Medieval Murderers… and Friends: Susanna Gregory and Karen Maitland

Our guest interview this month comes from two bestselling authors. Susanna Gregory is the author of numerous medieval murder mysteries, Restoration whodunits and other historical crime fiction – something that drew her together with Karen Maitland, the writer of medieval thrillers. They are the sole female members of the Medieval Murderers, a group of popular authors who write historical crime novels together.

Authors with Edwin and Sharon Gregg
Susanna Gregory (left) and Karen Maitland, on a visit to Northern Ireland in 2014, as part of Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

SR: How did the two of you meet? Can you tell us about your first impressions of each other?

Karen: Our first official meeting was when I joined the Medieval Murderers, but in fact I’d first seen Susanna about two years earlier when I was an audience member at a talk she gave about The Tarnished Chalice, the year before my first historical novel was published. I was awe-struck by her knowledge of the medieval period, but also how gentle and self-effacing she was, even though she was such a successful novelist. I couldn’t believe she’d once been in the police-force. Her description of medieval Lincoln in the novel was so well-written and researched, that even though I’d already lived in that city for eight years, it was another six years before I dared set one of my novels in medieval Lincoln.

Susanna: Our first meeting was at an event we did together in Margham Country Park, near Neath, and I remember feeling an instant liking for Karen as we strolled slowly around the shell of the old house there. We chatted nineteen to the dozen to each other, while the others were more interested in finding somewhere to get some lunch! I suppose we should have been talking about the ‘performance’ we were about to give, but what I remember is being rather stressed about having an orthodox Jewish friend to stay, and making sure I got everything right for him diet-wise – I’m not Jewish, and didn’t want to make a stupid mistake. Karen gave me a lot of helpful advice and encouragement – which I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to have to do just before an event! I was very grateful.

SR: From our research into writer friends Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, who collaborated on works by the Detection Club, we know that writing as part of a collective of authors can present both joys and challenges. How do the Medieval Murderers manage to make things work?

Karen: The six Medieval Murderers authors are scattered all over the UK and most of us live in rural areas. So as most writers based outside London will know, you can feel cut off from the literary scene. You can’t just pop along to launch party for an hour after work. But the advantage modern writers have, which Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie didn’t, is email. One of the MMs, Ian Morson, has kept copies of all the emails the MM’s members have exchanged over the years, which reveals every step in the process of our writing collaboration throughout the ten MM novels, which should make fascinating reading for researchers in the future, if only to reveal the dark and twisted imaginations of six crime writers.

Susanna: When we collaborate, we probably generate hundreds of emails – someone has a concept, and the rest of us respond with answers and opinions. Usually, one of us comes up with some central theme that will hold all our stories together – such as a dangerous book, a curse or a weapon – and then we toss ideas around between us for a while, until we have something that works. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of tweaking along the way, but it’s a lot of fun.

SR: Can you tell us about something you particularly admire in your friend’s approach to writing?

Karen: I hugely admire Susanna’s ability to plot historical crime, whether it’s in a long novel or novella. It seems effortless, though I know it isn’t. She can judge exactly how many murder suspects, clues and twists there needs to be in different lengths of stories and that’s something I tried to learn from her when I began to write the MM novellas. She also has the skill to make the reader feel they know the characters in depth as living people, regardless of whether she has an entire novel to develop them in or just a novella.

Susanna: Karen’s research into her era is meticulous, and she knows far more about some aspects of life in medieval times than I do, particularly about women and fringe religions. My research tends to be manuscript-based, and as most scribes were monks, I tend to have their view of events, but Karen’s research is much more wide-ranging. As I have male protagonists, the Latin sources are usually fine, but I’ve learned a lot about 14th century attitudes to women from Karen, which has helped me greatly with my stories.

SR: Writing seems to be central to your friendship. Do you ever see each other in other contexts?

DSCF1305
Susanna and Karen, appearing together at Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

Karen: We share a love of rescue chickens. I used to keep them and Susanna does now, so we’ve exchanged tips such as coaxing them into a hen-house at night with tinned sweet corn and we’ve sympathised with each other when we’ve lost birds we adore. Hens, especially those who suddenly experience freedom after a life in a cage, radiate such joy. It’s contagious.

Susanna: I would certainly ask Karen for help if I was stuck with some aspect of my research, but I also confide in her as you do with any friend. We talk about our families, our work, our publishers, our likes and dislikes – just like any two people with a lot in common and a respect for each other’s opinions. Karen helped my husband and me a lot with advice and moral support when we got our beloved chickens – having birds as pets isn’t always easy, and Karen is always sympathetic and understanding when things go wrong. And she listens so patiently when I blather on about their antics, and is always ready with a smile!

SR: We set up Something Rhymed because we’d noticed that literary bonds between famous female authors are generally less well-known than the great male writing friendships. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?

Karen: If women begin a professional literary friendship, in most cases it seems to rapidly become a personal friendship. In the past, male to male friendships appeared to be more task-based and operate in public through work, sports or hobbies. So, I wonder if the reason female friendships are less well-known is because the famous female authors themselves talked and wrote publically much less often about their friendships than men did, perhaps regarding these friendships as private, if what they discussed was more deeply personal.

Susanna: The first thought that springs into my mind is that there have been more ‘famed’ male writers than female, historically speaking, which means it isn’t really a fair comparison. Give us a few years …

Karen: I’ve noticed in the email writing circles that I belong to that many of the male authors join in discussions when it’s about writing/publishing/promotion, whereas female authors also talk about family life and problems in these groups. The women often temporarily cut the men out of the group email address list when the discussion turns deeply personal or is about emotional issues. Are male authors doing the same and cutting female authors out of group emails when discussing certain topics? I’d love to know!

Susanna Gregory’s most recent novel is A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty-First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, published by Sphere. She also writes with her husband Beau Riffenburgh, under the name Simon Beaufort.

Karen Maitland’s most recent novel is The Raven’s Head, published by Headline Review.

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