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


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.

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

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


September 4th, 2017


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


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.
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!

*     *     *    *   *


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


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… 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


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 And I am one of several mystery writers blogging every other Tuesday on The Lady Killers at

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


January 12th, 2017

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


July 31st, 2016

I am sorry that it has taken me so long to write a new blog, but as many of you know from reading my Facebook and Goodreads posts, I have been dealing with an injury that has forced me to severely limit my time at the computer. This, of course, wreaked havoc upon my deadline, gave unholy glee to my unwelcome roommate, the Deadline Dragon, and caused a lot to just slip through the cracks. I am—I hope—on the mend now, though.

In my last blog, I promised to hold a drawing for all of my readers who posted comments about any of my mysteries on that blog. I finally was able to do that drawing and the winner is Chris Torrance. I can give you a hardcover edition of Prince of Darkness or Dragon’s Lair, Chris; just let me know which one you prefer. I started thinking about it after you emerged as the winner and remembered that the first four horses in a race receive prizes. That seemed like a good idea so I drew three more names. Sara, I will be happy to give you a copy of Prince of Darkness, too; you mentioned that you would like to read that one. Rosemary and Thomas Greene , you are also winners. I am afraid you’ll have to settle for paperback editions, but you both can choose between Dragon’s Lair and Prince of Darkness. Unfortunately, I’ve about run out of copies of The Queen’s Man and Cruel as the Grave. Please contact me through my Contact Sharon feature on my website and once I have your addresses, I can send the books out.

I really enjoyed the reader responses to my last blog. So many of you provided wonderful first sentences from books you enjoyed and all of them made me want to read those books. Of course at this point, my TBR list is so long that I’d need nine lives like a cat in order to read them all. That is true for virtually all book lovers. This is why the saddest Twilight Zone episode ever was the one about the librarian who somehow survived a catastrophe, emerging to find NYC was intact but all the people were gone. I saw it as a child, so I am very fuzzy on the details. All I remember is the ending. He was naturally stunned at first, but then realized he could spend the rest of his life reading. But as he sat on the steps of the New York City library, he dropped his glasses and they broke. I think I cried when that happened.

I still have to pace myself when it comes to using the computer, so this will probably be my shortest blog ever. Not surprisingly, it is book-themed. Here is my question: What was the book you read this year that truly resonated with you, one you will long remember? This is sure to give us all dozens of new books to add to our TBR lists as we go happily off into book bankruptcy together.

For me, it was The Underdogs: children, dogs, and the power of unconditional love by Melissa Fay Greene. This was one of the most moving and inspirational stories I’ve ever read. The author tells the true story of Karen Shirk, a young woman stricken at age 24 with a neuromuscular disease that put her in a wheel chair and made her dependent upon a ventilator. She was turned down by every service dog agency in the country because she was “too disabled.” Instead of despairing, she trained her own service dog, but she was haunted by the thought of all the people who were being denied the service dogs that would have enabled them to lead productive lives, especially children.

The result was 4 Paws for Ability, the service dog academy that she founded and runs today in Ohio. The Underdogs tells the story of how this came to be, interspersed with heartbreaking glimpses into the lives of overwhelmed parents struggling desperately to help their stricken children, families whose lives would be transformed by the service dogs that Karen selected for them. As I read this remarkable book, I could only marvel at the resiliency of the human spirit and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The Amazon description of The Underdogs says it better than I could: “Written with characteristic insight, humanity, humor, and irrepressible joy, what could have been merely touching is a penetrating, compassionate exploration of larger questions about our attachments to dogs, what constitutes a productive life, and what can be accomplished with unconditional love.” I have decided that if I am ever lucky enough to win the lottery, a good portion of those winnings will go to Karen Shirk and 4 Paws for Ability. It costs over $16,000 to train one of her service dogs, most of which she finds in shelters; she helps the families to raise the money. But if ever anyone deserved a financial good angel, this is the woman.

I’d like to close by calling a few books to your attention. I do this from time to time, for even though I have not read these novels, I think they might be of interest to my history-loving, book-loving readers and friends. I will start with Samantha Wilcoxson, who has written two intriguing novels about historical figures we have come to care about. Her newest is Faithful Traitor: the story of Margaret Pole. Margaret was the daughter of George of Clarence, who was murdered—no other word for it—by Henry VIII and would later by beatified by the Catholic Church. Her second novel tells the story of a woman familiar to any readers of The Sunne in Splendour, titled Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: the story of Elizabeth of York.

