Friday, November 16, 2018

Gotta Love Those Bones


As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago on this blog (“Dipping a Toe in the River of Time”), one of the best parts of being a historical novelist is the freedom to make things up. When I wear my historian hat, I am not exactly solemn—I can get excited about historical mysteries too—but I do spend a lot of time checking details and ensuring that the sources can support whatever argument I make.

I do the same as a novelist, but the beauty of writing fiction is that when the sources go silent or provide conflicting information, I can step back and give my imagination free rein. I did that in my latest novel, The Shattered Drum, which as a quick online check reveals, opens with the funeral of Prince Andrei of Staritsa, who died in December 1537 after six months in a Kremlin prison. Readers of the series will recognize his name, because the previous novel, The Vermilion Bird, takes place against the backdrop of the events leading to his imprisonment. For everyone else, he was Ivan the Terrible’s uncle, the youngest of a large family and one of three sons who survived into the 1530s.


Although the sources are terse on the subject of Andrei’s death, they suggest that he, like his older brother before him, died of starvation. If so, the command to deprive them of food almost certainly came from their sister-in-law, Elena Glinskaya, and her favorite, Prince Ivan Fyodorovich Ovchina Telepnev Obolensky, then the most prominent court representative of the Cheliadnin clan. As I do in the novels, we’ll refer to him from now on as Telepnev, for simplicity’s sake.

It’s generally believed that Elena and Telepnev were eager to get rid of Andrei and his older brother because as adult males of the royal house, they posed—or were perceived to pose—a threat to the rule of Elena’s older son, known to history as Ivan IV “the Terrible.” Three when he came to the throne, Ivan was seven when his uncle Andrei died. So although nominally an autocrat in whose name all government took place, Ivan himself had no say in these events.

Less than four months later, on April 3, 1538, Elena passed away. The sources don’t describe the circumstances, but they indicate surprise, and for good reason. We don’t know exactly when Elena was born, but the most likely dates are 1508 or 1510, making her sixteen to eighteen when she married and twenty-eight to thirty when she died. Even in the 1530s, the sudden death of such a young woman raised eyebrows. Rumors of poison abounded, and fingers immediately pointed at the powerful Shuisky clan, which opposed the Cheliadnins in general and Telepnev in particular, but historians have never been certain. 


What we do know is that Elena’s unexpected death turned an already precarious situation into something close to a free-for-all as the clans started jockeying for position. Within ten days, the Shuiskys had taken over the government and ordered Telepnev’s arrest. He too soon died of starvation in a Kremlin cell. His sister, who had served as nanny to Ivan IV and his younger brother, was stripped of her position and shipped off to a convent. And although the young Ivan IV remained grand prince and would one day be crowned as Russia’s first tsar, he became a kind of political football: bereft of his parents and parent substitutes, he fell under the control of either the Shuiskys or their chief opponents, the Belsky clan, depending on who was on top at any given moment. Ivan later gave Russia’s aristocrats plenty of reason to regret their behavior, but that’s a story for another day.

Since it seemed unlikely that the mystery of Elena’s death would ever be solved, and the circumstances surrounding her passing were so portentous and fascinating, I invented a plot for her murder that satisfied the needs of my novel. Not to give away spoilers, let me say only that I chose to treat the rumors of Elena’s love affair with Telepnev as fact and extrapolated from the absence of reliable birth control in the sixteenth century an extremely inconvenient and potentially scandalous pregnancy. How those two events led to Elena’s death, I will leave readers to discover for themselves.


So far, so good. I confessed my sins, as I always do, in the Historical Note. The novel came out, ending its series, and I moved on to the next one. As far as I knew, that was the end of Elena and Telepnev in both the literal and the figurative sense.

But as so often happens, life had other ideas. This week my friend Ann Kleimola, whose expertise in Muscovite history has saved me from more than one blooper, sent me a photo from her phone with the table of contents from a new multivolume collection on the burials of Moscow’s grand princesses. “What do you want to see?” she asked. I told her I’d love to know what they said about Elena Glinskaya. Was she really poisoned, I wondered, because a hasty exhumation in 1929 had found evidence of mercury and arsenic in her bones but not enough to prove deliberate poisoning. (Mercury was used in medicines at the time, and arsenic in cosmetics.)

Indeed, the specialists at the Kremlin Museum who conducted the new exhumation and examined the stone sarcophagus that contained Elena’s remains concluded that, given the high levels of mercury and arsenic in her bones and the presence in her skull of formations associated with toxic mushrooms, her death was almost certainly the result of deliberate poisoning. After considering various possibilities, they came down on the side of mercury as the agent. They did not speculate on who gave it to her or how.

