Friday, December 30, 2016

Moving on to 2017

Incredibly—or so it seems—2016 is about to head for the hills of history. And what a year it was, full of surprises big and small. So, as has become my habit on this blog, I will use this last post of the year to check in on how things went and set some new goals for next year. The list for 2016 included:

(1) finishing the final draft of The Swan Princess and seeing it in print and e-book formats;
(2) making significant progress on The Vermilion Bird, preferably to the point of a full rough draft (even if it’s very rough);
(3) chairing a roundtable on the uses of historical fiction in the classroom, scheduled for November 2016 but not yet approved by the sponsoring organization;
(4) upping the number of my New Books in Historical Fiction interviews to one every three weeks, yielding eighteen for the year;
(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means expanding the number of authors and titles available, filling out the More Books Worth Reading page, and keeping the news & events page up to date;
(6) posting to this blog every Friday;
(7) maintaining and strengthening my relationships with fellow writers; 

(8) continuing to improve my grasp of marketing, on both my own behalf and that of Five Directions Press; and
(9) completing three GoodReads challenges.

I actually managed to fulfill most of these goals. My NBHF interviews topped out at seventeen rather than eighteen, and the first draft of The Vermilion Bird is still only about halfway done—largely because the project has demanded more research than I expected (I am currently reading up on the complicated history of the Moscow Kremlin, for example, thanks to Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress) but also because of a delightful development that I did not anticipate at this time last year: Five Directions Press has doubled in size, with six active authors and three associates.

As a result, we put out four books last year, with five to six planned for next year. Five Directions Press also added a monthly feature called “Books We Loved,” in which we recommend those titles we especially enjoyed: small-press, self-published, traditionally published fiction and nonfiction. The list goes up around the middle of each month. You can find it at http://www.fivedirectionspress.com/newsletter or by liking us on Facebook. (You can also follow us on Twitter.) While there, don’t forget to sign up for our quarterly newsletter. We send messages only for new releases and the newsletter itself, and we never sell addresses. It’s the best way to stay informed about what we’re doing and to learn about us and other authors through our regular interviews. You also get access to free coloring pages based on our books and a chance to win our annual Christmas basket.

Which brings me to next year’s goals. I decided not to take on more reading challenges next year, because between research and my own books and interview preparation and 5DP authors and “Books We Loved,” not to mention the occasional library book group session, I barely have time to breathe. I’m also forced to cut back on the interviews again: every three weeks proved really hard to sustain. That leaves the following writing/reading goals for 2017:

(1) completing The Vermilion Bird and seeing it in print;
(2) starting The Shattered Drum, the last of my Legends of the Five Directions although I also plan a spinoff series set in Russia around the same time;
(3) conducting twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews;
(4) typesetting/proofing, producing e-books, and in some cases editing the Five Directions Press titles scheduled for next year—Rewind, West End Quartet, The Falcon Strikes, The Vermilion Bird, and A Holiday Gift, more or less in that order;
(5) maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means keeping track of the “Books We Loved” posts, expanding the number of authors and titles available, and keeping the news & events page up to date;
(6) posting to this blog every Friday;
(7) maintaining and strengthening my relationships with fellow writers; and
(8) continuing to improve my grasp of marketing, on both my own behalf and that of Five Directions Press—including finding more ways to get reviews.
 

Let’s see how I do. Meantime, Happy New Year, everyone!

P.S. Cat #3 is on his way home. In the end, it was a very successful visit, and Cat #1 hasn't had that much exercise in years. In fact, he is sleeping it off as I write....




Images: “Happy New Year 2017” Clipart no. 109785399, Sleepy Siamese © 2016 C. P. Lesley


Friday, December 23, 2016

Cat Wars

I’d planned to produce a writing post this week—or perhaps a history post—since I am off work and madly tearing through The Vermilion Bird. But the end of the week rolled around, and I decided history and writing craft were just too serious to use as topics this close to the holidays. So instead, I have a post about cats—because everyone knows the Internet loves cats, right?

It all began when the Filial Unit and his girlfriend decided to visit us for the holidays. As a mom, I’m genetically programmed to welcome such visits with unbounded joy. And when they floated the idea that their cat, a rescue animal who has lived with them for only a couple of months, might not do well with strangers coming in to feed him, the Mom program kicked in and I offered to host the cat, too—even though Sir Percy and I have two cats of our own.

Now, the new cat is a fine animal. He endured seven hours in the cat carrier with minimal fussing. He broke free of the confinement room and was exploring within hours. He’s coping well with new territory and new people, with just the occasional hiss or growl to let us know he hasn’t completely accepted us yet, but he’ll tolerate us so long as we give him some space. And the title of my post is somewhat misleading, in the sense that very little fur has actually flown so far. Even so, the acclimatization has been fun to watch. And not to get too heavy,  it might even say something about conflicts and their resolution—not only among cats.

 


First, the newcomer. Let’s call him Cat #3. After living who knows where, then in a shelter, then in a small apartment with two people, he’s naturally a bit nervous at a sudden transition to a full-sized house with four people and two other cats. He knows the basic cat drill: hiss a warning, growl if needed, hit out as a last resort, slink away if possible. But he has trouble figuring out when to yield and, especially, how to tell if Person or Cat X actually poses a threat.



Enter Cat #2, the only female in the group. She’s also a rescue cat, a feral kitten captured at six months, so she went from the outside world to a informal shelter with few cages but many cats to our quiet house with two adults who are around almost all the time. She has no desire to live anywhere else and a hyper-vigilant threat center that even eight years of daily reassurance can’t entirely reset. One hiss from the newcomer, and she raced for her favorite hidey hole. She stayed there for thirty-six hours until I dug her out and put her in a quiet room by herself, with food and water and a litter box. Since then, she’s reclaimed her spot in my study, but she’s still not sure about Cat #3 (who as I write this is inching his way up the stairs, one by one).




But the surprise hero of this narrative is Cat #1, our senior citizen. Cat #1 lives by Siamese (Cat) rules, of which the most fundamental is “Thou shalt snuggle.” He’s already suffered a certain amount of disappointment due to Cat #2’s propensity to flee at the very moments when, in his mind, snuggling is required. But diligent work on his part has won her over, most of the time. Indeed, just before the arrival of Cat #3, Cats 1 and 2 spent the entire evening huddled together on the couch, sharing an appropriately named Snugli. Still, there was some question as to how he might react to the arrival of an unfamiliar, younger tomcat.

It’s been an education for all concerned. Cat #1’s first reaction was to walk into the bedroom assigned to Cat #3 and his family—in the middle of the night, no less—and, ignoring all hissing and growling, to establish his right to the bed, after which he sauntered off to eat what remained of Cat #3’s dinner. Message: “My house, my rules. Get used to it.”

