Friday, September 21, 2018

Magic Mushrooms

After a crazy summer caused by my own determination to spiff up the entire Legends of the Five Directions series as it came to an end, things have calmed down at last. Well, almost. I’ve recorded three podcast interviews in about six weeks, which meant reading three books and drawing up three sets of draft questions, as well as checking three audio files after the fact—the interview is the easy part. But that’s more or less done, too, and since I have the next book read and the date not yet scheduled, there’s a bit of free time to think about my new series.

For reasons I won’t go into, the first of my Songs of Steppe & Forest, Song of the Siren, has been substantially done since last spring. It’s out now with my favorite historical consultant, and once I get her comments, I’ll make any needed changes and it will be done. Songs 2, Song of the Shaman, is still at that very preliminary fun stage where anything seems possible. I have a rough list of story events and a goal, motivation, and conflict chart for the leads, but those structural elements are just to keep me honest, by which I mean that when I go roaming off into the wilds of story, they act as a crude form of compass to remind me where home is so I can wend my way back.

The reason I can’t move quickly just yet is because I have at best a rudimentary sense of how it would feel to become a shaman, or even of what shamans do. It doesn’t help that shamanism itself, at least in the areas I cover, got whomped by the Bolsheviks along with every other form of religious expression. Today it’s undergoing a revival, which is an improvement over its being treated like a banned substance but nonetheless raises another, different sort of barrier between the contemporary experience and that of my characters five hundred years ago.

That brings me to the main topic of today’s post. When I mentioned the title to my friend Gabrielle Mathieu, who herself has a series of historical fantasy novels involving psychotropic drugs, she immediately asked, “So did they use psychedelic mushrooms?” I said I didn’t think so, because the research I’d done up to that point suggested trances were induced solely by drumming and chanting. She then quoted me title and page of a book suggesting that Siberian shamans did. So I poked around a little more, including in the book she mentioned, and discovered that she was right. Many shamans did, including those on the Eurasian steppe. Not all, by any means, but a lot.

Better yet, from a fictional point of view, the psychedelic mushrooms in use in Central Asia, the steppe, and Siberia, although not themselves deadly, have relatives that can send you to the other world permanently if you make a mistake or fall victim to a con artist or just misjudge your dose. Most of them don’t have antidotes even today. But they do have identifiable symptoms and consequences, and thanks to Gabrielle’s wonderfully illustrated book, I now know what they look like.

I also decided my heroine must have a reason not to employ the mushrooms herself. Without chemicals to facilitate the trance state, she naturally struggles to live up to her mentor’s and her own expectations. That makes it easier for her to doubt her own powers, but it also adds to the triumph if she can succeed in the end. And as the stakes rise in the story, her inner conflict intensifies: should she give in to temptation, risking her life, or stick firm to her resistance, even if it means risking the lives of others?

I’m still trawling YouTube for chants, drum sounds, interiors, philosophies, and anything else I can find that will flesh out my characters’ spiritual world. And of course, I’m reading everything I can find to cull sensory details and modes of thought, the more esoteric those details the better.

But at least I have the magic mushrooms to fall back on—not to take myself, of course, but to feed to my characters!

Image: Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), the preferred trance agent of Eurasian shamans; © 2006 Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Interview with Karen Brooks

I so wanted to talk with Karen Brooks on New Books in Historical Fiction. We were all set, too, until I realized we live so far apart the only way the timing could work would be if one of us wanted to get up at dawn or stay up until midnight. Fortunately, she was willing to answer written questions instead.

An actress, children’s playwright, academic, and social commentator as well as a writer of fiction, Karen Brooks has had a fascinating career that has already produced ten novels. Today we’re discussing her latest, The Locksmith’s Daughter, published by William Morrow in July 2018. It follows her heroine, Mallory Bright, through the turmoil of Elizabethan London and the flourishing espionage network headed by Sir Francis Walsingham. Read on to find out more.


Your career has already covered a range that includes both acting and academics. Where does your decision to write fiction fit into that overall progression, and what drew you to the particular story that became The Locksmith’s Daughter?

