Seth Margolis has written six books over the past two decades including Losing Isaiah, made into a feature film in 1995 starring Jessica Lange and Halle Berry. He's also written a number of New York Times articles about travel and entertainment. His latest thriller is The Semper Sonnet, in which a long-lost manuscript, written for Elizabeth I, holds the key to unlocking hidden secrets of the past—and to eliminating the future.
Margolis stops by In Reference to Murder today to take some Author R&R to discuss how he went about writing and researching the book:
My new novel, THE SEMPER SONNET, is a thriller that takes place in contemporary New York and Elizabethan England. I’m pretty well versed in the former, having lived in Manhattan for most of my life, but sketchy on the latter.
THE SEMPER SONNET is about a current-day Ph.D. candidate who comes across what she feels certain is a heretofore unknown sonnet by Shakespeare. But when she reads a portion of it on the air, she’s attacked and quickly realizes that the sonnet contains clues to a long-buried secret involving Elizabeth … and possibly the knowledge needed to cause global destruction.
Fortunately, I came across a marvelous book, ELIZABETH’S LONDON by Liza Picard. It is so well researched and so energetically written, you can practically smell London in the sixteenth century, taste the codlings (baked apples) and sheep lungs (no explanation needed), hear the cries of street vendors along Cornhill and Cheapside. There’s also fascinating information about Elizabethan childbirth, which was useful, since in my novel the Queen does indeed … but I’m giving too much away.
This book, along with a couple of biographies of Elizabeth and some strategic Googling, gave me the confidence to get started. But pretty soon I realized that secondary research just didn’t provide what I needed to set scenes in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. I wanted readers to see, hear and even smell what it was like to live in Elizabeth’s England. So I booked a flight to London.
My first destination was Hatfield, Elizabeth’s childhood home. After a short train ride from London, I walked from the station up the hill to the palace, having made an appointment with Hatfield’s publicity manager. (It was closed to the public during the time I visited.) I was able to walk the same walk my current-day character would walk as she investigated the meaning hidden in the sonnet, which gave me invaluable perspective. I was given a private tour of the “old palace,” where Elizabeth was essentially imprisoned by her half-sister, “Bloody” Mary. This is where a pivotal – and invented – scene in my novel occurs, and standing in the great hall gave me the information I needed to write it with confidence. I took dozens of photos while I was there and scribbled pages of notes on the train back to London.
My second research visit was to Westminster Abbey, specifically Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, considered last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture. More relevant to my novel, it’s where Elizabeth is entombed. In a great irony of history, her tomb was placed directly on top of her hated half-sister’s. I was planning to set a climactic scene in the Lady Chapel, so I spent several hours there as groups of tourists came and went. I took notes on the architecture, the various memorials lining the walls, the points of access where my characters could enter and leave.
I imagine I looked more than a little suspicious to the beadles standing watch – yes, they really are called beadles. Their suspicions were no doubt confirmed when I queried them at length about the security cameras installed throughout the Chapel. To my relief, they were as knowledgeable about modern heat-sensitive surveillance technology as medieval history. I couldn’t have conceived of the scene without their expertise.
The beadles, and the welcome I received at Hatfield, reaffirmed a lesson that I’ve learned only gradually over the course of writing seven novels: people are eager to share information, not matter how arcane or unexpected. You just have to ask.