Friday, December 28, 2018

Farewell, 2018

Incredibly, 2018 is on its way out the door, and this is my last post before the new year rolls in at midnight on Monday. So, in the spirit of the new year and new beginnings, here’s my annual roundup of what I have and haven’t accomplished since January. Check back next week for the goals for 2019. Meanwhile, Happy New Year, everyone!

Below are the writing and publishing goals I set for 2018. Just to mix things up a bit, I’ll give a quick summary of how well I completed them as part of each task. 

(1) Completing my Legends of the Five Directions series with the publication of The Shattered Drum—done, and as they say in job performance evaluations, exceeded, since I also revised The Golden Lynx to make it more friendly to a YA readership and foreshadow events that arise only later in the series, as well as producing two e-book box sets covering books 1–3 and 4–5 of the series.

(2) Producing a rough draft for Song of the Siren, first in my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest—also set in Russia and the neighboring lands but in the 1540s—which explores individual women’s stories, told in the first person, mostly outside the traditional boundaries of marriage and motherhood—also completed and exceeded. In fact, Siren has gone through several revisions, been typeset and corrected, and is due to appear in late February. I’m also well on my way to completing the rough draft of Songs 2, Song of the Shaman, and hope to have a full text next week, although I expect to go through several more rounds before I have a final manuscript.

(3) Conducting twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews—despite a rocky start to 2018 and a few bumps along the way, I did find enough willing authors to put out twelve interviews by the middle of December, as well as additional written Q&A conversations that appeared on my blog throughout the year. Many thanks to all of them for their help!

(4) Maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means keeping track of the “Books We Loved” posts, expanding the number of titles available, and keeping the news & events page up to date. With plenty of help from my fellow authors, we did produce twelve monthly “Books We Loved” posts, a steady stream of new titles, and up-to-date news. We also added a new monthly feature, “Five Directions Press Authors Dish” about topics both personal and authorial, near the end of the year. My own website gets less attention (only so many hours in the day), but I did figure out how to restore the cross-postings from my blog and updated everything for the publication of The Shattered Drum.

(5) 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. Although we ended up substituting Joan Schweighardt’s Before We Died for A Holiday Gift, which is still in process, Five Directions Press did publish four titles in 2018 and is on track for anywhere from two to five in 2019.

(6) Posting to this blog every Friday—yep, made it so, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise would say. I also passed 100,000 views  in the second half of the year, which I thought was pretty cool.

(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—well, this one definitely had mixed results, not least because social media themselves fell under scrutiny in 2018. I did better with guest posts on other people’s blogs. Nevertheless, I did manage to get on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest at least three times a week for most of the year with blog links or on behalf of Five Directions Press and New Books in Historical Fiction, even though I also closed out my Google Plus account during its recent security breach. I’m taking a vacation from social media at the moment to maximize my writing time, but I expect to be back on a regular basis starting January 4, 2019.

What about you? How well did you do?

Friday, December 21, 2018

Bookshelf, Dec. 2018

I’ve been on vacation all week, so with most of my Christmas preparations behind me, I’m focused on finishing the rough draft of Song of the Shaman, book 2 in my Songs of Steppe & Forest series (book 1, Song of the Siren, will appear in late February 2019). As a result, I’m not thinking about reading very much—other than my own drafts and Terry Gamble’s The Eulogist, which will be the subject of a New Books in Historical Fiction interview in mid- to late January.

But I do have more than a few books waiting in the queue. Here’s the list for December. And if you need some last-minute Christmas gifts, books are always a good idea!


Adrienne Celt, Invitation to a Bonfire
A young student fleeing the post-revolution Soviet Union circa 1920 winds up in a New England girls’ school, where she becomes something of a curiosity to the locals, as they are to her. The arrival of a married professor, another √©migr√© Russian and a famous author, sets off a love triangle with the usual unpredictable consequences. Based on the known marital troubles of Vladimir Nabokov—and perhaps his novel Lolita—so how could a Russianist like me resist? The hard-cover is already out; I plan to talk to the author around the time of the paperback release in May.


Jennifer Robson, The Gown
Fans of the film Phantom Thread, of whom I’m one, will welcome this literary exploration of the postwar UK fashion industry and one of its most famous productions: the wedding gown in which the future Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip in 1947. A dual-time story, The Gown focuses on the women who produced the hand-embroidered flowers that made the dress a priceless treasure. As someone who grew up hearing her mother’s memories of this exquisite gown, which circulated around the country after the wedding, I’m looking forward to finding out more about its creation. Due out on New Year’s Eve.

Joan Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness
Not historical fiction, this one, but a historical study of the many decisions that went into the creation of Sergei Eisenstein’s famed three-part film Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein had time to finish only two of the three parts before his death, and of those only the first was released, although the second is available on YouTube). The 1940s were a difficult time to make any film in the USSR, especially one commandeered and monitored by Joseph Stalin, and Neuberger traces the process by which Eisenstein balanced his cinematic vision against historical sources and political reality. I plan to interview the author in March 2019, the month after the book’s release, for the New Books Network.

