March 9, 2021

Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?

Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?

In this episode of Tart Words, Linda and Suzanne are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Madam, Will You Talk?, and how she uses POV (Point of View) and Backstory in this twisted tale of murder, betrayal, and love.

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In this episode of Tart Words, Linda and Suzanne are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Madam, Will You Talk?, and how she uses POV (Point of View) and Backstory in this twisted tale of murder, betrayal, and love.

 It was first published in 1955 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions. 

Takeaway for writers:

 Madam, Will You Talk? is written in first person POV. When you read the story, do you like the immediacy that first person brings, or do you prefer books written in a different POV? Think about how different this would be in third person POV.

 Mary Stewart feeds the reader backstory in teaspoonfuls as the reader needs to know the information. When you read the story, do you find it easy to keep track of the characters and the story arcs?

 Exercises for writers:

 POV – If you’re feeling stuck in your story, try changing the POV for several paragraphs or a page and see if that makes a difference. You may find the story works better in a different POV.

Backstory – Think about what the reader needs to know at this point in order to understand the story world. If the backstory you’ve put in isn’t needed right now, take it out; be ruthless.

Like this episode? Leave a review or rating! 


Transcribed by Otter.ia; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive any typos or grammatical errors.


Episode 103 - Madam, Will You Talk?


 Linda 00:00

Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share tart bites, tart thoughts, and Tart Words. Today I'm talking with Suzanne Fox. She writes fiction and nonfiction, reviews books for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society 19, and works with authors to shape, publish, and market their work. Her handmade jewelry and digital art, including that used for the Tart Words Mary Stewart podcasts, is inspired by favorite books and authors. A graduate of the Columbia University MFA writing program, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. 

Find out more about Suzanne at and On this episode of Tart Words, we're discussing Mary Stewart's book Madam, Will You Talk?, and how she uses point of view and backstory in this twisted tale of murder, betrayal and love. It was first published in 1955 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions. 

Here's the description from Amazon: 

"The original queen of the page-turner Mary Stewart leads her readers on a thrilling journey through a dangerous and deadly Provence in this tale perfect for fans of Agatha Christie and Barbara Pym. 

"It sounds idyllic: a leisurely drive through the sun drenched landscape of Provence. But Charity’s dream holiday turns into a nightmare when she becomes embroiled in a sinister plot to kidnap a young boy. She soon finds herself in a deadly pursuit and must uncover who to trust and who to fall for. "

Here's a quote from the book: 

“Whenever I look back now on the strange and terrifying events of that holiday in southern France, I remember the minutes I spent gazing at the golden arches of the Roman aqueduct over the Gardon…the last brief flow before the thunder.”

 What do you think about Madam, Will You Talk?

Suzanne 02:28

I think it's an amazing book. We have elsewhere touched on the fact that it might or might not have been the first novel Mary Stewart wrote, although it is the first novel she's published, but certainly it was one of her early books, and I think its technical excellence, its plotting, its viewpoint, its characterization…you know, any writer would be delighted to have an early work come out that seamlessly really,

 Linda 02:59

I agree. I have always loved that book. It's one of my favorites of hers. And I got started reading Mary Stewart…I can't even remember when I didn't read her. So I would say I was at the very least in my early teens when I started reading her and possibly earlier than that, how about you?

 Suzanne 03:20

I think I first read, I don't remember how old I was. But I was certainly a teenager. And I first read The Moon-Spinners. And I think I was an early teenager, because I must have read it fairly closely to when it came out. I don't think I read Madam, Will You Talk? until many many years later, when I had read most of Stewart and I was looking for any other books she had written?

 Linda 03:44

Let's talk about Charity Selborne. She's the protagonist in this story. And she is a young wealthy widow who has come on holiday with her friend Louise, with whom she used to teach at a I think it was a girls boarding school, before Charity married her husband who was killed in the war. Tell me your thoughts about Charity. Suzanne,

Suzanne 04:07

I think again, looking at this book as being an early novel, and yet one in which all of the things that Mary Stewart does so well are, are full blown as it were. I think Charity Selborne is a classic Mary Stewart protagonist and why that's interesting for other writers, I think is that she's an example of a protagonist who is inexperienced in worldly ways. She's not hard boiled in any sense. She's certainly not a sleuth, or investigator. She's led what we assume to be a relatively sheltered life but she is very open to change. She's very resourceful and, and one of the things that's interesting to me in this plot is that she's very compassionate. And to me, that plays into plotting in a very powerful way that if she was not compassionate enough to worry about this rather lost little boy, she wouldn't be propelled into the story as powerfully as she is. So I think that's a character feature that really fuels Mary Stewart's plotting and is used in a very interesting way.

