Friday, June 23, 2017

The Beast Within

Early in my interview with Gabrielle Mathieu for New Books in Historical Fiction, I ask her about the tag line for the first book in her Falcon trilogy, The Falcon Flies Alone: “We all have a beast locked within us, but in Peppa’s case it’s more than a figure of speech.” We talked about anger and self-assertion, especially in women, and how they are often socially suppressed or, if not suppressed, evaluated differently from the same behavior in men. Gabrielle notes that she is not as blunt in her anger as her heroine, Peppa, but instead tends to avoid conflict. I could relate, as I have the same issue with several of my heroines.

Later in the interview, Gabrielle mentions that what distinguishes her antagonists from her protagonists is that the former use “some very blunt instruments” to attain their goals. These two comments got me thinking about how fiction is, in some respects, a way of exploring emotional paths not taken—for readers as well as for authors. In novels we can explore vengeance and murder, crises and conflict. We can talk back if we’re shy, beat our opponents up if we are timid or physically weak, flirt with infidelity or fall madly in love with characters who will never leave their socks on the floor or forget to pick us up at the airport. We can release the beast within—investigate it, test it, revel in it—without hurting ourselves or anyone else.

The same point applies to other art forms, of course: movies and television, especially. But well-crafted, well-written novels and short stories dump us inside another person’s head in ways that real life cannot, that even video cannot. We can see the world through the eyes of a falcon, a bad guy, an abandoned teenager, a runaway bride. We can experience life at the extremes, as most of us would much rather not do in real time. As Nancy Kress puts it in her wonderful Dynamic Characters, “In our lives we want tranquillity; in our fiction we want an unholy mess, preferably getting unholier page by page” (159).

And Peppa surely does get herself in an unholy mess, which gets unholier not only page by page but book by book. That’s why her story grabs us and doesn’t let go. But don’t take it from me: listen to the interview, then buy the book.

You can also hear (and in the case of The Falcon Flies Alone, read) an excerpt from the first two books at their respective pages on the Five Directions Press site: The Falcon Flies Alone and The Falcon Strikes.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction (and is cross-posted to New Books in Fantasy and Adventure).


Peppa Mueller has a lot going for her. The daughter of a deceased Harvard professor who gave her an eclectic upbringing, she is heir to his fortune, and Radcliffe has accepted her application for undergraduate study in chemistry—her gift and her passion. Too bad that her conventional Swiss relatives cannot imagine why any young lady would want a college education in 1957.

Sick of their constraints, she runs away from their home in Basel, even though she cannot collect her inheritance for another two weeks. A house-sitting job draws her to a remote Alpine town, where she becomes the subject of a terrible experiment. Wanted for murder, accused of insanity, and beset by visions of herself as a fierce peregrine falcon, Peppa decides to go after Ludwig Unruh, the man who has victimized her and now holds her precious German Shepherd hostage to force Peppa to participate in his ongoing research into psychedelic plants.

But Unruh has far more experience with both chemistry and life than Peppa does, not to mention far fewer scruples. And as time goes on, she discovers that her past and his are inextricably intertwined. She wants to stop him, she wants to get herself and her dog out of his hands, but to do either, she must first survive his experiment. In The Falcon Flies Alone Gabrielle Mathieu, the host of New Books in Fantasy and Adventure, creates a compelling, fast-moving novel that straddles the line between reality and the world of the imagination.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Rewind!

Few things are more satisfying to a writer or publisher than seeing a manuscript you’ve worked on for months or years appear in print. E-publication has its merits, and tablets and e-readers handle novels, which tend to have few images and simple formatting, with particular aplomb. Even so, it’s not like holding an actual book in your hands: admiring the cover, turning the pages, noticing the small details that say, yes, this is a published book.

So it’s always a special joy to announce a new work by one of our Five Directions Press authors. This month we focus on Denise Allan Steele’s new novel, Rewind, formally launched just yesterday. It’s charming, touching, hilarious—everything a novel should be.

Denise says she wrote the book because her kids begged for stories of the “olden days” (i.e., the 1970s) when she was a teenager in Scotland. The novel follows the adventures of Karen Anderson and her best friend, Carol, as they survive secondary school, attend college and nursing school, marry and have children, work in their chosen professions, move to different continents, and ultimately reunite at the funeral of Carol’s ninety-year-old Grandpa Jimmy, setting off the second half of the story.

