Friday, December 27, 2013

Unusual Historicals

This week, the Unusual Historicals blog is featuring The Golden Lynx as part of its regular series of interviews with authors who write about less-familiar places and times. By the time you read this, the site should include an excerpt from chapter 1. On Sunday, December 29, the same site will post a Q&A with me about Lynx and the series of which it constitutes book 1.

For this, I owe a big thank you to Lisa J. Yarde, who walked me through the process of submitting my files, and to her fellow members of Unusual Historicals, a group that includes fifteen other writers. Of those fifteen, special mention goes to Kathryn Kopple, a Facebook friend whose posting of her own interview alerted me to the site’s existence.

The variety of subjects explored by these authors is impressive: eighth-century Norway, the Frankish kingdom, Ptolemaic Egypt, medieval Spain, Moorish Spain, the ancient Hittites, Troy, Rome and its Teutonic neighbors, ancient Ireland, the medieval West, fourteenth-century Scotland, and seventeenth-century Italy, as well as the American West and England in various periods. It’s encouraging to see such a range, especially in a publishing climate that seems to favor the tried-and-true.

So please, check out the excerpt from The Golden Lynx. Read my questions and answers. If you are not already following me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, and elsewhere, click on the links to change that. Sign up to keep updated on this blog, too. I post every Friday, and I love receiving comments or just knowing that someone has taken the time to read what I write.

But don’t stop there. Click around the Unusual Historicals site, which has been running since 2006. Read the excerpts and the interviews, the posts on historical information (medieval games, Islamic gardens) and on writing. You may find some new authors whose books speak to you and encounter new elements of the human experience in distant times and places that you never considered worthy of your attention until now.

Isn’t that, in the end, what reading historical fiction is all about?

Note that you can find other interviews with me, each one emphasizing different points, conducted by Nicky Ticky, L.M. David, Diane V. Mulligan, and Liza Perrat of Triskele Books. The last includes a review.

And Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and a wonderful new year to all my readers. May 2014 bring you whatever your heart desires.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Fact and Fiction

Most historical novelists do not first train as historians. That’s probably a good thing, for the most part: historical novels have to succeed as novels first, and as James Forrester notes in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, historians have to “undo the research” enough to relax and have fun making up whatever they need for the sake of the story. It’s important to keep the details straight and the surroundings realistic, but a light hand on the reins is more important still. The reader who spends the evening asleep over your book may thank you for the pick-me-up but won’t, most likely, finish your novel.

But historians who grasp this essential point—and James Forrester, aka Ian Mortimer, definitely does—can enrich their fiction with their deep and passionate interest in the past. Good historians understand how the past differed from the present and—especially important for fiction—where the cracks and tensions lay in the world being portrayed. The popular image of Elizabethan England is one of peace and tranquillity, religious toleration, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. The reality was quite different. Elizabeth’s fragile polity placed a high value on loyalty—political, religious, and personal—and her subjects paid a high price if the state decided they had failed to meet that standard. High stakes, harsh demands, and intense, prolonged, complicated conflict—these are the elements on which fiction thrives, and Forrester handles them with aplomb. 

The rest of this post is adapted from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.

London, December 1563. Elizabeth I—Gloriana, the Virgin Queen—has ruled England for five years, but her throne is far from secure. Even though Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister Mary, the idea of a woman sovereign still troubles much of the populace. And although the burnings of Protestants at Smithfield ceased with Elizabeth’s accession, religion remains a source of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. Catholics, once protected by the crown, find themselves subject to unwarranted search and seizure, to having their ears nailed to the pillory or sliced from their heads, to arrest and confinement in the Tower on the merest suspicion of intent to foment unrest. Not all the plots are imaginary, either: several rebellions with religious overtones punctuate Elizabeth’s reign. 

Amid this atmosphere of mistrust, William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, sits in the light of a single candle, listening to the rain outside his study window, his robe pulled tight against the December chill. A knock on the door sparks in him the fear that would later be familiar to victims of the Soviet secret police: who would demand entrance after curfew other than government troops bent on hauling him in for his allegiance to the pope? But the queen’s forces cannot be denied, so with considerable trepidation Clarenceux orders his servant to open the door.

In fact, his visitor is a friend, a betrayed man determined to pass on his secret mission to Clarenceux. In accepting, Clarenceux has no idea that the mission places at risk his life, his health, his family, his friends, and the safety of the realm. The price of loyalty is high, and betrayal lurks in every corner.

The Clarenceux Trilogy—Sacred Treason, The Roots of Betrayal, and The Final Sacrament—is the work of James Forrester, the pen name of the historian Ian Mortimer, author of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England and other works.

Those interested in Henry Machyn’s chronicle can find the text online, hosted by the University of Michigan Libraries.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Love of a Child

It’s always exciting to see a book launch. That’s especially true when the book is one’s own, but watching a fellow writer’s book grow from concept to completion is equally satisfying. So I take a special pleasure in announcing the e-book release of Seeking Sophia, by my friend and writing group member Ariadne Apostolou. The print version has been available since the summer. You can find links to all current formats at the Five Directions Press site.

Seeking Sophia, for those who haven’t encountered it yet, tells the story of Kleio Platon—a former radical feminist and urban commune member who when the story opens seems to have it all. She lives in New York, she works for the United Nations, she travels the world, she has a hot boyfriend who jets in from Buenos Aires or Paris to sweep her off her feet at regular intervals (but not so regular that they get on each other’s nerves). Yes, the boyfriend is commitment-phobic—distressing given that Kleio’s biological clock is ticking—but Kleio herself sees certain advantages to their intermittent relationship. And at least she has escaped the over-regulated world of her childhood, with its assumption that she could want nothing more from life than to keep house for some man.

This is a novel, so by the end of chapter 1, Kleio’s happy bubble has burst. She discovers her boyfriend is two-timing her with men, she receives a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, and her dream job goes to someone else. The cancer surgery stops her biological clock dead, shattering her dreams of motherhood. Just as Kleio reaches her nadir, her friend Mal from commune days invites her to go on a vacation to Greece, the home of Kleio’s grandparents. There, at the sacred spring of Aria, Kleio glimpses the possibility of a different future, one that will be uniquely her own.

Kleio doesn’t have a plan, exactly, but she has a guide: the motto from a fortune cookie. “Plant a tree. Write a book. Build a house. Raise a child”—attributed to Confucius and many others throughout the centuries. Her path leads her into the thicket of international adoption, a world that does not embrace single mothers of a certain age. But Kleio once fought nuclear-power plants. She is not the kind of woman to tolerate outdated prejudices that stand in the way of her achieving her goals. She is searching for Wisdom—in Greek, Sophia—and she seeks it in the love of an abandoned child.