Liza Perrat, The Swooping Magpie
Second in a series of suspenseful family novels set in 1960s and 1970s Australia, this book is not a sequel to The Silent Kookaburra but a stand-alone tale that explores similar themes. A sixteen-year-old from a troubled family falls for a sexy schoolteacher, with—as one might expect—life-changing consequences. Based on a true-life case and the very real turmoil that racked Australia as conservative morality clashed with the sexual revolution, this story, released in November 2018,
is a welcome development from a writer whose work I’ve always enjoyed in the past. Another interview scheduled for March.


Ann Weisgarber, The Glovemaker
This novel opens in Utah’s Mormon country in January 1888. Sister Deborah, a married woman awaiting her husband’s long-delayed return, opens her door to find a strange man on her threshold. A fellow Mormon, he is also a fugitive from justice, and his pursuers won’t hesitate to punish anyone who shelters him. His crime? Deborah suspects polygamy, which the US government has outlawed and is actively trying to stamp out in Utah but the Mormon Church still supports. Forced to choose between her safety and the demands of her religion, Deborah has only seconds to decide. Due in February 2019, and I plan to interview the author in April or May.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Writing "A Christmas Carol"

It’s a common belief that every author at times suffers from writers’ block. In extreme cases, this inability to write supposedly drags on for years. The helpless sufferer stares at a blank page, unable to set pen to paper (these days, fingers to computer keyboard). Meanwhile, publishing contracts and the demands of eager readers go unmet as the author wrestles with inner demons.

In my experience, this view is a myth. Writers’ block does exist, but for me it indicates one of two things: either I’m trying to force a character to do something that’s convenient for me but wrong for that character, or I’m persisting with a story that doesn’t have enough depth or drama to carry a novel. Ideas, for me, are seldom the problem; they pour in regardless. But not all my ideas are equally good, and some lead me down rabbit holes or into deep woods, where my story becomes entangled in the branches.

In either case, the solution is simple: back off and give my subconscious permission to do its job. Sometimes it will throw up a great solution, and I’ll wonder how I could have been so blind. Sometimes I can prime the pump by writing whatever comes into my head until it stops looking like a swirl of mismatched threads and I start to see the underlying patterns. Sometimes it just takes a while for a character to reveal him- or herself. Sometimes I have to accept the inevitable, let go, and wait to discover a story that has more potential—or allow the existing one to sit for a while, until I understand what the book needs.

For other writers, as in Samantha Silva’s novel about Charles Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol, intervention requires an outside force. Her Charles Dickens isn’t suffering from writers’ block so much as a massive disinclination to turn his attention from the book of his heart—which, for the first time in his charmed authorial life, is failing to win the hearts and minds of his public—to the Christmas story that his publisher is urging him to write. Well, not urging so much as threatening to sink Dickens’ already shaky economic ship if Dickens refuses to comply. Harsh reality, needy relatives, and the specter of failure combine to send Dickens’ Christmas spirit—and soon, Dickens’ family—into flight, further complicating his efforts to juggle his own needs and the task imposed on him.

In our interview, Samantha Silva and I discuss the power of present and past loves, the tug between the real woman an author has married and the literary muse of his imagination, the effects of a traumatic childhood, the competing pressures of fame and the writer’s need for privacy, poverty and generosity and the difficulty caused by living beyond one’s means. Most of all, we talk about creating a beloved classic and finding the meaning of Christmas while doing so.

We don’t talk about writers’ block in so many words, because discussing how Silva’s fictional Dickens overcame his problem would spoil the plot of her light-hearted and imaginative exploration of the process by which Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future came into existence. But we dance around the topic throughout the interview, and Samantha has many fascinating things to say about Dickens himself, his books, and the psychology of authors. Definitely give it a listen as you dash from store to store. It will remind you of what the winter holidays are meant to be.

Last week I promised news about the New Books Network, but I didn’t expect how personal that news would turn out to be. The NBN has paired with the Literary Hub (LitHub), which will be listing selected NBN interviews as a Friday Feature. And the interview chosen to kick off the new partnership is—drum roll, please—this one! Which is especially appropriate when we consider that the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol’s publication is right around the corner: December 19, 2018. Dickens would, I’m sure, rejoice to see the extraordinary popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime extend into the technologies of the modern age.

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

Christmas is not looking bright for Charles Dickens. His latest novel has proven a massive flop, and that upstart William Thackeray doesn’t miss an opportunity to crow. Bills are rolling in, every relative in creation has his or her hand out, the kids (number steadily increasing) have their hearts set on expensive toys, and Mrs. Dickens has already started making plans for the most elaborate holiday party yet. Oh yes, and Dickens’ publisher is begging him to write a Christmas book when the spirit of Christmas seems to have packed up and moved to Scotland together with Dickens’ exasperated family.

Determined not to give in, Dickens moves to a cheap hotel, rents a room under the name Ebenezer Scrooge, dons the disguise of an old man, and roams the streets of London in pursuit of a mysterious young woman in a purple cloak. And surprise, by the time December 25 rolls around, Dickens has not only recovered his joie de vivre but penned what may be the world’s most beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.

In Mr. Dickens and His Carol, Samantha Silva takes events we all know from childhood and, through the application of a light touch and a gifted imagination, turns them into a story at once comfortably familiar and delightfully different.

Images: Charles Dickens in 1842 and the original frontispiece and title page of A Christmas Carol (1843) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 7, 2018

News from Five Directions Press

Due to total work overload, I’m late with my blog post today, although at least it’s still Friday. And for the same reason, I’ll keep it short this week. But we do have some Five Directions Press news to share.

