top of page
  • cplesley

Co-writing The Merchant's Tale


Against a stormy background and a listing sailing ship, two small boatloads of men struggle against the waves; cover of The Merchant's Tale

Five months ago this week, P.K. Adams and I published our jointly written novel, The Merchant’s Tale. In celebration (because I have a full slate of commitments through the six-month anniversary in May), I am re-posting this interview about co-writing that ran in the Five Directions Press online newsletter earlier this year. And many thanks again to Joan Schweighardt for her insightful questions. Don’t forget to check out her books at https://www.joanschweighardt.com.

 

JS: What is The Merchant’s Tale about?

 

PK: The Merchant’s Tale is set in 1553–54, and it follows a group of English adventurers who are sent by King Edward Tudor to discover the sea route to China. However, they accidentally land on the Russian coast after a storm decimates their fleet. Immediately, they grasp the opportunity and head to Moscow, where Tsar Ivan the Terrible rules with an iron fist. They are hoping to strike a lucrative trade deal, but what they don’t know is that by doing so they stand in the way of a Hansa merchant, Karl Scharping, and his friend Pyotr Petrov, a clerk at Ivan’s court, who have their own plans for striking it big. To complicate matters, Pyotr’s beautiful sister Selina falls in love with one of the Englishmen, which sets in motion a string of events that end in a shocking murder.

 

CP: I can’t improve on that summary. I’d note only that the English adventurers, their mission, and the storm are historical. So is their meeting with Ivan the Terrible. That initial group of merchants established a relationship between Russia and England that lasted for more than a century. Many of the English characters as well as members of Ivan’s court were also real people, but those at the focus of our story—Karl, Pyotr, Selina, the man she loves, and anyone closely associated with them—are fictional.

 

JS: How did you decide to write a novel together?

 

PK: In 2018, Carolyn interviewed me for New Books in Historical Fiction about my debut historical novel The Greenest Branch, which is based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. During our conversation, we discovered our mutual love of history and writing, one thing led to another, and before long we started bouncing ideas for a common project.

 

CP: I’ve been fascinated by Hildegard of Bingen since I first learned about her, so interviewing Patrycja for my podcast channel was a natural. But when I discovered that her next project was a mystery series set in 16th-century Poland, I suggested we write something together. I mean, really, how many other novelists writing in English know anything about 16th-century Poland, Lithuania, and Russia? It seemed like too good a coincidence to let slip.

 

JS: What are the factors that convinced you that you could write together successfully? (Include overlaps in your areas of expertise.)

 

PK: Our common academic interests and the fact that when we talked, whether about history or my own writing (I was then in the process of working on the first book in my historical series Jagiellon Mysteries), Carolyn’s comments were always helpful and constructive. That in and of itself did not guarantee that a collaboration between us would work well, of course, but it did! A lot of it, I think, had to do with the fact that we have complementary storytelling strengths that served the different aspects of our novel very well. While Carolyn is great at writing romance, I feel stronger in plotting a murder mystery. The Merchant’s Tale contains both these story lines, so we were able to neatly divide responsibilities and avoid stepping on each other’s toes.

 

CP: I would agree. We took a chance, and it worked. Our approaches to writing are complimentary, but also our areas of expertise: Patrycja knows more about Poland and Italy; I specialize in Russia, but I spent half my childhood in the UK, so I’m also familiar with British history. We needed all those elements for our story. It was a bit of a gamble, even so. As it turned out, our personalities also mesh well, but that was not something we knew for sure when we started.


Image from the Illustrated Chronicle Codex showing a group of men on horseback at right, a man in a crown surrounded by his advisers on the left, and presentation of Richard Chancellor to the tsar and his wife at top right

JS: Did you work with a tight outline? Was your vision for the story pretty much the same from the get-go?

 

PK: We spent quite a bit of time talking about the story arc, and we came up with a chapter-by-chapter outline before we started writing. Each chapter summary was descriptive rather than bullet points, and in the course of our writing we modified that outline as necessary to fit the developing narrative, but we definitely knew where we were going with it from the get-go. I don’t believe a blank-page approach could work for a collaborative project.

