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.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Ins and Outs of Time

I suspect that the general public doesn’t often think of historians as detectives. Detectives in fiction, on television, and in the movies can be rumpled or sexy, old or young, male or ever more often female, but their lives are usually exciting. They hunt down clues, they pursue criminals in the flesh, they place themselves in physical danger and not infrequently risk their lives. In real life, the job tends to involve more grunge work and fewer thrills, but it still confers respect.

Historians are more likely to be viewed as stuffy. Professors in fiction hardly ever act like real scholars, but unless chasing their students or engaged in similar acts that would raise eyebrows at most universities (which is different from saying they never happen), professors fall into detection only by accident, like any other fictional crime solver.

But that assumes that the only detection that counts involves stopping present-day criminals in the act. In fact, scholars of all sorts love mysteries. That’s one of the reasons people become scholars in the first place: to answer unanswered questions, big and small. How does the universe work? What combination of proteins will defeat cancer? Why did Richard III lose at Bosworth Field?

It’s this kind of detection that forms the background to Kate Morton’s new book, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, released on October 9. The novel opens in the summer of 1862, when a young experimental artist invites a group of friends to his home, Birchwood Manor. The house party ends in tragedy, although it will be the end of the book before we discover all the details.

Instead we shift forward 155 years, to London in the summer of 2017, where Elodie Winslow, an archivist (a profession generally and just as undeservedly considered even more boring than history), discovers an old satchel hidden in a desk. The satchel contains an initialed leather journal and a woman’s photograph, among other items, and is labeled with the name James W. Stratton, a reference to the prominent Victorian businessman and philanthropist to whom the archive is dedicated.

Elodie, like any good archivist or historian, is immediately hooked. Who is the woman in the photograph? Who kept the journal, and why does it contain a sketch of a house that Elodie remembers from childhood stories? What connects the satchel with James Stratton, and why was it hidden for so many years?

Even though she’s supposed to be preparing for her wedding to a wealthy businessman of her own, Elodie can’t resist trying to answer these questions and the many more that appear as soon as she answers the first set. In the process, she—and we—uncover a considerable amount about her family’s past and its previously undisclosed connection to Birchwood Manor. As a historian myself, I loved every minute of it.

But that’s only one thread of this remarkable and compelling novel. Although I looked forward to talking with Kate for New Books in Historical Fiction, I recognized as soon as I got into her book that it would be difficult to discuss the novel without giving away crucial elements of the story. So when it turned out that scheduling one more event into an already daunting three-continent book launch wasn’t really feasible, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt certain that it would have been an interesting conversation; on the other, dodging so many unmentionable plot points seemed like a challenge and a half. Writing this blog post instead solved that problem.

Because that summer house party has consequences, as well as a history of its own. And while it would be impossible for Elodie to discover everything about those events no matter how much effort she put into her research, we as readers do get that chance. At the heart of the story is Birdie, the clockmaker’s daughter of the title, whose fate is more entwined with the whole than Elodie can even imagine.

Find out more about this and Kate Morton’s other novels at her website.

Friday, October 5, 2018

War of the Wolf

We rarely publish interviews back-to-back on New Books in Historical Fiction, but in this case the scheduling made it essential. I’ve had a chance to speak with Bernard Cornwell several times now about his bestselling Saxon Tales (also called the Last Kingdom series after the television series based on it). He’s a thoughtful and engaging writer, and interviewing him in print or in person is always a pleasure—a privilege, too, given his extraordinary success. So when his publisher asked if we could run the interview on the simultaneous UK/US release date of his newest novel, I agreed.

It was no hardship. War of the Wolf has charms of its own. As the eleventh in a series that already spans more than fifty years, it must cope with the challenges posed by time: both the need to develop its main character steadily throughout his extended life span; and the need to keep the story line of each book new and interesting even as the long arc of the series as a whole draws to its close.

The novel succeeds at both tasks. I won’t say how Uhtred moves on from the position he reached at the end of the tenth novel, The Flame Bearer, because that would spoil the plot of that book for new readers. But I will say that War of the Wolf still managed to surprise me. Although few of the characters we met in The Last Kingdom survive into this latest novel, the vast sweep of the larger story extends into a second and even, it seems, a third generation. The pagan Danes remain undefeated, and the antagonist here appears in a guise Cornwell admits in the interview that he has long avoided. And perhaps most impressive in a novel so focused on war at its most hands-on and brutal, his hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, continues to evolve. Once a brash young recruit, to borrow a modern term, who succeeded as much by luck as by skill, he has become a seasoned commander without losing his inimitable sass.

And in an unplanned but fascinating coincidence, toward the end of the interview we discuss a topic that, although somewhat peripheral to Uhtred’s emerging England, is quite closely tied to last week’s interview about Leslie Schweitzer Miller’s Discovery: the question of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church.

Historians and historical novelists, but perhaps not so much the general public, have long known that between Emperor Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century and the High Middle Ages approximately nine hundred years later, most priests lived with either wives or mistresses. The enforcement of celibacy in the priesthood by the church hierarchy took a long time to complete. The famous lovers Héloïse and Abelard—he a canon and she the niece of one—were caught in that transition.

