Friday, February 25, 2022

Perils of an Empty Throne

I met Patrycja Podrazik, who writes under the name P.K. Adams, not long before the release of her second novel featuring the eleventh-century mystic, physician, and theologian Hildegard of Bingen. I have since interviewed her twice for the New Books Network, once on the Hildegard novels, and a second time for her historical mystery series set in sixteenth-century Poland. And if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that we have also co-written a historical mystery/suspense novel about the early interactions between Muscovy, the lands to its west, and the Tudor sailors who “discovered” Russia in 1553. So it’s a pleasure to welcome her today as my guest.

Adam’s Silent Water begins with the arrival of Caterina Sanseverino, a widowed Italian noblewoman, in Kraków in April 1518. Caterina is traveling with Queen Bona Sforza, on the route to her wedding with Poland’s King Zygmunt I. Fast forward to Christmas 1519, and Caterina, now established in her position at court, encounters a series of puzzling murders, and her resolution of the mystery leads to her recruitment for a difficult political task by Queen Bona during a later visit to the Polish capital in 1545. That task in turn pushes Caterina into investigating another set of deaths in Midnight Fire. By the time this third novel—Royal Heir, released two months ago—opens, Caterina is enjoying her old age in Italy, and her son takes center stage.

There is, of course, a particular irony in publishing this post a day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an attack based on the pretext that Ukraine is no more than a breakaway province that needs to be reintegrated into the whole. Although the long complex history of Ukraine as part of the joint Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom is more visible in Midnight Fire than in this new novel, another century would pass before the Cossack rebellion that led to Ukraine’s request for Russian suzerainty.

And with that, I turn the virtual mike over to P.K. Adams, with thanks for sending me this post laying out the historical background of her Jagiellon Mysteries and why she decided to use this troubled political situation in writing Royal Heir. But do listen to the interviews to find out more about the series—and, of course, read the books!


An uncertain succession to the throne is a challenge familiar to monarchies throughout the ages. It has opened doors to ambitions, struggles, and acts of deception and violence that have cost lives, changed states’ borders, and sent their history on a new course. In fact, such is the dramatic potential of a vacant (or soon to be vacant) throne that it has inspired works of fiction for centuries, and, in more recent times, has given rise to enormously popular TV series and movies. 

How lucky, then, that a crisis of this kind unfolded in Poland-Lithuania in the second half of the sixteenth century, the period in which my series Jagiellon Mysteries is set. Lucky for me, that is, not for the state or the people who lived in it at the time. After nearly a century known as the Golden Age—most of it under the rule of the last two Jagiellon kings, Zygmunt I (the Old) and Zygmunt II August—Poland had reached the peak of its size and political influence. Its possessions stretched from the Baltic in the north to the shores of the Black Sea in the south. It had a vibrant artistic life influenced by the ideas of the Italian Renaissance. Polish scholars took degrees at western European universities, and foreign intellectuals flocked to study and debate at the Cracow Academy (now Jagiellonian University).

However, by the 1560s, dark clouds began to gather on the horizon. The long-standing conflict between Zygmunt August and the powerful noble class had hamstrung the administrative and judicial reforms needed to strengthen the state. Moreover, after the premature death of his beloved second wife, Barbara, the king contracted a loveless marriage to Catherine Habsburg that quickly fell apart, and with it vanished the hope for an heir. In his mid-forties, with flagging health and an increasing lack of interest in the affairs of state, the king no longer guaranteed the stability of his kingdom. Still, while he was alive, Poland-Lithuania could consider itself reasonably secure from outside threats. One can only imagine, however, the anxiety with which magnates, officials, and ordinary men and women thought about the inevitable moment when the throne became vacant and powerful neighbors—the Habsburgs, in particular—reached for the trophy that was the crown of the dual monarchy.

