Friday, December 29, 2017

2017 Revisited

At this time of year, although I eschew formal New Year’s resolutions about losing weight or exercising more, I do like to conduct a brief review of what I planned for the year and define a new set of expectations for the year to come.

For 2017, I had the following goals:

(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 2017—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.

I actually did pretty well this year. I finished The Vermilion Bird as planned, and Five Directions Press published it in December 2017. I also finished The Shattered Drum—a surprise—except for one set of comments from my writers’ group. Once those come in, I’ll do another revision and read-through, then off it goes to typesetting. Most likely it will appear in print and e-book sometime between May and September 2018, depending on what else we have in the pipeline. And I have begun work on Song of the Siren, set in 1541–1542 and the first book in my new Russian series, Songs of Steppe and Forest. Siren has a long way to go: right now it is a full set of story events and main character profiles plus about two serviceable chapters and some scenes, but with luck, it will reach first draft status sometime in 2018.

So much for my own work. Five Directions Press did bring out five books, although The Duel for Consuelo replaced A Holiday Gift, which will come out next year. I did conduct a full set of interviews, from Helen Rappaport talking about her companion volume to the PBS miniseries Victoria, now entering season 2, in January to Heather Webb discussing her Last Christmas in Paris, co-authored with Hazel Gaynor, in December. In between we traveled to the US South, Shakespearean England, early twentieth-century Egypt, World Wars I and II, and Viking-era Norway, as well as other times and places. My thanks to all the authors who spoke with me, and I’m looking forward to a new crop of guests next year.

In web-related things, I did manage to maintain my blog schedule and stay up-to-date on the Five Directions Press site; I even updated my own site for the release of Vermilion Bird, although it lay pretty dormant until then. I did my bit on social media, including running two book teaser campaigns (the second still underway) for Five Directions Press and lurking in various GoodReads groups whenever possible. So between that and the interviews I can claim to have done reasonably well on Goal 7. As for marketing, I’m not sure I will ever really get a hold on it, especially since the techniques that work seem to change without warning every few months. But my limitations in that area aren’t for lack of trying, more a result of having only so many hours in the day.

Check back next week, and I’ll have a new list of goals for 2018. Meanwhile, I wish you all a safe and joyous New Year!



Image: Clipart no. 110076193.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Letters from a Friend

In the twenty-plus years that I’ve been writing fiction, I can’t say it ever occurred to me to co-write a novel. If I’d stopped to think about it, I probably would have decided that it sounded more difficult than writing alone. Sharing the authorship of an academic article is hard enough, but at least two people can discuss the evidence and the argument and, with luck, agree on who has a more fluid pen and who a better grasp of statistics (or paleography or whatever your particular auxiliary discipline happens to be). But how do you share a sense of character or writerly style?

I’m not talking about critique groups here. As anyone who has followed this blog for even a dozen or so posts knows, I credit my writers’ group with getting me past the “reading books about fiction without really absorbing the information” stage and into the “here’s how you craft a story” stage. It’s no accident that I thank them lavishly at the end of each book: I truly don’t know how I would produce a finished product that made me proud to share it with the world unless it had first profited from their questions and comments.

Nor am I talking about the kind of co-writing that Joan Hess did for Elizabeth Peters by finishing Peters’ novel for her after Peters passed on, as she described in my September interview. Again, that’s a single writer’s vision replaced by a slightly different one that tries to honor the first—a complicated task, to be sure, even without the emotional trauma of performing such a service for a friend, but still one person at a time.

But as Heather Webb explains in this December conversation, it is possible for two writers to cooperate from beginning to end on a work of fiction. This lovely epistolary novel, set mostly during World War I but with a frame story in the late 1960s, grew out of a previous project and took shape through a prolonged Internet exchange that bound not only the characters but the authors in a deep and engaging friendship. For how that happened, listen to the interview.

And while you’re there, please don’t forget to support the New Books Network, so that the interviews on this and many other subjects can continue to enrich your lives. I give my time and the use of my equipment for free, but I nonetheless pledged to support the service. I look forward to hosting many more conversations with authors, whether they write alone or together. But we can keep the podcasts going only if everyone chips in.

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

When we first meet Thomas Harding in 1968, he is facing what he believes will be his last Christmas and mourning the loss of an unnamed woman who clearly meant a great deal to him. He carries with him bundles of letters, which he plans to re-read on his trip to Paris. The letters sweep us back to the very beginning of World War I, then trace the entire course of the conflict. One of them he has not yet seen.

