The Mystery Readers’ Roundtable has been faithfully meeting once a month, except during the summer, since September 2009 here at Topsham Public Library. We’ve read books from all over Maine, from all over the U.S. and from all over the world. We have explored amateur sleuths, police procedurals, and even true crime. We have also visited a few different centuries. We have had some great discussions and a lot of fun. On a couple of occasions, we have even had the author join in. That really makes for an exciting discussion.
On April 11, Mary Lawrence, author of the Bianca Goddard mystery series, came to sit in on our Roundtable. Ms. Lawrence led us on a great tour of her book, The Alchemist’s Daughter. The story is about a young girl, Bianca, who has struck out on her own because life with her parents left much to be desired. Vowing not to be like her own mother, at the mercy of a man, she is determined to be an independent, self-sufficient woman, which was quite a feat in the 1500’s when this story takes place. Ms. Lawrence originally intended for this to be a young adult coming-of-age story and spent 16 years making it so. Apparently Bianca had other ideas, and headstrong as she is, decided she would rather be the heroine in a mystery. Being a good author, Ms. Lawrence knew when to let go and let her child be. She said it really is true that the characters take the author on a journey, not the other way around.
Writing an historical mystery carries extra responsibility as well, to be accurate with the happenings, dress, and customs of the time. Even the use of language is important to enhance the setting. Going back to medieval England and getting the colloquial language right without making it difficult for readers to understand is a real challenge. As a fan of Shakespeare, Ms. Lawrence took a page from his writing and just made up some of the words. I never would have guessed. The meanings were made clear by the context. There were a few actual terms that I had to look up, but only because I was curious to see if they meant what I thought they did. Yes, they did, but they might make you blush if I put them here.
Why alchemy? Ms. Lawrence’s major in college was science, although it was Bianca’s father who was the alchemist. Bianca didn’t believe in that foolishness, but she did learn how to design and carry out experiments from him. She preferred to use herbs and plants to make cures for common maladies. The trouble all started when she made a concoction for her friend, Jolyn, to aid her digestive symptoms, only to watch Jolyn die right in front of her.
Ms. Lawrence has a good sense of humor too. She hid the names of some Maine towns in her book. Did you know there is a small town in Maine called MeddyBemps? It’s in Washington County and Ms. Lawrence named one of her characters after it. I’ll let you find others on your own.
Ms. Lawrence stated that she wanted this book to be fun to read, not heavy and grim. Add an incompetent buffoon of a constable, some unsavory citizens, and a well-meaning suitor, and the mood lightens considerably. Still, Bianca must prove herself innocent of this crime. But first she has to determine if she really is innocent. That’s where the rats come in.
Anyway, I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that after this story emerged Ms. Lawrence’s publisher was sold on the book. She had intended this to be a stand-alone, but was delighted when her publisher asked her for two more episodes. She happily obliged and now numbers four and five are in the works.
I think most of us who read a lot often dream of becoming the person who writes the books. After all, it’s such a glamorous life, isn’t it? Imagine going to book signings, having adoring fans clamoring for your next book, appearing on The Today Show with your very own Oprah recommended book, raking in all those royalties. But, alas, it is not so. Ms. Lawrence shared that she procrastinates every day, having coffee, running errands, staring at her chair, and having more coffee, before finally pushing herself to sit down and write her 1000 word requirement for that day, every day, mostly. She also has to do much of the promotion for the sale of her books, although she doesn’t get to choose the title or the book cover. And that’s not her only job. She and her husband David Sliman, have a seven acre farm in Limington where they grow their own fruit and make their own jam for sale. You can check it out at www.rareberryfarm.com.
So it was very gracious of her to come and meet with our book group, driving up the coast and sharing her time and experience and wit with us. Thank you very much, Mary, we enjoyed having you visit.