Friday, July 21, 2017

Bookshelf, July 2017

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


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


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


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



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



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


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

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

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lithuanian Renaissance

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Writers' Intuition

In last week’s discussion of themes I mentioned the idea, ruthlessly cribbed from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, that characters in a novel do not exist in isolation. Instead they form a web, and their interactions through the plot push the story forward, cause the protagonists to change, and embody varying approaches to the novel’s central moral argument, its theme.

I also noted that at least in my case, themes arise from my subconscious mind. I discover them only after I complete the first draft (other people’s mileage no doubt varies, as the saying goes). Although I plan novels in various ways discussed elsewhere on this blog, my best writing appears when I fall into the zone where words pour onto the page and I become more a recorder than a planner. In the zone I write by instinct. Sometimes the results are kasha, but more often they have a flow that I can’t attain otherwise. Almost always they reveal elements of a character I hadn’t previously recognized. And those elements can surprise me.

Take, for example, Tulpar, an antagonist in The Winged Horse. When I set up that novel, I knew I wanted to explore the consequences of polygamy on the children, especially the sons, of men with multiple wives. Even judged by the standards of the Russian court in the 1530s, which forms the backdrop of the Legends novels and where the royal family could give the Borgias a run for their money, the Tatar successor states to the Mongol Empire had an extraordinarily large number of khans who came to power by assassinating their brothers.

In part, it was an example of “rule by the strongest”—carried to its extreme in the Ottoman Empire, where a system developed in which each concubine could have no more than one son and each sultan began his reign by tracking down and killing his half-brothers. But the reality that so many of the sons had different mothers must, I think, have also played a role in the conflict. Full brothers can, of course, hate each other and try to kill each other. And the half-brothers often fought together as well as against one another. Even so, I was curious about what role polygamy might play.

I decided to give Ogodai a half-brother, Tulpar, older than he and therefore stronger and more experienced, since an antagonist’s main role in a novel is to oppose the protagonist and thus force the protagonist to change. Most of us resist change, so the more powerful the antagonist, the greater the pressure on the hero/heroine to buckle down and do the hard work of self-improvement. Even in a romance, the hero and heroine typically act as antagonists for each other, at the same time as they are both protagonists. That’s why love stories so often start out with a man and woman who either dislike each other or see a situation in opposite ways. Without that conflict, the characters have no reason to change. There is no story.

So far, so good. But right away I ran into a problem: I hadn’t ever mentioned this older half-brother in The Golden Lynx. Well, how could I when I hadn’t created him yet? So I came up with a story for why no one in the family talked about him, and although I knew it was a bit far-fetched, it worked well enough for that book. The idea was for the two half-brothers to battle it out to the end, and may the best man win. They had plenty to fight over: a potential wife, leadership, bragging rights, a sexy concubine, even a philosophy of how this independent horde could preserve its freedom. The main difference between the brothers was character.

Then something happened. I realized that Tulpar was a perfect match for someone else in the series. How did I know? At the time, I couldn’t have said. I just thought, “Oh, those two so deserve each other. It would be great fun to throw them together and see what happens.” But looking back, I see that somehow I grasped that they were dealing with the same problem, but starting from very different places and approaching their troubles in very different ways. Their assumptions and reactions would push them to change, then support them as they changed. Even then, it took a third character to intervene and show me (and them) how the change could come about. A character who knew the hidden story and could act as an intermediary—and no, I won’t tell you more than that. You have to read the book to find out!

Getting from Point A to Point B took a lot of work. I had to twist things around so the new story could emerge from the old one. I had to go back to the far-fetched explanation and completely rework it so that it would make sense from the perspective of this character who had revealed his hidden depths in that unexpected way. I had to figure out how that realization altered what I could demand of him. Most important, I needed to understand how Tulpar’s view of the world would interact with that of the other characters. Where was the web? Who else in the series shared these issues, and how would they contribute to the whole? But the effort was worth it, every bit, because it made for a better story. And in the process I fell in love with them, as I do with all my main characters; otherwise I can’t write them.

