Pages

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books I Read in 2008

In what I hope to make an annual tradition, here is a list and brief impression of the historical novels I read this year. I was fortunate to have some of these authors as guests on my blog; others I hope to invite. Some of these books I read for pleasure, some for review and some for research; some were released in 2008, others will be released in 2009 and others are older books I just happened to discover. Overall, for me, this was a banner year as I enjoyed almost every book I read.

1. The Twice Born - Pauline Gedge
Pauline Gedge returns to form in this brilliant first installment of a trilogy about the rise of a magician priest to the Pharaoh Ramses. Eerie, magical, and filled with details of life in ancient Egypt.
2. The Sun and the Moon - Vonda McIntyre
This beautiful novel is about a sea monster who is captured and brought to Versailles, and the effect it has on a bold young woman in the court of Louis XIV.
3. Lady of the Roses - Sandra Worth
The deadly War of the Roses as seen through the eyes of a brave woman determined to safeguard her family from the destruction.
4. Kleopatra - Karen Essex
5. Pharoah - Karen Essex
She's been written about 1,000 times; but I must admit, Karen Essex's two-volume novel is my favorite portrayal of the legendary Egyptian queen. It's witty and gorgeously rendered.
6. Mistress of the Sun - Sandra Gulland
I liked her Josephine B. trilogy; but I fell in love with this exquisite portrayal of Louise de la Valliere and the beginning of the Sun King's extravagant reign.
7 -12. Los Reyes Malditos (The Accursed King Series) - Maurice Druon
This six-volume re-issue in Spanish of Druon's masterpiece series brings to unapologetic life all the intrigue, cruelty and recklessness of medieval France. No author has ever made me revel so much in such despicable characters.
13. Gladiatrix - Russell Whitfield
This debut about a female gladiator is as fast-paced and thrilling as a trip to the arena. If Angelina Jolie signed up for the film version, she'd make Crowe's Gladiator look like a wimp.
14. Stealing Athena - Karen Essex
Elegant rendition of the story of the famed Elgin Marbles, as told through the eyes of the wife of the man who brought them to England and the courtesan lover of the Greek lord who commissioned them.
15. Mistress of the Art of Death - Ariana Franklin
Compulsively readable, creepy thriller about a medieval forensics expert and a serial killer of children.
16. The Boleyn Inheritance - Philippa Gregory
My favorite book of hers; fast-paced and at times quite humorous, it tells the intertwined stories of giddy Cat Howard, resentful Jane Rochford, and sage Anne of Cleves. Guess who survives?
17. Needle in the Blood - Sarah Bower
18. The Book of Love - Sarah Bower
Two of the most exquisite novels I read in 2008, the first about the making of the Bayeux Tapestry and a doomed love affair; the other about a Jewess caught in the tentacles of the Borgia clan. The language is breathtaking and the stories finely crafted as music boxes.
19. The Wise Woman - Philippa Gregory
An unrelentingly grim tale set in Tudor England, about a young woman's determination to rise in power and the chaos she unleashes on a local lord's household.
20. Vlad - C.C. Humphreys
Unsettling, masterful evocation of the historical Dracula as seen through the eyes of his three intimates.
21. Brethren - Robin Young
First in a trilogy about a youth's adventures in the ranks of the Templars, this was an unexpectedly exciting read with much more going for it than the ubiquitous DaVinci Code link.
22. The Heretic Queen - Michelle Moran
Michelle Moran returned to ancient Egypt in her sequel to Nefertiti and delivered a balanced, nuanced look at the doomed queen's niece and her struggle to become queen in her own right.
23. Signora da Vinci - Robin Maxwell
This fascinating, erudite tale of Leonardo da Vinci's mother brings Renaissance Florence to vibrant life. It will be released in January. Look for more about this book on this blog soon!
24. The Borgias and their Enemies - Christopher Hibbert
Good, if basic, account of the Borgia family and their influence. I read it for research and discovered some tidbits.
25. Mistress of the Revolution - Catherine Delors
Catherine Delors' masterful debut about a naive young woman caught up in the terrors of the French Revolution and her struggle to find her own independence.
26. The Witch's Trinity - Erika Mailman
Another creepy read, about an older medieval woman's descent into torment as she battles her own memory loss and a family member's accusation of witchcraft.
27. The Dracula Dossier - James Reese
A stylish paen to Victoriana, this tells the story of Bram Stoker's inspiration for his famous vampire novel. While working as a theatre manager, Stoker becomes immersed in the killings of Jack the Ripper. Extensive footnotes add to the feeling of stepping back in time.
28. Revelation - C.J. Sansom
I love this Tudor series about Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer, and this is one of the darker entries yet, as Shardlake races to save a boy caught up in a religious frenzy and stop a serial killer who is murdering people with Biblical-styled wrath.
29. The Queen's Bastard - Robin Maxwell
This account of Arthur Dudley, alleged illegitimate child of Elizabeth I and Robert of Leicester, is distinguished by its scholarship and the intertwined stories of Elizabeth's struggle to assert her queenship over her heart, and Arthur's adventures as he travels to Flanders and Spain.
30. The Book of Unholy Mischeif - Elle Newmark
Another ARC I read, this unusual look at the world of 15th century Venetian chefs and hermetic secrets exalts the effects of food on the soul, and the sacrifices we make to preserve our truths.
31. Under A Marble Sky - John Shors
Lovely, detailed tale of the building of the Taj Mahal and of the forbidden love between the royal daughter of the king who commissioned it and its humble-born architect.
32. The Fencing Master - Arturo Perez Reverte
My favorite Reverte book to date, an elegant thriller about a stoic old-fashioned fencing instructor in late 17th century Spain and a mysterious woman who turns his world upside down.
33. Company of Liars - Karen Maitland
Dark and twisting, this tale of nine travelers trying to elude their own secrets and the Black Death in 14th century England captured me from the first page to the last.

Happy reading to you all in 2009!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Back from the Holidays

It seems like ages since I last posted and I wanted to wish you all a very happy holiday season and New Year. I actually am just getting over the most evil cold in the universe, which felled me shortly before Christmas. I'm on the mend but still a bit woozy from the massive amounts of decongestants I imbued.

On the book news front, I've received some new revision requests from my editor for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, which I'm currently at work on. While it feels as though this book simply refuses to leave me, in truth my editor's comments were very insightful and so I'm tackling this latest- and hopefully, final - revision in the spirit that it gives me an opportunity to highlight the book's characters and themes. I'm quite excited about the revisions, which is great, as I'll need all the passion I can muster to make my March 15 deadline! If all goes as planned, the book will be on the spring 2010 publication schedule.

And lastly, while I was sick, I read a terrific debut novel titled Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. Set in 14th century England during the time of the Pestilence, this is a chilling, riveting tale of nine travelers who come together seemingly by accident and forge an uneasy alliance in order to outwit the black death. As narrated by the one-eyed relic hawker, Camelot, we journey with them through a collapsing world of flood, fear, and famine, where townships are abandoned overnight to the plague and the road harbors both criminals and fugitives. As the travelers begin to sense an unseen presence stalking them, they must either face the secrets within their midst or fall prey to a force intent on destroying them. Along the way they will confront who they are to each other, and most importantly, who they are to themselves. This is a captivating novel; beautifully rendered, dark, frightening, and engrossing, replete with details of medieval life in a time when all semblance of order breaks down and magical in its depiction of the invisible collusion between the physical and the spiritual.

You can read more about Karen Maitland and her work here: http://www.karenmaitland.com/
The book is available both in the UK and the US. The featured cover is the UK version.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Two New Movies Set In Spain


Though my focus for this blog is books, I must admit that I love historical movies. And for me, there's nothing better than a movie after that big Thanksgiving meal! Also, several months ago a reader of this blog asked me to post something film-related and I promised him I would. Movies often help us visualize the eras we read about, and bring a marvelous sense of immediacy to the past; while I still prefer to read, I must admit when a movie or TV series looks this good, I'm the first in line.

Two new historical films were released recently that I personally can't wait to see. Both are set in Spain during the reign of Philip II - an era that I'm planning to write about. I haven't located US release dates on either film yet, alas; but I did find their YouTube trailers, so enjoy!

