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MPM Writing Process 1: Scouting the Terrain

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Again in response to a very helpful suggestion from a “dear reader” of MPM’s, we are venturing into an exploration of the clues she left about her writing process.   Over the years, she kept various notebooks and loose notes tracking her projects, all of which we’re just beginning to unpack (literally and figuratively).  Eventually, this will all be archived (about which, more as we have information).

So we can start here with just a modest set of handwritten notes from a small three-ring notebook Barbara was carrying with her between 1962 and 1964 (with a few random notes from later years).  In this notebook she documented aspects of her family’s move to live in Rome for 2 years, as well as a trip she took to Egypt.  The loose-leaf pages contain her observations on many topics pertinent to her writings — intermingled with to-do lists, etc.,  and occasional brilliant artwork by her young kids.  (We are completely objective on this last point.)

Within this funny mix of mundane and writerly notes, it’s apparent that Barbara was always busy scouting various terrains for possible book topics and ideas.  As devoted readers of Peters and Michaels know, settings for the books ranged across time as well as all over the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S.  It probably would not surprise those readers that we found notes on English history peppered throughout a notebook where she tracked the costs of an outing to Pompeii and kept shopping lists.  Some of the notes detailed her ongoing and systematic search through a journal (Archaeologia– and remember, this was long before one could search online…).  For example, there’s a series of notes on heraldry:

“Archaeologia 1949: The Ghost or Shadow as a Charge in Heraldry.  Charge is blazoned “ombre” or “umbra” in Fr. + Latin. Tr. “ghost or phantom;” but by Engl. armorists it was misread shadow”…. (& these MPM notes go on for several pages-the underlining in these excerpts is hers)

More notes from the same journal track articles on “King John’s Baggage Train,” the “Body of Henry IV at Canterbury, lead perfectly preserved,”  and one from 1883 on “Decorations of H. VII’s chapel” that clearly delighted her imagination:

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“St. Wilgeforte (sic), In H. VII’s chapel, a young woman with long hair + turban and beard. … Was a famous image of her at St. Paul’s, + she was once a favorite.  A saint who had obtained a beard to escape matrimony, thus should have some sympathy for ladies who wished to escape from it.  Ladies who had husbands they wished to get rid of used to ask for her help, hence her popular name of St. Uncumber.  

(Ladies who wanted husbands paid their devotions to Rood of Northdoor at St. Paul’s — Paston Letters, 11, 23.)

Uncumber is mentioned by T. More.  She is offered oats — possibly because she provides a horse for an evil “housebonde” to ryde to the Devyll upon.  In Ger. she was called Kummerniss, St. Liberata in Portugal + France.”

A small triumphant notation states: “Checked Archaeologia 1890 – 1909“.   This was years before her book on The Murders of Richard III, but it seems as if Barbara was busily soaking up ideas from all over the historical sources she could access, as they engaged her interest and imagination.  She would later explain that: “The research skills I learned can be applied to any field; I have used them to collect background material for novels that deal with the Peasants’ Revolt, Etruscan archaeology, vintage clothing, the Risorgimento, the chartist movement, and innumerable other subjects. Accuracy is very important to me as a novelist; not only does my own professional pride demand it, but I have many readers whose expertise in various fields is at least as great as my own. They can and do chastise me when I make mistakes.”  (Yikes!  Daunting!)

Whether to avoid mistakes or just to pick up ideas, she was clearly scouting many possible terrains for her novels from very early on.  Canadian comics artist Kate Beaton seems to engage in a very similar process, investigating all sorts of historical sources to come up with ideas for her hilarious send-offs of people and events from long ago.  For Barbara, going to original sources and places as much as she could, steeping herself in the little details of different lives:  all this became a rich and fertile background from which more full-blown characters and plot lines would eventually emerge — sometimes surfacing as a (seemingly) throw-away line that made dialogue feel richer, other times forming a major backbone for particular plot arcs.  In the meantime, it’s apparent she was also having a lot of fun!

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The “Writing Den”–Barbara’s Study

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In response to a great suggestion from one of Barbara’s “dear readers,” we’ve been inspired to post a little something about the room where she did her writing, in her beloved “MPM Manor” out in the Maryland countryside.  She bought the old farmhouse from an interior designer, so it had already been decked out and updated in style.  The study area already had a beautifully draped fabric hung from the ceiling; when it came time to replace that, MPM decided to have fun and “go golden.”  Her house contained large collections of all kinds of books — mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, children’s books, classic literature (Jane Austen!), melodramatic old accounts of desert romances, you name it.  In the study she kept a collection of her own books — one copy of each edition, including those in many different languages and the audio book versions.  She also surrounded herself with books and journals pertaining to her central interests — Ancient Egypt, and the histories surrounding the exploration and development of archaeology there ….

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Also bedecking her walls and shelves were many humorous notes and pictures from her writer friends, many of whom shared her often quirky sense of humor.  Take, for example, the “Literary Cupcake” prize that she received from a mysterious group — for some serious accomplishments (tooth-chipping, anyone?):

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It was less than a month before she died when Barbara put down her pen, announcing that she would not be writing any more.  This caught many of us by surprise, much as we’d known the day would have to come.  But despite many attempts to “retire” in previous years, she’d always found herself bored, restless, at sea when she stopped writing – and eventually relented to write (usually) “one more” Amelia.  As it had been since she was a very young woman, writing remained her solace, the goal toward which so many of her days were bent.  Through even the worst of days, it was the imaginative lens through which she loved to think about the world — and the magic that she sought to share with her readers.  What a gift.

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Vintage Barbara! …hats,clothing,parasols….

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“My own frock was a new one, and I had put aside my heavy working parasol for one that matched the dress … ruffles and lace concealed its utility” AP, Ape Who Guards the Balance

It turns out that Barbara just couldn’t write about things without doing intensive research … at least maybe that would have been how she thought about the collection of clothing, hats, and even parasols that she amassed over the years!  Or maybe it’s just that she was an enthusiast and jumped into every new discovery with Amelia-like passion and thoroughness…

It’s been amazing to see the kind of depth Barbara went to in investigating so many details that went into her writing; her bookshelves are lined with references on so much of the background information — from clothing of different eras, to all kinds of aspects of Egyptian history, to jewelry and plants and …  (the list just keeps going!)

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Everything from English Women’s Clothing to Bloomingdale’s Illustrated 1886 Catalog!
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… and one tiny sample from the many shelves of books on Egypt….

Writers of historical fiction who do their homework seemingly have to know about everything from capes and hats to undergarments … and Barbara’s own collection included some of everything.  The collection is on display right now on the Alex Cooper website — we’re not advocating that anyone but collectors buy anything — but just thought fans might have fun browsing through the offerings.  There are Egyptian robes and Victorian clothes and some items that clearly were just for fun.  The collection echoes not only of Elizabeth Peters characters, but also of Barbara Michaels at points …

We note that one of the parasols is a bit cracked at the end — perhaps due to the kind of vigorous prodding for which Amelia was infamous???

“I approached Alberto and jabbed him in the waistcoat with my parasol.  He jumped back.”  AP, Crocodile on the Sandbank

Knowing Barbara, this seems quite possible!

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