INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH STARKSTON

November 12th, 2019

I am happy to announce the winners of Stephanie Churchill’s book giveaway, which we held on my blog when I interviewed her for her latest book, The King’s Furies.  She generously offered to give the first two books in her trilogy to the winners, The Scribe’s Daughter and The King’s Daughter.  I enjoyed all three of the novels very much and I am sure the lucky winners will enjoy them, too.  Drum roll…..the winners are Lin Heiberger, Nancy F Lambert, and Eric Pratt.  You can contact me via my website or on Facebook or Stephanie on Facebook to provide your contact information.

The guest on my blog today is my friend, Judith Starkston, who writes fiction set in the ancient world of the Greeks and Hittites. I met Judith several years ago at the Tucson Festival of Books. We talked books and writing over a long dinner, but today’s conversation had to happen online with only virtual company, so, unfortunately, no good food could be shared. Judith is, however, offering a book giveaway and to be eligible, readers need only post a comment on this blog. Two winners will each receive a free copy of Priestess of Ishana. The books will be in e-book format and the contest is global, not limited to American readers.

Sharon: So, Judith, over that Tucson dinner, we talked about your fascination with the Trojan War and Briseis, the woman Achilles took captive. But these days, you’re writing about another woman, also from the Bronze Age—a queen whom very few people have ever heard of. You’ve written the first two books of a series featuring her, Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara. And you’ve chosen to combine fantasy and history. I’m intrigued.

Tell me about the Hittite queen, Puduhepa, upon whom you’ve based your fictional main character, Tesha. She is not exactly a household name. How did that source of inspiration come about?

Judith: Puduhepa had the misfortune to rule a kingdom that got literally buried and forgotten amidst the upheavals at the end of the Bronze Age (c. 1200 BCE). Hence, even though she ruled for decades over the most powerful empire of the world at the time, she’s barely made it into the history books and only very recently. I discovered Puduhepa originally when researching that first novel you mentioned set in the Trojan War (Hand of Fire). The culture of Troy was largely that of the Hittites. Fortunately, recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets have filled in parts of the lost history. As I researched, I came across the letters, rites and judicial decrees of a highly influential queen who ruled for decades. You know from your research how enthralling it is to hear a historical voice coming to you from across the centuries. Counter to my expectation based on the surrounding kingdoms of the time like Egypt or Babylonia, Hittite queens had full political power by law and custom and remained rulers even when their husbands died. A powerful queen in the extremely patriarchal ancient Near East? I was hooked. Puduhepa caught my imagination with her combination of pragmatic leadership and mystical religious beliefs. I chose her name in my fiction, Tesha, because Tesha is the Hittite word for ‘dream’ and Puduhepa was famous for visionary dreams sent by her goddess. The other thing she was known for in her lifetime was an astonishingly happy marriage and the equal partnership she maintained with her husband. That also was not the norm in her world.

Sharon: I know you take your history seriously, and you’ve dug in deep with the research (sorry for the archaeological pun). With your historical focus, why did you choose to write in the fantasy genre?

Judith: For two reasons—one having to do with full disclosure to the reader and the other having to do with Hittite beliefs and their potential for engaging storytelling.

While knowledge about the Hittites has expanded greatly in the last twenty or so years, there still remain giant gaps in historians’ understanding of this intriguing ancient world power. To be honest about my imaginative filling of those gaps, I’m up front that my storytelling combines fantasy and history. For instance, I give my historical figures fictional names, though often only minimally different from their real names.

The other reason I turned to fantasy arose from the prevalence of magic and the supernatural within Hittite religious rites. In essence, I allow those rites to do what the Hittites believed could happen. My main character started her career as a priestess, and her closeness to her goddess was profoundly important to her. Giving her magical beliefs free room also made for much better storytelling. I do extend the fantasy beyond the historical framework when it makes sense for the story, but I start the fantastical elements within Hittite practices, such as their extensive use of analogic magic and their obsession with demonic curses. I take the foundational “rules” for my fantasy from Hittite rites themselves, but I find letting my plots go into the fantastical entirely liberating and my readers love it.

My “quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, allows me to honor what we actually know while also owning up to my inventive extensions.

Sharon: So tell me about this happy marriage and partnership Puduhepa had. How did that come about?

Judith: The goddess of love and war, Ishtar, took full credit for this union. (She’s called Ishana in my novels.) A match literally made in heaven, so to speak. Both Puduhepa and Hattusili, her eventual husband, said Ishtar, via dreams, commanded them to marry. They appear to me from the record to be entirely sincere in this understanding. Hattusili was the younger brother of what the Hittites called the “Great King,” the ruler of the Hittite Empire. Hattusili vowed before leading his brother’s troops into battle against Egypt that he would give all his spoils of war to Ishtar if she gave him victory. He viewed Ishtar as his personal patron goddess. He attributed to her his survival of a childhood illness and the rescue from a couple career-ending situations. When he arrived at the finest temple in the realm to make good on his vow, loaded with Pharaoh’s golden treasures, who was there but Priestess Puduhepa, young, very beautiful and incredibly smart? That’s how they met. We have this story from a document Hattusili composed that’s often called his “autobiography” although it isn’t anything like a modern autobiography. In it he also says, “the goddess gave us the love of husband and wife . . . and our household thrived.” We also have Puduhepa’s incredibly poignant prayers on behalf of her husband when he was struck down by ill health. Their equality as partners shows up repeatedly over many years, most visibly in Puduhepa’s independent seal on key treaties and letters where she grants lands to vassal kings and other powerful acts. She shows no signs of needing her husband to “co-sign.” I portray from the inside their early meeting and falling in love, but intriguingly, Hattusili also mentions he was accused of sorcery at this time, an accusation that carried the penalty of death in a legal system that otherwise opted for exile. Interesting that! So I took this divinely inspired love story and combined it with some Bronze Age political intrigue, international scheming, magic and a murder mystery.

Sharon: Describe one of the strangest details about the Hittites you found from your research.

Judith: The Hittites were obsessed with curses of all sorts—what we might call dark magic. They believed sorcerers could sicken and kill their enemies, for example. We find this belief expressed in places as diverse as court cases, divinations, and prayers. None of the “how to curse” rites survive, but one describing a curse removal does. Not all of the text survives in a readable way but my favorite part (which I used in Priestess) describes touching the cursed person with a loaf of specially made bread to absorb the curse’s pollution. The bread is stuffed with chickpea paste (hummus, in essence) as the absorbing substance. Once the bread touches all the prescribed places on the victim’s body, the priestess is commanded to burn it and thus send it back to the demons of the Underworld whence curses were thought to come. I hope I haven’t ruined hummus for any of those reading this interview. It’s one of my favorite foods. I actually wrote a cookbook of Bronze Age foods that people receive (after a short story) when they sign up for my author newsletter, and I have recipes for three different styles of hummus in it, so I’m pretty dedicated to good chickpea paste!

Sharon: What’s an aspect of Puduhepa’s historical life that you hope readers will take away from your portrayal of Tesha?

Judith: Puduhepa provides a worthy model for leadership—particularly the value of female leaders, which we’ve been thinking about lately, so this seems timely. She certainly wasn’t perfect, and some of her actions are hotly debated among historians as possibly self-serving or politically motivated rather than ethically driven. She gave me nuanced material to work into my hero’s character. But, despite that human complexity, or perhaps because of it, she had brilliant skills as queen in many areas: diplomatic, judicial, religious and familial. Most famously, she corralled Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt into a lasting peace treaty. The surviving letters to Ramses reveal a subtle diplomat with a tough but gracious core that made her able to stand up to the arrogant Pharaoh without giving offense. She also took judicial positions that went against her own citizens when the truth wasn’t on their side. Fair justice wasn’t something she was willing to toss overboard when it was politically inconvenient. Her equal partnership with her husband was a much-admired model even in the patriarchal world of the ancient Near East.

Sharon: I remember talking to you about your extensive research travels, one of the best perks of being an author. Can you share some highlights from your more recent travels?

When planning which archaeological sites to visit on my second trip to Turkey, I bemoaned to the Turkish archaeologist who guides and translates for me that the site of Puduhepa’s hometown, Lawazantiya, had never been identified. From numerous tablets excavated from the empire’s capital city Hattusha, we know the name Lawazantiya, its general location, and that it had seven springs, but I thought we lacked even a tentative site location. But my archaeologist friend was more up to date than I was.

A new archaeological excavation, with preliminary results published only locally in Turkish, had made a strong case for being Lawazantiya. Sure enough, there are seven springs in the area around this dig and also extensive Bronze Age ruins on the mound, including parts that could correspond to the famous temple of Ishtar we know existed there (where Puduhepa was priestess).

We arranged to go to the site so that I could study the physical setting and ruins. That would have been splendid all on its own, but, even better, the director of the dig spent the entire day with me, explaining and examining the excavation. We also visited each of the seven springs—locations that I found very useful later as I l drafted Priestess of Ishana. Accompanied by the rest of the dig’s excavators, we had a delightful lunch of freshly caught fish at a restaurant beside the largest of the springs. It was easy to imagine my Tesha and Hattu sitting in the shade of the willows in that lovely spot, although I confess when that spring appears in my novel, it’s all conflict and trouble, not quiet picnicking!

