Friday, September 21, 2018

Magic Mushrooms

After a crazy summer caused by my own determination to spiff up the entire Legends of the Five Directions series as it came to an end, things have calmed down at last. Well, almost. I’ve recorded three podcast interviews in about six weeks, which meant reading three books and drawing up three sets of draft questions, as well as checking three audio files after the fact—the interview is the easy part. But that’s more or less done, too, and since I have the next book read and the date not yet scheduled, there’s a bit of free time to think about my new series.

For reasons I won’t go into, the first of my Songs of Steppe & Forest, Song of the Siren, has been substantially done since last spring. It’s out now with my favorite historical consultant, and once I get her comments, I’ll make any needed changes and it will be done. Songs 2, Song of the Shaman, is still at that very preliminary fun stage where anything seems possible. I have a rough list of story events and a goal, motivation, and conflict chart for the leads, but those structural elements are just to keep me honest, by which I mean that when I go roaming off into the wilds of story, they act as a crude form of compass to remind me where home is so I can wend my way back.

The reason I can’t move quickly just yet is because I have at best a rudimentary sense of how it would feel to become a shaman, or even of what shamans do. It doesn’t help that shamanism itself, at least in the areas I cover, got whomped by the Bolsheviks along with every other form of religious expression. Today it’s undergoing a revival, which is an improvement over its being treated like a banned substance but nonetheless raises another, different sort of barrier between the contemporary experience and that of my characters five hundred years ago.

That brings me to the main topic of today’s post. When I mentioned the title to my friend Gabrielle Mathieu, who herself has a series of historical fantasy novels involving psychotropic drugs, she immediately asked, “So did they use psychedelic mushrooms?” I said I didn’t think so, because the research I’d done up to that point suggested trances were induced solely by drumming and chanting. She then quoted me title and page of a book suggesting that Siberian shamans did. So I poked around a little more, including in the book she mentioned, and discovered that she was right. Many shamans did, including those on the Eurasian steppe. Not all, by any means, but a lot.

Better yet, from a fictional point of view, the psychedelic mushrooms in use in Central Asia, the steppe, and Siberia, although not themselves deadly, have relatives that can send you to the other world permanently if you make a mistake or fall victim to a con artist or just misjudge your dose. Most of them don’t have antidotes even today. But they do have identifiable symptoms and consequences, and thanks to Gabrielle’s wonderfully illustrated book, I now know what they look like.

I also decided my heroine must have a reason not to employ the mushrooms herself. Without chemicals to facilitate the trance state, she naturally struggles to live up to her mentor’s and her own expectations. That makes it easier for her to doubt her own powers, but it also adds to the triumph if she can succeed in the end. And as the stakes rise in the story, her inner conflict intensifies: should she give in to temptation, risking her life, or stick firm to her resistance, even if it means risking the lives of others?

I’m still trawling YouTube for chants, drum sounds, interiors, philosophies, and anything else I can find that will flesh out my characters’ spiritual world. And of course, I’m reading everything I can find to cull sensory details and modes of thought, the more esoteric those details the better.

But at least I have the magic mushrooms to fall back on—not to take myself, of course, but to feed to my characters!

Image: Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), the preferred trance agent of Eurasian shamans; © 2006 Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Interview with Karen Brooks

I so wanted to talk with Karen Brooks on New Books in Historical Fiction. We were all set, too, until I realized we live so far apart the only way the timing could work would be if one of us wanted to get up at dawn or stay up until midnight. Fortunately, she was willing to answer written questions instead.

An actress, children’s playwright, academic, and social commentator as well as a writer of fiction, Karen Brooks has had a fascinating career that has already produced ten novels. Today we’re discussing her latest, The Locksmith’s Daughter, published by William Morrow in July 2018. It follows her heroine, Mallory Bright, through the turmoil of Elizabethan London and the flourishing espionage network headed by Sir Francis Walsingham. Read on to find out more.

 

Your career has already covered a range that includes both acting and academics. Where does your decision to write fiction fit into that overall progression, and what drew you to the particular story that became The Locksmith’s Daughter?


I think the one thing in common with all the different jobs I’ve had is words. As an actor, I had the privilege of breathing life into others’ words; as an academic, I was able to teach and research and write my own by standing on the shoulders of giants. But as an academic, you use words in a particular way and with a particular purpose. And let’s face it, when you publish an article in a scholarly journal, you’re lucky if three people read it. ☺ But I was mainly exercising the rational part of my brain. I always read—nonfiction and fiction—but the desire to be creative with words became overpowering. So I began to write fiction. Short stories at first and even a play, but soon I branched out into novels. It was like I was trying to have a balanced word diet, feed my imagination in all sorts of ways.

The Locksmith’s Daughter
came to me as a consequence of watching a locksmith named Bruce fix the ignition in my husband’s car after he snapped the key in it. He had to give him a new lock and key, and I watched him do this. I began to think about locks and how they most often were used to protect things, to keep secrets. Once I started thinking about secrets, I thought of secret keepers and spies and then, bang! The idea for a female spy embedded in a male-only network and at a time when secrets were not only currency but often the difference between life and death—the Elizabethan era—came to me right there and then. 


When we meet your main character, Mallory Bright—the locksmith’s daughter of the title—she’s already, as they used to say, a “woman with a past.” In her own words, “Only God … knew how akin I was to the prodigal son, and how great a wastrel.” What can you tell us about her history and her character—in the sense of her personality?


Mallory is a strong woman who has been (temporarily) beaten by poor choices and some terrible people. Educated, confident, attractive, she was also very young when she fell victim to a charming con man and had her trust badly abused. She thus loses a great deal of her self-esteem and confidence. When the story opens, she is still vulnerable, physically safe but emotionally fragile. The story is about her learning to regain self-trust and love, learn her place in the world, as much as it is anything else.

How does Mallory become involved with Sir Francis Walsingham? What does participation in his spy service mean to her?


Sir Francis, it turns out, is a family friend—someone her beloved father has known for decades. Mallory is shocked to learn this, but when she does and is invited to become part of Walsingham’s spy network, she understands the opportunity being given to her. She seizes it as a way of regaining a sense of self and proving to herself and others that she’s worthy. After all, there’s no greater service (at that time) than to queen and country. Mallory will learn the high cost of that.

Even from the back cover, we know that Mallory, sooner or later, becomes disenchanted with Walsingham’s spy network. How does that happen, and what effect does it have on her life?


