Friday, August 11, 2017

Interview with Sarah Zama

I rarely have two author interviews back to back—in fact, I can’t think of another time in the five years that I’ve maintained this blog—but it just so happened that I read both The Dress in the Window and Give in to the Feeling within a few days of each other. And I had a chance to interview both authors, so I saw no reason to make either of them wait.

Sarah Zama is just beginning as a published writer; she is currently working on a trilogy about the characters whom she introduces in Give in to the Feeling, a novella set in 1920s Chicago. So this book is also one of my Hidden Gems—short but sweet, in this case, and a great way to become acquainted with Sarah’s writing. Moreover, it too offers an inspiring story. You can find out more about Sarah and her books at her website,

What drew you to this story, which you describe as fantasy dieselpunk? For starters, what is fantasy dieselpunk?

I’m not surprised that you’re asking. Many readers (and authors) are unaware of this genre.

The easiest way to describe dieselpunk is: it’s like steampunk set in a more recent era, spanning from the late 1910s to the early 1950s. You have the aesthetics and the history of those decades, but with a twist (history gets punked, as we say) so that these stories are not really historicals even when (as in my case) they are very close to history.

Dieselpunk is such a young genre (the word itself was coined only in the 1990s) that not even us dieselpunks agree on what it is exactly. Many dieselpunks think that only Retrofuturism falls into the genre; we speak about stories that have a strong SF element to it (think The Rocketeer or Captain America: The First Avenger, to name a couple of films people might have seen). But some of us consider fantasy elements to be just as good for a dieselpunk story (think Indiana Jones).

I’ve always been drawn to stories with a twist, stories that have a fantasy element in them. I’ve always been drawn to fantasy, actually. I was a Tolkien fan long before Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, and I’ve been a R. E. Howard fan even longer. But I’ve always loved early twentieth-century history too, especially the Deco years, so it was probably in the logic of things that I would end up mixing these two passions of mine.

I honestly discovered the 1920s by chance, but I’ve completely fallen in love with this era, because it has so many similarities with our own time.

You are preparing a trilogy that explores some of the same themes in this novella—and indeed, I often wanted to know more about the characters’ pasts. Which came first: the trilogy or the novella? But more generally, what draws you to the world of ghosts and spirits?

The genesis of these stories is quite funny.

I started out wanting to write a series of novellas or short stories bound by a recurring cast of characters. I wanted to set it in the 1930s, but at the time I knew nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—about that time. So I started planning the series, and at the same time I researched that period.

After a year of research, I shifted from the 1930s to the 1920s for a question of accuracy (couldn’t set a few ideas in the 1930s and still be accurate). I also had written zero words of the actual story. So I decided I needed to test my characters and my ideas, since I felt insecure that I could actually handle the time period. I wrote Give in to the Feeling as a character study, and it was such fun! I was already in love with these characters, but writing them made me love them even more.

So after that I wanted to test the setting a bit more. I outlined a trilogy of novellas which were still set earlier than the original idea, and I enrolled in National Novel Writing Month, which is a yearly challenge to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in the month of November. My plan was to write a detailed synopsis of the entire trilogy of novellas, which I estimated would take some 15,000–20,000 words total, and then write whatever I could of the actual novellas to reach the 50,000 words of the challenge. 

Well, it didn’t exactly work like that.

The synopsis of Ghostly Smell Around, the first installment, ended up at 22,000 words. I completed NaNo halfway through the second installment, and at that point I understood my story had plans very different from mine about how it wanted to be told.

I completed the first draft of the trilogy in a couple of years. I revised it completely in a few more. Then I concentrated on the first novel. My plan was (and still is) to try to publish the trilogy traditionally, but I also wanted to try self publishing. So a couple of years ago I went back to Give in to the Feeling, rewrote it completely (because, as you may imagine, I had learned lots of things about these characters in the four years I had spent with them) and published it as an indie novella.

It was a fantastic adventure.

Why the world of spirits? I’ve always been fascinated with spirituality, with ghosts, with the possibility that there might be more than the physical world around us. Maybe because we live in such a materialistic world, I like to explore the possibility that there might be more, a place where what we are (our true soul) is more important of what we have.

