INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH STARKSTON

September 25th, 2014

I ended my book tour for A King’s Ransom at the Tucson Festival of Books, which was a delightful experience and one I recommend highly to all my fellow book-lovers.  While in Tucson, I met and became friends with a gifted writer who shares my passion for the past, Judith Starkston.  When I learned that she was completing Hand of Fire, a novel about the Trojan princess Briseis, famously captured by Achilles during the siege of Troy, I was fascinated; I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Troy.   Judith kindly sent me an ARC to read, but neither of us expected that I’d suddenly find myself needing to have my cataract surgery performed sooner rather than later.  I was delighted with the results of the surgery; I would not go so far as to say I was viewing the world in black and white and it suddenly flamed into vivid technicolor, but there is no doubt that everything is brighter and sharper now.  But the surgery wreaked havoc on my schedule and I have had to postpone reading Hand of Fire.   Fortunately, I can still introduce Judith and her story of Briseis and Achilles to my readers.

What inspired you to write this book?

It may sound strange, but I began to write in order to answer a question that had bothered me for a long time. For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles.

The Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles.

I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome.

What drew you to historical fiction?

I loved ancient history and literature as a student while I earned my Classics degrees. That is the base that trained me.

Many years ago, I walked through the British Museum with my toddler son on my shoulders. I was retelling the myths painted on the Greek vases in front of us. We were happily lost in our imaginative world. I turned to go to another display case and discovered a crowd behind me listening in. So I think I’ve been “writing” historical tales for a long time.

Tell us about Hand of Fire.

Hand of Fire is partly a romance—Briseis and Achilles fall in love but in an unconventional manner that includes a mystical element. Achilles is half-immortal and I made full use of that half of his conflicted personality.

In addition to the romantic element, Hand of Fire explores why some people, women especially, can survive great tragedy and violence against them, even managing to take delight in what life still has to offer.

It is a coming of age tale featuring a smart, strong-willed teenage woman in an ancient culture that, counter to our modern stereotypes of the past, expects Briseis to be powerful, literate and a leader. Briseis succeeds in rising to those expectations despite the circumstances arrayed against her—and she’s strong enough to take on the mightiest of the Greek heroes.

Can you tell us a little about your main character?

Briseis is essential to the plot of the Iliad, and yet we only know that she was a princess captured by Achilles. To develop who she was I needed both an understanding of what she could plausibly have done in the course her life and her inner psychology.

Intriguingly, the world Briseis lived in—the details of its everyday life, religious beliefs, language, etc. have only come to light recently—dug from the earth by contemporary archaeologists. The cuneiform libraries of ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Hittite Empire, where Troy and Briseis’s city of Lyrnessos were situated, have begun to be translated and provided the material I needed. I discovered in the evidence a powerful role for Briseis, that of a healing priestess, called in Hittite a hasawa.

That role made perfect sense for a woman who fell in love with Achilles, the warrior who is also a healer and a bard. The stories—one taken from clay-recorded history and one from mythology—meshed and a strong-willed redhead began to form in my imagination.

Would you classify your writing more as plot driven or character driven?

Hand of Fire is very much character driven. I wanted to figure out who Briseis could have been—after a while she became very real to me and when I found myself struggling with a scene it usually meant I was trying to make Briseis do something that simply wasn’t in her nature. Characters are a very bossy lot once you let them get into your imagination.

Achilles stumped me for the longest time. He’s larger than life, half-immortal and deeply conflicted. In an early version I had him as one of the point-of-view characters, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t hear his voice. I finally wrote his part of the story as epic poetry in iambic pentameter, which is the closest I could get in English to the hexameter verse of Homer. Once I used a medium that was mythological and writ large, he gradually revealed himself. Later I used that understanding to remove the poetry and slide in his character in the more standard format of scenes.

Which is more important in “historical fiction”: the historical or the fiction? How important is it to get the history right?

I think you have to tell a compelling story first, but also get the history right. I feel a special obligation to do that with Hand of Fire because Bronze Age Turkey is still a new field.

Until recently, various prejudices and giant blanks in our knowledge led scholars to assume the Trojans were culturally Greeks, but now we know Troy and all the area now called Turkey, which in the Bronze Age was made up of various kingdoms but dominated by the Hittites, had its own language, cultural traditions and style, quite distinct from the Greeks.  Older novels set in the Trojan War focus only on myth or follow the belief the Trojans were Greek.

In addition to my research via books, academic journals and archaeological site reports, I have travelled in Turkey, spent hours studying museum collections, talked with archaeologists, and experienced firsthand the geography of the settings of my book.

However, none of that desire to get the history right is worth anything if you don’t tell a story that your reader can’t put down.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

Despite being a book about war with a lot of death and violence, the fundamental theme of Hand of Fire is one of hope. I think people will come away with a renewed sense of the resiliency of humanity and of women in particular.

Also, my aim was to build the Bronze Age world of these Greeks and Trojans vividly enough that readers feel like they’ve lived there. For most people, that’s a new and exotic world and yet it will feel surprisingly familiar in some ways. I guess you could call Hand of Fire historical escapism with a positive message.

Can you tell us about your future projects?

I’m in the middle of a historical mystery featuring the Hittite Queen Puduhepa as “sleuth.” She would be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. Her seal is on the first extant peace treaty in history next to her foe, Pharaoh Ramses II. Now that she’s been dug out, I’ve taken her remarkable personality, which seems perfectly suited for solving mysteries, and I am writing a series. She ruled from her teens until she was at least eighty, so I think this series may outlast me.

Hand of Fire will be followed by at least one sequel and possibly a prequel of sorts focusing on Iphigenia and Achilles. This spring I made a research trip to Cyprus because the sequel to Hand of Fire will end up there—but it’d be a spoiler if I revealed how or why. (Also I’d have to know the answer to both of those and I’m not entirely sure yet…) Suffice to say Cyprus is a beautiful and dramatic island with a density of Bronze Age archaeological sites that is almost alarming. My husband and I had a delightful trip and maybe that’s reason enough.

Thank you, Judith, for a very illuminating interview.  My readers love it when writers lift the veil, allowing them to glimpse how a novel takes form and offering a view into the author’s inner world.  Hand of Fire is sure to appeal to anyone interested in history in general and the ancient world in particular.  I am looking forward to reading it.   Here is the link to Judith’s website.
http://www.judithstarkston.com/

This may be my last blog for a while, as I am soon to leave on a research trip to Israel.  I felt very cheated that I was unable to follow in the Lionheart’s footsteps when I was writing my account of his crusade.  So I am very excited that I will be able to track the shadows of Balian d’Ibelin, his Greek queen, and the tragic young king, Baldwin IV, through the streets of Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Acre.

