Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which range across the mystery, paranormal, fantasy and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business. Awards she’s won include an Eppie Award for fantasy, and she’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards and a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
In the last few weeks, we’ve lost several literary giants – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maya Angelou, among the most notable of those. Every loss of a unique voice diminishes us. Less noticed among those who’ve recently departed is one who had much more impact on me personally. Mary Stewart influenced my own writing more than any other author I could name.
By the time I was fifteen, I’d been reading gothic romance novels for years, ever since I graduated from Nancy Drew. I’d also dived into my father’s collection of mysteries by Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and others. Loaners from friends drew me into science fiction and fantasy worlds as well. I read everything I could get my hands on, but I preferred stories with female protagonists and lots of adventure, especially those with young women who used their brains and courage to get out of tight spots and solve mysteries.
At fifteen, I picked up my first book by Mary Stewart. It’s no exaggeration to say that the book was a turning point in my life. The version of Madam, Will You Talk that I read then was packaged like the gothic romances so popular in the sixties. The cover showed a woman in a skimpy gown fleeing down a rocky cliff-side. In the odd side note department: there is actually a scene in the book that would sort of fit that description. But the cover is, nonetheless, deceptive. The book is not a gothic. It’s romantic suspense. And I was enchanted.
The heroine of Madam, Will You Talk is smart, courageous and resourceful. She gets drawn into a bad situation, not through stupidity or carelessness on her part, but by befriending a lonely young boy. And when the going gets tough, she doesn’t wait for anyone else to get tough for her. She rescues herself. To my joy, I discovered those things were true of almost all of Mary Stewart’s heroines.
Even at fifteen I sensed there was even more to Stewart’s novels that made them so wonderful I not only read every one of hers I could get my hands on, but I read them again and again. Her books are still my go-to comfort reads. Because I write in the same genre, I’ve studied her books relentlessly for clues to what makes them so compellingly readable.
There are so many things Stewart did right, even remarkably, that it’s hard to pull out any one thing and say this or that was her strongest point.
Many people point to her ability to paint pictures with words. Her descriptions of people, places and things could be so brilliant and vivid you felt you were standing right next to her looking at the same scene. Stewart had an amazing gift for picking out the right details and using the right words to describe things.
There is one scene in Madam, Will You Talk that has remained engraved in my memory for years, even though it concerns food and I’m definitely not a foodie. It is set in a restaurant after a harrowing and very emotional scene for the heroine, and it’s nothing more than a description of the food.
I remember still those exquisite fluted silver dishes, each with its load of dainty colors…there were anchovies and tiny gleaming silver fish in red sauce, and savoury butter in curled strips of fresh lettuce; there were caviar and tomato and olives green and black, and small golden-pink mushrooms and cresses and beans. […] I remember a red mullet, done somehow with lemons, and a succulent golden-brown fowl bursting with truffles and flanked by tiny peas, then a froth of ice and whipped cream dashed with kirsch, and the fine smooth caress of the wine through it all.
The glorious sensuality of the food description and the brilliant use of the details of color and texture enhance a scene that is a major turning point in the story. I don’t even like several of the things she mentioned and she still made me want to try them.
Mary Stewart was a master of more than just description, however. Her plots were interesting, complicated and well thought-out. In her romantic suspense novels, the heroine usually steps into an ugly, complicated situation that has already mostly played out, but her actions change the course and likely outcome of the story. It makes for intricate plots that are still easy to follow and understand.
Her characters are lively, vivid, and feel very real, people you’d want to know, and even her villains are human and sometimes attractive as well until you learn what’s beneath the surface. Stewart’s heroines are smart, educated, resourceful women who stumble into bad situations but never entirely lose their pluck or their sense of humor. Love interests are often initially enigmatic but there is usually a good reason for it. The secondary characters are so well-drawn, even the walk-ons almost leap off the page.
As an author, Stewart wasn’t afraid to take risks with plot, characters, and situations. In Madam, Will You Talk, we don’t know who is the hero and who the villain until halfway through the book. In other books she features a divorced heroine (unheard-of at the time she wrote it), a couple whose affair began while one of them was married to someone else, and a hero/heroine couple who are first cousins. One of her books, and I won’t name the title to prevent spoilers, pulls off a full-on Sixth Sense level twist. Not the same twist as the movie, but one nearly as good.
Do I even need to mention her versatility as a writer? She’s almost as well-known for her Merlin books – Arthurian novels, with a heaping helping of history and a dash of fantasy thrown in. She also wrote young adult stories.
In the end, though, it’s hard to say that any or all of these things add up to a reading experience that has enchanted millions of people other than myself. There’s a certain magic to her writing that simply defies description or analysis. I try some level of imitation in my own writing and know that I fall short as often as not.