It may seem self-serving for me to call this book a “hidden gem,” since the publisher is our group effort and the author and I have traded writing samples for the last five years. Indeed, my input (and my editing) are woven into the fabric of the novel. But the end result is all Ariadne’s. And in truth, this book is a hidden gem—a debut novel by a writer with an extraordinary gift for description and characterization. It deserves your attention as a reader.

You need not take it from me. JJ Marsh, whose Beatrice Stubbs mysteries are hidden gems themselves, has given it a lovely review in the online magazine Words with JAM. If you don’t know Words with JAM, check it out. They have lots of interesting writer interviews and reviews, among them conversations with Kate Mosse, David Sedaris, and P.D. James. You can sign up to be notified when new posts go up.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas Sale

From now until January 2, 2014, the e-book versions of The Golden Lynx and The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel will be available for $2.99, 40–50% off the regular price. European and UK prices are based on the US price, so will be reduced accordingly.

The new price is already showing in the Kindle Store. Barnes and Noble and Apple's iBookstore should catch up within 24–48 hours.

The Kindle Matchbook price for both novels is 99 cents. If you have bought the print version, I thank you profoundly. You have more than earned a deep discount on the e-book!

Happy holidays to all my readers—and remember, e-books make wonderful gifts. The Golden Lynx, in particular, should be a big hit with the Hunger Games fans on your list. Nasan is almost as good with a bow as Katniss, and her swordsmanship is much better. She  even shoots from horseback!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Guilty Pleasures

I had a very intense week at work, so like most other people in that situation, I spent my off-hours doing anything but working. On Monday, I did manage an hour or two making minor revisions to The Winged Horse, but after that it was either work or total relaxation—nothing in between. Time for guilty pleasures.

As those of you who have followed this blog know, one of my guilty pleasures is Sergei Bodrov’s 2005 film Nomad: The Warrior. I can even pretend it’s research for my novel, since it is set on the steppe: Kazakhstan in the 1700s, which is not too great a leap from a bit west of there in the 1500s. Another, recently discovered, is Kaoru Mori’s manga series A Bride’s Story. Set in various locations along the Silk Road in the early 19th century, it too lets me relax my brain while pretending that I’m—if not working—accumulating ideas for current and future stories.

The heroine of books 1 and 2, Amir, is a twenty-year-old semi-nomad married to the twelve-year-old resident of a provincial town. The age difference upsets many readers. It even bothers me: although I know it was common among the steppe peoples for brides to be a few years older than their grooms, eight years seems a bit much. Couldn’t the author have made her point with a heroine of eighteen and a hero of sixteen? Then, just as we are overcoming that problem and attaching ourselves to Amir and her young husband, Karluk, the series veers off to follow other characters, leaving Amir and Karluk to become bit players. The other stories have their own appeal, but still. There is also a rather annoying Englishman who seems to exist solely to justify  the author's movement from place to place. But the basic story of Amir’s and Karluk’s arranged marriage and the considerations that cause Amir’s family to change its mind about the wedding after the fact is well told and compelling. The author claims at the end of book 5 that she plans to go back and follow Amir’s story from now on. I hope she does, perhaps including a few return visits to Talas, the tent-living widow featured in book 3.

But even when the stories are superficial, the art in these books is spectacular. The cover image shown above is just a small sample of their charm. Every book includes an examination of some aspect of Central Asian culture: carving, house building, embroidery, bread making, and more. The textiles, the clothing, the tent decorations, the hairstyles, the jewelry: these books are a novelist’s delight. They bring the past to life in a way that simple description, even deeply researched history, seldom can. If you want to see pre-conquest Central Asia in all its rich diversity and beauty, these books are a great place to start. Another set of Hidden Gems, for steppe fanatics everywhere.

Speaking of Hidden Gems, if you happen to see this post before December 8, 2013, Triskele Books is discounting most of its titles to 99 cents in a three-day promotion. Time to grab your copy of The Charter—and their many other titles!

P.S. If you have not read manga before, you are not going crazy. The books really do read right to left. The image above therefore comes from the back cover, which is really the front.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Future of the Book?

Still spinning off my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Carol Strickland, I decided this week to chat about a point that came up near the end of our conversation: the future of the book.

As those who follow me know, I love printed books. Even so, I am an avid reader of novels on my iPad. In fact, I was an early adopter who treasured my Franklin Rocket e-reader until it died in my hands. I did read other people’s books on the Rocket—mostly classics, as I objected to paying for a format that might not (and in the end did not) survive. But I used it even more to relieve my guilt as a budding writer: instead of wasting “a lot of trees before I wrote anything good” (J.K. Rowling), I worked out my abysmal beginner’s efforts through stylus and e-ink.

I still read my own work on my iPad, both as e-books and, more effectively, as Storyist documents that I can edit. These e-books are not too different from the ones on my old Rocket—plain text on screen—although the backlit, full-color iPad screen makes the books much prettier than the Rocket ever could. The Eagle and the Swan, too, so far appears in the plain-text format. But the author and her publisher, Erudition Digital, are planning an enhanced version with images, history, links, perhaps video clips, and more. Is this, as they suggest, the future of the book? And if it is, should it be?

Don’t get me wrong. For The Eagle and the Swan, set in the barely known recesses of sixth-century Byzantine history, I think this is a fabulous idea. I’ve toyed with producing something similar—perhaps as a companion volume—for my Legends of the Five Directions series. At the moment, I’m using Pinterest to post images of sixteenth-century Russia and the peoples to its east and south, all of them as unfamiliar to most Westerners as Justinian and Theodora. But I have also produced the first version of a multimedia compilation with iBooks Author, which is easy to use (although you either have to sell the books exclusively through Apple or give them away for free—if I ever finish it, I’ll probably give away free copies to build interest in the series). There’s so much unfiltered information available that in cases like these, multimedia enhanced e-books are the perfect match.

But for any novel? There I’m not so sure. I bought Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as an enhanced e-book to get a glimpse of the concept. It was interesting. I admired it. But I found the links and the bells and the whistles so distracting that in the end I didn’t read the book. I was too busy clicking on this and that to get caught up in the novel’s world. It would drive me half-crazy if, in the middle of the mystery story I’m enjoying at this moment (J.J. Marsh’s Behind Closed Doors), the book offered to show me maps of Zürich or images of what the characters were eating or a quick-and-dirty guide to DNA analysis. With Facebook, Google, and GoodReads a few taps away, achieving the sense of total immersion in an e-book is already more difficult than with paperback in hand.