The next day, he followed Cat #3 around the house, stopping just close enough to elicit the first rumbling growl, then sitting there until it stopped before edging in closer. He did not look at Cat #3 while doing this, because staring is an aggressive act between cats. But he didn’t back down, either. After a couple of hours, Cat #3 gave up on the hissing and growling, at least with the other cats. He also became more accepting of the unknown humans, although he’s having none of that petting. That’s right out.

By the third day, Cats 1 and 2 are hanging out together as they always have, and Cat #3 has taken to roaming the house, often in the vicinity of the resident cats but not close enough either to cause trouble or to consider them friends. Cat #1 has socialized the newcomer with not much more than a sideways stare.

In all this back-and-forth, the cats have come to blows exactly once. Cat #3, preoccupied with the raising of the Christmas tree, did something that attracted the ire of Cat #1, who despite his fifteen years and kidney problems, let out an ear-splitting yowl and chased Cat #3 back to his borrowed room. Fifteen minutes later, tops, Cat #3 was back, his past sins forgiven.

Is that the end of the story? Unclear, as they still have a good week of reorienting to go. And the relationship between us and Cat #3, while developing, has grown much more slowly. We don’t read the signals as well, and we certainly don’t send them as clearly. Conflict avoidance demands effective communication, and communication, first and foremost, requires us to speak the same language. Guess I’d better go and brush up on my Cat.

Still, they are an example to the rest of us in this conflict-ridden world. So in the spirit of the season, peace and good will to all. Happy holidays, everyone, and best wishes for a stellar year to come!



Images: Wreath Clipart. no. 7597540; Cats 1–3 © 2016 C. P. Lesley.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Books for the Fireside

Alas, I let the week slip away in everything from holiday cards to preliminary typesetting for one of Five Directions Press’s spring titles—not to mention work—and even some reading for fun. So here is Friday, little more than a week before Christmas, and I have family arriving and no prewritten blog post. So I decided it was the perfect time for a recap of books read and scheduled to be read over the next month. Almost all are hidden gems: that is, good books by self-published or otherwise less well-known authors, any one of which can enrich your life by expanding your notions of books worth reading. For still more suggestions, see the monthly “Books We Loved” picks on the newsletter page at Five Directions Press. The most recent one went up just yesterday. After all, you may still have a bit of Christmas shopping to do....



I started out with Ann Swinfen’s The Bookseller’s Tale, first of her new Oxford Medieval Mysteries. Set in mid-fourteenth-century Oxford, the series features Nicholas Elyot. Set to become a scholar at Merton College, he chose instead to marry—at the time, one could not do both—only to lose his beloved wife to the Black Death. He now lives with his two children and his widowed sister and maintains a small scriptorium that supplies students with books to copy as well as a bookshop. On his way home one evening, he fishes a body out of the Cherwell that turns out to be that of a gifted young scholar. It soon becomes clear that the young man was murdered and that the authorities intend to do nothing about it. In post-plague Oxford, violence is not uncommon, but Nicholas’s inquiries expose a complex and troubling conspiracy in which the dead student has played at best a minor role.

 


The Bookseller’s Tale also introduces Emma Thorngold, cousin to the dead student and a gifted artist forcibly confined to Godstow Abbey as a novice. In The Novice’s Tale Emma, known to the nuns as Sister Benedicta, comes into her own. The abbess informs her that she has three weeks before she must make her final vows; when Emma protests, she learns that her stepfather has given her to the convent as an oblate, and she has no right to refuse. Nicholas offers to help, but Emma realizes that his intervention will increase the constraints placed on her. So she and her little Maltese dog make their escape in dead of night, only to be swept downriver in a storm. Before Nicholas can even begin to search, the abbey has alerted Emma’s stepfather, who arrives with killing hounds to hunt his errant ward down. And the battle is on, between Nicholas and the stepfather, as to who will find Emma first.

 

Caught up in richly described settings, rapid-fire plots, and sympathetic characters, I devoured these two books in no time flat. Alas, The Huntsman’s Tale is not due until March. But just as I was threatened with Swinfen withdrawal, I learned that today she released That Time May Cease, book 8 in the adventures of Christoval Alvarez, aka Kit. I have enjoyed this entire series—especially, as you might guess, Voyage to Muscovy—including The Play’s the Thing, which I have yet to review despite having finished it months ago. So I can’t wait to tackle That Time May Cease.


Before I get there, though, I have two other books in the queue: Marie Macpherson’s Second Blast of the Trumpet, which I featured in a recent blog post, “The Monstrous Regiment”; and Liza Perrat’s The Silent Kookaburra.<> I have started on Second Blast, where John Knox, just released from enslavement on a French galley, is frothing at the mouth to return to Scotland, where he plans to argue for the Reformed Faith despite opposition from the authorities. Fortunately for not only Knox but the reader (because his success would make for a very short book), Sir David Lindsay, a friend of Knox’s guardian and a closer relation than Knox knows, hauls him off to London on a grand scheme of his own. The support of a mercenary archer hoping to loot the spoils when Knox succeeds in overturning the Vatican promises future comic relief as well as potential skullduggery.



As for The Silent Kookaburra, I’m looking forward to this much more contemporary psychological drama and mystery from an author whose historical novels, especially Blood Rose Angel, I like very much. More on that soon.

In addition, my list includes Helen Rappaport’s Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen and Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria. The first is history, the second fiction, but both are connected to the forthcoming ITV/PBS miniseries Victoria and are in preparation for my interview with Rappaport, scheduled for early January. They portray a Victoria we barely know: not the old lady in black who was not amused and mourned her dead husband until the day she died but a spirited, uncertain eighteen-year-old thrust at best semi-prepared into the most important world leadership position of her day while still fighting to separate herself from her mother’s overbearing attempts at control.


And when I finish all that, I can look forward to three unpublished titles by Five Directions Press: Ariadne Apostolou’s West End Quartet, Denise Allan Steele’s Rewind, and Gabrielle Mathieu’s The Falcon Strikes. So it seems that I will have material for quite a few more bookshelf posts in the months to come. Stay tuned!


Friday, December 9, 2016

The Flame Bearer

As someone who writes about warriors without ever having gone to war, I rely heavily on the perceptions of those more knowledgeable than myself—especially other novelists who excel at communicating the internal experience of having to choose whether to kill or to be killed. That choice—so stark and so meaningful for the person concerned—must, it seems, inflict permanent change on the person making it, on that person’s views of self and the world. 

No one portrays that moral and life challenge better than Bernard Cornwell. As Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin  notes on the back cover of The Flame Bearer and several of its predecessors, “Bernard Cornwell does the best battle scenes of any writer I have ever read, past or present.”

Indeed, following the career of Uhtred, Cornwell’s pagan Saxon hero, is an education in what warriors do and don’t worry about, when and where and how they feel. Cornwell and I talk about these topics in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview. We also talk about The Last Kingdom, the BBC television series based on the books, now available for streaming on Netflix. (My first interview with him—where we talk about the early stages of his writing career, among other things—is still available on the site and complements this one.)