Sharon: Thank you so much for a very interesting interview, Judith.  Priestess of Ishana sounds fascinating.  What’s your next project

Judith: As you mentioned, I’ve now written the first two books in this series based on Puduhepa’s life, Priestess of Ishana (book 1) and Sorcery in Alpara (book 2). I’m drafting the third book—no title yet. If readers are interested in my book news, special offers, and the history and archaeology of this ancient civilization (and the cookbook I described), they can sign up for the author newsletter on my website, link: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Purchase Hand of Fire: https://amzn.to/2KOb6a0

Purchase Priestess of Ishana: https://amzn.to/2DXpdXt

Purchase Sorcery in Alpara: https://amzn.to/319vuIj

INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE CHURCHILL ABOUT THE KING’S FURIES

July 24th, 2019

Yes, this is actually a new blog by me; will wonders never cease?  But the good thing about being in Writer Limbo—between books—is that I actually have time to do some things I enjoy, and one of them is focusing attention upon books I think my readers will like.  The King’s Furies is such a book, with the added bonus that its author, Stephanie Churchill, is a friend as well as a fellow writer, so it is always fun to hang around with her.  Besides, Holly, my spaniel, may not worship Stephanie, but she is overly fond of the ground upon which she walks.

I can enthusiastically recommend The King’s Furies, the final book in Stephanie’s trilogy, The Crowns of Destiny.  Like me, I am sure that readers of the trilogy have come to care about the characters, and I think they will be pleased by the resolution of the series.   Casmir is a very appealing character in his own right, and it is interesting to get his perspective after seeing their world through the eyes of the sisters, Kassia and Irisa.

Before we begin the interview, I want to let readers know that Stephanie is offering a book giveaway and to be eligible, readers need only post a comment on this blog.  The winner will receive free copies of the first two books, The Scribe’s Daughter and The King’s Daughter; they will be in the e-book format and the contest is global, not limited just to American readers.   Now, let me welcome Stephanie Churchill.

SC: Thanks for letting me stop by, Sharon. I really just came to play with Holly, but we may as well chat as long as I’m here.

SKP: Holly would like nothing more than for you to feed her snacks.

SC: Which I have brought aplenty.

SKP: You’re about to publish your third book, The King’s Furies.   How does it feel?

SC: I thought you were going to ask me, “What are you going to do next?” And of course, the only answer to that is “Go to Disney World.” It feels somehow surreal that I’ve slaved away enough to write three books already. It seems like only yesterday you planted the suggestion in my head. Can that have been nearly eight years ago already? It doesn’t seem like we’ve been friends for that long, but we have.

SKP: I’ve told you before that you give me too much credit for that.

SC: Maybe, but sometimes ideas don’t take root except when suggested by people who have a certain amount of clout. Anyone else could have suggested that I try my hand at writing, but I wouldn’t have necessarily considered the suggestion credible. I figured you knew what you were talking about when it came to writing.

SKP:  I can think of at least one book reviewer who’d disagree with you about that, the one who ended her review of Sunne with the immortal words, “God has probably forgiven Richard III and He may in time even forgive the author.”    But let’s talk now about your Crowns of Destiny series. Your first two books were about two sisters. Your third book will be about a different person, Casmir Vitus, King of Agrius. What made you decide to give him his own book?

SC: I wasn’t planning to originally. I had already promised readers that I would write a prequel about Kassia and Irisa’s mother, Naria. I had a decent outline written up for that book, but then a couple of things happened. First, I wasn’t “feeling” the story. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say my heart just wasn’t in it. I had a tough time figuring out how to develop the themes for the book, and I had too many ideas about directions to take the various character involvements. So in part, there was too much I wanted the book to do, and I couldn’t narrow it down. Then, almost simultaneously, reviews were beginning to come in on The King’s Daughter. The most common piece of feedback I received from readers was that they loved Casmir. Looooooved him. It seemed natural to write a book for him. I hope to get back to Naria’s story someday, but I also need to move on to other things.

SKP: Why did people love him so much?  I know why I found him to be such good company, but I am curious about your perspective as his creator.   Tell us about him.

SC: I can’t speak for individual readers, but my guess is that he’s got a nice dose of charm. I admit to being more than a little influenced by some of your male characters when writing him: Llewelyn ap Iorweth, for instance. His combination of cluelessness with Joanna gave me some fodder for Casmir’s relationship with Irisa, and his leadership style of integrity, control, and a bit of restraint helped me figure out Casmir’s kingly style. I also injected some of Dafydd ap Gruffydd’s swagger. Another thing that I would guess readers found appealing was the mystery of his personality. Irisa often commented on Casmir’s seeming two-sided nature. He wears an unreadable court mask in public, but when Irisa was alone with him, she saw a warm, caring man. So for the reader’s benefit, I wanted to explore this a bit in his own book. I hope readers of The King’s Furies will get enough of Casmir’s backstory to understand his two faces a bit better. I also tried to inject some aspects of your favorite king, Henry II. Casmir is a bit of a workaholic, and he doesn’t always care too much for his personal appearance – or at least the extravagance that kings are afforded in their dress. He’s happier just being comfortable.

SKP: Without giving anything away, what is this book about?

SC: From a plot perspective, Casmir and Irisa are now secure on their thrones ruling Agrius. They have a child, and things seem to be perfect. Of course, as an author yourself, you know that authors are never happy when our characters are happy. I had to make their lives difficult, and one step at a time I turned the screws a little bit on their happiness. They made some choices in The King’s Daughter, and the outcomes of those choices aren’t working out so well. Those outcomes get progressively more complicated, and then some of the villains from the last books show up to further complicate things.

The theme of this book is two-fold. I wanted to explore Casmir’s character. What happens when he is tested beyond the point of breaking? What kind of choices will he make, and what does it say about who he is as a man? And secondly, I wanted to explore the marriage relationship after the first few years of marriage. It’s fun to write about new love, but what happens when daily life intrudes and outside forces work to muddy the waters a bit? At a really deep level, I want readers to see how I intentionally chose the title (for each of my books) and how it works to tell the story of what will happen to the main characters.

SKP: Do you have another project you’re working on now? What’s next?

SC: I have something completely different in mind, yes. I’ve already begun to plot the basics of it, but I have a lot of groundwork to cover before I begin the actual writing. This next series will be much more traditionally fantasy in that there will be some dragon-like creatures. Still no magic, because I’m not comfortable writing in that milieu since I don’t really read magic-based fantasy.

SKP: How will the books be different (besides the dragon-like creatures)?

SC: Well, from a story and setting perspective, I’m going to focus much less on creating a setting that feels historical. This time it will be purely fictional. Yes, it will have a vaguely medieval feel, but that’s about as close to feeling historical as I’ll intentionally get. Much of what will be different won’t be apparent to readers because the differences will all be in my process. Hopefully readers will “feel” the difference in the quality of the story, but it won’t be obvious to the casual reader. Oh, and my dragons will have some supernatural powers.

SKP: How could dragons not have some supernatural powers?   But how is your process going to be different?

SC: I’ve been reading and following the blog of Shawn Coyne who developed the Story Grid method. I won’t bore you with all the nitty-gritty details, but this method encourages developing what Coyne calls a “foolscap global story outline” before getting started. Basically, it’s setting up certain major building blocks (inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, resolution) for each of the major components of the book before beginning to write. I naturally do this in my head anyway and had done it for my first three books on a very informal level, but I’m forcing myself to write down each of the items so they will be thoroughly thought through. The other process difference is that I’m going to write all three books of the trilogy (in first draft form) before I publish the first one.

SKP: That sounds intriguing and a bit mysterious.  So how long will readers have to wait until they can read something new from you?

SC: No idea. It will take as long as it takes. But I think once my in-depth planning is finished, the actual writing will take far less time than my last three books since I’ll have signposts for what I’m going to write. In the meantime, I’m keeping a weekly writing journal for those interested in getting a behind-the-scenes look at my process. It’s on my blog https://www.stephaniechurchillauthor.com/blog/ and people can subscribe if they want to be updated about new posts. So far readers of this journal have said they love the glimpse of what authors do every day. I guess I take my own process for granted, but not everyone knows what we as authors do!

SKP: Anything else you’d like to add before you go take Holly for a walk?

SC: Yes, I thought I’d leave your readers with a little glimpse of both Casmir’s personality and a taste for what The King’s Furies is about.

From The King’s Furies, chapter 6:

“You are the assassin who finally brought down the slave rebellion’s leader.”

“You make it sound like a bad thing, my king,” Jachamin broke in, a slow smile hinting at the corners of his lips. “But I prefer mercenary if it’s all the same to you.”

“Your tactics were… heavy-handed,” I observed.

His eyes flashed at that, and the freedom I’d reveled in only moments before dissipated, melting away as easily as a sugared wafer on Sybila’s tongue. I moved my gloved hands over my face, partially to brush away the loose strands of hair which had fallen over my left eye, but also to give myself time to think.

“Casmir,” Wimarc broke in, annoyingly comfortable enough to use my familiar name, “Lyseby is a problem. In fact, you have many problems that defy conventional solutions.”

I shot him a hard look. “And you think that hiring an assassin… mercenary,” I corrected myself with a dismissive wave of my hand, “will fix these problems? We have only begun to try conventional solutions. I am not about to condone as common practice the murder of those who would oppose my rule!” I gave each of the men a cold, hard stare.

“Casmir, I only brought you here to hear him out.”

“Yes, because you know the palace walls have ears. You said as much. This was to make the ride and early hour worth my while?”

“Casmir, I…”

“You have mistaken me for another king — my father, or his hound Veris. I am not him, nor will I ever be,” I growled. “You have wasted my time.”

And with that, I made a savage jerk on the reins, wheeling Sevaritza around to leave the two men staring after me.

SKP:   We shall let Casmir have the last word, then, as kings usually do.   Thank you, Stephanie, for stopping by to spoil Holly and share your thoughts on The King’s Furies.  To purchase Stephanie’s books, see the links below.  And again, post a comment here and you’ll be eligible for Stephanie’s book giveway.

