Friday, March 16, 2018

Love on Four Paws

“It began, this journey of many lifetimes, in an ordinary way: he and I went to pick oysters on the shore. He loved them more than any other food, loved the ritual of unlocking abrasive shells to discover a treasured interior, smooth alabaster and incorporeal liquor. And when he feasted on them, they had a transformative effect: his shoulders dropped, his brow unknotted, and his eyes softened, sometimes to tears.”

So begins, too, Damien Dibben’s new novel, Tomorrow. A novel with two prologues, set five years apart, and narrated by a dog. A dog who, as you can see from the above, has a clear vision and an astonishing vocabulary, who has lived for centuries and acquired considerable wisdom and perspective yet remains a hound waiting patiently for his master’s return—for 127 years.

It shouldn’t work, but it does, beautifully. The dog, who until the end we know only by the names his master bestows on him—“my champion,” most often—may grow wiser and develop insight on the oddities of the human species, but he doesn’t cease to be a dog. Odors fascinate him, and he identifies people and other animals by them. He defends his food and space from other dogs. He helps those of his own kind abandoned by their human companions, whether through death or departure, involuntary or—in the case of the delightful Sporco, another dog who insists on joining the narrator’s pack—deliberate. He loves his absent master unconditionally. He delights in and then grieves the loss of Blaise, the female dog who, not being immortal as he is, can spend only a short number of years as his companion. It never occurs to him, until his master briefly returns only to vanish once more, to leave his post. He is loyal and true, like the best canine companions. More than anything else, he is unwavering.

And as you can see from the opening, the writing is gorgeous. Dibben, the author of the YA series The History Keepers, excels in this haunting novel. A pair of alchemists, linked in ways that become clear only near the end, enter into conflict over the refusal of one to save the love of the other by conferring immortality on the lover as well as his own dog. The antagonist, shocked at this refusal, vows to exact a price. The dog senses the danger, but he can’t understand the tortured logic that drives his master’s foe. And when the antagonist’s revenge plays out, the dog, like all dogs, realizes only slowly what has happened. As he progresses from Elsinore in 1602 to the battlefield of Waterloo more than two centuries later, he offers a distinctive perspective on our early modern past—and our present.

I wish I could fit this author into my podcast schedule, but the book releases next week, and I have three interviews in line to close the gap inadvertently opened from mid-January to now for a variety of reasons ranging from stage fright (not mine) to the nor’easter that blew out my power and Internet connection for four days straight. So for the moment, this blog post is the best I can do. But I see that Dibben has another adult novel in the works called The Colorist, set in Renaissance Venice and exploring the vast lengths to which painters would go to secure new shades. So I hope to have another chance for an interview when that book comes out. And if I do, you can bet I’ll also be asking him about Tomorrow.

Because who can resist an immortal dog?

Friday, March 9, 2018

Bookshelf, March 2018

Between the double-barreled nor’easter that knocked out my power last Friday and my Internet and cable connections for the entire weekend (so much for the Oscars) and general overwork, I haven’t spent much time on social media recently—even to alert people to last week’s blog post. I had to reschedule my planned New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF) interview with John Bell, so I don’t have that to post about, and while a lot of books have come my way, I’ve had little time to read them due to evenings spent going through Song of the Siren and The Shattered Drum. So with heat, light, and Internet restored—at least until the next storm blows through—it seems like the perfect time for a bookshelf post. Here, more or less in order, are a few of the titles on my short list (I have at least twice as many contenders waiting in the wings for a future post).

John Richard Bell, The Circumstantial Enemy (Endeavour Books, 2017)
Technically, I’ve read this one, but until I complete the interview with the author, it’s still front and center in my brain. Tony Babic, a twenty-year-old Croatian pilot whose main goal in life is to get out of the air force after witnessing a tragic accident, is instead pressed into flying for the Luftwaffe against the USSR. Meanwhile, his close friend and the woman they both love become caught up in Tito’s drive to unite Yugoslavia under the communist flag. After a series of adventures, Tony ends up in a US POW camp for German and German-allied prisoners. A very different but equally engrossing take on the Second World War from that adopted by Gwen C. Katz in Among the Red Stars, the subject of my previous NBHF interview.


Claudia H. Long, Chains of Silver (Five Directions Press, 2018)
Since I edited and typeset this book for my own writers’ coop, Five Directions Press, technically I’ve read it too, even though its formal release date is next Thursday, March 15. But my interview with this author, which was supposed to follow the one with John Bell and will now precede it due to the vagaries of weather and electricity, is also still in play; in fact, I need to revisit the book to draw up draft questions this weekend. 

Like two of Claudia Long’s previous novels, Josefina’s Sin and The Duel for Consuelo, this story takes place in colonial Mexico—here among the hidden Jewish community, under pressure from the Catholic Church during the last days of the Inquisition. Marcela Leon, sent to Consuelo’s hacienda for protection after her own parents’ arrest, finds it difficult to understand the danger that faces her. Marcela is, after all, only fourteen years old. Her fiery personality and teenage indiscretion lead to her exile as a housekeeper to a priest in the northern mining region of Zacatecas, where she grows up to become one of the town’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens. But it takes a series of family tragedies before Marcela truly understands the secret of how her parents, especially her mother, endured persecution and finds the strength to make peace with her past. 