First off, it’s the holiday season, and if you have a reader in your life, do think about giving your favorite people a book that will take them on a literary journey along a less well-traveled path. No shade being thrown here against the mass favorites—Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Elizabethan England, anything Austen-related. But readers who are a little more adventurous may love a story that sweeps them into worlds they don’t know, and that’s our specialty at Five Directions Press. 

Whether our settings are contemporary (Greece, Nicaragua, Scotland, invented college towns and virtual reality games), historical (sixteenth-century Russia, the Amazon river basin circa 1910, the almost forgotten court of Mary Tudor, colonial Mexico—including its hidden Jewish community under assault from the Inquisition), historical shading into fantasy (fifth-century Germany, 1950s Switzerland and Ireland, 1960s Nepal and Tibet), or ballet in a wholly imagined outer space, we pride ourselves on taking a place you’ve never been or perhaps heard much about, making it feel like home, and filling it with characters whose stories you can’t wait to learn.

With that in mind, we’ve been running holiday gift guides on Facebook and Twitter, so follow us by clicking on the links and take a look. Maybe you’ll see a title you can’t wait to read—or to give.

We’ve also decided to supplement our monthly “Books We Loved” posts with a new online newsletter feature called “Five Directions Press Authors Dish.” This one is just for fun, although we may work in some writing advice as we go along. The first post went up right after Thanksgiving and, appropriately for that season, talks about food we never expected (or wanted!) to eat. You can read it at

Last but not least, we are planning our 2019 catalogue. Planning is well underway for the launch of my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest, with Song of the Siren due out in late February. I have corrected proofs and have sent them to four or five lovely fellow writers for endorsements. And here, for the first time, is the public cover reveal—with, as ever, mega-thanks to Courtney J. Hall for that gorgeous type. You can find out more about the story at

Have a great weekend! I plan to spend mine on a virtual journey of my own, back to the Eurasian steppe and the many mental excursions my heroine, a shaman, undertakes. But do come back next week, when I hope my next New Books in Historical Fiction interview will be live. By then, I may have some news about the New Books Network as well.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Creating Conflict

Last week I mentioned that a novel (screenplay, television script, etc.) is not the place to showcase cordiality, mature relationship skills, and the appreciation of others. But fictional characters also require internal conflict to appeal to readers. This is not news: it probably forms the most basic piece of advice in writing classes and craft books. But finding out what a given character’s internal conflict is can challenge the most seasoned writer.

I cite myself as an example. I have, by now, eight published novels, a ninth completed but destined never to go on sale for copyright reasons, and a tenth—Song of the Siren—in the final stages of proofing and due for release next February. You would think that establishing internal and external conflict would by now be as simple as checking off boxes. Sit down, decide what I want to feature this time, figure out which sources of conflict are available, and decide.

But no, crafting a novel doesn’t work that way. At least, it’s never worked that way for me. Sometimes I can spot the internal conflict relatively easily: in The Golden Lynx Nasan imagines herself as a warrior heroine while everyone else in her life pushes her toward the conventional roles of wife and mother. That’s external conflict, but also the source of her internal conflict: which goals take precedence, her own or her family’s? Suppose, in being true to herself, she alienates those she loves?

In other novels the characters themselves force me in a particular direction. I recognized early on that Juliana, the heroine of Song of the Siren (formerly known as Roxelana, for fans of the Legends series, although it turns out that’s not her real name either), had established such effective barriers against change that it would require a disaster to knock her into undertaking the difficult journey toward self-realization. Only stripping her of every emotional and material resource she possessed could reveal her internal conflict and get her to confront and overcome it. Even then, I struggled for a while, once I’d dumped her in a virtual ditch, with ways to get her heading along the road to a better place.

Grusha, for some reason, presents a different kind of problem. A third of the way through the rough draft of Song of the Shaman, I have yet to feel certain that I know what she wants at this stage of her life, let alone what stops her from reaching out and grabbing it. I’ve produced half-a-dozen Goal, Motivation, and Conflict charts without any of them sticking. The minute I think I have her figured out and start a new chapter, she throws me a curve ball, and I know I still don’t have it quite right. But I’m closing in on her, and any day now I’ll see what it is that she’s hiding even from herself.

In part, this process reflects the way I write. Perhaps there are people out there who can run the charts and check off the boxes, but I find my characters, my story, even the details of my plot on the page. I start with raw exposition, pages and pages of it, then turn it into dialogue and action devoid of place or time or sensory detail, and only gradually fill in the blanks through draft after draft, most of them undertaken before I move on to the next chapter and start the whole process again. The fellow writers in my critique group are immensely helpful at this stage, although I’m sure I drive them mad by changing everything around every month, whether in response to their comments or my own evolving sense of the story.

Eventually, I get far enough into the novel that I understand where it’s heading and therefore where it needs to begin and what has to happen for it to get there. Sometimes I manage to create a list of potential events to act as a guideline; in other cases, like Song of the Shaman, the list keeps morphing as the book develops. But once I get to that magic midpoint, when I understand the source of the main characters’ internal conflict, that’s when the real fun begins. The rest of the book writes itself, and I become a channel through which it flows onto the page. When I reach the end, the critique group comes into play again, ensuring that the whole thing hangs together in minds other than mine.

