Thursday, November 12, 2015

"François Ier, l'empreinte d'un roi" on France 24


FABULOUS video celebrating François I on France 24. It's the 500th anniversary of François' birth this year, and there have been innumerable expositions and special events regarding his life and reign throughout France. This video includes gorgeous footage of Fontainebleau. Worth a watch even if you don't speak French!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Weaving Witcheries

Researching a new novel today, I came across this poem. It featured in the February 1892 issue of The Californian Illustrated Magazine.

My Library
by J.W. Wood

Within these covers, homely tho' some be,
     Life's kaleidoscope is writ in varying stage,---
The tragedies of war and poets' melody,
     The mimicry of love, philosophy of sage.
Here warrior tells his deeds of valor o'er,
     With gallant knight who poised his lance for fame;
The antiquary fraught with mystic lore,
     The pensive lover sighing forth his flame,
'Tis here most strange and pleasant company;---
     The sparkling wit, the weirdly muttering crone,
A rondeau neat, a dismal threnody,
     Compose this mimic world in calf-bound tome.

Here let me muse in silent reverie
     Amidst these mystic scenes of by-gone age,
And with the aeons past and aeons yet to be
     Weave witcheries for yet unlettered page.

I could find no information about the poet, but he or she perfectly captures (albeit in the hyperbolic language of the time) the task of the historical novelist--connecting past and future by "weaving witcheries" in the present. A wonderful image, especially with Halloween upon us. But whereas Wood's writer is trapped in "silent reverie" facing the "yet unlettered page"--suffering, in other words, from writer's block--I am about to embark on that curiously crazy endeavor known as NaNoWriMo, or drafting 50,000 words of a new novel in thirty days.  I'll be jumping four centuries and a continent for this new project and will need every bit of witchery-weaving skill I possess. Wish me luck!

Happy Halloween

Thursday, August 20, 2015


And the winner of a hardback copy of Marci Jefferson's ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books, is....

KimberlyV !

Thank you to all who entered.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Interview: Marci Jefferson, author of ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS

Today I welcome Marci Jefferson, author of the newly released historical novel ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS (St. Martin's Press), to answer some questions about her characters and seventeenth century France.

Marie Mancini is a fascinating character. Where did you first encounter her and why did you decide to write about her? 

I actually learned about Marie Mancini while doing research for GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN. In most sources Marie is mentioned as King Louis’ first love, someone he might have married if not for his duty to his country. But a deeper study revealed a story far more complex.

Marie Mancini, author and date unknown
You cite Marie’s memoirs as one of your sources. What was it like reading about Marie’s life in her own words? What insights did you glean that you might not have found in secondary sources? Were there instances where the Memoirs complicated the path you envisioned for your narrative and how did you resolve the conflict?

Marie’s memoir is pure enjoyment. I’ve read it over and over! She lays out events in an orderly way, which is useful because biographers sometimes don’t provide details chronologically. Her narrative never complicated the novel - quite the opposite - I try to allow historical facts to structure my plots. The one complication in using her memoir as a source is that one must remember *why* she wrote a memoir in the first place. She had scandalized her family by leaving her high-born husband, fleeing Italy for refuge in France in defiance of the Pope. She needed to defend herself without offending the world powers. She set her memoir to paper to justify her actions, and it is evident in her writing that she took pains not to insult the men she had defied. She also avoids telling the whole story, respecting King Louis’ privacy and leaving researchers to read between the lines. Those fine areas between the lines - that is where the historical novelist steps in to provide answers!

Did the historical Marie truly believe she had a valid chance at becoming Queen of France? Why would she think the King would—or ever could—put his personal wishes above the needs of the nation?

King Louis told Marie he would make her his queen, and Marie believed him because she needed to believe in love. There is no other explanation for her behavior and for the severity with which her uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, treated her. I believe Mazarin suppressed her, exiled her, and may have even tried to kill her because she was doing everything she could to convince King Louis that he was strong enough to act without Mazarin’s approval. Though Cardinal Mazarin won the battle, it cost him dearly. Mazarin’s health deteriorated so badly during the ordeal, he died shortly after. I wrote the novel exactly as I believe things happened.

Cardinal Mazarin, c. 1660 by Pierre Mignard
You portray Cardinal Mazarin as a cruel, thoroughly self-serving character. Did he have any redeeming qualities? Did his influence over King Louis and the queen mother yield any benefit for France?

