Friday, August 30, 2019

Aging Heroes

One of the interesting problems some authors tackle is that of aging—or maturation, although the two concepts are not inextricably linked and certainly not the same thing. Even in my Legends of the Five Directions novels, I had to consider how marriage or motherhood or the experience of war would change my characters.

But those novels covered five years. Linnea Hartsuyker’s Golden Wolf trilogy, set in Viking Norway, ranges over twenty. In the ninth century, a man could go from youth to old age in that time.

It’s not true, as is often believed, that the human life span was shorter then. Many more children died before the age of five, and those who did not had to survive disease and childbirth or warfare, depending on gender. That pulled the averages down. Nevertheless, a person could live to be eighty even in the premodern world, although given the standards of medical care he or she needed excellent genes and a large dose of luck.

This is one of several topics that Linnea and I discuss in my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction. So give it a listen and find out how she handled the emotional and physical changes that beset her aging heroes, fourteen years after the end of her second book, The Sea Queen, and twenty after The Half-Drowned King.

And if you purchase the paperback edition of The Sea Queen (and the future paperback edition of The Golden Wolf—not the UK edition currently listed on Amazon), you’ll find at the back a written Q&A conducted by yours truly. The one on The Sea Queen ran originally on this blog last year. But The Golden Wolf interview will be brand-new, so do look for it when the paperback comes out.

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

When I spoke with Linnea Hartsuyker back in 2017, her epic saga was just beginning. The first novel opens with her hero, Ragnvald, seeing a vision of a golden wolf who will unite the feuding kingdoms of Norway under one rule. The vision sets the course of Ragnvald’s life, bringing him into the service of Harald Fair-Hair, a young and confident warrior whose counselor and friend Ragnvald becomes. Meanwhile, Ragnvald’s sister, Svanhild, sets off on a different course, one that offers her a life of adventure not often available to women but pits her against her beloved brother.

Twenty years later, Harald has come close to achieving his goal. One more wedding stands between him and a unified Norway. Svanhild and Ragnvald have returned to fighting on the same side, but two decades of wounds and battles, as well as old patterns, are catching up with the older generation. And the three of them have produced a large and varied group of children, most of them sons at or near adulthood, ready to challenge their parents’ ways and dreams. As fathers struggle with sons, mothers with daughters, brothers and cousins among themselves, and husbands with wives and concubines, Ragnvald stubbornly clings to the force of his vision and his dedication to the principles that have guided his life.

Like its predecessors, The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen, The Golden Wolf  seamlessly blends Old Norse folklore with creative imagination to paint a picture of ninth-century Norway from the inside. Linnea Hartsuyker assembles a cast of characters that, however different they and their world may appear to a modern readership, tackles problems we all can recognize.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Red Pearl

Once in a while, life gets in the way of my writing, and that’s been the case for the last month or more. Too many work projects with tight deadlines, a couple of new Five Directions Press titles in the works, four New Books Network interviews over the course of five weeks—I’ve barely had time to keep up this blog, never mind work on the outline for my joint project with P. K. Adams or Songs of Steppe & Forest 2 and 3. 

All good stuff, of course, but time consuming. So it was a happy accident to receive an e-mail from Chloe Helton, eager to talk about her new historical novel, The Red Pearl. So without more ado, let me turn over the virtual mike to her, and she’ll provide a quick introduction and excerpt.

* * *

Thank you, Carolyn, for allowing me to share The Red Pearl with your readers!

If you’re hoping to finish off your summer with a crackling, suspenseful read, take a peek at an excerpt of The Red Pearl. You’ll find a marriage on the rocks, a little bit of lost love, the trials of wartime, and the main event—espionage.

During the American Revolution, a meek innkeeper’s wife, Lucy Finch, becomes privy to some explosive secrets. Read more below! And if you want the rest of the book, you can visit my website or find it on Amazon


Boston, 1778

For a moment, when I woke up, I was back at home. My mother had started to boil water for the porridge, and the faint smell of cinnamon shimmered near my nose. My father’s heavy boots sounded on the steps, and he hummed as he went down. My father was always humming, just as my mother was always praying. Between the two of them, his song and her prayer, there was never silence in the house.

