I have been hugely touched by the good wishes, the prayers, and the wonderful support coming in from readers after my house fire of two weeks ago. It’s been a rollercoaster two weeks, but the Overseas Gladiator and I are fighting our way back to normality: burns healing, belongings recovered, progress made slowly but surely on our half-ruined house. I have the best readers, friends, and fans in the world, and I wish I could give you something back.
Fortunately, I can. Sometimes the fates line up like that.
It’s just a hair under two weeks till Lady of the Eternal City is released, and around this time, I’ll usually release the coming book’s first chapter as a sneak preview. This time I’ve gone one better: not only are you getting a teaser excerpt from LEC’s first chapter, you’re getting three bonus stories not included in the book.
LEC has been the book from hell for many reasons–some books are just problem babies while others are angel–and one of my early plot snarls came from the fact that I started the story too early in the timeline. I wanted to pick up right where Empress of the Seven Hills left off–with Vix wrestling with the impossible choice of killing his best friend; with Titus wondering if an executioner was coming for him; with Sabina in an ever-developing condition. But I ended up scrapping my original start and opening a year after the events of Empress of the Seven Hills, as Hadrian makes his long-awaited entry into Rome as Emperor. It was the right choice, but there were scenes on the cutting-room floor that I always regretted losing. And they made three self-contained little stories all on their own, so I realized I could bundle them together here: three prequel stories taking place in that missing year between Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City.
Battered warrior Vix has always been Hadrian’s bitter enemy, and he vows that will never change, even when he is made Praetorian Guard and Imperial watchdog. But with his family’s lives on the line, Vix faces a bitter choice: kill a friend, or serve a foe?
Mild, scholarly Titus might once have been favored as Imperial heir, but he never wanted the throne. All he desires is peace in the arms of his new bride–but the jealous Hadrian has other ideas. A horror of bloodshed and violence interrupts Titus’s wedding night, and the man of peace finds a choice at sword-point: honor and death, or betrayal and a cell?
Elegant, elusive Sabina is desperate to escape the bleak future that awaits her as Hadrian’s Empress, and even more desperate to conceal the secret growing in her own body. But when she begs a famous seer for a glimpse into her future, she receives an astonishing vision of the Eternal City under Hadrian’s rule, and the new Empress must choose: her own freedom, or the glory of Rome?
Three former friends find new futures in blood, omen, and prophecy. Three prequel vignettes to “Lady of the Eternal City, in an exclusive e-release titled The Three Fates.
The Three Fates is available for FREE download on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Scribd, and Page Foundry. It is available on Amazon Kindle at 0.99, which was the lowest possible price option. The Three Fates is NOT available in print, since this is an e-release only–and there is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Lady of the Eternal City tucked in the back.
I hope you enjoy it–and again, thank you. Thank you all.
Last week my house suffered a catastrophic fire.
I’ve been asked “How did it happen?” so many times I could tell the story in my sleep, but I’ll tell it again on the page. I think for a writer, it isn’t real until we’ve written it down.
The Overseas Gladiator was home from the Middle East, having been given ten days to fly home for his grandmother’s funeral. The day after the funeral we made the long drive home, lit a big fire in our fireplace as we’d done a thousand times before, poured a glass of wine each, and settled down to relax for the rest of a cold Wednesday night. Twenty minutes later, we were homeless.
As we sat in the firelight reading, the fire quietly ate its way out of the back of the fireplace and spread through the wall of the house. By the time a neighbor pounded on our door to let us know the back of the house was kindling, the fire had already raced up inside the wall to the attic and was sweeping through. The Overseas Gladiator tried to hose down the back wall as I raced upstairs to get the Praetorian Dog who had been locked in the bedroom since the commotion started. That was when an enormous boom of a backdraft ripped through the house, a rush of super-heated air and ash billowing down from the burning attic. The blast knocked the Overseas Gladiator back against the deck railing, and flung me down the stairs like a rag doll. Shortly after we were standing barefoot in the icy parking lot, clutching the dog and watching as three separate fire trucks arrived with sirens blaring, and fire started licking its way over our roof.
Someone noticed at some point that my arm and shoulder and cheek were toasted medium rare–I wasn’t feeling a thing–and then the night turned into a round of emergency rooms, hospital beds, paperwork, and the slow shocky process of realizing we were still alive. I was only in the hospital for one night (the burns weren’t as bad as they looked) but it was a long, strange night full of glass-sharp individual recollections.
I remember the blast that kicked me down the stairs, half tumbling and half scrambling to get under the wave of fire and ash that was falling all around me like a halo. My hair was crisped all across the top; lying in the hospital bed later, I ran my hand across my ashy knotted bun and realized that if I hadn’t clipped my hair up that night, my two-foot banner of hair probably would have gone up like a torch.
I remember seeing the OG in full-on hero mode, shoving me toward safety as he charged upstairs into a wall of smoke to save the dog–and later collapsing in the hospital corridor when he realized I was ok.
