Friday, December 15, 2017

Life on the Island

If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed I’ve been pretty quiet this week. This post explains why.

Although one subject of this blog is technology and the writer’s life, I actually spend little time talking about technology. There’s a simple reason for that: how much technology does an author actually need? A computer and word-processing program, a browser and a search engine for those quick answers, maybe a novel-writing program to handle the organization and create e-books—that about covers it, unless you want to self-publish, in which case you must also  be able to produce decently formatted files. These basic needs don’t require a lot of mastery or discussion.

But as I (re)discovered this week, these days for most of these basic things to work, you also need Internet access. For at least four of the last ten days, my Internet connection has been down for hours at a time. Some of the resulting problems were immediate and obvious. My work requires a lot of e-mail messages, and I could neither send nor receive them. I have to track tasks in an online database that I could not update. I keep important files on Dropbox, but the system had no way to record changes or sync edited files between my computer and my tablet. I had to reschedule my current interview for New Books in Historical Fiction three times. The book teasers I routinely add to the Five Directions Press Facebook and Twitter pages of necessity languished in obscurity.

I have a cell phone, from which I could send emergency messages—and not receiving constant streams of e-mail does have its advantages, although somehow the “buy this NOW” messages managed to reach my phone every two minutes regardless. And since I’ve refused to adopt software that exists entirely in the cloud, the damage wasn’t as severe as it could have been. I could still work and write and prepare this blog post—even though publishing the post would, of course, have been impossible.

But the glitches that really threw me were the ones I didn’t expect. Word had no record of my recent files, which it apparently stores somewhere other than my computer. The edits I made to The Shattered Drum did not transfer to iBooks even when I plugged in my tablet. The text message I sent from my phone registered, but the answering texts from my friend remained in the ether until my Internet connection revived, even though the replies were sent hours earlier to a phone that was supposedly on the 4G network, not the wireless one that connected to the nonfunctioning modem. Even people who did have working connections could not upload files to shared Dropbox folders that I would then see when my access returned.

And as a result of the lost connection, I couldn’t distribute the press release for my new book, The Vermilion Bird, even though I’d managed to create it in my old, non-cloud version of InDesign. So after going to a ton of effort to see the book in print by early December, in time for the holiday gift-giving season, I didn’t have a chance to tell anyone by e-mail or follow up on social media until the middle of the month. On a list of inconveniences this one barely merits a mention, but I found it mildly distressing even so.

That said, the story has a happy ending: the cable technician showed up this morning and, through a happy fluke, at once identified the problem: a cable that a careless leaf raker had managed to cut, not through but just enough to make the service unpredictable. The tech replaced the cable, and voila! The pluses and minuses of twenty-first-century life as a writer and editor returned full force. And the much-delayed interview with my incredibly patient guest went off beautifully. Meanwhile, I’ve acquired a whole new appreciation of the gifts the Internet brings to my life. 

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season to all my readers. And if you’re looking for that last-minute present for a lover of historical fiction, set in a place a bit outside the mainstream, don’t forget the Legends of the Five Directions—especially The Vermilion Bird.

Images from, nos. 109097555 and 110053976.

Friday, December 8, 2017

And Then There Were Four

If you follow me on social media or even read this blog regularly, you’ll know that as of this week The Vermilion Bird (Legends of the Five Directions 4: South) has seen the light of day. As of a few hours ago, had still not linked the print and e-book editions, but if they don’t do it on their own in the next twenty-four hours, I will send a message to the support services. They’ve always proven themselves prompt and efficient in the past, so I’m sure it will soon be taken care of.

The release of a new book is always exciting for an author. A published book has the heft of reality in a way that an electronic manuscript can’t match—even in the days of e-readers and tablets, which do let a writer read her own work in a format indistinguishable from e-books put out by a press. 

Writers hope that the release of a new novel in a series is equally exciting for our readers. I know it is for me: I love it when I discover that one of my favorite characters has a new adventure for me to share.

But before I get to excerpts and reactions from readers to the latest Legends novel, let me remind you that until Sunday, December 10, the e-version of The Swan Princess is on sale for $2.99. This will certainly be the last promotion I run for some time—and given the poor results so far, even with paid Facebook ads, perhaps the last for a long time.