 

CP: Yes, we did stick pretty closely to the outline, as Patrycja notes, and we discussed deviations as they arose. In fact, that was a big adjustment for me, as I am allergic to outlines as a general rule—one reason I don’t write mysteries, which require, I think, a much more disciplined approach to a story than I naturally take. But I agree that for a joint-written project, that ability to plan and (mostly) stay with the plan is essential.

 

JS: How did you communicate (emails? phone?) during the time you were working on the novel?

 

PK: We frequently texted and emailed during the entire process, but we also had Facetime sessions before we started writing in order to plot the story.

 

CP: We did meet in person once during the Historical Novel Society conference, when it was held near Baltimore in 2019. That was at the very beginning of the project. Otherwise, we communicated by phone, text, e-mail, and video calls. We also divided up the chapters and e-mailed drafts to each other throughout the process—in part to keep the story on track but also to blend our styles into a more coherent whole.

 

JS: Were you “co-owners” of each of the characters? Or did you each have your own characters to handle?

 

CP: Each of us took primary responsibility for two of the four point-of-view characters. Patrycja wrote the initial drafts of the chapters narrated by Karl and Pyotr, whereas Selina and Mikhail (Pyotr’s high-ranking patron and Selina’s predatory employer) were “mine.” But we each commented on the other’s characters and made adjustments based on the feedback we received, so in the end they reflect us both.

 

JS: Were your writing styles already similar or did you have to mold two different styles into something in the middle?

 

PK: We have fairly different writing styles. I tend to be sparer and more concise, whereas Carolyn is a wordsmith and her prose tends to be more lyrical. As it happens, these differences lent themselves very well to the types of characters we were writing. The voices of Selina and Mikhail are different from those of Karl and Pyotr, but it works well together as a whole.

 

JS: What is the toughest thing about working with another writer?

 

PK: Number one: agreeing on the plot. Luckily, we had no problems there. Secondly, working out differences of opinion on particular plot points. Those did happen on a few occasions, but we were always able to come to an agreement in the end, whether it was a compromise or whether one side “won.” In the end, what really helped us avoid many of the pitfalls of collaborative projects is that we respected each other’s views and never let our egos get the better of us.

 

CP: Sticking within a strict framework was the most difficult adjustment for me. When I’m writing alone, the creative process is entirely under my control, and I tend to follow it wherever it leads. Of course, I eventually share the writing with others, and I always take their comments seriously, but at that point the story is essentially done. Working with a partner, whether it’s co-writing or any other joint endeavor, requires more give-and-take, so I can imagine situations where it wouldn’t work at all. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with Patrycja. We were both pretty good at listening, responding, and adjusting, so I found it a very positive experience overall. And it is a great plus to have someone to share the joys as well as the frustrations of writing along the way.

 

JS: What surprised you most about working together?

 

PK: How fun it can be!

 

CP: Yes, I would echo that. The whole experience was more rewarding than I could have imagined.

 

JS: Does collaboration help one to grow as a writer generally?

 

PK: Absolutely! Editing and being edited almost in real time was something I really enjoyed and found very helpful.

 

CP: Yes, I agree. Just witnessing how someone else approaches a story is revelatory. Patrycja saw things I didn’t, and I hope the reverse is also true. And co-writing is different from ordinary critique, because we both have “skin in the game,” as they say. We’re both equally responsible for making the book work.

 

JS: How long did the project take?

 

PK: About a year?

 

CP: The reason for Patrycja’s question mark is that it’s really hard to tell, because we were both involved in projects of our own throughout the process. So the total time from that initial meeting in Baltimore to the book’s publication was four years. But the actual writing of the first draft was very fast—I would say no more than six months, and probably closer to four. The revisions probably took about the same amount of time, but there were long gaps between stages before we both cleared the decks enough to come back to The Merchant’s Tale.


P.K. Adams is the author of The Greenest Branch, The Column of Burning Spices, and three Jagiellon Mysteries—Silent Water, Midnight Fire, and Royal Heir. Find out more about her and her books at https://pkadams-author.com.

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page