But that was not the most amazing conclusion the scientists reached. Elena’s low iron count suggested that not long before her death she had suffered a massive loss of blood, most likely in childbirth. The bone of a newborn was found in her tomb, as well as assorted other objects that no one has yet explained.

Clearly, that’s not the end of the story. But the scholars felt comfortable enough with the results to argue that the rumors about Elena and Telepnev, still circulating after five centuries, were based on fact; that Telepnev fathered Elena’s infant, although DNA testing is not possible for several reasons; and that someone had a motive for ensuring that the whole truth never came to light, even if that meant murdering a reigning grand princess.

And they say the Borgias had a lock on treachery. When will the Legends of the Five Directions find their TV series or movie?


Images: Prince Andrei of Staritsa and his older brother according to a 17th-century fresco on the walls of the Archangel Michael Cathedral in the Kremlin; Elena Glinskaya and her husband, Grand Prince Vasily III; the death of Elena Glinskaya according to the 16th-century Illustrated Chronicle Codex—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Bookshelf, November 2018


It’s been a while since I did a bookshelf survey, but with the ton of interviews I have scheduled between now and next May, you can bet those shelves are groaning. Here’s a sample of the late 2018/early 2019 books, more or less in order of publication, with more to come in a month or two.
 


Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol (Flatiron Books, 2017)
Perfect for Christmas, this lovely reimagining of how Charles Dickens came to write his beloved classic doesn’t just get into Dickens’ head but draws on elements of his novel to tell the tale. Depressed by the failure of Martin Chuzzlewit to attract an audience, Dickens starts the novel in a thoroughly grinch-like mood, resisting demands from his publisher to produce a seasonal story while doing his best to rein in his family’s desire to celebrate the holidays in style. Things get so bad that his wife heads north with the kids to escape. But the arrival of a beautiful lady takes Dickens on a three-day journey that neither he nor his loyal fans will ever forget. If this book doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, you are indeed a Scrooge!

 




P. K. Adams, The Greenest Branch (Iron Knight Press, 2018)
This first of two novels about the twelfth-century mystic, healer, and abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician, tells a story that will conclude in January 2019 with The Column of Burning Spices. Adams is a gifted writer, and she brings Hildegard, her medieval world, and especially a range of fascinating, well-rounded monastic companions vividly to life. And—a bonus for me—the author’s next project is a mystery series set in early sixteenth-century Poland, at the court of Sigismund I “the Old” where my own next novel, Song of the Siren (due in February 2019), opens in 1541.

 




Terry Gamble, The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019)
Whether as a result of the 150th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War a few years back or just the re-emergence of a topic whose time has come, there seems to be a revival of interest in the Underground Railroad. In this novel a group of Irish immigrants gives up everything to settle in the Ohio River Valley, only to endure one crisis after another. The daughter of the family, Olivia, after being forced to confront the reality of slavery, begins to work with her brother, an itinerant preacher, to rescue people from bondage and then to end the institution altogether. I’m always drawn to books with powerful heroines, so this one looks like a natural fit.

 




As I’ve complained a few times this year, I’ve been offered so many novels set during World War II since I interviewed Gwen Katz about Among the Red Stars in January 2018 that I’ve more or less sworn to lay off the topic altogether. So much for New Year’s resolutions, because these two books from separate imprints at HarperCollins both find new angles from which to approach not only the immediate effects of the war but its long-term consequences.



Pam Jenoff, The Lost Girls of Paris (Park Row Books, 2019)
Pam Jenoff’s heroine, Grace Healey, is minding her own business when she sees an abandoned suitcase sitting underneath a bench. These days, she’d call it in as a potential bomb threat, but this is 1946, so Grace opens the suitcase and finds a dozen photographs of women that lead her on a hunt to find out who they were and what happened to them—a journey that leads her into the history of the resistance, espionage, wartime journalism, and much else.



Kate Quinn, The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019)
Kate Quinn’s novel returns us to the world depicted in Among the Red Stars, but from a different perspective. Nina Markova, one of the Soviet women pilots known as the Night Witches, ends up behind enemy lines. Her experiences there cause her eventually to join forces with a British journalist who’s determined to track down an exceptionally vicious ex-Nazi known as the Huntress. Through the perspective of the Nazi hunters and the contrasting viewpoint of a teenage girl suspicious of her new stepmother, Quinn raises important questions about secrets and the power of the past to influence the presence.


