Do you know him?

When characters spring to life on the page–fully fleshed, breathing, with their quirks–it’s because the writer who created them understood them ahead of time, created their backstory.

For Jim Ambrose, philandering husband and one of the antagonists in With Malice towards One, I knew this much based on a conversation I had early on with Danny Ambrose, the female protagonist. His backstory says a lot about Danny, as well.

“Has Jim any family?”

“No. His folks died young in a freaky two year period. His dad had a premature heart attack in his early thirties and his mom died of complications from the flu. Jim was raised by his mother’s sister Rose, a tallish, raw-boned spinster with a will of iron.

“They were never close. The first time he ever mentioned her was when we got engaged and he supposed we’d have to invite her to the wedding, he said. Even now, I can recall the moment that day when Rose, ever quiet and prim, took me aside and said, ‘Well, my dear, he’s your responsibility now.’  Her expression crossed somewhere between haggard and dubious, as if she were exhausted from dealing with him and doubted that I was up to the challenge.

“In the first years of our marriage we went to her home in Hartford for the holidays, but there was always an air of indignation or antagonism or disapproval—from him or her…I never could quite tell who it originated with. Looking back, it might have been that they were both too strong. You know, both vying for control? Whatever the reason, it ruined the holiday and by our third Christmas Jim decided Connecticut was too far to travel from Long Island. We sent flowers instead.

“I called her every month or so, but he’d never speak to her. She died alone in the house in Hartford about seven or eight years ago, and I still wonder if I’d abrogated my responsibility—to Aunt Rose.”

Malcolm Robertson, the history professor in With Malice towards One, told me this about himself:

“I was born at the end of the second World War. My father had been home on leave, gotten Mother pregnant, then gotten killed in the last air strikes on Germany.” He offered a wry smile. “Mother, Aunt Lucy and Aunt Margaret raised me, and I’ve often wondered if it was that household of women that accounts for the fact that I’m more comfortable around the fairer sex than around men.

“And perhaps that’s why I married Em. She was pretty, and level-headed, knew how to bake like Lucy and keep her accounts like Mother. We laughed together, and I truly thought I loved her, but she wanted sex a lot more than companionship. I could ehm… perform the act, just never got a lot out of it. It was a few years before I could admit that the reason she didn’t appeal to me for sex was that I was gay. It took me another year to get over that shock, but, once I did, Emily and I parted company. She was a great girl about it, wanting me to be happy as much as she wanted a richer relationship for herself.

“I began to explore my sexuality.carefully. I had a few short-lived relationships with lovers–but only a few. After all, it’s a stupid cat that dirties in his own garden, you know. I wasn’t trying to hide my situation from school officials. I’d been up front with colleagues, especially after a few of them tried to fix me up with single women they knew. No, I simply felt it was beneath me to live a life of flagrant sex. And yes, still, because I felt more comfortable around women than men, I found the introductory parts of new relationships very difficult indeed. Still do.”

A small bit of backstory for Geoffrey Gandulf, reeve of Norburnshire for William de la Coeur Grifon in The Luck of Two Magpies.

Inseparable playmates they had been as children, Geoff thought, but manhood and rank had made them as different as servant and master. Even so, this William was the lad he had loved to whoop and run with; the young lord who had got drunk with him the morn Taddy was born; the man who arrived home when the old Earl his father died, and wept for his loss on Geoff’s shoulder. Separate and unequal they were, but linked irrevocably—master and servant and more.


And the most interesting development to come out of knowing your character’s backstory? That despite that knowledge, they can still surprise you in the scenes they appear in.

Character and experience, the making of Willam Grifon

William Dyrke de la Coeur Grifon was born on Sept. 30, 1366 to his mother, Margarida de Beaumont and his father, Dyrke de la Coeur Grifon, at his mother’s dower castle, Bien Venue. At the time of his birth, his parents had been married over 10 years and his mother had nearly despaired of bearing an heir. The young miracle had only one playmate when he was very young, his mother’s 14 year old maid, Helaine d’Aelfstun, and the old tower and upper bailey of the double-ringed, moated castle was his playground.

As William grew, Dyrke employed tutors for his son, who applied himself to his schoolwork more out of duty to his father than out of real interest. His reward was his father’s company. William often accompanied Dyrke south to observe the rising walls of the palace his father was building and would name Grifon’s Nest. If William was lucky, he could play at swords with the sons of his father’s reeve, or manager, old Gandulf. Once, at play, young Geoff Gandulf broke a window at the site, and when William saw his father’s rage, he knew Geoff would have a whipping for it, so he told his father he broke it. He got off with a lecture, and earned a friend for life.

As a young teen, his academic tutoring continued, but a sword master and tutors for the horse and warfare were added. These subjects he enjoyed. His body, still growing and in good health, thrived on the physical exercise. He discovered he had a talent for warfare and battle planning.

When he was 13, he fell from a horse as he tilted at the quintain, broke his arm and developed a fever. His mother bundled him up and took him into the woods to a strange old man named Nichol, who set his bone and gave his mother the herbs needed to mend his arm and strengthen his febrile condition. Years later and in a foul mood, William would come upon Nichol in the woods and would have to be reminded of the man’s service to himself and his mother.

