Friday, April 16, 2021

Stepping Back in Time

There’s a reason why most of my novels so far have featured aristocrats and even royalty. We may not know much about the day-to-day lives of Russian nobles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—especially the women—but a few sources that track their doings and even their marriages have survived. There are annals, religiously and politically biased but somewhat reliable in terms of dates and sequences. And there are official records, scarce in 1400 and even 1500 but becoming more extensive as the central government slowly develops a basic structure, including offices devoted to foreign affairs and military musters and other aristocratic (male) pursuits.

Some of those sources also mention, if only in passing, the small number of men who staffed the government offices—men like Anfim Fadeyev, who first appeared in my books as a suitor for Grusha’s hand in Song of the Shaman and reappears as a secondary character and almost-friend of Darya in Song of the Sisters. Anfim will be back as the hero of Song of the Sinner, the next installment in the Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and will continue to lurk in the background of future books.

So far, so good. But step down one rung on the social ladder to merchants—even splashy international appointed-by-the-tsar, top-of-the-tier gosti (the word also means “guest”)—and you might as well take a nose dive off a cliff. Even the scholars who spend years of their lives studying merchants and trade in Muscovite Russia tend to focus on the seventeenth century, where they may not have much information to work with but they at least have some, or on the influx of English, Dutch, and German traders who left records that didn’t get burned up every time Moscow caught on fire, which happened every 20–30 years.

Can we extrapolate back from the seventeenth century to the sixteenth? To a degree, I’m sure we can. In a time before computers, television, radio, and public education, when information on how to live passed directly from father to son and mother to daughter, change happened more slowly.

But it did happen. The government consolidation I mentioned above got off to a slow start but mushroomed under the Romanov dynasty (1613–1917), and that development affected commerce as much as anything else. The arrival of the Muscovy Company in 1553–54 introduced new ideas and new ways of doing things. Russia’s conquest of Kazan to its east in 1552 and Astrakhan, near the Caspian Sea, in 1556 opened up a direct if still dangerous route from Moscow to the Silk Roads even as it angered the Ottoman Empire, a development that eventually imperiled the traditional trade route across the steppe to the Black Sea ports of Caffa and Surozh. And we haven’t even gotten to the fifteen-year civil war known as the Time of Troubles (1598–1613), which caused a general upheaval that swept up merchants along with peasants, nobles, and the dynasty itself. None of that had yet occurred in the 1540s, where the next few books in my series are set.

And that poses a challenge, because Anfim comes from a merchant family, and his brothers engage in commerce with both east and west. What that means for their everyday lives, their view of the world and their place in it, and their attitudes toward all kinds of things, I have to either find out or imagine. At moments like this, I wish I could book a seat on a time machine, even for a few hours, and observe firsthand the many details that bring fiction to life but don’t appear in the records. I’d love to buttonhole one of those Surozh silk traders and pepper him with questions or watch him from behind a screen as he talks to his family and his colleagues, then goes about his daily chores.

Fortunately, novelists—unlike historians—only have to give it their best shot before taking a chance, filling in the gaps of what is not recorded, and hoping that the results are somewhere close to the truth. Even so, to the historian in me the thought of that time machine is awfully tempting....

Images: Alexander Yanov, A Chancery in Moscow (1880s); Ivan Bilibin, Gosti, illustration from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1905); Alexander Litvichenko, Ivan the Terrible Shows His Treasures to the Englishman Jerome Horsey (1875)—all public domain because of their age, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 9, 2021

World Conquest, Take Two

As a historian of medieval Russia, I have often encountered portrayals of the Mongol Conquest as an unmitigated disaster, a break in continuity vast areas of steppe and forest. This perspective—never so prevalent in the West, which endured brief invasions and climactic battles but not centuries of domination, assimilation, and coexistence—has been modified in recent years as scholars have moderated their views of both Russian history and the Mongol impact on the lands they conquered. Outside the realm of academe, however, it remains as prevalent as ever.

But a question less often asked is the effect of the conquests on the Mongols themselves. What happened as a result of the influx of foreign cultures and religions imported by artisans, slaves, and concubines? How did the women captured by khans and beys influence the sons and daughters they bore?

