Friday, July 28, 2017

It Runs in Families

You may remember that in February 2017 I posted about how I read and fell in love with Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age. So I found it particularly interesting to discover during my recent interview with Beatriz for New Books in Historical Fiction that the characters and fundamental romantic plot of that book derive from an opera that Beatriz knew growing up. (You can find out which opera and how the stories intersect by listening to the interview.)

Also during the conversation, we talk quite a bit about how characters—even whole families—from one of her books pop up in other books. It’s a kind of in-group game: you read one, wonder what happened to X, and bang, there he or she is, starring in another. Or sometimes just making a cameo appearance, like Hollywood celebrities.

I have to admit that, although I wanted to hear why Beatriz recycles her fictional people in this way, I understand the urge completely. Not only do my Legends novels trace the development of a whole cast of friends and family members over the course of five years or so, but I have enough “leftover” potential heroines to people a second series of their own. Naturally, since they will still be moving forward in time, they will intersect with Nasan, Daniil, Ogodai, Firuza, Maria, Alexei, and the rest as seems appropriate. I have the sense I couldn’t stop them if I tried.

So what is the attraction of sticking with an expanding group rather than starting afresh each time as most novelists do? Again, Beatriz explains her reasons in the interview. Mine follow here.

At the most basic level, I envisioned the series that way, but in the early days of writing I failed to understand how simple novel plots need to be, so I had too many characters with too many stories for any one book. These are the “leftovers,” whose backgrounds I know and whose development I have imagined but whose stories didn’t fit into the space available.

A second reason is that known characters come with some of the prep work already done. A writer has to figure out how to grow them, both as individuals and in terms of their relationships, but developing an existing character is easier than starting from scratch. It takes a long time to build a consistent but well-rounded character, so why waste the effort?

Last, for me and for Beatriz as well, those existing characters constitute a story world, filled with the complexities that we find in the real world. They are, if you like, a reflection of a given author’s personality. And like the real world, there are always surprises waiting around the corner, questions demanding answers and people eager to reveal hidden facets of themselves.

So long as the journey entertains and enlightens, we may as well continue along the same path. Because given the way the subconscious works, when that path ceases to lead anywhere, the inspiration will dry up and a new character will force him- or herself into the writer’s mind, insisting on telling his or her story.

Then, like it or not, off we plunge into another story world filled with a different cast. With luck, they too will become friends and family by the time their saga comes to an end.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. We settled on Cocoa Beach, the latest novel, as the featured title, but in fact we talk about all  its predecessors as well.

The State of Florida might have been designed for Prohibition. Its long coastline, its proximity to the Caribbean sources of rum, and (in 1922) its vast stretches of undeveloped coastline made it a perfect target for smuggling. No wonder that lines of ships lay just outside US waters waiting for the intrepid and criminally minded to ferry each cargo of illicit liquor to land.

So Virginia Fitzwilliam discovers firsthand when she travels to the town of Cocoa Beach, then called simply Cocoa, with her two-year-old daughter, Evelyn. Virginia has received news that her estranged husband, Simon, has died in a fire and left his estate and business to her. But when she reaches Cocoa, she soon discovers that Simon's executors agree on one thing: widows should collect checks and not ask awkward questions, including what really goes on in the company warehouse after dark. Only her sister-in-law shows the slightest sympathy for Virginia and her struggle to understand not only what happened to Simon but what his legacy means for her and their daughter.

Told in overlapping narratives that contrast Virginia's past as an ambulance driver in World War I and her early history with Simon to her troubling reintroduction to the man she thought she loved, Beatriz Williams creates in Cocoa Beach what she describes as a Gothic novel in a new, more modern setting. I would call it a psychological thriller, one dominated by a rich and complex cast of characters whose all too human interactions never fail to pull the reader along.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Bookshelf, July 2017

The books are piling up again, so here’s the latest rundown of titles read recently or due to be read soon, ending with the newest Five Directions Press release—in this case a re-release. Except for the last, I’m listing the books alphabetically by author, with a note about how they got on the list as well as what appeals to me about them.


