Every aspiring author is told that their work has to have a hook. That it has to stand out from all the other books aimed at the same market. That it has to have something different. But there’s a further piece of advice. Make sure it’s not too different. Make sure it’s something people can relate to. In my quest for publication, the ‘too different’ charge was often levelled at The Fifth Knight. I was told over and over that no-one would relate to my heroine, Sister Theodosia Bertrand. For, as her title implies, she is a nun. (Oh, Julie Andrews, you have a lot to answer for.) And not only is Theodosia a nun, she is an anchoress. To echo the title of this post: ‘A what?’
Well, an anchoress is a nun that lives in isolation and solitude. And fortunately for me, my agent and my publishers took the view that readers would be just fine in understanding the concept. Granted, it is not a common occupation and never was. When I first came across it a few years back, I was intrigued. I visited a remote church in Lancashire, where I was shown an anchoress’s cell (‘A what? I asked. By now, you get the picture) that had survived for hundreds of years. Hearing that a woman had voluntarily been locked in that tiny stone room, and all for the purposes of glorifying God and saving the souls of others, had my interest caught.
As I researched the role of an anchoress more, it became even more fascinating. The religious ceremony that took place when an anchoress took her final vows included singing of Psalms from the Office of the Dead. She was sprinkled with dust before entering her cell and the door was closed after her. Some cells were as little as eight feet square. With others, even the door was bricked up. There was a tiny window left through which the anchoress would hear the prayers of others. But she always had to be screened from view, as to be seen was considered a sin. An anchoress could be enclosed for twenty years and there are records of fifty years of enclosure. A guide for anchoresses written at the turn of the twelfth century, the Ancrene Riwle, advises them to daily scrape up the earth from the floor of their cells, as a reminder that the earth will form their graves ‘in which they will rot.’ Eve, the sister of Aelred, twelfth century abbot of the abbey of Rievaulx, was brought up from the age of seven at the convent of Wilton before becoming an anchoress. And every day, these girls and woman spent hours in prayer, devotion and physical deprivation for the sake of the souls of others.
I imagine that the strains of ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’ have probably died away by now. The life of an anchoress was hugely demanding and challenging. Yet what better background for an interesting heroine? When we meet her at the beginning of The Fifth Knight, nineteen-year-old Theodosia is struggling with her choice and with the challenges that choice throws at her. But she’s not giving in. Trouble is, there’s even bigger challenges coming her way. Challenges she could never have imagined, that put her life on the line.
And, hand on heart, I promise you she never, ever makes a set of kids’ clothes out of a pair of curtains. Go see what she does instead.
Note: The Fifth Knight can be found on Kindle Serials. At this time, only US customers can purchase the serialized format. The book will be released in complete format by Thomas & Mercer in 2013.