Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: BECOMING JOSEPHINE by Heather Webb

Today Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, publishes from Plume. Here is my review of this fascinating fictional portrait.


Desperate for love and adventure, young Rose Tascher visits a voodoo priestess to learn her fortune. "You will become more than a queen," the priestess informs the plantation owner's daughter, who has braved the dangers of the Martiniquan jungle at dusk to learn her fate. More than a queen, indeed--Rose will rise to become France's first empress, Joséphine, wife of Napoléon Bonaparte. But--as the reader of Heather Webb's engaging debut novel BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume, December 2013) learns--empress is not Rose's highest calling. That is to become a woman who creates her own destiny and happiness, who embraces the "joys, pains, deeds and failings" that define her journey to wholeness.

Webb's novel deploys the favored topos of women's fiction--a female protagonist who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and ultimately saves herself (see Amy Sue Nathan's Women's Fiction Defined)--within a historical setting. She recounts thirty years of Rose's life, from her days as a child on Martinique, to her failed marriage to a French aristocrat, her imprisonment during the French Revolution, her struggle to redefine herself and survive the fluid years of the early Republic, through her marriage to and divorce from Napoléon. The events serve to illustrate how Rose grows and changes, how her outlook on life and her vision for the future expands. For Rose does, indeed, change, maturing from a flighty, pleasure-loving ingénue to a generous, devoted mother of both her children and her country, a woman who realizes both her past failings and her own inner strength. The transformation is all the more convincing in that it doesn't occur in a linear, absolute fashion, but in often contradictory, yet completely realistic, fits and starts. It takes the catalyst of divorce for Rose's enlightenment to complete itself, opening the promise of a fulfilling future in which she will define herself in relation to nothing and no one but her own soul.

Webb's Joséphine never forgets her Creole roots. From the opening prophecy of the voodoo priestess, to her lifelong belief in Tarot and fortune-telling, to the sacrifices and supplications she makes to the island fertility goddess, the practices and beliefs of island religion offer Rose a steadying refuge when catastrophic events threaten to overwhelm her. Her beloved servant and half-sister Mimi, daughter of her father and a plantation slave, remains her constant companion, a living link between her formal Parisian present and her vibrant island past. Rose never forgets the scents and sights of her island home; part of the fabric of her being, her Caribbean roots influence everything from her taste in clothing to her love of gardening to her generosity and warm hospitality. Her effusive nature serves to soften Napoléon's abrasiveness and elevates her as an influential stateswoman in her own right--even as her zest for the pleasures of life contributes to her downfall. Webb's emphasis on Joséphine's "otherness" provides the character an intriguing multifacetedness that enchants the reader as thoroughly as it did Napoléon and an entire nation.

Webb writes with a smooth, accessible style that serves its subject well. She provides just enough historical detail to bring the sights and smells and events of a dizzying era to life. She handles the political changes with aplomb, never losing the reader as France travels from kingdom to republic to directorship to empire. More importantly, she never shifts her focus from Rose's inner journey. Just as Rose becomes "more than a queen," BECOMING JOSEPHINE becomes more than a typical historical novel. It sketches a compelling portrait of generous, engaged, resilient woman who "toils for what [is] right and striv[es] to do her part." The historical finds a felicitous blend with the psychological in Heather Webb's triumphant debut.

You can order BECOMING JOSEPHINE from Amazon or find it at your local bookseller. Learn more about Heather Webb and her book at her website.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Interview with Heather Webb, author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE

My dear friend Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE (Plume 2013), publishes this December 31. BECOMING JOSEPHINE recounts the story of Rose Tascher, who overcomes an impoverished Créole childhood and a series of misfortunes to become Empress Josephine, consort of Napoleon and, for a time, the most powerful woman in France. BECOMING JOSEPHINE has received a glowing review from Kirkus. I'll post my own review on publication day. Here, Heather answers some questions about her interest in Josephine and the writing of the novel.

1. What drew you to write a novel about Josephine Bonaparte?

The idea for this novel came to me in two parts. I taught a unit about the French Revolution in my high school French classes for several years, which sparked my interest in the time period. Yet despite my teaching, I knew little about Josephine and I “discovered” her later. Ultimately she was a minor player in a sea of France’s most famous and infamous people during the Revolution—at least until Robespierre fell and the Directoire took over the government.

When I began to feel the pull to writing a book, I had a dream about Josephine. Strange, but true. From the very first biography I read, I was hooked. Her vivid childhood home, her adaptable nature and courageous spirit had me enthralled. Her rich life story set to the backdrop of the chaotic Revolution and the opulent Napoleonic Empire cinched the deal.

2. How is your Josephine different from other novelists' Josephines?

What a good question! I've enjoyed all the accounts of Josephine that I've read, but the Josephine who spoke to me most was the survivor, the adaptable, cunning woman who was excellent at reading the emotions and the needs of those around her. I wanted to emphasize how she wasn't just a victim of her time, but a woman who knew how to leverage the crisis of the day to her advantage. Also, I've found other authors have depicted her generous nature and the way Napoleon took advantage of her, OR her highly sexualized nature, and rarely did the authors marry all the facets of her person. I attempted to do that--to layer my Josephine. I believe we're all contradictory in some aspects and I wanted to illustrate that in my characters.

3. Did the real Josephine dabble in Tarot and the dark arts of her native Martinique?

Yes. There are many sources that document her fondness for Tarot cards, how she relied on them heavily (especially during times of strife), but also that she visited soothsayers in Paris as well as her African medicine woman, the quimboiseur in Martinique. I also found a few accounts of Napoleon being very superstitious and a bit of an amateur palm reader himself.

4. Which period of Josephine's life did you find the most difficult to write about?

Her time with Napoleon! I had to condense so much of their history together to keep the book moving.  Also, I didn't want to overwhelm the story with ANOTHER tour out of the country, another parade through France, or the endless number of lovers Napoleon took on. It would have become trite, in my opinion, to go overboard detailing those events. I also found this period difficult because there are hundreds and hundreds of sources documenting every single step of Napoleon's life and very many that did the same for Josephine. I had to cut through all of the detail and decide which of those were the most important facts to bring to life.

5. In your opinion, would Napoleon's career have been very different if he had not met and married Josephine?

Absolutely. While he was a brilliant military strategist, he had a hideous temper and lacked social grace. Also, as his power grew, so did his ego, consequently making him difficult to deal with on any level. Very many statesmen despised him. He turned into quite the tyrant over time, like any power-hungry politician. Josephine smoothed over so many of his tantrums, charmed his ministers and foreign diplomats, as well as placated the returning Royalists after he came into power.

6. Are the letters you feature from Napoleon and Josephine to each other actual letters? What did reading the pair's historical correspondence reveal to you about their characters? 

Yes, they are--all but the final farewell note to Josephine. It was fascinating to see how Napoleon's feelings toward Josephine changed over the course of their relationship. He all but worshiped her when they first married and by the end of their relationship, he loved her as a dear friend. But he also chastised her when she would tell him she missed him during his travels, or when she wept over losing friends or family members. He also chastised her immodest dress, as he called it. You could see how controlling and chauvinist he really was. To Josephine's credit, she ignored him when she wished. For example, he forbid her from wearing English muslin gowns and both Josephine and her daughter Hortense wore them anyway. He wanted to cover her low necklines so she draped a shawl about her shoulders to appease him, but refused to cover her necklines. So yes, he was domineering, but she was cunning and knew how to appease him and still get her way.

