Friday, June 14, 2019

Love under Difficult Circumstances

It’s always hard to tell why a particular book appeals more than others. Is it the complexity of the characters, the intensity of the conflict, the beauty and expressiveness of the writing, a compelling plot? Could it be a synchronicity with one reader’s mental state and emotional circumstances at the moment when she picks up the book? Or is there some magic combination of all those factors that come together in a way that draws readers in and makes them care?

Certainly an element of chance does play a role. I divide my own reading by stages of alertness, with research in Russian at one end of the continuum and old favorites at the other. When even the old favorites can’t hold my attention, I know it’s me, not the books, and I take refuge in ballet videos on YouTube and movies I’ve seen a dozen times or more.

But whatever the secret, those factors came together for me in The Woman in the White Kimono, the subject of my latest interview with Ana Johns. This remarkable debut novel explores young love, the effects of war, prejudice in various forms, and family secrets hidden for decades. Read on to find out more, then listen to the interview. You won’t regret it.

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

Naoko Nakamura is only seventeen when she falls madly in love with an American navy man. It’s 1957, and the US occupation of Japan has ended just a few years before, leaving bitter memories among the local population. Even though Naoko’s beloved Hajime wants to marry her, her family will have nothing to do with him—in part because they have another husband picked out for her, but also because marriage to an American will cast shame on the entire family. When it becomes clear that Naoko is pregnant, her mother gives her a choice: rid herself of the child or leave the family forever.

More than fifty years later, as Tori Kovac’s father lies dying, she learns he once had, as he puts it, “another life before this one.” Her journey to discover the truth of that other life leads her halfway around the world as she struggles to separate truth from the stories—always dismissed as fiction—that her father told her as she was growing up.

Ten thousand babies were born to Japanese women fathered by US servicemen; the vast majority of them did not survive. The Woman in the White Kimono (Park Row Books, 2019) explains the challenges the children and their mothers faced. Ana Johns tells a story that will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page.

Friday, June 7, 2019

A Web of Images

One of my guilty pleasures is cover design. Although that’s not my official responsibility at Five Directions Press—I handle copy-editing, book design, and typesetting, whereas our covers are in the capable hands of Courtney J. Hall, who knows her way around Photoshop better than I ever will—I’ve come up with ideas for the covers of all my own novels except for the current version of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. That last is Courtney’s, and the moment I saw it I fell in love with it. She also produced those beautiful fonts for the Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and she’s the person I tap for suggestions, critiques, and the final go-ahead, since no cover goes onto a Five Directions Press book without her approval.

That said, in my spare time I love to explore images and their potential as book covers. I have covers for books I may not write for years, the stories of which are limited to a main character, a love interest (maybe), and a vague goal. The cover, like the title and the cork boards filled with character images that sit next to my manuscripts on screen, are essential writing tools. They spark thoughts and symbols, emotions and descriptions, themes and personalities. My primary approach to the world is visual: change a character’s picture, and I develop a new sense of that character’s essential self.

So where do I find the images for my covers? For sure, Shutterstock loves me, because I spend far too much of my not so generous royalties there. Pixabay, with its ever-growing store of royalty-free photographs, is fantastic as well. But for Songs, as you can see from the Song of the Siren cover to the right, I decided to go with public domain art from nineteenth-century Eastern Europe and Russia.

Public domain art has one big advantage: unless owned by a museum or library that chooses to assert its rights, it can often be used without copyright issues and free of charge. But it also has one huge disadvantage: many of the files available online are too small and too fuzzy for a book cover. By the time you blow the image up to the minimum needed for a trade paperback, what you have left is a collection of visible dots. E-books, being computer-based, have a greater tolerance for poor image quality, but even an e-book cover can look unacceptable if the original picture is too small.

As it happens, I got lucky with most of the Songs covers. The one for Song of the Siren comes from a large file readily available on Wikimedia Commons and via the National Museum of Warsaw. Most of the others come from Wikimedia Commons as well. And in the process of tracking them down, I learned quite a bit about Russian realist art and the group known as the Wanderers and a good deal more besides. That in itself has become a great source of pleasure.