Damian Dibben, Tomorrow (Hanover Square Press, 2018)
One of the publicists with whom I’ve worked on setting up interviews sent me this novel unsolicited, and I immediately fell in love with the concept. A dog, known only as “my champion” or “my hero” and from the cover picture a chocolate Labrador (although dog breeds are in fact a later development), lives with his master, an alchemist, in Denmark in 1602. Somehow the dog becomes immortal, as his master and his master’s antagonist also are, but he winds up alone. Like the faithful hound he is, he travels all over Europe for the next two centuries, visiting the canals and palaces of Venice, the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, the battlefields of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, and more. Along the way, he acquires a certain canine wisdom. I’m only about fifty pages in, so I don’t know how the story will develop, but the writing sparkles and the idea is simply irresistible. More about this one in next week’s post. The book is due out March 20.

Adrienne Sharp, The Magnificent Esme Wells (Harper, 2018)
Another novel, this time solicited, from one of the publicists I’ve contacted for NBHF interviews. I’m currently about halfway through and loving this author’s previous book, The True Memoirs of Little K (2010), about the life of the prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska and her (heavily fictionalized—the title is a joke) prolonged affair with the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II. The Magnificent Esme Wells takes place in Hollywood and Las Vegas during the days of Bugsy Siegel. Esme’s mother is a showgirl in the movies, her father a gangster, but they both dream of making it big in their respective realms. In the middle is Esme, trying to make sense of it all. 

Due for release in early April, this book will be the subject of a future NBHF interview. In the meantime, don’t miss the earlier novel, especially if you're a ballet fan or a Russia fan. Mathilde spends most of her time plotting how to get back in the tsar’s good graces and defeat her self-perceived rival, Empress Alexandra (Alix), so you need not be a ballet fan to love the book. But if you are a fan of the Russian Imperial Ballet and enjoy reading about strong-minded women bent on pursuing their interests and defending their children, you absolutely must seek out this book. Besides, is that cover not reason enough to justify purchasing the book?

Friday, March 2, 2018

Home, Sweet Home

There are many things I like about working from home. The commute is great, even in the depths of winter. The wardrobe includes whatever I feel like throwing one—ancient blue jeans, thirty-year-old sweaters, tank tops in summer, the works. Lunch, although not quite free, costs less than the most basic cafeteria. I can fit short ballet barre workouts into my lunch break. The only restriction on my coffee consumption is common sense. And that enormous time waster—meetings—rarely clutters up my day, although e-mail, my primary means of communication with the outside world, does its best to slurp up every available moment.

But as I discovered last Friday, there is one big drawback to working from home. When the heat goes out, there’s no central plant to call. For the last week Sir Percy and I have dodged daily visits by earnest technicians bent on taking our ancient boiler apart and putting it together again while wrestling the cats for access to the space heaters that provide our only source of warm air.

So far, the cats have won. They didn’t put us in this position, after all; we did it, however inadvertently, to them. One cat—the elder statesman depicted above—has developed an entire philosophy of space heaters. He follows them around the house, listening for the fans and when they go on and off. Early in the morning, he doubles up, positioning himself under the overhang of quilts at the end of the bed so he can soak up heat from the bedroom heater while sheltered under layers of fabric. In the evenings he gloms onto the person with the Snugli, then moves to the back room once that heats up.

I can only hope that the situation resolves itself soon: that the next earnest technician, due any moment, installs the crucial part that will restore the boiler to functionality—not forever, because it’s reached the end of its natural life and must be replaced before fall sets in, but for a few more weeks while we figure out how to finance the new one.

But I do know that whether today proves to be the deciding moment or not, the cats are prepared.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Judging a Book by Its Cover

A short post this week, because I’ve been writing like mad on the first novel in my new series while juggling my regular job and a freelance project that, although no doubt worthy and often interesting, seldom rises to the level of scintillating writing. Don’t get me started on tax season, which I have spent the last few weeks denying, even though I know I need to buckle down to 1099s, W-2s, and all those work expenses that require categorization and totaling.

An article dropped into my in box today that gave me pause: an interview with three independent publicists, it included lots of information about rates (high) and dedication (also high) and numbers of clients served (surprisingly low), as well as some tips for those of us who can’t afford the high rates. 

All good, of course, but the article seems to take one crucial point for granted: before you hire a publicist, you need a professional product to sell.

Specifically, you need a great cover, a properly formatted text (print or e-book), and most of all, stellar prose. I can’t tell you how many pitches I get from publicists for New Books in Historical Fiction for books where the cover looks like something drawn by a middle-schooler, the fonts are small and bland, the book description goes on for pages without ever capturing the story, and the writing—assuming I get far enough to research the book online—is as flat as the proverbial pancake. It may sound mean, but these are not authors I want to interview. They shouldn’t sink their funds in publicity but use them to hire a writing coach and a competent book/cover designer.