For his 15th birthday, his father gave him a stallion, a big-boned destrier with whom WilliamWilliam-darker-web could refine his equestrian studies. He learned quickly that the stallion, whom he named Hrothgar, was headstrong, and that while William could be even more headstrong, both his stubbornness and physical strength must be tempered with finesse and kindness to bring about the kind of partnership he wanted and needed with Hrothgar. And so he followed his father’s master of the horse about, soaking in the man’s knowledge and applying it to his stallion’s training, so that when he spent a year under his liege lord’s roof to gain a sense of the political strata he’d travel in, Hrothgar went with him and was the envy of all the other squires.

Just shy of his 17th birthday, William went to OxfordUniversity to complete his education. There he met Andrew MacKay, who would become his lifelong friend, despite being a Scot and later a spy. Here he also met and grew familiar with his peers, including Ancel Catington, a close friend despite their opposing political views and family ties.

He accompanied his father to family estates in Normandy and in Bretagne, all in secret, as it was illegal at the time for an English noble to own property in Normandy and much of France. He had a fling or two while at Oxford, but it wasn’t until he spent time in Paris immersed in his father’s businesses that William fell in love and experienced the kind of real heartbreak that left him emotionally scarred. He found himself involved in duels for his honor, and fought his way out of more than one ambush that should have cost him his life. In a peculiar twist of fate, one of his attackers died in his arms as William listened to his tale of a hard life and his regret at leaving a loving wife and three children. Angry with the thief, yet filled with compassion, William buried the man and anonymously sent his family enough money to buy a hectare of land, a cow, two breeding pigs and some chickens.

Conservative by nature, stubbornly iconoclastic, jealous of his responsibilities and wary of political entanglements as his father had taught him to be, his time in Normandy and France expanded his knowledge of the world for better and worse.

When he returned to Norburnshire at his father’s death, William was a changed man.

What makes a man tick

How do you know what makes characters tick? You develop a backstory for each one, and as I’m writing in the historical genre, my characters are grounded in their period, the tail end of the 14th century.

The men of The Luck of Two Magpies—William de la Coeur Grifon, earl Norburnshire; Andrew MacKay, earl Pentland; Ancel Catington, earl Middleton, and Justin Beaufort, Archdeacon of Northumbria—are all of the titled class. They’re English or Scottish, earls or royal bastard, and although each man’s lineage differs, they share general commonalities.

A firstborn male child of nobility pretty much had his future laid out for him. As inheritor of wasters his father’s title, he was introduced to his future and his parents’ expectations early on. Toys for noble boys mimicked adult weapons and tools, so that William, Ancel, and Andrew would have played with pint-sized swords called wasters and shields, and would have toy knights on horseback made of wood, tin or lead to play with, much as little boys today have miniature soldiers or jedi warrior figures. As a son of royal lineage, Justin Beaufort would also have played with these along with his brothers.

The sons of the nobility were loved and cared for by their parents. Portraits of the late 14th century and early 15th century show fathers doting on adoring sons. Yes, they had wetnurses until about the age of two whereas in the lower classes mothers nursed their own infants, but infant and childhood mortality rates were high, and parents grieved over the loss of a child. And given that high rate of infant mortality (and the fact that there was no birth control except abstinence—well, there was, but I’ll save that tidbit for the novel), noble women were expected to produce heirs in multiples. The current phrase ‘an heir and a spare’ isn’t a new notion.

medieval studentsAt home, small boys of the aristocracy learned refined manners and social mores, including proper table manners, which meant coming to board with immaculately clean fingernails as eating was an affair for hands and an eating dagger. (Forks were eschewed in northern Europe and England though they were used in the Middle East and southern Europe.) Noble children learned how to sing, dance and play instruments. Boys learned the concepts of chivalry, morality and nobility. A boy’s aspirations toward these concepts would be fueled by attending tournaments with his father and hearing stories and song of brave knightly deeds and combats.

By the age of six or seven, they would begin to learn reading and writing at home withtext book tutors, though some sons would be sent to their liege lords’ households to become pages. This was more prevalent in the early medieval era. By the late 1300s onward, most noble sons were educated at home with tutors or sent to schools, and some were sent to university at about 16 years of age, where studies of the natural sciences, philosophy and mathematics were explored.

Many were knighted around that age as well, though in some cases favored sons were knighted early. For example, Henry (Hotspur) Percy, who would become earl BeknightingNorthumberland in due course, was knighted by King Edward III just prior to Henry’s 13th birthday, and at 16 he served with the Earl of March’s army in Ireland.

Whether trained at home or away, their days were spent conquering reading, writing, mathematics and Latin as well as gaining proficiency at skills to be used in war or in the social setting of tournaments. They tilted at the quintain and watched their seniors to develop the skills of the lance and the sword, and joined in the prestigious sport of hunting to further hone their horsemanship and weaponry skills.

These boys were betrothed early on, promised to a young girl who brought a dowry, title and or lands that would enrich his title and holdings when the two married. Marriage ages were sometimes stipulated in the betrothal contracts, and while the marriageable age for a boy was considered to be 13 and for a girl 12, they often waited some years after that before entering into the marriage. 

How did this upbringing affect them when their fathers died and they inherited their titles? Well, characters are individuals, and while some experiences give them common ground, their family lives, their teachers and associates, and their own personalities play as much of a role as their training in who they become.

Next up: William.