Friday, February 16, 2018

Oh, Those Names!

One of the more annoying habits of our ancestors, from the perspective of a historical novelist, is their lamentable lack of imagination when it came to naming their children. This complaint applies particularly, but of course not exclusively, to the Russian nobility and the Russian royal family between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This apparent lack of imagination had several causes. Russians celebrated name days rather than birthdays, but it was not uncommon to name a child after the saint on whose day he or she was born, so that the two coincided. The more days in the calendar associated with Johns, Marys, or Gregorys, the more children carried those names. Saints could also rise and fall in popularity, so one can trace the growing cult of SS Boris and Gleb, for example, by the increased prevalence of those names among the population.

Another issue was family commemoration: entire clans had series of children named Nikolai or Boris or Anna or whatever after parents and grandparents and other relatives. Some families even gave two brothers or sisters the same names, confusing the picture mightily and forcing everyone else to distinguish between Ivan Petrovich the Elder and Ivan Petrovich the Younger. But even beyond that, there seems to have been a strong preference for certain names in the sixteenth-century Russian aristocracy. Ivan, Vasily, Fyodor, Dmitry, and Yuri—all names favored by the royal family—were often encountered among noble boys, whereas a lot of girls went by Anna, Elena, Anastasia, or Maria.

All this creates difficulty for a novelist trying to maintain some historical veracity. I managed to juggle the issue all through the Legends novels by focusing as much as possible on my own invented characters, whom I did my best to ensure had not just unique names but one form of their unique names (another problem with Russian custom that I’ll discuss someday). For the most part that worked, despite the pair of Yuris (uncle and nephew), the double Sigismunds (father and son), and more Vasilys and Ivans than one could shake a proverbial stick at.

But midway through my current work in progress, Song of the Siren, I ran smack into a dilemma. Bad enough that in 1542, when that novel is set, the Poles, who were in dynastic alliance with the Lithuanians, had two kings/grand dukes simultaneously named Sigismund—called Sigismund the Old (father) and Sigismund Augustus (son) to keep them straight. The Russians did them one better: then in a kind of political meltdown, they had become enmeshed in a conflict that I could explain only by citing the rival claims of three princes named Ivan. You can imagine the conversation from a poor reader’s perspective: Prince Ivan is fighting Prince Ivan for control of Prince Ivan. Huh?

I wrote it out, complete with a slap from my Polish character about the Russians’ not knowing any other names, unconcerned by his own people doing the exact same thing. Nope. Didn’t work. By the end of the conversation even I was confused, and I know a fair bit about the history involved. The other writers in my critique group were scratching their heads, and I didn’t blame them. I needed another solution.

As I’ve said before, I’m a historian first and foremost; the novels are fun, and I love writing them, but even if I can’t claim perfect accuracy—not least because our forebears tended not to leave detailed records of what went on in their heads at any given moment, any more than we do—I have mostly avoided changing the names of people who once actually lived and walked the earth. I grumbled and groaned and tried different tactics, but in the end I realized I had no choice: two of the Ivans would have to receive different names.

And so it is. In the historical note, I explain who they really were. And in fact, given how little we know about any of these historical figures, in some ways I find it works better to change their names, because now they are “mine,” in a way they were not before, and I don’t need to worry about someone noting I have them strutting around in the palace in Moscow when they were really besieging Kazan or some such thing. They can do and say and be whatever the story requires, beyond the broad strokes of the conflict that forms the backdrop to the novel.

Still, I must admit that I have acquired a whole new appreciation of diverse naming practices. They make a novelist’s life so much easier....

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, The Kissing Custom (1895). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. What are the chances that every guy lounging at the table is named Ivan?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Women at War

Almost five years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long!), I ran a blog series on the various roles that women held in the medieval and early modern world: Russia in particular, but also in the lands to the east, south, and west. The series started with “Women of Steel,”  which looked at why I made my main Legends heroine, Nasan, a Tatar instead of a Russian and what life was like for the nomadic women of the Eurasian steppe. The series continued through July 2013, and if you’re interested in the topic, you can follow it backward from “Taking the Veil.” By August I was facing up to the demands of the then-new book, long since published, with a post on how to tackle the subject of “Men at War.”

