Friday, September 30, 2022

Wrexford and Sloane Return

As noted earlier, I love Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford & Sloane series—also her ongoing Lady Arianna Hadley series, which has some interesting overlaps in terms of characters with Wrexford & Sloane (on which, more below). I interviewed the author last year when Murder at the Botanic Gardens came out. You can find out quite a bit about the main characters and their relationships, as well as the Napoleonic/Regency background of both series, by listening to that interview. You can also find out more about series, author, and background at

One thing that sets the series apart, in addition to fascinatingly complex characters and richly and often beautifully described settings, is that each novel explores a scientific development that began during the English Regency and still influences our world. In this case, that invention involves military technology. I can’t say more because discovering exactly what the invention is and what happened to the plans for it consumes the first half of the book. But I will say that the invention, were it to succeed, would give whatever country controlled it a distinct advantage over its enemies. At a moment when Napoleon appears to have finally been defeated and sent to exile on Elba, the possibility that said invention could fall into the hands of the French has all the Allied Powers sweating. Most of them don’t trust each other any more than they do the French, which has them all at one another’s throats. That we know Napoleon won’t be on Elba for long (even though the characters don’t) just ups the ante.

Fans of Penrose’s other Regency series featuring Lady Arianna will be happy to see the arrival of Lord Grentham, the mysterious and ruthless minister of state security, with this novel. Charlotte Sloane’s two urchins also make a new friend, and Wrexford and Sloane’s partnership continues to develop, as do certain other relationships. But this installment is not just a worthy addition to the series; it is my favorite so far. The only downside of getting my hands on it early is that I’ll have to wait even longer for the next one. But Murder at the Serpentine Bridge is out as of this Tuesday, so you don’t have to wait.

In the absence of greater detail of what to expect, I can offer, with the permission of Kensington Books, the following excerpt from the Prologue to give you a taste of what’s to come. Alas for poor Willis, things only go downhill from here.

Darkness had settled over the city, and yet the night was quite pleasant, the first hints of summer warmth softening the breeze. The lone figure stood on the front steps of the elegant townhouse, taking a moment to savor the stillness and the play of moonlight on the ornamental plantings before turning his steps for the street.

The hour was late, and no clatter of carriage wheels echoed off the surrounding stone and brick. “Peace and quiet,” murmured Jeremiah Willis, after looking up and down the north side of Montpelier Square. “Thank God.” Not that the evening hadn’t been enjoyable. The conversation had been interesting—how could it not have been, given the subject?—and the meal superb. Still, the cacophony of voices clashing with the clink of crystal and silver had begun to make his skull throb.

“Though maybe,” reflected Willis, with a wry smile, “the headache had more to do with the very fine brandy poured after supper than anything else.” He drew in a deep breath.

Only to regret it. After all these years, he still hadn’t reconciled himself to London’s foul-scented air. Oh, how he longed for …

But Willis quickly pushed the thought from his mind and began walking. He had made choices in life that required sacrifices. He didn’t regret them.

The sound of his steps on the cobblestones seemed unnaturally loud as he turned up Charles Street and came to Knightsbridge, the main road skirting along the south edge of Hyde Park. Feeling a little muzzy from all the wine and spirits, he looked around for a hackney.

But oddly enough, there wasn’t a vehicle to be seen. Even the area around the Life Guards barracks was deserted.

It must be even later than I thought.


Photograph of the Serpentine Bridge from below public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Down the Rabbit Hole

This post ran a few weeks ago on our Five Directions Press blog, but since I haven’t had a writing post in a while, and I was the one who produced it, I decided to repost it here.

Down the Rabbit Hole,
Or, How Not to Get Lost in Your Research

As a historical novelist, I do a lot of research. As the host of New Books in Historical Fiction, I interview people who do a lot of research. And since I was a historian before I became a historical novelist, I have to admit that I’m naturally drawn to research. In fact, it’s my favorite part of planning a novel: delving into areas I know nothing about, despite all the years I’ve spent studying early modern Russian history. I have in mind things like Tatar views of religion (The Golden Lynx and The Winged Horse, also Song of the Shaman), banditry in the northern forests (The Swan Princess), the politics of Renaissance Poland (Song of the Siren), sixteenth-century herbal medicine (The Golden Lynx, The Swan Princess, Song of the Steadfast), Ivan the Terrible’s bride shows (Song of the Storyteller), and, of course, the specific political events of any given year, which form the backdrop to all my Russian novels.

