Friday, January 20, 2017

Writing All the Time

There’s an inverse ratio, I find, between working on a new draft of a novel and blogging. With the happy coincidence of Martin Luther King Day this Monday and my source of income being located in DC, where the university decided it was easier to close than deal with the insanity of requiring staff to navigate past inaugural events and protests, plus a relatively quiet week, I have focused every spare moment on The Vermilion Bird.

The good news is that I have thirteen solid chapters, eight of which have already survived the scrutiny of my invaluable critique group. A fourteenth is slowly unrolling under my typing fingers; with luck, I can finish it and get a sketchy form of chapter 15 out of the way by Monday, when work again returns full force. If I hadn’t needed to research the layout, appearance, and lifestyle characteristic of the early sixteenth-century Kremlin (on which, see “Fortress City”), not to mention the position of Tatars within and immediately outside the city, I could have made even more progress, perhaps to two-thirds of a novel instead of one-half.

The “bad” news—although it’s not really that bad—is that I can concentrate on the dialogue and actions of my imaginary people or detour to write a blog post. So this week I decided to settle on a quick progress report and save the good stuff for next time.

Happy reading, and—if you write—happy writing. Rest assured that I will return just as soon as I stop, in the words of my standard auto-response message, “chasing phoenixes in sixteenth-century Moscow.” In the meantime, you may want to check out the monthly “Books We Loved” post at Five Directions Press. Because you can never have too many books to read …

And if you missed last week’s interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, give that a listen, too. Three million viewers tuned in for the first episode of the Masterpiece Theater miniseries Victoria, and here’s your chance to find out about the history behind the program as well as a bit about life behind the scenes. All loads of fun, and it’s free!

Image: Ivan Bilibin's illustration of Prince Ivan catching the firebird, in the public domain because it was published before 1923, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Queen of the World

It’s not news that the Internet has wrought dramatic changes in the way that the computer-connected world—which, we should keep in mind, is not the entire world—approaches many aspects of everyday life. Those of us old enough to remember typewriter ribbons and white-out, paper maps that tore along their folds, and clocks with hands rather than digital readouts have war stories to tell about those moments when we recognized that elements of life we took for granted had changed irrevocably. Mine was an evening drive through New Haven, looking for a famous pizza parlor with my son navigating from the back seat on his smart phone. I named the streets as we passed them, as I would to someone reading a map, and he said, with that voice only teenagers speaking to their “ancient” parents can truly master, “Mom, the phone knows where it is.” I remember thinking, “I don’t know where I am. What do you mean, the phone knows?” But of course, he was right.

One such change—wrought by both the Internet and, before that, the cinema—is a renewed emphasis on visual representation. Text remains important, of course: people buy and read books, both print and digital; authors maintain blogs, like this one, and write materials of all sorts. But television, social media, YouTube videos, film, and other forms of still and moving images lie just a click away. Not every writer, by any means, imagines who would play which of his or her characters in a movie, but many do. I write in Storyist in part because it allows me to pin a cork board of images—film stars, random faces, portraits of sixteenth-century nobles and peasants as envisioned by nineteenth-century artists—on the right side of my screen as I write. Those faces inspire me, and when I find a new one that more closely resembles my evolving understanding of a particular person, I switch them out.

So I perfectly understand the impetus to televise fictional and historical stories. A good actor can convey with the flick of an eyebrow nuances of emotion that a novelist may need paragraphs to describe. Costumes, hairstyles, rooms, furniture, even mannerisms come across in a visual medium far more clearly than through a verbal exchange. Written works excel in taking the reader into a stranger’s mind, but for outward appearance and verisimilitude the screen has few equals.

The power of the image, though, makes accuracy essential. Costume designers routinely adjust historical styles to match current tastes, and that’s fine. But if a Carolingian lady is waltzing around in a crinoline, the audience gets the wrong impression, and that impression can be difficult to erase. The same holds true, to much greater degree, of time frames, personalities, and relationships.

That’s where the historical consultant comes in. In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction,  talk with the historian Helen Rappaport about that important role, among other topics. The rest of this post, as usual, comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

The term “historical fiction” covers a wide range from what the mystery writer Josephine Tey once dubbed “history with conversation” to outright invention shading into fantasy. But behind every story set in the past lies the past itself, as re-created by scholars from the available evidence. This interview features Helen Rappaport, whose latest work reveals the historical background behind the Masterpiece Theater miniseries Victoria, due to air in the United States this month. Rappaport served as historical consultant to the show.

