Friday, December 25, 2015

Goodbye, 2015!

Unbelievable as it sounds, at least to me, the last post for 2015 is upon us. It’s time to see how I did in meeting my goals for the year. Those were:

(1) free more time to write, without having unpaid bills;
(2) use that time to finish at least the rough draft of The Swan Princess;
(3) copy edit and typeset Some Rise by Sin for Five Directions Press;
(4) read twelve books and interview their authors for New Books in Historical Fiction;
(5) maintain this blog on a regular weekly schedule; and
(6) learn more about marketing, the weak link in most authors’ education, and certainly mine.

So, how did I do?

The first and most important goal, alas, remains elusive. To paraphrase a familiar saying about housework, bills seem to expand to consume the funds available, which remain less than last year’s despite a mad embrace of freelance editing projects on my part. Book sales are also down, despite modest success in a giveaway in June—in part because I published no new novels this year, and in part because the deluge of editing projects made it difficult to find time to promote the books that already exist. At least, that’s my guess.

Even so, I did manage to finish the rough draft of The Swan Princess, which I distributed to a half-dozen fellow writers for comments. I’ve implemented the small corrections already and am doing a bit of background research before I tackle the more comprehensive changes. I managed to find a fabulous book: 900 pages, give or take a few, detailing every surviving document covering the period between 1533 and 1547. I wanted it for Vermilion Bird, which I have already begun planning, but I’m discovering wonderful stuff for the earlier books, too. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t follow the history exactly, but I do try to stay out of its way. Once I work my way through the 1530s in this book, I expect to return to The Swan Princess with the goal of releasing it in the spring of 2015.

Goals 3, 4, and 5 went pretty well, too. Courtney’s book did appear in March; I did manage to post every week to this blog; and due to an anticipated flood of books near the end of the year, I exceeded my goal of twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews. I also learned something about marketing, through trial and error and thanks to Gloria Rabinowitz, the newest member of Five Directions Press. I worked on my blog until I found a design that I love. I moved my website and the press’s website to, giving them a more professional appearance. I got better at social media, especially Facebook (Twitter still poses a bit of a challenge, mostly because of the time involved).

Five Directions Press, too, had a good year. Annabel Liu, another new member who agreed to list her memoirs with us, had two excerpts accepted for the WHYY NewsWorks blog EssayWorks; they went online just before Thanksgiving and last week. The press now has six authors and eleven books, with four more on the way, but we have been negotiating with individual writers in the hope of expanding our offerings. We have strengthened our ties with other coops and small presses, most notably Triskele Books in the UK, and have added a quarterly newsletter and two new pages to our site. The first, already visible although still in its infancy, is our More Books Worth Reading page. The second will begin in mid-January as a monthly feature on our Newsletter page, where we will recommend individual books that we recently read and loved. To receive the newsletter, sign up at our Contact page or via the entry page at

Not too bad, altogether. Check back next week to see what I have in mind for next year. And in the meantime, have a wonderful holiday!

Image Clipart no. 109382127.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Crazy Week

The trouble with taking time off for the holidays (or anything, as most working people know) is the time before and after, which become so crazy busy that just finding time to breathe feels like it requires an appointment. And so it is for me.

As a result, I have little to share this week, except to wish you all a wonderful time with friends and family in whatever manner you choose to celebrate the winter solstice. I’ve spent the week dotting i’s and crossing t’s, not to mention re-editing a set of articles that were obsessively edited and proofed just last summer. But now they are going to a new publisher with its own styles, so I’m again frantic that I have missed this or ignored that or changed X but not Y. And I haven’t even started the three pieces that were never edited or the three being rewritten for the new publication.

That “fun” job awaits my return. Between this afternoon and the Monday after New Year’s Day, anyone who writes to my work address will receive a message that I have traveled to the sixteenth century—which is, indeed, where I intend to focus my time the next two weeks when not sharing it with my family or relaxing in the company of friends. I have research to do for The Vermilion Bird and revisions for The Swan Princess, and I intend to make the most of my gloriously uninterrupted hours, where the only travel I plan to undertake is in my head.