Internal conflict isn’t limited to heroes and heroines, of course. It’s an essential element in “rounding” (that is, filling out) a character, and in a well-crafted novel antagonists and secondary characters also have conflicting hopes and fears. But theirs are always lesser; otherwise they take over the story. For the protagonists, deep internal rifts and choices that pull them in opposing but equally appealing directions are essential. Only then do they come alive on the page.

Images purchased from

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Five Positives and Fiction

I’m writing this post on Thanksgiving Day, which by the time it posts will have given way to that mad shopping extravaganza known as Black Friday, the lead-in to an outburst of nonstop commercialism designed to communicate the idea that anyone who waits to shop for their loved ones will lose out.

I suppose the timing could prompt a marketing post—an overdue topic, no doubt, as marketing is the element of novel writing least often covered on this blog. But instead I’m going to focus on Thanksgiving, with both a capital and a lower-case T.

It’s a lovely idea for a holiday, Thanksgiving, even if it does sugar-coat the abominable history of those first settlers’ interactions with the Native Americans. A holiday to stop, take a breath, spend time with those close to us, and appreciate all the great things in our lives is something we all need. In this mad-rush world, taking a moment to think about the good things relieves stress and produces a much-needed balance. It’s too bad that merchandising has increasingly encroached on even the one special day devoted to that exercise in gratitude.

Giving thanks also strengthens relationships by encouraging us to notice the many kind and helpful things our partners and family members do without being asked. Dr. John Gottman, who runs the Love Lab in Seattle, has discovered that happy couples exchange five to seven times as many positive comments as negative ones and that he can predict who will divorce on that basis alone. If you don’t already give your chosen partner more praise than complaints, try switching your emphasis. You’ll be surprised. And having made the switch myself, I know why. It makes my relatives and friends feel good, of course, but perhaps just as important it makes me feel good about them. I get annoyed like everyone else, but the thanks help me keep the irritations in perspective, so they don’t block the positive things from view.

One place this approach doesn’t work, though, is in fiction—by which I mean fiction itself, not interaction with other writers, where keeping criticism positive is just as important as it is in any other arena of human contact. But novels and scripts thrive on conflict, and nothing propels conflict faster and more effectively than people who talk past one another, who just can’t let go of their own way of looking at the world. This is conflict at its most raw: not meaningless arguments, which soon become boring and predictable, but the clash that occurs between people with fundamentally different views of how life works, who can’t find a point of agreement even if they want to (and in fiction, they usually don’t want to).

And why can’t they resolve their differences, at least until the end of the story? Because they can’t accept that the other person also means well, even if he or she seems misguided, or can’t believe that the other person has knowledge they lack or that their own blind spots may be getting in their way. They can’t, in short, appreciate the other person. They don’t feel thankful that this person, so unlike themselves, has entered their lives. Even antagonists don’t see themselves as unhelpful, never mind evil, although antagonists are perhaps less likely than any other category of fictional character to understand that their way of approaching life is not everyone’s and their desire for some object or goal can’t justify trampling on the rights and feelings of others.

But we are not fictional characters, and if we make the effort, we can understand the value of reaching across the aisle—in the general, not simply the political sense. So let’s, by all means, read and watch and enjoy the struggles of our favorite good guys and bad guys as their authors strive to keep them benighted and apart until the resolution. But in our lives let’s remember to express our gratitude for the good things our fellow humans do. Thanksgiving, it turns out, can be an all-year event.

And one last thank you to my readers: as of this week, this blog has had more than 100,000 hits. Some of them bots, undoubtedly, but for those who were not, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. May we have many more virtual exchanges, and Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Images purchased from

Friday, November 16, 2018

Gotta Love Those Bones

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago on this blog (“Dipping a Toe in the River of Time”), one of the best parts of being a historical novelist is the freedom to make things up. When I wear my historian hat, I am not exactly solemn—I can get excited about historical mysteries too—but I do spend a lot of time checking details and ensuring that the sources can support whatever argument I make.

I do the same as a novelist, but the beauty of writing fiction is that when the sources go silent or provide conflicting information, I can step back and give my imagination free rein. I did that in my latest novel, The Shattered Drum, which as a quick online check reveals, opens with the funeral of Prince Andrei of Staritsa, who died in December 1537 after six months in a Kremlin prison. Readers of the series will recognize his name, because the previous novel, The Vermilion Bird, takes place against the backdrop of the events leading to his imprisonment. For everyone else, he was Ivan the Terrible’s uncle, the youngest of a large family and one of three sons who survived into the 1530s.

Although the sources are terse on the subject of Andrei’s death, they suggest that he, like his older brother before him, died of starvation. If so, the command to deprive them of food almost certainly came from their sister-in-law, Elena Glinskaya, and her favorite, Prince Ivan Fyodorovich Ovchina Telepnev Obolensky, then the most prominent court representative of the Cheliadnin clan. As I do in the novels, we’ll refer to him from now on as Telepnev, for simplicity’s sake.

It’s generally believed that Elena and Telepnev were eager to get rid of Andrei and his older brother because as adult males of the royal house, they posed—or were perceived to pose—a threat to the rule of Elena’s older son, known to history as Ivan IV “the Terrible.” Three when he came to the throne, Ivan was seven when his uncle Andrei died. So although nominally an autocrat in whose name all government took place, Ivan himself had no say in these events.