When I considered ideas for the third book in the Jagiellon Mystery series, telling a story tied to the uncertain succession seemed like a no brainer. Although there is no historical record of an assassination plot, the last decade of Zygmunt August’s life (he died in 1572) must have been rife with scheming and planning for what would happen if he failed to produce a legitimate heir. The drama would only have been heightened by the king’s increasingly reckless personal life, especially as contrasted with that of his God-fearing sister (and heir presumptive) Princess Anna. Zygmunt’s sexual exploits in that period became legendary and included the kidnapping and seducing of one of Anna’s own ladies-in-waiting. He also embarked on a scandalous affair with the daughter of a bourgeois Warsaw family, which resulted in the birth of a child. Of course, there could have been no question of the succession passing on to a baby who was born out of wedlock and whose paternity, although strongly suspected, could not be established beyond any doubt precisely because her parents were not married.

The plot of Royal Heir, which is set in the autumn of 1563, revolves around an attempt by a group of disgruntled noblemen to force Zygmunt August to abdicate so they can elevate his half-brother to the throne. The protagonist, who in this novel is Caterina’s son Julian Konarski, accidentally stumbles onto the scheme when he witnesses the fatal beating of a young man in a dark alley in one of Kraków’s less savory neighborhoods. But when he begins to dig deeper, the details of the plot fail to add up: Zygmunt August’s only half-brother (and an illegitimate one at that) died years ago, and an eavesdropping session conducted in the plotters’ lair reveals that their plans toward the king may be far less gentle than mere abdication.

Prompted by his youthful idealism, Julian begins a desperate race to a stop an act of regicide and avert a coup d’état. His love interest, Magda, bravely aids him in his quest, but by the time they realize the formidable nature of those they are up against, their lives, too, are in terrible danger.

P.K. Adams is the author of The Greenest Branch and The Column of Burning Spices, a pair of novels about the life of Hildegard of Bingen, and of the Jagiellon Mysteries. Find out more about her at

Friday, February 18, 2022

Pushing the Envelope

Yesterday I changed the water bottle in our garage cooler. This was a stretch for me, in part because the bottle is heavy but also because, in a family with two mechanically minded members, I am the outlier. I felt certain that if a way existed to spray water across the floor, the car, and myself, I would find it. But I was the only person around at the time, and it needed to be done, so after a bit of investigation I decided to tackle the problem.


As things turned out, the process was simple enough that even I couldn’t mess it up, but it got me thinking about the demands that we as novelists impose on our characters. Except perhaps in a romantic comedy (where everything would go wrong, bringing hero and heroine together), reading about changing a water bottle, even one containing five gallons or so, would be a complete snore. Protagonists in novels have to surmount the kinds of obstacles that would cause most of us to run screaming for the hills. Just to cite a few examples published by Five Directions Press, plots can include an eighteen-year-old asked to defeat an ancient demon bent on destroying the humanity she once created (Gabrielle Mathieu, Girl of Fire); a sheltered sixteen-year-old girl confronting a known murderer intent on kidnapping two royal princes (my own Golden Lynx); and a pair of young men who embark on a voyage to the Amazon River in search of cash, only to endure a series of disasters that eliminates one member of their group after another (Joan Schweighardt, Before We Died).

So what is it with writers? Are we sadists in nerd clothing? “Psychologically distoybed,” in the words of West Side Story? Desperate for adventure but too wedded to our computers (and too isolated by nature) to seek it for ourselves?

Well, maybe some of the last. It is a great deal of fun to invent these extreme circumstances and throw oneself into imagining how a given character might cope with them. Channeling bad guys (and gals) is deliciously freeing too, so long as one can stash them away in their cages at the end of the day. And of course, one can never rule out hidden sadism or other forms of psychological disturbance. The general public probably already has its suspicions of people who claim to hear fictional beings chattering in their heads, even if those writers don’t themselves believe that the beings exist in any meaningful way.

But the real reason we torture our characters is simple: it makes for a good story. As readers, we get to sit back and watch, turn over potential responses in our minds, guess what the characters may do. We can live life in the fast lane without leaving our seats, and in doing so, we can explore emotions we hope never to experience: the yearning for revenge; the terror of facing a superior opponent; the moral quandary of balancing safety or reward against awareness of others’ needs or adherence to the social rules we were raised to respect. We can watch others make appallingly bad choices or rise to heroic heights we can only dream of reaching. In doing so, we prepare ourselves to face future crises. And no one is hurt in the process.