Also, a quick word about the New Books Network (NBN), the parent organization that hosts my interviews on New Books in Historical Fiction. The nonprofit NBN runs entirely on volunteers who supply their own equipment and record on their own time, but the costs of managing the website and storing the 4,200 interviews that already exist—the NBN adds 100 a month and now serves 25,000 listeners a day—are considerable. On the plus side, the network is growing in popularity; on the minus side, the costs increase as more people listen in. To close the gap, the NBN is currently running a donations campaign through Amherst College. You can help by clicking this link and donating whatever amount you can afford. As with all donations to nonprofits, your contribution is tax-deductible. And you will earn the undying gratitude of every one of the 220 hosts. We all love what we do and want only to continue producing more interviews for you to hear.

And now, a short excerpt from The Vermilion Bird, followed by a couple of early responses (and don’t forget to check out those authors’ books, too!).

Moscow, February 1537

“It’s a scandal, I tell you. Fyodor has gone mad.” Over the plink-plink of psalteries, the chatter of fifty women, the murmurs of servants in corners, and the noise from the courtyard below, Aunt Theodosia’s voice soared like a song. “Marrying a hussy two years older than his own daughter? Then wedding his own girl to his new wife’s former lover? Abominable! Where is his honor?”

“Auntie! How can you?” Maria, tempted to shrink into herself like a tortoise into its shell, instead gripped the hand of the hated Roxelana, whose fingers returned the favor with equal strength. “Stop squeezing me,” she hissed at her stepmother, who narrowed her eyes and hissed wordlessly back.

But Roxelana, although a general irritant, bore no responsibility for Maria’s present agony. On the contrary, she shared it. Must Auntie announce their predicament to the world? Thanks to her, every woman here knew—now, if she hadn’t before—that Roxelana had lived for years with the man destined to become Maria’s husband tomorrow, only to abandon him for Maria’s father and the respectability he offered.

A hint of sandalwood and cinnamon released into the air as Roxelana shifted in her seat. Among the many perfumes wafting around the room, hers stood out: seductive, elusive, foreign.

Respectability? Roxelana? As if that’s not a contradiction in terms!

Aunt Theodosia was still talking—bellowing, rather, with the blissful unconcern of the hard of hearing. “Twenty-two years old, and him a ripe thirty-seven. What does he want with a lovely nincompoop to warm his bed? After wearing my dearest sister to the bone, bearing and raising his children. Thirteen she gave him. Thirteen. And seven who lived!”

“We know, Auntie. We can count.” This voice, young and sweet, belonged to Maria’s sister Varvara, second of the seven living offspring. She spoke in softer tones than Theodosia.

“Don’t mumble like that, girl,” Theodosia snapped. “Speak up.”

“Hush now.” Varvara raised her voice as commanded. “The whole room can hear you.” She gestured with her right hand. “Including our stepmother.”

“Don’t be absurd. I’m whispering, just as you are,” Theodosia said at top volume. “Stepmother, indeed. Harlot, more like.”

Roxelana hissed again, louder this time, and Varvara pressed her lips together, as if trying not to giggle. In response Theodosia fixed Roxelana with her basilisk glare. “Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.”

“You’re being rude, Auntie,” Maria said. Anything to deflect the discussion to another channel, although she agreed with Theodosia. Watching Papa glow like a schoolboy while her stepmother flirted and cooed left her two steps short of disgust. Parents were not supposed to act like that.

As for this new match with her stepmother’s discarded lover, Theodosia was right: Papa had lost his mind. A man nine years older than Maria, and a Tatar—what would they talk about?


