Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Reads of 2014

Time for me to choose the best of the nearly thirty novels I read for pleasure in 2014. Many wonderful novels passed through my hands this year (see sidebar for the complete list); choosing the top eight proved to be quite a difficult task. The books that made the cut engaged me from the first page, sustained my interest throughout, and remained with me long after I closed the cover. They spoke to me through their lovely use of language, the uniqueness of their voice, the artfulness of their plot, and their depth of character and theme. Some were published this year, others years ago; several are outstanding debuts, others the work of more established authors. I thank these authors for the pleasurable hours I spent lost in the pages their wonderful, accomplished stories.

In alphabetical order:

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

The story of a blind French girl working for the Resistance and a young Nazi engineer whose lives become inextricably bound through the invisible power of radio waves, this marvelous literary novel caught the book world by surprise. Narrated in short chapters that alternate between the two character's perspectives, the novel explores love, patriotism, and the nature of goodness amid the deprivation and devastation of war.

by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2005)

I was late to the party on this one, but so glad I came! In a wry yet sympathetic voice that eschews melodrama, Death recounts the story of a German foster girl who survives the horrors of the Holocaust by stealing books and sharing them--with neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her cellar. The story illustrates the power of the written word to free the soul even as it bridges the chasms that separate us.

by Helene Wecker (HarperCollins, 2013)

A Nebula nominee and winner of numerous prestigious awards, this stunning debut novel blends history with fantasy as a mythical Jewish golem encounters a Syrian jinni in turn-of-the-century New York City. I knew little about either folklore when I started reading, but the novel's inventive premise, convincing setting, sympathetic characters, and intriguing conflicts grabbed hold of my imagination and didn't let go until the satisfying end. An unusual and truly glorious read.   

by M. L. Stedman (Scribner, 2012)

This story appeals through both its unique setting and the depth of its moral conflict. Living alone as lighthouse keepers on a secluded island off the western coast of Australia, a young couple rescues a baby from a boat smashed against the rocks. Having lost several children to miscarriages, the wife begs to keep this child as their own. Against his better judgment, the husband agrees...until they return to the mainland and discover the devastation their decision has wrought upon the child's real mother. Can Tom right the wrong without tearing his family apart? A poignant reminder that actions can be wrong for all the right reasons...

by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2013)

Longbourn reimagines PRIDE AND PREJUDICE from the perspective of the estate's servants: the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, and her butler husband; two housemaids, Polly and Sarah; and the mysterious new footman, James. Torn between the attentions of James and the Bingleys' charismatic black footman, Ptolemy, romantic and ambitious Sarah struggles to define her future as unexpected secrets linking life above and below the stairs come to light. No need to be an Austen fan to appreciate Baker's finely crafted tale, one that never feels contrived or derivative.

by Jessie Burton (Ecco, 2014)

In rapacious, religiously oppressive seventeenth century Amsterdam, a young wife's polite but distant husband presents her with an elaborate doll-sized replica of their home as a wedding gift. The miniatures Nella purchases to furnish it begin to echo the family's life in unsettling ways. Is the mysterious miniaturist an agent working to hasten the family's destruction, or a savior attempting to guide Nella out of a labyrinth of dangerous secrets? Although the answer remains as elusive as the miniaturist, this suspenseful tale entertains with unforeseen twists and gratifying turns as it exposes the hypocrisy of a society that worships wealth above Christian charity.  

by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2014)

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Painter Vanessa Stephens Bell might not fear her brilliant sister, but she certainly has her hands full dealing with the manipulative, emotionally fragile author. Parmar's novel focuses on the two sisters at the center of the bohemian intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury group. Amid the comings and goings and shifting pairings of the artists, writers and thinkers who frequent the Stephens' salon in early 20th century London, Vanessa struggles to protect herself, her husband, and her family from Virginia's obsessive need for her sister's undivided attention. Vanessa's narrative offers an engaging portrait of a visual artist struggling to stand her ground in a world of shifting words and discarded convention.

by Robert Hicks (Warner Books, 2005)

The commandeering of her home to serve as a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers shakes Carrie McGavock out of the torpor she has suffered since the death of her young children. With the help of her black servant Mariah, she sets to work tending the soldiers sandwiched onto the floors of the plantation house. Refusing to allow Zechariah Cashwell, who wants nothing more than to die, this escape, she sends him to surgery. The pair finds mutual healing in the weeks that follow. Carrie spends the rest of her life caring for the graves of the thousands of soldiers buried on her property. A story of love and courage painted with curious particularity against a backdrop of epic proportions.

