Friday, July 20, 2018

Marriage Politics, American-Style

As I’ve written elsewhere, in the time period and area of the world I study, most people saw marriage as an economic and political contract between families writ small and villages (among the poor) or between entire clans and patronage networks (among the elite). The desire of individuals for love and companionship, understanding and compatibility, played little role in the choice of marriage partner. Instead, the dominant factors included things like whose lands ran together, which woman needed a husband to plow the fields or which man needed a woman to cook and clean, and who had close ties to those in power and in favor. Not to mention the possibility of children, without whom the family, village, or lineage could not continue.

Health and fertility, especially among potential brides, also weighed in the balance, since bearing children was a wife’s primary responsibility. Personality had some importance, for sure, but only to the extent that it made a successful partnership more or less likely in the eyes of those charged with selecting the potential spouse. Parents and guardians, not the couple themselves, made that decision. Aristocratic fathers, to ensure that they had a free hand, secluded their virgin daughters within the household, keeping them as close as the ladies of any Turkish harem.

But that was Europe in the premodern era. Nothing like that could have happened in the Land of the Free and the Brave in the twentieth century, right? In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, with the author Robert Goolrick—whose new novel The Dying of the Light I also featured in last week’s post—we see that the United States in the Gilded Age, at least among its old landed and nouveau-riche entrepreneurial classes, was not so different from medieval Europe after all. The tensions created by selling one’s daughter to the highest bidder pervade this novel, determining much of its action as well as the complex and often contradictory relationships among its characters.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. Goolrick is an unusually thoughtful and fascinating speaker, so make sure to listen in. You’ll be glad you did!

“It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” So opens Robert Goolrick’s rich, lyrical new novel, The Dying of the Light (Harper, 2018).

The house is Saratoga, a colonial-era estate in Virginia that is at once a joy and a burden to the family that lives there, the Cookes. In particular, it determines the life trajectory of Diana Cooke, the eighteen-year-old heiress charged with saving her family and her home from poverty right after World War I. Diana reluctantly embraces her destiny, agreeing to marry Captain Copperton, a wealthy but uncouth man who doesn’t hesitate to remind the Cookes at every turn that he owns not only the house but them, in principle if not in fact.

But Copperton has one virtue in addition to his entrepreneurial abilities: he is a good father to the son he has with Diana. And it is, in the end, their son who unwittingly sets off the series of events that leaves Saratoga in ashes. Along the way, a cast of delightfully realized and often eccentric characters interact in sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising ways against the backdrop of Saratoga and its ever changing, ever inspiring river.

As for me, I am almost, almost through the massive list of projects surrounding the release of my last Legends novel, The Shattered Drum. Stay tuned for the formal announcement next week. If you’re signed up at Five Directions Press, you will receive the press release automatically. And if you’re not, why aren’t you? We send out no more than six mailings a year—mostly announcements of new titles—and since our resident designer, Courtney J. Hall, puts her creative talents to work on those mailings, they are always exciting to see.

Meanwhile, I hope to get back to writing—maybe as soon as this weekend. I can hardly wait!

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Sense of Place

Just yesterday, I was talking with the writer Robert Goolrick, whose latest novel, The Dying of the Light, is the subject of my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview (on which, more next week—or perhaps the Friday after that, depending on how many interviews are in the queue ahead of me). Although as writers and as readers, we tend to focus on characters and plot, The Dying of the Light reminds us that setting, if properly invoked, expresses and motivates the first and drives the second.

Place grounds us, influencing our experience of the world in ways so fundamental that we often don’t recognize their force. In my own novels, the crowded streets and tightly packed houses of sixteenth-century Moscow breed different expectations from the vast borderless grasslands of the steppe or the equally vast and borderless yet somehow confining forests of the Russian north. My characters feel these differences, sometimes with joy—as when Alexei has a chance to return to the steppe for a summer, even if it means leaving his family for a war that may prevent his return—and sometimes with dread, as when Nasan stands in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, surrounded by the decaying corpses of Moscow’s royal princes.

