Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview with C.W. Gortner, author of THE TUDOR VENDETTA

Yesterday I reviewed C.W. Gortner's newest novel, THE TUDOR VENDETTA. Today, C.W. answers some questions about the novel and his other works.

Welcome, Christopher! Congratulations on penning this most satisfying ending to your three-book Spymaster Chronicles series. It is quite evident from your writing that you felt a strong affinity for these characters. Which one of them will you miss most and why?

I’ll miss them all. I’ve lived with them for years, and as with any character that a writer creates, be it historically-based or fictional, you end up spending a lot of time with them. You get to know them intimately and they become your friends, even the ones who do rather terrible things. I also loved this series for the freedom it gave me, to search the crevices of history and develop suspenseful stories around certain events. But perhaps mostly, I’ll miss Brendan and Elizabeth. I think he has matured over the course of three books and come into his own. He’s been a wonderful, challenging character to inhabit. And Elizabeth, too, constantly surprised me as a character; she transformed, showing unexpected sides of herself. She did what she had to, to get ahead. I think she must have been quite something to know personally, and I’m honored to have had the chance to write about her.

Is there any historical evidence that someone of Brendan’s lineage might have actually existed?

There is, of course, evidence of royal bastards; Henry VIII sired at least one that we know of. But there is no evidence of someone with Brendan’s particular lineage. That was the fun part—to come up with a plausible origin for him and then explore how a man hidden from the world, unaware at first of who he is, must cope with his secret when he’s thrust into the thick of court and attempts to protect himself and those around him. I think that despite all the evidence we have of people who lived hundreds of years ago, there is still a lot we shall never know. Everyone has secrets; it’s not unreasonable to assume that Tudor royalty had secrets, too. This was a time of intense scrutiny and little privacy, but also a time of no paparazzi (though foreign ambassadors came close) and no cell phones or photos. People in the public eye could still hide things they didn’t want others to see, if they knew how to go about it.

In your opinion, were Elizabeth and Robert Dudley ever actually lovers? Do you think Elizabeth would give a man such power over her? 

I don’t personally believe Elizabeth fully consummated a sexual relationship with Dudley. I believe they were indeed lovers in almost every way that matters, certainly on an emotional basis, and to an extent, physically, as well. But I also think we romanticize them to fit our own needs; we want to believe Elizabeth found fulfillment as a woman and Dudley was her pining suitor. The truth, however, is more complex—and to me, more interesting. We must take into account the realities of sexuality in the Tudor era. Birth control was imperfect at best, and Elizabeth was no fool. Once she gained the throne, she did everything in her power to minimize risks to her position: her aversion to war, to the execution of her own cousin Mary of Scots, who posed a significant threat, among others, attest to her legendary caution. In addition, her adolescent exploits resulted in a scandal that put both her and her servants at risk, and ended with the beheading of a man who, by all accounts, she loved. And because of her mother Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth must have learned early in life to equate sexual surrender with danger and death. I think her adolescent imbroglio was the one exception; in her later years, she showed evidence of a lifelong sexual frustration through the demands she put on her women to remain unwed, her rage when one disobeyed her, and ceaseless need for adulation. But I also think she made the choice upon winning the crown to never submit, and Dudley was not a devoted lover willing to lie at her feet. He came from an ambitious family and was, like most noblemen, always seeking his advantage. He wanted more than she was willing to give, which created a tension that fueled their attraction. Elizabeth understood there is nothing more tantalizing than forbidden fruit; she knew how to play Robert and keep him enthralled, even if in turn, her ploy exacted from her a heavy toll. She never forgot that her mother lost her freedom the moment she let herself be won.

Are you surprised at the endurance of reader interest in the Tudor era? Do you think the craze will ever fizzle?

I think it has its ups and downs. Interest is waning now due to overexposure, but after another fallow period, the era will rise again. These are fascinating, larger-than-life people in a tumultuous time, who also are very human; we are drawn to them because of their struggles and weaknesses as much as their strengths or triumphs. Not a happy dynasty, but one that has all the elements we look for in stories—drama, passion, intrigue, death, love and loss. It really doesn’t get better than the Tudors, whose reigns precipitated so much upheaval and change, and whose iconography is forever cemented in our popular imagination.

Who are some “underused” historical characters from the Renaissance you would like to see feature in novels?

Certainly, Renaissance France deserves more attention. Northern Europe, as well. I’d love to see more books about the Ottoman Empire, too. English history tends to dominate historical fiction in the US because of our strong links to the UK, but the Renaissance was a widespread phenomenon. There are many underused characters whose stories are waiting to be told. The challenge is market-driven. Recognition factor is a key incentive for publishers in our current climate, so a novel about, say, the Tudors is going to be more appealing from a marketing standpoint than one about an obscure sultan in Turkey. But that might change; I think my own career has shown that you can write beyond the margins while taking into account marquee appeal, and still have strong books. Then again, it took me nearly fourteen years to get published!

As an experienced novelist, what aspect of writing still challenges you the most? Where have you made the greatest strides in your writing?

Accessibility always remains a challenge. To write the past, you must always bear in mind that your modern-day reader may know little or nothing of the era you are covering, and you can’t throw a thousand things at them. You can’t expect them to understand the world-view of your characters without detailing it, of course, but too much detail swamps the momentum of the story you’re trying to tell. Balance between everything you know with what the reader needs to know is a fine point in writing historical novels; my motto is, less is more. I’ve had a few reviewers take me to task for not “including the wider historical context.” But that’s really a compliment to me. My books focus on a single point of view in first person. I seek to reveal my character’s inner life as they navigate their particular circumstances. They only know what they know and see what they see. It makes it easier for me and my reader, because it creates intimacy. In the end, I’m not an historian seeking to teach you about Spain, France, or England in the Renaissance. I’m a storyteller, depicting one individual’s story through their eyes. I think I’ve made the greatest strides in mastering my enthusiasm for research with what actually ends up on the page. I know the wider historical context; I have to in order to write, but I’ve also learned that not everything my research has uncovered must, or even should, be included in my book. It’s my framework, the block of stone upon which I chisel out my characters. What remains is necessary: nothing more and nothing less.

Out of the seven novels you have written, do you have a favorite?

The last one is always my favorite. But beyond that, I am very proud of all of them for different reasons: THE LAST QUEEN is my novel of the heart, the one I struggled with for many years to see published, about a bold woman unjustly maligned by history. THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI is my most ambitious, in that I undertook an entire life in a very complex era, and found that my original intent to write a villainous narrator became a quest to reveal another woman who’s been misunderstood. THE QUEEN'S VOW was the most challenging, because of all my characters, Isabella developed her personality early in life and remained steadfast in who she was, despite her travails. Writing her was tough because in her core, Isabella did not change; she is nothing like me. But in the end, I empathized with her because I think she honestly believed she was doing her best. I don’t agree with her, but I understand her impetus. The three Spymaster books have been my playground, where my imagination could roam through a fictional male character who shares many of my beliefs about how the past can haunt us, my love for animals, my respect for loyalty and forgiveness, and the need for compromise.