Cardinal Mazarin is a rare example of a seventeenth century commoner bettering themselves. In his era, men and women remained within the station to which they were born. Mazarin’s father had been a commoner, raised to a position of service in the powerful Colona family in Rome. A bright young man, Mazarin impressed the right people in the Catholic Church. He became protege to Cardinal Richelieu, securing his own future in France. Mazarin used his connections to marry his common-born sisters into noble Italian families. He then moved his extended family to France, marrying his nieces into French noble families. I tried to highlight this generosity in the novel, because a villain that is all bad quickly becomes boring. But the truth is, he did these “generous” things to improve his own power connections. He employed men who were “creative” about making him money. It’s true he brought the Fronde wars to an end, but those wars started in part because of his abuse of power. One thing he did that benefited France was orchestrate a peace treaty with Spain. This damaged his income streams, as the war was one of his biggest sources of “creative” money making, and some believe he had the power to stop that war whenever he wanted. Incidentally, this peace was sealed with King Louis’ marriage to the Spanish princess, which ended Louis’ relationship with Marie, causing both his niece and the king a great deal of pain. I try to be objective when studying historical figures, but in the case of Cardinal Mazarin, the best I can say of him is that he was a political mastermind.

The numerous Mancini siblings all led interesting, unconventional lives. How do you explain their courage and/or recklessness? Which sibling intrigues you most after Marie?

The Mancini’s were bold and unconventional because they were brought up by an unconventional man: Cardinal Mazarin. None of the Mancini’s respected him, but they all strove to change their lot in life much as he had done. I almost cannot pick a favorite Mancini sister, but Hortense is certainly as remarkable as Marie.

ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS covers roughly the same time period as GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN. Did your research unearth any interesting differences between the French and the English court cultures of the mid-seventeenth century?

The primary difference between the French and English courts in the seventeenth century is religious. France was firmly Catholic, while England had been dealing with the aftermath of their protestant reformation for generations. The difference in religions make the power structures different in each court. Some Catholic aristocrats in the French court still held to a number of superstitious beliefs that drove them to seek the services of an underground ring of witches and renegade priests dabbling in the occult arts. The majority of the English court hated Catholics and were ever on-guard against plots of a Catholic take-over.

Louis XIV of France, 1661 by Charles Le Brun
Which king—Charles II of England or Louis XIV of France—appeals to you more and why? Which woman, Frances Stuart or Marie Mancini, would you trade places with if you could?

King Louis learned to be a powerful man with Marie Mancini’s help, and only seized power of his own kingdom when his corrupt advisor died. After this, Louis was emotionally distant, politically skilled but not particularly pleasant to be around. Charles II inherited his throne while his kingdom was losing a terrible war. After a period of exile, his countrymen restored him to power because they believed in him. Charles was easygoing, witty, and a master at balancing factions. King Louis spent his energy enforcing Catholicism and expanding his boundaries. Charles spent his energy keeping the peace and enforcing the need to be tolerant of other religions. For these reasons, Charles is more appealing.

Though I enjoy writing about heroic seventeenth century women, I wouldn’t dare trade places with Marie or Frances. I appreciate my civil rights too much to go back to a time when women were expected to be subservient.

Hortense and Marie Mancini, c. 1680 by Jacob Ferdinand Voet
You have now written two historical novels. What did you learn, in terms of work habits, research practices, or narrative technique while writing the first that helped you to write the second? What is the most important thing you have learned so far on your journey?

After two novels I’ve learned that all the cliches about writing are true: you have to write every day, read a lot, and cut the parts that people skim. But perhaps most importantly, persistence is just as important as talent in traditional publishing.

To celebrate the publication of ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, Marci Jefferson is giving away a lovely faux diamond bracelet like the one below. To enter the random drawing, leave a comment with a contact email address. Entrants must reside within the continental United States. Contest will close at 9 pm Pacific Standard time on Wednesday, August 19. Winner's name will be posted Friday, August 21. Good luck! ***PLEASE NOTE: This giveaway is completely separate from yesterday's book giveaway. If you'd like to enter both contests, you need to leave a comment on each post. Thank you.

