Friday, June 24, 2022

Interview with Dianne Freeman

I love historical mysteries, especially the cozy variety—even more when the author has a sense of humor in addition to great characters and twisty plots that make sense in the end but require a good bit of deduction to work out (or take me completely by surprise. So I was delighted to come across Dianne Freeman’s Lady Harleigh Mysteries, which do all those things with an aplomb that makes the writing look much easier than I know it to be in reality.

Better yet, Dianne agreed to answer my questions about her series. You’ll have to read fast if you’re going to get books 1–4 out of the way before A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder appears next Tuesday, June 28, but by all means give it a try. You won’t be disappointed! 


How did you come to write this series?

I wrote what I wanted to read. Historical mystery is my favorite genre, and I love a mystery that really pulls me into the protagonist’s life. An amateur sleuth serves that purpose beautifully because they’re really meant to be doing something else, not solving a crime. As for my protagonist and the historical era, I’ve long been fascinated by the transatlantic marriages between American heiresses and British aristocrats near the end of the nineteenth century. I wanted a slightly older character, so the story begins ten years after the wedding. Frances has more maturity and experience, but she’s still a bit of a fish out of water.

Your main character is Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh—who despite her English title is actually an American. How did she acquire her title, and what can you reveal about her personality?

Frances married into the title. As new money New Yorkers in the Gilded Age, Frances and her family didn’t stand a chance of breaking into Mrs. Astor’s society. Her mother, Daisy Price, decided to put Frances on the path of the earlier American heiresses and look for a titled gentleman with financial troubles somewhere in Europe who was willing to marry her daughter in exchange for a healthy infusion of cash.

She found Reggie Wynn, who was then heir to the Earl of Harleigh, and the exchange was made. For Frances, marriage to Reggie was a gamble, but remaining in New York meant becoming a spinster, or if she were lucky, marrying a man her father brought home from the office. She took the risk. I think this action alone tells you that Frances isn’t one to sit back and wait for life to happen. She likes to take care of those she loves and she likes to take charge of any matter that concerns her, though that often means she has to work her way around the rules that govern an aristocratic woman of that era.

And how does a countess get involved in solving a series of murders?

First, she was accused of one, and because she had no intention of spending any time in prison, she was highly motivated to find the real killer. The second murder happened just outside her garden gate. Frances suspected it had something to do with her sister, and her protective instincts came into play. Her investigations might have ended there if she hadn’t realized she was actually rather good at it. The fact that she could work with her next-door neighbor, George Hazelton, who was something of a sleuth himself, made every day an adventure.  How could she give that up?

Her partner in these investigations is George Hazelton. What can you tell us about him?

George is the brother of Frances’ best friend, Fiona, and the third son of an Earl. This puts him in the awkward position of being an aristocrat without a fortune. He could marry into money, of course, but George chose to make his own way in the world. He studied law, and now does “something” for the government. We learn more about George with each book, so to avoid spoilers, he must remain mysterious for now. I can tell you he enjoys working with Frances.

This fifth novel opens with the most marvelous line: “Family, like a rich dessert, is a treat best enjoyed in small portions.” What’s going on in Frances’s life that makes her feel this way?

Thank you! She is getting married, which means bringing her family together. In this case, at her house. She loves them, but one member in particular has been in her home for too long. That would be Daisy Price, her mother. Daisy managed Frances’ life the last time she was single, and she doesn’t see why she shouldn’t do so again. Frances disagrees. When you add her father, her brother, and Aunt Hetty into the mix, it’s no wonder she wishes she and George had eloped.

This is a murder mystery series, so there must be a body. Set the scene for us, please. Who is the victim on this occasion?

The dearly departed is James Connor. He was an Irish immigrant who made an enormous fortune in the Nevada silver mines—owning them, that is. With his wealth and power, he’s used to getting his own way and has no qualms about bullying people to do his bidding. He has few friends, many enemies, and one man he’s actually feuding with—Peter Bainbridge. Connor and Bainbridge have kept their fighting to character assassinations. Both employ agents to spy on their foe and report any unseemly or embarrassing news to the papers. The public has been enjoying reading about the follies of these two powerful men for years. Though they came to blows once, their animosity would never lead to murder—would it? Another of Connor’s enemies might have murdered him, thinking Bainbridge would be blamed. Unfortunately, it’s Frances’ brother, Alonzo, who is caught with the murder weapon when Connor’s body is found.

