Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Please Welcome Historical Mystery Novelist Sarah Kennedy

Omnimystery News: Guest Post by Sarah Kennedy
with Sarah Kennedy

We are delighted to welcome author Sarah Kennedy to Omnimystery News.

Sarah's second in series novel City of Ladies (Knox Robinson; November 2014 hardcover and ebook formats) is the suspenseful story of a former Tudor nun making her way during the treacherous time after Henry VIII took over the church.

We asked Sarah to tell us more about how she develops the storylines of the books in this series, and she titles her guest post for us today, "The Mystery in the Machine".

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Sarah Kennedy
Photo provided courtesy of
Sarah Kennedy

I often think of a novel as a vehicle — a set of interworking parts lit by a spark that takes its readers on a journey. Sometimes the engine is a tragic event; sometimes it's an error on the part of the main character; sometimes it's a mystery to be solved.

In the genre of mystery, unexplained events — especially when they involve crime — can drive a plot forward as readers push on to discover who the perpetrator is and how the detective will bring the criminal into the open. Mystery writers must, of course, gather the right parts and fit them together so that the machine runs, and this can involve laying clues, foreshadowing, twisting the plot, and sending the main character down the wrong paths. All of these act as pistons and belts and batteries, giving life and energy to the story — urging it to its conclusion.

The engine of mystery often goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds — and this is exactly what readers of the genre seek. The plot speeds along, and readers breathlessly ride along as the events twist and turn, often screeching to a conclusion. Such books are great fun, and part of the enjoyment is predicting what will be discovered around the next bend. If the events are well-constructed, the destination is a surprise.

But what of the novelist whose "engine" is not an unsolved crime? Can there still be mystery in those machines?

In my first two historical novels, The Altarpiece and City of Ladies, I created a through-line of Tudor-era mystery: what happened to the missing altarpiece and why are people dying over it? Who is killing the former nuns living in the main character's house? The resolution of these crimes is central to the structure of both, and I did try to give hints (sometimes rather difficult-to-miss hints) as I built my plots. I wanted the "reveal" to occur for the reader in the same way that it does for Catherine, my heroine — somewhat slowly at first, then progressively more undeniably and horrifying, at least to her.

The mysteries of my first two novels, however, were not my main focus. For me, the engine of these novels was character: the conflicts and contradictions that make up a human being and how people resolve their own tendencies to crime … and sin.

As I have been writing my third novel, The King's Sisters, I've been thinking of crime as more internalized, less visible — the suffering we inflict on others in pursuit of our own goals and the lengths to which we will go in order to gain our ends. The "engine" is external conflict, characters in conflict — events and persons who prevent Catherine from getting what she wants or believes she needs. Her desires are often in conflict with each other, and since she lives as a former nun under the "reformed" Henry VIII, she also clashes with (and almost crashes into) the laws of that increasingly tyrannical king.

So this book is not a "mystery." Or is it?

As I was doing research for this latest novel, I discovered that the Tudor court, as Henry aged, became more and more dependent upon privately-paid spies and double agents for its information. This use of a network of spies became even more common in the courts of his daughters. I got interested in this, because, sadly, the political world still works through agents and double-agents. And what about the secrets we keep privately or tell on each other? Out of this information, I began to create a story.

In Tudor England, actions that we moderns might call "private" were often the purview of the king and the courts: whom one married, where one lived, and what clothing one wore in public were all restricted by law — and breaking one of these laws might make a private person a very public criminal.

I worked in characters and events that provide a glimpse into the workings of the Tudor court — and into human motivations. The "king's man" who comes to settle the accounts of Anne of Cleves is a typical hanger-on, upwardly mobile socially and completely amoral. But he does seem to have the king's permission. Is that the same thing as having justice on his side? And what exactly — or who? — is he looking for, anyway? An expensive ring seems to have gone missing. Who would have taken it and why?

Is it a mystery? Well, in part, yes. But mystery is not the engine. I came to think of mystery as not only a driving force but also a set of windows, mirrors, and GPS systems, showing side-tracks and tangents; they're all part of the journey. I want readers, as the novel progresses, to look in the rearview and realize, as my characters do, that small occurrences are more significant than they seemed at first ("objects in this mirror are closer than they appear to be"), that the answers to these little mysteries change their lives — and implicate their own actions.

Using internal mysteries to construct the machine of fiction can deepen that knowledge, driving readers not only to the "reveal" of events but also to a revelation of human character.

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Sarah Kennedy holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from Purdue University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. The author of seven books of poems as well as The Altarpiece, book one in The Cross and the Crown series, she has received individual artist grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, as well as an award for scholarship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She teaches at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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City of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy

City of Ladies
Sarah Kennedy
The Cross and the Crown Series

It's midwinter in 1539, and former nun Catherine Havens Overton has just given birth to her second child, a daughter. The convent in which she was raised is now part of her husband's lands, lands that once belonged to Catherine's family. With a son, Robert, and her new daughter, Veronica, her life as the mistress of a great household should be complete.

But Henry VIII's England has not been kind to many of the evicted members of religious houses. And in order to protect her old companions from the hostilities, Catherine has gathered about her a group of former nuns in hopes of providing them a chance to serve in the village of Havenston, her City of Ladies.

Catherine's past haunts her. Her husband begins to suspect that Robert is not his child. Then the women of Overton House begin to disappear and one of them is found brutally murdered nearby. Seizing the moment, under the pretense of ensuring her safety, William forces Catherine to enter service at Hatfield House where the young Elizabeth Tudor lives. Reluctantly, Catherine obeys, only to find herself serving not only the Protestant Elizabeth but also the shamed Catholic Mary Tudor.

As the murders in Yorkshire continue to mount and her loyalty to the Tudor sisters grows more complicated, Catherine must uncover the secret of the killer and save her City of Ladies. Print/Kindle Format(s)


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