When I realized I wanted to write the story of Richard III, I committed to it in a rather extreme way: I stopped practicing law and moved to England so I could do on-site research of the places I’d be writing about. I visited the castles and battlefields of the Wars of the Roses, becoming even more of an Anglophile and obsessive-compulsive about research in the process. The Sunne in Splendour was published in 1982 and it truly was life-changing. For I was no longer a reluctant lawyer; I was now living my dream: I was a full-time writer. I promptly moved to Wales to research my next book. The result was Here Be Dragons, which began my love affair with Wales and set the pattern for the next several decades.
I’ve had some interesting experiences over the years as I followed my muse up Welsh mountains, across Yorkshire dales, and onto French beaches. I climbed Conway Hill with a sprained ankle so I could gaze out across the estuary and see what Llywelyn and Joanna would have seen as they looked over at the deserted camp of his enemy and her father, King John. I stared down a herd of cows in search of the battlefield on the Lleyn Peninsula where Llywelyn ap Gruffydd fought his brothers on a hot day in 1255. On that same hunt, I discovered that my plan to have fleeing soldiers struggling in the river had to be abandoned since the water was so shallow a snake could not have drowned in it. But to my delight, I then came upon a sign warning of quicksand bogs. I resisted the temptation to have anyone swallowed up Hollywood-style. I did, however, let two characters blunder into the bog and lose interest in bashing each other until they could get back onto solid ground.
I once convinced a friend to join me in “breaking into” the Welsh waterfall at Swallow Falls so I could see how it looked by moonlight for a key scene in Here Be Dragons; I still remember her muttering “I cannot believe I am doing this” as we found a hole in the fence and clambered through. This same friend and I took three trains to reach the Italian town of Viterbo where one of the most infamous killings of the Middle Ages occurred. Standing there in the piazza, it took little imagination to envision that March morning in 1271 when Simon de Montfort’s sons dragged their cousin from a church and murdered him as vengeance for their father’s death at Evesham.
I have tramped across battlefields beyond counting. I have visited great cathedrals and haunting castle ruins as I chased my medieval spirits along the Breton coast, through the Loire Valley, and to Siena, York, and Paris. And I enjoyed almost every moment of these research trips—all the more so because they were legitimate tax deductions!
Then came Lionheart, my novel about one of the most celebrated and controversial medieval kings, Richard I. That novel dealt primarily with Richard’s role in the Third Crusade. On his way to the Holy Land, he logged more miles than Marco Polo, with stops in France, Italy, and Cyprus along the way. But for the first time, I was unable to visit all of the sites I was writing about. I knew it was not necessary—I’d always known that. Yet it was such an enjoyable part of the writing experience that I felt bereft without it. I was laboring under a crushing deadline though, and could no longer take the time for the leisurely sojourns of the past.
The advent of the Internet has made life much easier for writers of historical fiction. We’re able to find long out-of-print books with the click of a mouse, unlike the old days when we searched dusty shelves in small, secondhand bookshops, hoping to find a gem nestled amid the dreck. It was like going on a treasure hunt, and it could be fun, although packing up the books myself and then lugging them to a British post office to mail home was definitely not. I was relieved to discover that the Internet also provides enough visual imagery to satisfy the most demanding writer.
I found videos of Palermo churches, Cypriot beaches, and the cliffs of Arsuf, where Richard fought and defeated his legendary foe, Saladin. When I began writing the sequel, A King’s Ransom, and was once again denied the opportunity to follow in Richard’s footsteps as he began his harrowing journey home from the Holy Land, I looked to the Internet. I watched so many videos of Dürnstein Castle, perched on a crag high above the River Danube, that I sometimes felt as breathless as those tourists gamely forging up that narrow path to the citadel -ruins. When Richard’s galley was shipwrecked on Lacroma during a storm, I turned to YouTube for videos of Lokrum Island, its name today, and was amused to learn that the beach where he came ashore is now a famous nudist beach. His Ragusa is known to us as Dubrovnik, the beautiful walled city on the Croatian coast that was on my bucket list long before I ever imagined I would be writing of the Lionheart. The Internet came to my rescue again until I was able to get Richard back to familiar ground—to England and France, to the siege of Nottingham and to Château Gaillard, and the cloud-kissed castle he built on the chalk cliffs above the Seine, just a day’s march from Paris.
In writing Lionheart and A King’s Ransom, I belatedly learned that modern technology is the writer’s friend. I felt comfortable writing of places that I’d not actually seen for myself because I’d watched videos that transported me there, at least in my imagination. But the travel urge is a powerful one, and it can be contained by deadline dragons for only so long. I am currently working upon Outremer, a novel set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth century, and in a few months, I will be climbing to the top of the Tower of David in Jerusalem, walking the streets of the Old City in Acre, and breathing in the dust of the battlefield at the Horns of Hattin. I cannot wait!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Richard places a good deal of importance on the notion of honor. How would you define Richard’s code of honor? Does he consistently live up to it? Do you have your own code of honor? If so, can you describe it?
2. Richard reflects on his mother’s sixteen years of imprisonment by his father, noting her fortitude in surviving it for so long. Compare Eleanor and Richard’s responses to captivity. What kind of impact did captivity and isolation have on each?
3. Eleanor is approaching seventy years old during the events of this novel. How do you think her age and experience impact her politicking?
4. As a prisoner, Richard observes that “words were his weapons now” (page 239). How does Richard’s battle style, when he is armed with words, compare to his tactics when he is armed with a sword?
5. While imprisoned by Hadmar, Richard gains a new perspective on Duke Leopold’s reasons for leaving Jerusalem after Richard disrespected the Austrian flag. Before hearing Friedrich’s arguments, Richard had never tried to see Leopold’s side. How do you think this new information influenced Richard’s subsequent actions toward Duke Leopold? In a broader sense, do you think this incident impacted Richard’s diplomatic practices? For example, did it make him more open-minded, or more inclined to empathize with his enemies? Can you think of any examples of Richard demonstrating an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an argument?
6. Discuss Pope Celestine’s leadership from Rome. How did his allegiances impact Richard’s fate? What motivates his actions? What is your view on the Catholic Church’s role in the political landscape at this time? Should the Pope have done more to protect the holy crusaders?
7. Eleanor and Hawisa discuss marriage as being “a man’s game” (page 310). Discuss the power dynamics in the royal marriages we observe in the novel.
8. Richard considers himself a devoutly religious man, as demonstrated by his efforts in the crusades. Discuss the nature of Richard’s faith and his relationship with God. Does he always act in accordance with the teachings of the Church?
9. Discuss the rivalry between Richard and John. What do you think of John’s actions during Richard’s long absence? Do you think Eleanor was too willing to believe the worst of John, as he says when she confronts him about his treachery? Did you believe his claims of innocence, as Eleanor did?
10. Compare Richard’s leadership style with that of the other kings and dukes he encounters. In what ways is Richard more or less effective than his contemporaries?
11. Discuss Richard’s relationship with Berengaria. Were you surprised by his infidelities? Is he right to stay with her, despite knowing she will never give him a son, or does he have a responsibility to the crown to produce an heir?
12. How did you react to Richard’s final days? How do you think the author feels about Richard?
13. Richard, though he was King of England, spent very little time in that country. Do you think his actions in Normandy and France were in the best interest of his country, or was he motivated by his personal connections to that land and his hatred of Philippe II?