Award-winning Author of the Sister Frevisse Mysteries and the Joliffe Player Mysteries 


December 2010

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December 2nd, 2010


From somewhere along the line of stalls someone croaked loudly, “’Ware sister!”

As if guilty of something, Joliffe stood sharply up.  Basset laughed at him.  From the far end of the line of stalls a woman said, friendliwise and for everyone to hear, “You mind your tongue, Deke, or there’ll be gravel in your pottage next thing you know.”

That brought a scattering of laughter and croaking chuckles along the hall, and the old man beyond the curtain beside Basset’s bed called, “That’ll clear your bowels for you, Deke.”

Whoever was in the bed across from Basset’s moaned and began to mumble, sounding confused, his voice rising.

“There now,” the woman said in warning to everyone, yet kindly enough.  Quiet-footed, she came hurriedly, with a soft rush of skirts, between the stalls to the moaning man’s bedside.  She set the basket she had been carrying on the small table there and was taking something from it even while she bent over the man, saying something to him in a low, questioning voice.  His head thrashed weakly side to side on his pillow, not so much in answer, Joliffe thought, as keeping time with his moaning.  Despite the day’s warmth, he was covered to his naked upper chest by sheet and blanket.  A white cloth wrapped around the crown of his head hid his hair.  The woman laid a hand on his forehead, then along the side of his face, still talking to him, and he quieted a little.  She took that for chance to unstopper the small vial she had taken from the basket.  Using one hand under his chin to tilt his head a little back and then to draw his mouth open, she put the vial to his lips with her other hand and quickly tipped into him whatever it held, closed his mouth with her other hand still under his chin and kept it closed, gentle but firm, to be sure of his swallowing whatever she had given him.

Watching her from across the way, seeing her from the back, Joliffe could nearly have thought her a well-grown girl, small-built as she was in height and all; but the deft, sure way she moved made him think she was a grown woman, and when she had settled the man against his pillows and smoothed the sheet and blanket over him, picked up her basket, and turned from the bed, Joliffe saw he was right.  She wore a gray gown, plainly cut, with no excess of cloth, the sleeves straight, and the skirt somewhat short, leaving her plain-shoed feet clear.  A white apron covered it from throat to below her knees, but she had neither wimple nor veil covering her neck and hair, only -- like a servant -- a long headkerchief over a close-fitted coif to hide her hair.  But she was no servant, any more than she was a girl.  She was a woman somewhere in her vigorous middle years, probably closer to Basset’s age than Joliffe’s, with brown, bright eyes sharp with confident intelligence as she took in Joliffe’s presence, assessed him, and said even as he started a bow to her, “You’re Thomas’ friend.  The one he said might come.” 

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December 7th, 2010


Start with Chapter 1

Where he would sleep proved to be a small room off the short passageway between the kitchen and the roofed walk -- and small was the only word for it, with just distance enough to fully open the door between the doorway and the narrow bed along the far wall and no space for anything else except a little wooden chest against the wall beside the bedfoot, with a wall-pole above it for hanging clothing.  Joliffe slid his bag from his shoulder yet again, this time to the wooden floor beside the little chest, and said, “I hope Ivo wasn’t a large man.”  He nodded toward the wall beyond the bed and asked, “What’s there?”

“The stairway to the storeroom that’s above here,” Rose said from outside the doorway, there being hardly space for them both at once in the room.  “Beyond the stairs is the scullery.  You’ll be seeing enough of that soon.”

“Will I?” he asked, suddenly wary.  “Washing dishes was part of this Ivo’s duties?”

“Everything was part of his duties,” Rose said with a serenity suspiciously underlain with laughter.  She looked at the bare mattress on the roped bedstead.  “I’ll bring you sheets, a blanket and pillow.”  She stepped backward from the doorway, inviting him to come out, adding, “We stripped and scrubbed the room and aired the mattress after he went.  That only leaves doing the same to you.”