Because this is a short post, I won’t go into the specifics of what makes a professional cover design. You can find out more, if you’re interested, in JD Smith’s The Importance of Book Cover Design and Formatting (you can also hire JD Smith herself, if she has the time, to produce a cover for you—check out her portfolio).

If she’s too busy or her work is not to your taste, there are many other gifted cover designers out there. You can team up with writers who have the design skills you lack: here at Five Directions Press we have our own cover designer, who is building her portfolio with the occasional freelance job, as well as professional editors, book designers, and typesetters. 

You can also work with a subsidy publisher: She Writes Press selects books for high-quality writing, then contracts for editorial services as well as cover design and typesetting, yielding appealing and well-written novels with minimal errors. Book production companies like Bookbaby include cover design in their packages.

Or you can hire a graphic designer who specializes in book covers. In addition to searching the Internet in the usual way or posting requests for recommendations on social media, one place to check is, which vets editors and cover designers, with whom you can then contract on a one-on-one basis.  

In all these cases you should check the output online to be sure you like the style before you commit yourself to spending several hundred dollars. But unless you know what you’re doing, don’t use free software offered online, including the “cover creators” offered by the various online booksellers. Be wary of sites that advertise book covers on the cheap. Don’t use your own artwork. Don’t design your book or your cover in a word-processing program. And don’t assume your book will sell itself.

To stand out in a crowded market, you need a great cover, a great book description, and most of all, a great book. Even with those three things, your book sales will probably fall far below your hopes; it’s the nature of today’s market. But without those three things, there’s no point in spending a small fortune on a publicist, because the best publicist in the world can’t compensate for the fact that we all judge a book by its cover.

Images sprinkled throughout this post represent good cover design independent sources. No cover appeals to everyone, but each of these examples includes an image that captures the story and the genre of the novel, fonts used creatively and well, and respect for proportions and alignment.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Oh, Those Names!

One of the more annoying habits of our ancestors, from the perspective of a historical novelist, is their lamentable lack of imagination when it came to naming their children. This complaint applies particularly, but of course not exclusively, to the Russian nobility and the Russian royal family between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This apparent lack of imagination had several causes. Russians celebrated name days rather than birthdays, but it was not uncommon to name a child after the saint on whose day he or she was born, so that the two coincided. The more days in the calendar associated with Johns, Marys, or Gregorys, the more children carried those names. Saints could also rise and fall in popularity, so one can trace the growing cult of SS Boris and Gleb, for example, by the increased prevalence of those names among the population.

Another issue was family commemoration: entire clans had series of children named Nikolai or Boris or Anna or whatever after parents and grandparents and other relatives. Some families even gave two brothers or sisters the same names, confusing the picture mightily and forcing everyone else to distinguish between Ivan Petrovich the Elder and Ivan Petrovich the Younger. But even beyond that, there seems to have been a strong preference for certain names in the sixteenth-century Russian aristocracy. Ivan, Vasily, Fyodor, Dmitry, and Yuri—all names favored by the royal family—were often encountered among noble boys, whereas a lot of girls went by Anna, Elena, Anastasia, or Maria.

All this creates difficulty for a novelist trying to maintain some historical veracity. I managed to juggle the issue all through the Legends novels by focusing as much as possible on my own invented characters, whom I did my best to ensure had not just unique names but one form of their unique names (another problem with Russian custom that I’ll discuss someday). For the most part that worked, despite the pair of Yuris (uncle and nephew), the double Sigismunds (father and son), and more Vasilys and Ivans than one could shake a proverbial stick at.

But midway through my current work in progress, Song of the Siren, I ran smack into a dilemma. Bad enough that in 1542, when that novel is set, the Poles, who were in dynastic alliance with the Lithuanians, had two kings/grand dukes simultaneously named Sigismund—called Sigismund the Old (father) and Sigismund Augustus (son) to keep them straight. The Russians did them one better: then in a kind of political meltdown, they had become enmeshed in a conflict that I could explain only by citing the rival claims of three princes named Ivan. You can imagine the conversation from a poor reader’s perspective: Prince Ivan is fighting Prince Ivan for control of Prince Ivan. Huh?

I wrote it out, complete with a slap from my Polish character about the Russians’ not knowing any other names, unconcerned by his own people doing the exact same thing. Nope. Didn’t work. By the end of the conversation even I was confused, and I know a fair bit about the history involved. The other writers in my critique group were scratching their heads, and I didn’t blame them. I needed another solution.

As I’ve said before, I’m a historian first and foremost; the novels are fun, and I love writing them, but even if I can’t claim perfect accuracy—not least because our forebears tended not to leave detailed records of what went on in their heads at any given moment, any more than we do—I have mostly avoided changing the names of people who once actually lived and walked the earth. I grumbled and groaned and tried different tactics, but in the end I realized I had no choice: two of the Ivans would have to receive different names.

