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Friday, February 3, 2023

Finally, a Truce

Well, it took fifteen weeks, a mesh screen door, a ton of patience, and even a couple of Eagles victories, but I’m happy to report that my older cat, Mahal, has more or less agreed to live and let live with the kittens introduced into her life, against her will, in mid-October.

It helps, I’m sure, that the boys have quadrupled in size during the intervening four months and can now defend themselves if need be. If nothing else, knowing that they can hold their own makes us more comfortable with the idea of letting the threesome work it out without human interference. Decades of living with cats have taught me much about how to read their behavior, but I’ve also developed a deep appreciation of how much I don’t know about how cats communicate with one another.

The crucial turning point, in this case, seems to have been time—assisted by that mesh screen door. Made of nylon, it includes zippers and attaches to the existing frame, allowing people to pass through at will and cats to see, hear, and smell one another. In this case, we set it up in the room where the  kittens had spent their first two weeks, so that most of the furnishings already bore their scent. Mahal had her own food and water dishes, her own cat box, a steady supply of Feliway pheromones (not sure how much difference those actually made, but they are supposed to calm cats), and frequent visits from her humans. She could watch us as we went about our daily tasks and, most important, interact with the kittens but not attack them.

They, in turn, were forced to respect her space, dialing down the opportunity for conflict. (I would be the first to admit that Mahal had ample cause for complaint, since the boys thought nothing of cleaning out her food dish, drinking up her water, or soiling her cat box.)

You may wonder why we put Mahal behind the screen, when she was the long-time resident. The answer is two-part. First, she was the one whose behavior we wanted to modify, and shutting them up and leaving her the run of the house would convince her she had won the day rather than give her an incentive to change. But more fundamentally, kittens are like children. They’re busy figuring out the rules of their world and what’s expected of them. The last thing we wanted to do was convince them that they should spend the rest of their lives immured in a single room. Instead, we wanted them to feel comfortable exploring and bonding with us—just as Mahal already did and continues to do.

At first, she did her best to leap at them whenever they appeared. The first time we let her out, she hunted for them and attacked them, and we had to return her to her cave. But then something interesting happened. She started calling for attention.

Was she calling for the kittens? I don’t know. But the kittens were the ones who responded, dashing from wherever they happened to be to station themselves outside her door. Throughout December and January, the three cats gradually moved closer, even touching noses through the screen. The next time we let Mahal out, she hissed only once, when Rafi—who has made it his prime objective to climb the screen and break into her room—dashed in the moment the door came down, then ran past her on his way back out again. And last Sunday, when we let her out again, we could watch her and the boys sussing each other out, advancing and retreating, visibly testing how close they can get to each other without crossing a boundary only they can see.



And that’s the main thing we wanted: a d├ętente. Knowing Siamese, I suspect they will eventually snuggle on the couch, but if we can maintain “no teeth, minimal claws,” the rest can develop at its own pace—or not. A cold war is better than a hot one, and a working truce better still.

So here I raise a glass to Mahal. It’s not easy dealing with such a fundamental change when you’re the cat equivalent of seventy-five. Some great cat treats and a nice belly rub for you. And despite the occasional setback—such as the one that occurred a few days after I drafted this post—we feel confident we will get you through this, sooner or later.

Images: Mahal relaxing on the couch, sending good thoughts to the Eagles, who had just won their division title; Rafi (front) and Ruslan relaxing while they wait for the next summons—both © 2023 C. P. Lesley.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Pull of the Past

It’s said that there are no new plots for novels, only a recircling and revisiting of a few foundational stories, many of which date from antiquity. Boy Meets Girl, Hero’s Journey, Separation from Parents, Who Killed X and Why?—most fiction, especially genre fiction, can be shoehorned into categories like these. This is not an accident: stories exist to meet the needs and expectations of readers. Each of us is unique, to be sure, but we all go through a similar process of maturation, whatever distinctive forms our own families, cultures, and selves take as we traverse the path.