I remember unloading every curse I knew in the ambulance once the pain from my burned arm finally kicked in. I know a lot of curses. The EMTs were apparently impressed.
I remember laughing like drunken hyenas on our respective gurneys as the OG said into the silence, “Well, on the bright side, I’m not flying back to the Persian Gulf in two days.”
I remember lifting my charred eyebrows and saying “Seriously?” when an earnest young ER doc asked me “So, are you in any pain?”
Most of all, I remember the astonishment of seeing just how many people rushed to help us friends, family, complete strangers.
One week later, and things are a lot better. We’re in an apartment that is starting to feel like home, and our burned-out house is scheduled to be renovated over the next six months. My burns are healing up, the pain slowly fading toward a hell of an itch. The Overseas Gladiator keeps me smiling with a never-ending string of incredibly crass jokes about barbecues, bonfires, and our very own Ash Wednesday. Insurance is paying to replace what we’ve lost, and we’ve been able to save a surprising amount the bust of Clio (muse of history) on my desk; a laptop and all my writings; my red conference stilettos.
The astonishment is still there, however, when I think how many people have stepped forward to help us. Our families, swooping in with advice and money and offers to dog-sit. Our friends, coming by with armloads of towels and supplies and home-cooked meals. The Navy, bending over backward to keep my Overseas Gladiator from having to go back overseas until this is handled. Complete strangers donating to a GoFundMe page with good wishes and prayers.
I look around me and I feel nothing but grateful. I lost a house, but I have so much: a husband, a dog, and the best family, friends, and fans in the world.
**From the Overseas Gladiator**
I asked Kate, the estimable 5’2 Toasty Badass, if I could write something to tack onto her blog post about our recent house fire.
When I asked, and she said yes, I had this vision in my head of writing some moving piece about the preciousness of life, about how everything has unappreciated value, about how the fire happened, about how you realize what you really need in life, all the typical platitudes from your average run-of-the-mill romance novel. Which tends to get turned into a cheesy movie. Starring, I dunno, Ryan Gosling.
But all I keep returning to is…… Ash. Smoke. Fire. Fear. Chaos. Grief.
Hearing the pounding on our front door by our neighbor, who saved our lives.
Hearing the terrifying, You’re on FIRE! YOU’RE ON FIRE!! and feeling everything just simply stop as the words hit like cold, methodical punches to the brain.
Seeing flames licking out from the side of our house.
Feeling like we were drowning in liquid panic as we just couldn’t move fast enough to get the hose hooked up.
That feeling of absolute, blind futility, of the purest form of utter helplessness, as I watched the flames just climb up the side of our goddamn house despite pouring water on it as fast as I could.
Hearing the backdraft explosion happen, blinking stars out of my eyes as I briefly wondered what the fuck just happened, and why am I on my back?
Hearing a series of thumps that only later I realize was my wife falling down the stairs.
Hearing her scream that the dog is trapped upstairs, and knowing that death is literally seconds away from everyone in what used to be our refuge, our sanctuary, our world, as we felt the flames spread.
Shoving Kate and our neighbor toward the front door, screaming, Out, out, out!! Everyone get the fuck out, NOW!!
And, finally checking everyone outside. Realizing that somehow we’re still alive. Injured. Damaged. Dazed. Burnt. Concussed. But alive.
This is what we keep coming back to. This what I keep coming back to. That despite it all, despite the terrible loss of our stuff and our lives being thrown into a maelstrom, we’re alive.
So…..hopefully I don’t have to stress the sanctity of life, of how everyone should appreciate what and more importantly who they have in their lives. Just find your significant other, give them a hug and a kiss. Call your parents, hug your kids, what the hell ever you think would work.
Because I damn near lost the most important person in my world. And believe me when I say that it re-calibrates your perspective.
And finally, thanks for all the love and support, everyone. It’s been simply….astonishing and wonderful to know that so many amazing people are willing to help.
From the depths of this salty Sailor’s heart, from both of our hearts; thank you. With everything we have.
I’m about to start a long road trip, throwing the Praetorian Dog in the car and heading off to spend Christmas with the Dowager Librarian in California–but I’ve got just enough time to turn out the mandatory Top Ten Books I Read This Year! blog post, just in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2014 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. A quirky and unabashedly intellectual book about smart people thinking smart thoughts. Renee is a Paris concierge, hiding her passion for books and art behind a concierge’s stereotypical surliness; Paloma is a twelve-year-old genius being driven mad by school, life, and the stupidity around her. She’s planning to kill herself when she turns thirteen, more or less out of boredom–but a cautious friendship with the prickly Renee and a contemplative Japanese businessman changes all three lives in astounding ways.
Buy for: that ultra-smart kid in your life, whether it’s your bookworm daughter or your genius little brother or that eleven-year-old you babysit for who gets bullied because she’s already reading Jane Austen. That kid will see themselves in Paloma, and like she did probably develop a passion for French art and Japanese calligraphy.