The Vermilion Bird vividly envisions the culture clash between Russians and Tatars in the sixteenth century. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this glimpse into a seldom explored corner of history, while fans of romance will delight in the unlikely love that blooms between a bluff Tatar prince and his scheming Russian bride—who is also the stepdaughter of his former lover.”—Linnea Hartsuyker, author of The Half-Drowned King

“In sixteenth-century Moscow, only a hairsbreadth separates peace from rebellion. C. P. Lesley brings this remote time and place into our grasp in The Vermilion Bird. In a rich portrayal rooted in the strange truth of the world of Russians, Tatars, and the intrigues of court life, Lesley weaves together characters real and imagined against a backdrop of romance, fear, and lust for power that characterized court life in sixteenth-century Russia.”—Laura Morelli, author of The Gondola Maker and The Painter’s Apprentice

Friday, December 1, 2017

Revisiting the Past

The title of this post may raise a few eyebrows. As a historian and historical novelist, you may ask, am I not constantly revisiting the past—both the past that we can study from documents and artifacts and the past that has retreated so far into time that we can only hope that, in striving to re-create it, we don’t give birth to a monster that neither did nor could exist?

But that’s not the kind of past I’m writing about this week. Instead, I have in mind the return to a piece of my own past, specifically books I have written and published, then set aside to move on to the next novel in the series. However rewarding it may be to press the buttons that take a book out into the world, there is also a moment of nostalgia, even regret, at saying goodbye to that particular setting, to those individual characters at that moment in their evolution. Although I have lived mentally in the Legends world since 2008—and expect to remain here, in various forms, for many more years—each combination of characters and incidents is unique. As I get ready to release Maria and Alexei and the rest of the Vermilion Bird cast, the need to get the word out also requires me to consider and promote the earlier books in the series. To revisit them, in a sense. Which brings me to the concept of story worlds.

In brief, a story world comprises the vast combination of characters and settings that surround a series or an individual novel. Much of the story world remains invisible to the reader, but it envelops the writer, who must immerse herself in imagining not only what her characters sense and feel and think and interact with but also what they do not see: the unwritten rules of the society that govern their responses in ways they don’t question or realize. Every human community has these rules, and for better or worse we all live by them. We absorb them before we reach the age of independence, and whether we accept or rebel in adulthood, we seldom truly separate ourselves from the world around us. The same applies to literary characters.

Story worlds are most obvious in science fiction and fantasy, where authors construct entire planets based on principles they perceive in our society or trends they can imagine or just wild ideas that came to them in the night. The rules governing those worlds and societies must achieve sufficient consistency that readers will suspend disbelief. In brief, if dragons can fly today, they must fly tomorrow, unless an explanatory (and explained) circumstance shows up to prevent them.

But historical worlds must also be fully explored and understood, as must the intellectual and emotional circumstances driving contemporary novels, if the reader is to believe a given set of characters’ behaviors and motivations.

Creating such a world and such characters takes time. In the midst of a novel—which often requires years to complete, especially at first—the story world becomes all-encompassing. It surrounds the author even when she isn’t writing. I lived in Kasimov and Moscow, then on the steppe, then amid Russia’s northern woods, then in Moscow again. Each journey was different, following a new set of characters or struggling to reconnect with the same ones at later stages in their lives, trying to understand how they might grow and change—and how they would never change, no matter how many conflicts and obstacles I threw at their heads. 

That’s why going back, picking up one of the books, and opening it is like taking a journey into my own history: a little strange, sometimes awkward, but often as pleasant as returning to a vacation house I once enjoyed but haven’t seen in years. Sometimes I surprise myself with research I’ve since forgotten or a section—even a turn of phrase—that strikes me as well done. Other sentences remind me that learning to write is a process, one that requires lots of practice, or as J. K. Rowling once put it, “You have to kill a lot of trees before you write anything good.” I could go back and revise, but I know I probably won’t, because other worlds and stories are beckoning. My old friends in their sepia photographs will understand, I think, why I want to move on—especially since I plan to take them with me.