La Conjura del Escorial (The Escorial Conspiracy)
Based on true events, this film is set during the Golden Age of Philip II's Spain, when an ambitious courtier and his noblewoman lover set off a dramatic and dangerous chain of events that resulted in the murder of Juan of Austria's secretary and the lovers' downfall. I'm hoping to write about the one-eyed Princess of Eboli, played here by Julia Ormond, so to me this looks like a marvelous film, with excellent costumes and wonderful ambiance to inspire my own visions.

El Greco
The life of the enigmatic Greek painter, also set in the era of Philip II. This film was directed by a Greek, who spent years passionately attached to the project until he managed to secure enough financing from Spain, Greece and Hungary. It follows the story of the painter from his youth in Crete to his forbidden love affair with Jimena de Cuevas and near-fatal clash with the Inquisition in Toledo. British stage actor Nick Ashdon captures the role of this indominitable talent, who is by far my favorite late-Renaissance painter.

(Click on the images to access the YouTube trailers).

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! It's been a great year, and I thank you all for sharing your thoughts and time with me.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Look at Cover Art

My friend Sarah Johnson has a great post on her blog Reading the Past about cover art, featuring the trade edition and hardcover art of the same books. It's very interesting to see how publishers re-interpret books, and how, in most cases, the trade edition usually looks more appealing. Seeing as I'm getting a new cover for the trade of The Last Queen, and I'm a big cover art aficionado, I loved this post.
Check it out:
http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2008/11/yes-were-back-to-looking-at-cover-art.html

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Get Thee to The Book Shop

If you’ve been following the news lately, no doubt you’ve heard about the terrible downturn in the economy. People are losing jobs; previously solid companies are crumbling; the stock market is creaking and plunging like an old ship; and fear runs rampant.

The publishing industry has been hit especially hard. All major houses are reporting declines in revenues and a near-standstill of sales of both new hard covers and backlist titles, unless of course you’re fortunate enough to have had your book anointed by Oprah or the best of your publisher’s publicity machinery churning ceaselessly behind you. PW Daily reported today that in the month of September: “Sales at bookstores, sporting goods stores and hobby stores fell a total of 1.6% in the month on an adjusted basis. “ For the entire retail segment, sales figures are at a record low. The CEO of Barnes & Noble sent out a memo warning booksellers to brace themselves for one of the worst holiday seasons in history and a high-level publishing executive predicted in a recent keynote address at an industry conference that the “worst is yet to come.”

For debut authors like me, it's dire news, indeed. THE LAST QUEEN came out only a month or so before the market crash hit. The verdict is still out on final sales, of course, it being too early in the book’s life to say; but I can say at times I felt as though I was pushing a hard-covered stone up a hill, not withstanding a brief stint on the Marin Independent Journal bestseller list.

Fortunately, the trade paperback will be published in May, 2009, and as a Random House Readers Group selection, the venues for marketing and publicity are more established.
It has been a sobering experience for me as a writer, discovering that for many of us, books have become a luxury item and many people eager to read a book in hard cover are instead now waiting for the paperback. The reasons are varied, anywhere from the fact that paperbacks are easier to carry to the preference for the format. But in the end, of course, it comes down to price. After all, there is quite a gap between $25.00 and $14.95, the average trade paperback price.

There was a time when the collector value of hard covers was all important; sadly, it seems that time, like so many other golden artifacts of the industry, is fast coming to its end. In the UK, the practice of releasing a new author into the market in hardcover is nearly extinct; it takes a sizeable advance and significant advance buzz to convince UK publishers otherwise. Many houses are implementing original trade paperback imprints and many of these imprints are proving that the public will still buy books— when the price is right.

In the US, however, hard covers still represent a better chance at reviews and publicity coverage by major sources like newspapers. The tide is slowly turning; but ask any author how they’d feel if they had to relinquish their hard cover deal for an original trade paperback one instead, and the shudder is usually palpable. It often comes down to simple economics: hardcover advances are usually higher.

It bears noting that publishers have hardly raised prices in over ten years. I have a hardcover I purchased in 1998 that was $21.99. My most recent purchase was $25.00. Given the cost of paper and shipping, as well as overall production costs that go into publishing a book these days, this is not a significant price increase to keep up with inflation. And a hardcover book is still cheaper than a night at the movies for two or even a decent dinner these days, plus it offers more hours of entertainment than either. Profit margins for publishers, too, remain surprisingly low for most books, given the discounts for booksellers and the antiquated returns system, which can condemn a title to oblivion before it’s even had a chance to find its audience.

I was therefore not surprised that during a recent dinner with some fellow author friends the dominant theme of the conversation was the horrifying state of publishing and our collective fear that together with the nation, our careers are plunging into an abyss. While writers tend to shy away from giving actual sales figures – a left-over from the genteel era in publishing, when discussing your numbers was almost as uncouth as discussing your advance— my friends were touting out their Bookscan and Point of Sale figures with the appalled shock of those who witness a terrible car crash on their commute home, know someone has perished in that twisted wreckage of smoking metal, and feel utterly helpless. It was both refreshing and devastating to experience such unadulterated candor - and hard on my wallet, as I immediately felt the need to hightail it to my nearest bookstore and purchase books as though I were about to be exiled to a desert island with nothing to read.

There are silver linings, to coin a cliché. The fabulous, entrepreneurial author and business woman MJ Rose of AuthorBuzz recently put together a blog ad campaign with 24 authors (including me) who grouped our dollars to gain more exposure and run rotating blog ads promoting reading and books as the perfect holiday gift. Likewise, my publisher Random House is running a similar campaign aimed at motivating consumers to buy books this Christmas. The truth is, a book is still less expensive than most luxury items and can bring its recipient days of pleasure. And books remain the mainstay of our civilization, proof that we are intelligent beings with the capacity to celebrate and explore our shared humanity. With mere paper and ink, entire worlds are shared; often, this world is created by one person who spends years laboring over his or her work to bring it before the public. That is the magic of the book.

We are fast becoming a society of quick fixes and disposable entertainment. We watch ourselves online and discard whatever ceases to please us. We’re bombarded more and more by novelty, compelled to choose the new-fangled over the tried and true. Yet now is the time to rally to our booksellers; to forego that DVD or perfume purchase and give someone we love a book, instead.

We’ll be a far poorer society, indeed, not just in terms of money, if we let our current crisis dictate the fate of the enduring love we have for books.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Last Queen in Spain

On November 12, The Last Queen was published in Spain as La Ultima Reina. Just by coincidence, I recieved my author's advance copy the same day, and I must say, it's gorgeous. It's published in hardcover, and it has a wonderful matte finish and spot-varnished gothic spiral design on the edges that isn't visible on the JPEG of the cover. The translation is also marvellous; to read it in Spanish is strange, almost as though these are not my words. Plus, it reads so much richer, the language being so evocative of Juana herself.
This is the fun part of being a writer!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Murder, Mayhem and Historical London: Two New Mysteries

Okay, enough lamenting the passage of hatred and onto better stuff. I've had the marvelous good fortune to read not one, ladies and gentlemen, but two excellent historical mysteries recently and I thought I'd pass on the good news.

REVELATION by C.J. Sansom
In his fourth outing, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is up against a gruesome serial killer intent on bringing forth the prophecies of Revelation through a series of Biblical-inspired killings. Called in to attend to the bizarre case of a young boy imprisoned for madness and suspected of suffering from demonic possession, when Shardlake discovers the slain body of his best friend in a frozen fountain, he is once again caught between the machinations of the Tudor court, where Henry VIII has set his sights on a reluctant Catherine Parr, his own waning spirituality, and the brutality of existence in Tudor London. As always, Sansom paints a realistic portrait of an era where power and wealth are the ultimate prize and life is easily disposed of; his attention to detail conjures a time both vastly different and eerily reminiscent of our own, a world where religious fundamentalism threatens to uproot the foundations of reason and men struggle to come to terms with the meaning of justice and faith. Excellent!
(I read the UK edition of REVELATION, which is published by McMillan. The US edition - pictured here - will be released on 2/5/2009).