Will you ever revisit Brendan, Kate and Raff again?

I hope to, in the future. I simply felt I had reached the end of this particular journey and wanted to explore other horizons. I’m not an historical novelist who can mine the same era over and over; I’m eclectic in my obsessions, with many interests beyond the Tudors. It was time to move onward, but I bear great fondness for these characters, and who knows what the future holds? For now, however, Brendan deserves this respite. He’s been through a lot!

Your newest novel, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, about fashion designer Coco Chanel, will appear in March 2015. What prompted you to choose a subject so far removed from the Renaissance? Did writing about the 20th century pose different challenges than writing about the 16th?

Before I became a full time writer, my career trajectory included ten years of working in the fashion industry; I came to learn about Coco Chanel while undertaking my degree in fashion marketing. She was my style icon. I had a battered book of her designs that I referred to often when consulting with clients. Writing a novel about her was something I always wanted to do, but the idea sat on the sidelines for years. When I did decide to do it, it was on impulse. I had spare time after delivering two prior manuscripts; my editors were reading those, and while I waited for feedback, I made the spur of the moment choice to try writing a modern woman. I was not under contract for this book and had no idea if it would work, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wrote the first draft in five months— record time for me. Coco’s story presented different challenges, of course; she’s a 20th century figure who’s been extensively documented, and the choice of language and style for this novel had to fit her times. But again, my foremost challenge became what to include, much as with my 16th century novels. I had to find the intimacy in her story without overwhelming my reader with minutia. Still, writing a character who could actually telephone her friends was a plus! Communication is so much easier in our age. And portraying a woman who rose from nothing, not born to privilege yet who became a queen in her own right, was fascinating. And the clothes, of course: all those fabulous clothes. What’s not to love? She also made controversial decisions that blackened her reputation, so in some ways, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL is not so removed from what I’ve written previously. She is an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary era, who lived by her own rules, despite setbacks and personal tragedies. She shares certain traits with my 16th century ladies.

Whose journey, out of all the characters you have created, most closely mirrors your own journey as a writer?

Probably Chanel’s. Not that it’s a fair comparison; she faced obstacles I never have, foremost being misogyny. Because of her gender, she had to fight to be taken seriously in a time when women had few options. But as a gay man whose writing had been rejected over 300 times over the course of thirteen years, I understood both her frustration and determination to succeed. I also think I relate to her decision to live as she saw fit; gay men have faced prejudice and hatred because of our sexuality, and Coco experienced prejudice because of her lifestyle. She also reaped rewards, but she paid the price for who she was. I know what that feels like. Nevertheless, all of my characters carry a bit of me inside of them, or rather, I find a bit of me in them. It’s what writers do: we cannot live for years with characters we detest. We must find an echo of their souls in ours to bring them to life. Without that echo, the writing is empty.

Thank you for sharing this time with me. I hope your readers enjoy THE TUDOR VENDETTA. To find out more about my work, please visit me at:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: THE TUDOR VENDETTA by C.W. Gortner

Time and again, Brendan Prescott has proven himself loyal to Elizabeth Tudor. As a trained intelligencer, he has uncovered lies, navigated treachery, and survived attempted assassination in his quest to protect England's new queen. But can Brendan's loyalty withstand the temptation to claim all Elizabeth has for himself? This is the challenge Brendan ultimately faces in THE TUDOR VENDETTA (St. Martin's Press, October 2014), the third and final volume of C.W. Gortner's Spymaster Chronicles.

Mere weeks after claiming her throne, Elizabeth recalls Brendan from exile in Switzerland, where he has fled for protection and further training. Her favored lady-in-waiting, Lady Parry, has vanished in Yorkshire while caring for a nephew's sick child. A scrap of paper tucked beneath the saddle of Parry's wandering horse bears an ominous message: She must pay for the sin. Fearing for her attendant's life, Elizabeth sends Brendan to search for her. Although reluctant to leave the queen, who has narrowly avoided being poisoned by a tainted coronation gift, Brendan travels north. At the home of Lord and Lady Vaughan, Catholic sympathizers of the late Queen Mary, the mystery deepens to involve an elusive stranger intent on settling a vendetta with the Protestant queen. As Brendan investigates the fate of Lady Parry, he discovers a shattering secret about Elizabeth--a secret this enemy hopes to exploit in order to bring a quick end to the new queen's reign. Can Brendan stop him in time? And even if he does, can the intelligencer resist using the dangerous knowledge he has gained to further his own ambition?

THE TUDOR VENDETTA, like its companion books THE TUDOR SECRET and THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, is a deftly plotted mystery that seamlessly weaves plausible rumor and imaginative innuendo into an accurate and convincingly evoked historical framework. Gortner handles the difficult task of refreshing the reader's memory of the events of the previous two volumes with aplomb. He never allows the complicated politics and religious factionalism of the era to overwhelm the narrative action nor loose ends to weaken the story's grip. Wary lest the twists and revelations that structure the plot appear gratuitous or overly convenient, he takes care to prepare the ground with timely hints and supportive backstory.

But more than the tight plot, it is the finely nuanced characters that make THE TUDOR VENDETTA an enjoyable read. A foundling who shares Tudor blood, Brendan struggles to overcome feelings of inferiority even as he chooses to hide the truth of his birth. He retains an endearing vulnerability that prevents him from lashing out at past oppressors or taking advantage of improved circumstance. All he wants from life is a sense of belonging and a home to call his own, yet these are the very things he must sacrifice in Elizabeth's service. As a man who takes his responsibilities seriously, he has difficulty forgiving himself his failings, to the degree that he risks his future happiness by dwelling on past transgressions. Elizabeth is equally well-rounded, fragile yet determined, loyal yet willing to sacrifice whatever she must to maintain her grip on the throne. She allows herself one weakness, her love for the vain and power-hungry Robert Dudley; even so, she maintains a level-headed awareness of his shallowness and her own dangerous response to his attentions. Archie Shelton, Brendan's rough and tumble father, demonstrates a touching but never mawkish devotion to the son he was forced to ignore for so many years. Brendan's beloved Kate suffers no illusions about her relationship with the intelligencer and knows that his devotion to Elizabeth will forever complicate his love for her. Although she shares his devotion to the queen, Kate must decide whether she can live with Brendan's divided loyalty. (She is the one character I would have liked to have seen more of in this novel, but the plot necessarily removes her for much of the story.) Gortner's characters leap from the page in a blaze of convincingly contradictory emotions and impulses that keep the reader wholly invested in their struggles.

THE TUDOR VENDETTA brings The Spymaster Chronicles to an entertaining and satisfying conclusion, one that closes the present cycle yet leaves open the possibility for future tales of intrigue and aspiration at the Elizabethan court.