The Queen Victoria who gave her name to an age famous for a prudishness so extreme that even tables had limbs, not legs, is nowhere evident in Rappaport’s book, the television series, or the novel by Daisy Goodwin, also titled Victoria, that gave rise to the series. Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen explores in vivid, compelling prose the letters, diaries, and other documents associated with the reign of a strong-minded, passionate, eager, inexperienced girl who took the throne just after her eighteenth birthday. This Victoria loved to ride, resisted marriage, fought to separate herself from her mother, detested her mother’s close adviser, and became infatuated with her prime minister and the future tsar of Russia before transferring her affections to Prince Albert, who initially did not impress her. Wildly devoted to her husband, she bore nine children but hated being pregnant and regarded newborn infants as ugly. Even her name caused controversy: christened Alexandrina, she switched to Victoria on taking the throne, overriding critics who insisted that Elizabeth or Charlotte were more suitable appellations for a British monarch. By the time she died sixty-three years later, entire generations understood the word “queen” as synonymous with “Victoria.”

Although the most powerful woman in the world, Victoria here makes some serious mistakes, as any eighteen-year-old thrust into the center of politics would. If she had no social media to record every misstep, she also had no publicity managers or image brokers to spin her rash remarks or misjudgments. As Daisy Goodwin notes in the foreword to this book, Victoria had to grow up in public, and she left a precious record of that journey in her own exquisite handwriting. But since this is the official companion volume to a television show, it also includes details about casting and costuming, as well as numerous photographs of the actors and background information about the times. It makes a perfect starting point for a discussion of history and historical fiction, their differences and similarities, and how to observe the requirements of one without violating the precepts of the other.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Fortress City

It’s been a while since I wrote a history post, largely because I tend to do the most research either before I start a new project or when I hit a brick wall midway through the first draft and discover I actually have no idea what happened during X or what people did when faced with Y or, as in this case, what the Moscow Kremlin looked like in February 1537.

You might write off that last as a no-brainer, and I certainly would not blame you if you did. After all, Wikipedia can tell you that the current fortress walls have been on the same site since Pietro Solari directed their construction in 1485–1495. The best-known cathedrals and at least one palace date from the same period. So what’s the problem?

Well, in brief, there have been a few changes in the centuries since Ivan the Terrible was a child. Moreover, to quote Catherine Merridale in her invaluable Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin: “The buildings also did not stand unaltered, and they could be the most treacherous witnesses of all. If a wall was repainted, or a palace knocked down and rebuilt, it was as if its previous incarnation had never been” (6). Although there are written records—and the occasional spectacular map, like this one copied in 1663 but originally drawn circa 1604—the actual environment has undergone five centuries of fire, destruction, rebuilding, and refurbishing. Many documents perished in those fires; many buildings were torn down or incorporated into larger structures, like the women’s quarters built by Alevisio of Milan, which now form the first floor of the larger Terem Palace built in 1635–1636. (A terem, in medieval Russia, refers to the part of a house or estate used to seclude women from contact with men outside the family, thus safeguarding their honor [read: chastity] and, not coincidentally, ensuring that girls did not form romantic attachments that could interfere with their fathers’ political plans.)

Nor are these the only types of alteration. The deep red of the walls, familiar from so many photographs, is achieved by paint. The underlying brick is much paler, closer to peach, and at times in the past has been covered in white stucco. The gingerbread towers of the modern Kremlin are seventeenth-century add-ons; the original towers were designed to menace from the far side of a moat that once separated the citadel from what is today called Red Square (then still devoid of St. Basil’s). You can see the moat at the bottom of Blaeu’s map, which should really be to the right, as Red Square lies to the east of the Savior Tower.