So while I welcome enhanced e-books as an addition to plain text, I also hope that there will be ways to turn off the extra features or keep them apart from the story—as add-ons supplied in a separate file as part of the book purchase, maybe. At that moment when I realize the story has ended but I’m not yet ready to let go of the characters and move on, I would love to explore their world in more depth, guided by a knowledgeable author. But first I need a reason to care, which means that I need the author to pull me into the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Whether the form is electronic or print, the traditional craft of fiction writing offers the best means to do that.

What do you think? Am I just behind the times?

Images purchased from
Swan © Bas Meelker/ #125559331
Russian Hut in Snow © BagginsE/ #154036143

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Real Panem

I swear, it was pure coincidence that my interview this month on New Books in Historical Fiction happened to go live the same week as the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I did have a vague sense that the film was due for release just before Thanksgiving, but it didn’t even occur to me until this morning, when I saw the review in the paper, that this blog post would go up on the day the film opened.

What makes it a coincidence is that this month I had the fun of interviewing Carol Strickland about her novel The Eagle and the Swan.  The Eagle is Emperor Justinian I of Byzantium and the Swan his wife, Theodora—known in her youth, before she underwent a profound religious conversion, as the empire’s premier erotic dancer and courtesan, famous for her performance of “Leda and the Swan.” You can hear and, if you like, download the podcast at the link above.

When I read the book, I was struck by how Roman the world of Justinian and Theodora still was. This didn’t surprise me so much as give me a Doh! What did I expect? moment. Constantinople was (and remained) the head of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Justinian’s rule began in 527 CE—barely fifty years after the Fall of Rome. The novel starts a good ten years before that.

Justinian came from Thrace, born to a family of swineherds, raised to power through the military gifts of his uncle Justin, the illiterate general who preceded him on the imperial throne. He was the last emperor to grow up speaking Latin rather than Greek. Theodora spent her childhood in the circus, as a bear keeper’s daughter—and while not quite the arena where Katniss Everdeen fights for her life, this circus was not Barnum and Bailey/Ringling Brothers either. This was the circus of gladiators and chariot races, of Christians fed to lions, and the like. A large part of the book involves a protracted fight over the need to pacify the population with gifts, parades, and entertainment versus the need to fund the military campaigns that will (Justinian hopes) reunite the eastern and western halves of the shattered Roman Empire. Not to mention the popular unrest that follows when Justinian chooses power over pacification. Population management. Bread and circuses. Panem et circenses.

So listen to the interview. You may find out more than you expected from that long-ago, faraway world. And for some additional background on the author and what drew her to write Theodora’s story, I suggest checking out her “Personal Confession.” I discovered the post only after the interview, or we would have talked about it then. It’s a great story.

As usual, I wrote the rest of this post for the New Books in Historical Fiction site.

In 476 CE, according to the chronology most of us learned in school, the Roman Empire fell and the Dark Ages began. That’s how textbook chronologies work: one day you’re studying the Romans, and next day you’re deep in early feudal Europe, as if a fairy godmother had waved a magic wand.

Reality is more complex. The Fall of Rome affected only the western territories of that great world power, which had in fact been weakening for some time. The Eastern Roman Empire—later known as Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire—survived for another thousand years. Recast under Turkish rule as the Ottoman Empire, it lasted five hundred years more.

But the Eastern Roman Empire endured shocks and fissures of its own, and its survival was far from assured. Under the rule of Emperor Justinian I and his empress, Theodora, it entered a crucial phase. Justinian began life as a swineherd, Theodora as a bear keeper’s daughter, yet they fought their way to the pinnacle of power in Constantinople and, once there, established a new set of governing principles that for a while almost restored the empire that Rome had lost. Carol Strickland, in The Eagle and the Swan, traces the first part of Justinian’s and Theodora’s journey. Listen in as she takes us through the circuses, streets, brothels, monasteries, and churches of early sixth-century Byzantium, all the way to the imperial court.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Long Shadows

It’s not easy being a new author. The barriers to traditional publishing loom large, from acquiring an agent to attracting a readership. Yet deciding to go it alone, or even with a group, leaves the struggling author swimming desperately upstream amid hungry fish in a school becoming larger by the day, even the hour. And since most authors have no experience with marketing, distinguishing oneself from the crowd easily becomes an exercise in frustration.

Yet the biggest problem with self-publishing is not the sheer number of books out there but the sad truth that so many of those books are poorly written, unedited, and abominably produced. Combine that with the aggressive spamming and shady tactics used by a few desperate authors, and you get a situation where many readers defend themselves by limiting their purchases to traditionally published books. 

One can’t blame the readers—to an extent I do the same thing myself—but their caution does make life even harder for those of us who have put in the time and resources to learn to write, to edit our work, and to produce books that are as appealing as we can make them. I know this from personal experience. So while this blog of mine is by no means focused on book reviews, I do like, once in a while, to give a shout out on behalf of other self- or coop- or small-press-published authors who have done their part and created books that can give the bestsellers a run for their money—not in numbers, perhaps, but in quality. Authors like Gillian Hamer, whose historical/contemporary mystery The Charter I finished last night and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Charter traces the long shadows cast by a shipwreck off the coast of Anglesey, Wales, in October 1859. It begins with the crash of the Royal Charter, a ship traveling from Australia to Liverpool filled with gold miners returning home with their riches. When the boat runs aground on a reef, the miners, convinced that their wives and children will be rescued first,  load them down with gold. But the boat sinks before the crew can lower the lifeboats, and the women and children, weighted down with treasure, go straight to the bottom. The treasure is never found—or is it? No one is talking, but here and there local farmers seem to have, all of a sudden, lots of money to spend. As a result, families squabble. When, 150 years later, Sarah Morton is called back to the region for her father’s funeral, the repercussions of this tragedy are still felt in the region as bursts of hostility that from time to time explode in murder. Within a few chapters, Sarah becomes convinced that her father is one victim in this ongoing series of crimes.

Hamer can write—and how. Her scenes dump the reader right into the moment. See, for example, the end of her preface, which sets up the tragedy of 1859:

The Royal Charter—the steamship that has carried my family from Hobson’s Bay, Australia to a “better life” in England—is still being pounded by the storm. With every massive wave that crashes over her, I expect the ship to disappear, but after each surge of the tide she reappears, as if trapped by the jagged rocks and unable to find release.

