When Sharon Kay Penman, of Mays Landing, speaks of completing a novel, she sounds like one of her characters: a medieval warrior. Her new novel, "Lionheart," made its debut earlier this month. It is receiving positive reviews from critics and peaked at No. 12 on the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover fiction. The work of historical fiction tells the story of the crusading Richard I and of the people he affected.
"'Lionheart" was supposed to be just one novel," she said. "But as my deadline loomed, I started to panic because Richard and I were still both stranded in the Holy Land and there simply was going to be no way to get this book done on time. That's when a friend of mine came to my rescue, and she suggested that I tell his story in two parts."
Having penned 12 heavily researched medieval novels in her career, she frequently refers to the ancient characters, like Richard or his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as though they're fond acquaintances.
"Since I've been doing this for 20-some years, I just feel very much at home in the Middle Ages," she said. "More so than I do in our time, truthfully. When I start to research a book, everything seems to fall into place for me at this point."
Her research often takes her to Europe, and, although all the novels are set overseas, all of the actual writing is completed in modern-day Mays Landing. She doesn't have a set writing schedule. She works a chapter at a time on her computer, which she has lovingly (and hatingly) named Demonspawn.
"When the chapter is finally done, I surface for air and collect my wits until I can then plunge back into the next chapter," she said. "My friends and neighbors tell me they always know I'm working on a chapter because I'll be walking around the neighborhood with this glazed look in my eye, and it's so obvious that I am not only miles away, I am centuries away."
The completed chapter is then sent to a woman who Penman calls "the midwife for my books." After reading Penman's first novel, "The Sunne in Splendour," Valerie Ptak-LaMont, of Titusville, Pa., sent Penman a fan letter. The novel presented one of the most famous literary villains, Richard III, in a more positive light. Ptak-LaMont, a medieval history major in college, had also always felt the man was maligned, but nobody else seemed to care.
"I believed fervently that Richard III was innocent," she said "I tried to talk to everyone about it, but people's eyes would glaze over. I got really excited when I read her book."
Penman responded to the letter, and the two began a correspondence that has lasted almost 30 years. By her third novel, Penman was sending Ptak-LaMont every chapter for review. They sent these long letters back and forth for almost 20 years before finally meeting in-person. During one of Penman's book tours, she made a stop in Pittsburgh, which is about 100 miles south and west of Ptak-LaMont's home. The two hit it off.
"It was like we had always known each other," Ptak-LaMont said. "It was really great. She says we were sisters in a former life. That's the only thing she can figure. And, of course, we had to have been Welsh."
The two have traveled three times to France, where Ptak-LaMont served as the translator, and once to England to research books.
"We had to stake out sites," Ptak-LaMont said. "At Mont Saint-Michel, we had to find where the best place to commit a murder would be. We rented a car, and we were driving through Brittany discussing plotlines and characters, and it's pretty heavy stuff, literarily."
Penman grew up in Atlantic City. She spent her early adulthood "following the sun," living in Hawaii, California, Arizona, Texas and New Orleans. For many years she practiced law, which she disliked and considered "penance for (her) sins past, present, and future."
In the late 1970s, Penman received a small insurance settlement. She decided to quit her job, move to England, and research her first novel. When it came time to write the novel, she planned to return to California, but her father pointed out that the money would go further in New Jersey. She'd also been away from her family for a while and wanted to be near them. In 1978, she moved back to the area, and she's been here ever since.
"It wasn't the place that I would have imagined that I would have lived," she said. "It just made sense, and I still have family here. My brother and my nephew also live here.
"There's really a lot to be said about New Jersey. I know we get teased a lot. There's so many jokes about living in New Jersey, but living in the pine barrens is really rather nice and peaceful. It's tranquil, and it's really convenient, too. I can go up to New York fairly easily, and, because I spend so much time doing research in England and France, it's much easier to get there than if I was still out on the West Coast."
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