July 24, 2019

Links:

Purchase The Scribe’s Daughter: mybook.to/thescribesdaughter

Purchase The King’s Daughter: mybook.to/TheKingsDaughter

Pre-order The King’s Furies: mybook.to/TheKingsFuries

Stephanie’s website: https://www.stephaniechurchillauthor.com/

INTERVIEW WITH DAVID BLIXT

December 22nd, 2018

I can think of no better way to end the year than to do an interview with my fellow writer, David Blixt, about his latest novel and whatever subjects that come up in the course of our conversation; with David, you never know.

Sharon: Here we are again, David.

David: Thanks for inviting me. Though I’m not sure why you had me lay out a plastic drop cloth before I could sit down…

Sharon: Oh, you never know how these interviews will turn out.

David: Ominous. Have you been watching Dexter?

Sharon: Possibly. So David, you have a new novel out. Tell me about it.

David: It’s about the woman who basically invented undercover reporting, Nellie Bly.

Sharon: The title is “What Girls Are Good For”. Provocative, especially today.

David: I know. It was the publisher’s choice, and it makes me nervous. But it’s also totally appropriate. It’s the title of the newspaper article printed by the Pittsburgh Dispatch that made young Elizabeth Cochrane so angry she penned a letter to the editor. That letter was too explosive for them to publish, but they hired her as a reporter for her unique perspective.

Sharon: And what perspective was that?

David: That women who work were not evil or fallen or unwholesome. The article posited that “A woman’s sphere is encompassed by a single word: home.” Saddled with the pen-name Nellie Bly, Elizabeth set out to refute that by humanizing working women. Her first series was called “Factory Girls”, with her showing portraits of these young ladies who all had to work to survive.

Sharon: I take it these weren’t the traditional schoolteachers and nurses.

David: Not at all. She interviewed women who worked in barbwire factories, steel mills, shoe factories, cigar rolling plants, hinge manufacturing. She did so well in humanizing them that management started complaining to the newspaper, and she was sent to report on flower shows instead.

Sharon: That sounds very frustrating.

David: It was. She rebelled by insisting the paper pay her way to Mexico to be their foreign correspondent there. After five months she was chased out for exposing corruption in the Mexican government.

Sharon: I like her already. But you said undercover reporting.

David: Yeah, she was the first of what become known in the newspaper business as the “Stunt Girls”, which was dismissive as hell considering what she achieved. In 1887 she feigned madness and got herself committed to the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island – Roosevelt Island today. That’s what she’s probably most famous for, along with her trip around the world two years later.

Sharon: How far in her life does “What Girls Are Good For” go?

David: Through the aftermath of the insane asylum exposé. She released her experience in a book, “10 Days In A Madhouse”. But reporting was a little different at the time. She related a lot of events as scenes, not a single narrative. And there’s a great deal she left out, especially the brutal character assassination by a rival newspaper that she had fooled into reporting on her insanity. The whole last third of the novel is the full story of the asylum and the grand jury investigation her story provoked.

Sharon: Was there a particularly hard scene to write?

David: There were two. One is when Nellie’s life is threatened in Mexico. The other was during her stay in the madhouse, her very worst night there, where they tried to dose her with chloral. That was rough, involving a lot of things about her that have only been hinted at to that point.

Sharon: This book feels very timely. When did you start on this?

David: Believe it or not, I started this in April of 2016, before Trump or the #MeToo movement blew up so huge.  I was reading about female action stars in the silent film era, and I noted how at least half of the characters they played were based on Nellie Bly. She was even the basis for Lois Lane in Superman comics. I didn’t know much about her, so I looked her up and instantly dropped everything else to focus on her.

Sharon: Speaking of Superman, I remember you’re a fan of comic books. Do you have a writing Kryptonite?

David: Facebook, definitely. Facebook has really slowed my writing output, especially in the current political climate. And I read too much of the news. I like to debate current events and keep informed. It’s important, I think. But it’s also killer for getting momentum in my writing.

Sharon: I’m always asked about writer’s block. I’m sure you are, too. But have you ever gotten reader’s block?

David: Oh yes! I mostly read research these days, not for fun. And when I do, I binge something entirely outside of historical fiction. I went through the entire Dresden Files series this summer – a wizard living in Chicago, very noir. What I’m trying to be better about is reading books by fellow authors in my field. I have a project I’m working on that hopefully will help with that.

Sharon: Can you tell us more?

David: Can’t talk about it yet.

Sharon:  Onward, then.  How many unfinished books do you have at present?

David: Six or seven. Plus the Nellie Bly sequel I haven’t started yet.

Sharon: Seems a wee bit fickle. Have you considered choosing the one that attracts you most?  Or the one I want you to write next?  Can we expect a fifth Star-Cross’d novel soon?

David:  I’m working on it. But “soon” might be optimistic. There are a couple other novels I’ll have finished before that one. But all the research is done, and I’ve started it. And I’ve been recording the audiobooks. The Master Of Verona came out last year, and Voice Of The Falconer is coming in December.

Sharon: I adore those books. Has it been fun revisiting them?

David: Not only fun, but helpful as I plot future storylines. I’ve been reminded of threads I hinted at – especially a connection to the Holy Roman Emperor that is going to help the next novel a lot.

Sharon: One of the many things we share is a passion for medieval stories. Is that home base for you?

David: Yes and no. The majority of the stories I have in mind take place somewhere between 1300 and 1600. I chalk it up to my three decades of performing Shakespeare. But I’m also attracted to people. Nellie Bly is a great example. I want to write about fascinating people of different eras to illuminate our own.

Sharon: You mention Shakespeare. Are we getting another Will & Kit novel?

David: Absolutely. It’s going to be called “Fire At Will”, and it will be Shakespeare and Marlowe accidentally causing the Spanish Armada attack.

Sharon: You have three series going at present, and I understand you’ll have another with Nellie Bly. Do you want each series to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

David: I’m placing ties in all of them, though very tenuous ones. In What Girls Are Good For, it’s only a couple Shakespeare and Dante references. But there’s a coin that will show up in all the series at some point. And I like to drop references to other works of historical fiction, like The Name Of The Rose, when characters overlap. I’m actually looking to find a way to tie the next Star-Cross’d book to your novel The Reckoning.

Sharon: Do you do that often, hide secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

David: I sprinkled anagrams through all the Star-Cross’d novels. I call out friends all the time. There’s a sword maker in Chicago named Neil Massey. I put him in a couple novels for fun as the armorer for my characters – things like that. I amuse myself, mostly.

Sharon: I’m glad to hear you amuse someone.

David: Oh Sharon. You know you’re amused by me.

Sharon: Not in the way you think. Remember the drop cloth.

David: Right. Well, look at the time— (rises to go)

Sharon: Smart lad. You’re lucky I enjoy your writing. Also that you’re a decent actor with a very nice family.

David: That gets me by in a lot of places.

Sharon: Say hello to Jan and the kids, by the way.

David: Hello to Jan and the kids, by the way.

(Sharon lifts crossbow from the wall as David flees for his life)

Sharon: Damn. Should have put the plastic down by the door…

It is obvious that David and I are good friends; either that, or we were drinking when we did this interview.  Seriously, I am always happy to be able to alert my readers about a new David Blixt novel.  His Star-Cross’d series, set in medieval Italy, is mesmerizing.  It has some of the most compelling characters I’ve ever encountered between the pages of a book and they are people who actually lived!   I always thought the Plantagenets led highly improbable lives.   Well, even a swash-buckling soldier king like the Lionheart is cast into the shade by Cangrande della Scala, who ruled Verona in 14th century Italy and whose adventures read like fiction—but they are not.  He was an acclaimed battle commander, a shrewd politician—think of him as Machiavelli’s role model—a patron of the celebrated poet Dante; he even managed to get a role in Boccaccio’s Decameron!   You can meet him in The Master of Verona and David’s subsequent books.   And for a change of pace, try his hilarious spoof about the young Will Shakespeare, Her Majesty’s Will.  For me, it will be Nellie Bly and What Girls are Good For.    Below is a link to David’s website; when you see all he’s accomplished, you may wonder if he has a clone chained up in the basement, and I would not put it past him.   Did I mention that he is also a gifted actor and playwright and skilled in the use of medieval swords and rapiers?   He always denies those rumors that in his spare time he leaps tall buildings at a single bound and is faster than a speeding bullet.   The jury is still out on that one.

https://www.davidblixt.com/

December 22, 2018

INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET GEORGE

November 5th, 2018

No you all are not hallucinating.  My blog is no longer covered with cyber-space cobwebs; I have a brand-new blog up and ready to read.  Who says the Age of Miracles is over?     I was fortunate enough to lure Margaret George here to discuss her new novel.  But before we begin the interview, I have news about my own new novel, THE LAND BEYOND THE SEA.  It is finally done and is currently in the care of my editors at Putnam’s and Macmillan’s.  While there are some loose ends to tie up and the Author’s Note still to finish, the Deadline Dragon has been defeated at long last.  Of course he is still hanging around the house, blowing smoke rings and sneering.  It is not easy to evict a dragon, but at least he can be ignored for now.  I do not know when THE LAND BEYOND THE SEA will be published, will spread the word as soon as it reaches me.

I am so pleased to have Margaret George here.  She is one of my favorite writers and a friend and wherever he is in the Hereafter, Nero must be thanking his lucky stars that she chose to tell his amazing, improbable story.    Welcome, Margaret.   Shall we get started?   I suspect that patience is not one of Nero’s virtues.  In fact, many people probably assume he had no virtues at all, so your novel is going to be a revelation for them.

