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Sharon Kay Penman, Whose Novels Plumbed Britain’s Past, Dies at 75

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Her father wrote novels in his spare time, though despite decades of labor, he never managed to have one published. His daughter followed his lead, writing short stories in high school and later as a history major at the University of Texas at Austin, sending them home for his approval.

It was in Austin that Ms. Penman first encountered the more positive revisionist view of Richard III, the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, who died at the hands of Henry Tudor on Bosworth Field. She became consumed with his story.

Though there is a rich historical debate over the king’s record, most people still think of him as the power-mad hunchback depicted by Shakespeare. “My Richard is a revisionist Richard,” she said later. “He’s not Shakespeare’s ‘bottled spider.’”

She began research for a novel about the much-maligned monarch in 1968, and continued through law school at Rutgers University-Camden. One day, six years into her work on the book, she left her 400-page manuscript, her only copy, on the trunk of her car while she was moving things into her apartment. When she returned, moments later, it was gone. Though she suspected a passer-by, she later lay blame on a “vengeful Tudor ghost.”

Unable to comprehend starting from scratch, Ms. Penman set aside her creative aspirations and turned to her legal career. She graduated in 1974 and moved to Los Angeles, then returned to Atlantic City, where she joined a firm specializing in tax law.

It took almost four years for her writer’s block to pass. When it did, the work on her Richard novel flowed. She left her job to spend months in York, England, for research, eventually producing a 1,236-page manuscript. When she submitted it to her publisher, Henry Holt & Company, her editor asked if she felt any pangs of conscience for all the dead trees her book would require. The two whittled it down to a relatively slim 936 pages.

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