Here's to 2015 and another delightful year of reading!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Wishes


Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds
Bernardino Luini (1485-1532)
fresco, Musée du Louvre

May The Blessings of
Peace and Joy
Be Yours Today
and Throughout
the Coming Year!

Thank you for reading Writing the Renaissance.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sixteenth Century Christmas Trees

In 1521, the town clerk of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France, made the following entry in the account register:

photo credit: Sé même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

...likewise 4 shillings to the forest wardens for guarding the fir trees from St. Thomas's Day on

Historians now consider these words to be the first written mention of the Christmas tree. In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice. The fact that the town paid wardens to watch over the forest's trees from this night through Christmas indicates the trees were in danger of being cut down for decoration. Evidence of payment to the wardens for this period has also been found in the registers for 1546, 1555, and 1557, as well a schedule of fines set for those caught stealing a tree.

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In the 15th and 16th centuries, the faithful erected fir trees outside churches for use in Christmas mystery plays. The story of Adam and Eve required Eve to pluck fruit from a tree, and as fruit trees were bare at this time of year, fir trees stood substitute. Red apples adorned the green branches along with white unconsecrated hosts, representing the cycle of temptation and redemption. Given that the town needed to provide special protection to the forest trees during the Christmas season, it is not unreasonable to conclude that individuals might wish to decorate their own trees at home.

photo credit:
By 1600, city fathers erected a Christmas tree at the Hôtel de Ville. In a chronicle preserved with the account registers at Sélestat's Bibliothèque humaniste, the master of ceremonies of the time describes the ceremony surrounding the transport and presentation of the tree by the forest wardens, the process of its decoration, and the custom whereby the children of municipal employees would shake the tree's branches in order to dislodge sweet treats.

Each Christmas season, Sélestat organizes an exhibition in the nave of the Église Saint-Georges entitled "Christmas Tree Decorations Since 1521." Ten fir trees hang suspended from the ceiling, each displaying a different step in the evolution of the Christmas tree from the sixteenth century to the present day. The town celebrates the season with elaborate festivities: a Christmas village, special concerts, and, not surprisingly, a Christmas tree decorating contest.

I just finished decorating my own tree:

At least now I understand the significance of those red plastic apples I hung upon it!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 5, 2014

December 5: Death of a King

On this day in 1560, King François II died at the young age of sixteen. François was the eldest son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici (and therefore grandson of his namesake, François I). He had become king only the year before, when his father Henri died after a freak jousting accident that lodged a lance splinter in his eye and brain.

François had never been a robust child; small for his age, he suffered from eczema and a chronic ear infection that ultimately caused his death. In mid-November 1560, a large swelling appeared behind his left ear, indicating the inflammation was spreading to nearby bone and tissue. Fever and violent fits took hold; prescribed bleeding and purgations further weakened his body. The infection formed an abscess in his brain and, in the absence of antibiotics, nothing could be done to save him. François fell unconscious on December 5 and passed away by nightfall, a month short of his seventeenth birthday.

His wife of two years, Mary Queen of Scots, had nursed him tenderly throughout the ordeal. A year older than François, Mary had been raised at the French court with him since the age of five. The two shared a strong bond of friendship and love, although it remains uncertain whether François's underdeveloped physique had prevented them from actually consummating their marriage. Mary was devastated by François's death, which dramatically changed the course of her life. Although she could have remained in France with her estates and status intact until she found another royal husband, Mary chose to return home to her kingdom of Scotland. Little did she know that her choice would ultimately lead to her own death at the hand of Elizabeth I of England.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview with Julie K. Rose, Author of OLEANNA

Today I'm happy to welcome author Julie K. Rose to discuss her novel, OLEANNA: A Novel of Norway in 1905 (2014). I reviewed OLEANNA here.

