Today I am happy to present the work of Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife’s Tale. A historian as well as an author, Sam creates a mystery that brings historical midwifery to life–and what a wild and fascinating life it is! Based partly on the life of Bridget Hodgson and the siege of York, the novel gives us the suspense and thrill of mystery as well as historically grounded facts.
Summary of the Book:
It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand. (see Goodreads, Amazon, and Sam’s website for more!)
Sam Thomas is the author of the historical mystery The Midwife’s Tale, released earlier this month by Minotaur Books (an imprint of St. Martin’s Press). Thomas teaches history at University School, an independent day school outside Cleveland, Ohio. He previously taught at the college level for seven years, and received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with his wife and two sons. Visit his website here, and check out this recent Cleveland Plain Dealer article for more background on how he came to write The Midwife’s Tale.
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?
While this wasn’t true originally, I think that this became true once I decided to write. My first writing experiences were largely academic – I wrote a doctoral thesis and a handful of unrelated academic articles. But even in my academic writing, I told stories about ordinary people caught up in events larger than themselves, whether it was a Quaker missionary in colonial Kenya, a puritan minister in the midst of religious persecution. As a result, my transition from history to fiction is not that great of a leap – I now get to ignore citations and make up evidence.
My favorite work, oddly enough, is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale. It’s a brilliant social history built around the life of Martha Ballard a midwife in eighteenth-century Maine. I told myself, This is the kind of book I want to write someday. Little did I know I’d end up writing a book with a nearly identical title.
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”? How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves?
Great question. There is a marvelous quotation from Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, “From the great army of university professors who write detective stories in their spare time, Latimer soon emerged as one of the shamefaced few who could make money at the sport.” I read this about six months after I signed the contract for Midwife’s Tale, but it really hit home because I was really uneasy about telling anyone about the book.
I think that the reaction to apostates from academia who dive into fiction is going to be mixed: scorn, that someone would sully their hands with fiction; envy, that they are writing for fun and profit; joy, that their dream had come true. That’s certainly my experience.
But to answer your question! A few years ago I was teaching at the university level, and pretty unhappy. As I cast about for another career, I realized that what held me back were the midwives. I loved writing about these women, and didn’t want to stop. Part of my farewell to academia was saying hello to fiction.
3. On your webpage you say The Midwife’s Tale was inspired by a real midwife named Bridget Hodgson. What made you decide to take on this particular figure? Were there any challenges in translating her story into the mystery format?
I chose Bridget because the historical Bridget was so freaking awesome. She was a rich and powerful woman, who clearly had a high opinion of herself. She was kind enough to remember her godchildren in her will, but prideful enough to give all her god-daughters the name “Bridget” after herself. (She also named her own daughter “Bridget.”)
The last thing you want in a protagonist is someone who won’t speak truth to power, and it seemed pretty clear that Bridget would do that.
The translation was not terribly difficult because there is so much I didn’t know about her. I had perhaps a half dozen references to her, scattered over forty years. That gave me a lot of room with which to work. And because midwives were so integral to crime and punishment, she made for a perfect sleuth.
4. I know you have sample chapters of your work online. I do this, too, as it seems a good way to market stories. Can you speak about this—about not giving too much away but still attracting a tech-connected audience? Any other thoughts on marketing strategies?
I have part of the first chapter on line, and it actually paid off. When my editor was contacting other authors to blub the book, one decided to only because she liked what I’d put up. If it weren’t there, she probably would have declined.
Ugh. Marketing is a bear. Publishers love authors to do a ton of online work because – to be blunt – it doesn’t cost them anything and marketing budgets are shrinking. I think there is a very real question as to how much is enough vs. too much vs. not enough, and nobody has the answer. I have a writer friend who swears by her online followers, but she busted her butt creating and maintaining that community. If you’re not going to go that far, though, what should you do?
5. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
Get on a schedule. I get up at 5:00 and I write until it’s time to go to work. Obviously you don’t have to get up that early, but if you set a schedule and defend your writing time against all distractions, you’ll get it done. I’m also from the “bang it out now, tart it up later” school of writing. First drafts are shit, full stop. So just write it, and then worry about revising.
As for revising, after I finish a book, I set it aside for a month or so, and then read it all in one sitting, if possible. That’s the best way to find continuity problems which are bound to creep in to any work written over the course of six months. Then I send it out to my readers. (Oh, and there they are in the next question.)
6. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism? Beta readers?
My most important reader is my step-sister Laura Gaines. She’s a freelance writer and used to work in publishing, so she knows her way around a book. She has a much more literary bent than I do, and pushes me in directions that don’t always make me comfortable but do make me a better writer.
The key to finding beta readers is that they are brutal and – if possible – that they come at fiction from a different perspective. Laura was unflinchingly in her criticism, and I love her for it. She also had no particular interest in the kind of fast-paced historical fiction I had written, so could see more easily the book’s weaknesses.
7. Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world?
Don’t self publish. If at first you don’t succeed, start a new book and try again. I could go on, but Sue Grafton convinced me not to.
8. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers
The net is a tough place to find good advice. There are a ton of discussion boards out there, but the quality of advice is pretty uneven. I got some good advice on Nathan Bransford’s discussion board, but didn’t go any further than that.
For blogs, I would recommend a group blog called Book Pregnant of which I am a minor participant. We’ve got some fabulous authors from pretty much every genre, and we’re all talking about the road to publication and all that follows. I really need to get off my butt and write something.
As for books I really like Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ansen Dibell’s Plot.