Even the purpose of the city has changed. At one time, the Kremlin was the city, an area about a quarter the size of today’s fortress protected by log palisades. By the 1530s, only the royal family and the most prestigious noble clans maintained living quarters inside the walls, which also hosted a monastery and a convent as well as the metropolitan of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Everyone else lived on the far side of today’s Red Square, in what became known (and is still known) as the Kitaigorod. In 1535, Grand Princess Elena of Russia, the mother of Ivan the Terrible and sometime heroine/sometime villain of my Legends series, ordered the construction of a second set of fortifications: a massive brick wall as thick as it was tall, so solid that it stood until Stalin went after it with dynamite four centuries later. Visitors to Moscow can still see its remnants today. The city expanded outward from there: two more sets of walls went up before the end of the seventeenth century, and the twenty-first-century city extends beyond those.

All this rebuilding and repainting makes life difficult for a novelist. What would my characters see when they enter the Kremlin? We can be reasonably certain that the bottom third of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower looked much the same then as now, although the iconic gilded cupola and the top two tiers did not appear until later. The Faceted Palace has survived, but the much larger collection of buildings where Ivan and his mother lived and governed has given way to the Terem Palace and the Great Kremlin Palace (built in 1837). The obviously eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century buildings can be eliminated, but what about the Tsaritsa’s Golden Chamber, which turns out to date from the 1550s (maybe) and has decorations matched to the 1590s, when Irina Godunova, sister to Boris Godunov and wife to Ivan the Terrible’s son Fyodor, ruled there? Was it part of an older structure that my characters might have encountered?

I checked the Russian chronicles to find out where Elena Glinskaya received the wives of Tatar khans and learned that the meetings took place “in the chambers near St. Lazarus’s.” But where was St. Lazarus’s? It’s not on any current map. It’s not on the 1604/63 map—except that it actually is, unmarked. According to “The Great Kremlin Palace in 1912,” the Church of St. Lazarus, built of wood in the fourteenth century, was “annexed to the south side of the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin.” In 1479 the walls of both churches collapsed, and in 1514 Alevisio rebuilt a single church dedicated to the Virgin’s Nativity on the first floor, with the former Church of St. Lazarus underneath. Further renovations took place in the late seventeenth century, as a result of which the Church of St. Lazarus was forgotten until the construction of the Great Kremlin Palace uncovered its fourteenth-century shell. Today the church exists entirely within the Great Kremlin Palace, which is closed to visitors because the Russian president lives there. But before the revolution, the Church of the Virgin’s Nativity was the private chapel of the grand princesses and tsaritsas and—which is the most telling and delightful detail—it backed directly onto the residence set aside for the royal women, which eventually became the Terem Palace.

In this attempt to reconstruct the Kremlin as it might have appeared in 1537, in addition to the sources I’ve already mentioned, I stumbled on one more that has proved invaluable. In 1910, S. P. Bartenev—who in 1912 wrote the guidebook reproduced on “The Great Kremlin Palace” website—drew an overlay map of the Moscow Kremlin. The buildings that appeared in his day, many of which were destroyed in the Soviet period, are shown in orange. But there are layers and layers of overlapping buildings in green. These mark the locations of former noble estates, Dmitry Donskoi’s terem, Ivan the Terrible’s bedchamber, the palace assigned to ZoĆ« Paleologa, and much, much more. The notations are handwritten in Russian, which is why it helps to speak the language, but the file on Wikimedia Commons, reproduced here in a small version, is huge. A desperate novelist can blow it up to read the tiny print. Combine its evidence with the paper-doll-like renditions of Blaeu’s 1663 map (he never saw the Kremlin, but the original artist obviously did, because the buildings match what few descriptions we have as well as the structures that remain), and one can at least begin to imagine what Maria may have seen as she traveled veiled in her enclosed sleigh to Grand Princess Elena’s reception hall.

So this is how I spent a good half of my vacation. Much of it went into writing, but a good deal involved peering at Bartenev’s map, comparing it with Blaeu’s, searching for old photographs and descriptions, and reading as much Kremlin history as I could absorb from modern historians and from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century accounts. It’s been fun, and I learned a lot. Not least that you can’t always tell a book by its cover—or a fortress by its walls.