VEIL OF LIES by Jeri Westerson
In Ms Westerson's debut in a genre dubbed Medieval Noir, Crispin Guest, a former knight who has lost everything due to an ill-advised foray into treason and now struggles to make a living as a 'watcher', is hired by a wealthy, eccentric merchant to investigate the possibility that the merchant's nubile wife is an adulteress. What seems at first to be a mundane and quick way for Crispin to make some money quickly twists into a murder case with no obvious culprit or motive, and a frantic search for a holy relic that might possess supernatural powers. As Crispin finds himself falling unwittingly under the spell of the merchant's widow, he grapples with a cabal of sinister foes intent on retrieving the relic for themselves, even at the cost of innocent lives. Ms Westerson presents a vivid portrait of the chaos of medieval London during the rarely-explored reign of Richard II; the vagaries of fate that easily cast people into penury; and of how lies can mask the truth. Crispin is conflicted, flawed and devastatingly sexy; this is a noteworthy addition to the canon and I look forward to Crispin's next outing, to be published by St. Martin's Press in 2009.
(VEIL OF LIES was published on 10/28/08 and is now available in bookstores everywhere. See Jeri's recent guest post here on Historical Boys.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Once, Twice, Three Times A Faggot

A friend of mine sent this to me; his friend wrote it. It eloquently sums up how I, and many others, feel today:

I never went to the prom. I never went to the homecoming dance.
I never went to any school dances for the most part.
Save for one dance in high school in the cafeteria that was organized by the teachers, I never went to any. Honestly, even though I was invited, I never felt welcome.

That dance in the cafeteria, I thought it would be fun. It was horrible. While I was invited and while I went and while I even danced, briefly, I was uncomfortable. And I was laughed at. For dancing. For thinking it was okay to be there.

And while there were those who tried to make me feel comfortable and wanted me there and stood up for me when I was picked on, the reality was that I still felt I shouldn't be there.

Election Day 2008 feels like that dance to me.

Everyone is partying. Everyone is celebrating. I've been invited, welcomed, and supported. And yet, I feel like I've been kicked to the sidelines, watching everyone party, while being separated.

While I was campaigning during election day, I was called a 'faggot.' Not once, not twice, but three times. By differing guys in different trucks as they drove down the road past me in San Francisco. In San Francisco.

At the time, it just sort of seemed par of the course for the day. But now, upon reflection, I can't help but feel like no matter how much we advance our rights in general and no matter how much strength we think we might have in a city or a community, we are still easy targets. With the numerous fellow Americans voting to deny my equality here in California and around the country in other state propositions this year and over the last many decades, it just seems that no matter where we go or how far we climb, they're still laughing at us for even considering dancing at the party.

So here we are with the biggest celebration in decades. An historic win for the presidency and our friends throughout the country. And everyone is partying. Save me.

Oh, yes, I'm heartened that I've been invited and all my friends are telling me I'm welcome and supported. And I'm heartened that so many supporters were out there working for my right to be there. And I'm happy that everyone has their happiness and are enjoying dancing. But I feel like I'm sitting on one of the chairs by the wall of the high school gymnasium while the rest of my fellow students enjoy the party.

And so even though I'm here, I just can't dance today.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Halloween Treat: Guest Post from Erika Mailman, author of THE WITCH'S TRINITY

I recently met author Erika Mailman at San Jose's Book Group Expo. She's a lovely young woman with a fascinating amount of information about witches and the persecution of witches, much of which she's channeled into her haunting debut novel, The Witch's Trinity, described by Booklist as a story that ". . .probes the human psyche, peeling back the layers of the basest human instincts to expose the dangerous frailties of the human soul." Set in medieval Germany during a terrible famine, The Witch's Trinity is narrated by an older woman in the throes of a struggle for her life and her safety against the prejudices of a town beset by fear and a lethal daughter-in-law's accusations of witchcraft.

I thought it would be fun to invite Erika to guest post here in celebration of Halloween, seeing as witches are my favorite All Hallows Eve denizens.

Please join me in giving Erika a warm welcome!

How do witches fly?
One of the prevailing characteristics of witches throughout time immemorial has been their ability to fly. Before broomsticks came into the picture, medieval imagery depicted witches flying on tree branches, as in this woodcut from De Lamiis, a pre-1500s tract written by German professor Ulrich Molitor to confirm the existence of witchcraft.

But how might a witch elevate herself? What provides the power that thickens the air and permits her to ride it?

We turn to the Malleus Maleficarum for the answer. The Malleus Maleficarum translates to “The Witch’s Hammer”—not the hammer a witch uses, but one that is used on her. This book, written in the 1480s, provides information on how to identify, question and punish witches, in essence a witch hunting Bible. Two German friars wrote it, based on their experiences roaming the countryside ridding it of witches. No less a personage than Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull complimenting these men on their hard work and providing an endorsement for them.

The book became a bestseller of its day, going through multiple editions over hundreds of years… and today, you can purchase a 1970s edition that is still in print. The Malleus purports to be legalistic and reasonable, even while it contradicts itself and provides flabbergastingly ridiculous examples of witchcraft. My edition provides nearly 300 pages of wince-worthy material… we would be laughing uproariously if hundreds of thousands hadn’t died because of its convictions.

So, the answer on how to fly. This comes from Part II, Question I, Chapter 3 (you can see that the very format of the book lends officiousness and dignity):

Now the following is their method of being transported. They take the unguent which, as we have said, they make at the devil’s instruction from the limbs of children, particularly of those whom they have killed before baptism, and anoint with it a chair or a broomstick; whereupon they are immediately carried up into the air, either by day or by night, and either visibly or, if they wish, invisibly; for the devil can conceal a body by the interposition of some other substance, as was shown in the First Part of the treatise where we spoke of the glamours and illusions caused by the devil. And although the devil for the most part performs this by means of this unguent, to the end that children should be deprived of the grace of baptism and of salvation, yet he often seems to affect the same transvection without its use. For at times he transports the witches on animals, which are not true animals but devils in that form; and sometimes even without any exterior help they are visibly carried solely by the operation of the devil’s power.

So there you have it: you must murder children before they can be baptized (saved), and create a potion from their limbs. Or with the devil’s help, you can dispense with the unguent and ride a devil in animal form, or just fly away solely.

The Malleus follows this information with a real-life example, to fortify its truth. The friars write of the town of Waldshut on the Rhine. Here lived a woman everyone hated so much that they didn’t invite her to a wedding that all the rest of the townsfolk attended. Indignant of the slight, she raised a hailstorm to ruin the festivities and prevent the guests from dancing.

Witches “usually” raise hailstorms by pouring water into a trench—since she had no water, she instead urinated into a little hole she dug and stirred it with her finger. A devil stood nearby, and when she was finished, he raised up the liquid and transformed it into the hailstones that fell on the celebrants.

[Quick tangent: how sad that she had no water. Was this indicative of the fact that she was a beggar and scorned for her inability to get food and drink for herself, to the extent that the town excluded her from the wedding celebration?]

As the woman re-entered the town, everyone who had been marveling at the hailstorm saw her and thought, “Aha!” Later, shepherds who had been tending their flocks and saw her urinate into the trench shared what they witnessed, and the witch was arrested.

She confessed to spoiling the wedding because she had not been invited. And they burned her at the stake.

What a frightening land and time to be a person that no one likes. Burned at the stake for the whims of weather, paired with guilt over not providing feast food for the one woman in town who was probably the most hungry.

As I wrote this guest post, I found myself wondering whether Waldshut really existed. Thanks to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldshut-Tiengen, I see that it is today amalgamated into the city of Waldshut-Tiengen.

And in the town, yes, still stands the Hexenturm ("Witches' Tower"), a round tower of the medieval fortified walls where witches once were jailed.

Erika Mailman is the author of The Witch’s Trinity, in which a traveling friar uses the Malleus Maleficarum to solve the mystery of a town’s famine. Each chapter begins with a quote from the book. Photo credit for woodcut is from Kors & Edwards: Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700.
Thank you, Erika! You can visit Erika and learn more about her writing at www.erikamailman.com.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Book group phobia

As some of you may know, I'll be attending the San Jose Book Group Expo this weekend. It's a great opportunity to meet readers face-to-face and discuss reading and writing in an informal, literary-salon setting. I'm very excited about this event, but it wasn't so long ago when an invitation to speak would have sent spasms of fear through me.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited a book group in person. The Secret Lion had been out for almost two years; I'd heard of book groups, of course, as well as their increasing importance to authors in an era of shrinking marketing dollars. But I’d never been in one and I had no idea of how they worked. Writer friends of mine had been encouraging me to make myself available to these groups; they kept saying, “You’re a great speaker, a real ham. You’re perfect for book groups. They'll adore you.”