2. “Blood Eye” by Giles Kristian. I found Kristian’s Viking series after going into serious withdrawal from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, and it doesn’t disappoint. This story of a boy named Raven swept up into the crew of a Viking longship is everything you want from guts-and-glory historical fiction: bone-crunching shield-walls, pulse-pounding adventures, and prose of blood-stirring action and sometimes lyrical beauty.
Buy for: your mother, if she’s like mine and absolutely adores a good skull-crushing with her evening glass of chardonnay.
3. “Prince of Shadows” by Rachel Caine. I know nothing about Caine except that she has a YA vampire series, so this book was an expected shock of deliciousness: Romeo and Juliet retold with a surprising twist. The hero and heroine here are Benvolio (Romeo’s steady best friend) and Rosaline (Romeo’s first infatuation, ditched for Juliet). This pair is smarter, older, and far more savvy than their more famous counterparts, and they struggle to stop the inevitable–all the while feeling like the “curse on both their houses” may be a literal catalyst for all this disaster, and not just a poetic conceit.
Buy for: your office-mate whose cubicle is pasted with Shakespeare quotes, and who can be heard muttering Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day as she watches the clock move toward 6pm. She’ll geek out on the way Caine weaves Shakespeare’s lines into her own dialogue.
4. “One Plus One” by Jojo Moyes. A feel-good book which also manages to be whip-smart and side-splittingly funny–no small feat to pull off. Ed is a tech-head millionaire currently on the outs for unwitting insider trading, hiding from his family and looking for new purpose. New purpose storms into his life in the form of Jess, a blue-collar single mom with a giant farting dog, a sullen teenage stepson, and a genius daughter who has to get to Scotland for a math competition if she has any chance of getting into an elite school and out of the cycle of poverty. Ed ends up driving the band of misfits to Scotland, and over the next week as his car and his life are systematically dismantled, something else starts to form–a rag-tag little family.
Buy for: that friend who’s been a bit battered by life lately, and really needs a smile on her face. Reassure her in advance that the dog doesn’t die.
5. “Live by Night by Dennis Lehane. Sequel to his fabulous “The Given Day,” and centering around a cocky Irish boy who starts low on the rungs of the Boston mob during Prohibition, and rises steadily through the roaring 20s until he is running the Florida division of the mob’s liquor business. Shifts effortlessly from 20s-era Boston to Florida to Cuba in a whirl of crime bosses, hit men, bathtub gin parties, good girls gone bad, bad girls gone good, and the inevitable consequences to a life of crime. Seedy, violent, glorious.
Buy for: your dad who has a passion for gangster movies. Tell him it’s “The Godfather” and “The Departed” rolled into one.
6. Speaking of living by night, try “The Quick” by Lauren Owen. This is Bram Stoker-style Victorian gothic at its best; buttoned-up London suits and properly closed doors, and the horrors that sometimes live behind them. A shy young poet comes to London and is introduced to a secret society of London’s most lethal men–a society that will have to be fought with blood when the poet disappears, and his determined sister comes to town looking for answers. A brave heroine, a band of eccentric vigilantes, and a villain named Doctor Knife–this will have you reading far into the night, and falling asleep with all your lights on.
Buy for: your gay bestie, because there is a tender and wonderful m/m romance tucked into all the supernatural tension.
7. “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan” by Stephanie Thornton. Four narrators handing the torch to each other in turn: the Khan’s seeress first wife, his brash tomboy daughter, a Persian captive turned councillor, and finally a watchful daughter-in-law who will seize the reins when the great Khan’s empire begins to fracture. Other women have roles to play as well: a tough-as-nails adopted daughter; a rape-ravaged princess whose madness will have unspeakable consequences for one of the four narrators. These women are fascinating, and there isn’t a weakling among them.
Buy for: your sister, so you can speculate how the two of you would have fared managing a ger and drinking fermented mare’s milk.
8. “Joyland” by Stephen King. No one can write a coming-of-age story like (ironically) the master of horror. This beauty has it all, a bittersweet and moving tale of a college boy whose summer stint at an old-fashioned carnival turns out to have a lot of firsts: first love, first heartbreak, first real job, first sex partner–and since there is both a ghost and a serial killer on the loose in the carnival, first brush with death and the supernatural.
Buy for: your nephew going off to college for his own coming-of-age story. Write your phone number on the inside: If a girl dumps you and you get as depressed as the hero in this book, don’t sit there listening to the Doors and thinking about suicide the way he does. CALL ME.
9. “The Magicians Trilogy” by Lev Grossman. This is the book for you if you ever wished you could go to Narnia or Hogwarts. Quentin is a brilliant student with a fanboy crush on a series of books clearly based on CS Lewis’s Narnia; the kid who never got over the fact that he didn’t open a wardrobe and find a fantasy paradise. But he does get his Hogwarts letter, finding himself accepted to a college called Brakebills which trains the gifted few in the arts of magic. Quentin is a bit of a prat through the first two books, but the world-building is wonderful: Brakebills is like Harry Potter with drinking, screwing, and swearing.