Images: Joan Blaeu, Kremlenagrad map, 1663, in the public domain because of its age; Spasskaia tower, Kremlin, © Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic, CC BY-SA 2.0; overlay map from S. P. Bartenev, Moskovskii Kreml’ v starinu i teper’ (The Moscow Kremlin in Olden Times and Now [1910]), in the public domain because of its age—all via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Moving on to 2017

Incredibly—or so it seems—2016 is about to head for the hills of history. And what a year it was, full of surprises big and small. So, as has become my habit on this blog, I will use this last post of the year to check in on how things went and set some new goals for next year. The list for 2016 included:

(1) finishing the final draft of The Swan Princess and seeing it in print and e-book formats;
(2) making significant progress on The Vermilion Bird, preferably to the point of a full rough draft (even if it’s very rough);
(3) chairing a roundtable on the uses of historical fiction in the classroom, scheduled for November 2016 but not yet approved by the sponsoring organization;
(4) upping the number of my New Books in Historical Fiction interviews to one every three weeks, yielding eighteen for the year;
(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means expanding the number of authors and titles available, filling out the More Books Worth Reading page, and keeping the news & events page up to date;
(6) posting to this blog every Friday;
(7) maintaining and strengthening my relationships with fellow writers; 

(8) continuing to improve my grasp of marketing, on both my own behalf and that of Five Directions Press; and
(9) completing three GoodReads challenges.

I actually managed to fulfill most of these goals. My NBHF interviews topped out at seventeen rather than eighteen, and the first draft of The Vermilion Bird is still only about halfway done—largely because the project has demanded more research than I expected (I am currently reading up on the complicated history of the Moscow Kremlin, for example, thanks to Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress) but also because of a delightful development that I did not anticipate at this time last year: Five Directions Press has doubled in size, with six active authors and three associates.

As a result, we put out four books last year, with five to six planned for next year. Five Directions Press also added a monthly feature called “Books We Loved,” in which we recommend those titles we especially enjoyed: small-press, self-published, traditionally published fiction and nonfiction. The list goes up around the middle of each month. You can find it at or by liking us on Facebook. (You can also follow us on Twitter.) While there, don’t forget to sign up for our quarterly newsletter. We send messages only for new releases and the newsletter itself, and we never sell addresses. It’s the best way to stay informed about what we’re doing and to learn about us and other authors through our regular interviews. You also get access to free coloring pages based on our books and a chance to win our annual Christmas basket.

Which brings me to next year’s goals. I decided not to take on more reading challenges next year, because between research and my own books and interview preparation and 5DP authors and “Books We Loved,” not to mention the occasional library book group session, I barely have time to breathe. I’m also forced to cut back on the interviews again: every three weeks proved really hard to sustain. That leaves the following writing/reading goals for 2017:

(1) completing The Vermilion Bird and seeing it in print;
(2) starting The Shattered Drum, the last of my Legends of the Five Directions although I also plan a spinoff series set in Russia around the same time;
(3) conducting twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews;
(4) typesetting/proofing, producing e-books, and in some cases editing the Five Directions Press titles scheduled for next year—Rewind, West End Quartet, The Falcon Strikes, The Vermilion Bird, and A Holiday Gift, more or less in that order;
(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means keeping track of the “Books We Loved” posts, expanding the number of authors and titles available, and keeping the news & events page up to date;
(6) posting to this blog every Friday;
(7) maintaining and strengthening my relationships with fellow writers; and
(8) continuing to improve my grasp of marketing, on both my own behalf and that of Five Directions Press—including finding more ways to get reviews.

Let’s see how I do. Meantime, Happy New Year, everyone!

P.S. Cat #3 is on his way home. In the end, it was a very successful visit, and Cat #1 hasn't had that much exercise in years. In fact, he is sleeping it off as I write....

Images: “Happy New Year 2017” Clipart no. 109785399, Sleepy Siamese © 2016 C. P. Lesley

Friday, December 23, 2016

Cat Wars

I’d planned to produce a writing post this week—or perhaps a history post—since I am off work and madly tearing through The Vermilion Bird. But the end of the week rolled around, and I decided history and writing craft were just too serious to use as topics this close to the holidays. So instead, I have a post about cats—because everyone knows the Internet loves cats, right?

It all began when the Filial Unit and his girlfriend decided to visit us for the holidays. As a mom, I’m genetically programmed to welcome such visits with unbounded joy. And when they floated the idea that their cat, a rescue animal who has lived with them for only a couple of months, might not do well with strangers coming in to feed him, the Mom program kicked in and I offered to host the cat, too—even though Sir Percy and I have two cats of our own.

