A Year When Nothing Happened

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here. No, I’m not writing about the lost year of 2020, but of a time much earlier in history.

One of the things I’ve always looked for when starting work on a new historical mystery is a year when nothing happened. Of course, I don’t mean that literally nothing happened. Every year has it’s ups and downs and memorable events. But I’ve always felt that it would make my job harder if my characters had to worry about major events going on in the world around them. That’s one reason why The Finder of Lost Things is set in the winter of 1590/91 and not in, for example 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. Even in the sixteenth century, people in remote corners of England would have known about an imminent invasion. How, you ask? They lit signal fires when the first ships were spotted, signal fires that had been laid weeks in advance for just that eventuality.

You might think that, if nothing happened in that year, I had to make up everything that happens in the novel. Not exactly. You see, since it’s fiction, I can mix and match the stories of real people that took place in other years, combining bits and pieces, filling in the blanks, as it were, with what I imagine might have taken place, and have them all take place in the year of my choice.

Throughout the reign of Elizabeth Tudor there was religious intolerance, not just toward the Catholics who refused to give up their religion in favor of the Church of England, but also toward the more radical Protestants, those who were “puritan” in their beliefs. Either end of the religious spectrum could land you in prison. I suspect that most people just went to church every Sunday to avoid being fined for non-attendance and got on with their lives, but those who were sincere in their beliefs faced a tough choice. That’s part of the backstory of The Finder of Lost Things. My amateur sleuth’s younger sister embraced a forbidden religion. When she changed her mind about converting, she ended up dead under suspicious circumstances. Beset by the usual prejudices against those who are different, Blanche Wainfleet soon learns that the “evil” Catholics she suspects of killing her sister are not so very different from those of her own faith. In the course of the novel, she also discovers just how vulnerable all women are to charges of witchcraft.

an exorcism

I had plenty of real cases to draw on when it came to writing about witchcraft, demon possession, and exorcism, and I borrowed quite blatantly from the story of what happened to Sarah Williams and her sister in the mid-1580s. At age fifteen, Sarah went to work in the household of a gentleman in Buckinghamshire where her sister, “Fid,” was already in service. Unbeknownst to the two girls, their employers were Catholics. At that time, celebrating Mass and owning Catholic books were as illegal as not going to church services in the nearest parish. Even more unlawfully, they had a priest living in the household in disguise. It was this priest who declared that Sarah was possessed, after which he performed an exorcism. Later, Sarah went into service in another Catholic household. All was well until New Year’s Day 1586, when another priest decided Sarah had been “repossessed.” Several accounts of her exorcism are extant from the 1590s and in a deposition she gave on April 24, 1602. At various times, she was forced to drink “holy” potions and inhale brimstone fumes to induce “visions.” All in all, it was a pretty horrifying experience.

As an aside: the Puritans also believed in demon possession and exorcism—they had more in common with their Catholic counterparts than they were willing to admit.

Puritans at prayer

The prevalence of witchcraft trials in Essex was one reason I chose to set so much of the novel there, but people all over England knew the stories. Every time there was a sensational trial, especially one for witchcraft or murder, the tabloid journalists of the day were near at hand, scribbling down the the details to publish as chapbooks. These were illustrated with woodcuts of the executions. More reliable transcripts of some of the trials are also still around, giving me lots of material to work with. Blanche, you see, is one of those people who is good at finding things out. She finds lost items using common sense, but in Elizabethan England, such a “supernatural” skill could be dangerous. When she gets too close to solving her sister’s murder, she’s accused of bewitching a servant girl to death.

witch walking on water

I’ve always found sixteenth-century England a fascinating period in history. On the surface, it may not seem like it, but there are many similarities to life in the present day. The details of conflicts people face may change from century to century, but human nature? Both the good and the bad stay pretty much the same.

Elizabeth Lowys, one of the first to be hanged for witchcraft

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and three works of nonfiction. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her next publication (as Kaitlyn) is the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (Murder, She Edited), in stores in August 2021. As Kathy, her most recent novel is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.

 

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2 Responses to A Year When Nothing Happened

  1. L.C. Rooney says:

    It is incredible how much extra research is necessary to create a top-notch historical novel. I’m in awe of writers like yourself who do such an amazing job of it. Hats off to you as you continue to produce such engaging, well-researched novels.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Thanks, L. C. To be honest, the real trick is stopping the research so the writing can begin. There’s always so much more out there to discover.

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