The catch is that, just as with characters’ backstories, writers need to know far more about the historical specifics than readers do. It’s a pretty safe bet to say that we’ve all read novels where the author couldn’t resist throwing in every tiny fact or descriptive detail that crossed their path, to the point where our eyes glaze over and we start to wonder whether we really need ten pages on the Battle of Wallingford to understand why the hero admires the heroine.

The problem extends beyond historical fiction, of course. I’ve struggled through contemporary romances where the author lovingly describes every Armani suit and ornamental flourish, fantasy and science fiction novels that spend more time building the world or explaining the technology than presenting characters I care about, and mysteries so focused on the appearance of a body that the personality of the victim fades from view. Without enough detail, a novel can’t come to life and pull the reader in, but too many details smother the story. So where do we draw the line? Or perhaps a better question, for those of us who see research as fun in and of itself, how do we rein ourselves in?

My own approach may not work for every author, but I’ve honed it over the years and pass it along for you to use as seems best to you. In short, I force my research to serve the story rather than exist on its own. Right at the beginning, when I’m thinking about a new book, I start with the characters. Who are the leads? What do they want, at this moment in their lives and long-term? How old are they, and what do they look like? Which social group do they belong to, and how does that affect them? What is their cultural background? Who will stop them from getting what they want?

The answers to most of these questions don’t require research, only imagination—although cultural backgrounds and the lives of people outside the elite can require a bit of digging, especially when the genre is historical. But once I have a sense of whom I’m dealing with and where and when, then I put in as much time as I need to find out, as specifically as possible, what was happening at that moment in history. This can be unexpectedly difficult: most history books don’t operate at the level of individual years, never mind months or days. But I get as close as I can.

What I’m looking for at this early stage is points of tension and conflict, challenges my hero and heroine must overcome, events that would affect them emotionally. I’m also looking for possibilities I might not have considered: arguments about why someone in power made this decision or that, so I can pick the variation that has the greatest dramatic potential. I try not to be flat-out wrong, but where there are multiple explanations, I worry less about which one is “right” than which one will produce the most exciting story and cause the most trouble for my protagonists. I make a list, interspersing those events with the stages of my main characters’ development, turning the general “this happened then” into something my hero and heroine might actually experience and react to in ways that will force them to grow. If an incident—however fascinating—doesn’t contribute to those character arcs, I jettison it. Wistfully, sometimes, and with the hope it will work later on, but ruthlessly.

Once I have a complete list of story events, I set the research aside. From then on, I focus on answering specific questions as they arise. Do I need to know what a sixteenth-century Russian healer would use to treat fever? I search for an answer to that question. Am I wondering what mica windows actually looked like? I go online and try to find pictures. Does my character need a suitable ballgown for Kraków in the 1540s—or the 1560s? I check out paintings from that time and pick elements that fit her style. The Internet is an amazing resource, but if you’re not careful, it can suck you in and churn you into butter before it spits you out.

Of course, I’m no less susceptible than anyone else to the lures of procrastination. Sometimes I too dive into a research rabbit hole and don’t emerge for days. But most of the time, this method works. And when I do forget and throw in more information than any reader really wants to know, I can always rely on my trusty critique partners to point out where I lost them.

That brings me to my last suggestion for avoiding the research trap: beta readers. Whether it comes from fellow writers or avid bookworms, there’s nothing like friendly feedback to keep a writer from supplying not enough information—or, more often, too much. Just remember: in the end, readers don’t care how many hours you spent perusing books and websites. They want a good, fast-paced story—rich in description and complex characters, yes, but not at the expense of the action. Keep that point in mind, and your research will remain in the background, where it belongs.