C.W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California. After a long career in the fashion industry, he now writes full-time and is the author of seven acclaimed historical novels. You can learn more about his work at his website and blog.


I wrote this review as part of a Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. To read other reviews of the novel and guest posts by the author, please consult the list of tour stops. Return here tomorrow to read an interview with C.W. about THE TUDOR VENDETTA and his other work.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bags Full of Reading Goodness

Several weeks ago, I made a general plea to my Facebook author friends. I was interested in putting together a basket of autographed books for my son's school auction. I asked that anyone interested in helping donate a signed copy of her book in return for some publicity on the blog. I was astounded and humbled by the response. Eleven authors sent me one or more copies of their book(s); two others offered, but unfortunately, I was not able to receive their books in time. This generous response from the writing community allowed me to put together two baskets, each valued at approximately $185. I divided the books into two lots and packaged them in bookish totes from Barnes & Noble along with fancy bookmarks.

Here is a list of authors who donated their books. If you are looking for holiday gifts or excellent additions to your own library, please consider purchasing something from this list. I have read most of the books myself; many I've reviewed here on the blog and additional reviews will be forthcoming. They are all excellent reads.

Maryanne O'Hara, CASCADE
Patricia Bracewell, SHADOW ON THE CROWN
Julie K. Rose, OLEANNA
Marci Jefferson, GIRL ON THE GOLD COIN

I am very grateful to my author friends and thrilled that new readers will soon experience their wonderful books. These bags are sure to start a bidding war at the auction! I wish I could bid on them myself.

Thanks again to all involved!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

An Illustrated Who's Who

Portrait albums--bound collections of chalk portraits--became all the rage at the French court in the sixteenth century. Courtiers used the albums for entertainment, making a game of guessing sitters'  identities or composing epigrams and tags to accompany the pictures. They commissioned albums as gifts, or used them for diplomatic purposes.

Jean Clouet and his son François, portraitists who worked at the French court from the 1520's through the 1560's, were extraordinarily skilled at capturing likenesses on paper. Their precise, detailed portraits of hundreds of French nobles provide an intriguing and realistic record of physiognomy and fashion in an age that long predated photography. (You can browse Clouet portraits at the Réunions des Musées nationaux website.)

Today I created an album of my own, gathering portraits of my novel's characters on a Pinterest board. All the portraits are contemporaneous with the action of the novel, set in 1539-40. Many were sketched by Jean and François themselves, or by other artists who feature in the novel with them. For the novel's few fictional characters, I selected anonymous portraits of individuals who correspond to my mental image of the characters. It was great fun to assemble, in one place, a visual representation of the people I've tried so hard to resurrect through words.

Here, for example, are the novel's three viewpoint characters:

Catherine, the artist's daughter
Anne d'Heilly, duchesse d'Étampes, the king's mistress
Faustine, an artist's model

Come check out the board and meet the rest of the cast! The novel is undergoing a final revision before going out on submission to editors.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THE TAPESTRY by Nancy Bilyeau: Cover Reveal

Readers (like me!) who read and enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau's THE CROWN and THE CHALICE are eagerly awaiting the third volume of her Joanna Stafford thriller series, set in sixteenth century England. Today Nancy reveals the cover for THE TAPESTRY, which goes on sale March 24, 2015 from Touchstone. A stunning cover for what is sure to be a gripping read.

Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Touchstone Publishing
Formats: eBook, Hardcover
Pages: 390
Genre: Historical Mystery
Series: Joanna Stafford, Book Three

In THE CROWN, Sister Joanna Stafford searched for a Dark Ages relic that could save her priory from Cromwell's advancing army of destruction. In THE CHALICE, Joanna was drawn into an international conspiracy against Henry VIII himself as she struggled to learn the truth behind a prophecy of his destruction.

Now, in THE TAPESTRY, Joanna Stafford finally chooses her own destiny.

After her Dominican priory in Dartford closed forever--collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII's quest to overthrow the Catholic Church--Joanna resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King's attention.

Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King, and fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. Her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.

Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be the King's mistress. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King's next wife and, possibly, victim.

Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna Stafford must finally choose.

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To enter a drawing for an ARC of THE TAPESTRY, visit Passages to the Past.

Pre-order the book:

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About the Author:

Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay "Zenobia" placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and "Loving Marys" reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. THE TAPESTRY will be released in March 2015.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe. For more information please visit Nancy Bilyeau's website.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Interview: Lucy Pick, Author of PILGRIMAGE

In Lucy Pick's fascinating new novel, PILGRIMAGE (Cuidono Press, July 2014), a blind noblewoman navigates the shoals of international politics and the difficult terrain of Northern Spain as she follows the Way of St. James to Compostela. Today Lucy answers some questions for us about the writing of her debut novel.

1. Was Gebirga of Gistel, the novel’s protagonist, a historical person? What do we know about her?

Gebirga of Gistel came about when I combined two historical clues. The first was a passage in the medieval manuscript containing the Pilgrim’s Guide to Compostela that describes the manuscript as being written by, among others, someone named Gebirga of Flanders.

The second was part of the story of Saint Godeleva of Gistel, an eleventh-century noblewoman who was killed by her husband. The husband was reputed to have a blind daughter, and to himself have gone on crusade. What would it be like, I wondered, to have a mother who was a saint and cured everyone but you?

I combined the unknown Gebirga of Flanders with the blind daughter of Godeleva, and there was my heroine.

2. In the novel, Gebirga falls blind around the age of three. What challenges did writing a blind protagonist pose? How did it affect your handling of point of view?

As you can see from my account of her origins, Gebirga’s blindness was the first thing I knew about her, and it provided challenges and opportunities. For a beginning novelist, it was a wonderful discipline to be forbidden from describing what my protagonist sees and having to rely on all her other senses to create the mood and set the scene.

Taste is an important part of the book, and we learn a lot about Gebirga’s journey from cool, damp Flanders to sunny Spain by the way the food she eats changes. So is touch, as the feel of the clothes she wears shifts from wool to cotton and silk.

I had to stop myself from using metaphors of sight in relationship to Gebirga. “Gebirga saw what he meant” was a sentence I could not write, for instance. But the hardest part was having her travel through Europe at the height of the Romanesque building boom without seeing any of the spectacular churches going up all around her. Her companion, Katerinen becomes our eyes on what that might have looked like.

photo by Yearofthedragon
3. Much of the novel’s action takes place on the pilgrimage road to the cathedral of Saint James in Compostela. How did this location become such an important destination for pilgrims? Have you made the trek yourself?

Santiago de Compostela became, with Rome and Jerusalem, one of the three most important pilgrimage sites in Medieval Europe because of its reputation as the burial place and location of the preaching of one of the apostles, James the Greater.

It really took off in the eleventh century, in the decades just before my novel starts, and a lot of historians credit the involvement of the monastery of Cluny in the development and popularization of the road to Compostela. The abbots of Cluny worked hard to create both political and spiritual ties to the different Christian kingdoms of Spain and used the pilgrimage to do it. That is one reason Gebirga starts her journey to Spain at Cluny, even though it isn’t one of the “traditional” origins of the road.