And so it is. In the historical note, I explain who they really were. And in fact, given how little we know about any of these historical figures, in some ways I find it works better to change their names, because now they are “mine,” in a way they were not before, and I don’t need to worry about someone noting I have them strutting around in the palace in Moscow when they were really besieging Kazan or some such thing. They can do and say and be whatever the story requires, beyond the broad strokes of the conflict that forms the backdrop to the novel.

Still, I must admit that I have acquired a whole new appreciation of diverse naming practices. They make a novelist’s life so much easier....

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, The Kissing Custom (1895). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. What are the chances that every guy lounging at the table is named Ivan?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Women at War

Almost five years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long!), I ran a blog series on the various roles that women held in the medieval and early modern world: Russia in particular, but also in the lands to the east, south, and west. The series started with “Women of Steel,”  which looked at why I made my main Legends heroine, Nasan, a Tatar instead of a Russian and what life was like for the nomadic women of the Eurasian steppe. The series continued through July 2013, and if you’re interested in the topic, you can follow it backward from “Taking the Veil.” By August I was facing up to the demands of the then-new book, long since published, with a post on how to tackle the subject of “Men at War.”

So I was delighted to have a chance to interview Gwen Katz on New Books in Historical Fiction. We discuss her debut novel, Among the Red Stars, which looks at the women who flew for the Soviet Union as combat pilots. Through the lives of an appealing and courageous bomber pilot, her dedicated but (through no fault of her own) politically suspect navigator and cousin, and the pilot’s best friend, a young man drafted into the Red Army as a ham radio operator, we get a full and fascinating introduction to this little-known element of the Second World War: women who battled to take part in the fighting and men who would much rather have stayed home.

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

Valentina (Valka) Koroleva and her cousin Iskra share a dream: to fly in defense of their Soviet motherland against the Nazi forces that have launched a surprise invasion in violation of Hitler’s nonaggression pact with Stalin. So when Valka receives a telegram announcing the formation of all-female fighting and bomber units, the two of them set off for Moscow without hesitation.

The number of applicants far exceeds the slots available, and the competition proves tougher than Valka and her cousin anticipate. But while they do not in the end become elite fighter pilots, they do make the cut for the night bomber unit: Valka as a pilot and Iskra as her navigator. Soon they are flying a shaky biplane constructed of wood and canvas, liable to burst into flames or crash without warning, against the German forces. Meanwhile, Valka’s best friend, Pasha, has been drafted into a ground regiment where he operates a ham radio under harsh conditions. He and Valka exchange regular letters, expressing their different experiences of war.

But fighting for the Soviet Union means coping not only with the enemy but also with Stalin’s paranoia. Iskra’s parents, arrested even before the war, cast a long shadow on her prospects for success despite her willingness to sacrifice her life for her country. Some of Valka’s assigned targets turn out to be people on her own side. Pilots shot down in combat or soldiers captured in an ambush are declared traitors to the state. And she learns that those in authority—or even comrades in arms—are at times the most likely to denounce those suspected of disloyalty, a category that includes  insubordination. So although Among the Red Stars is listed as Young Adult, in fact Gwen Katz has written a novel that, because it tackles difficult problems with honesty, will appeal to adults as well. It is also a riveting tale about women in combat, female friendship, and survival against the odds.

And don’t forget to check out her website, linked in the paragraph above, where she has a collection of artworks linked to the book.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Ever-Changing Algorithms

I freely admit to struggling with social media. While I worked to master Facebook and Twitter, the world moved on to Instagram and Snapchat, which have since been replaced by a dozen other sites and apps that I can’t even name, let alone use. I abandoned my LinkedIn account years ago, although LinkedIn seems as unconvinced of that fact as Yahoo, which still sends me messages about security breaches demanding that I log in to my supposedly deleted account. And although I unreservedly love Pinterest, even it gets quirky at times, usually because the site owners have either decided that their users are desperate for more ads or because they’ve initiated an upgrade to something that worked just fine before they messed with it and has stopped working now.

But no group of programmers loves to ring changes like the folks at Facebook. So it came as no surprise to discover, for the umpteenth time, that Facebook is altering its algorithms: this time, or so we’re told, to favor posts from friends and family at the cost of small businesses and publishers (unless they pay to promote their posts, presumably). According to the press release, this change is good for us, the users. And indeed, I would like to see posts from my close friends rather than click bait sent out by Russian bots. Wouldn’t you?

Only that doesn’t seem to be happening. My friend lists are still buried three layers deep at the side of the page, under News Feed, Messenger, Watch, Marketplace, Events, Groups, Fundraisers, and more. Not to mention Games (which I never play), On This Day (which is what?), and, of course, Ads Manager.

Now, the truth is that I don’t care all that much about having to search for posts from my friends. A lot of them do show up in my News Feed, and because I don’t respond to political news (I’m on social media as an author, after all, not a commentator), I see the bots only once in a while. And since I mostly get on Facebook, check notifications and messages, post on behalf of myself or Five Directions Press, and get off, I recognize that there may be ways to hide the Marketplace or the Fundraisers (although I couldn’t find a way to hide the Games) that I just don’t know.