September 25, 2014

BOOKS AGAIN

August 11th, 2014

I am sorry it has taken me so long to get a new blog up, but I have had to make a choice between keeping current on Facebook or putting up new blogs, and since most of the action seems to occur on my Facebook pages, that is the road I’ve chosen.   I am not the most co-ordinated of people, so my balancing acts end in a splatter more often than not—one reason why I’ve yet to venture onto Twitter like so many of my fellow authors.  I just hope this will not make me such an anomaly that when I die, they’ll carve on my tombstone, “Only writer never to tweet.”
In my last blog, I recommended a number of books that I thought would interest my readers.  But I forgot a few, so here I go again.   Those who want to protect their bank accounts might want to stop reading here.
In that blog, I’d recommended a few series that I never miss—Bernard Cornwell, Dana Stabenow, Priscilla Royal, Sharan Newman, Steven Saylor, C.J. Harris, P.F. Chisholm—all but Dana’s set in bygone times–the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, Saxon, Elizabethan, and Regency England.  But there are more, of course.
I was a fan of the Brother Cadfael series written by Edith Pargeter under her pseudonym Ellis Peters.   And how could any reader not love Amelia Peabody, the marvelous creation of Elizabeth Peters?  They both were very prolific writers, and I wish I knew their secret of continuing to produce books of such high caliber.  So often a series begins to get stale if it goes on too long; I am sure many of you can name writers who’ve continued with a series beyond its natural shelf life.   But Elis Peters and Elizabeth Peters were notable exceptions.    Another writer whose books I eagerly anticipated was Margaret Frazer.  I was lucky enough to call her a friend, and I miss her very much, for she was a wonderful human being as well as a very talented author; to learn more about her, see my blog here.  http://sharonkaypenman.com/blog/?p=390 .  It is very sad to think that we’ll never have another new Brother Cadfael or Amelia Peabody adventure or be able to sympathize with Sister Frevisse when her quiet convent life is interrupted yet again by the discovery of a body at her nunnery’s door.    But it is some small comfort that all three of them have left a rich legacy of books for us to revisit and for new readers to discover.
I also highly recommend Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, set during and after the first world war.  Her imaginative premise is that a brilliant young girl crosses paths with Sherlock Holmes, then in restless retirement in Sussex.  It is the first time that the fabled detective has encountered a mind as agile and insightful as his own and he cannot resist taking her under his wing, first as his apprentice, then as his partner, and eventually as his wife.  Yes, I know that very idea must sound heretical to Conon Doyle purists, but trust me—Laurie King pulls it off with panache, making their unlikely union both credible and fascinating to her readers.
I suppose Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone mysteries might be considered historical, for they are set in the pre-computer age, the 1980’s.   Sue is another writer who has not only defeated the staleness dragon, she has gleefully trampled it into the dust.  She has been moving through the alphabet—from her first, A is for Alibi to her latest, W is for Wasted—and the series is just as fresh and vital today as it was at its initial launch.   The ending of this successful series is bound to be bittersweet for her legion of fans; I will certainly miss Kinsey and I confess that I’m curious to see how Sue manages to concoct a relevant title that begins with the letter X.
I’ve often praised Elizabeth Chadwick and Margaret George’s historical novels, but it is always worth doing again.   Same for Brian Wainwright, who has written both an excellent historical novel in Within the Fetterlock and a wickedly clever spoof in The Adventures of Alienore Audley.   I am not sure how Richard III would have reacted to it, for we don’t really know much about Richard’s sense of humor, and he has always struck me as a man who was firmly rooted in the Middle Ages.  But I’d wager that his more irreverent brother Edward would have thought it was hilarious.
I’ve had readers tell me that my books introduced them to the compelling world of the Welsh princes, others who were unfamiliar with Simon de Montfort until they read Falls the Shadow, and still more who confessed that they had a totally different opinion of Richard III after The Sunne in Splendour.   I cherish these compliments, for books have so often led me away from familiar roads and onto intriguing byways that I’d otherwise have missed.  This is one reason why I want my writers to be trustworthy when it comes to research.  I knew nothing of 16th century Japan until I read James Clavell’s Shogun.  What little I know of the Valley of the Kings and 19th century archaeology comes from Amanda Peabody via Elizabeth Peters, who had a PhD in Egyptology.  And thanks to Christy Robinson, I have become aware of a truly remarkable woman, Mary Dyer.
Christy has written two scrupulously researched novels about Mary Dyer, titled Mary Dyer Illuminated and For Such a Time as This, both of which are now on my towering TBR list.  She has also crafted one of the best opening lines that I’ve encountered, a very important skill for writers as that first sentence is the bait, meant to lure readers in.  I’ve spent a lot of time and trouble with those first sentences in my own books; my personal favorite is “Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods,” probably because it was my first such sentence.   Mary’s is “Mary Barrett closed the wide gate of the farmyard behind her, and though she did not know it yet, this was the day she’d see her death.”   After a beginning like that, who would not want to know more?    I have asked Christy to write a few paragraphs about Mary, her compelling history, and the novels, and they can be found at the end of this blog.
I’m already on page three, so I will save the rest of my book musings for a future blog.  I will end with a mention of another extremely gifted writer who has created her very own genre.  A few years ago, I was doing a panel discussion at my favorite bookshop, the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, with Diana Gabaldon.   Afterward, we were taking questions from the audience and someone asked me if I could offer only one bit of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be.
I admitted that I’d made a monumental error when I first began writing Sunne; I did not write in chronological order.  At that time, I was writing for myself, not for publication, and so I felt free to hopscotch through the story of the Yorkist kings.  If I felt like doing a scene between Edward and his icy Woodville wife, I did; if I then wanted to write about Richard’s turbulent childhood, I did.   This scattershot approach spared me any attacks of Writer’s Block and was fun, too.  I proceeded on my merry way for more than four years, only then to have the only copy of this opus stolen from my car, a loss so traumatic that I could not write for almost six years.
When this mental log jam finally broke and I began again, I repudiated my earlier carefree method and embraced the traditionalist’s view—to write the book in chronological order.    I then explained to the Poisoned Pen reader that I felt this approach provided the inner discipline I needed and—most importantly—it allowed for character development.  I cited Edward as an example.   The cocky seventeen year old we meet in Chapter One is very different from the weary, cynical wastrel who dies forty years and many chapters later, whispering to his daughter that the worst secrets are those about to be found out.   If I’d written his story piecemeal, how could I have portrayed the slow deterioration of his character?
At this point, I became aware of the amusement of some of the audience members, who were glancing over at Diana and laughing.  She then confided that she always wrote in that “scattershot” way, and the monumental success of the Outlander books certainly made a very convincing argument in favor of it—if you happened to be a writer named Diana Gabaldon.  I was fascinated by her revelation, but remain convinced that the chronological approach is still the best approach for the rest of us.   Diana doesn’t need to play by the rules, not with that sort of talent and imagination.   So I am delighted that the Starz Outlander series has been getting such wonderful reviews, both from her devoted readers and those elitist critics who look askance at any book or film that can be labeled “historical.”    Then along came a modest little series called Game of Thrones.    As most of you know, I am a passionate Thrones fan, and I am sure I will enjoy Outlander very much, too.    And  I also harbor a small hope that somewhere  a Hollywood producer is mulling the success of these breakthrough series and then calling out to his loyal assistant, “Hot damn, historicals sell!  Who knew?  Find me a historical for my next project, maybe one set in the 12th century.”
And now, Christy Robinson on an awe-inspiring woman of great courage, compassion, and strength, who blazed across colonial America like a comet and would be martyred for her faith.
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Thank you, Sharon, for the opportunity to appear in your blog. Even though my novels’ story is set in the 17th century, and half in England, half in New England, my characters’ lives were written somewhat in your fashion. They’re not light, fast reads: they’re chewy! I’ve ripped a few pages (metaphorically speaking) from your historical novels, and have constructed the missing bits by thinking through the events moment by moment, and knowing close associates and enemies of my characters. I developed an Excel spreadsheet with all the characters’ events, as well as national news (epidemics, wars, heads of state), plotted by year—for 50 years before my story, and 40 years after. This blew apart a number of myths, and filled in what must have happened in the quiet times. And it set me on a path to discover documents that have lain hidden in archives for 350 years. Those documents showed me that in Mary and William Dyer (to steal your book title for a moment), Here Be Dragons!
The two stand-alone but sequential novels center on Mary Dyer, 1611-1660, an Englishwoman who emigrated with her husband William to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1635. (Perhaps you’ve seen the Mary Dyer statue in Boston.) They were married as Anglicans, but after passing some strict requirements were admitted to the Puritan church in Boston. In a short time, they were part of a “grace” movement led by Anne Hutchinson. Mary’s third pregnancy resulted in the premature stillbirth of an anencephalic girl, which was later disinterred and pronounced a “monster” that was proof of Dyer’s and Hutchinson’s heresy. In 1638, they and other families were ordered out of the colony. They purchased several islands from the Narragansett Indians and formed the colony of Rhode Island. From the very beginning, though they were all religious people, the founders determined to form a secular democracy. (Governors John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley of Massachusetts disdained democracy. They had a theocracy, a church-state coalition.)
Mary gives birth eight times, six live to adulthood. William rises in government positions as well as in farming and trading. He’s appointed the first Attorney General in North America. He’s commissioned Commander-in-Chief Upon the Seas for the Anglo-Dutch war in America, and the Dutch city of New Amsterdam builds the “wall” of Wall Street to protect themselves from Dyer and his colleague, John Underhill. Mary returns to England for a visit in 1652, becomes a Quaker, and goes back to America via Boston in early 1657. Because she’s a Quaker and Massachusetts hates Baptists and Quakers with a murderous passion, she’s immediately cast into prison without trial, though the court meets several times to settle civil and ecclesiastical matters. William rescues her, and back in Newport, they become part of the church-state conflict roaring across New England. As many of her friends are tortured and executed, Mary determines that as a woman of high social status, her martyrdom for liberty of conscience will be so shocking that the persecution will have to stop. So she violates her banishment-on-pain-of-death to commit civil disobedience. Twice. The second time, in 1660, she’s executed by hanging. Friends write a protest letter to King Charles II, and he orders a stop to capital punishment. Meanwhile, William Dyer and colleagues are writing the Rhode Island charter for the king to seal and grant them. The charter, granted in 1663, includes religious liberty and the importance of secular democratic government. In the 1780s, the charter became a template for the United States Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment regarding freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. Even in today’s increasingly secular society, that right means liberty for all, not liberty for *some* who would impose their beliefs and behaviors on others.
So, Sharon, to bring it back to your blog—breathing life back into the legendary Mary Dyer, and telling William’s story for the first time ever (because Mary got all the ink!), has something of you in it through analysis of your research methods and writing style. History has to be seen in context, not in abbreviated quotes for political capital. I’m so excited about the 5-star reviews from readers, including English-lit professors (because I was a book editor before an author) and history educators. The books are found here: http://bit.ly/Church-State . I’ve written two other books, keep four blogs, and am plotting out a new novel, to be set in England in the 1650s. The main characters will allow a cameo appearance by Mary Dyer. Because I can.
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“Because I can.”   The mantra of writers everywhere!   Thank you, Christy.
August 12, 2014