As a result, the creativity and freshness that a given author applies to the fundamental questions expressed in these plots inherited from antiquity (or the Renaissance) are what sets a particular novel above the rest. As Susan Stokes-Chapman discusses in her recent New Books Network interview, she began with a historical event but ended up transposing the ancient Greek myth of Pandora’s Box to eighteenth-century London. There the fight for possession of a massive urn recovered from a Mediterranean shipwreck releases into the world the many ills that beset humanity: greed, envy, anger, dishonesty, and more—leaving its shattered survivors with only hope, as in the original myth.

Bits and pieces of the genre plots I list above also appear, but the whole is so deftly handled that we barely notice them because of the originality of the approach. So give the interview a listen, then read the book. It’s not an accident that the New York Times Book Review picked Pandora for its short list on historical fiction the very week of its release in the US.


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


It is the very end of the eighteenth century, and Pandora Blake—known as Dora—lives at the edge of London society. Despite the opposition of her obnoxious uncle Hezekiah and his live-in housekeeper/mistress Lottie, neither of whom has much interest in their orphaned charge, Dora has a dream. She wants to sketch jewelry designs that will appeal to the beauties of the haut ton, in the process earning Dora a livelihood sufficient to free her from her family’s antique shop, now in decline due to Hezekiah’s mismanagement. To that end, Dora spends hours in her attic bedchamber drawing with only her beloved magpie, Hermes, for company.

Even before we meet Dora in this enchanting yet troubling tale, we have encountered an unnamed diver bent on retrieving the cargo from a scuttered ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. It soon becomes clear that the mysterious cargo includes a massive Greek vase (more properly, a pithos, used for storing wine or grain), which Hezekiah acquires, together with a shipment of Greek pottery. Dora at first believes this is an attempt to save the store, but her uncle’s behavior raises questions—not least whether he obtained the pithos legally. To find out what Hezekiah has in mind, Dora enlists the help of a bookbinder, Edward Lawrence, setting them off on a journey that will lead deep into Dora’s past.

This is a novel of many layers, as intricately plotted as Dora’s jewelry designs, which seem to have inspired the book’s gorgeous cover. The characters and setting are Dickensian, yet the themes are modern and the reconsideration of the mythical story of Pandora’s Box rings true. Definitely a book worth reading.

Image: Pithos from Crete, ca. 675 BCE, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 20, 2023

The Bachelor, Medieval Russian Style

As promised, this past Tuesday Five Directions Press formally announced the release of my latest Songs of Steppe & Forest novel, Song of the Storyteller. As you might guess from the title of this post, I had a lot of fun writing this particular novel—and for several reasons.

First, Lyuba is the kind of heroine I find easy to connect to: strong-minded yet thoughtful, self-aware, and in love with words. Although I accept that every character, even the villains, represents one or more elements of myself, Lyuba—like her predecessor Nasan—is not so much me as the person I wish I could have been at sixteen. She has a poise I lacked (I was neurotically silent and shy), yet she loves stories, just as I have since before I even learned how to read. And although she’s beautiful—another trait I wouldn’t lay claim to—she has little awareness of and no interest in that fact; she cares far more about people’s minds and hearts than their looks—even her love interest Timur’s, although she’s certainly not immune to his charms.

Best of all, from the perspective of storytelling, Lyuba is a writer, so she naturally thinks in terms of describing the scenes she experiences, the settings in which they take place, and the characters she meets—and she meets some real doozies in the course of this book. She’ll exaggerate for effect and dramatic impact, but she’s also alert to hidden vulnerabilities and subtexts. The more I submerged myself in her world and her way of seeing, the more readily the story flowed. Even her passing remarks—grumbling when people interrupt her while she’s crafting a sentence, for example—fit both who she is and the unique experience of producing fiction.