So with all that in mind, I offer you, too, a chance to enter my Legends story world. As noted last week, I am celebrating the imminent release of The Vermilion Bird (Legends 4: South) by placing the Kindle versions of the previous books in the series on sale in the US and UK stores for $2.99. The Winged Horse (Legends 2: East) promotion is running now and will continue through Sunday, December 3, at midnight PST/GMT. The Swan Princess (Legends 3: North) goes on sale at 8 AM PST/GMT on December 4, through Sunday, December 10, at midnight PST/GMT. The Golden Lynx (Legends 1: West) is always priced at $2.99 and is available at Barnes and Noble, the iTunes Store, and certain libraries, as well as

Images from Clipart, nos. 201458399, 21735960, and 2193507.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Never Surrender

It’s not a terribly appropriate topic for the day after Thanksgiving, but my latest interview at New Books in Historical Fiction explores some of the lesser-known byways of World War II. With the vast literature already devoted to the war, it’s hard to imagine that anything remains understudied, in fiction or nonfiction. Yet these two authors—Barbara Ridley and Judithe Little—approach the war in terms of the relationship between the allies Britain and France, especially the crucial turning point in 1940, when Hitler’s forces invaded and conquered France and Britain withdrew from continental Europe in preparation for its own battle against the Axis powers. In doing so, they avoid well-traveled paths in favor of questions that in some cases have a very contemporary relevance: the difficulties facing refugees, the fraying of alliances under pressure, and the brutal sacrifices made in pursuit of victory.

We can, of course, be grateful not to face such harsh choices or to live in a world at war. And remember that war and displacement continue to affect thousands, even millions, of our fellow human beings, to whom it behooves us to extend kindness and compassion. 

Meanwhile, I hope you all had a wonderful holiday!

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. Note that for technical reasons, the network has listed the interview under Barbara Ridley’s name. The audio file and description includes both authors. And on a more personal note, this post also marks my fifth anniversary as the host of New Books in Historical Fiction, since my first interview aired in November 2012.

For some reason, books occasionally arrive in pairs—meaning that out of nowhere a topic that has received little attention convinces two or more writers that it is novel-worthy, and those authors produce their finished products at more or less the same time. In this case, we decided to address the issues addressed by combining two shorter interviews into a single podcast. Both books explore the ramifications of Hitler’s decision to invade France, then attack Britain. Both examine the wartime leadership and postwar political defeat of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Both are set in Europe, especially the United Kingdom, between 1938 and 1946. Beyond that, they tell very different stories. 

In When It’s Over Barbara Ridley traces the experiences of Lena Kulkova, a young Czech woman who accompanies her socialist boyfriend from Prague to Paris, then follows him to Britain just before the Nazi forces invade the French capital. As Lena copes with life in a new country, itself threatened by war and increasingly suspicious of strangers, she yearns to reconnect with the family she left behind in Czechoslovakia. But only after the war, as socialism strengthens its hold on the British working class and threatens the political career of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, does Lena discover the fate of those she loves. 

Wickwythe Hall focuses on a crucial decision in the summer of 1940. When Hitler invaded France and the Vichy government agreed to collaborate with the Nazis, the British feared that the French navy would be co-opted and turned against them. Churchill issued an ultimatum to the French: turn over their fleet, sail it to a distant port, or see it annihilated. When the French, insisting they would not hand over their ships to the Germans, refused to negotiate, the British navy destroyed the fleet at Marseilles, with great loss of life. Through three overlapping and intertwined narratives Judithe Little reveals the short-term and long-term effects of this decision, and the war of which it formed a part, on individual lives.

Last but not, as they say, least, I am celebrating the imminent release of The Vermilion Bird (Legends 4: South) by placing the Kindle versions of the previous books in the series on sale for $2.99. The Winged Horse (Legends 2) promotion runs from Monday, November 27, at 8 AM PST (8 AM GMT in the UK), through Sunday, December 3, at midnight PST/GMT. The Swan Princess (Legends 3) goes on sale at 8 AM PST/GMT on December 4, through Sunday, December 10, at midnight. The Golden Lynx (Legends 1) is always priced at $2.99 and is available at Barnes and Noble and the iTunes Store as well as

This will be the last promotion until the release of The Shattered Drum sometime next year, although I do plan to bring out a box set of the first three Legends novels sometime in the next few months. So don’t miss your chance to get all three books at this $2.99 price.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Interview with Laura Morelli

 I interviewed Laura Morelli late in 2014 about her first novel, The Gondola Maker. Now she has a new release, set in the same city (Venice) a generation earlier: The Painter’s Apprentice. I loved both books, so I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions about them.

