Friday, January 17, 2020

Love and Magic on the Steppe

It’s always tremendous fun to release a new novel. The blood and angst that went into creating and revising the story washes out in production, leaving a finished text that looks like any other printed book. One by a bestselling author, say, or a prizewinner. (We can dream, right?) Except that it isn’t by someone else. It’s one’s own work, sent out like a beloved child to take its chances in the big, wide world.

And the thrill never gets old. The thrill of holding a physical book in your hand and knowing that you wrote it, especially. It’s one reason I hope print books never go away—at least during my lifetime. Seeing a book on an e-reader or tablet is cool, too, but nothing like the joy of hefting a novel in one’s hand, flipping through the pages, admiring the crisp text and vivid cover, the carefully chosen type ornaments and fonts—then placing it on a shelf next to all the other books.

Tuesday’s release of Song of the Shaman is the tenth time I’ve had that pleasure, not counting the second editions and the box sets—fifteen books or collections all told. In some ways, this novel is special: it took a long time to connect with the heroine, Grusha, despite having known her since I typed the first words to The Golden Lynx back in 2008. Finding her character eight years after her original appearance in a major secondary role, even an antagonist (although far from the main one), and her conflict in her new role as the shaman of Ogodai’s Tatar horde took time and multiple rewrites and rethinks. But here she is at last, and I hope her search for happiness, for herself and her young son, will pull you in and make you want to spend a few hours or days accompanying her on her journey.

But don’t take my word for it. Terry Gamble, author of The Eulogist and other novels, puts it so nicely in her endorsement on the back of the book: “A vividly told tale full of magic and mysticism, passion and betrayal. The story of Grusha will grab you by the heart and throat as you travel through the medieval world of Russia and the steppe.” You can find out more about Terry’s wonderful books from her interview at New Books in Historical Fiction.


So, may you enjoy the excerpt below and the novel itself. While you read, I’ll be rereading and revising Song of the Sisters so I can revel in the excitement of publication again this time next year. 

And here is an excerpt from chapter 1 of Song of the Shaman.


East of the Don, June 1542

Smoke—stinging, acrid, redolent with sage and the heavy odor of dried dung—filled my nostrils. Flakes of ash floated before my eyes, and I coughed as I reached for my drum. All around me, the tent rocked with the pounding rhythm of an instrument not my own, held in hands more experienced than mine, summoning me to the dance. Suzukei—the shaman of this camp, my teacher—whispered to the spirits of the hearth fire, the ancestors of the horde.

Squinting, I settled the plaits over my face to remind the snake spirits, guardians of wisdom, that they had chosen me, too, to serve them as a journeyer among the realms above and below. When I’d hidden my features, I lifted the rimmed circle, large enough to conceal my torso from waist to shoulder. The familiar heft of the drum, the smooth wood clapper in my other hand, the steady bam-bam-bam-bam as I beat the tanned hide—these things drew me out of myself despite the blistering smoke. The rhythm of my strokes, regular as the beat of my own heart, worked its way into my body, resonating in my chest and pulling me away from the present, into the places that lie beyond the middle lands of earth and water.

Against the crackle of the fire, each upward leap of the flames releasing another swarm of ash flakes, I heard the steady croon of Suzukei’s voice. Moving to the outer rim of the tent, I joined her song, matching her tone as best I could, adding the stamp of my own felt-clad feet. Strings of beads and shells, interspersed with metal shapes etched with sacred symbols, hung from the drum’s rim, adding sounds soft and sharp. I imagined them whispering my name to the listening spirits—Gru-sha, Gru-sha, Gru-sha. I loved the shushing of those beads and shells.

As Suzukei and I danced around each other, I watched her for clues. I couldn’t see her face, because like me she had concealed it behind several dozen plaits—black tinged with gray in her case, light brown in mine. Although half a head shorter than I, she appeared taller, the result of the red felt circle stitched with beaded eyes, nose, and mouth tied around her head and extended by a set of plumes as long as my forearm. Her leather robe, which fell loose from her shoulders, added to the sense of her being larger than life.