Tell us about Susie, the main character. How did she end up in a Chicago speakeasy?

In a very odd way, I’d say.

She’s a Chinese girl and she was sent out to be a mail-order wife, which was quite a common practice in immigrant communities in the first part of the twentieth century. But when she lands in San Francisco, she discovers that her prospective husband has died in the meanwhile and she is taken up by his young associate, which leads Susie to Chicago and sends her life in a much different direction. Simon is an ambitious man who wants to have a rich life. In Prohibition-era America he thinks bootlegging is a viable way to achieve his dream.

The first time I wrote Give in to the Feeling it was really mostly a character study, but the second time I wrote it I wanted it to be Susie’s story. I wanted to see her evolve and become her own woman, as she had the opportunity to be.

The 1920s were an exciting time to be a woman, though not in the way most people think. We often see the 1920s as a liberating time, which it was—to an extent. Flappers did break free from lots of the old bonds, but we should remember that many bonds still stood. We should also remember that most women weren’t flappers in the 1920s. Only young university girls, with money and time on their hands, could afford to be flappers. In spite of this, I do think that most women, especially young ones, aspired to be flappers or at least to be as free as the flappers showed they could be.

This is where the importance of the “flapper movement” (as it is sometimes termed) really lies: not in the achievements, which were limited in time and in some respect in magnitude, but in the breaking through. Its power came from showing a different way, not just to women but to men as well.

To some extent Susie walks the same path, passing through the “freedom” and excitement to show herself the way she wants, and coming in the end to a more profound understanding of what freedom truly is.

And what of Simon? How does he fit into Susie’s life?

Well, if I had to name the character that most evolved from the first version of the story to the published one, it would be Simon. In the first version, he was just the antagonist, but as I revised the novella for publication, I started wondering what drove him. From the beginning I didn’t want him to be a mere villain, but his reasons and his acting certainly became more nuanced and prominent as the story evolved.

I suppose Simon incarnates the danger of ambition not culled by ethics. There’s nothing wrong with what Simon wants, in my opinion, it’s what he’s willing to leave behind to achieve it that is problematic.

Simon is the only character that doesn’t appear in the other stories of this series, and I had a great time exploring him.

Trouble starts when two brothers, Michael and Blood, walk into the bar. Susie and Blood are instantly drawn to each other. What can you tell us about the brothers?

I truly truly love these guys. Readers tell me it’s apparent, but I can’t do anything about it. Blood and Michael were the original idea, the reason why this series of stories exists. In fact, when I originally wrote Give in to the Feeling, I had a hard time keeping it as Susie’s story, because Michael and Blood kept trying to steal the stage.

I consider Ghost Trilogy as Michael’s story, so yes, there is a lot more to learn about him and Blood, their relationship and what caused Michael to flee the reservation. Deciding what to let filter into the novella and what to leave untold was like going through hell!

Michael and Blood are Lakota Ogalala. I’ve always been interested in the Native American cultures and spirituality, and this interest has deepened in the last decade. Still, I was very hesitant to handle Lakota characters because I had no direct contact with that culture (I was less hesitant with Susie because I have friends who are Chinese). I researched the hell out of it, but still I think this would have been a very different story and they would have certainly be very different characters if I hadn’t met someone who today is a dear friend on an online workshop for writers.

She’s Mohawk, actually, not Lakota, but she helped me get into Native American feelings and thinking in a way I could have never achieved on my own. I know it and I need to acknowledge it. And she’s a writer herself (she writes under the name Melinda Kelly), so meeting her was really the very best thing that could happen to me and my story!

The relationship between tradition and modernity and the survival of traditional practices and beliefs in the modern times is something very close to my heart. Native Americans stand in a peculiar position in this regard, and this may be what inspired me to have Lakota characters in my story. Most of my characters are liminal. They stand in the face of a new world (of change) but hesitate to step into it for fear of what that world may take from them. There’s Susie, who’s a Chinese in America; Sinéad, who’s an Irish immigrant; Angelo, who’s a third-generation Italian-American; and a lot of African American characters who live in the time of the Harlem Renaissance. But none of them express that hesitation in front of change and the urge to find a way to cope better than Blood and Michael, in my opinion.