Or, to riff on Nancy Kress’s marvelous summary in her writing manual Dynamic Characters (“In life we want tranquillity; in our fiction we want an unholy mess, preferably getting unholier page by page” [159]), in life we want to worry about nothing worse than spilling water on the garage floor. In a novel, we want, if not murder and mayhem, at least an angry demon, a ruthless politician, or an environment filled with tarantulas, piranhas, and a jaguar or two. Much better to face such threats on the page than in real life!

Friday, February 11, 2022

Is He or Isn't He?

I know, it sounds like that old Clairol commercial, but this isn’t a post about hair dye. Like any fictional genre, murder mysteries have certain plot lines that are just too delicious to resist. One of these, beloved because of its potential for ambiguity (at least in the pre-DNA testing or even pre-fingerprint era), involves the unexpected reappearance of a long-missing heir to a title, a fortune, or both.

Personally, I love this storyline, where the complexity of identity and character and variations over time due to accident or maturity are all on display. But I’ve seldom had more fun with an impostor story than I did with Deanna Raybourn’s latest addition to her Veronica Speedwell mysteries. The opening alone is priceless, and the novel just builds from there.

For more on An Impossible Impostor and the series to which it belongs, read on. But then definitely listen to the interview
, where we talk about a lot more than this particular plot.

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

Starting a new historical mystery series is always fun, but summarizing one at book 7 creates a certain conundrum: how to convey the essence of a character and her development without giving away too much information?

Since her first adventure in 1887 (A Curious Beginning, published in 2015), Veronica Speedwell, a lepidopterist by inclination and training, has had an exciting two years. Early in that book, she leaves a family funeral only to encounter a housebreaker and would-be abductor. She evades the villain with help from an unknown rescuer who promises to reveal a decades-old secret but dies before he can fulfill his promise. Veronica is nothing if not intrepid, and she flees London in the company of the unkempt and misanthropic Stoker. Together they attempt to discover who perpetrated the murder and why without falling under suspicion themselves.

By 1889, Veronica and Stoker have tackled more than a few complicated cases. In An Impossible Impostor, the head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch asks them for help. Jonathan Hathaway supposedly died during the eruption of Krakatoa six years before, but he has returned from the grave—or has he? His putative grandmother identifies him, but other family members disagree. And the family owns a priceless parure that may be the newcomer’s real target. So off Veronica and Stoker go to Hathaway Hall, a gentry estate at the edge of Dartmoor. There another piece of Veronica’s personal history surfaces when least expected, threatening her partnership with Stoker as well as her peace of mind.

Deanna Raybourn has a gift for writing fast-moving, richly imagined, intriguing, and at times flat-out hilarious mysteries filled with well-rounded and opinionated characters at all levels. I can’t wait to find out where she will send Victoria and Stoker next.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Dressing the Part

This post went up on the Five Directions Press newsletter page last week. You can find more of our writing posts—as well as monthly lists of Books We Loved and other news for writers and readers—by clicking the above link. But this one goes well with my own recent release, Song of the Sinner (Songs of Steppe and Forest 4), so I thought it would be fun to share it here as well.

Imagine that it’s pre-COVID days and you walk into a party. Across the room, you see someone you know but haven’t encountered for a while. What’s the first thing you notice? In my latest novel—Song of the Sinner, released just a few days ago—the heroine, Solomonida, describes her impressions of Anfim, the novel’s hero, this way:

His light brown hair gleamed in the light cast by the torches placed at intervals along walls painted in patterns of scarlet and sky-blue; and he was, as always, discreetly but luxuriously dressed—tonight in rich brown velvet with clasps formed from gold braid. Next to the brilliantly clad noblemen and noblewomen he looked like a wren amid a flock of peafowl, but at the sight of him my heart gave a skip.