The long-suffering Inspector Delaney, who has endured a good deal of what he sees as interference from Frances and George, is back in this book. How would you describe him?

Long-suffering is a good start. Delaney is a seasoned pro, capable of handling any murder investigation. Frances and George may get in his way, but they do come in handy. They have access to the aristocracy, who often refuse to speak with the police, and they don’t have to operate strictly within the law—both attributes Delaney takes full advantage of. He made it clear that his patience has its limits when Frances and George pushed him too far in A FiancĂ©e’s Guide. They may be chastened, but Frances’ father, who arrives to torment Delaney in A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder, is another story.

This novel just came out. Are you already planning another Countess of Harleigh mystery?
Yes, A Newlywed’s Guide to Fortune and Murder releases next year. This time Frances finds herself in the middle of an intrigue when she agrees to sponsor Lady Wingate’s niece, Kate, for a presentation to Queen Victoria. Since her husband’s death, Lady Wingate has been unwell and hasn’t left the house for months. Her friend, Lady Esther, is convinced one of the woman’s stepchildren is drugging her and tapping into her fortune. Kate isn’t above suspicion either. She’s about to enter high society and stands to gain an inheritance upon her aunt’s death. Hundreds of young ladies would kill to be in her shoes. Frances has to wonder if that’s exactly what’s happening. She, George, and Lady Esther join forces to flush out the villain and keep Lady Wingate from following in her husband’s footsteps—directly to the grave.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Dianne Freeman is the award-winning author of five historical mystery novels featuring Lady Harleigh—most recently, A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder. Find out more about her at

Friday, June 17, 2022

Happy Birthday to Us

Ten years ago this month, Five Directions Press published my—and its—first novel, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. Two weeks later, ten years ago almost to the day, I started this blog. And that November, I conducted my first podcast interview for New Books in Historical Fiction. So this is a year of anniversaries, for me personally and for two entities (my writers’ coop and my podcast channel) that have come to mean a great deal to me—and not only in terms of bringing my work to the world.

According to the wisdom of the Internet, the metal associated with a tenth anniversary is tin or aluminum. Compared to silver, gold, or diamonds, this always appeared to me a ho-hum choice, about which not much could be said except that it was better than paper. But, again according to the Internet, tin or aluminum stand for strength and endurance. That sounds better, don’t you think? So let’s go with that interpretation. Keeping anything going for ten years, especially as we mark the halfway point of the third plagued by Covid, seems well worth a celebration.

Anniversaries also invite retrospectives. While checking on dates, I reread that first post and was amused to see how relevant the questions I asked then still are, despite the many changes that have affected publishing and marketing in the last ten years.

Now as then, my nonfiction book still sells more copies in a year than all my novels (now numbering twelve) combined, lagging only during the worst year of the pandemic, when most college classes moved to Zoom. Social media still dominate marketing, although Instagram and TikTok are rapidly displacing Facebook and Twitter. With only so many hours in the day, I rarely have time to visit GoodReads or even Pinterest.

At the same time, the market for books has become even more crowded, further restricting opportunities to break out. The sense that more people are talking than listening has only increased. My sales were higher in 2012–2014, when I had only three books, than now, when I have four times that many. I still have my fans, I “own” the Amazon listings for 16th-century Russian fiction, but sales spike when I release a new title, stay higher than normal for a month or two, then drop off once more.

One bright light has been the New Books Network, which got off to a slow start in 2007, was still little known when I joined in 2012, but since then has grown steadily. In September 2021, a combination of people being stuck at home eager to produce podcasts and people stuck at home eager to listen to folks chatting about books doubled the number of downloads in just thirty days. We are now big-time, with an average of three to five million episodes served each month. I’m glad to be a part of that, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the authors who’ve spoken with me about their work, all the publicists who helped set up interviews, and of course, the many, many people who tuned in to listen.