When can we expect to see more of Susie’s story?

Ghostly Smell Around, the first novel in the trilogy, is at the polishing stage, basically ready to go. I’m trying to get it published traditionally, but we know how these things go, so I may end up self-publishing it. Let’s see what happens.

The rest of the trilogy is written, although it stands at a second draft stage.

As I mentioned, Ghost Trilogy is more of Michael’s story, but Susie is important to it. In the trilogy, she’s a very strong character (Michael considers her to be bossy), who has found her balance in her relationship with Blood and is happy to be part of the Red Willow family. And after going though her own ordeal, in the trilogy Susie is a character who always strives to help others find their way in life and be happy.

I’m very proud of her.

Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your answers with me and my readers. Can’t wait for your Ghost Trilogy to appear!


A bookseller in Verona (Italy), Sarah Zama has always lived surrounded by books. Always a fantasy reader and writer, she’s recently found her home in the dieselpunk community. Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, came out in 2016.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Interview with Sofia Grant

As you may have guessed from the post I wrote back in April about blue jeans, fashion is, to borrow a phrase from Sir Percy Blakeney, “not my forte.” So it rather surprised me how much I enjoyed Sofia Grant’s The Dress in the Window, which is, on the surface, all about the new styles in fashion that arrived in the wake of World War II.

Of course, like most good novels, The Dress in the Window actually explores much deeper themes than fabrics and styles: the importance of family, the long-term effects of the war, the establishment of identity in a changing world. Sofia Grant joins me today to talk about those elements of the book. You’ll find a link to the book in this paragraph and more information about the author at the end of the interview. You don’t even need makeup to read her answers, let alone fancy clothes—so enjoy!

This is your first book published under the name Sofia Grant, but not your first novel. What made you decide you needed a change of name?

Historical fiction is a departure from the novels I’ve written in the past, and using a new author name is a way to signal to readers—both old and new—that they can expect something different this time around. 

What made you want to set your story in this particular time and place?

As a lifelong hobby seamstress and fashion buff, I can’t imagine a more exciting era in American fashion than after WWII!  Women still sewed many of the clothes for their families, which appealed to me, as it gave me an opportunity to write about garment construction. (I know it sounds boring but it really is integral to my plot!) But couture fashion was changing as well, and the wealthy women who were accustomed to buying dresses in exclusive salons had also been affected and changed by the war.

At first I thought I would set my book in New York City, which was then the fashion hub of the country. But choosing a location close enough to commute, but far enough away to give me access to the mills and factories where clothing was made, proved far more interesting.

Although fashion provides the environment in which the novel takes place, this is really a story of a women-only family: Jeanne, Peggy, Thelma, and Tommie. Each character is beautifully defined and rich. Tell us first about the two sisters, Jeanne and Peggy. How do you see them as characters? How do you think about their relationship?

Thank you for that lovely compliment! I am fond of both Peggy and Jeanne, and is often happens in my novels, I figured out after the story was written that they are an amalgam of some of my own traits. I’m creative and impulsive like Peggy but also a bit of a mother hen, as Jeanne becomes over time. Also, there are bits in the book inspired by my relationship with my younger sister. (Funny story—when I gave my sister a copy of the book to read, I had to reassure her that I wasn’t accusing her of being flighty like Peggy.)

Sister relationships in general are so interesting! I don’t think there’s a more intense emotional bond. Sisters can encourage or provoke each other so easily. Envy and competition are balanced by unbreakable devotion. As Peggy and Jeanne face the challenges of loss, grief, and poverty, I tried to show how they antagonize and support each other.

Thelma is the mother in this family, although she is not the actual mother of any of the others. What distinguishes her?

I think it’s no accident that Thelma is around my age and—like me—is intensely maternal. Even when she wants to keep these young women at a distance, she is unable to stop herself from coming to love them.