Less than four months later, on April 3, 1538, Elena passed away. The sources don’t describe the circumstances, but they indicate surprise, and for good reason. We don’t know exactly when Elena was born, but the most likely dates are 1508 or 1510, making her sixteen to eighteen when she married and twenty-eight to thirty when she died. Even in the 1530s, the sudden death of such a young woman raised eyebrows. Rumors of poison abounded, and fingers immediately pointed at the powerful Shuisky clan, which opposed the Cheliadnins in general and Telepnev in particular, but historians have never been certain. 

What we do know is that Elena’s unexpected death turned an already precarious situation into something close to a free-for-all as the clans started jockeying for position. Within ten days, the Shuiskys had taken over the government and ordered Telepnev’s arrest. He too soon died of starvation in a Kremlin cell. His sister, who had served as nanny to Ivan IV and his younger brother, was stripped of her position and shipped off to a convent. And although the young Ivan IV remained grand prince and would one day be crowned as Russia’s first tsar, he became a kind of political football: bereft of his parents and parent substitutes, he fell under the control of either the Shuiskys or their chief opponents, the Belsky clan, depending on who was on top at any given moment. Ivan later gave Russia’s aristocrats plenty of reason to regret their behavior, but that’s a story for another day.

Since it seemed unlikely that the mystery of Elena’s death would ever be solved, and the circumstances surrounding her passing were so portentous and fascinating, I invented a plot for her murder that satisfied the needs of my novel. Not to give away spoilers, let me say only that I chose to treat the rumors of Elena’s love affair with Telepnev as fact and extrapolated from the absence of reliable birth control in the sixteenth century an extremely inconvenient and potentially scandalous pregnancy. How those two events led to Elena’s death, I will leave readers to discover for themselves.

So far, so good. I confessed my sins, as I always do, in the Historical Note. The novel came out, ending its series, and I moved on to the next one. As far as I knew, that was the end of Elena and Telepnev in both the literal and the figurative sense.

But as so often happens, life had other ideas. This week my friend Ann Kleimola, whose expertise in Muscovite history has saved me from more than one blooper, sent me a photo from her phone with the table of contents from a new multivolume collection on the burials of Moscow’s grand princesses. “What do you want to see?” she asked. I told her I’d love to know what they said about Elena Glinskaya. Was she really poisoned, I wondered, because a hasty exhumation in 1929 had found evidence of mercury and arsenic in her bones but not enough to prove deliberate poisoning. (Mercury was used in medicines at the time, and arsenic in cosmetics.)

Indeed, the specialists at the Kremlin Museum who conducted the new exhumation and examined the stone sarcophagus that contained Elena’s remains concluded that, given the high levels of mercury and arsenic in her bones and the presence in her skull of formations associated with toxic mushrooms, her death was almost certainly the result of deliberate poisoning. After considering various possibilities, they came down on the side of mercury as the agent. They did not speculate on who gave it to her or how.

But that was not the most amazing conclusion the scientists reached. Elena’s low iron count suggested that not long before her death she had suffered a massive loss of blood, most likely in childbirth. The bone of a newborn was found in her tomb, as well as assorted other objects that no one has yet explained.

Clearly, that’s not the end of the story. But the scholars felt comfortable enough with the results to argue that the rumors about Elena and Telepnev, still circulating after five centuries, were based on fact; that Telepnev fathered Elena’s infant, although DNA testing is not possible for several reasons; and that someone had a motive for ensuring that the whole truth never came to light, even if that meant murdering a reigning grand princess.

And they say the Borgias had a lock on treachery. When will the Legends of the Five Directions find their TV series or movie?

Images: Prince Andrei of Staritsa and his older brother according to a 17th-century fresco on the walls of the Archangel Michael Cathedral in the Kremlin; Elena Glinskaya and her husband, Grand Prince Vasily III; the death of Elena Glinskaya according to the 16th-century Illustrated Chronicle Codex—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Bookshelf, November 2018

It’s been a while since I did a bookshelf survey, but with the ton of interviews I have scheduled between now and next May, you can bet those shelves are groaning. Here’s a sample of the late 2018/early 2019 books, more or less in order of publication, with more to come in a month or two.

Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol (Flatiron Books, 2017)
Perfect for Christmas, this lovely reimagining of how Charles Dickens came to write his beloved classic doesn’t just get into Dickens’ head but draws on elements of his novel to tell the tale. Depressed by the failure of Martin Chuzzlewit to attract an audience, Dickens starts the novel in a thoroughly grinch-like mood, resisting demands from his publisher to produce a seasonal story while doing his best to rein in his family’s desire to celebrate the holidays in style. Things get so bad that his wife heads north with the kids to escape. But the arrival of a beautiful lady takes Dickens on a three-day journey that neither he nor his loyal fans will ever forget. If this book doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, you are indeed a Scrooge!


P. K. Adams, The Greenest Branch (Iron Knight Press, 2018)
This first of two novels about the twelfth-century mystic, healer, and abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician, tells a story that will conclude in January 2019 with The Column of Burning Spices. Adams is a gifted writer, and she brings Hildegard, her medieval world, and especially a range of fascinating, well-rounded monastic companions vividly to life. And—a bonus for me—the author’s next project is a mystery series set in early sixteenth-century Poland, at the court of Sigismund I “the Old” where my own next novel, Song of the Siren (due in February 2019), opens in 1541.