SKP:  It’s a pleasure to talk with you about the continuation of Nero’s life story, THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK.  Tell me, how did you choose that title?

MG: The right title is hard to find, but I thought this one really summed up his reign—there was a burst of creative energy, glitter, and excitement about it, before his dynasty, that was founded by Julius Caesar, collapsed in A.D. 68.  I wanted people to realize it was a high point in Roman history, not to be overshadowed by the negative things in the popular imagination connected with Nero. Historians have dubbed it ‘the Neronian Era’ and very few rulers get an era named after them.

SKP:  Of course the first question people probably ask you is: why Nero?  Why did you want to write about him?

MG:  I am drawn to people in history that seem to be unfairly condemned in the popular imagination, starting with Henry VIII.  You remember that, as an anti-Tudor person.  But you kindly read that book with an open mind.  I am just asking people to set aside their preconceptions and read about Nero with an open mind.

SKP:  But I assume there must be more to it than just that someone has a bad reputation.  After all, some people have earned that bad reputation!

MG:  Indeed they have, and well deserve it!  But Nero is an example of those whose legacy was written entirely by his enemies, and who had the misfortune to have the balancing positive appraisals of him lost in time.  Whenever a new regime comes in, whether it’s a change of dynasty in ancient Rome or a change of president in the U.S., immediately the new emperor or president, and their party, want to undo what their predecessor did, and blacken their name.  Nero was a victim of this.  I am just trying to let the suppressed voices on the other side have a say.

SKP:  Nero is one of those larger than life characters, who scarcely seem real.  He’s the Roman emperor who is a household name, who is seen in countless cartoons fiddling while Rome burned.  What was the real Nero like?

MG: I think the key to his character was that he was like a modern young person (and remember, he became emperor when he was only sixteen) who wants to be an artist—a writer, a musician, an actor—and is told by his family it’s not practical, and he has to go to law school instead.  In Nero’s case, it was that he had to be a politician.  But the conflict between the role he had to play in order to survive, and what he felt was the ‘real him’ is what makes him fascinating, sympathetic, and modern.  We can relate to that.

SKP:  But what about his art?  Was he any good?  People now laugh about it and assume he was a buffoon.

MG:  He was involved in many facets of art.  But none of his poetry, none of his sculpture, none of his musical compositions survive.  The one thing that does, however, the Domus Aurea—the Golden House in Rome—is a showcase of his revolutionary architectural vision. Nero was actively involved in designing of the building, working closely with his favorite architects Severus and Celer. Its stunning frescoes (the palace was rediscovered in the late 1400’s) influenced Raphael, who visited it, and other Renaissance artists.  It used light as an architectural element, centuries before Frank Lloyd Wright.  The Octagon Room, the first Roman building to have an open dome supported not by central pillars but by weight-baring arches on the sides, was the forerunner of the Pantheon.

SKP:  But it was not all work with him, right?  He is famous for throwing the ultimate toga party. Probably in the Domus Aurea!

MG:  No doubt about it, he liked to have a good time, and insisted on inviting the common people—with whom he felt more at home than with the senators and patricians—to join in with him, with banquets in the Forum, chariot racing, and athletic contests.  (Ironically, he didn’t like togas—he found them uncomfortable and too ‘establishment’.)  He gave the city a state of the art gymnasium and training ground, and would exercise there in public in his loincloth!

SKP: But in spite of this, he fell from power and was ousted by a new dynasty, the Flavians.  Why?

MG:  There are several theories about this—that he had made enemies of the Senate by bypassing them for the common people, that he didn’t pay enough attention to the military, that he was seen as a byword for frivolity—but I think the ultimate reason was that he chose his art over being emperor.  He embarked on a sixteen month artistic and athletic tour of Greece, in spite of warnings this was dangerous. Sure enough, in his absence conspiracies grew in Rome.  By the time he was summoned back to save his reign, it was too late.   His last words, “What an artist the world is losing!” shows how he saw himself.  He didn’t say, “What an emperor the world is losing!”

SKP:  Is there any parallel to him today?

MG:  Unlike some historical characters that get a modern makeover, Nero is impossible to update, he was so unique, and his actions so specific to that time and place, that no—there has never been, and will never be, another Nero.

SKP:   This was fascinating, Margaret.  Thank you so much for agreeing to discuss the new book with us.   For new readers, THE SPLENDOR BEFORE THE DARK is the second in a two book series by Margaret; she began Nero’s story with THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO.   I knew very little about Nero before reading these books and have a much better understanding now of this controversial yet compelling man and the times in which he lived.

November 5, 2018

WINNER OF BOOK DRAWING FOR THE KING’S DAUGHTER AND INTERVIEW WITH DANA STABENOW

December 6th, 2017

I have been gone for so long that I feel as if I ought to re-introduce myself, or at least thank you all for being so patient with my prolonged absences.   I hope that life will get back to normal once I’ve been able to evict the Deadline Dragon, though I would not bet money on that.  I only have three chapters left to do in The Land Beyond the Sea, but since one of them will have me fighting one of the most momentous battles of the Middle Ages, please send me lots of positive vibes; I suspect I’ll need them.
With apologies again for the long delay, Stephanie Churchill and I are happy to announce that the winner of her book giveaway for her new novel, The King’s Daughter, is Colleen MacDonald.  Colleen, congratulations.   Please contact either Stephanie or me to arrange to receive your personalized copy.    I am sure you will love it.   I know I did!
Now, I am delighted to welcome one of my favorite writers to my blog.  My Facebook friends and readers know how much I love Dana Stabenow’s superb Kate Shugak Alaskan mystery series.   Dana’s books have it all—suspense and surprises and colorful locales and fascinating characters, leavened with lots of humor.    Dana is remarkably versatile, for in addition to her acclaimed Kate Shugak series, she has another series set in Alaska, a number of riveting stand-alone thrillers, and she has made a highly successful foray into the world of historical fiction with her Silk and Song saga.  In her trilogy about Johanna, the grand-daughter of the celebrated Marco Polo, she introduces readers to an unfamiliar and exotic world, taking us from Cambaluc, today’s Beijing, to the legendary lagoon city of Venice, fabled Queen of the Adriatic.     I cannot imagine anyone reading that last sentence without wanting to read the books, too, and Dana’s British publisher, Head of Zeus, has made that easy for new readers, publishing an omnibus edition which contains all three of the Silk and Song novels: Everything under the Heavens, By the Shores of the Middle Sea, and The Land Beyond.   It can be ordered from my all-time favorite bookstore, the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, with signed copies available.  Here is the link. 

https://store.poisonedpen.com/?q=h.tviewer&using_sb=status&qsb=keyword&so=oh&searchtype=keyword&qs=9781784979522&qs_file=

And for my British readers, here is the link to Amazon.co.uk, where it will be published on December 14th.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silk-Song-Dana-Stabenow/dp/178497952X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1512535145&sr=1-1&keywords=silk+and+song

Now, without further delay, I’ll let Dana speak for herself.
Where did the idea for Silk and Song come from?

I read The Adventures of Marco Polo and by his own account he loved
the ladies. He was all over eastern Asia for twenty years in service to Kublai Khan
and he had to have scattered some seed around.
I wondered what happened to those kids.
Silk and Song is the story of one of them.

What did you do in the way of research?

One of the joys of writing is research.
It can also be the perfect excuse for travel (if you need one).
I went to China in 2005 specifically to do research for Silk and Song.
Trips to Turkey and Morocco also found their way into the books.
I spent a week in Venice, another in Paris, and a third in London.
Only Venice made it into the book. That’s one thing about research;
inevitably you only use about 10 percent of what you research in the work.

I also read fa-aaar too much in the way of historical studies.
After a while you wonder what on earth historians are thinking,
because they all contradict each other,
and the farther back in time you go the worse they get.

Why a female protagonist?

Whenever I’m asked that question I’m tempted to say “Why not?”
and leave it at that, but seriously folks.

At about the same time as I was reading Marco, I stumbled across
a Book of Days (basically a daily diary) in a bookstore.
It was illustrated with drawings from medieval manuscripts,
and each illustration featured a medieval woman doing a job
—a baker, a shoemaker, a carpenter, a stone mason (yes, really!)
And then I read Margery Kempe’s autobiography.
Those two works thoroughly disabused me of the notion,
A, that medieval women only worked in the home,
and, B, that in the Middle Ages nobody ever traveled a mile from their homes.
Both of which notions teachers had worked hard to beat into my head in high school.

I determined from the beginning that the child was going to be a girl,
and that she was going to have a real job.
And of course coming from China she could wear pants. Heh.

Why publish the books separately at first?

No one wanted me to write Silk and Song. For sure no one wanted me to publish it.
“We don’t want to have to re-invent the Stabenow brand,” quoth my editor,
and suggested I write another five Kate Shugak novels instead.
So I wrote SAS anyway and self-published it in the US in three e and TP volumes.

And then lightning struck!
My UK publisher, Nic Cheetham at Head of Zeus
read it and loved it and now he’s publishing it in a single volume
in the most beautiful edition that has ever had my name spelled correctly
on the cover (gold leaf on the title! squee!).

What’s next?

After Silk and Song I wrote the 21st Kate Shugak novel,
Less Than a Treason.
Now I’m working on what I hope will be the first of a series of novels set in
Alexandria in the time of Cleopatra featuring Cleopatra’s fixer, job title the Eye of Isis.
And then follows the 22nd Kate Shugak novel.

