Friday, May 31, 2019

Crossing the Streams

It’s ages since I last saw Ghostbusters, but there are still lines I remember with fondness. The title of this post recalls one of them.

In the movie, crossing the streams is a bad thing. The term refers to the streams of energy emitted by the ghostbusters’ weapons, and crossing them has awful if unspecified (at least, I remember the threat as being unspecified) consequences.

But in real life, crossing streams—in the sense of bringing in a different perspective–allows people to see what they might otherwise miss. This point was brought back to me recently in an unexpected way.

As I mentioned last week, the novelist P. K. Adams and I are planning a joint project. As part of the initial stages, we are outlining general ideas for the plot and dividing the main characters between us. But this is historical fiction, and even for a historian that means research. No one can anticipate the answer to every question that might arise, and in this case I’m very familiar with one side of the story (although I’m researching that too!) and have at most a general knowledge of the other.

So not to give too much away at this early stage—in part because the story is still in flux, so who knows where it will ultimately go?—I was reading a set of documents about Tudor England that happened to include letters from Ivan IV “the Terrible” (r. 1533–84) to King Philip of Spain and his wife, Mary Tudor, as well as Mary’s successor and sister, Elizabeth I.

The correspondence in itself is not news: I first heard about it as an undergrad—not least because the story behind it was too good to leave out of a survey course: Ivan IV, having wreaked havoc on his own land, was trying to arrange a bolt hole in case the people at home lost patience with him to the point that he had to flee if he wanted to keep his head. And Elizabeth, in particular, assured Ivan several times that he could, if he wanted, find a refuge in England. She promised financial support and even a guarantee that no one would attempt to convert him from his own Russian Orthodoxy to Protestantism.

Whether she meant any of it, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know. But that’s not the point. Because I had heard of Ivan’s requests for asylum but never read the actual letters, I’d accepted the usual conclusion: that Ivan felt an exceptional closeness to the kings and queens of England, expressed by his use of the terms “brother” and “sister” in reference to them.

But as soon as I read the letters from the perspective of a historian of Muscovy, I knew that the usual assumption was untrue—or at least unproven. Ivan is not particularly cordial in his missives to the English court (that is, the letters produced on his behalf by his clerks). He chides Elizabeth, in particular, for focusing too much on the mercantile interests of her own ignoble subjects at the expense of princely affairs. He repeatedly emphasizes, in a manner one can only consider derisive, that she is a “maid” (that is, a virgin) who hides behind her maiden state and gives her counselors free rein. Indeed, as a never-married royal woman ruling in her own name, Elizabeth must have seemed completely unnatural to Ivan despite his own mother’s (ultimately unsuccessful) grab for power.

So where do the “brothers” and “sisters” come in? The same place that the “crossing streams” come in. The men (and they were all men) who wrote Ivan’s letters for him were trained in the formulas of steppe diplomacy, like all the other bureaucrats and bureaucracies that emerged from the remnants of Genghis Khan’s empire. And those formulas drew heavily on the fictive kinship that determined power relations in the nomadic hordes. In the early years, Muscovite princes addressed the Mongols as “fathers” and described themselves as grateful, obedient “sons.” After the conquests of the mid-sixteenth century, the tsars became the “fathers” and the high-ranking descendants of Genghis were demoted to “sons.” But in the middle—and in general between states regarded as equal—rulers addressed each other as “brother” and, in the case of the strange English with their Tudor queens, “sister.”

That’s all it means: no special closeness at all, just a recognition of equality. A similar origin lies behind the odd description of Russia and its ruler, in other letters directed at European powers, as “white” (a usage retained in today’s Belarus—White Russia). That comes from steppe diplomacy too, and it has nothing to do with race. In Chinese—and therefore Turkic—cosmology, “white” is the color associated with the west. We think of Russia as an eastern state, barely part of Europe, but if your center is located at Karakorum or Sarai, Russia is almost as far west as you can imagine.

And that’s why it sometimes pays to cross the streams. Strange things may emerge from the shadows, and not all of them are scary.

Images: ghost with placard (edited in Photoshop),, no. 294239; Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan the Terrible (1897), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; white tiger (symbol of the west), no. 311747 (iClipart images purchased via subscription).

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Discipline of Outlining

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’ve been discussing the possibility of a joint writing project with P. K. Adams, aka Patrycja Podrazik. It seemed too good a coincidence of interests to waste: how many other authors in the United States have written novels set during the reigns of King Sigismund (Zygmunt) the Old of Poland and his co-ruling son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August)? How many other novelists could even name the major figures at the sixteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian court?