Linda 05:20

I agree. Her entrée into the mystery aspect and actually even the romance side of it is through David, the little boy who is staying at the same hotel with his stepmother. And at the point that Charity meets him, she does not yet know what the backstory of David's life is, but one of the other hotel guests will fill her in on the highlights or lowlights, if you will, about what David's father was accused of doing. How well do you think Mary Stewart draws that line between giving in the backstory and using it to propel the story forward?

 Suzanne 06:01

I think generally, she does it very well. Until her latest few novels, we really don't get much of the protagonist backstory at all, and also a relatively minimal amount of backstory that fleshes out the antagonist or other characters. So she's very economical in that sense. But I think that she's also very good at focusing in on these few key qualities of, for me at least, I feel I know the protagonist, even though I don't really know much about their background. You know, you mentioned that Charity, we are told that she taught at this girl's school, but there's much less protagonists backstory than you get in many, if not most contemporary novels, for example. And yet, maybe this is we can talk about this with point of view, I think, I feel like I know that character. But the backstory on the mystery, I think is very well handled, it's relatively minimal. It's very dramatic, and yet believable. And she's also good, I think, at setting it up strongly enough from the beginning, but knowing how to pace giving you additional details, that she is revealing some of that backstory and the reasons for what happened in the past to Charity and therefore, to the reader gradually, and so I think it's a sort of great example of how to offer the backstory gradually, in a way that's never confusing. And yet, she doesn't stop the action of the present to give you, you know, some big wedge of backstory that can be problematic in any book that actually has a complex backstory,

 Linda 07:40

Right. And as you're saying that it occurred to me, you know, I've read this book innumerable times. And what you just said, made me think that we, the reader are on the same journey as Charity. So first, we hear the headline of David's background, and you know, the sort of the lurid details of the murder that his father was supposed to have committed, but we get from Charity’s viewpoint, why she is sympathetic to David. And then as the story goes on, when she meets David's father, and we hear his side of the story, then we the reader are on the same journey that Charity has been on where she heard the lurid headlines from the newspapers. And now we get, after getting to know David a little bit, now we get to meet his father and get the other side of the story. So our loyalties and sympathies shift from keeping David away from his father to making sure that David stays safe, and so does his father.

Suzanne 08:38

I think that's absolutely true. And I think one of the writing tips as it were, that's interesting in that regard, is that in addition to you’re right that, that we are on the same journey, and we are getting information at the same pace, which we can talk about as part of this first person viewpoint that Stewart uses so well, but I think it's also crucial that the first glimpse Charity and the reader get of David is as a skinny little boy trying to control a very scruffy dog who clearly in some way is not at one with the woman that Charity first thinks is his mother who is actually his stepmother, or former stepmother. And I think it's helpful to remember that as writers, I think we're often very focused on getting the backstory in, particularly in something that's mystery-heavy, when obviously that is going to propel most of the plot. But what Stewart does is, she gets us hooked emotionally on who David is, is he going to be okay? You know, he's clearly very appealing, but again, almost literally and figuratively parentless. And so I think a thing that is done very well is that you're hooked into without knowing it, you're hooked into some of the emotions of the backstory, which is essentially the backstory has left the poor boy without a parent temporarily before you, you get the whys and wherefores, so you care about it very early on and that feels important.

 Linda 10:08

I agree. You've mentioned point of view. Talk a little bit more about that.

Suzanne 10:12

You know, I think that the Stewart books - she's among the writers, I mean, she's romantic suspense. But there's also some Mystery Writers that we both enjoy and might talk about at some later date, who are real masters of the first person viewpoint. And I think Stewart uses that viewpoint super well. And it's very lively. It's very perceptive, it's very relatable that I think her protagonists despite the fact that in truth, if you just outline who they are, they are quite different from the lives we live as women today. And yet, I think the way they think about the world, their senses of humor, their perceptiveness, as I mentioned, their compassion, those all come out in this very conversational, comfortable viewpoint. That's also very lively. And I think it's one of the real technical achievements that makes the book so successful.

 Linda 11:03

I really like that. And I think on that note, we'll end our talk for the moment about that. And will you talk and point of view and backstory, and we'll take this up at another time in another episode. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time. And I always enjoy talking about Mary Stewart with you.

Suzanne 11:22

I do too. It's a real treat. Thank you.

 Linda 11:24

Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast, or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers and writers at Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer for this episode of Tart Words.

Suzanne FoxProfile Photo

Suzanne Fox


Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at