 



Karen Harper, American Duchess (William Morrow, 2019)
And after all that darkness and angst, what could be more fun than a fictionalized true story about a Gilded Age millionaire’s daughter fulfilling her mother’s deepest fantasies by marrying an English duke? Based on the life of Cornelia Vanderbilt before, during, and after her wedding to the duke of Marlborough, this smart and self-aware story about an America ruled by robber barons and a Britain governed by stiff-upper-lip aristocrats looks like the perfect ending to this half of my list: high tea and crumpets, with a large dollop of family life and a dash of politics—Downton Abbey, but for real. Well, as real as a novel can be.






Last but not least, I have The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo (Flatiron Books, 2019). I loved Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, and interviewed her back in 2013. So when I heard she had a new book coming out, I wrote to her right away. Like most of the novels on this list, this one is scheduled for release in February, and since its exploration of colonial Malaya in the 1930s does contain elements of fantasy in its tale of mysterious corpses that can turn into tigers, Gabrielle Mathieu will conduct the podcast interview for New Books in Fantasy and Adventure. But stay tuned to this blog, where I will be hosting a written interview with Yangsze Choo around the time of the release/interview.

Additional kudos to all the designers who produced these gorgeous covers. Whether I’ve already read the books or not, their work makes me want to!

Friday, November 2, 2018

To the Ice


We instinctively expect, I think, life in Tudor England or colonial America or medieval Japan to be different from what we experience today. But sometimes it can be difficult to imagine how much has changed since our grandparents’ childhood—or our parents’. Sure, they deluge us with horror stories about a time without the Internet, search engines, or laptops thinner than sandwiches. They talk about newsprint coming off on their hands and phones that didn’t know where they were and black-and-white televisions that could receive four channels through the rabbit ears propped on the top. But they had cars, didn’t they? Electricity? Vaccines? Central heating?

As you can hear in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, Lee Zacharias’s lyrical new novel, Across the Great Lake, takes place only eighty years ago, but in some ways it depicts another world. One where sturdy ferry boats without radar to guide them travel regularly through the perilous straits and roiling currents of Lake Michigan, breaking the winter ice with their prows as they struggle to stay afloat long enough to transport railroad cars to the other side of the lake. One where sailors believe that every ship has a ghost and some are ghosts, the psychic remnants of sunken vessels that surface to warn still living boats of approaching doom. One where a stray kitten brings bad luck, polio remains a major threat to children, and a girl child can’t join a ferry crew no matter how much she loves the idea.

The girl in question, Fern Halvorsen, narrates her story from the perspective of an eighty-five-year-old lady in our own time, but the voice we hear is very much that of her five-year-old self—bounded and directed by the perspective of a lifetime but still sounding through the decades with a child’s innocent enthusiasm. It’s a remarkable achievement, a window onto a vanished past, and well worth a few evenings of your time.


The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Lake Michigan in 1936 is an essential commercial seaway, one that captains and their crews must cross regularly no matter the season, breaking massive ice floes under the prows of their ships and praying that they survive the fierce swells and changeable winds that have left a legacy of ghost ships and wrecks. Into this world comes five-year-old Fern Halvorsen, daughter of the captain of the Manitou, with a small suitcase and her teddy bear. Fern’s mother is consumed with grief after the loss of another child, and her father fears for his daughter’s welfare.

To Fern, the Manitou is a magical place where she can roam largely unsupervised with her new friend Alv. She gets into every corner of the ship, becomes a pet of the crew, and even adopts a stray kitten she finds in the hold. But the winter of 1936 on Lake Michigan is more brutal even than most, and the consequences of that journey and the secret Fern carries away from it haunt her for the rest of her life.

With an ear for crisp dialogue, an unflinching focus on character, and a remarkable instinct for spare but telling detail, Lee Zacharias creates in Across the Great Lake an unforgettable tale about the child inside every adult and the long-term effects of the choices we make.



Image: Lighthouse on South Manitou Island, Lake Michigan, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Geoffrey George.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dipping a Toe in the River of Time

Back in August, Jo, the human companion of Jaffa—the cat who, her blog assures us, turns the page while she reads the big words—asked me to contribute to her feature, Hist Fic Saturday. The post went up last week, and you can go directly there by clicking the link or just read on. The question she asks authors to answer is “Why do I write historical fiction?” My answer follows, but don’t forget to check out Jo’s blog, where she also reviews historical fiction, including The Golden Lynx

Can never get enough books, right? Especially when someone is happily winnowing the wheat from the proverbial chaff on your behalf.


And of course, a huge thanks to Jo and Jaffa—and Timmy, Jaffa’s young apprentice, to borrow a term from Star Wars—for hosting me on their site. It was a fun post to write, and I’m grateful for the prompt to think about these questions as well as for the lovely review of my novel.