Now, Jesus of Nazareth belonged to a different time, one in which many people in the Roman-run province of Palestine held the apocalyptic view that the Last Days were at hand. By the fourth century, never mind the twelfth, it had become clear that the Second Coming would be delayed. So the views common among the medieval priesthood should not be construed as evidence that Jesus himself married; he may have considered earthly ties a distraction from the greater enterprise of salvation, as many of his followers clearly did. Or he may have married years before he began his ministry, as most young Jewish men did, only to lose his wife or leave her for what he perceived as a higher cause. It’s unlikely we will ever know for sure.

But either way, no one can entertain doubts about where Uhtred stands on the question of celibacy—and of Christianity more generally. And if you do wonder, reading War of the Wolf is an excellent way to find out the answers.

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

As seems appropriate for a character as resourceful, skilled, and self-confident as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he goes from strength to strength. In addition to a set of bestselling novels, collectively dubbed The Saxon Tales, Uhtred has a television series to his name: The Last Kingdom, just renewed for its third year by Netflix.

Here in his eleventh adventure, War of the Wolf (Harper, 2018), Uhtred should be enjoying the fruits of his labors over the last ten books, but of course, that story would be no fun to read or to write. Instead Uhtred, now past sixty, receives a summons to travel south to protect the fortress of Ceaster (Chester) on behalf of Aethelstan, the son of King Edward of Wessex. Uhtred soon realizes that the summons is a ruse: the greater danger lies in the North, in the person of the Dane Sköll and his warriors, who dose themselves with henbane to harness the power of the wolf. Sköll also has the support of a powerful sorcerer, who Uhtred comes to believe has cursed him—especially after Sköll attacks the city of Eoferwic (York), where Uhtred’s son-in-law rules, with devastating effect.

Bernard Cornwell does not disappoint, and this latest entry in the Last Kingdom saga sees Uhtred at the top of his game and England a bit closer to its eventual unification, a goal that Uhtred both supports and fears as it becomes ever clearer that his kingdom, Northumbria, and his pagan religion increasingly pose the only barriers to King Edward’s success.

For my two previous podcast interviews with Bernard Cornwell, see New Books in Historical Fiction for June 2014, The Pagan Lord, and December 2016, The Flame Bearer. Our written Q&A about his non-Uhtred novel Fools and Mortals appeared on this blog on January 12, 2018.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Hidden Truths

Leslie Schweitzer Miller’s debut novel, Discovery—the subject of my latest podcast interview—can be characterized as a group of connected mysteries wrapped in a love story. It starts in 1885, with the arrival of Abbé François Bérenger Saunière in the small town of Rennes-le-Château, high in the French Alps. As Schweitzer Miller explains in the interview, this priest, a historical character, left a mystery behind him: how he managed to amass a huge fortune while serving a poor parish first assigned to him as a kind of punishment post. And although we don’t know historically whether any connection existed between Bérenger Saunière and the unsolved murder of his close friend Father Antoine Gélis (also a historical character) in 1897, no novelist could resist imagining such a connection.

Deeper links develop between the story of the two priests—the wealth of one and the brutal death inflicted on the other—and a question that has roiled the establishment of biblical scholars for some time: was Jesus of Nazareth married?

Discovery is not the first novel to tackle this last question. Most notably, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code included it as part of the rationale for that novel’s complex and overlapping set of puzzles. But as one might expect from a practicing psychiatrist, Schweitzer Miller focuses her novel less on the solution to the mysteries per se and more on the human connections between her characters and the impact of the discoveries on their beliefs about the world and their feelings for one another.

In particular, she traces the love that develops between her modern-day heroine, Giselle Gélis, and the archaeologist David Rettig as they travel together across southern France in pursuit of a solution to the double mystery of Rennes-le-Château. Their journey forces them to confront that deeper biblical question, and their differing responses to what they find in turn threaten their relationship—even more than the fellow scholar determined to get in their way.

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

When Giselle Gélis runs into David Rettig at a biblical studies conference, she’s not expecting a life-changing experience. On the contrary, the thought foremost in her mind is escaping the creepy colleague who seems oblivious to hints of dislike and even outright putdowns. But Giselle and David hit it off, despite their differences of personality and the reality that any relationship between them can only be long-distance: she lives in France while he’s based in Israel.

In an attempt to spend time together, Giselle and David agree to undertake a journey across southern France, from just below Marseille to Toulouse. It’s supposed to be a vacation, casually devoted to learning more about each other while unraveling a mystery associated with Giselle’s uncle, murdered late in the nineteenth century in a crime that was never solved, between stops at luxury hotels and meals at fabulous restaurants. Instead, Giselle and David stumble over a discovery that challenges  doctrine fundamental to the Christian religion, and with it her faith and their future as a couple.

Discovery (Notramour Press, 2018) skips back and forth between Giselle and David’s present and her uncle’s past, with at least one foray even deeper into time as the underlying mystery is gradually revealed. Leslie Schweitzer Miller  juggles these multiple realities with aplomb, bringing to life not only the breathtaking scenery of the mountains around Rennes-le-Château (pictured on the cover above), where the central action takes place, but the contrasting time periods and the characters who populate them.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Magic Mushrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 14, 2018

Interview with Karen Brooks

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what are you working on now?

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

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

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

And thank you for your answers, Karen!

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

Image © Stephen Brooks.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Getting Up on Your Leg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancers "Up on Their Legs"

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 31, 2018

Let’s Talk about Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Uncomfortable Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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