But why punish small businesses that don’t have significant ad budgets? Is Facebook really in such desperate need of cash that it makes sense to disadvantage groups like the New Books Network, where a small army of volunteers produces interviews that range from public education to entertainment and which themselves run at a loss because they don’t charge their listeners?

Perhaps more fundamentally, why change a site just for the sake of change? One no sooner learns to navigate most social media than those in power introduce a new “feature” that, as often as not, upsets the apple cart for no obvious benefit.

Change is inevitable. We grow or we die. But it should be, when possible, purposeful. And call me naive or old-fashioned if you like, but surely making more and more money is not the only purpose worth serving. Especially if you do it while pretending you just want to bring people closer, even at some cost to yourself.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Interview with Mimi Matthews

Those of you who follow Five Directions Press’s monthly Books We Loved posts—and if you are an avid reader, you really should, if you don’t already (you can find them all on our newsletter page)—may have noticed that my picks for January included both Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals and Mimi Matthews’ The Lost Letter. You can find my Q&A with Bernard in a post a couple of weeks ago, and today I’m hosting a written interview with Mimi.

Very different subjects, very different styles, but great writing is great writing. So if you have even a little bit of fondness in your heart for a touching love story set in Victorian times and with fully rounded characters, do check out Mimi Matthews’ novels (and nonfiction). Scroll down and you’ll find links to her website and social media accounts, where you can get more information.

And if it needs to be fast-paced thriller to keep your attention—although still with great writing and complex, compelling characters—then the links in the Bernard Cornwell interview will show you where to learn more about those.

You have a great interest in Victorian times, as evidenced by your nonfiction book The Pug That Bit Napoleon, among other works. Where did that interest originate, and which came first—the fascination with the Victorian period or the interest in writing fiction?

My interest in writing fiction definitely came first. I wrote my first full-length book (a YA novel) when I was thirteen and signed with my first literary agent when I was eighteen. After that, I was preoccupied with college, law school, and work and didn’t write any fiction until a few years ago, when I got the idea for a romance novel. I wrote it in a few months and then signed with a new literary agent. While it was out on submission, I wrote three more romance novels, including The Lost Letter and The Viscount and the Vicar's Daughter.

As for the Victorian era, I’ve always been a fan. I read a lot of Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters growing up and, in my third year of law school, I did a huge research paper on the British Court of Chancery. Since then, I’ve researched and written extensively on the Victorian era for my own website, as well as for other publications. In September 2016, I signed a multi-book deal with Pen and Sword Books (UK). My first nonfiction book with them, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, came out in December. My next one, A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty, will be out in July 2018.

Tell us about Sylvia Stafford, the heroine of The Lost Letter. Where is she, literally and emotionally, at the start of the book?

At the beginning of the novel, Sylvia is employed as a governess in a merchant's household in Cheapside. It’s a far cry from the life she led as the privileged daughter of a wealthy baronet. But Sylvia is an intelligent, pragmatic sort of woman and has—for the most part—come to terms with her altered status in society. She’s even managed to find a measure of happiness in her work. Or so she believes. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that much of her heartache and disappointment is still unresolved. This is especially evident when she once again crosses paths with Sebastian. 

And what of Sebastian Conrad, earl of Radcliffe? They have something of a past, but their reunion takes place under very different circumstances, for him as well as for her.

Unlike Sylvia, Sebastian is not coping very well with his change in circumstance. The disfiguring injuries he suffered as a soldier in India both depress his spirits and cause him physical pain. He’s bitter and angry, raging at himself and everyone around him. When Sylvia makes an unexpected appearance at his country estate, he is anything but pleased. He had loved her once, and the sting of her rejection still rankles. Nevertheless, he makes an effort to see her and speak to her, even if only to show her how little he cares.

Your second novel, The Viscount and the Vicar's Daughter, came out this week. What can you tell readers about that book?

After reading The Lost Letter, you may have guessed how much I enjoy playing with classic romance tropes. The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter is my go at the “reformed rake” trope. It features a disillusioned libertine with a scandalous past and an earnest vicar’s daughter with a few secrets of her own. It’s not as tortured a love story as The Lost Letter. I’d classify it more as a mid-Victorian romp. So far, advance reviews have been great. I’m really hoping readers will love it, too.

In the back of The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter, there is an excerpt from a third novel, The Advertisement (which I for one can’t wait to read, because the setup is great), due out this summer. Is that book already done? And if so, what are you working on now?

I’m so glad you enjoyed the excerpt! The Advertisement is almost done. It’s due to my editor at the end of March. It’s much longer than my previous two Victorian romances and the subject matter is a bit heavier as well. It focuses on two real—and very grim—events from the late 1850s. As for the central romance, it’s poignant, passionate, and exceedingly angst-ridden. So far, reports from my beta readers have been really positive. We’ll see what my editor thinks!