Bodies pulled and tossed by the furious tide, pushed inland one minute and dragged back into the white foam the next. Men I’d seen issuing orders; women I’d spoken to; children I’d spent many hours with over the past weeks. I close my ears to the screams and cries that circle my head like squawking gulls.

I stand there for seconds, minutes, hours, days … I know not.

The spray of the ocean is on my face. I hear the roar in my ears. I taste the salt on my lips.

But I know it cannot be. I know this cannot be real. The truth hits me. Bile fills my mouth; I double over and retch.

When I straighten, I stand in silence and calmness. The storm still rages all around me, but I am protected. As if in the eye of the hurricane, my own space is quiet and still.

The answer is suddenly clear.

My name is Angelina Stewart.

I am eleven years old.

And I am dead.

This is good stuff, and despite the occasional glitch that a professional editor would have caught (or not, since editing even at big publishers is not what it used to be)—such as a character who appears to arrive on an island despite having no boat—the book kept me wholly focused on Sarah and her drive to keep herself and her unborn baby alive long enough to solve the mystery of what happened to the Royal Charter’s gold. Hamer produces enough twists in the plot to keep me guessing and to take me by surprise at the end—in the good way, where the solution makes sense even though I didn’t see it coming—and most of all, she doesn’t forget her characters. Each one is distinct and well-rounded; the right ones are likable (or unlikable); and Sarah grows in a thoroughly believable way. The sense of immersion in the Welsh coast and its changing seasons is intense. So check out The Charter. It’s not expensive, and it’s well worth your time.

Hamer has two other novels, Closure and Complicit, which I can’t wait to read. She is also a member of Triskele Books, a writers’ cooperative in the UK that I have mentioned before. Five Directions Press uses a similar business model to Triskele, but otherwise we are linked only by a sense of comradeship. Triskele has just published an account of its journey to publication, The Triskele Trail, which I may explore in more depth in a future post. You can find out more about them and about Gillian Hamer, including links to purchase her books, at their website. She sent me a free e-book copy of The Charter in return for my honest review.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Earthly Paradises

The Summer House, Khansarai, Bakhchisarai
© 2007 Chapultepec. The photographer has released
this picture into the public domain.
I read with great interest Lisa Yarde’s post at Unusual Historicals, “Plants and Their Properties: Moorish Perspectives,” which inspired me this week (thank you, Lisa!). Her discussion of the importance of plants and fountains in palaces like the Alhambra reminds me of the reaction that Nasan, my heroine in The Golden Lynx, has when she first sees her new home in Moscow. In brief, she looks around and thinks, “Where are the fountains? Where are the courtyards and the plants?”

Nasan has spent the last two years in the khan’s palace at Kasimov. Even though that building has not survived, we know a bit about it from descriptions and reconstructions. We can assume, based on similar complexes in Bakhchisarai in Crimea and elsewhere, that it was built according to the same principles Yarde describes as having been used in Moorish Spain.

Nasan herself later summarizes these principles, again in contrast to what she sees before her in the Russian court: “Although richly decorated, the palace lacked the harmony of Muslim architecture—its lightness, its grace, its perfect proportions. Here no opaline swirls of marble refracted with lunar subtlety the rays that pierced filigreed walls, no turquoise tiles glowed more intensely blue than the sky above them, no looping black-dotted calligraphy captioned brilliant miniatures of everyday life” (392). The buildings she has in mind consist of interlocking courtyards edged with rooms and terraced passageways, each with its pools, fountains, and elaborately planned, mathematically precise gardens—a style that characterized the Tatar khanates of Central Asia and the Mughal palaces of India just as much as those of al-Andalus and Istanbul. The founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur the Tiger—himself a Tatar prince of Central Asia—was so devoted to his gardens that he decreed his own burial in his favorite, located near Kabul. And there he lies to this day.

Babur Supervising His Gardens
From the Baburnama

Russians had gardens, of course. Every urban estate had a place to grow vegetables and herbs for cooking, a pond for ducks and geese, an orchard. The Russian use of space was so extensive that foreign visitors assumed the population of Moscow to be ten times as high as it was in reality (although the tendency of medieval and early modern people to grossly overestimate numbers may also play a role here). But until the Europeanization of the eighteenth century, Russian gardens tended to serve a practical purpose. Tatar gardens existed for pleasure, for spiritual nourishment, for repose, and as reminders of the blessed gardens of Paradise. Islam, a religion born in the deserts of Arabia, had (and has) great respect for the power of water to bring life from the earth.

The irony here is that the Tatars were people not of the desert but of the steppe, nomadic pastoralists who for centuries had subsisted mostly on meat and milk products. The herds fed on grass; people fed on the herds. The vast expanses of the Eurasian grasslands discouraged the intensive cultivation required to maintain gardens, restricting these earthly paradises to the few cities large enough to attract the attentions of a descendant of Genghis bent on self-aggrandizement. 

Then again, nature on the steppe has its own wild beauty. Perhaps the flowers and fountains of Paradise spoke with a special power to former nomads wooed into settling down yet still yearning in their hearts for the untrammeled life they had abandoned. We can’t know, but we can imagine. That’s the fun of writing fiction.

Tent on the Steppe in Kazakhstan
© 2012 Konstantin Kikvidze/

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Press Kit

Sometime ago—the spring of 2013, I think—I read a recommendation that every writer should include on his/her website a tab for the media. Unfortunately, I no longer remember the source, but in any case, the idea was to put in one place, clearly labeled as “Media” or “Press,” the information that reporters might need: author bio and picture, book descriptions, reviews—in short, a press kit. The advice suggested putting the information in both readable format on the web page and in PDF format for download.

Even though my books, published by a small press, had made so little splash in the media that preparing a press kit seemed like hubris, I figured a media page with information on me and my books couldn’t hurt. Alas, I had never seen a press kit. I put together the information in a single document that ran about 15 pages. 

Luckily for me, no one downloaded it. But on the off-chance that some of my readers may never have seen a press kit either, I thought this post might prove useful. Even traditionally published authors are asked to provide information for their own press kits, although they can expect to receive more guidance than I did.

My woeful ignorance changed when I became the host of New Books in Historical Fiction. Publicists began sending me press kits together with review copies of the books whose authors I planned to interview. After a while, it dawned on me that I could use these as models to spiff up my own miserable efforts, a task now mostly complete. So what did I learn? What is a press kit? I’ll use the one I created for The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel as an example (but keep in mind that others may—and probably do—have a better grasp of the form than I do).