That is the focus of my latest New Books Network interview with F.M. Deemyad, whose debut novel, The Sky Worshipers, appeared last month with History through Fiction. Through the overlapping stories of three stolen princesses—Chinese, Persian, and Polish—she traces the history of the conquest over three generations and charts the gradual shifts in the approach taken by Mongol khans toward the cities and civilizations they conquered. From the lives of these fictional women, we gain a unique perspective on a segment of world history that is too often oversimplified or ignored.

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

There have been more than a few contenders for the title of “World Conqueror,” but eight hundred years after the fact, Genghis Khan’s claim to the title remains unmatched. Over the course of four decades, he and his heirs built a realm that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the plains of Hungary and from northern Siberia to India. And unlike the conquests of Hitler and Bonaparte, the charismatic authority of Genghis Khan endured long after the initial union fractured into warring khanates.

Tackling even the establishment period of such a massive undertaking within the covers of a single historical novel poses a challenge for any author. In The Sky Worshipers (History through Fiction, 2021), F.M. Deemyad approaches the problem by focusing on three foreign princesses, captured in different places (northern China, Central Asia, and Poland) by Genghis, his son Ogodei, and his grandson Hulagu. These three women, each for her own reasons, together create a secret eyewitness account of the Mongol rise and expansion.

The female perspective allows Deemyad to avoid extended discussion of wartime atrocities and focus on the human cost of conquest and battles. Yet the atrocities are there too, reflected in the permanent scars left on survivors who must deal with disruption and loss even as they struggle to avoid being coopted into a world they neither created nor chose. In often haunting prose, Deemyad brings to life a slice of the past that, although not forgotten, has receded from view, obscured by the more recent disasters and tragedies of the twentieth century.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Bookshelf, Spring 2021

Yes, I know, it’s only six weeks since the last bookshelf post. But with the pandemic dragging on and spring finally on the horizon, I have lots of time to read and a new reason to record the latest set of books.

As you’ll see, for some reason I’ve been reading a lot of historical murder mysteries lately. But despite varying degrees of gore, none of these books is only a puzzle about who killed whom. What makes them memorable is a combination of richly envisioned historical settings, complex characters, and stories that have more to do with tangled networks of interpersonal connections than the specific circumstances that lead one person—sometimes the least interesting in the book—to tackle his or her problems with so unimaginative a solution as murder. So with that said, here we go—as usual, in alphabetical order by author.

Anne Louise Bannon, Death of the City Marshal
(Robin Goodfellow, 2019)
I ran across this author on social media and purchased the first book in the series, Death of the Zanjero, out of curiosity. I don’t know too many books set in Los Angeles when it was still little more than a pueblo (ca. 1870—yes, California is young!), and the main character sounded interesting. I soon found myself rooting for the heroine—Maddie Wilcox, a widowed winemaker with medical skills. And I thoroughly enjoyed the twisty plot—which revolves around the murder of a water overseer (zanjero) whom almost everyone in town, including Maddie herself, has reason to want out of the way. In this second novel, the victim is Maddie’s self-appointed nemesis from the first book, so I can’t wait to find out what’s happened to him.


Lucinda Brant, Deadly Kin (Sprigleaf, 2019)
Another book acquired more or less by chance, through an Amazon recommendation. The time period—Georgian England, in this case not long before the American Revolution—hooked me, because it’s the era when my favorite Georgette Heyer novels take place. So I downloaded and read the first one, Deadly Engagement. The author really knows her stuff, and I was impressed both by her grasp of historical detail and her richly layered characters.

These books explore deep and often disturbing themes of eighteenth-century (and modern) family life: spousal abuse, infidelity, rape, incest, and the complicated effects of primogeniture and its absence, to name a few. That’s in addition to the usual motives of greed, revenge, and mental imbalance. I’m planning to interview the author for New Books in Historical Fiction in early summer, so stand by for more information when that podcast episode goes live.