Images: Photograph of my overstuffed bookshelf © 2021 C. P. Lesley; cropped paintings by Konstantin Makovsky, The Tsar Chooses a Bride (1886) and Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533)—my inspiration for the bride show in Song of the Storyteller and Felix in Song of the Siren, respectively—public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Miss Marple Returns

Like many others, I have long been a fan of Agatha Christie—especially her creation of Miss Jane Marple. At one time or another, I have read all the Marple books, most of them more than once. So the idea of twelve new mysteries written by a collection of accomplished authors immediately appealed to me as both a reader and a novelist. But interviewing twelve authors posed a technical challenge. So the publicist and I came up with the idea of asking a single question and inviting authors to send their answers. Not everyone chose to participate, but at least half did. So here are some of the thoughts behind Marple: Twelve New Mysteries.

But first, the book summary.

One doesn’t stop at one murder...

Jane Marple is an elderly lady from St Mary Mead who possesses an uncanny knack for solving even the most perplexing puzzles. Now, for the first time in 45 years, Agatha Christie’s beloved character returns to the page for a globe-trotting tour of crime and detection.

Join Marple as she travels through her sleepy English village and around the world. In St Mary Mead, a Christmas dinner is interrupted by unexpected guests; the Broadway stage in New York City is set for a dangerous improvisation; bad omens surround an untimely death aboard a cruise ship to Hong Kong; and a bestselling writer on holiday in Italy is caught in a nefarious plot. These and other crimes committed in the name of love, jealousy, blackmail, and revenge are ones that only the indomitable Jane Marple can solve.

Bringing a fresh twist to the hallmarks of a classic Agatha Christie mystery, these twelve esteemed writers have captured the sharp wit, unique voice, and droll ingenuity of the deceptively demure detective. A triumphant celebration of Christie’s legacy and essential reading for crime lovers, Marple is a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains one of the most famous detectives of all time.

And now, the question—and the authors’ answers.

What inspired your particular story, and was it a challenge to blend your own voice with Agatha Christie’s?
Alyssa Cole: My story, “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” has her traveling to New York City to see a stage adaptation of one of her nephew Raymond’s novels. It was also inspired by the somewhat bittersweet undercurrent of the later Marple novels, where she is undergoing the mundane decline of being elderly, very much aware of it, but also still has what it takes to investigate and solve mysteries!

My story is an homage to the fact that Christie is the most successful female playwright ever; I figured if I was going to bring her to Manhattan, theater was a great backdrop to the mystery! It was challenging, but also fun! I focused on the aspects that stood out to me from Christie's writing—the humor, the subversiveness hidden by the presence of an elderly British woman, and the observational nature of Miss Marple. These were the aspects that I connected with most, and that I then tried to convey through my voice and writing style, but following her general lead.
Jean Kwok: I was inspired by Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery while writing my story, “The Jade Empress,” in which Miss Marple meets an elderly Chinese gentleman and his daughter on the deck of the Hong Kong–bound cruise ship The Jade Empress. The next morning, it is revealed that the gentleman has died of poisoning. Suspicion falls on his caretaker, a Chinese woman who performs all sorts of unusual rituals, but the daughter is certain that someone else must be to blame. When the caretaker’s body is discovered the next day, it’s up to Miss Marple to uncover the truth.
It was a challenge to attempt to channel Christie, of course, but it was also a true pleasure. I loved trying to hear Miss Marple in my mind. She has such a delightful, wry, and humorous voice. It also made me appreciate how brilliant Christie was at plotting, especially the ways in which she would ensure that the reader had all the clues they needed to solve the mystery without making anything too obvious.
Ruth Ware: I always felt aggrieved that while Poirot has not one but two Christmas stories, Miss Marple doesn't really have a proper one—just a rather sad murder that happens while she's Christmas shopping. I know that Christie loved Christmas—she wrote a long essay about her appreciation of a proper country Christmas—and I felt a little sad that Miss Marple never got to enjoy a real St Mary Mead Christmas in fiction, so I wanted to give her one!
Lucy Foley: My story was inspired by Sussex, the part of England I come from, and the rather pagan goings on that can still be found in several of the local villages and towns! I was certainly a little nervous about stepping into the great Agatha Christie’s shoes, but reading and rereading all of the Marple books and stories and really immersing myself in all things Marple helped hugely with getting the tone right and feeling confident writing about that world.