First off, a press kit is a single page, printed on both sides, or at most three pieces of paper. It focuses on one book. Typically, it starts off with quotations from reviews—the more prestigious the issuing publication, the better. In my case, because my publisher is so small, I used one- or two-sentence excerpts from reader reviews, chosen to give the widest sense of the story’s tone and impact.

The next most important element is the book cover and information. I chose to run these side by side, in a template that I am developing for all the Five Directions Press books. The book information includes the title and author’s name, the blurb from the back, the publication date, ISBN, price, format, number of pages, and contact information for me and for the press.

Then we have information about the author, including a picture, which often appears on the back of page 1. Since I am a relatively unknown author, I kept this short and put it on the front, then used the other side to give some background information on why I wrote this book. For The Golden Lynx, I used the same format but provided historical information on the entire series. 

And that’s it. If your book has won awards, add them to the first page and move the author’s information to the reverse side. If you have many books reviewed in important places, you can add a second page to cover the gamut of your literary fame. If your book relies on specialized knowledge—understanding agoraphobia, the cultural climate of eighth-century Central Asia, what led to Zelda Fitzgerald’s confinement to an insane asylum—you may want to add a second or third page to convey the basics, so that a reporter need not look them up. But keep it short. And the fewer credentials you have, the more modest the press kit needs to be. Only comedians want to leave journalists laughing hysterically at their claims.

As always, it pays to edit, edit, edit and to find someone who can put a bit of thought into the design—and who owns the software that makes that design look professional. But the good news is that the press kit is much easier to produce than I originally thought. You probably have all the information in various marketing materials. My discussions on the back came from the mini-essays I wrote to fill in the review space for my books on GoodReads.

So go for it. It’s not difficult. And if the press does knock on your door. You’ll be ready.

If you’d like to see more, you can find the press kits on my website.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cultures of Eternity

The Last Shaman of the Oruqen
Public domain photograph
by Richard Noll, 1994
Last week’s interview with Yangsze Choo got me thinking. Not to give away any spoilers—much of what she describes in The Ghost Bride is her own invention—in the interview she mentions that the family remains the basic unit in the Chinese afterlife just as it does in Chinese culture. Ghosts depend on their families for money, food, housing, clothing, luxuries—all the essentials, burned in greater or lesser quantities by surviving relatives to indicate their devotion or their affluence or both. People who die outside that family structure become “hungry ghosts,” miserable creatures who wander unfed and poorly clothed through the afterlife except once a year, when the community gets together and burns offerings for them.

Tatar ghosts, too, belong to communities based on blood ties. Nowadays, most Tatars profess one of the world’s major religions (Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity, for the most part) or an atheism adopted during the seven decades of Soviet rule. Older customs survive, such as tying strips of fabric to lone-standing trees in supplication, but the main religious impulse lies elsewhere. 

In the sixteenth century, though—the time depicted in my Legends of the Five Directions series—the sense of a multigenerational community comprising ancestors, current family members, and those yet to be born remained all-pervasive. Although the dead existed on a plane separate from the living, shamans could visit them. The ancestors could interfere in the lives of their descendants—to influence, warn, or protect. They guaranteed victory in battle, assisted in childbirth, and welcomed those who lost their struggles with enemies or disease. “By God and my ancestors,” was the oath sworn by warriors. The system of support supplied by the living seems to have operated more informally than the equivalent system in China, but it formed an essential and frequent element of daily life. Nomads tossed ladles of milk to honor the ancestors and fed them through grease dropped into the hearth fire or rubbed on the mouths of the wooden spirit dolls who represented the grandmother guardians. Decisions—whether political, economic, religious, or personal—took place within that larger community constituted by the dead and the living working (ideally) in harmony.

Western ghosts, in contrast, almost invariably haunt as individuals. The Celts, once a steppe people, do retain a sense of the dead as occupying a separate level of existence on the other side of a curtain that sometimes thins enough to cross. Hallowe’en, which we celebrate next week, is the much-diluted version of the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain (pron. Sav-in or Sow-ain, depending on whether you are Scots or Irish). On the night before the New Year, ghosts were believed to cross into the realm of the living, who had to guard themselves against this incursion. Today we protect ourselves from small children in fancy costumes who can be bought off with candy.

But the more usual Western ghost is not part of a horde, spiritual or otherwise. The abandoned lover who cannot let go, the monk who opposed the dissolution of his monastery, the captain of the ship who met an untimely end—these are Western ghosts. Their tragedies are individual, and they must be laid as individuals. We have no communal ritual to feed, honor, or appease them. Most of the time, we don’t believe they exist: what more shattering fate for a poor ghost can a society conjure up?

One system is not better or worse than another. The Western emphasis on the individual lies at the heart of our dedication to human rights and the value of every life as well as a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” philosophy. The Eurasian embrace of community supports those within the group even as it constricts their choices to those approved by the group. Moreover, the two systems overlap, and neither is perfect or complete. Other places in the world have their own views of the afterlife, their own mixes of individuality and collectivism.

But one thing is certain: the rules of life here on earth, however our own community defines them, do not end here. They bind us for eternity.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Raising Ghosts

I love tales of the afterlife. Why, I’m not exactly sure. The reassurance that there might be an afterlife certainly plays a part, but I have never liked horror stories—not even the yarns about ghosts told by kids around the campfire to ensure no one sleeps that night. I’m a sucker, though, for books about near death experiences, lives between lives, past-life regressions, and well-imagined other worlds that just happen to be populated by dead people. (Let me note that I don’t believe everything I read; what I enjoy is the fantasy element: if there were an afterlife, what would it be like?)

So you can imagine how delighted I was to run across Yangsze Choo’s stunning debut novel, The Ghost Bride. I couldn’t wait to sign her up for an interview. We had our conversation yesterday, and I discovered that it’s even more fun to chat with her in person than to read her book. You can hear the results at New Books in Historical Fiction. As always, these podcasts are available free of charge.

Not surprisingly, we talk at length about the Chinese view of the afterlife, as filtered through Yangsze’s imagination. But we also talk about writing and women’s roles and (I kid you not) the Car Talk guys on NPR. So even if you’re not as crazy about imagined afterlives as I am, go ahead and give it a listen.

The rest of this post comes from the interview page.

Malaya, 1893. Pan Li Lan, a beautiful eighteen-year-old, has watched her Chinese merchant family decline since the death of her mother from smallpox during Li Lan’s early childhood. Her father lives in isolation and smokes too much opium: bad for business, as anyone can see from the decaying surroundings of their Malacca estate.