Read This at Your Peril

July 1st, 2014

My Facebook friends and readers already know that this blog vanished in a puff of smoke two days after I’d posted it.   But for the benefit of those of you who do not hang out on Facebook and may have wondered if you’d hallucinated reading it, it was indeed up and then gone, thanks to the host, which was in the process of migrating its servers.     I can only hope it never happens again, for although I can re-post it, as I am now doing, all of the original comments were zapped into a black hole of cyberspace.   Anyway, once again  here is the blog, Read This at Your Peril.
I am sorry it has taken me so long to put up a new blog, but no sooner had I finally vanquished that pesky pneumonia dragon than the deadline dragon moved in.   At least this delay gave more of you a chance to enter Pauline Toohey’s drawing for her novel, Pull of the Yew Tree.   Pauline and I are happy to announce that the winner is Barbara, no last name given, who posted the eighth comment.   Barbara, please contact Pauline at paulinemalley@hotmail.com or me at  sharonkpenman@yahoo.com, so arrangements can be made to send your personalized copy of Pauline’s novel.  Thanks to all of you who took part in the drawing.
Now, why the warning?   Because I’ve already enticed so many of you into joining me on the merry road to book bankruptcy, and I am about to do it again.   But I did have a twinge of conscience, so I decided to play fair.   If you continue to read this blog, you will find a number of books that you are going to find very tempting.   Some I have had a chance to read myself, others not yet thanks to the deadline dragon.   Because deadlines have become as tight as nooses nowadays, that means I have had to seriously limit my pleasure reading time, a real sacrifice for anyone who is an avid reader, which I’ve been since the age of five or so.   But they are all on my TBR list, and they are all books that I think are likely to interest my fellow lovers of history.
I’ll begin with the ones that I was actually able to read.   I’ve just finished M.K. Tod’s Lies Told in Silence, a novel set in France during World War I.    This was one of mankind’s most tragic wars, not only because of the staggering death toll, but because it need not have happened.    Most of you are probably familiar with the famous comment by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as war loomed.  Looking out the window at a man lighting the gas lamps in St James Park, he said sadly, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.  We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”     Considering the bloody history of the 20th century and the continuing global conflagrations in the 21st century, it is hard to argue with him.     M.K. Tod captures this sorrowful sense of loss as men and women were caught up in a tide beyond their control, one that would transform their lives beyond recognition.  She has created characters that readers will care about and has very effectively dramatized how soldiers suffered, physically and psychologically, in the so-called “Great War,” a theme that continues to resonate with us today.   Her novel is now available on Amazon.   http://www.amazon.com/Lies-Told-Silence-M-K-Tod-ebook/dp/B00LEYV2PI/ref=la_B00ELV1H7E_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404232864&sr=1-2
I also recommend The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, author of the moving The Secret Life of Bees.    This novel is the story of two truly remarkable sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who were born into the aristocracy of the Ante-Bellum South, but were those rare individuals who were guided by conscience, not society’s dictates.  For the Grimke sisters, that meant a rejection of slavery, becoming abolitionists, and in time, suffragists.     I wish we had more people like the Grimke sisters, but I am glad we do have Sue Monk Kidd to keep them from being forgotten.
Another book I enjoyed was I am Livia, by Phyllis T. Smith, a novel about the Emperor Augustus’s formidable consort, Livia.   My views of Livia were formed by the classic BBC series, I, Claudius, which means I imagined her to be a woman you’d dare not dine with.   Ms. Smith  treats Livia more kindly than  Robert Graves, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt; after all, I hoped that readers would do that for my revisionist portrayal of Richard III.  And after I finished the novel, I investigated a bit; in other words, I Googled Livia, and discovered that her hands were not quite as blood-stained as I, Claudius would have us believe.
And I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to read the ARC for An Air of Treason, by P.F. Chisholm, the newest entry in her wonderful series about Robert Carey, the real-life, swashbuckling cousin of Elizabeth Tudor.   These books are so much fun, filled with action and humor and surprise twists and fascinating details of Elizabethan life.     An Air of Treason revolves around one of the most dangerous mysteries of Tudor England—the fate of Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley’s unwanted wife.   For those who have not yet had the pleasure of entering Robert Carey’s world, the first in the series is A Famine of Horses.  I cannot recommend these books highly enough; I think they are that good.
Briefly detouring into the realm of non-fiction, I have to mention Sharan Newman’s Defending the City of God, a biography of Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem in the early years of the turbulent 12th century.   And in the autumn, we can look forward to a new biography of Edward II, by Kathryn Warner, who probably knows more about Edward’s life than he himself did.     The next two books are not historical, at least not in the medieval sense, but I wanted to remind you how much I enjoyed Kirk Douglas’s I am Spartacus, his account of the making of this classic film about the slave who was able to threaten the very foundation of ancient Rome     And another compelling book is The Elephant Whisperer by Anthony Lawrence, written by a man who devoted his life to the preservation of these magnificent animals.
We all have series that we love, so here are a few of mine.  Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books are set in the waning days of the Roman republic.   Bernard Cornwell has created one of my all-time favorite characters in Uhtred, star of his Saxon series.  His latest is The Pagan Lord, and for new readers, the first one is The Last Kingdom. This next series is not at all medieval, but Dana Stabenow’s mysteries set in Alaska and featuring the unforgettable Kate Shugak and her equally memorable wolf-hybrid, Mutt, are so much fun that it might not be completely legal.     I also recommend Sharan Newman’s Catherine Levendeur series set in 12th century France, Priscilla Royal’s mysteries rooted in 13th century England, and C.J. Harris’s mystery novels set in Regency England.    Both Sharan and Priscilla delve into matters not often touched upon in novels of the Middle Ages, each having a character who has an outsider’s perspective, Solomon, a Jew who does not find life easy in a Christian society and Brother Thomas, a young monk who struggles to understand why God has given him forbidden urges that his Church condemns as mortal sin.  Both men are true to their times, reflecting the beliefs and mores of their medieval world, but their vulnerability can be heartbreaking and gives their stories a complexity not always found in novels meant to entertain.     Lastly, for my fellow dog lovers, there are the books of David Rosenfeld and Spencer Quinn, which combine suspense with humor and reflect their own affection for our four-legged friends.   The first in David’s Andy Carpenter series is Open and Shut, his newest Hounded, due out in July.   Spencer’s Chet and Bernie series has a new entry, Paw and Order, which will be published in August, and the start of their career begins with Dog on It.
Now for books that I’ve not been able to read yet, which I hope to read in the future.    Laurel Corona’s The Mapmaker’s Daughter is set in Spain on the eve of the expulsion of the Jews.     Paula Lofting has written a novel set in 11th century England, Sons of the Wolf.    David Blixt’s Master of Verona sounds like a fascinating journey into Renaissance Italy, with no less a guide than the oldest son of the famed poet, Dante.    Margaret Skea ‘s Turn of the Tide explores clan loyalties in 16th century Scotland.   Charlene Newcomb has written a novel that I’d be interested in reading, Men of the Cross, the story of a young knight who follows the Lionheart to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade, where he finds a forbidden love and discovers the high price that battlefield glory exacts from soldiers; readers of A King’s Ransom know that I have great sympathy for the toll that PTSD has taken upon fighting men down through the ages.     And in the autumn, Judith Starkston’s novel about the Trojan War, Hand of Fire, will be published, as will Alix Christie’s Gutenberg’s Apprentice, set in medieval Germany and dealing with an invention of great importance to any book lover.     Finally, we were recently discussing on Facebook whether there were any novels written about Edward III.   Well, guess what I found?   Fields of Glory by Michael Jecks, which focuses upon that very king and the Battle of Crecy.
See why I gave you all fair warning?     This blog is like a banquet for book lovers, with delicacies to tempt every palate.     Please feel free to join the Book Bankruptcy Party and suggest books of your own that you either enjoyed or hope to read.   We can always argue that spending money on books is actually a virtue, right?
Now I shall go back to fending off the deadline dragon.  Once I finally got A King’s Ransom off to my editor, I’d hoped to see the last of him, but he was called back into service for the new book—Outremer, the Land Beyond the Sea–set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the latter years of the 12th century.     So far he has confined himself to lurking in the shadows, watching me with glowing red eyes and blowing smoke rings to amuse himself.  As long as he does not start snacking on sheep or spaniels or worse, like Daenerys’s fierce pets in Game of Thrones, I’ll try not to complain.
June 28, 2014, re-posted on July 1, 2014