Ah, I have to be careful here … if I say too much, I give away the plot! LOL! Basically, as I said above, the book is about secrets and those who keep them and why. The price to be paid for keeping secrets, for locking them away, is very high, and what it extracts from a person, what it demands of them, is enormous. Keeping secrets requires a level of betrayal—to the self and others. When Mallory starts to understand this, she begins to question what she’s doing and who she is becoming … where she is giving trust and who’s abusing hers. But she’s committed to a cause and, more importantly, has been entrusted with the greatest of secrets. When doubt sets in and she queries her purpose, she transforms from a great political asset to a dangerous threat and thus must be dealt with.

There’s no way we can cover the richness and complexity of your 600-page novel in a blog Q&A, but there are two other characters I’d like to mention. Who are Caleb and Nathaniel, and what can you tell us about them as people and their roles in Mallory’s story?


I love Caleb.
Caleb is an actor and playwright in Elizabethan London. He exists in the period just before William Shakespeare took London by storm. Astute readers might note, however, I still use some Shakespearean phrases (“bat of an owlet’s wing,” etc.). This because I thought, like most writers, Shakespeare would have picked up common patois and deployed it in his plays and poetry and so put some of his phrases in characters’ mouths, including Caleb. Caleb is a boarder in Mallory’s home and has known her for years. He is a great friend to her as well as being flamboyant, irreverent, loyal, and kind. He’s also very talented.

Ah, Nathaniel. Nathaniel is a lord who, like Mallory, has a past. He is physically huge. Tall, broad-shouldered, and, as a consequence, often in fights—or was—as men see him as both a threat and a way of testing their own masculinity. As one of the only surviving members of his family, when we meet him, he has responsibility for his younger sister, who is a sweetie. He doesn’t suffer fools and is also a great supporter of the arts and therefore a patron of the group of players to which Caleb belongs. Nathaniel and Caleb are also friends and have great respect for each other. It’s through Caleb that Nathaniel and Mallory meet.

And what are you working on now?


I have just completed the final edit of my next novel (due out next year), The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, which is set in Restoration England (1660s). This was a time when not only was there war, plague, fire, plots, and plans, but chocolate was considered a naughty, decadent drink (it wasn’t eaten back then). It made its way to English shores via South America and Spain and France and into the newly established chocolate houses of London. These were places where news was exchanged (it was also the era when journalism as we know it was born), gossip flourished, and nefarious plots were hatched. The novel is about a young woman and her rise to the top of the chocolate game—how she makes a deal with the devil to succeed and the cost of this to her and others.

I’m also writing my next book, which is set in Scotland in the early 1700s and focuses on the fishwives of Fife: their strength, independence, great camaraderie, and the threat they posed to certain sections of the community. It’s about what happens when a few of them are accused of witchcraft. It’s set during the height of the “witch craze” and is based on a terrible true story. I’m loving writing it while at the same time being torn up with sadness and anger at humanity’s capacity for cruelty.

Thank you so much for such great questions and for having me on your blog.

And thank you for your answers, Karen!


Karen Brooks, the Australian-born author of ten novels (and counting), is an academic, a newspaper columnist, and a social commentator. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania. Find out more about her at http://www.karenrbrooks.com.


Image © Stephen Brooks.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Getting Up on Your Leg


As those who’ve read any of my bios and/or followed this blog know, I’m a dancer. Not a career dancer, by any means, but an enthusiastic amateur who took classical ballet classes for twenty-five years and still practices in her loft office every single day. My first novel even featured a ballerina, although it took me so long to master the craft of writing fiction that the first novel I tackled saw its release only twenty years later as Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades—novels four and five in order of appearance.

I don’t publicize these two novels much, because I’ve long since moved on to focusing on historical fiction. But in terms of both subject matter and the length of time it took me to polish them, they have something to offer beginning writers: the concept of “getting up on your leg.”

Now, in ballet—and probably in other forms of dance—“getting up on your leg” is a phrase that almost everyone uses and no one bothers to explain. You hear it often: “you need to get up on your leg,” “I wasn’t up on my leg,” and so on. To a beginner it’s baffling: how can a person dance if she’s sitting down? Aren’t you up on your leg just by virtue of standing?


Well, no. Because if you stop and parse it out, being “up on one’s leg” means to be in alignment, which in dance requires you to have your shoulders in line with your hips, knees, ankles, and heels. If that alignment’s not true—or in the case of an arabesque, not balanced—you can’t raise one leg while supporting yourself on the other, especially if you’re also trying to stand en pointe, where your entire body weight is positioned over a rounded rectangle of approximately two inches by three.

All very well, you may be thinking, but what on earth does this have to do with writing fiction? Here’s the connection: if, as a dancer, you’re not “up on your leg,” the solution has nothing to do with your leg. Almost always, the imbalance comes from not tightening your abdominal and lengthening your back muscles enough. (In ballet, it’s almost impossible to tighten your abdominals too much.)

And that’s where the similarity to writing comes in. If you send drafts to people, especially publishing house editors and literary agents, and what you get back is that your story’s “too quiet” or “didn’t grab me right off” or “I didn’t love it” or something else that on the surface seems vague, what you just heard is the equivalent of “you weren’t up on your leg.”


Dancers "Up on Their Legs"

The solution isn’t, as a general rule, to bring in more action or kill someone on the first page or turn your hero or heroine into the sweetest soul on the planet, rescuing kittens before breakfast and donating to charitable causes each night after dinner—although any of those things can be useful in a broader context. Instead what you need to do, almost inevitably, is sit down and flesh out your characters. Make them complex; make them human; use the setting, plot, and dialogue to show their emotions and the unique ways they approach a situation or a problem. Every single thing that happens in the novel should reveal some new facet of the characters and their world.

That process takes time—not necessarily twenty years but time—so don’t rush it. Revise often, pondering where you can tighten this phrase or that description to convey the characters through what they do and say, their interior monologue. As the narrator, try to stay out of the way and portray their emotions in action and in their own words, so you don’t have to speak for them.

Of course, when they’re talking, aloud or to themselves, they may say, “I’m so mad I could spit,” or “That hurts me,” or whatever: don’t we all? But if you talk for them, especially in generic ways—she felt sad when she saw the injured puppy, he liked balloons because they reminded him of happy childhood days with his father, and so on—you pull readers out of the characters’ heads and therefore out of the story. Keep the characters focused on what’s going on around them; use the details to show us what makes each of them distinct; have each of them use language in his or her own way.