Moving back to the twelfth century, Hilary Benford has just written a novel about Richard I’s sister, Joanna, titled Sister of the Lionheart. I really enjoyed writing about Joanna and can well understand the magnetic pull she exerted upon Hilary. And Charlene Newcomb is continuing the story of two fictional young knights who accompanied the Lionheart to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade. The first book was titled Men of the Cross and her new one is called For King and Country. All of these books are available on Amazon’s mother ship and its satellite sites and the last time I checked, they were garnering some very enthusiastic reviews.

Lastly, there is finally a biography out of the eldest surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor, known to history as the young king and to readers of my books as Hal. It has proven to be harder to hunt down than a unicorn; I am still waiting for my copy to arrive from Amazon. But the young king’s eloquent and devoted champion, Kasia Ogrodnik, has just received her copy, I think from Book Depository. I am looking forward to reading it, albeit feeling a bit frustrated that it was not available when I was writing Devil’s Brood. I have a few reservations simply because I wonder if there was enough extant material on the young king to support a full-scale biography.

Dr Judith Everhard, the highly-regarded scholar who wrote the brilliant Brittany and the Angevins, once told me that she’d initially meant to do a biography about the “forgotten” son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, only to discover that there was not enough material to warrant a biography. She wisely expanded the scope of her project to include the other Angevins, especially Henry, and I will be forever grateful to her for that, as she is the first historian to study Geoffrey and his too-brief reign in Brittany. The author of Henry, the Young King is another noted historian, Matthew Strickland, whose previous books I enjoyed greatly and found very helpful in my own writing. So if anyone can do justice to a biography of the young king, this is the man.

Well, so much for this being a brief blog. You’d think I’d know better by now. One final thought; here is the link to Kasia’s always interesting blog about the young king and his flamboyant family.