The technology of war has, of course, changed since Uhtred’s day. My Russians and Tatars rely heavily on the composite bow, shot from horseback and at a considerable distance from the enemy, although artillery and firearms are already on the scene—if not reliable or fast enough, yet, to replace bows and arrows in the hands of skilled archers. Yet even in the sixteenth—or nineteenth—century, combat all too often ended in one-on-one encounters between men with knives or bayonets, a gut-wrenching (literally) fight to the death. The technology changed, but the internal experience remained much the same, and probably does to this day.



We discuss this point, too, in the interview, in terms of both history and historical fiction—because Cornwell is not only a novelist. Last year, just before the two hundredth anniversary of Wellington’s climactic battle against Napoleon, he released his first nonfiction book. The title says it all: Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles. It’s richly informative and written in a lively style, filled with character studies, action, and soldiers’ own record of their hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Letters, diaries, and memoirs detail the plans, the mistakes, the casualties and miraculous escapes—as perceived by the men themselves. We see them marching across wet ground, through “high, obstinate crops,” or positioning themselves on a high plateau “which is about to become a killing ground” (235). Best of all, we see the battle from all sides: British, French, and Prussian. Although, to quote one participant, “the carnage was dreadful,” it would be difficult to imagine it better described than it is here. The results are horrifying, inspiring, and educational, all at the same time.

And if you’re wondering why I write about warriors despite my lack of personal experience with their main activity, the reason is simple: in sixteenth-century Russia, as throughout medieval and early modern Eurasia, the main occupation of aristocratic men—and nomadic men at all levels—was to wage war. Even those lower on the social scale, male and female, could not escape war, which destroyed their fields, their livelihood, and their lives. To ignore that reality would condemn me to writing books that bore little resemblance to the societies I portray. I do try to stay away from the day-to-day experience of battle, but even that sometimes proves impossible. Whenever I find myself in that unwanted situation, books like The Last Kingdom series and Waterloo are where I turn for answers. 

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


Here at New Books in Historical Fiction, we don’t often interview the same author twice. Bernard Cornwell is an exception. As I note in my introduction to this podcast, since I last interviewed him in June 2014, he has published three new Saxon Stories (now renamed the Last Kingdom series) and a nonfiction history of the confrontation between Napoleon and Wellington at Waterloo. Meanwhile, the BBC and Netflix have released his first two Last Kingdom novels as a hit television series, again under the title The Last Kingdom. With so much new material to discuss, a second interview seemed like the least we could do.

The Flame Bearer (Harper, 2016) is the tenth novel narrated by Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred’s story, which began at the age of ten in 866, is tied up with the drive of King Alfred the Great and his children to create a single English kingdom out of four warring principalities—three of them, at the beginning of the series, under the control of Danish invaders. Uhtred—descendant of kings, Saxon ealdorman by birth, Dane by adoption, and warrior by both temperament and training—becomes Alfred’s secret weapon. A pagan lord never quite accepted by Alfred’s Christian court, a fighter for the Saxon cause who at heart prefers the Danes, Uhtred has one unchanging goal: to recover Bebbanburg, stolen from him in boyhood by his uncle and held in later years by his cousin, who refuses to recognize Uhtred’s prior claim.

By 917, when The Flame Bearer begins, the situation portrayed in The Last Kingdom has reversed itself. The one remaining Saxon kingdom, Wessex, has expanded through alliance and conquest to include Mercia and East Anglia. Now the last kingdom is Northumbria, still largely under Danish control despite the existence of Saxon-held Bebbanburg. Sensing weakness, King Constantin of Scotland pushes south, pincering Northumbria between Saxons and Celts. And Uhtred must again choose between observing his oath of allegiance and recapturing his home.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Future Past, and Past Future

Erika Johansen has been busy since I interviewed her in April 2015. Her Queen of the Tearling became a bestseller, as have its two sequels: Invasion of the Tearling and Fate of the Tearling, which slowly reveal the secrets behind Johansen’s invented postmodern medieval society. No small part of that has to do with the character of Kelsea Glynn, a nineteen-year-old hidden in early childhood from her enemies, then thrust without warning into a queenship for which her training and experience leave her unprepared. Kelsea has guts and intelligence and a pragmatism that serves her well. She’s also a typical nineteen-year-old, worried about her looks and unsure of her appeal. Even a queen, it seems, has to worry about those extra pounds, and Kelsea knows all too well that she is no conventional beauty.

As I noted in “The Re-Created Past,” the world of the Tearling is not a dystopia along the lines of The Hunger Games, Divergence, or other young adult favorites. Its invented medievalism—the reversion to an agricultural society ruled by hereditary kings and queens, in which education belongs to the few and slavery exists side-by-side with a powerful central church—nonetheless holds up a mirror to our contemporary obsession with technology, our refusal to respond adequately to climate change, and our increasing acceptance of social stratification even in what are sometimes called the “advanced democracies.” The recent presidential campaign in the United States, regardless of which candidate you supported, spotlights the necessity of vigilance—not to prevent statistically insignificant incidents of vote fraud but to preserve the very principles on which a healthy society functions.

In reviewing sequels, it is difficult to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that by undisclosed means, by the beginning of book 3, Kelsea finds herself in the enemy capital of Demesne. Some part of the history behind the Crossing has become clear, although more remains to explore, and the Red Queen of the Mort has acquired the precious sapphires through which Kelsea exercises her magical powers. The Mace, Kelsea’s most loyal henchman, wants nothing more than to free her from the Red Queen’s power, but Kelsea has appointed him regent, thus forcing him to balance his role as head of the Queen’s Guard, which demands that he place the queen’s safety above all, against the certain knowledge that Kelsea will have his hide if he endangers her people and her kingdom by making her release his highest priority.

With these pieces firmly in place, Johansen interweaves the story of her fictional present with an investigation into what happened to turn William Tear’s planned “better world” into the pseudo-medieval society that readers encountered in The Queen of the Tearling—bereft of the printing press and short on leftover books; subject to rigid and extreme social stratification, up to and including regular slave shipments to the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne; dominated by a powerful and unforgiving church yet beset by violence, corruption, and sin of all sorts. Kelsea’s power, as we discovered in The Invasion of the Tearling, includes the ability to tap into the minds of specific people in the past—there a woman named Lily; here a young girl named Katie. Through these connections, Kelsea learns the story of the pre-Crossing world (in Invasion) and the post-Crossing decline (in Fate), experiences that continue to resonate three centuries later.
 