Marci Jefferson, author of GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN (St. Martin's, 2014) and ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS (St. Martin's, 2015) writes about remarkable women in history who dared to defy men. You can learn more about Marci and her books at her website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review and Giveaway: ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS by Marci Jefferson

Marci Jefferson's ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, just released from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, addresses a glaring need in the panoply of historical fiction: novels set during the seventeenth century, and more specifically, in France. The French Revolution and two World Wars draw the lion's share of interest from authors and readers interested in France; huge swaths of fascinating history from earlier eras remain virtually untouched. Tapping into this treasure trove, Jefferson reanimates the personalities and intrigue of the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. With an energetic, skillful flair, she examines the relationship between Marie Mancini, the defiant niece of the powerful Cardinal Mazarin, and young Louis, who wishes, despite all expectations, to marry her. Based on Marie's own memoirs, Jefferson's captivating novel sparkles like the diamonds that grace the beautiful Mazarinette's neck.

One of five daughters of Cardinal Mazarin's sister, Marie has spent most of her life secluded in convents in order to protect her family's political and social aspirations from the threat she embodies. Born under an evil star, she is predicted to disgrace her family in a way no woman had ever done before. Summoned to the palace bid farewell to her dying mother, Marie catches the eye of the serious young king, whose face mirrors her own loneliness. She wins Louis away from her sister Olympia, his current mistress, and by promising to bend the king to her uncle's will, gains her freedom from the convent. Marie's fierce love inspires Louis with a confidence he has never felt; she encourages him to escape his dependence on Mazarin and act as king in his own right. Disgusted by Mazarin's brazen abuse of power and threatened by his unrestrained hostility, Marie searches for ways to thwart her uncle's designs. Mazarin's political hopes center on a peace treaty with Spain that requires Louis to marry the Spanish princess. Desperate to save her future, Marie searches for proof of the long-ago affair between Mazarin and the queen mother that resulted in Louis's birth, and turns to the very black arts that prophesied her downfall. Will her efforts assure her marriage to the king or force her to forsake him? Dare Louis ignore the needs of his nation to satisfy the desires of his heart?

Although at times the focus on the royal romance threatens to overwhelm the novel's plot, the intriguingly unfamiliar history and strong characterizations counter this danger. By examining the early years of Louis's reign, Jefferson humanizes a king who later came to epitomize the absolute monarch, revealing a tender vulnerability that succumbs to both Mazarin's control and Marie's influence. By embracing the possibility that Louis is in fact Mazarin's son, a theory recently suggested by historians, Jefferson provides a motivation for Mazarin's scheming and the means for his undoing. Finally, by casting Marie as a "Mazarinette," one of the bevy of sisters and cousins the Cardinal exploits to further his own schemes, Jefferson cleverly justifies Marie's audacious behavior. Nieces of an exceptional man, the Mazarinettes all exhibit extraordinary tendencies and lead unconventional lives. Marie's boldness, unusual in a young woman of that era, rings true in the context of her family and her upbringing. Forced to rely on no one but herself if she hopes to change her destiny, Marie inspires Louis to look within for the courage he needs to transform from obedient son to authentic king--and make her his bride in the process.

In the vein of 2014's GIRL ON THE GOLD COIN (several of whose characters make cameo appearances here), ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS spotlights a strong, spirited woman who rebels against those who would sacrifice her for their own gain, a woman who, determined to direct the course of her own life, stands to alter the course of a nation. Shining light into the darkest corners of the Sun King's glittering court, ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS examines whether love, grit and will can indeed revise what is written in the stars.

To celebrate the publication of ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS, St. Martin's Press is providing one hardback copy for giveaway. To enter the drawing, leave a comment with a contact email address by 9 pm Pacific Standard Time on August 18, 2015. Winner's name, chosen at random, will be posted August 20. Entrants must reside in the continental US. Good luck!

Be sure to return tomorrow for an interview with Marci about Marie and the history behind the novel.
MARCI JEFFERSON graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College as a Registered Nurse. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in Indiana with her husband and children. This is her second novel. You can learn more about Marci and her books at her website. ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS can be ordered from all the usual outlets.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER by Susan Spann (Minotaur, 2015) continues the exciting adventures of ninja spy Hattori Hiro and the Portuguese priest he must protect in sixteenth century Japan. While Kyoto stews in uneasy anticipation as rival warlords plot for control of the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must prove the innocence of their friend Ginjiro, a brewer accused of murdering an indebted colleague. The victim, who had been seeking Ginjiro's sponsorship for admittance into the brewer's guild despite his spendthrift son owing Ginjiro a significant sum, is found felled by violent blows to the head in Ginjiro's alley. The police immediately arrest Ginjiro, assuming he murdered the man over the unpaid debt. Ginjiro faces execution in a matter of days unless Hiro and Father Mateo can find evidence to exonerate him. The duo's shrewd investigation quickly unearths other suspects--a missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, a female moneylender--all with sufficient motive for murder. But can Hiro winnow the possibilities and name the perpetrator before the magistrate pronounces judgment--and before chaos descends upon a city, endangering the foreign priest's life and mission?