7. If you could own one item once owned by Josephine, what would it be and why? 

Oooo, a fun question. I think I'd have to say Malmaison--the home she built outside of Paris. But if I had to choose a smaller, physical item, I'd LOVE to own her Tarot deck.

8. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

The message I would like readers to grasp—this is tricky because a book, film, or piece of art, means something different to each person based on their own emotional lens and life experiences—is that there is hope in beginning anew, not just loss. Also, true contentedness comes with forgiveness and generosity, and the loving relationships you nurture in your life.

9. What is the most important thing you learned about yourself in writing this novel?

That I can do it! I can follow my passion, work hard, persevere (!!), and that dream is possible!


Heather Webb grew up a military brat and naturally became obsessed with travel, culture, and languages. She put her degrees to good use teaching high school French for nearly a decade before turning to full time novel writing and freelance editing. Her debut, BECOMING JOSEPHINE will release December 31, 2013 from Plume/Penguin.

When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. She loves to chitchat on Twitter with new reader friends or writers (@msheatherwebb) or via her blog. Stop on by!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The First Thanksgiving Feast: Salt Pork, Garbanzo Beans and Tortoise?

Tradition--and most history books--teach that the first Thanksgiving feast was held in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in November of 1621, when Protestant Pilgrims invited their Wampanoag neighbors to share a meal of wildfowl, corn and venison. However, the true "first Thanksgiving" may well have taken place fifty-six years earlier in St. Augustine, Florida.

In 1565, King Philip of Spain sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574), a Spanish admiral, to destroy a colony of French Huguenots that had established itself in Florida in territory claimed by Spain. On August 28, the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, Menéndez and his men landed near the native Timucua village of Seloy and founded the settlement of St. Augustine. Shortly after, they commemorated their safe passage by celebrating Mass--considered by many to be the first Catholic Mass celebrated on American soil--and invited their Timucuan neighbors to a meal of Thanksgiving.

As the meal took place shortly after the Spaniards' arrival, it would have been comprised of dishes produced from the remaining provisions brought from Spain. The most likely candidate was a stew called cocido, made of garbanzo beans and salt pork flavored with garlic, which would have been served with hardtack biscuits and red wine. The Timucua probably contributed dishes made of corn, venison, and tortoise, staples of their diet.

The battle over the "first Thanksgiving" is in all likelihood a moot point, for as historian Michael Gannon points out, other Europeans in pre-Mayflower days would have marked their arrival with prayers of thanksgiving and perhaps even meals with their Native American neighbors. Gannon does emphasize, however, that the thanksgiving at St. Augustine was the first to take place at a permanent European settlement on the American continent. Sorry, Pilgrims!

In any case, I wish you a happy holiday marked by a spirit of genuine thanksgiving for all the blessings we share!

Horowitz, Tony. A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (Picador, 2008).

Friday, October 25, 2013

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"From the Cunstable as yet for my repair to the Court I have hard nothing, who dothe promise many things, and soon forget them. Such ys the nature of all Frenche men universally."

John Wallop (c. 1490-1551), English diplomat assigned to France
Letter to King Henry VIII, 27 October 1540

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cover Reveal Contest: Susan Spann's BLADE OF THE SAMURAI

Once again, it's cover reveal time. Susan Spann, author of CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur, July 2013), just received the cover art for her second novel, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Minotaur, July 2014), and it is breathtaking! But in true ninja fashion, Susan refuses to reveal it all at once. Instead, she's parceled it out in tantalizing chunks. You must travel--stealthily, of course--from blog to blog and piece it all together. Here is the portion she shared with me:

To whet your appetite even further, here's a description of the story (which I've read and enjoyed even more than I did CLAWS OF THE CAT!):

June, 1565: Master ninja Hiro Hattori receives a pre-dawn visit from Kazu, a fellow shinobi working undercover at the shogunate. Hours before, the Shogun's cousin, Saburo, was stabbed to death in the Shogun's palace. The murder weapon: Kazu's personal dagger. Kazu says he's innocent, and begs for Hiro's help, but his story gives Hiro reason to doubt the young shinobi's claims.

When the Shogun summons Hiro and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest under Hiro's protection, to find the killer, Hiro finds himself forced to choose between friendship and personal honor.  

The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the Shogun and overthrow the ruling Ashikaga clan. With Lord Oda's enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro must use his assassin’s skills to reveal the killer’s identity and protect the Shogun at any cost. Kazu, now trapped in the city, still refuses to explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But a suspicious shogunate maid, Saburo's wife, and the Shogun's stable master also had reasons to want Saburo dead. With the Shogun demanding the murderer's head before Lord Oda reaches the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time ... or die in his place.

Now, to reward her faithful and intrepid ninja readers, Susan has devised a contest. If you leave a comment on any of the five reveal tour posts this week, you'll be entered into a drawing to win one of three fun prizes--and yes, multiple comments means multiple entries, though there's a limit of one comment per person per blog post and a limit of one prize per person. The prizes include a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble, a ninja mug, and a set of ninjabread men cookie cutters:

(Because, as Susan says, all cookies secretly want to be ninjas.)

So visit Kerry Shaefer's Swimming North to comment on yesterday's cover art snapshot and Heather Webb's Between the Sheets for tomorrow's. On Friday, you can view the entire cover reassembled on Susan's blog. All comments must be left on participating blogs before midnight Pacific Time on Sunday, October 27, 2013. Limit one prize per person. Limit one eligible comment per blog post, for a total maximum of five entries per person.

May the Force be with you. (Oh wait, wrong book.) Gabarimasu! Good luck and have fun!

BLADE OF THE SAMURAI: A Shinobi Mystery can be preordered here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

M.K. Tod's 2013 Reader Survey

Readers, want to influence the publishing industry? Please take the time to fill out Mary K. Tod's survey on your reading habits and preferences. Mary, an author of historical fiction herself, compiles the data from the voluntary survey in order to provide readers, authors, editors and agents a snapshot of historical fiction trends and audience interests. As she describes the project:

"Last year’s reader survey conducted by M.K. Tod uncovered insights about those who read historical fiction and those who do not - demographics, story preferences, favourite time periods, reasons for reading or not reading this genre, top authors, the different perspectives of men and women, sources of recommendations and so on.

The 2013 survey will augment these results with a broader focus on reading habits as well as social media’s role in enhancing the reading experience. Survey questions were developed in collaboration with Richard Lee, Founder of the Historical Novel Society.

Whether you read historical fiction or not, please take a few minutes to complete the survey. To add to the robustness of data collected, please pass the survey URL along to men and women of all ages and in any part of the world you can reach!"

