Friday, August 28, 2015

Farewell, Summer

For me, today—more accurately, Sunday—marks the last day of summer. Sure, Labor Day doesn’t arrive until September 7, and the fall equinox a full two weeks after that. But Sunday ushers in the end of my summer writing vacation, and the month that follows promises more projects to complete than time to complete them. Unless I can clear the decks for another week in late October/early November, I will be back to weekend-only writing until the winter holidays roll around.

Naturally, worse fates exist than having too much work. And weekend writing can be fun, too. But this last vacation week of the summer has a special charm, not least because I have finally closed in on the ending of The Swan Princess, a destination I have spent much of the last year fearing that I would never reach. I wouldn’t call the monstrosity that clogs up my Storyist file a first draft, more like beta version 0.5. The thing has the grace of an untended rosebush, with thorny branches entangling in every direction, long twigs of abandoned plot points sticking out, flowers in every stage of growth and disintegration, and nasty blank spots indicating points of view that appear far too late in the tale for a well-constructed novel. The minute I type “THE END,” I have to return to the beginning and haul out the pruning shears.

But literary pruning adapts itself well to weekend writing, and with five other novels under my belt, I feel confident that I can impose the structure needed to straighten out this tangled mess. And that will really be something worth celebrating. 

But for the moment, please excuse the short post as I rush back to the Russian North. With the end of summer so close, I don’t want to waste a minute of these last writing days!

The image of the pier comes from Pixabay, a site for free, professional-quality photographs, vectors, and illustrations run out of Germany. If you have ten acceptable photographs to upload, you can avoid the ads, but the standards are high: the site rejected six of my best offerings. But even if your skills with the camera are as pathetic as mine, the site is worth a look.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bitter Harvest

When I began my Legends of the Five Directions series, I knew the time would come when I would have to deal with what historians call the Starodub War. It was a small war, as wars go, just one stage in the long conflict between the adjacent powers of Russia and Poland-Lithuania, with a little help (or hindrance, depending on one’s point of view) from various Tatar hordes. It lasted from 1534 to 1537, although it would have been over in half the time if the diplomats had spent more time negotiating and less posturing. 

There was no way to avoid it: like all noblemen in the sixteenth century, my hero Daniil and his relatives, as well as the khans and sultans of Kasimov, served in the Russian army from the age of fifteen until death or total debility, whichever came first. Boyars did other things, too: served at court, acted as regional governors, went on diplomatic missions, and the like. But since the series begins in February 1534 and will certainly not end before 1538, it seemed unlikely that every male character would somehow miraculously avoid time at the front. Daniil doesn’t even want to escape his responsibilities; he enjoys the challenges of military life, although his view of war naturally becomes more nuanced as he ages. The Swan Princess is the book that tackles, at least peripherally, the effects of the Starodub War on the lives of those who serve—and those who stay at home.

Alas, I am not Bernard Cornwell—much as I admire his Saxon Tales. Writing fight scenes just does not appeal to me. I am more interested in relationships, whether between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, or mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Even so, I recognize the power of war as a disruptor of human life, a driver of conflict both raw and emotional. And so I was immediately drawn to Lucy Sanna’s The Cherry Harvest, which manages in rich and beautiful prose to explore the complex and varied reactions caused by World War II without ever leaving Wisconsin. Even the title is simultaneously evocative and deceiving: what can a cherry harvest have to do with Adolf Hitler?

But I’m not telling. You will have to read the book to find out. Or listen to the interview, then read the book.

As always, the rest of this  post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Many novels look at World War II—what happened, why it happened, how the world would have changed if the war had never occurred or had taken a different course. Lucy Sanna, in The Cherry Harvest (William Morrow, 2015), approaches World War II from a different perspective: its impact on farming communities in the Midwest and the little-known history of German prisoners of war brought for confinement to the United States.