Joy Callaway, Secret Sisters
As an alumna of a woman’s college, I can’t resist this study of young women in late nineteenth-century Illinois who decide to establish the first sorority at their coed college. The effort reveals the difficulties faced by women of the time in acquiring an education, especially in “male” subjects such as medicine, but the real topic of the novel is friendship, both among the women struggling to support one another as a tolerated minority and between the lead character, Beth, and the man she selects to help her win her case. My current read.


Sofia Grant, The Dress in the Window
My most recent read and the subject of a future author Q&A here on the blog. As the gorgeous cover suggests, this is a novel about fashion in the United States right after World War II, a time when rich women still had their own salons in the department stores where each dress was fitted to them personally by a dedicated staff. Two sisters—one a gifted clothing designer, the other a seamstress of extraordinary skill—try, each in her own way, to break into this rarefied world. But the echoes of their past and of the war that they and the country are striving so hard to forget twist their deep bond with resentments as pervasive as fabric and thread, and a deep secret threatens to tear them apart.


Linnea Hartsuyker, The Half-Drowned King
Next month’s interview for New Books in Historical Fiction takes a dive into the Viking past in the form of a young ruler betrayed by his stepfather and a love affair that may never have a chance to bloom. Shades of Tristan and Iseult blend with a tale of defeat and conquest to create what looks like an interesting novel.



Beatriz Williams, Cocoa Beach
This month’s interview, discussing the latest Jazz Age novel by an accomplished bestselling author with many fascinating points to make about her own and others’ work. Here Virginia Fitzwilliam travels from New York City to Cocoa, Florida, in the wake of her estranged husband’s death and discovers not only a fortune—perhaps based on illegal liquor in this era of Prohibition—but a host of relatives, hangers on, and others determined to secure some of the wealth for themselves, by fair means or foul. Compelling psychological and historical drama by an author with a real gift for creating complex and interesting characters.



Sarah Zama, Give in to the Feeling
Another Jazz Age tale, this one set in a Chicago speakeasy where certain members of the clientele and even of the staff live on another plane. Yes, they are ghosts, and not everyone can see them for what they are. Susie (Su Xie), an immigrant sent from South China to marry a man sight unseen, discovers when she reaches San Francisco that her intended bridegroom has died. His friend helps her out by taking her to Chicago and supporting her, but in return he demands complete and unwavering loyalty. Which becomes a problem for Susie when a man named Blood walks into the speakeasy and wants to dance... This novella only hints at the larger story the author is developing in her trilogy, but it goes down like a well-chilled wine. Another future subject for an author Q&A.


And last but not least, we have The Duel for Consuelo, re-released by Five Directions Press last Saturday (July 15) after being orphaned when Booktrope Editions unexpectedly closed last spring. I love this story of a smart and determined young woman whose simple path toward marriage to the youngest son of the local hacienda owner takes an abrupt detour in the waning days of the Inquisition. We redesigned the cover and reedited and reformatted the text, but the story remains largely unchanged. To give you a sense of what to expect, the book description follows, but you need not stop there. The book page at our site offers both audio and print excerpts, and our newsletter offers an interview with the author.

Like most well-born young women in eighteenth-century Mexico, Consuelo Costa Argenta hopes for a good marriage, preferably to handsome Juan Carlos, son of the local landowner. But Consuelo cannot simply follow her heart’s desire. Born to a Crypto-Jewish mother, raised as a Christian, living under the Inquisition, she must balance the safety of conformity against loyalty to her heritage. As her mother’s mind begins to fail, her hidden allegiance to her ancestral religion emerges, drawing the attention of renegade priests. They spin a financial web intended to ensnare Consuelo’s father, torture her mother, and threaten her own life and happiness.

Misunderstanding her father’s demands for money, Juan Carlos rejects her, and his parents arrange to send her to the nuns of Condera to pursue her education. Learning about herbs eases Consuelo’s pain, as does flirting with another potential suitor. But once Juan Carlos arrives at the Condera court and Consuelo’s father promises her to the wrong man, her future looks grim.

When the Inquisition’s renegade priests kidnap her mother, only Consuelo can save her. If she can first save herself.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lithuanian Renaissance

After two writing posts in a row, it’s time for one on historical research, I think. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I have begun work on The Shattered Drum (Legends 5: Center). Originally the title referred to a shaman’s drum, and the idea was to focus on Grusha, one of the few important lower-class characters in the series. But as tends to happen with my novels, I realized belatedly that since Nasan is the main series character—heroine of books 1 and 3, vital subplot character in book 2, and important viewpoint character in book 4—Legends 5 should round out her journey in an emotionally satisfying way.