Another bright light is Five Directions Press. We began as a writers’ group of three who decided, because of our particular blend of skills, to take a chance on producing our own work as a coop rather than brave the choppy seas of traditional agented publishing. At one point, we had more than doubled our numbers; we still stand at five, all actively writing. And although no one has yet cracked the marketing code and put out a bestseller, we have learned a huge amount about how the process works, what does and doesn’t yield results. More important, we have supported one another through the ups and downs of writing, offering comments, contributing to the newsletter and social media accounts, supplying reassurance during the down times and congratulations when things go well, and talking up one another’s books whenever possible. As I say in every acknowledgments to one of my novels, I can’t imagine the last ten years without Ariadne Apostolou, Courtney J. Hall, Claudia H. Long, Gabrielle Mathieu, Joan Schweighart, and Denise Allan Steele.

Then there is, of course, this blog. If you’d asked me, back in 2011, whether I would ever start a blog, let alone post once a week—without fail—for ten years, I would have laughed in your face. But it’s been a wonderful learning experience, not just in patience and perseverance but also in achieving comfort with talking about my own writing and life as well as structuring conversations with other authors. For all the high-intensity appeal of social media, I much prefer the greater space offered by the blog format. Perhaps it’s a generational thing; perhaps it’s my natural affinity for the much longer novel format. But either way, I like the challenge of finding a topic, stripping it to its essence, and figuring out how to present the central issue in a way that readers need not be specialists to appreciate. It’s a bit like teaching, without the requirement of grading—something I never liked. It also lets me interact with far more of my fellow writers than I could fit into my schedule for the New Books Network.

Last big question: in the end, would I make the same choices again? Retrospectives are always deceiving, because we cannot return to the state of knowledge we did (or did not) possess at an earlier time, but on the whole, my answer would be yes. It would be lovely, of course, to have a contract with a Big Five publisher—especially if (a far from guaranteed result) it meant funding my retirement with royalties from my novels. But I don’t write to sell books; I write because I love to tell stories about this long-past society that is so unfamiliar to most Americans and even many Europeans, yet so full of dramatic possibility and tension. Having written the books for my own pleasure and worked on them with my friends at Five Directions Press, I see it as a simple decision to share them with those who enjoy them. I can do that because after almost thirty years in publishing, I know how a professionally produced book should look, and the coop makes skills like cover design affordable. It’s not a model that would work for everyone, but it works for me.

So let’s raise a glass to ten wonderful years, with hopes for many more to come!


Images © C. P. Lesley, Colleen Kelley (Five Directions Press logo), and the New Books Network (New Books in Historical Fiction logo).

Friday, June 10, 2022

Interview with Vanessa Hua

When Vanessa Hua’s publicist pitched Forbidden City, I looked at my schedule, already jam-packed for the summer, and hesitated. But as a lifelong student of Russia and the Soviet Union, as well as a novelist fascinated by China’s long history, in the end I couldn’t resist. I devoured the book in three days, sent in my questions for Vanessa Hua, and received her answers within forty-eight hours. So clearly, this pairing and this interview were intended to happen.

And in a happy side note, I was paging through the New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago, and there was Vanessa Hua, talking about the Chinese concept of mamahuhu and what it means for her family. I immediately thought, “Wait, I know her!”

You’ll have to find that column yourself, but read on to learn more about her wonderful novel about Chairman Mao, his maneuvering against President Liu Shaoqi, the Cultural Revolution that resulted, and Mao’s love of ballroom dancing—all told from the perspective of an idealistic young woman.

What drew you to writing a novel about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and how did you decide to approach your subject from this particular angle?