By May 1944, Charlotte Christiansen has reached the end of her rope. The cherry harvest of 1943 has rotted on the tree because the migrant laborers who once worked on her farm have found better-paying jobs in factories. Charlotte has been reduced to butchering her daughter’s prized rabbits in secret and trading eggs and milk for meat if she is to feed her family. But the local country store has canceled her line of credit, and if she and her husband cannot find enough workers to pick the 1944 harvest, they will lose everything they have. So when Charlotte learns that the US government will send German prisoners of war into rural communities to bring in the crops, she urges the local county board to, in the words of one member, make “a bargain with the devil.”

The prisoners defy the farmers’ worst expectations. Some of them deny any adherence to the Nazi cause; some are barely out of their teens; one, obviously educated and cultured, speaks English well enough to develop a friendship with Charlotte’s family. The community’s resistance to their presence gradually ebbs. Then Charlotte’s son returns from fighting the Nazis, only to find them harvesting cherries in his own back yard.

In this beautifully written and poignant story, Lucy Sanna explores the complexity of love and loyalty in a world where even the distant echoes of war prove impossible to ignore.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Author or Characters?

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Glen Craney for New Books in Historical Fiction. I wrote about that interview and his book, as I usually do, on the week when the interview went live. Even at the time, I meant to revisit the discussion to pick up on a point he made that I found particularly interesting (there were many such points, actually—it was a great interview, and he had lots of fascinating things to say). Specifically, he mentioned that readers sometimes conflate his point of view with his characters’.

In The Spider and the Stone, Craney tells the story of Scotland’s First War of Independence from the perspective of the Scots, most notably but not exclusively Sir James Douglass, the friend and staunch supporter of Robert the Bruce, the eventual if temporary winner of that war. From the viewpoint of the Scots, the English and their king, Edward I Longshanks, are heartless invaders, opportunistically profiting from the inability of the Scots clans to settle on a leader. In brief, the English don’t come off well in this story, and readers—perhaps understandably—see the author, too, as arguing for the Scots side.

To some extent, this problem affects all historical novelists. Values differ across time and space, and a good novel must reflect that. This truth is giving me fits in The Swan Princess, where my Tatar warriors are rampaging about the forest seeking vengeance. However pacifist my inclinations may be, I would be writing farce, not historical fiction, if I let my warriors throw an arm around the villain’s shoulders and invite him to talk it out over dinner. Instead, they burn villages, shoot first and ask questions later, and generally act like medieval troops. At other times, they recite poetry and appreciate good architecture—they are characters, not clichés—but when push comes to shove, they do not flinch.

Still, Craney’s point seems to me broader than simple reverence for the historical past. Certainly, his characters too behave in ways that were appropriate for the times but seem abominably harsh today. But is it true that authors are also drawn to the sides that appeal to them in a given historical context: the Scots over the English, the Tatars over the Russians (or vice versa)?


I had already been thinking about this question in a different context. One of the GoodReads groups I especially like has been running a Heyer Read (that’s Georgette Heyer, the Queen of Regencies, if you somehow made it out of high school without immersion in the lives of Justin, Dominic, Léonie, Deborah, Max, Arabella, Frederica, Venetia, and their ilk). In July we read one of her later novels, A Civil Contract, about a marriage of convenience between a near-bankrupt viscount and the rich merchant’s daughter he marries, because the noble bride he wants is as impoverished as he and he doesn’t like to put her father to the trouble of refusing his suit. Adam, the viscount, is unfailingly polite to his bourgeois Jenny, even recognizing in due course that life has led him in the right direction after all. But Jenny—who loves him, although she never admits it—goes to ridiculous lengths in her efforts to make him comfortable, never considering her own needs so long as she fulfills what she considers the duties of a wife. Sweet as she is, and as poignant and complex as Heyer portrays their relationship to be, Jenny’s self-abnegation ultimately leaves this reader thinking that Betty Friedan should have come along a good 150 years earlier than she did.

Such an attitude toward marriage and wifely duties, of course, was not unusual in 1815, when the book was set, or even in the 1950s, when Heyer wrote A Civil Contract. I had just about decided, like Glen Craney’s readers, that she had been drawn to the topic because it expressed her own views when August arrived, with The Masqueraders in tow.