Buy for: your older brother, so you can reminisce back to the days when he played Peter, you played Lucy, and you both just knew you were going to open a door to Narnia someday and become High King and Queen of Narnia.
10. “The Complete Unwind Dystology” by Neal Shusterman. YA dystopia stories are a dime a dozen these days, but this quartet is a cut above the rest, envisioning a world where the abortion debate and most of the world’s diseases have been solved in the most horrific way possible: abortion is illegal, but from the ages of 13 to 18, parents can elect to have their problem teens Unwound, their bodies harvested as replacement organs and parts for the nation’s diseased and wounded (it doesn’t count as murder, the argument goes, because all the dead teen’s parts are still alive, just in separate bodies!) The book starts with three teens on the run from this grim fate, but spans out to encompass many more characters. A horrifying, thought-provoking, unflinching read through four unputdownable books.
Buy for: your bookworm grandma who thinks YA has turned into nothing but sparkly vampires and love triangles. Be prepared for a long thoughtful discussion on the social ramifications of organ harvesting.
And for a final bonus book . . .
11. “A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii” by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter and, yes, me. Normally I wouldn’t list one of my own titles on any best-of list, but I only wrote 1/6 of this collection–I had no idea what my collaborators were going to come up with, and I was as agog and delighted as any strange reader when I got to read the whole collection A-Z. Vicky’s heart-breaking boy on the cusp of manhood; Sophie’s quiet engineer hero; Ben’s disreputable ex-soldier with his dogged loyalty; Eliza’s young mother-to-be and Stephanie’s pair of lion-brave whores–these characters didn’t come from my brain, and they combined into a wonderful whole to tell the story of Pompeii’s last fatal day, so I feel justified in pimping my fellow authors. Buy for: everybody you know. Absolutely everybody. Because I want to see this book on the NYT list, don’t you? Let’s make it happen.
1. Page 2: Hey, this book isn’t so bad.
2. Page 81: That’s the fourth misspelled word . . . and those are just the ones I caught. Wait, how many am I missing?!
3. Start over.
4. Send panicked email to writing buddy begging for one more reread of that problematic eighth chapter.
5. This book is terrible.
6. Realize you said the Roman eagle standard was silver, when Imperial-era eagles were gold. Make change, exhale, then grow cold. That was just the historical error you caught. HOW MANY AM I MISSING?!
7. Incorporate Chapter 8 changes from writing buddy, who read your pages at 11:30 at night on what was supposed to be a dinner break in the middle of their own deadline crisis. Hit the Vatican website and start petition to have writing buddy canonized.
8. Spend four hours untangling the timeline inconsistencies pointed out by your copyeditor, then realize it’s all because you miscalculated your hero’s age, i.e. you can’t count.
9. Get the shivers when your primary source says the Chapter 19 lightning strike happened fifteen years earlier than you placed it in your story. Ransack research materials wildly looking for that vindicating second source, which is missing. Finally found under sleeping, resentful dog who has not been walked in days.
10. Compose email offering your editor your first born child and a kidney if you can have another week to finish this. Delete email, go back to work.
11. Deadline Day. Writing buddy comes to your house, handcuffs you to the sink, and presses Send for you.
12. Thank writing buddy. Set a date next week to do the same for her when she needs to press Send.
13. Start drinking.
The reason everything is tidy is because my husband is gone.
Now, he’s not a slob–the faucets in our bathrooms are shined to pass a Navy inspection, and he actually reproaches me if I do the vacuuming without him–but clean and tidy are two very different things. The man I married leaves a swathe of discarded objects in his wake wherever he goes, and I notice it immediately now that he has been transferred overseas, has departed for pre-training, and will not returning home for more than a year.
My carpet is tidy. There is no scatter of boat-sized shoes across the living room, lying everywhere but in the actual shoe bin. It’s less of a tripping hazard–if you tossed his shoes into the sea, they’d have to be registered as shipping hazards–but this shoe-free carpet makes me sad.
My dining room table is tidy. No scatter of Dr. Pepper cans, Red Bull cans, and water bottles, all opened and drunk down to exactly the 1/3 mark.
My kitchen counters are tidy. No enthusiastic-amateur-chef’s mess of spice jars, onion peelings, Wusthof filleting knives, and garlic in every permutation in which garlic can possibly be sold (whole, cloves, peeled, diced, coarse powder, fine powder, and in a paste).
My bedroom is tidy. No clothes that have been dropped on the carpet exactly six inches from the laundry basket. No random pairs of sleeves that have been hacked off yet another t-shirt which he has decided will be more comfortable if sleeveless. No torn and paint-spattered cargo shorts hanging up next to the immaculately pressed Navy whites.
My bookshelves are tidy. There are now gaping holes where his massive and varied collection of Asimov, Heinlein, Shakespeare, and Calvin & Hobbes have been packed for the Middle East.