Terry Gamble, The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019)
Whether as a result of the 150th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War a few years back or just the re-emergence of a topic whose time has come, there seems to be a revival of interest in the Underground Railroad. In this novel a group of Irish immigrants gives up everything to settle in the Ohio River Valley, only to endure one crisis after another. The daughter of the family, Olivia, after being forced to confront the reality of slavery, begins to work with her brother, an itinerant preacher, to rescue people from bondage and then to end the institution altogether. I’m always drawn to books with powerful heroines, so this one looks like a natural fit.


As I’ve complained a few times this year, I’ve been offered so many novels set during World War II since I interviewed Gwen Katz about Among the Red Stars in January 2018 that I’ve more or less sworn to lay off the topic altogether. So much for New Year’s resolutions, because these two books from separate imprints at HarperCollins both find new angles from which to approach not only the immediate effects of the war but its long-term consequences.

Pam Jenoff, The Lost Girls of Paris (Park Row Books, 2019)
Pam Jenoff’s heroine, Grace Healey, is minding her own business when she sees an abandoned suitcase sitting underneath a bench. These days, she’d call it in as a potential bomb threat, but this is 1946, so Grace opens the suitcase and finds a dozen photographs of women that lead her on a hunt to find out who they were and what happened to them—a journey that leads her into the history of the resistance, espionage, wartime journalism, and much else.

Kate Quinn, The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019)
Kate Quinn’s novel returns us to the world depicted in Among the Red Stars, but from a different perspective. Nina Markova, one of the Soviet women pilots known as the Night Witches, ends up behind enemy lines. Her experiences there cause her eventually to join forces with a British journalist who’s determined to track down an exceptionally vicious ex-Nazi known as the Huntress. Through the perspective of the Nazi hunters and the contrasting viewpoint of a teenage girl suspicious of her new stepmother, Quinn raises important questions about secrets and the power of the past to influence the presence.


Karen Harper, American Duchess (William Morrow, 2019)
And after all that darkness and angst, what could be more fun than a fictionalized true story about a Gilded Age millionaire’s daughter fulfilling her mother’s deepest fantasies by marrying an English duke? Based on the life of Cornelia Vanderbilt before, during, and after her wedding to the duke of Marlborough, this smart and self-aware story about an America ruled by robber barons and a Britain governed by stiff-upper-lip aristocrats looks like the perfect ending to this half of my list: high tea and crumpets, with a large dollop of family life and a dash of politics—Downton Abbey, but for real. Well, as real as a novel can be.

Last but not least, I have The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo (Flatiron Books, 2019). I loved Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, and interviewed her back in 2013. So when I heard she had a new book coming out, I wrote to her right away. Like most of the novels on this list, this one is scheduled for release in February, and since its exploration of colonial Malaya in the 1930s does contain elements of fantasy in its tale of mysterious corpses that can turn into tigers, Gabrielle Mathieu will conduct the podcast interview for New Books in Fantasy and Adventure. But stay tuned to this blog, where I will be hosting a written interview with Yangsze Choo around the time of the release/interview.

Additional kudos to all the designers who produced these gorgeous covers. Whether I’ve already read the books or not, their work makes me want to!

Friday, November 2, 2018

To the Ice

We instinctively expect, I think, life in Tudor England or colonial America or medieval Japan to be different from what we experience today. But sometimes it can be difficult to imagine how much has changed since our grandparents’ childhood—or our parents’. Sure, they deluge us with horror stories about a time without the Internet, search engines, or laptops thinner than sandwiches. They talk about newsprint coming off on their hands and phones that didn’t know where they were and black-and-white televisions that could receive four channels through the rabbit ears propped on the top. But they had cars, didn’t they? Electricity? Vaccines? Central heating?

As you can hear in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, Lee Zacharias’s lyrical new novel, Across the Great Lake, takes place only eighty years ago, but in some ways it depicts another world. One where sturdy ferry boats without radar to guide them travel regularly through the perilous straits and roiling currents of Lake Michigan, breaking the winter ice with their prows as they struggle to stay afloat long enough to transport railroad cars to the other side of the lake. One where sailors believe that every ship has a ghost and some are ghosts, the psychic remnants of sunken vessels that surface to warn still living boats of approaching doom. One where a stray kitten brings bad luck, polio remains a major threat to children, and a girl child can’t join a ferry crew no matter how much she loves the idea.

The girl in question, Fern Halvorsen, narrates her story from the perspective of an eighty-five-year-old lady in our own time, but the voice we hear is very much that of her five-year-old self—bounded and directed by the perspective of a lifetime but still sounding through the decades with a child’s innocent enthusiasm. It’s a remarkable achievement, a window onto a vanished past, and well worth a few evenings of your time.

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

Lake Michigan in 1936 is an essential commercial seaway, one that captains and their crews must cross regularly no matter the season, breaking massive ice floes under the prows of their ships and praying that they survive the fierce swells and changeable winds that have left a legacy of ghost ships and wrecks. Into this world comes five-year-old Fern Halvorsen, daughter of the captain of the Manitou, with a small suitcase and her teddy bear. Fern’s mother is consumed with grief after the loss of another child, and her father fears for his daughter’s welfare.

