Margaret Frazer

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer

The next day was as fair as the days before had been, mild with September warmth and quiet in its familiar pattern of prayers at dawn, then breakfast and Mass, and afterward the varied, repetitious business that was the form and shelter of everyday security for Thomasine.

But she had stayed in the church after the long midnight prayers of Matins and Lauds, kneeling alone at St. Frideswide’s altar in the small fall of lamplight, meaning only to give thanks for yesterday’s gift of courage against Lady Ermentrude and then return to bed, but she had lost herself in the pleasure of repetition, murmuring Aves and Paters and simple expressions of praise over and over until all knowledge of Self melted away, and suddenly there was the sharp ring of the bell, startling her, because it meant the whole night had fled. She went as quickly as stiff knees and sticky mind allowed to the church’s cloister door, there to join the nuns in procession to their places in the choir to greet the sunrise with the prayers of Prime.

Now, as the warm day wore away, she was finding her temper uneven and her frequent yawns a distracting nuisance. There seemed to be constant errands to be run, few chances of just sitting at a table in the kitchen pretending to peel apples, and every time she went out into the cloister the sound of her great-aunt’s people lofted over the wall. Heavy male laughter and the higher pitch of chattering women’s voices had no place in St. Frideswide’s cloister. They bruised the quiet and made Thomasine wish for a way to bundle them into silence.

As she hurried along the cloister walk to fetch ink for Dame Perpetua, the little bell by the door to the courtyard jangled at her, saying someone wanted in. Thomasine halted, irked, and looked around with impatient anger for a servant to signal to the door – then caught herself and offered a swift prayer of penitence. Anger was one of the seven Deadly Sins, and its appearance marked a severe lack of the holiness she was so desperate to attain.

The bell rang again, there was no servant in sight, and misery replaced her anger. Why were patience and courage always called for when supply of them was smallest? She went to the door and opened the shutter that closed the small window at eye level. Peering through its bars, she saw no one, and the ends of her temper unraveled a little further. Then the curly top of a head bounced barely into view, and a child’s voice cried, “Oh, please! Open, please open! I need help!” Read more »

Cancer: The First Return

August 30th, 2012

With my opening encounter with cancer in 1992, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy. In the six clear years that followed, I wrote six books.

For the first part of this time, I was working with a co-author. Mary and I had a prosperous relationship through the first six books of the series (from The Novice’s Tale through The Murderer’s Tale), but by the end of them she had grown tired of medieval England and our vision for the stories had drifted somewhat apart. She wanted to write warmer murder mysteries – cozies; but I simply do not feel cozy about murder and prefer to explore the deep effects of it on everyone around a wrongful death. Mary so loathed Giles in The Murderer’s Tale, however, that before we were done she could not work on chapters from his point of view. (We will not consider what this says about me, that I was willing to be in Giles’ head.) After that, we parted friends – leaving me in medieval England while she began a new career as Monica Ferris, writing mysteries centered around a modern needlework shop.

I was lucky with The Prioress’ Tale, my first solo effort in the series: Both my agent and my editor told me I waited far too long to kill anyone in it. They said I could get away with it once, but that I should never do that again.

Then it was nominated for an Edgar Award, and after that I was allowed to kill people whenever I wanted to.

From there it was The Maiden’s Tale – story I had been wanting to tell for a very long time – and then on to The Reeve’s Tale. It was while I was working on The Reeve’s Tale in 1998 that the cancer made its first return. The damnable stuff was in my sternum this time, eating a large, tumor-filled chunk out of the bone, and as you can see from the sudden heaping of dedications at the front of Reeve’s, I wasn’t sure I would live to write another book.

This was also when I began my long career of not trusting what oncologists said to me. You see, I had been told that if I made it five years without the cancer coming back, I was cured, in the clear, a success. But at one of the scans to determine what the cancer was doing in the bone, a technician asked me if this was my first time with breast cancer, and when I answered, no, I’d had it six years ago, the technician said casually. “Oh, yes. Six years is when it usually comes back if it’s going to.”