So I was delighted to have a chance to interview Gwen Katz on New Books in Historical Fiction. We discuss her debut novel, Among the Red Stars, which looks at the women who flew for the Soviet Union as combat pilots. Through the lives of an appealing and courageous bomber pilot, her dedicated but (through no fault of her own) politically suspect navigator and cousin, and the pilot’s best friend, a young man drafted into the Red Army as a ham radio operator, we get a full and fascinating introduction to this little-known element of the Second World War: women who battled to take part in the fighting and men who would much rather have stayed home.

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

Valentina (Valka) Koroleva and her cousin Iskra share a dream: to fly in defense of their Soviet motherland against the Nazi forces that have launched a surprise invasion in violation of Hitler’s nonaggression pact with Stalin. So when Valka receives a telegram announcing the formation of all-female fighting and bomber units, the two of them set off for Moscow without hesitation.

The number of applicants far exceeds the slots available, and the competition proves tougher than Valka and her cousin anticipate. But while they do not in the end become elite fighter pilots, they do make the cut for the night bomber unit: Valka as a pilot and Iskra as her navigator. Soon they are flying a shaky biplane constructed of wood and canvas, liable to burst into flames or crash without warning, against the German forces. Meanwhile, Valka’s best friend, Pasha, has been drafted into a ground regiment where he operates a ham radio under harsh conditions. He and Valka exchange regular letters, expressing their different experiences of war.

But fighting for the Soviet Union means coping not only with the enemy but also with Stalin’s paranoia. Iskra’s parents, arrested even before the war, cast a long shadow on her prospects for success despite her willingness to sacrifice her life for her country. Some of Valka’s assigned targets turn out to be people on her own side. Pilots shot down in combat or soldiers captured in an ambush are declared traitors to the state. And she learns that those in authority—or even comrades in arms—are at times the most likely to denounce those suspected of disloyalty, a category that includes  insubordination. So although Among the Red Stars is listed as Young Adult, in fact Gwen Katz has written a novel that, because it tackles difficult problems with honesty, will appeal to adults as well. It is also a riveting tale about women in combat, female friendship, and survival against the odds.

And don’t forget to check out her website, linked in the paragraph above, where she has a collection of artworks linked to the book.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Ever-Changing Algorithms

I freely admit to struggling with social media. While I worked to master Facebook and Twitter, the world moved on to Instagram and Snapchat, which have since been replaced by a dozen other sites and apps that I can’t even name, let alone use. I abandoned my LinkedIn account years ago, although LinkedIn seems as unconvinced of that fact as Yahoo, which still sends me messages about security breaches demanding that I log in to my supposedly deleted account. And although I unreservedly love Pinterest, even it gets quirky at times, usually because the site owners have either decided that their users are desperate for more ads or because they’ve initiated an upgrade to something that worked just fine before they messed with it and has stopped working now.

But no group of programmers loves to ring changes like the folks at Facebook. So it came as no surprise to discover, for the umpteenth time, that Facebook is altering its algorithms: this time, or so we’re told, to favor posts from friends and family at the cost of small businesses and publishers (unless they pay to promote their posts, presumably). According to the press release, this change is good for us, the users. And indeed, I would like to see posts from my close friends rather than click bait sent out by Russian bots. Wouldn’t you?

Only that doesn’t seem to be happening. My friend lists are still buried three layers deep at the side of the page, under News Feed, Messenger, Watch, Marketplace, Events, Groups, Fundraisers, and more. Not to mention Games (which I never play), On This Day (which is what?), and, of course, Ads Manager.