“Pardon?” he said, following her back toward the kitchen.

“Cleanliness of body and soul.  Those are the lights that lead us here.”  She sounded as if she were quoting – and maybe a little mocking – someone.

“I note that cleanliness of body coming first,” Joliffe said dryly.  “I suppose because it’s easier to be sure a body is clean than a soul.”

“Only too true,” Rose agreed, crossing the kitchen toward a far doorway.  “So, as with anyone newly come here, we’ll begin with your body.”

Still following her but his voice rising more strongly, Joliffe repeated, “Pardon?”

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December 9th, 2010


"Volo te Habere...", a short story starring my old friend Bishop Beaufort, has been released for the Kindle. It can also be read on any iPad, Android, Windows PC, Mac, or Blackberry device by using some of the free Kindle Reading Apps.

It had seemed so simple. Were Stephen and Catheryn married? They said yes. Their parents said no. But if they'd said their vows, then the vows were binding and there was nothing to be done. If they hadn't, then their parents could take matters into their own hands. Of course, people often failed to think through what they did or said. Words fell out of their mouths and they went happily along their way, supposing the words meant whatever they'd wanted to say (or to hear).

So once he knew the words, it would all be so simple to resolve.

But some things are never easy.

Ripped from the pages of the Edgar-nominated Sister Frevisse and Player Joliffe series, Margaret Frazer's Bishop Beaufort sees his holy court drenched with the tears and blood of a tale told in passion, sealed with murder, and spiced with the deadliest sin of all: Greed.

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Bishop Beaufort, of course, also appears in The Bishop's Tale and A Play of Lords. Although fictionally related to Dame Frevisse, he is, as it happens, quite historical. Complex and highly intelligent, he was one of four illegitimate children born to Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, royal duke of Lancaster. In the fullness of time he was legitimated and was half-brother, uncle, and great-uncle to three kings of England; a cardinal in the Catholic church; several times chancellor of England; and a very wealthy and powerful man.

He is not the young gentleman depicted on the cover illustration. (Although I'd probably sell a million copies if it were.)

- Margaret

December 11th, 2010


Now that A Play of Piety is officially out, I have two appearances this month at my local independent mystery bookstores.

Uncle Edgar's

The first, with apology for the short notice (my fault; not theirs), is today, December 11th, from 1pm to 2pm at Uncle Edgar's Mystery Bookstore on Chicago Avenue, Minneapolis, MN (with hopes the massive snowstorm predicted for that day doesn't blot out everything).

UPDATE: Because of the Minneapolis Blizzard (10 inches of snow as of 2 PM and forecasts are predicting an inch per hour for the next 8 hours) the signing at Uncle Edgar's has been cancelled. However, Don -- who has been running Uncle Edgar's for 37 years -- ran a crate of books over to me yesterday and I signed them all. So if you're looking for a signed copy this week, they have them in stock. And if you want to meet me in person, I will be appearing at Uncle Edgar's from 11 AM to Noon next Saturday (the 18th).

Once Upon a Crime

The second, is December 18th from 1pm to 3pm at Once Upon A Crime Mystery Bookstore on 26th Street, just off Lyndale, Minneapolis, MN.

Come to both!

- Margaret

December 14th, 2010


Volo te Habere...

One other thought occurred to me regarding "Volo te Habere...". The title is Latin, translating to "I wish to have you...", and the story revolves (at least in part) around a question of medieval marriage law.

In writing it, I very much enjoyed weaving a plot around the fine points of medieval English marriage laws for this story.  What surprised me, when I first found it out, was how much argument about marriage and divorce there was in late medieval England, and that it all took place in the church courts, because marriage – as a sacrament – was under the church’s jurisdiction.  Rather than the fairly prevalent notion that the Catholic church was an inert monolith sitting like a dead weight on the minds of men – except when it rose up to persecute and annihilate heretics and other foes – the medieval church was an active and responsive part of medieval life.  For one thing, neither marriages nor divorces were cut-and-dried yea-and-nay matters, and a great many records of marriage / divorce litigation still exist from the 1400s, providing fodder for many plots of murder.  Not that married couples in medieval England seem to have been any more prone to murdering each other than modern couples are (or any less prone, either, come to that), but a fiction author reads documents with an eye toward the twist that can be given to plain facts to turn them into a story, and there is no way to read these documents without seeing myriad possibilities. 