At more or less the same moment, I recognized that the symbol of the shattered drum has a broader thematic meaning that relates as well to the revised plan as to the original one. So Grusha, like several other “leftover” characters whose full histories never quite fit in to the overarching story, will one day have her own novel in a new series that is banging around in the back of my brain. Meanwhile, the new plan requires additional research, which is where the Lithuanian Renaissance comes into the picture.

Now, if you read my posts regularly, I assume you have enough interest in history to know what the Renaissance is—or was. But Lithuania? Seriously? I think most people see the Renaissance as an Italian, or at least West European, phenomenon. Lithuania, in this view, is a teensy Baltic state that escaped Soviet control a bit more than twenty-five years ago. Venice—Renaissance, but Vilnius?


But you would be surprised. First off, Lithuania in the sixteenth century was not the least bit teensy. As the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it included most of modern Belarus and Ukraine. At its height, circa 1430, it encompassed 360,000 square miles. It had a large Eastern Orthodox population, and its state language was Russian. Two and a half million people called Lithuania home in 1430, a level the country would not reach again until 1790.

Second, unlike neighboring Russia, neither Poland nor Lithuania was isolated from the Renaissance. They sent students to the universities in Padua and Bologna. They imported art and architects and artisans from the south. They had a thriving commerce with most of the rest of Europe. Because of Lithuania’s dynastic ties to nearby Poland, it had a Catholic population as well as an Eastern Orthodox one, and by the 1530s it had become caught up in the Protestant Reformation as well.

Third, in 1538, the time period of The Shattered Drum, Poland and Lithuania shared a pair of co-rulers, both confusingly named Sigismund (Zygmunt): Sigismund the Elder and his son, Sigismund Augustus, each of whom served simultaneously as king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania. Sigismund the Elder was then in his seventies; Sigismund Augustus had yet to turn eighteen. But the crucial detail is that twenty years earlier, in 1518, Sigismund the Elder had married Bona Sforza of Milan and Bari, who became the mother of the younger Sigismund. Bona’s arrival strengthened the Italian contingent enough to turn Krakow and Vilnius into mini-versions of Florence.

You can see the difference right away in the clothes. Compare the three public domain paintings in this post, all taken from Wikimedia Commons. From top to bottom, they are Henryk Rodakowski’s The Chicken War (1872, reflecting an event from 1537), Titian’s La Bella (1536, courtesy of the Yorck Project), and Konstantin Makovsky’s The Bride Show (1886, imagining Muscovy in the mid-seventeenth century). The women’s dress in Rodakowski’s and Titian’s paintings are the same style, very Italianate; the Makovsky depicts a different, equally beautiful but more oriental culture.

Unfortunately, history hasn’t always been kind to that part of the world. The expanding Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Prussian empires carved up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century. The beautiful Renaissance palaces, already much reconstructed and “improved,” came tumbling down. The wars of the twentieth century obliterated what remained. Based on archeological excavations, the newly independent state of Lithuania has rebuilt the grand ducal palace in a sixteenth-century style, but we have to take it on faith that it bears any resemblance to the residence that the two Sigismunds and Bona Sforza knew. And though more than a few diplomats traveled through Vilnius and Krakow in the sixteenth century, they don’t seem to have left much of a record—perhaps because unlike Muscovy, which struck the envoys as exotic and foreign, Lithuania looked too much like home.

So here I am, again trying to find out what my characters would see, touch, smell, hear, eat. What would amaze or appall them? Would they adopt the very different style of dress? Would they stick to their own customs with a stubbornness bordering on defensiveness? Which characters would adopt one approach and which the other? Whom would they meet, and what would they think of those people, especially the Italian queen accused more than once of poisoning her rivals?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Writers' Intuition

In last week’s discussion of themes I mentioned the idea, ruthlessly cribbed from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, that characters in a novel do not exist in isolation. Instead they form a web, and their interactions through the plot push the story forward, cause the protagonists to change, and embody varying approaches to the novel’s central moral argument, its theme.

