Friday, December 25, 2020

Looking Back--and Forward

Since January 2013, the first full year in which I kept this blog (I began in June 2012, in preparation for the publication of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel), I have set yearly goals for my writing. Since December 2014, I’ve also conducted a year-end review of how well I did.

For various reasons, not least that I already have an author interview lined up for next week, I think this may be the last of those annual round-ups/projections. It becomes repetitive after a while, and I suspect the goals—fuzzy as they are—matter more to me than to my readers. But in a tip of the hat to any semblance of normalcy in this incredible year that we have all endured, here is a look at where my fictional journeys into the past have taken me in 2020 and a hint or two of what to expect in 2021.

My goals as listed in my January 3, 2020, post follow, with comments on what did and didn’t come off.

(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.

Met. The official release date of Song of the Shaman was January 14, 2020; the print edition actually came out this time last year.

(2) Produce a final manuscript of Song of the Sisters (Songs 3) and sketch out book 4, Song of the Sinner.

Exceeded. I did complete Song of the Sisters, which is now available for Kindle preorder and will release on January 12, 2021. I have also produced three drafts of Song of the Sinner, which my writers’ group is now reading and commenting on at the rate of two chapters per month. When they finish, I will send the book to my favorite fellow Muscovite historian for comment, produce a final draft, and have it ready for release in January 2022. Meanwhile, I am taking advantage of the two-week Christmas/New Year’s holiday to begin work on Songs of Steppe & Forest 5, Song of the Storyteller. Should be lots of fun, as it incorporates the bride show held for Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1545–47.

These three novels explore the journeys of Darya Sheremeteva, who after spending years nursing her dying father learns that he has left his estate to a ruthless and ambitious cousin (Sisters); her sister Solomonida, a widow who falls in love with a man who is not her social equal and has to choose between him and her responsibility to her almost-marriageable daughter (Sinner); and Lyuba Koshkina, the unlucky youngest daughter of “the shiftiest man in Moscow,” hell-bent on advancing his own career by marrying her off to Tsar Ivan the Terrible, whether she likes it or not (Storyteller). I have rough plans for at least two more novels in the series, and after that, we’ll see.


(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.

Met. After finishing the third draft in July, we renamed the novel The Merchant’s Tale and sent it to readers for comments. The plan for 2021 is to incorporate those comments and produce a final draft, then query agents.

(4) Conduct twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews.

Exceeded. I interviewed fifteen authors for New Books in Historical Fiction, fourteen of which posted to my channel at the New Books Network. The fifteenth, with Molly Greeley about her second Pride & Prejudice spinoff, The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh, is scheduled for the week after New Year’s, to coincide with the book’s release on January 5, 2021. Many of those interviews cross-posted to the Literary Hub, where you can find the transcripts and audio recordings by searching for C. P. Lesley at LitHub Radio/New Books Network.

But I received many more offers of guests than I could fit into the podcast schedule, so I also ran written blog Q&A’s with numerous authors throughout the year, starting with Philip Cioffari on Valentine’s Day and ending with Nancy Burkhalter right after Thanksgiving. Those written interviews—with both commercially and small-press published authors—will continue through January and February of next year, so check back for them.

(5) Typeset/proof, produce e-books, and in some cases edit Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2020.

Met. The lineup changed, so only Song of the Shaman and Joan Schweighardt’s River Aria  appeared, but they did appear!

(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.

Met. I generally made it to Facebook MWF, Twitter WF, and Goodreads every Friday. Both websites are up-to-date, and have been since January, and I contributed a book I loved every month and at least 3–4 Dish posts throughout the year. This year I also learned about and became a regular participant in 1linewed on Twitter (follow @1linewedlives if you’d like to find out what that is), and made social media friends with a group of fellow-writers on Facebook, which expanded my participation there over the last month to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

So what’s in line for next year? I’d like to have final manuscripts of Song of the Sinner and The Merchant’s Tale, as well as one or more full drafts of Song of the Storyteller and perhaps an initial stab at Song of the Snow Maiden (that is, advancing all the novels by one step, so that I end up in a similar place next December to where I am right now, but farther into the series). P.K. Adams and I may also start work on a sequel to The Merchant’s Tale, although the timing on that has yet to be decided.

My New Books Network interviews are booked into June 2021, so completing the basic twelve seems like a reasonable goal; no doubt the overflow will continue to spill onto this blog. The social media and marketing efforts will go on, and I hope that at least one other Five Directions Press novel besides Song of the Sisters will see the light of day in 2021, although I’m not sure at this moment which author will finish first. Certainly I expect more Dish posts and Books We Loved features.