INTERVIEW WITH PAULINE TOOHEY

May 20th, 2014

I have a very interesting blog today—if I say so myself—an interview with Australian writer, Pauline Toohey, in which she discusses her historical novel Pull of the Yew Tree.  While I have not yet been able to read it due to my recent struggles with the pneumonia dragon, it is high on my TBR list, for it is set in fifteen century Ireland and focuses upon one of the most powerful Irish clans, the Fitzgeralds; I am happy, too, to report that they were Yorkists and a young Richard, Duke of Gloucester, makes an appearance at one point in the novel.  I know this is enough to send my Ricardian readers hurrying over to Amazon!    There seems to be a genuine curiosity about how we writers do our thing, and Pauline’s interview lifts the veil a bit, giving us a glimpse of a writer at work.   Like me, Pauline is a dog lover and goes for long walks with Moby, her border collie rescue, as she searches for inspiration and plots chapters in her head.  Although her road is to be found Down Under and mine in the Jersey Pinelands, this is something I’ve often done, too, my dogs pacing patiently at my side as my thoughts slide back into the twelfth century.   Pauline shares my admiration for Bernard Cornwell, too, so clearly we are kindred spirits.
Pauline and I thought it would be a good idea to do a book giveaway as part of the interview, so anyone who posts a comment to this blog will be eligible to receive a free, signed copy of Pull of the Yew Tree, with Pauline’s compliments.   Here is the link to it on the Amazon mother ship.  http://www.amazon.com/Pull-Yew-Tree-Chronicles-Crom-ebook/dp/B00CQCQXWO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400635338&sr=1-1 It is also available for my British, Canadian, and Australian readers on their own Amazon websites, and let’s not forget Book Depository, with its marvelous free shipping policy.     Now, I am happy to introduce you to Pauline Toohey, author of Pull of the Yew Tree and an upcoming contemporary crime novel in which she draws upon her two decades-plus experience as a police officer with the Victoria Police.
Q1. Tell us of your debut novel.
A1. Pull Of The Yew Tree is set in 15th century Ireland and follows the powerful Fitzgerald family of County Kildare. The O’Byrne clan from County Wicklow is their eternal angst, being one of the strongest clans from the east. My story is Part One of the Crom Abu series - Crom Abu being the Fitzgerald war cry.
Gaels and Irish Noblemen rarely saw eye to eye, so life was full of warring, double-dealing and unwise pacts, and in this, my characters dive disastrously into strife and heartache … not unlike the Plantagenet crew, I suppose. The tale deals more so with the outcomes of using family members to buy loyalty, and an emotive love story carries the plot. We experience life at that time through the young eyes of Jarlath Fitzgerald and Ainnir O’Byrne. I’m reliably assured tissues are required, but there are occasions for giggles, too.
To this point, there is little conveyed in fiction novel format of the Fitzgeralds and this era in Ireland. I’ve received a warm welcome as a new author from many of your fans, Sharon, with some 5-star and 4-star reviews on major sites. Very chuffed. Very chuffed indeed … and humbled. It’s quite nerve-racking putting your ‘art’ out there for critiquing.
Just a little something to entice your fans; the Fitzgeralds were loyal Yorkists. Richard of Gloucester makes a cameo appearance crossing paths with my characters in the foggy morning that saw the Battle of Barnet.
I certainly hope I’ve delivered characters to love, characters to question, and a beautiful medieval Ireland. I can say, as with all my writing, there’s also a dog to love. Gotta have a dog in a story. Gotta have a dog!

Q2. As the story follows the life of a chronicled family, do you find yourself pinned to a set path? Do you map your story before plunging in?
A2. I read your interview with Bernard Cornwell, and grinned at his admission, “I don’t even know where the chapter I’m writing now will end.”
Yes, I have historical incidents to adhere to, but how I connect them, and how I deal with the ‘between’ remains a pure mystery until completion. I never know where the chapter will take me. What comes, comes, and then I lead on again from there.
I’m given a licence to wander with the fictional characters in my work, but all the same, I certainly have some necessary ‘stops on the road’ when dealing with the real.
At times I envy writers who plot and are able to stick the ‘script’. I’m sure it would make for easier going. Yet on the other hand, I wouldn’t experience the joys of ploughing through unknown territory, and the surprises that a relatively-fluid piece entices.
Q3. Do you use a particular process to develop your characters?
A3. No. Not in the strict sense. Again, and similar to the plot process, things grow (or shrivel as the case may be) almost instinctively. The characters tend to ‘make’ themselves, and no doubt, a finicky editing process is necessary to ensure all is polished. But it’s alleged by some of my readers, that all my female characters in Pull Of The Yew Tree are very strong. It wasn’t intentional by any means. And on churning over the tidbit of feedback, I looked at my family and my friendships. All the women in my life are extremely strong, capable and forthright. I obviously possesses an inherent need to encourage a defined strength in all females.
I will admit to consciously writing a weak female into the sequel. It was an interesting experience, reining in my gut-deep need. But I will not reveal whether I succumbed to inserting a redemptive quality … or perhaps I just did.

Q4. Your thoughts on what makes a piece of writing enjoyable?
A4. If my reader reacts with strong emotion to the losses or wins my characters experience, if my reader laughs and cries, then I’d say ‘mission accomplished’. I think of myself as an ‘entertainer’, not a teacher, not an instructor, nor a historian for that matter. Entertainment and a pull of strong emotion is what I, as a reader, hope for when investing time in a book. I must also add that I am a prose lover. For me, a well-strung sentence can be like music.

Q5. And your experience as a writer?
A5. I discovered the love of writing at a comparatively late age – early 40s. When I declare this information, I like to add the fact that Australian author, Bryce Courtenay (recently deceased) began his penning at a similar age. Big shoes to fill, I know, but you gotta aim high.
My want for writing and scribing stories was always there, I suppose, sitting patiently on my ‘bucket list’, but life and its responsibilities, along with other benchmarks in sight, simply got in the way.
A number of personal tragedies redirected my course, and forced me to find some peace and solace, and there it was, waiting in the therapeutic act of writing. So, here I am. I write every day, and I count my blessings knowing how fortunate I am to have this opportunity.
Q6. Are you influenced by any particular writers?
A6. Inspired and influenced, certainly. I admire many, but want to ‘go my own way’. Having said that, I believe improving one’s writing requires reading ‘great’ pieces. Not good pieces, great pieces.
There are a number of authors I keenly return to, and before I list them, let me assure your readers you and I are not in cahoots with this question. So in no particular order, allow me to answer:
Bernard Cornwell with his simplicity and well-timed infrequent humour, not to mention his fabulous battle scenes;
Sharon Penman (you may have heard of her) and her character development, and meticulous research;
Aussie authors, Tim Winton and Colleen McCullough
The Bronte sisters and Austen.
William Shakespeare’s pure beauty of language;
And my mum for her deeply-personal messages on every birthday card.

There are two particular lines in Pull Of The Yew Tree that herald from my mum’s eloquent ‘parenting’: ‘lower your expectations and you won’t be disappointed’ and ‘that wonderful feeling of want’. Those two lines echo noisily in my memories, and both prove themselves to be fabulous advice over and again.

Q7. How do you stir creativity?
A7. To be honest, there are times it just won’t come. In those dry spells, rather than force myself, I accept the pauses and busy myself with other things. I paint, and I love to reinvigorate my garden. I’m a busy mum with a business to run, and I have a liking for fine-dining. My rescue border collie, Moby, loves long walks, and I play the piano and the guitar. And of course, like many of us, that TBR pile is always in need attention. But to encourage creativity to reappear, I run, pound the roads in my Asics, eyes to the ground. The steps go a long way to budge that blockage. I have a great chiropractor to keep the hips and back in ready-mode, and have also discovered the benefits of pilates.
Q8. What are you reading now?
A8. Two on the go. An oldie but a goodie. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It was my pick for my book club. I find the classics a ‘comfort read’ and often return to them. And the other, The Chemistry Of Tears by Peter Carey. But I also have my head in research material for the 3rd instalment for the Crom Abu series, and, another project a little closer to home.
Q9. My own research often uncovers some fascinating material. Tell us some of your more favourite discoveries.
A9. Hand-penned notes by people of interest, stir me greatly. You get a real feel for their temperament, their humour (or lack of) and their sense of purpose. I can often be found in the quiet rooms of our state library, engrossed in business correspondence and diary entries.
As for the research of medieval times, the following two are perhaps not unknown to your readers, but they certainly gave me fodder to play with. The merkin (pubic wig) often donned to conceal impurities and scarring, and the popular dish of frog blancmange accompanied by jumping frogs. Both make an appearance (not at the same time) in Pull Of The Yew Tree’s sequel. I couldn’t resist.
Q10. If my wish to visit Australia comes true, where do you suggest I visit?
A10. The Great Barrier Reef is a must; stunning place. So too, is central Australia: the red sands, the star-filled nights, the history and indigenous culture; truly amazing. And if I don’t mention a catch-up with members of the Sharon Kay Penman Australian Fan Club I’ll be in all sorts of trouble. Some of those girls know where I live.  But make it Melbourne please. Less travel for me.
Q11. And from here, what does Pauline Toohey have ahead of her?
A11. The sequel for Pull of the Yew Tree is complete. Melting of the Mettle is its title. It continues five years on from where the Yew Tree leaves off. Fingers crossed you’ll see it early 2015.
I also have a contemporary crime series (fiction), set to be released later this year.
Outside of writing, I’m exploring avenues to use literature, writing and reading to help the issues of Mental Health in Youth, and Prevention of Youth Suicide. These are causes close to my heart.
Q12. Historical fiction and contemporary crime? An interesting mixture.
A12. I recently retired from a 25 year career as a police officer with Victoria Police. Tackling this second genre grew from a chance meeting with Aussie author, Kerry Greenwood (author of the Miss Fisher series which is now a popular TV series). Kerry was envious of the knowledge my 25 years of service provides me, and insisted it was sacrilege not to use it. I’ve worked at the Homicide Squad, Major Drug Division, City Crime Divisions, and the more ‘busy and colourful’ towns that Melbourne has to offer. So I come well-stocked with plot ideas as well as intricate knowledge of police procedures and processes.
And I took Kerry’s advice.
Anna Murdoch is my main character. She’s a very capable and strong-minded woman, (no surprise there), and she presents to my readers a light-hearted insight into what it is to be human in a job that demands you to be somewhat robotic and cold. In Anna’s telling, I attempt to mix a ‘who done it’ with ‘comedy’. The first of the series is called My Rickety Metronome: An Anna Murdoch Crime Story, and will be out in September.