I was left speechless.  I had been annoyed at insurance companies because I’d been told none of them would give me health insurance for seven years after the breast cancer had been treated.  That had seemed eminently unfair, given the oncologists’ claim – made boldly and often – that if a woman goes clear of cancer for five years, she’s cured.  But now I had to consider that the insurance companies had a very good reason for their seven-year limit – and that if the insurance companies knew about the six-year cycle of recurrence, then the cancer community’s claim that “five years and you’re cured” was someone’s cruel, self-serving statistical game to make a good-looking “success rate”.

What makes me a tad bit more bitter is that if I had not accepted the “five years and you’re cured”, I would have figured out far sooner that the excruciating pain in my chest was likely cancer instead of the strained muscle I supposed it was and kept trying to ease, and I would have gone to the oncologist far sooner.

Since then, with fourteen more years experience, I have become wary of the almost-truths and avoidances too many doctors practice to keep control over us (for our own good, of course).  Rather than blindly trusting what oncologists or any other physician tells me (no matter how desperately I wish they would just save me), I listen, I judge, I research, I make my choices – often against the advice of my various oncologists over the years – knowing full well that a choice I make could be the wrong choice and kill me.  But doctors make those choices for us all the time, all too often “by the book” and without due regard for our personal responses to medications, and their choices also kill.  Frankly, if I had been a “good patient” and done as I was told at every turn through these past years, I’d have been dead long since.  As it is, I grope onward, hoping for the best.

– Margaret

The Prioress' Tale - Margaret Frazer The Maiden's Tale - Margaret Frazer The Reeve's Tale - Margaret Frazer

On the Matter of Cordovan

August 29th, 2012

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer

In men as men of course she took no interest; no heed at all if possible. But today an important man was visiting. Word had run along with the order for the honey cakes that it was Thomas Chaucer who was come to Frideswide’s today, and even Thomasine in her determined unworldliness knew of Thomas Chaucer. Like the weather, he was a common topic of conversation in Oxfordshire, both because of who he was and how he had come to it. His father had been a poet and a customs officer, his mother the daughter of a very minor knight, but Thomas Chaucer, so the rumors insisted, was one of the richest and most powerful commoners in England. So powerful he could resign of his own will from the King’s Council though he had been asked to stay; rich enough, it was said, that his purse-proud, wool-merchanting cousin, the Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, was pleased to ask his advice.

So it was vaguely unsettling to see him sitting at ease in Domina Edith’s familiar parlor, looking hardly different from the way Thomasine remembered her father: A middle-aged gentleman with well-grayed hair and pleasant face, tanned with sun, moderately lined around the eyes and across the forehead; dressed in a green wool houpelande to his knees, split front and back for ease of riding, with lamb’s wool budge at its cuffs and collar, his hood with its trailing liripipe laid to one side out of respect for Domina Edith and the warmth of the day. He wore a large ring on either hand but no gold chains or other jewels, and his high riding boots were only boots so far as Thomasine could tell, knowing nothing of cordovan leather or how much effort it might have taken to fit them so skillfully to the curve of his leg…

Here is an example of how – in my early books – I was still working toward a better grasp of the vocabulary of the time.  As I accurately knew, “cordovan” refers to a high-quality, expensive leather first made in Spain by the Moors of Cordoba and used for particularly fine leather goods.

So far, so good, except at the time I wrote The Novice’s Tale, I had not yet developed a sufficiently questioning “ear”, and so accepted “cordovan” at face value, when I might instead had the fun of tracking down its correct history.

It seems that this fine Spanish leather – made from tanned and dressed goat skins or, later, often of split horsehides, and used for a variety of items but particularly for shoes, “especially by the higher classes during the Middle Ages,” as the Oxford English Dictionary says – would not have been called “cordovan” at all in medieval England, but “cordwain”.  (Hence, the reason shoemakers of the time, and later, were called “cordwainers”.)  The word “cordovan” only came into use in England in the 1500s.