“O ancestors,” she called to the spirits of the hearth fire. “O grandmothers, save this child.”

“O grandmothers,” I echoed. “Return his soul to his body. Make him well.” Bam-bam-bam-bam, bam-bam-bam-bam—I punctuated each word with a drumbeat. Suzukei nodded her approval.

In response to a second nod, I redirected my dance in an inward spiral, aiming for a spot closer to the fire, beating my drum with every step and adding my prayers to Suzukei’s. She had charged me with monitoring the condition of our patient, the three-year-old Sibai Sultan—second son of Ogodai Khan, ruler of our horde. The child lay sick unto death on a pile of felts next to the rough stones that contained the fire, motionless except for the occasional sobbing breath and croaking cough. As I moved in, she spiraled out, as if we were two puppets pulled by the same set of strings.

“Grandmothers—bam—come to us—bam—see the child—bam-bam—your own descendant—bam-bam—save his life—bam-bam-bam—so that he can grow strong—bam-bam—and one day sire children to continue your line.” Bam-bam-bam-bam. I spoke to the drum as much as the ancestors, and the drum spoke to me, a wordless conversation.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Sisters, Alone and Together

What would you do to reunite with a beloved sister? Very few of us—encountering the choice that faces Effie Tildon in The Girls with No Names, released this past Tuesday—would go to the lengths Effie does. As the book’s author, Serena Burdick, explains in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, Effie is somewhat naive. That’s understandable, given that she’s a protected thirteen-year-old whose beloved older sister, Luella, has disappeared without a trace—or so it seems to Effie.

But Effie’s choice has dire consequences. The child of a well-off Gilded Age family, Effie comes up with a plan to secure her own commitment to New York City’s House of Mercy, a home for wayward girls and women. She does this because she’s been raised all her life with the bogeyman-type threat that bad behavior will lead to her parents’ sending her to the home. Lively, outgoing, rebellious Luella has often been the target of such efforts at verbal “correction.” So when Luella disappears not long after a blazing row with her father, what could be more logical than Effie’s belief that Dad has sent his disobedient daughter to the House of Mercy?

Furthermore, Effie suffers from a heart defect. No one knows when she will die, but since birth she’s been living, in effect, on borrowed time. The chances that she will survive to adulthood have always been poor, and her frequent “fits” of breathlessness constrict her actions. In the House of Mercy, however, hard work and harsh punishments are a way of life. The older girls enforce the rules every bit as savagely as the nuns who run the penitential laundry that is the central element in the House of Mercy’s financial success. And two of those older girls decide that Effie just might be their key to escape.

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


Effie Tildon loves her older sister, Luella. Sixteen to Effie’s thirteen, Luella has long taken the leading role in deciding what the two sisters do, even when it leads them in directions their parents would not approve of. Those three extra years are one reason that Luella directs Effie rather than the reverse, but another important reason is that Luella is strong and healthy and rebellious, whereas Effie has lived in the shadows since her birth—the result of a congenital heart defect that, although entirely curable in our own century, in 1900 has left everyone in the family certain that Effie may die any minute.

So when Luella leads Effie to a Roma camp on the outskirts of New York City, then disappears one day without letting her sister know where she’s headed, Effie is determined to find her, even if it means confronting her fear that their father has had Luella committed to New York’s notorious House of Mercy, a home for wayward women and girls. Effie comes up with a plan to abandon her privileged Gilded Age life and check herself into the House of Mercy. Her plan succeeds admirably—until the moment she discovers her sister is not there. That’s when Effie realizes that getting out of the House of Mercy is a lot more difficult than getting in.