That’s the way to “get up on your leg.” From there, the dancing is easy.


Image: Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1873), public domain via the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Let’s Talk about Love

It surprises some of my readers that I don’t place my historical novels in the category of historical romance. I list them as “historical fiction,” qualified as 16th century and Russia for the sake of the computers. Depending on the novel, I also specify “coming of age” or “family life,” even “Ivan the Terrible” or “Tatars.” But generally I don’t specify “romance.” This post explores why.

For starters, let me say that I sympathize with the readers who wonder. After all, I have yet to write a novel that doesn’t include a romance, and the Legends novels are almost universally based around that hoariest of romance plots: the marriage of convenience. If they’re to include male-female relationships of any sort, they could hardly do otherwise, given the time and place and social class of my characters. As I’ve explained elsewhere, in elite sixteenth-century Russian society, every marriage was arranged for the political convenience of the great clans, and women of marriageable age generally lived in seclusion—meaning that they seldom encountered men outside their own families. That was a deliberate choice by those in power, designed to prevent unscripted attachments. And although my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, does explore the edges of that system and will include three books that don’t revolve around arranged marriages and a fourth with a bride who escapes her father’s plans for her, they too include the possibility of romance.



Moreover, my books generally have happy, often romantically happy endings. I believe that love is a reward for having done the hard work of growing up in some way, so I allow heroes and heroines who put in the time and effort to find each other. In general, as a reader I can tolerate unhappy endings as long as they’re uplifting, but I much prefer the other kind, so that’s what I write. Not every couple ends one of my novels in love: Nasan and Daniil have spent about 48 hours in the same house at the end of The Golden Lynx, for example, so if they’re to remain realistic, they can only agree to stop hating each other. But I’m sure it’s no surprise that their relationship grows over the course of the series into something a good deal stronger than guarded neutrality.

So in what sense are my books not historical romances? Well, in truth they are: the old-fashioned historical romances that I grew up with, exemplified by the novels of Georgette Heyer and Anya Seton, ably carried forward by Philippa Gregory, to whose bestselling stories one reviewer compared my Vermilion Bird—thank you!—and many others. Which means that the real question becomes, “So why don’t I list them that way?” And although I would note that my books are not only romances, the true answer to that question is simple. It has to do with readers’ expectations.

In short, as a genre historical romance has changed since I discovered Heyer’s These Old Shades as a teenager and tumbled into life-long fandom. It still plays host to Philippa Gregory and others like her, but it also includes a large number of authors and titles that put a lot of emphasis on the romance in preference to the history, resulting in female characters who behave in ways that no young woman who wanted to be considered proper would have done before the introduction of reliable birth control in the 1960s and male characters blessedly but anachronistically free of that psychological condition known as “mother/whore syndrome.”

I have nothing against such novels, although they make me laugh and roll my eyes, but I don’t write them. As a historian, I can’t write them and still hold my head up in public. I kind of wish I could, as I would probably sell many more books, but I can’t. I am, after all, the person who obsessed over having misidentified one historical figure’s place of incarceration, an error that only I and a dozen other people on the planet would even recognize, until I produced a second edition that resolved the discrepancy. Crafting a heroine who defies the rules of her time and place is one thing; the idea of creating someone oblivious to those rules would curdle my blood—my problem, I know, but so it is.

All of which makes me suspect that the large reading public devoted to that newer type of historical romance would be disappointed to discover my buttoned-down approach to the same subject. If I ever land a major publishing-house contract and become a household name, I’ll assume that readers who enjoy my traditional take on the past will not only find me but appreciate learning about the romantic elements in advance. As a relative unknown, though, I have hesitated to take that path. The last thing I want is to disappoint prospective readers. And that’s why I list my novels as “historical fiction” but not as “historical romance.”

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, A Boyar Wedding (1883), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Uncomfortable Past


As I mentioned in a previous post, “The Fog of War,” there seems to be a zeitgeist in historical fiction that causes books addressing particular topics to arrive in waves. This is curious in a sense, because the length of roads to publication varies widely between commercial publishing and the world of indie presses and self-published authors. So even if anniversaries lead to media coverage of, say, World War I or the US Civil War that then sparks ideas in the minds of historical novelists, why do the books appear at more or less the same time, regardless of how they’re published?

I don’t know the answer, but I do see the phenomenon. For example, since the spring of 2018 no less than three books about the Underground Railroad have come to my attention. The first, Jacqueline Friedland’s Trouble the Water, is the subject of my most recent interview. The second, Terry Gamble’s The Eulogist, is destined for an interview next January, when it appears. I had to turn down the third, Martha Conway’s The Underground River, even though I loved Conway’s Sugarland, because there are only so many slots in the schedule and I like to cover as many times and places as possible over the course of a year. (For my previous interview with Conway, see https://newbooksnetwork.com/martha-conway-sugarland-a-jazz-age-mystery-noontime-books-2016/.) 


Perhaps it’s the centennial of the Civil War that has turned people’s thoughts to the antebellum South and the dreadful inequality that kept those plantations running and their owners sufficiently satisfied that they were prepared to secede rather than accept the need for change. Perhaps it’s the current conversation about the lingering reality of racism and the removal of statues commemorating those who fought to preserve slavery that has writers wondering about those who opposed it, what drove them and what happened to them as a result of bucking the trend.

Trouble the Water doesn’t answer the question of the zeitgeist. As you’ll hear in the interview, Friedland decided to focus on abolitionism and the antebellum South because it interested her enough to keep her wanting to write about the topic for years—which for a novel is also a serious reason for choosing one topic over another. In doing so, she has given us a story that explores with sensitivity and depth the conflicting positions on slavery in 1840s Charleston: the views of slave owners and abolitionists, visitors and long-time residents, and, most important, in the person of Clover, the slaves themselves.

So listen to the interview, where we discuss, among other things, the difficulty for an author of portraying characters whose views she finds distasteful. Because whether the past makes us comfortable or not, we can’t avoid it—it’s already happened—and we do the present no service by sugarcoating the misdeeds and mistaken views of our predecessors. One day, no doubt, our descendants will wonder about us. “What were they thinking?” they’ll say. “How could they act that way?” And you know what? They’ll probably be right.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.


Douglas Elling has left his home town in England and made a name for himself in Charleston. It’s about twenty years before the US Civil War, and slavery is still very much an institution in South Carolina, but Douglas finds it abhorrent. He has promised his father-in-law to care for the family business, so he can’t simply pack up and go home. Instead he becomes involved in the nascent abolition movement, using his inherited fleet and his manumitted laborers to intercept illegal slave traders on the high seas.