Now, the truth is that I don’t care all that much about having to search for posts from my friends. A lot of them do show up in my News Feed, and because I don’t respond to political news (I’m on social media as an author, after all, not a commentator), I see the bots only once in a while. And since I mostly get on Facebook, check notifications and messages, post on behalf of myself or Five Directions Press, and get off, I recognize that there may be ways to hide the Marketplace or the Fundraisers (although I couldn’t find a way to hide the Games) that I just don’t know.

But why punish small businesses that don’t have significant ad budgets? Is Facebook really in such desperate need of cash that it makes sense to disadvantage groups like the New Books Network, where a small army of volunteers produces interviews that range from public education to entertainment and which themselves run at a loss because they don’t charge their listeners?

Perhaps more fundamentally, why change a site just for the sake of change? One no sooner learns to navigate most social media than those in power introduce a new “feature” that, as often as not, upsets the apple cart for no obvious benefit.

Change is inevitable. We grow or we die. But it should be, when possible, purposeful. And call me naive or old-fashioned if you like, but surely making more and more money is not the only purpose worth serving. Especially if you do it while pretending you just want to bring people closer, even at some cost to yourself.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Interview with Mimi Matthews

Those of you who follow Five Directions Press’s monthly Books We Loved posts—and if you are an avid reader, you really should, if you don’t already (you can find them all on our newsletter page)—may have noticed that my picks for January included both Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals and Mimi Matthews’ The Lost Letter. You can find my Q&A with Bernard in a post a couple of weeks ago, and today I’m hosting a written interview with Mimi.

Very different subjects, very different styles, but great writing is great writing. So if you have even a little bit of fondness in your heart for a touching love story set in Victorian times and with fully rounded characters, do check out Mimi Matthews’ novels (and nonfiction). Scroll down and you’ll find links to her website and social media accounts, where you can get more information.

And if it needs to be fast-paced thriller to keep your attention—although still with great writing and complex, compelling characters—then the links in the Bernard Cornwell interview will show you where to learn more about those.

You have a great interest in Victorian times, as evidenced by your nonfiction book The Pug That Bit Napoleon, among other works. Where did that interest originate, and which came first—the fascination with the Victorian period or the interest in writing fiction?

My interest in writing fiction definitely came first. I wrote my first full-length book (a YA novel) when I was thirteen and signed with my first literary agent when I was eighteen. After that, I was preoccupied with college, law school, and work and didn’t write any fiction until a few years ago, when I got the idea for a romance novel. I wrote it in a few months and then signed with a new literary agent. While it was out on submission, I wrote three more romance novels, including The Lost Letter and The Viscount and the Vicar's Daughter.

As for the Victorian era, I’ve always been a fan. I read a lot of Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters growing up and, in my third year of law school, I did a huge research paper on the British Court of Chancery. Since then, I’ve researched and written extensively on the Victorian era for my own website, as well as for other publications. In September 2016, I signed a multi-book deal with Pen and Sword Books (UK). My first nonfiction book with them, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, came out in December. My next one, A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty, will be out in July 2018.

Tell us about Sylvia Stafford, the heroine of The Lost Letter. Where is she, literally and emotionally, at the start of the book?

At the beginning of the novel, Sylvia is employed as a governess in a merchant's household in Cheapside. It’s a far cry from the life she led as the privileged daughter of a wealthy baronet. But Sylvia is an intelligent, pragmatic sort of woman and has—for the most part—come to terms with her altered status in society. She’s even managed to find a measure of happiness in her work. Or so she believes. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that much of her heartache and disappointment is still unresolved. This is especially evident when she once again crosses paths with Sebastian. 

And what of Sebastian Conrad, earl of Radcliffe? They have something of a past, but their reunion takes place under very different circumstances, for him as well as for her.

Unlike Sylvia, Sebastian is not coping very well with his change in circumstance. The disfiguring injuries he suffered as a soldier in India both depress his spirits and cause him physical pain. He’s bitter and angry, raging at himself and everyone around him. When Sylvia makes an unexpected appearance at his country estate, he is anything but pleased. He had loved her once, and the sting of her rejection still rankles. Nevertheless, he makes an effort to see her and speak to her, even if only to show her how little he cares.