1. What drew you to write about Norway? Have you visited the places you write about in OLEANNA?

Since Norway is where Oleanna and Elisabeth actually lived, it was the natural place to set the book. But since three of my four grandparents were Norwegian, I've always had an affinity for the country. I recall trying to learn Norwegian with the help of my grandfather when I was a child (it didn't take, unfortunately), and I grew up with Norwegian flag garlands on the Christmas tree, favorite family recipes, syttende mai (Constitution Day), and the story of mom's visit to Norway with John to see Elisabeth and Oleanna in 1964.

I was lucky enough to travel to Norway in 2004, and it was even more beautiful and moving than I could have imagined. My husband and I visited Oslo, Bergen, and the Sognefjord region. Ten days wasn't close to being enough! We definitely long to go back.

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2. What traits do you admire most in each of the two sisters, Oleanna and Elisabeth? Which sister would have flourished as an immigrant to America?

I admire Elisabeth's wit and intelligence, and her yearning for adventure. She always made me laugh, and surprised me. I admire Oleanna's loyalty, and her depth of feeling. She also has a sense of adventure, but it's both external—seeing the world­—and internal.

I imagine Elisabeth might have enjoyed a city, perhaps Brooklyn, which became a center for Scandinavian immigrants. When she really puts her mind to something, she gets good results, and the excitement and variation in an urban environment would have energized her (at least for a time).

Oleanna would have done better out in the Great Plains (as did their brother John), but I don't know that she would have been happy. Her capacity for hard work would have stood her in good stead—though I think she (like many immigrants) would have longed for the magnificent vistas and beauty of Norway when she looked out across the broad, flat prairie.

3. I wanted to know more about Brita, Oleanna’s mother, especially after meeting her brother in the later chapters of the novel. Was Brita’s difficult marriage the source of her unhappiness, or did other factors contribute to her discontent?

The real Oleanna was the initial spark for the book, but the characters are my own invention, including Brita.

Brita was a parallel to Oleanna and Elisabeth, a cautionary tale in a way. She was in love with the land, and its inherent power, so I don't think that she would have ever considered leaving Jølster. Given the opportunity, Brita would have spent all of her time at the sæter, watching the clouds and learning the names of all of the plants and wildflowers. Instead, she married (which is what women in the country did at the time) and had six children with a man who became an alcoholic.

Brita did not have the opportunity to choose, like Oleanna did. When Oleanna went to Bergen and really understood her options, she chose her life back on the farm; it was not chosen for her. All of the natural independence and free spirit Brita had was subsumed by child bearing, child rearing, and indeed, a difficult marriage.

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4. Weaving and painting figure prominently in the novel. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of these crafts to Norwegian culture?

Norwegian folkways and folk art continued in a long, unbroken chain down through the years, well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Because of the unique geography of the country, there wasn't a really strong culture of the elite, and that extended to art. There were Norwegians in the few urban centers (Oslo, Bergen for example) who created and enjoyed more "academic" art, both from within and without the country, but it wasn't the norm as it might be in, say, France. So the local (rural) traditions that had been built up over centuries endured.

Katherine Larson's excellent The Woven Coverlets of Norway (University of Washington Press, 2001) provides a great background on the development of weaving in Norway and the difference vis-à-vis development in the rest of Europe, which is also a great explanation of Norwegian folk culture in general:

Although much of western Europe witnessed the birth of the textile industry in the Middle Ages and the subsequent transformation of a home-oriented craft into a business run by professionals, in Norway the art of weaving remained firmly in the home. The challenging climate and difficult terrain of this rugged northern land fostered a hard life in which things of value were carefully preserved, and the natural conservatism of farming culture impeded the acceptance of new methods. Thus certain weaving tools and techniques that had largely disappeared centuries ago from homelife of France or England were still to be found in the early part of the twentieth century in Norway, preserved within the folk art of its farming community. (xiii)

And because Norway lost its independence in the Middle Ages (first to Denmark, then to Sweden), folk art was also a way to express identity – an idea which was made more fashionable in the urban centers during the romantic nationalist movement in the 19th century and run-up to independence in the early 20th century.

