Ones To Watch 2012: Sarah Woodbury – the next Ellis Peters?

Okay, so I’m in historical mood just now. Another year has whizzed by, and we’re all another step closer to departing this mortal coil.  Which got me thinking about legacy.

When the day comes, who will remember us, apart from our loved ones? Most people toil through life, day by day, month by month, year by year, without ever leaving their mark beyond the immediate circle of family and friends.

It’s rather sad when you think about it.

Every job is important, whether we sweep roads, swipe barcodes at a supermarket till, drive a train, design tall buildings or perform life-saving surgery. Most work goes unappreciated by those who benefit. Who knows or cares about the person who sweeps their roads, takes their money at the till, or drives their train to work? Unless it’s an exceptional building, who knows the architect? Unless it was the brain of you or a loved one, who would know the surgeon?

If we have a pleasant train journey on Monday when Tina the Train Driver is at the wheel we don’t make a point of finding out which train she will be driving next, and booking a ride. When Brian the Brain Surgeon saevs our life we’re eternally grateful, but we don’t then try find out who he will be operating on next. Just the opposite. We hope we’ll never see him again. We don’t form appreciation societies or invite them on blogs for interviews.

But when we read  and enjoy a book something altogether different happens. We form a bond with that author. It may not be a personal one, but it’s a bond nonetheless. Harry Potter fans talk of JK Rowling as if she’s a personal friend. Stephen King fans will buy his next book simply because it says Stephen King on it.

And it’s not just living authors. Show me the Jane Austen enthusiast who does not know every detail of her life, or the Dickens fan who cannot tell you all about Victorian childhood tribulations, or the Shakespeare fan who has never heard of Anne Hathaway’s bed…

Through their books these writers have created their legacy.  Each one of us does the same when we put our works before the public. But in the new world of epublishing there is infinite shelfspace and no books will go out of print. Our legacy is assured, however great or small our success while we are alive to enjoy it.


This is turn got me thinking about history.

History writers expand the legacy of the past by making it accessible to the modern reader. In doing so they assume responsibility for imparting factual context amid fictional story. No easy thing to do.

Prue Batten has recently, and most kindly, handed me her manuscript of Gisborne to cast an editing eye over. With luck Gisborne will be out there on the e-shelves as part of Prue’s legacy next month.

But in reading Prue’s manuscript I am reminded that my own WIP on King John, seen through the eyes of his young wife Isabella of Angouleme, is languishing on my hard-drive still, with no chance of completion this year. What idiot decided to create days with only twenty-four hours in them?

Then yesterday I heard from our translator, who is sorting our Sugar & Spice into German (more on this next week on MWi), that Umberto Eco’s works were free as ebooks on Kobo over Christmas. Of course I rushed to Amazon, only to find no sign even of of Umberto Eco’s classic The Name Of the Rose in the Kindle store.

But by now I was in historic-obsessive mode. I checked out Robert Graves, of I, Claudius fame, only to find they were available, but ridiculously priced.

And so to Cadfael.

Hands up, who remembers Cadfael? I’d had Cadfael on my mind anyway, because Sarah Woodbury’s The Good Knight has been making steady progress in the e-charts. Sarah writes (among ther things) medieval mysteries set in Wales, and Ellis Peters’ wonderful series of Cadfael Chronicles, while actually set in Shrewsbury, England, was about a Welsh  monk turned sleuth. The books spawned the equally delightful Cadfael TV series.

Ellis Peters

For those outside the UK, Wales and England border one another. Shewsbury is an English town bordering Wales. Ellis Peters combined her love of Wales with her affection for her home town by bringing the Conwy-born fictional character Cadfael to the market town that was historic Shrewsbury.

Sarah Woodbury doesn’t live in Wales either. In fact she’s American, and in Oregon. Unlike the Cadfael series, Sarah’s books are actually set in Wales. And unlike Cadfael, Sarah Woodbury’s MC is female.

For much of history England and Wales have been uneasy neighbours, often at war. At the time Sarah’s book The Good Knight is set, Wales is not even united in itself, let alone with England as part of the modern United Kingdom. Life then was short and brutal, and of course the concept of gender equality quite unknown.