Still, looking back, I suspect that even had I learned that cordwain was correct, I might very possibly have stayed with cordovan.  Fond though I am of using words correct to the period, I do not want to unnecessarily confuse readers simply for the sake of showing off my attempted erudition.  The odds are that the phrase “cordovan leather” sufficiently conveys a sense of richness without a reader having to pause in thought over it.  “Cordwain leather”, on the other hand, would more likely give pause, jarring a reader out of the flow of the story.  If the leather itself had been a major point in the plot, the scrupulously correct word and the accompanying necessary explanation of what it meant would be justified, but in this case I was attempting to convey an impression of wealth, not begin a discussion of international trade and the leather industry.  So, very probably, “cordovan” it would have stayed, even had I known better.

But now that I do know better, there’s no telling what use I may make of cordwain and cordwainers in the future!

– Margaret

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The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer

Domina Edith, waking as easily as she had fallen asleep, lifted her head. “What is it?”

Dame Frevisse swung back in a gentle swirl of veil and curtsied, her face courteously bland. “Lady Ermentrude Fenner is just entering the yard.”

“And seemingly she’s bringing half of Oxfordshire with her,” Master Chaucer added, not helpfully.

Thomasine, her heart dropping toward her shoes at this confirmation of the visitor’s name, bit her lip against any sound. Domina Edith herself gave no sign beyond the merest fluttering of her eyelids before saying mildly, “I do not recall receiving any warning of our being honored with a visit from the lady.”

Which was usual for Lady Ermentrude. She seemed to feel that the honor of her coming more than outweighed the burden of surprise. It may even have been that she enjoyed the frantic readying of rooms, the culinary desperation in the kitchen, and the general scurrying that followed her unannounced arrivals.

Domina Edith brushed at her faultless lap. “She’ll wish, as always, to see me first. You must needs bring her, I suppose. But there’s no need to hurry her, mind you. Take time about it if you wish.” Read more »

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer

Help us, Seinte Frideswyde!
A man woot litel what him shal bityde.

The Miller’s Tale – Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer

Mid-September in the year of Our Lord’s grace 1431 had perfect weather, warm and dry. There was a drowse of autumn to the air, and in the fields beyond St. Frideswide’s priory walls the harvest went its steady pace under the clear sky. There had been rain enough and sun enough since mid-July to bring the grain to full ripeness. Now most of it lay in golden swaths behind the reapers or was already gathered into shocks to dry.

All month long the days had become familiar with the calling of the men and women back and forth at their work, the cries of children scouting birds away, and the creak of carts along the tracks to bring the harvest home.

Inside St. Frideswide’s walls there was awareness of the harvest but none of its haste or noise; only, as nearly always, a settled quiet. A sway of skirts along stone floors, the muted scuff of soft leather soles on the stair; rarely a voice, and then only briefly and in whispers since the rule of silence held here except for the hour of recreation and the proper, bell-regulated hours of prayer sung and chanted in the church.

A Benedictine peace ruled there, Thomasine thought as she paused to gaze out the narrow window on the stairs to the prioress’s parlor, a plate of honey cakes in her hands, still warm from the oven. She had been told to hurry with the cakes, that they were meant for an important guest, but she could not bear to pass this view over the nunnery’s cream-pale stone walls. Framed in the narrow window was a scene of stubbled fields scattered with shocks of grain and small-with-distance figures bent to their work. Beyond them was the green edge of the forest and, over all, the Virgin-blue of sky, all of it as finely detailed and remote as a miniature painted for a lady’s prayer book, precise and wonderful to look at.

And soon to be far beyond her reach. Read more »

Double Twentieth Anniversary!

August 28th, 2012

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer The Outlaw's Tale - Margaret Frazer

This year is my Double Twentieth Anniversary!

Twenty years ago this summer my first novel – The Novice’s Tale – was published (and is still in print as I write this).

But (must there always be a but?) twenty years ago this year I was also given my first diagnosis of breast cancer.

I’m afraid that the latter considerably took the edge off the former. Instead of gearing up for the excitement of my first novel’s debut, I was recovering from major surgery. A summer that should have been bright with success was shadowed instead with pain and fear. Besides that, I was already dealing with the break-up of my marriage, and by the end of the year I had helped my mother close down her own home in another state and gone house-hunting here in Minneapolis for a place we could live together – her to watch over me as I recovered, me to watch over her in her increasing old age – and hopefully make a home for my young sons.

All in all, emotionally and physically, 1992 was not a great year.

