Every thriller has to have someone or something that all the characters are desperate to get their hands on. Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term “MacGuffin” as the desired object or person that drives the plot of a story. The Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon, and the Ark of the Covenant are three of the most famous examples. For our historical thriller The Lawless Land, we decided to make a priceless manuscript the MacGuffin.
It wasn’t a difficult choice, given that Beth is the senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum. She has spent her career studying medieval illuminated manuscripts, so she is a world authority on the Middle Ages. When we first began creating our fourteenth-century tale of knight Gerard Fox and Lady Isabel on an epic journey across post-Plague Europe, one of Beth’s only requirements was that the book revolve around a manuscript.
Then it was Boyd’s turn to use his experience as a thriller author to figure out how to keep our characters in constant motion for our fast-paced, action-packed tale. Featuring a manuscript made that possible. All travel during our novel’s time period was either by horseback or boat, so carrying anything larger than a book would have made Fox and Isabel much less mobile. So we knew our MacGuffin manuscript had to be small enough to tote in a satchel or coffret, the French term for a box used to transport valuables.
Of course, Beth’s expertise allowed her to design a unique look for the gilded and gem-covered manuscript itself, as well as the beautiful coffret that contained it. Both the manuscript cover and the etching on the box’s exterior became extremely important plot elements.
The only remaining question was how to make a book the central MacGuffin of the plot. Certainly books in that era were exceedingly expensive. Because manuscripts were made of animal-hide parchment, sometimes an entire herd of cows would be used to make a single book. But Boyd knows that high stakes are important, and he didn’t think the monetary value alone would be enough to drive a story about corrupt churchmen and brutal nobles who chase our protagonists across war-torn Europe to obtain the manuscript in their possession.
The book had to be valuable for more than its intrinsic worth. Whatever it held inside had to be worth killing for.
Without spoiling the story, together we decided that the manuscript contained a religious artifact that would change the world if it were discovered. In the wrong hands, it could start wars and elevate its owner to unparalleled power. It’s not hyperbole to say that Fox and Isabel hold the fate of Western Europe in their hands as they go on their mission to get the manuscript to safety.
Finally, the manuscript and relic it contains had to be plausible. Religious artifacts in the fourteenth century had an aura of power that would be hard to imagine today. All it took was some authenticity and a belief by the masses to invest the relic and the person who wielded it with that power. In the afterword of The Lawless Land, Beth explains the history of the relic and how it might have actually existed as we described it. We hope readers enjoy reading Fox and Isabel’s quest as much as we did writing it.