But when his estate goes up in flames, killing his wife and young daughter, Douglas is shattered. Can any good he might do by fighting the entrenched slave culture of the US South justify the death of his loved ones? He retreats into his shell until, three years later, the arrival of Abigail Milton, another English refugee, summons him back to society.

Abigail, aged seventeen, has a difficult past of her own. Her family has fallen from a comfortable middle-class existence to a life of poverty, and the wealthy uncle who helps them keep food on the table expects a price in return: Abby’s virtue. She doesn’t dare share the truth of her uncle’s advances: he’s promised to cut off all support if she tells. But the invitation to live as Douglas’s ward offers a perfect solution, even after she arrives in Charleston and realizes that not all is as it seems. Especially where Douglas is concerned …

In Trouble the Water (Spark Press, 2018), Jacqueline Friedland explores the complex society of the antebellum South, the influence and consequences of slavery, and the contributions of those who strove to help its victims escape through the Underground Railroad and ultimately to end the system altogether.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Interview with Linnea Hartsuyker

I made Linnea Hartsuyker's acquaintance when her publicist pitched her first book, The Half-Drowned King, to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. You can find out more about that book below and in my blog post from that time, “The Power of the Sea.”
Even then I knew that The Half-Drowned King was the first part of a trilogy, so when I received a query about book 2, The Sea Queen, I jumped at the chance to set up a blog Q&A for Linnea, who in the meantime had also written a wonderful blurb for my own Vermilion Bird. (No tit-for-tat there: I’d have happily sent her my questions anyway.)

I’ll let her take over here, with thanks and a note that I’m looking forward to The Golden Wolf this time next year, especially having read that description at the end. And make sure you read right to the end, where you can find Linnea’s website address and social media links.

Congratulations on publishing book 2 of your series! For those encountering your novels for the first time, could you give us a capsule introduction to The Half-Drowned King, which precedes the new book?

Thank you! In The Half-Drowned King we first meet the young viking Ragnvald and his sister Svanhild. Ragnvald’s quest during The Half-Drowned King is to revenge himself on his stepfather and gain control of his ancestral land. But he has also seen a vision of a golden wolf who he must follow, and finds that wolf in young Harald of Vestfold, who is prophesied to become the first king of Norway.

As Ragnvald pursues his goals, his sister Svanhild flees from an unwanted marriage, and finds her escape in the arms of Ragnvald’s most powerful enemy, the sea king Solvi Hunthiofsson. Brother and sister both succeed in their aims, but end up on opposite sides of the fight for Norway’s future.

And where is your hero, Ragnvald Eysteinsson, at the beginning of The Sea Queen?

At the beginning of The Sea Queen, five years after the end of The Half-Drowned King, Ragnvald is in the service of King Harald as he battles to conquer all of Norway. While Ragnvald would sometimes rather be back at home, ruling his district, he also enjoys the success he has at Harald’s side. But in fighting one of Harald’s battles, he is involved in a bloody accident that will have repercussions for himself and many of his friends and enemies.

The first person we meet, though, is actually Ragnvald’s wife, Hilda—one of my favorite characters in The Half-Drowned King, at which point Ragnvald and Hilda were not yet married. Alas, their domestic life seems to be, to put it mildly, more complicated than either of them probably wants. What can you tell us about that?

Something I’m very interested in exploring in my writing is different kinds of long-term relationships. Vikings, living in the 9th–11th centuries, did not share our notions of romantic love. Love affairs occurred, and sometimes led to marriage, but most marriages were arranged between families. Also, the historical Ragnvald is known to have had sons by concubines other than his wife Hilda. So I wanted to present a complex marriage, based on affection and practicality more than on romantic love.

Ragnvald’s relationship with Hilda is further complicated by his affair with his stepmother—which led to a son only a few months older than Hilda’s eldest son. And finally, in an era without reliable birth control, the only way for women to be sure to avoid pregnancy was to avoid sex, and that too causes problems in Ragnvald and Hilda’s marriage.

Ragnvald is still, I gather, a strong supporter of King Harald, your own ancestor. But the situation in Harald’s court is also troubled, and not only Ragnvald but his stepbrother, Sigurd, get caught up in the conflict. What are their relative positions, and how are Ragnvald’s own impressions of Harald changing in this second novel?

One thing I love about The Heimskringla, the saga that tells us the most about King Harald’s rise and reign, is how ambivalent it is about kingship. It was written by the Icelander Snorri Sturlsson in the 12th century, as a compliment to Norwegian kings, but it also asserts Iceland’s independence—Iceland was something approaching a democracy at the time. So in my source material, Harald is both a mighty warrior and a successful king, but also a source of conflict.

I was interested in using this trilogy to explore the benefits and pitfalls of kingship, as well as how people and societies balance freedom and safety. Ragnvald believes in Harald’s quest to unite Norway, bring it into the wider European sphere, and protect it from raiders, but he is too clear-eyed not to see the negative things that come from that as well.

Sigurd, Ragnvald’s stepbrother, begins the novel following the path that many Norse took at that time, which was to escape Harald’s wars and new taxes for land overseas. He encounters those who wish Harald ill, and has to decide where his own loyalty lies.

My absolute favorite from The Half-Drowned King was, of course, Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild, who’s been living at sea with the trickster Solvi. What’s going on with them—and between them and Ragnvald—here?

Ah, Svanhild. She is everyone’s favorite, and so fun to write!

Sea-faring was dangerous in the Viking Age, and while Svanhild loves adventure, at the beginning of The Sea Queen, she is looking to settle down for the sake of her young son. Unlike Hilda and Ragnvald’s relationship, Svanhild and Solvi’s is based on romantic, sexual love, and is a strong partnership as well. But Solvi is not ready to stop exploring, or to give up all hope of ruling the kingdom he was supposed to inherit in Norway, and that puts him in conflict with both Svanhild and also Ragnvald again.

And where do things stand with book 3, The Golden Wolf? Any hints of or pointers on what to expect?

The Golden Wolf has been much harder to write than The Sea Queen. The Golden Wolf begins fourteen years after The Sea Queen. Not only are Ragnvald and Svanhild still main characters, but their children are growing into adulthood, and have their own conflicts and storylines. Svanhild may be a wonderful character, but she’s a difficult mother!