Here's the link:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JCG7NYP 

The survey takes less than ten minutes to complete. Thank you in advance for your participation!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Exhibition: Elizabeth I and Her People

Portrait of Kathryn Berain
An exciting new exhibition is opening at the National Portrait Gallery in London. "Elizabeth I and Her People" uses portraiture to explore the lives of Elizabeth's subjects. Portraits include those of nobility, craftsmen, merchants, soldiers and artists. The exhibition runs from October 10, 2013 through January 5, 2014. The website makes available a series of short films about the exhibition. Play the interactive game to discover your "inner Elizabethan"! If any readers are lucky enough to visit the exhibition, please come back and tell us about it.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review: THE STUDY OF MURDER by Susan McDuffie

The pursuit of knowledge takes a vicious turn in Susan McDuffie's THE STUDY OF MURDER (Five Star, 2013), the third novel of her fourteenth century Muirteach MacPhee series. Scottish sleuth Muirteach and his wife Mariota accompany Donald, their lord's teenaged son, to Oxford University for his studies. Soon a tavern maid disappears and someone bludgeons an Oxford master to death. As Mariota sneaks into lecture halls and Donald carouses with fellow students, Muirteach investigates the crimes. Tensions between the academic community and the townsfolk rise to a fevered pitch when another senseless killing occurs and the undersheriff arrests suspects on the basis of Muirteach's findings. Yet Muirteach himself remains unconvinced of their guilt; certain the strange drawings Donald discovers on some used parchments will lead him to the killer, he continues his inquiries. Then Mariota disappears, and Muirteach must solve the riddle of the murderer's identity with all haste if he hopes to find his wife alive.

The strength of McDuffie's mystery lies in its evocation of medieval Oxford. With the help of the included map, the reader follows on Muirteach's heels as he traipses through town, visiting its stately college halls, shabby student tenements, raucous taverns and busy booksellers and stationers. She smells the offal in the gutter, the acrid odors of the tannery, the sweet flowers of the surrounding countryside. She hears the drone of Latin lectures, the off-key plucking of Donald's lute, the shouts of rioting mobs, the scrape of tools on parchment. She tastes the cheap wine, the hearty meat pies, the landlady's comforting stew. Not only does the author evoke the sensory details of fourteenth century life, she describes the structure of the medieval university, the conventions of instruction, the importance of disputation in earning a degree. McDuffie brings to vivid life a university experience quite different from today's.

The novel's characters are convincing and likable. Devoted to his wife and his charge, Muirteach is a reluctant sleuth, but a thorough one, determined to get to the bottom of things and bring the true criminal to justice. Headstrong Mariota might be a tad modern for the times, given her determination to further her medical education, but her family history and her father's reputation as a physician make her yearnings believable. The students who populate the university cross the spectrum from cerebral philosophers to partying louts; the masters themselves are distinctive and wedded with enthusiasm to their specialties. Palpable tension exists between the merchants, landlords, servants and watch and the often supercilious and dissolute students who take them for granted. Muirteach, in his role as Donald's chaperone, understands and mediates between the two factions.

The mystery itself is carefully developed so as to cast suspicion on multiple persons, each of whom has a valid motivation for involvement in the crimes. Early on I had a hunch as to the identity of the perpetrator, yet I found my confidence in this identification challenged again and again by the plausible motives of other suspects. Even though my guess proved ultimately correct, it was entertaining to watch Muirteach piece together the evidence and come to conclusions that defy the obvious.

Enriched by colorful characters, caustic conflict, and a finely researched setting, THE STUDY OF MURDER will please readers looking for a unique, historically based whodunit.

You can learn more about author Susan McDuffie at her website. Susan wrote an interesting article about the historical Voynich manuscript, the creative kernel of her mystery, here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

September 12: Birthday of "le grand Roi"

François Ier by Jean Clouet. Oil on oak panel, circa 1530
Five hundred and nineteen years ago today, a son was born to a count of a minor branch of the house of Valois. François d'Angoulême became heir presumptive to the French king, Louis XII, only when it became clear Louis himself would have no sons. On his deathbed in 1515, Louis married his daughter Claude to her cousin, making François King of France at the age of twenty. François ruled for thirty-two years, during which time the French court blossomed, power became centralized, and France competed with England and Spain for control of the Continent. François reformed the judicial system, established French as the realm's official language, and sponsored exploration of the New World. He enticed Italian artists and artisans to France, supported writers and scholars, and designed and built elegant palaces throughout the kingdom. His sons and grandsons ruled France through the end of the century. Known for his joie de vivre, his exquisite taste, and his embrace of the chivalric code of honor, François is revered by the French as le grand roi François.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Feuilleton on Fontainebleau

photo credit: Marilane Borges
This week, channel France 2 is running a feature serial about the château of Fontainebleau. Today's installment focuses on the private apartments of Napoleon, although it includes a beautiful segment shot in the galérie François Ier. Straightening the cord across a velvet-upholstered armchair whose wooden back boasts a carving of François's salamander emblem, the security guard reminds viewers that the chairs which line the gallery are authentic period pieces, quite valuable and fragile. The Fontainebleau segment begins at the 28:25 minute mark. Just before it, starting at 25:24, is a segment on the old city of Lyon and its Italianate architecture. Hmmm, the settings of my two novels, back to back on French television... is it a message from the gods? One can hope. :)

Here's the link to the video, in French. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fontainebleau: More than a Castle

Say the word "Fontainebleau" and most people immediately think of the château outside Paris favored by both François I and Napoléon. Few realize that Fontainebleau also designates one of the largest and most popular forests in France. The fôret de Fontainebleau covers approximately 110 square miles in the department of Seine-et-Marne, southeast of Paris. Over 13 million visitors a year hike the forest's 200 miles of paths.

In 1528, François I decided to renovate the old medieval castle at Fontainebleau. He not only rebuilt the palace, but increased the grounds attached to the domain through a series of purchases and appropriations. By 1537, the royal forest covered 51 square miles. The forest was rich with game: deer, boar, lynx, wolves, martens, and over two hundred species of birds. Being an avid hunter, François spent countless hours pursuing his prey through stands of oak and beech trees and around the huge boulders that litter the site. To care for his beloved forest, François created the honorary position of Grand Forestier, the official who oversaw the corps of horse guards and that patrolled and managed the domain.

Forêt de Fontainebleau by Karl Bodmer. Etching, 1850
Countless boulders make the forêt de Fontainebleau a favorite spot of rock climbers today. The area was once covered by a sea, which deposited a deep layer of white sand. Over the millennia, this sand compressed into the long chains of rocky plateaux and oddly shaped boulders that characterize the landscape. The forest soil contains up to 98% sand; in places, there are dunes. Because of this high sand content, no streams are visible in the forest, only ponds where water gathers in hollows in the massif. The palace itself is built of this durable local sandstone.

Artists, photographers, writers and poets have long found inspiration in the forest's rocky wilderness. While early painters used the forest as a backdrop for hunting scenes, Camille Corot was one of the first painters to make the forest itself the subject of his paintings. Claude Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne, Seurat all painted there. Rousseau and Millet formed what is known as the école de Barbizon at Fontainebleau in the mid-nineteenth century. Photographers followed the painters, and numerous writers, among them Hugo, Stendhal, Sand, Balzac and Proust, visited the forest or evoked it in their works.