As she did in the series' previous installments, CLAWS OF THE CAT (2013) and BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (2014), Spann once again proves herself adept at constructing a compelling, watertight plot that keeps the reader wondering at the murderer's identity up until the very last pages. This meticulous storytelling unfolds against an ever-broadening evocation of sixteenth-century Japanese society. Each book in the Shinobi series concentrates its action in a specific milieu. CLAWS unveils the stylized world of the tea-house and its samurai clientele, while BLADE recreates the offices and interactions of government functionaries. FLASK moves into the commercial stratum of society, evoking the world of rice merchants, brewers, and money-lenders. Other than Hiro, only a single samurai mixes it up with the working class characters who populate this story, which leads the reader deep among the bins of rice warehouses, the vats of sake breweries, and the alleys of the merchant district. It is Father Mateo's mission and status as an outsider that permit him and Hiro to penetrate these different social niches--a pretext the author uses to full advantage. With a unique setting and particular characters, each Shinobi mystery feels fresh, even as it adds another facet to the broader historical world Spann so painstakingly reanimates.

photo credit
In any good mystery, the protagonist's quest to solve the murder serves as a crucible in which his own character is tested and transformed. THE FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER is no exception to this rule. The rigors of the investigation strain the fledging friendship between Hiro and Mateo by highlighting the differences in their outlooks and ethics. Mateo's western religion causes Hiro no end of puzzlement, specifically its condemnation of lies. The two men have a falling out over the questioning of a suspect, and Father Mateo's anger at Hiro's flippant approach to the tenets of the Christian faith causes Hiro to realize that he has, indeed, disrespected his friend's beliefs. This incident marks a change in their relationship and addresses the question that ever lurks in the reader's mind as to what degree the ninja will or will not be influenced by his exposure to Christianity. A ruthless act he commits several chapters later reminds the reader that Hiro is still very much a professional assassin, but the earlier incident establishes a precedent for potential religious/ethical questioning in a future book. In any case, it adds an interesting wrinkle to the pair's evolving relationship and proves it to be moving beyond the polite formality of employer and employed, despite Hiro's efforts prevent emotion from complicating--or compromising--his protective mission.

The tightly constructed murder mystery, the detailed look at an unfamiliar segment of Japanese society, and the deepening of Hiro's character satisfy all the more, given the seamless way Spann weaves them into the broader mystery of who has hired Hiro to guard the priest, how the imminent clash of clans might endanger Mateo, and why. The particular mystery of the brewer's murder might be solved, and convincingly so, but these overarching questions continue to tease. FLASK whets the reader's thirst to pursue answers, and Susan Spann's precise pen and vivid imagination have proven more than up to the task of providing them.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Cover Reveal and Giveaway: FALL OF POPPIES (William Morrow, March 2016)

I'm excited to announce a forthcoming collection of short stories, three of which were written by friends of mine--Heather Webb (RODIN'S LOVER), Marci Jefferson (ENCHANTRESS OF PARIS), and Jessica Brockmole (LETTERS FROM SKYE). The nine short stories that comprise FALL OF POPPIES paint a haunting picture of loss, longing, and hope in the aftermath of World War I.

Image Map

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, Lauren Willig, Marci Jefferson

William Morrow Trade Paperback; March 1, 2016; $14.99; ISBN: 9780062418548

Top voices in historical fiction deliver an intensely moving collection of short stories about loss, longing, and hope in the aftermath of World War I—featuring bestselling authors such as Hazel Gaynor, Jennifer Robson, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig and edited by Heather Webb.

A squadron commander searches for meaning in the tattered photo of a girl he’s never met…

A Belgian rebel hides from the world, only to find herself nursing the enemy…

A young airman marries a stranger to save her honor—and prays to survive long enough to love her…The peace treaty signed on November 11, 1918, may herald the end of the Great War but for its survivors, the smoke is only beginning to clear. Picking up the pieces of shattered lives will take courage, resilience, and trust.

Within crumbled city walls and scarred souls, war’s echoes linger. But when the fighting ceases, renewal begins…and hope takes root in a fall of poppies.