And although this is not a writing goal, I’m sure it’s one we all share. I’d like to see my family and friends in person again. Those vaccines can’t get here fast enough. So let’s raise a glass to 2020 and hope for better things in the year to come. Happy holidays!

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Friday, December 18, 2020

Outlining: Guest Post by Anne Louise Bannon

As those who follow my blog know, I am not an outliner by nature. I do create lists of story events as I begin a new novel, in part to anchor my tale in the history and in part to keep me on track. But within a month, there is usually so much space between what I thought I was writing and what I actually wrote that the whole enterprise seems not so much fruitless (it did get me started, after all) as hilarious.

But other writers, more disciplined than I, do write outlines. Since this is in part a blog about writing, this week I’ve turned over my post to fellow-author Anne Louise Bannon, who has produced numerous novels using the method she details below. And don’t forget to scroll down to the end to find out more about her books. I’m reading Death of the Zanjero right now, and I can assure you she’s an author to watch.



I teach outlining, and I did not outline this blog post. I kind of did that on purpose to illustrate an essential truth about outlining—that it is only a tool and, as such, has varying degrees of usefulness. In this case, since I have an outline (in the form of a PowerPoint presentation) for the class, writing up a second for this essay seemed a little like overkill.

But then, I tend to be a loose outliner, anyway.

An outline is basically a map, a way of helping you get from the beginning of your story to the end with as few plot holes and loose ends as possible. And the type of map that works best for you is going to vary.

I know folks who outline every beat of every scene, with extended notes on every character, even the ones that are only in the background. Jeffrey Deaver reportedly does that (I do not know for a fact yet). Then there was Tony Hillerman, who I heard give a talk on outlining in which he lamented that he had no idea why he got that topic since he didn’t outline. At all.

You may have heard the terms “plotter” and “pantser.” Deaver’s method is classic, hard-core plotting. Hillerman is the ultimate pantser—a term which comes from the early days of flying airplanes, when there wasn’t as much instrumentation, so you flew by the seat of your pants.

Here's the thing. Most of us are on a spectrum between those two extremes. Here’s the other thing. No one way of outlining is the absolute Right Way to outline. In fact, any time some writing teacher insists that you absolutely must follow their method, do listen. But listen with a whole big bag of salt.

I remember some years ago, I was at this writing seminar and one of the instructors had this one method for working through a second draft. This person insisted that each scene in the novel be evaluated against this acronym (which I may not be sharing here so as not to incriminate myself) and if the scene did not have two of the elements, then it had to go.

I will say the acronym was useful and did help me get through a couple scenes in the first draft that I was working on at the time. And it does help me when I’m having trouble to think about whether a given scene I’m working on is really necessary to the story.

But when I thought about going through an entire manuscript and evaluating each individual scene with that specific method, I knew darned well it wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, I’d been writing long enough to not let that reality get in the way of finishing that particular work-in-progress.

I do remember a time, though, when that sort of thing would send me for a loop. It’s easy for that to happen when you’re just starting out and don’t entirely know what you’re doing. But what most beginning writers don’t understand is that everybody is different. We are all have our different styles of approaching work, thinking about things, whatever. So, it pays to know what works for you. After all, if you pick the wrong method of outlining, you’re not going to get anything written. Let’s go back to the plotter versus pantser models.

There are some real advantages to being a plotter. You don’t write yourself into corners. The story holds together. You know what additional research you need to do and if you write historical fiction, like I do, then you’re not as likely to base a major plot point on something that wasn’t around when you’re writing. Let’s not discuss whether I have or not.

The downsides of being a plotter is that you sometimes include details you don’t need because they’re there. Some plotters spend so much time on their outlines they never actually write the book. Also, you can get boxed in and have a character that would be better one way, but you can’t change it because of your darned outline.

There are also real advantages to being a pantser. Most pantsers at least start writing and they do get a higher word count because everything is landing on the screen (or page). Also, the more intuitive process that pantsing is can lead to some really interesting places.

Of course, the downside is that pantsers have to do a lot more editing because their stories have gone all over the place. And if you have to write on a schedule, it can be hard to pick up and drop.

As I noted above, most of us are somewhere between the two extremes. Since I write historical mysteries, I need to know whodunit and sometimes why before I start writing. But I’ll generally get about four chapters into my story before starting to put together an actual outline. Why? I have no idea. I just do. I think I had more of my outline done when I started Death of the Chinese Field Hands, the latest in my Old Los Angeles series, but that darned book fought me from the moment I started typing.