Q13. Do you have a preference for writing either style?
A13. Each is so different. With historical fiction, the research, and the attention to tone for my liking of prose, is extremely time consuming. I liken it to creating a well-orchestrated song. It’s a joyous yet slow adventure. As for the contemporary crime, all I need to do is close my eyes and conjure memories. It can be quick. Very quick. So as to your question, my mood dictates in what genre I write. How lucky am I!

Thanks so much for your time, Sharon, and for the enjoyment your writing has brought to your readers.

PS … I don’t care what you say, I will never believe Ranulf Fitz Roy is fictional.

Thank you, Pauline, for agreeing to do this interview.   Actually, Ranulf is grateful that  he is a figment of my imagination, for that allowed me to give him a happy ending and a peaceful death with his beloved Rhiannon, something that rarely happened to his Angevin real relatives.
May 20, 2014

A King’s Ransom Book Tour

April 28th, 2014

The pneumonia dragon is still out on the porch, sulking, but my current strategy is to ignore him and try to get a new blog done between naps.   I am finally on the mend, but I’ve been warned there will be a lot of sleeping and self-pity and nightmares about deadlines and more sleeping ahead of me.    I’m trying to look at it as my post-pneumonia hangover.
Unfortunately, my doctor and I (at least the common sense part of my brain) concluded that it would not be wise to attempt two very demanding tours with just a few months in be-tween.  He doesn’t really need to remind me that I have “a compromised immune system,” but he does it anyway.   There is a dramatic difference between a book tour or travel tour and one in which I get to make the travel arrangements myself.   I can make sure that I will not be getting up at three or four in the morning to catch obscenely early flights or ride the whirlwind from dawn till dark and if I feel that I am about to crash and burn, I can always go back to my hotel and take a nap.
As I mentioned on Facebook earlier, we have had to cancel the Richard III tour scheduled for September, and I am so sorry that I’ve had to disappoint those who had signed up for it and the people at Academic Travel, too, who have been a delight to work with.     But there is another choice for readers who would like to take a medieval tour this autumn.   There are still some spots open on Elizabeth Chadwick’s William Marshal Tour.   Several of my friends took the last one and had a wonderful time.  As I said on that earlier Facebook post, Elizabeth probably knows more about William Marshal’s life than he himself did!    Here is the link to her website, which contains all the information needed about the tour, which is scheduled for October.
http://elizabethchadwick.com/
I’d originally planned to write at some length about the book tour, but the pneumonia dragon had his own ideas about that and in a clash of wills, the one who breathes fire usually wins.   So here is my brief blog, long overdue.
I had a wonderful time.  I have the world’s best readers and it is always exciting to meet them in person.  I feel as if I know so many of you from our Facebook interactions, so it was great fun to have so many of you show up at the readings.    I was awed, too, by the great distances some of you traveled to get to them.   A librarian drove from Maryland to Princeton.  I was also given champagne at the Princeton reading by a Facebook friend I’ve been hoping to meet for years.
The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale is my favorite bookstore so I was very happy to get back there; it didn’t hurt that it was 80 degrees, either.  Here is the link to the webcast of my talk there.   http://new.livestream.com/poisonedpen/kings-ransom Houston’s Murder by the Book is another bookshop that I love, and visits there are always a highlight of my tours.  I’ve been to Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor several times and I am always very pleased to find it on one of my tour itineraries.  Back to snow and ice again there, but I had a delightful surprise and got to meet a cousin I’d never met before; she drove all the way from South Bend, Indiana, too.  The reason I have cousins I haven’t met is that my mother came from a family of fourteen, and her brothers and sisters all had large families, too; so I am probably related to half of Kentucky, where they all put down roots, except for the South Bend contingent and my mother, who ended up on the East Coast.
In Seattle, I did a reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest, and had a wonderful evening.   I was amazed that one of my readers flew in from Juneau, Alaska, and another one drove in from Vancouver, Canada.  I’d been alerted beforehand, so we bought them cupcakes, but they really deserved medals of some sort.
I’d done readings in the past at the famous Powell’s Book Store in downtown Portland, but this time it was held at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing.   I really enjoyed it and was stunned afterward to learn that one of my readers had come all the way from Montana to Oregon.  She was so matter-of-fact about it too, explaining that she’d concluded that Putman’s was never going to send me to Montana, so she had to come to me.   And I have to mention my remarkable hotel in Portland.  All my hotels were very nice, but the Heathman Hotel was unique, for they have their own library.  Whenever a writer stays there, they ask the writer to sign a copy of his or her new book and it then joins the library, which is available to hotel guests.   They have thousands of books, and Ransom will be in very good company, for some very talented writers have stayed there over the years.  I loved the letter from the hotel librarian, too, politely asking me to return their copy of Ransom to the front desk if I declined to participate!   I tried to think of a reason why any writer would not want to take part in this, and concluded that the only explanation—assuming it ever happened—would be temporary insanity.
I had two days in the Bay Area, and was so happy to be back in San Francisco, my favorite American city.   I did my first reading at Book Passage in the city.  In the past, I’d gone to their mother ship in Corte Madera and fell in love with it, but their San Francisco store was one I’d gladly return to time and time again.  I left with beautiful roses (white, of course) and some very special memories.
The next evening, I did a reading at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto.  Another wonderful audience and a fellow writer flew in from San Diego for the reading, bringing me plantagenesta, the plant that was the origin of the Plantagenet dynasty’s name.   He has written several novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine, too.  As many of you know, I do not read other novels about those historical characters who are closest to my heart.  No Richard III novels by other writers.  None about the Welsh princes, even though I am a great admirer of Edith Pargeter, AKA Ellis Peters, and she wrote her novels about the princes thirty years before I did!   And after having the Angevins as roommates for the past 20 years, I had to deny myself the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Summer Queen, the first of her trilogy about Eleanor.   So I am not able to read Mark Richard Beaulieu’s series about Eleanor, either, but you can learn more about them by looking them up on Amazon.
I concluded the tour in Tucson, a city I’d taken to heart many years ago, for I attended the University of Arizona during my first year of law school, and I’ve long hoped to go back.  Of course I never get to see any of the cities on a book tour, but at least I get to breath their air.  The Tucson Festival of Books  was the best possible way to end the tour.  I was so impressed by the Festival and I highly recommend it to other writers and to anyone who loves books.   I had so much fun!  Unfortunately my schedule was so tight that I wasn’t able to attend the panels I wanted to see; I did get to briefly meet Spencer Quinn, though, whose Chet and Bernie mysteries are high up on my favorites list  I know most of you are animal lovers like me, so be sure to check out Spencer’s books on Amazon; Chet is unlike any dog we’ll ever meet, but utterly irresistible, a word that also applies to the books, too.
There were a few bumps in the road.  The worst was a boulder-sized one when I almost missed my flight from Houston to Detroit, thanks to the airline’s bungling.  I was already not a happy camper because I’d had to get up at 5 AM for a 7:15 AM flight, and you may have guessed by now that I am not a lark  My heart doesn’t even start beating before 8 AM,  so these early flights took their toll.   To add to the fun, when I realized I was likely to miss the Detroit flight, I tried to call my publicist, only to discover that my cell phone was missing.  So if any of you remember hearing a muffled primal scream echoing on the wind early in the morning of March 8th, now you know that was me.   I was able to replace the phone in Seattle, but until I actually held it in my hand, I felt truly bereft, which may be a sad commentary upon our need for constant connections.  But I don’t care; I just wanted my phone!    And then the car company that was to pick me up at my Seattle hotel and take me to the airport never showed up, but the hotel came to the rescue and I was able to make the flight to San Francisco thanks to the car they kept on call; their driver was a very interesting  man who’d been here for 14 years, having fled the bloodshed in his homeland, Ethiopia, where two of his brothers had been slain.  He told me he wakes up grateful every day that he is an American now.   So if the car company had shown up, I’d have missed a fascinating conversation with someone I’ll long remember.   Sadly, when I got to the airport, we learned San Francisco was fogged in, and by the time we finally got off the ground, I missed a scheduled radio interview.
But all in all, I think the tour went quite smoothly, thanks to my publicist’s deft way of dealing with unexpected problems.   I was able to meet a few writers at the Tucson Festival, to meet many of my Facebook friends, and to see friends of long standing in several of the cities.   It seemed like an appropriate way to bid farewell to the Angevins, who are now part of my past.   I will miss them very much, for they’ve been an important part of my life for several decades—or as Barbara Peters put it when she introduced me at the Poisoned Pen reading, “A King’s Ransom completes Sharon’s five book trilogy about the Angevins.”
And since I am really not ready to walk away from one of history’s more dysfunctional families, I feel very motivated now to resurrect Justin de Quincy, for if he gets off life support and once again becomes the queen’s man, I’ll be able to keep writing about Eleanor and Richard and John; who knows, I might even let Eleanor send Justin to Sicily so I could bring Joanna into the plot.   Sadly, Henry has to stay dead, although that did not stop me from giving him two scenes in Ransom!
Well, for what was supposed to be a brief blog, I’ve now spun off 4 pages.  Clearly, I do not do “brief” very well.   Thanks to all of you who came to my readings, and thanks, too, to all who’ve been generous enough to post on Facebook or write to me to say how much you’ve enjoyed Ransom.   Reader feedback like that means more than I could ever say, and as anyone who has read my books knows, I am not often at a loss for words.
April 28, 2014