Like much of the western world, I am fascinated by Cleopatra, so I am already looking forward to Eye of Isis!     Thank you, Dana, for agreeing to this interview and for giving us so many hours of reading pleasure.
December 6, 2017

INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE CHURCHILL, AUTHOR OF THE KING’S DAUGHTER

September 4th, 2017

INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE CHURCHILL, AUTHOR OF THE KING’S DAUGHTER

I need to start with an apology for the long, long delay since my last blog was posted.  You are getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a writer’s life when that writer is cornered by a voracious Deadline Dragon; survival takes first priority and all else falls by the wayside.  But since I only have four more chapters now to do, I feel that I can afford to surface for air.
I am delighted to relaunch my blog with this interview with my friend and fellow writer, Stephanie Churchill.  Those of you who visit my blog and Facebook pages on a regular basis know how much I enjoyed Stephanie’s first novel, The Scribe’s Daughter.  I tease Stephanie that she has created a new genre—fantasy that reads like historical fiction.  My readers will feel very comfortable in Stephanie’s fictional world, for her novels are rooted in a gritty medieval reality.  They are considered fantasy because you cannot find this kingdom on any map, just in Stephanie’s head.  But there are no supernatural elements; no vampires or ghosts or monsters, although I personally would not have minded a dragon or two.     Her novels are character-driven, but they offer action and suspense, too.
I was hooked from the first sentence of The Scribe’s Daughter: “I never imagined my life would end this way.”    Kassia is an intriguing character and so well-drawn that readers immediately care about her.   For those of you who have not yet read The Scribe’s Daughter, the e-book is being offered on Amazon at a bargain price, just $2.99.   It is also available in paperback, but I confess I have become addicted to e-books for pleasure reading, seduced by the convenience, the ability to increase the font size, and the instant gratification, of course.
Because I found Kassia’s story so compelling, I am eagerly anticipating reading The King’s Daughter, in which her older sister, Irisa, takes center stage.  My game plan is to tackle my To Be Read List within moments of evicting the Deadline Dragon and applauding as he sulks off down the road to haunt some other unfortunate writer.   Today, though, I get to spend some time with Kassia and Irisa’s creator.  Before we begin the interview, Stephanie is offering a book giveaway for The King’s Daughter; anyone who posts a comment to this blog will automatically be eligible to win a personalized copy.

SKP:  You have just released your second book, The King’s Daughter, which is a sequel to The Scribe’s Daughter.  There may be readers who haven’t read the first book yet, so why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about it.

The Scribe’s Daughter is fantasy, though it will appeal to historical fiction readers because everything about it echoes the historical without actually being historical.  I used my comfort and familiarity with history and historical novels to recreate a world that would be similar in feel.

At the beginning of the novel, we meet Kassia, a seventeen year-old orphan who is faced with a tough decision in her daily quest for survival.  She is a younger sister but finds herself in the position of providing for both herself and her older sister, Irisa.  The sisters cannot afford to pay rent, and when their landlord gives them an ultimatum — pay up or become whores — Kassia must decide what to do.  Very soon after, a stranger enters the scene, hiring Kassia for a job that is ridiculously outside her skill set.  Not seeing much other choice, she takes him on.  Before long, Kassia finds herself embroiled in a fast-paced journey, sometimes treacherous, other times humorous.  Everything about the plot involves mysteries of Kassia and Irisa’s family history, a history they never knew existed.

SKP:  Tell us a little bit about The King’s Daughter.

The King’s Daughter is a sequel of sorts to The Scribe’s Daughter, though much of this book overlaps the timeline of the first one as the sisters’ perspectives weave together to form a more complete view from what was learned earlier.  Kassia and Irisa part ways early on in The Scribe’s Daughter.  The first few chapters of The King’s Daughter follow that overlapping timeline as Irisa learns much of the same information Kassia learns.  However, Irisa’s story continues on from there, and she discovers more truths.  The original mysteries from The Scribe’s Daughter are deepened, even twisted sideways so that they take on new life again.  Ultimately it is a character-driven book.  Irisa grows and develops as a person, but in her strength, she helps the development of the other significant protagonist in the story as well.

SKP:  One thing that is immediately noticeable is that even though they are sisters, Irisa and Kassia are very unlike one another.  Physically they are different, but also in the way they approach the world.  Can you talk about this?

Yes!  I am a sister; I have a sister.  And while I can’t say that Irisa and Kassia are necessarily modeled after my sister and I, at least not consciously, the idea of writing about two sisters was definitely inspired by the fact that I have a sister.  I see Irisa and Kassia as two sides to the same coin.  Both sisters are strong, though neither of them knows it at first.  One of the themes of both books is the journey to discover internal strength.  Each sister just comes at this from a different direction.

Kassia is sort of like a caged tiger.  She is emotionally ragged and lashes out at the world in response to trouble.  At the beginning of her story, she is very fragile and therefore acts recklessly.  Her defense mechanism is anger.  Irisa, on the other hand, is softer, gentler.  She is quiet and observant.  She has less emotional turmoil inside her even if she is also fragile at the beginning.  Irisa approaches the world with a more measured, thoughtful manner and is exceedingly practical.  She already has a quiet strength, but as the book progresses, she learns to spread her wings a bit.  By the end of their respective stories, both sisters have arrived at a similar place despite the dissimilar methods of getting there.

SKP:   Your book reads like historical fiction.  Did you base any of the plot or characters on any real figures from history?

Without giving too much away for the sake of the plot, I’ll say that Edward IV and his daughter Elizabeth of York, who married Henry Tudor, were probably the biggest influences on two of my characters, though only loosely.

SKP:   Did you plan to write multiple books when you started The Scribe’s Daughter?

When I began work on The Scribe’s Daughter, I had no long-range plan.  It was simply an experiment in writing first person, and I hadn’t even intended the experiment to turn into a book in the first place.  Once I started writing Kassia however, I fell in love with her character and couldn’t stop.  Kassia kept whispering in my ear, telling me about her life and the realities of her world.  When the first mystery took shape on the page, I had to see where it led.  Once I got nearly half way through writing the first draft, I realized that Irisa had a tale of her own to tell, and it was going to be very compelling.  I was intrigued by the idea of perspective and the differing views multiple people can have of the same events.  This was really the seed idea for the second book.  Once I got writing it, I discovered another selfish perk: I found that I missed Kassia terribly, and creating a book for Irisa allowed me to revisit the same world while taking off in a new direction even while inventing new people and places.  I can totally understand now why so many authors write a series!

SKP:   Should readers read The Scribe’s Daughter first, or can The King’s Daughter be enjoyed alone?

One of my advanced readers thought The King’s Daughter could be read as a stand-alone.  It’s hard for me to judge that as the author since I can never read the book with new eyes.  I would say however, that if a person wants to read it without having read the first one, it’s probably doable.  My caution to them would be that they would miss out on a lot of depth.  The second book weaves many tiny details from the first book: characters, places, mysteries, back stories, etc.  In fact, there are so many connections that many of the details may even be missed by most readers!

SKP:   Who should read your books?

I have found that my audience is more women than men, but both audiences have very dedicated fans.  The books were written for adults, though I tried to be sensitive to a wide audience so wrote it with that in mind, including teens.  Genre is difficult to pin down.  As I said earlier, the books read like historical fiction but are no doubt fantasy, even if not traditional fantasy.  There is no magic, no dragons or other fantastical beasts.  Everything is based in reality.  Readers of historical fiction should feel right at home with the books however, because I love history and historical fiction and attempted to inject the feel of that genre into my writing.  I often tell people that my books echo historical fiction even if they aren’t history.  More than that though, if you love deep characters, evocative settings, and a good plot, it doesn’t matter what genre you read.  You’ll enjoy the books!

SKP:   What’s next for you?

I have a plan for a third book, the story of Naria, Irisa and Kassia’s mother.  I left some dangling threads at the end of The King’s Daughter, and I really want to tie those up for readers.  This third book will have even more connections, ties, and connections to characters and events from the first two books.  I could take the story in many different directions, so I intend to take my time developing it, wanting to be as thoughtful and thorough as possible.

After that I have a completely new series in mind, one that will be much more traditional fantasy.  I’ve actually been researching the background material for several years now, and I’ve got a significant amount of the initial draft of the first book finished, though it still needs a lot of work!

The King’s Daughter released on September 1 and can be ordered from Amazon.  It is available both in the e-book and paperback format.

SKP:  Stephanie, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.  I know there is an overlap between our readers and I know, too, that they are in for a treat.

September 4, 2017

WINNERS OF THE PROUD SINNER BOOK DRAWING AND FIRST CHAPTER OF WINE OF VIOLENCE

April 2nd, 2017

We have a winner in our drawing for a copy of Priscilla Royal’s new medieval mystery, The Proud Sinner.  In fact, because of Priscilla’s generosity, we have two winners—Pat K. and Margaret Skea.  Pat and Margaret, congratulations.  I am sure you’ll really enjoy The Proud Sinner; I know I did.  You can contact Priscilla via her Facebook page or website or me via the Contact Sharon option on my website.  Margaret is a writer, too, author of two novels set in sixteenth century Scotland, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided.  She is also the recipient of a grant by Creative Scotland, and is currently in Germany researching her next book, a novel about Katharina Luther.  Here is a link to her website.   https://margaretskea.com/
Priscilla’s publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has just brought out a new edition of her first medieval mystery, Wine of Violence.   I was very pleased when they asked me to write a new forward for it, as this gave me an opportunity to explain why I think this is such an excellent series.   I have gotten permission from Poisoned Pen Press to post the first chapter of Wine of Violence on my blog.   If you have not read Wine yet, I am sure you’ll want to do so after reading this chapter.  Enjoy!