Li Lan knows that her prospects of finding a husband are poor. Still, she does not expect her father to offer a dead man as bridegroom—even one whose family promises to keep her in luxury for the rest of her life. When Li Lan’s would-be husband begins to haunt her dreams—and she falls for his cousin in reality—her desperation to escape leads her on a journey through the Chinese afterlife, searching for the key that will free her from a marriage she dreads. But she slowly realizes that to succeed, she must uncover the secrets of her past … and her prospective groom’s.

The Ghost Bride opens a window on a fascinating and little-known world in which a spunky young woman tests the boundaries of her traditional middle-class existence in pursuit of a better future. Yangsze Choo brings Li Lan and her family to vivid life, then spins them off into a mirror society with rules eerily familiar yet utterly strange. It’s a journey well worth taking.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Slowing Down

Don’t ask me how I contracted pertussis, better known as whooping cough. No one I know has it, so I must have picked it up in some public place. Apparently it’s highly contagious, and like a lot of diseases of that type, it’s most contagious before you know you have it, in the initial stage when it seems like a cold—and a baby cold at that.

The whole thing came as a big surprise to me, not least because I had whooping cough as a child. I don’t remember it myself, but my mother got to nurse two kids under the age of five through the disease at the same time, so you can bet she remembers. I just assumed it was like measles and mumps, and once you survived the first round, you were set for life.

Then the whooping started. The first time was at dinner, and I thought I'd choked on a bit of lettuce. The second time, at 4 am, I had to face the possibility that this wasn’t an accident. I called the doctor the next morning, and by noon I had a prescription for amoxicillin. Which seems to be working, if slowly.

Problem is, I don’t do illness well. As one of my fellow editors once noted, “You have a great deal of energy.” At the time I thought she meant “man, you’re a pain,” because I had been lobbing issues at her like a demented monkey pitching coconuts (I later found out she meant it as a compliment), but either way, I had to admit she was right. Under normal circumstances, I do have a great deal of energy. I come from a long line of women who kept their households running despite the dozen kids and the herring going south when they should have gone north and the darned boat springing a leak right when it was supposed to put out to sea. In my day job I coordinate the work of a flock of editors while riding herd on fifteen to twenty authors at a time and waiting for the day to wrap up so I can start in on my research or my novel of the moment. That’s when I’m not updating this blog, working on my website, or doing my bit for Five Directions Press. When I read about Victorian heroines who slip gracefully into a decline, my natural instinct is to administer a swift kick in the pants and advice to get up and get moving. Who has time to be sick?

All of which may explain why, once in a while, my body decides to administer a swift kick in the pants to me and force me to slow down. As with pertussis.

I’m sure this is good for me. Really. But if you happen to see any of those wooden stress balls, like the ones Charles Laughton used to play Captain Bligh on Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), send them my way, okay?

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Blogging Books

I haven’t paid much attention to technology this year, focusing instead on publishing, podcasts, and—most of all—history. I stopped because I no longer had much to say. By now, I can get around Facebook, GoodReads, Tumblr, Pinterest, even Twitter—although I’m far from mastering any of them. Since I don’t aspire to the status of social media guru, the basics seem like enough.

But this week I joined a new site, BookLikes, devoted entirely to blogging about books. So I am back to reading help files, instructions, usage policies, and FAQs while puzzling over this feature or that and wondering how best to take advantage of this new service. I’ll talk about BookLikes itself in a moment. It’s a nice site—run out of Poland, near as I can tell, and launched only in May 2013. But first, why did I join? Am I addicted to social media? Cursed with the attention span of a butterfly? A glutton for punishment?

Xü Xi, Butterfly and Wisteria (970 AD)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This picture is in the public domain
in the United States because of its age.

None of the above (I hope—the butterfly charge sometimes seems all too apt).  The journey that led to BookLikes started on GoodReads. About two weeks ago, GoodReads announced that it had changed its terms of service to prohibit shelves, groups, and even reviews that focused primarily on authors’ behavior rather than their books. Its staff had already deleted some groups and shelves and would continue to check members’ content and remove any that violated the new terms of service. Five thousand messages and counting protested this decision and the way the staff communicated and implemented it.

This is not the place to discuss the ins and outs of the policy shift, on which I have mixed feelings. I did not join GoodReads to promote my books; at the time, I didn’t know that was possible. I joined because a fellow editor suggested it as a good place to find book recommendations. After joining, I did set up an author profile and claim my books; I have participated in giveaways and group reads, including one of my Golden Lynx; and I have joined a number of groups, taking care to read and observe the rules. I enjoy talking with readers—and with other writers, if they want to discuss books or writing rather than relentlessly promote. And on GoodReads as elsewhere, I try always to remain professional, which means never attacking or insulting anyone. So the change in GoodReads policy does not affect me personally. I will maintain my presence there even as I move (most of) my books and reviews to BookLikes.

The decision to move has less to do with GoodReads itself than with a recognition that the site may be over-saturated at this point: too many self-promoting authors, too many members in a plethora of groups too vast to track, too much corporate patronage. A small, emerging site seems worth exploring as an alternative or complement to the big, well-established one. Yes, BookLikes, if it succeeds, may one day be snapped up by a mega-corporation and develop the same problems that affect GoodReads. But that day is not yet, and if it happens, I can move on. In the meantime, I rather like the idea of being present at the beginning of something rather than jumping on midway.

So what is BookLikes? At its heart, it is a blogging site focused on books. If you have used Tumblr, you will recognize the interface. Each user who registers for a free account receives a personal site that includes a blog, which that user can use to review books, report progress on challenges, and comment on whatever s/he pleases. You can follow people (and block those who misbehave), as well as like and comment on others’ posts. You have bookshelves, which you can import from various other places, add to, and edit. You can synchronize with GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter if you like your social media working together—or keep them separate if you don’t. You can customize your blog template and add pages to it. BookLikes verifies author, publisher, and bookseller accounts and assigns them a green checkmark that confers certain privileges. The staff seems a bit overwhelmed at the moment by a massive influx of new members, so the verification does not happen instantaneously, but that’s understandable.