I have read The Masqueraders many times. It is my favorite Heyer novel (Faro’s Daughter is a close tie, and A Civil Contract, despite my occasional desire to give Jenny a good shake, is no. 3). I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you by giving away the plot, so I will just quote this passage from near the end.

Sir Anthony propped the [barn] door wide to let in the moonlight. “Empty,” he said. “Can you brave a possible rat?”
   Prudence was unbuckling her saddle-girths. “I’ve done so before now, but I confess I dislike ’em.” She lifted off the saddle and had it taken quickly from her.
   “Learn, child, that I am here to wait on you.”
   She shook her head, and went on to unbridle the mare. “Attend to Rufus, my lord. What, am I one of your frail, helpless creatures then?”

And indeed, she is not. Ignore the absurd use of “child” to address a twenty-six-year-old woman; pretty much everyone in this novel addresses others as “child,” whether they are older or younger. Prudence, at this moment, is wearing men’s clothes. In the last few hours, she has knocked one officer of the law out of a coach, held another at sword point, and escaped over the fields with Anthony. She can fight a duel, run a gambling house, hold her liquor in a hard-drinking age, and rescue a hapless maiden. She does do her best to convince the man she loves that he would do better to marry elsewhere, but only because she believes that he would come to dislike her ramshackle life. She is as different from Jenny as the proverbial chalk from cheese. Yet the same author created them both.

One of the joys of fiction is the opportunity it offers to submerge oneself in the emotions and thoughts of others—something we cannot do in real life, however much we care for someone, however well we think we know them. That’s as true for authors as for readers. Each character is distinct; each character has his or her own take on the world. But that take is not necessarily the author’s, however strongly the illusion is, for a while, sustained.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Book Muse Recommended Read

I did know this was in the works, but even so, it was a delightful surprise to log on this morning and learn that Liza Perrat had posted this great review of The Winged Horse. Many thanks, Liza, and I display my Book Muse Recommended Read badge with pride! 

Check out Liza’s website for information on her books, listed below. Book 3 of her Angels series should also be available soon.

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels and Wolfsangel.

What we thought: Like C.P. Lesley’s first book, The Golden Lynx, of her Legends of the Five Directions series, the author once again brings to life 16th-century Russia via a Mongol horde, in this exciting tale of marriage, murder, and mysticism.

Upon his deathbed, Bahadur Bey, leader of a horde of nomadic Tatars, makes the clan leaders swear to accept Ogodai, son of his blood brother Bulat Khan (descendent of Genghis Khan), as the horde’s new overlord. It is also agreed that Bahadur Bey’s daughter, Firuza, will become Ogodai’s chief wife.

Tulpar, Bulat’s estranged son, arrives on the scene and attempts to stake claim to the horde and also to Firuza. The conflict, plotting, and intrigue begins: brother against brother in a struggle for both power and wife.

Firuza, no great beauty but determined and intelligent, can choose either Ogodai or Tulpar, but the man who wins her must also accept her on an equal footing. Firuza’s struggle evokes the feisty women of this era, who refused to be treated as pawns, preferring to control their own destiny.

The Winged Horse
sweeps the reader five centuries into the past in a well-told and swiftly paced tale rich with culture and evocative description. It is also a tale of romance, and of horses. Amongst other horse lore, there is Firuza’s Turkmen palomino and Tulpar, the winged horse, who carried dying souls to the celestial hunting grounds.

As with C. P. Lesley’s first book in this series, I have once again thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the Tatars of 16th-century Russia, and I would highly recommend The Winged Horse to historical fiction fans.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: murder mysteries and tales of romance and adventure that feature strong women, wrestling, horse races, and an Arabic-chanting shaman dressed in ragged skins.

Avoid if you don’t like:
action-packed, fast-paced historical political intrigue.

Ideal accompaniments: hot soup (şulpa) washed down with a large glass of vodka.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

For this review and many other ideas for novels to add to that groaning to-be-read pile, make regular visits to the Book Muse site. Tell them I sent you. Just don’t pelt me with all those lovely new books....