The truth was, I was terrified. I’d done quite a few readings, signings, public speaking engagements; I'd even taught classes. I’m good with an audience. As my friends say, I am indeed a ham. But I was scared to the point of phobia of meeting with a group of readers who’d read my book and might question me at close-range about it. What if I’d made some inadvertent error that a reader would point out? What if they hated the book? What if they found my writing trite, irrelevant? What if they laughed at me? I understood my fear was totally illogical; but every writer struggles with some type of insecurity when it comes to their work; and for me, this was the Bogey Man of all authorial phobias— meeting readers up front and personal in an intimate setting.

As often happens, what we most fear, we attract. Shortly after I sold The Last Queen, I got a call from a local reading group. They'd selected The Secret Lion as their book for the following month and wanted to know if I was available to speak to them. What could I say? I agreed and then spent the next forty-five days worrying about it.

On the night I went to the house where the group was meeting, I felt ill. My hands were sweating; I was sure they’d see the beads of perspiration on my forehead and think I was coming down with some horrible flu. I could barely speak as I was introduced to everyone, the lump in my throat felt so big. Then, as the hostess offered me a glass of water and indicated the trays of canapés nearby in case I was hungry, a lovely young woman sitting opposite me burst out, “Oh, I loved your book! I couldn’t put it down. I can’t wait to hear you talk about it.”

It was if she’d shot Zen gamma rays at me. All the tension in my body seeped away. I looked about for the first time with clarity and was greeted by seven smiling faces. These are readers, I thought. Readers, just like me. People who’d read and liked a book, and were thrilled that the author was there to discuss it. How often had I finished a novel and thought, I wish I could tell the author how much I enjoyed this. I wish I could talk to him or her about my impressions. Then the hostess leaned in to me and chuckled softly, “You can relax now. We don’t bite.”

That night was one of the best evenings I’ve spent as a writer. We went beyond the hour time-frame, the discussion lively and enthusiastic. I was astonished by how much they’d found to talk about in my work, their different interpretations of it, the messages and themes they’d detected. Some of it I had intended while writing the book; quite a bit, I hadn’t. In the end, I learned far more about who I am as a writer than I’d ever expected, and was profoundly grateful for the experience, knowing it would stay with me forever and inform the ways I look at my writing. One book group had changed how I approached my craft.

I’ve spoken to several groups since then, some in person and some via phone chat. Invariably, whether it’s twelve readers or five or three, I always learn something new about my work, about how it’s experienced by someone other than me; where I’ve succeeded and where I have not. Not once have I ever put down the phone or closed the door without feeling that deep sense of passion and joy for books that readers bring to the world.

Readers are why I write. I might spend years crafting my sentences and scenes, reveling in my secret world, but in the end I need it to be bound and read by someone other than me. I write for pleasure; but my true reward is when I hear that one reader say: “I loved your book.”

Now, being invited to a book group is something I always cherish and look forward to.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Guest post from Nan Hawthorne, author of AN INVOLUNTARY KING

I'm delighted to present this guest post from Nan Hawthorne, author of AN INVOLUNTARY KING, A Tale of Anglo Saxon England. A meticulous researcher, Nan has a fascinating blog and her novel has received much critical acclaim.

The Historical Novel Review says:
". . .During the 8th century in a land called Críslicland, tragedy forces the unlikely hero, Lawrence upon the throne of the kingdom. His struggle to gather the wisdom, honor, and self-confidence to be a good king is the underlying catalyst that drives this rich tale forward. Undying love, humorous characters, treachery, and intrigue either grace or plague his life as he struggles to vanquish his many foes and return to the bosom of his loving family.The characters gush with integrity, endearing themselves to the reader. The prose is vibrant and the battle scenes so authentic that I found myself drawn inextricably into the ever-developing, engaging story. Nan Hawthorne’s passion for the medieval era is skillfully weaved into a tapestry of enchantment in this engrossing story. A must read for medieval enthusiasts. "
You can visit Nan and find out more about her work at: http://www.shield-wall.com/


Word Rivets:
On Quibbling about Language in Historical Fiction
by Nan Hawthorne


I paid attention to historical accuracy when I wrote An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England. The novel is based on stories a friend and I wrote as teenagers, and though it is set in a fictional Saxon kingdom in the late 8th century, I gave it my attention. I could call it alternate history and get away with anachronistic murder, but while preserving elements of the adolescents' vision, I got rid of the castles and knights and replaced them with timber stockades and shield walls. Home free? Not a chance.

My husband uses the expression "rivet counters" to refer to people who pick away at minor or irrelevant mistakes in historical fiction. He refers to those people who cannot get through a movie like "Titanic" without pointing out there are too few rivets in the hell. Thus, rivet counters are those people who overlook all the characteristics of fiction, in particular the skill of the storytelling, to point out trivial inaccuracies.

I quickly learned as I embarked on my career as a historical novelist that the author is as much or more likely to be jumped on for "too few rivets" as for any thinness of plot or unevenness of character development. It became apparent to me quickly that my fate was to have these irrelevant peccadilloes pointed out in scathing terms in public. It has, so far, only happened to me personally a couple of times, but I watch other authors getting creamed for what boil down to the critic's own beliefs and often misunderstanding of the author's chosen era. In particular, however, I want to address a criticism that is so obviously illogical I am surprised it is uttered at all, and that is the use of certain terms to denote an object or other concept in another time. In a nutshell, "You can't use that word because it did not exist in that year."

I personally got this one when I set up The Blue Lady Tavern blog (http://nanhawthorne.blogspot.com) and was informed that there was no word "tavern" in the late 8th century, that it did not come into use until the 13th century. Um, yeah, that's right. But then they didn't have the words "blue" or "lady" either.. they did not speak the English we do. It's the same as saying I could not call the establishment "The Blue Lady Tavern" because there were no such words in Tagalog at the time. Another writer told me how she was corrected when she used the word "pitcher", as no such word existed at that time. I promptly produced for her pictures of Anglo Saxon era pitchers. She had been told to use the word "jug". Do her critics mean that the Saxons called both jugs and those vessels with big looped handles "jugs"? How did they distinguish between them? Or could it be.. that they spoke a different language than we do and called them neither jugs nor pitchers?

There are two issues at work in this sort of word rivet counting. One is the old "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". Someone got a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and started looking words up. So they find that the first written reference to pitchers is not until the 14th century". But the word was not coined at the same time. The word had been in existence for some period of time before someone had occasion to write it down. Use and documentation are quite different matters. When you recall that most writing for many hundred years was done by clerics it becomes possible to imagine that many words might not have made it into print for generations.

More germane to my own use of "tavern" is the fact that when I write about the late 8th century in Lincolnshire I am in theory writing a complete translation. If I wrote the book in accurate language, the entire 648 pages would be in Old English, as in "Sume is incumen in, lhude singe cuccu." When I take whatever word a real person from that era uses to refer to a place where you can go to get a bowl of ale, it is my job as the writer to choose a word that expresses the idea so the reader can form a picture in his or her mind. Sure, I could have used "ale house" but that's not Old English either. I think tavern works fine. At least I didn't call it The Blue Lady Nightclub or The Blue Lady Disco!

I for one do not understand this quibbling over approximate or interchangeable terms. Why do some people insist on counting rivets? Yes, I want realistic settings and the history correct in those novels that are based on actual events. But these books aren't and never were intended to be nonfiction history. I appreciate those authors who add an author's note explaining which characters were real and which invented for the novel, what liberties were taken with the real history to make a more cohesive story. What really happened and what was made up. But in the long run, novels are about people and their lives, their stories and their feelings, their struggles and how they overcame them. The lovers in Titanic were not real, there were no such passengers on the ship, no massive jewel thrown into the sea. But Jack's and Rose's love, their self-sacrifice, their enduring will, those are things we can relate to and make us care about other human beings. How sad to miss it when concentrating on the rivets, "425, 426, 427…"

Nan Hawthorne is the author of "An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England" available in print and in a digital edition via Shield-wall Books www.shield-wall.com , as well as for blind and print impaired readers via Bookshare.org. Her blog, Tales from Shield-wall Books (http://nanhawthorne.blogspot.com) is updated daily.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Interview with C.C. Humphreys, author of VLAD: THE LAST CONFESSION

I recently had the privilege of reviewing C.C. Humphrey's VLAD: THE LAST CONFESSION, about the historical Dracula, for the Historical Novels Review. I've been a fan of his work for some time; I loved his novels about the man who executed Anne Boleyn (THE FRENCH EXECUTIONERand BLOOD TIES) as well as his dashing hero, JACK ABSOLUTE. I haven't read his YA novels yet, but VLAD is a masterpiece: an evocative, dark, impeccably researched account of the prince known as Vlad the Impaler, whose tumultuous reign gave rise to a terrifying legend.