There are series of posts on my blog about the world of OLEANNA for folks who want to learn more about Norwegian folk life and the country in 1905.

5. Women’s suffrage becomes an important issue in OLEANNA. When did women achieve the vote in Norway? Was it a difficult struggle? How did the geography of Norway and the divide between city and country life complicate participation in the suffragette movement?

Women gained the vote in Norway in 1913 – six years after the events of OLEANNA. As with most things in Norway, the geography did have an impact. The movement for suffrage began with middle class women in the urban centers in the 1880s, but it took the monumental question of independence from Sweden in 1905 to really reach women in the lonely valleys and high lakesides in the rest of the country.

I was lucky enough to be invited to write about the movement in detail as part of the "Celebrating Women" series to mark Women's History Month in March.

6. Do you have a favorite scene in the novel? Which scene was the most difficult to write?

This is tough, because I have a lot of favorites, and quite a few were difficult to write – many because I was dealing with the grief of my mom's death, which happened a year before I started writing OLEANNA. Ultimately though, the most difficult were the final scenes in Bergen, when Oleanna is trying to decide whether to go to America, or go back to the farm. I wrote and rewrote those many times, and to be honest, she did not reveal her mind to me right away. It was a tough decision, but ultimately the right one for her.

Though it's terribly sad, I love the scenes of her mother's "funeral" and burial, but I think my favorite scenes are those between Oleanna and Anders, particularly their first tryst at the sæter. In a way, it's such a brave moment. They both have these deep wells of sadness and loss, but take the leap to trust and be vulnerable with each other anyway.

7. Have you read much Norwegian literature? Can you recommend any Norwegian authors?

I have not, unfortunately. Like generations of high school and college students, I've read plenty of Henrik Ibsen; I particularly admire A Doll's House. (I provided a quick overview of the literary scene at the time of OLEANNA, including Ibsen, over at my blog.)

But Sigrid Undset's books are my main window into Norwegian literature. I read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy in my 20s, at the behest of my mom, and was hooked. I initially read the translation done at the time (1920s) and though most now see it as needlessly archaic, I found it charming. The 2005 translation by Tiina Nunnally is a more direct style, which I understand is more faithful to Undset's prose.

8. Do you have any advice for writers who wish to explore unfamiliar settings or historical events?

It feels a little bit like being an explorer; there aren't as many maps to follow, but on the other hand, you don't necessarily have to worry about who has gone before and what they've had to say. Rather than going over established ground in a new way, you can venture into new ground and put your own stake in it, so to speak.

Writing historical fiction necessarily means a lot of research anyway (yay!), but venturing off the path slightly means you may have fewer secondary source materials to draw from.

It may seem a bit daunting, but I'd say: do it! Not only are there are plenty of readers out there who yearn for something new, but it's an exciting way to go exploring as an author as well.

Thank you so much for these fantastic questions, and the opportunity to share a glimpse into OLEANNA and her world!

Thank you, Julie, for this fascinating interview. I've always had an interest in Norway ever since reading Undset's work myself, so I really appreciated your novel and the chance to learn more about that beautiful country.

You can learn more about Julie K. Rose and the world of OLEANNA at her website. Her book is available at major online outlets.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: OLEANNA by Julie K. Rose

OLEANNA, by Julie K. Rose, is a ghost story—not a heart-thumping tale of dreadful specters, but a poignant exploration of the hold past events and decisions can have on a person’s present course, of the strength with which regret and guilt can prevent an individual from truly living.