Next, I’m working on a Victorian Christmas novella about a broken betrothal and (possible) breach of contract suit. It will be out in November 2018.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Mimi. I wish you all success with both your novels and your nonfiction works!

Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and traditional historical romances set in Victorian England. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture, and are syndicated weekly at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She resides in California with her family, which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, two Shelties, and two Siamese cats.

Find out more about Mimi at the links below.




Friday, January 19, 2018

Finding That Perfect Read

One advantage of the current publishing climate is that a reader has no shortage of books from which to choose. Free and low-cost books are everywhere, including through subscription services like’s Kindle Unlimited. But finding a good book is not so easy. Reviews offer some insight, but many good books fail to attract reviews for various reasons. Book bloggers soon acquire more titles than they can ever have time to read, never mind write about. Readers, too, become overwhelmed by demands on their time. And not all reviews are what they seem: ethical writers, including myself, refuse to pay for book reviews, but some desperate souls give way to temptation. So what’s a reader to do?

One approach, adopted by more than a few GoodReads friends I know, is to limit oneself to commercially published books. There readers can trust that books have gone through editing, typesetting, and proofreading, received professional covers—and, yes, that any reviews they receive reflect the honest opinion of the reviewer. But trade books are expensive, at $9.99–$12.99 or more even for an e-book. For the average voracious reader, they represent at best a partial solution, although public libraries can help.

That approach also ignores the many good books published outside the commercial houses. And commercial publishing is just that: books have to sell millions of copies in today’s market to make a trade publisher’s investment worthwhile. If your taste runs to more unconventional fare, you’re out of luck.

That’s where small presses and coop publishers (a variant on small presses) come in. A coop like Triskele Books or my own Five Directions Press exerts the quality control of a traditional publishing house but can charge less, especially for e-books, because the coop authors can break even at a much lower number of copies sold. No one can guarantee that if you love one author’s gritty historical fantasy, you will love another’s sparkling contemporary romance, but you can count on each book having received extensive critique and suggestions for improvement followed by professional editing, typesetting, proofreading, e-book production, and cover design. We guarantee one another’s work.

We also cooperate to get the word out, which means that we publish newsletters featuring other authors and news about our forthcoming titles, regular lists of book recommendations—such as Triskele’s Book Muse and Five Directions Press’s monthly Books We Loved—and blog posts, many of which feature writers and/or their books. I host an interview channel, New Books in Historical Fiction, where I interview other authors and read excerpts from their books. Gabrielle Mathieu, another Five Directions Press author, does the same for fantasy and adventure novels.

So you see, there are tools out there to help you navigate the independent publishing ocean. Take a chance! You never know what magical island may be hiding right over that cloudy horizon.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Triskele Books blog a few weeks ago. Many thanks to all the Triskele authors for the opportunity to share my thoughts with their readers!

Image: Clipart 109839003.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview with Bernard Cornwell

One of the great pleasures of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction has been having the opportunity to make the acquaintance of Bernard Cornwell, the bestselling author of The Last Kingdom series—now an ongoing TV production as well—and many other novels, including series set during the Hundred Years War and the Napoleonic Wars.

When I learned that Bernard had produced a one-off novel about the life of William Shakespeare and the theater culture in which Shakespeare played such an important role, I offered a choice of a written or telephone interview, to run concurrently with the release of the novel, Fools and Mortals, in the United States on January 9, 2018.

In the end, we settled on a written Q&A, which I reproduce here. My questions are in bold, and Bernard’s answers follow. Thank you so much to Bernard for his fascinating and informative answers, and don’t forget to check out his official website for more information on this novel, his other books, the television programs, and events. And read the book, of course!

Fools and Mortals is something of a departure for you. No military heroes, no battles, no Agincourt or Napoleonic Wars or Saxons vs. Danes. What made you decide to write a novel about William Shakespeare?

I suppose the short answer is a fascination with Shakespeare. The longer answer is that a dozen years ago I got involved with a summer-stock theater on Cape Cod—the Monomoy Theatre—and ever since have (mis)spent my summers on stage. The theater exists to give drama students from all across America the chance to experience a season of musicals and plays, eight productions in ten weeks, in front of a paying audience . . . the “grown-up” parts and the directors are all Equity professionals, but spear-carriers etc can be drawn from local people, which is how I got involved, except they seemed to quite like me so that over the years I’ve played Toby Belch, Friar Laurence, Henry IV, Peter Quince (twice) and, most memorably, Prospero. I’ve also danced and sung solos (dear God), and been in plays by Chekhov, Neil Simon, Arthur Miller and the wonderful Ken Ludwig. I’d never been on stage before and the experience has intrigued and fascinated me, and really gave rise to a novel about putting on a play!

The protagonist narrating the story is Richard Shakespeare, William’s younger brother. I confess I have no idea whether William had a younger brother, but it’s a great way to showcase a celebrity while maintaining your freedom as an author. Who is Richard, as a character? What does he want most out of life?

