence begins to mount up. Her journey of discovery is central to the novel, and to her interaction with the man she eventually marries, the villain of the piece, and the daughter to whom she is telling her story in the hope that she will not repeat her mother’s mistakes.

As a writer, I had to follow the same trail Audrey does, working with sketchy details and false leads and eventually reaching conclusions that make sense and may even be the truth. The process that has worked well for me in all six historical novels has been to study the lives of every person who might possibly become part of my heroine’s story. I make an extensive chronology to show where they might cross paths and to make sure I know where people were at certain times. If no one knows that, so much the better, but I try to discover everything that is known before I start writing.

It’s amazing how often an entire plot or subplot will fall into your lap using a simple timeline. It’s a little like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” The connections are there. You just have to spot them. I went from Audrey to John Harrington (her future husband) to a circle of poets that included Henry Howard, earl of Surrey and his sister the countess of Richmond (widow of Henry FitzRoy) to a sometime retainer of the Howard family who seemed to crop up with remarkable frequency when someone had been betrayed. This same man turned up again trying to arrange a betrothal between his illegitimate son and Audrey Malte. No one knows why the marriage didn’t take place, or exactly how Audrey wound up married to John Harrington but by putting the pieces together in a pattern that makes sense to me, I created a reason, and found a made-to-order villain who’d been right there all along.

Something else happened as I wrote these historical novels. I realized how much I missed writing historical mysteries. As Kathy Lynn Emerson, some years back, I wrote the Face Down series, set in Elizabethan England and featuring sixteenth-century gentlewoman and sleuth Susanna, Lady Appleton. There were times when I really wanted to toss in a murder and couldn’t because, as Kate, I was writing about real people and real events and trying to stick as close to the truth as I could. So what’s the upshot? I’m delighted with the way Royal Inheritance came out and proud of the work I’ve done in recreating history for readers. I hope mystery readers will be curious enough to give the novel a try. But now that Royal Inheritance has been launched, I am hard at work on a new project and this one definitely falls into the historical mystery genre. I’m using a mix of fictional characters and real people, but the amateur sleuth is my creation. And yes, there is a murder for her to solve.


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4 Responses to Not a Mystery . . . or is it?

  1. Gram says:

    Looking forward to the historical mystery to come…Dee

  2. Lea Wait says:

    I love your historicals, Kathy — or Kate! This one sounds fantastic. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Oh my gosh, I LOVE that photo!

  4. Thanks, Dee, Lea, and Barb.
    The costume was borrowed from the Theater at Monmouth after the Bangor Daily News asked to do a feature on the Face Down books with me in period dress. Sandy took his own set of pictures during the shoot and this is my favorite. We used a different shot as the author photo for the three Face Down novels published by Perseverance Press. I have to tell you, though, that outfit is heavy and the shoot was in July on what had to have been the hottest day of that summer! I’d never have survived as a real sixteenth-century gentlewoman.

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