My driveway is tidy. No screaming-red speed-demon of a Subaru with its “Skydiving: My Drug of Choice” bumper sticker, its exhaust which can be heard from three blocks away, and its horsepower upgrades which probably only the motorheads on Top Gear would call street-legal.
My walls are tidy. One third of the weapons collection is packed into sea-bags, since it would be sheer sadism to ask my sword-mad spouse to pass a year without his replica Legolas daggers, his Japanese short sword, and his combat-grade-steel bastard-length broadsword. At the very least.
No tangle of extra car keys. No Rise Against CDs or vintage Varitek baseball jerseys or thick science textbooks bookmarked to the section on black holes. No emails with links to The Colbert Report or George Takei comics or recipes for truffled lasagna (Dinner tonight?)
I’m a tidy sort–my shoes are always in the bin, my clothes are always in the laundry basket, my eight varieties of garlic are all put away. I groan at the man I married for all the reasons above, though it’s a humorous groan. The year ahead of me is going to be very tidy. Not lonely–I have a ferociously protective and loving dog, a vast circle of friends, and more attentive neighbors than I can count, all within arm’s reach.
But it’s going to be a very tidy year.
I will welcome the mess when it comes home.
Negative reviews for books: it’s a touchier subject than ever these days. Hardly a day goes by when you don’t read some online flame war between a cyber-bully and a writer in tears, or a beleaguered blogger attacked by a writer with thin skin. I have five books out and they’ve all gotten some bad reviews, and while I don’t love that part of my job, no book is going to please 100% of its readers. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I try to learn from my negative reviews–or at least, I try to laugh. And sometimes all you can do is laugh, because some of the reviews and emails-from-the reader that cross my computer screen are downright wacky.
I think a little more laughter–a little more humor–is something we could all use, in this never-ending debate about book reviews. So here it is, my semi-annual “I hated your book!” blog post: the top ten oddball reviews or nutty emails I’ve received this year, along with the responses I make in my head. As always, details have been changed to keep the reviewer/commenter anonymous, but all remain true in essence.
1. “Interesting book about Julius Caesar, his lovers, and his enemies.”
But–but–none of my books are about Julius Caesar, his lovers, OR his enemies.
2. “Everybody loves Emperor Trojan in this book, and I don’t get it. Trojan crushed other cultures without mercy.”
Ok, maybe you didn’t agree with his expansionist policies, but do the man the courtesy of getting his name right. He’s an emperor, not a condom.
3. “The Borgia’s might be an interesting clan, but this book about the Borgia’s put me to sleep.”
And your misuse of the apostrophe is driving me mad, so I’d say you got the better end of the deal.
4. “The historical inaccuracies made me wince. I mean, the heroine was cooking strawberries in the winter!”
This book has a mummified saint’s hand that moves around under its own power, and it’s strawberries in winter that snaps your suspension of disbelief?
5. This book seemed good, but it had a depiction of adultery and I’m sorry, but I will not read anything with a depiction of adultery.
That depresses me. Not so much that you’re missing out on my book, but that you’re missing out on Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Anya Seton’s Katherine.
6. Would have given this book four stars except for the fact that the hero and the heroine didn’t end up together. Why couldn’t they have a happily ever after?
Um . . . because history says they didn’t get one?
7. “I liked this book about the Borgias, but in the end I’m looking for something more serious, like the Showtime series.”
Howls with laughter.
8. “Can’t believe Margaret George said this was `literary.’ Then again, considering what Margaret George writes–”
Now wait just a minute. Call my books whatever you want, but if you start running down my idol Margaret George, you and I are going to have WORDS.
9. “A bunch of stuff in here is wrong, like the pimp.”
I assume you are objecting to the slang term pimp and not the concept as a historical job occupation? Because I assure you that while the Romans might have had their own Latin terms for a procurer, the career of exploiting women in the sex trade was a lucrative and time-honored lifestyle choice in A.D. 100.
10. “Crappy story about Julius Caesar.”
Oh, for f*ck’s sake.
Do any of these 10 things seem familiar? Then you were (or have given birth to) a bookworm child.
1. An advanced ability to walk while reading. Forget those skits where the kid walks book-first into a glass door. A true bookworm child can navigate a full schoolbus route including steps, greeting the driver, finding a seat, successfully locating their stop, and walking the mile and a half home without ever running into anything or lowering the book from their nose.
2. The inability to pass even a 1-minute waiting period without reading. True bookworm children will whip out the Kindle while waiting for their coffee to finish its 60 seconds of heating, rather than spend that 60 seconds just, you know, waiting.
3. Bookworm children are drinking coffee by 11.
4. A complete inability to pace themselves when reading. Bookworm children will pack seventeen books for a week-long family vacation in Cabo, read all seventeen by day four, then complain bitterly that the only books available are crappy Gothic romances or Harry Potter y la orden del Fenix. Will spend the rest of the vacation plowing grimly through Barbara Michaels, and come home with the ability to cast Unforgivable Curses in Spanish.