For instance, there’s record of the young man who had carnal intercourse with three serving maids in his mother’s household, promising marriage to each one of them.  When he was brought before the church court to determine which promise was valid, the court must have decided that untangling the matter was hopeless, because it ended by ruling that the young man would have to marry whichever of the three women he next had intercourse with.  And if that isn’t a set-up for murder, I don’t know what is.

- Margaret

December 18th, 2010


"This World's Eternity", a short story based around Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2, has been released for the Kindle. It can also be read on any iPad, Android, Windows PC, Mac, or Blackberry device by using some of the free Kindle Reading Apps.

It was a quiet murder. A painless one. Not a trace of blood. There wasn’t even a body.

But it was a poison true as arsenic: The poison of the human heart.

Award-winning and nationally best-selling author Margaret Frazer plunges into the darkest depths of the 15th century in this stunning tale of kings and witchcraft, revealing the hidden hand behind the throne of England. Join Queen Margaret and the Duke of Gloucester as they gamble for the fate of kingdoms in a tale woven out of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Souls are placed at the stake, but will any of them see the true danger lurking in their midst before it’s too late?

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This story features some familiar faces: Queen Margaret and King Henry IV from "Neither Pity, Love, Nor Fear" as well as Bishop Beaufort from The Bishop's Tale and A Play of Lords. It's one of the three short stories I have written based around various plays by Shakespeare (for a series of Shakespeare-oriented anthologies).

With this story I had to fight against my urge to be historical rather than keeping to the reality of the play.  But I’m good at rubbing my stomach while patting my head, so I managed to do what had to be done.  I would like, however, to here offer my apologies to the shades of Cardinal Beaufort, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, and various lords.

But not to either Queen Margaret or the Duke of Suffolk.  Writing them as villains was no trouble at all.

- Margaret

December 21st, 2010


Outlaw's Tale     Bishop's Tale

Over the weekend an interview I did for Sharon Kay Penman was posted on her website. You can find it here. Sharon is not only a dear friend of mine, but the author of simply wonderful historical novels. If enjoy romping with Frevisse and Joliffe, I think you would be well advised to hunt down some of her work.

I also have to say that I just reread the interview and found it delightful (which is something I rarely feel when reading a transcript of myself). In any case, I'm highly pleased with this. Bless Sharon for the opportunity.

As a quick correction: I mention in the interview that several of the long-out-of-print Frevisse novels will be made available on the Kindle very soon. This is true. What is not true is that the first novel will be The Bishop's Tale: Due to some flurrying with the rights, we'll be leading off with The Outlaw's Tale instead. Compared to the year-long wait between finishing a Joliffe manuscript and seeing it into print, the e-publishing world is rather shockingly rapid.

In fact, I just finished the final round of galley proofing on The Outlaw's Tale last week and as soon as we can convince Amazon that, yes, I really did write it; and, yes, I really did give permission for it to be sold as an e-book, it should be available.

- Margaret

December 25th, 2010


I find that I've maybe internalized my medieval life a bit too far.  (I can hear my near-and-dear muttering "maybe?") In medieval times the weeks of Advent were a subdued time for penance, reflection, fasting, and purification in readiness for the great gift of Christ's life at Christmas.  This was true across the culture, not simply in religious establishments where purple was the color of vestments and all, just as in Lent.  Christmas Eve was the culmination of preparation for the day rather than a time for partying.

But come Christmas Day!