Song of the Shaman gave me fits, though, not least because nineteenth-century Russian artists didn’t paint a lot of shamans. After weeks of searching, I found one painting by a Polish artist resident in the Russian Empire, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t track down a version of the file that was usable for a book cover. I even purchased a personal license from a stock photo site for a high-resolution image of the painting, wanting to check it out before I decided whether it would be worth the higher charge for publishing use, only to discover that the high-resolution version looked worse than the doctored (but too small) Wikimedia Commons file. Missing paint, dull covers, too little contrast between the frame and the art, you name it: the problems added up to a series of flaws that either lay beyond the bounds of even Photoshop’s magic or would take so much time to fix that the end product wouldn’t be worth the effort expended.

So with a sigh of regret I gave up that idea. And I’m glad I did, because not long afterward I remembered another painting from circa 1905, perhaps not so obviously a shaman but still appropriate to the book’s theme (and, not coincidentally, a perfect depiction of its heroine, Grusha). And when I searched Wikimedia Commons, after a couple of tries I discovered a version large enough that I could compress it into a nice, sharp image without Photoshop doing what it typically does during compression: adding fake dots of its own. I had to tweak the colors and position the painting just right and even airbrush out a hand, but the results are exactly what I hoped for.

And soon you’ll get to see it. But I’m not quite ready for a cover reveal yet. First I have to ensure that the novel itself is ready for prime time. Then I need to work with the other authors in Five Directions Press to figure out the best publication schedule. By September, though, I hope to have a complete text and a plan. Stay tuned!

Images purchased by subscription from

Friday, May 31, 2019

Crossing the Streams

It’s ages since I last saw Ghostbusters, but there are still lines I remember with fondness. The title of this post recalls one of them.

In the movie, crossing the streams is a bad thing. The term refers to the streams of energy emitted by the ghostbusters’ weapons, and crossing them has awful if unspecified (at least, I remember the threat as being unspecified) consequences.

But in real life, crossing streams—in the sense of bringing in a different perspective–allows people to see what they might otherwise miss. This point was brought back to me recently in an unexpected way.

As I mentioned last week, the novelist P. K. Adams and I are planning a joint project. As part of the initial stages, we are outlining general ideas for the plot and dividing the main characters between us. But this is historical fiction, and even for a historian that means research. No one can anticipate the answer to every question that might arise, and in this case I’m very familiar with one side of the story (although I’m researching that too!) and have at most a general knowledge of the other.

So not to give too much away at this early stage—in part because the story is still in flux, so who knows where it will ultimately go?—I was reading a set of documents about Tudor England that happened to include letters from Ivan IV “the Terrible” (r. 1533–84) to King Philip of Spain and his wife, Mary Tudor, as well as Mary’s successor and sister, Elizabeth I.

The correspondence in itself is not news: I first heard about it as an undergrad—not least because the story behind it was too good to leave out of a survey course: Ivan IV, having wreaked havoc on his own land, was trying to arrange a bolt hole in case the people at home lost patience with him to the point that he had to flee if he wanted to keep his head. And Elizabeth, in particular, assured Ivan several times that he could, if he wanted, find a refuge in England. She promised financial support and even a guarantee that no one would attempt to convert him from his own Russian Orthodoxy to Protestantism.

Whether she meant any of it, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know. But that’s not the point. Because I had heard of Ivan’s requests for asylum but never read the actual letters, I’d accepted the usual conclusion: that Ivan felt an exceptional closeness to the kings and queens of England, expressed by his use of the terms “brother” and “sister” in reference to them.

But as soon as I read the letters from the perspective of a historian of Muscovy, I knew that the usual assumption was untrue—or at least unproven. Ivan is not particularly cordial in his missives to the English court (that is, the letters produced on his behalf by his clerks). He chides Elizabeth, in particular, for focusing too much on the mercantile interests of her own ignoble subjects at the expense of princely affairs. He repeatedly emphasizes, in a manner one can only consider derisive, that she is a “maid” (that is, a virgin) who hides behind her maiden state and gives her counselors free rein. Indeed, as a never-married royal woman ruling in her own name, Elizabeth must have seemed completely unnatural to Ivan despite his own mother’s (ultimately unsuccessful) grab for power.