One of Harald’s tactics for uniting Norway was marrying every king’s daughter he could find, and that filled Norway with his sons, all of whom want kingdoms and responsibility. So in The Golden Wolf, all of the characters have to negotiate the problems that come from a king having too many ambitious heirs—the golden wolf has wolfish sons who threaten to destroy the tenuous peace that Ragnvald and Harald have made for Norway.

 

Linnea Hartsuyker grew up in the middle of hundreds of acres of forest outside Ithaca, NY. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. The Sea Queen is her second novel. Find out more about her at http://www.linneahartsuyker.com.
Twitter: @linneaharts
Instagram: @linneaharts



Friday, August 10, 2018

Farewell, Kit

This Monday morning, I learned with both shock and sadness—on social media, of all places, a venue that so often appears trivial—that the writer Ann Swinfen had died unexpectedly the day before. It says a great deal about her family that in the first flush of their grief they thought to reach out to her many friends, followers, and readers to let them know of her passing. I’m not sure that under the same circumstances I could have mustered that much consideration. But I’m very grateful to them for making the effort.

Ann Swinfen is not yet a household name, although she was on her way to becoming one and certainly deserves that status. We never met in person, but I considered her a friend. Back in February 2015, I interviewed her about The Testament of Mariam, an early novel that she had reissued under her own imprint, Shakenoak Press, not long before. She really wanted to talk about her most recent book, This Rough Ocean, a novel
about her husband’s family in seventeenth-century England—or at least about the Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez, set in the Elizabethan period—but as always during the few years we knew each other, she was gracious, in this case about the fact that so few novels about biblical times came my way compared to those set in the sixteenth century and later.

Ann had published at least half a dozen novels with a commercial publisher before the company decided that no one wanted to read historical fiction. An accomplished editor and proof reader as well as a gifted writer, she responded by starting her own press, devoted to reissuing those older novels and producing, at a pace that left the rest of us reeling, more than fifteen new ones in the years between 2014 and now. Particularly remarkable, given the rate with which she churned them out, the books were good: meticulously researched, well written, well edited, with beautiful covers designed by JD Smith and excellent formatting. She exemplified everything a self-published author can be, even mastering the art of marketing in an online world. I had no need to match her in speed, but the consistency of her output impressed me, especially as I widened my acquaintance with her books.


Despite my temporary focus on Mariam in the interview, I soon followed up on the story of Christoval, née Caterina, and known to all and sundry as Kit. I read the first book, The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, and fell in love with the main character: a gifted Portuguese doctor, trained by her father, who dresses as a boy for her own safety and so that she can practice her profession, who befriends a young actor named Simon, and who is in every sense a kindred spirit to my Nasan. I read the four or five titles already published and gobbled down the new ones not long after they came out. I even acted as historical consultant on the sixth book, Voyage to Muscovy. In return, Ann read the first three Legends novels and wrote an endorsement for The Swan Princess that I still treasure.

After a while, Ann developed a second series, The Oxford Medieval Mysteries (these are not her only books, just the ones I followed most closely). As counterparts to Kit and Simon, whose relationship naturally develops slowly because even in book 9 it’s unstated whether Simon knows of Kit’s masquerade (I’ve assumed he does since at least book 6), the second series presents Nicholas and Emma, living about five years after the arrival of the Black Death in England in 1348.



As explained in the opening to The Bookseller’s Tale, Nicholas lost his wife to the plague and is now rearing their two children with the assistance of his sister, who lives with them. Emma, a reluctant resident in a convent whom we meet in The Novice’s Tale, soon comes to return his affections, but they both know that her social standing far exceeds his, which in the fourteenth century poses a serious barrier to their chances of marrying. As the series continues, one local mystery after another throws these two together, but where they will end up remains uncertain. I had just purchased book 6—the last, as it turns out—when I heard the news of Ann’s passing, so I have that installment still to look forward to, but I regret that I won’t have the pleasure of following their story further.

The sense of community is strong among writers, especially among self-published or small-press and coop-published writers. There’s surprisingly little competition, perhaps because the world always has room for more good books, and a great deal of support. Ann exemplified that element of authorship, too. I will miss her.

And as a reader I will miss her too. I’d love to see Kit and Simon’s long friendship resolved. Maybe a half-written sequel will emerge, waiting for the right person to finish it. I’d offer to complete it myself if no one else wanted to step up to the plate. But that seems like too much to hope for.

So rest in peace, Ann, knowing that you leave your characters behind to carry your name forward. And farewell, Kit and Simon, Nicholas and Emma, and all the other wonderful creations you gave us. As Nasan would put it, may their journey continue in the worlds beyond this one, under the grandmothers’ loving eyes.



Image: Russia, Starry Sky, from Pixabay (no attribution required).

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Power of the Past

I wrote this post for the “All the Russias” blog maintained by the Jordan Center at New York University, and it went live just this week, so I grabbed the chance to post it here as well. If you’re interested in Russia more generally, both its past and its present, make sure to check out “All the Russias” for yourself.
 
Ten years ago, when I began writing a series of novels set in Russia during the minority of Ivan the Terrible, the last thing I expected was for the books to have present-day relevance. Yes, like most scholars of pre-Petrine Russia, I cut my academic teeth on Edward L. Keenan’s “Muscovite Political Folkways” (1986), an article that, however schematic and speculative, still resonates along the corridors of time in fascinating ways. But a lot has changed since 1538, whatever principles of Russian political culture continue to play out in contemporary life.

On the contrary, my goal in tackling the Legends of the Five Directions series was simple. Because I work as an editor rather than a professor, and publishing continues all year, I found it difficult to schedule the kind of intensive archival study necessary for serious academic research. I’d already begun writing fiction for fun, so why not put my PhD to work and get back to the subject I love?

What I wanted, more than anything, was to produce historical fiction that accurately reflected what scholars have learned about social, political, and cultural life in Muscovy, ideas developed in great detail yet still missing, with rare exceptions, even from college textbooks. The general public has little familiarity with academic history on Russia in general and Muscovite Russia in particular, and that observation includes novelists. As a result, historical fiction tends to get at best a mixed reception from scholars, often deservedly so. That’s true everywhere, but it’s especially true of fiction set in Russia. 


But there is no fundamental reason why historical fiction can’t conform to the general outlines of the historical record. It can never be wholly accurate, since it involves imagined feelings, invented dialogue, and characters who never existed or about whom little information survives. Novelists can’t say, “we don’t know.” They must fill in the blanks, decide among the available options, and craft the whole into an emotionally satisfying tale.