Shakespeare had three brothers! Giles, Edmund and Richard. We know something, not much, about the first two (Edmund became an actor, probably in his brother’s company, and died young. He’s buried in Southwark Cathedral), but we know virtually nothing about Richard, other than a parish record of his christening and another of his death. So he’s a wonderful character for an historical novelist! He really existed and we know nothing about him. I decided to invent a theatrical career for him because it gave him access to his brother, but also to make the relationship somewhat hostile because that kept William at arm’s length (and saved me from the hubris of inventing too much dialog for William Shakespeare, really!). Richard is a young man who wants what many young men want, success and a girl, and he doesn’t quite know how to get either, and he’s also stage-struck. He happens to be good-looking and he has natural talent, but he’s still going to need what all actors need—a little bit of luck!

Richard has at best an adversarial relationship with his older brother, who comes across as demanding, difficult, even somewhat rejecting and mean. This portrayal reflects, of course, Richard’s point of view. What made you decide to present them in this way?

I don’t think William is mean! He’s not too fond of his brother because Richard reminds him of Stratford and William has a decidedly mixed view of Stratford. On the one hand it’s where he began, where he probably did not enjoy much success, where his ambitions far exceeded his apparent opportunities, and where, in all probability, he contracted a less than satisfactory marriage. All of this, of course, is supposition based on slender evidence, but novelists thrive on such hints. Yet Stratford is also home and we know he invested heavily in land about the town and eventually built the second largest house there (New Place). That suggests he would only return to Stratford on his own terms, not as the son of John Shakespeare, a failed merchant, but as a very wealthy, prominent and influential citizen. Richard is a reminder of what he fled, and Richard is also a nuisance, wanting favors. William doesn’t need Richard, but Richard needs William, and William really doesn’t want the distraction. He’s a busy man! Entrepreneur, writer, actor, probably director, and the presence of a younger brother is an annoying distraction.

In Elizabethan England women could not play on the stage (the movie Shakespeare in Love’s contrary portrayal notwithstanding). So part of the animosity between the brothers comes about because Richard wants to stop playing women’s parts and move into men’s roles, especially after he falls in love. Why is Will so reluctant to allow this change?

Because the company doesn’t need another man! Actors, as a couple of the characters say in the book, are ten a penny (they still are). The Sharers, the owners of the company, all must have a part in any play and then there are a half dozen regular “Hired Men” who are paid a wage when they are needed, and after that come the apprentices, the boys who play women’s roles, pages and children. Richard is cheap to employ as an apprentice, but once he’s outgrown the roles of young women he’s just another freelance actor . . . of whom there are plenty. Basically he’s just another Hired Man and the Lord Chamberlain’s company already had plenty of those available. I don’t think Will is reluctant so much as he doesn’t see the need to encourage another hungry mouth around a theater already supplied with too many.

Specifically, Fools and Mortals revolves around the first staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the writing of Romeo and Juliet. Why did you pick this period as the setting for your novel?

Probably the most fascinating thing about the period is that it sees the establishment of a professional theater industry—as we know it today. Before the 1570s there were no permanent playhouses. There were plays and players, but they were all peripatetic . . . traveling around the country giving performances in inn yards or wherever else they could. Now the key thing there is that your audience on Monday afternoon in Stratford will not be the same as the audience in Warwick on Wednesday, so you can do the same play, over and over, in different towns, fairly sure that the play will be new to the audience. That means you need very few plays in your repertoire. But then some genius hits on the idea of building a permanent playhouse, a theater. The only city in Britain capable of supporting a playhouse was London and, in short order, there were two such theaters. Now there’s a new problem. The audience is drawn from the same population day after day, week after week, month after month, so you need a lot of new material. Whereas the old traveling companies could probably survive on a half dozen plays, the new permanent companies found themselves producing thirty plus plays a year. You need new plays all the time, and that means you need playwrights! A new profession sprang up overnight, as did the idea of a permanent theater. It’s an amazing development, and one that was immediately successful and, like any emerging industry finding its way, there’s an excitement to the process.

One of the plot lines involves the theft of plays by a rival playhouse. I found this fascinating, especially since it’s implied that it was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s day. Do tell us more about that element of the story.

The playwrights of the 16th century did not enjoy the protection of copyright! It’s that simple. If the script of a play fell into the hands of a rival company, then there was no law to prevent them staging the play and, of course, paying no fee to the playwright. And plays were valuable! The audience was always eager for new material, so the companies guarded their scripts jealously. They did publish some, but only after they had exhausted the chances to perform the play. That’s how we have Shakespeare’s quartos . . . they were published once the company had decided there was nothing more to be squeezed out of them on stage, and of course, the sales of the books provided extra income, especially welcome when the playhouses were closed because of plague. It was probably very uncommon for a really valuable play to be stolen, but the fear of that happening was very real.

Richard also falls foul of the Pursuivants, known to the players as the Percies. Who are the Percies, and what do their activities reveal about the position of the theater in Shakespeare’s day?