Chris (C.C.) Humphreys was born in Toronto He has acted all over the world and appeared on stages ranging from London’s West End to Hollywood’s Twentieth Century Fox. Favorite roles have included Hamlet, Caleb the Gladiator in NBC’s Biblical-Roman epic mini-series, ‘AD - Anno Domini’ and Jack Absolute in Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’. As C.C. Humphreys, he's written five historical fiction novels. As ‘Chris Humphreys’ he has written a trilogy for Young Adults ‘The Runestone Saga’. His latest, VLAD: THE LAST CONFESSION, was published in Canada September 1. Chris lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife and young son. To learn more about him and his work, please visit: http://www.cchumphreys.com/

It's my great honor to welcome C.C. Humphreys.


1. Congratulations on the publication of VLAD: THE LAST CONFESSION. It's an honor to have you with us. This is a dark and evocative novel detailing the historical personage who inspired the legendary Dracula by Bram Stoker. While the vampire is exceedingly famous Prince Vlad Dracul is largely unknown. What inspired you to write about him?
In a word, alcohol. I got drunk with my editor in London, wept about elusive besteller-dom. Together we decided I had to stop making people up (Jack Absolute) and write about someone already known, as that’s what many readers like. But who hadn’t been done? No one it seemed. My editor suggested Dracula and I scoffed: someone so infamous had to have been covered, surely? Not, it seemed. That intrigued me initially. I was soon to find out why. Its very hard to write anything other than a horror story. But then I began to uncover certain ‘hooks’ such as his childhood spent as a hostage to the Turk. The more I uncovered the more fascinating he became. Soon, I just had to do it.

Oh, by the way, it’s Dracul-a. The ‘a’ makes it ‘son of’. Vlad Dracul was his father.

2. THE LAST CONFESSION is both graphic and unsentimental in its approach to this controversial man, who became known as the Impaler for his particularly horrific method of dispatching his enemies. The novel is framed through the “confessions” of three of his intimates: his companion in arms, his confessor, and his mistress. Are these characters based on actual personages or fictional? Why did you choose these particular three to tell his story?
These characters are fictional, though there may have been an ‘Ion Tremblac’ in Vlad’s camp. And there was one mistress whose experience I knew I’d need to write about. I chose them because I wanted to have a framing device that was quite Gothic. “Draw up your chair close to the fire and hear the true tale of Dracula,” kind of thing. So the closest people to him would be able to both observe him and, to a certain extent, take us inside his head – especially his confessor. It’s a bit of a cheat but it does allow Vlad himself to have a voice. As for their ‘roles’ – his comrade could speak to politics and war, his mistress to love and his confessor to motivation, though of course they all overlap.


3. What types of challenges did you encounter while researching this book? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about this time in history and Vlad’s role in it?
The main challenge was separating the facts from the propaganda. I have no doubt that the Impaler did terrible things – such as impale, by the thousand. But it is also true that his story was told almost entirely by men who hated him and wanted to blacken his name. And they had the means to do it – the printing press had been churning out religious tracts for about 20 years when Vlad was overthrown. But, as in that other great technological leap, the Internet, people soon tire of information and God. What they really want is sex and violence. Printers wanted pamphlets that would sell. Dracula’s deeds provided fantastic copy.


There were so many things I discovered that intrigued. One, that when all the other princes of Europe ignored the Pope’s call for crusade against the Turk in 1462, Vlad alone, in tiny Wallachia, raised the banner of the Cross – and damned near killed the Sultan! Another, that the week I was in Romania, the president had been impeached by his parliament. This had to go to a plebiscite so rallies were held for and against him. The president’s supporters carried two portraits on placards – him… and Dracula.


To this day, Vlad is held up as the benchmark of justice and probity in government. He turned the most lawless state into the most law-abiding using the Giuliani method of ‘zero tolerance’. Not sure Rudi ever impaled anyone, mind.

4. Vlad is difficult to empathize with, though in fact he did not behave more or less cruelly than other tyrannical princes of his age. He also fought against treacherous nobles and the ever-constant threat of Turkish invasion. Many writers would shy away from this fearsome man as a lead character for a historical novel. What decisions and/or compromises did you find yourself making as a writer when it came to telling his story?
Decisions? The crucial one came after much angst and struggle. I kept trying to make judgments, take an angle on him. And he wouldn’t come.


Then, one day I decided that I would not judge him, however horrific his deeds and actions. I would depict him – and let the reader judge. The Roman, Terence, his quote: ‘I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me’, I set above my desk. I may have flinched. But I wrote down what came and left judgment to the reader.


Compromises? The book is hefty. But if I’d told the whole story and followed every fascinating tangent I’d still be at it. I had to select. The framing device helped me here. I used the ‘confession’ to get necessary history out fast so I could get back to the story. I don’t like giving history lessons in my novels. But there’s lots that people need to know to make sense of the characters’ choices.


5. One of the most fascinating moments in the book depicts Vlad’s youth as a Turkish prisoner, in particular his stay in the Tokat prison. Few readers will expect that a Wallachian prince had spent time as a hostage. You also show a startling link between what he endures and his later behavior. There are moments in the novel that seem to hint that he suffers from some form of mental illness. Was this your intent? What do you think motivated him to act as he did?
Is that your judgment? Mental illness? I can, of course, neither confirm nor deny. But I think that many people, raised in extreme circumstances, pressured by extraordinary things, are capable of acts that could be interpreted as ‘mad’ without being clinically ‘crazy’. There could be any number of things that motivated him, from terrible abuse to religious fanaticism. Yes, I am hedging. But I’d rather keep my opinion to myself. Because it's not up to me any more. It's not my book any more. I believe that a novel is made by two people – the one who writes and the one who reads. My Vlad will be different from yours, theirs. I wouldn’t want to influence them now any more than I have already.

6. Please tell us about methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity.
Hmm! How long have you got? I think there are two types of authenticity – the age the character lived in and who the character is. For the first, we all try to set our protagonists against a credible backdrop, political, philosophical, social; how they were brought up, what they believed in, what clothes they wore. But how they process what they learn, what happens to them, their choices – that makes the journey. Characters’ authenticity is also revealed by what others think, say and do to them. One of the reasons I put a classic ‘love triangle’ at the center of the novel. So that each can reflect on, and react to, the other.

7. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
This is one of my ‘things’. I consider myself a modern novelist. I write historical fiction but I am a man of today, writing for today’s readers. Though there are huge differences in attitude and belief from the 15th century to today; there are also huge similarities. Men and women want many of the same things, physically, spiritually. And as for politically - is the conflict between Islam and Christianity any less fierce today? Are the Balkans any more stable? For the Turks Tokat, what price Guantanamo? We can haggle about rights and wrongs. They did. They still are.

So, there is resonance. But I am a storyteller and my first duty is to that. Readers will pick out whatever they choose. What I hope is that what really draws them in and holds them is my characters’ journeys.

8. Please tell us about your next project.
Well, I am touring Vlad all over Canada in the next month. Next year, it's out in the UK so there will be more there I am sure. As for writing, I am wearing my Young Adult hat again – you know I have just completed the Runestone Saga trilogy for Knopf? So now I am in the first draft of a stand alone novel about … unicorns! A little different than the Impaler. Mind you, that horn…


Thank you so much for joining us, Chris. Here's the much success with VLAD!
[To my readers: This guy is great, a fellow historical fiction writer with tremendous wit and talent, and a wonderful conversationalist. If you haven't read anything by him, now is the time.]