I think the one thing in common with all the different jobs I’ve had is words. As an actor, I had the privilege of breathing life into others’ words; as an academic, I was able to teach and research and write my own by standing on the shoulders of giants. But as an academic, you use words in a particular way and with a particular purpose. And let’s face it, when you publish an article in a scholarly journal, you’re lucky if three people read it. ☺ But I was mainly exercising the rational part of my brain. I always read—nonfiction and fiction—but the desire to be creative with words became overpowering. So I began to write fiction. Short stories at first and even a play, but soon I branched out into novels. It was like I was trying to have a balanced word diet, feed my imagination in all sorts of ways.

The Locksmith’s Daughter
came to me as a consequence of watching a locksmith named Bruce fix the ignition in my husband’s car after he snapped the key in it. He had to give him a new lock and key, and I watched him do this. I began to think about locks and how they most often were used to protect things, to keep secrets. Once I started thinking about secrets, I thought of secret keepers and spies and then, bang! The idea for a female spy embedded in a male-only network and at a time when secrets were not only currency but often the difference between life and death—the Elizabethan era—came to me right there and then. 

When we meet your main character, Mallory Bright—the locksmith’s daughter of the title—she’s already, as they used to say, a “woman with a past.” In her own words, “Only God … knew how akin I was to the prodigal son, and how great a wastrel.” What can you tell us about her history and her character—in the sense of her personality?

Mallory is a strong woman who has been (temporarily) beaten by poor choices and some terrible people. Educated, confident, attractive, she was also very young when she fell victim to a charming con man and had her trust badly abused. She thus loses a great deal of her self-esteem and confidence. When the story opens, she is still vulnerable, physically safe but emotionally fragile. The story is about her learning to regain self-trust and love, learn her place in the world, as much as it is anything else.

How does Mallory become involved with Sir Francis Walsingham? What does participation in his spy service mean to her?

Sir Francis, it turns out, is a family friend—someone her beloved father has known for decades. Mallory is shocked to learn this, but when she does and is invited to become part of Walsingham’s spy network, she understands the opportunity being given to her. She seizes it as a way of regaining a sense of self and proving to herself and others that she’s worthy. After all, there’s no greater service (at that time) than to queen and country. Mallory will learn the high cost of that.

Even from the back cover, we know that Mallory, sooner or later, becomes disenchanted with Walsingham’s spy network. How does that happen, and what effect does it have on her life?

Ah, I have to be careful here … if I say too much, I give away the plot! LOL! Basically, as I said above, the book is about secrets and those who keep them and why. The price to be paid for keeping secrets, for locking them away, is very high, and what it extracts from a person, what it demands of them, is enormous. Keeping secrets requires a level of betrayal—to the self and others. When Mallory starts to understand this, she begins to question what she’s doing and who she is becoming … where she is giving trust and who’s abusing hers. But she’s committed to a cause and, more importantly, has been entrusted with the greatest of secrets. When doubt sets in and she queries her purpose, she transforms from a great political asset to a dangerous threat and thus must be dealt with.

There’s no way we can cover the richness and complexity of your 600-page novel in a blog Q&A, but there are two other characters I’d like to mention. Who are Caleb and Nathaniel, and what can you tell us about them as people and their roles in Mallory’s story?

I love Caleb.
Caleb is an actor and playwright in Elizabethan London. He exists in the period just before William Shakespeare took London by storm. Astute readers might note, however, I still use some Shakespearean phrases (“bat of an owlet’s wing,” etc.). This because I thought, like most writers, Shakespeare would have picked up common patois and deployed it in his plays and poetry and so put some of his phrases in characters’ mouths, including Caleb. Caleb is a boarder in Mallory’s home and has known her for years. He is a great friend to her as well as being flamboyant, irreverent, loyal, and kind. He’s also very talented.

Ah, Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a lord who, like Mallory, has a past. He is physically huge. Tall, broad-shouldered, and, as a consequence, often in fights—or was—as men see him as both a threat and a way of testing their own masculinity. As one of the only surviving members of his family, when we meet him, he has responsibility for his younger sister, who is a sweetie. He doesn’t suffer fools and is also a great supporter of the arts and therefore a patron of the group of players to which Caleb belongs. Nathaniel and Caleb are also friends and have great respect for each other. It’s through Caleb that Nathaniel and Mallory meet.