Superficial, you say? Well, of course. Yet don’t we all instinctively judge not just character but social position and even mood from a person’s clothes, haircut, makeup or lack thereof, and other external traits?

In fact, Anfim’s clothing choices convey quite a bit about him. He has money—enough to afford velvet and gold braid. Even so, he seeks to avoid standing out in a crowd, because he is not one of the “brilliantly clad noblemen”—which tells us that he is not at the highest level of his society but knows his place in the world and accepts the limitations it imposes on him. He plays by the rules, not reaching for more than he can attain by his own merits . More deeply, as becomes obvious the more we learn about him, he is comfortable in his own skin, willing to appear “like a wren amid a flock of peafowl.”

Let’s contrast him with the novel’s main antagonist, Solomonida’s cousin Igor.

As usual, our cousin had dressed in a style designed to cast every other guest into the shade. Today he’d outdone himself in a cloth-of-gold robe tied with an embroidered cobalt sash, its hue repeated in his leather boots and silken cap trimmed with white fox fur. A gem-studded collar that would not have looked amiss on the grand prince himself adorned Igor’s thick neck.

If Anfim downplays his considerable gifts by dressing modestly, Igor takes the exact opposite approach. He wants to make a big splash, hovering on the edge of inappropriate. In a society where conspicuous consumption acts as a marker of who outranks whom, does the grand prince want his lesser nobles rivaling him in their jewelry or drawing attention to themselves in cloth-of-gold and the rare fur of white foxes? Probably not, but Igor doesn’t care. He may not have achieved the place in life that he believes he’s entitled to, but he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to convince people that he’s better than he is. Fake it till you make it is his motto.

But not always. A man as clothing-obsessed as Igor knows when to use his choice of dress to convey disdain as well as to pump up people’s impression of his rank. During a family meeting intended as a last-ditch attempt to force him to confess the full extent of his schemes and deter him from doing future damage, Solomonida notes her cousin’s uncharacteristic slovenliness. She also contrasts Igor’s appearance with Anfim’s to show their opposing attitudes toward the meeting.

I noticed as soon as I entered the main sitting room that our cousin had not dressed up for the occasion. Even Anfim, resplendent in the russet robe he’d worn for our wedding, outshone Igor. I read our cousin’s plain clothes as evidence of disinterest or disrespect. Not, perhaps, a promising beginning.

At other times, though, Solomonida is the one manipulating the social meaning of clothing, as in this scene when she sneaks out of the house with her lover, dressed in a servant’s cloak and a robe usually donned for housework.

When Anfim left that evening, I went with him, dressed in Masha’s cloak—its hood concealing my face. I wore my simplest robe, left my headdress behind, and for the first time since my betrothal seventeen years before redid my hair in the single braid typical of never-married girls.

This is clothing as disguise—a trope of historical and fantasy fiction, in particular, where a heroine often dons servants’ or boys’ clothes to evade restrictions placed on women. As such, it gets to the heart of this post: that something that appears to have implications only on the surface can open a window onto a character’s motives and desires.

All these examples come from a novel set in the past, at a time when laws existed throughout much of Europe specifying who could wear what when, giving the details of fashion a punch that they can’t quite sustain in today’s more liberal climate. But in modern life, too, we define the people we meet by the shoes they don, their preference for denim versus corduroy or cashmere, the colors and styles they wear, their devotion to brand names or thrift stores, and the level of interest they show in the details of personal appearance. And we ourselves manipulate those details to convey a particular impression to a given audience, in ways that may or may not correspond to the person we are inside.

So if you are writing a novel in any time or place, think not only about what a character wants and needs but the image that person seeks to present to the world in this set of circumstances or that. And mix it up a bit, because just as wearing a collar worthy of the grand prince doesn’t make Igor equal to his ruler, a character who dons a tweed jacket with leather elbow covers may not really be a professor. Write yourself a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and if the other characters accept the image as reality, you might just have the hints of a plot.

All images public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Find out more about Song of the Sinner at