Fiction writers can, however, choose to respect the details we have, understanding that exact sequences and events are themselves clues to the underlying story. Pursuing that approach to historical fiction became my goal, and being a specialist on the sixteenth century, I believed I could accomplish it. If, in addition, I convinced a general audience that Russia had more in its past than vodka and communism, so much the better.

Then in March 2014, the very month in which I published The Winged Horse (Legends of the Five Directions 2: East), the Russian Federation formally annexed Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his land grab by insisting that “Crimea has always been part of Russia.” Yet here was my novel, set on the steppe, in which a Crimea that was very much not part of Russia played a significant role in the events—fictional and otherwise—affecting my characters’ life choices.

If anything, Crimea in those days was Turkish, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, although the sultans appear to have contented themselves with appointing its khans, calling on Tatar troops during military campaigns, and establishing strategic control of Crimea’s section of the Black Sea coastline. The Girei (Giray) clan that ruled Crimea allied with Russia under Ivan III (r. 1462–1505), only to fall out with his successor, Vasilii III (r. 1505–1533). 


Whether the falling out took place because Sigismund I the Old of Poland-Lithuania paid better, because Vasilii appointed a foe of the Girei clan to rule the subordinate principality of Kasimov, because Russia and Crimea went head to head in a contest to take over the rival khanate of Kazan, or some combination thereof, the result was a powerful, semi-independent, Ottoman-supported, hostile khanate on Muscovy’s southern border.

The khans of Crimea had grand ambitions, too: they sought to reestablish a single Tatar state with themselves at its head, replacing the disintegrated Juchid ulus, better known as the Golden Horde. With that goal in mind, the Girei dynasts defeated Ahmed Khan of the Great Horde in 1502, sent persistent demands to Moscow noting that Kasimov belonged to them, and did their best to install their own candidates in Kazan through means that included the assassination of at least one Muscovite-backed ruler, Jan-Ali, in 1535. These activities, too, put Crimea on a collision course with Moscow, which had its own plans to conquer the Tatar khanates.

Nor did the Girei khans stop with meddling on the steppe and in Kazan. Crimean Tatars regularly raided the Muscovite lands, stealing people and plunder; launched massive attacks on various southeastern fortresses; and burned Moscow to the ground more than once. And this despite an intermittent but prolonged contest between uncles and nephew for control of Crimea itself that lasted from 1523 to 1537.

Not all these events play starring roles in The Golden Lynx and its sequels—The Winged Horse, The Swan Princess, The Vermilion Bird, and The Shattered Drum (the last released in July 2018). But they form the backdrop of the series, in which Tatars of various khanates and hordes interact with Russians in circumstances both friendly and otherwise.

The Russia in these novels is an embattled state, despite its expansionist ambitions. Its juvenile leader—Ivan IV (r. 1533–1584), the future Terrible Tsar—has little authority at home or abroad, although every decision enacted by others takes place in his name. His mother struggles to keep him alive and in power; his government locks up his uncles to prevent them from usurping the throne. Foreign states perceived as enemies beat at the gates: Poland-Lithuania, Crimea, Kazan. And beyond Poland lies “the West”—not yet identified as such—with its Italian architects and artillery founders, its German doctors, its Greco-Latin learning and supposedly heretic religion, ready to invade and to judge.

Perhaps not so much has changed since 1538 after all.

Images: Legends of the Five Directions covers © C. P. Lesley 2012–18; Miniature depicting the Ottoman campaign in Hungary, 1566, with Crimean Tatars in the vanguard and Sergei Ivanov, At Moscow’s [Southern] Defensive Border (1907) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Interview with Kate Braithwaite

Almost two years ago, I interviewed Kate Braithwaite on New Books in Historical Fiction  about her first book, Charlatan, a gritty and engrossing novel set during the Affair of the Poisons—an intrigue that touched, among others, the aging and soon-to-be replaced marquise de Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV. A month ago, I discovered that Kate was back with a new book, not too distant in time from the first but set across the English Channel, where the imminent death of Charles II has aroused fears that the ascension of his Catholic brother, the future James II, will reignite the religious wars in England.

But Kate can explain the rest of The Road to Newgate herself.

Kate, welcome! Although set in the same century as your previous novel, Charlatan, you’ve moved north for this one. It’s nice to see a book about the later Stuarts—rather than the Tudors, who get so much attention—but what drew you to this particular setting?


I stumbled across this story while researching Charlatan, and both novels are not only set in the same century but in the exact same few years, roughly between 1678 and 1682. While Paris was in turmoil with a poisoning scandal, London had a very different kind of upheaval, when one of the most infamous liars in history, a man called Titus Oates, created a major panic with revelations of Catholic plots to assassinate Charles II.
Titus Oates (Wikimedia Commons)  


What’s the story, in a nutshell?


In The Road to Newgate, a married couple, Nathaniel and Anne Thompson, get caught up in the events of Titus Oates’s Popish Plot. A Protestant magistrate is found dead in a ditch, sparking mass panic, but Nat, a writer, doesn’t believe the plot stories and becomes determined to prove that Titus Oates is a liar. Oates, a dangerous enemy to make, is also connected to the Thompsons through their friend William Smith, a man with a secret he is afraid to share. The story is about Nat, Anne, and William: about what they must do to expose Oates … and what it will cost them. 

Your main character is Nathaniel Thompson. Tell us a bit about him: who he is and what he wants from life.


Nat is clever, hard-working, and stubborn. He’s a man who has achieved a good position as Licenser to His Majesty’s Press and has done so without the benefits of a rich family or connections pulling strings for him. He has recently fallen for and married Anne, ten years younger than he is, and when the story begins, he is still adjusting to this new life where he has someone else to care for, other than himself and his work. He is not always the most sensitive soul and has a lot to learn as a husband! Although Nat’s decisions are made in good faith, the cost of his choices—costs borne by his family and friends—may be hard to bear.

Nat’s wife, Anne, is also a major character. What’s her background and her role in the book?


Anne comes from a different, more affluent background. She is the younger of two daughters and has married Nat in the face of family opposition. But having married the man she loves, she finds life more challenging than expected. Once the novelty of running her own household wears off, she struggles to find her feet. Nat is busy, and she is often alone. She wants to understand his work, but she has her own views and the couple don’t always see eye to eye. With Nat caught up in public events and bringing danger to their door, Anne has to find a way to assert herself in her marriage and take an active role in the events that unfold if she is to have the life with Nat that she imagined when she married him.