That was when all that fasting and subduing of spirits paid off in a bursting out into a feasting and partying that went on for twelve days.  You know -- the Twelve Days of Christmas.  None of this modern nonsense about Christmas Day, toss out the tree, pause, New Year's, and it's over.  No.  In medieval times the ideal was:  Christmas Day, then party, party, party, more party, New Year's (when gifts were exchanged, rather than on Christmas), more party, party, party, Big Party on Twelfth Night; recuperate and get back to work.  Now that's the way to celebrate Midwinter!

So what I mean by having maybe internalized medieval life too much is that I have trouble these days bursting out with decorations and lights and all until Christmas.  Just when everyone else is winding down their celebrations, I'm wanting to put up lights and hang the decorations and play Christmas carols and party.  Yes, sometimes it can be pretty lonely for me back there in medieval times. 

Still, the Christmas candy will be on discount then, so all is not lost.

All the Best of Christmas Wishes and New Year Good Fortune to All.

- Margaret

December 27th, 2010


A warm Christmas -- a cold Easter.
A green Christmas -- a white Easter.

For those living on the land, this is a time of settling in with the winter.  If the frost is not yet deep into the soil, more plowing in preparation for spring may be doe.  If the cold is not yet too great, the geese, sheep, and cattle that have survived last month’s slaughtering are let out to graze the stubble fields.  If they cannot be loosed to graze, especial care must be kept of them in their barns.  Beekeepers should be sure their hives have food enough and supply them with honey and water if need be.

Women can be threshing what grain is needed for now, not more than can be used, since grain keeps best in the head.  All the stored food supplies should be checked regularly from now through winter to be sure they are keeping well.  Now is a goodly time for sharpening and mending tools.

For hunters, the roedeer and hare are still in season and bird-netting is allowed.

But beyond all else this is not only Winter Month but Heligh monath – Holy month.  The holy season of Advent begins somewhere near its beginning and there are special holy days all through it.

Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas day, when in schools – especially choir schools attached to cathedrals – boy bishops are elected to rule from now to Childermas (Dec. 28), allowed to robe themselves as bishops, do mass with boys for priests, and go through town asking for food gifts for the school boys or the poor.

Dec. 13 is St. Lucy’s day and followed by Ember Days of fasting and abstinence on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after it.

Dec. 20 is another fast day, and Dec. 21 – St. Thomas the Apostle’s day – is for almsgiving and dole to the poor and servants who give holly and mistletoe in return.

Dec. 24 as Christmas Eve is another fast day, but full of preparations for Christmas on the morrow.  Mistletoe is forbidden in churches but all other evergreens are welcome everywhere in church and home.  The Yule log, cut last winter and left to season these twelve months, is brought in tonight and lighted, preferably with a bit of last year’s log, saved until now.  Once lighted, the log should burn for 24 hours at least, for good fortune, but the last of it should of course be kept for next year.

Dec. 25 is Christmas, the celebration of the Nativity of Christ and the beginning of twelve days of festival.  Among other sports, the lord of the manor will organize a great feast in the manor hall for all his manor folk, with himself and all his people contributing to it.  Caroling, partying, games, and mummers make Christmas and its twelve days merry.  A Lord of Misrule is chosen to direct the revels through the holidays, with his own officials and foolish dress and license for mischief.

Dec. 26 is St. Stephen’s day, called Boxing Day because of boxes in the churches to receive alms for the poor today especially.  It is said to be a good day for blood-letting of horses to keep them healthy for the year.

Dec. 28 is Holy Innocents day, called Childermas.  By tradition, children are supposed to be whipped today to remind them of the massacre of the babies of Bethlehem.  IT is supposed to be the most unlucky day of the year, a very ill time for any enterprise.

Dec. 31 is the eve of the New Year.  Though the official year of church reckoning and government documents and records does not start until Lady Day in March (so that the year runs officially from March 25 to March 24), today is the popular end-of-year and late revels are a long-held custom.