Other writers will understand what I mean by that. People who, in Lyuba’s words, “don’t live with stories buzzing inside their heads” may find it strange. Aren’t all characters the author’s creation, like paper dolls dressed up and moved around a cardboard stage? Why would one heroine be easier to write than another?

But in fact, novel writing doesn’t work like that at all. Characters emerge from the subconscious, and the writing flows naturally from letting them chart their own course. My only experiences with the dreaded writer’s block have been when I tried to force a character into behavior that met the needs of the plot but not the personality of the character. Like real people, though, not all characters move comfortably in the larger world. The shy and ungainly, the poorly educated, the girls trained to silent submission (so common throughout much of history)—discovering what makes such heroines unique and memorable can take months, if not years. So when I come across a self-aware, active, fiery heroine like Lyuba, with her vast vocabulary and her talent for nailing in a few words what distinguishes each person she encounters, that’s a gift.

The second factor that eased the writing of this novel was the historical backdrop. From the moment I realized that Lyuba would be just a month or two younger than Ivan the Terrible when the tsar reached the age of coronation and marriage, I knew I must find a way to set her story during his first bride show. Long before I figured out how she would navigate this historical incident that to a modern mind almost defies belief, I wanted to examine the bride show from her perspective. 

Indeed, the natural drama in this incident lets the story almost tell itself. In a country where it might take half a year in travel time to obtain a license to buy a horse, a small group of nobles and government officials were allotted less than six weeks to fan out across the provinces, summoning girls from the local towns. The idea was to bring the best (defined as the most beautiful, healthiest, most likely to be fertile, and, of course, virginal) highborn young women to Moscow. There they would be examined by the wives of the Moscow aristocracy, who would then whittle down the selection to a small group considered to be suitable as a potential royal bride. In addition to the qualities of the candidates themselves, the political loyalty of their male relatives and, in particular, the ease with which the new family could be incorporated into the existing pecking order among the elite were prime factors. The tsar got to pick the wife he wanted from that select group, but he probably had no more than fifteen minutes with each of them before deciding. The real work was done before the royal presentations began.

How well that worked in practice is hard to determine. The call for potential brides went out on December 12, 1546, and by February 3, 1547, the tsar had made his choice and held the wedding. What happened between those two dates is pretty much anyone’s guess, although we do have documents detailing the histories of some potential brides and the assignments of roles during the ceremony itself. And, of course, we know who won. It is probably not a coincidence that the girl who made the cut came from the Moscow aristocracy, although at least a few maidens from other towns did undergo the equivalent of background checks.

But from the perspective of fiction, that is not the important element. For reasons I’ve explained in a previous post, bride shows were held before every ruler’s wedding and even for some of the collateral heirs (the “spares,” in modern lingo) between 1505 and 1689. The stakes were high, and as a result, bride shows were rife with behind-the-scenes negotiations and outright skullduggery. Successful candidates died before, or right after, their weddings. Prospective brides developed bizarre illnesses that vanished as quickly as they had arisen after the girls returned home. Nasty rumors of inappropriate behavior ruined reputations—one reason provincial fathers hid their daughters from view rather than let them be selected for the journey to Moscow. The whole thing was a dramatist’s dream, and I had a great time deciding which of the many boulders would obstruct Lyuba’s path to success as she defined it and which would eventually let her reach her chosen goal.

The book description is below, and I hope you enjoy the novel as much as Andrea Penrose (whose Wrexford & Sloane Regency mysteries you should absolutely read if you have not already), who wrote, “C. P. Lesley brings an exotic setting to life with richly textured historical details and a wonderful cast of fascinating characters—it’s an enchanting tale worthy of her clever storyteller heroine!” 

If you do, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or GoodReads. I know time is scarce and the demands on it many, but reviews help other readers find my books by increasing their visibility, and they tell those who do discover the novels whether this is something they might like.