As a historian who also writes historical fiction, what I love most is the freedom to make things up, to imagine the past, to play with possibilities. Although I feel bound by the sequence of events, to the extent we can determine what it was, even that carries in it a kind of freedom: sequences tell stories. Why did Napoleon advance in that direction, not this one? Why then, and not two days later or a week earlier? We never have all the answers, and in the gaps lie spaces for a novelist to fill in.

Now if people were always rational, the process would be less interesting. But we all know the role that emotions play in decision making. Not just emotions, either: lies and coverups are as old as time. People routinely retell their stories after the fact, making themselves look better and their opponents worse. Even where documents exist, and in the period I write about they usually don’t, a novelist still gets to decide which of several conflicting explanations really drove a particular course of action and which alternative stories remain untold because those who lived them had no access to the written word. In medieval Russia, the setting of my novels, whole categories of people had no means to express themselves in writing: the poor (80–90 percent of society); women (the usual 50 percent plus); anyone who lost a battle with those in power.

And that’s just historical figures. As a novelist, I also get to invent people, which I like even better. I tell stories about women finding their own places in a wider world that wants only to turn them into obedient housekeepers and baby factories. Their roads to self-discovery vary according to their personalities. Nasan, a natural warrior, learns to expand her interests without sacrificing her essential self. Firuza, more conventional by nature, responds to the challenges posed by her brother’s incompetence by tapping unsuspected strengths. Maria actively resists change, only to discover that her new family with its weird (in her mind) expectations of wives provides a fulfillment she didn’t know she was missing. Roxelana uses her allure to manipulate men into doing what she wants.

Even the mothers, who’ve already made their peace with society’s demands, differ in their solutions. Natalia thrives in the role expected of her, managing a household of several hundred people and its associated estates like the small corporation it is. Sumbeka delegates her household tasks to others, ordering them hither and yon while she acts as her husband’s most trusted political and diplomatic adviser and the communications hub for their entire extended clan.



Researching these stories offers its own special joy. Oh sure, there’s the chore of plowing through weighty tomes festooned with notes—seldom a happy thought at the end of a long day’s work. So many of the tomes, too, fail to reveal the important things: what ordinary people ate and wore, how they thought about the happy and not-so-happy events of their lives, how they furnished their houses or talked to their children, what a particular piece of money would buy—never mind the all-important smells and tastes and sounds.

But oh, the magic of discovery! For me, the delight of research is stumbling over unknown or forgotten possibilities. The bandit chief who became a saint; the officially Muslim Tatars who continued to revere the clan spirits known as the grandmothers and tell tales of women warriors; the medical mysteries and herbal concoctions so useful for sending unsuspecting characters to their doom or into a trance; that odd, disastrous military campaign that took place at just the right moment to challenge a hero in unexpected ways.

It all feels like dipping a toe into the flowing River of Time. As people say when asked why small children love dinosaurs, “they’re big and they’re dead.” The past, too, is both vast and gone. This place where most of us wouldn’t want to spend our lives is fascinating to experience through a book, a film, or a TV show. And that’s why I write historical fiction.



Images: Sheksna River in mist © 2009 Michael Clarke CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons; Legends of the Five Directions advertisement © 2018 C. P. Lesley.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tales of Incarceration

Today I’m honored to present a guest post by Kate Braithwaite, a wonderful historical novelist whom I first encountered as an interview guest on New Books in Historical Fiction. And since she has many interesting things to say, I’ll get out of her way and let her take it from here. But do page down to the end to find out more about her, including her books, her webpage, and her social media links. Thank you, Kate, for this great post!

Tales of Incarceration: Historical Fiction in Uncomfortable Settings


I like writing books set in places of confinement.

Maybe it’s because I loved every moment of reading The Count of Monte Cristo as a teenager on holiday in the Pyrenees, refusing to go sight-seeing because I needed to keep reading. Or maybe it’s because I found Papillon in my grandfather’s bookshelves and read it under the covers at night, shocked and amazed by the story that unfolded, as well as by the fact that my grandpa would read such a book. So many factors influence writers, but in this case I see a direct link between my teenage reading and the books I write. I still always love stories set in places of isolation or confinement—prisons, asylums, islands, even lighthouses—and so it’s no surprise to find this reflected in my historical fiction.