A Play of Treachery

Winter 1436

- Margaret

December 29th, 2010


The Outlaw's Tale - Kindle

The Outlaw's Tale, the long-out-of-print third book in the Dame Frevisse series, is now available from for downloading to your Kindle or PC or iPad! (Also the Mac, Blackberry, and Android.)


Leaving the safety of her nunnery walls behind, Dame Frevisse is drawn into an unholy web of treachery and deceit. Waylaid on the King's Highway by a band of outlaws, Frevisse is shocked to discover that their leader is her long-lost cousin Nicholas. When he pleads with her to help him obtain a pardon for his crimes, she finds herself trapped between the harsh edicts of the law and the mercy of her vows.

But even as she struggles to restore his fortunes, Frevisse must fight to save his soul... and his life. Before the outlaw's tale can be told, the saintly nun will find herself locked in a manor house of murder, caught between the holy passions of the heart and the sinful greeds of man.

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I am nigh to dumbstruck by this.  Yes, I know my publisher has some of my later books available as e-books, but I had nothing to do with the process of getting the books set up for that.  But rights to The Outlaw’s Tale reverted to me several years ago, and so I have been very involved in the process of getting it ready to go electronic, which entailed, among other things, having to read the entire book for the first time since it was published seventeen years ago.

You know the saying that revenge is a dish best served cold?  My fear, when I began the rereading, was that my “old” prose served cold was going to be a very unpalatable dish.  Usually by the time I’ve finished the third draft of a book, then worked through the copy-edited manuscript that comes back from the editor, then read the final proofs for any last minute changes, I am heartily disillusioned with the book and everything in it and about it and go around muttering, “If I never see that thing again, I’ll be happy.”  This of course wears off, and after a year or two I find whichever book it was quite all right after all.  (Yes, this little process continues to amuse and reassure me but seems not to change.) Unfortunately, The Outlaw’s Tale was written at a very difficult time in my life (major surgery; two moves of house; a total restructuring of my life; accompanying emotional turmoil and physical exhaustion) so that writing it was done in a jumble of times and places.  I remember tussling with the plotline because I couldn’t keep track of what I was doing, either in the book or in the rest of my life!  Sure in my mind that the book had suffered from all that, once it was done I never looked back at it, not wanting to re-live that time by seeing it reflected in the flawed book. 

So I was not looking forward to dealing with it to ready it for going on-line.  But needs must when the Devil drives, and I set to it – and found myself enjoying what I was reading!  No book is perfect.  There’s always something that could have been done otherwise and maybe should have been, but The Outlaw’s Tale is not the book I feared it was, tangled as it was with a bad time in my life.  And because so long had passed since I last read it, there were moments that I had forgotten completely and pleasurably surprised me, others that were far better in the reading than in my memory, and one that shocked me, just as it was supposed to.  Life, as it was happening to me all those years ago, had overlaid the book with memories it did not deserve.

So I was able to think instead on the wonder of a book originally written in a long-dead program called AlphaWorks and saved onto 5" floppy disks, then carefully transferred from computer to computer (making the hop to 3.5" disks as the years went by before reaching hard drives and CDs and incredibly little thumb-sticks), until not it's not only on my computer but being sent out into the world for people to draw out of the electronic web to their own computers and reading devices. The whole arc of that bemuses and delights me.  After all, I go back far enough that I watched the original Star Trek series before it was in reruns.  That meant that when cell phones first came out, with the nifty flip-open lids, I had trouble taking them seriously because, well, look, they’re from Star Trek and not real, right?  And Kindles?  Same problem.  These are straight from the science fiction of my youth – and now they’re real and it’s fascinating for me on so many levels.  Not least the split personality it’s encouraging in me.  I spend my days laboring away at recreating the medieval world, then see my work go out into formats so far removed from medieval life as to be beyond imagining then. 