She also has an unquenchable drive to not just survive but to drink deeply of life. I hope it’s not immodest of me to say that I modeled that characteristic after myself. Following my own midlife reinvention, I discovered I was not willing to settle for society’s notion of what it means to be a matron. Thelma takes her due, in secret when necessary. I admire that.

Tommie, because she is very young at the beginning of the story, necessarily has the least “voice” of the four. Yet she acts as a kind of anchor for the women, or perhaps a source of tension. How do you see her role in the book?

I quite agree! Tommie becomes not just the glue holding the three women together but a driver for them all to try to be their best selves. I find that’s true in my life—in times of challenge, my own children have inspired the adults around them to try to pull together for the benefit of everyone.

Tommie is also a mirror for Peggy. In her daughter she sees a reflection of both her assets and her shortcomings, as well as an obstacle for her reaching her dreams. It is a singular cruelty of that era that women were expected to subvert their desires in service to domesticity and motherhood. Though Peggy strains against those bonds, she never truly abandons Tommie, and her love is constant.

Fabric itself seems at times almost to be an expression of the characters. Each chapter begins with a discussion of a specific fabric that has qualities explored in that chapter. Why did you decide to include that element?

Well! I must say that was a bit of an indulgence, and I’ve been nervous about how it might be received. I love fabric, and my education came from my mother and grandmother, who were truly gifted seamstresses. So these passages are an homage to them, a nod to the happy hours I spent learning at their knees.

Yet I also know that this will be quite foreign to many readers, and I deliberated quite a bit before including them. They aren’t essential to understanding the story, but I hoped to do several things with these bits of text: both set the emotional tone for what comes after, and add a sensory element as well as a sense of historical accuracy.

What are you working on now?

Thanks so much for asking!  (And thank you, by the way, for inviting me to play.)

I’ve just turned in my next novel to the same editor who worked on The Dress in the Window.  Her name is Lucia Macro, and she’s a true pleasure to work with, as well as very smart about bringing a story to life.

The new book, tentatively titled The Daisy Children, explores a real-life tragedy: in 1937, over three hundred Texan schoolchildren were killed in a gas explosion. But I use a contemporary storyline to explore the aftermath of the disaster, and created a cast of characters that I really enjoyed writing. There’s intrigue, passion, greed, vengeance, and even a bit of a love story. Fingers crossed!

Thank you so much, Sofia, for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you all success with this book and the books to come. Readers can find out more about Sofia and her books at There you can read, in addition to her official bio pasted in below, a longer piece about her writing career and how she got started. If you’ve ever thought about writing fiction, her story will inspire you.


Called a “writing machine” by the New York Times and a “master storyteller” by the Midwest Book Review, Sofia Grant has written dozens of novels for adults and teens under the name Sophie Littlefield. She has won Anthony and RT Book Awards and been shortlisted for Edgar®, Barry, Crimespree, Macavity, and Goodreads Choice Awards. Sofia works from an urban aerie in Oakland, California.

Book Description

A perfect debut novel is like a perfect dress—it’s a “must have” and when you “try it on” it fits perfectly. In this richly patterned story of sisterhood, ambition, and reinvention Sofia Grant has created a story just right for fans of Vintage and The Dress Shop of Dreams.

World War II has ended and American women are shedding their old clothes for the gorgeous new styles. Voluminous layers of taffeta and tulle, wasp waists, and beautiful color—all so welcome after years of sensible styles and strict rationing. 

Jeanne Brink and her sister Peggy both had to weather every tragedy the war had to offer—Peggy now a widowed mother, Jeanne without the fiancé she’d counted on, both living with Peggy’s mother-in-law in a grim mill town.  But despite their grey pasts they long for a bright future—Jeanne by creating stunning dresses for her clients with the help of her sister Peggy’s brilliant sketches.

Together, they combine forces to create amazing fashions and a more prosperous life than they’d ever dreamed of before the war. But sisterly love can sometimes turn into sibling jealousy. Always playing second fiddle to her sister, Peggy yearns to make her own mark. But as they soon discover, the future is never without its surprises, ones that have the potential to make—or break—their dreams.