Your second novel, The Viscount and the Vicar's Daughter, came out this week. What can you tell readers about that book?

After reading The Lost Letter, you may have guessed how much I enjoy playing with classic romance tropes. The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter is my go at the “reformed rake” trope. It features a disillusioned libertine with a scandalous past and an earnest vicar’s daughter with a few secrets of her own. It’s not as tortured a love story as The Lost Letter. I’d classify it more as a mid-Victorian romp. So far, advance reviews have been great. I’m really hoping readers will love it, too.

In the back of The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter, there is an excerpt from a third novel, The Advertisement (which I for one can’t wait to read, because the setup is great), due out this summer. Is that book already done? And if so, what are you working on now?

I’m so glad you enjoyed the excerpt! The Advertisement is almost done. It’s due to my editor at the end of March. It’s much longer than my previous two Victorian romances and the subject matter is a bit heavier as well. It focuses on two real—and very grim—events from the late 1850s. As for the central romance, it’s poignant, passionate, and exceedingly angst-ridden. So far, reports from my beta readers have been really positive. We’ll see what my editor thinks!

Next, I’m working on a Victorian Christmas novella about a broken betrothal and (possible) breach of contract suit. It will be out in November 2018.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Mimi. I wish you all success with both your novels and your nonfiction works!

Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and traditional historical romances set in Victorian England. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture, and are syndicated weekly at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She resides in California with her family, which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, two Shelties, and two Siamese cats.

Find out more about Mimi at the links below.




Friday, January 19, 2018

Finding That Perfect Read

One advantage of the current publishing climate is that a reader has no shortage of books from which to choose. Free and low-cost books are everywhere, including through subscription services like’s Kindle Unlimited. But finding a good book is not so easy. Reviews offer some insight, but many good books fail to attract reviews for various reasons. Book bloggers soon acquire more titles than they can ever have time to read, never mind write about. Readers, too, become overwhelmed by demands on their time. And not all reviews are what they seem: ethical writers, including myself, refuse to pay for book reviews, but some desperate souls give way to temptation. So what’s a reader to do?

One approach, adopted by more than a few GoodReads friends I know, is to limit oneself to commercially published books. There readers can trust that books have gone through editing, typesetting, and proofreading, received professional covers—and, yes, that any reviews they receive reflect the honest opinion of the reviewer. But trade books are expensive, at $9.99–$12.99 or more even for an e-book. For the average voracious reader, they represent at best a partial solution, although public libraries can help.

That approach also ignores the many good books published outside the commercial houses. And commercial publishing is just that: books have to sell millions of copies in today’s market to make a trade publisher’s investment worthwhile. If your taste runs to more unconventional fare, you’re out of luck.

That’s where small presses and coop publishers (a variant on small presses) come in. A coop like Triskele Books or my own Five Directions Press exerts the quality control of a traditional publishing house but can charge less, especially for e-books, because the coop authors can break even at a much lower number of copies sold. No one can guarantee that if you love one author’s gritty historical fantasy, you will love another’s sparkling contemporary romance, but you can count on each book having received extensive critique and suggestions for improvement followed by professional editing, typesetting, proofreading, e-book production, and cover design. We guarantee one another’s work.

We also cooperate to get the word out, which means that we publish newsletters featuring other authors and news about our forthcoming titles, regular lists of book recommendations—such as Triskele’s Book Muse and Five Directions Press’s monthly Books We Loved—and blog posts, many of which feature writers and/or their books. I host an interview channel, New Books in Historical Fiction, where I interview other authors and read excerpts from their books. Gabrielle Mathieu, another Five Directions Press author, does the same for fantasy and adventure novels.

So you see, there are tools out there to help you navigate the independent publishing ocean. Take a chance! You never know what magical island may be hiding right over that cloudy horizon.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Triskele Books blog a few weeks ago. Many thanks to all the Triskele authors for the opportunity to share my thoughts with their readers!

Image: Clipart 109839003.