Letter Writing Tips from Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More’s work for Henry VIII often took him away from his beloved children for long stretches of time. Keep in mind that this was 500 years before phones, e-mail or Skype. Letters were the only way he could keep connected to his growing children and their changing world.  The letters he sent home were obviously cherished, as they were kept safe for years after his execution (even though the King and Thomas Cromwell were intent on destroying all of Sir Thomas’s writings). His collected letters were finally published in 1557.

One of the sweetest, I think, is a letter written in 1522. You can almost feel Sir Thomas’s homesickness, as he fairly begs for letters from his children. And always the teacher, he outlines for them how best to write a good letter:

Now I expect from each of you a letter almost every day. I will not admit excuses—John makes none—such as want of time, sudden departure of the letter-carrier, or, want of something to write about. No one hinders you from writing, but, on the contrary, all are urging you to do it. And that you may not keep the letter-carrier waiting, why not anticipate his coming, and have your letters written and sealed, ready for anyone to take?

How can a subject be wanting when you write to me, since I am glad to hear of your studies or of your games, and you will please me most if, when there is nothing to write about, you write about that nothing at great length. Nothing can be easier for you, since you are girls, loquacious by nature, who have always a world to say about nothing at all.

One thing, however, I admonish you, whether you write serious matters or the merest trifles, it is my wish that you write everything diligently and thoughtfully . . . I strictly enjoin that whatever you have composed you carefully examine before writing it out clean; and in this examination, first scrutinise the whole sentence and then every part of it. Thus, if any solecisms have escaped you, you will easily detect them. Correct these, write out the whole letter again, and even then examine it once more, for sometimes, in rewriting, faults slip in again that one had expunged. By this diligence your little trifles will become serious matters; for while there is nothing so neat and witty that will not be made insipid by silly and inconsiderate loquacity, so also there is nothing in itself so insipid, that you cannot season with grace and wit if you give a little thought to it. Farewell, my dear children.

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(Day)Dream Dinner

I just finished reading Reed of God by Caryll Houselander and am furiously working on a presentation I’ll be giving about the book tomorrow (!) Clearly, I am procrastinating because I just want to think about how much Flannery O’Connor and Caryll Houselander resemble one another.

It was a tough book for me to get through because it is more of a meditation and I find I do my best meditating through fiction. But I’m so happy I persevered because there are passages of the book that I am sure have changed me forever. I highly recommend it.

But in the meantime, I do feel certain that I’m going to have to add Caryll to my Favorite Writer I’d Like to Invite to Dinner List (I think she’d especially have fun trading witty jabs with Evelyn Waugh). She’ll also get a chance to visit with Flannery O’Connor and we’ll all have a chortle at how much they look like sisters.

I will have to take some time with the seating chart. Not sure how Geoffrey Chaucer and Tolstoy will communicate–maybe I could seat Sigrid Undset in between? And then there is the question of  what to serve? I’ll have to give that some serious thought . . . .

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The Headline Hat

There has been quite a bit of talk around the blogosphere and twitterverse about Justice Antonin Scalia’s choice of hats for the Inaugural ceremony earlier this week. Turns out he was given the hat (a replica of the one worn by More in Holbein’s famous sketch) by the St. Thomas More Society of Richmond Virginia.

Was the Justice sending a secret message about the current state of affairs or was he just showing that good millinery never goes out of style? You be the judge.


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Next Big Thing Blog Hop

Last September I was fortunate enough to attend the Historical Novel Society conference in London. One of the most pleasant parts of the conference (besides, well, being in LONDON!) was the good luck of meeting Hazel Gaynor. Sometimes you just click with someone and Hazel is just that kind of person. Had I known that she was a Kindle best-selling author, I might have been too intimidated to talk to her. I was thrilled when Hazel tapped me to participate the Next Big Thing Blog Hop.

But before I begin to answer the ten questions that are part of the NBT, here is a little more about Hazel:

Hazel Gaynor is a freelance writer and author. Her debut novel The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel was a Kindle Historical Fiction bestseller in 2012 and with over 100 five-star reviews, is still riding high in the Kindle charts. Hazel is a guest blogger and features writer for national Irish writing website writing.ie. She also writes ‘Off The Shelf‘ a book review blog for hellomagazine online. Hazel was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Award for Emerging Writers in October 2012. She lives in Ireland with her husband and two children.@HazelGaynor www.facebook.com/hazelgaynorauthor

How The Next Big Thing Blog hop works: An author answers ten questions and then tags up to five authors to do the same thing the following week. And away we go:

1) What is the working title of your next book?

It’s a very hardworking title that changes frequently. So far it’s been Not a Lesser Light, The Good Daughter,  and Mine Own Good Daughter. Right now I’m sticking with Mine Own Good Daughter,the greeting Sir Thomas More used in letters to his daughter Margaret while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

My husband converted to Catholicism shortly before our wedding and chose St. Thomas More (patron of attorneys) as his Confirmation saint. When I was on bed rest with our first child I did nothing but read and eventually happened upon a book my husband had received as a Confirmation gift. I knew a little about Sir Thomas More but didn’t realize what an incredibly talented person he was–really the original Renaissance man (a poet, playwrite, novelist, statesman, orator) and, above all, a devoted father. I starting reading more books about him and noticed that his daughter Margaret was always mentioned, but remained always on the periphery. I wanted to know more about this daughter who was described as “the most educated woman in Britain” her father’s “soulmate.” The more I researched, the more I found Margaret to be heroic, witty and full of spunk.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Firmly historical fiction.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? 