Friday, July 28, 2017

It Runs in Families

You may remember that in February 2017 I posted about how I read and fell in love with Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age. So I found it particularly interesting to discover during my recent interview with Beatriz for New Books in Historical Fiction that the characters and fundamental romantic plot of that book derive from an opera that Beatriz knew growing up. (You can find out which opera and how the stories intersect by listening to the interview.)

Also during the conversation, we talk quite a bit about how characters—even whole families—from one of her books pop up in other books. It’s a kind of in-group game: you read one, wonder what happened to X, and bang, there he or she is, starring in another. Or sometimes just making a cameo appearance, like Hollywood celebrities.

I have to admit that, although I wanted to hear why Beatriz recycles her fictional people in this way, I understand the urge completely. Not only do my Legends novels trace the development of a whole cast of friends and family members over the course of five years or so, but I have enough “leftover” potential heroines to people a second series of their own. Naturally, since they will still be moving forward in time, they will intersect with Nasan, Daniil, Ogodai, Firuza, Maria, Alexei, and the rest as seems appropriate. I have the sense I couldn’t stop them if I tried.

So what is the attraction of sticking with an expanding group rather than starting afresh each time as most novelists do? Again, Beatriz explains her reasons in the interview. Mine follow here.

At the most basic level, I envisioned the series that way, but in the early days of writing I failed to understand how simple novel plots need to be, so I had too many characters with too many stories for any one book. These are the “leftovers,” whose backgrounds I know and whose development I have imagined but whose stories didn’t fit into the space available.

A second reason is that known characters come with some of the prep work already done. A writer has to figure out how to grow them, both as individuals and in terms of their relationships, but developing an existing character is easier than starting from scratch. It takes a long time to build a consistent but well-rounded character, so why waste the effort?

Last, for me and for Beatriz as well, those existing characters constitute a story world, filled with the complexities that we find in the real world. They are, if you like, a reflection of a given author’s personality. And like the real world, there are always surprises waiting around the corner, questions demanding answers and people eager to reveal hidden facets of themselves.

So long as the journey entertains and enlightens, we may as well continue along the same path. Because given the way the subconscious works, when that path ceases to lead anywhere, the inspiration will dry up and a new character will force him- or herself into the writer’s mind, insisting on telling his or her story.

Then, like it or not, off we plunge into another story world filled with a different cast. With luck, they too will become friends and family by the time their saga comes to an end.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. We settled on Cocoa Beach, the latest novel, as the featured title, but in fact we talk about all  its predecessors as well.

The State of Florida might have been designed for Prohibition. Its long coastline, its proximity to the Caribbean sources of rum, and (in 1922) its vast stretches of undeveloped coastline made it a perfect target for smuggling. No wonder that lines of ships lay just outside US waters waiting for the intrepid and criminally minded to ferry each cargo of illicit liquor to land.

So Virginia Fitzwilliam discovers firsthand when she travels to the town of Cocoa Beach, then called simply Cocoa, with her two-year-old daughter, Evelyn. Virginia has received news that her estranged husband, Simon, has died in a fire and left his estate and business to her. But when she reaches Cocoa, she soon discovers that Simon's executors agree on one thing: widows should collect checks and not ask awkward questions, including what really goes on in the company warehouse after dark. Only her sister-in-law shows the slightest sympathy for Virginia and her struggle to understand not only what happened to Simon but what his legacy means for her and their daughter.

Told in overlapping narratives that contrast Virginia's past as an ambulance driver in World War I and her early history with Simon to her troubling reintroduction to the man she thought she loved, Beatriz Williams creates in Cocoa Beach what she describes as a Gothic novel in a new, more modern setting. I would call it a psychological thriller, one dominated by a rich and complex cast of characters whose all too human interactions never fail to pull the reader along.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Bookshelf, July 2017

The books are piling up again, so here’s the latest rundown of titles read recently or due to be read soon, ending with the newest Five Directions Press release—in this case a re-release. Except for the last, I’m listing the books alphabetically by author, with a note about how they got on the list as well as what appeals to me about them.