Happily, The Servant’s Tale was finished before the cancer-crisis started, but working on The Outlaw’s Tale was a struggle.  Still, young sons, aged mother, and the need to make a living are great inspiration to get out of bed and to work in the mornings.  And since then – to the good – book has followed book.  Unfortunately – and to the bad – I’ve fought through multiple rounds of cancer, one after another. Of that, on the supposition that my experiences in the cancer dance may be of use to someone, over the next few days I’m going to talk about my experiences.

But more of that another time. Because this is also a time of celebration, and to that end, over the next few days, I’m going to be previewing The Novice’s Tale here on my website one chapter at a time. If you’ve never spent time with our dear Dame Frevisse, I hope you’ll seize the opportunity to make her acquaintance.

Of course, if you and Dame Frevisse are already old friends, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to join me in going back to the beginning. It’s been a long journey. And it’s not over yet.

– Margaret

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer The Outlaw's Tale - Margaret Frazer

York Mystery Plays 2012

August 23rd, 2012

Thought you might find this of interest: It’s a trailer for the York Mystery Plays that are being performed this year. Rather grander production values than anything Joliffe would have experienced in A Play of Heresy, but if you have the chance to see them I think you should jump at it.

And more of you may have that chance than you may think. A few days ago the plays were streamed live on The Space. Although I found about it too late to enjoy the streaming myself, they’re promising that in the very near future you’ll be able to watch the recorded performance and even create bespoke versions (mixing different camera angles and audio streams).

More info here. And the home page for the project on The Space is here.

– Margaret

The Novice's Tale - Margaret Frazer

On the Matter of Weather

August 20th, 2012

The Prioress' Tale - Margaret Frazer

The day had moved into the drowsy warmth of afternoon when Frevisse went out to the guest halls again, to see how things went and if all was well in hand for supper. As she crossed the yard she had the regretful thought that it was a pity these bright, dry days had waited for October instead of blessing them at harvest. They would have made a difference then. Now they were hardly better than illusion, their brief warmth gone as soon as the day began to fade, the cold returning with the sunset shadows that in these shortening days came ever earlier…

Whenever possible, the weather described in my stories is accurate to the time the stories are set.  Unfortunately, the 1400s lacked such fulsome reporting as the Weather Channel and local news stations give us today, but careful searching of contemporary chronicles and documents and other sources provides far more detail than might be expected.  Often the descriptions can be very evocative, such as the Great Chronicle of London recording for the year 1434-5 “… and in this yere was a passing grete wynter and a colde frost …  It was so strong that no ship myght saile…”

For that same winter, Richard Vaughan, drawing on continental sources for his biography Philip the Good, noted that the winter “was long remembered as a particularly cold one, at a time when the winter climate of north-west Europe was much colder than it is now.  Not only the Thames itself froze, but most of the Thames estuary also… At Arras, the civic authorities drafted a special memoir to record the numerous snowmen which were set up in the streets and squares.  They included the figure of Danger, the Grand Veneur with his dogs, the Seven Sleepers, the Danse Macabre, and Joan of Arc at the head of her men.”

In the year 1438-9 Gregory’s Chronicle noted there “was great dyrthe of corne, for a bushelle of whete was worth 2/6.  And that yere was grete pestylaunce, and namely in the northe contraye” while the Brut recorded “And in thys yere all greynes of corne were at an high price: for whete was at xxxijd, barly at xvjd, and rye at iis…”, adding sharp detail to the reality of another period of bad weather and failed crops.

Other times, it’s governmental records that give an idea of what the weather was, as in royal letters patent ordered on October 7, 1437, for a commission to deal with the forestalling or regrating of wheat or other grain in certain areas because of scarcity recently arisen in parts of the country due to unseasonable weather and other causes.  Supporting other reports of bad weather over these years is another order out of Westminster in December 1438 commissioning men to inquire in Kent concerning persons who had bought up and accumulated large quantities of wheat and other grain, despite the scarcity “for no small time in the realm owing to the bad weather, in their desire for unjust gain, without bowels of pity”’ though they have nothing to justify such large supplies.  They were to be punished according to the statute and watched hereafter.