It took me most of the first draft of The Vermilion Bird to answer the questions. And wouldn’t you know? Halfway through another character decided to share her story. I never did find a way to work it into this novel, and I am not certain this particular character would ever undertake the difficult work of personal growth. So I have yet to decide what to do with this information. Perhaps she will always lurk in the background, an amusing distraction, a perennial secondary figure.

But I’m laying the groundwork, just in case. Because I wouldn’t put it past her to take over a novel of her own. Call it writers’ intuition. It’s happened before. 

Image: Clipart no. 314581

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Story Behind the Story

Last week I mentioned in passing Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters. Toward the end of that book, she has a chapter on theme, which she renames “worldview” to avoid the cringe that most of us experience in recalling elementary- through high-school literature classes and all the themes we had not then lived long enough to recognize, never mind understand. 

The chapter got me thinking: how would I, as an adult, define theme in reference to a novel? Does a novel even need a theme? Many writers insist that their works neither have nor require a theme, and that it’s up to readers to decide what meaning a book has for them. Others, including myself, disagree. A theme, as I show below, acts as a kind of organizing principle, imparting emotional coherence to a work of fiction. It keeps plot and character focused on the essentials.

Now I would be the first to admit that I pay little attention to theme in the initial stages of writing. First off, only some stories present themselves to me in sufficient detail early on for me to perceive the underlying theme. Even the few that do I don’t entirely trust: they are likely to morph midway through, revealing a theme I had not anticipated. But once that first draft is done, I agree with Kress that a theme helps pull a story together. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story—another on my top five list of must-have writing craft books—it’s a mistake to regard characters as existing in isolation. Instead they embody differing attitudes and responses to the novel’s central theme. The plot offers them a chance to express and develop those responses.

So what is a theme? Is it really the same as a worldview? Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “a subject or topic of discourse or artistic representation,” which doesn’t clarify much. Truby equates it with the writer’s moral vision, which does correspond with a worldview in part yet seems to offer a more exact definition. But I think the concept is much simpler than that. In brief, the theme is what the book is really about.

Take my Legends novels as examples. The theme in The Golden Lynx is vengeance: what do you do when someone close to you, an innocent, is murdered? One approach adopted by the characters leads them to kill in return, out of a desire for revenge or justice. A second has them take refuge in religion. A third pushes them to investigate what went wrong, including whether the innocent was in fact as guiltless as the family believed. A fourth redefines vengeance as preventing a different crime, and so on. The varying fates of those embracing this or that approach express my moral vision about revenge and what it can and cannot do for people.

In The Winged Horse, the story—the theme—revolves around the competing claims of loyalty: to oneself, to others, to a principle or a cause. The Swan Princess explores integrity, in this case from the perspective of a young woman who has gone too far in the direction of pleasing others and needs to recover, then incorporate, her own sense of herself without swinging from one extreme to the other. The Vermilion Bird, almost finished but not yet published, focuses on family through a group of characters who in some cases adore their families (who may not always deserve their love) and in others can barely bring themselves to speak to their family members (who do not necessarily deserve their dislike, although they have certainly done things to provoke it). Book 5, The Shattered Drum, is one of the rare novels to have already revealed its basic structure—probably because it ends the series, meaning it has a lot of loose ends to tie up. But I am less than twenty pages into it, so while I have a hint of what the theme may be, I know better than to reveal it yet.

You have no doubt noticed that these themes are interconnected. The desire for vengeance arises in part from loyalty to the person hurt, which in turn often comes from that person being a close friend or family member. Loyalty can inhibit the development of a separate identity and thus of integrity, which is above all the decision to respect and value one’s private self. Families certainly impose demands and expectations on their members, behaving and expressing emotions in ways specific to the culture in which they live but also to themselves. These demands necessarily fit some personalities better than others, and that in turn feeds questions of identity and integrity: How does a person like Maria, heroine of The Vermilion Bird, cope inside a structure that ruthlessly suppresses her gifts and imposes tasks on her in which she has no interest? How does she respond when a different family makes different assumptions that, however welcome, force her to change her fundamental beliefs about who she can and should become?