5. Will read anything. You probably imagine your bookworm child adorably curled up with War and Peace, but in truth they will read anything. They will read 2009 editions of Popular Mechanic if there is nothing else available in waiting rooms. They will read books they don’t even like: a paperback R.L. Stine surreptitiously read under a desk is still better than geometry.
6. Detention slips for being caught three times during class reading an R.L. Stine under the desk.
7. Stores of arcane knowledge. Bookworm children soak in everything. They’ll tell you what a turbo engine and how it works at age 12–because they remember that 2009 issue of Popular Mechanic.
8. A dour expression. This originates from dealing with adults routinely demanding “What are you going to do with all those books?” (Use them for firewood?)
9. A hatred of reading programs. Most bookworm kids will avoid librarians with summer reading lists like the plague. They’re not interested in filling out the form, getting the sticker, or being a Gold Star Reader. They simply want to be left alone to read, dammit.
10. The ability to sneak. Sneak Dad’s library card out of his wallet, that is, so they can get around the librarians who refuse to let “I, Claudius” go out on a kid card. The true bookworm child also has a practiced doe-eyed expression as “My dad told me to get this for him when I got my Babysitter Club Books” trips innocently off the tongue.
And yes: I did pretty much every one of these growing up.
There are a billion blog posts out there about how to write a book, how to market a book, how to sell a book. How to up your word-count; how to make your characters pop; how to hook an agent. There’s not so much about how to be happy as a writer. How to live your life, write books, and stay sane.
I certainly don’t have everything figured out along those lines, but I’ve written six books in six years, and I’m not in the nut-house yet. (Barely. Last book came close.) For what it’s worth, here are a few things I’ve figured out, through trial and error, about keeping a word-count and keeping balanced. Because it ain’t easy.
1. Figure out how you write best.
Forget the people who say you’ll never succeed if you can’t crank out at least 4,000 words a day. Forget the people who say longhand is the only way to go. Forget the people who say writing out of sequence is the key to keeping it fresh. How do you work best? Can you churn out a book in a few minutes here and a few minutes there throughout your day, or do you need a solid block of time? Do you write best with notepad or laptop, at the crack of dawn or the dead of night? Can you manage 2,000 words a day, or does the word-count thing stress you out and you’d rather measure your progress in scenes completed? Figure out what works for you. I’ve found that I work best in the afternoons, need at least five hours, and can produce about 2,000-3,000 words on an average day–but everybody’s different. My system probably won’t work for you, and yours wouldn’t work for me.
2. Now that you know how you write best, arrange your life to make it happen.
Not easy, I know. Especially when you’ve got the demands of kids, family, and day job. I need uninterrupted time to work, and in the days when I had a full college class-load and three jobs, all I could do was carve out my weekend afternoons for writing. I have a friend who writes around three kids, and she’ll whip out her laptop while waiting in the carpool line or the pediatrician’s office. Whatever you need, make it happen.
3. Realize that something’s gotta go.
I always thought that once I was writing full-time, I’d have time for everything: research, writing, housework, two-hour stints at the gym, and cooking gourmet dinners every night. Nope. No matter whether you’re writing around a day job or not, there is never enough time. To carve out that space in your day to write, you will have to give something up. Maybe it’s your Dr. Who marathons that go bye-bye. Maybe it’s that extra hour of sleep in the morning. Or maybe you didn’t see your daughter score the winning goal because your spouse took her to her soccer game so you could stay home and work. But something’s going to the wayside. I have very little social life and the only show I watch on TV is Game of Thrones. So be it.
4. That being said, make time to get outside.
Let’s face it, writers are pretty much glued to their computer screens. We have to make ourselves unplug, and getting outside is a good way to do it, even if it’s just a five minute stroll around the block with the dog. Besides, I’ve found that a brisk walk away from my Facebook updates and stack of emails is just about the best way to think through a knotty plot problem.
5. Hit the gym.
I know this is starting to sound like one of those health-and-wellness posts, but hear me out: working up a sweat can really help your writing. Writers over-think everything; the book is never “off” in your head–but that isn’t always a good thing. Try taking an hour away from that chapter that’s driving you crazy and focus on your sprint time or your downward dog–your brain just might present you with the bingo solution as you’re sluicing off your gym sweat in the shower. It’s like seeing something clearly only when you look slightly away from it. So if you’re stuck, try working out–my friend C.W. Gortner swears by yoga, my friend Stephanie Thornton trains for half-marathons, I like to hit a punching bag. Whatever works for you.
6. Try to physically separate writing from your ordinary life.
Maybe your brain is never entirely “off” when it comes to the work-in-progress, but you’ll find it a lot easier to relax after your daily stint if you have an office or working sanctum to physically exit when finished. Ideally, of course, this would be a wood-paneled private library a la Downton Abbey complete with fireplace, desk the size of an air-strip, and Carson The Butler bringing you fresh coffee whenever you ring the bell. In real life, we make do with what we’ve got: a spare bedroom made over into an office; a corner of the living room with a makeshift folding desk; a laptop designated as work-only. Don’t have even that much space? I’ve got friends who made the local Panera their office. Anything that separates writing from life, so you can close the door on it when you’re done. If nothing else, it’s a helpful cue for family members: the kids will learn very quickly that Mom is not on call to wash soccer uniforms or make Kool-Aid freezer-pops until she is back from Panera or has exited the spare bedroom and shut the door behind her.