Most of the correspondence takes place between Thomas and Evie Elliott, the younger sister of his best friend, Will. We see the early hope and idealism of the troops fade as the realities of trench warfare sink in. We watch from the inside the transformation of women’s roles in society because of the absence of men. We become caught up in the developing love between Evie and Thomas, the grief suffered by families who lose their loved ones to war, the frustration of being left behind, unable to take part. We revel in the guilty pleasure of riffling through other people’s things, reading words not meant for our eyes.

Other voices fill in circumstances that Evie and Thomas take for granted or have no reason to know. And the drama slowly builds as Armistice Day approaches, and the war that was supposed to end all wars creeps to a close. The letters are vivid and real, each voice distinct. And by the end of Last Christmas in Paris, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb have shepherded us along a journey through the tragedy of war and the triumph of survival, the experience of love lost and gained.


And for those of you who celebrate, the time is here!

Image: Clipart no. 110057306



Friday, December 15, 2017

Life on the Island


If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed I’ve been pretty quiet this week. This post explains why.

Although one subject of this blog is technology and the writer’s life, I actually spend little time talking about technology. There’s a simple reason for that: how much technology does an author actually need? A computer and word-processing program, a browser and a search engine for those quick answers, maybe a novel-writing program to handle the organization and create e-books—that about covers it, unless you want to self-publish, in which case you must also  be able to produce decently formatted files. These basic needs don’t require a lot of mastery or discussion.

But as I (re)discovered this week, these days for most of these basic things to work, you also need Internet access. For at least four of the last ten days, my Internet connection has been down for hours at a time. Some of the resulting problems were immediate and obvious. My work requires a lot of e-mail messages, and I could neither send nor receive them. I have to track tasks in an online database that I could not update. I keep important files on Dropbox, but the system had no way to record changes or sync edited files between my computer and my tablet. I had to reschedule my current interview for New Books in Historical Fiction three times. The book teasers I routinely add to the Five Directions Press Facebook and Twitter pages of necessity languished in obscurity.

I have a cell phone, from which I could send emergency messages—and not receiving constant streams of e-mail does have its advantages, although somehow the “buy this NOW” messages managed to reach my phone every two minutes regardless. And since I’ve refused to adopt software that exists entirely in the cloud, the damage wasn’t as severe as it could have been. I could still work and write and prepare this blog post—even though publishing the post would, of course, have been impossible.

But the glitches that really threw me were the ones I didn’t expect. Word had no record of my recent files, which it apparently stores somewhere other than my computer. The edits I made to The Shattered Drum did not transfer to iBooks even when I plugged in my tablet. The text message I sent from my phone registered, but the answering texts from my friend remained in the ether until my Internet connection revived, even though the replies were sent hours earlier to a phone that was supposedly on the 4G network, not the wireless one that connected to the nonfunctioning modem. Even people who did have working connections could not upload files to shared Dropbox folders that I would then see when my access returned.

And as a result of the lost connection, I couldn’t distribute the press release for my new book, The Vermilion Bird, even though I’d managed to create it in my old, non-cloud version of InDesign. So after going to a ton of effort to see the book in print by early December, in time for the holiday gift-giving season, I didn’t have a chance to tell anyone by e-mail or follow up on social media until the middle of the month. On a list of inconveniences this one barely merits a mention, but I found it mildly distressing even so.

That said, the story has a happy ending: the cable technician showed up this morning and, through a happy fluke, at once identified the problem: a cable that a careless leaf raker had managed to cut, not through but just enough to make the service unpredictable. The tech replaced the cable, and voila! The pluses and minuses of twenty-first-century life as a writer and editor returned full force. And the much-delayed interview with my incredibly patient guest went off beautifully. Meanwhile, I’ve acquired a whole new appreciation of the gifts the Internet brings to my life. 


Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season to all my readers. And if you’re looking for that last-minute present for a lover of historical fiction, set in a place a bit outside the mainstream, don’t forget the Legends of the Five Directions—especially The Vermilion Bird.

Images from Clipart.com, nos. 109097555 and 110053976.

Friday, December 8, 2017

And Then There Were Four

If you follow me on social media or even read this blog regularly, you’ll know that as of this week The Vermilion Bird (Legends of the Five Directions 4: South) has seen the light of day. As of a few hours ago, Amazon.com had still not linked the print and e-book editions, but if they don’t do it on their own in the next twenty-four hours, I will send a message to the support services. They’ve always proven themselves prompt and efficient in the past, so I’m sure it will soon be taken care of.