Here is an excerpt from Heather Webb's story, "Hour of the Bells":

Beatrix whisked around the showroom, feather duster in hand. Not a speck of dirt could remain or Joseph would be disappointed. The hour struck noon. A chorus of clocks whirred, their birds popping out from hiding to announce midday. Maidens twirled in their frocks with braids down their backs, woodcutters clacked their axes against pine, and the odd sawmill wheel spun in tune to the melody of a nursery rhyme. Two dozen cuckoos warbled and dinged, each crafted with loving detail by the same pair of hands—those with thick fingers and a steady grip.
Beatrix paused in her cleaning. One clock chimed to its own rhythm, apart from the others.
She could turn them off—the tinkling melodies, the incessant clatter of pendulums, wheels, and cogs, with the levers located near the weights—just as their creator had done before bed each evening, but she could not bring herself to do the same. To silence their music was to silence him, her husband, Joseph. The Great War had already done that; ravaged his gentle nature, stolen his final breath, and silenced him forever.
In a rush, Beatrix scurried from one clock to the next, assessing which needed oiling. With the final stroke of twelve, she found the offending clock. Its walnut face, less ornate than the others, had been her favorite, always. A winter scene displayed a cluster of snow-topped evergreens; rabbits and fawns danced in the drifts when the music began, and a scarlet cardinal dipped its head and opened its beak to the beauty of the music. The animals’ simplicity appealed to her now more than ever. With care, she removed the weights and pendulum, and unscrewed the back of the clock. She was grateful she had watched her husband tend to them so often. She could still see Joseph, blue eyes peering over his spectacles, focused on a figurine as he painted detailing on the linden wood. His patient hands had caressed the figures lovingly, as he had caressed her.
The memory of him sliced her open. She laid her head on the table as black pain stole over her body, pooling in every hidden pocket and filling her up until she could scarcely breathe.
“Give it time,” her friend Adelaide had said, as she set a basket of jam and dried sausages on the table; treasures in these times of rations, yet meager condolence for what Beatrix had lost.
“Time?” Beatrix had laughed, a hollow sound, and moved to the window overlooking the grassy patch of yard. The Vosges mountains rose in the distance, lording over the line between France and Germany along the battle front. Time’s passage never escaped her—not for a moment. The clocks made sure of it. There weren’t enough minutes, enough hours, to erase her loss.
         As quickly as the grief came, it fled. Though always powerful, its timing perplexed her. Pain stole through the night, or erupted at unlikely moments, until she feared its onslaught the way others feared death. Death felt easier, somehow.
Beatrix raised her head and pushed herself up from the table to finish her task. Joseph would not want her to mourn, after two long years. He would want to see her strength, her resilience, especially for their son. She pretended Adrien was away at school, though he had enlisted, too. His enlistment had been her fault. A vision of her son cutting barbed wire, sleeping in trenches, and pointing a gun at another man reignited the pain and it began to pool again. She suppressed the horrid thoughts quickly, and locked them away in a corner of her mind.
With a light touch she cleaned the clock’s bellows and dials, and anointed its oil bath with a few glistening drops. Once satisfied with her work, she hung the clock in its rightful place above the phonograph, where a disk waited patiently on the spool. She spun the disk once and watched the printed words on its center blur. Adrien had played Quand Madelon over and over, belting out the patriotic lyrics in time with the music. To him, it was a show of his support for his country. To Beatrix it had been a siren, a warning her only son would soon join the fight. His father’s death was the final push he had needed. The lure of patrimoine, of country, throbbed inside of him as it did in other men. They talked of war as women spoke of tea sets and linens, yearned for it as women yearned for children. Now, the war had seduced her Adrien. She stopped the spinning disk and plucked it from its wheel, the urge to destroy it pulsing in her hands.
She must try to be more optimistic. Surely God would not take all she had left.
Reprinted Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

To celebrate the publication of FALL OF POPPIES, HarperCollins is giving away print copies of AFTER THE WAR IS OVER, A MEMORY OF VIOLETS, and LAND OF DREAMS. Follow this link to enter the drawing.

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Good luck! FALL OF POPPIES is available for pre-order as of today.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Musical Frescos" at Fontainebleau

The Château of Fontainebleau is presenting a series of concerts dedicated to illuminating the history of the château and reviving the memory of the great kings who counted it among their favorite residences. The "Musical Fresco" scheduled for August 29 centers on François I and includes four separate concerts commemorating different aspects of the king's persona:

Le roi galant et le roi mécène -- Rêver d’amour et d’Italie
Le roi conquérant -- François Ier et Charles Quint
Le roi chrétien -- La Réforme musicale
Le roi chevalier - -François Ier et les guerres d’Italie, de la victoire de Marignan à la défaite de Pavie

Gallant King and Patron King -- Dreaming of love and of Italy
Conquering King -- François I and Charles V
Christian King -- Musical reform
Warrior king -- François I and the Italian Wars, from the victory of Marignan to the defeat at Pavie

Each of the concerts will feature Renaissance music performed by noted Baroque ensembles on period instruments.