Perhaps it is the historian in me: although I enjoyed the not-quite-medieval society that Johansen created in her first book, I particularly liked discovering what had to go wrong for William Tear’s intrepid followers to abandon their homeland and what continued to trouble them once they found what appeared to be their refuge. At moments I was reminded of the Pilgrims on the Mayfair, their hopes and dreams and the brutal reality of the New World they colonized—a journey requiring a commitment every bit as intense and as final as the one Tear and his band make. At other moments, especially in book 2, I saw echoes of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. The characters of the present, especially Kelsea and the Red Queen, have grown and rounded over the course of the series, and their rivalry deepens and shifts until it reaches a satisfying end. But the situation of the original colonists has a special pathos, perhaps because it is closer to our own world—so close at times that the story provokes an anticipatory shudder.

That said, this is a series well worth exploring. If you loved The Queen of the Tearling, then the next step is obvious: finish the sequels. But even if Kelsea didn’t wow you on her first adventure, I recommend giving the series another shot. The factors that can cause a technologically sophisticated, liberal society to unravel merit the attention of any thoughtful person—and in this format, a reader, even on the couch after dinner, will find the information easy to absorb.

Friday, November 25, 2016

City of Love

Set out to write a historical novel, and you can find yourself traveling down more than a few unsuspected highways and byways, researching tariffs and trade deals as well as dress lengths and hat styles, the grafting of camellias and the appearance of late nineteenth-century bicycles, the wharves and red light districts of the past. To paraphrase one of the authors in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, learning about cotton strands is not the most fascinating part of the job.

But human nature has a way of triumphing over mediocrity—for good and for bad—and those cotton strands become the reason for a centennial exposition that excels in cost overruns, construction delays, and funds diverted to the organizers’ pockets instead of the project at hand. As that problem fades into the past with the end of book 1, a new one surfaces: in an attempt to improve revenues, the federal government doubles tariffs on the legal opium trade, leading to a vast increase in smuggling. And we’re off again, following another pair of destined-to-be lovers through the streets of Gilded Age New Orleans as they struggle to find each other past a series of misunderstandings. It’s all tremendous fun, background delivered with a light hand that never loses focus on the central pair but instead places them firmly in a specific historical context that in turn both determines their predicament and directs its solution. Which is, after all, what every historical novelist tries to do.

And now, from the post uploaded to New Books in Historical Fiction


So far, this podcast has focused on straight historical fiction rather than historical romance. Although love stories have a way of creeping into novels whatever their genre, books that focus on instantaneous passion don’t always give equal weight to the “historical” element in historical fiction. The series written by the mother/daughter team that publishes under the pen name Ursula LeCoeur, however, takes place in the richly detailed, lavishly imagined, deeply researched world of 1880s New Orleans. The Devious Debutante (Royal Street Publishing, 2015), third in the series, follows its hero and heroine through docks and bayous, ballrooms and opium dens, back streets, taverns, and Mardi Gras floats.

Maureen Collins, the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant, should be focused on her trousseau and on attracting a scion of an old New Orleans family. Instead she spends time in her greenhouse, searching for a way to graft red camellias onto white stems. When by accident she runs into Ben Merritt, an attorney from Philadelphia who has no obvious reason to lurk around her family estate dressed like a workman, his peace offering—an example of that rare red camellia—turns out to contain a tin of opium among its roots. More plants follow, and Maureen’s suspicions grow, especially after her attempts to investigate lead her to the scene of a murder that the local police appear to have little interest in investigating. Is she falling in love with an opium addict, or a person even more sinister? As Mardi Gras sweeps the town into revelry, Maureen strives to find out. Meanwhile, Ben races to collect evidence on the killer before he can carry out his dimly overheard threat against Maureen.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Monstrous Regiment

In July 2013, about six months after my first interview for New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF), I had the fun of speaking with Marie Macpherson about her First Blast of the Trumpet, the opener to her trilogy about the Scottish religious reformer John Knox. You can hear the full interview on our site. Here is what I wrote about her novel at that time.

There’s nothing quite like sitting down to write a novel about a man who, to quote Marie Macpherson, is blamed for “banning Christmas, football on Sundays,” and the like. What is one to do with such a subject, never mind making him interesting and sympathetic? Yet this is exactly what The First Blast of the Trumpet does for John Knox—best known as the dour misogynist who spearheaded the Scottish Reformation.

Macpherson approaches Knox sideways through the character of Elizabeth Hepburn, a reluctant nun installed at the uncanonically young age of 24 as prioress of St. Mary’s Abbey to ensure the continued dominance of the earls of Bothwell (whose family name was Hepburn) over the abbey and its resources. Elizabeth’s determination to craft a life that suits her never wavers, despite the conflicting claims of her family, the lure of court politics, and the opposition of a male clergy bent on keeping women in their place. This wonderfully researched novel mixes history and fiction to reveal Scotland during its last century of independence in all its complexity, depravity, and richness; and as Elizabeth’s career increasingly intertwines with the childhood and youth of John Knox, the need for reform in the Scottish Catholic Church becomes ever clearer.
 

Now, as I celebrate my fourth anniversary as the host of NBHF, the saga of John Knox continues with The Second Blast of the Trumpet, released in hardcover in the United States yesterday (Kindle edition to come). So it’s my pleasure to welcome Marie back—this time to my blog—and to let her speak for herself about this next novel in the series. Take it away, Marie!

 

At the end of The First Blast of the Trumpet Knox is sentenced to toil in the galleys and that’s where I intended to leave him, but my publisher had other ideas. “What happens to this character Knox?” they asked. Could there be a sequel—or two?

Like many Scots, I knew about Knox’s role in the Scottish Reformation from 1560 onwards but hardly anything about his wilderness years. What was he was up to during the ten years between 1549 and 1559? Quite a lot, as it turned out.

While Knox was persona non grata in Scotland, the English Protestant King Edward VI welcomed him. Forced to flee to Geneva when Edward’s untimely death brought Mary Tudor to the throne, Knox wrote his diatribe, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, aimed at Bloody Mary. This rant has forever condemned him as a rampant misogynist, but to be fair, he was only echoing what many men felt at the time: that it was monstrous or unnatural for a woman to wear the pants, never mind the crown.

Was he such a misogynist? As an author, I feared to find out. If Knox was to be the hero, how could I write about such an offensive character? But behind every great man there is a woman or, in Knox’s case, several women. Not only did he marry twice—and to much younger brides—but he also had a flock of female followers who followed him around. He must have had some charisma.

Yet while Knox was blessed with the perfect wife in Marjory, he was cursed with the mother-in-law from hell, Elizabeth Bowes, who was obsessed with him. Imagining what life was like in this ménage à trois was a writer’s dream.

Another surprise was his intense relationship with the poet and translator Anna Locke, an intelligent, educated English woman to whom Knox poured out his heart in a long correspondence. According to Robert Louis Stevenson, she was the only woman Knox truly loved.

It turned out to be quite a journey following Knox as he criss-crossed the continent several times, as well as traveling back and forth to Scotland. What stamina “God’s messenger” must have had to endure such tortuous journeys.