Probably nothing! The Pursuivants existed to hunt down Catholics, and that has a great deal more to do with the Pope’s foolish bull that offered heavenly bliss to anyone who succeeded in assassinating Queen Elizabeth. That civil strife grumbles on throughout Elizabeth’s reign, a constant battle between Catholic plotters who wanted to replace Elizabeth with a Roman Catholic monarch and the secret service that combated them, and punished them horribly. The real enemy of the theater was the Puritans, who utterly disapproved of plays and players and who campaigned tirelessly to close down the theaters. In the end, 1642, they were successful, though happily their rule in England was mercifully brief and the theaters reopened in 1660 and have thrived ever since. Richard’s brush with Pursuivants is incidental: they believed, erroneously, that the Theatre (Shakespeare’s playhouse) was a den of secret Catholic sympathizers. They were certainly dangerous and merciless enemies, but they were also loyal to Elizabeth who, we know, was a lover of the theater.

There are some wonderful passages in the novel about writing and the stage. One of my favorites comes on p. 247, where Richard says, “We are players, and we love an audience. Sometimes, if a play is going badly, it is easy to think of the audience as an enemy, but truly they are a part of the play, because an audience changes the way we perform.” I know you act in repertory theater during the summers, and I think anyone who has taken part in a live performance recognizes how the presence of the audience imparts an energy that rehearsal simply doesn’t. We writers don’t interact with our readers that way. As someone who does both, how does that difference change things? Do you prefer one type of interaction over the other, and if so, why?

Bernard Cornwell as Prospero
© Michael & Suz Karchmer
Oh good Lord! I’m not frightened of writing (maybe I should be!), but going on stage is terrifying. Every year I wonder why I do it. I could spend my summers lollygagging on my sailboat, walking the dog, or extending my encyclopedic knowledge of Irish whiskies, but instead I have to learn lines, spend hours in rehearsal, act on a stage which isn’t touched by the theater’s air-conditioning in costumes designed for a Siberian winter, and risk making a complete fool of myself.

But then comes the performance and . . .

Yes, there’s a rush of adrenaline, the challenge of doing something which I never imagined I would ever do and the knowledge that I will probably never master it. I’m totally confident sailing a boat, I’ve crossed the Atlantic under sail, I seem to be doing all right as an author, but as an actor? Dear God, it challenges and frightens me. I must be reasonably good or they wouldn’t give me parts like Prospero, but I don’t know that. And yes, the reward is not just the applause . . . though of course that’s delicious, but the best is utter silence. This year I got the most applause (cheaply) dressed full-fig as a bishop, mitre and all, crossing the stage and singing, “I wanna be loved by you, by nobody else but you,” but that, wonderful as it was (exit applause! Yay!) was nothing to sensing the audience’s utter stillness during “Our revels now are ended.”

Which do I prefer? I love both. Must I choose?

Bernard Cornwell is the author of more than forty-five novels and one nonfiction book, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (2014). His Last Kingdom and Sharpe series have also been turned into hit television programs. He lives in South Carolina with his wife, Judy, whom he married in 1980, and spends his summers acting in repertory theater on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, among other pursuits. Learn more about the topics he discusses here in his 2014 and 2016 interviews at New Books in Historical Fiction.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Looking Forward to 2018

The first week in January, everyone has plans for self-improvement, or at least tasks they would like to complete in the new year. I’m no exception to this trend. 

So, in addition to the usual—ditching the four pounds that attached themselves to my waistline between Thanksgiving and Christmas (blame the breakfast bagels and desserts), maintaining a regular exercise program, getting lots of sleep, drinking plenty of plain water, reading some of those books on my “never quite got to them” list, etc.—here are my writing and publishing goals for 2018:

(1) completing my Legends of the Five Directions series with the publication of The Shattered Drum;

(2) producing a rough draft for Song of the Siren, first in my new, probably four-part series—also set in Russia and the neighboring lands but in the 1540s—which explores individual women’s lives, told in the first person, mostly outside the traditional boundaries of marriage and motherhood;

(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 2018—Chains of Silver, The Falcon Soars, The Shattered Drum, 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; and

(7) staying active on social media as a way of connecting with and supporting other writers, especially the authors associated with Five Directions Press, as well as reaching readers.

As always, you can check back in December to see how I did. I should be okay, as these are pretty modest goals. No three-hundred-book reading challenges or doubling my number of interviews or aiming to write four books a year in the mix. Most of them are things I’m doing anyway, or have to do if I want to see sales for my books. But that’s the secret of keeping resolutions, right? Cut them down to size, make them essential, and the chances of meeting one’s goals leap dramatically.

The holidays are over, the tree and outside decorations will soon be memory (although the weather looks to remain frosty for a while), and alas, my lovely writing vacation is over. But I still wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness galore!

In other news, you can find my suggestions on how to find great books to read (especially helpful if you just received an e-reader or gift card as a holiday gift) on the Triskele Books blog. And make sure to stop by next Friday, when I will be hosting a written interview with Bernard Cornwell about his latest novel, Fools and Mortals.

Image: no. 109382488.