Emily Hourican, The Glorious Guinness Girls
(Grand Central Publishing, 2021)

This one came to me by way of a publicist, but because I was already booked for May and June, it’s been shifted to a written Q&A on this blog. The three daughters of Ernest Guiness (the beer guy), all blonde and blue-eyed, were a sensation in 1920s London society. Here Hourican explores their childhood and youth through the eyes of a fictional heroine—Felicity, known as Fliss—who is brought into the family at the age of ten. She experiences herself as somewhere between a charity case and an unpaid servant, but sharp and observant, she makes the perfect narrator for this tale of Anglo-Irish wealth, threatened by an emerging Catholic drive for independence, and the restlessness that drove the Roaring Twenties, a response to the devastation of the Great War.

Hourican, a former journalist and editor, has a keen appreciation of social and political conflict and a clear, compassionate writing style. Come back next month to see her answers to my questions.

Jeannie Lin, The Hidden Moon (Jeannie Lin, 2020)

This self-published author hit the jackpot when one of the New York Times Book Review contributors picked her Jade Temptress for a historical fiction column. I read book 1, The Lotus Palace, and have almost finished The Jade Temptress (now snapped up by Harlequin). So I look forward to this one. Set in Tang Dynasty China (late ninth century), the series follows the adventures of two women, Yue-ying and Mingyu, who live in the Pingkang li, the notorious pleasure quarter of the then-capital of China, Changan. Mingyu, a high-ranking courtesan, falls under suspicion of murder in the first book; her maid, Yue-ying, and a handsome lord, Bai Huang, work together to solve the crime. They fall in love, but marriage is impossible because of the difference in their status and Lord Bai's prior contract. Or is it?

Despite her popularity and the wealth she earns, Mingyu cannot leave the quarter because she is owned by her “foster mother,” the woman who runs the Lotus Palace. In The Jade Temptress, Mingyu receives a summons to the house of her protector, where she finds him headless, so recently killed that the blood is still wet. Only the constable she detests from book 1 can help her clear her name.

This third novel features Bai Huang’s younger sister, Wei-wei, and a criminal associate of Lord Bai’s who, if the previous books are anything to go by, will almost certainly turn out to be more than he seems. But what I like about these novels is not the murders themselves, interesting and revealing of Tang Dynasty culture as they are, but the focus on women who, rich or poor, find ways to circumvent the many restrictions placed on them and achieve a measure of freedom.


Julia Quinn, Bridgerton Collection, vol. 2 (Avon, 2021)

This one’s a bit of a cheat because, in effect, I cited it last time around. More accurately, I picked the first book in this collection, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. But the two collections (books 4–6 and 7–8 plus a prequel) are now out, so if I’m to read them all and be ready for Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron in July, I’d better get cracking!

Friday, March 26, 2021

Bringing Characters to Life

One of the most difficult tasks for any novelist, including myself, is to create characters who seem like real people: more noble, often, or more evil than the rest of us—depending on their role in the story—but neither wholly one nor completely the other and, most of all, distinct. Characters like that grow beyond an individual book and achieve a kind of immortality. Long after we have forgotten the plot details of Little Women or Anna Karenina or Vanity Fair, we remember Jo March and her saintly sister Beth, the doomed Anna and her faithless Vronsky, and Becky Sharp.

It’s true that after a while characters acquire a certain kind of life; they say and do things an author doesn’t expect. Such behavior offers insights into their being and makes a writer’s life easier. It’s also true that some characters arrive fully formed, with their own voices and traits, whereas others hide and require extensive coaxing to reveal their hidden selves, their goals.

But it’s equally true that showing those developed characters from the very beginning of a novel is a task for the author, and no rewrite should be the last rewrite until that step has taken place. So how does that happen?

I’ll give you a favorite example of mine, one I go back to when wrestling with my own beginnings. It comes from Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness, and the person speaking is the heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch. Her very name hints at her character: although “Lady” has many shades of meaning in British society, it always refers to a noblewoman, and Rannoch is obviously Scots. The Lady First Name, especially for a woman, means a duke’s or perhaps an earl’s daughter; anyone lower is Lady Husband’s Title or Last Name. But in the first line, we find out what it means specifically to Georgiana, known to friends and family as Georgie.

There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.

First, one is expected to behave as befits a member of the royal family without being given the means to do so.
[A list of royal tasks follows, one that will be familiar to anyone who has been following the latest flap among the Windsors over the departure of Prince Harry and Princess Meghan, followed by examples of the things royals cannot do, including applying for a job at Harrods, something that Georgie plans to attempt this very day.]