It has revived as a pilgrimage destination in recent decades for people whose motives are as mixed as they were in the Middle Ages. Your readers may know Paulo Coelho’s novel The Pilgrimage, which brought a kind of New Age element to the pilgrimage, and Martin Sheen’s movie, The Way.

I have not done the pilgrimage myself, though I have travelled to many of the places along the road that I describe, and I drew on stories of both medieval and modern pilgrims in constructing my narrative. For example, my sister walked the last part of the route with a group of breast cancer survivors and their families, and that is how Gebirga finishes her journey too.

 4. What is your favorite scene from the novel? Which scene was the most difficult to write? 

My favourite scene from the novel was one of the first scenes I ever wrote, and at the time I wrote it, I did not yet know exactly how it worked into the story. It is a scene in which Gebirga is attacked and left alone on a mountainside. No one knows where she is, and she has been injured. This moment of crisis gave me a chance to get to know who she really was, and also to explore some of the spiritual aspects of her medieval world, both Christian and pagan.

The hardest scene to write was a moment of tragedy, and I won’t say more lest I give the plot away. Like my favourite scene, I knew it was going to be in the book right from the beginning.

5. PILGRIMAGE is one of the first novels published by Cuidono Press. What advantages have you found working with a small press offers? 

There are distinct advantages to working with a small press and with a new small press at that. The main one is that I don’t feel the pressure to come right out of the gate with huge sale figures to justify my existence. My novel is one of those that will help define what Cuidono Press stands for as it grows, and I expect it will stay in print a good long time and have a chance to find its audience. That is invaluable for a first time novelist.

Another was the chance to be involved with the creation of the book cover, which uses a detail from a fifteenth-century panel painting that shows scenes from the Life of St. Godeleva.

6. What piece of writing advice helped you most during the crafting of PILGRIMAGE and your search for publication? Do you have other advice to pass on to writers of historical fiction? 

Write what you love; write what you want to read. Keep trying to improve. Don’t give up.

Shell marker
7. Do you have another novel in the works? Will we see Gebirga and Yusuf again? 

There is an old piece of writing wisdom that says there are only two plots in the world, someone leaves town, or someone comes to town. PILGRIMAGE is the story of someone who leaves town. But Gebirga leaves her home when her father returns after decades away with a young, spoiled bride. This character, Aude, is pretty unsympathetic in the novel. I began wondering what it would be like to be Aude, and wrote a novel about her, which begins as a “someone comes to town” story, and involves Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade. But whether Gebirga and Yusuf ever reappear in a story of their own is up to the readers of PILGRIMAGE!

Thanks so much, Julianne, for inviting me to be part of your blog, and for all the work you do supporting historical fiction and introducing us to so many wonderful books.

Learn more about Lucy Pick and her books at her website. PILGRIMAGE is available at or directly from the publisher, Cuidono Press.

My review of PILGRIMAGE may be found here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: PILGRIMAGE by Lucy Pick

For centuries, Christian pilgrims have plied the roads of Europe towards the magnificent cathedral of Saint James the Greater in Compostela, Spain. Streams of nameless pilgrims walked the Way of St. James to plead their intentions, exonerate their guilt, and render homage to the saint at his Spanish resting place. Lucy Pick, a professor of medieval religious thought and practice, has imagined the plight of one such pilgrim, Gebirga of Flanders, in her historical novel PILGRIMAGE (Cuidono Press, July 2014). A fresh and thoughtful read, PILGRIMAGE explores betrayal, friendship, healing, and redemption in a setting hitherto ignored yet vastly important to the fabric of medieval life.

Blindness descends on young Gebirga, the only child of Bertulf and Godeleva of Gistel, after she witnesses an altercation between her parents which results in her mother’s death. Her father establishes a convent in memory of his saintly wife and departs on crusade, leaving Gebirga in the care of his brother at the castle. Raised by her nurse to be independent despite her infirmity, Gebirga learns to navigate her environs with help of her dog and becomes a competent châtelaine. When her father unexpectedly returns to Gistel with a new bride, Gebirga expects to be relegated to the convent. However, a trip to Bruges occasions an unforeseen encounter with Katerinen, sister of the Count of Flanders, and the beginning of a new life for Gebirga as the headstrong girl’s attendant. The political schemes of the great require Katerinen and Gebirga to travel to Spain in the guise of simple pilgrims. The final two thirds of the book trace the details of the women’s journey to Compostela as members of a motley group searching for healing and forgiveness and finding friendship, love, and purpose along the way.

A professor of history and religion, Pick understands both the complicated politics of the time and the texture of medieval piety and immerses the reader in this rich and unfamiliar world with confidence and aplomb. She guides the reader through the tangled the web of European alliances and Spanish monarchies with patience and grace, careful not to overwhelm the reader with detail but always providing just enough framework to support the dramatic action. More importantly, Pick treats medieval religious practices and popular sentiment with respect, presenting them to the modern reader without apology or condescension, opening the door to a forgotten way of seeing the world and inviting the reader in. This attention to the religious character of everyday medieval life gives her novel a credibility that many popular works of medieval fiction lack.

As in any good novel, it is the characters and their relationships that capture the reader’s heart, and here, too, Pick does not disappoint. PILGRIMAGE’s cast of characters ranges the entire scale of medieval society, from popes and queens to shepherds and tavern louts. Of particular interest are Yusef, the mysterious messenger who straddles two cultures and faiths; Aiméry, the Augustian canon traveling the pilgrimage routes in order to write a book about them; and Katerinen, the unstable yet endearing teen bride who becomes Gebirga’s charge and friend. Gebirga herself offers an interesting take on the typical historical fiction heroine: she must overcome not only the social limitations of medieval womanhood, but the physical blindness that could have easily rendered her a useless burden on her family and society. The guilt Gebirga bears over her inability to clearly recall the circumstances of her mother’s death and the challenge of living as the daughter of an official saint add to her difficulties. It is only fitting that Gebirga’s journey rocky journey toward happiness and self-acceptance culminates at Compostela, a place of spiritual and emotional, as well as physical, healing.

The novelty of PILGRIMAGE’s setting and the uniqueness of its plot earn it the honor of being a must-read for lovers of historical fiction. The author’s fine understanding of human relationships, her thoughtful investigation of miracles and their meaning, and her respectful yet exacting exploration of faith in all its expressions ensure that PILGRIMAGE will find a place on lists of favorite historical novels for years to come.


Lucy Pick, Ph.D, is the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and an associate professor in the Department of History. She specializes in the connections between historical writing and theology and the ways in which religion shapes lives through ritual. She has written a monograph on Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations in thirteenth-century Toledo and is currently examining the careers of royal women in early medieval Spain. PILGRIMAGE is her first novel. You can learn more about Lucy Pick and her fiction at her blog, Lucy Pick Books.