To the good, this splitting keeps me more appreciative of modern life than blasé familiarity might otherwise allow.  After a day lighting a medieval household, I find myself thinking how flipping a switch on the wall and getting a room full of light is a really cool thing.  So to click away at a keyboard and have an entire book appear before you – incredible!  Try it!  The Outlaw’s Tale awaits.

- Margaret

December 30th, 2010


Despite what many historians may think, there can be value in the perspective a novelist may bring to another time and place.  Not those novelists who “skim off the top”, as it were – taking the Big Events and Big Names of a time and then pasting in on top of them whatever florid improbabilities have taken the novelist’s fancy.  These authors well deserve both historians’ and readers’ scorn.

But there are authors who work mightily to tell their stories within the context of the time and keep their characters true to that time, not turn them into some out-of-period freak with modern sensibilities and perceptions.  Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick are excellent examples of authors who work hard at playing fair with the times and people they write about.  I know I ceaselessly strive to do the same, and it’s fascinating what insights can come when trying to see a time, a world, and people from as far inside them as good novelists try to go.  Which brings me to the Battle of Wakefield, today being its 550th anniversary and a dark day for all true Yorkists (of which count me strongly one).

What we know (as far as we can judge from the uneven period records) is (this is the short-form version) that Richard, duke of York, his teenage son Edmund, his brother-in-law the earl of Salisbury, Salisbury’s son Sir Thomas, a number of their household men, and a smallish army had come rapidly north from London in December 1460, to gather troops to counter a massive gathering of Lancastrians determined to regain their corrupt control (this is an unabashed biased opinion) of the government.  York and his allies moved into Sandal Castle outside Wakefield for Christmas.  By tradition a truce was to hold throughout Christendom through the Christmas holy days that ran into early January.  On December 30 a foraging party rode out from Sandal Castle and were next seen making a fighting retreat from a skirmishing party of Lancastrians.  (So much for Christmas truces.  The Lancastrians would also shortly bring an army of Scots over the Border as allies and make a swathe of destruction from the North to almost London.)  York, allegedly against advice, plunged out of the castle to join in the fight.  It turned out there was a large Lancastrian force in hiding that then swept out and overwhelmed the Yorkists, with York, his son, and a great many others killed in a terrible defeat.

I’ve been checking again and still cannot find a historian who has more to say about why York went so precipitously into action than that it was a really stupid thing to do.  They may not say it in just so many words, but that’s what it comes down to, and they use the action to throw heavy doubts on York’s character, stability, judgment, etc.

What bewilders me is that no one seems to have taken a guess at a very solid reason York would come out of the castle in too-great haste and with too few men and plunge into that fight.  Think about it as a novelist should.  A wet, cold Christmastide in a castle that hadn’t been readied beforehand for all those men to settle in, so not much in the way of anything to do – no ladies, no partying – boring.  Teenage son and his twenty-something cousin.  Bunch of guys.  Bored.  Looking for something to do.

Who do you think was in that foraging party?  Why, suddenly seeing that foraging party caught in a fighting retreat toward the castle, would York rush out to help it?

There’s no way to prove his son and nephew were in that foraging party, but the likelihood is large and would certainly give the emotional impetus to York’s headlong action – change, too, the way York’s action is judged.  Not the careless misjudgment of a poor commander (who had been quite successful in holding the line in the disastrous French war) but the immediate response of a father to a son’s danger.

As a novelist, trying to understand what underlies outward actions, dealing with York and his family as if they were people with complex emotional lives and relationships rather than cardboard figures moving through set-piece historical events, I can see that might well have sent York out of that castle and into a fight ill-prepared.  Considering that possibility makes sense of York’s action. 

I just wish more historians would consider love and fear for a son as a man’s motivation for what otherwise seems merely inexplicable and foolhardy.

And that is not just the novelist in me talking.  That’s the scholar who believes that consideration of rational possibilities is among historians’ valid (and valuable) tools in understanding the past.

- Margaret