MY UPCOMING BOOK TOUR FOR A KING’S RANSOM

February 15th, 2014
A King's Ransom

A King

A King's Ransom

A King

I finally have a new blog up!   I’d begun to think I’d never do another one, for this has been a hectic month, dealing with the horrific winter weather and my (ugh) income taxes and research for the new book and reality, at least every now and then.   But I wanted to get this up before my book tour in case some of you might be able to attend one of my readings.   It is so much fun to be able to meet so many of my Facebook friends.
I am delighted to report that the first advance reviews for Ransom have been good, one from Booklist and one from Kirkus.   Would I have mentioned it had they been unfavorable?   I’m glad I was not put to the test.    Ransom will be published in the US and Canada on March 4th and on March 13th in the UK.  I believe the publication date Down Under is early March, too.
I confess to having ambivalent feelings about closing the circle with Ransom.  It is always exciting (and a bit worrisome) when a new book is published.  But I am not sure I am ready to let go of the Angevins.  For five books and nigh on twenty years, they’ve been my house guests, and I am going to miss them.   Richard will likely make a few appearances in the next book, Outremer—the Land Beyond the Sea, but I’m afraid I’ve said farewell to Henry, Eleanor, and the rest of their Devil’s Brood.  Well, Henry did manage to snare a scene in Ransom, and if I ever am able to resume my medieval mysteries, Eleanor will have some more time on center stage.   So I’ll definitely be motivated to revive Justin de Quincy’s career as the queen’s man.  Justin does appear in Ransom, though, along with his nemesis, Durand de Curzon; I’d promised Justin’s Facebook fan club that I’d let him infiltrate the action, and it was fun to have him riding out on missions for Eleanor again and sniping with Durand in his spare time.
Here is my itinerary for the book tour.

TUESDAY, MARCH 4th at 7 PM
Chester County Book Company
West Goshen Center
975 Paoli Pike
West Chester, PA   19380

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5th at 7 PM
Barnes & Noble #2368
Market Fair
3535 US Highway 1
Princeton, NJ  08540

THURSDAY, MARCH 6th at 7 PM
Poisoned Pen
4014 N. Goldwater Blvd.  Suite 101
Scottsdale, AZ   85251

FRIDAY, MARCH 7TH AT 6:30 PM
Murder by the Book
2342 Bissonett Street
Houston, Texas  77005

SATURDAY, MARCH 8th at 4 PM
Nicola’s Books
Westgate Shopping Center
2513 Jackson Road
Ann Arbor, Michigan  48103

MONDAY, MARCH 10th at 7 PM
Third Place Books
17171 Bothell Way, NE
Lake Forest Park Washington   98155

TUESDAY, MARCH 11th at 7 PM
Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd
Beaverton, Oregon  9700

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12th at 6 PM
Book Passage—Ferry Building
1 Ferry Bldg Marketplace #42
San Francisco, California  94111
THURSDAY, MARCH 13th at 7 PM
Books, Inc.
855 El Camino Real  #74
Palo Alto, California  94301

This officially ends the book tour, but I will be at the Tucson Festival of Books on Saturday, March 15th and Sunday, March 16th.   http://tucsonfestivalofbooks.org/

We are planning another Richard III Tour this September, and I will post the details on my website and Facebook pages once everything comes together.   With luck, we might be able to visit Richard’s new resting place, assuming that a decision has been made by then whether Richard will be buried in Leicester or York.
This has been one of the worst winters on record, with severe droughts in California, unending snow and ice storms in the Midwest and Northeast and New England, even snow in the Deep South.  Conditions are even worse in the UK, for their storms have caused horrific flooding.  And my friends Down Under tell me they are enduring their hottest summer in decades.  So here’s hoping that Mother Nature shows us some mercy in the coming weeks.
February 15, 2014

INTERVIEW WITH BERNARD CORNWELL

January 14th, 2014

I am delighted to have this opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell.  Since I discuss his books often on my Facebook pages, I know that he is a great favorite with my readers, too, and several have asked if they could submit questions of their own.  So this meeting of the unofficial Bernard Cornwell Fan Club now comes to order!
Bernard, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.   Your American fans have been waiting impatiently for The Pagan Lord to be published on our side of the Atlantic and this finally happened on January 6th.    I have yet to read a book of yours that I did not greatly enjoy: your Sharpe series, your Grail Quest books, stand-alone novels like Agincourt, just to name a few.  But I confess that it is your Saxon series which resonates the most with me, for Uhtred is simply magnificent, as mesmerizing as he is unique.  He is the ultimate outsider, a Saxon raised by Danes, a man of conflicting but fierce loyalties, impulsive, hot-tempered, swaggering, skeptical, sardonic, and always highly entertaining.  I would wager that he is the most popular of all your characters, even though you’ve created some memorable ones in other books.

Q.   How did Uhtred come into being?  Did he spring fully-formed from your head like Minerva?  Or did he gradually assert himself, finding his own voice as the writing progressed?

A. I’ve never been able to plan anything; neither a book nor a character. The only way I know how to write is to begin at the beginning and see what happens! So he emerged slowly. I did know from the start that he would choose paganism over Christianity, which gives him a certain orneriness (not that he needs more). I suppose it’s a fairly common theme in my books; Sharpe is an officer up from the ranks which puts him at odds with the more privileged; Starbuck is a northerner fighting for the south, and Uhtred is a stubborn pagan in a very orthodox Christian setting. As for the rest?  He just muscled his way onto the page.

Q.  Did you start out with a road map, knowing from the first how Uhtred’s story would end?
A. Oh, I wish!  I don’t even know how the chapter I’m writing now will end! In fact it’s a complete rewrite. I finished chapter three of the new Uhtred story last week and realized that he said, ‘You see? Nothing happened.’ And he was right, nothing had happened, so I hit the magic delete button and have started again. The only glimpse of a road map is the Battle of Brunanburg which took place in 937AD and is really the end of Uhtred’s story because it’s that battle that establishes England as a country (and the series is about the making of England). So I have a destination, but the map in between is murky (‘here be dragons’). And Uhtred will be so old by 937 that I’ll have to make some awkward decisions before then. It was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing a novel was rather like driving on an unknown country road at night, the way ahead illuminated only by very feeble headlights, and that’s true for me. I envy writers who can plan a whole book (or series) then write to the plan. I stagger from one crisis to the next!

Q. Our fellow historical novelist, Priscilla Royal, would like to know if you intend to carry the story into the reign of Athelstan?
A. Very much so! Athelstan was the victor of Brunanburh and the first man who could legitimately claim to be the King of England, so yes!

Q. Priscilla is much more knowledgeable about this period of English history than I am; I confess that I am learning as I read your books, and I tend to accept Uhtred’s views as gospel.  So naturally I am not all that fond of Alfred.  I think you’ve been scrupulously fair, though, in your depiction of Alfred, and I am curious about your own feelings for the man?
A. I hope my admiration for him shines through Uhtred’s rather sour view.  The standard view of Alfred is a warrior king, witnessed by the statues of him which show a man built like a linebacker, clad in mail and carrying a huge sword. In truth he was a very sickly man whose chief passion was Christian scholarship. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a warrior, but it does suggest that the truth might be more nuanced. My take on him is that he was a very good man, a very very intelligent man, and an honest one. He was also a puritan and Uhtred, like me, has a strong distaste for puritanism. On a beam over my desk I painted in letters of red and gold Sir Toby Belch’s admonition from Twelfth Night; ‘Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’

Q. This is from Shelly.   Is AElfwynn Uhtred and Aethelflaed’s secret love child?
A. No, sorry!

Q. This is from Jo, who says she has always wondered what or who inspired the “fabulous character” of Skade?
A, I really have no idea. I wish I could suggest something exotic. But I do like my female characters to be strong (and Skade certainly qualifies). One of the things that annoys me is the inevitable sequence in a film where a man and woman (or boy and girl) are running away from the villains, and you know, sure as eggs, that the woman will trip over.  That is such garbage, and I try to avoid it.
What’s emerging in the new book is a much stronger treatment of Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, who successfully ruled Mercia after her husband’s death at a time when female rulers were as common as hens’ teeth. We know she led campaigns against the Danes, so she was a considerable warrior, yet somehow she’s been forgotten by history and she deserves to be better known.