In the Forest of Fontainebleau by Paul Cézanne. 1880
Several scenes of my current novel take place in the forêt de Fontainebleau. In this one, Anne d'Étampes, King François's mistress, hurries to a rendez-vous deep in the woods:

       The path plunged beneath the canopy of new leaves, eager as Anne to escape the shimmering May sun and the scrutiny of the palace’s countless windows. The horses’ hooves drummed a steady beat on the ribbon of packed earth, cleared of debris and hazards in perpetual readiness for the royal hunt. Wasted effort on the groundskeepers’ part, of late; the pain in François’s belly had kept him from the saddle for more days now than she cared to count. She’d left him in his library in thrall to a desiccated scholar who claimed to hear the music of the celestial spheres. Would that François’s ears might detect the note of falsity in the man’s bombastic claims.
       She rode alone, save for the groom who followed a few lengths behind and knew better than to chatter. Late, she prodded her mare to pick up the pace. The grotto lay a fair distance away, and she knew he wouldn’t wait if she were slow to arrive. Why he refused to meet her in some secluded corner of the gardens instead of here in the godforsaken woods, she’d never understand. Riskier there, yes, but at least they’d be surprised by a pair of impatient lovers and not a pack of peckish wolves.
       Maybe she’d still beat him there. Curses on the chaplain for delaying her. She much preferred to be the first to arrive at any appointment; not only did it give her time to collect herself, but it allowed her to play on the inconvenience of being made to wait. Rushing, she almost missed the fork in the trail that lead to the grotto. This spur was but a narrow crevice between the trees, little more than footpath really, strewn with stones and knobby roots that slowed the horse to a careful walk. The groundskeepers hardly bothered to maintain it, for an army of hunters, horses, and dogs could never pick its way down the steep slope without landing in a jumbled heap. She only knew of the spot because François had taken her there once, in the early days, when they'd made a game of sneaking off alone. She was surprised when the painter suggested it. 
       Giant boulders loomed ahead, perched one atop the other in improbable piles that always made her uneasy to stand beside. She dismounted. “Wait here,” she told the groom, who took her reins and led the horses to nibble at a nearby bush while he pared his nails with a knife. No worries that he’d spy—she paid him plenty to ignore what she didn’t want him to see, and knew enough about him to ensure her wouldn’t tattle if he did fail to look away.
       She descended the last few feet of the path, slipping precariously on loose gravel, to stand on a large, flat rock that could have been the stage of a Roman amphitheater. On three sides, the tumble of carmel-colored rocks created a honeycomb of nooks and small caves, openings camouflaged by ropes of of ivy and tangles of exposed roots. Pine trees vied with a massive oak for light, casting deep pockets of shade on brittle drifts of last autumn’s leaves. Anne shivered. If one were a hunted beast, this must surely be the safest place in the domain to hide. She peered at the maw of the nearest cave, half-expecting to find yellow eyes of a forest cat staring back. 
       A pebble landed at her feet. Another tapped her shoulder. Shielding her head with her arm, she had turned to flee when a chuckle stopped her. “Leaving so soon, Aphrodite?”

Click here to watch a stunning video of the fôret de Fontainbleau in winter. It's no surprise that Fontainebleau and its domain were François's favorite palace. He spent more time there than anywhere else save Paris.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Interview: Christy English, author of LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT

After writing two well-received historical novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine (THE QUEEN'S PAWN [NAL, 2010] and TO BE QUEEN [NAL, 2011]), author Christy English returns to an early love--Shakespeare's plays. An actress who has performed Shakespeare's works countless times, English is penning a series of romantic retellings of the Bard's plays set in Regency England. LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT (Sourcebooks Casablanca), the second novel of the series, published this week and re-envisions A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. At times sweet, at others saucy, but always equally endearing and entertaining, LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT is sure to please readers hungry for a romantic tale. Christy visits today to explain her move from historical fiction to straight romance and to share her fascination with the Regency period.

Looking at your first novel THE QUEEN'S PAWN and your latest work, LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT, the two are as different as night and day. What made you move from writing Historical Fiction to straight romance?

Even in my historical fiction, romance has always been a river running through all of my books. True love is a compelling theme for me, one that deserves its own story. That's why I got started writing Regency romances: I'm in love with love. And being able to write happy endings doesn't hurt either. Historical fiction rarely ends well.

Your last novel, HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, re-told Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and LOVE ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT seems to reflect on A Midsummer Night's Dream. What is it about Shakespeare that keeps drawing you back in?

I have loved Shakespeare since I studied Othello in the 7th grade. When I first started, his language was a locked door, and it took me years to really begin to unpack it and find the story hidden within. Once I did, it was worth it. There are so many layers to Shakespeare's storytelling. The beautiful language is only the first.

What about the Regency period in British history fascinates you the most?

The clothes. The manners. Wait...that's two things. But they reflect each other. The beautiful, buttoned-up clothes that both men and women wear in my books hide a vein of passion, one that romances novels allow me to mine. Love and passion are two of the things that make story-telling exciting. The Regency period lends itself very easily to that. Jane Austen started it all, and now we writers follow in her footsteps. 

What's next for you?

I'm continuing the Shakespeare in Love series with MUCH ADO ABOUT JACK coming out around Valentine's Day. A re-telling Much Ado About Nothing, this third romance was a lot of fun to write. The banter between Beatrice and Benedict in the play really opens the door for a lot of verbal sparring in my book. My characters fall in love in spite of themselves.

You can learn more about Christy English and her books at her website.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Guest Post: "Life and Hope--Why I Write Historical Fiction for Teens" by Katherine Longshore

I met Katherine Longshore last winter at a reading of GILT (Viking Juvenile, 2012), her Young Adult novel about the friendship between Henry VIII's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and Kitty Tilney, the abandoned youngest daughter of minor aristocracy. Since then, Katherine has published TARNISH (Viking Juvenile, 2013), a Young Adult read about Anne Boleyn and the poet Thomas Wyatt. Her forthcoming MANOR OF SECRETS is a "Downtonesque" story of two girls living very different lives in an Edwardian manor house (Scholastic, February 2014). Katherine and I share a love for the sixteenth century, and during the course of our conversation I asked her why she chooses to write for the Young Adult audience and how writing historical YA differs from writing historicals for adults. Here are her well-considered answers.

Life and Hope--
Why I Write Historical Fiction for Teens 
by Katherine Longshore

When I started writing my first published novel, GILT, it never occurred to me to question why I chose to write historical fiction for teens.

I knew—intuitively, viscerally—that I wanted to write for young people.  A librarian friend of mine once said that when people approached her, looking to learn about life, she sent them to the YA section. Everything is there—friendship, betrayal, growth, wisdom, pain, death, destruction, first loves, first kisses, first grief. But because it is all from a teen’s perspective, there is also future, and to me, future means hope. A YA novel looks forward into life, instead of looking back (like adult novels written about youth—Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Old School by Tobias Wolff, even A Separate Peace, which is taught in high schools, but is really—in my opinion—not YA).  Looking forward is a gift. As the Lumineers say in their song Flowers in Your Hair, “’It takes a boy to live/It takes a man to pretend he was there.” I wanted to write about life. And hope. And finding the path to the person you’re supposed to be.

I stepped into the historical part of my writing after my husband reminded me of the maxim, Write what you know. “You know history. Why not write that?”

I’d been studying Henry VIII and his wives for years, trying to figure out their motivations, their strengths, their psychologies. What drove this man to cling to his tenuous birthright so determinedly?  What drove him to strive so forcefully for a male heir? What made him think he could change the world, bend it to his will? What made him believe so wholeheartedly that he was right?

And what compelled these six women to marry him? Did they leap at the chance? Stumble reluctantly toward their fates? Follow unthinkingly the reasoning of the men in their lives?