The release of a new book is always exciting for an author. A published book has the heft of reality in a way that an electronic manuscript can’t match—even in the days of e-readers and tablets, which do let a writer read her own work in a format indistinguishable from e-books put out by a press. 


Writers hope that the release of a new novel in a series is equally exciting for our readers. I know it is for me: I love it when I discover that one of my favorite characters has a new adventure for me to share.

But before I get to excerpts and reactions from readers to the latest Legends novel, let me remind you that until Sunday, December 10, the e-version of The Swan Princess is on sale for $2.99. This will certainly be the last promotion I run for some time—and given the poor results so far, even with paid Facebook ads, perhaps the last for a long time.


Also, a quick word about the New Books Network (NBN), the parent organization that hosts my interviews on New Books in Historical Fiction. The nonprofit NBN runs entirely on volunteers who supply their own equipment and record on their own time, but the costs of managing the website and storing the 4,200 interviews that already exist—the NBN adds 100 a month and now serves 25,000 listeners a day—are considerable. On the plus side, the network is growing in popularity; on the minus side, the costs increase as more people listen in. To close the gap, the NBN is currently running a donations campaign through Amherst College. You can help by clicking this link and donating whatever amount you can afford. As with all donations to nonprofits, your contribution is tax-deductible. And you will earn the undying gratitude of every one of the 220 hosts. We all love what we do and want only to continue producing more interviews for you to hear.

And now, a short excerpt from The Vermilion Bird, followed by a couple of early responses (and don’t forget to check out those authors’ books, too!).


Moscow, February 1537

“It’s a scandal, I tell you. Fyodor has gone mad.” Over the plink-plink of psalteries, the chatter of fifty women, the murmurs of servants in corners, and the noise from the courtyard below, Aunt Theodosia’s voice soared like a song. “Marrying a hussy two years older than his own daughter? Then wedding his own girl to his new wife’s former lover? Abominable! Where is his honor?”

“Auntie! How can you?” Maria, tempted to shrink into herself like a tortoise into its shell, instead gripped the hand of the hated Roxelana, whose fingers returned the favor with equal strength. “Stop squeezing me,” she hissed at her stepmother, who narrowed her eyes and hissed wordlessly back.

But Roxelana, although a general irritant, bore no responsibility for Maria’s present agony. On the contrary, she shared it. Must Auntie announce their predicament to the world? Thanks to her, every woman here knew—now, if she hadn’t before—that Roxelana had lived for years with the man destined to become Maria’s husband tomorrow, only to abandon him for Maria’s father and the respectability he offered.

A hint of sandalwood and cinnamon released into the air as Roxelana shifted in her seat. Among the many perfumes wafting around the room, hers stood out: seductive, elusive, foreign.

Respectability? Roxelana? As if that’s not a contradiction in terms!
 

Aunt Theodosia was still talking—bellowing, rather, with the blissful unconcern of the hard of hearing. “Twenty-two years old, and him a ripe thirty-seven. What does he want with a lovely nincompoop to warm his bed? After wearing my dearest sister to the bone, bearing and raising his children. Thirteen she gave him. Thirteen. And seven who lived!”

“We know, Auntie. We can count.” This voice, young and sweet, belonged to Maria’s sister Varvara, second of the seven living offspring. She spoke in softer tones than Theodosia.

“Don’t mumble like that, girl,” Theodosia snapped. “Speak up.”

“Hush now.” Varvara raised her voice as commanded. “The whole room can hear you.” She gestured with her right hand. “Including our stepmother.”

“Don’t be absurd. I’m whispering, just as you are,” Theodosia said at top volume. “Stepmother, indeed. Harlot, more like.”

Roxelana hissed again, louder this time, and Varvara pressed her lips together, as if trying not to giggle. In response Theodosia fixed Roxelana with her basilisk glare. “Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.”

“You’re being rude, Auntie,” Maria said. Anything to deflect the discussion to another channel, although she agreed with Theodosia. Watching Papa glow like a schoolboy while her stepmother flirted and cooed left her two steps short of disgust. Parents were not supposed to act like that.

As for this new match with her stepmother’s discarded lover, Theodosia was right: Papa had lost his mind. A man nine years older than Maria, and a Tatar—what would they talk about?