Writing historical fiction about a famous personality is a tricky undertaking at the best of times: writing about such a controversial figure as John Knox brings its own challenges, but I hope in The Second Blast of the Trumpet I’ve succeeded in adding another dimension to the pantomime villain caricature and revealing the man behind the myth.

 


Hailing from Musselburgh, East Lothian, Marie Macpherson left the Honest Toun to study Russian language and literature. She graduated from and earned her PhD at Strathclyde University and spent a year at Moscow State University researching  the 19th-century Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish poet and seer Thomas the Rhymer. After a career teaching languages and literature, she can pursue her interest in creative writing and has found her niche in historical fiction. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing at Edinburgh University in 1994 and in 2011 received the title “Writer of the Year,” awarded by Tyne and Esk Writers.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Interview with Annabel Fielding

Just in time for Veterans Day, I have a Q&A with Annabel Fielding, author of The Pearl and the Carnelian, a novel about 1930s Britain from the perspective of two women who find each other in the midst of a society that will soon be seriously undermined by war. An interesting topic, an innovative perspective—this is the kind of story that appeals to me. But as sometimes happens, I had no time in my interview schedule for a one-on-one discussion with the author, so her publicist and I settled on adding her to the Bookshelf instead. First, though, a quick look at her book, released on September 21, 2016.

Britain, 1934. Hester Blake, an ambitious girl from an industrial Northern town, finds a job as a lady’s maid in a small aristocratic household. Despite their impressive title and glorious past, the Fitzmartins are crumbling under the tribulations of the new century. In the cold isolation of these new surroundings, Hester ends up hopelessly besotted with her young mistress, Lady Lucy. Fragile and enthralling, Lucy can weave fascinating stories like a spider weaves her web. Armed with shrewd wits and an iron will to match, she is determined to carve out a new life for herself.

They are drawn to each other as kindred spirits, eager to take advantage of the new opportunities the world has to offer. Moreover, soon Hester gets to accompany Lady Lucy on her London Season, and readily plunges herself into the heady mix of passion, art, and excitement of the glittering city.

However, there are plenty of dark undercurrents swirling beneath the majestic imperial capital. The country is rife with discontent, and radical political movements are growing in influence day by day. There is a controversy, surrounding the new dictatorships of Europe, and struggles are breaking out in the press as well as in the streets. The hushed whispers of yet another war are still rare, but the battle for hearts and minds has already started, and Lucy’s talent can be employed for very sinister ends.

Meanwhile, Hester seems to be harboring some secrets of her own...

And now, the questions and answers.

How did you become involved with the themes presented in your book?  

I have always been interested in the unsung women in history, in the roles they got to play in all the great processes. The influential leaders, the quiet workers behind the scenes, the morally dubious schemers. All the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Some parts of Lucy’s POW. In particular, inventing eloquent arguments for the political position I hate.

Where did the inspiration for The Pearl and The Carnelian come from? 

Short period dramas that followed in the wake of Downton Abbey; not in the way you might think, though. You see, quite a lot of them are set in the interwar period, and quite a lot of them involve a certain type of card-carrying villain: a Blackshirt Supporter, or, alternatively, a Nazi Sympathizer. She—it tends to be a lady—is obviously evil and irredeemably despicable. She is a secondary character, or sometimes she only appears in one episode. Her motives are not explored or explained; but that’s natural, since she only exists to underline the virtues of the show's protagonists. She is usually modeled after one of the older Mitford sisters; with none of the complexity, though.

And ... well, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I wanted to find out why. No evil simply springs up in the middle of a perfect world (in this case—a family values-suffused Good Old England). It grows from its very soil; it’s nourished by its very culture. And, the more biographies I’ve read, the more material I’ve uncovered, the clearer I understood it, and the more I wished to articulate it. 


So, here is a novel, partly narrated by the black sheep in a respectable, country house-dwelling family. A genuine black sheep, I mean. Not a vaguely rebellious, moderately spirited young lady.

How did you decide to take on the challenge of writing a book?  

I cannot say it was a weighted decision; the idea simply burned too brightly for me to discard.

Do you write more by planning or intuition, or some combination of the two? 

I am definitely a great proponent of careful planning. It makes the actual writing process much smoother, and, I might even say, helps to avoid the writer’s block.

Who are your favorite authors/authors you find most inspirational? 

I would say, Ellen Kushner, for her engrossing plots and fabulous queer characters. Also, Sofia Samatar, for her unparalleled world building and mesmerizing writing.

Do you model your writing off a particular author or book? 

As I’ve said, Sofia Samatar became a great inspiration for me in terms of her vivid writing. And, of course, few authors can portray lesbian relationships in historical settings as evocatively, as Sarah Waters...

What is your ultimate goal as a writer?  

I would say, that I write to give the shape and expression to all the worlds growing in my mind. Perhaps, growing isn’t necessarily an appropriate word; after all, the actual creation process involves careful construction and precise planning. However, the initial ideas seem to bloom in my thoughts, like red flowers; they demand my attention and nudge me to tend to them.

Are you working on anything new at the moment? 

Actually, I am! I am still in the research stage, and, of course, it is a little early to discuss anything particular. I can only say three things for sure: it is going to be a fantasy with a minimum amount of magic, if any at all; it is not going to be set in pseudo-medieval-kinda-Europe; it will definitely involve lesbian romantic subplots.

Thanks to Annabel and to Smith Publicity for the questions and answers and for the free PDF of the book. Interested readers can find The Pearl and the Carnelian at Amazon.com.


Friday, November 4, 2016

Love, Heartbreak, and the Holidays

If you have been following Five Directions Press on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest (and if you have not, why haven’t you?), you may have noticed that we have started regularly posting images based on lines from our books. For the last week, those images have featured Courtney J. Hall’s A Holiday Wish (Silver Bells 1), which released into the world yesterday.

You may also remember Courtney’s Some Rise by Sin, which came out in 2015. Wasn’t a sequel, Some by Virtue Fall, supposed to follow? Well, yes—and it will, for sure. Can’t waste that gorgeous cover, right? But the Muse doesn’t always show up for the job on cue, and some days she arrives with a mind of her own. In this case, when Courtney asked for help with Cecily Haughton, what she got was Noelle Silver, who burst onto the scene ready-formed and chatting up a storm. So like any writer, Courtney said “thanks for the gift” and wrote it all down. Thus was born Silver Bells, a contemporary romance series focused on the winter holidays.



I love smart, funny romances—especially ones set between Halloween and Christmas—and this one is a gem. I’d say that even if I didn’t write for the same publisher and belong to the same critique group. I devoured the first draft, and the story only got better from there.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Read the details below, check out the images on social media, and decide for yourself. You can also go to the Five Directions Press page and read or listen to an excerpt before making up your mind. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. I only wish I could discuss the series on New Books in Historical Fiction, but that will have to wait for Some by Virtue Fall.