*     *     *    *   *

WINE OF VIOLENCE

Chapter One

During the dark morning hours of a winter day in the year 1270, an aged prioress realized she was dying.
To her surprise the dying was much easier than she had ever imagined. The crushing pain in her chest was gone and she felt herself drifting upward with an extraordinary lightness. She was floating above the rush-covered floor, over which a dusting of sweet scented petals had been scattered, and away from that narrow convent cot where her earthly remains lay so still. Indeed, she wasn’t frightened. She was very much at peace.
Below her, a semi-circle of nuns continued to chant with haunting harmony, their warm breath circling around her in the bitterly cold air. Many had tears in their eyes at her death, she noted, especially Sister Christina, whose grief meant the most to the old prioress. She could not have loved the nun more if she had been a child of her own body, but Christina had become the child of her soul instead, and, knowing the young woman would remain in the world, the old prioress could leave it with an easier spirit. She smiled.
Still sitting by the convent bed was Sister Anne. The sub-infirmarian to the priory was pale with fatigue and her shoulders hunched as she bent over the hollow body that the prioress had just quitted. The old prioress shook her head. No, good sister, she thought, now is the time for prayer, not your concoctions. How often had she told the nun that when God wanted a soul, all those earthly herbs and potions would be useless? Yet the kind sister had been able to ease the mortal pain of her passing. For that I am grateful, the old prioress thought, and as she watched the nun lean over, testing for breath from the quiet body, she hoped Sister Anne would, as she should, find a comfort in giving that relief.
Against the wall stood Brother Rupert in front of her favorite tapestry of St. Mary Magdalene sitting at the feet of Our Lord. The good brother’s eyes were red from weeping, his head bowed in grief. How she wished to comfort him! He looked so frail to her now, his monk’s habit far too big for his diminished frame. Maybe he would join her soon?
She mustn’t hope. Earthly associations should have no place in Heaven, but she was insufficiently distanced from the world not to believe Heaven would be a happier place with Brother Rupert by her side, as he had been for more years than either could truly remember.
Heaven? Was she really going to Heaven, she wondered. A cold gust of doubt cut through the warm breath of the nuns and chilled her. Was that invisible hand lifting her young soul from her age-ravaged body really the hand of an angel of God?
She shivered. She had always tried to be worthy of God’s grace, serving Him to the best of her ability. She had tried to be humble, dutiful, and she thought she had confessed all her sins to Brother Rupert just before falling into the strange sleep that had preceded this freeing of her soul.
An icy uncertainty nipped at her. Had she remembered all her sins? Might the Prince of Darkness have blinded her, making her forget some critical imperfection? Some sin of omission perhaps? Was her soul truly cleansed or was there some small rotting spot that would fling her into a purgatorial pit where pain was as sharp as the agonies of hell?
An unformed impression, a memory, something nagged at her.
It wasn’t too late, she thought. Brother Rupert was standing near. Surely she could still reach him if she could just think of…
Then it came to her. Oh, but the mercy of God was indeed great! He had granted her the understanding to see the tragic error both she and Brother Rupert had made. Now she must get the message to the good priest. She must!
She struggled to reach her confessor, willing her soul toward the weeping man.
“Brother! Brother!” she cried. “I must tell you one thing more!”
She stretched out her hand, struggling to grasp him, reaching for the crude wooden cross he wore on a thin leather strap around his neck.
But something seemed to hold her back; some black force scrabbled to keep her soul from deliverance.
The priest had not heard her cry. He did not see her fighting to reach him.
She must tell him. She must! After all her years devoted to God, Satan should not win her soul over such a misunderstanding, a judgement she’d made with imperfect knowledge and mortal blindness. An innocent person would be hurt, even die, if she did not. She could not have that fouling her conscience.
She fought harder to reach her confessor, twisting, crying, moaning for help.
Suddenly a hand materialized from the tapestry. It grasped the old prioress firmly and pulled her back to the ground. It was a woman’s hand, and the touch was warm.
The old prioress looked up and saw St. Mary Magdalene smiling.
“Tell me, my child,” the saintly voice said. “I will tell Our Lord.” She gestured to the glowing man at whose feet she sat. “And He will forgive all as He always has.”
The old prioress wanted to weep for joy.
“Please tell him that I accused wrongly. It was not the one we feared, but rather the other!” she gasped.
And with that, the world turned black.

His heart pounded. His lungs hurt as he gulped cold ocean air through his open and toothless mouth. Stinging sweat trickled down his reddened, unevenly shaven face, and Brother Rupert rubbed the sleeve of his rough robe across his age-dulled eyes.
Once he could have walked the familiar path between town and priory with ease. Now his legs ached with the effort of climbing and he had to will himself to the top of the sandy, scrub-grass covered hill.
“I’m getting old. I am getting old,” he muttered, as the moist wind stabbed each one of his joints.
At the hilltop, he stopped to rest and looked back into the distance. The morning sun of early spring had burned off the thickest fog, but the walls of Tyndal Priory, a double house of priests and nuns in the French Order of Fontevraud, were mere shadows in the drifting haze.
It didn’t matter. He could have shut his eyes and seen each stone of every building clearly. Since the winter of 1236, when Eleanor of Provence had come to England as the now aging King Henry’s wife, Brother Rupert had been chaplain, scribe, and administrating secretary to the recently deceased Felicia, Prioress of Tyndal. He had lived at the priory long before that, however, indeed from a day in his thirteenth summer when his rich merchant father proudly dedicated him to this woman-ruled Order so favored by kings, queens, and other elite of the realm. His father might have given him to the religious life as an oblate, but the boy came as a willing and eager offering. The monastic walls provided a secure refuge from a world he found frightening, a world filled with violence and lust.
Suddenly his eyes overflowed with tears, and he wiped his gnarled fingers across them hurriedly. “Ah, but I loved you, I did, and I miss you,” he said, watching as a swirling gust of mist seemed to lift his words into the sky and scatter them. “And for the sake of all our souls I will put the matter right, my lady. I promise you that.”
His words were fervent with an almost prayerful intensity.
Then he sighed, stretched the stiffness from his legs and started down the hill, tentatively at first, unsure in his footing. Once protected from the sea breeze, he could feel the warmth of the sun and his steps quickened.
His mood improved and he smiled. Indeed, in the warmth he now felt he could almost sense that the eyes of God were upon him.
They were not. They were human.
*     *      *     *      *
April 2, 2017

INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET GEORGE

March 10th, 2017

I am delighted to post this interview with one of my favorite historical novelists, Margaret George.  Her legion of fans will be just as delighted and new readers will soon realize what they’ve been missing, for as this interview vividly demonstrates, she is as amusing as she is eloquent.  I do not think there is a single soul who will not laugh aloud when they read her quip about “Michael Corleone meets  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”    So…..here we go.

SKP:  Welcome,  Margaret.  Of course the first question is why Nero?  Why did you want to write about him?  What gave you the idea in the first place?

MG:  I am very interested in ancient coinage, and Nero’s coins are known as the finest, artistically, that Rome every produced.  They are also startlingly honest, in that he allows himself to be portrayed as his looks change from golden boy to the familiar double-chinned emperor.
That got me thinking about him, and feeling that he may be the classic example of the kid who wants to be an artist (actor, writer, painter, musician) but his parents say he has to go to law school or take over the family insurance business.
In his case, the family business was being emperor.
So there was always this tension within him of being pulled in two directions.  I can’t think of any other emperor that had that stress.  I wanted to explore this dichotomy, which was played out for very high stakes.

SKP:  Before we go any farther we must address the stereotype:  Nero fiddled while Rome burned.  That’s what most people know of him. What is the real story?

MG:  If you want a flip answer, it’s that the fiddle wasn’t invented then, so he couldn’t have played it.  But seriously, the rumor that he started the fire in Rome, and performed his epic poem about the fall of Troy while watching it, got started early.  The truth is that he wasn’t even there when the fire started, that his own palace burned down, and that he valiantly led fire relief efforts.  But his later appropriation of large tracts of land in the middle of the burnt-out city started a rumor that he had burnt Rome so he could build his new palace.  It was easy to attach the singing to the story.  This has dogged him ever since.  As you know, it’s hard to prove a negative.  And there were no surveillance cameras then.

SKP: But back to his split personality, how did he handle that?

MG:  Badly.  He was only sixteen when he became emperor, and like any teenager, wanted to be free to ‘do his own thing.’  So from the beginning he was all about breaking boundaries and trying to exert his own will and pursue his own calling.  Also like a teenager, he sought validation in those the establishment didn’t approve of—in this case, the common people vs. the senatorial class.  So not only was he at odds with his station in life vs. his true calling as an artist, he was smack in the middle of class warfare as well.

SKP:  So he saw himself as an artist.  But how good was he really?  Didn’t the emperor always have an appreciative audience, and win all the contests?

MG:  His longing to find out how good he really was—as all real artists do—was thwarted by exactly what you say.  He would always be applauded, always win the prize, because he was the emperor.  All we can go by, in searching for any facts, is that after his death his compositions were gathered in a book called “The Master’s Book” and people still played them.  Since he was dead they didn’t have to flatter him anymore, so that would be evidence they were pretty good.

His architectural designs and surviving building structures are quite amazing and have done much to salvage his reputation and indicate that maybe he wasn’t off base in his famous last words, “What an artist the world is losing!”

SKP:  What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?

MG:  The biggest one was finding—or imagining—his motivation for doing some of the things that shocked the world.  He did kill his mother—but were there reasons for it?  Solid reasons that would explain why he had no other choice?  Why did he want to race chariots?  Why did he ‘marry’ a eunuch?  Things like that.  He wasn’t your ordinary guy.

SKP:  How do you reconcile these different sides of him?