To Fern, the Manitou is a magical place where she can roam largely unsupervised with her new friend Alv. She gets into every corner of the ship, becomes a pet of the crew, and even adopts a stray kitten she finds in the hold. But the winter of 1936 on Lake Michigan is more brutal even than most, and the consequences of that journey and the secret Fern carries away from it haunt her for the rest of her life.

With an ear for crisp dialogue, an unflinching focus on character, and a remarkable instinct for spare but telling detail, Lee Zacharias creates in Across the Great Lake an unforgettable tale about the child inside every adult and the long-term effects of the choices we make.

Image: Lighthouse on South Manitou Island, Lake Michigan, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Geoffrey George.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dipping a Toe in the River of Time

Back in August, Jo, the human companion of Jaffa—the cat who, her blog assures us, turns the page while she reads the big words—asked me to contribute to her feature, Hist Fic Saturday. The post went up last week, and you can go directly there by clicking the link or just read on. The question she asks authors to answer is “Why do I write historical fiction?” My answer follows, but don’t forget to check out Jo’s blog, where she also reviews historical fiction, including The Golden Lynx

Can never get enough books, right? Especially when someone is happily winnowing the wheat from the proverbial chaff on your behalf.

And of course, a huge thanks to Jo and Jaffa—and Timmy, Jaffa’s young apprentice, to borrow a term from Star Wars—for hosting me on their site. It was a fun post to write, and I’m grateful for the prompt to think about these questions as well as for the lovely review of my novel.

As a historian who also writes historical fiction, what I love most is the freedom to make things up, to imagine the past, to play with possibilities. Although I feel bound by the sequence of events, to the extent we can determine what it was, even that carries in it a kind of freedom: sequences tell stories. Why did Napoleon advance in that direction, not this one? Why then, and not two days later or a week earlier? We never have all the answers, and in the gaps lie spaces for a novelist to fill in.

Now if people were always rational, the process would be less interesting. But we all know the role that emotions play in decision making. Not just emotions, either: lies and coverups are as old as time. People routinely retell their stories after the fact, making themselves look better and their opponents worse. Even where documents exist, and in the period I write about they usually don’t, a novelist still gets to decide which of several conflicting explanations really drove a particular course of action and which alternative stories remain untold because those who lived them had no access to the written word. In medieval Russia, the setting of my novels, whole categories of people had no means to express themselves in writing: the poor (80–90 percent of society); women (the usual 50 percent plus); anyone who lost a battle with those in power.

And that’s just historical figures. As a novelist, I also get to invent people, which I like even better. I tell stories about women finding their own places in a wider world that wants only to turn them into obedient housekeepers and baby factories. Their roads to self-discovery vary according to their personalities. Nasan, a natural warrior, learns to expand her interests without sacrificing her essential self. Firuza, more conventional by nature, responds to the challenges posed by her brother’s incompetence by tapping unsuspected strengths. Maria actively resists change, only to discover that her new family with its weird (in her mind) expectations of wives provides a fulfillment she didn’t know she was missing. Roxelana uses her allure to manipulate men into doing what she wants.

Even the mothers, who’ve already made their peace with society’s demands, differ in their solutions. Natalia thrives in the role expected of her, managing a household of several hundred people and its associated estates like the small corporation it is. Sumbeka delegates her household tasks to others, ordering them hither and yon while she acts as her husband’s most trusted political and diplomatic adviser and the communications hub for their entire extended clan.

Researching these stories offers its own special joy. Oh sure, there’s the chore of plowing through weighty tomes festooned with notes—seldom a happy thought at the end of a long day’s work. So many of the tomes, too, fail to reveal the important things: what ordinary people ate and wore, how they thought about the happy and not-so-happy events of their lives, how they furnished their houses or talked to their children, what a particular piece of money would buy—never mind the all-important smells and tastes and sounds.

But oh, the magic of discovery! For me, the delight of research is stumbling over unknown or forgotten possibilities. The bandit chief who became a saint; the officially Muslim Tatars who continued to revere the clan spirits known as the grandmothers and tell tales of women warriors; the medical mysteries and herbal concoctions so useful for sending unsuspecting characters to their doom or into a trance; that odd, disastrous military campaign that took place at just the right moment to challenge a hero in unexpected ways.

It all feels like dipping a toe into the flowing River of Time. As people say when asked why small children love dinosaurs, “they’re big and they’re dead.” The past, too, is both vast and gone. This place where most of us wouldn’t want to spend our lives is fascinating to experience through a book, a film, or a TV show. And that’s why I write historical fiction.

Images: Sheksna River in mist © 2009 Michael Clarke CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons; Legends of the Five Directions advertisement © 2018 C. P. Lesley.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tales of Incarceration

Today I’m honored to present a guest post by Kate Braithwaite, a wonderful historical novelist whom I first encountered as an interview guest on New Books in Historical Fiction. And since she has many interesting things to say, I’ll get out of her way and let her take it from here. But do page down to the end to find out more about her, including her books, her webpage, and her social media links. Thank you, Kate, for this great post!

Tales of Incarceration: Historical Fiction in Uncomfortable Settings

I like writing books set in places of confinement.