Q. This is Stephanie’s query.  “How old could a successful warrior (and by successful, I mean one who has not yet been killed or seriously maimed) expect to live?   How many reasonable fighting years does Uhtred have?”  She confesses that she is just trying to get a better idea of how many more books are left in the series!
A. I think the sensible answer is that if a man survived into his 50’s he had far exceeded the average life expectancy, though we know some folk lived on into their 80’s and beyond. Stephanie has touched on a problem I’ve yet to solve, which is what to do with Uhtred as he gets much older. I really don’t have an answer yet, though I’ll have to find one soon.

Q. I am convinced that no writer does better battle scenes than you do, whether it be in Uhtred’s scary shield wall, with the Black Prince’s lethal archers, or in the Spanish hills with Sharpe and Harper. So Paula’s question is mine, too.  She says, “When I read the battle scenes, I feel like I’m there with Uhtred in the shield wall.  I am walking step by stealthy step and jabbing upwards with my sword.  Where do you think this comes from?  Is it years of research, a vivid imagination, or a bit of both?”   I would add another question, asking if you’d rather fight battles with Uhtred, with Thomas of Hookton and his archers, or with Sharpe and his Chosen Men?  Which of these wars is the most fun to write about?
A. Years of research? Yes! But perhaps the greatest influence was Sir John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle. John was born with a deformed foot so could not serve in the armed forces, yet at heart he was always a soldier. He became a military historian and lectured at Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point) and was ever curious about what was it really like to be in combat? That was an experience he had been denied and many of his friends, who had served, were reticent. The books didn’t help much – most military histories were very dry and full of technical stuff, so he wrote The Face of Battle to find his answer. The point he made is that it’s impossible to understand any conflict without comprehending what the men (mostly men) involved experienced; what they saw, felt, smelled, touched and heard. I try to remember that, and that, of course, means imagining the answers. I was struck recently by an archaeological report from Towton where England’s bloodiest battle was fought in 1461. A forensic scientist examined many of the bodies found in the grave-pits and discovered that the men were so terrified by the experience that they had shattered their own teeth by gritting them too hard. That’s a frightening image, and one backed up by one of the chroniclers of the battle of Poitiers who reported the same thing. I suppose if I had to make a choice I’ll go with Sharpe, only because there’s going to be much less hand-to-hand fighting. The experience of a Saxon shield-wall, or the clash of men-at-arms in a mediaeval battle is truly horrifying; think of an NFL player encased in armor coming at you with an axe. No wonder that many accounts suggest that men were often drunk!  As to which era is most enjoyable? Whichever one I happen to be writing about at the time!

Q. Historical novelists often have to risk alienating or shocking their readers, for while I do not think human nature has changed over the centuries, beliefs and superstitions and society’s expectations obviously have.   Some writers try to soften the harsh edges of historical reality to make their books more palatable for today’s readers; for example, writing a novel set in the Ante-bellum South in which the major characters are all secret abolitionists, or having a female character in a medieval setting be a dedicated feminist or determined to marry for love.   You never fall into these traps, presenting Uhtred’s world as it was—hard-scrabble, brutal, and often bloody.   Have you ever been tempted to take the modern sensibilities of your readers into consideration when writing a scene likely to trouble them?    Maybe easing back a bit on the throttle?    I confess I can’t find any evidence of that, though!
A. I have, yes!  I sometimes think I’ve gone over the top and I’ll delete . . . . and for some reason I’m reluctant to use the efficacious word even though it was certainly the commonest word in Sharpe’s time. I’ve always been amused by the objections people have to the F word, but they happily accept blasphemy. Why? Sharpe can take the name of God in vain a hundred times and no one notices. Oh well.

Q. I could think of many more questions, but you have things to do, places to go, and most importantly, books to write.  So I will conclude by asking the question we all want to know.
Can you tell us how many more books remain before you end the Saxon series?   Is this negotiable?  And is there any chance at all that Richard Sharpe might march again?
A. Again, I wish I knew! At least about Uhtred. Certainly another four or five? Maybe more? I just don’t know! I do have an idea for one more Sharpe book – I kept back the Battle of Sorauren for my old age, though God knows I’m in that already. I’ve just finished my first (and only) non-fiction book, the story of Waterloo for the bicentenary in two years, and I was VERY tempted to write Sharpe straight afterwards, but resisted the temptation and launched into another Uhtred instead. I do miss Sharpe. I once started a Sharpe book with the words ‘Sharpe was in a good mood,’ and of course it didn’t work, but I really hope the grumpy bastard will march again soon!
Bernard, thank you again for stopping by.  I loved The Pagan Lord, of course, and Uhtred continues to dazzle readers, even if he will never be named Father of the Year!   The only downside to a new Bernard Cornwell novel is the realization that there will be a long wait until the next one.
January 14, 2014

AND THE WINNER IS…..

January 10th, 2014

Priscilla Royal and I are happy to announce that the first winner of the book giveaway for her newest mystery, Covenant with Hell, is Pat Yarbrough.   Priscilla is a generous soul and she decided to offer a second book since there were so many entrants.  The second lucky winner is Libby.    If you e-mail Priscilla at tynprior@aol.com, she will make the arrangements to mail your signed copies of Covenant.    Here is a brief message from Priscilla:
“I am amazed and thrilled by the response to the drawing!  Thank you all for so many kind words. I hope Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas will bring some hours of reading pleasure.  And thank you, Sharon, for inviting me to your blog and all the years of reading delight you have given me with your wonderful books.”
*        *        *        *       *
I hope all of you who were under siege by the polar vortex have thawed out by now.   It was dramatic, inconvenient, and sometimes scary, sadly taking the lives of at least 15 people.  Naturally my furnace decided to stop working on the coldest day since 1878.    Thankfully, a furnace tech, my new knight in shining armor, was able to get it going again, and Wednesday he returned to make more permanent repairs.   While I was talking to him, Holly seized her chance to eat my vitamins, momentarily left untended.  Unfortunately, they included a medication that can be toxic to dogs.   So I had to spend time with the Pet Poison Hotline and they recommended I take Holly to my vet for monitoring because there was the risk of neurological or respiratory problems and seizures.    I am happy to report that Holly is just fine, the only damage being done to my frayed nerves and bank account.   She did not get away scot free, though, missing lunch, and for Holly, a missed meal falls into the “cruel and unusual punishment” category.
I have some exciting news, at least to me.   I will be doing an interview on my blog with Bernard Cornwell in the near future; his latest book in his wonderful Saxon series, The Pagan Lord, has just been published in the US on January 6th; it was already out in the UK and Down Under.    I highly recommend it, of course!
Lastly, I have more information about the March book tour for A King’s Ransom.   My publicist is still working on the itinerary, but at the moment, it looks as if I will definitely be going to Chester County Books in PA, the Barnes and Noble in Princeton, NJ, Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ, Murder by the Book in Houston, TX, and Nicola’s in Ann Arbor, MI.  There is also a good chance that I will be making appearances in Seattle, Portland, and the Bay Area before flying to Tucson to attend their Festival of Books on March 15-16th.     I will put up details as I learn them.    I have enjoyed meeting Facebook friends on these tours and I am looking forward to this very much.
January 10. 2014

INTERVIEW WITH PRISCILLA ROYAL

December 4th, 2013

December brings many good things—Christmas, the first snowfall of the winter, a new Priscilla Royal mystery.   Covent with Hell is her latest, set at one of the most celebrated of medieval shrines, and once again I am losing sleep as I steal time each night to re-enter her world.   Most of you know that I am obsessive-compulsive about historical accuracy; I’ve never been able to decide if that is a blessing or a curse. As a result, I am really put off by novels in which the characters could be my next door neighbors; I think of these books as “The Plantagenets in Pasadena.”   But that is never the case with one of Priscilla’s novels.  Her people are firmly rooted in the Middle Ages.  Readers never doubt that they are reading of men and women who live in thirteenth century England, and that is why we read historical novels, after all.  We turn the pages to time-travel.   So I am delighted to announce that Covenant with Hell is now out and I have persuaded Priscilla to stop by to talk about it.

Tell us about Covenant with Hell.