7. “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Flaubert said that, and good old Gustave was right. I know the pervasive stereotype of a writer’s life is hard partying alternating with all-night writing binges . . . but you’ll be more productive with a steady routine, whatever that routine is. (If blowing off steam at a party relaxes you, then make that part of your routine.) When I was working a 9-5 day job, my routine was “Day job Monday through Friday, write all day Saturday, write all day Sunday. Rinse-and-repeat.” These days it’s “Get up, walk the dog, go to the gym, shower, eat lunch standing up in front of the fridge, go to spare bedroom-turned-office and write for the next six hours. Rinse-and-repeat.” It’s mindless. It’s repetitive. It’s certainly not glamorous. But it’s soothing. Soothing is good for your word-count.
8. Speaking of stereotypes, don’t be the substance-abusing writer.
I know; plenty of geniuses like Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote masterpieces around drug-and-alcohol problems. Still don’t recommend it. Most writers probably have a bit of a self-destructive bent built in–after all, our job is not just to nourish the voices in our heads, but talk back to them. Still, it’s probably wiser to soothe the crazy with routine rather than vices. Stephen King is the most successful author in the history of the published word, and what does he attribute his success to? “Staying sober, and staying married.”
9. Speaking of married: toxic relationships are toxic for your word-count.
It’s tough living with a writer–my husband could tell you all about the midnight scrambles to write an idea down before it fades into sleep; the wild-eyed work binges at deadline time; the fact that some part of my brain is always, always on the work-in-progress. But we’re happy, and happiness = productivity. Nobody should settle for less. If your significant other condescends about your cute little hobby, tells you to get a real job, or just plain resents having to do more of the dishes when you’re on deadline, kick ’em to the curb and watch your word-count rise in your new-found solitude.
10. Make friends with other writers.
Even the most loving spouse won’t know deadline agony quite as intimately as a fellow writer. Friends like this will literally save your sanity, not just by reading your entire 500 page manuscript in 3 days over Christmas week when you really need feedback fast, but by understanding where you’re at. When my last book had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown, my husband brought me flowers, made me dinner . . . and arranged for my nearest writer friend to take me out to coffee and talk me off the ledge. It worked. Whether these people live in your hometown or are a Facebook PM away, know who you can reach out to.
This list is by no means complete–it’s just a few things that help me stay the course so far, and I know I’ll keep learning as long as I keep writing. Because there’s no end in sight. This profession is a race with no finish line. Once you hit one goal (You got an agent! You got published!) it’s instantly replaced by another one. You’re always learning, always working, and there’s no magical point at which it becomes easy. Diana Gabaldon with her millions of readers, multi-city book tours, myriad bestseller lists, and Starz mini-series still had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to finish her galley edits, according to her Facebook update. Margaret George still stresses about getting her historical research accurate. Nobody gets a pass on the ups and downs of this life, no matter how successful. I have days when I cry into my coffee and contemplate a career in burger flipping, and I guarantee you, so does Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell. Just remember to keep an even keel. Keep sane. Keep writing.
What tips help you do that? I’m all ears.
Beta readers: to use, or not to use? I’m a fan, and I’ve found that it’s good to have different beta-readers who you look to for different things. Such as:
1. The Expert. This reader might change from book to book, depending on what you need fact-checked, because this reader doesn’t care about your characters or your pacing, but is reading simply to fact-check you. I had some Roman Army re-enactor types who were good for this. “Make your hero older, it was against Roman regs for a legionary to make centurion before 30.”
2. The Nit-Picker. The person who can be counted on to catch eeeeeeverything little minor mistake. “He can’t wave from the doorway because you already said she saw him *come in.*” I have a goddess named Christi who did this for my last two books.
3. The Language Reader. The reader who hears language like music and will instinctively “hear” where your prose is clunky, where your pacing on a scene is lagging, and hand you the list of verbs you are over-using. For me this is the Dowager Librarian: “Run a word check on `shrug,’ `wink,’ `saunter,’ `shriek,’ and `whisper,’ and cut at least 50% of them.” Yes, Mom.
4. The Big Picture Person. The one with the big-picture eye for story and character development, who can tell you where your story is slowing down or where it needs to be paced up, and who can tell you that your heroine’s turnaround needs to be better set up. Also the Dowager Librarian, for me, as well as Stephanie Dray. (And yes, if you are lucky you will get a Two For One or even Three For One special with some of these beta readers.)
