Isolde Martyn is best-selling author of historical fiction, much of it centred on the Wars of the Roses. Her first novel, The Maiden and the Unicorn, won the Best First Novel award from the Romance Writers of America, and the Romantic Book of the Year Award from Romance Writers of Australia. She has gone on to write five more novels, including two new works: Mistress to the Crown and The Devil in Ermine.
Your interest with the Wars of the Roses began with history degree that specialized in Yorkist England. How did that interest transition into writing historical fiction?
Well, actually, my fascination with the Wars of the Roses began when I was fourteen years old and read about the woman spy that King Edward IV sent to Calais. I decided to one day write a novel about her. Getting to a uni that specialised in that era became part of the plan to become a historical novelist.
The Wars of the Roses is a popular era for novelists (and other media, with the new show The White Queen beginning to air). Why do youthink this period is particularly attractive for writers and readers of historical fiction?
Because it is a Henry-VIII-free zone? I’m sure readers must be heartily sick of the ulcerous old king and his decapitation policies — the ultimate in domestic violence! With the discovery of King Richard III’s skeleton in Leicester, there is much more interest now in the pre-Tudor era. Plus, with so many gaps in our knowledge of that era, it’s a wonderful fertile ground for novelists and there are so many interesting characters to lure out of the shadows. With Margery Neville, my lady spy, there would be insufficient material for a historian to write a biography centred on her but she was just perfect for a novelist. No historian has written a biography of Buckingham although he played a massive role in the events of 1483, so writing a historical novel about him let me do the research, which I love, as well as the joy of plumping out his personality.
Most of your novels, such as Mistress to the Crown and The Lady and the Unicorn, feature strong female protagonists, while your latest work, The Devil in Ermine, focuses on a male character. Do you find it a different experience to create male and female main characters?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that before. I think the writing in each instance was dictated by the historical context and social limitations on that character rather than a deliberate consciousness of gender. With a male character like the Duke of Buckingham, it is possible to have the political intrigue as the main plot whereas with Mistress Shore, a royal mistress, there needed to be a great deal more emotion woven into the story and the main theme was her relationships. However, I think creating a novels about any real person, regardless of gender, is rather very like a psychotherapist’s relationship with a client. You need to find out as much as you can about your character’s childhood and early teens. What did they experience? What scarred them? What has triggered them to make certain decisions? What do they want from life? For my medieval women characters, it was freedom to make life-choices. For Buckingham, it was a craving for power.