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The price of convenience

Yesterday, there was an article in PW Daily about a bookseller's passionate outburst to rally independent booksellers and the need to educate authors about disabling the Amazon.com links on their websites. She said it was a case of "survival."
http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6602371.html?nid=2286&source=link&rid

Several independently published authors chimed in on PW's page of the article with comments, basically relaying how they feel independents had snubbed them while chains and amazon.com let them compete in the marketplace. One commenter even pointed out that handicapped people can easily browse and buy books online, while navigating crowded stores that don't consider their special needs can be a nightmare.As an author who's on both sides of the equation - I'm both commercially and independently published - the article got me thinking about my own conflicts as a reader and writer.

As a reader, I do my utmost to spread my book dollars around; I support my local independents and I also have an amazon.com credit card that gives me a $25 gift certificate for every $2,500 I charge. I buy new books, used books; I don't discriminate. Yet I have friends who buy exclusively at amazon, while I know no one who buys exclusively at stores anymore; and as time has gone on I've started to understand just how flame-quenching a behemoth like amazon.com can be to the passion and the hours of joy I experience in a physical bookstore.

Books have gotten pricey; to me, however, $25 is still more than worthwhile. A book gives me days of enjoyment and still costs less than I spend on a meal - and considerably less than I spend on shoes! As an incurable bookaholic, however, I must confess that I'm very attracted by the heavy discounts I can get at amazon, without taxes, and with free shipping. I also know that for many of us living in the current economic meltdown, such discounting will make the difference between whether we buy books or not, and frankly I want people to buy books. So, as a reader, I find that both outlets suit my needs - but I also know that my choice to buy books online is in fact contributing to the demise of independent booksellers, who can't compete with online and chain discounting, and to the possible floundering of my career as a NY-published author.

When I first published THE SECRET LION, I tried very hard to get independent stores and chains to stock my book. But it wasn't returnable; it was printed on-demand; and of course no one knew who the publisher was, so everyone ignored me, except for a few local stores that heeded my pleas and took the book on consignment. I was proud of my achievement and my writing; I held my head high, but deep down I was ashamed. Whenever someone asked me who my publisher was, I cringed and hedged and basically told a big mouthful of half-truths, because being "independently published" was just a step up from being "self-published" and the industry remains one of snobbery, particularly when it comes to publishing. And without that imprimatur a large publisher accords, you're really nobody in most store managers' eyes. Shelf space is limited, as is time and money; what waste them on someone like me when you can get three more copies of the latest opus anointed by Oprah?

With the shame came hurt and anger, followed by my inevitable "I'll-show-them" attitude. My book was readily available online; in fact, besides the publisher facts area under the book image, no one could even tell how I was published. I dedicated myself to marketing online. I did not give up. I would not concede defeat. My motto was if stores wouldn't sell my book, by god I would. And I did, to the tune of 8,000 copies to date. It's a paltry number compared to big publishing numbers, but to me it was success because I did it alone, via amazon.com. And the folks at amazon helped me do it by letting me access the same Search Inside tools and marketing strategies that large publishers use; not once did anyone at amazon treat me differently because of my publishing status—- something I must say, I experienced all too often with stores. During this period, I also bought most of my books online, both for research and for pleasure. The capacity to find out-of-print books online is a writer's dream; but I deliberately turned my back on stores because I felt they'd turned their back on me. This stance later mellowed; I returned to my favorite independents because I felt guilty that I was in my own small way contributing to their downfall and also because I was sensory-deprived and needed to browse, pick up, stroke embossing and delight in gilt foiling, and basically lose myself among aisles and aisles of books.

Now, I have a book out by a major publisher. It's available everywhere. My entire world view as a writer has flipped. I need physical stores more than I need online ones because if the stats are to be believed, only 10- 15% of books are bought online. I doubt these stats myself, just because I know so many people who buy online, but who am I to question? The truth remains that I benefit enormously from the personalized recommendations that independent bookstores provide; from the exposure the chains give; and yet I still must be online for promotion and to meet my readers, seeing as few authors are paid to go on tour these days. I know that for me as a writer, the extraordinary capabilities of the online world cannot be denied.It's a conundrum. Still, I'd be heartbroken if we lost physical bookstores. No matter how many kindles are invented or readers that flip pages on the screen, reading for me remains an intimate experience which, like sex, requires two: in the case of reading, me and the book. Not me and the machine.

So, after much soul searching, I have determined that henceforth I will only buy my out-of-print research books and books not published in the US online and buy all new books at my local independent stores. Going to a chain and getting that 30% discount is pretty much like going online as far as independent survival goes, so I'm going to do my utmost to stay true to the true independents. My habit will get a lot more expensive; but I feel that for me this is the right thing to do.Still like any other addiction, I know buying books online is going to be a very hard habit to break.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Guest post from Jeri Westerson, author of VEIL OF LIES

I'm delighted to present this guest post from author Jeri Westerson, author of the Medieval Noir debut, VEIL OF LIES. Her novel will be released by St. Martin's Minotaur in November 2008, and features a delightful tale of intrigue, murder and mayhem. (Click on the cover image to learn more )
Here is a description:
In London of 1384, Crispin Guest is a man adrift in a rigidly defined society. Left with only his life, he’s a disgraced knight, convicted of treason, stripped of his rank and his honor for plotting against Richard II. Having lost his patron and his friends, with no trade to support him, Crispin has turned to the one thing he still has--his wits--to scrape a living on the mean streets of London.

Crispin is called to the compound of a reclusive merchant who suspects his wife of infidelity and wants Crispin to look into the matter. In dire need of money, he discovers that the wife is indeed up to something, but when Crispin comes to inform his client, he is found dead--murdered in a sealed room, locked from the inside. Now Crispin finds himself in the middle of a complex plot involving dark secrets, international plots, and a missing religious relic--one that lies at the heart of this impossible crime.


To learn more about Jeri and her work, please visit her website at: http://www.jeriwesterson.com/

Medieval Swearing

Blasphemy itself could not survive religion; if anyone doubts that let him try to blaspheme Odin.--G.K. Chesteron

What was swearing like in the middle ages? It's not what you think.

We use a lot of colorful language in our mystery novels. The darker the stories get, the darker the language becomes. Though we use an overabundance of Anglo Saxon nouns and verbs to describe the ire of our characters, the speech we use today would be quite foreign to the medieval person. At least as a swear word.

Oh yes. Those colorful Anglo Saxon words for body parts and functions were used without fear of vulgarity. It was part and parcel in the day before Victorian mores scrubbed our mouths out with soap and trussed us up into corsets. I suppose most of us are familiar enough with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and in particular the Miller's Tale where flatulance and arse-kissing play an amusing role. But these words and phrases weren't used to denigrate another.

In many instances, it was one's character that is impugned along with one's parentage. To call someone a "churl" or "dog" was fightin' words, to be sure. "Villein" or "scullion" toward a person with means was quite the insult, for you have called them the lowest of the low, a menial, as if you called a CEO a trash collector. Not the same sting today, is it? One was more likely to come up with a religious oath: "by Christ's blood, toes, bones" and any number of bodily parts. Or by the Virgin...and her blood, bones, virginity, and intimate anatomy. A pantheon of saints were at their disposal by which to swear. The Prioress in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales does her swearing by "Saint Loy!" better known as Saint Eligius. Truly, the medieval man would be perplexed at our concern with defecation or fornication when it comes to swearing. In fact, many of the oaths sworn in the middle ages might be something your grandmother would say. It's certainly hard to picture a knight in full dress telling someone in no uncertain terms that he is a "lousy swine" ("lousy" in this sense meaning full of louse). Or use those seven deadly sins as an insult. Call someone a glutton and you might find a gauntlet in your face.

Let us not forget the gestures. The "one-fingered salute" so familiar to Americans was in England (and I believe still is) a two-fingered variety, this stemming from archers taunting their enemies, proving they still had their two fingers in which to pull the string of a bow (the index and middle finger) given with the back of the hand outward. If you were an archer and captured by one's enemies it was likely they would hew off said fingers so you couldn't use a bow against them again. Not very cricket, what?

"Fie!" is one of those words that is often mistaken for a harsher term or as a precursor for that most menacing of Anglo Saxon words, beginning with an "f". But it's not. It merely means "Faith!" of "by my faith!", from the Latin fidus, meaning faithful. Swearing by one's faith is certainly blasphemous enough, if you think about it. And it didn't go unpunished. Habitual blaspheming is "holding God in contempt" and was not to be borne. As punishment, the 13th century King Louis (and later St. Louis of France) suggested that swearers be branded on the face with a hot poker and then put in stocks for further public humiliation. And Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror, kept a whole list of different fines for different levels of society when caught swearing within the royal earshot: a duke, 40 shillings; a lord, 20 shillings; a squire, 10 shillings; a yeoman, 3 shillings and 4 pence; a page, a whipping.