Courtney J. Hall, A Holiday Wish
(SILVER BELLS 1)


Noelle Silver has been a wedding planner for six years, and in all that time, the only bride she’s failed to get down the aisle is herself. Abandoned by her fiancé and disillusioned with love, Noelle is ready to pack it in and leave town when Brooke St. John, orphaned heiress, offers her a staggering amount of money to organize Brooke’s Christmas Eve wedding to a much older man.

Noelle is reluctant at first, but the payment Brooke offers is more than enough for Noelle to start a new life. It’s also an opportunity for Noelle to prove to herself—and her former fiancé—that despite her broken heart, she still has what it takes to pull off a wedding worthy of an heiress in the two months Brooke has given her.

But the best man, Brooke’s older brother Everett, is dead-set on stopping the nuptials. Will he succeed, driving the final nail into the coffin of Noelle’s career as a wedding planner—and shattering what’s left of her expectations of love?

“Memorable characters, a frantic scramble to put together a Christmas wedding, and an unexpected attraction. A Holiday Wish is a beautiful story about finding yourself again when all seems lost.” —USA Today bestselling author Nikki Lynn Barrett

You can order the book on Amazon.com (free if you have Kindle Unlimited) or through a local bookstore; to learn more about the author, visit http://www.courtneyjhall.com.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Poison and Plot


Get them in a corner with a glass of something alcoholic, and most historians will admit that one of the appeals of the field is its potential for really juicy gossip. Historians can read diaries, private letters, court cases, and more—all in the name of research. And despite dull lists of crop prices and taxes paid, today’s scandals often pale in comparison to the active imaginations of the past, with their invocations of witchcraft and sorcery, pretenders and princes, and bizarre and horrible punishments masquerading as the rule of law. We still have poisons and pimping, unhappy marriages and love affairs, of course. But these modern-day discontents cannot hold a proverbial candle to something like the Affair of the Poisons, which convulsed the supposedly enlightened nation of France from 1677 to 1682 (by some accounts it began as early as 1675) and pulled in suspects from the sewers of Paris to the court at Versailles.

This scandal forms the backdrop to Kate Braithwaite’s Charlatan, the subject of my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. From the distorted mass that opens the novel to the aging beauty whose predicament forms its heart, this gritty, touching, and compelling story will drag you into a France now only dimly remembered. And you can get there without even plowing through the police records and the lists of bread prices. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Just head straight for the gossip. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride.

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




Paris, 1676. At the house of the fortuneteller Catherine Montvoisin (La Voisin), while two hooded forms watch, a wayward priest burns a piece of parchment in a spell designed to awaken the passions of Louis XIV of France. Three years later, those performing the ceremony become the target of a police investigation into the so-called Affair of the Poisons. Through interrogation, strategic imprisonment, and selective executions, the police gradually close in on La Voisin. But because of confessions exacted through torture, the widening scandal sweeps up more than four hundred suspects, including some of France’s most prestigious aristocrats. When a zealous young officer goes after La Voisin’s daughter and threatens to implicate Louis XIV’s official mistress, the marquise de Montespan, the police chief gets cold feet. But the young officer remains determined to bring those he considers guilty to justice, until in the end only the intervention of the Sun King himself can sort things out.

In Charlatan (Fireship Press, 2016), Kate Braithwaite vividly brings to life the extremes of seventeenth-century French society, from the stews of Paris to the luxurious apartments of Versailles and the Carmelite convent where one of Louis’s discarded lovers has chosen to end her days. Sometimes beautiful, often brutal, her portrayal of the Sun King and his world will haunt you long after you finish reading.


Image of Athénaïs de Montespan in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Writing What You Know


Somewhere in the middle of my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Martha Conway, we talk about a piece—perhaps the most common piece—of advice given to would-be authors: “write what you know.”

Martha, like my fellow Five Directions Press novelist Joan Schweighardt, comes down on the side of writing what she doesn’t know, because that’s exactly what she most wants to find out. I, in contrast, tend to write what I know best—in part because I have the privilege of knowing quite a bit about a time and place unfamiliar to most people. I’d like to share that information with other people. When I get off work for the evening, I don’t have sufficient brain cells left to tackle serious history, never mind original research—that has to wait for my time off. I assume others have similar experiences, so I figure that if I want people outside my field to read about sixteenth-century Russia, fiction is the way to go.

Even so, my decades of research don’t always supply the exact information I need for fleshing out a story. I spend a lot of time chasing down details that fiction happens to require. I also find that writing, paradoxically, is easier on subjects where I have learned just enough to capture the essence of another person’s world, not so much that I have to rediscover what I’m taking for granted. In that sense, I agree with Martha: it can be better—and in general more fun—to write what you don’t know.

But at a more basic level, what does it mean, in an imaginative context, to “write what you know”? At least until whales learn to type or the Vulcans make contact, all writers are human. Cultures and assumptions may differ, but emotions, expressions, and needs vary much less. Gestures can be culturally determined (the source of numerous diplomatic faux pas over the centuries), but many are instantly recognizable. By the time we reach adolescence, we already have enough experience of life’s highs and lows to imagine hunger and fear, anger and a sense of abandonment, frustration and triumph. The characters we create need food and shelter, to move and eat and sleep, to live among others who care about them and whom they love. Most of us understand concepts like music and dance, art and experimentation, even if today’s chemistry was once alchemy and today’s understanding of the heavens would have amazed the ancients. For fiction set in the present, this is often sufficient. Where readers and writers share a cultural context, a huge amount of background information goes without saying. For historical and science fiction—and, of course, fantasy—authors have to find a way to sketch in that background without getting caught up in a dry recitation of facts. That’s where “knowing” comes in. And where it can get in the way, if the author can’t bear to let go of the facts acquired with such effort and let the story take priority.



Then again, what is “knowing” in historical or science fiction or fantasy terms? Does it stop with a mastery of the facts, such as we can determine them? (I could write at least one more blog post on the difficulty of that!) I’d say no. Facts and details do play a role in creating a novel that can sweep a reader into another century and locale by underlining the differences between there/then and the present. We would not do those things or eat those foods or dress that way, so we are not those characters, even if we empathize with them. We are on a journey, led by an author who has put in the time to master his or her subject and convey it to us in an accessible way.

Still, many facts escape us, and in the interests of fiction a writer can alter others, so long as they are either minor or confessed at the end. “Knowing” has to go deeper than facts. Above all, I think, it means understanding where our own assumptions differ from those of our characters, because of distance in time and/or space. Writers need to allow themselves time to identify the boundaries of a non-contemporary, not-from-“here” person’s view of the world. Once we cross that bridge, imagination and emotional experience kick in, and we can begin to construct how a given character might experience and react to story events. Then the story truly comes to life and draws us in.