When I venture to point out the unfairness of this, I am reminded of the second item on my list. Apparently the only acceptable destiny for a young female member of the house of Windsor is to marry into another of the houses that still seem to litter Europe.

This opening excerpt reveals a surprising amount about what makes Georgie unique. We learn that she is royal, well educated, and quite proper (her use of “one,” for example) but aware of the contradictions in her world, willing to defy convention, and capable of questioning the strictures imposed on her in childhood. She also has a sharp tongue and a sense of humor, made even clearer on the next page, where she describes her grandmother as “the least attractive of Queen Victoria’s daughters,” an apparent burden that allowed Grandma to escape marriage to “a Romanov or a Kaiser, for which I am truly grateful and I expect she was too.”

We’re not two minutes into the story, but we already have Georgie’s quadruple-barreled name, insights into her heritage and approach to life, and most of all a clear sense of who she is. In a sense, as readers we’re already in love, ready to follow her wherever she wants to take us.

Here’s another example, one I encountered just recently while reading Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning, the first of a series set in late Victorian England starring Veronica Speedwell, the first-person narrator. Again, the first line is presented as action but actually reveals character: “I stared down at the open grave and wished that I could summon a tear.”

In the next line, we learn that Veronica is attending the funeral of Miss Nell Harbottle, “my guardian for the whole of my life,” yet she cannot cry and by the end of the paragraph is disconcerted by a sense of euphoria. “As if to match my mood, the breeze rose a little, and on it fluttered a pair of pale wings edged and spotted with black. ‘Pieris brassicae,’ I murmured to myself. A Large Garden White butterfly, common as grass, but pretty nonetheless.”

You may think that Veronica is just cold, but that’s not the case. She notices butterflies because she has adopted lepidoptery as a profession—in an age where women did not, as a rule, have professions—and to her they symbolize freedom and beauty. Her failure to weep at her guardian’s grave reflects both the relationship between them, “tepid at best,” and a mystery about Veronica’s past that drives the novel and becomes clear only toward the end. Veronica is certainly unconventional, as her having a profession indicates, but she is also passionate about her convictions, enough to get her into a spat with the vicar’s wife within half an hour of the funeral. By the end of chapter 1, we know she has no interest in marriage, that she has had lovers (extraordinary for a young, single Victorian woman), that she treasures foreign adventure and intends to run her own life, and that she doesn’t give a hoot about either gossip or social censure.

Bowen and Raybourn, of course, are big-time authors with large followings—undoubtedly because of writing like this. But even self-published and small-press writers need to aim for the same standard. It’s not easy, but it can be done. At the risk of giving myself more credit than I deserve, here are two openings from my own novels, The Golden Lynx (2012) and Song of the Sisters (2021). The first is told in alternating third-person and the second from the perspective of a first-person narrator, but each book begins with its heroine.

Here is Nasan, the central character of The Golden Lynx and its entire series: 

The lynx found Nasan just before the ambush. She glimpsed its tufted ears through the tangled branches of the birch tree, then lost sight of it when her brother launched his attack. Alerted by his joyous shriek, she jumped sideways and stuck out a foot, sending him somersaulting over the blizzard-kissed ground. She pelted him with snowballs, taunting him. “You forgot again, silly. How can you take me by surprise if you yell like that?”

And here is Darya, at first observing her older sister:

“Oh, Darya, you have to see this. A strutting peacock just entered our yard!” Solomonida stood on tiptoe, leaning forward until I worried she might tumble right through the open window in her eagerness. The late morning sunlight glinted off her jeweled headdress and found an answering glow in the wisps of blonde braid that had worked their way out from under the rim as she sewed.

“Peacock?” I stared at her and sighed. It wasn’t fair. My older sister was lovely, even at thirty-one. Not just beautiful, either, but vivid and charming—outgoing, outspoken, eager to interact with life beyond our courtyard gates. Next to her I felt like the quiet mouse she teasingly called me. “How would a peacock get into our yard?”

