Sam Thomas is the author of now three mysteries featuring Bridget Hodgson in 1640’s York. An historian and teacher, he brings expertise to his novels, but he’s also a wonderful storyteller and his latest book, The Witch Hunter’s Tale, is also his strongest. He was nice enough to answer a few questions.
Q: Have you come to your historical series as an historian, or as someone who wanted primarily to be a storyteller?
A: In truth, I don’t see a significant difference between the two. Whether I’m writing history or fiction, I have the same goal: I want to talk about the past in a way that readers will find engaging and informative.
The funny thing is that since I started writing fiction, I feel more pressure to get the history right. If I made a mistake in my history book (Creating Communities in Restoration England: Parish and Congregation in Oliver Heywoods Halifax and yes, it really is $135), perhaps a dozen people would notice it. If I make a mistake in a novel, many more people would walk away misinformed.
Q: Why a midwife? As a male writer it’s an even more interesting choice.
A: I actually came to midwifery first as a historian and entirely by accident. Bridget Hodgson, the protagonist in my series, is based on a real midwife of the same name. I stumbled across her will while conducting research in York, England, and immediately fell in love. (You can read more about the historical Bridget, including a transcript of her amazing will, on my website, www.samthomasbooks.com.)
From a historian’s perspective, midwives are fascinating not least because they were women who had power at a time when few women did. They were key to the prosecution of a variety of crimes, ranging from fornication to witchcraft. In addition, their work drew me into a range of other historical genres. These include medicine and childbirth, obviously, but also crime, witchcraft, and gender.
As a mystery writer, midwives make perfect sleuths: they know things that other people do not, can open doors that would remain closed to a male sleuth, and – as I mentioned – they are an informal part of the law enforcement system.
Q: How did you settle on this particular time period? It’s not one that’s gotten much coverage and I think it makes the series very fresh.
A: Again, this was pure chance. I modeled my characters on real people, and I know that Bridget was in York from the 1640s to the 1680s. These were incredibly tumultuous decades in English history, as King Charles was overthrown and executed, Matthew Hopkins led the largest witch-hunt in English history, and political and religious radicals rose to power.
When I decided to use the historical Bridget Hodgson as a model, it only seemed natural to start the series in the midst of the English Civil War and let her adventures play out from there. In the fourth book, I bring all the gang to London so they can be there for Charles’s execution – how could I not?
Q: I love the yin/yang of Bridget and Martha – one the strict law abider, one the skeptic. Was that a plan or did that develop as you wrote the characters? It’s certainly a classic mystery trope.
A: Thanks! I knew that Bridget would be rather conservative in nearly every sense of the word. She is wealthy, well-connected, and an adherent to the Church of England, at a time when the Puritans wished to see it pulled down. While her faith has been tested, it’s not until Martha shows up at her door that she really has to think about Big Issues such as the relationship between law and justice, and why – if God is good – He has seen fit to allow such evil into the world.
Overall, I think my goal in the series is to put Bridget into uncomfortable positions and see what she will do. Martha is key to that because she challenges a variety of Bridget’s core assumptions about how the world works.
Q: Have you been influenced by other historical mystery series? Sharan Newman and Candace Robb come to mind when reading your books, a compliment – two of my favorite writers!
A: I hate to admit it, but I haven’t really. I was still a historian when I started writing the series, and hadn’t read a mystery (or any novel!) in quite some time. (When you read all week, it’s tough to keep reading on the weekends!) When I was talking with agents, one said that my series would fit well with Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death. I agreed enthusiastically and immediately Googled the title to find out what she was talking about. I’d never heard of the book.
Since then I’ve been reading more fiction, but not a lot of historical fiction. In part it’s for the same reason doctors hate medical shows: I tend to notice every little mistake and it ruins the book for me. But I also want my reading to make me a better writer, and that means going beyond what I know.
Right now I’m working on a stand-alone set in New England during colonial wars and witch hunts. To help with that, I’ve re-read some of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as well as some classics in horror so that I get better at dealing with violence and the supernatural.
Q: Can you name a book that was a life changer for you? I think all of us that love to read have a book that made a difference or illuminated the world for us in a different way.
A; The big one for me was Laurel Thatch Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale. I read it when I was in graduate school and it blew me away. She created such a rich portrait of life in 18th Century Maine, I felt like I knew the town and people of Hallowell better than I knew my own family.
When I finished, I said, “Now that is a book I want to write.” I had no idea that fifteen years later, I’d publish a novel with nearly the same title.
Q: Do you have a story arc in mind for Bridget, or is that developing as you write? A point you want to get across?
A: For the first three books, absolutely. At the beginning of the first book (The Midwife’s Tale), Bridget is a young widow who has lost her children; she has nobody. Over the course of these books, she creates a family (essentially from spare parts), and then has to decide how far she will go to defend it.
The other journey she takes is one I mentioned above, as she comes to terms with the fact that what is legal and what is right are not always the same thing. As a woman who has been such a staunch defender of the law and the status quo, this is a tough lesson to learn.
These themes continue to some extent into book four (almost done, but no title yet!), but I’m trying to figure out where to take things after that.