Award-winning author Charlene Bell Dietz writes science- and historical-suspense mystery novels and short stories. In 2022, she stepped away from the mystery genre to release the historical novel The Spinster, the Rebel, and the Governor: Margaret Brent Pre-Colonial Maryland 1638-1648. You’ll find Charlene on her website at InkyDanceStudios.com and on Facebook. Read more about her writing in SWW’s 2017 and 2020 interviews, and look for The Spinster, the Rebel, and the Governor at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.
Why did you write The Spinster, the Rebel, and the Governor? Who are your ideal readers?
This all started from searching genealogy records where I came upon this passage: Giles Brent, a thirty-some-year-old man, married a nine-year-old Indian princess. What? Researchers branded Giles Brent as an opportunist set on acquiring land through this marriage. Then I learned this young Indian princess to be a ward of Governor Leonard Calvert of Maryland and his good friend Lady Margaret Brent, Giles’s sister and a spinster. I had to know more.
Diving into the Maryland Historical Society’s Archives, I found a treasure of a story, not about Giles, but Margaret Brent. However, mystery surrounded Spinster Brent. She left no diaries, letters, journals, or other primary source material except for a Will and the 134 court cases she presented in pre-colonial Maryland. Dr. Lois Green Carr organized these case documents, recording Margaret’s court appearances. These revealed information about an incredible woman who would right all wrongs. I had to write her story.
Since the American Bar Association honors five accomplished women attorneys each year with their Margaret Brent Award, wouldn’t all women attorneys want to read and learn about this woman? Also, my ideal readers are those who like a dynamic story driven by the characters’ deep internal conflicts; historical buffs who want more than names, dates, and places; anyone interested in stories about unusual independent women who are the first and create change; and Maryland citizens and those who’s ancestors sailed to pre-colonial Maryland. This book inadvertently shows how some of our nation’s key founding principles came into being, so I believe mid to high school students would enjoy learning about early American history through my characters’ trails and errors.
The inspiration for your current book is obvious – Margaret Brent is a fascinating woman, not just for her accomplishments but because of the time period she lived in. Tell us about her, and highlight a few of what you consider her most important contributions to history.
Margaret seemed to be a driven woman. She wouldn’t let the norm stand. Her actions show she sought after what she knew to be impossible and remained intent on having a voice as strong as the men of her times. I don’t believe she was a feminist, but she knew power was in knowing.
During King James’s rule in 1600s, the Church of England had special prayer books for women. Being discouraged from reading the actual King James Bible would certainly infuriate women as devout as Margaret Brent. Knowledge required study, but England denied women much in the form of education. The records indicate Margaret may have secretly taught Bible studies, Latin, and mathematics to other Catholic women, all of which was considered a serious crime.
Once in pre-colonial Maryland, Margaret acquired a voice in court. Many gentlemen landowners hired her as their attorney, giving her knowledge, status, and power. Even though she asked for the right to vote (and was denied twice), as one of the largest landholders and as the Governor’s executrix, her integrity prompted her to do what was right for Maryland at great personal cost and forsaking her own desires. Her actions prevented Maryland from reverting back to Virginia.
This one accomplishment preserved some of our founding principles: our separation of church and state, the path forward for our great American dream of rising from nothing to owning land and being part of the governing body, and today’s ideals of religious tolerance. No wonder the ABA awards deserving women attorneys.
The title of the novel barely skims the surface of this woman’s complicated life. What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book — researching, staying true to the historical record, or filling in/fictionalizing aspects of the story never recorded?
The historical record is what it is. Before I even started, I knew I had to be true to the logical sources and events. I say “logical” because one of the most serious problems with researching is that something may seem like a fact, yet it’s only the result of a long-line of historians parroting what someone said, yet was never verified. This required me to start my researching years prior to Margaret’s story. I needed to know the geography, social mores, religious struggles, and politics of England. Then I needed to do the same for pre-colonial America, not just Maryland. After months and months of diligent study, I moved on to hunting for all references to Margaret Brent. I hit the jackpot when I found her 134 recorded court records in the Maryland Historical Archives. Excited, I had to learn where her friends, neighbors, enemies lived, who they were, what they did, and why had they been mentioned in her court records.
Since this story is completely written from Margaret’s point of view, the fictional part of the story flowed from having to tie events together or to give other eyes and ears to situations Margaret couldn’t personally know. The most difficult part of the fiction came from not hearing Margaret’s voice. But when I studied the 134 court cases she presented before Governor Leonard Calvert, I could hear her and came to know and care for her as a person.
Another challenge haunted me all the way though this story. Anachronistic errors (things, language, and events out of time and place) cropped up unknowingly. For example, I had no idea Governor Leonard Calvert had no gavel, nor had he ever heard of one. Gavels didn’t appear until the 1800s. Halfway through the manuscript it dawned on me I needed to check if gavels were used in the 1600s. Fingers crossed for my escape in using words and objects that don’t fit the time.
Why did you choose to focus on just ten years of Margaret Brent’s life?
My other three books (mystery and suspense) follow an adapted “hero’s journey” plot. Actually, I’ve adapted Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method of plotting for my novels. This doesn’t hinder my sitting at the computer and letting my characters speak to me and do their things, but it does give them a framework for their exhilarating highs and struggling lows. For a reader to be engaged, a story can’t be a straight road of sameness. It needs a chaotic roller-coaster experience to evoke thrills and concerns. This book isn’t a classic mystery, but when I learned of the different events which occurred in England and in Maryland from 1638 to 1648, I knew history had provided me with an amazing roller-coaster plot placed in a neat, ten-year package.
What are some interesting facts you uncovered about Maryland in the 1600s?
When I visited St. Mary’s City, I learned that pre-colonial Maryland used tobacco for their currency and that most of the people went barefooted to keep from wearing out their shoes. The city called St. Mary’s City wasn’t even a town. It had a sturdy brick church and a mill but not one shop nor an inn.
Until the 1800s, Maryland (like England) had a strange law called Deodand. This practice of sacrificing inanimate murderers of humans, probably steeped in superstition, dates back to the eleventh century. English Common Law referred to the fatal offending object (or to a lethal animal) as a deodand. This meant animals and nonliving assassins of humans, or their worth, must be handed over to the king and to God. Deodand ended when the locomotive came into use in England, and the expense of turning over an offending locomotive to the crown became impractical.
The most intriguing facts came from discovering how some of our nation’s founding principles developed from Lord Baltimore’s creation of a religious tolerant colony in the New World. Needing healthy men and families to populate the territory, he required his landowners to apply the headright system. Indentured servants would be released after working off the payment for their ocean passage, with full rights of all other citizens. To help keep peace between the different religions, the second Lord Baltimore instituted the separation of church and state. This had been attempted in a northern colony, but didn’t last.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a new series set in the late 1960s in fictional Duke City High School, located in downtown Albuquerque. In this mystery-suspense novel, and as a long-term educator, I create quirky characters based on former student encounters, letting my characters frolic around in a familiar but possibly deadly environment. I enjoy doing fast-paced, scary but witty mysteries. In the meantime, I’m writing articles for magazines and blogs. Here are links to two of my most recent articles published in Mystery and Suspense Magazine: “Perspectives on Creating Suspense” (May 9, 2023) and “Why Murder Mysteries Intrigue” (May 17, 2023).
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
I’m excited to reveal that The Spinster, the Rebel, and the Governor has been acquired by Artemesia Publishing and the second edition will be out the end of February 2024.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.