The one thing that is missing so far is groups, although these are supposed to be on their way. There is a certain geeky quality to the customization, which includes editing HTML, a frightening prospect for the likes of me. Fortunately, the early adopters have written helpful tutorials, although I have yet to figure out why my custom-designed wallpaper, which looks lovely on a computer browser, moves to obscure the page list when viewed on a tablet. The import of my books, shelves, and reviews went smoothly, though, and the site is on the whole easy to use and remarkably polished for a place that has spent only five months in the public eye. You can follow me there as cplesley.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Bruised Hearts

Few possibilities terrify parents more than the loss of a child. Guilt, grief, helplessness, anger, and immobilizing fear mingle to create an emotional stew with a mix of ingredients that varies just enough from person to person to reveal the cracks in once-solid relationships, leaving individuals struggling alone—and often against each other. If the parents are, in addition, early twentieth-century missionaries in a great and ancient land hidden from them as much by their own cultural arrogance and misperceptions as by the unfamiliarity of the terrain, such a crisis raises additional questions: Has my God forsaken me? Have I sinned against Him? Is the husband I considered the master of my soul capable of guidance, or does he in fact require my assistance to find his way home?

Thus begins my blog post introducing my interview with Virginia Pye, about her debut novel, River of Dust. The podcast is now available at New Books in Historical Fiction.


When Grace Watson follows her husband, the Reverend John Wesley Watson, to northwest China in 1910, she does not expect a luxurious life. The Boxer Rebellion a decade before turned peasants against missionaries, and many Europeans died. Moreover, northwest China even in the best of times is a beautiful but barren land, and in 1910 the area has already suffered from drought for more than a year. Grace has miscarried at least twice and is struggling not to do so again when the story begins. But she and the Reverend have one beautiful boy, a toddler, and she trusts her husband to guide them and protect them in the unfamiliar landscape that is their new home. He is such a capable man, so charismatic and committed a preacher. Surely the Lord will uplift and uphold His dedicated servant, even in a place so unfamiliar to Grace.

Grace can see evidence of the Reverend’s concern for her and for their son in the vacation home that he has built with his Chinese servant and convert, Ahcho. The family has not even had time to settle in at this rural refuge when a pair of nomads swoop in from the distant hills and abduct Grace’s son. The Reverend immediately sets out in pursuit of the missing boy, leaving Grace behind to nurture their unborn child with the help of her nursemaid, Mai Lin. As River of Dust unfolds, we see Grace and her husband wrestling, within the limits of their individual natures, with the loss of their precious child. And as they push and pull in different directions, Grace discovers her own inner strength and realizes that the man she counted on to save her may need saving himself.

New Books in Historical Fiction now has an independent Twitter presence at @NewBooksHistFic. Follow us there, and like us on Facebook, to stay up-to-date on the interviews. I also post cover pictures and links on Pinterest as the interviews go live. You can find me on Twitter as @cplesley, on Facebook and Pinterest as Catriona Lesley, and on Goodreads as C.P. Lesley. For more information, see my website (

Northwest China, Setting for River of Dust
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution/ShareAlike license
© 2005 author (no name provided)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Church and State

The Teutonic Knights Force the People of Pskov to Convert, 1240
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
This picture is in the public domain.

In last week’s post, The Kremlin Beauty Pageant, I mentioned that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Russian rulers did not marry foreign princesses. I promised to explain why.

In brief, it was because of the Great Schism of 1054. Yes, I know, that happened long before the sixteenth century, but it had created two churches, each of which believed that it had a lock on the means of salvation. When the Eastern and Western churches split, their leaders excommunicated one another. That tends to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Catholic Church actually mounted a crusade in the east, converting Orthodox Christians as well as Lithuanian pagans at the point of a sword, wielded by the chivalric orders of the Livonian Knights and the Teutonic Knights. (The film Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, is about one stage in this crusade.) The Russian Church did not forget.

So tensions ran high. Although today we have many Christian denominations and moving from one to another is not that big a deal, medieval and early modern Europeans took a much more serious view of the matter. A convert risked imperiling his mortal soul in the eyes of the denomination he left (while saving it in the view of the denomination he joined). In 1505, the Catholic Church was still a single entity in the West, but that would soon change. The resulting struggle at first raised the stakes even more, imbuing every individual choice with global significance—especially if made by a ruler. The religion of a prince or king still determined the religion of the realm. (Think Henry VIII.)

In the East, Byzantium had fallen to the Turks in 1453, leaving Russia as the last sovereign Orthodox power. Moreover, the Russians, to put it bluntly, were feeling their oats. They were just finishing up a successful campaign to reunite their disparate principalities under a single administration. They had launched a series of challenges against the Tatars, who had ruled their lands for  two centuries—some of which succeeded, if not always for long. And they had begun to claim the role of heir to Byzantium, itself the last remnant of the ancient Roman empire. Although the dating is murky and the provenance unclear, the phrase “Two Romes have fallen, a third [Moscow] stands, and a fourth there shall not be” nicely captures the attitude of the Russian government in this period.

The Russians wanted recognition, and they wanted respect. That included respect for their religion—which, like pretty much everyone else in the sixteenth century, they saw as the one true path to Heaven. If they sent princesses abroad, they did their best to guarantee that those princesses need not convert to Catholicism. If their rulers—or even the ruler’s family members—married princes or princesses from abroad, the church required those prince(sse)s to be re-baptized as Orthodox Christians.

But most foreign royal families felt just as attached to their own branch of Christianity as the Russians did to theirs. They didn’t mind marrying their sons to Russian princesses or their daughters to Russian tsars, but they wanted their rites respected as well. When the Russians demurred, the foreigners refused to cooperate; and the few who toyed with the idea had a tendency to renege on the deal.

As a result, from 1505 until 1698, Russian grand princes (later tsars) married young women raised at home. No foreign customs getting in the way, no worries about re-baptizing and secret pressures to convert, no troublesome squabbles between diplomats hell-bent on securing this or that alliance and clergymen worried about the state of the ruler’s soul. How this system worked is the subject of Russell Martin’s book and summarized in my last post.

But wait, I can hear you asking if you have read The Golden Lynx, what about Elena Glinskaya? Wasn’t she Lithuanian? Yes, she was. But first, many Lithuanians were Orthodox, including the Glinsky clan. And second, Elena’s immediate family had brought her to Russia when she was little more than a baby. So she was still, more or less, a home-town girl, picked through a bride show—although perhaps a tad more cosmopolitan than most.

The last question I’ll tackle today is: what changed in 1698? That’s an easy one: Peter the Great. Russia’s first self-proclaimed emperor had little use for the Orthodox Church and none whatsoever for Muscovite customs. He had married his first wife, Evdokia, in a bride show to please his mother, but they never got along. She believed in the old ways; he couldn’t wait to see Russia become a spiffed-up version of Sweden. When he returned from his Grand Tour of Europe in 1698, he barely let the mud dry on his boots before repudiating Evdokia and sending her to a nunnery. A dozen years later, he married his long-time mistress, scandalizing the court, and changed the laws of succession so she would rule after his death (as Catherine I, not to be confused with Catherine II, another “the Great”). Before and afterward, he arranged marriages
to a foreign aristocrat for every royal personage he could get his hands on, basing his choices purely on his diplomatic aims and not worrying about the religion of either party, never mind the wishes of the bride and groom. Thus the Kremlin beauty pageant ceased to play a role in politics.