Covenant with Hell contains a hint of Canterbury Tales and a dash of George Smiley. While I was finishing Sanctity of Hate, I watched the two Alec Guinness portrayals of George Smiley, read John le Carre’s books, and fell in love with the character. I had never tried a spy story but knew it must have a firm medieval context. The spy system of the late 13th century was not as sophisticated as it was under Elizabeth I, but every historical era has its secret agents.
As I was prowling through Edward I’s activities in the year after Sanctity of Hate, I found the perfect setting for my story. Walsingham was one of his favorite shrines, and he decided to go there on Palm Sunday of 1277. (Being a practical man, he combined the pilgrimage with a trip to buy 200,000 crossbow bolts for his invasion of Wales.) Fortunately, this famous and very interesting medieval shrine is also close to where I have placed Tyndal Priory.
After The Sanctity of Hate, Prioress Eleanor has been deeply troubled over a rumor that she was found worthy to receive a vision of the Virgin Mary, a story she wishes had not gained credence but fears she might have fostered some way. Her concern led me to suggest that she might fancy a penitential pilgrimage to this lovely shrine. My prioress quickly agreed. What she and Brother Thomas didn’t know is that I planned for them to fall into the midst of an assassination plot against the king and a swarming of spies.

You have said that each of your books presents you with a different challenge. What was it in Covenant with Hell?

I do not want to write “costume dramas”, but I also acknowledge the universal nature of human experience. The more I read, the more I realize that many things we think of as modern enlightenments were found in more ancient times, although the manifestation would have been era-appropriate. The union of the twelve tribes of Israel, albeit under a king, bears resemblance to the union of the thirteen colonies that formed the United States. Athens practiced a form of democracy, and many monasteries elected their own leaders. And if no one in the past ever questioned the accepted beliefs (always called truths in any era), we would never have advanced our knowledge of general science, medicine, or the complex nature of the human creature. So I took a chance and introduced a character whom I believe would have fit into his time but who also resisted convention just a bit with a little quiet courage in the face of his own terror of consequences. To say more would be a spoiler.

What was the most enjoyable part of writing this story?

As is often the case, it is the research. The shrines of Walsingham have a remarkable story, one I have told in more detail in the Author’s Notes. Not only was it a popular medieval pilgrimage site, regularly visited by King Henry III, Edward I, and on a par with Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela, it was also highly favored by King Henry VIII—before he chose to destroy it. It was supposed to be the only place in England where the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision. She came to a local woman in a dream and took her to Nazareth where she showed the woman the house where the Annunciation occurred, then ordered the woman to construct an exact replica in Walsingham. Unlike most shrines, the house was kept simple, although the many gifts received were lavish. In addition, there were wells nearby that remained full, pure, and very cold despite the weather or any drought. These were also believed to be gifts of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the most miraculous part of the Walsingham story is the fact that it has returned as a significant pilgrimage site. The Holy House has been reconstructed. The wells remain. It is visited by both Catholic and Protestant pilgrims today.

You have written ten books in your series. Do you now feel you have a firm grasp on the craft of writing?

The short answer is no! After I finished the first book, I realized that the second would have its own problems. That one felt even harder to write than the first. I will say that the third wasn’t as terrifying, but I have learned that every book is its own lesson in how to write unless you fall into a pattern. Sometimes I hate myself for making each book a challenge, but I am happier once it is written. Covenant with Hell was my attempt to be so devious about the killer that the herrings, red or otherwise, would be especially fun for readers. Even though I have always wanted to keep the solution secret for as long as possible, I admit that I often get caught up in character development, the question of acceptable justice, and the historical background. None of that is really a bad thing. We all read mysteries for different reasons. But good herrings were the craft lesson for me in this book.

What are you working on next?

Prioress Eleanor has been sufficiently successful as both a manager of priory recourses and a sleuth that she will have gained enemies. In the next book, someone has accused her of an unchaste relationship with Brother Thomas. Since the Order of Fontevraud was under the authority of Rome, the abbess in Anjou, who enjoyed unusual authority over her many daughter houses, would not have wanted any hint of scandal in her Order, one that many already believed to be unnatural because of female leadership over men. She would have sent a trusted priest of high social rank (to match that of Prioress Eleanor) to investigate so that she could assure Rome that innocence had been proven or due punishment ordered. Of course, Prioress Eleanor is innocent of acting on her lust for Brother Thomas, but nothing is ever simple for her. Murder happens. The innocent are accused. Subplots cause her additional angst. I confess that she will be pretty miffed at all I plan to put her through.

How can readers contact you?

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 on The Lady Killers at www.theladykillers.typepad.com.

Thank you so much, Sharon, for inviting me to post on your blog. Not only have you taught me much about research, but your books have long been an inspiration. In fact, I learned something from one of them that gave me an idea for a character in Covenant…

And you are not going to tell me more than that, are you?   You’re getting too good at keeping secrets!   I am about halfway through Covenant and I confess I haven’t a clue who the killer is yet.  There are a few hateful characters I would happily volunteer as other victims for the killer, though.   And there is a very appealing young girl, a street urchin who will touch the hardest heart, reminding us that there were few safety nets for the poor throughout most of history.   Thank you for agreeing to talk about Covenant.  I do sympathize with Eleanor; she yearns only for spiritual peace and you keep dragging her into murder investigations.  But as you say, “Murder happens, and we, the readers, benefit greatly from it.

December 4, 2013

A Day at Dover Castle

November 16th, 2013

           I do intend to blog about my Richard III Tour, but I have had to put it off for a while as I fight the Deadline Dragon, who came back again as soon as the galley proofs for A King’s Ransom landed with a resounding thump on my front porch.   Before I disappear into the dragon badlands again, I want to put a new blog up, for the current one is probably collecting cyberspace cobwebs by now.  So here is the story of my day at Dover Castle.
 After the Richard III Tour was over and I’d done what I needed to do for my British publisher in connection with the hardback publication of The Sunne in Splendour on September 12th, I had five whole days for myself.    By pure chance, my friend Stephanie Churchill Ling and her husband, Steve, were visiting the UK at the same time and we were able to get together on the weekend before they flew home.  On Saturday we went with my friend, Dr John Philipps, to the Globe Theatre in Southwark to see a performance of MacBeth.  This Globe is a reconstruction of the original Globe theater in Shakespeare’s time, and it was such a remarkable experience to watch one of Shakespeare’s plays in a sixteenth century theatre.  They even had standing room space in front of the stage for the “groundlings.”   We were wimps and sat in the sheltered section, having rented cushions to soften the hard wooden benches; John has often been to the Globe and we benefited from his expertise as it was the first visit for Stephanie, Steve, and me.   Here is a link to a great website offering the history of the original Globe theatre and a certain playwright from Stratford on Avon.  http://www.william-shakespeare.info/william-shakespeare-globe-theatre.htm   And this site has some striking photos of the new Globe. http://www.londontown.com/LondonInformation/Entertainment/Shakespeares_Globe/8f9c/imagesPage/15462/ 
 On Sunday, John drove us to Dover Castle as I was eager to see the renovations that had been done since my last visit.  They have set up interior chambers that look as they would have done in the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.   This was one of the highpoints of my trip, for we usually have to rely upon our imaginations in order to envision a medieval bedchamber or garderobe or kitchen.    At Dover, no imagination needed!   I will try to post a few photos with this blog, but we’ve had trouble doing this in the past and I am not sure the problem has been resolved.  However, Stephanie found this wonderful virtual tour of Dover Castle, which is almost as good as being there.   http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/dover-castle/great-tower/virtual-tour/   Be sure to click onto the interactive map on the left side of the page.   On certain days, Henry is there to greet visitors, muttering about his troublesome wife and sons; if you click onto the great hall introduction on the interactive map, you’ll get to see a brief video of his grumbling.    
 I’ve been fortunate enough to pay numerous visits to Dover Castle over the years, and whenever I crossed the Channel from France, I enjoyed watching the white cliffs of Dover come into view. ( I’ve never taken the Chunnel as I am not crazy about tunnels, especially underwater ones.)   I am an even bigger fan of Dover Castle now, for I kept thinking that if only I turned around fast enough, I might catch a glimpse of Eleanor’s skirts as she entered the stairwell or see Henry striding across the great hall, bellowing for his hounds and huntsmen, eager to indulge his passion for the hunt.   
 Castles have atmosphere, at least to me, and they are often claimed by the ghosts of the people who lived in them.  At Middleham, I never think of the Kingmaker, only of Richard and Anne during the years when he was the Lord of the North.   Kenilworth stirs no echoes of Simon de Montfort, for I think it belongs to Elizabeth Tudor’s great love, Robert Dudley.   I can easily envision Edward I at his Conquest Castles in Wales, probably one reason why I much prefer the strongholds of the Welsh princes!  When I visit Clifford’s Tower in York, I can think only of the medieval Masada, the tragedy that engulfed the city’s Jews in March, 1191.    Fougeres Castle in Brittany puts me in mind of my fictional characters, Justin de Quincy and Durand de Curzon, who were entombed in its underground dungeon.  
But Dover Castle never evoked the spirit of the Angevins to me—not until this last visit, looking at it through Henry, Eleanor, and John’s eyes; I don’t sense Richard’s spirit there, am not even sure if he ever visited it during the six months that he spent on English soil.    The key to the kingdom, they called this awesome fortress,  and getting to see it with friends on a rare sunlit day was about as good as it gets for a woman whose favorite century is the twelfth and whose favorite king is the second Henry to rule England since the Conquest.  
November 16, 2013