But I wasn’t at my father’s home anymore, and it was silent now. I hadn’t lived with my parents in almost six years. When I married Jasper, I’d vowed never to speak to my father again, and although I had eventually broken that promise, I still kept my distance. When Ma got sick in ’77, the bitterest winter I’d ever lived through, I stayed there awhile to help her. Not much since then.

No, I was not at home. Jasper’s arms were around me, his body the only warmth in our bed now that we were nearing winter, his face nuzzled in my hair. In the beginning, I told myself it was only for warmth that I let him wrap around me like a parasite, but now we did it every night, even during the summer. I’d begun to accept it, just like I now tolerated the rough taste of stone fence, a drink of hard cider and rum, now that I was a tavern-keeper’s wife.

When I started to move, Jasper mumbled something. He wasn’t much of an early riser, but the sun was splashing through the windows now and we couldn’t let the guests wake before us. It had become my responsibility to make sure of that. “Up,” I urged, nudging his shoulder. “Imagine if Robby gets in the kitchen before we do.”

Now he blinked. Robby, our hired boy, was an honest worker, but he was useless without direct and clear orders. If he tried fiddling with the pots and pans without my direction, they’d all be broken before we even made it downstairs. “Didn’t we just fall asleep?” he groaned.

“Oh, enough. You’re terrible in the morning.”

“Come back down,” he said, wrapping an arm around my waist to pull me. “Lay next to me just a minute longer.”

I couldn’t have resisted, really, even if I wanted to. He was too strong. I brushed a hand through his clipped black hair. There had been days when I yearned for another kind of man, shaggy blonde hair and sharp blue eyes, but although he crossed my mind every day, almost, he was now little more than a ghost swirling in the morning fog. I was here with Jasper, who was dark and quiet and excruciatingly clean-shaven. There was drink to brew and mouths to feed here and I wasn’t a girl anymore.

“Jasper,” I said. I hadn’t been planning to mention this, but he was the one who pulled me back down to bed. “Are you planning to let those Tory meetings go on long?”

“What d’you mean?” he mumbled, his eyes barely open. “If they pay for it, they can have their meetings. And you shouldn’t call them that.”

It had been a long while since the word “Tory” was something to gape at. A group of half-a-dozen men had been holding clandestine late-night meetings in our pub for the past few weeks, and you couldn’t tell by looking at them but the various chatter that caught my ears as I poured their drinks made things clear. Nobody who supported the revolution called the Continental army “rebels” and “hooligans”. It was unclear what they met about, but their leanings were no mystery, at least not to me.

“They might scare the others away, is all I mean. You know how our city is; think what would become of us if our neighbors discovered loyalists under our roof.” In Boston, of all places, it was no good to play both sides.

He rubbed his eyes, apparently realizing that he actually had to participate in this conversation. “We don’t know that for certain. All that matters is that they’re fine customers. Pay on time, leave coins on the bar for us when they leave, and they don’t shout and fight like the patriots do. It wouldn’t be so bad if we scared off a few radicals, now would it?”

He’d never listen. Jasper Finch refused to take a side in the war, and yet it was impossible not to. We had married while the harbor was closed after the Tea Party, and I’d watched him buy smuggled rum and sugar, because if the Crown had its way we would all have dry throats and empty bellies: fair retribution, in their eyes, for our act of rebellion. So the rum had to be snuck in bales of hay, among other methods, and Jasper struggled for months with the books in order to keep bringing those goods in. And yet, he claimed to be neutral, as if such a thing were possible in Boston, where the spark of revolution had first been lit, and where it still echoed through the streets even after every last redcoat had scampered away in terror behind General Howe.

To house Tories in our inn, even if he was doing naught more than accept their business, wouldn’t do him well. There was no city that hated the British more than ours. “I suppose not,” I lied. “I know it’s best to be neutral.”