Kate Mosse: Although Christie’s Miss Marple appears in a handful of short stories, and then her first full length novel in 1930 (The Body in the Library), most of Jane Marple’s appearances happen in the time after the Second World War when life in England was changing quickly, and sometimes bewilderingly. Like many of my fellow contributors, I reread all of the Marple short stories and novels before starting to write, looking for biographical clues to Miss Marple’s life. Once I realized Jane Marple had an uncle who was a canon in Chichester Cathedral, the city where I grew up and live, I decided to set my story there in the years after the end of the war when the National Health Service had just come into being. “The Mystery of the Acid Soil” is a story of two older women, Jane Marple and her friend Emmeline Strickert, who discover a murder that no one else had even realized had taken place. The writing was a joy from start to finish, and I hope that the story will not only please die-hard Marple fans like myself, but also introduce a new generation of readers to the one and only Miss Marple.

And thank you to all the authors who participated in this Q&A. May you have many readers!

Friday, September 9, 2022

Flower Children, Rich Families, and Crime

I have loved Laurie R. King’s Russell and Holmes series since I first stumbled over The Beekeeper’s Apprentice in a bookstore (remember those?) back in the early 2000s. The voice of fifteen-year-old Mary Russell, crossing the Sussex Downs with her nose in a book and almost falling over a much-older Sherlock Holmes, grabbed my attention immediately, and I remain a fan.

I had the fun of chatting with Laurie on the New Books Network when Russell’s twelfth adventure came out, and I’m delighted to host another interview with her about her latest novel, Back to the Garden—especially since the technology gremlins were having their fun with us during that earlier interview. Read on to find out more about the exceedingly eccentric Gardener family, the lingering effects of turning a wealthy estate into a 1970s commune, and King’s appealing new detective, Rachel Liang.

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

Inspector Raquel Liang of the San Francisco Police Department has reached a crossroads in her career. A recent incident ended with her transfer to the Cold Cases Unit and strict instructions to do everything by the book from now on if she wants to keep her job as the SFPD’s psychological investigator. So when news comes of old bones found under a concrete slab at the spiffy Gardener Estate in San Mateo County—a modus operandi associated with a serial killer from the 1970s known as the Highwayman—Raquel finds herself dealing with a case outside her jurisdiction but definitely within her area of expertise.

An added incentive for Raquel is that the Highwayman has just been identified, but he’s in the hospital with terminal cancer—and even after fifty years, he’s still playing games with the law. If the police can identify one of his victims, he will cooperate by supplying information on another, unknown to them. But time is running out, and more than a dozen victims remain unnamed. The body at the Gardener Estate may therefore answer the questions of two grieving families.

Interspersed with Raquel’s search for information on the victim, we follow the events preceding the murder in 1979, when—for reasons explained in the novel—the pristine Gardener Estate hosted a hippie commune devoted to organic gardening, free love, and a steady supply of drugs. As we move back and forth between past and present, the complex story of one exceedingly troubled family slowly emerges, the link between the commune and the Highwayman is revealed, and Raquel’s commitment to do everything by the book is tested—until one final, dramatic twist forces her to decide what matters most.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Food for Bookworms

About two months ago, I received an unsolicited e-mail from the owner of a site called Like most of us these days, I get a lot of unsolicited mail—never mind the semi-solicited e-mails that result from purchases I’ve made or newsletters I once signed up for or authors who added me to their lists without my permission whom I nevertheless like enough not to block—so I almost deleted this one unread. But I decided to take a look and discovered that Shepherd is a book recommendations site, previously unknown to me, that has an interesting business model: it helps authors of both fiction and nonfiction to promote their books by getting them to recommend other people’s books.