So then perhaps the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, don't degenerate into the typical bodily function or kama sutra-like gyration you might have suggested. Get medieval on him instead and call him a "loathsome paynim (pagan)!" That will keep him guessing all day.
(And I swear, you can find other good stuff on my website www.JeriWesterson.com or my blog "Getting Medieval.")

For more about swearing, check out Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes, The Anatomy of Swearing by Ashley Montague, and Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms From Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Where would we be without book-lovin' bloggers?

As I come to the end of my virtual blog tour, I just have to say: Whew! That was intense. Maybe more so for me because I have a day job, so cramming in time to do the interviews and guest posts was a challenge, plus I made sure to visit at each stop and chat with readers whenever possible.

That said, I also had a ton of fun. I got to meet readers from all over the world, and I realized that in this highly competitive publishing enviornment, with marketing dollars shrinking and print reviews being ruthlessly eliminated from newspapers across the country, not to mention the thousands of books clamoring for attention, where would we be without book-lovin' bloggers?




Their generosity, honesty, and nondiscriminatory policy when it comes to reviewing books are godsends. Whether you're a bestseller or a debut, they treat you like family. If they liked it or hated it, they'll let you know, usually in no-nonsense terms. And they'll run the gamut, from historical to science fiction to literary - it's all good in the book bloggers' world. They may each have their own distinctive personality and quirks, but most offer us giveaways, contests, interviews and guest posts, with the cummulative effect that providing the author shows up and pitches in, the book will get noticed.
Isn't that what every writer dreams of?

There was a time when the New York Times book review was considered the pinnacle of achievement; if you got reviewed there, you basically had it made. Not so much anymore. While still the foremost authority for book reviews, these days it takes more for a book to get its "legs", as they say in industry parlance. Sales are certainly vastly helped by an NYT review, but more and more books are reaching bestseller status without one; and the majority of these all had major help from the blogsphere. It's like internet word-of-mouth. The more blogs talk about a book, the more readers start to take notice.

All writers, particularly those like me who are starting out, would be wise to take heed of the incredible attention that blogs can generate. The playing field is leveling, and whether or not that is a good thing I'll leave it up to you to decide. I personally am grateful to know there is a vast variety of outlets available online for promotion, rather than depending on a few magazines preoccupied with the latest bestseller, hyped-up lastest debut, or the most recent literary discovery. With blogs ranging in scope from a mom who bakes and reads to a fashion-obsessed bibliophile and everything in between, there's a place for nearly every book under the sun to get its share of notice. It's fast and the blog moves on, but while you're there they give you their all.

I want to thank all the bloggers who hosted me on my tour and took the time, often out of very busy schedules, to talk about my book. I also want to thank all the bloggers out there who talk every day about books and writing, for they help us keep alive that most civilized of human activities: the art of reading.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

THE HERETIC QUEEN has arrived!

I wanted to take a moment to announce the publication of my friend Michelle Moran's second historical fiction novel set in ancient Egypt, THE HERETIC QUEEN. Michelle and I met via an online forum; her first novel NEFERTITI had hit the national bestseller list and I was searching for ways to expand my online promotion of THE LAST QUEEN. She offered to interview me on her blog, and was both extraordinarily gracious and generous with her advice. Since then, she's consistently offered me support, proving writers can be friends in the best sense of the word. I'm meeting her in person when I go to LA this week and I can't wait. I'm also going to interview her here, just as soon as I finish reading her new novel, which is truly exquisite.

Please join me in celebrating this talented historical fiction writer and good friend!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Last stops on blog tour

This is it! I promised to promote this tour on my blog, and I'm on the final league. Thank you all for bearing with me. I'm off to Los Angeles for the West Hollywood Book Fair this weekend but I have a special guest post coming up from Jeri Westerson, author of the forthcoming Medieval Noir, VEIL OF LIES, who'll also be at the Book Fair. In the meantime, if you want to check out a splendid interview with Andromeda Romano Lax, author of THE SPANISH BOW, please visit my friend Sarah Johnson at Reading the Past:
http://readingthepast.blogspot.com/2008/09/interview-with-andromeda-romano-lax.html

Sept. 22 – A Book Blogger’s Diary (book review):http://abookbloggersdiary.blogspot.com/
Bloggin ‘Bout Books (book review) http://www.blogginboutbooks.blogspot.com/
Sept. 23 – In Bed With Books (review) http://www.inbedwithbooks.blogspot.com/
Sept. 24 – Booking Mama (book review) http://www.bookingmama.blogspot.com/
Sept. 25 - Book Cover Lovers (book spotlight) http://www.bookcoverlovers.blogspot.com/
The Literate Housewife (book review) http://literatehousewife.wordpress.com/2008/09/04/98-the-last-queen/
Sept. 26 – Novel Thoughts (book review) http://novelthoughts.wordpress.com/2008/08/08/the-last-queen-by-cw-gortner/
A Striped Armchair (book review) http://www.astripedarmchair.blogspot.com/
Zensanity (interview):http://zensanity.blogspot.com/

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Senators, vote against offshore drilling

This week, Congress voted to open up our coastlines to offshore drilling. In the wake of two major hurricanes, oil spills and gas price spikes we've already seen in recent weeks, this vote basically places a bet on the big oil companies at a time when we should be working our proverbial butts off to develop energy efficiency and clean renewable energy sources.

This coming week, the Senate votes on offshore drilling. Each one of us still has time to change our luck. Thousands of Greenpeace supports like me have written to express our opposition to lifting the Congressional moratorium on offshore oil drilling; I hope you will consider adding your voice here before it is too late. http://usactions.greenpeace.org/action/start/211/?session_action=reset&action=start&usa_source_template=gpusa

This is the text of my letter. It contains some parts of Greenpeace's template language:

Most Americans might favor offshore drilling, thinking it's a solution to our current energy crisis, but it is not - as you well know. In all the US, there isn't enough reserves to supply the amount of oil we consume in a year. It will also cause massive enviornmental damage in a time when we should be fighting with everything we've got to preserve the last bastions of our natural world. You are elected to office not only to serve the people, but in moments like these to GUIDE THEM, and offshore drilling solves nothing. It is but a fleeting panacea to a much larger issue, one you MUST address logically and carefully as elected officials: developing alternate energy options that do not pollute our planet.
To build more oil rigs and wreck our already-fragile oceanic ecosystems, pandering to oil companies and to those Americans who unfortunately merely seek an immediate solution to their personal dependence on oil is NOT sound government policy. I voted for you because I trusted in your judgement. I have been especially disappointed in Nancy Pelosi's backflip on this issue when polls showed how many Americans favored offshore drilling. Hello? How many Americans favored the war? And how many years later did it take to prove most of us were wrong? The very same dilemma confronts us now and I expect you to do the right thing and PROTECT OUR COASTLINES FROM ANY MORE DRILLING, INCLUDING DRILLING IN THE ARCTIC NATIONAL REFUGE.

I am appalled by this country's current leadership; I am ashamed by our utter lack of leadership in the overwhelming face of evidence that we are directly responsible for the accleration in global warming. Does the ocean need to warm up to such an extent that the polar caps melt and flooding tides engulf New York before we'll awaken to our own indifference and stupidity?

The U.S. burns close to one-quarter of the world’s oil, yet we only have about three percent of the world’s oil reserves. We will never be able to drill our way to lower gas prices or energy security, even if we drilled every last drop of oil from this country’s onshore and offshore reserves. Information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that new oil drilling won’t significantly affect oil prices; it’s clear that the only benefit will be to oil companies’ profit margins.

Global warming caused by the burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels is literally causing the Arctic to melt at unprecedented rates. Arctic sea ice extent reached an all-time low in September of 2007 and this year’s low is coming in at a close second. New offshore drilling and other fossil fuel development will lead to more global warming impacts already responsible for heat waves, more intense hurricanes, floods and severe drought.

This country needs a bold new energy future that pivots us away from fossil fuels, ends tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry, and invests resources in renewable energy, mass transportation, energy efficiency, and cars that go further on a gallon of gas. Current proposals to open up the OCS to oil drilling do nothing to stop our addiction to oil or lower prices at the pump and will only exacerbate global warming.