So for Sarah, sat at home in Oregon, USA, to write a medieval mystery set in Wales, with a women sleuth running rings around the menfolk, was either madness or a stroke of genius.

My money is on genius. This is Cadfael for the twenty-first century, set in the twelfth.

My prediction, here in writing on MWi, is Sarah Woodbury is going to be the next Ellis Peters. With a range of novels from YA to historic magical fantasy to historic detective, and using her impressive research to bring to life past times and locations, I’m very confident Sarah is going to be one of the indie stars of 2012.

Sarah Woodbury

Here’s Sarah:

A Woman Detective in Medieval Wales?

It is a stereotype that women in the Middle Ages had two career options: mother or holy woman, with prostitute or chattel filling in the gaps between those two. Whether we like it or not, for the most part this stereotype is accurate and the status and role of women in that era revolved around these categories.

This is one reason that when an author sets fiction in this time, it is difficult to write a self-actualized female character who has any kind of autonomy or authority over her own life. Thus, it is common practice to make fictional characters either healers of some sort (thus opening up a whole array of narrative possibilities for travel and interaction with interesting people) or to focus on high status women. Such women may or may not actually have had more autonomy, but their lives didn’t consist of drudgery and child care from morning until night.

This is not to say that men in the Middle Ages weren’t equally restricted in their ‘careers’. A serf is a serf after all, of whatever gender. Men as a whole, however, did have control of women, of finances, of government, and of the Church, and thus organized and ruled the world. Literally.

There are obvious exceptions—Eleanor of Aquitaine, anyone?—but women such as she were one out of thousands upon thousands who were born, worked, and died within five miles of their home.

At the same time, within Celtic culture, women had the possibility of greater personal autonomy. In Ireland, where the Roman Church had less influence, women had a viable place both within the Druid religion and within the Celtic/Irish Church. Wales, too, was less subject to the restrictions of the Church. There, women had a higher status than in Christendom as a whole, including the right to divorce her husband and societal acceptance of illegitimate children.

The Laws of Women (part of the Laws of Hywel Dda) included rules that governed marriage and the division of property if a married couple should separate. Women usually married through contract, but elopement was allowed, with the provision that if the relationship lasted seven years, a woman had the same entitlements as if she’d been given to her husband by her kin.

The Good Knight is the story a young woman, Gwen, who investigates the murder of a King of Wales. She’s a bard’s daughter, which gives her mobility, ambiguity in terms of social status, and an autonomy that any good detective needs. Gwen’s sleuthing takes her from Wales to Dublin and back again, and earns her the trust and confidence of high and low alike.

The Good Knight (A Medieval Mystery)

Intrigue, suspicion, and rivalry among the royal princes casts a shadow on the court of Owain, king of north Wales…
The year is 1143 and King Owain seeks to unite his daughter in marriage with an allied king. But when the groom is murdered on the way to his wedding, the bride’s brother tasks his two best detectives—Gareth, a knight, and Gwen, the daughter of the court bard—with bringing the killer to justice.
And once blame for the murder falls on Gareth himself, Gwen must continue her search for the truth alone, finding unlikely allies in foreign lands, and ultimately uncovering a conspiracy that will shake the political foundations of Wales.*


My web page:
My Twitter code is:!/SarahWoodbury
On Facebook:

The Good Knight is available on and

There wasn’t supposed to be a post this Sunday, but loss of power meant I couldn’t run this yesterday, nor follow up as I usually do. But Sarah will be back here next week with some posts about medieval life, and to show why historic fiction is so popular.

Sarah also writes YA, and her book Daughter Of Time is available free on some platforms.

So, no question, Sarah Woodbury’s legacy is assured.

What will be your legacy?

  1. Eeeee, this is right up my street! I’m a total nerd for anything Medieval or celtic, and I like the sound of Gwen already. Looking forward to hearing more from Sarah! 😀

    • Miriam Joy
    • January 15th, 2012

    Wales + detectives + the name Gwen = me, sold.

    Hmm. Think I just managed to make a comment in even fewer words than usual. Were there seven there, or only six? Ha ha.