And what are you working on now?

I have just completed the final edit of my next novel (due out next year), The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, which is set in Restoration England (1660s). This was a time when not only was there war, plague, fire, plots, and plans, but chocolate was considered a naughty, decadent drink (it wasn’t eaten back then). It made its way to English shores via South America and Spain and France and into the newly established chocolate houses of London. These were places where news was exchanged (it was also the era when journalism as we know it was born), gossip flourished, and nefarious plots were hatched. The novel is about a young woman and her rise to the top of the chocolate game—how she makes a deal with the devil to succeed and the cost of this to her and others.

I’m also writing my next book, which is set in Scotland in the early 1700s and focuses on the fishwives of Fife: their strength, independence, great camaraderie, and the threat they posed to certain sections of the community. It’s about what happens when a few of them are accused of witchcraft. It’s set during the height of the “witch craze” and is based on a terrible true story. I’m loving writing it while at the same time being torn up with sadness and anger at humanity’s capacity for cruelty.

Thank you so much for such great questions and for having me on your blog.

And thank you for your answers, Karen!

Karen Brooks, the Australian-born author of ten novels (and counting), is an academic, a newspaper columnist, and a social commentator. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania. Find out more about her at

Image © Stephen Brooks.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Getting Up on Your Leg

As those who’ve read any of my bios and/or followed this blog know, I’m a dancer. Not a career dancer, by any means, but an enthusiastic amateur who took classical ballet classes for twenty-five years and still practices in her loft office every single day. My first novel even featured a ballerina, although it took me so long to master the craft of writing fiction that the first novel I tackled saw its release only twenty years later as Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades—novels four and five in order of appearance.

I don’t publicize these two novels much, because I’ve long since moved on to focusing on historical fiction. But in terms of both subject matter and the length of time it took me to polish them, they have something to offer beginning writers: the concept of “getting up on your leg.”

Now, in ballet—and probably in other forms of dance—“getting up on your leg” is a phrase that almost everyone uses and no one bothers to explain. You hear it often: “you need to get up on your leg,” “I wasn’t up on my leg,” and so on. To a beginner it’s baffling: how can a person dance if she’s sitting down? Aren’t you up on your leg just by virtue of standing?

Well, no. Because if you stop and parse it out, being “up on one’s leg” means to be in alignment, which in dance requires you to have your shoulders in line with your hips, knees, ankles, and heels. If that alignment’s not true—or in the case of an arabesque, not balanced—you can’t raise one leg while supporting yourself on the other, especially if you’re also trying to stand en pointe, where your entire body weight is positioned over a rounded rectangle of approximately two inches by three.

All very well, you may be thinking, but what on earth does this have to do with writing fiction? Here’s the connection: if, as a dancer, you’re not “up on your leg,” the solution has nothing to do with your leg. Almost always, the imbalance comes from not tightening your abdominal and lengthening your back muscles enough. (In ballet, it’s almost impossible to tighten your abdominals too much.)

And that’s where the similarity to writing comes in. If you send drafts to people, especially publishing house editors and literary agents, and what you get back is that your story’s “too quiet” or “didn’t grab me right off” or “I didn’t love it” or something else that on the surface seems vague, what you just heard is the equivalent of “you weren’t up on your leg.”

Dancers "Up on Their Legs"

The solution isn’t, as a general rule, to bring in more action or kill someone on the first page or turn your hero or heroine into the sweetest soul on the planet, rescuing kittens before breakfast and donating to charitable causes each night after dinner—although any of those things can be useful in a broader context. Instead what you need to do, almost inevitably, is sit down and flesh out your characters. Make them complex; make them human; use the setting, plot, and dialogue to show their emotions and the unique ways they approach a situation or a problem. Every single thing that happens in the novel should reveal some new facet of the characters and their world.