Lastly, what if the hypotheses of the historians are just that—conjecture based on limited evidence? Was Anne of Cleves truly ugly, or are those conclusions based on the hearsay of toadying courtiers? Was Jane Seymour truly just a simple, quiet, unassuming woman or was that just a ruse to trap the king? When I came to write GILT, my biggest question was, “What if Catherine Howard wasn’t an ignorant floozy, but a clever—if uneducated—girl in touch with her own sexuality?” I wanted to write for teens, I wanted to write about Henry VIII’s reign—his only teenage queen was Catherine Howard.  It seemed a good character—and a good question—with which to start. My second novel, TARNISH, is about a young Anne Boleyn—before her involvement with the king. My question was, “What if Anne wasn’t a manipulative schemer but began as a girl in search of a dream—a place in a society that forced her to be a second-class citizen?”

Then comes the difficulty. How to write about a queen whose life is ended through execution for treason and write it looking forward into life? More importantly, how do I write about a girl who lived 450 years ago and make her story relevant and relatable to a modern teenager?

I start by looking back at my own teen years. What was important to me? The two things that spring immediately to mind are friendship and dreams (which, I suppose, could also translate into ambition). I wanted to be an actress and I wanted good grades, so that’s what I spend my high school years striving toward. The moments I remember best, however, are with my friends.  Building a cake castle for my fourteenth birthday. Sitting on the balcony outside the stage door of the auditorium, watching the sunset. Hanging out on the beach and building sand sculptures the summer after I graduated.

And crushes. I was too busy—and too shy—in high school to pursue a relationship. But that didn’t stop me from wanting one. I was a bit of a late bloomer, so I look to after high school to remember what love and sex and heartbreak were like for the first time.

With those things in mind, I build a story around the scaffolding of history. The story has to be something to which modern readers can relate. In GILT, it’s a dysfunctional friendship. In TARNISH, it’s first love and pursuit of dreams. In MANOR OF SECRETS, coming out in January, it’s friendship again. And my third Tudor book, due out next summer, is about all of these—friendship, love, betrayal and loss. As devoted as I am to historical accuracy, my books are not “about” the history, but about the story. I’d like to think that if the story were somehow taken out of context and placed into a different setting—a modern high school, a spaceship, a future dystopian world—that the story would hold up (with a few tweaks—obviously the consequence of promiscuity in a modern high school would not be decapitation).

My writing style also lends itself to a more modern-sounding voice, which I hope helps teenagers to connect to the story.  I’ve had some readers write to me to say how refreshing it was to read a historical novel that didn’t use archaic language and sentence structure. (“It doesn’t sound all Shakespearean,” one reader said.) But to others, my voice sounds anachronistic.  And I voluntarily admit to using anachronistic words and phrases (best friend and sex are the two that come immediately to mind, as well as the occasional oath where I choose a more modern vocabulary to carry the impact that damn no longer does). I maintain my voice and choose my words carefully—the way I write is not accidental or through ignorance. Like I said, I want to do everything I can to make my books accessible to my audience.  Occasionally, I get slammed for it. But because I did it purposefully—and because my target audience seems to appreciate it—I take the hit on the chin and just keep writing.

The hardest part about writing historical fiction for teens is finding my audience and reaching out to it. Unfortunately, historical carries the aftertaste of history, which is all too often associated with schoolwork—long dreary days memorizing dates and placenames, and “Shakespearean” language. Reading for fun should take you away from all that, right? Many teens these days turn to futuristic worlds, contemporary worlds with magical elements or contemporary books that reflect their real lives.  Historical fiction is a “genre” still blighted by preconceptions. I just hope that with wildly popular television programs like Downton Abbey and successful historical hybrids like Robin LaFever’s GRAVE MERCY series or Libba Bray’s DIVINERS, that more teens will be turning to historical fiction as just a cracking good read—not something that has to be endured or tried under duress.

We all know how exciting history can be. The one time I met Julianne we must have spent twenty minutes chatting enthusiastically about Henry VIII and Francois I and the Field of Cloth of Gold. It’s great stuff—better than soap opera because it was real. Better than reality TV because it happened without the fabricated set-up.

I write historical fiction for teens because I want them to experience it, too.

You can learn more about Katherine Longshore and her novels at her website.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Today I am pleased to participate in friend Marci Jefferson's cover release blog tour and contest. Her novel, GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN, A NOVEL OF FRANCES STUART, will release on February 11, 2014 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. If you pre-order this week and comment on Marci's blog, you'll be entered in a drawing for a pair of sterling silver pearl-drop earrings like the ones Frances wears on the book's elegant cover (be prepared to present your receipt).


Impoverished and exiled to the French countryside after the overthrow of the English Crown, Frances Stuart survives merely by her blood-relation to the Stuart Royals. But in 1660, the Restoration of Stuart Monarchy in England returns her family to favor. Frances discards threadbare gowns and springs to gilded Fontainebleau Palace, where she soon catches King Louis XIV’s eye. But Frances is no ordinary court beauty, she has Stuart secrets to keep and people to protect. The king turns vengeful when she rejects his offer to become his Official Mistress. He banishes her to England with orders to seduce King Charles II and stop a war.

Armed in pearls and silk, Frances maneuvers through the political turbulence of Whitehall Palace, but still can’t afford to stir a scandal. Her tactic to inspire King Charles to greatness captivates him. He believes her love can make him an honest man and even chooses Frances to pose as Britannia for England’s coins. Frances survives the Great Fire, the Great Plague, and the debauchery of the Restoration Court, yet loses her heart to the very king she must control. Until she is forced to choose between love or war.

On the eve of England’s Glorious Revolution, James II forces Frances to decide whether to remain loyal to her Stuart heritage or, like England, make her stand for Liberty. Her portrait as Britannia is minted on every copper coin. There she remains for generations, an enduring symbol of Britain’s independent spirit and her own struggle for freedom.


"In her wonderfully evocative debut, Girl on the Golden Coin, Marci Jefferson recreates the fascinating story of Frances Stuart, whose influence over England's Charles II became the talk of a nation. As vibrant and delightful as the woman it's based on, Girl on the Golden Coin is a jewel of a novel!"
—Michelle Moran, New York Times bestselling author of The Second Empress and Madame Tussaud 

"Beauty is not always a blessing, as young Frances Stuart finds out when her lovely face pits her between the desires and politics of rival kings Louis XIV and Charles II. Frances makes an appealing heroine, by turns wary and passionate, sophisticated and innocent, as she matures from destitute young pawn to the majestic duchess whose figure would grace Britain's coins for centuries. Her struggles to support her loved ones, uncover her family secrets, and somehow find a life of her own amid the snake-pit courts of the Sun King and the Merry Monarch make for lively, entertaining reading in this lush Restoration novel by debut author Marci Jefferson."
—Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of Mistress of Rome

"Girl on the Golden Coin is a fantastic novel. I couldn’t put it down. The plot is fast-paced and compelling, with intriguing characters, lush settings and captivating narrative voice. Jefferson’s debut paints an intriguing portrait of Frances Stuart, a novel worthy of the determined, golden spirit of the woman whose face became the model for Britannia herself."
—Susan Spann, author of Claws of the Cat


Barnes & Noble




Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY by C.W. Gortner

THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, Book 2 of C.W. Gortner's THE SPYMASTER CHRONICLES, provides an engrossing and entertaining escape into an England on the cusp of staggering change and the life of the man who can temper the blow.

