Launch: Penny Ingham’s Twelve Nights


Penny Ingham’s new novel, Twelve Nights, is just published. She discusses her research and writing process for the book with David Connon. Penny has a degree in Classics and a passion for archaeology –she is often to be found at the bottom of a trench with a trowel in her hand, and her ‘digs’ are a constant source of ideas for her historical novels.  She has worked in newspapers, theatre PR and at the BBC. Her inspiration for Twelve Nights grew from a lifelong fascination with Shakespeare and his world.

What is your “elevator pitch”?

London 1592. With no family except an elderly infirm grandmother, Magdalen Bisset holds down two jobs to keep a roof over their heads. Every morning she toils in the Mountjoys’ gloomy workshop, creating intricate headwear for high-society ladies. And every afternoon she works as wardrobe mistress for Burbage’s rowdy players at the Theatre in Shoreditch. But when her friend, John Wood, dies in her arms on stage, her life will never be the same again. Accused of his murder (because poison is a “woman’s weapon”), Magdalen must risk everything to clear her name, for all other roads lead to the gallows.

What inspired you to start writing?  And how does your occupational background affect your writing? 

My father—journalist and author, John Scott, age 94—has greatly inspired my writing. My Saxon novels were partly inspired by my volunteer reenacting in the Saxon village at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire. Butser specializes in experimental archaeology. One of my passions is participating in summer archaeology digs.

Twelve Nights grew from my first visit to the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. In 1599, after a dispute with their landlord, Richard Burbage and his players dismantled their ‘Theatre’ in Shoreditch, and rebuilt it across the river on the South Bank. They re-named it the Globe.

Twelve Nights is set in and around Burbage’s original ‘Theatre’ in Shoreditch.  It was where some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed. A section of its long-lost foundations was excavated. Finds included broken beer bottles, nutshells, seeds, and fruit pips. Elizabethans liked to snack while being entertained. Archaeologists also found large, green-glazed jars with a bulbous body, a tapering top and a side-slit. Used to collect money from the paying audience, the idea has survived in today’s ‘box office’.

What are your favourite historical whodunits? 

I love Lindsay Davis’ Falco series (first century AD), beginning with The Silver Pigs. Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death (12th century) features a strong female anatomist who must conceal her skills to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Karen Maitland’s superb Company of Liars (1348) portrays plague-riven England. And C.J. Sansom wrote the incomparable Shardlake series (16th century), starting with Dissolution.

What is the biggest challenge (and satisfaction) in writing murder mysteries? 

Murder mysteries need a list of intriguing suspects, a smattering of red herrings, and carefully placed clues along the way. They also need to keep the reader hooked with an increasing sense of mystery, tension and danger, leading up to an exciting denouement where the killer is finally revealed. The greatest challenge (and satisfaction) comes from creating compelling characters to add flesh to those bones. No matter how kind or cruel, the characters in Twelve Nights are all human; full of flaws and contradictions.

You include lavish details about clothing and handiwork. How did you become interested in Elizabethan fashion?

Despite having a queen on the throne, sixteenth-century England was largely male-dominated. Most women were not allowed a profession, nor were they allowed to act on stage. Nevertheless, I wanted a strong female protagonist, so I created eighteen-year-old wardrobe mistress Magdalen Bisset. My fascination with Elizabethan fashion grew from there.

Late sixteenth-century theatregoers craved spectacle—daring fight scenes, fireworks, and extravagant stage attire. Spectacle seems to have trumped historical accuracy where costumes were concerned. For example, in a performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the Roman general, holds a spear and is dressed in a Roman toga. Tamora, queen of the Goths, wears a sumptuously decorated Elizabethan gown. The soldiers are dressed as Elizabethan militia.

In 1599, Thomas Platter visited the Globe Theatre. He explained that men or women of rank bequeathed their clothes to their servants who, not being permitted to wear them due to the Sumptuary Laws, sold them on to the theatres.

On a personal note, I had great fun making my own Saxon costume for Butser Ancient Farm.

What is the best reference book for Elizabethan clothing and styles?

The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Dress by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies proved invaluable. It describes the changing fashions for both ordinary people and high-society, analysis of fabrics, and patterns for specific garments. Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver by Catharine MacLeod contains exquisite watercolour portraits, showing extraordinary details of clothes and jewels.

Magdalen’s emotions have the ring of truth.  Can you suggest ways to help writers realistically portray emotions? 

Human emotions haven’t changed for millennia. We have always experienced love, hate, fear, sadness and happiness. Before I started writing Twelve Nights, I wrote an essay on every character. I explored their background, education, personal life, career and character. I put myself in their shoes and examined their hopes and fears, their good points and their flaws. Basically, I dived inside their heads and learnt what made them tick. No matter what situation they found themselves in, I knew exactly how they would respond, within the confines of sixteenth-century social mores and expectations.

Was Magdalen’s chastity a deliberate contrast to the promiscuous characters, Marlowe and John?

Magdalen is fictitious, but her precarious existence would have been all too familiar in Elizabethan England. Her chances of a ‘good’ marriage are slim. She earns a pittance, she has no dowry, and her employment at the ‘theatre’ unfairly labels her as a sex-worker in society’s eyes.

I wanted to explore the enormous challenges facing women in the sixteenth century, particularly those without position or means. Magdalen had more reasons to remain chaste than Marlowe and John. Firstly, if she were to become pregnant out of wedlock, her church would cast her out, and she would most likely find herself in Bridewell, a correctional facility for ‘fallen women’ where disease was rife and life expectancy was short. (The rich had different rules.  In 1592, when Amelia Bassano, the Lord Chamberlain’s mistress, fell pregnant with his child, he quickly arranged her marriage to a court musician.)

Secondly, Magdalen knows the Mermaid’s ‘whores’ are riddled with syphilis (the French Pox). She knows most will die in terrible pain by age thirty, and she does not want to share their fate. And finally, she strongly believes in the Christian God. What little she knows about sex is gleaned from listening to the players’ bawdy banter, and from reading Shakespeare’s proof-copy of his racy poem, Venus and Adonis. But she worries how God will judge her for reading lewd poetry rather than the Holy Bible, and she feels crushed by guilt.

Do you plan to write a sequel?

If all goes to plan, Twelve Nights is book one in The Heavenly Charmers trilogy.


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