Years ago, a teasing glimpse of black-and-white documentary footage intrigued me: Chairman Mao surrounded by giggling young women in tight sweaters. As I would learn, the peasant-turned-revolutionary was a fan of ballroom dancing—and young women, who partnered with him on the dance floor and in the bedroom.
When I looked for more information about these ingenues, I couldn’t  find much. In his memoir, Mao’s  doctor said, “To have been rescued by the Party was already sufficient good luck for such women. To be called to the Chairman was the greatest experience of their lives. For most Chinese, a mere glimpse of Mao standing atop Tiananmen was a coveted opportunity, the most uplifting, exciting, exhilarating experience they would know … Imagine, then, what it meant for a young girl to be called into Mao’s chambers to serve his pleasure!”

I suspected—I knew—the relationships had to be more complicated—especially for those who he kept on as his “confidential clerks.” For example, Zhang Yufeng was eighteen years old when she met the Chairman at a dance party—in the liminal years between girl and woman, and so young by comparison to Mao, then in his late  sixties. In time, she would handle and read aloud the reams of documents that the Chairman commented upon daily. Toward the end of his life, as his speech became garbled by illness, she served an important role, interpreting what he said. People who wanted to meet with Mao had to go through her. How did she survive the political intrigue all those years? What unacknowledged role did she have in making history?
My protagonist, Mei, is emblematic of the millions of impoverished women who have shaped China in their own ways, yet remain absent from the country’s official narrative. I wanted to write a story from the perspective of someone relegated to the margins, yet who would have as much  intelligence, ambition, and yearning as those leaders.
How much of this novel is historical, and how much fiction?

I believe that fiction flourishes where the official record ends, and that research should serve as the floor—and not the ceiling—to  the imagination. For the first time, I grappled with the challenges of writing a historical novel.
Many details in my book are recorded in history: Mao kept nocturnal hours, relied on sleeping pills, wrote poetry, and occasionally took to his bed, depressed. Dancing girls from cultural troupes served him. He also swam in the Yangtze River in July 1966, a feat heralding his return to power during the Cultural Revolution. The characters of the Madame, President, Defense Minister, and Premier are very loosely based on those in Mao’s inner circle; their rivalries and alliances existed, though my novel departs in the particulars.

Your heroine is unnamed when we first meet her. She tells her story in retrospect, from the standpoint of 1976 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, when Chairman Mao has just died, and addresses it to an equally anonymous “you.” We find out only late in the book who the “you” is, so I don’t ask you to explain that part. But why relate the story within this frame?
I started writing Forbidden City in 2007 and finished final edits last year—about fourteen years, or nearly a third of my life! I knew from almost the beginning I wanted a retrospective narrator, reflecting on her turbulent teenage years. But I didn’t realize who she was addressing until relatively late in the lifespan of the project, sometime after its sale in 2016. I can’t remember what inspired me to experiment with it, but once I understood who she was telling the story to, why she needed to tell it now, it added urgency and depth to my novel. 


After the prologue, we snap back to 1965, when your heroine is fifteen years old. She was born Song Mei Xiang—although she goes by several names during the course of the novel. What is she like, as a personality, and where is she in her life when we first meet her?   
Mei was born in 1949, the year the Communists came to power, and she’s grown up dreaming of becoming a model revolutionary. Though she’s the lowliest daughter in the lowliest family, she’s also smart and resourceful, which is how she maneuvers her way out of the village and navigates the rivalries in the dance troupe and at the Lake Palaces.

By novel’s end, she’s a survivor, but as she—and we—learn, survival comes at a cost.


Mei Xiang gets her wish. She’s taken from her village to Beijing, to a part of the Forbidden City where the Communist elite has established itself. What is her role there?

She becomes the Chairman’s companion and confidante, trained as part of an elaborate prank to humiliate the President. She tries to make herself indispensable to him, but her time beside him is fraught with peril and precarity. As the Cultural Revolution unfolds, she influences him in ways that later haunt her.


What are her impressions of the Chairman and why does she cling to him despite a rather rocky beginning and an enormous age gap (he’s seventy-two when they meet)?
She’s raised to believe he’s a god; she looks at his portrait every day on the wall of her home. But after she meets him in person, she has to confront him as a man and not a god. When she joins his inner circle and becomes his confidante and companion, her youthful idealism collides with the reality of who he is—his intelligence, his tenderness, but also his cruelty and selfishness—she becomes disillusioned.
There are many other interesting characters I’d love to ask you about—Teacher Fan, Secretary Sun, Midnight Chang and the other girls in the dance troupe, not to mention Madame Mao. Do you have a personal favorite, and if so, what can you tell us about him or her?


