Mercedes Rochelle | The Usurper King | Medieval Historical Fiction

As I’ve ventured into the murky and confusing world of medieval politics, Mercedes’ novels have shone a light on the conflict and personalities that made this time so extraordinary. All I can say, Mercedes, is I can see why it’s a help to enjoy arguments when writing about this period! Today, we’re chatting about her novel, The Usurper King. Here’s a bit more about it, before we start.
From Outlaw to Usurper, Henry Bolingbroke fought one rebellion after another.
First, he led his own uprising. Gathering support the day he returned from exile, Henry marched across the country and vanquished the forsaken Richard II. Little did he realize that his problems were only just beginning. How does a usurper prove his legitimacy? What to do with the deposed king? Only three months after he took the crown, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard’s disgruntled favorites. Worse yet, he was harassed by rumors of Richard’s return to claim the throne. His own supporters were turning against him. How to control the overweening Percies, who were already demanding more than he could give? What to do with the rebellious Welsh? After only three years, the horrific Battle of Shrewsbury nearly cost him the throne—and his life. It didn’t take long for Henry to discover that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it.
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Mercedes, thanks for chatting. Tell us what you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
In my current series, THE PLANTAGENET LEGACY, for some reason I have strictly followed the actors from the BBC production of Richard II with Derek Jacobi. This version dates back to 1978, believe it or not, and I must have watched its original season because I was still in college. I found that play so profound it stuck with me all these years; I knew I was going to write about Richard II, whoever he was. I carried it along with me through my Anglo-Saxon period, and when I finally started my new research a few years ago, I purchased the DVD so I could watch it again. Jacobi was my Richard, John Gielgud was John of Gaunt, Charles Gray the Duke of York, and the handsome Jon Finch was Henry Bolingbroke. Such an excellent cast! In my mind, they were all there (and still are).
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I’m one of those people who rely on the tidbits of history for my story; I only make stuff up when there’s no alternative. This means I have to dig deeply into academic material. It took me years to figure it out, but I finally learned that the fat books (in page-length) are only the starting point. They give us a broad brush-stroke (like a landscape painting) and create the structure for the story. It wasn’t until I delved into the academic articles that I was able to really sort out the fine details of a scene. These treatises are specific to a particular subject, so the author puts every bit of knowledge into an event (including all contradictory source material). For instance, in THE KING’S RETRIBUTION I had to juggle with the mystery of the Duke of Gloucester’s murder at the king’s behest. No one knew what had happened to him (aside from the perpetrators) until after the usurpation. Professor Tait tackled all the nuances in his article, Did Richard II Murder the Duke of Gloucester? Without his aid, I would have been surely in the dark. BTW, I find the site to be most useful.
For my current series I started with very little knowledge. It took a year of daily reading to bring me up to the point where I felt qualified to write. It takes me about a year to finish a book, and all that time I am researching the next one, so I can hit the ground running.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Of course, everyone is different. When I get stuck, I hit the history books but that wouldn’t apply to general writing, would it? A couple of years ago I read a piece of advice from Ernest Hemingway that I took to heart. He said that it’s best to stop for the day in the middle of a scene. Don’t end it. That way, when you begin the next day, you have to finish what you already started. Also, he suggested the next day you go back a few pages, so that when you catch up to where you left off, you are “full speed ahead”. Yep. Works for me.
Mercedes, tell us more about your latest book:What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
I really struggled with this one. For some reason, I felt that it would be presumptuous to take the POV of King Richard II. Even though I’m writing fiction, I felt that his thoughts and motivations were his own, and like everyone else, I was stuck on the outside looking in. Historians couldn’t figure him out; who am I to think I could do better? Is this an ethical dilemma or something else? I’m not sure!
I don’t seem to have the same problem with less “preeminent” figures. I don’t mind delving into Henry IV’s motivations; perhaps this is because he wasn’t born a king. Maybe he is easier to relate to because he is approachable. I do have a bit of an ethical dilemma when depicting historical “villains”. Is it fair to that person? To me, villains in general should have more than one side to their personality. Nobody is all good or all evil. I think this is particularly relevant to historical figures. We only learn about the bad stuff because the good stuff isn’t very interesting. I think we need to give that character some dignity, at least, and respect their memory.
What was your hardest scene to write?
How does one start a love affair when both parties are “hands-off”? At some point before Henry Bolingbroke returned to England he met Joanna of Navarre, who was the Duchess of Brittany married to a man old enough to be her father. When the Duke of Brittany died shortly thereafter, Henry and Joanna married secretly (by proxy). Surely this must have been a love match, considering how difficult the whole arrangement turned out to be. She had to leave her four sons behind under the care of the Duke of Burgundy. Anyway, I had a hard time concocting their platonic relationship, making it serious enough to lead to a long-distance marriage.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favourite? Why?
I love arguments—which is a good thing, since novels thrive on conflict. The Percies, both father and son, were endlessly fascinating to me, especially since no one knows exactly why they instigated the Battle of Shrewsbury. Apparently the catalyst was the Battle of Homildon Hill, when the English won such an overwhelming victory that Scottish leadership was crippled for the next decade. Unfortunately, Henry had just been humiliated in Wales and the kudos went to the Percies for Homildon. Rather than reward the heroes, the king immediately demanded that the northerners turn over all prisoners to the crown (including the Earl of Douglas). This precipitated some horrific fights between Henry and the insulted parties, especially Hotspur, who, when Henry drew a dagger, famously cried “Not here, but in the field!”.
What was the most difficult part of your artistic process for this book?
In the weeks before Richard II’s abdication, Henry Bolingbroke had to go through a lot of stratagems to justify his position. After six hundred years we generally don’t give it much thought, but historians have pointed out that Henry’s usurpation was blatantly illegal. This is one reason there were so many rebellions during his reign. Trying to organize his tactics into a readable (and interesting) narrative was quite a challenge. The same thing applies to the critical scenes in parliament, which remind me of a courtroom drama.

Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Her first four books cover eleventh-century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy about the struggles and abdication of Richard II, leading to the troubled reigns of the Lancastrian Kings. She also writes a blog: to explore the history behind the story. Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
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