Oh, how I love this question! I realized that Emily Blunt was my Margaret when I saw Young Victoria.

I’d love to give Russell Crowe a chance at tackling Sir Thomas More (N.B.- I haven’t yet seen Les Miserables, so I might change my mind after that?) As for Will Roper, Margaret’s passionate but oft-times misguided husband, I’m still casting.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

That is a cruel, cruel question, but here goes:

Set during the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII, Mine Own Good Daughter is the story of a daughter caught between the King’s desires and saving her father’s life, while trying to keep her marriage and family from being destroyed.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I’m hoping for a great agent who finds a wonderful publisher!

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft took about five years. Ouch. That always hurts to admit.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’d like to think of it as Philippa Gregory meets Jane Austen.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to tell Margaret’s story!

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, there is a legend that Margaret bribed the executioner to rescue the severed head of her father from London bridge. There is a pretty dramatic scene in the novel about it!


I’m passing the baton to my friend and fellow Nashvillian Kristin Coile, who will be posting her responses to the ten questions next Wednesday at www.kmcoile.com  Here’s more about Kristin:

Kristin Coile is a free lance writer, health care attorney, and mystery author.  She just completed her first novel, Warning Signs, and has started its sequel.  An avid animal lover and advocate, Kristin’s novel features a unique protagonist:  a female ASPCA animal cruelty investigator.  Kristin lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband, two boys, and two furry canine companions.

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To Breathe Into

“Looking out on the morning rain/I used to feel so uninspired/ And when I knew I had to face another day /Lord, it made me feel so tired.” –Aretha Franklin

We all crave inspiration, don’t we? Life becomes such a chore without it. The word itself comes from the Latin inspirare: to breathe into and I believe it is as important to us as breathing.

Revising a manuscript can quickly deplete you of inspiration. It’s a little like cutting through a jungle hoping you find a clearing at the other end. There’s a good bit of perspiration but precious little inspiration in the whole process. The talented writer (and fellow Nashvillian!) Victoria Schwab wrote a wonderful post about it here.

Now that my revisions are done I’ve gotten back to some things that inspire me. I’ve seen two movies–Anna Karenina and Skyfall–and enjoyed both immensely. I’ve been inspired to pick up Tolstoy’s classic and now can’t seem to put it down. And who would have thought a James Bond flick would lead me to research the English Reformation and Scottish recusants?

And then there’s this. I just have to share it because it is one of loveliest, most inspirational things I’ve seen in a while:


I hope you find some time during this busy month to be inspired!

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When to Hit Send

I’ve been working on revising my novel for a long time. I mean a really, really long time. It has been painful, confusing and every once in a great while–exhilarating.  Again it reminds me of running a race where, as my husband often says, you just have to “gut out” the last few miles. I wince every time he says it, but by golly, it really describes the feeling.

I’ve been gutting it, re-reading, re-writing and re-imagining parts of my manuscript to where I can honestly no longer see it. I feel utterly spent. I finally hit the send button but I’m still completely unsure if I hit the mark.

My question is: do you ever really know when you are finished? My manuscript is now in the hands of someone I greatly admire. It was a bit safer to just stay in the place of “I’m working on it.” Actually hitting send means that I believe in it enough to send my baby back out in to the world. But are you ever really ready?

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Quid est Veritas?

What is truth? That seemingly simple yet infinitely important question Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus. Strangely enough, it was quite the topic of conversation at the Historical Novel Society conference in London.

Historical fiction as a genre tends to get a bad rap from historians. They sight the sometimes flexible standards of historical accuracy and research. And they’ve got a point.

When historical fiction is good it immerses the reader in a time and place in a way that non-fiction just cannot do. Philippa Gregory, the best-selling author of The Other Boleyn Girl, gave a stirring keynote at the conference extolling the craft of historic fiction and encouraging the writers and readers present to be proud of the genre. She pointed out that historians write a narrative based on facts that are known. But there are always the facts that cannot be known: the letter that was lost, the record that burned in a fire, etc. The historian is forced to weave a narrative out of the known facts and so there are necessarily presumptions made about unknown facts in the telling. It is not so very different with historical fiction.

As an author of historical fiction, I feel a great responsibility to be truthful. I work very hard to understand the historical record (letters, contemporary accounts, biographies) about my characters before I begin to write. Since my stories are often about real people, I feel that it is only right that I try to be true to what is known of their character. I don’t feel comfortable playing games with them; presenting the bad guy as really a misunderstood good guy or vice-versa. That, of course, is permissible in historical fiction, but I find it to be almost a kind of slander.

Recently there have been a number of books taking the many known facts of Sir Thomas More’s life and twisting them into some sort of experimental fiction. The “man for all seasons” has been portrayed as a cynical masochist intent on burning heretics and a mean-spirited religious fanatic. Most famously Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall turns everything history has recorded about Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell upside down. It is some excellent prose (she won the Man Booker Award in 2009) but it strike me as disingenuous. There is truth and the truth does indeed matter. Many people who read historical fiction believe that they are reading something based on fact and truth. We could certainly shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s their problem. It says historical FICTION.” But I think that is lazy. Our readers deserve more than that.

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