Lucy will be back tomorrow to answer questions about her novel.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Interview with Susan Spann, Author of BLADE OF THE SAMURAI

Congratulations to author Susan Spann, whose second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Minotaur) releases today. Even though Susan is a member of my writing group, I had plenty of questions to ask her about the novel and her writing process. Read on for a taste of the fascinating world Susan has created.

1) BLADE OF THE SAMURAI is the second Shinobi mystery, and I know that the third is already written and in production. I’m curious about your process for crafting each mystery. Does a crime present itself to you and you fit the characters and their relationships around it, or do choose a character you wish to develop (in this case Kazu) and fashion a crime that involves him? Or do other factors, such as Hiro’s own character development or the larger, overarching mystery into which the individual volumes fit, determine the particular murder Hiro and Father Mateo must solve in a given book?

Great question – and the short answer is, “It varies.” Although each novel is stand-alone, I also have a master arc which follows Hiro and Father Mateo, and their friendship, through the series.

Some of the crimes relate to aspects of Hiro and Father Mateo’s lives that I want to highlight at a certain point in the series. For example: Blade of the Samurai shows the start of a conflict between Father Mateo and other Jesuits in Kyoto.

Some of the books also give me the chance to highlight secondary characters, bringing them “to the front” to share more about their stories. Blade of the Samurai does this, too. It’s Kazu’s chance to shine.

In other cases, I wanted to explore a specific part of medieval Japanese culture, and the crime arises from a murder that might have actually occurred in that setting. For example, the fourth Shinobi Mystery, Blood of the Outcast, deals with the murder of an actor’s daughter and the ripples that killing sends through the theater company.

2) What did you learn about Hiro in BLADE that you didn’t know at the end of CLAWS? About Father Mateo?

Ironically, I didn’t learn the “big, surprising secret” Hiro reveals to the reader near the end of the book. That particular piece of information was one I intended to disclose in this book all along.

However, I always learn at least one new thing about each character as I write, and Blade was no exception. I learned that Father Mateo is stronger, physically, than I thought he was – and that Hiro has more compassion than I originally believed.

But the biggest surprise in this novel, for me, was the fact that the victim had a teenage son. The boy did not appear in my outline. He rode “onstage” and revealed himself while I was writing the book’s first draft, leaving me with the unique decision whether or not to let him “live” – first, by letting him stay in the book, and second, by deciding whether or not he’d survive to the end. I’ll let you read the book to find out what ultimately happened.

3) What aspect of the samurai code that governs Hiro’s behavior conflicts most strongly with Father Mateo’s religion? What aspect of Hiro’s own character does the shinobi find hardest to control?

On the page, Hiro and Father Mateo argue most about telling the truth, and whether or not a person of honor lies. Shinobi (ninjas) were trained to lie, and considered it part of the job assignment. In Father Mateo’s world, a lie is a sin that a man should avoid at almost any cost. These differing world views lead to conflict, but also to some of the most interesting conversations between them.

For Hiro, the hardest part of his current assignment is the limitation on violence as a form of conflict resolution. Medieval samurai, and shinobi, often resorted to violence (fights or assassination) to eliminate problems. Since Hiro is working undercover, and can’t afford to raise suspicions about his true identity by killing the people who cause him problems, he’s forced to work out issues a different way. Hiro isn’t bloodthirsty by nature, so he doesn’t necessarily mind the change, but it’s definitely forcing him to stretch in new directions.

4) The Jesuits in Kyoto operate two missions—the superior, Father Vilela, works with the nobles, while Father Mateo spreads the Gospel among the commoners. Was this a typical strategy of Jesuit missionaries in Japan? What made such a strategy effective? What difficulties does it pose for Father Mateo?

Actually, this was a fairly common strategy for the Jesuits in various parts of the world, including Japan. The Japanese culture was highly regimented, and people from different social classes did not interact. The samurai would have been appalled by the equal treatment of commoners—by clerics or by anyone else—so separating the missions kept the Jesuits’ work with the commoners “out of sight and out of mind.”

Father Mateo’s difficulties arise primarily when his work as a sleuth takes him out of the commoners’ realm and into that of the samurai. As we see in Blade, samurai didn’t appreciate a Jesuit treating their servants as equals, or as people deserving of respect. Father Mateo’s refusal to act like a samurai in that regard triggers trouble with the shogun’s men, and also with his superior, Father Vilela.

5) Ichiro, the teenaged son of the murdered Saburo, makes his debut in BLADE. You seem to have a particular affection for this character. How is he typical of Japanese youth of the time and how does he defy expectations?

Ichiro defied expectations by his existence—he wasn’t in the outline at all. As far as his actions, however, he’s a fairly accurate portrait of a samurai youth on the cusp of adulthood. In many ways, society expected a samurai’s son to behave with adult manners from the time he could walk and talk. Medieval Japanese children were raised with a sense of honor and a mandate to follow the stringent rules of etiquette from a very early age.

At the same time, I wanted Ichiro to reflect the fact that children—even samurai children—are more than miniature adults. He ended up becoming one of my favorite characters in the entire series.

6) Your vivid descriptions pay close attention to the details of Japanese architecture. Is architecture a particular interest of yours? How do the architectural particularities of sixteenth century Japan lend themselves to or complicate the unfolding of your mysteries? With interior walls being constructed of heavy paper, it seems as though it would be quite difficult to communicate with any degree of privacy inside a home or office.

I adore Japanese architecture, particularly the architecture of the medieval period. For the Japanese, construction has always encompassed more than merely “four walls and a roof,” and the creativity and versatility of Japanese homes, businesses, and palaces, has fascinated me for many years.

My love for Japanese architecture started at Tufts University, where I attended college. The Asian Studies department offered several courses in Japanese architecture (and Japanese architectural art), and I love being able to share the details in my novels.

Since the interiors of medieval Japanese houses were largely constructed of lightweight wood and paper, often with open ceilings and rafters, privacy was in short supply. However, some buildings did have ceilings, and solid doors, and the versatility of the available “sets” gives me lots of range and flexibility when it comes to deciding which characters overhear things, and how much they hear.

7) I love that each discrete mystery in your series fits into the larger, overarching mystery of who hired Hiro to protect Father Mateo and why. Hiro himself does not seem to know the answer to these questions. How do you balance the demands of the micro- and macro-mysteries? When will readers learn the answers to these broader questions?

That balancing act is one of my favorite parts of writing the series. My goal is to bring the readers a little more into Hiro’s world (and reveal more of his history) in every novel. At the same time, I’m committed to keeping the novels stand-alone, and minimizing spoilers, so readers who come into the series later on won’t feel like “outsiders” to the characters or the narrative. It definitely takes some planning – much of which took place before I started writing Claws of the Cat, the first book in the series.

As far as the broader questions, like “Who hired Hiro to protect Father Mateo?” and “How did Hiro get those scars on his shoulder and inner thigh?” – the only answer I can give for now is keep reading … the answers are coming, in time.