So let us all glory in the return of the light, in whatever form we celebrate it!

Next week is my annual round-up of goals set and goals met, so do check back then to see how I did in 2015.

And speaking of doing things, fellow Five Directions Press author Annabel Liu has another excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, When Chopsticks Meet the Hot Dog, on the WHYY Newsworks blog. Don’t miss it: she is a wonderful and often funny writer—perfect for the holidays.

Image #20490433

Friday, December 11, 2015

Crowns and Roses

There’s a special joy in watching a book and an author come into their own. My latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction represents that kind of pleasure for me. I met Courtney J. Hall by accident: she responded to an ad that I didn’t even know had been placed, for writers to join a critique group that was just then forming. That was more than seven years ago, and we’ve been friends ever since. She is a wonderful writer, a talented graphic designer, and one of the three founding members of Five Directions Press, where she oversees cover design, various social media, and our quarterly newsletter.

Among other things, Courtney has a gift for producing back-cover blurbs: those pesky short descriptions that drive authors crazy. Write four hundred pages of novel? No problem. Distill those four hundred pages to a paragraph or two? The mere thought makes most of us sweat. So for all those reasons—and the simple fact that she’s a lovely human being—I was delighted to interview her about her debut novel, Some Rise by Sin. For those of you interested in the “alone together” concept that lies behind writers’ cooperatives, we also spend a few minutes discussing Five Directions Press.

Last but not least, I was impressed that she agreed, although I knew in advance that she would do a great job. Like many writers, Courtney feels more comfortable behind a computer screen than putting herself forward. It took courage to sit in front of a microphone, even with a friend, and talk about her early writing career and what led to the creation of Some Rise by Sin. (Although it would surprise anyone who encounters me these days, I too was once shy, so I sympathize.) So congratulations to Courtney, first for writing a lively and appealing novel focused on a lesser-known but vital transition in late Tudor England, then having the nerve to talk about it.

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

The reverberations of Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign continued to echo long after the monarch’s death. England teetered into Protestantism, then veered back into Catholicism before settling into an uneasy peace with the ascension of Elizabeth I. But for the survivors of the first two shifts, the approaching death of Mary Tudor in 1558 created great anxiety. No one knew, then, that Elizabeth would choose a path of compromise and (relative) tolerance. And Mary’s public burnings of Protestants gave much cause for concern that her sister might follow the same path with any Catholics who refused to recant.

Cade Badgley has served Mary well, even enduring imprisonment abroad for her sake. When he returns to England to discover his queen seriously ill and his own future changed by the death of his father and older brother, he has little choice but to manage the earldom dumped on his shoulders. But maintaining a crumbling estate without staff or money to hire them demands more resources than Cade can amass on his own. He turns to his nearest neighbor, who is happy to help—if Cade will return to the very court he has just abandoned, with the neighbor’s daughter in tow. Marrying off a lovely heiress will not strain Cade’s abilities much, but keeping her from pitchforking them both into trouble with her impetuosity and naïveté proves a far more difficult task. As the weeks pass, Queen Mary’s health worsens, and the future of England’s Catholics becomes ever more tenuous, the court is the last place that Cade wants to be.

In Some Rise by Sin (Five Directions Press, 2015), Courtney J. Hall neatly juggles politics, history, art, and romance during England’s brief Counter-Reformation, a moment when the Elizabethan Age had not yet begun.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Rediscovering History's Losers

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m currently researching the background for the story that will become Vermilion Bird. The plan involves a plot that takes place between February and June 1537, an especially fraught three months in the unusually fraught period that was the minority reign of Ivan IV “the Terrible” (1533–47). Although I have no more intention than in any previous book of following the political events day by day, my own story as yet lacks any form that would make it worth discussing—and besides, I don’t want to give away spoilers for book 4 before book 3 even hits the shelves! So this post looks at the history on which I plan to tack my plot as needed.