So what can we tell about these two  women interacting with their siblings? Nasan is probably a teenager at most, since she still enjoys a snowball fight with her brother. She is active and competitive, and she takes no prisoners, pummeling her brother even when he’s down (we soon see him doing the same to her). Why the lynx is looking for her, we won’t find out for a while, but she notices it lurking, so she is at home in the forest and alert to its perils. Even so, we discover within a page or so that she is in fact courting danger, that she and her brother have defied their parents’ orders to stay within the fortress because of a threat that will sweep them into the story before they know it. So she is courageous and willing to buck authority—or simply young enough to believe in her own invincibility.

Darya, in contrast, views herself—and is viewed by others, so her perceptions are accurate—as a quiet mouse, inferior to her older sister (less pretty and charming), and shy about life outside her estate. She is perceptive and honest as well as observant, and she is not proud. If anything, she underestimates her own worth and defers too readily to others, including her sister. She has a developed aesthetic/artistic sense, describing Solomonida as a painter might. The jeweled headdress indicates that the family is noble, or at least wealthy—unlike Nasan, who at first glance could be anyone, although it soon becomes obvious that she’s at the very top of the social hierarchy, something that concerns her not at all. And the sisters have been sewing, a traditionally female occupation that brands them as fundamentally conventional even though as time goes by they will push at the boundaries of their world. It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to learn that Nasan would rather do almost anything than ply a needle. Give her a sword and a horse any day.

See how much you can tell from a few sentences? It’s no accident that I use my characters over and over, once I’ve developed them. Finding them takes so much time, and getting them on the page requires an even greater investment. Keeping up with them as they grow is a challenge, too—maybe we'll talk about that another day—but nothing like as hard as getting to know them in the first place.

Even with all that, not everyone will create another Jo March or Becky Sharp. But it’s certainly worth a try.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Smith Women at War

I’ve made no secret on this blog that I enjoy Lauren Willig’s writing. Whether it’s the fabulous eighteenth-century romp of her Pink Carnation novels, with their sly invocations of the works of Georgette Heyer (a long-time favorite of mine) as well as the more explicit references to Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, or stand-alones like The Summer Country, with its evocation of plantation slavery and its discontents in nineteenth-century Barbados, her books are a joy to read.

Even so, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Band of Sisters, about the well-intentioned but challenging effort by a group of Seven Sisters alumnae to undo the damage wrought by the German invasion of northeastern France in World War I. Known as the Smith College Relief Unit, the real-life counterparts of Willig’s characters shipped across the Atlantic in 1917 and for the next two years fought everything from bureaucracy to gasoline shortages and shifting front lines to complete their mission: the restoration of French villages.

But again Willig takes this potentially grim story and finds a way to make it a page-turner. Over the course of the book, each woman in the unit—starting with its organizer, Mrs. Rutherford—emerges as a fascinating character in her own right. But as we discuss in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, the focus of the story is three interconnected members of the band: Kate Moran, an impoverished and reluctant teacher of French at a New York girls’ school; her college friend and roommate Emmie van Alden, burdened with the legacy of an exalted family heritage and a crusading but inattentive mother; and Emmie’s cousin Julia, a doctor whose self-confident and beautiful exterior hides a past she hesitates to share and a drive to succeed in her chosen profession that her family and even her medical colleagues do not support. Read on—and listen!—to find out more.

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

Kate Moran, a graduate of Smith College, has been making her living tutoring students in French when her college friend Emmie Van Alden appears out of the blue and talks Kate into joining a group of alumnae intent on offering relief to rural families in war-torn France. Despite her mother’s disapproval, in July 1917 Kate boards an ocean liner with the Smith College Relief Unit. She knows few of the other alumnae and dislikes some of those she remembers from her college days. Even her friendship with Emmie has been tarnished since graduation by their disparate family backgrounds.

After a dangerous journey across the Atlantic, where German U-boats still patrol the seas, the Smith women reach Paris. There they encounter one obstacle after another: incomplete paperwork, missing supplies, trucks delivered in pieces, absent members of their unit, and a simmering coup against their leader. Somehow they overcome their difficulties and reach their intended destination in Picardy, not far from the River Somme. But no sooner have they begun to make headway in their central mission—to restore farmlands and villages destroyed during the German invasion—than they hear of a renewed offensive that may undo all their hard work.

In Band of Sisters (William Morrow, 2021) Lauren Willig brings to life, with her signature flair, a little-known but riveting chapter in the history of World War I.