8) What have you found to be the greatest challenge of writing a series set in a culture so unfamiliar to American readers? What do you hope readers take away from reading the Shinobi books?

The biggest initial challenge for me was finding a way to “translate” the culture without talking down to the reader or spending too much time in backstory and “info-dump.” I originally created Father Mateo to solve that problem. Initially, I intended him to provide a set of Western eyes through which I could explain things to the reader. I quickly learned he was much, much more than that.

Mostly, I hope the novels give readers an enjoyable escape to an exotic time and place. At the end of the day, they’re stories—and I hope readers like them as much as I like writing them (which is to say, a LOT). If they also take away a little knowledge of Japanese history and culture, so much the better! But I’d be thrilled just to hear that readers like spending time with Hiro and Father Mateo.

Thank you so much for having me on your blog and doing this interview! These were great questions and really fun to answer!!


You can find out more about Susan Spann and her Shinobi Mysteries at her website.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: BLADE OF THE SAMURAI: A Shinobi Mystery by Susan Spann

Last summer, Susan Spann took the historical mystery world by storm with the publication of her first Shinobi Mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT. Tomorrow she celebrates the release of the series's second installment, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, a worthy and in many ways superior successor to her first novel.

BLADE opens in sixteenth-century Kyoto a year after undercover ninja Matsui Hiro and Jesuit priest Father Mateo successfully solved a first murder case. The action moves from the local entertainment district to the shogunate, where Ashikaga Saburo, the shogun's cousin, has been found stabbed to death in his office a few days before the expected visit of an enemy warlord. The shogun, loath to exhibit any weakness before his visiting adversary and impressed by Hiro and Fr. Mateo's demonstrated investigative skills, demands the pair apprehend the murderer before the embassy arrives. Hiro finds himself in an unenviable position--the murder weapon belongs to his ninja friend Kazu, Saburo's assistant, who, like Hiro, is on a secret assignment for the Iga school. Kazu swears to Hiro that he did not commit the murder, yet he won't give Hiro a clear answer about where he was the night of the crime. Though Hiro harbors doubts about his friend's innocence, plenty of other people--Saburo's wife, a stable boy, a maid, a master carpenter, and various government officials--nurse grievances against Saburo that could easily explain the murder. Moreover, the murder appears connected to a plot that endangers the shogun himself. With the fate of the city and the lives of Kazu and Fr. Mateo, a well as his own, at stake, Hiro must weigh the evidence and unveil the murderer with utmost speed and certainty.

Meticulously plotted, BLADE moves at an exciting, engaging clip. Hiro pursues suspects and unearths evidence with a ninja's stealth and finesse. His habits of observing before judging and of trying to provoke suspects into revealing themselves before he accuses them allows the reader time to piece the clues together for herself. The plot has just enough twists and turns to sustain interest without becoming confusing, and the reveal at the end has been so well-prepared as to be welcomed with pleasure.

As Father Mateo finds himself sidelined with unforeseen injuries for much of the novel, BLADE becomes Hiro's story, and the reader catches intriguing glimpses of the man behind the ninja. Spann portions out Hiro's personal history in tantalizing dribs and drabs, still revealing in this second book only the most basic facts about his personal background. Yet she begins to define Hiro's emotional landscape, a challenging task for a character whose livelihood and survival depend on the complete mastery of emotion. Not only does Japanese culture make a virtue of emotional control, but Hiro's ninja training has ingrained on him the grave danger of emotions: "A shinobi," he reminds himself, "must always remain detached from his mission. Real emotion was dangerous and forbidden." Yet as much as he fights them, emotions keep creeping in, complicating his task and threatening to cloud his judgment. Is his friendship with Father Mateo and the consequent exposure to Western affability and Christian ideals "softening" him, or has the wall behind which Hiro has dammed his feelings (one senses there is a deep emotional hurt, possibly involving a woman, in his past) springing hairline cracks on its own? It will be interesting to see how this struggle against emotion plays out in later books and where it ultimately leads the increasingly conflicted protagonist. For now, it is more than sufficient for forging bonds of sympathy between the reader and a man trained to kill with great efficiency and no remorse.

These intimations of Hiro's past and portents of his future contribute to Spann's greatest achievement so far: the successful integration of the story particular to each volume into the larger mystery that encompasses the entire series. Readers engage not only with the story questions of the murder under investigation, but with the broader questions of who has hired the assassin to protect Father Mateo and why. Hiro himself does not know the answers, and Spann keeps that grander mystery bubbling merrily on the burner as she concocts a heady brew of Japanese culture, early modern history, and basic human nature. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI will quench the thirst inspired by CLAWS, yet leave the reader panting eagerly for another gulp.


Tomorrow: Susan answers specific questions about BLADE OF THE SAMURAI and her writing process. In the meantime, you can learn more about her books and sixteenth-century Japan at her blog.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Church, Two Palaces, and a Generous Heart

Question: What do excavations at Luxor, Egypt and Athens, Greece; the cathedral of Reims in France; the library of the Imperial University in Tokyo; Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming; the Cloisters museum in New York City; and the historical restoration of colonial Williamsburg have in common with the château de Fontainebleau?

Answer: Like Fontainebleau, they all received crucial funding from American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960).

During his lifetime, Rockefeller, wielder of the Standard Oil Company family fortune, donated approximately $537 million to social, religious and cultural causes. He was particularly struck by the devastation German bombing and wartime neglect had wrought on France's historic sites. In 1924 he offered the French government several million dollars to restore three of them: the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims, the palace of Versailles, and the palace of Fontainebleau.

Fire and shelling had damaged and destroyed large portions of the cathedral at Reims, the traditional site of a French king's coronation. According to the cathedral's website, architect Henri Deneux had begun restoration work in 1919, but had difficulty finding the funds, materials, and manpower to support the effort. Rockefeller's generous grants in 1924 and 1927 allowed Deneux to reconstruct the church's nave, roof, and angel bell tower. The cathedral fully reopened to the public in 1938.

The château de Versailles had not been damaged by fighting during the first World War, but by neglect and the redirection of funds. According to a thesis on the uses of Versailles in the twentieth century, the condition of the site was alarming and conservation measures at the palace had come to a standstill, despite the Hall of Mirrors having witnessed the signing of the treaty that ended the war. Rockefeller earmarked seventy-six percent of his donation for Versailles. The money was used to restore the main palace buildings, the grounds, and the two Trianons. Without Rockeller's gift,  the palace as we know it today might not have survived.