Well, now that Song of the Shaman has had its final revisions, although it won’t appear until early next year, and Patrycja’s Silent Water is close to publication, we’re getting serious about our joint project. Silent Water takes place almost twenty-five years earlier than my Song of the Siren, starting right after the marriage of Bona Sforza to Sigismund the Old in 1518. Still, a quarter-century is not much of a difference when we’re talking about events 450 years in the past, and Patrycja is a lovely writer, so if you enjoy my novels, you should definitely seek out hers. Silent Water is a murder mystery, much more puzzle than gore—and let’s just say that Juliana and Felix would feel quite at home in its world.

By now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to with outlining. Or was I just losing it when I came up with the post title? I have, after all, written before about why I seldom outline my novels, not least because it rarely turns out to be a worthwhile use of my writing time. Sure, I like to establish a goal my characters can aim for, and I certainly put some effort into figuring out who they are and what they want. But beyond that, I like to throw them into the thick of the action and see what they do and say; that’s how I find out who they are and, as a result, figure out where the story needs to go to reach that predetermined goal and how it can realistically get there.

Which is fine for me, of course, but for collaboration the free-form approach doesn’t work so well. As co-writers, Patrycja and I need to decide who’ll write what and where to start, not to mention where we’re heading and what paths to take. Even the research is shared, because she knows more about Poland and I about Muscovy. So there’s not much point in duplicating our efforts, especially since she reads Polish whereas I read Russian, meaning that each of us has access to sources barred to the other. In short, we have to plan, because the “tumble into the story and see where it goes” approach is likely to take us both into a thick forest where we wander about in circles with no hope of reaching our destination.

Patrycja, bless her, is a far more disciplined writer than I am (perhaps that’s why she can write murder mysteries, whereas my books tend to orient themselves to espionage and romance). So we’re constructing an outline—in the literary sense of paragraphs telling a story that will ultimately run to ten or even twenty pages, not the 1.A.b.* one-page wonder most of us learned in middle school. We worked out the main points over the phone; we hope to meet in person soon to flesh things out; meanwhile, we go back and forth via e-mail as suits our individual work and writing schedules. Right at this moment, the ball is in my court, which explains why this topic is on my mind.

So far it’s been fun, as I think about how Character A would respond to Plot Point B or strip in Cultural Information C to explain what makes Plot Point B possible. Kind of like my usual free-form writing without the dialogue and detailed settings. And I’m sure it’s a good exercise, for me as well as for our project.

Will I be able to stick to the outline once the writing starts? Ah, that’s much more difficult to predict. If I do, it will certainly be a first. I have to hope I don’t drive Patrycja crazy with my stops and starts and rethinks. But if the outline is strong enough, maybe I’ll get the dithering out in the planning stages and learn something new—about writing and about myself. So wish me luck!

As for the project itself, it’s new and barely formed, so we want to keep it under wraps for a while. Let’s just say that it will be a murder mystery—the first of three, if all goes well—and it will involve not only Russians and Poles but a few wandering Englishmen. The ship depicted at the top of the post might be considered a clue. Gotta appeal to that Tudor fan base somehow....

While you’re waiting, check out Patrycja’s two-part series on Hildegard of Bingen, The Greenest Branch and The Column of Burning Spices. Silent Water will be available for preorder on June 15 (release date August 6), but you can get a sneak peek of the prologue on P. K. Adams’ website, as well as information about the earlier books. And while you’re there, check out the lovely review she wrote (unasked!) about The Shattered Drum. You can see why we decided that we might just be kindred novel-writing souls.

Images: 16th-century painting of The Great Harry, an English carrack, by an unknown artist; Marcello Bacciarelli, Portrait of Sigismund I the Old (1768–71). Both
public domain because of the date of their creation, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Power of Conscience

What would you do to protect your friends and family from danger? This is the question that confronts Deborah Tyler and her stepbrother-in-law Nels Anderson in Ann Weisgarber’s new novel, The Glovemaker. As Weisgarber explains in our interview  for New Books in Historical Fiction, the small community of Junction, Utah—eight families, including Deborah’s—often receives fugitives from the law.

Most of the men are God-fearing Mormons, avoiding trial and certain conviction for the plural marriages that were not crimes when they entered into such arrangements. But a woman alone can never feel certain about the intentions of a stranger pounding at her door—especially in the middle of winter, when no ordinary traveler, polygamist or otherwise, wants to brave the icy rocks and treacherous blizzards that lie between Junction and the rest of Utah Territory.

Even if the visitor is harmless, aiding his escape puts the person who responds to him at risk. So the community exists in a web of secrets in which every member takes a chance on behalf of the others but resists sharing information, so that all concerned can honestly declare their innocence of any wrongdoing.

Balanced on this fulcrum of truth and lies, caring and concealing, responsibility and lawbreaking, Deborah and Nels seek a way to protect themselves and those they love. But as the situation slips ever farther from their control and they find out more about what drove their visitor and his pursuer, they confront a deeper and more timeless question: when does an enemy become just another person who needs help?

