In 'Queen Of The Sea,' The Story Rides On Goatback
Cartoonist Dylan Meconis's new book Queen of the Sea is set in a convent on a tiny island, somewhere off the coast of a country that could be Tudor England, but it isn't, not quite.
The story plays out in a mysterious, possibly magical alternate world just a few degrees off what you might have learned in history class — but it's packed with intricate, well-researched details. And goats.
"It's about a young girl named Margaret, she's 11 years old, growing up in an isolated island convent. And unfortunately her idyllic life is disrupted when a new person arrives on the island," Meconis says. "Secrets are revealed, unknown identities are uncovered, unlikely friendships are formed, there are a lot of goats."
Because while the book is only loosely based on actual history, Meconis says she really wanted to get the concrete details of everyday life right — and the nuns in Margaret's convent keep goats.
"So I had to look up what what breeds of goat would have been native to England and to Scotland and to the Scottish islands, so that I did not put in, like, a Nubian goat that only arrived in the 18th century. It was really fun looking around all these nerdy historical goat breed websites!"
Meconis says she's drawn to history, because historical details make great building blocks for a fictional world. "It's very solid, and it feels very real, because it was. But it's all so hidden from view if you studied metahistory, like we all did in high school and college." It's true that in school, a lot of us learned names and dates, 1066 and all that. But not, say, what kind of goat a 16th-century nun would raise, and what its coat would feel like under your hand — and Meconis says that for her, "it's really delightful to find those details, rather than just totally inventing them on my own."
Some of the details in Queen of the Sea are in fact a mix of real life and invention — for example, nuns and monks of that era kept silent most of the time. So how did they do something as mundane as ask for the salt at dinner?
"Some monks developed this really elaborate sign language for the dinner table, so they could say things like 'pass the salt,' or 'this fish is terrible.' And we still have records of what some of those gestures were. So I took a bunch of those and had the nuns in my story use them. And my little main character Margaret is very familiar with them, and she gets to teach some new people the sign language. And some of them I invented on my own, but others are totally real."
At one meal, Margaret teaches her new friend to put fingers to her face and wiggle her nose like a mouse to ask for cheese. "I think I made that one up!" she laughs. "The ones for salt and vinegar and fish, those are all genuine."
Meconis says she unearths a lot of those details online, in high-resolution scans of original documents, available through British museums. "And being able to zoom in on a single letter of Queen Elizabeth's youthful handwriting is really a wild thing, and that's not something that even 15 years ago would really have been as possible to this extent."
The best stories, she says, are inspired by something real. "And for me there's so much joy in that treasure hunt of historical research, and using it as as a platform, or as a setting for a more intimate human story is just really, it hits a perfect chord for me."
And if those little historical details, the table signs and the right kind of goat fur, inspire readers to go off on their own voyages of discovery, so much the better. "If I trick someone into getting a history degree with this book," Meconis says, "I'll be so happy!"
This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.
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