July 31, 2016


May 16th, 2016

I am sorry it has taken me so long to do a new blog, but it is never a good thing to anger a deadline dragon; they make awful roommates.    I am trying very hard to get back on track for The Land Beyond the Sea, not easy since I often have to deal with computer sabotage from the aptly-named Diablo; just last week, he suddenly made all the tool bars vanish in Word, right in the middle of a chapter.   To add insult to injury, he ignored all my efforts to restore them, and I finally had to contact the Geek Squad.  Never doubt that computers have a malicious sense of humor.
I was trying to think of a good blog topic, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to discuss opening lines in novels that we like.   I’m sure many of you have your favorites, too, and I’d love to hear about them.   I think my all-time favorite is the beginning of The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley:  “The past is a foreign country.   They do things differently there.”    Probably the most quoted first line is from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:  “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”   Below, in no particular order, are opening lines that caught my fancy—at least the ones that first popped into my head when I began this blog.
I am a huge fan of P.F. Chisholm’s marvelous Elizabethan mysteries which revolve around Sir Robert Carey, a cousin of the queen.   If you are not familiar with this series, you are in for a treat.   This is from Plague of Angels: “You could always tell when you were nearing a town from the bodies hanging on the gibbets by the main road, thought Sergeant Dodd.”
Another writer I love is Khaled Hosseini.  This is from The Kite Runner:   “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
Full disclosure:  I am a friend of Stephanie Churchill.  But I cannot imagine anyone reading the opening line of her novel The Scribe’s Daughter without wanting to continue reading.   “I never imagined my life would end this way.”
Here is the opening line of the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s celebrated Outlander series: “People disappear all the time.”
This next entry is also by a friend, Priscilla Royal, whose atmospheric mystery series set in thirteenth century England is also highly recommended.   This is the first line from the first book in her series, Wine of Violence:  “During the dark morning hours of a winter day in the year 1270, the aged prioress realized she was dying.”     How can you not want to know more?
I’ve always been partial to the opening of John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”   The rest of the paragraph conjures up an unforgettable image of a dying land in the midst of a devastating drought.    Just in passing, I think his East of Eden is one of the best book titles ever.  That might make a good topic for a future blog, no?
One of my all-time favorite books is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I remember browbeating my mom into reading it, and for the first hundred pages or so, she kept complaining, “Are they ever going to get off that porch?”   When they finally did, it was “Fasten your seatbelts” time, with readers happily going along for the wild ride.   This is the opening sentence:  “When Augustus came out on the porch, the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—a small one.”   This foreshadows so much—the humor, the sense of time and place, and even the violence; after all, that didn’t end well for the rattlesnake.
Another of my favorite novels is Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeeper, which I think is her finest novel, and considering the quality of her books, that is really saying something.   Here is the first sentence:   “We came like doves across the desert.”
Probably one of the most famous opening lines comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:   “Call me Ishmael.”    I have to confess, though, that Moby Dick is not a favorite of mine. I know it is a classic, but Master Melville told me more about whaling than I wanted to know.   I recently saw a spoof of great books, and had to laugh at the summary of the plot of Moby Dick: “Man vs Fish.   The fish wins.”
David Blixt is another writer friend of mine; I was completely captivated last year by his Star-Cross’d series set in 14th century Italy.   The line I am about to quote must be taken in context, for by itself, it does not seem all that startling.  But for readers of the first book, The Master of Verona, the opening sentence in the second book, Voice of the Falconer, was quite shocking:   “The greyhound is dead!”   The greyhound referred to one of the most intriguing and outrageous and compelling characters I’ve encountered in historical fiction, Francesco della Scalla, aka Cangrande.   I told David that Cangrande had quite a few traits in common with Richard the Lionheart, the same swagger, sardonic humor, utter fearlessness, and arrogance tempered by great ability.   I once used a wonderful line from a Johnny Cash song to describe Richard:  “He was a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”   That phrase applies as well to Cangrande, a real-life medieval lord brought to unforgettable life in David’s series.   These books are filled with fascinating characters—the great poet, Dante, among others—yet Cangrande managed to overshadow them all.   So that opening line of the second novel caused me to gasp in surprise, followed by disappointment.   I’d not expected to lose Cangrande so soon.  But since David was writing of a man who actually lived, I understood that he was following a road map that was not of his making.  Historical novelists are fortunate in that we do get to start our books with these road maps; unfortunately, they often take us places we’d rather not go.   So I assumed this was the case with Cangrande.   I do not want to give away too much of the plot, so I can only say that things are not always as they seem, either in the real world or the realm of fiction.  A very unexpected twist lay ahead for the readers, all the more devilishly delightful because it was absolutely true.
I am going to quote the first two lines from Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight, for the second sentence deserves the highest praise one writer can give to another, a stab of envy and a wistful, “I wish I’d written that.”       The first sentence nicely sets the scene, too.  “In the dark hours before dawn, all the shutters in the great hall were closed against the evil vapors of the night.  Under the heavy curfew, the fire was a quenched dragon’s eye.”     See what I mean?
Some of you may not have heard yet of the recent death of Roberta Gellis, whose medieval-themed novels won her fans beyond counting over the years, including me.   She is perhaps best known for the Roselynde Chronicles, but I also enjoyed the series she wrote later, about an enigmatic, strong-willed woman who ran a high-class brothel in 12th century London.   This sentence begins the second book in that series, A Personal Demon.   “The woman was screaming again.”
I love the writing of Dana Stabenow.  She is amazingly prolific; in addition to her brilliant Kate Shugak mysteries, she has written stand-alones, another series set in Alaska, and a historical trilogy set in the 14th century which focuses upon the granddaughter of Marco Polo. Here is the opening line from one of the Kate Shugak mysteries, Though not Dead:   “The black death did not get to Alaska till November.”
This turned out to be more fun than I anticipated.  But since even I don’t want to write a blog that rivals a novel in length, I think I’d best end the fun here.   If I may, I’ll do that by revealing my favorite opening lines of my own books.   Writers spend a lot of time crafting the beginnings of our books, for they may determine whether a reader puts the book back on the shelf or buys it, so I am reasonably satisfied with all of the opening sentences of my novels.  I do have a special fondness for the beginning of Sunne, that being my first book:   “Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods.”    I also like the opening of Time and Chance:  “It began with a shipwreck on a bitter-cold November eve in God’s Year 1120.”   And the opening paragraph of When Christ and His Saints Slept:   “Stephen was never to forget his fifth birthday, for that was the day he lost his father.  In actual fact, that wasn’t precisely so.  But childhood memories are not woven from facts alone, and that was how he would remember it.”
I think openings are even more important for mysteries than for historical novels.  Here are the opening sentences of my four medieval mysteries.   The Queen’s Man: “Do you think the king is dead?”   Cruel as the Grave:  “They were intimate enemies, bound by blood.”   Dragon’s Lair:  “The English king was dying.  Despite the bone-biting chill of the dungeon, he was drenched in sweat and so gaunt and wasted that his brother barely recognized him.”  Lastly, at least until I can write another one, Prince of Darkness:   “They came together on a damp December evening in a pirate’s den.”    I think I’d choose that one as most likely to hook a new reader.  Do you agree?   Anyone who posts an opinion about one of my mysteries will be entered in a drawing, the winner to get a personalized copy of Prince of Darkness.
Now comes the best part.   Please let me know your own favorite first lines.   Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever resonates with you, including any of my books, she hints.
May 16, 2016

