Mercedes Rochelle has just published The King’s Retribution, the second book, of her series set in the England of Richard II and I’m delighted to host the penultimate spot on her book’s blog tour.
If you read A KING UNDER SIEGE you might remember that we left off just as Richard declared his majority at age 22. He was able to rise above the humiliation inflicted on him during the Merciless Parliament, but the fear that it could happen again haunted him the rest of his life. Ten years was a long time to wait before taking revenge on your enemies, but King Richard II was a patient man. Hiding his antagonism toward the Lords Appellant, once he felt strong enough to wreak his revenge he was swift and merciless. Alas for Richard, he went too far, and in his eagerness to protect his crown, Richard underestimated the very man who would take it from him: Henry Bolingbroke.
Recently I caught up with the author to find out a bit more about her take on writing in general and in particular, the historical fiction she writes.
I’m really pleased to have the opportunity to talk to you. Let’s start with an easy question – and one I’m sure you will have been asked before: did you always want to be a writer, or did you just somehow stumble into it?
And, if it helps, can you explain why historical fiction in particular?
Thanks for interviewing me. I had an inkling in 5th grade when my teacher (who I can’t remember) gave me special attention, but it wasn’t until my college days that I thought I might give it a serious try. It’s funny, thinking about historical fiction. I was an English major, and at the time I was obsessed with the 19th century novel, without associating it with historical fiction. I was reading Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo (among others) and I still didn’t “get” the genre. It makes me laugh, now!
It wasn’t until I discovered Sharon Penman in the ‘80s that I suddenly recognized historical fiction as a real genre, like science fiction or fantasy. And I was well into my first book by then! I admit, by the time I finished my first novel (now called Heir To A Prophecy—after many rewrites) I had gotten the idea, though that’s not how I started the book.
Your most recent books, A King Under Siege, and the new one, The King’s Retribution, focus on the reign of Richard II. Now, he is hardly the most popular, or even a very well-known, king of England – so, what appealed to you about him?
I’ve never been one to take the easy way out! I remember in high school composition, when others were writing about their summer vacation, I tackled Cardinal Richelieu and absolutism in France. Ha! (Of course, I had just finished The Three Musketeers.) Anyway, just like my first novel, I was inspired by Shakespeare. Inspiration is so hard to define, isn’t it? Shakespeare’s Richard II was not a likeable character, but by the prison scene I was captivated. Who was this poignant, tragic figure? I knew absolutely nothing about him (I wasn’t big on history then, either) and filed him in my memory for more than thirty years. But he never went away.
How did you go about researching the period of Richard II’s reign and what challenges did you face?
Richard II had a bad rap, just like Richard III. No one dared cross the usurper; the victors told the story, and for centuries most historians bought the propaganda without a quibble. Fortunately, 20th century scholars gave it another look, and a less biased, more balanced picture mitigated a lot of misconceptions. It seems that everything Richard did was controversial; sorting out his misdeeds gave me many, many puzzling days. And I still wonder what I’m missing.
I just counted more than 30 books that I read completely through to research these two novels, and I have three large looseleaf binders full of academic journals. The articles are the most helpful because they are so focused. Thank goodness for the internet!
What is it about this king that you would want your readers to take away after reading your books?
Although King Richard was no angel and it’s difficult to excuse some of his more notorious behaviour, I hope the reader comes to understand that he was a product of his upbringing and the calamity of his formative years. That old expression, “Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,” was certainly applicable to Richard; actually, I can’t think of any child king that turned out well. But to make matters worse, when his uncles should have nurtured him, they rather ground him down—especially his uncle Gloucester, who led the pack that crushed him during the Merciless Parliament and murdered his friends and advisors. I think there’s room for sympathy for a youth thrust into a position of such responsibility, with no role model and no peers.
When you write, do you have any special routine? So, for example: Do you always write at a certain time of day? Do you write at home, or in a particular place? Do you like to work in silence – or with music in the background?
I do all my writing at home, in strictest silence. I usually wait until late afternoon after I have spent the day working on my day job (I sell real estate) or marketing (a task that never ends). I have a nice set up in my loft; my desktop computer is where I sit down and do my marketing, and next to it I have my laptop on a bookcase at standing height. I’m up and down all day, but I always try to write on my feet, like Hemingway. It makes me think better!
When you write, are you a planner, or do you like to wing it a bit?
Oh, I’m definitely a pantser. I feel so much better having learned that Bernard Cornwell is also a pantser! We fly by the seat of our pants. Writing historical fiction, I know how the story is going to progress—and end. But getting there is the challenge. Usually the most critical events are fraught with contradictions, so I encircle myself with my source material and go from book to book until I decide which historian’s opinion makes the most sense. It can take me hours to finish an important scene. Sometimes, even though I might think about an event for months, I really don’t know what I’m going to do until I get there. And then, I never look back!