Joy Callaway, Secret Sisters
As an alumna of a woman’s college, I can’t resist this study of young women in late nineteenth-century Illinois who decide to establish the first sorority at their coed college. The effort reveals the difficulties faced by women of the time in acquiring an education, especially in “male” subjects such as medicine, but the real topic of the novel is friendship, both among the women struggling to support one another as a tolerated minority and between the lead character, Beth, and the man she selects to help her win her case. My current read.


Sofia Grant, The Dress in the Window
My most recent read and the subject of a future author Q&A here on the blog. As the gorgeous cover suggests, this is a novel about fashion in the United States right after World War II, a time when rich women still had their own salons in the department stores where each dress was fitted to them personally by a dedicated staff. Two sisters—one a gifted clothing designer, the other a seamstress of extraordinary skill—try, each in her own way, to break into this rarefied world. But the echoes of their past and of the war that they and the country are striving so hard to forget twist their deep bond with resentments as pervasive as fabric and thread, and a deep secret threatens to tear them apart.


Linnea Hartsuyker, The Half-Drowned King
Next month’s interview for New Books in Historical Fiction takes a dive into the Viking past in the form of a young ruler betrayed by his stepfather and a love affair that may never have a chance to bloom. Shades of Tristan and Iseult blend with a tale of defeat and conquest to create what looks like an interesting novel.



Beatriz Williams, Cocoa Beach
This month’s interview, discussing the latest Jazz Age novel by an accomplished bestselling author with many fascinating points to make about her own and others’ work. Here Virginia Fitzwilliam travels from New York City to Cocoa, Florida, in the wake of her estranged husband’s death and discovers not only a fortune—perhaps based on illegal liquor in this era of Prohibition—but a host of relatives, hangers on, and others determined to secure some of the wealth for themselves, by fair means or foul. Compelling psychological and historical drama by an author with a real gift for creating complex and interesting characters.



Sarah Zama, Give in to the Feeling
Another Jazz Age tale, this one set in a Chicago speakeasy where certain members of the clientele and even of the staff live on another plane. Yes, they are ghosts, and not everyone can see them for what they are. Susie (Su Xie), an immigrant sent from South China to marry a man sight unseen, discovers when she reaches San Francisco that her intended bridegroom has died. His friend helps her out by taking her to Chicago and supporting her, but in return he demands complete and unwavering loyalty. Which becomes a problem for Susie when a man named Blood walks into the speakeasy and wants to dance... This novella only hints at the larger story the author is developing in her trilogy, but it goes down like a well-chilled wine. Another future subject for an author Q&A.


And last but not least, we have The Duel for Consuelo, re-released by Five Directions Press last Saturday (July 15) after being orphaned when Booktrope Editions unexpectedly closed last spring. I love this story of a smart and determined young woman whose simple path toward marriage to the youngest son of the local hacienda owner takes an abrupt detour in the waning days of the Inquisition. We redesigned the cover and reedited and reformatted the text, but the story remains largely unchanged. To give you a sense of what to expect, the book description follows, but you need not stop there. The book page at our site offers both audio and print excerpts, and our newsletter offers an interview with the author.

Like most well-born young women in eighteenth-century Mexico, Consuelo Costa Argenta hopes for a good marriage, preferably to handsome Juan Carlos, son of the local landowner. But Consuelo cannot simply follow her heart’s desire. Born to a Crypto-Jewish mother, raised as a Christian, living under the Inquisition, she must balance the safety of conformity against loyalty to her heritage. As her mother’s mind begins to fail, her hidden allegiance to her ancestral religion emerges, drawing the attention of renegade priests. They spin a financial web intended to ensnare Consuelo’s father, torture her mother, and threaten her own life and happiness.

Misunderstanding her father’s demands for money, Juan Carlos rejects her, and his parents arrange to send her to the nuns of Condera to pursue her education. Learning about herbs eases Consuelo’s pain, as does flirting with another potential suitor. But once Juan Carlos arrives at the Condera court and Consuelo’s father promises her to the wrong man, her future looks grim.