Lyuba Koshkina has long known that her father, an ambitious and unscrupulous nobleman, will stop at nothing to see her wed the grand prince—soon to be crowned as Russia’s first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. A few months after her sixteenth birthday, the call for the tsar’s bride show goes out. But Lyuba has goals of her own, and they do not include a royal marriage. She wants to record the tales that fill her head from morning to night, including the adventures of her own family. One day, she catches a handsome stranger reading her work and realizes that here stands the man she has loved since childhood—and that neither her father nor the Church will permit them to wed.

Timur Alexeevich has spent years away from home, learning from his uncles how to rule a Tatar horde. An unexpected summons brings him back to Moscow and the girl he once thought of as a little sister, now a scintillating, learned, and self-assured beauty destined—at least according to her father—to become Russia’s first tsaritsa. Even the grandson of a khan cannot compete with so exalted a future. All seems lost, until Lyuba discovers that a storyteller has the power to weave her own future from the twists of fate.


Image: Grigory Sedov, The Choice of a Bride (1882), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Sneak Peeks

On Tuesday, January 17, Five Directions Press will formally announce the release of my latest Songs of Steppe & Forest novel, Song of the Storyteller.  I’ll talk more about the book itself next Friday. This week, I’d like to focus instead on the always thorny (from my perspective) topic of promotion. Even in the days when all publishing was commercial, books could not just appear and make a splash. In the current climate, where publishers are huge conglomerates and indie publishing has exploded, even authors lucky enough to land a traditional contract with one of the Big Five have to put in a lot of sweat and toil on social media if their years’ long writing projects are not to sink like ten-ton rocks beneath the roiling waves of public attention.

And that’s too bad, because while I love diving into my story world and exploring its nooks and crannies, its heroes and villains, then letting the writing flow onto the page and even cleaning it up afterwards, I am not cut out for the job of touting my work to the world. I tolerate social media—some sites more than others, but none for long. I’m happy to hold in-person events, but Covid pretty much put a lid on those. Advertising has never paid for itself, nor have reduced sale prices, and although I certainly have a group of fans, as luck would have it, they don’t generally leave reviews. My most consistent ways of reaching out have been this blog and my interviews for the New Books Network.

But one way of promoting a new book that I do love is book teasers. These are one-liners added to vivid, compelling images that offer glimpses into the action and visuals of a particular novel. They are fun to create, and they get me thinking about what are the most dramatic lines of a given story. So I decided to share how I create them, since you might enjoy making your own.

First and foremost, it helps to have the right software. I used Adobe’s InDesign until this book. It’s a wonderful program, but available only for a hefty monthly fee, so unless you use it for work, as I do, a better alternative is Serif’s Affinity Publisher, which costs $50–60 for a lifetime license even when it’s not on sale, which it often is. If you have serious Word chops, you could probably use that or one of the free alternatives, but personally I wouldn’t. I like to be able to place things very precisely, and the publishing programs are designed to do that in a way that word processors are not.

Next you need a source of good images that are royalty free. There are paid sites like Shutterstock and iStock, but those costs add up fast if you make 15–20 teasers per book. Try Pixabay, Unsplash, and other free sites. (Affinity Publisher will connect to several of them directly from within your files.) A subscription service like Clipart.com or iClipart.com (run by the same company), which charges a set rate per year, can be a good investment—and there are often discount coupons available on the Internet, especially for first-time users. But make sure they have a wide-ranging selection of photographs, not just clip art, suitable for your particular novel.

And don’t forget public domain images, especially if you write historical fiction. Anything produced by the US government is public domain by requirement, since the public pays for the government through taxes. That includes most of the Digital Collections of the US Library of Congress, although you need to check to ensure that the donor has surrendered all rights. Meisterwerke der Malerei is a great source for European paintings, and the files are often very high quality. Other museum collections may or may not permit free use; it’s important to validate each museum’s policy. 