The palace of Fontainebleau foundered in similar decrepitude. As at the two other sites, Rockefeller's grant repaired Fontainebleau's roofs, walls, woodwork, ironwork, and masonry--projects which ensured the safety and solidity of the structure itself, as this article in the 1925 Revue des deux mondes emphasizes. All of the windows and doors were replaced and railings reinforced. On the grounds, leaky basins and fountains were repaired, staircases restored, the canal and carp pond renewed. The theater's roof and attics, damaged by a fire in 1887, were rebuilt. Rockefeller's timely gift saved Fontainebleau from a disintegration that worsened daily.

photo by Trizek
In thanks for his dedication to the preservation of her treasured historic sites, France awarded John D. Rockefeller, Jr. its highest prize, the Grande Croix of the Légion d'honneur, in 1936. A celebration was held at the newly renovated palace of Versailles to honor its benefactor. (Watch a short newsreel of the event here.) Francophiles the world over are forever grateful that national boundaries could not  constrain the American philanthropist's foresight and generosity.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Book-a-Day Challenge: Week 4 Recap

Here is the final installment of my June Book-a-Day responses. The challenge was a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too. I hope some of the books I've mentioned over the last month have found their way into your To-Be-Read pile.

June 22. Out of print: FRANCIS THE FIRST, FIRST GENTLEMAN OF FRANCE by Francis Hackett. Published in 1934 by Irish journalist and novelist Hackett, this witty biography presents a colorful and fairly accurate account of the French king's exploits. It was the first biography of Francis I ever read. I own a copy of a later edition, but I'd buy a copy of this first edition for the dust jacket alone!

June 23. Made to read at school: As a literature Ph.D, I couldn't possibly count all the books I've been made to read at school! Here's one, though, dating back to college, that I probably never would have picked up on my own: HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad. For whatever reason, I expected to hate it, but it's turned out to be one of my favorite books. I've read it several times, once aloud to my husband as we drove from New Jersey to North Carolina. Sure made the miles pass quickly!

June 24. Hooked me into reading: BARNEY BEAGLE by Jean Bethell. I remember my mom buying me this book at the grocery store when I was five or six years old. I loved this story of the beagle in the pet shop window and the boy brought him home. I kept the book for years, and although I eventually lost it in a move, I've never lost the love of reading it inspired. I still remember how much I treasured that pink and brown Easy was the very first book I got to choose for myself.

June 25. Never finished it: PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN WOMAN by Vanora Bennett. I made it more than halfway through this novel set in Tudor England and then had to keep bumping it to read books scheduled for review. Eventually too much time passed and I realized I'd have to start over to rescue the plot and characters from the mists of memory. I was enjoying the novel and fully intend to finish...will make it one of my TBR goals for the summer.

June 26. Should have sold more copies: I'm changing this one to Should SELL more copies and listing all my writer friends' current books. All these authors have written excellent novels and I want to see their books continue to fly off the shelves! The list includes Heather Webb's BECOMING JOSEPHINE; Susan Spann's CLAWS OF THE CAT and soon-to-be-released BLADE OF THE SAMURAI; Marci McGuire Jefferson's GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN; Lisa Janice Cohen's DERELICT; Patricia Bracewell's SHADOW ON THE CROWN; Lucy Pick's PILGRIMAGE; Helene Wecker's THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI; Sophie Perinot's THE SISTER QUEENS; Ann Weisgarber's THE PROMISE; Maryanne O'Hara's CASCADE, and all the wonderful books by Michelle Moran, Christopher W. Gortner, and Catherine Delors. Reader friends can't go wrong by picking up any of these books! How high can we push their numbers?

June 27. Want to be one of the characters: THE HEPTAMERON by Marguerite de Navarre. If I got to be one of the characters in the Queen of Navarre's story collection, I would experience life in Renaissance France and see for myself the places, people and things I love reading and learning about. I would choose to become one of the characters in a tale set at court, or even Parlamente, the figure who, in the collection's frame story, represents the author herself.

June 28. Bought in my favorite independent bookstore: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN. Twain is my husband's favorite author, and I bought this at our local independent bookstore, Towne Center Books, a couple of years ago when it first appeared and kept selling out. The owner of TCB miraculously obtained a copy for me, making my husband one happy camper on his birthday. TCB is a great shop and hosts marvelous events--my friend Susan Spann will be appearing there again in a few weeks' time to celebrate the release of her second Shinobi mystery.

June 29. The one I have reread most often: I really don't like to reread books...there are so many books I haven't read, I hesitate to spend time rereading a story I already know. The two books I've reread most often are GONE WITH THE WIND and KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER, but since I've already used those as answers for other questions, I'll mention GREEN DARKNESS by Anya Seton. I loved this book in high school. When I came across a used copy at a book sale a few years ago, I decided to reread it, hoping to recapture the magic. Unfortunately, the story didn't appeal to me at all thirty years later. Guess I'm not as romantic as I once was!

June 30. Would save if my house burned down: GIRART DE ROUSSILLON ou L'EPOPEE DE BOURGOGNE. I would save this book because it is the most beautiful I own: a full-color facsimile reproduction of the illustrated manuscript of the twelfth century chanson de geste recorded by Jean de Wauquelin in 1453 for the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe Le Bon, who wanted to claim Girart as an illustrious ancestor. An absolute delight to view, it was an extravagant gift from my husband back when we had little money.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Exhibit: "Miracles in Miniature: The Art of the Master of Claude de France"

The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City is hosting an exhibit of particular interest. "Miracles in Miniature: The Art of the Master of Claude de France" runs through Septermber 14, 2014, and features works by the favored artist of Claude de France, François I's first wife. The show focuses on the 2 3/4-by-2-inch illuminated prayer book the artist created for the queen, who bore seven children by the age of 24. You can read more about the exhibit here and browse every page of the prayer book online here. Of course, it would be even more amazing to see the book and accompanying works in person at the museum.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book-a-Day Challenge: Week 3 Recap

June 15. Favorite fictional father: The unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. With complete devotion, this man struggles to protect his son from starvation, attack, and exposure as they travel through a post-apocalyptic world. The ailing father's fear for his son's future is palpable and gut-wrenching.

June 16. Can't believe more people haven't read: KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undsett. This trilogy, set in medieval Norway, won Undsett the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Kristin, a willful nobleman's daughter, suffers a life of hardship and remorse after marrying an impetuous and wasteful ne'er-do-well after a passionate illicit romance. Read all three volumes to experience the full cycle of Kristin's sin, remorse, and redemption. A powerful and accurately detailed evocation of medieval life.

June 17. Future classic: THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker. This amazing blend of Jewish and Syrian folklore, set in the immigrant neighborhoods of 1890's New York City, examines the nature of love and what it means to be human. A rich, multilayered novel with just the right touch of the supernatural, THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI is sure to feature on future reading lists. This New York Times book review gives a good overview of the novel's delicious complexity.

June 18. Bought on a recommendation: THE ORPHAN MASTER by Jean Zimmerman. Author Susan Spann (CLAWS OF THE CAT) recommended this one to me last summer. I did thoroughly enjoy it, although it was a bit gruesome for my taste at times. As a serial killer stalks orphaned children in 17th century Manhattan, a young Dutchwoman's romance with a dashing Englishman becomes subject to horrible accusations. I love stories set in the early days of New York City, and Zimmerman's evocation of Dutch Manhattan is richly detailed and convincing.