So where do the “brothers” and “sisters” come in? The same place that the “crossing streams” come in. The men (and they were all men) who wrote Ivan’s letters for him were trained in the formulas of steppe diplomacy, like all the other bureaucrats and bureaucracies that emerged from the remnants of Genghis Khan’s empire. And those formulas drew heavily on the fictive kinship that determined power relations in the nomadic hordes. In the early years, Muscovite princes addressed the Mongols as “fathers” and described themselves as grateful, obedient “sons.” After the conquests of the mid-sixteenth century, the tsars became the “fathers” and the high-ranking descendants of Genghis were demoted to “sons.” But in the middle—and in general between states regarded as equal—rulers addressed each other as “brother” and, in the case of the strange English with their Tudor queens, “sister.”

That’s all it means: no special closeness at all, just a recognition of equality. A similar origin lies behind the odd description of Russia and its ruler, in other letters directed at European powers, as “white” (a usage retained in today’s Belarus—White Russia). That comes from steppe diplomacy too, and it has nothing to do with race. In Chinese—and therefore Turkic—cosmology, “white” is the color associated with the west. We think of Russia as an eastern state, barely part of Europe, but if your center is located at Karakorum or Sarai, Russia is almost as far west as you can imagine.

And that’s why it sometimes pays to cross the streams. Strange things may emerge from the shadows, and not all of them are scary.

Images: ghost with placard (edited in Photoshop),, no. 294239; Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan the Terrible (1897), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; white tiger (symbol of the west), no. 311747 (iClipart images purchased via subscription).

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Discipline of Outlining

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’ve been discussing the possibility of a joint writing project with P. K. Adams, aka Patrycja Podrazik. It seemed too good a coincidence of interests to waste: how many other authors in the United States have written novels set during the reigns of King Sigismund (Zygmunt) the Old of Poland and his co-ruling son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August)? How many other novelists could even name the major figures at the sixteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian court?


Well, now that Song of the Shaman has had its final revisions, although it won’t appear until early next year, and Patrycja’s Silent Water is close to publication, we’re getting serious about our joint project. Silent Water takes place almost twenty-five years earlier than my Song of the Siren, starting right after the marriage of Bona Sforza to Sigismund the Old in 1518. Still, a quarter-century is not much of a difference when we’re talking about events 450 years in the past, and Patrycja is a lovely writer, so if you enjoy my novels, you should definitely seek out hers. Silent Water is a murder mystery, much more puzzle than gore—and let’s just say that Juliana and Felix would feel quite at home in its world.

By now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to with outlining. Or was I just losing it when I came up with the post title? I have, after all, written before about why I seldom outline my novels, not least because it rarely turns out to be a worthwhile use of my writing time. Sure, I like to establish a goal my characters can aim for, and I certainly put some effort into figuring out who they are and what they want. But beyond that, I like to throw them into the thick of the action and see what they do and say; that’s how I find out who they are and, as a result, figure out where the story needs to go to reach that predetermined goal and how it can realistically get there.

Which is fine for me, of course, but for collaboration the free-form approach doesn’t work so well. As co-writers, Patrycja and I need to decide who’ll write what and where to start, not to mention where we’re heading and what paths to take. Even the research is shared, because she knows more about Poland and I about Muscovy. So there’s not much point in duplicating our efforts, especially since she reads Polish whereas I read Russian, meaning that each of us has access to sources barred to the other. In short, we have to plan, because the “tumble into the story and see where it goes” approach is likely to take us both into a thick forest where we wander about in circles with no hope of reaching our destination.

Patrycja, bless her, is a far more disciplined writer than I am (perhaps that’s why she can write murder mysteries, whereas my books tend to orient themselves to espionage and romance). So we’re constructing an outline—in the literary sense of paragraphs telling a story that will ultimately run to ten or even twenty pages, not the 1.A.b.* one-page wonder most of us learned in middle school. We worked out the main points over the phone; we hope to meet in person soon to flesh things out; meanwhile, we go back and forth via e-mail as suits our individual work and writing schedules. Right at this moment, the ball is in my court, which explains why this topic is on my mind.

