A tragic loss. A desperate journey. A mother seeks the truth.
In December of 1377, four children were burned to death in a house fire. Villagers traveled hundreds of miles across England to demand justice for their children’s deaths.
Sinful Folk is the story of this terrible mid-winter journey as seen by Mear, a former nun who has lived for a decade disguised as a mute man, raising her son quietly in this isolated village. For years, she has concealed herself and all her history. But on this journey, she will find the strength to redeem the promise of her past. Mear begins her journey in terror and heartache, and ends in triumph and transcendence.
Stephanie: Hello, Ned. Thank you for chatting with me today and I’d like to say what a profound premise for your story! First, tell me a little of the historical history of your story and what made you chose to write it. Was Mear a real person in history?
Ned: In the Middle Ages, women’s voices were commonly silenced, and most women were illiterate – so even if Mear was a real person, it would be highly unusual for us to know her, and to hear her voice! However, as far as I can tell, Mear (or Miriam) wasn’t a real person. However, in the novel SINFUL FOLK I used the possibility of her existence to fill many interesting gaps in real history – such as why Edward wanted to be buried in a different place, with a strange (untranslatable) inscription over his head, and other points of interest in history. Interestingly enough, as I wrote this book, I came to believe that perhaps Mear was real, after all – I kept hearing her voice so realistically in my head that I couldn’t help but think she was real.
Stephanie: There are many and I mean many turbulent times in England history that is much talked about by historians and authors who write historical fiction. What stands out to you the most about fourteenth century England?
Ned: I find the high Middle Ages to be endlessly fascinating. Barbara Tuchman called it a “Distant Mirror” to our own time – and I very much agree with this assessment. It was a time of radical change and societal upheaval (much as our own time has been). It was also a time when enough leisure existed that we could begin to complement big ideas and philosophical theories about the meaning of life. If you know medieval thinking well, you see echoes of that period everywhere, from the “hippy” abnegation of corporate life to the questions of the “Singularity.” Both of these ideas were very obvious in theological and cultural discussions in the medieval era, and when we study the past, we gain new insight into the present.
Stephanie: What is one of the dangers that the Villagers face while traveling hundreds of miles across England to seek/demand justice for their children’s death?
Ned: One danger that I thought might strike my readers as a surprising one was the danger that came from noble or wealthy travelers themselves. The lives of peasants were relatively worthless, and any high-born traveler could attack or kill them with impunity. The danger of being on the open road – for a peasant – was a great one: travel itself was perilous. I hope I was able to communicate this danger, and I think to many modern travelers this idea would be a new experience.
Stephanie: Tell me a little about Mear’s weaknesses and strengths. What is one of the challenges she faces?
Ned: Mear’s great challenge is facing her own worth and her own abilities, and claiming her own voice. The outside challenges she faces are actually no match for Mear when she fully claims her own power. But for so many years she has buried her true strength, that it is a bit of a struggle for her to realize that she can step forward again, and become the powerful woman she was destined to become.
One thing I’d like to mention is that some readers and reviewers have pointed out that they’ve found it a little unbelievable that a woman could live disguised as a man for years, without anyone noticing. What’s interesting about that is that these reviewers (often women) give men too much credit for observing people – as a man, I’d say that we often don’t notice what is right in front of our noses (my wife would agree with me). I’d also like to point out that there’s a LOT of historical precedence for women living quite successfully disguised as a man. In the U.S. alone, there are numerous examples of women successfully pulling off this feat of disguise for many, many years – sometimes helped by other women!
Here’s a short article listing some of the women (with pictures), as well as a top 10 list of women who have lived as men. It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon, and one that has allowed many women to make their own way in the world, over the centuries.
Stephanie: What was the inspiration for your story and how long did it take to write your book?
Ned: I originally read Chaucer in Middle English in graduate school, when I first read of this strange incident of people carrying the bodies of their children across England. I thus began writing the first chapters of this novel years ago, when I was much younger and before I had children. After I wrote the first draft, I put the novel on the shelf for nearly 15 years. Then, when I returned to the story, I found that I had a radically different perspective on the journey, and when I began to write the story from the point of view of a woman who had hidden herself for years, I found her voice just flowing through me.