The Shattered Drum, too, incorporates elements of these themes. Which one dominates in the end will have more to do with emphasis than exclusivity. As writers we constantly revisit our own story, from different angles and with varying perspectives. The appeal to readers depends on the extent to which our problems reflect their own—or, more grandly, basic human themes.

Put that way, the concept of theme seems not so difficult to grasp. When we sit down to write a book, especially a novel, we may not have a particular theme in mind. Perhaps it’s even better not to have one. Then we can give our imagination free rein in the beginning rather than force it into a box. But for sure, our subconscious minds have a theme, and by the end of the first draft it will become obvious. At that point, the writer’s job becomes exploring the theme from as many angles and viewpoints as possible. Because if you have nothing to say, why write a book in the first place? 

Image: Clipart no. 109572471.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Beast Within

Early in my interview with Gabrielle Mathieu for New Books in Historical Fiction, I ask her about the tag line for the first book in her Falcon trilogy, The Falcon Flies Alone: “We all have a beast locked within us, but in Peppa’s case it’s more than a figure of speech.” We talked about anger and self-assertion, especially in women, and how they are often socially suppressed or, if not suppressed, evaluated differently from the same behavior in men. Gabrielle notes that she is not as blunt in her anger as her heroine, Peppa, but instead tends to avoid conflict. I could relate, as I have the same issue with several of my heroines.

Later in the interview, Gabrielle mentions that what distinguishes her antagonists from her protagonists is that the former use “some very blunt instruments” to attain their goals. These two comments got me thinking about how fiction is, in some respects, a way of exploring emotional paths not taken—for readers as well as for authors. In novels we can explore vengeance and murder, crises and conflict. We can talk back if we’re shy, beat our opponents up if we are timid or physically weak, flirt with infidelity or fall madly in love with characters who will never leave their socks on the floor or forget to pick us up at the airport. We can release the beast within—investigate it, test it, revel in it—without hurting ourselves or anyone else.

The same point applies to other art forms, of course: movies and television, especially. But well-crafted, well-written novels and short stories dump us inside another person’s head in ways that real life cannot, that even video cannot. We can see the world through the eyes of a falcon, a bad guy, an abandoned teenager, a runaway bride. We can experience life at the extremes, as most of us would much rather not do in real time. As Nancy Kress puts it in her wonderful Dynamic Characters, “In our lives we want tranquillity; in our fiction we want an unholy mess, preferably getting unholier page by page” (159).

And Peppa surely does get herself in an unholy mess, which gets unholier not only page by page but book by book. That’s why her story grabs us and doesn’t let go. But don’t take it from me: listen to the interview, then buy the book.

You can also hear (and in the case of The Falcon Flies Alone, read) an excerpt from the first two books at their respective pages on the Five Directions Press site: The Falcon Flies Alone and The Falcon Strikes.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction (and is cross-posted to New Books in Fantasy and Adventure).

Peppa Mueller has a lot going for her. The daughter of a deceased Harvard professor who gave her an eclectic upbringing, she is heir to his fortune, and Radcliffe has accepted her application for undergraduate study in chemistry—her gift and her passion. Too bad that her conventional Swiss relatives cannot imagine why any young lady would want a college education in 1957.

Sick of their constraints, she runs away from their home in Basel, even though she cannot collect her inheritance for another two weeks. A house-sitting job draws her to a remote Alpine town, where she becomes the subject of a terrible experiment. Wanted for murder, accused of insanity, and beset by visions of herself as a fierce peregrine falcon, Peppa decides to go after Ludwig Unruh, the man who has victimized her and now holds her precious German Shepherd hostage to force Peppa to participate in his ongoing research into psychedelic plants.

But Unruh has far more experience with both chemistry and life than Peppa does, not to mention far fewer scruples. And as time goes on, she discovers that her past and his are inextricably intertwined. She wants to stop him, she wants to get herself and her dog out of his hands, but to do either, she must first survive his experiment. In The Falcon Flies Alone Gabrielle Mathieu, the host of New Books in Fantasy and Adventure, creates a compelling, fast-moving novel that straddles the line between reality and the world of the imagination.