The Château's official Facebook page provided this historical vignette as context for the "Conquering King" concert [translation mine]:

"François I received his rival Charles V in all magnificence at Fontainebleau from December 24-30, 1539. In order to dazzle the emperor, the king organized fantastical skirmishes and tournaments at the palace gates and erected a temporary triumphal arch. François concluded the palace visit in his private gallery (he alone kept the keys, of which he was so proud), decorated by Rosso. In this picture, the two protagonists arrive in Paris after their stay at Fontainebleau. The Christmas celebrations of 1539, with the meeting between the two most powerful sovereigns of Europe, certainly count among the most brilliant of the sixteenth century at Fontainebleau."

An unforgettable moment in the château's history---and a perfect backdrop for a historical novel, wouldn't you say? ;)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Video: Château d'Écouen and the Musée national de la Renaissance

The Musée national de la Renaissance, located in the beautiful château d'Écouen north of Paris, is a must-see destination for anyone interested in sixteenth-century French history and culture. The Musée recently released an introductory video that provides tantalizing glimpses of the site and the treasures it houses:

Film de présentation du musée national

Here is my translation of the film's French text:

"Home to lords and kings, one of the most beautiful jewels of Renaissance architecture, built by Anne de Montmorency, minister to François I and Henri II, the château houses, in its original décor, the National Museum of the Renaissance. Within the château's rich interiors, the Museum displays one of the most prestigious collections of the decorative arts of the period, including the tapestry of David and Bathsheba, a masterpiece of the sixteenth century. A fascinating place of art and history, right on the outskirts of Paris."

I visited years ago, and would love to go again--especially since the château was built by one of the main characters of my novel. Items on display include everything from majolica platters to jewelry to silver cups to tapestries to armor and weapons. The château and museum are open every day but Tuesday and easily accessible by suburban train from Paris.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Guest Post: "Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk?" by LJ Cohen; ITHAKA RISING Book Giveaway

For the last four years, I have been privileged to participate in an online critique group with nine fantastic writers. Not only do we live from one end of the country to the other, but we write in several different genres. Science fiction is the specialty of LJ Cohen. LJ has just published ITHAKA RISING, the second volume of her Halcyone Space series, a YA Space Opera:

A derelict ship and a splintered crew are not the rewards Ro had hoped for when she helped disrupt her father's plans to start a war with smuggled weapons. But with the responsibilities of full citizenship and limited resources, she's forced to take her father's place working as an engineer on Daedalus station while she and Barre try to repair their damaged freighter, Halcyone. Barre's brother, Jem, is struggling with the disabling effects of his head injury, unable to read or code. His only hope is to obtain a neural implant, but the specialists determine he's too young and his brain damage too extensive.

When Jem disappears, Barre and Ro race to find him before he sells his future and risks his mind for a black market neural implant. But locating The Underworld along with its rogue planet Ithaka has political consequences far beyond what Halcyone's crew imagine, pitting Jem's life against deadly secrets from a war that should have ended forty years ago.

As LJ is also an accomplished poet, I asked her how writing poetry and writing science fiction might be related.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

LJ Cohen

. . . or how is writing poetry related to writing science fiction?

According to Lewis Carroll, there actually isn't a true answer to his nonsensical riddle from Alice in Wonderland, but I do have an answer to my question.

Having been a poet for a far longer time than I have been a writer of fiction, I maintain that poetry - or at least the tools of poetry - underlies all effective writing. Not only that, but in writing speculative fiction, those tools can enhance world building and reader immersion in fundamental and crucial ways.

The poetic tools I'm going to focus on are specificity, musicality, and comparisons. All three can heighten the reading experience of your novel, especially novels of speculative fiction.


Not only do I read and write poetry, I also teach poetry writing with school aged children and the first thing I tell them is that poetry is like orange juice concentrate: it's all the 'pow' of language without any of the water.

Which is a more vivid way of saying that in poetry every single word counts and needs to more than carry its own weight. This is where specificity becomes crucial.

