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.