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Jane Yolen and the History Surprise

31 August, 2014 | By Goldie Alexander

To celebrate the release of That Stranger Next Door – my YA historical romance novel set in Melbourne in the 1950s – I have been inviting some great Australian writers to visit and talk about their latest books.

This week I am going international. My special guest is American writer Jane Yolen who has written more that 300 – yes, 300 – books. 

Enjoy her visit.




American author Jane Yolen is a novelist, a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children’s literature.


Dubbed the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the 20th century, Jane writes children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction. Her more than 300 books include: The Devil’s Arithmetic  (a Holocaust novel); The Leather Apron Club  (a picture book about Benjamin Franklin and his son and the first free lending library); Naming Liberty (early 1900s Jewish immigration to America and the building of the Statue of Liberty); Owl Moon; and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

Jane’s books and stories have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award among many others.

Jane was born in New York City and, except for the four months a year that she spends in Scotland, she now lives in Western Massachusetts.

By Jane

I believe in the History Surprise.

That’s the moment when researching and writing an historical novel or historical picture book, that serendipity occurs, Or as Arthur Koestler called it, that clashing together of ‘previously unconnected matrices’. When fact becomes so like fiction they are indistinguishable, and one needs to write an author’s note to remind the reader about what is true and what has been made up.

Sometimes that surprise comes in multiple synchronicities. Sometimes it comes with a surprise character. Sometimes it comes when you turn from where you thought you were going in a book and go off on the ‘road not taken’ as Robert Frost calls it.

It’s happened to me every single time I’ve used real history to anchor fiction, or threaded fiction through a bit of history.

Now I have to warn you that I almost flunked History at Smith College. My professor said, “I know you’re smart, but you ask the oddest questions”. 

She was right of course, though it took me many years to understand that I was never going to be an historian, as much as I loved history, but that I was a nascent historical novelist.

I was more interested in the footnotes of history, not the great sweep of economic miasma that guided king and peasant alike. I preferred, for example, learning that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on her left hand (one of the reasons she was tried as a witch) than the intimate details of the coinage brought into Henry’s coffers by the dissolution of the abbeys.

I love the bad girls of history—pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read, Mary Queen of Scots, Irish pirate Grania O’Malley. I also love the interstitial characters of history, who are background to larger stories, like Yankee Peddlers, the thalidomide kids of the 1960’s, the Regicides who killed King Charles I, the homosexuals incarcerated in Hitler’s Pink Triangle camps, and the golden canaries that kept the Western Movement women alive on the great vastness of prairie expanse.

Let me show you what I mean about the history surprise, in relation to my novel about Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen’s Own Fool was the first written – but in historic time the actual second book – of the Scottish Quartet, a series I wrote with my Scottish friend, Bob Harris.

This book begins when Mary, the new 15-year-old queen of France, loses her young husband to a disease, and then is basically kicked out of the country by his scheming mother. She travels to Scotland where she is the queen by birthright, and ends when she makes the fateful decision to run from the quarrelsome Scots lords who want to imprison her. We last see her as she turns south, racing down to England, to (she thinks) the welcoming arms of her ‘sweet cousin’ as she calls Elizabeth I.

The English queen does not save her, but actually does what the Scottish lords have only threatened: imprisoning Mary under house arrest for twenty years and finally having the axe-man cut off her head.

The first bit of serendipity happened when my husband and I were visiting Stirling Castle in Scotland, something we had done many times before, but we always loved taking visitors there.

We each drifted off in a different direction, and I found myself down in the bowels of the place looking at some of the new exhibits. On one wall was signage I’d never seen before, telling visitors that: ‘Mary Queen of Scots had three female jesters’.

Whatever else was on that sign, I’ve long forgotten. But it was as if a major blast had gone off in my brain. Here was a wonderful interstitial character – or characters – living alongside royalty, part of Mary’s tragic saga, but they themselves are lost to the great histories. Though I’ve read a lot about Mary Queen of Scots – and her contemporary Elizabeth 1 of England – I’d no idea until that moment that there had ever been any female jesters.

So I did what I do whenever a book idea starts: I wondered.

I wondered if that statement was true. And if so, why three jesters? And who were they? What made them become jesters? What kind of jesters were they? Which was the most fascinating/interesting/book-worthy of the three? How close a relationship did they have with the queen? Further, I wondered if they were French or Scottish. Or a bit of both, as Mary herself was.

I began by doing research on those fools.

The three female jesters were listed on the castle rolls, both in France and then in Scotland, so I had their names – or at least their nicknames. They were called La Folle, Jardiniere, and Governance, the last of whom Bob Harris and I decided was a governess more than a fool. And by their nicknames, we knew them to be French.

We also knew – again from the castle accounts – that Jardinere and the others were given presents of gloves, linens, fabric, clothes. I had discovered that the female jesters – along with Mary’s other French servants who accompanied her to Scotland – were sent home to France with rich gifts when Mary went down to England.

And that was all we could find out about them. For a historian that’s a disaster but for a novelist, it’s a great gift. It gave us room to move around and make/create/recreate a story and a character for each of them.

But in fact that was a minor serendipity. The major one was this: When Mary was in France, she and the young king and the court had gone to a place called Amboise – a gorgeous and elegant walled chateau on the Loire – as part of a royal progress. Bob and I wanted to describe the place, had no ability just to fly over to France, and we were looking both on line and in encyclopedias for a description of the ruins. All we got were instructions on how to join a bike tour through France that would go past the building ruins.

Then one morning, in the holdings of the St Andrews University Library (which as far as I can tell has never thrown out a book!) Bob found a British tour guide of France from the mid 1800s describing in minute detail what was in the ruins of that Ambois chateau. One thing in particular caught his eye – the mention of a frieze depicting a saint and a stag with a cross caught in its antlers on an old chapel belonging to the chateau. He carefully took down that description. That was all – but it was enough to use as a backdrop for the Amboise chapter. Or so we thought as we dutifully copied the description into a paragraph about young Mary walking around the chateau grounds.

And then… and then…

Bob went into Edinburgh and toured around Holyrood Castle, where Mary had lived for much of her life in Scotland. I’d been many times before. But this time, because we were in the middle of our book, already having written the scenes in Amboise, there came a stunning a-ha moment!

Bob came upon a stone lintel on the castle that had a carving of a stag with a cross in its antlers. It was that wonderful miracle that a novelist dreams about. A connecting of the book’s unconnected matrices. He was so excited when he phoned me about it, his Dundonian accent deepened and I could barely understand a word. But when I finally got what he was saying, we used that bit in the book to deepen Mary’s almost mystical connection with the two countries – Scotland and France.

So at the book’s end, in a scene we invented, we used that image for a third time – portraying a very real stag with antlers tangled in thorns that form the shape of a cross. The stag comes towards the queen right before she is ready to turn south and race for sanctuary in England. It’s a moment of epiphany – for our viewpoint character, Jardiniere, though not for Queen Mary.

What had begun as an aside in a tour book, became a motif when Bob found the second stag image, on the castle lintel, and then went on to become a central metaphor for the book. Mary was that beautiful animal caught and doomed by the cross, her Catholicism, in a Protestant nation.

Our viewpoint character, Jardiniaire, understands and begs the queen to follow the deer, and go east, meaning going back to France where at least she would be safe even if no longer a queen. But Mary, believing that Elizabeth would uphold her royal claim on the Scottish (and by extension, the English) throne, goes south instead.

To her doom.


You can find out more about Jane by visiting her website.

The next visitor on my reverse blog tour will be Julia Lawrinson.


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