MG:  I think of him as “Michael Corleone meets ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ Michael Corleone in “Godfather I” thinks he is different from his Mafia family, but when the chips are down discovers not only is he not different, he can do what they do and do it better.  So how can Nero or Michael Corleone come to terms with this?  In my novel I give Nero three sides, not just two, and he thinks of them as different entities:  the first, the daylight Nero that is dutiful and Roman ; the second Nero, the artist who performs; and the third Nero, who does ‘unspeakable deeds’ but necessary for the first two to survive. He has the illusion that the third Nero can be put in mothballs and stowed away, but that isn’t the case.  If the first two Neros are to survive in Rome, the third Nero can’t be put out to pasture.

SKP:  What did you enjoy most about this project?

MG:  The extraordinary range of subjects I had to study in order to write it:  the history of the first five emperors, architecture, the cult of the cithara players, athletic games, mythology, early Christianity, and chariot racing.

And, of course, I enjoyed very much meeting the man who’s been called “the greatest showman of them all”, “the Elvis of the ancient world”, and “the first mass market pop star.”  And having the opportunity to liberate Nero from the burdens of misunderstanding and stereotypes that have plagued him, and to let the real one speak for himself.

SKP:  This book begins when Nero is very young and takes him through the first ten years of his reign, but it ends just as he meets the challenge of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.  Do you plan to continue the story, or just leave the reader in suspense?

MG:  For the first time, I am doing a biographical novel in two parts.  So the conclusion, of equal length, will cover the last four years of his life, a very tumultuous time, that brought about the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and rang the curtain down on that extraordinary family.  The title of the second is still in progress but it will have the name “Nero” in it for sure.  And obviously, he can’t be ‘the young Nero’ although, actually, he is still pretty young.

SKP:    I think your decision to “let him speak for himself” was inspired, for you’ve given him a very intriguing voice.   I was fascinated to meet your Nero and I am sure that our readers will feel the same way.   Thank you so much for doing this interview, Margaret.   I hope you will come back after you publish the second half of Nero’s story.

March 10, 2017

INTERVIEW WITH PRISCILLA ROYAL ABOUT THE PROUD SINNER

February 17th, 2017

Sharon:  I am very pleased to have this chance to interview Priscilla Royal, whose medieval mysteries have long been favorites of mine.  We share many of the same readers, so I know this will be a popular interview.  And Priscilla has generously agreed to do another book giveaway.  To enter, you have only to post an entry on this blog.  The winner will receive a signed copy of The Proud Sinner.  Now before we get started on the new book, Priscilla, you said you have two announcements you are eager to make.

Priscilla:   My first book in the series, Wine of Violence, is being reissued in specially identified trade paperback and e-reader versions on February 3, 2017. The edition is special because one of the finest historical novelists of our time, Sharon Kay Penman, was generous enough to write a new Introduction for it. Am I thrilled? For once, I’m without words. Thank you, Sharon, for taking the time to do this. As I have already told you, I am deeply honored.

Poisoned Pen Press is also publishing a volume of short stories by 35 of their writers to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the press. It is called Bound by Mystery: Celebrating 20 Years of Poisoned Pen Press. It will be out in trade paperback on March 7, 2017. Included is my only short story, The Paternoster Pea. It is Prioress Eleanor’s first case and written long before the series began to see if she and I could get along as character and author. It worked, and we are happily engaged in a long collaboration.

Sharon:  I was delighted when Poisoned Pen asked me to write the Forward for this new edition of Wine of Violence.  I still remember how much I enjoyed my first reading of Wine, for I knew I wanted to keep visiting Tyndal Priory and its inhabitants.  I plan to post the first chapter of Wine of Violence in a later blog so those of you who’ve not yet read it can see for yourselves what you’ve been missing.  But for now, it is the Proud Sinner on center stage, the latest in your medieval mystery series.  Tell us about it.

Priscilla:  As readers, we are often intrigued by where fiction authors get their inspirations. I find my best ideas usually arrive when I am trying least to come up with something.

The Proud Sinner was inspired by watching the 1965 movie version of Dame Agatha Christie’s book retitled And Then There Were None after the original title was thankfully junked. This film, Ten Little Indians, is the one with Fabian. (Yes, him, for those old enough to remember. Awful actor but fun.) The plot involves characters marooned on an island. All are killed. So who was the murderer? Not only did I reread the book, but I watched all movie versions. You can imagine what hard work it was to do that!

Although I am not the clever writer Christie was, and pompously didn’t like her ending, I thought it would be fun to strand a group of querulous abbots, each of whom could easily epitomize one of the seven deadly sins, in one of the worst recorded winters in English history at Tyndal Priory. As they sicken and die, one by one, and Sister Anne is mystified by the causes, the terrified abbots begin to point fingers at each other and grow violent. The ending, however, is not Christie’s. That’s as much as I’ll say!

Sharon:  In each of your books, you have chosen to highlight some aspect of the medieval era.  What is highlighted in The Proud Sinner and why this particular choice?

Priscilla:  After delving into the coin-clipping pogrom against English Jews in Land of Shadows, I needed a short break from murderous bigotry that was beginning to feel a bit too modern. Even though I love drawing characters, I decided to concentrate on a more devious plot as a craft challenge. My editor suggested I highlight medieval food, something which is often assumed to be bland, putrid, and not exactly healthy. For those of us who grew up after WWII, the English diet we knew suffered horribly from rationing and shortages. The medieval diet did not. Meat was usually fresh, often killed the same day as eaten. Spices enhanced meals, as they do today, and were never intended to disguise rotten food. Middle Eastern cuisine, especially the spices like saffron, was brought back by the crusaders. Queen Eleanor of Castile introduced recipes from her native land as well as carpets. Vegetables and fruit were fresh, local, and organic. So I integrated monastic food habits into the book, as well as meals found in inns, and threw in a little lethal element as extra spice.

Sharon:  This is the thirteenth book about Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas, yet you have kept the series fresh. How have you done that?

Priscilla:  Thank you for the compliment! As a reader, I start to get bored with a series when the author seems to be doing so or the voice loses freshness. Of course, I won’t mention names, but there is one writer I still read because the plotting remains excellent, but the main character hasn’t changed in years. Yet readers, and I’m among them, long for one more story even when the authors are so sick of the main characters they want to kill them off. Example is Conon Doyle with Sherlock Holmes who had to bring him back from death because readers demanded it—and he also found it hard to turn down the royalties.

One way I try to keep my series fresh is to take chances. Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas continue to evolve. I give them vacations by highlighting the stories of major secondary characters, a lesson I learned from reading Ian Rankin. On occasion, I introduce new secondaries, like Eleanor’s young maid, and give old secondaries new roles like my prioress’ former maid who married the crowner. Most importantly, from my viewpoint, I still find all my characters as interesting as old friends.

A series must have a natural ending, but characters, pacing, and voice determine that. The Swedish masters, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, saw each of the ten novels in their Beck series as chapters in one larger book, called The Story of a Crime. For my series, I set up a very long arc of novel-chapters. So if a reader wants more of a character or feels a story line is left incomplete, I can pretty much promise that they will get their wish or find the desired resolution in due course.

Sharon:  You have chosen to age your characters normally over the series which means they must change. How have you done this with Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas?

Priscilla:  Each stage in our lives has a different emphasis and strength. Youth may lack experience, but it offers society fresh ideas and direction. Middle age is often centered in family and the drive to succeed in the world. The later years include reflection and perspective. Prioress Eleanor is no longer the young woman in Wine of Violence but an experienced business woman, clever solver of mysteries, and someone who is learning to be a worldly diplomat. She has entered the second stage of her life. Brother Thomas has traveled a different path, but he, too, has entered that second stage. The priory members have become his family and the suffering his children. Yet he still longs to bond with another man. One thing he has learned at Tyndal is that love owns many manifestations. His struggle now is to still find a way to form that loving bond but within a medieval God’s law. Like many in any era, he is beginning to suspect that a rigid Deity is more the product of mortal men’s imagination and the real one might have some flexibility. Aelred of Rievaulx discovered that. Brother Thomas might too.

Sharon:  What are you working on next?

Priscilla:  I’m a bit of a contrarian, often choosing topics less well-known because few others have used them in stories. When I got intrigued with the many military Orders during the crusades, I opted to concentrate on the Hospitallers, not the Templars, and found them much more intriguing. So the next book will take Prioress Eleanor, Brother Thomas and Sister Anne to Minchin-Buckland Preceptory in Somerset, the only priory of Hospitaller nuns in England to which a small commandery of Hospitaller brothers is attached. When the trio arrives, they discover that the prioress they expected to meet has been judged guilty of murder. Although the woman has never contested this verdict against her, she now begs the Prioress of Tyndal to prove her innocence after reading the private letter carried by Eleanor to her from Baron Hugh. What was in the letter than made the condemned woman change her plea? And who did kill the victim, a woman hated by so many that the suspects were all too numerous?

Sharon:  How can readers contact you?

Priscilla:  Should anyone have questions about my books, they can reach me through my website at www.priscillaroyal.com. And I am one of several mystery writers blogging every other Tuesday on The Lady Killers at  www.theladykillers.typepad.com

Thank you so much, Sharon, for inviting me to your blog. You are truly a modern day bard, and I am honored to be one of your interviewees!

Sharon:   It was my pleasure, Priscilla.   I hope you will come back for your next book!