“Neutral,” he repeated, satisfied. “That will get us through this.”

I remembered my father saying much the same. Jasper knows not to pick sides, he’d told me, unlike that boy of yours. And that was why I was in this soft bed in a tavern called The Red Pearl rather than with Sam on the battlefield, wiping sweat from my forehead as I threw pitchers of water on the cannons. My father had not wanted that life for me, so I was here.

“Well, I suppose it is time,” Jasper said finally, grunting as he pulled himself out of bed. “Sometimes I wish I could sleep all day.”

Funny, because in this place, where the dusty wooden walls closed us off from the war that raged outside, it seemed we were asleep all day. “Someday, when we’re very old and we have a son and a sweet daughter-in-law to take care of us, we’ll do just that. Sleep from dawn till dusk.”

“With you, I would,” he smiled.

My heart skittered, and he pecked me on the cheek. “I hope Robby hasn’t tried to make porridge already.”

“God’s bones,” Jasper cursed. “It would taste like pig slosh.”

With that, we hurried downstairs.

Hungry for the next chapter? Click here to get a new chapter in your inbox every week, or find it on Amazon

 Thank you, Chloe. I wish you all success with your novel!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Interview with P. K. Adams

As much as I love historical fiction—especially historical fiction set in Russia and Eastern Europe (assuming the authors know what they’re talking about, that is)—I also love mystery stories. Not the hard-boiled, high-body-count variety but the so-called cozy mystery exemplified by Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Sayers, on whose books I cut my literary eyeteeth back in the day. So it’s no secret that discovering P. K. Adams, a writer who grew up in Poland and writes historical mysteries set in her home country during its Renaissance Golden Age, has been a source of delight for me.

Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian mysteries appeared just ten days ago, and P. K. was gracious enough to answer my questions despite all the work surrounding the launch. Do read all the way to the end, where you can find out more about her and her books.

Your first two novels were a fictionalized story of the twelfth-century abbess, physician, composer, and theologian Hildegard of Bingen. What made you decide to shift gears and write a series of mystery novels set in sixteenth-century Poland-Lithuania?

As a reader, historical mysteries have long been my guilty pleasure, and I knew that one day I would want to try my hand at writing one. After The Greenest Branch duology, I felt the time had come to try a different subgenre. The choice of Poland as the setting was personal, as that is where I grew up. My first serious study of history was therefore not of the Tudors or the Borgias but of a dynasty that, although powerful in its time, is little known outside Eastern Europe. The Jagiellons (pronounced Yah-ghye-lohns) ruled the union of Poland and Lithuania (as well as, at various times, Hungary, Bohemia, and several minor principalities and territories) for more than two hundred years.

The sixteenth century is a very popular era in historical fiction, but too many novels focus on Western Europe. With Silent Water, I hope to introduce readers to that often-overlooked part of the continent and show that it also had a robust Renaissance culture and cutthroat politics, as well as ethnic and linguistic diversity. As such, it was no different from—and perhaps even more complex than—the lands of the Tudors, the Borgias, and the Valois about whom we love to read so much.

The backdrop to this first novel is the early years of the marriage of King Zygmunt I and Bona Sforza of Milan. What can you tell us, briefly, about them and their court? What makes it a good setting for your mystery?

What is interesting about the first half of the sixteenth century in Poland is that one of its most powerful and consequential monarchs was not actually Polish. Bona Sforza, who married Zygmunt I in 1518, was an Italian noblewoman who arrived in Cracow as a young royal bride, bringing with her a new cuisine, fashions, and customs.

During that time, women’s role in countries like Poland and Lithuania was very limited outside the home. Even if they were nobles or royals, their duties centered on bearing children, playing the hostess at feasts, and supervising the domestic staff. They were not expected to remain at the table after a certain hour or speak to men to whom they were not related. But Bona would have none of it: she talked and laughed at the table, hunted with the best of them, and was deeply interested and active in politics. Some courtiers enjoyed it, but many were scandalized.