In The Girls with No Names, Serena Burdick, whose previous novel Girl in the Afternoon won the International Book Award for Historical Fiction in 2017, turns a spotlight on the world of “Magdalene laundries” and the many nameless women who passed through them between their founding in the Victorian era and their abolition in the 1990s. In so doing, she paints an absorbing portrait of relationships within families and the ways they can go awry, as well as the hidden strength on which even the seemingly weakest and most damaged among us can draw in times of need.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Ushering In 2020


As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions as a whole. The annual promises to lose weight, exercise more, master a foreign language or a new musical instrument, and read more books than there are weeks in the year tend to lose their charm—or at least their credibility—after several decades of repetition. That said, I do have goals that I hope to achieve as a writer in 2020. Even if there is no real penalty to not meeting the goals, having them keeps me on track.

Which I guess is also the reason for promising to lose weight, exercise more, and so on ...

Anyhow, here are the writing goals. Those others are between me and my waistline.

(1) Publish Song of the Shaman (Songs of Steppe & Forest 2), on schedule in mid-January. This novel follows the attempts of Grusha, another secondary character from the Legends series, to balance her Russian heritage with life in a steppe horde and her own needs against those of her six-year-old son, whose future presents an increasingly pressing problem as he approaches the age when his training for adulthood will begin.
This one is pretty much a done deal, because the print edition is already available and the Kindle edition up for preorder, with a delivery date of January 14. But I didn’t want to skip its place in the publication sequence, plus there is so much that goes into marketing a new book that its appearance becomes an ongoing project for several months.

(2) Produce a final manuscript of Song of the Sisters (Songs 3) and sketch out book 4, Song of the Sinner.
Songs 3 is actually in its third draft, resting except for collecting comments from my writers’ group before undergoing another round of revision for publication. So that should be doable by the end of the year. A full rough draft of Songs 4 is a longer shot, but I am starting to come up with ideas, so it’s worth including here.

(3) Complete my half of the rough draft of my first historical mystery novel, co-written with P. K. Adams and tentatively titled These Barbarous Coasts.


After a slow start over the summer, this one is roaring along. Patrycja and I have agreed on a full outline (although the plot is already twisting a bit, as my plots tend to do, and I’m struggling not to let it twist so much that I drive her crazy). She’s drafted the prologue and chapter 1, I’ve drafted chapter 2 and sketched the opener for chapter 5. And I have three more full writing days in my holiday leave before I have to go back to full-time work and writing weekends.

Will we make it? Who knows? But the chances are good, and the process is both entertaining and educational, since I’ve never collaborated with another novelist before.

(4) Conduct twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews. Also submit links to recent interviews every four weeks for featuring on the Literary Hub.

I have interviews scheduled through June, and the volunteers keep appearing in my mailbox, so I’m hopeful that I can meet—even exceed—this goal. I just sent in January’s interview for processing and interviewed Gabrielle Mathieu about her latest book—which is fantasy based on medieval Europe and can be cross-posted to both our channels—so I’m getting off to a good start.

As for submitting to LitHub, that’s a privilege, so barring memory lapse or computer disaster, I will certainly do my best to fulfill that goal—for my authors’ and the New Books Network’s sakes as much as my own.

(5) Typeset/proof, produce e-books, and in some cases edit Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2019. The exact lineup is still in play, but in addition to Song of the Shaman (historical fiction/romance), I expect to work on Champion of the Earth—the second book in Gabrielle Mathieu’s YA fantasy series, Berona’s Quest—and River Aria, the third and last novel in Joan Schweighardt’s Rivers trilogy.
Not much to say here. If the books come in, I’ll find time to work on them.

(6) Stay current with online marketing efforts and outreach. This goal includes keeping up with my weekly blog posts, maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website, and participating regularly in such group features as “Books We Loved” and “Five Directions Press Authors Dish”—as well as regular if not daily appearances on Facebook (as my author self and Five Directions Press), Twitter, and Goodreads.
This one is always a challenge, because there are so many other tasks to fill my days, and neither marketing nor social media are really part of my natural skill set. But we try.

And as always, I wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness for you and those you love!



Image purchased by subscription from iClipart.com, no. c1869314.