The Dying of the Light opens with a wonderful line: “It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” And indeed it does: the Virginia estate of Saratoga, as important to those who live there as Pemberley or Tara. The Cookes of Saratoga can trace their ownership of the house back to the eighteenth century, but by the time the novel opens more than 150 years later, the house has become both a burden to those who live there and an essential part of their being.

The estate costs a lot to maintain, you see, and the Cookes are land-rich and cash-poor. They have one asset besides the house and their name: their beautiful daughter Diana. So they put her on the market—the marriage market—and force her to choose between their estate and her happiness.

What happens after that is the subject of a future post, but today’s point is simple. Saratoga—its river and its fields, its people and the race relations that bind and separate them, its disasters and moments of recovery—both challenges and rewards its residents. It pushes the plot in unexpected directions. It forces the introduction of new characters, who in turn develop new relationships even as they twist existing ones in different directions, sometimes to the point of destruction. And the history of the house, so closely tied to the person of the protagonist Diana Cooke, ultimately reveals the theme hidden in this wonderfully lyrical and fascinating book.

Take this one short example from p. 106. “They” are Diana and her cook, Priscilla.

They heard the crack and crash of a tree outside, in the garden, struck by lightning that lit the room like daylight, like noon in July. They felt the chill air that suddenly filled the room, blowing in from the library, and thought the same thought at the same moment. “The books!” Diana jumped up.

They ran into the library, forcing open the broad double doors, to find the giant half tree that had been split by the lightning and crashed through the diamond panes of the windows, destroying everything, letting in the slashing rain, pulling books from the shelves, the soggy pages flapping in the wind, the rug soaked, the ruination of all that Diana held most dear.

Now, that’s a sense of place.

On another note, my summer plans are proceeding apace. The Golden Lynx, 2nd ed. is available on Amazon and Kindle, and I’ve approved it for distribution via Ingraham. The rest of the Legends novels, despite yet another copyright challenge, have received their updates. The first of two box sets is out on Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited users can borrow all the Legends novels for free (others pay $2.99 per book or $6.99 for the set). And the e-book of The Shattered Drum releases on Monday, but you can preorder it now. The print version should appear in seven to ten days. That leaves only the second box set, which I hope to complete this weekend and release around the same time as the print version of The Shattered Drum.

After that, I will be back to writing—a whole new series waiting to be born!

Images: Apollinary Vasnetsov, A Street in the Kitagorod (1902), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; warriors in the steppe, screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior, dir. Sergei Bodrov (2005).

Friday, July 6, 2018

Works in Progress

So, as I wrote last week, I’ve spent the last six days focusing on my own novels, mostly the Legends books as I spiff them up in preparation for the release of The Shattered Drum, the last one in the series. I’d hoped to start work on Song of the Shaman, the second installment in my spinoff series, also set in Russia but in the 1540s, an even more troubled time in that country’s history than the 1530s, and involving some of the same characters. But now that Friday has dawned, it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen during this break. So what have I been doing?

Well, the second edition of The Golden Lynx has appeared on Amazon for print and Kindle, although we’re still working out the kinks when it comes to linking the files—both print and Kindle and first and second editions. You can get the new e-book no problem, but running a search stubbornly turns up the older print edition, no longer available for sale (the print link above will take you to the right place). It looks as if Amazon is correcting the print/Kindle links as we speak, though. And the customer service rep did a stellar job of cleaning up the e-book formatting, which had become inexplicably distorted in the “Look Inside This Book” feature despite being perfect in the e-book itself. If you happened to see it in its multi-size, multi-font, all centered glory, try again. I swear, I do know how books should look!

The new Golden Lynx is also uploaded to Ingram Spark, although not yet available because I want to check the physical proof before I approve it for distribution. It has an official publication date of July 30 and an on-sale date of August 15. That was another learning experience, although the print proof passed on the second try and the site seems in general easy to use, if more expensive than CreateSpace. Both have great help files and extraordinary customer service, so in general it’s been a positive experience. Useful, too, as some of my fellow Five Directions Press authors want to list with Ingram Spark as well, and now I have a better sense of how to prepare their files and what to warn them about.