Maybe it’s because I loved every moment of reading The Count of Monte Cristo as a teenager on holiday in the Pyrenees, refusing to go sight-seeing because I needed to keep reading. Or maybe it’s because I found Papillon in my grandfather’s bookshelves and read it under the covers at night, shocked and amazed by the story that unfolded, as well as by the fact that my grandpa would read such a book. So many factors influence writers, but in this case I see a direct link between my teenage reading and the books I write. I still always love stories set in places of isolation or confinement—prisons, asylums, islands, even lighthouses—and so it’s no surprise to find this reflected in my historical fiction.

Charlatan (2016)—featuring the Chateau de Vincennes

One of the oldest royal residences in France, Chateau de Vincennes has been in existence since the 12th century. It was highly fortified by thick walls and still features a high donjon (a tower, eight floors tall) built in the 14th century as a residence for Charles V. In the mid-17th century, approaching the period of my novel Charlatan, it was one of many building projects entrusted to the architect Louis Le Vau and became the residence of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s most trusted adviser until his death in 1661. But Chateau de Vincennes was also regularly used as a prison. During the Affair of the Poisons, when a sprawling investigation into poisoning and witchcraft threatened to engulf Louis XIV’s court in scandal, Chateau de Vincennes became the key holding place for those arrested. Police chief Nicholas La Reynie visited Vincennes frequently, conducting interviews and interrogations, prior to taking prisoners to face trial in the Arsenal in nearby Paris.

In Charlatan, the prison is central location. It is here that La Reynie’s assistant Louis Bezons is drawn to the daughter of La Voisin, a key figure in the Affair of the Poisons. It is also here that the magician and confidence man, Lesage, tries to find a way to stay alive while men and women he has worked with are brought to trial and executed. As the scope of the investigation grew, security was a problem at the prison—prisoners were able to communicate with each other and with the outside world—and desperate people, with time on their hands and urgent desires, can make wonderful characters.

The Road to Newgate (2018)—featuring Newgate Prison


In my second novel, The Road to Newgate, London’s famous Newgate prison is an often-visited location for my characters, sometimes as visitors, but also as inmates. Newgate was notorious for the poor conditions prisoners experienced—unless, of course, they had money. The prison was first built in the 12th century and then, as a casualty of the Great Fire of 1666, it was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. In the 17th century, Britain was in transition. Many aspects of society were advanced and modern but in terms of crime and punishment, things were fairly medieval. Heads were still displayed on spikes and traitors were hung, drawn, and quartered. The sounds and smells of Newgate are an important aspect in my efforts to create a believable picture of life in London at this time—warts and all. Here’s an excerpt from The Road to Newgate, with one of my characters, William Smith. He has just been arrested and taken to the prison.

“No-one will tell me what charges I face, but they are serious enough that the Keeper of Newgate raises an eyebrow and whistles when he looks at the paperwork the soldiers give him. He tells me I may send no messages and will receive no visitors. I’m manhandled into a large dark room and sold a candle that costs me nearly every shilling I have on my person. Then I’m left to find a space for myself in the gloom. Men, little more than bundles of misery and rags, huddle on the floor or on narrow boards fixed to the wall. The smell of excrement is overpowering. I find a gap in a far corner and lean into it as my stomach heaves and sweat breaks out on my forehead. This is the condemned hold.”

The Girl Puzzle (2019)—featuring the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum


For my next novel I’m writing a dual timeline story about Nellie Bly, an intrepid young journalist who agreed to be committed to a lunatic asylum in order to report on conditions from the inside. In 1887, the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum was not a prison, but for the women committed there, it might as well have been. Here’s very different scene from the one above, when Nellie first arrives in Hall 6:

“The arrival of five new patients causes a stir. There are perhaps forty women in the room, dressed uniformly in ugly blue and white calico checked dresses. They’re mainly seated, crammed together on hard wooden benches set out at intervals around the walls. They look like birds, huddled in flocks on telegram wire. It’s a large room, bright, at least, but the air is cool. She can see her breath. Light shines down from barred windows, reflecting against whitewashed walls. Three small lithographs hang slightly askew: in one she recognizes the composer Fritz Emmett, the others depict negro minstrels. While the patients crowd the benches, nurses in heavy coats sit at a central table covered in clean white cloth. At one end of the room stands a square grand piano, not a fine looking instrument, but serviceable. At the other end, doors lead to what Nellie thinks might be a doctor’s office or perhaps an examination room.”

Among the many challenges (and joys) of writing historical fiction, is the need to convey the time period naturally within the story. Conditions in prisons vary drastically from country to country and from century to century. Small details can be very telling. The same is true of how societies treat people with mental illness.

Another plus I’ve found in writing scenes set in places of confinement is that characters are never at their best when they have lost their freedom. They might be frightened, they might be angry. They may be innocent or guilty, sane or insane. Taking away a character’s freedom and seeing how they respond is a fascinating way for a writer to explore a personality. And stories where characters face conflict and strife will always have the potential to explode onto the page.

Kate Braithwaite is the author of two historical crime novels set in Europe in the 17th century but is jumping century and continent for The Girl Puzzle (Crooked Cat Books, 2019) to explore the life of Nellie Bly in 1880s and 1920s New York.

Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and on her website/blog.

Images: Chateau de Vincennes, Newgate Prison, and Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum, all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.