I took a look at the site and realized that, although new, it’s serious. It has a lot of authors, many of them well known, and the recommendations follow a very specific format. Authors pick five books that are close in topic to their own area of interest and explain why these five are worth reading. The recommendations are short (not much more than a paragraph), and the topics are tightly defined. So I agreed to sign on.

Next step was to find a topic—preferably something that people would be eager to learn about. With Russia still set on annihilating Ukraine, I considered listing books on early modern Ukrainian history, but those would have to be mostly nonfiction and would overlap only peripherally with my novels. So instead, since most of my books are set in sixteenth-century Russia—which might as well be the planet Saturn as far as the Western literary world is concerned—I settled on the best five books set in the sixteenth century in areas of the world not ruled by Tudors. In retrospect, I should have specified “mostly without Tudors,” but we’ll get to that in a second.

After a bit of thought, I settled on my five books. P.K. Adams’ Jagiellon Mysteries, set at the glittering Renaissance court of Zygmunt I and his Italian wife, Bona Sforza, were an obvious choice; I picked the first one, Silent Water. The next three were also pretty straightforward, from my point of view: Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain (northern India); Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker (Venice); and Ann Swinfen’s Voyage to Muscovy (Russia during the regency of Boris Godunov, ca. 1590), which begins in Tudor England but soon moves east.

These are all high-quality books by self-published (or in the case of Mitter Duva, hybrid-published) authors. For the fifth book, I wanted to balance out the list with a well-known commercially published author, and I remembered with affection Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, a series of six books featuring Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny. Francis is a Scottish adventurer, the younger son to a barony who gets involved first in the politics of his native land, then in an ongoing conflict that takes him through France, around much of the Mediterranean, and even to Ottoman Turkey and Russia before a brief visit to England sends him off once more to France for the dénouement. Every novel in the series has a chess-themed title, from The Game of Kings to Checkmate, but I have always preferred books 4–6. I read those three in the 1980s, revisited the entire series in the 2000s, then bought four of the six as e-books a few years ago but due to general overload didn’t read them again.

However, my absolute favorite is The Ringed Castle, which is mostly set in Moscow and the surrounding area in the 1550s—the court of Ivan the Terrible, where so many of my novels take place. So I picked that novel even though it’s the fifth book in the series. I sent in the list, and on August 15, as promised, it appeared online at

Here’s where it gets amusing. In the twenty years since I last cracked the spine on The Ringed Castle, I had forgotten that although the hero is off in Muscovy trying to whip the tsar’s army into shape, the heroine travels to London and becomes a lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor. In fact, there are more Tudors in terms of pure page count in The Ringed Castle than in any other book of the Lymond Chronicles.

To be fair, the Tudors I had in mind were Henry VIII and his wives, whom I consider to be way overdone. Edward VI and Mary receive almost no fictional attention (Courtenay J. Hall’s lovely romance Some Rise by Sin is an exception.) The publishing industry also loves Elizabeth I, but so much went on during her reign that the market doesn’t yet feel saturated. Henry VII also attracts a fair bit of notice, but more in the context of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower than for his own policies and abilities.

Enter the world of social media. Once the post came out, I tagged a couple of Dorothy Dunnett fan groups, thinking they would enjoy seeing their favorite author featured and that it would increase publicity for Shepherd, and by extension me. 

Boy, was I taken by surprise! The entire discussion revolved around the number of Tudors and the inadvisability of starting the series with book 5. My one-paragraph book description was subjected to line-by-line analysis and found wanting, while the other titles provoked gratitude from their authors but not much attention from anyone else. But as a result of this scrutiny, the post did get a lot of publicity—more even than the cute cat pictures I put up from time to time. So was that a plus or a minus? I’m still not sure.

This is, however, the world we live in. And compared to many Internet flaps, this one was small, contained, and in retrospect funny. I learned a useful lesson, if only that social media have an ethos of their own, and people don’t always react the way one might expect.

But most important, when you’re looking for a book or just want the fun of skimming other people’s lists of favorite books, you can’t do better than to browse the lists at And if you’re an author interested in submitting a recommendation list of your own, you can reach out via Just make sure you count your Tudors first!