But a summary can’t capture the joys of this delightful novel. So here is an excerpt from Chapter 1, “Abide with Me” (spelling is British Standard, because at least two-thirds of the novel takes place in Scotland):

Carol and I sat huddled together on the cold hard pew of Kilbrannan Parish Church. The weak sunshine coming through the huge stained glass window above our heads illuminated the figure of Saint Andrew, the ruby red of his gown beautiful and rich against the sapphire blue of the Scottish flag behind him. I had always loved that window, the way it gave me a feeling of peace and God and benevolence and contentment, the colours precious and magnificent in the austerity of the chilly old Presbyterian church. I had last seen the window from the inside in May 1977, when I had just turned fifteen. That was the day that Carol and I had been thrown out of the Girl Guides for refusing to say out loud the Brownie Guide promise that we would serve our God and our Queen. We felt that the Queen had enough servants and we definitely didn’t want to serve God, so we were asked to leave. We didn’t tell our mums and every Friday evening for months we had put on our Guide uniforms and gone to the amusement arcade at the beach, got changed in the toilets and hung about at the slot machines looking at boys and buying candy floss with our Guide money. Our sham was over when Mrs. Howie, the Guide leader, met Carol’s mum at the bus stop and our mums made us go the next Guide meeting and apologise.

I put my hand in Carol’s. “You okay?”

I hadn’t seen her since the last time I was home a year ago, and it felt like we had been together last week. Every time I came back to Kilbrannan, even after twenty-five years, it felt like I had been gone for a few days, and Carol and I just slotted back in to our lifelong friendship.

“Remember the last time we were in here and we got chucked out of the Guides?” She snorted, trying not to laugh. “And we had to go and apologise to that old bag Mrs. Howie. I still see her in the town, and she still glares at me, after thirty years!”

“Do you think that might be because you shouted ‘God save the Queen, the fascist regime’ at the top of your voice as we were running out of the church?”

Now, don’t you want to read more? You can find the book at Amazon.com or get more information at our Five Directions Press site. The book already has thousands of likes on Facebook, so don’t miss your chance to rewind the tape of Karen’s life—and your own.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Anniversaries

Incredible as it may seem—it certainly seems so to me!—this month marks the fifth anniversary of this blog. If you had told me, in June 2012, that I would succeed in finding things to say every single week for five years, I would have wondered what mind-altering substance you had consumed. Yet here I am, five years on, occasionally frantic in my search for suitable topics for discussion but generally posting on time.


This month also marks the fifth anniversary of Five Directions Press. On June 3, 2012, we published the first version of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel (since reissued in a smaller size with a much spiffier cover designed by Courtney J. Hall). At the time, we saw our coop press as something of an experiment—a lark, even, like those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films about putting on a show. We had only the vaguest idea of what we were doing, but the climate seemed right for a cooperative enterprise that lay somewhere between completely self-published and the commercial format monopolized by large corporate conglomerates. We gave it a try, not knowing what to expect, and it’s been great.

That first title has become twenty, out or due by early next year, as well as several more approaching completion but not yet ready to add to the website. (For those counting, Cover no. 20 is awaiting its big reveal next month before appearing on our Books page.) The latest went up on Amazon within the last twenty-four hours: stay tuned for that announcement next week. Our small group of three has tripled, and most of us have more than one book under our belts. Marketing is still a challenge, but we have learned lots about book production, publication, website design, newsletters and press releases, social media, even promotion. Two of us host podcasts on the New Books Network. And the topics of our books range from the dissolution of the Roman Empire to twenty-fourth-century ballet, with many highways and byways in between, and cover the globe from the secret Jewish communities of Inquisition-era Mexico to psychedelic experimentation in 1950s Switzerland.
 


Selected Five Directions Press Books
Image © 2017 Five Directions Press

Last but not least, June marks the ninth anniversary of the writers’ group that gave rise to Five Directions Press and produced most of its early titles. Each year at this time we go out to lunch, forget about the critiques, invite friends and fellow writers, and celebrate. That lunch is this weekend.

So a short post today to say that we’re enjoying the journey and to extend our thanks to our authors (who are also our staff), our indulgent families, and especially our readers. Let’s hope this is the first of many five-year anniversaries for Five Directions Press and its writers!




Friday, June 2, 2017

The Shattered Drum

Although The Vermilion Bird is far from done, I have a complete story and am working on my fourth draft. A friend is checking the text for historical errors—or will be when she has the time. As I feed chapters to my writing group and receive comments, I make adjustments, of course, but since they too have busy lives and writing of their own, it will be three to four months before they can get to the end. So I decided, this past week, to use the down time to think about the next—and last—Legends novel.