Charlatan (2016)—featuring the Chateau de Vincennes


One of the oldest royal residences in France, Chateau de Vincennes has been in existence since the 12th century. It was highly fortified by thick walls and still features a high donjon (a tower, eight floors tall) built in the 14th century as a residence for Charles V. In the mid-17th century, approaching the period of my novel Charlatan, it was one of many building projects entrusted to the architect Louis Le Vau and became the residence of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s most trusted adviser until his death in 1661. But Chateau de Vincennes was also regularly used as a prison. During the Affair of the Poisons, when a sprawling investigation into poisoning and witchcraft threatened to engulf Louis XIV’s court in scandal, Chateau de Vincennes became the key holding place for those arrested. Police chief Nicholas La Reynie visited Vincennes frequently, conducting interviews and interrogations, prior to taking prisoners to face trial in the Arsenal in nearby Paris.

In Charlatan, the prison is central location. It is here that La Reynie’s assistant Louis Bezons is drawn to the daughter of La Voisin, a key figure in the Affair of the Poisons. It is also here that the magician and confidence man, Lesage, tries to find a way to stay alive while men and women he has worked with are brought to trial and executed. As the scope of the investigation grew, security was a problem at the prison—prisoners were able to communicate with each other and with the outside world—and desperate people, with time on their hands and urgent desires, can make wonderful characters.

The Road to Newgate (2018)—featuring Newgate Prison

 

In my second novel, The Road to Newgate, London’s famous Newgate prison is an often-visited location for my characters, sometimes as visitors, but also as inmates. Newgate was notorious for the poor conditions prisoners experienced—unless, of course, they had money. The prison was first built in the 12th century and then, as a casualty of the Great Fire of 1666, it was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. In the 17th century, Britain was in transition. Many aspects of society were advanced and modern but in terms of crime and punishment, things were fairly medieval. Heads were still displayed on spikes and traitors were hung, drawn, and quartered. The sounds and smells of Newgate are an important aspect in my efforts to create a believable picture of life in London at this time—warts and all. Here’s an excerpt from The Road to Newgate, with one of my characters, William Smith. He has just been arrested and taken to the prison.

“No-one will tell me what charges I face, but they are serious enough that the Keeper of Newgate raises an eyebrow and whistles when he looks at the paperwork the soldiers give him. He tells me I may send no messages and will receive no visitors. I’m manhandled into a large dark room and sold a candle that costs me nearly every shilling I have on my person. Then I’m left to find a space for myself in the gloom. Men, little more than bundles of misery and rags, huddle on the floor or on narrow boards fixed to the wall. The smell of excrement is overpowering. I find a gap in a far corner and lean into it as my stomach heaves and sweat breaks out on my forehead. This is the condemned hold.”

The Girl Puzzle (2019)—featuring the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum

 

For my next novel I’m writing a dual timeline story about Nellie Bly, an intrepid young journalist who agreed to be committed to a lunatic asylum in order to report on conditions from the inside. In 1887, the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum was not a prison, but for the women committed there, it might as well have been. Here’s very different scene from the one above, when Nellie first arrives in Hall 6:

“The arrival of five new patients causes a stir. There are perhaps forty women in the room, dressed uniformly in ugly blue and white calico checked dresses. They’re mainly seated, crammed together on hard wooden benches set out at intervals around the walls. They look like birds, huddled in flocks on telegram wire. It’s a large room, bright, at least, but the air is cool. She can see her breath. Light shines down from barred windows, reflecting against whitewashed walls. Three small lithographs hang slightly askew: in one she recognizes the composer Fritz Emmett, the others depict negro minstrels. While the patients crowd the benches, nurses in heavy coats sit at a central table covered in clean white cloth. At one end of the room stands a square grand piano, not a fine looking instrument, but serviceable. At the other end, doors lead to what Nellie thinks might be a doctor’s office or perhaps an examination room.”

Among the many challenges (and joys) of writing historical fiction, is the need to convey the time period naturally within the story. Conditions in prisons vary drastically from country to country and from century to century. Small details can be very telling. The same is true of how societies treat people with mental illness.

Another plus I’ve found in writing scenes set in places of confinement is that characters are never at their best when they have lost their freedom. They might be frightened, they might be angry. They may be innocent or guilty, sane or insane. Taking away a character’s freedom and seeing how they respond is a fascinating way for a writer to explore a personality. And stories where characters face conflict and strife will always have the potential to explode onto the page.

Kate Braithwaite is the author of two historical crime novels set in Europe in the 17th century but is jumping century and continent for The Girl Puzzle (Crooked Cat Books, 2019) to explore the life of Nellie Bly in 1880s and 1920s New York.



Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and on her website/blog.


Images: Chateau de Vincennes, Newgate Prison, and Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum, all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.