This imagining is what Conway does so well in Sugarland. You can find out more by listening to her interview and, of course, by reading her book.


Images purchased from Clipart.com, #109492886 and 10950787.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Chatting about Writing

Much as I try to master social media, I have to admit that my efforts range from spasmodic to nonexistent, with an occasional surge into borderline involved when something happens at Five Directions Press or an editing project I’m tackling proves particularly grueling. I suspect my mixed performance results in part from belonging to the e-mail and phone generation, but it has even more to do with wanting to spend every non-work moment either writing or thinking about writing. Which means that either I’m too busy to post regularly or I’m wandering my imaginary world.

One of the great joys of Facebook—and hosting New Books in Historical Fiction, but that’s another story—though, has been meeting other writers. NBHF connected me with Joan Schweighardt, who became a Facebook friend and then a Five Directions Press author, and Joan connected me with Eleanor Parker Sapia, another author who hosts The Writing Life Blog. This past Tuesday, Eleanor interviewed me for her blog. A few of her wonderfully thought-provoking questions follow, but do click on the link and read the rest. What I’m reproducing here accounts for no more than a quarter of the interview, if that. See it as a taste, to show the range of her Q&A.

While you’re there, don’t miss her interviews with Joan Schweighardt and Gabrielle Mathieu, authors of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun and The Falcon Flies Alone, respectively. And to find out more about Eleanor, watch for my NBHF interview with her, currently scheduled for January 2017.





What inspired you to write the Legends of the Five Directions series?
The series came about because I have spent four decades studying this fascinating place and time: Russia between the Mongol invasion (1237–40) and the reign of Peter the Great (1689–1725). I wanted to share it with people in an accessible way, and fiction seemed like the ideal means to do that. In particular, I love to explore the many different ways that women adapt and grow in societies that restrict their choices and have low expectations of their abilities—historically, most societies. Every one of the women featured in this series, from Nasan, the descendant of Genghis Khan, to Grusha the slave girl, has to address and solve the question of where she fits in the larger world; each one responds in her own unique way.

What is your favorite part of writing?

I love every part of writing except the final proofreading. Because I tend to start with sketches and fill them in as I go, I’d say that my absolute favorite part is the second stage, when I can see the broad lines of the story but still have lots of room for creativity and invention. But I find even the revision and pruning stages satisfying in their own way.

C. P., does your main character resemble you? If so, in what ways?

Well, psychologically, all my characters—even the antagonists—must represent some part of me, right? I just don’t always want to admit it! Nasan is braver than I am and does things I’d never think of, like impulsively going after men-at-arms with her sword. Her emotions lie on the surface, whereas mine tend, in good Scots style, to remain hidden. She is like me in terms of having a practical approach to life, and she loves to read, which I do, too. But I have worked to make her different from me, unlike some of my earlier heroines (Nina in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel; Sasha in Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades). By the way, it’s easier, in my view, to write a character less like the author; it gives me some much-needed distance to appreciate both her virtues and her flaws.

In other news, Ariadne Apostolou, Courtney J. Hall, and I represented Five Directions Press at our local library on Indie Authors Day (October 8). We got to meet a dozen or so other local authors, had a great time, and even sold some books. Now, that’s my kind of social media. But to be fair, we did post the pictures on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest—even during the event. So maybe the old style and the new aren’t so far apart after all.



And stay tuned for the release of Courtney’s A Holiday Wish on November 3. What better way to spend those cold, snowy evenings than with a Christmas romance? The Kindle edition is already  available for preorder, and the print files are waiting for approval as soon as the date draws a little closer. So add it to your Christmas lists and settle in for a charming and heartwarming story with a heroine whose hopes may have been dashed but whose spirit triumphs even in the chill of a Philadelphia winter. 

To quote Nicki Lynn Barrett, USA Today bestselling author: “Memorable characters, a frantic scramble to put together a Christmas wedding, and an unexpected attraction. A Holiday Wish is a beautiful story about finding yourself again when all seems lost.”

Friday, October 7, 2016

The No-Longer-Dreaded Synopsis

Or How I Learned to Love What I Once Feared


As Elizabeth Sinclair notes in her how-to guide—the title of which, The Dreaded Synopsis, I have shamelessly adapted for this post—“Given a choice between writing one book and a synopsis and writing two books, most authors would choose to write two books. Even the word ‘synopsis’ inspires cold chills and neuroses in novelists” (5).

Too, too true. I can attest from experience that Sinclair has hit the proverbial nail smartly on its head here. Throughout my first three books, I loathed synopses. For the next three, I didn’t bother to write them. The great advantage of forming a writers’ cooperative, I told myself, was that I would never, ever have to write a synopsis again. And almost every writer I know would raise a mammoth cheer at that thought.

Why is that? What makes people who can spend years in a room chronicling the adventures of characters who live only in their heads and write multiple drafts of 100,000-word novels cringe at the thought of summarizing their stories in a single page—or even five pages? The terrors of a back-cover blurb (although I’ve learned to love those too) are easier to understand: a blurb is a marketing tool, so it has to reflect the book in ways both interesting and appealing, giving away just enough to catch a potential reader’s attention and make him or her pick up the book, but not so much that the urge to find out more fades away.

Of course, synopses act as marketing tools, too. Literary agents want them, as do publishing house editors. So much better to read a page than fifty pages, or even ten, especially when one faces hundreds—even thousands—of queries. And although a poorly written synopsis may not do justice to the novel it portrays, a well-written one almost always indicates an author who has mastered her craft. With only so many hours in the day, agents and editors can be forgiven for taking the risk of overlooking a few good authors to the benefit of others who have mastered this essential technique.

None of that, however, explains why I decided to write a synopsis for The Vermilion Bird. My reason may help you, too, over your dread of synopses (and I assume that if you have read this far, you like them no more than I once did). Quite simply, I realized I could use it to focus my thoughts and sketch out the central events of both the plot and—most essential—the character development of the novel. The plot relies in part on a particular political crisis that afflicted Russia in 1537 and followed a compressed but vital timeline. The crisis serves as background, of course; Vermilion Bird is historical fiction, not history. Still, the events drive the story, and I needed a clear sense of when characters needed to arrive and leave specific places and what openings existed between events when fictional development could take place.

For that, a timeline would suffice, and I have been constructing one in Aeon Timeline 2, a wonderfully useful little program that lets me track where various characters (including actual historical figures) are at given moments in time. But precisely because the fiction element ultimately dominates, the synopsis proved its worth. There the focus falls (at least, it should fall—a realization that opens the whole process up and makes it less overwhelming) on the characters: who the main players are and what they want; what brings them together and pushes them apart; which problems they need to solve before they can achieve their conscious and unconscious goals; and who has to interact with whom when for the whole unwieldy structure to cohere instead of fall apart.

