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THE KING’S GRACE by Anne Easter Smith

Joseph II’s admonition to Mozart – “too many notes, my dear Mozart” – could be applied to Anne Easter Smith’s third novel THE KING’S GRACE, where there are too many words.

How can a novel have too many words? Isn’t a novel made out of words? The answer is that a novel can have too many words if the words get in the way of the reader’s attempts to get through the story.

Most writers want readers to love their books. They want their readers to find it hard to put down their novels. But to do that, we all have to follow certain rules. One rule has to do with adjectives and adverbs: Do not stuff your sentences with them, because they make your writing weaker. You might think that writing that someone does something with “unabashed glee” is stylistically valid. After all, don’t those words convey exactly how someone does something? Maybe. But as in all things, it is a question of balance. You can use adverbs and adjectives, but sparingly. You cannot do this in every sentence   – as Ms. Smith has a tendency to do – otherwise you leave your readers feeling that they are fighting their way through a thicket of words.

The situation is even worse for historical novelists, particularly those who are writing about real people. What to do with all that research? Especially if you have put the time and effort into doing the research that Ms. Smith has.

The sad truth is that you have to get rid of most of it. Most readers don’t want to be told that the name ‘Mons’ means a city on a hill. They don’t want the names of minor characters thrust upon them, because they’re going to find their names hard to remember, and because the mass of Richards Cecilys Annes and Neds is confusing when you’re trying to work out who these people are. Most of all, readers hate information dumps because they slow the story down.

I understand that agents won’t accept manuscripts that start with prologues on the grounds that too many authors use them as information dumps. Unfortunately, Ms. Smith’s Prologue to THE KING’S GRACE illustrates these concerns. Apart from the head-hopping between young Jehan and his patroness Margaret of York, what strikes this reader is the density of the information that is being presented. It is too much to take in. Most agents advise authors to ditch the prologue in favor of slipping the information into the text in small doses, so that readers can absorb it without noticing how much they’re learning.

There are some good things about this novel. The character of Grace is well-drawn, and her development from a shy young girl to a strong woman convincingly told. I loved the scenes with Princesses Cecily and Bess, whose sisterly squabbles were very true to life. The men were less successful, being consistently handsome, glamorous and kind-hearted, whose formal addresses and hand-kisses always made the protagonist go weak at the knees. They didn’t feel alive to me.

As I’ve said elsewhere, Ms. Smith’s research is impeccable. I don’t know how she does it, but I gather (from what she says in her interviews), that she has a team of people to help her. Being a talented researcher doesn’t translate into being a great storyteller, the sort that keeps the reader glued to the page. This is Ms. Smith’s third novel, and I think her record as a storyteller is uneven. I thought her first novel – also about a humble girl who rises high – quite wonderful. I was less enthusiastic about her second novel, because I found the story of the supposed love-affair between Margaret of York and Anthony Woodville less interesting. This novel is not as good as Ms. Smith’s first, even though it is a similar kind of story about an innocent young cipher who reports on the goings-on of more famous folk. It should have been as good as A ROSE FOR THE CROWN. Instead, THE KING’S GRACE sank under the weight of its own research.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: DAUGHTER OF YORK by Anne Easter Smith

Writing historical fiction is not easy, especially if you are writing about a real person. You cannot assume that your readers are going to understand how hard it is, or the difficult choices you have to make.

DAUGHTER OF YORK is the story of Margaret of York (1446-1503), sister to Edward IV and wife to Charles, Duke of Burgundy. In Ms. Smith’s telling of this story, the narrative arc is hung almost entirely on the romantic attraction between Margaret, and Sir Anthony Woodville, brother to Edward’s Queen. So it is unfortunate that Ms. Easter Smith chose to focus on the fictional aspects of the love-story between Margaret of York and Anthony Woodville in her Author’s Note, because some of her readers in their Amazon Reviews said that they felt cheated. What they don’t understand is the paucity of documentation from the Middle Ages that tells you anything about people’s emotions, or psychological states. It turns out that Ms. Smith did have some evidence for thinking that there might actually have been a romantic relationship, the fact that Margaret did stay with Anthony at his estate in Kent during her visit to England in 1480. If I had been Ms. Smith, I would have re-written that paragraph in the Author’s Note to bring that fact forward.

So what about the novel itself? It opens very well, with beautifully rendered descriptions of the London skyline circa 1461, the music that was played during court ceremonies, and the clothes worn. I also found Anthony Woodville’s dialogue to be quite wonderful: “I commend your choice, Lady Margaret. Mine is Lancelot du Lac, for his gentleness, courtesy and courage. If I may be so forward as to tell you, my aim is to model myself upon him. You do know he was also the greatest fighters of all Arthur’s knights, do you not?”

Now I loved that snippet of dialogue, because I think that Ms. Smith has artfully created the illusion of Sir Anthony actually speaking to us from the fifteenth century. But I am British, and I was made to read Shakespeare when I was twelve. Most American readers are going to find that kind of language too turgid, and the lack of contractions too awkward to read. One of the reasons why Phillippa Gregory is so successful is because her fifteenth-century characters talk in language that is considerably more modern and slangy. Which means that there are far fewer bumps for today’s readers.

This is a long novel, at 557 pages, longer than most. It must be clear to readers that Ms. Smith has done an enormous amount of work on researching this novel. But telling a wonderful story that will grip readers and carry them along demands a very different set of skills. Ms. Smith tells us that she went to great lengths to whittle down the research and make it more palatable for her readers.  But I honestly think that this novel would have benefitted from even more whittling down, because it sags in places.

Despite its flaws, I think that anyone interested in this period should give it a try, if for no other reason than that the research is impeccable.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for HE MUST BE SOMEONE,  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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