Usually when I start a new project, it takes a good six months of back and forth before I make serious progress: planning, writing, research, rewriting, sharing, more rewriting, fill in the blanks research, character development, new writing, and so on. This in-between time seems the perfect opportunity to start planning a structure, identifying potential story elements, settling on major characters, defining their goals and motivations as well as the obstacles in their path—all the stuff that goes before actual writing begins. I’m not ready yet to shift my focus from the hero and heroine of Vermilion Bird, and without that, actual writing would be wooden at best. But I am ready to start imagining how the next, or in this case familiar, hero and heroine must struggle to reach a new set of goals.


Being a pantser by nature, as noted previously, I don’t get any closer to a detailed plot than a list of things I’d like to see happen. That changes as soon as I sit down to write. Still, having a sense of where I’m going is helpful, even if my characters do tend to take on lives and wills of their own. I love the surprises they deal out when I’m least expecting them. And having a sense of who those characters are at a given moment, even in a series that has already been underway for nine years, is a definite must—although that, too, evolves over time.

Here, in Legends 5, I find the list of story elements relatively easy to construct. A series can’t just stop, after all; it must tie up the major developments of the earlier books, adding a sense of general closure to the resolution every story needs even as it establishes a clear direction—beginning, middle, and end—of its own.


But I also find myself reluctant to say goodbye to these fictional people who, by the time I finish The Shattered Drum, will have enriched my life for over a decade. Can I bear to let them go? Will the new series slowly coalescing at the back of my brain, which follows into the 1540s and beyond certain characters who never received their due because the world isn’t quite ready for 1,500-page novels, make up for having to reduce my favorites to cameos and walk-ons?

I don’t know. In a sense, I’m not sure I want to find out. But that sad day remains a year or two away. For the moment, I’m looking forward to putting my fictional family through its paces one more time. I hope that one day, when I reach the end of that road, you’ll enjoy the results.



Images: Nomadic Girl, screen capture from Myn Bala; Butterfly and Chinese Wisteria Flowers, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sources and Stories

Even when I was young enough to think of everyone over thirty as a kind of antediluvian dinosaur, I always enjoyed hearing stories of the past from my elderly relatives and their friends. It seemed like opening a window on another world. So I was especially struck when I interviewed Michelle Cox—the author of A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth, both romantic detective stories set in 1930s Chicago, with a third already on the way—to hear that many of the events that her heroine experiences come from stories told to her by a patient at the nursing home where Cox worked for a while.

All the no-longer-recognizable jobs—26 girl, taxi dancer, curler girl, usherette at a burlesque theater—as well as the all-too-familiar ones like floor scrubbing were held by this one patient, who, to paraphrase her words to Cox, also had “a man-catching body and a personality to match.” Given that the patient was in her eighties when she shared her story, we can only imagine what she was like in her teens, as Henrietta von Harmon, the heroine of this series, is when we meet her.

We talk about many other topics in the interview, including the road to publication, the fate of that first dreadful novel that writers inevitably have stashed in a drawer, and life during the Great Depression, as well as Henrietta and her fellow characters. But the lady behind the story is the part of the interview I didn’t and couldn’t anticipate. She gives a whole new meaning to the term “historical research.”

Indeed, I’m a little jealous. If only I could interview a real sixteenth-century Russian or Tatar.... Wouldn’t that be fun?

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

 
It’s January 1935. Prohibition has just ended, but the Great Depression has not, and much of Chicago remains under the grip of the crime lords who profited from the trade in illegal liquor. Eighteen-year-old Henrietta von Harmon, despite her aristocratic name, struggles to keep food on the table for her overwhelmed mother and seven younger siblings. After too many evenings spent cleaning, peddling drinks, and keeping score for dicers at a local bar, Henrietta jumps at the chance to double her income by taking a new job at a nightclub, where she dances with customers late into the evening. Too bad she cannot share the story with her family, who would be scandalized at the potential damage to her reputation if they knew. Then her boss turns up dead, and the customer to whom she is most attracted reveals that he works as a detective for the Chicago Police. The search for the murderer leads Henrietta into even more unsavory circumstances, and soon she’s wondering whether even the police can keep her safe.

In A Girl Like You and its sequel, A Ring of Truth, Michelle Cox introduces a rich cast of characters and a lovable heroine just trying to make her way in a cold and unforgiving world.



And for those of you who follow the interview participation of my cat, yes, he was there. He just decided to devote himself to purring that day instead of the usual piercing meows. Guess he liked the stories too!