Another tool I like to use is the Four-Act story structure. You can do three acts if that works for you. I like Four-Act because almost everyone is intimately familiar with it because almost everyone watches one-hour dramas on TV. Four-Act is easy. Each of the first three acts ends with a significant complication leading up to the final cataclysm and resolution at the end of the story.

That doesn’t mean I always use it. In Death of the Chinese Field Hands, I set up the plot that way, but it went someplace else, and I’m glad I went with it. In Death of the City Marshal (the second in the Old Los Angeles series), the Four-Act structure highlighted a massive plot hole. In the middle of the book, I have a bad guy threatening my sleuth, physician and winemaker Maddie Wilcox. The way it was originally set, he should have just killed her, but that would have meant the end of the series. On the other hand, realizing I had that plot hole gave me an insight into the character, and that made the story stronger.

Which brings me to my final point. The right kind of outline for you can be massively useful, even if you don’t follow it. Having some sort of plan and direction can get you writing, and that’s the key metric. If you’re outlining and outlining and not writing, stop outlining. If you’ve been writing and are floundering, start outlining. It’s not important how you get to “The End,” just that you get there.

Anne Louise Bannon is an author and journalist who wrote her first novel at age fifteen. Her journalistic work has appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Wines and Vines, and in newspapers across the country. She was a TV critic for over ten years, founded the YourFamilyViewer blog, and created the wine education blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She is the co-author of Howdunit: The Book of Poisons, with Serita Stevens, as well as author of the Freddie and Kathy mystery series, set in the 1920s, the Operation Quickline Series, and the Old Los Angeles series, set in the 1870s. Her most recent title is Death of the Chinese Field Hands. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters. Visit her website at

Friday, December 11, 2020

Murder in the Marshes

It’s a curious experience to encounter a novel series just as it’s coming to an end. In a sense, it’s like attending a party where everyone but you knows one another well. Personalities are already established, relationships developed, and there is a certain comfort among the principals that an outsider finds intriguing, filled with possibilities and hints at past events.

This is what it was like for me to read Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman’s Death and the Maiden, fifth in a five-part mystery series set in Norman England. Eleanor of Acquitaine, a long-time favorite of mine and apparently a vital part of the series as a whole, makes an appearance. Otherwise (I suspect this may not be true of earlier books), the characters are primarily fictional.

Adelia Aguilar, the Mistress of the Art of Death whose title gives the series its name, has retired to the country after the death of her patron King Henry II and is training her daughter Almeison, known as Allie, in the medical and forensic skills that earned Adelia her fame. The two of them have just received a visit from Allie’s father, Sir Rowley, whom Adelia long ago refused to marry, when a message comes from the Fenlands that an old friend is dying. But Adelia has injured her ankle and can’t ride, or even walk, so she sends Allie instead.

Escorted by the formidable Lady Penda, who goes about clad in a wolfskin cloak and armed with a crossbow, Allie reaches the Fens and treats the dying friend, Gyltha. But Gyltha, although grateful, makes no bones about wanting Allie out of the Fen country as fast as possible. Rumors of missing girls receive horrifying confirmation when a young woman’s body surfaces in the marshes. As a result of investigation, Allie concludes that the victim, Martha, didn’t die of drowning but was killed—and quite recently, although Martha went missing months before. The hunt for the murderer is on.

Several features of this novel appealed to me enough to make me want to seek out earlier books in the series. Mystery novels often rely excessively on the cleverness of their plots at the expense of the characters, but—as with Jennifer Ashley’s Death below Stairs series—that’s not true here. Much of the novel, in fact, has more to do with the characters’ everyday lives and interactions than with the murder per se—even though the mystery is an intrinsic part of the whole. Allie attends parties at nearby homes; she’s courted by a local lord; she endures crossbow lessons from Lady Penda. As readers, we get a clear sense of the time period, with all its distinctive traits and contradictions. We encounter women who, even in the misogynistic culture that is medieval Europe, remain credibly educated and competent and strong in their own defense and the defense of others. And although I was never quite clear what specifically motivated the murderer to kill (the thrill of wielding ultimate power, perhaps), the discovery not only made sense in a satisfying way but took place without any of the standard tropes (heroine runs alone and heedless into an isolated setting at midnight and—surprise!—encounters the killer, brilliant detective lays out the case against one person after another until the culprit cracks and admits the truth, etc.).