The arrival of Bona marked a moment of significant transition at the Polish court and in society. The cultural clashes and misunderstandings that ensued offer opportunities to craft scenes and even entire storylines that would sound implausible or far-fetched in a place that did not have that multinational and multilingual diversity. With the murder victims being of different ages and lifestyles but also nationalities, our sleuth has her work cut out for her to figure out what they have in common!

Your heroine, Contessa Caterina de Sanseverino, is an Italian visiting Kraków for the first time. What makes her the ideal spokesperson for your story? What kind of person is she, and what does she want out of life?

Caterina is a young widow of noble birth but living in diminished circumstances. Nonetheless, she secures a prominent position as the Lady of the Queen’s Chamber, even though without the backing of a powerful family, she feels that her situation is precarious and that she must prove herself to Queen Bona. That is why she becomes involved in the murder investigation in which the queen herself has an interest. But the discovery of the perpetrator marks both a success and a failure for Caterina, and it makes her question her suitability for her role within the queen’s household. She must decide whether to stay where she is and enjoy the security, however unfulfilling, or leave and build a more satisfying life. In that sense, the story has a universal resonance because who among us has not experienced that feeling at least once in our working (or perhaps also personal) lives?

As an Italian newly arrived in Poland—a land of cold winters, conservative customs, and a tricky language—Caterina is the kind of narrator who can offer a fresh and objective perspective, which I think greatly benefits the story.

Early on, Caterina makes the acquaintance of Sebastian Konarski. What makes him stand out for her from the other courtiers? What about her appeals to him?

Sebastian Konarski is a secretary in the king’s household. What first appeals to Caterina is his integrity and lack of vanity—rare traits at a royal court. He is not a drinker or a carouser like many other young courtiers, and he treats women with respect. I think Konarski senses a certain vulnerability in Caterina, well hidden under a layer of confidence that she tries to project. As their acquaintance deepens, he realizes the depth of her intelligence, resourcefulness, and empathy. They are kindred souls in that they are both principled outliers in a place that is full of superficiality, greed, and opportunism. That is what draws them to each other and what makes them trust each other, trustworthiness being another trait that was always in short supply at royal courts.

Trouble starts eighteen months or so after Caterina’s arrival in Poland, at the Christmas feast, when one of the male courtiers is found stabbed to death. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about him?

Kasper Zamborski is a middling courtier who belongs to the bibones et comedones semi-secret society (its existence at King Zygmunt’s court is a historical fact), whose members pursue a lifestyle centered around eating, drinking, and sexual conquests. In the words of another character in the story, he was known to “seduce maids and matrons alike, a great many of them, they say.” That immediately gives rise to speculations that he may have been killed by a jealous fiancé or a cuckolded husband. But things become more complicated when it is revealed that Zamborski was engaged to be married to a daughter of Crown Grand Chancellor Aleksander Stempowski, who disliked the match. Stempowski also happens to be an enemy of Queen Bona, who becomes convinced that the chancellor helped the young man into the afterlife, and she is determined to prove it.

Theories multiply quickly, but then another courtier is found dead close to the queen’s personal apartments . . .

You’re already starting on the sequel, from what I understand. Any hints on what to expect?

The sequel will feature Caterina, some years later, being called to help Queen Bona with a delicate mission in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Bona’s son and heir to the throne serves as grand duke. He has fallen in love with a beautiful woman of poor reputation and is said to be planning to marry her. But the marriage would be a disaster from the dynastic point of view, and it would bring no useful military alliances to help Poland-Lithuania stave off threats that lurk around its borders. It must be stopped at all costs, but before Caterina can even set a plan in motion, members of the court start dying in mysterious circumstances.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

P. K. Adams is the pen name of Patrycja Podrazik. She has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale University. She blogs and reviews historical fiction at Her debut novel, The Greenest Branch: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician, was a semifinalist for the 2018 Chaucer Book Awards for Pre-1750 Historical Fiction. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in New England. Silent Water, the first of her Jagiellonian Dynasty mysteries, was published on August 6, 2019. 