When the Inquisition’s renegade priests kidnap her mother, only Consuelo can save her. If she can first save herself.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lithuanian Renaissance

After two writing posts in a row, it’s time for one on historical research, I think. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I have begun work on The Shattered Drum (Legends 5: Center). Originally the title referred to a shaman’s drum, and the idea was to focus on Grusha, one of the few important lower-class characters in the series. But as tends to happen with my novels, I realized belatedly that since Nasan is the main series character—heroine of books 1 and 3, vital subplot character in book 2, and important viewpoint character in book 4—Legends 5 should round out her journey in an emotionally satisfying way.

At more or less the same moment, I recognized that the symbol of the shattered drum has a broader thematic meaning that relates as well to the revised plan as to the original one. So Grusha, like several other “leftover” characters whose full histories never quite fit in to the overarching story, will one day have her own novel in a new series that is banging around in the back of my brain. Meanwhile, the new plan requires additional research, which is where the Lithuanian Renaissance comes into the picture.

Now, if you read my posts regularly, I assume you have enough interest in history to know what the Renaissance is—or was. But Lithuania? Seriously? I think most people see the Renaissance as an Italian, or at least West European, phenomenon. Lithuania, in this view, is a teensy Baltic state that escaped Soviet control a bit more than twenty-five years ago. Venice—Renaissance, but Vilnius?


But you would be surprised. First off, Lithuania in the sixteenth century was not the least bit teensy. As the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it included most of modern Belarus and Ukraine. At its height, circa 1430, it encompassed 360,000 square miles. It had a large Eastern Orthodox population, and its state language was Russian. Two and a half million people called Lithuania home in 1430, a level the country would not reach again until 1790.

Second, unlike neighboring Russia, neither Poland nor Lithuania was isolated from the Renaissance. They sent students to the universities in Padua and Bologna. They imported art and architects and artisans from the south. They had a thriving commerce with most of the rest of Europe. Because of Lithuania’s dynastic ties to nearby Poland, it had a Catholic population as well as an Eastern Orthodox one, and by the 1530s it had become caught up in the Protestant Reformation as well.

Third, in 1538, the time period of The Shattered Drum, Poland and Lithuania shared a pair of co-rulers, both confusingly named Sigismund (Zygmunt): Sigismund the Elder and his son, Sigismund Augustus, each of whom served simultaneously as king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania. Sigismund the Elder was then in his seventies; Sigismund Augustus had yet to turn eighteen. But the crucial detail is that twenty years earlier, in 1518, Sigismund the Elder had married Bona Sforza of Milan and Bari, who became the mother of the younger Sigismund. Bona’s arrival strengthened the Italian contingent enough to turn Krakow and Vilnius into mini-versions of Florence.

You can see the difference right away in the clothes. Compare the three public domain paintings in this post, all taken from Wikimedia Commons. From top to bottom, they are Henryk Rodakowski’s The Chicken War (1872, reflecting an event from 1537), Titian’s La Bella (1536, courtesy of the Yorck Project), and Konstantin Makovsky’s The Bride Show (1886, imagining Muscovy in the mid-seventeenth century). The women’s dress in Rodakowski’s and Titian’s paintings are the same style, very Italianate; the Makovsky depicts a different, equally beautiful but more oriental culture.

Unfortunately, history hasn’t always been kind to that part of the world. The expanding Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Prussian empires carved up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century. The beautiful Renaissance palaces, already much reconstructed and “improved,” came tumbling down. The wars of the twentieth century obliterated what remained. Based on archeological excavations, the newly independent state of Lithuania has rebuilt the grand ducal palace in a sixteenth-century style, but we have to take it on faith that it bears any resemblance to the residence that the two Sigismunds and Bona Sforza knew. And though more than a few diplomats traveled through Vilnius and Krakow in the sixteenth century, they don’t seem to have left much of a record—perhaps because unlike Muscovy, which struck the envoys as exotic and foreign, Lithuania looked too much like home.

So here I am, again trying to find out what my characters would see, touch, smell, hear, eat. What would amaze or appall them? Would they adopt the very different style of dress? Would they stick to their own customs with a stubbornness bordering on defensiveness? Which characters would adopt one approach and which the other? Whom would they meet, and what would they think of those people, especially the Italian queen accused more than once of poisoning her rivals?