KM Pohlkamp discusses her novel set in Tudor England

apricots wolfsbane

K.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife to the love of her life, proud mother of two young children, and a Mission Control flight controller. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut novel Apricots and Wolfsbane, published October 2017 and was designated an Editors’ Choice Selection by the Historical Novel Society, among other accolades.

K.M. has skyped with book clubs all around the world and would love to discuss her writing with yours. She can be contacted at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp.

apricots wolfsbane

What attracted you to the Tudor period?

I have always loved the renaissance period for the art, especially the clothes. As I learned more of the history I fell in love with the drama of the Tudor era and after attending my first renaissance festival I was hooked. Yes, renaissance festivals are very period inaccurate, but for a writer who can easily be immersed in a story or a world, they are so inspirational.

Is the story of a female poisoner based on a true story in any way?

Apricots and Wolfsbane follows the career of a female poison assassin in Tudor England who a justifies her lust for murder with her faith by seeking penance from the sacrament of confession. (Of course, that is not how the sacrament works, but it takes her the book to learn.)

The character and aspects of the plot were inspired by Locusta, who was the world’s first serial killer from Ancient Gaul. One of her more famous murders was that of Emperor Claudius. In AD 54, Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife—and niece—of Emperor Claudius, grew tired of her uncle/husband. She conspired with Locusta to murder Claudius in order to place her son from a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. The Emperor, however, proved a challenging mark. Not only was he armed with taste testers, he also had a ghastly habit of vomiting each meal by tickling his throat with a feather in order to indulge again—a quirk which limited the time any poison could act.

But Claudius’ habit was not a challenge for Locusta’s ingenuity. Undercover, Locusta managed to avert the taste tester and serve the Emperor death cap mushrooms, likely flavored with aconite. When symptoms of poisoning appeared, Agrippina gave Claudius a feather to purge the poison, but Locusta had laced that as well.

Suffering, the Emperor called for his personal physician, Xenophon, whom the devious women also had in their pocket. So when Xenophon gave Claudius a healing enema, he added poison to the mix. Claudius suffered a heinous death and eventually perished on October 13.

When I first came across Locusta’s story a few years ago I was struck by the statement the world’s first serial killer was a woman. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal with a career in STEM, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfil her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy?

Around the same time my priest gave a sermon warning about the ease of falling into a cycle of sin and penance; how often we realize our actions are incorrect, feel guilt, and then performance penance. But after guilt wears away, it becomes easy to commit the sin again. Of course he was talking about minor offenses, but as a matter of reductio ad absurdum, I applied this concept to a murderer.

So inspired by the notion confession could provide a source of false permission for murder, I lifted Locusta’s inspiration out of Rome and placed my novel at the height of the Catholic church in England.

To learn more about Locusta you can read a blog post I wrote here.

Tudor England is hugely popular so most readers will be quite well informed. What kind of research did you need to undertake in order to write such a well-received book?

My biggest challenge researching Apricots and Wolfsbane was getting all the poisons, symptoms and recipes correct. I wanted every bit of the alchemy to be accurate and utilize period equipment and that took a lot of digging.

The Tudor period is very popular which means there are a lot of resources available but also that discerning readers will spot every error. I spent significant time getting the tiniest details correct which is so important to the essence of historical fiction. The magic of histfic is the ability to transport the reader to another time.

But I wanted to bring something new to the sub-genre of Tudor historical fiction. This is not another piece about court intrigue but rather a unique, fictional story set in the era. The novel takes place in a fictional shire within Tudor England so I could make up the local politics without incorrectly referencing actual historical figures. I think this is one reason why the book has been so well received by Tudor History fans as well as those who do not usually read historical fiction.

How did you get into writing?

As a mother of two young children and a full-time NASA Engineer, writing is my means of escape. I love curling up in bed with my laptop at night when the house is quiet – and maybe with some chocolate or a glass of wine ?

How do you go about planning your novels?

I am a meticulous planner which dominates my writing process, beginning with extensive research for inspiration. I then develop lengthy spreadsheet outlines to work through pacing and strategize the best way to best tell the tale. (I am an engineer by trade, after all.) When I’m ready, I start writing a piece in order, but about halfway through usually end up writing the end and then filling in the middle. I also find I constantly re-write the first chapter and could forever continue tweaking.

How do you balance the fact and the fiction when writing this type of novel?

Historical fiction readers expect facts to be correct. For any places where I’ve stretched history or made undocumented connections for the sake of the story I always include an author’s note in the back. Historical fiction does allow an author liberty to imagine the motivation or journey of known figures, but when referencing actual people and events, I try to be as accurate as possible. It is this expected accuracy which brings the history to life.

One of the areas that my website is looking at currently is the way that history is interpreted and presented to the general public. How do you go about deciding how to portray your characters and the events in which they become involved in?