It is 1905 and sisters Oleanna and Elisabeth Tollefsdatter live on a beautiful but secluded farm deep in the fjordland of western Norway. With their parents and sisters dead and their brothers departed for America, the women expect to live a simple life, alone with their memories. Oleanna dreams of following her brothers, but feels tied to the homestead and unmarried Elisabeth, raising a young son on her own. Questions regarding her parents' unhappy marriage and the deaths of her mother and youngest sister in a boating accident haunt Oleanna. She finds comfort in the companionship of the mysterious artist Anders, who battles ghosts of his own. Despite his feelings for her, Anders becomes caught up in the political change sweeping Norway as the country declares independence from Sweden. When he abandons her to work for the cause and Elisabeth unexpectedly marries, Oleanna finds herself free to join her brothers across the ocean. But can she leave her beloved farm and its memories behind? What sort of life remains for her if she stays? Does she truly have a choice, as suffragettes assure her she does?

OLEANNA opens up a world little known to American readers. This quiet novel paints in vivid color the deep valleys and sparkling lakes, verdant fields and towering pine forests of the Norwegian countryside, as well as the medieval buildings, busy wharves and bustling crowds of Bergen. The author’s deep familiarity with Norwegian culture reveals itself in the details of food, clothing, interior design, arts and crafts, and farming practice with which she constructs the novel’s convincing milieu. Capturing a traditional society on the verge of modernization, Rose sets the industrialization and sophistication of the city in stark contrast to the time-honored traditions of rural life. She sketches the political situation with a deftness that grounds the reader without cluttering the story. With brutal honesty, she explores a situation modern Americans seldom face: the splintering of families through emigration. She exposes the difficulties involved in reaching a decision to emigrate and examines the conflicting emotions experienced by all involved. Rather than romanticizing the situation, Rose reveals the heavy toll emigration often took on families, especially on the individuals who remained behind.

photo credit: Peter Schmidt
What I appreciated most about this novel is the way Oleanna’s personal situation reflects that of her nation. Just as Norway stands on the threshold of an independent future, Oleanna must choose between the safety of the past and the exhilarating though uncertain promise of what might be. The key word is “choose”— trials and joys and the example of others teach Oleanna that the ghosts of the past can determine her future only if she allows them to. Just as Norway reaches out with confident enthusiasm to grasp an independent, modern existence, Oleanna must shed her guilt and hesitation and embrace a future that is hers for the making. With great sensitivity and insight, OLEANNA celebrates the courage needed to escape the comfortable company of ghosts and find one’s place in the world.

Please return tomorrow to read an interview with Julie K. Rose about the writing of OLEANNA.

Of Norwegian ancestry, Julie K. Rose writes both historic and contemporary fiction. You can learn more about Julie and her work at her website. She frequently discusses topics of Norwegian culture and history on her blog.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Interview: M. K. Tod, Author of LIES TOLD IN SILENCE

M. K. Tod is known in the historical fiction community for the extensive surveys of historical fiction readers she conducted in 2012 and 2013. She is also the author of two novels set during the World Wars, UNRAVELLED and LIES TOLD IN SILENCE (both published in 2014). I'm happy to welcome Mary here today to discuss her novels and share her thoughts on the practice and prospects of historical fiction.

1) You have written a novel about World War I, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE, and one about World War II, UNRAVELLED. What is it about this era in history that fascinates you? How did you become interested in the World Wars?

My obsession with war was totally unexpected. I hated history at school – far too many facts and dates to memorize – however, when my husband and I were living in Hong Kong for three years, I had very little to do and decided to occupy myself by exploring my grandparents’ lives. Since my grandfather served in both WWI and WWII, these investigations led to military events of that time. Something about the absolute horror and devastation of WWI captured my mind and soul. The fact that these wars happened to people I knew quite well touched me greatly.

2) Out of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why? Which character took you the longest to understand?

I always struggle with questions like this! So far, one of my – I’m hedging my bets already – favorite characters is Mariele, Helene Noisette’s grandmother in LIES TOLD IN SILENCE. She’s quietly feisty and a very wise woman – something I hope to be too. For the one who took me the longest to understand, I have to designate Edward Jamieson. He’s modeled after my grandfather, but I took a long time to understand what he went through during the wars. I wish I could have talked to him about it all.