It's the winter of 1554 and Mary Tudor has ascended to the throne, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Brendan Prescott, who in Book 1 of the series destroyed the Duke of Northumberland and foiled his plans to steal the crown. Queen Mary, rumored to be negotiating a marriage with Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, summons her Protestant sister Elizabeth to court and forbids her to leave. Elizabeth's protector William Cecil suspects that the Imperial ambassador, in whom Mary has placed unwavering trust, seeks Elizabeth's death in order to secure the succession for Mary and Philip's children. The spymaster also fears that Elizabeth has been drawn, willingly or not, into a plot with another claimant to the throne. Cecil challenges Brendan to return to court under his old alias and stop the ambassador. Ever loyal to Elizabeth, Brendan accepts the mission. The job ahead of him will not only test his skills as a spy, his fragile sense of self, and his personal loyalties, but his love for the woman he leaves behind.

THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY is C.W. Gortner at his best: an intriguing, well-paced plot; a lush setting replete with historically accurate details; convincing characters who continually reveal new facets of themselves. CONSPIRACY takes a lesser-known moment in Tudor history--the very first years of Queen Mary's reign--and elaborates the political situation in a clear and understandable manner so that the reader never feels lost or confused by the characters' emerging loyalties and objectives. Even better, Gortner intertwines Brendan's personal story with that of the larger situation in such a way that the suspense of each builds and feeds off the other.

Both Brendan and Queen Mary are on quests to define themselves. Brendan, having discovered part of the secret of his birth in the first book, learns even more in this one. The burden of his identity weighs upon him, especially when it becomes evident that he could use the knowledge to influence the greater course of events. Although loyal to Elizabeth, he feels a certain bond to Mary, and hopes to reconcile the two sisters. Mary, newly on the throne, is still finding her way. Despite her ties to her sister, she has come under the relentless influence of the Imperial ambassador, who feeds her hopes of restoring the Catholic faith to England. As she weighs a marriage with Spanish Prince Philip, Mary must decide whether her family loyalty, her Catholic faith, or her devotion to England will tip the scale. The looming question of Elizabeth's fate throws Mary and Brendan together and forces them to confront and decide their own destinies.

Gortner admitted to me how much fun he had writing this book, and his enjoyment is evident on every page. At total ease with Brendan's voice, Gortner writes his tale with an engaging naturalness. Loyal and true, brave and at times refreshingly foolhardy, Brendan Prescott captured my heart in this satisfying sequel. I had as much fun reading Brendan as Gortner did writing him, and I look forward to the next installment of THE SPYMASTER CHRONICLES.

C.W. Gornter holds an MFA in Writing, with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies. Raised in Spain and half Spanish by birth, he currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He welcomes readers and is always available for reader group chats. Please visit him at his website for more information.

I reviewed Book I, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, in 2011.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Ignorance est mère de tous les maux."
Ignorance is the mother of all evils.

François Rabelais (1494-1553), French writer and humanist
Le Cinquiesme Livre (1562; attributed)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Guest Post by Susan Spann, Author of CLAWS OF THE CAT

Today Susan Spann, author of the just-released historical mystery CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur), discusses the women of the "floating world," entertainers who led independent lives outside medieval Japan's standard class structure. 


Subversion or Submersion: The Women of Japan's 
"Floating World"
by Susan Spann

“Liberated women” isn’t the first expression that comes to mind when discussing the Renaissance. Yet, comparatively speaking, some Renaissance-era Japanese women were quite independent indeed.

Medieval Japanese culture split along class-based lines, with the samurai nobility at the top of the social structure and the “untouchable” eta (tanners, executioners, and people who dealt with the dead) at the bottom. Farmers and merchants filled the middle rungs of the social ladder.

But there was another social group, largely composed of women, which stood outside the standard class structure altogether: the entertainers and business people of Japan’s pleasure districts, also known as the “floating world.”

Ukiyo, usually translated “floating world,” was a Japanese sub-culture that existed outside the everyday patterns and social rules. The very word “ukiyo” conjured images of an impermanent but lovely world filled with fleeting beauty and entertainments which allowed a participant or observer (usually male) the chance to shed his day-to-day responsibilities and cares.

Most of the entertainers who worked in this world were female, and most of the businesses there were owned by women. Famous geishas often purchased teahouses upon retirement, and those who could not afford a teahouse usually became dance or music teachers—and, therefore, small business owners.

These businesses were unique because, unlike the women who worked in their husbands’ shops or labored on family farms, the women of the floating world owned their business directly, usually with no male supervision.

Patrons of the entertainment districts were overwhelmingly male and usually, though not always, well-to-do. Their wives and female relatives lived very different lives from the savvy women of the entertainment districts, and yet, to the medieval Japanese male, this presented no problem or conflict because a wife and an entertainer filled very different social roles.

In Medieval Japan, a wife’s duty was bearing children and managing her husband’s household. Most upper-class women were literate, a necessity because women often kept the books of account in families of the merchant and samurai classes.

Samurai women often trained with at least one weapon, usually either the naginata (a bladed staff similar to the European glaive) or the kaiken (a kind of dagger). Although women didn’t usually join their husbands in battle, a samurai woman was expected to have the skills to defend herself and her house with lethal force if necessary. In rare occasions, samurai women did become warriors, known as onna-bugeisha.

Merchants’ wives often helped in the family shop, either selling goods or working “behind the scenes” in various ways. Like samurai women, females of the merchant class were literate, but secondary to husbands (and sons) in the family hierarchy.

But the primary role of women in any social class was taking care of her home, her husband, and her children. Women outside the floating world rarely owned property, or businesses, and though a wife could inherit her husband’s property on his death it was far more common for a man to leave his estate to his son (with the expectation, usually followed, that the heir would take care of his mother as long as she lived).

Men went to the entertainment districts to enjoy performances and companionship, which sometimes included sexual encounters, but not always. Contrary to popular belief, most geishas were not prostitutes. They were specialists in song, dance and conversation. Most of the time, their visitors spent the evening drinking tea, discussing art or politics, and watching as the women sang or danced. In contrast to a wife, whose role was focused on family, an entertainer’s job was to offer an interesting performance or conversation.

Ironically, an entertainer’s independence was part of her allure.

The sexism and lack of equality which characterized medieval Europe definitely existed in Japan. Women as a whole were considered inferior to men, and the wife/entertainer dichotomy reinforced traditional, male-dominated gender roles. That said, medieval Japanese women were not without power or opportunities on an individual level.

And within the floating world, the women called the shots.


Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. CLAWS OF THE CAT, her debut shinobi mystery featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori, released on July 16, 2013, from Minotaur Books (for more information visit: http://us.macmillan.com/clawsofthecat/SusanSpann). Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding, and she keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: CLAWS OF THE CAT by Susan Spann

How much do you know about sixteenth century history outside the borders of Europe? If you're like me, surprisingly (and embarrassingly) little. As a remedy, I recommend a just-published historical mystery that opens up the exotic, fascinating world of sixteenth century Japan.