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

When a strange man knocks on Deborah Tyler’s door one January evening in 1888, she faces a difficult decision. She can guess that her visitor is a criminal, because who else would travel to her isolated Utah community in the dead of winter? And her husband, who normally handles such situations, left home five months ago and has not returned. She is tempted not to answer, but that will only send the unwanted traveler to the next house in Junction, endangering her younger sister and her sister’s children.

Besides, most of the criminals who arrive on Deborah’s doorstep are not thieves or murderers but polygamists evading arrest for what the US government has recently outlawed as a felony. Deborah has little sympathy for plural marriage or the men who practice it, but she is a loyal Mormon who distrusts those inclined to persecute her faith and cares about the families left destitute when their breadwinners flee.

Deborah makes her choice. But the next day, a federal marshal arrives in pursuit. Threatened with prosecution for aiding and abetting a felon, Deborah fights to protect herself, her community, and those she loves from unpredictable consequences that draw her ever deeper into a web of secrets and lies.

The Glovemaker (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019) asks important questions about love and loyalty, faith and independence, the power of love and of family. And through Deborah and her struggles, Ann Weisgarber brings vividly to life the joys and terrors of life in a small, isolated community on the US frontier, the moral compromises we all face, and the capacity of one strong woman to adapt in a time of rapid change.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Other Front

As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past year, World War II is having its “moment” in terms of historical novels. Admittedly, as the number of shows on the History Channel and nonfiction works attests, World War II has never failed to attract interest from either scholars or the general public. But in the first five years of my podcast, I rarely received pitches for books set during the war. These days, it seems to be the background for every other book that heads my way.

Now, admittedly, I’ve loved some of the books: Gwen Katz’s Among the Red Stars and Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, in particular—both of which explore the lives of the Soviet women pilots who fought so effectively from their flimsy biplanes that their enemies called them the “Night Witches.” Many other authors have also found new and surprising takes on this well-worn subject. Almost without exception, though, the WWII novels that crossed my desk in the last fifteen months or so have focused on the European side of the conflict.

Not so the two I’m chatting about today. Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared (Hanover Square Press, 2019) and Kirsty Manning’s The Song of the Jade Lily (William Morrow, 2019) have little in common except a dual-time framework in which a young person searches for hidden information about what happened to his/her family during the war and a release date this month. But both explore the war on the Pacific Front and how it affected women who became caught up in the dangers of living in occupied territory.

Much of How We Disappeared takes place in Singapore, not a location we in the United States often think about in terms of WWII, between 1941 and 1945. This part of the story follows the life of Wang Di, eldest daughter of a Chinese family that emigrated to escape poverty and whose homeland has since fallen under Japanese control. Her name means “Hope for a Brother,” a constant reminder that she can never equal in importance the sons her parents eventually produce. Even so, her family protects her from the invading Japanese army, first by trying to arrange a marriage for her and later by keeping her within the confines of their house, until one drastic mistake leads to Wang Di’s capture. A seventeen-year-old virgin, she is loaded onto a truck, carted away to a house, and forced into service as a “comfort woman.” From then until the end of the war, Wang Di never knows whether she will survive the night, or whether she wants to.

This harrowing tale is interwoven with a second story from 2012, in which Kevin, aged twelve, learns of a secret from his dying grandmother. In this more contemporary thread, we also see Wang Di in old age. She has a secret of her own to unravel: where her recently deceased husband went every year on February 12. Her secret and Kevin’s are connected—by the personality of Wang Di, of course, but also by the immediate and long-term effects of occupation by a hostile power.

The Song of the Jade Lily, in contrast, takes place mostly in Shanghai. A twenties-something financial whiz named Alexandra accepts a job there, in part to get away from a disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend. Alexandra, of Chinese descent, grew up in the care of her Jewish grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. After Wilhelm’s death, Alexandra moves to Shanghai, where she makes use of the opportunity thus offered to solve the mystery of her mother’s past and therefore her own. But we readers watch the story unfold from 1938 through 1954, interspersed with moments when Alexandra searches for or stumbles over one truth or another.

Because I was a friend of the writer Annabel Liu, who lived in Shanghai as a child, I knew in general about the Japanese occupation of the city and the suffering inflicted on the local population. What I didn’t know was that right before and during the war Shanghai was one of the few places that freely accepted Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe. Romy and her fictional family are among these refugees.

Not long after the novel opens, Romy loses one brother to murder during Vienna’s version of Kristallnacht and another to the concentration camp at Dachau, although the family members have no idea what conditions in the camp are like and continue to hope that the second son can join them. Meanwhile, they settle into their new home, making friends with Dr. Ho and his two children, Li and Jian—all of whom will play vital roles in Romy’s life.