I also noted that at least in my case, themes arise from my subconscious mind. I discover them only after I complete the first draft (other people’s mileage no doubt varies, as the saying goes). Although I plan novels in various ways discussed elsewhere on this blog, my best writing appears when I fall into the zone where words pour onto the page and I become more a recorder than a planner. In the zone I write by instinct. Sometimes the results are kasha, but more often they have a flow that I can’t attain otherwise. Almost always they reveal elements of a character I hadn’t previously recognized. And those elements can surprise me.

Take, for example, Tulpar, an antagonist in The Winged Horse. When I set up that novel, I knew I wanted to explore the consequences of polygamy on the children, especially the sons, of men with multiple wives. Even judged by the standards of the Russian court in the 1530s, which forms the backdrop of the Legends novels and where the royal family could give the Borgias a run for their money, the Tatar successor states to the Mongol Empire had an extraordinarily large number of khans who came to power by assassinating their brothers.

In part, it was an example of “rule by the strongest”—carried to its extreme in the Ottoman Empire, where a system developed in which each concubine could have no more than one son and each sultan began his reign by tracking down and killing his half-brothers. But the reality that so many of the sons had different mothers must, I think, have also played a role in the conflict. Full brothers can, of course, hate each other and try to kill each other. And the half-brothers often fought together as well as against one another. Even so, I was curious about what role polygamy might play.

I decided to give Ogodai a half-brother, Tulpar, older than he and therefore stronger and more experienced, since an antagonist’s main role in a novel is to oppose the protagonist and thus force the protagonist to change. Most of us resist change, so the more powerful the antagonist, the greater the pressure on the hero/heroine to buckle down and do the hard work of self-improvement. Even in a romance, the hero and heroine typically act as antagonists for each other, at the same time as they are both protagonists. That’s why love stories so often start out with a man and woman who either dislike each other or see a situation in opposite ways. Without that conflict, the characters have no reason to change. There is no story.

So far, so good. But right away I ran into a problem: I hadn’t ever mentioned this older half-brother in The Golden Lynx. Well, how could I when I hadn’t created him yet? So I came up with a story for why no one in the family talked about him, and although I knew it was a bit far-fetched, it worked well enough for that book. The idea was for the two half-brothers to battle it out to the end, and may the best man win. They had plenty to fight over: a potential wife, leadership, bragging rights, a sexy concubine, even a philosophy of how this independent horde could preserve its freedom. The main difference between the brothers was character.

Then something happened. I realized that Tulpar was a perfect match for someone else in the series. How did I know? At the time, I couldn’t have said. I just thought, “Oh, those two so deserve each other. It would be great fun to throw them together and see what happens.” But looking back, I see that somehow I grasped that they were dealing with the same problem, but starting from very different places and approaching their troubles in very different ways. Their assumptions and reactions would push them to change, then support them as they changed. Even then, it took a third character to intervene and show me (and them) how the change could come about. A character who knew the hidden story and could act as an intermediary—and no, I won’t tell you more than that. You have to read the book to find out!

Getting from Point A to Point B took a lot of work. I had to twist things around so the new story could emerge from the old one. I had to go back to the far-fetched explanation and completely rework it so that it would make sense from the perspective of this character who had revealed his hidden depths in that unexpected way. I had to figure out how that realization altered what I could demand of him. Most important, I needed to understand how Tulpar’s view of the world would interact with that of the other characters. Where was the web? Who else in the series shared these issues, and how would they contribute to the whole? But the effort was worth it, every bit, because it made for a better story. And in the process I fell in love with them, as I do with all my main characters; otherwise I can’t write them.

It took me most of the first draft of The Vermilion Bird to answer the questions. And wouldn’t you know? Halfway through another character decided to share her story. I never did find a way to work it into this novel, and I am not certain this particular character would ever undertake the difficult work of personal growth. So I have yet to decide what to do with this information. Perhaps she will always lurk in the background, an amusing distraction, a perennial secondary figure.

But I’m laying the groundwork, just in case. Because I wouldn’t put it past her to take over a novel of her own. Call it writers’ intuition. It’s happened before. 

Image: Clipart no. 314581