That process takes time—not necessarily twenty years but time—so don’t rush it. Revise often, pondering where you can tighten this phrase or that description to convey the characters through what they do and say, their interior monologue. As the narrator, try to stay out of the way and portray their emotions in action and in their own words, so you don’t have to speak for them.

Of course, when they’re talking, aloud or to themselves, they may say, “I’m so mad I could spit,” or “That hurts me,” or whatever: don’t we all? But if you talk for them, especially in generic ways—she felt sad when she saw the injured puppy, he liked balloons because they reminded him of happy childhood days with his father, and so on—you pull readers out of the characters’ heads and therefore out of the story. Keep the characters focused on what’s going on around them; use the details to show us what makes each of them distinct; have each of them use language in his or her own way.

That’s the way to “get up on your leg.” From there, the dancing is easy.

Image: Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1873), public domain via the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Let’s Talk about Love

It surprises some of my readers that I don’t place my historical novels in the category of historical romance. I list them as “historical fiction,” qualified as 16th century and Russia for the sake of the computers. Depending on the novel, I also specify “coming of age” or “family life,” even “Ivan the Terrible” or “Tatars.” But generally I don’t specify “romance.” This post explores why.

For starters, let me say that I sympathize with the readers who wonder. After all, I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t include a romance, and the Legends novels are almost universally based around that hoariest of romance plots: the marriage of convenience. If they’re to include male-female relationships of any sort, they could hardly do otherwise, given the time and place and social class of my characters. As I’ve explained elsewhere, in elite sixteenth-century Russian society, every marriage was arranged for the political convenience of the great clans, and women of marriageable age generally lived in seclusion—meaning that they seldom encountered men outside their own families. That was a deliberate choice by those in power, designed to prevent unscripted attachments. And although my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, does explore the edges of that system and will include three books that don’t revolve around arranged marriages and a fourth with a bride who escapes her father’s plans for her, they too include the possibility of romance.

Moreover, my books generally have happy, often romantically happy endings. I believe that love is a reward for having done the hard work of growing up in some way, so I allow heroes and heroines who put in the time and effort to find each other. In general, as a reader I can tolerate unhappy endings as long as they’re uplifting, but I much prefer the other kind, so that’s what I write. Not every couple ends one of my novels in love: Nasan and Daniil have spent about 48 hours in the same house at the end of The Golden Lynx, for example, so if they’re to remain realistic, they can only agree to stop hating each other. But I’m sure it’s no surprise that their relationship grows over the course of the series into something a good deal stronger than guarded neutrality.

So in what sense are my books not historical romances? Well, in truth they are: the old-fashioned historical romances that I grew up with, exemplified by the novels of Georgette Heyer and Anya Seton, ably carried forward by Philippa Gregory, to whose bestselling stories one reviewer compared my Vermilion Bird—thank you!—and many others. Which means that the real question becomes, “So why don’t I list them that way?” And although I would note that my books are not only romances, the true answer to that question is simple. It has to do with readers’ expectations.

In short, as a genre historical romance has changed since I discovered Heyer’s These Old Shades as a teenager and tumbled into life-long fandom. It still plays host to Philippa Gregory and others like her, but it also includes a large number of authors and titles that put a lot of emphasis on the romance in preference to the history, resulting in female characters who behave in ways that no young woman who wanted to be considered proper would have done before the introduction of reliable birth control in the 1960s and male characters blessedly but anachronistically free of that psychological condition known as “mother/whore syndrome.”

I have nothing against such novels, although they make me laugh and roll my eyes, but I don’t write them. As a historian, I can’t write them and still hold my head up in public. I kind of wish I could, as I would probably sell many more books, but I can’t. I am, after all, the person who obsessed over having misidentified one historical figure’s place of incarceration, an error that only I and a dozen other people on the planet would even recognize, until I produced a second edition that resolved the discrepancy. Crafting a heroine who defies the rules of her time and place is one thing; the idea of creating someone oblivious to those rules would curdle my blood—my problem, I know, but so it is.