For me personally, the international nature of the story also acts as a powerful and pleasing reminder that, even in 1191, the parts of Europe were not isolated from one another. Adelia grew up in Spain and trained in Salerno; she was accompanied and protected for years by Mansur, an Arab doctor (from Granada? I have to read the earlier books to find out) who also seems to have acted as Allie’s substitute father during Sir Rowley’s frequent absences; Eleanor of Acquitaine, of course, came from southern France; Crusaders not long returned from the Middle East abound—one with a horse not unlike Firuza's beautiful Turkmen palomino (The Winged Horse; Song of the Shaman). This is not my steppe world, by any means, but it exhibits some of the same complexity and cultural diversity.

One last note: this book has two authors because Ariana Franklin, who developed the series, died before she could complete it, and her daughter took over and brought it to a close. I find this a truly impressive achievement, as well as a wonderful tribute. The writing is seamless, and the main theme of the novel—Allie’s emergence as a medical and forensic authority in her own right—aptly echoes the reality in its authors’ lives. If, like me, you hadn’t encountered these books before, they are well worth investigating. You can even start at the end, although it’s undoubtedly better to begin at the beginning. Either way, I think you won’t be disappointed.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Corset of Culture

A month ago, I wrote about the push/pull of duty and desire as expressed in Michelle Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gate. That novel, like much historical fiction, explores the constraints and opportunities available to a woman at the beginning of her adult life. But the situation facing older women in the past was also often limited, if in slightly different ways.

We take so much for granted now. Girls receive an education and even athletic training, if they are so inclined, equal to that given to boys. Young women attend college—these days often in numbers higher than their male counterparts. Pregnancy can be prevented, weddings delayed. And terminating a marriage that doesn’t work out carries little social stigma, although the emotional and financial costs can be high.

Not all has changed, of course. As I wrote in that earlier post, expectations of male and female roles within the family have changed more slowly than the new opportunities can sustain. In many parts of the world, too, the circumstances I describe in the previous paragraph do not apply. But few modern women in that cultural abstraction known as “the West” face a situation like the one that confronts Lydia Robinson in Brontë’s Mistress, the subject of my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Finola Austin.

Although wealthy and propertied, Lydia has no way to offset the natural progression of time, no real defense against illness, no right to divorce the husband who has shut her out since the last of their five children died unexpectedly two years before. Perhaps most important, Lydia has no conception of alternatives, little understanding of her own unhealed grief, and few emotional barriers against the sudden arrival of temptation in the form of a handsome young man.

Lydia doesn’t always make the right choices. She takes a harsh line with her daughters and her servants, fights her mother-in-law, and betrays her husband—who is also grief-stricken and has health problems to boot. We don’t always like her, but we can sympathize with her pain. She didn’t ask, after all, to be laced into a cultural corset. And that ability to evoke empathy is the mark of a good novelist.

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

It seems likely that most of our listeners have at least heard of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Many also know that Charlotte and Emily had two other talented siblings who grew to adulthood: Anne, author of the novel Agnes Grey, and the only male heir, Branwell—whose early promise evaporated in a haze of alcohol and opiates. Still, it seems likely that Branwell’s affair with his employer—Lydia Robinson, a wealthy, married woman eighteen years older than he—has received far less attention. This affair, the exact parameters of which have not been determined, is the subject of Finola Austin’s lovely debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress (Atria Books, 2020).

Although advantaged in many ways, Lydia has many reasons for complaint when we meet her. Her mother has just died, and her father suffers from senility. At forty-three, she fears the effects of approaching middle age on her beauty and her ability to bear children, the things that have defined and given value to her life. She worries about her daughters’ futures while fending off the encroachments of her mother-in-law. She still mourns the unexpected death of her fifth child two years before the novel begins. And the loss of that youngest daughter has irreparably damaged Lydia’s long and once-satisfying relationship with her husband, Edmund, who neither offers comfort to nor accepts overtures from her.

So when the Robinsons’ governess, Anne Brontë, recommends her brother, Branwell, for the position of tutor to Lydia’s only son, it is perhaps not surprising that Lydia’s initial attempts to keep a proper distance soon evaporate in the face of the attraction she feels for this Byronic young man who pays her compliments, shares his poetry and his art, and listens to her woes. As Finola Austin notes in our interview, Branwell “sees” Lydia, and the consequences of that instinctive emotional connection drive the action of this psychologically sophisticated and always engrossing novel.