When you are writing, what sort of scenes do you like to write best – action, romance…?
I think my best scenes are the dialog. In Richard’s story, there are many innuendos that need to be sorted through “out loud”. He is known for following a lot of advice, so I let his friends conspire with him.
What aspect of the whole writing process do you enjoy most – and least?
I’m one of those people who doesn’t particularly like writing but who loves having written. My favorite part is the research. A new discovery while researching is such a rush to me, I could jump for joy. Sometimes a random comment dropped by a historian reveals a whole new depth to my character. While writing, when my protagonist does something I’m not expecting, I get such a thrill it makes all the drudgery worthwhile. I can only assume it’s something knocking around in my subconscious that I picked up along the way.
The part I like the least is the segue. I like jumping from climax to climax, but of course that’s ridiculous. You need to give the reader a chance to breathe, and the pace needs to be variable. Much as I hate to admit it, sometimes the segue actually gives the reader some necessary background, if done correctly. I find that I usually don’t give my transitions the attention they deserve until one of my last drafts.
Do you have a character of your own creation that you particularly like – or that you have a great empathy for?
I make up very few characters—none in my Plantagenet Legacy. There are enough real-life people to sort out. The most challenging part is fleshing out a historical person who has been widely ignored. In these books, Thomas de Mowbray needed a lot of extrapolating. For some reason I found very little information about him, even though he plays a critical role in Richard’s reign. I found him to be a sympathetic underdog, though most historians agree he was a slippery character. He did a lot of Richard’s dirty work, yet I think the king underappreciated him. He certainly did not hold up well against Bolingbroke! I felt for the poor guy; he got a bad deal.
You’ve written quite a number of books now – how has writing changed for you since you wrote your first book?
Practice makes perfect, as they say! I’ve learned to quit worrying about production and quit worrying about making a perfect first draft. I’ve learned to keep going on that first draft, even when it’s not working for me. I’ll even skip a part by making myself a note then moving on. Just get something down. Anything. By the second draft, I understand my characters better and voila! often my problem is solved because I know how they would react to such-and-such a situation. Also, these days I am favoured by beta readers, who make a huge difference; I like to turn my baby over to them after the second draft, and their input makes a huge difference. I never had that “helping hand” before the internet.
Are you a full time writer or only part time?
I’m very fortunate in that I can make my own daily schedule. After that, I think of myself as a seasonal writer. When the weather is great, I go outside in my garden. When the weather is terrible, I’ve got my nose to the proverbial grindstone. In the past, when I neglected my garden to write, I deeply regretted it; after a certain point, it was so overgrown there’s no recovering. So now, I take advantage of beautiful days in the knowledge that there will be plenty of rainy days to make up for it.
And, in either case, when you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your time?
I’m so boring. See above.
If you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would choose to write in? Or perhaps you have a lingering idea for a project which you’ve not explored but which never seems to want to go away.
I hate to say it, but I’m stuck on historical fiction! I’m not even sure I could write anything else. Well, straight history, perhaps, but I don’t have any initials behind my name so I would feel like a fraud.
What sort of books do you like to read as a rule and what are you reading at the moment?
The vast bulk of my reading is history and historical fiction. Though I do like to throw in a little Nero Wolfe for levity! Right now I’m reading (and enjoying) “The Shadow Queen” by Anne O’Brien. I had to finish my Richard II books before I picked it up, because I didn’t want to be unduly influenced; the book is about Richard’s mother, Joan of Kent. And for my history, I’m reading Ian Mortimer’s “The Fears of Henry IV” for the third time, in preparation for my next book. Mortimer is very enjoyable, although I have to be careful about his bias. I’ve noticed that he leaves things out that might weaken his argument (he doesn’t like Richard II). But he gives a great overview.
And a final, very important and defining, question: what’s your drink of choice? Are you a coffee or tea person, or both – or neither?
Oh definitely coffee! I hope you’re not insulted. With a Drambuie chaser.
Ha ha! Insulted? No, I’m a dedicated drinker of coffee myself!
Thanks for talking to me; it’s always interesting to hear how another writer approaches their craft. I’ve found that a lot of your responses resonate with me – apart from standing up to write!
So the next question of course is where can you get Mercedes’ new book?
The King’s Retribution: Book 2 of The Plantagenet Legacy was published on April 1st 2020 by Sergeant Press and is available from Amazon:
Now, of course, you’ll want to find out more about the author, Mercedes Rochelle, well here’s something to start you off:
Born in St. Louis MO with a degree from University of Missouri, Mercedes Rochelle learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. She lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.