Here too, the invasion of the Japanese Army threatens to upset the refugees’ hopes for a better future. Romy’s father, a doctor, manages to remain in practice, although as the war drags on, he finds it ever more difficult to secure the medical supplies his patients need. Romy’s fate is kinder than Wang Di’s: she pursues an education and acquires training in both Western and traditional Chinese medicine. Even so, the tendrils of war are everywhere, and they entangle her friends Li and Jian, as well as another friend—Nina, also a refugee—in ways that sweep Romy, too, into the web of power and its abuses.

To say more about either novel would give too much away. Both are well thought through, interesting, nicely written, and innovative in the sense that they look beyond the European theater and recognize that the horrors of World War II didn’t stop at Paris, London, or Stalingrad. Personally, I preferred Song of the Jade Lily, in part because what happens to Wang Di in How We Disappeared—although wholly supported by the historical evidence—is so wrenching and heart-breaking that the problems addressed in the contemporary story pale by comparison. It’s not that the problems are small in themselves—on the contrary. But they can’t quite measure up to the complete dehumanization inflicted on the innocent Wang Di. It might, in the end, have worked better to let her story stand alone. In that sense, the two halves of Jade Lily achieve a better balance.

Your reaction, however, may be just the opposite. Certainly you can’t go wrong with either of these books. If nothing else, you will discover a side of World War II that you may not have imagined. And that’s always a good thing, right?

My thanks to Shara Alexander and Maria Silva, the publicists who sent me copies of these novels with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Investigating the Qing

I first discovered Elsa Hart’s novels through my friend Ann Kleimola, who has made so many wonderful suggestions for how to improve first my Legends of the Five Directions and now my Songs of Steppe & Forest novels. “You have to read Jade Dragon Mountain,” she wrote. (I’m paraphrasing: that was the gist of her e-mail, not the text.)

To be honest, I’m pretty sure she’d recommended both Jade Dragon Mountain and Elsa Hart when the novel first came out in 2016. I’d meant to follow up, but too many books got in the way, and by the time I cleared the pile, I’d forgotten about this one. But when she mentioned it again, I went after it right away, purchased it as an e-book, and ... devoured it within three days. I was hooked. 

I tracked down Elsa and talked her into an interview about the third book, City of Ink. Meanwhile, she sent me the second in the series as well. I read The White Mirror and loved it even more than Jade Dragon Mountain, if that’s possible—not least because it takes place in the mountains separating China from Tibet, a terrain my steppe nomads would appreciate. I can now attest that City of Ink is even better than its predecessors. So you can imagine how much time will lapse between my learning that book 4 has arrived and my starting it—yes, zero minutes would be an excellent guess.

So what makes this series so special? First, there’s the setting, which is unusual yet brought so vividly to life that I felt I could look out the window and see the locked bamboo gates and the exhausted examination candidates lining up, eyes red and quill pens in hand. Second, the characters—always crucial for me—especially Li Du, the calm and thoughtful but persistent librarian detective, and his friend Hamza, a very different and much more dramatic figure who makes his way along the Silk Road through the power of his storytelling. Individual characters in each mystery are also deeply thought out, with believable and often conflicting motives. Third is Li’s own story, which we understand in greater depth with each book. 

But fourth and supreme are the puzzles, some of the best I’ve seen and essential to every good mystery novel. It’s rare for an author to give me all the clues yet fool me three times in a row, but Elsa Hart has managed to do exactly that. So listen to our interview, but don’t expect spoilers. Then read the series, in order. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

As ever, the rest of this book comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

If there is one thing more fun than discovering a new (to oneself) author, it is discovering a new author with a series already well underway. In City of Ink  (Minotaur Books, 2018), the third of Elsa Hart’s mystery novels set in early eighteenth-century China during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor and featuring former imperial librarian Li Du and his storytelling friend Hamza, Li has returned to his former home of Beijing.

His intention is to learn more about the events that led to his own exile from the capital years before, the result of guilt by association. But he soon discovers that the imperial library has been closed since his departure, and to make ends meet, he takes a job with his former brother-in-law, in charge of the North Borough Office. When, on the eve of the imperial examinations, a young woman is murdered at a tile factory in the North Borough, Li accompanies the investigator to the scene of the crime. The case appears clear-cut, since the victim turns out to be the wife of the tile-factory owner, and she is found with a man whom everyone assumes to be her lover. Clearly, this is a crime of passion, committed by the jealous husband. The authorities rush to endorse this explanation, since crimes of passion are not punishable under the law and the whole matter can be neatly swept under the rug before the imperial examinations begin.

But no case associated with Li Du is ever what it seems. As he and Hamza chase the real solution through the locked alleys of Beijing and past the city walls into the surrounding territory, Hart’s richly informed, beautifully detailed, and wonderfully complex yet satisfying story plays out against the backdrop of early Qing China, with its rebels, dynasts, foreign visitors, and ordinary folk with conflicting motives—not to mention Li Du’s own troubled past.