So far it’s been fun, as I think about how Character A would respond to Plot Point B or strip in Cultural Information C to explain what makes Plot Point B possible. Kind of like my usual free-form writing without the dialogue and detailed settings. And I’m sure it’s a good exercise, for me as well as for our project.

Will I be able to stick to the outline once the writing starts? Ah, that’s much more difficult to predict. If I do, it will certainly be a first. I have to hope I don’t drive Patrycja crazy with my stops and starts and rethinks. But if the outline is strong enough, maybe I’ll get the dithering out in the planning stages and learn something new—about writing and about myself. So wish me luck!

As for the project itself, it’s new and barely formed, so we want to keep it under wraps for a while. Let’s just say that it will be a murder mystery—the first of three, if all goes well—and it will involve not only Russians and Poles but a few wandering Englishmen. The ship depicted at the top of the post might be considered a clue. Gotta appeal to that Tudor fan base somehow....

While you’re waiting, check out Patrycja’s two-part series on Hildegard of Bingen, The Greenest Branch and The Column of Burning Spices. Silent Water will be available for preorder on June 15 (release date August 6), but you can get a sneak peek of the prologue on P. K. Adams’ website, as well as information about the earlier books. And while you’re there, check out the lovely review she wrote (unasked!) about The Shattered Drum. You can see why we decided that we might just be kindred novel-writing souls.

Images: 16th-century painting of The Great Harry, an English carrack, by an unknown artist; Marcello Bacciarelli, Portrait of Sigismund I the Old (1768–71). Both
public domain because of the date of their creation, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Power of Conscience

What would you do to protect your friends and family from danger? This is the question that confronts Deborah Tyler and her stepbrother-in-law Nels Anderson in Ann Weisgarber’s new novel, The Glovemaker. As Weisgarber explains in our interview  for New Books in Historical Fiction, the small community of Junction, Utah—eight families, including Deborah’s—often receives fugitives from the law.

Most of the men are God-fearing Mormons, avoiding trial and certain conviction for the plural marriages that were not crimes when they entered into such arrangements. But a woman alone can never feel certain about the intentions of a stranger pounding at her door—especially in the middle of winter, when no ordinary traveler, polygamist or otherwise, wants to brave the icy rocks and treacherous blizzards that lie between Junction and the rest of Utah Territory.

Even if the visitor is harmless, aiding his escape puts the person who responds to him at risk. So the community exists in a web of secrets in which every member takes a chance on behalf of the others but resists sharing information, so that all concerned can honestly declare their innocence of any wrongdoing.

Balanced on this fulcrum of truth and lies, caring and concealing, responsibility and lawbreaking, Deborah and Nels seek a way to protect themselves and those they love. But as the situation slips ever farther from their control and they find out more about what drove their visitor and his pursuer, they confront a deeper and more timeless question: when does an enemy become just another person who needs help?

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

When a strange man knocks on Deborah Tyler’s door one January evening in 1888, she faces a difficult decision. She can guess that her visitor is a criminal, because who else would travel to her isolated Utah community in the dead of winter? And her husband, who normally handles such situations, left home five months ago and has not returned. She is tempted not to answer, but that will only send the unwanted traveler to the next house in Junction, endangering her younger sister and her sister’s children.

Besides, most of the criminals who arrive on Deborah’s doorstep are not thieves or murderers but polygamists evading arrest for what the US government has recently outlawed as a felony. Deborah has little sympathy for plural marriage or the men who practice it, but she is a loyal Mormon who distrusts those inclined to persecute her faith and cares about the families left destitute when their breadwinners flee.

Deborah makes her choice. But the next day, a federal marshal arrives in pursuit. Threatened with prosecution for aiding and abetting a felon, Deborah fights to protect herself, her community, and those she loves from unpredictable consequences that draw her ever deeper into a web of secrets and lies.

The Glovemaker (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019) asks important questions about love and loyalty, faith and independence, the power of love and of family. And through Deborah and her struggles, Ann Weisgarber brings vividly to life the joys and terrors of life in a small, isolated community on the US frontier, the moral compromises we all face, and the capacity of one strong woman to adapt in a time of rapid change.