I had a great interview today with Virginia Pye about her new novel, River of Dust. That should be live on the New Books in Historical Fiction site early next week. So make sure you check back here next Friday to find out more. I’ll have the live link by then.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Kremlin Beauty Pageant

I have spent the last week and then some reading about marriage politics in the Kremlin—no, not Vladimir Putin’s affair with the gymnast, but the political and administrative heart of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Moscow. As a result, my friends on Facebook and GoodReads barely hear from me, the unhappy side-effect of my having agreed to write an academic review of Russell Martin’s wonderful A Bride for the Tsar.

No matter. Soon I will have written the review and can return to social media. In the meantime, I am collecting stories to enliven future books in the Legends of the Five Directions series. The Vermilion Bird (4: South) looks like the best candidate.

But marriage politics already rears its head in The Golden Lynx, where it is in fact the central element driving the story. You might even say that marriage politics was the reason I set out to write Legends of the Five Directions in the first place. When historians recognized the importance of marital alliances and royal wedding ceremonies in early modern Russian society, it revolutionized our understanding of how the political system worked in the centuries before Peter the Great came to the throne in 1682 (or 1689, depending on how you count). But since that understanding has yet to find a reflection in most textbooks, I thought that writing a series of novels would be a great way to show marriage politics in action.

So what is marriage politics? Those of you who enjoy reading books about the Wars of the Roses, such as Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen—now a television miniseries—are probably aware that Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of King Edward IV of England and heroine of Gregory’s book, created a huge scandal by taking advantage of her position to benefit her relatives. She advanced the careers of the men and arranged good marriages for as many relatives, male and female, as she could. Her brother-in-law, the future Richard III, was supposedly so put-off by this behavior (and Edward’s lax morals) that he high-tailed it for the North and didn’t come back until appointed Lord Protector after Edward’s unexpected death. The Woodvilles did not rejoice at his return.

In an English setting, Elizabeth’s behavior was unusual, not least because English kings usually married foreign princesses—or at a minimum high-ranking aristocrats whose male relatives were already ensconced in power. But Russians would have greeted such behavior with a shrug. Political power in Muscovy (a common name among specialists for Russia from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries) can best be envisioned as a series of concentric circles, with the grand prince (after 1547, tsar) at the center. The closer you could get to the grand prince, the more influence you wielded—and marrying your daughter to the current ruler put you closest of all. This was the ultimate prize, and every family (boyar clan) in the inner circle competed for it. The family that won controlled all the goodies in the state; play its cards right, and it could continue to marry its daughters into the royal family for several generations—leaving the other clans out in the cold.

Constant squabbling does not make for good government. So in 1505 Grand Prince Vasily III (father of Ivan the Terrible) came up with a new idea. (Actually his Greek adviser, who just happened to have a marriageable daughter of the right age, seems to have suggested the idea, but Vasily grabbed it and ran with it.) This idea was the bride show. Rather than marry a girl from any of the insider families, Vasily sent a summons throughout the land demanding that his gentry servitors produce their daughters for his inspection. The insider clans then vetted the prospective brides for looks, general health (i.e., fertility), virginity, and—most important—genealogy. They wanted a girl from a good background but not so exalted that her relatives could challenge the clans at court, and one who came from healthy stock but not so healthy that she would arrive with a host of hungry male relatives looking for sinecures. Once the courtiers had narrowed down the available candidates to a dozen or so, the grand prince/tsar had his pick.

This system took a while to get off the ground. Vasily had to send out three or four rounds of stern letters saying things like, “I know you have daughters, so produce them pronto or I’m going to have do something mean.” Eventually he scared up enough candidates to choose a suitable bride, and he was happy enough with the results that when things didn’t work out with that one and he forced her into a convent, he used the same procedure to select his second wife, Elena Glinskaya—who, as the mother of and regent for Ivan the Terrible, appears in The Golden Lynx. By the end of the sixteenth century, it had become the usual means of selecting a bride for the tsar—and his male relatives, too.

Marriage politics Kremlin-style had a number of interesting features. First, women played a big part in the winnowing of candidates. The wives of high-ranking courtiers and the ruler’s female relatives were the ones who examined girls to be sure they were virgins, commented on their health and personalities, and so on. Elite women in Muscovy lived secluded in their households and did not associate with unrelated men of their own class, so the male courtiers and even the grand prince/tsar would see a candidate for a few minutes, perhaps an hour. If an aristocratic or royal woman announced that a particular bridal candidate was unhealthy or bad-tempered, that girl was out. The brides had no say in the process, but the older women had plenty.

Second, with the stakes so high, marriage politics gave rise to scenarios usually restricted to fiction. Favored candidates developed mysterious illnesses, died within weeks of their selection, fell victim to smear campaigns and accusations of epilepsy caused by their hair being braided (or their tiaras attached) so tightly that they fainted. Michael Romanov, first of the famous dynasty, saw the betrothed he had selected sent away in disgrace because she began vomiting, an illness that cleared up two days after she left the court. When he recovered enough from that experience to order a second bride show at what was then considered the ripe age of twenty-seven, his wife fell ill at the wedding and died four months later. He then held a third bride show, only to endure a screaming row with his mother before he finally acquired a wife who pleased him. Thus the limitations on the tsar “having his pick” of the candidates.

Yet the system endured until the gradual Westernization of the court in the late seventeenth century made it obsolete. The bride show became a symbol of Muscovy (if under-appreciated until Russ Martin came along), and as such it attracted the attention of some of Russia’s finest painters. I’ve attached two examples here by Konstantin Makovsky, whose work I’ve featured before on this blog. The one at the top, Choosing a Bride (1886), shows an actual bride show (the grand prince/tsar is the young man standing by the chair, with one of the candidates bowing during her presentation). The one below (1884) shows preparations for a wedding—not necessarily a royal wedding, but the bride having her hair combed looks so much like my Nasan that I just had to include her.

And if you want to know why Russian grand princes (tsars) didn't just marry foreigners as the English did, I will take that up next week.

Images: Konstantin Makovsky, Choosing a Bride (1886), and Preparations for a Wedding (1884), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.