In addition to that, I’ve revised The Vermilion Bird (insignificant changes such as adding the book link for The Shattered Drum and stripping out one ad for another) and The Winged Horse (small but significant changes to make Tulpar more consistent with his later self). The box set of Legends 1–3 will be ready as soon as I finish reading through The Swan Princess, which I’m doing now. The second box set will soon follow. The Shattered Drum is available for preorder on Kindle. The print edition has already been proofed twice and has only the teeniest adjustments still to include in the final PDF. That will probably go up next weekend, to give the computers time to link the two editions before the release date.

With all these changes to account for, I’ve updated the Five Directions Press site, the books and bio pages on this blog, and my own site. I’ve even discovered the magic button that relinks this blog to my author site. Any day now, I’ll have a moment to record an excerpt from The Shattered Drum and add that to the two sites—maybe on Thursday, when my next New Books in Historical Fiction is supposed to take place. The print excerpts must wait until the official release of the Kindle book on July 16.

I’ve had a couple of weird experiences during all this. CreateSpace has twice freaked out about whether I have the right to update my own novels—this after six years!—forcing me to hunt down and scan the official copyright registration forms that I fortunately signed up for. Meanwhile, the Electronic Copyright Office registration site has been down since Tuesday, so I can’t clear up the mystery of why my application for The Swan Princess remains open even though I mailed the deposit copies in April 2016 or verify that my registration of Shattered Drum “took.” Which could get exciting if CreateSpace starts questioning my right to produce those novels....

But otherwise, it’s been a very productive week. And now I have to run off and work on The Swan Princess corrections, because I have only three more days before work barrels back down the pike at full speed!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Summer Plans

Within a few weeks, assuming that the universe refrains from tossing spanners into the works, the fifth and last of my Legends of the Five Directions novels—The Shattered Drum (5: Center)—will receive its formal launch into the book world. After ten years of work, this particular series is drawing to its close, bringing the usual combination of nostalgia and relief.

But this is not the end for Nasan, Daniil, and their extended families. The first book of a new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, is already near completion and likely to appear in the spring of next year. Titled Song of the Siren, it focuses on Roxelana, now renamed Juliana for reasons explained in The Shattered Drum, as she deals with the consequences of her flight from Moscow, her marriage, and the events between 1538 and 1541–42, when the new series begins. Just as a teaser, several familiar characters from the Legends series managed to sneak their way into that story. Ideas for book 2, Song of the Shaman, are already germinating in my brain. Knowing Nasan and Daniil, they will definitely elbow their way into that one.

In honor of Shattered Drum’s release, too, I have revised The Golden Lynx. The few historical errors that I discovered while researching later books are now corrected; characters and incidents that I created after the first book came out receive at least passing mention where appropriate; and I took advantage of the experience gained from typing my second million words to tighten and hone the prose. If you loved the first edition, there’s no need to purchase the second: the differences lie more in the realm of nuance than of fundamental change. But for those new to the series the second edition will replace the original text as soon as the computers recognize that the two are variations of the same book.

So that you can keep the two versions apart, though, we at Five Directions Press have designed a spiffy new cover for the second edition, revealed here for the first time.

Best of all, I have the whole of next week away from my e-mail and its constant demands to clean up the last details on the Legends novels and get started on Song of the Shaman. And man, can I use the break. It’s been crazy this year!

Last, so that people who encounter the series at its end (or who have waited for the end before tackling it) can get up to speed quickly and relatively inexpensively, I will be issuing box sets of Legends 1–3 and 4–5 while lowering the prices of individual books to $2.99.  And—again assuming the computers permit—all five novels will soon be available for borrowing on Kindle Unlimited and through Kindle Prime. So stock up, tell your friends, and recommend the series to your book clubs. Who knows, if Nasan gets the kind of readership she believes she deserves, she might even make it to the Silver Screen one day! The costumes and the sets alone would be worth the price of admission, don’t you think?