    I’m a bit of a Wales maniac (I blame Torchwood), but for Celtic stuff full of detail I absolutely recommend Stephen Lawhead’s “Song of Albion” trilogy. I’ve read his Arthur books (they’re set in Wales, aren’t they?) but these are better. Not Welsh, but Otherworld. And they’re awesome. So there we go, a recommendation for you 🙂

    • Sarah has several Arthurian novels out, all set in Wales, of course. We’ll bring details of those over the next few weeks as we feature Sarah’s other guest posts for MWi.

      Meanwhile check out her site today for a great post on the reign of KIng Stephen.

    • I really hope you like it!

      I think Stephen Lawhead’s Arthur books are set in England and Scotland (Avalon, one of my favorites, is about the return of King Arthur, who is a Scot). His King Raven series is definitely set in Wales, and is about a Welsh Robin Hood. I haven’t read the Albion trilogy, so I will definitely look it up. Thanks!

        • Miriam Joy
        • January 17th, 2012

        They’re quite old, but not as old as his Empyrion books (which are awesome), and are on Amazon. They actually start out in Oxford, which is weird for me because I’ve been there quite a bit and to see places I recognise in the descriptions is, strange, to say the least!

  2. This book definitely goes on my Kindle. So many things to love. I’m a big Ellis Peters fan. And yes, Miriam, as another Torchwood fan, I can see Eve Myles starring as Gwen…

    • I’ve seen a total of one episode of Torchwood in my life, but lived a while under the shadow of several great Welsh castles.

      • Miriam Joy
      • January 17th, 2012

      Another Gwen role for her, then! Ha ha ha 🙂

  3. Anne R. Allen :
    This book definitely goes on my Kindle. So many things to love. I’m a big Ellis Peters fan. And yes, Miriam, as another Torchwood fan, I can see Eve Myles starring as Gwen…

    Oh, I LOVE Torchwood! Mark won’t have a CLUE what we’re talking about. How cool is that!?

  4. Yeah, thanks, AL. Mind you, your genre is a mystery to me anyway, but educational to edit! I keep having to email Saffi to ask if she knows what some of your words mean!

    For the benefit of anyone else reading this, AL writes mature audience material.

  5. Sarah Woodbury is a fabulous writer. Great post!

  6. Mark, I have never seen Torchwood… sadly I didn’t grow up under the shadows of castles (i think my imagination would have only grown more wild).

    However, this review makes me wish I had more hours in my day. At least more hours I could dedicate to reading and writing. When will they invent cars that drive themselves? it would increase the usefulness of my commute to the dayjob tenfold!

    (Ha ha here I am going from a book about the past to science fiction… that’s so me lol)

    :} Cathryn

  7. Sarah, what a coincidence that we both write about the twelfth century! I agree with everything you say about the female stereotype. the interesting thing I found as I began my research however, was that the laws (Hywel Dda) did indeed give women a recognised power, which makes for such a fascinating contradiction and can create great storylines.

    I can’t wait to read The Good Knight (read the first chapter in the Indie Chicks anthology) but I have a philosophy that won’t let me read any novel set in my timeframe until I have finished my own because I have this theory of plagiarism by unconscious osmosis! Gisborne has a second volume which is in broad brushstroke phase… so please forgive me. But if you ever want to swap research titles, let me know!

    Mark, this awful feeling of being happier writing hist.fict rather than hist.fantasy is itching me so badly right now. What does one do!!!

  8. Americans love to write about knights and the times they lived. Americans love to read about them. The reason, we don’t have knights, and find the whole cultue fasinating. We have a form of knight like, cowboys, but their just not interesting, but they do have same noble nature with a title, and usually no money to back their adventrue across the open plains.
    I love history and one of these days will write a historical and be a armchair traveler to the UK. I’ve spent time in Ireland, and fell in love with the people and their unforgettable history. A good place to start. This will have to be must read for me.

    • I agree, Lee. I lived in the UK for a year (I went to Cambridge) and every day I had to pinch myself, living with all that history. In Oregon, ‘old’ is 100 years. My husband has never been to Wales, and I’m finally going to get him there in May and he can see what all the fuss is about 🙂

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