My White Wolves, II

March 9th, 2016



I am sorry for the delay in posting this sequel to my blog about my white shepherd, Shadow, but I’ve had some pain issues that limited my time at the computer. I am having a better day , so I am going to see if I can tell Tristan’s story. After Shadow’s death, I was not sure I’d ever be ready to adopt another shepherd. Several months later, that wound was still very raw, but I did want to take in another dog, knowing how many there are in desperate need of good homes. So I finally decided to adopt a dog unlikely to find a family. I began to check the Echo White Shepherds Rescue page and there I found Tristan, then called Hank. He did not sound as if people would be banging down the doors to adopt him for he was nine, which is elderly for a shepherd, and not in good health, so skinny you could count his ribs and unsteady on his feet; his coat was also very thin in patches. All in all, he looked rather bedraggled. I contacted Joan, the woman who’d rescued him from a high-kill FLA shelter, and she told me his sad story. She pulled him from the shelter on his very last day and the shelter staff tried to talk her out of taking him, suggesting she take a younger, healthier dog. Luckily for Tristan, she paid them no heed; I came to consider her Tris’s Echo Angel and I daresay he’d have agreed with me.

We did not know his history, of course; he’d been found as a stray. He was so emaciated that he may have been on his own for quite a while; either that or he’d been owned by someone who’d not bothered to feed him very often. His behavior made it obvious that he’d not been an indoor dog, probably chained up in a backyard, the sad fate of far too many dogs. Joan was able to find someone who agreed to take him in temporarily as a foster; she had half a dozen dogs at her own house then, so there was simply no room. My main concern was that he was friendly with other dogs, as I still had my poodle, Chelsea, and Joan was able to assure me that he was getting along well with his foster family’s dog. So I applied, was approved, and then we set about planning to get Tristan from FLA to NJ.

What followed was a fascinating odyssey. Echo White Shepherd Rescue—an amazing organization—lined up thirteen kind-hearted volunteers, each one to drive Tris for an hour or two. They kept me informed of his progress and I shared it on Facebook: He is now in SC, he has reached Raleigh, etc. His pilgrimage was followed with great enthusiasm, and I could only marvel that this dog, who’d come within an hour of being euthanized, was now being cheered on by people all over the globe. One of my readers said it was like tracking Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve, but my favorite comment came from my Australian friend, Glenne, who said it was like passing the Olympic Torch. My friend Rachael and I drove down to MD to meet his final escorts, a delightful couple named Lizbeth and Paul. Tristan must have been bewildered, but I was told he’d endured the travel with equanimity, and when we were ready to go, he hopped willingly into the back seat of my car. We then drove right into a monsoon, the most intense rainstorm I’d encountered in years, so bad we had to keep pulling off the road since at times I could not even be sure we were still on it. I could only hope that this was not an ill omen.

My new shepherd was now renamed Tristan; surely no one is surprised that I picked a medieval name? He showed himself to be friendly to Chelsea, who was used to living with dogs who towered above her like redwood trees dwarfing a sapling. A visit to my vet revealed that he weighed only sixty-four pounds, had some arthritis in his spine, and was likely between eight and nine years old. I would later learn that he was fearful of thunderstorms and whenever he’d creep to my side and tremble as the heavens roared overhead, I felt such sadness, imaging how terrifying it must have been for him in FLA, a state that has some of the most savage storms in the country.