Even more than the first, the second is a real page-turner. So make sure to add it to your list of Hidden Gems. You can find out more about Laura at her website. There is also a short bio at the end of this post.

The Painter’s Apprentice takes place in the same historical world as your earlier book, The Gondola Maker. What made you decide to set another novel not just in sixteenth-century Venice but using some of the same characters?

Good question! There were a few questions raised in The Gondola Maker that I wanted to explore further. Plus, the setting of 16th-century Venice is so rich that I feel I could place an infinite number of historical novels there.

The Painter’s Apprentice is a prequel to The Gondola Maker and is set during a real plague epidemic that spread across Venice in 1510. In the story, 19-year-old Maria wants nothing more than to carry on her father’s legacy as a master gilder. Instead, her father has sent her away from the only home she’s ever known to train as an apprentice to a renowned painter. Maria arranges to return to her family workshop and to a secret lover back home. But the encroaching Black Death—not to mention some conniving house servants—foil her plans.

In The Gondola Maker, the main character, Luca, is unmoored by a tragedy in his father’s boatyard and eventually makes his way into the employ of a noted painter. In that painter’s boat slip lies an old, dilapidated gondola that Luca recognizes as a craft from his grandfather’s generation, made in his own family’s boatyard. He is compelled to bring the old boat back to life.

As I wrote The Gondola Maker, I began to wonder myself how that old boat got there, and why it was in such bad shape. The painter tells Luca a story about how the boat was wrecked by an evil boatman hired by his father, and how, after that terrible event, it had never been repaired.

I wanted to go back a generation to the painter’s father so that I could imagine what really happened to that old boat. The story of The Painter’s Apprentice began to formulate inside my head.

Could you tell us a bit about that earlier novel before we talk about the newest one, released in November 2017?

I lived in northern Italy for four years and spent a lot of time in Venice. The inspiration for The Gondola Maker came as I was researching another book, a shopping guide called Made in Italy, back in 2001–2002. I traveled all over Italy, from the Alps to the islands, talking with contemporary artisans who still practice centuries-old traditions like Murano glass, Florentine leather, Sicilian ceramics, Roman goldsmithing, and of course, Venetian gondolas. Over and over, the extraordinary people I interviewed told me how important it was to pass the torch of tradition on to the next generation. I began to wonder what would happen—especially centuries ago—if the successor were not able ... or willing. The character of the gondola maker and his son began to take shape. As I began to work on The Gondola Maker in earnest, it was an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the primary historical sources about the history of the gondola, the world of the guilds or artisans, and the role and reputation of boatmen in Renaissance Venice.

Maria Bartolini, the heroine of the new book, comes from a family of gilders. In 1510, the family fears that theirs is a dying profession. What did they do, and why do they fear that they will be replaced—and by whom?

Through the mid-15th century, Venetian painting relied on a medieval artistic vocabulary. The art of gilding was integral to painting with colored pigments, and therefore most “paintings” were actually collaborative works between gilders, carpenters, and painters specialized in working with egg tempera-based pigments.

One of the major artistic shifts in Venetian painting over the course of the 16th century was the preference for painting on canvas rather than on poplar or alder wood panels, and for oil rather than egg-based tempera paints. This change happened gradually, starting in the last decades of the 15th century.

What it meant for a family like Maria’s was that gilding suddenly seemed old-fashioned. They feared for the future of their trade.

Fifteenth-century Netherlandish painters had already pioneered the use of oil as a medium for pigment. Traveling artists—Venetians headed north and northern painters lured to the Most Serene Republic—transferred this new knowledge of materials and artistic possibilities.

Oil afforded translucency and brilliance of color, built up in thin glazes that dried slowly. These rich visual effects, combined with greater versatility and durability of oil-based paints, appealed immediately to Venetian painters. Oil paint allowed painters to apply color both in fine detail as well as thick impasto. It allowed deeper, more realistic plays of light and shadow, more convincing rendering of three-dimensional form. And perhaps most important of all, Venetian painters saw the potential to take their rich, saturated colors to the next level.

As it turned out, the art of gilding never died. Although it was no longer used extensively in paintings, Venetian gilders turned to making frames as well as small, exquisite luxury objects like the gilded boxes that play a central role in the story of The Painter’s Apprentice.