February 17, 2017

WHY I LOVE BERNARD CORNWELL

January 12th, 2017

WHY I LOVE BERNARD CORNWELL
Those of you who read my blogs or are my Facebook or Goodreads friends know how much I love Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction.  Since he has a new novel out, The Flame Bearer, which may be his best one yet, I thought this would be a good time to discuss why I find his books so compelling.
In 2011, National Public Radio asked me to select the five best historical novels of that year and write an article in which I explained my choices.   I soon selected Margaret George’s Elizabeth I, Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife, Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, and Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeeper.   The fifth book proved to be more of a challenge.  I was familiar, of course, with BC’s writing; I’d loved his Sharpe series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and enjoyed his Grail Quest trilogy.  But somehow I’d not gotten around to reading any of the books in his Saxon series, possibly because I knew very little about this period in British history.   As it happened, he’d just published a new book in this series, Death of Kings, and I decided this was worth checking out.
My only concern was that Death of Kings was the sixth book in the series and I needed to be sure it could be read as a stand-alone, too.    I’ve often been down this particular road, doing a trilogy about Wales and England in the thirteenth century, and what Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen once called “Sharon’s five book trilogy about the Angevins.”     It is a tricky balancing act, for you are writing for two audiences, new readers who know nothing of what came before and those readers who know enough that you risk boring them with too much repetition.    So it was with some hesitancy that I settled down with Death of Kings.
I need not have worried; I was riveted from the very first page.   I soon realized that BC had created a unique character in Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a man who could be courageous, reckless, insightful, stubborn, sardonic, generous, vengeful, and playful—sometimes all in the course of a single day.  By the time I’d finished Death of Kings, I was utterly captivated by Uhtred, and real life then came to a screeching halt as I hastened to order all of the earlier books in the Saxon series.   Book lovers know that the only joy greater than discovering a new writer is finding that this writer has a healthy backlist waiting to be read.    So for those of you who have not yet encountered Uhtred, you have hit the literary lottery.  BC has written ten novels about Uhtred, his kings, his women, and his enemies:   The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horsemen, The Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land, Death of Kings, the Pagan Lord, The Empty Throne, Warriors of the Storm, and now The Flame Bearer.   Just be prepared to become a recluse until you read them all.
Before I was fortunate enough to get my first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, published, I’d been a lawyer, which I considered penance for my sins.  I am going to draw upon my legal background now, though, to make the case that Bernard Cornwell is the best historical novelist of our time.
What makes his novels so special?   Well, he is a master wordsmith.  He can make his words sing or snarl and he can conjure up images so powerful that they will burn into the back of a reader’s brain, not to be forgotten.   Writing well may seem such an obvious requirement that it is not worth mentioning.  But there are many successful writers whose books are plot driven, their prose pedestrian at best.   A Cornwell novel has all the elements that readers look for—suspense, action, colorful characters, etc.   It will also be sprinkled with small gems, descriptive phrases that soar and make other writers think, “I wish I’d written that!”
Here are a few examples of BC’s lyricism at work.    “The sky to the east was molten gold around a bank of sun-drenched cloud, while the rest was blue. Pale blue to the east and dark blue to the west where night fled toward the unknown lands beyond the distant ocean.”     Or “They were either fishing or cargo vessels and they rightly feared a sea wolf seething northward with the waves foaming white at her jaws.”   And “The drenching dark crept along the valleys on either side of us as a slither of light crackled wicked and sharp across the northern sky.”
What else makes a BC  novel so mesmerizing?   Historical accuracy is very important to me, both as a writer and a reader, and he never disappoints.   His research is thorough and yet it never gets away from him, always a risk for historical novelists.  When I read of a bygone age, I want to know how the people lived, what they wore and ate and believed, but these facts need to be stitched seamlessly into the fabric of the story—the way threads are woven into a tapestry until a pattern eventually emerges.  BC’s tapestry tells us of a time when the Son of God was challenging the old Norse gods, a time when warrior kings and lords fought for supremacy and history hovered at a cross-road; would England be pagan or Christian, Danish or English, united or split into numerous petty kingdoms?
As important as it is for a historical novel to have a solid factual foundation, that alone is not enough.   It must also have characters who are three-dimensional, vivid, memorable.   The major protagonist in the Saxon series towers above them all like the Colossus of Rhodes.  Uhtred is uniquely positioned to understand the wars between Saxons and Danes.  He is Saxon himself, the son of a Saxon earl, who was abducted as a child and raised by the Danes.  He does not love the Christians or their God, but he is a man of honor and fights for them because he’d given his oath to King Alfred and then to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed.
He is also a man of violence, a lethal warlord who glories in the fame he has won in the shield wall and on battlefields soaked in blood.  He is cynical, sarcastic, and impulsive.  He is often his own worst enemy, realizing that he would be foolish to insult a Danish raider, to alienate a king, to offend a bishop with his notorious lack of tact.  Almost every time, though, he then goes ahead and does it anyway.   Definitely a man with flaws, but BC makes us care so deeply for him that those flaws don’t matter; we are always willing to forgive him even when his foes do not.
He is surrounded by other characters who seem very real to us, even those we find loathsome or contemptible.  We do not always like King Alfred; I certainly did not.  But we understand, as Uhtred does,  that Alfred’s vision is a powerful one, the dream of a country called England.    We mourn for those who die and rejoice when others survive.  Uhtred’s world becomes our own, at least for three hundred pages or so, and when we finish that last page, we feel a sense of loss.
Another of BC’s strengths is how well he writes of women.  As strange as it may sound, some publishers continue to harbor an odd bias—the belief that male authors cannot write convincingly of women and vice versa.   I’d never encountered this bias myself, but I have writer friends who’ve not been as fortunate.  For anyone who still clings to this outdated notion, read one of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon novels.  Meet the women who matter to Uhtred.  Gisela, beguiling and bold, the love of his life.   Stiorra, his daughter, who proves that the apple does not fall far from the tree.  The courageous Abbess Hild, who loves God and Uhtred.   The sorrowful Welsh shadow-queen, Iseult.    His women need not be sympathetic to be unforgettable.   There is his sultry bedmate, Skade, whose capacity for cruelty is horrifying, and Brida, his childhood friend and lover, who turns into a monster in the course of the series. Or Aethelflaed, whose youthful joy is leached from her soul by the burdens of queenship and a wretched marriage. BC breathes life into each and every one of these disparate women and when they are on-stage, even Uhtred finds it hard to compete with their star power.
I’ve already mentioned one of the other strengths of the Saxon series books, but it is worth stressing.  BC is very good at the sharp-edged male banter that is the coin of their realm and Uhtred’s sardonic sense of humor is a wicked delight, often surfacing at the most unlikely times.  Any book that can make me laugh aloud goes at once to my Favorites List.
Lastly, there are the battles.  I’ve often said that no writer in the world does better battle scenes than Bernard Cornwell.    George R.R. Martin, no slouch himself at spilling blood, agrees with me.    So does any writer who has ever turned his or her hand at fighting a fictional battle and then reads one of BC’s books.
When we frequently write about battles, we must constantly look for ways to make each battle fresh and original.  When I had to fight a battle in the Llyn Peninsula between the Welsh prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and his brothers, Owain and Davydd, I went to the Caernarfonshire Archives for help, as almost nothing was known of this particular battle.  They dragged out maps and translated several passages for me, and then I drove out to explore the battlefield for myself.  I’d been very pleased to find a river on the map, thinking I could let some of the soldiers drown when they tried to flee.  Much to my disappointment, I discovered that the river was so shallow a snake could not have drowned in it.  But then I saw a sign warning of quicksand.  When writing that scene, I resisted the temptation to go hopelessly Hollywood and so my characters merely blundered into the quagmire and then lost all interest in bashing each other until they could get back on solid ground.
My favorite battles are those that were out of the ordinary, for that made them more dramatic and easier to write: the fog at Barnet Heath, the ambush at Tewkesbury, the Lionheart’s encounter with a huge Saracen ship as he sailed for Acre.   But BC fights so many battles that he has to invent most of them out of whole cloth, and his imagination never runs dry.     Uhtred is always one jump ahead of his foes.  Who else would think to use sails in the assault upon an enemy fort?   Or beehives?    Or horses as a temporary dam to enable his soldiers to ford a river?    Uhtred and his alter-ego author could match wits with Caesar, the Lionheart, or Napoleon, with any of history’s most celebrated battle commanders, and more than hold their own.
What he does is all the more remarkable because his soldiers and their wars span so many centuries.  Uhtred’s shield wall in tenth century England.    The battles of Poitiers and Crecy in fourteenth century France.   Richard Sharpe and his Chosen Men at the siege of Badajoz  in nineteenth century Spain.  He shows us how men fought and what they felt when they were fighting and this alone would make his books well worth reading.
His legions of fans most likely know already that his tenth novel in the Saxon series, The Flame Bearer, was published in the U.K. in October and in the U.S. in November.  For writers, it can be challenging to keep a series fresh and innovative, to prevent it from becoming stale and repetitive.   Many writers struggle with this, no matter how talented they are.  But a few of them not only meet the challenge, they transcend it.
Three of my favorite authors at once come to mind.  Dana Stabenow has written twenty Kate Shugak mysteries set in her native Alaska, each one a joy to read.  Priscilla Royal has written thirteen medieval mysteries that also defy the passage of time, and in P.F. Chisholm’s eight Elizabethan mysteries about Robert Carey, a real-life cousin of Elizabeth I, he continues to thrive.   Their characters are not stagnant or static; they mature and grow, their lives and relationships changing as the years go by. That may be the secret of a successful series; if so, it is one that Bernard Cornwell understands, too.  The Flame Bearer, his tenth Saxon novel, in which Uhtred continues his quest to recover his family legacy—Bebbanburg Castle–is as spellbinding as The Last Kingdom, in which we meet ten year old Uhtred for the first time.    I am already looking forward to the eleventh book.
January 12, 2017