I urge you to vote against any bill that gives away more of America’s coastal waters to oil companies or provides subsidies to the dirty coal, tar sands or oil shale industries. Americans deserve real solutions to the energy crisis like investments in efficiency, cleaner cars, and renewable energy technologies that save citizens money on energy bills, create new jobs, and help solve the climate crisis.

Monday, September 15, 2008

This week's blog tour

This week, I'll be stopping at the blogs listed below. Also, I found out this weekend that THE LAST QUEEN made the Marin Independent Journal's Top 10 Bestseller List for the week of August 16!

Sept. 15 – Dear Author (guest post) http://www.dearauthor.com/
http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2008/08/15/my-first-sale-by-cw-gortner-if-at-first-you-don%e2%80%99t-succeed/
BookBitch.com (book review): http://www.bookbitch.com/BOOK%20REVIEWS.htm

Sept. 17 – The Book Stacks ( guest post) http://www.thebookstacks.com/
Books on the Brain (book review) http://www.lisamm.wordpress.com/
http://lisamm.wordpress.com/2008/08/15/review-the-last-queen-by-cw-gortner/

Sept. 18 – Bookroom Reviews (book review and interview): http://bookroomreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/18/guest-post-author-cw-gortner/#comment-3893/

Sept. 19 – The Friendly Book Nook (http://www.thefriendlybooknook.com/)
BookReporter.com (book review) http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews2/9780345501844-about.asp

Sunday, September 7, 2008

This week's blog tour

This week I'll be at:
Sept. 8- Blogcritics (interview) http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/09/04/165416.php
The Plot (book spotlight) http://theplotline.wordpress.com/
Review Your Book (book review) http://www.reviewyourbook.com/review.cfm?reviewid=893
The Dark Phantom Review (interview) http://thedarkphantom.wordpress.com/2008/09/07/interview-with-cw-gortner-author-of-the-last-queen/#comment-3000
Tea at Trianon (interview and review)
http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2008/09/last-queen.html
http://teaattrianon.blogspot.com/2008/09/interview-with-cw-gortner.html

Sept. 9 – The Plot (character interview) http://theplotline.wordpress.com/
Page 69 (this is fun!) http://page69test.blogspot.com/2008/09/last-queen.html

Sept. 10 – Bookfoolery (book review) http://bookfoolery.blogspot.com/
Author Virtual Book Tours (interview) http://www.authorvbt.blogspot.com/

Sept. 11 – The Tome Traveller’s Weblog (book review) http://thetometraveller.blogspot.com/
If Books Could Talk (book trailer spotlight) http://www.bookvideos.wordpress.com/

Sept. 12 – Lesa’s Book Critiques (book review) http://www.lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com/
Fiction Scribe (interview) http://www.fictionscribe.com/

Saturday, September 6, 2008

THE SPANISH BOW by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Andromeda Romano-Lax's debut THE SPANISH BOW is out in paperback this month; I reviewed the novel last year for the Historical Novels Review, and it was one of my favorite books of the year. Set in Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War, it captures the conflicts between art and politics as seen through the eyes of a gifted cellist, his flamboyant mentor, and the mysterious woman who captures their hearts. Well worth reading, here is my review in its entirety:
Andromeda Romano-Lax. THE SPANISH BOW
Harcourt. 2007. 560 pgs. $25.00 hc .0151015422

Can art save us from ourselves? In her elegant debut, THE SPANISH BOW, Ms Romano-Lax ponders this timeless question through the ambitious tale of Feliu Delargo, a gifted cellist born in turn-of-the-century Spain who receives the unexpected gift of a bow from his dead father and sets himself on a resolute path to mastering his craft. His journey takes him from performing in the defiant streets of Barcelona to the confidences of the queen of Spain and a tumultuous partnership with flamboyant pianist Justo Al-Cerraz, who introduces Feliu to the rigors and joys of life as an itinerant musician as well as the eventual deception of fame. As civil war decimates his homeland and fascism spreads across Europe, Feliu finds himself increasingly conflicted over the relevance of music in a crumbling world—until he meets Aviva, an Italian violinist whose inexorable quest to redeem her past plunges Feliu into destructive rivalry and ultimate sacrifice. From the hypocrisies of the courts of Madrid to the terror of Nazi-occupied Paris, Romano-Lax weaves the upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century into an elegy to the simultaneous power and impotency of art, and the contradictions of the human spirit. – C.W. Gortner

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On tour . . . virtually, that is.

I'm on a virtual book tour this month through the services of the terrific and hardworking team at Pump Up Your Book Promotion.com. If you want to join me or just take a peek at how a virtual blog tour works, you can find my daily tour stops here: http://virtualbooktours.wordpress.com/
Because the tour stops need to be updated by the bloggers themselves, I'll add my stops by week here. This week, I'll be interviewed and/or the book will be featured at:

Sept. 2 – Amateur de Livre (book review): www.amateurdelivre.wordpress.com
http://amateurdelivre.wordpress.com/2008/08/01/the-last-queen-by-cw-gortner/


Sept. 4 – Fictionary (interview): http://cballan.wordpress.com/2008/08/02/meet-princess-juana-in-cw-gortners-historical-fiction-the-last-queen/

Literate Housewife (book review):http://literatehousewife.wordpress.com/

Sept. 5 - The Book Connection (Guest post): http://www.thebookconnectionccm.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A writer's empty nest

For the last week or so, I've been in an odd mood and I couldn't figure out what was the matter. Life is basically good: the book is selling well enough to warrant another print run; I've turned in the Medici manuscript; and now I have that much-anticipated free time I've been craving to catch up on my reading and relax.

Instead, I've been restless. I am reading, but I always do that; as for relaxing, I'm not enjoying it as much I thought I would. Of course, I know this free time is limited and so I called a good friend who happens to be a writer and mentioned that I thought I might need Prozac. She laughed and said, "Do you feel depressed?"
I told her, "Yes, kind of. Not exactly sad, but just . . . you know, blah. And the worst part is, I'm guilty about it. So many writers out there are fighting every day to get published and see their book in print. I feel like an ungrateful cur. Why can't I just enjoy it?"
"It's writer's empty nest syndrome," she replied. "We all get it after the book comes out and we turn in the next one. You've let your babies go out into the world on their own and you're at sixes and nines over it. The only cure I know of is to start a new project. ASAP."

Now, let me just say that I've never referred to my books as "babies." I've heard other writers use the term and that's fine, but I personally can't do it. Books are words on paper: they are not flesh and blood beings. If they get lost or misplaced or stolen, I can always buy or print out another. But as I considered my friend's words I started to wonder. I was feeling "sixes and nines-ish", as though something was missing from my life. I realized I've been writing steadily since I sold these two books early last year, first with the revisions to The Last Queen and then cutting Catherine. And in between, I had copy edits, marketing plans, interviews here on the blog; in short, not a spare moment. Sure, I caught a movie and went out to dinner and lived, but I always knew in the back of my mind that I had work waiting. I realized that I thrived on the deadlines and now, without any, I was bewildered.

"It's a sickness unique to writers," my friend explained. "We aren't ourselves if we're not kvetching or rhapsodizing over our latest creation. We're Frankenstein. We must stimulate our brain daily or perish."

Just as an experiment (no pun intended) I finally went to my desk - now cleared of the atom-bomb explosion of papers and open books that comprised the Medici revision - and took out the spiral-bound notebook where I outline upcoming projects. The next novel is there, fully realized. I stared at it for a while, then started reading it. I then pulled out the research books I'll need and ordered on the shelf I reserve for books I use when I'm writing. I did all this rather tentaively, thinking as I did, "Am I nuts? I just finished a manuscript and haven't even heard back from my agent or editor yet. I should be catching up on Netflix."

Then I left my study quickly and went to make dinner. As I cooked, I felt at ease. Relaxed. I felt . . . like me. I had to chuckle. My friend was right. I'm just not myself if I don't have a book brewing. It doesn't actually matter whether I've started physically writing it; the ideas have to be percolating , the words disentangling and arranging themselves like threads on the loom. I must know, soon I will start to write. And if I do, I'm okay.

So much for free time. Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend, everyone!
No doubt, I'll be writing.