As that information goes onto the page, flaws and strengths become clear. So do plot holes and weak motivations. The imagination kicks in, and the effect on the author is the same as writing every day: the characters come alive and start talking. In a page or two, a writer has room only for the things that matter. Finding those things before getting a long way into the book saves an enormous amount of time that must otherwise go into revision. The synopsis also requires an endpoint, which then provides a beacon in the midpoint of the book when, as generally happens in my case, the characters have pushed the story in directions I never anticipated and I need to rein them in and get them back on track. Redoing the synopsis after completing the first draft clarifies what needs cutting and where to expand. For all these reasons, it makes sense to learn how to write a synopsis, even if you never plan to show it to an agent or an editor.

If you have not read Sinclair’s book, I highly recommend it. It’s available in print and for Kindle, and it lays out the mechanics in clear, vivid prose, with great examples to get you over that hump. For me, it turned synopsis writing from a chore to a guilty pleasure, and what could be better than that?

To close, I offer not the full one-page synopsis for Vermilion Bird (too much information so early in the process!) but the back-cover blurb, an even more condensed version of my story-in-the-making. No doubt that will change, too, but the basic idea will remain. After all, I know now where the story is heading....

The Vermilion Bird (Legends of the Five Directions 4: South)


Maria Koshkina has spent most of the last three years wishing herself out of her in-laws’ household. So she should feel relieved now that her father has found a new match for her. Alas, he has picked the most annoying man in creation—not even a Russian, but a Tatar sultan who takes it for granted that she will ride at his side, read what he gives her, and advise him on the ins and outs of the Moscow court. And where her first husband had minimal interest in women—or at least in Maria—the new one has a healthy respect for the joys of marriage and no qualms whatsoever about seeking them outside it.
 

Her husband can’t decide quite what to make of this beautiful redhead who seems both untouched and touchy. Doesn’t she understand that a princess needs more than embroidery to survive? In the assassination-filled politics of the sixteenth-century Russian court, this unlikely pair struggles to find a way to get along before the undercurrents of rebellion sweep them away.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Jazz, Jukes, and Gin

I love a good mystery, and a good mystery set in the past is even better. So I was delighted to encounter Sugarland, the latest novel by Martha Conway (after 12 Bliss Street and Thieving Forest, both of which we discuss, if not at length), in preparation for my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview. As you can see from the description below, Sugarland takes place in Chicago right after the Great War—a city still racially and economically segregated despite the influx of Southerners fleeing the influence of Jim Crow laws. In this land of liquor, nightclubs, and crime, a complicated scheme begins to unravel, a young man dies, and two women whose paths might otherwise never cross must work together to figure out what’s happening in time to save themselves and those they love. It’s a wonderfully rich story, and Conway is an engaging speaker, so give it a listen—then read her book. It’s definitely a hidden gem.

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

It’s 1921, and Prohibition is in full swing, but you wouldn’t know it from the nightclubs and speakeasies of Chicago, where bathtub gin mingles with homemade bourbon distilled from trainloads of corn sugar shipped from Southern farms. A young man named Al Capone is on his way up, the bar owners squabble over control of the sugar trade, and the police know to turn a blind eye. So when a drive-by shooting ends in murder, two young women—Eve, a black jazz pianist, and Lena, a white nurse—band together to find Eve’s missing stepsister and the killer of Lena’s brother in Sugarland (Noontime Books, 2016)—a fast-paced, twisty, riveting journey through the seedy back alleys of the Windy City, where the Great Migration has only just begun to break down the barriers of racial segregation. Out of these disparate elements Martha Conway—the winner of numerous awards for her previous historical novel, Thieving Forest—blends a scintillating cocktail set to the thumping rhythms of jazz, directed by a mysterious kingpin known only as the Walnut.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Careful What You Wish For

If people always made wise choices, the role of fiction in the world would be much diminished. As readers, I doubt we consciously seek out stories where the heroes and heroines plunge their lives into disaster within the first twenty pages—or we may not like to admit that to ourselves—but unconsciously we do. One of the first lessons a new writer has to master is the art of forcing beloved characters (often based on the author, in a first novel) to suffer. In early drafts authors often create idealized versions of themselves—lovely to imagine and fun to write but, alas, deadly boring to readers. The rest of us flawed, struggling humans just can’t connect to perfect people living perfect lives. So as writers we learn to complicate, complicate, complicate until that final moment of resolution that allows the book to end. As one of the developers of the fiction-planning software Dramatica put it, “A story represents the mind’s way of solving a problem” (or words to that effect—alas, my memory is not that good!). As I interpret that phrase, fiction allows us, from the safety of our couches, to explore the many different avenues available to resolve any given situation. Hence characters require problems to solve.

With this idea at the back of my mind, I knew I was in for a fun time when I opened Heather Teysko’s debut novel, Sideways and Backwards, and encountered the first chapter title: “In Which Things Fall Apart.” Nothing like laying it out there from the beginning.

In fact, for Natasha, the heroine, things have already fallen apart. She just hasn’t realized it yet. As the opening paragraph puts it, after settling us into a misty fall morning underneath a cosy duvet:

Today, though, there is a huge clash going on. An epic battle between the dreamworld in which I was living not five minutes ago, filled with warmth and quiet, and the incessant beeping of my phone. Someone clearly wants to tell me something, and I can’t decide whether it’s worth it to make the effort required to reach it, charging on my night table, which requires movement.

Turns out that Natasha has imbibed rather too freely at a Halloween party, and after a few dozen more phone-based interruptions, she learns to her horror that her “friends” have plastered her transgressions all over social media—imperiling her career as editor in chief to a London publishing house. She flees to Cambridge, seeking some quiet time at its ancient university while her publicist cleans up the mess. But during Evensong in the King’s College chapel, Natasha blacks out. She wakes up five hundred years in the past, with no idea how she got there, never mind how to get home. “Quiet time” and “refuge” have just taken on a whole new meaning.

The story is tremendous fun, and although not quite able to break her addiction to her iPhone (sustained by a conveniently packed solar charger), Natasha does use her isolation from the Internet to engage in necessary emotional work as the story progresses. A neat twist ties beginning and end together in a surprising way, and the explanation for her journey to the past has a lovely medieval resonance. So if you like funny, time-traveling chick lit—imagine Bridget Jones coping with Tudor England—Sideways and Backwards is well worth a few evenings of your time. You may never find yourself in sixteenth-century England, but faux pas on social media are a threat to us all.

Heather Teysko is not only an author; she also hosts interviews of her own. Listen to her chat with historians and historical novelists on the Renaissance English History Podcast. Natasha has her own webpage, where you can find out more about her story and listen to the piece of music that she hears in the King’s College Chapel with such extraordinary results. Or you can just check Heather’s site for information about her and links to the others.



And by the way, love that cover. It’s a perfect match for both the subject of its book and the tone.