He was quite intelligent, as most shepherds are, although he was not at all interested in the traditional dog obedience class; I suspect he found it boring to keep walking in circles and repeating the same commands. I eventually took him for private lessons and there he excelled. For probably the first time in years, he was getting enough to eat and he began to thrive. His limp disappeared and his skimpy coat became so plush and thick that a polar bear might well have envied it. And to my surprise, this frail senior citizen morphed into Godzilla, going from that emaciated sixty-four pounds to a robust ninety-five pounds, increasing his body weight by fully a third. I hope to be able to add a few photos, as my blog is still balking at that. I would like to share one of Tristan and Holly and one of Tris, looking like the lord of the manor.

Tristan and Holly

Tristan and Holly

Tristan loved to play with toys, perhaps because he’d never had any, his favorite being a stuffed duck that my friend Jim kindly sent him—addressed to Tristan Penman! He loved riding in the car, going for walks in the woods, and catching balls or toys in his mouth; no matter how high they were thrown, he never missed a single one. He was not pals with my poodle, Chelsea, but they got along well. She was quite ill by then, for she’d gone into kidney failure the same week that Shadow had died, and there was only so much the vet could do. She died in May and Tristan became an only child—until I was browsing Petfinder in December and came across a little spaniel up for adoption at Last Chance Ranch in Quakertown, PA.

It was love at first sight and I was delighted when they approved me to adopt her. She’d been found wandering the streets of Philadelphia, with no collar or microchip, and when no one came to claim her, she was turned over to Last Chance. She was still so friendly and trusting that we assumed she could not have been on her own for too long, but the rest of her history remains a mystery. I decided Tristan was too old for a two hundred mile round trip, and so I left him home when I drove up to get Holly, thinking there’d be no trouble since he’d been fine with Chelsea. It did not quite turn out that way, though.

I knew that dogs should meet on neutral ground, so I parked by a small park across the street from my house, then went to introduce Tristan to his new roommate. Holly was very friendly. He was not. He did not growl. He did not bristle or stiffen. There were no overt signs of hostility. But I was picking up a bad vibe. So did Holly, for she suddenly shrieked and dove under the car. Once I got them into the house, I put her in Tristan’s crate, which he’d only used for the first few days. I was quite upset, for I was already smitten with this little girl and did not want to have to return her to the rescue group. Yet unless I could be sure she’d be safe with Tristan, I’d have no choice.

Tristan had apparently decided he liked being an only child, for he regarded this interloper quite coolly. He’d showed no signs of aggression, though, so I soon felt it was safe to let them interact under my supervision. What followed was hilarious. Spaniels are sweet dogs, if not considered the sharpest knives in the drawer, but Holly was blessed with brains as well as beauty, and she set about winning him over. Tristan would be lying on his bed and she’d come over to snuggle next to him. He’d get up and stalk away, for all the world like an elderly uncle who does not want to babysit the kids. She was not daunted by his rejections, continued her campaign. When he felt she was being too pushy, he’d give a low, warning growl. She’d immediately flip over onto her back in the submissive puppy pose and bat those long golden lashes up at him. Watching, I would think, “Tristan, you’re toast.” And sure enough, in less than a week, she had him right where she wanted him, under one of her feathery, delicate paws. He was too old and too large for them to be genuine playmates, but their mutual affection was quite touching and I am sure they enjoyed each other’s company. As much as dogs bond with people, most of them need time with their own tribe, too.

Those of you who have friended me on Facebook already know the end of Tristan’s story. My vet had been treating his arthritis of the spine, using acupuncture and chiropractic as well as more traditional methods. But in November of 2012, he suddenly began to experience considerable pain in his spine. Nothing seemed to help. I did not realize how serious it was, though, until he started to have difficulty walking. To show you what an excellent doctor my friend John Phillips is, he diagnosed Tristan’s condition as a collapse of his spinal column, and that from three thousand miles away in England. He was right. My vet tried a massive dose of steroids as a Hail Mary pass, to no avail. Tristan died on November 16, 2012. I’d only had him for twenty months, but it was a comfort to know that those were probably the best months of his life.

March 9, 2016