That’s like asking me which of my twins is my favorite! They both are. Likewise, all my characters are my favorites—all born from my imagination! All of them represent “What ifs” I dreamed up and mulled over. As I mentioned, I started this project in 2014, so these characters have been my longtime companions.
This novel just came out. Do you already have another in the works?


Yes, I’m working on a novel about surveillance and suburbia and also putting together an essay collection.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Vanessa Hua is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of the novel A River of Stars and a story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities. A National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, she has also received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, among others. She has filed stories from China, Burma, South Korea, and elsewhere, and her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She has taught most recently at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.

Photograph of Mao waving before his 1966 swim across the Yangtze and propaganda painting of Mao and his closest cadres during the Cultural Revolution public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Trapped in the Fens

I hadn’t heard of Catherine Lloyd before her publicist sent this book my way, but I soon discovered that she has eight previous novels, set during the Regency in the English village of Kurland St. Mary. I tore my way through those in short order, caught up in the lives of Major Robert Kurland and the local vicar’s daughter, Lucy Harrington, as they solved one mystery after another—several in Kurland St. Mary itself, but others in London or Bath.

When I finished with those, I started the new series:  a different cast and a slightly later time period, but the same blend of characters operating in the midst and at the edge of high society, creating a clash of expectations and prospects that fuels tension that explode into murder. As Catherine Lloyd notes during our interview for the New Books Network, Major Kurland is dealing with the aftermath of a devastating blow during the Peninsular War that almost cost him his leg. Lucy Harrington struggles to keep house for her father, a position where she has great responsibility but insufficient authority, without losing track of her own needs and goals. Caroline Morton grew up in privilege as an earl’s daughter, only to see her prospects dwindle, then disappear, because of her father’s extravagance. But these are the leads: the secondary characters caught up in each case have problems of their own, all magnified by the goldfish-bowl effect of a rural village or an isolated country estate. Memories are long and reputations set in stone, and watching those immutable exteriors war with changing human needs and desires is for a historian where the fun lies.

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

As we soon find out in this opener to a new series set in 1830s London, Lady Caroline Morton’s illustrious heritage has been tarnished by the financial ruin and suicide of her father a few years earlier. The economic opportunities available to young women—especially noblewomen—in Victorian Britain are extremely limited. Caroline’s family has offered to support her, but life as a poor relation doesn’t appeal to her. As a result, she has broken with tradition and taken a position as companion to a wealthy but less-cultured widow, Mrs. Frogerton. One of her responsibilities is to prepare Mrs. Frogerton’s teenage daughter for her debut into society.

Caroline is settling into her new life when her Aunt Eleanor arrives to announce that she’s sponsoring a house party and expects Caroline to attend. To sweeten the deal, Aunt Eleanor invites Mrs. Frogerton and her daughter as well. Miss Morton (she considers the “Lady” inappropriate for a paid companion) can’t refuse when it’s pointed out that the house party provides a perfect setting to introduce Miss Frogerton to London’s high society. Caroline also wants to check on her younger sister, still living at their aunt’s house.

Caroline’s worst fears are realized when, not long after her entry to the estate, she encounters the man she was engaged to marry, only to have him turn his back on her without so much as a greeting. Bad turns to worse, including the troubling disappearance of a trusted servant, followed by a gruesome murder that Aunt Eleanor and her family insist must be an accident. Only the country doctor agrees with Caroline that an investigation is warranted. Meanwhile, the killer appears to be leaving clues in the nursery as to the identity of the next victim.

All this takes place in a classic locked-room setting, where torrential rains flood the Fens and prevent anyone within the house party or on the staff from leaving the estate. Catherine Lloyd weaves a gripping tale that pits a vividly imagined and complex set of characters against one another and the elements. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you won’t be able to put this one down.

Image from a  Gothic novel (Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor [1819] public domain via Wikimedia Commons.