All images © C. P. Lesley and Five Directions Press.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Marching in Step

It’s no surprise that writing is a sedentary occupation. Ask any experienced writer how to progress, and the answer will be some version of “glue rear end to chair.” Writing muscles, like the physical kind, need constant exercise if they are to strengthen and refine enough to produce something worthwhile.

Now, my love of ballet kept me active for decades. Three two-hour classes per week and thirty minutes to an hour on the weekends put me in the “moderate activity” category despite the writing and editing. But three years ago, my teacher retired, and for various reasons, not least a vamped-up work schedule, I stopped taking class. I still exercised at least six days a week, but the two hours soon dropped closer to twenty minutes, and sometimes I didn’t even manage that. Then Sir Percy handed off his Apple Watch to me while he enjoyed a (temporary) upgrade.

I don’t consider myself a technophobe. I love mastering new software. I adopted the iPad on the day of its release (not before, as I wanted to verify that the hype had some basis in fact), and I still use it almost every day—mostly to read, often my own work, for which it’s invaluable. But I am a techno-skeptic, and not every device, in my view, needs to be superseded. For years I bought my watches at Target, for the princely sum of $30 apiece, kept each one until it required something more than a new battery, then replaced it. They kept time, which is all a watch needs to do. Similarly, I was perfectly happy with my 2013 smartphone, which let me call people, read e-mail, and amuse myself at the doctor’s and dentist’s offices with an e-book. I argued that I didn’t need an Apple Watch and the upgraded phone that went with it.

But I have to admit, after three months I’m hooked. I don’t use the watch (still less the phone) to do one-tenth of the tasks it can handle, but the ones I do use it for are great. I can decline all those annoying pretend-to-be-local spam calls without even answering them. I can set a kitchen timer with Siri (when she’s in the mood) and reset it with the press of an electronic button. And I have learned a lot about my own daily activity—better in some ways than I imagined, worse in others. For example, as a fidgety sort, I constantly run up and down the stairs, so it’s rare that the watch has to nag me to stand during the workday. I can put in two miles worth of steps without leaving my house. And with the exercise monitor counting calories, I’ve extended my ballet workouts to thirty minutes or more every day and include more floor work, which strengthens the core muscles. I also discovered that, contrary to opinions I’d read, ballet does raise my heart rate and is therefore aerobic, as well as including flexibility and resistance components. All that is useful to know.

The time I’m most likely to forget to stand or to breathe slowly, not surprisingly, is when I’m in the full flush of writing a new story—a time when, if not nagged by the watch, I could easily sit for four hours without moving anything but my fingers. So the little kick offered by the watch is helpful then, if not when I’m in the middle of a critique group meeting (the watch doesn’t distinguish). When I had to go to a funeral, I left it at home for fear of its beeping, although I’ve since learned to turn that off.

Now the watch is not infallible. The time I left the Workout app on for thirty-five minutes after I finished, it burbled happily the whole time and congratulated me on my longest workout yet. More annoying was when I forgot to start the app for the first seven minutes of one workout and the watch seemed oblivious to the fact that I was moving at a level it normally considers exercise. And since it mostly monitors wrist movement, it’s convinced that petting the cat (examples of perfect exercise subjects to the left) while sitting uses more calories than hauling a 65-gallon recycling bin (wheeled, admittedly) out to the street.

On the whole, though, the watch has provided a positive learning experience. The phone? It’s very nice, and it holds more books. I like that. It also has a slightly larger screen, which makes the hunt-and-peck of typing more tolerable. And it makes phone calls, which is, after all, the only thing a phone really needs to do. But its big plus is that without it, the watch wouldn’t work.

I could write more, but my digital master demands that I stand and move about for a minute. And there is that work schedule to placate, with lunchtime almost over. So I’ll just say that Sir Percy had better not hold out hope of seeing his watch again—not unless I score a royalty check big enough to replace it!

Images purchased from