Maria’s father apprentices her to Master Trevisan, a painter. Ostensibly he wants her to master the painter’s use of color, but that, we soon discover, is not the only reason Maria has been sent away from home. What is the other reason?

In The Painter’s Apprentice, Maria finds herself apprenticed to Benvoglio Trevisan, a noted Venetian painter. A generation later, in The Gondola Maker, Luca also finds himself in the same house, working as a private boatman to Master Trevisan’s son, now a successful painter in his own right.

This is a spoiler, but the real reason that Maria has been sent to the Trevisans’ painting studio is that she has become involved with a young man apprenticed to her own father. When her father discovers the relationship, he apprentices his daughter to the painter under the guise of training her in colored pigments, when his real motivation is separating her from her secret lover.

Maria’s love affair can’t be easily resolved by the usual rapid marriage, even though her lover is a master goldbeater. Why is that?

Cristiano—Maria’s lover—is a biracial man. As a person of color, Cristiano already faces hurdles to become recognized as a master goldbeater or battiloro. As much as Maria’s father respects Cristiano for his skill as a master artisan, he could never accept him as a potential suitor for his daughter.

During the Renaissance, the Venetian Republic was renowned as a model of cultural and religious tolerance, at the same time that its authorities locked up Jews at night in the world’s first ghetto, and many of its people took the branding iron to their own slaves. The challenges of making a living—and making a life—were real indeed for people of color.

However, apart from illegitimate children and master-servant situations that occasionally appear in the historical record, there are actually a few documented cases of lasting interracial relationships across 16th-century Italy. In Renaissance Venice, interracial relationships would not have been unheard of, even if they were not readily accepted.

Things get really sticky for Maria when the Black Death appears in Venice. What happens then?

While the painter’s boatman is portrayed as the bad guy, the real villain in this story is the bubonic plague. Early on, the neighborhood where Maria’s father lives is barricaded to prevent the spread of the disease, which has only begun to appear. That means that Maria can no longer see her family and is also cut off from her lover. Being unable to communicate or reach her loved ones becomes ever more complicated as the story progresses, because Maria is keeping a devastating secret.

As a waterlogged city, a major maritime port, and Europe’s gateway to the rest of the world, Venice was particularly vulnerable to plague outbreaks. Between 1456 and 1528 alone, there were 14 documented plague outbreaks in the city. The 1510 outbreak, the setting for The Painter’s Apprentice, took the life of 32-year-old Giorgione, one of the city’s most celebrated painters, who we now know died on the pesthouse island known as Lazzaretto Nuovo.

At that time, only about a quarter of the people who were quarantined on the lagoon islands returned home. We can only imagine the terror that such a disease must have inspired when it began to spread across the city.

Do tell us the origin of that glorious cover. It looks like a Titian painting. Is it, and if not, where does it come from?

Good job! Yes. The cover is adapted from a work by Titian called Woman with a Mirror, painted about 1515 and now in the Louvre in Paris. Doesn’t she look just like Maria? My talented designer, Kerry Ellis, also created the cover of The Gondola Maker. That cover was a finalist for the Da Vinci Eye Prize, which recognizes great cover design.

What are you working on now?

So many readers have asked, “What happens next?” after reading The Painter’s Apprentice and The Gondola Maker. I am well underway with the next story in the Venetian Artisans series, which is set on the famous glass island of Murano. In addition to writing about made-up characters, I have begun to write historical fiction based on real artists of the Italian Renaissance. Writing about real people is a special challenge, and I’m having a blast with it. Thanks for reading!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!

Thank YOU for taking the time to read and cover this story. I really appreciate it!


LAURA MORELLI holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, has taught college students in the US and in Italy, and currently produces art history lessons for TED-Ed. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and has contributed pieces about art and authentic travel to CNN Radio, The Frommers Travel Show, and in USA Today, Departures, and other media. Laura is the author of the Authentic Arts guidebook series that includes the popular book Made in Italy. Her fiction brings the stories of art history to life. Her debut novel, The Gondola Maker, won an IPPY for Best Historical Fiction and a Benjamin Franklin Award.