This is the opening sentence from ITHAKA RISING:

Barre turned up the music, and it transformed his mind into a concert hall with perfect acoustics, transporting him more than a dozen wormhole jumps and a few centuries away from the ruined bridge of the broken ship.

It would be hard to read this as anything other than science fiction. Why? Because of the specificity of the language: transformed, transporting, wormhole jumps, centuries, bridge, ship. Any one of these words could be used in many contexts, but putting them all together, and the ship is a space ship.

A few lines further down is this:

The ancient symphony soothed him, and as his hands did the grunt work of stripping wires and creating splices, his mind composed a more modern counterpoint, weaving synthesized computer tones though the main theme.

Again, the key words are ancient, modern, synthesized, and computer. Along with the specificity that clues the reader in on setting are descriptive words of the character's physical actions. Barre isn't just working, he's 'stripping wires and creating splices.'

The English language is rich with synonyms. The one you choose to convey an action or a description will carry with it layers of meaning and resonance. Sure, your character can walk, but she can also skip (is she a child?), saunter (is she running a scam?), limp (is she injured or disabled?), lurch (is she drunk?), or stumble (is she clumsy?).  Drill down until you find the right word for the specific situation/character/action that will convey the most information in the least space. That's a key essence of poetry and it works well in fiction, too.


You might have guessed from the two sentences above that one of my characters in ITHAKA RISING is a musician. Barre is a composer, and used a neural implant device to create and play back music. He also uses it to communicate with the ship's artificial intelligence.

Yes, that's Science Fiction, but we also use musical language to communicate. The rhythm, tone, and feel of language helps convey added meaning. Many English words come from two distinct linguistic heritages: Latin and German. Latinate words tend to be long, smooth words. They can slow the pace of a piece of writing, or create a sense of ease in the text. Germanic words are short and sharp. They can speed up the pace and enhance tension.

Some examples: Relinquish is Latinate. Leave is Germanic. Commence (Latinate) vs. start (Germanic). Purchase (Latinate) vs buy (Germanic). Prohibit (Latinate) vs ban (Germanic.) I think you get the idea.

Here we see a series of short, sharp words used to create a sense of urgency and change from the prior, more languid sentences:

An alarm tore through the music. As Barre jerked up, his head clipped the bottom lip of the console.

tore/jerked/head/clipped/lip are all words that add a staccato rhythm to the sentence. These changes in rhythm work on a very primal part of our brains to signal us to pay a different kind of attention to the language. Again, a poetic tool enhances the reader experience.

Comparisons - simile and metaphor

This may be the most powerful weapon in a writer's arsenal. (And yes, that is an example of a comparison: a metaphor.)  A simile is a comparison that uses 'like' or 'as'. A metaphor compares two things by superimposing them without using like or as.

Comparisons are so common in our everyday language, we often don't even notice them. Cool as a cucumber, white as a ghost, poor as dirt are some examples of similes. Metaphors are even more pervasive: have you ever been dog tired? Spent time? Has a remark ever been out of bounds? Those
are all comparisons we use all the time. We rarely even stop and think about where they arise from, but they are often culturally relevant.

It is that cultural relevance that makes comparisons such a powerful tool in speculative fiction.

In this segment, Jem Durbin is sneaking out of his family's quarters at night, and is concerned that his parents will find out.

Jem let the tablet dissolve on his tongue, hoping it would at least take the edge off. He ran his hand along the wall of his room toward the door. Pausing, he listened. It was well into third shift and his parents would be long asleep, unless one of them was on call and there were emergencies. Well, if
he didn’t take the jump, he’d never make it out of local space.

That final sentence is a metaphor that is completely in line with Jem's life and his experience as a child of the space-faring diaspora.

And in these two sentences, Ro Maldonado is struggling to deal with her anger and frustration. Here you see another space-related image:

Instead, she compacted the anger into a tiny black hole and added it to all the rest. Someday, it would eat its way through her, leaving emptiness behind.

Even in the dialogue, I chose to create expressions that are similar enough to current usage that they would be familiar, but also would comfortably fit in the universe of Halcyone Space. For example, the characters might say 'Holy mother of the cosmos' as an exclamation. Or 'seismic' for cool.

Each of these individual choices help to build a believable world for the reader and create an atmosphere where the story becomes real.

And that is the power of poetry.

LJ has generously offered two copies of ITHAKA RISING, one trade paperback, one ebook, for a random drawing for US readers. Leave a comment below with your name, email address and format preference by 11 pm PST on July 11, 2015. Winners' names will be drawn at random and posted by Monday morning, July 13. Good luck!

