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January 6, 2005

Fan Letter Yields Novel Position for Titusville Library Staffer

It started with a fan letter more than 20 years ago. “I never wrote one before or since – not even to the Beatles as a teenager – but I had to tell Sharon how much I enjoyed her novel,” said Pitt-Titusville library assistant Valerie LaMont.

The Sharon is Sharon Kay Penman, well-known author of historical novels and medieval mysteries, and the novel, published in 1982, was her first, “The Sunne in Splendour,” a re-telling of the life of the historical Richard III, the infamous deformed king in Shakespeare’s play.

Following the fan letter – “I never thought she’d write back!” – LaMont and Penman began a correspondence born of mutual interests that grew into a friendship.

LaMont had majored in medieval and late-Plantagenet history at SUNY – Buffalo and later had joined the Richard III Society. Richardians, as they call themselves, believe the historical Richard got the bum’s rap from the Bard, who was more interested in pleasing the Tudor line of royalty that in 1485 deposed Richard, the last Plantagenet king, and that was still in power when Shakespeare wrote his play in the 1590s. Penman’s novel depicts Richard as a patient, tender king and devoted lover – not at all the murderous scoundrel created by Shakespeare.

“There is so little good historical fiction out there, and Sharon writes some of the best,” LaMont opined. “Her books are well-crafted. She’s thorough, scrupulously accurate, especially historically accurate, and still tells a good tale.”

Eventually, the pen pals struck up a professional relationship as LaMont’s influence and advice on Penman’s works-in-progress increased over the years.

Her input started with Penman’s second novel, “Here Be Dragons,” published in 1985. “She would send me chapters to read, to get my reaction,” LaMont said. “I became another level of review, in addition to her editors. I put my reader’s hat on and she trusted me as someone who has the passion and knowledge and medieval background. Finally, she said, ‘Why don’t we make this official? We can work together.'”

So, LaMont, who has been on staff at Pitt-Titusville’s Haskell Memorial Library since 1989, became the New Jersey author’s reader, proofreader, researcher, consultant and adviser in her spare time and during vacations.

“The ideas for the novels are all hers. I read for continuity, for historical accuracy. Are the characters consistent? Is the novel too melodramatic? Is it too simple? I’d tell her, ‘I like this part. If your editor doesn’t like it, you should fight to keep it in,'” LaMont said. For Penman’s mysteries, there is more wiggle room for fiction than in the historical novels, LaMont pointed out. “For the mysteries, I look to see if the clues work. Are there too many of them? Are there enough red herrings? Is the reader drawn in? Does the reader feel satisfied?” The pair traveled last year to France researching sites for Penman’s latest medieval mystery novel, “The Prince of Darkness,” which will be published in April.

“We spent 10 days in France. Between high school and college, I had had eight years of French, but that was a long time ago. I was surprised that it started to come back to me. So I was our interpreter,” LaMont said. The two landed in Paris, staying at a hotel with a medieval theme on the Left Bank, within walking distance of Notre Dame. They made a side trip to Genets, site of Mont de Michel, which was noted for Vitry castle, one of the settings in the novel. “Sharon needed to know if you can see the Mont from the Genets coastline where English pilgrims would have landed. It turns out you can see the castle for miles. But she needed that first-hand confirmation,” LaMont said. “These are very well-planned trips. Sharon knows exactly what’s she’s looking for.”

This fall, the two researched background for Penman’s latest work-in-progress, “The Devil’s Brood,” the third book in a Henry II – Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy. (Think Peter O’Toole and Kathryn Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter.”)

“The book opens with Henry after Thomas Becket’s death, so we had to go to Canterbury, of course,” LaMont said. “There is also a character, a historical figure who as a prisoner in the Tower of London tried to escape, fell and didn’t make it. Here’s Sharon out there with a tape measure, so she could say how far he fell. I think the people around thought, ‘Who is this crazy woman?'”

The two companions travel well together, LaMont said. “There are very few boundaries in our friendship and professional relationship. Sharon says we were sisters in a former life.”

Penman now has penned six historical novels (not counting ‘Brood,’ which is still in the works), and four medieval mysteries. The mysteries feature recurring characters: Queen Eleanor’s trusted man, Justin de Quincy, and his malevolent counterpart, Durand, the yin and yang at the center of the murder stories, LaMont said.

“I told Sharon, ‘I like Durand,’ and she said, ‘But he’s evil,'” LaMont recounted. “Well, he’s cold-blooded. He’s a double agent, but that’s Durand’s job. I guess I have a weakness for the bad boys.”

That type of interchange between the two ranges from the critical elements of character and plot down to the mundane naming of characters.

“I have final say on the names of the characters,” LaMont said. That dates back to her pointing out to Penman that Hugh Beaumont, the name the author had chosen for a character, is the name of the actor who played “The Beaver’s” father, Ward Cleaver, on “Leave It to Beaver.”

“Sharon was horrified, but glad that I had pointed it out,” LaMont said. “Hugh Beaumont became Hugh de Whittam. She also wanted to name a character ‘Anakin,’ which is a perfectly legitimate Flemish medieval name, but it conjures up ‘Anakin Skywalker’ from Star Wars.”

After being persuaded that LaMont knew more about names than she did, Penman dubbed her “the midwife of my babies.” “Sometimes I feel just like that,” LaMont said.

-Peter Hart LaMont

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 9

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