Susan Spann's debut mystery novel CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur/St. Martin's Press) whisks the reader away to the land of ninjas, teahouses, samurai and missionaries:

When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has just three days to find the killer before the dead man's vengeful son kills both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto's floating world, where they quickly learn that everyone from an elusive teahouse owner to the dead man's dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai's death a mystery.

Writing with the spare beauty of an oriental flower arrangement, Spann spins an enthralling tale of murder, jealousy, love and honor whose drama is heightened by the ominous pressure of the imposed time constraint. The well-constructed plot cleverly seeds clues and false leads throughout the narrative, keeping the reader engaged, actively analyzing evidence, and racing to solve the mystery in time to save selfless Father Mateo. The ending, although not entirely unanticipated, culminates in an emotionally powerful scene that opposes the Asian notion of honor with that of Western justice.

Beyond its well-wrought plot, CLAWS eclipses the average murder mystery in two other areas: the vibrancy of its historical setting and the depth its characterization. Spann, an attorney with a degree in Asian studies, recreates in vivid and precise detail locales and customs specific to medieval Japan. The reader finds herself stepping through gliding rice-paper doors in a typical Japanese house, strolling paths of raked gravel on the grounds of Buddhist temples, and shouldering crowds on the congested streets of the mercantile quarter. She listens to the song of geishas while drinking ritually prepared tea, quakes in a pit of white sand before the magistrate's desk, and mourns at the funeral of a samurai nobleman. Spann never clogs the narrative with long passages of description or explanation but weaves succinct and evocative sensory and cultural details directly into the unfolding action. The fact that Father Mateo (a Portuguese foreigner who has only been in Japan a matter of months) often needs help understanding Japanese traditions requires native Hiro, the viewpoint character, to notice and elucidate things that he normally would hardly find worthy of mention--all to the great benefit of the reader.

Spann reveals just enough of her characters' back history to explain the present action, but never more. The sense that each character has a complicated and intriguing story of his or her own permeates every scene. For example, the reader knows Hiro is a samurai masquerading as a ninja, but doesn't know how Hiro came by such training or why, and by whom, he has been assigned to protect the priest. Likewise, the reader knows nothing of Father Mateo's past in Portugal nor what motivated him to become a missionary in Japan. Even minor characters, such as Ginjiro, the sake-sodden monk, and Luis, the Portuguese merchant who lives at the rectory, promise to tell captivating tales, if given the chance. The reader is on a quest not only to solve the murder but to piece together the mosaic of these hidden lives and histories. Spann's unique characters inspire compassion in their flawed particularity--I even sympathized with the murderer, despite the evil deed! This satisfying novel is as much--if not more--about the relationship of the characters to each other and to their pasts as it is about discovering who committed the crime. Spann dispenses her revelations at times and in doses that leave the reader panting for more.

I urge readers who normally would not reach for a mystery (and I include myself among them!) to give CLAWS OF THE CAT a try. As one of Susan's critique partners, I can assure you she is thoroughly knowledgeable and immensely passionate about Japanese culture and history. And if you enjoy CLAWS, you're in for a long, delightful ride--Susan has many more stories to tell about the world and characters she introduces in this remarkable debut novel.

You can find out more about Susan Spann and CLAWS OF THE CAT at her website. Be sure to return here tomorrow for Susan's guest post about the powerful women of Japan's "floating world."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cover Reveal: BECOMING JOSEPHINE by Heather Webb

Friend and author Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, will be published by Penguin/Plume on December 31, 2013. I was honored to be one of the beta readers for Heather's novel, an exciting read which traces the rise of Creole beauty Rose Tascher from impoverished plantation daughter to Empress of France. Today Heather reveals the novel's cover and invites readers to stop by her blog to enter a gift card giveaway.

Heather writes: BECOMING JOSEPHINE is my debut historical about Napoleon’s empress, a woman in search of eternal love and stability, and ultimately her search for self. It releases December 31, 2013 from Plume/Penguin. Stop by my blog Between the Sheets and leave a comment for a chance to win a $20 gift card to Barnes & Noble or a $20 gift card to Amazon. Pre-order my novel (present a receipt) and win a Josephine hand mirror with a velvet bag.

Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or Amazon

Rose Tascher sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris to trade her Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. She arrives exultant to follow her dreams of attending Court with Alexandre, her elegant aristocrat and soldier husband. But Alexandre dashes her hopes and abandons her amid the tumult of the French Revolution.

Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until the heads of her friends begin to roll.

After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious independence and the love of an awkward suitor. Little does she know, he would become the most powerful man of his century--Napoleon Bonaparte.
BECOMING JOSEPHINE is a novel of one woman’s journey to find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to find herself.

BECOMING JOSEPHINE has been featured in a Wall Street Journal piece on the popularity of historical fiction featuring the wives of famous men.

“Heather Webb’s epic novel captivates from its opening in a turbulent plantation society in the Caribbean, to the dramatic rise of one of France’s most fascinating women: Josephine Bonaparte. Perfectly balancing history and story, character and setting, detail and pathos, Becoming Josephine marks a debut as bewitching as its protagonist." –Erika Robuck, author of HEMINGWAY'S GIRL

“With vivid characters and rich historical detail, Heather Webb has portrayed in Josephine a true heroine of great heart, admirable strength, and inspiring courage whose quest is that of women everywhere: to find, and claim, oneself.”--Sherry Jones, bestselling author of THE JEWEL OF MEDINA

“Josephine's warmth and complexity comes to vibrant life in this fascinating novel rich with vivid historical detail."—Teresa Grant, author of THE PARIS AFFAIR

"Vivid and passionate, BECOMING JOSEPHINE captures the fiery spirit of the woman who stole Napoleon’s heart and enchanted an empire. –Susan Spann, author of CLAWS OF THE CAT

“Spellbinding . . . Heather Webb’s novel takes us behind the mask of the Josephine we thought we knew.” –Christy English, author of HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE and TO BE QUEEN

“Enchanting prose takes the reader on an unforgettable journey . . . Captivating young Rose springs from the lush beauty of her family's sugar plantation in Martinique to shine in the eighteenth century elegance of Parisian salon society. When France is torn by revolution, not even the blood-bathed terror of imprisonment can break her spirit.” –Marci Jefferson, author of GIRL ON THE GOLD COIN

Monday, July 1, 2013

Why Blog? Benefits of Blogging for an Author of Fiction

Back from a wonderful weekend at the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference, where I moderated a panel discussion on blogging. "Virtual Salon: The Historical Fiction Blog" brought together five experienced panelists to discuss the role of blogging in the historical fiction community and to share insight on how to create and maintain a successful blog. I examined what needs blogging fulfills for a writer of historical fiction and how an author benefits from maintaining a blog. As promised, I've posted my remarks below.


Today, writers hear over and over the importance of having an “internet presence.” We are warned that interested agents will immediately Google us, as will readers who hope to “connect” with authors of the books they love. This internet presence should, at the bare minimum, consist of an attractive and up-to-date website that lists an author’s books, biography, appearances, and contact information. But a website is static, one- sided. To engage fully with the reading public and benefit from the exposure the internet offers, an author should consider a blog, a discussion site featuring discrete entries called “posts” about topics of the author’s choosing.