Good weather is noted, too.  For Henry VI’s return to London in February, 1432, the poet John Lydgate wrote that the weather had been gloomy with mist and rain, but for his reception turned bright, while later in that year, on St. Lawrence day, in France, the French chronicler Monstrelet recorded that at the siege of Lagny there was skirmishing between besiegers and relief force going on until almost Vespers in very hot weather.  Unfortunately, good weather can be over-done, too, as in another summer when Burgundian troops were mustered in weather so hot that two of the army’s captains died of the heat, along with some of lower rank, Monstrelet reports.

Sometimes in my stories, as with the opening description in The Novice’s Tale, the good weather is based on the absence of report to the contrary, because – just as now – it’s the bad news that tends to be most noted in the sources, and so if there is no report on the weather, then I feel free to assume that things were normal.  But when the weather is known, I use it, which meant that after The Novice’s Tale’s fair days, I wrote three books in which the weather was cold and wet and sometimes freezing, because that’s what the records show it was.  Then – thoroughly tired of bad weather – I very deliberately set the next book in the series in a bright, warm June.

– Margaret

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The Prioress' Tale - Margaret FrazerAn all-too-common motif in novels purportedly set in medieval England is the ubiquitous presence of violence. According to these novels, medieval England was full of scoff-law lords raiding and raping as they would with nary a law officer to thwart them, and with the only decent people willing to stand out against them The Hero and possibly his favored companions. All other people are merely hapless victims who must endure the lawless times, with one or (preferably) more of them getting killed outright in the first chapter, just to show the reader he’s really in medieval England. This is “medieval on the cheap” – an author using “medieval” as synonymous with “nasty and vicious” because he or she doesn’t want the bother of being accurate about the time, only a setting in which to set scenes of brutality to titillate readers.

In writing The Prioress’ Tale, I played very consciously against this cliché.  When Domina Alys hears her cousin has killed a man, she wastes no time on handwringing over the wrong he has done or the morality of the matter. Instead, her first thought and her immediate protest are how the man’s murder will bring the sheriff down on them. She knows the law well enough to know no one simply gets away with murder and theft just because he has the power to commit them and an armed force to back him. In the reality of the time, she knows there will be legal consequences and they will likely come quickly. Reynold may not have sense enough to realize it, but other people in the story not only know it – they depend on it.

Admittedly, at certain times and places, law and the structure of society did break down spectacularly. King Stephen’s reign in the 1100s was a disaster of violence and lawlessness. Any book set then cannot avoid dealing with a time so horrible that a chronicler wrote, “Christ and his saints slept” (the title of an excellent, harrowing novel by Sharon Kay Penman, set in that bleakened century). Nor do the Scottish borders seem to have been a good place to find a peaceful life at any time. There were also occasional outbreaks of violent opposition to a king, and feuds, with sometimes a pair of powerful men having an armed go at each other. But these were exceptions, not the day-to-day way of things, because through the centuries people had worked at creating a strong legal structure in English society and making it work. From village level onward to the royal courts themselves, there was a complex of officers great and small charged with keeping the peace and a complicated bureaucracy to support them. Through the medieval centuries in England there was a steady increase in curbing societal violence at all levels, and despite such aberrations as an outbreak of criminal gangs in the northern Midlands around 1300 and occasional lords or powerful commoners who threw their weight around and caused trouble in their area, these affected only limited places and only for limited times.

That is something for anyone looking in detail at medieval English criminal activity and the legal system set up to deal with it to keep in mind, especially while reading scholarly studies, because the same examples of medieval violence tend to be cited over and over. The Folvilles and Coterels gangs, for example, are perennially popular, not least because extensive scholarly study has been done on the legal documents concerning them.  (For a fine example: John Bellamy, “The Coterel Gang: an Anatomy of a Band of Fourteenth-century Criminals,” English Historical Review, vol. LXXIX, pp. 698-717, 1964.) But take note that individual examples like this are limited in scope and scattered over a wide number of years. They reveal that there were criminals in medieval England and that they did criminal things, but to extrapolate from these cases that uncurbed violence was a constant in medieval life everywhere and all the time is the equivalent of using the violence in Prohibition-era Chicago to characterize the whole of American society’s behavior through all the centuries. (And, come to it, the violence in Chicago went on far longer than the Coterels  and Folvilles ever managed.)