 

Wikimedia Commons is a fantastic storehouse of great art and, unlike images for print covers, book teasers don’t require high-resolution backgrounds because they are destined for the World Wide Web, where 72 dots per inch look just as good as the 300 needed for print. So you should be able to make use of all but the smallest images. Book teasers sized for the Web should be no larger than 800 x 600 pixels (900 x 1200 for TikTok; 900–1,200 square for Instagram). I make them proportionally larger in Affinity but shrink them on export, which tells me also how much space they will take up (under 1 megabyte is ideal).

The third essential is good dialogue or description—single sentences that capture essential elements of the story and make a reader want to know more. These should be intrinsic in the writing, but some authors are better at dramatic statements and cliffhanger endings than others. A story can have lots of action yet few single lines that convey a sense of threat or intrigue in a catchy and comprehensible way. It’s worth thinking about that—not while you’re writing but perhaps when you’re revising, after all the main plot points and characterizations are set.

Last, it’s helpful to echo the look of the published novel by replicating the fonts used in the book, which should themselves be matched in style to the novel and its contents. If you create your own covers and texts, you will know what those fonts are; if you hire a designer, ask. If the exact font is not available, there are lots of free alternatives designed for the Internet. Google Fonts is one place to look. Try to find something as close as possible in style to that used on the cover.



In illustration, I have scattered throughout this post a few teasers I’ve created for past novels, my own and other people’s. Each of them corresponds to the principles above, although they range from contemporary romance to historical drama.


Note that these images all have a central image but lots of relatively free space where you can put text without either element overwhelming the other. Think about that as you are selecting between two equally good representations of your prose.


In closing, I offer the first teaser for my new novel, taken from chapter 1. Follow me on Facebook (cplesley.authorpage), Twitter (cplesley), Pinterest (cplesley), Goodreads (C.P. Lesley), Instagram (authorcplesley), and TikTok (authorcplesley) for new hints of what’s to come over the next month or so, as well as general updates on books I’m reading, interviews, and life in general. And of course, buy the book! If you like historical fiction set in a place just a bit beyond the ordinary, with a bit of adventure and a dollop of sweet romance, I promise you will enjoy it.



So if the idea of creating book teasers appeals to you, give it a try. They don’t always sell books, but in my experience, few “sure-fire” techniques exist. Promotion is like exercise: you have to focus on a few activities that you enjoy, or you’ll spend all your time making excuses and see no progress at all.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Bookshelf, Winter 2023

A new year, and a new book of my own (on which, more soon), but I still have a stack of other people’s new historical novels on my reading list, both via NetGalley and occasionally in print. As it happens, all of these are forthcoming between January and March of this year. So I’d better start reading fast!


Lynn Cullen, The Woman with the Cure 
(Berkley, 2023)
It seems safe to say that we have all heard of Joseph Salk and Albert Sabin, who developed the injected and oral polio vaccines. But how many of us know that the crucial identification of how polio spread in the body and where its trajectory could be interrupted came from a woman, Dr. Dorothy Horstmann? Because of her work and the contributions of her colleagues, both male and female, what was once an incurable scourge is now on the brink of eradication. In the midst of COVID-19 and the vaccine hesitancy stoked largely for political reasons, this look back has a special poignancy. I’ll be interviewing the author for New Books in Historical Fiction in February.


Molly Greeley, Marvelous (William Morrow, 2023)
Another unexpected window on a medical mystery, this novel by the author of two remarkable Jane Austen spinoffs tackles the real-life couple whose story became the basis of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Petrus Gonsalvus, a captive from Tenerife in the Canary Islands, had a congenital condition that caused hair to grow all over his body. Brought to the Renaissance court of Henri II of France in 1547, he became the king’s ward and eventually married the beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of a merchant fallen on hard times. Whatever she’s expecting from the arranged marriage, a guy who looks like Chewbacca is not it. Greeley’s writing is beautiful, and the tale of how this unlikely couple finds its way to acceptance and even love is heartwarming. We’ll be talking about it on the New Books Network in March.