You can learn more about LJ Cohen and her work at her website. She also blogs regularly at Once in a Blue Muse.

ITHAKA RISING is available as a trade paperback and in all ebook formats  from Amazon, BN, Kobo, iBooks,  and Google Play. It is the companion novel to DERELICT, which New York Times bestselling author Lynn Viehl praised as "an edgy, nonstop flight into an audacious SF future." Publisher's Weekly says, "Cohen has real talent with character development and interaction, and prickly, defensive Ro is a sympathetic and interesting heroine."

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: THE LOVER'S PATH by Kris Waldherr

In the intricate, exuberant manner of the Renaissance art to which it pays homage, Kris Waldherr's lavishly illustrated novella THE LOVER'S PATH tempts and tantalizes the reader into a unique reading experience. Originally released as a print book in 2005, Waldherr has recast her tale of forbidden love as an interactive iPad e-book. Convincing in itself, the fictional confession of a female musician's journey on the path of true love gains a patina of authenticity from the nest of maps, scholarly articles, museum brochures and other ephemera which encompasses it. The result is an intriguing artifact that blurs the boundaries between word and image, fact and fiction, myth and lived experience and haunts the reader's thoughts long after the screen goes dark.

The kernel of Walderr's book is Filamena Ziani's personal narrative, purportedly published in 1543 and dedicated to the musician's patroness on the occasion of her wedding. Wishing to demonstrate that, in order to truly love another, it it necessary to follow the lover's path wherever it might take one, Filamena reveals her own story. Orphaned in infancy, she is raised by her older sister Tullia, a famed Venetian courtesan. Tullia's assiduity in securing generous patrons allows the sisters to live in luxury, yet Tullia yearns to provide Filamena a future independent of the favor of men. Accordingly, she confines her sister to the house and limits her interaction with guests. Chafing at these restrictions, Filamena schemes to use her voice to win the patronage of a visiting cardinal. Her plan founders when Angelo, the cardinal's illegitimate son, falls in love with her after hearing her sing at Tullia's feast. Filamena surrenders her heart to this youth who sends her a book of maps and myths to guide her along the path of love. Fueled by startling revelations and mistaken identities, events mount  to a bittersweet conclusion, one that ultimately teaches Filamena that, though the world be "a place of wondrous complexities, of unreasonable sorrows and unimaginable triumphs," it can never part her from the love she finds along the path.

Waldherr takes pains to create an aura of authenticity around Filamena's confession. She models Filamena's voice on letters and dialogues penned by Renaissance women writers. Weaving archetypal stories throughout Filamena's tale, she provides the allegorical commentary typical of sixteenth century narrative. Her stunning visual design evokes an unmistakable Renaissance aesthetic in its scrollwork borders, illustrated capitals, and fanciful section markers, elements that counterbalance the more modern sensibility of the book's lavish illustrations.

Waldherr's efforts to further an illusion of authenticity do not end with the material of the narrative itself. In a daring creative ploy, the author creates an elaborate extra-textual scaffolding to validate Filamena's sixteenth century world. The book opens with a letter from the supposed curator of the Museo di Palazzo Filomela that discusses Filomena's life in its historical context and celebrates the present book as the first English translation of her original Italian work. Following the story, the interactive article "About the Museo" outlines the museum's history as Filamena's former residence and provides a map that ingeniously displays the book's archetypal illustrations as frescoes on its gallery walls. By clicking on various rooms, the reader may examine artifacts from Filamena's life "currently on display," such as her travel journal and a decorated violin. The assurance that additional artifacts and documents will join the current exhibits as soon as they are uncovered contributes to the unsettling feeling that this museum, and the life it chronicles, might just perhaps be real.

So convincingly does Waldherr present her material, I must admit I did a little Googling to make sure  the book, the museum, and Filamena herself were but the products of the author's fecund imagination. My admiration for Waldherr's impressive talents quickly overcame my disappointment at never being able to visit the Museo di Palazzo Filomela in person. Yet I can, and will, return to Filamena's imagined world again and again. Obtain a copy and travel THE LOVER'S PATH for yourself. This marvelous e-book is as seductive and satisfying as the love it purports to relate.

[Please note: Only the iPad edition of THE LOVER'S PATH is interactive. The other e-book formats contain identical content, but without the interactive features. ]

You can learn more about THE LOVER'S PATH and how to order at For a deeper look at Kris Waldherr's books, art, and apps, visit her website.