Stephanie: In their Journey, what are some of the towns they travel through?
Ned: In the novel SINFUL FOLK, my group travels from a now-defunct medieval village named “Duns” (I found it on a map made in 1375), to the road that passes to the city of Lincoln, and then to a Cluniac monastery which was on the route towards London at that time. (I researched which institutions and monasteries they could have encountered, in order to find the right sect for them to know on their route.) My troupe then encounter a manor house, which I placed somewhere near Coventry, in Northampton. Following their escape down a river there, they came into the outer villages around Cambridge – and in fact, they see the university of Cambridge from their campsite. From Cambridge, they travel to London. For them, London is an immense place, but to our modern sensibility, it would have been seen as a muddy bedraggled little town – hardly a city from today’s perspective.
Stephanie: What do you like most about writing Historical Fiction?
Ned: I love the opportunity visit past places and cultures, and see the world through different eyes. I find the whole process of getting into another time to be endlessly fascinating. I feel that my humanity – and the humanity of my readers – is deepened and enriched by experiencing a very different time and place.
Stephanie: Do you have any rules you follow when writing in this genre?
Ned: As much as possible, I try to avoid making anything up from whole cloth or changing any history at all. Instead, what I try to do is weave my story through the threads of the existing history, and I try to have my story fill in the gaps in that real history. The historical fantasy writer Tim Powers has a name for this kind of work – he calls it “playing card tricks in the dark” – and I agree with his idea of not changing a single iota of the real history, but instead in trying to have your story weave naturally into the weft of the real historical narrative. I also try, as much as possible, to have my characters have a sensibility and a voice that is realistic to the time period and their station in life. I dislike historical fiction that does not actually show how people thought differently of their era at that time, compared to how we think of it now. One example in SINFUL FOLK is the fact that Mear, without question, accepts generally the Christian worldview, even though her background and training would today find that worldview antithetic to her heritage (when you read the novel, you’ll see exactly what I mean). Few people questioned that worldview, and if you did question it, you were killed.
Stephanie: Are you working on another Historical Fiction story? Will it take place around the same time period as this story?
Ned: Yes, I’m actually working on two books right now. One is called GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHT, and it is a sequel to SINFUL FOLK, and follows up on the story of Mear a few years later, during the time of the Peasant’s Revolt in England. Mear is now on the other side of the table, as a noblewoman. But during this revolt, she has to go back into disguise, as a peasant, in order to protect her property and family. I won’t say anymore about this novel, so that I don’t spoil it for readers, but I’m quite excited about it. To get early notice about the publication date of GARDEN – and receive the first chapters for free, when they are available – you can sign up on my mailing list right here.
Stephanie: Thank you for chatting with me!
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About the Author
Ned Hayes is the author of the Amazon best-selling historical novel SINFUL FOLK. He is also the author of Coeur d’Alene Waters, a noir mystery set in the Pacific Northwest. He is now at work on a new novel, Garden of Earthly Delights, also set in the Middle Ages.
Ned Hayes is a candidate for an MFA from the Rainier Writer’s Workshop, and holds graduate degrees in English and Theology from Western Washington University and Seattle University.
Born in China, he grew up bi-lingually, speaking both Mandarin and English. He now lives in Olympia, Washington with his wife and two children.
Sinful Folk Blog Tour Schedule
Monday, October 20 Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, October 21 Review at Historical Novel Review
Tuesday, October 28 Interview at Layered Pages
Wednesday, October 29 Review at Back Porchervations
Thursday, October 30 Interview at Back Porchervations
Friday, October 31 Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Tuesday, November 4 Spotlight at Historical Tapestry
Wednesday, November 5 Review at Deal Sharing Aunt
Thursday, November 6 Review at bookramblings
Saturday, November 8 Review at Book Nerd
Monday, November 10 Review at Book Babe
Friday, November 14 Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Thursday, November 20 Review at With Her Nose Stuck in a Book
Friday, November 21 Review at Library Educated