Nat and Anne have only recently married, as you mentioned, and Anne, as we learn early on, has reason to believe that she will soon have a child. That’s a lot of transition to deal with, and the events of the novel only increase the pressure. What do their varying—and developing—points of view contribute to your novel?


The challenge in this story was making the public, historical events personal to the characters. The Popish Plot is complex and political, but I was interested in looking at how a public crisis could affect ordinary people. By telling the story through Nat and Anne’s points of view, I hoped to personalize the public drama as it unfolded. I enjoy stories where I can read different characters’ perspectives on the same events. Nat always doubts Titus Oates’ plot stories, but Anne’s reaction is more in line with the majority of Londoners. The pressure on the marriage—the threats to Nat’s income, the pregnancy, Anne’s doubts about Nat’s actions—is a very important theme. A key part of the story is a murder investigation, and it was vital that Anne take a role there. The ability to switch into her point of view was essential to telling her story—I hope—convincingly. William Smith’s point of view and his story are integral to the plot but also add to the reader’s understanding of Nat and Anne’s characters and marriage, when we see them through an outsider’s eyes. I was also keen to portray Titus Oates on the page, and each of my three storytellers have important confrontations with him at various points in the book.

There is a certain contemporaneity, as Russians say, to this whole web of plots and conspiracy theories and counter-plots. Do you see echoes of this past in our present, and if so, where? More generally, what would you like readers to take away from The Road to Newgate?


I definitely see parallels to the world in 2018 in the story of The Road to Newgate. The explosion of propaganda, the terrible rhetoric against Catholics, the way Oates’ lies are so fantastic that people find it easier to believe he is telling the truth than imagine that someone could have made it all up—all these things resonated with me as I wrote. That said, this is a novel. My main aim has always been to write an entertaining, page-turning book. There are themes to think about and connections to be made; it is also a lesser-known slice of Stuart history that I’m excited to shed some light on. But these are not the most important take-aways. Above anything else, I’m hoping readers will care for the characters and get sucked in to wanting to know what happens to them. Oh, and want to read my next book!

Are you already working on another novel?


I am, although slowly! With a book launch and children off school for the summer, I’m not getting along with my next project quite as quickly as I’d like. But it does have a title —The Girl Puzzle—and it’s about Nellie Bly, a groundbreaking female journalist. There are two storylines at the moment, one of her as a young woman starting her career in New York City in the 1880s and a second later in life, in her fifties when, in the first scene, it seems she has just kidnapped a child.

Sounds fascinating. I look forward to finding out more. Thanks so much, Kate, for taking the time to answer my questions!


Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Award. Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.




Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or find out more about her at  http://www.kate-braithwaite.com. She also maintains a second, light-hearted blog about the differences between US and UK English.




And on another note, for those who’ve been waiting, The Shattered Drum is now available for both print and Kindle and as part of my second Legends box set, which also includes book 4 (The Vermilion Bird). Click on the titles to access the various editions, and check out the links at http://www.fivedirectionspress.com/the-shattered-drum and http://www.fivedirectionspress.com/boxsets, respectively, for more information.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Marriage Politics, American-Style

As I’ve written elsewhere, in the time period and area of the world I study, most people saw marriage as an economic and political contract between families writ small and villages (among the poor) or between entire clans and patronage networks (among the elite). The desire of individuals for love and companionship, understanding and compatibility, played little role in the choice of marriage partner. Instead, the dominant factors included things like whose lands ran together, which woman needed a husband to plow the fields or which man needed a woman to cook and clean, and who had close ties to those in power and in favor. Not to mention the possibility of children, without whom the family, village, or lineage could not continue.

Health and fertility, especially among potential brides, also weighed in the balance, since bearing children was a wife’s primary responsibility. Personality had some importance, for sure, but only to the extent that it made a successful partnership more or less likely in the eyes of those charged with selecting the potential spouse. Parents and guardians, not the couple themselves, made that decision. Aristocratic fathers, to ensure that they had a free hand, secluded their virgin daughters within the household, keeping them as close as the ladies of any Turkish harem.

But that was Europe in the premodern era. Nothing like that could have happened in the Land of the Free and the Brave in the twentieth century, right? In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, with the author Robert Goolrick—whose new novel The Dying of the Light I also featured in last week’s post—we see that the United States in the Gilded Age, at least among its old landed and nouveau-riche entrepreneurial classes, was not so different from medieval Europe after all. The tensions created by selling one’s daughter to the highest bidder pervade this novel, determining much of its action as well as the complex and often contradictory relationships among its characters.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. Goolrick is an unusually thoughtful and fascinating speaker, so make sure to listen in. You’ll be glad you did!

“It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” So opens Robert Goolrick’s rich, lyrical new novel, The Dying of the Light (Harper, 2018).

The house is Saratoga, a colonial-era estate in Virginia that is at once a joy and a burden to the family that lives there, the Cookes. In particular, it determines the life trajectory of Diana Cooke, the eighteen-year-old heiress charged with saving her family and her home from poverty right after World War I. Diana reluctantly embraces her destiny, agreeing to marry Captain Copperton, a wealthy but uncouth man who doesn’t hesitate to remind the Cookes at every turn that he owns not only the house but them, in principle if not in fact.

But Copperton has one virtue in addition to his entrepreneurial abilities: he is a good father to the son he has with Diana. And it is, in the end, their son who unwittingly sets off the series of events that leaves Saratoga in ashes. Along the way, a cast of delightfully realized and often eccentric characters interact in sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising ways against the backdrop of Saratoga and its ever changing, ever inspiring river.

As for me, I am almost, almost through the massive list of projects surrounding the release of my last Legends novel, The Shattered Drum. Stay tuned for the formal announcement next week. If you’re signed up at Five Directions Press, you will receive the press release automatically. And if you’re not, why aren’t you? We send out no more than six mailings a year—mostly announcements of new titles—and since our resident designer, Courtney J. Hall, puts her creative talents to work on those mailings, they are always exciting to see.


Meanwhile, I hope to get back to writing—maybe as soon as this weekend. I can hardly wait!

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Sense of Place

Just yesterday, I was talking with the writer Robert Goolrick, whose latest novel, The Dying of the Light, is the subject of my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview (on which, more next week—or perhaps the Friday after that, depending on how many interviews are in the queue ahead of me). Although as writers and as readers, we tend to focus on characters and plot, The Dying of the Light reminds us that setting, if properly invoked, expresses and motivates the first and drives the second.