 

The Vermilion Bird vividly envisions the culture clash between Russians and Tatars in the sixteenth century. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this glimpse into a seldom explored corner of history, while fans of romance will delight in the unlikely love that blooms between a bluff Tatar prince and his scheming Russian bride—who is also the stepdaughter of his former lover.”—Linnea Hartsuyker, author of The Half-Drowned King

“In sixteenth-century Moscow, only a hairsbreadth separates peace from rebellion. C. P. Lesley brings this remote time and place into our grasp in The Vermilion Bird. In a rich portrayal rooted in the strange truth of the world of Russians, Tatars, and the intrigues of court life, Lesley weaves together characters real and imagined against a backdrop of romance, fear, and lust for power that characterized court life in sixteenth-century Russia.”—Laura Morelli, author of The Gondola Maker and The Painter’s Apprentice

Friday, December 1, 2017

Revisiting the Past

The title of this post may raise a few eyebrows. As a historian and historical novelist, you may ask, am I not constantly revisiting the past—both the past that we can study from documents and artifacts and the past that has retreated so far into time that we can only hope that, in striving to re-create it, we don’t give birth to a monster that neither did nor could exist?

But that’s not the kind of past I’m writing about this week. Instead, I have in mind the return to a piece of my own past, specifically books I have written and published, then set aside to move on to the next novel in the series. However rewarding it may be to press the buttons that take a book out into the world, there is also a moment of nostalgia, even regret, at saying goodbye to that particular setting, to those individual characters at that moment in their evolution. Although I have lived mentally in the Legends world since 2008—and expect to remain here, in various forms, for many more years—each combination of characters and incidents is unique. As I get ready to release Maria and Alexei and the rest of the Vermilion Bird cast, the need to get the word out also requires me to consider and promote the earlier books in the series. To revisit them, in a sense. Which brings me to the concept of story worlds.

In brief, a story world comprises the vast combination of characters and settings that surround a series or an individual novel. Much of the story world remains invisible to the reader, but it envelops the writer, who must immerse herself in imagining not only what her characters sense and feel and think and interact with but also what they do not see: the unwritten rules of the society that govern their responses in ways they don’t question or realize. Every human community has these rules, and for better or worse we all live by them. We absorb them before we reach the age of independence, and whether we accept or rebel in adulthood, we seldom truly separate ourselves from the world around us. The same applies to literary characters.


Story worlds are most obvious in science fiction and fantasy, where authors construct entire planets based on principles they perceive in our society or trends they can imagine or just wild ideas that came to them in the night. The rules governing those worlds and societies must achieve sufficient consistency that readers will suspend disbelief. In brief, if dragons can fly today, they must fly tomorrow, unless an explanatory (and explained) circumstance shows up to prevent them.

But historical worlds must also be fully explored and understood, as must the intellectual and emotional circumstances driving contemporary novels, if the reader is to believe a given set of characters’ behaviors and motivations.

Creating such a world and such characters takes time. In the midst of a novel—which often requires years to complete, especially at first—the story world becomes all-encompassing. It surrounds the author even when she isn’t writing. I lived in Kasimov and Moscow, then on the steppe, then amid Russia’s northern woods, then in Moscow again. Each journey was different, following a new set of characters or struggling to reconnect with the same ones at later stages in their lives, trying to understand how they might grow and change—and how they would never change, no matter how many conflicts and obstacles I threw at their heads. 


That’s why going back, picking up one of the books, and opening it is like taking a journey into my own history: a little strange, sometimes awkward, but often as pleasant as returning to a vacation house I once enjoyed but haven’t seen in years. Sometimes I surprise myself with research I’ve since forgotten or a section—even a turn of phrase—that strikes me as well done. Other sentences remind me that learning to write is a process, one that requires lots of practice, or as J. K. Rowling once put it, “You have to kill a lot of trees before you write anything good.” I could go back and revise, but I know I probably won’t, because other worlds and stories are beckoning. My old friends in their sepia photographs will understand, I think, why I want to move on—especially since I plan to take them with me.

So with all that in mind, I offer you, too, a chance to enter my Legends story world. As noted last week, I am celebrating the imminent release of The Vermilion Bird (Legends 4: South) by placing the Kindle versions of the previous books in the series on sale in the US and UK stores for $2.99. The Winged Horse (Legends 2: East) promotion is running now and will continue through Sunday, December 3, at midnight PST/GMT. The Swan Princess (Legends 3: North) goes on sale at 8 AM PST/GMT on December 4, through Sunday, December 10, at midnight PST/GMT. The Golden Lynx (Legends 1: West) is always priced at $2.99 and is available at Barnes and Noble, the iTunes Store, and certain libraries, as well as Amazon.com.


Images from Clipart, nos. 201458399, 21735960, and 2193507.