A discussion necessarily involves more than one person. In the past, discussions of books and literature often took place in a salon, where writers, critics and readers gathered in person. Nowadays, this interaction often takes place virtually, through the medium of a blog. This afternoon we will examine blogging from the three vantage points of the “blogging triangle”: author, reader and reviewer. Each of these participants approaches blogging with different needs and expectations; each benefits in different ways from reading or maintaining a blog. The interaction of writer, reader and reviewer through blogs helps make the historical fiction community the vibrant place that it is.

Let’s begin with the author. What needs might prompt an author to start blogging? One of the strongest is the need for community. Many authors turn to blogging because it provides an antidote to the solitary activity of writing. Blogging provides a way for a writer to engage her readers and other writers in an active exchange of ideas. She can propose topics, express her opinion on them, and through the comments on her blog discover and respond to what her readers think. Other needs blogging fulfills for an author might include the desire to share interesting research, the need to contribute to the marketing one’s book, and a wish to provide an accurate picture of the person behind the books.

The benefits of blogging for a fiction author are many and change as the author advances in her career. Most don’t require much explanation. Maintaining and updating a blog builds discipline, forcing a writer to write to a schedule and within a pre- determined framework. It sharpens writing skills and helps an author develop her voice. It provides a forum for her to share and discuss the historical research that underlies her novel. It familiarizes her with readers’ tastes and interests, information that can be of great value in crafting future books. Blogging can also be a way of “paying it forward,” of helping new writers by offering advice based on one’s own experience in navigating the publishing world, or by reviewing and publicizing other author’s works.

Two benefits of blogging are particularly valuable at the outset of a writer’s career. First, blogging allows an new author to establish credibility. By maintaining a blog that offers reliable, interesting content, a writer of historical fiction establishes herself as an expert in her niche. With each post, she builds her credibility and strengthens her reputation as a trustworthy historian and skillful writer. Readers grow to value her insights and opinions. If a writer is able to create this trust through a blog before her novel is published, readers will be eager to purchase the book once it comes out. Secondly, blogging helps a writer build both her audience and her professional network. Posts on historical topics (rather than simply literary or publishing ones) will draw hits from a wide range of individuals, from students to teachers to specialists to random web surfers, all of whom might be tempted to pick up the novel of a blogger they admire. Blogs allow readers to get a feel for an author’s interests and writing style and anticipate new releases. Blog names are easy for them to pass on to acquaintances who might find an author’s work interesting. As for building a professional network, a generous blogger who reviews others’ books, celebrates others’ successes, and comments on colleagues’ blogs, will benefit both professionally and personally from the new contacts and friendships she makes. These bonds will prove invaluable when the time comes to ask for blurbs, publicize new releases, and learn “inside information” about the publishing world.


The session continued as follows:

Deborah Swift spoke on the blog reader's needs and benefits.
Amy Bruno followed with the book reviewer's needs and benefits.
Deborah explored how to find a niche and establish your voice.
Heather Webb spoke on effective blogging strategies: finding topics of interest, scheduling, blog layout.
Amy provided additional strategies: contests, blog-hops, reviews.
Heather Rieseck discussed blogging etiquette and ethical guidelines.
Heather Webb examined how to expand your audience.
Heather Rieseck explored how to measure your blog's success.

You can find a summary of Heather Webb's remarks on her blog. Deborah Swift explains why she maintains four blogs. If you are interested in purchasing an audio recording of the session, you can do so here.

Thank you to the conference board for inviting us to speak and to all who attended and gave us such marvelous feedback! It was a great experience for us and we hope we were able to provide some useful advice.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Interview with Susan McDuffie, author of THE STUDY OF MURDER

Susan McDuffie is author of the medieval Muirteach MacPhee mysteries, A MASS FOR THE DEAD (2006), THE FAERIE HILLS (2011), and A STUDY OF MURDER (September 2013). Her interest in Scotland was fueled by stories of the McDuffie clan's ancestral lands on Colonsay and their traditional role as "Keeper of the Records" for the Lord of the Isles. She will be speaking on the Sunday morning panel "Historical Fiction: The Search for Research" at the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference next weekend. You can learn more about Susan and her novels at her website.

1. What got you first interested in historical fiction?

I have always loved historical fiction. I guess I’ve always read to escape and the contemporary world just lacks some luster! In elementary school I used to choose books according to the time period they were set in. Two early favorites were THE FORGOTTEN DAUGHTER by Caroline Dale Snedeker and TWO SWORDS FOR A PRINCESS by R.J. Green.

2. How do you find the people and topics of your books?

My first mystery, A MASS FOR THE DEAD, was somewhat based on the early history of the McDuffie clan. They were the record keepers for the Lords of the Isles, and that always sounded wonderfully mysterious to me as a child. I later found a little booklet that listed all the clan chiefs of the McDuffies, as well as the priors of Oronsay. Muirteach, my sleuth, was invented but the McDuffie Chief and the prior of Oronsay existed. Their characters, of course, are fictional.

3. Do you follow a specific writing and/or research process?

For my present work in progress, I’ve gotten wonderfully carried away on some intriguing research tangents. Hopefully they will all fit into the book. Researching Henry Sinclair led to a rather intensive investigation of the Norse colony in Greenland and more! As I read more ideas came up I wanted to explore. Thank goodness it’s so easy to find out of print books these days!

4. For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?

If characters are factual I try to stick with real dates and real events in their lives. For example, THE STUDY OF MURDER, which comes out in September of this year, takes Muirteach to medieval Oxford with Donald, the son of the Lord of the Isles. Donald did actually attend Oxford for a few years in the 1370s.

5. Is there an era/area that is your favorite to write about? How about to read?

I’ve written both Regency and medieval. You have to get into a certain mindset, and I remember when I switched from Regencies to writing the Muirteach MacPhee mysteries it took a little while to find the right voice. As far as reading goes, I love to read about many eras. Nobody does Egypt like Pauline Gedge, I’ve enjoyed Gillian Bradshaw’s books about the classical era, as well as her newer books about the English Civil War, and Karleen Koen’s books set in the 17th and 18th century are wonderful, just to mention a very few.

6. What are your favorite reads? Favorite movies? Dominating influences?

The one book I would take to a desert island is SWORD AT SUNSET by Rosemary Sutcliff, a wonderful retelling of the story of Arthur. Movie-wise I have a couple of strange favorites: The Navigator, in which some 14th century Cumbrian miners wind up in modern New Zealand and Andrei Rublev, about a Russian icon painter.

7. Is there a writer, living or deceased, you would like to meet?

I’d love to meet Ellis Peters. She and her Brother Cadfael books inspired me to write historical mysteries.

8. What book was the most fun for you to write?

THE STUDY OF MURDER was fun; in some ways the tone is a little lighter than the first two mysteries. And I enjoyed writing about drunken adolescents and Muirteach’s futile attempts to control their behavior!

9. Can you tell us about your latest publication?

THE STUDY OF MURDER comes out in September of this year and pits Scottish sleuth Muirteach MacPhee against a mysterious adversary. At the command of the Lord of the Isles, Muirteach and Mariota accompany the lord’s thirteen-year old son to Oxford. Shortly after their arrival, a winsome tavern maid disappears. When an Oxford master is found brutally bludgeoned to death, stirring the ever-simmering discord between townsfolk and university students, Muirteach investigates. Gleaning clues from a cryptic manuscript, a determined Muirteach tracks a wily killer through a dark and twisted labyrinth of deceit.