Place grounds us, influencing our experience of the world in ways so fundamental that we often don’t recognize their force. In my own novels, the crowded streets and tightly packed houses of sixteenth-century Moscow breed different expectations from the vast borderless grasslands of the steppe or the equally vast and borderless yet somehow confining forests of the Russian north. My characters feel these differences, sometimes with joy—as when Alexei has a chance to return to the steppe for a summer, even if it means leaving his family for a war that may prevent his return—and sometimes with dread, as when Nasan stands in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, surrounded by the decaying corpses of Moscow’s royal princes.




The Dying of the Light opens with a wonderful line: “It begins with a house and it ends in ashes.” And indeed it does: the Virginia estate of Saratoga, as important to those who live there as Pemberley or Tara. The Cookes of Saratoga can trace their ownership of the house back to the eighteenth century, but by the time the novel opens more than 150 years later, the house has become both a burden to those who live there and an essential part of their being.

The estate costs a lot to maintain, you see, and the Cookes are land-rich and cash-poor. They have one asset besides the house and their name: their beautiful daughter Diana. So they put her on the market—the marriage market—and force her to choose between their estate and her happiness.



What happens after that is the subject of a future post, but today’s point is simple. Saratoga—its river and its fields, its people and the race relations that bind and separate them, its disasters and moments of recovery—both challenges and rewards its residents. It pushes the plot in unexpected directions. It forces the introduction of new characters, who in turn develop new relationships even as they twist existing ones in different directions, sometimes to the point of destruction. And the history of the house, so closely tied to the person of the protagonist Diana Cooke, ultimately reveals the theme hidden in this wonderfully lyrical and fascinating book.

Take this one short example from p. 106. “They” are Diana and her cook, Priscilla.

They heard the crack and crash of a tree outside, in the garden, struck by lightning that lit the room like daylight, like noon in July. They felt the chill air that suddenly filled the room, blowing in from the library, and thought the same thought at the same moment. “The books!” Diana jumped up.

They ran into the library, forcing open the broad double doors, to find the giant half tree that had been split by the lightning and crashed through the diamond panes of the windows, destroying everything, letting in the slashing rain, pulling books from the shelves, the soggy pages flapping in the wind, the rug soaked, the ruination of all that Diana held most dear.


Now, that’s a sense of place.


On another note, my summer plans are proceeding apace. The Golden Lynx, 2nd ed. is available on Amazon and Kindle, and I’ve approved it for distribution via Ingraham. The rest of the Legends novels, despite yet another copyright challenge, have received their updates. The first of two box sets is out on Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited users can borrow all the Legends novels for free (others pay $2.99 per book or $6.99 for the set). And the e-book of The Shattered Drum releases on Monday, but you can preorder it now. The print version should appear in seven to ten days. That leaves only the second box set, which I hope to complete this weekend and release around the same time as the print version of The Shattered Drum.

After that, I will be back to writing—a whole new series waiting to be born!


Images: Apollinary Vasnetsov, A Street in the Kitagorod (1902), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; warriors in the steppe, screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior, dir. Sergei Bodrov (2005).

Friday, July 6, 2018

Works in Progress

So, as I wrote last week, I’ve spent the last six days focusing on my own novels, mostly the Legends books as I spiff them up in preparation for the release of The Shattered Drum, the last one in the series. I’d hoped to start work on Song of the Shaman, the second installment in my spinoff series, also set in Russia but in the 1540s, an even more troubled time in that country’s history than the 1530s, and involving some of the same characters. But now that Friday has dawned, it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen during this break. So what have I been doing?

Well, the second edition of The Golden Lynx has appeared on Amazon for print and Kindle, although we’re still working out the kinks when it comes to linking the files—both print and Kindle and first and second editions. You can get the new e-book no problem, but running a search stubbornly turns up the older print edition, no longer available for sale (the print link above will take you to the right place). It looks as if Amazon is correcting the print/Kindle links as we speak, though. And the customer service rep did a stellar job of cleaning up the e-book formatting, which had become inexplicably distorted in the “Look Inside This Book” feature despite being perfect in the e-book itself. If you happened to see it in its multi-size, multi-font, all centered glory, try again. I swear, I do know how books should look!

The new Golden Lynx is also uploaded to Ingram Spark, although not yet available because I want to check the physical proof before I approve it for distribution. It has an official publication date of July 30 and an on-sale date of August 15. That was another learning experience, although the print proof passed on the second try and the site seems in general easy to use, if more expensive than CreateSpace. Both have great help files and extraordinary customer service, so in general it’s been a positive experience. Useful, too, as some of my fellow Five Directions Press authors want to list with Ingram Spark as well, and now I have a better sense of how to prepare their files and what to warn them about.

In addition to that, I’ve revised The Vermilion Bird (insignificant changes such as adding the book link for The Shattered Drum and stripping out one ad for another) and The Winged Horse (small but significant changes to make Tulpar more consistent with his later self). The box set of Legends 1–3 will be ready as soon as I finish reading through The Swan Princess, which I’m doing now. The second box set will soon follow. The Shattered Drum is available for preorder on Kindle. The print edition has already been proofed twice and has only the teeniest adjustments still to include in the final PDF. That will probably go up next weekend, to give the computers time to link the two editions before the release date.

With all these changes to account for, I’ve updated the Five Directions Press site, the books and bio pages on this blog, and my own site. I’ve even discovered the magic button that relinks this blog to my author site. Any day now, I’ll have a moment to record an excerpt from The Shattered Drum and add that to the two sites—maybe on Thursday, when my next New Books in Historical Fiction is supposed to take place. The print excerpts must wait until the official release of the Kindle book on July 16.

I’ve had a couple of weird experiences during all this. CreateSpace has twice freaked out about whether I have the right to update my own novels—this after six years!—forcing me to hunt down and scan the official copyright registration forms that I fortunately signed up for. Meanwhile, the Electronic Copyright Office registration site has been down since Tuesday, so I can’t clear up the mystery of why my application for The Swan Princess remains open even though I mailed the deposit copies in April 2016 or verify that my registration of Shattered Drum “took.” Which could get exciting if CreateSpace starts questioning my right to produce those novels....

But otherwise, it’s been a very productive week. And now I have to run off and work on The Swan Princess corrections, because I have only three more days before work barrels back down the pike at full speed!