A good plot is character driven. Their challenges have to be relatable and the events presented with enough tension to keep the pages turning. I love finding little details from history and presenting a plausible motivation or reason why events may have unfolded why they did. I prefer my main characters to be fictional so I have the most literary freedom and let the time period affect how they go about solving their individual challenges. I also love to drop in references to actual events and people because I think it helps make the story immersive and can be fun “Easter Eggs” for knowledgeable readers. Hopefully some detail in one of my novels will encourage a reader to go investigate the true history further.

Which authors have been most influential to your own writing to date?

After surviving years of AP English and college courses, my joy for reading was decimated. I could not withstand another “classic” that I was supposed to love. After college graduation, a friend put Anne Bishop’s Daughter of the Blood in my hands and begged me to read. I was hooked.

I related to the strong, feminine characters. The dark aspects of the story drew me in as much as the jewelled castes and worlds Bishop created. The series rekindled my love for reading – but also showed me dark subjects can be approached with relatable sophistication. This is a lesson I also took away from my favourite book, Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey.

Have you got any plans for future books that are in a historical setting?

The sequel to Apricots and Wolfsbane publishes Fall 2019 and then I have a new novel in work following completely different characters set during the War of Roses. I also have a period short story about a female physicists at Harvard in 1906 published in the anthology Flicker. That piece was inspired by history as well as my personal experiences as a female engineer at NASA. More information about my short story and writings can be found on my website.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Know your genre. Authors should know what is marketable and expectations for their genre such as word count and style. But this also means making sure you pick a genre that demonstrates your writing strengths. I tend to write a little poetic which works great for historical fiction but would be a constant battle in other genres. Early in my writing career an editor gave me advice to switch to historical fiction and I’ve never looked back.

Author Bio:

K.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife to the love of her life, proud mother of two young children, and a Mission Control flight controller. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut novel Apricots and Wolfsbane, published October 2017 and was designated an Editors’ Choice Selection by the Historical Novel Society, among other accolades.

K.M. has skyped with book clubs all around the world and would love to discuss her writing with yours. She can be contacted at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp.

Social Media Links:

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Synopsis of Apricots and Wolfsbane

Lavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victims’ bodies–to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Believing confession erases the sin of murder, her morbid desires are in unity with faith, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.

At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. She balances revenge with her struggle to develop a tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.

With her ideals in conflict, Lavinia must decide which will satisfy her heart: love, faith, or murder–but the betrayals are just beginning.

This novel includes a book club discussion guide in the back.

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Watch the Book Trailer on YouTube

apricots wolfsbane

Awards:

Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice
2018 Chanticleer Chaucer International Historical Fiction Award Shortlist
Discovering Diamonds “Discovered Diamond” and “Book of the Month” Selection
2018 Texas Author’s Association Book Awards – First place Historical/Tudor
Readers’ Favorite 5-Star Novel

Editorial Reviews:

“One of the most dramatic endings I have ever read. Highly recommended.”- Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Reviews, Book of the Month Selection

“The inherently high stakes of Lavinia’s profession, coupled with the danger of her rapid rise in notoriety, make for a page-turning plot. Add to that a one-sided love affair with the local lawman, and you have a recipe for a cracking good read. This book drew me in unlike any other in a long time.” – Historical Novel Society, Editors’ Choice Selection Novel

“One should never condone murder, but, strangely, I rooted for Lavinia. Pohlkamp made her easily understandable, despite her odd sense of morality. She had to survive in a time period dominated by men…Her dark obsession with poison, her love for the magistrate, Haylan Moryet, and her belief in God turn the narrative into something fascinating and substantial that powers the heart of the story.” – Reader’s Favorite 5-Star Review

Author Interviews

Lindsay Littleson – wonderfully constructed novels aimed at Primary School pupils, accompanied by teaching resources

Chris Turnbull – a range of books largely set in the Victorian era, plus a World War Two novel and one set in late 19th century Paris

David Pilling – the Longsword Series, set in the reign of Edward I

Alex Marchant – stories suitable for Primary school children and KS3, set against the backdrop of Richard III’s life

Zenta Brice – a story based in Latvia as the Soviet Regimes grip on the Baltic loosened

Jeri Westerson – an author in 3 genres, most relevant here are the Crispin Guest novels, described by Jeri as Medieval Noir

Simon Schama – an excerpt of a conversation about the way in which Historical Documentaries are produced

Mark Norman on Folklore

Nathen Amin – the Rise of the Beaufort’s and Tudor England

Enemies: A War Story. An interview with Kenneth Rosenberg

MC Holliss: Historical Fiction for Primary School children

David Field discusses his novels set in Tudor England

2 Comments

  1. I had the good fortune to review Apricots and Wolfsbane for Discovering Diaminds. From the very start, the style of writing had me hooked and was by far and away, for me, my personal Book of the Year. I look forward to more of Ms Pohlkamp’s work

    • Good to hear. It’s a wonderful story and I found the way that a story was lifted from one period into another very interesting.

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