Like her on Facebook
Follow her on Twitter

Listen to an interview about The Greenest Branch on New Books in Historical Fiction.

Drawing of Bona Sforza by Jan Matejko (1861) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Staying Sane in a Crazy World

As a writer and scholar interested in cultural and social history, I am constantly struck by how much presumptions about what women can do have changed—and how much they haven’t, despite two waves of feminism, a suffrage movement, and a large and ongoing influx of women into colleges and boardrooms.

This paradox is nowhere more evident than in Kate Braithwaite’s new novel, The Girl Puzzle—the subject of my latest interview on the New Books Network. The heroine—real-life journalist Nellie Bly—fights for everything that comes her way, arguing against the position that women can’t be reporters because they are too weak, too emotional, too dependent, too … (fill in the blank).

To prove her point, Nellie throws herself into a dangerous assignment, only to discover that she may not have the support she needs to get out the other side. And while there, she learns that the women confined with her may suffer from nothing worse than an inability to speak English or their ability to annoy their male relatives. But when Nellie does at last obtain her release, her blistering exposé sparks permanent changes in New York’s insane asylums.

As Braithwaite notes during the interview, twenty years after Bly’s stint as a mental patient, she wondered whether the United States would ever have a woman president. More than a century later, here we are, still wondering. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

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

Nellie Bly is in some respects a household name, yet the passage of time has erased many of her accomplishments from popular memory. One of the first well-known female journalists, she wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s acclaimed paper The World, traveled around the world in less than eighty days, married a millionaire, and pursued a celebrated career at a time when the idea of women with professions was still new.

But her first journalistic assignment—the one that landed her a job with The World when she was still Elizabeth Cochrane, a twenty-something from Pittsburgh trying to make her living in the big city—was quite different. As Kate Braithwaite details in The Girl Puzzle  (Crooked Cat Books, 2019), at Pulitzer’s suggestion, Elizabeth had herself declared insane and sent off to Blackwell’s Island, the location of one of New York’s most notorious lunatic asylums, with the intention of reporting on life from the inside.

Braithwaite’s dramatic and compelling novel opens with the middle-aged Nellie Bly revealing her story to a young typist. We see Elizabeth bursting into Pulitzer’s office, demanding a job and receiving her assignment to infiltrate Blackwell’s Island. There, shut in with no guarantee of release, she uncovers conditions at times medieval, at times punitive, at times simply alarming. Her own forthright character and instinct to confront injustice act against her, confirming the nurses’ and doctors’ views that she is not mentally stable. One of the doctors demonstrates a certain kindness toward the afflicted, but most of his colleagues can’t manage even that.

Some of Elizabeth’s fellow patients are—or become—unbalanced, but others have been sent to the asylum because they are poor, foreign, short-tempered, demanding, or simply inconvenient for their families or for society. As days turn to weeks, and no one arrives from The World, Elizabeth has to face the possibility that she may never leave the asylum.

Of course, we know she does. But it’s to the credit of this well-written, meticulously researched, and beautifully realized novel that we still remain on the edge of our seats, desperate to learn what will happen next.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Bookshelf, August 2019

How did it get to be early August already? Feels like I blinked and Midsummer turned into late summer without my even noticing. It’s not as if I’ve done nothing with the time: I finished all but one of the books on this list, as well as Kate Braithwaite’s The Girl Puzzle, Lauren Willig’s The Summer Country, Gill Paul’s The Secret Wife and The Lost Daughter, and all the other books on my April bookshelf.

In addition, I worked with Gabrielle Mathieu on her forthcoming Girl of Fire and typeset Joan Schweighardt’s second Rivers novel, Gifts for the Dead. Both of those are due out from Five Directions Press this fall. I also wrote up an incomplete outline and did some preliminary research for the joint project I’ll be writing later this year or sometime in 2020 with P. K. Adams. 

Alas, then I landed in editing jail, a durance vile I expect to emerge from the week before Labor Day—in time for my planned writing vacation, I hope. That planned vacation may also be the next time I can return to Song of the Sisters, which is just 5,000 words short of half a first draft.