Now, the new cat is a fine animal. He endured seven hours in the cat carrier with minimal fussing. He broke free of the confinement room and was exploring within hours. He’s coping well with new territory and new people, with just the occasional hiss or growl to let us know he hasn’t completely accepted us yet, but he’ll tolerate us so long as we give him some space. And the title of my post is somewhat misleading, in the sense that very little fur has actually flown so far. Even so, the acclimatization has been fun to watch. And not to get too heavy,  it might even say something about conflicts and their resolution—not only among cats.


First, the newcomer. Let’s call him Cat #3. After living who knows where, then in a shelter, then in a small apartment with two people, he’s naturally a bit nervous at a sudden transition to a full-sized house with four people and two other cats. He knows the basic cat drill: hiss a warning, growl if needed, hit out as a last resort, slink away if possible. But he has trouble figuring out when to yield and, especially, how to tell if Person or Cat X actually poses a threat.

Enter Cat #2, the only female in the group. She’s also a rescue cat, a feral kitten captured at six months, so she went from the outside world to a informal shelter with few cages but many cats to our quiet house with two adults who are around almost all the time. She has no desire to live anywhere else and a hyper-vigilant threat center that even eight years of daily reassurance can’t entirely reset. One hiss from the newcomer, and she raced for her favorite hidey hole. She stayed there for thirty-six hours until I dug her out and put her in a quiet room by herself, with food and water and a litter box. Since then, she’s reclaimed her spot in my study, but she’s still not sure about Cat #3 (who as I write this is inching his way up the stairs, one by one).

But the surprise hero of this narrative is Cat #1, our senior citizen. Cat #1 lives by Siamese (Cat) rules, of which the most fundamental is “Thou shalt snuggle.” He’s already suffered a certain amount of disappointment due to Cat #2’s propensity to flee at the very moments when, in his mind, snuggling is required. But diligent work on his part has won her over, most of the time. Indeed, just before the arrival of Cat #3, Cats 1 and 2 spent the entire evening huddled together on the couch, sharing an appropriately named Snugli. Still, there was some question as to how he might react to the arrival of an unfamiliar, younger tomcat.

It’s been an education for all concerned. Cat #1’s first reaction was to walk into the bedroom assigned to Cat #3 and his family—in the middle of the night, no less—and, ignoring all hissing and growling, to establish his right to the bed, after which he sauntered off to eat what remained of Cat #3’s dinner. Message: “My house, my rules. Get used to it.”

The next day, he followed Cat #3 around the house, stopping just close enough to elicit the first rumbling growl, then sitting there until it stopped before edging in closer. He did not look at Cat #3 while doing this, because staring is an aggressive act between cats. But he didn’t back down, either. After a couple of hours, Cat #3 gave up on the hissing and growling, at least with the other cats. He also became more accepting of the unknown humans, although he’s having none of that petting. That’s right out.

By the third day, Cats 1 and 2 are hanging out together as they always have, and Cat #3 has taken to roaming the house, often in the vicinity of the resident cats but not close enough either to cause trouble or to consider them friends. Cat #1 has socialized the newcomer with not much more than a sideways stare.

In all this back-and-forth, the cats have come to blows exactly once. Cat #3, preoccupied with the raising of the Christmas tree, did something that attracted the ire of Cat #1, who despite his fifteen years and kidney problems, let out an ear-splitting yowl and chased Cat #3 back to his borrowed room. Fifteen minutes later, tops, Cat #3 was back, his past sins forgiven.

Is that the end of the story? Unclear, as they still have a good week of reorienting to go. And the relationship between us and Cat #3, while developing, has grown much more slowly. We don’t read the signals as well, and we certainly don’t send them as clearly. Conflict avoidance demands effective communication, and communication, first and foremost, requires us to speak the same language. Guess I’d better go and brush up on my Cat.

Still, they are an example to the rest of us in this conflict-ridden world. So in the spirit of the season, peace and good will to all. Happy holidays, everyone, and best wishes for a stellar year to come!

Images: Wreath Clipart. no. 7597540; Cats 1–3 © 2016 C. P. Lesley.