3) How do you balance research and writing? At what point do you feel ready to write? 

I’m obsessed with research and love the process involved – probably my analytical nature and consulting background coming out. After writing my first novel in a totally haphazard fashion mixing research and writing with little thought to structure, I wrote the second novel much more quickly by using a chapter outline. With an outline in hand, research became more purposeful. As I write each chapter, I also note spots that require further research or facts that need checking with a # and return to them later. This method helps keep the writing flow going.

4) Can you relate an instance where your research changed the course of a novel’s plot? 

In UNRAVELLED, my protagonist, Edward Jamieson, gets involved in Camp X, a Canadian based training camp for WWII espionage agents. At some time in my research, I discovered a document outlining the agenda of a meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt, which took place in Washington, D.C. in 1942. Right away, I knew that meeting had to be part of the novel and so I constructed a series of adjunct meetings between US and British espionage groups that took place alongside the main political and military discussions. In the novel, Edward’s absence has unexpected consequences for his wife Ann. I call this the serendipity of research.

5) Did you visit the places you wrote about? How did those visits enrich your writing? Which place moved you the most? 

My husband and I took a trip to northern France in 2010. Seeing the memorials and cemeteries that mark the dead and the sacrifice of so many young men, tramping through fields where battles occurred and alongside trenches and craters, listening to the Last Post at Menin Gate in Ypres, hearing the names of the dead called out, learning of graves dug before battle – these experiences generated powerful and lasting emotions that enhance my writing. The place that moved me most was Vimy Ridge and the memorial to that seminal Canadian battle. My grandfather fought there and survived. I can never forget what he and others did for all of us. He was nineteen when he went and, like so many former soldiers, never spoke of it.

6) You self-published both your novels. What did you learn from publishing and marketing the first that helped you with the second?

Excellent question, Julianne, and no doubt an essay all on its own! I’m sure my learnings will be similar to others writing about self-publishing.

(1) Don’t be afraid to self-publish. One of my greatest joys is the people who have told me in person or via emails that they have read and enjoyed my novels. A euphoric experience.
(2) Build your platform before you self-publish.
(3) Use every opportunity to add to your database of contacts.
(4) Hire a great editor.
(5) Figure out where readers of your genre hang out and stake out a presence there.
(6) One blog tour isn’t enough. Continued sales require regular marketing.
(7) Don’t expect to be an overnight success.
(8) Celebrate what you’ve accomplished.
(9) Get busy writing another novel.

7) You’ve conducted two extensive and immensely helpful surveys of historical fiction readers (the results of which may be found here and here). What information did you glean from these surveys that surprised you the most?

Several insights stand out for me. One that is uppermost in my mind right now is the dominance of social media as a source of reading related recommendations and discussions. Another is the demographic differences: women and men not only read different novels but they also have very different profiles in terms of reading habits; under 30s are vastly different from over 50s; American readers are quite different from British or Canadian. I am also intrigued that those who start reading historical fiction at a young age continue reading it in much higher proportions throughout adulthood.

8) How important is blogging to a writer’s career? Is it more important at certain stages than at others?

Blogging is an important part of a writer’s platform. You should have a purpose for your blog as well as some objectives. You might decide on purpose and objectives at the outset or you might stumble upon them several months or even a year later. Once these are in place you need to adhere to them or else the followers you have cultivated will go elsewhere. In my opinion, blogging serves other purposes: to write and publish regularly; to interact with readers; to build participate in a community; to experiment with voice; to show readers the person behind the stories. My own belief is that blogging remains important throughout your career as a writer. I’ve had two blogs so far. The first is called One Writer’s Voice and it was my attempt to get ‘out there’ and to explore the business of writing. That blog gathered writers as followers not readers and so I developed another blog called A Writer of History where I planned to post on topics that would appeal to readers. As it turns out, my biggest group of followers continues to be other writers. And at this point, that’s fine with me. Writers I interact with on my blog or on Facebook and Twitter have become my community. They cheerlead, encourage, offer suggestions and critique, spread the word about my surveys and novels. What more could I ask for?