So, what’s left on the bookshelf? More or less in order of appearance, since most of these are  advance review copies, I have these five, as well as a couple of others that I won’t mention until I’m sure I’ll have time to read them.

G. P. Gottlieb hosts New Books in Literature, another podcast channel in the New Books Network. A baker and musician, she has put her cooking skills to work in her debut novel, the first in a cozy murder mystery series about a café owner and her favorite detective. In Battered, due Aug. 6, the heroine, Alene Baron, has her hands full running a business, supporting her three kids and elderly father, and dodging her obnoxious ex-husband. But when one of her neighbors winds up dead, Alene gets drawn into the investigation—in part because she knows everyone involved, but in part to protect her own family. 

Check the NBL link above around the time of the release to hear us chatting about the characters, the setting, and G. P.’s own path to becoming a writer. And don’t miss the recipes at the end of the book, all taste-tested by the author and her friends.

Silent Water, due Aug. 6, kicks off another new murder mystery series, set in Renaissance Poland. It’s Christmas Eve 1519, and King Sigismund I the Old and his Italian wife, Bona Sforza, are celebrating in style when a prominent courtier is found stabbed in an out-of-the-way passage. Caterina, another Italian noblewoman in charge of Queen Bona’s ladies-in-waiting, becomes caught up in the investigation as the queen’s eyes and ears. In addition to the “whodunnit” aspect, this book stands out for its beautifully described and unusual historical setting and its portrayal of the cultural conflict that followed King Sigismund’s political marriage. This is the novel that led to the collaboration between myself and its author, P. K. Adams. I’ll be running a blog Q&A with her soon. 

Linnea Hartsuyker’s The Golden Wolf, due Aug. 13, builds on 2017’s The Half-Drowned King and 2018’s The Sea Queen to complete the story of Ragnvald, his sister Svanhild, and their chosen king, Harald the Fair-Haired, who is determined to unify Norway under his crown. 

In this third installment, the principals have all attained middle age (in ninth-century terms) and have grown or near-grown children set on creating their own destinies whatever their parents have planned for them. In particular, Harald—with at least eight wives—has produced more than twenty sons, a few of whom believe they, not he, should be the ones taking the reins of power. 

A gritty and uncompromising tale that shines a light on the often brutal values of an ancient past yet manages to keep its characters both sympathetic and complicated. Check back in mid-August for the link to my interview with the author. 

When Karen Brooks released The Locksmith’s Daughter last year, I was all set to interview her for the New Books Network until we realized that the time difference between my home on the East Coast and hers in Tasmania was guaranteed to make life difficult for one of us. So instead we settled on a blog Q&A. At the end of that interview, she mentioned The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, due Aug. 20, then in its final edit, and I was happy to see it arrive on my doorstep almost a year later. (Who doesn’t love the idea of a chocolate maker?)

When Sir Everard Blithman offers to marry Rosamund Tomkins, she jumps at the chance to escape her abusive stepfather, distant mother, and obnoxious cousins. At first, life in Sir Everard’s house exceeds her expectations, and she becomes fascinated with his project of establishing a chocolate house in London, one of the city’s first. But only as she dives into mastering the complex spicing and preparation of this imported product does Rosamund realize that Sir Everard has a hidden agenda, and he sees her as just a pawn in his scheme for revenge.

Of the five books mentioned here, Duchess by Design (2018) is the only one already in print—and, oddly, the only one I’ve yet to read. The first book in Maya Rodale’s Gilded Age Girls Club series, it precedes Some Like It Scandalous, the subject of my “Summer Romance” post a couple of weeks ago. Here the heroine is Adeline Black, set on becoming an haut couture dressmaker despite the attentions of the handsome duke of Kingston. He persuades her to accompany him to society parties and show off her designer gowns, attracting new customers while advising him on which women he should approach as his future duchess. 

Even without having read the book, I can guess how it ends, but the point with romances is never the “what” but the “how,” and my past experience with this author gives me hope that it will be the perfect ending to summer, now only five weeks away.