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 Z├╝rich 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.