9) What do you think is the biggest challenge facing writers of historical fiction today?

Fortunately, we’re in a period where historical fiction is very popular so I’m going to say that our biggest challenge is productivity. As historical fiction writers, we have to both write and research and most writers of historical fiction will tell you that research takes almost the same amount of time as writing. Since the best way to sell your novels is to write another novel, it takes us almost twice as long to do so. Of course, many writers reduce the research time by staying within a particular era.

10) What are you currently working on?

My third novel is called TIME & REGRET. A quick synopsis: While cleaning house to eliminate traces of her ex-husband, Grace Hansen discovers her grandfather's WWI diaries along with a puzzling note. Surprisingly, the diaries reveal a different man from the beloved grandfather who raised her. A few months later, Grace follows the path her grandfather took through the trenches of northern France and discovers a secret he kept hidden for more than seventy years.

I’m writing this with parallel time periods – Grace in the early 1990s and Martin Devlin (her grandfather) in WWI. An interesting challenge.


Thank you, Mary, for sharing your insights! You can learn more about M. K. Tod and her books at her blog. Her books are available in paperback and electronic editions from major online outlets.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hans Holbein and The Dance of Death

For centuries, the short, gray days of November, heralds of winter, have prompted Christians to remember and honor their beloved dead and to reflect upon their own inevitable end. The Middle Ages embodied this heightened awareness in visual depictions of The Dance of Death (Danse macabre). In this vivid allegory, a personified Death summons individuals from all walks of life to join a chain of frolicking skeletons. Adorning churches and private chapels, such paintings reminded viewers that death spares no one and all, status notwithstanding, share the same ultimate fate.

St. Nicolas's Church, Tallin
The visual tradition of the Dance of Death continued well into the seventeenth century. In the early sixteenth, the German painter Hans Holbein modified the tradition in a way thought to reflect burgeoning Reformation theology. Instead of depicting Death's victims united in an unbroken chain after their passing, he fashioned a stunning series of sketches wherein Death snatches victims away in the midst of their normal daily activities. Pope, king, nobleman, merchant, old woman, priest, peddler, child: a grisly skeleton comes for each at the moment he or she least expects it. Death is as likely to arrive during the performance of sinful actions as charitable ones; good works provide no protection from its ravages.

Hans Lützelburger of Basel cut Holbein's sketches into wood blocks sometime between 1523 and 1526. The woodcuts soon appeared in proofs with German titles. It wasn't until 1538, however, when 
the drawings were published in book form by the Treschsel brothers in Lyon, France, that Holbein's vision reached a wider audience.

Les Simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées (Images and Illustrated Facets of Death, as elegantly depicted as they are artfully conceived) features forty-one of Holbein's woodcuts. An illustrative Bible verse crowns each engraving; below the picture follows a short quatrain in French by the poet Gilles Corrozet. The book was intended to help Christians of both persuasions prepare for death by meditating on the vanity of status and possessions, which offered no protection from Death's violence.

Here are a few of Holbein's more striking engravings:

The King (Note the fleur-de-lys and the marked resemblance to François I)
The Young Child
The Physician

The Abbess
The Ploughman
The Drunkard
The Soldier
You can view the entirety of the Simulachres with their Bible verses and accompanying poems here. The work was published at least six times in French by 1562. Innumerable copies in various languages followed through the nineteenth century. The popularity of the work attests to Holbein's genius. By rendering the horror of sudden death visible and viscerally palpable, he reminds viewers to take not a single moment of life for granted. A valuable lesson, even today.

Memento mori. Death comes for all--don't let it catch you by surprise.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you ever revisit Brendan, Kate and Raff again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: THE TUDOR VENDETTA by C.W. Gortner

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bags Full of Reading Goodness

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

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

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

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

Thanks again to all involved!