Kristen Loesch, The Last Russian Doll (Berkley, 2023)
This dual-time novel follows the quest of a young Oxford doctoral candidate named Rosie—who turns out to be Raisa, an escapee from Russia—to understand the circumstances that led to the murders of her father and older sister. In 1991, just as the USSR is dissolving, she agrees to work as an aide to a prominent dissident who is returning to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). 

Her story is contrasted with that of Antonina, a young merchant’s wife in St. Petersburg, who lives through the 1917 revolution and the Stalin period that follows. The relationships among these characters become clearer over time, symbolized by a set of porcelain dolls (not the expected wooden nesting dolls, which is a nice touch), each of which contains a clue to Rosie/Raisa’s past. I’ll be hosting a written Q&A with the author on this blog around the time of the book’s release in mid-March.


Joanna Lowell, Artfully Yours (Berkley, 2023)
I was under the impression, when I agreed to read this novel, that it was a historical mystery. Actually it’s not, but I’m so glad I misunderstood, because I might otherwise not have given the author the chance she so richly deserves. The book is a hoot, in the most delightful sense: a romance set in the late Victorian era that features a gifted painter and would-be baker earning her living as a forger of Old Masters and the one man in London with the art chops to reliably identify fakes. Add in a marmoset, a diva determined to wring a five-star review out of the art critic, a sisterhood of painters at war with the gallery administrators, and a dysfunctional family or three and you have all the ingredients for a delightful read. I hope to host a written Q&A with the author in late February and, with luck, I’ll have had the chance to read her two previous books before then.


Erica Ruth Neubauer, Intrigue in Istanbul (Kensington, 2023)
This latest Jane Wunderley novel moves Jane and her beloved Redvers to the Bosphorus in search of her academic father, who has gone missing while on the hunt for the lost heart of Suleiman the Magnificent. It’s still 1926—meaning that Jane and Redvers have encountered no fewer than four mysteries in less than a year—and the personal quest is soon complicated with international intrigue and the arrival of Jane’s unstoppable Aunt Millie.

I really enjoyed the first three books in this series and look forward to discovering not just the answer to this mystery (for obvious reasons to do with my own interests, Suleiman the Magnificent is an immediate draw for me) but how the relationship between Jane and Redvers continues to develop. For more information about the series, listen to my New Books Network interview with the author last year.

 

Susan Stokes-Chapman, Pandora
(Harper Perennial, 2023)
This fascinating retelling of the Pandora myth, with the box transformed into a Grecian urn, takes place in London at the very end of the eighteenth century. A young woman named Pandora and known as Dora lives unhappily with her grouchy uncle Hezekiah, who is doing his best to destroy the high-level antiques store left to him by Dora’s deceased parents. The discovery of the urn, so ancient it cannot be dated by the techniques available at the time, sets off a treasure hunt that forces Dora to confront the truth of her parents’ death, her uncle’s greed, her desire to achieve independence by selling her jewelry designs to eighteenth-century London’s equivalent of Tiffany’s, and the possibility of love—exemplified by the young man who aids her in her quest (for his own reasons, which soon become an impediment to his relationship with Dora). It’s a gripping read that starts slow but snowballs, and I’ll be talking with the author for New Books in Historical Fiction in January.


Sherry Thomas, A Tempest at Sea (Berkley, 2023)
Another series I loved, and for which I interviewed the author when book 6, Miss Moriarty, I Presume, came out. For reasons she explains in that interview, Thomas has reimagined Sherlock Holmes as his opposite: a plump, young blonde woman of aristocratic lineage who arranges for her own disgrace in book 1, A Study in Scarlet Women. I am so looking forward to reading this latest installment, and I was delighted when Thomas’s publicist pitched me with the NetGalley. I’ll be hosting a written Q&A with the author here on the blog after the book releases in mid-March.

 

And best wishes for a Happy New Year—and lots of great books—to all my readers and listeners!