It is perfectly possible – by choosing the right time and place – to write an accurate novel set in medieval England replete to overflowing with violence if that is what the author chooses to dwell on. For Dame Frevisse, however, I deliberately chose a time and place where violence was not a way of life in England – and, not incidentally, the great plague was in abeyance for a while. Depriving myself of these two ever-popular means of instant drama, I’ve been left free to explore other aspects of medieval life and people: Their ordinary days before violence comes out of seeming nowhere making the shock of it the more wrenching – both for them and hopefully for the reader – because it is set against the usual tenor of their world, with afterward their effort set not only to finding out and dealing with the criminal but starting the hard striving toward restoring to their lives their lost balance, to putting together a new peace in place of the one so unreasonably and unexpectedly stolen from them. I find it a very satisfying quest to write of.

– Margaret

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The Prioress's Tale - Margaret Frazer

The Prioress’ Tale has been released for both the Kindle and the Nook. It can also be read on any iPad, Android, Windows PC, Mac, or Blackberry device using either the free Kindle Reading Apps or the free Nook Apps for those platforms. It will also be available through the iBookstore shortly, but Apple takes much longer to process new e-books than Amazon or B&N.


Under the harsh hand of its newly elected prioress, St. Frideswide’s has become a place of deadly sin. The corruption has grown subtly and slowly, but it has found fertile soil in the rage and greed of Domina Alys, who has turned the priory into a boarding house for her relatives, the Godfreys. Dame Frevisse is horrified to discover that the modest stores of the priory – desperately needed if the nuns are to survive the coming winter – are being completely consumed by the rapacious Godfrey clan.

But the Godfreys bring with them more immediate terrors: Torture. Madness. Kidnapping. Murder. The sanctuary of the cloister has been violated and even the holy rites of the nuns have been ripped apart.

Despite the growing crisis, Frevisse’s best efforts to save the nunnery from itself are met with scorn and torment as bitter hatreds and old rivalries turn nun against nun. Suspicion, paranoia, and despair clutch the cloister’s heart. If Frevisse cannot unlock the riddles of penitence for her prioress and for herself, then St. Frideswide’s may be no more…

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“When this series debuted, its publisher hailed Frazer as the logical successor to Ellis Peters… With a number of strong books already under her belt, Frazer may actually make her publisher’s dream come true.” – Star Tribune

“Often chastised for her disobedience and made to do penance, Sister Frevisse’s curious nature still wins out as she uses logic and her intelligence to sleuth with the best of them.” – Rendezvous

“Frazer is writing one of the most consistently excellent historical series in print today.” – Murder Ink

“Clearly, the setting is the star here, and Frazer is generous with her details of abbey life.” – Publishers Weekly

“Margaret Frazer continues her splendid series of medieval mysteries… She has a sure grasp of the realities of medieval life: Its careless cruelty, effortless hypocrisy – particularly in matters of religion – and its disregard for women who could wield influence only in the most indirect ways.” – MLB News

The Prioress’ Tale was the the first of the Dame Frevisse books that I wrote alone. My co-author and I had discussed rough ideas for the story, and I had shaped the plot and written a first draft of the first three or four chapters when she decided she was tired of medieval England and bowed out of the series, leaving the book (and the series) to me.

Since I always wrote the first draft of all our books by myself, there was no trouble in simply continuing onward. Or not much trouble, except the small one that through writing six books together, my co-author and I had developed not only a smooth modus operandi but a deep familiarity with what each of us preferred in a story. I knew what she would object to and want changed, and she knew the same about me. Now there was just me, with no one to change how I chose to tell the story and deal with the characters. It was all mine! But did I take that heady breath of freedom and run with it? Not quite. Not immediately.

I’m still amused to remember how, instead, I found myself all through the first draft continuously “looking over my shoulder,” second-guessing myself on what my co-author would have had to say about this or that or the other thing that I was doing. But of course she was not there, and I confess I eventually settled happily to entirely following my own desires regarding characters and plot, both in The Prioress’ Tale and all the books that follow it.

– Margaret

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