All of which makes me suspect that the large reading public devoted to that newer type of historical romance would be disappointed to discover my buttoned-down approach to the same subject. If I ever land a major publishing-house contract and become a household name, I’ll assume that readers who enjoy my traditional take on the past will not only find me but appreciate learning about the romantic elements in advance. As a relative unknown, though, I have hesitated to take that path. The last thing I want is to disappoint prospective readers. And that’s why I list my novels as “historical fiction” but not as “historical romance.”

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, A Boyar Wedding (1883), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Uncomfortable Past

As I mentioned in a previous post, “The Fog of War,” there seems to be a zeitgeist in historical fiction that causes books addressing particular topics to arrive in waves. This is curious in a sense, because the length of roads to publication varies widely between commercial publishing and the world of indie presses and self-published authors. So even if anniversaries lead to media coverage of, say, World War I or the US Civil War that then sparks ideas in the minds of historical novelists, why do the books appear at more or less the same time, regardless of how they’re published?

I don’t know the answer, but I do see the phenomenon. For example, since the spring of 2018 no less than three books about the Underground Railroad have come to my attention. The first, Jacqueline Friedland’s Trouble the Water, is the subject of my most recent interview. The second, Terry Gamble’s The Eulogist, is destined for an interview next January, when it appears. I had to turn down the third, Martha Conway’s The Underground River, even though I loved Conway’s Sugarland, because there are only so many slots in the schedule and I like to cover as many times and places as possible over the course of a year. (For my previous interview with Conway, see 

Perhaps it’s the centennial of the Civil War that has turned people’s thoughts to the antebellum South and the dreadful inequality that kept those plantations running and their owners sufficiently satisfied that they were prepared to secede rather than accept the need for change. Perhaps it’s the current conversation about the lingering reality of racism and the removal of statues commemorating those who fought to preserve slavery that has writers wondering about those who opposed it, what drove them and what happened to them as a result of bucking the trend.

Trouble the Water doesn’t answer the question of the zeitgeist. As you’ll hear in the interview, Friedland decided to focus on abolitionism and the antebellum South because it interested her enough to keep her wanting to write about the topic for years—which for a novel is also a serious reason for choosing one topic over another. In doing so, she has given us a story that explores with sensitivity and depth the conflicting positions on slavery in 1840s Charleston: the views of slave owners and abolitionists, visitors and long-time residents, and, most important, in the person of Clover, the slaves themselves.

So listen to the interview, where we discuss, among other things, the difficulty for an author of portraying characters whose views she finds distasteful. Because whether the past makes us comfortable or not, we can’t avoid it—it’s already happened—and we do the present no service by sugarcoating the misdeeds and mistaken views of our predecessors. One day, no doubt, our descendants will wonder about us. “What were they thinking?” they’ll say. “How could they act that way?” And you know what? They’ll probably be right.

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

Douglas Elling has left his home town in England and made a name for himself in Charleston. It’s about twenty years before the US Civil War, and slavery is still very much an institution in South Carolina, but Douglas finds it abhorrent. He has promised his father-in-law to care for the family business, so he can’t simply pack up and go home. Instead he becomes involved in the nascent abolition movement, using his inherited fleet and his manumitted laborers to intercept illegal slave traders on the high seas.

But when his estate goes up in flames, killing his wife and young daughter, Douglas is shattered. Can any good he might do by fighting the entrenched slave culture of the US South justify the death of his loved ones? He retreats into his shell until, three years later, the arrival of Abigail Milton, another English refugee, summons him back to society.

Abigail, aged seventeen, has a difficult past of her own. Her family has fallen from a comfortable middle-class existence to a life of poverty, and the wealthy uncle who helps them keep food on the table expects a price in return: Abby’s virtue. She doesn’t dare share the truth of her uncle’s advances: he’s promised to cut off all support if she tells. But the invitation to live as Douglas’s ward offers a perfect solution, even after she arrives in Charleston and realizes that not all is as it seems. Especially where Douglas is concerned …

In Trouble the Water (Spark Press, 2018), Jacqueline Friedland explores the complex society of the antebellum South, the influence and consequences of slavery, and the contributions of those who strove to help its victims escape through the Underground Railroad and ultimately to end the system altogether.