June 19. Still can't stop talking about it: SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME by Lawrence Hill. I always suggest this novel to people asking for recommendations. It recounts the life of a girl captured in West Africa in 1745 and sold into slavery. She survives a harrowing existence on an indigo plantation in South Carolina and eventually arrives in New York City, where the British promise freedom to slaves who fight alongside the redcoats in the War for Independence. This gripping and convincing tale offers insights into less familiar colonial-era slavery and dramatizes the British attempt to resettle freed/escaped slaves in Nova Scotia after the war. Publishers Weekly called the book "stunning, wrenching, inspiring," and I heartily agree.

June 20. Favorite cover: THE SEAMSTRESS by Frances de Pontes Peebles. I prefer covers without people on them, and the colors and composition of this one appeals to me. Haven't yet finished reading the book, but the story of two sisters whose skills with the needle lead them to vastly divergent fates in the lawless backcountry of Brazil has been intriguing. A good book to read during the World Cup!

June 21. Summer read: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. I'm really looking forward to reading this book about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France. Readers claim they can't put it down yet never want it to end...a perfect read for the endless days of summer!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#Luckyseven--Book Excerpt

I've been tagged by SHADOW OF THE CROWN author Pat Bracewell to play Lucky 7, an online game for writers. The rules are as follows:

-- Go to page 7 or 77 of your current manuscript.
-- Go to line 7.
-- Copy and post the next 7 lines or sentences, as they are.
-- Tag 7 other people to do the same.

Here is an excerpt from my new novel. In this scene François, the King of France, held captive by Charles Quint, the Holy Roman Emperor, contemplates committing perjury in order to win his freedom:

Never would he forgive the outrage of this unchivalrous captivity; never would he forget. It would lie between them forever, a jagged, ugly sword-slash festering beneath a livid scar, polluting the body and belching pus at the slightest poke. He would hide the wound well, cushion it with gauze, tame its fevered delirium with soothing potions and distracting words. 

Until the day Milan was his. 

François could hold out no longer. It was no surprise Charles failed to treat him like a king, when he feared to act like one.

Thanks, Pat, for the chance to share! Now I'm tagging Heather Webb, Janet Butler Taylor, Liza Perrat, Marci Jefferson, Maryanne O'Hara, Erika Mailman and Lisa Janice Cohen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Festina lente, or Hurry up and Finish already!

I promised to share some of the things I learned while completing what I hope will be the final revision of my manuscript before it goes out on submission to publishers. Although I'd heard many of these things before from other writers, it wasn't until I experienced them for myself that I realized how true they were. Here is what the intense, exhilarating and oftentimes harrowing experience of revising a four hundred page novel taught me:

1) It can always be better.

Never be satisfied -- that's my new motto. Passages that in the past I'd thought polished and perfected revealed flaws when viewed through the filters of time and distance. Sure, a manuscript can be good, even quite good, but would a little more effort make it really sparkle? Eventually, you reach the point where you have to stop revising either due to time constraints or the need to preserve your sanity, but until then, every word, every sentence should be subjected to careful and considered review.

2) Less really is more.

Cut, cut, cut. Words. Scenes. Characters. Extraneous dialogue. I was amazed at how much I managed to shave off a manuscript I'd already edited several times. Whittling away at the excess verbiage not only makes the words that remain shine like polished gems, but frees up space for deepening character and motivation and fine-tuning the plot. Scenes become all the more powerful when every word, every image, pulls its weight and contributes to the overall effect. 

3) Don't avoid the difficult scenes.

When my agent read an unfinished version of the manuscript last summer along with an outline of the chapters still to be written, she said, "You are going to include a scene where Characters X and Y confront each other and the balance of power shifts, right?" It wasn't a question. I knew such a scene was necessary but I'd left it out, hoping to write around it because it was going to be, well, so hard to write. Frankly, it scared the bejeebers out of me. At the time, I still lacked the plot element upon which the shift depended; moreover, I feared my writing skills weren't adequate to the task. But I couldn't deny it: having such a vital confrontation occur off-stage robbed the conclusion of emotional heft and eviscerated Character X's moral victory. Taking my agent's advice, I forced myself to write the scene. It definitely was hard going, but transformed the last quarter of the book. I can't imagine the ending having the impact it now does without it.

During this final rewrite, I realized that a similar show-down between two different characters, a show-down I had again purposely avoided writing, was necessary to explain and justify one of the character's later actions. Having learned that it is possible to ignore those niggling voices of inadequacy and plunge headfirst into a heated emotional conflict one would run screaming from in real life, I wrote the scene. It's now one of my favorites and adds a healthy bit of emotional complexity to the dénouement.

Moral of the story: don't take the easy way out. Stretch yourself, technically and emotionally, by writing those scenes that challenge you in the deepest ways possible. Both your manuscript and you as a writer will be all the better for it.

4) Trust your gut and give rein to your subconscious.

If your instincts tell you that a scene doesn't work, or a character's actions fail to convince, or the plot has sprung more leaks than a colander, listen. Better to wrestle with such issues in early drafts than to ignore them and have to contort or rewrite large chunks of the story later in order to correct the flaws. But as you work to rectify the problem, don't force things; allow your subconscious mind time to assess the true nature of the problem and sort through possible solutions. Given the number of times I've abandoned a scene in despair, only to come back to it later with the perfect solution in hand, I'm convinced that my mind continues to work on the problem when I'm not consciously thinking about it. In fact, I often come up with stronger, more creative ideas when I'm not actively trying to produce them. It's your story--trust your mind and heart to find the most effective way to tell it.

5) Keep the momentum going, but don't rush.

You need to have the story fresh in your mind to make proper connections between chapters and to layer in additional emotional or thematic depth; working in fits and starts makes such shading and fine-tuning all the more difficult. I found it a great help to reread the entire manuscript start to finish before I began revising in order to have the shape of it fresh in my mind. Once I started to revise, I did as much as possible every day and tried not to let more than a day go by without working.

However, revising a large project like this has a rhythm of its own that must be respected. At the beginning, excited and eager, I moved along at a steady clip. Things slowed down towards the middle, and at times I thought I would never finish. Once over the hump, I began to get antsy and just wanted to be done. Knowing that I might get less discerning the closer I got to the end, I decided to edit the last quarter of the book out of sequence. I jumped ahead to revise the last section before returning to polish the third. This way, I wasn't tempted to let things slide in the all-important concluding chapters in a rush to finish. I am so thankful I chose this path and credit to it the energy I still had to recast and rewrite the ending of the novel.

When I was a child, I embroidered a picture of a tortoise surrounded by the motto "Slow but steady wins the race." Little did I know that forty years later this would become my writing mantra. If publication is the prize, I still haven't won it, but I'm getting all the closer, one step/page/manuscript at a time.