Songbird, Guest Post by Karen Heenan

She has the voice of an angel…

But one false note could send her back to her old life of poverty.

After her father sells her to Henry VIII, ten-year-old Bess builds a new life as a royal minstrel, and earns the nickname “the king’s songbird.”

She comes of age in the dangerous Tudor court, where the stakes are always high, and where politics, heartbreak, and disease threaten everyone from the king to the lowliest musician.

Her world has only one constant: Tom, her first and dearest friend. But when Bess intrigues with Anne Boleyn and strains against the restrictions of life at court, will she discover that the biggest risk of all is listening to her own stubborn heart?

Songbird: Research in an Era of Too Much Information

One of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction is the research. I love rummaging around in the past and finding interesting tidbits—that’s where my story ideas come from, for the most part. I’ve tried writing more contemporary stories, but they don’t seem to stick. If there’s nothing for me to dig for, I start to lose interest.

I discovered the Tudors at a young age. My mom was watching the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (the 1970 series, which the US got in 1972) and I was reading, but ended up getting sucked into the program. Mom only wanted to watch through the Anne Boleyn episode, because she always had sympathy for the “other woman” in stories, but I insisted, at the age of seven, that we watch the whole thing.

And that was it. Tudors for life.

My desk, where the magic (mostly) happens

I’d always wanted to write, as well, but for some reason, it didn’t occur to me to write about the era I was most passionate about, possibly because there were so many books about Henry and Anne and the rest that I didn’t feel I had anything new to say on the topic. It also didn’t occur to me to look at Henry’s court from another perspective, until…

The book that started me on the journey to Songbird was Carrolly Erickson’s Great Harry. Erickson went on to write fiction about the Tudor period, but at the time she’d only written non-fiction. It read like fiction, though—fast-paced, interesting, and full of facts that set my brain on fire, like this one:

“When Henry bought children, as he did in December of 1516, paying a stranger forty pounds for a child, it is tempting to think that he purchased them for their musical gifts.”[1]

This was dropped tantalizingly into a discussion of Henry’s love of music and the children of the Chapel Royal, and that was all it took to start me off. I finished reading and went on to other things, but that child kept nagging at me. What would it be like, to be sold to the king? What would it be like to sell your child? How entitled must you be to think that buying children from their parents was a good way to increase the size of your choir?

More reading told me that children purchased for the choir would have been male, but I wanted to write about a girl, so I made her a member of the King’s Music—Henry’s private minstrels, who traveled with him and performed at his beck and call—instead, though I kept the date of December, 1516, and the purchase price, which would be over $50,000 in 2021 dollars.[2]

Another musical child showed up in that same book: “young Robin,” whose “sure and cleanly singing” and “good and crafty descant” was removed from Cardinal Wolsey’s choir to the Chapel Royal choir. That removal became a competition, and Robin became a character in Songbird, and has since moved on to his own book, A Wider World, which comes out on April 25.

Researching Bess’s world—the early years of Henry’s reign, when he was still happily married to his first wife, and then the first years of his infatuation with Anne Boleyn—was a pleasure, if a slightly overwhelming one. There’s so much information on Henry, his wives, his court, and Europe generally at the time, and so the problem becomes how much to put into a manuscript, and how much to just pack into my brain so I can write convincingly without putting in the rest of that extraneous, oh-so-interesting information.

Two topics that I had to dig into in specifically for Songbird: the sweat, because of the effect on Bess’s early life, and two waves of it during the rest of the story; and the Field of Cloth of Gold, because Henry took the Music and the Chapel Royal choir with him, along with thousands of members of the court. Despite digesting a ton of information on the Field, what ended up in Songbird was what would have made an impression on a thirteen-year-old girl: the tent city, the buildings, and the tournaments. Her own moments to shine and the dueling French/English choir performances during the mass.

The most difficult thing, aside from what I had to leave out, was finding a way into looking at the world from Bess’s angle, the viewpoint of a child/young woman who far from noble, but more than a typical court servant. Still disposable, often invisible, but better treated and frequently praised by her betters. Most of my research (and Songbird was actually begun during the pre-internet era, back when I was writing without thought of publication) didn’t really deal with how life was lived by anyone other than the most well-born—the same as the clothing and artifacts left behind were generally those of nobility/royals because the poor used it up and wore it out.

While being able to do internet research added a whole new dimension to my work (not to mention a lot more books on my shelves, and on my eventual Kindle), it also sometimes threw a fact at me I wasn’t ready to catch. Looking up something completely unrelated long after the first (many) drafts of Songbird were completed, I read for the first time about the death of William Cornysh, musician, composter, and Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal.

Eek! Cornysh is dead? Why has no one mentioned this before? I frantically page through my manuscript, and realize, with a huge sigh of relief, that I’ve only mentioned him once or twice after the time when he should have died. I jumped back in and knocked him off, an event which actually enriches several of the side characters and ups the body count by one more. (Historical fiction has as high a body count as crime fiction, if you’re being accurate, and heartless).

When Songbird was at last completed, I thought I was done with the Tudor era, and made plans to start working on another story which has been in my brain for a long time, set in and around Philadelphia during the Great Depression (see small section of mostly-Tudor bookshelf next to my desk). But no. My standalone book was no longer a standalone, but the first part of a series, and had to be renamed as such on Amazon and all the other places.

I christened it The Tudor Court Series not because of the Tudors—or not really—but because all my characters, who are outside the court system but still a part of it, have lives that are totally controlled by whoever is at the head of the Tudor court. Stretching the series from Henry through Elizabeth gives me scope for many more stories, and far more research.

Currently I’m editing book 3 of the series, and contemplating a fourth book, but the 1930s characters are getting really noisy now, so maybe I’ll leave the sixteenth century for just a little while.

Taking a vacation from the sixteenth century to the Great Depression doesn’t seem like much of a vacation. If I wrote contemporary fiction, I could be on a beach somewhere…probably reading a book about life in Elizabethan England.

I give up. Research wins.

[1] Erickson Carrolly. Great Harry. Summit Books, 1980. Citing to Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII

[2] Nye, Eric W., Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, https://www.uwyo.numimage/currency.htm

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Meet Karen Heenan

Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. She fell in love with books and stories before she could read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams—which include gardening, sewing, traveling and, of course, lots of writing.

She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband, and is always hard at work on her next book.

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