Only that history turns out to be far from easy to re-create. The reasons why have to do with the old saw that “history is written by the winners.” In this case, the “winner” (however temporarily) was Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya, the young mother of the future Ivan the Terrible. At the time, she was probably twenty-six or twenty-seven, and Ivan was six. Her power, always shaky because Muscovy didn’t like the idea of a woman in control, may have been starting to slip, although that too is speculation. We do know that her dead husband’s brother Yuri Ivanovich died in August 1536, reportedly of starvation, in the prison where the court nobles had confined him about ten days after Elena’s husband died. (That’s Yuri top right, looking remarkably healthy for a long-time prisoner about to expire, as portrayed in the Illustrated Chronicle Codex, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) A few months later, Elena’s uncle, Prince Mikhail Glinsky, also died in prison. And in April 1537, rumors reached Moscow that “wicked people” had convinced Elena’s younger brother-in-law, Andrei Ivanovich, to flee his separate principality on the grounds that he was in disfavor with the royal court.

A trio of priests and two contingents of armed men were dispatched to stop him. Yet Andrei, unconvinced by his sister-in-law’s assurances that she bore him no ill will (because of the two contingents of soldiers? his attendance at Yuri’s funeral less than a year before?), ran off anyway. According to a chronicle set down about a hundred years after the events, he wrote to gentry military servitors in the merchant town of Novgorod, promising favors if they would join him. By the end of the month, Andrei was on his way to Moscow, traveling under a safe conduct that Grand Princess Elena would abrogate. He died in the same prison as his older brother Yuri before the end of the year.

How much of this story is true? How much did the chronicler invent? It’s hard to say. The tale is longer in later chronicles than in ones closer to the events being described, which is suspicious. But a chronicle can draw on older texts that are then destroyed—and in any case, the dating of old manuscripts is more an art than a science, at least at this point in time. So we can’t say absolutely that a detail is wrong because it appears in only one, relatively late source. But we can’t say that it’s right, either.

What has absolutely vanished is Andrei’s motivation. He is the loser in this conflict; his story remains only as the chronicler wished it to be told. Some details flatter the court in Moscow; others raise eyebrows. The grand princess and her supporters call him to service against Kazan, and he fakes illness to avoid presenting himself (again, urged by “wicked people” who wish to sow dissension between him and his loving family). They send clerics to reassure him of their good intent (but also those soldiers). They offer a safe conduct (then declare it null and void and punish the favorite who issued it). With his oldest brother dead of illness and his second brother murdered in captivity, Andrei had reason to worry. He had become the only surviving member of the older generation, the one around whom dissatisfied courtiers might rally. And he had learned from experience that Elena and her boyars would tolerate no such rallying point. But did he run in self-defense, or had he in fact decided (not without grounds) that both his own future and the country’s would look brighter if he, rather than his nephew Ivan, sat on the throne?

Andrei’s troubles were not the only events besetting Russia in 1537. The war with Lithuania finally dragged to a halt in the spring, when the two countries signed a five-year truce. The new khan of Kazan, feeling his oats and wanting (perhaps) to create a buffer zone between himself and his troublesome neighbor, launched a series of lightning raids on Muscovy’s eastern fortresses. Later that year, a new campaign against Kazan—retaliation for those raids—was called off only when the khan sued for peace. And within a year, Elena Glinskaya was dead, possibly poisoned, and the real chaos set in.

Plenty of material for fiction. And the novelist, unlike the scholar, can fill in the gaps and bring the losers back to life—so long as we remember that try as we might, we don’t really know. We’re just telling a story.

Andrei Staritsky in happier times, at his wedding in 1533. Again from the Illustrated Chronicle Codex via Wikimedia Commons. Both these images are in the public domain because of their age.