5. The Ideal Demographic. The reader who might not give you much in the way of concrete feedback, but who represents the exact demographic you are trying to hit. For me that’s dear friend Kristen: a voracious bookworm with a solid grounding in history and an enthusiasm for my genre. If she raves about a book of mine, I knowI’ve hit the target. If she’s “It didn’t quite resonate like your last one” I know I’ve got work to do.
6. And finally, The Dark Side. The reader who pushes you to think about going further, whether with your characters or your plot. You’re thinking of writing about an arsonist? This reader suggests a murderer. You want your hero to get beaten up? This reader wants your hero lose a hand. You want your heroine to cheat on her fiance with his friend? This person will suggest she cheat in a threesome with TWO of his friends. Sure, maybe you won’t end up taking the advice. But you’ll consider going further than you ever did before, and it will lead you interesting places. For me, that’s the hubby.
Do you use beta readers?
The historical genre can sometimes abound with wafty heroines – moody princesses and soulful courtesans and sighing queens. If you’re tired of reading about these virginal ninnies, then Stephanie Thornton is the author for you, because her historical heroines rock. I loved her Theodora in “The Secret History,” a tough-as-nails girl who rose from street urchin to courtesan to Empress – and I couldn’t wait for Stephanie’s second book on Hatshepsut, the badass of ancient Egypt who took the Pharoah’s double crown for herself.
Wait no longer – Hatshepsut in “Daughter of the Gods” is here, and she’s a gem: whip-quick, smart-mouthed, unabashedly sensual, driving a chariot like a hellion and dreaming a man’s dreams of power. Have you ordered “Daughter of the Gods” yet? You should.
Stephanie Thornton was nice enough to drop by the blog today to answer some questions! Ok, some one-sentence answers to give some context . . .
1. First project?
My first finished novel was actually “Daughter of the Gods,” but in a strange twist, “The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora” was the first published.
2. Current project?
Up now is “Daughter of the Gods,” the story of Pharaoh Hatshepsut and her tumultuous path to Egypt’s throne.
3. Next project?
My next book to hit the shelves will be “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan,” followed by a novel about the sister, wives, and assorted lovers of Alexander the Great. (Let’s just say he was a busy guy…)
4. I’m seeing a pattern here. Publishers talk a lot about an author’s “brand,” and a lot of the time it seems like BS – most of us don’t have an over-arching thematic arc for all the books we’re going to write in our lives! But with successive novels on actress/courtesan/empress Theodora, Pharoah Hatshepsut, the wives and daughters of Genghis Khan, and a current work in progress on the women of Alexander the Great, you really do seem to have a clear brand of “Badass Unexplored Women of the Past.” Was that deliberate?
Heck yes! I’m a high school history teacher by day, and I get so tired of the lives of ancient women being summed up as their being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. There are a number of mostly ignored, but incredibly badass women in history that should be household names along with Cleopatra and Elizabeth I. (Okay, I realize most households probably don’t spend a lot of time talking about historical women… That might just be my house.)
5. What was your favorite scene to write out of Hatshepsut’s extraordinary life? Most difficult scene?
The battle scene where Hatshepsut is out collecting hands from the dead Nubians is my all-time favorite. I could visualize that scene before I ever wrote the book’s first page. Not only that, but there’s historical evidence that Hatshepsut might have done exactly that in real life, which goes to show that she’s a true badass.
The most difficult scene was definitely the one where Hatshepsut breaks the news to Aset that she’s going to be pharaoh [not Aset’s son]. Depending on who was reading, I was told to make her meaner, have her cry more, or find a really good excuse for why she felt she had to be pharaoh. In the end, there was a good reason for her to seize power, but I also didn’t want her falling all over herself in apology for taking the crown. After all, she deserved it!
6. She sure did! I loved that about her; that she didn’t apologize for being ambitious. Ok, what was the weirdest, whackiest thing you learned in the course of your research?
First, that ancient Egyptian women used a pessary of crocodile dung as a type of birth control. I’m sure it was highly effective at keeping the men away, simply because that’s pretty foul. Second, I am now an expert on stampeding hippos and how best to sacrifice a bull. (Always make sure you have their back legs secured.) Thank the gods for YouTube, because their videos were my go-to for research!
7. Hatshepsut carries her story all on her own, but she’s got a great surrounding cast: her icky-but-sympathetic brother/husband Thut, fellow wife Aset with whom she strikes up a surprising friendship – and of course, charismatic common-born architect Senenmut who alone out of pretty much all of Egypt has the guts to flirt with an all-powerful female Pharoah. Who plays your ideal cast in the multi-million-dollar HBO mini-series? (Because surely Alan Ball and David Benioff are leaving you messages, right?)
So many messages–that’s why I’ve had to hire secretaries! (See Question #9.) I would dearly love to see Hatshepsut played by a dark-haired Emilia Clarke and Senenmut MUST be played by a pre-Voldemort, English Patent-era Ralph Fiennes. *swoon* I’ve always seen Aset as looking like Penelope Cruz and although I’m not sure about Thut, I’m thinking someone like Alfie Allen… someone you could possibly like, but prefer to hate.
8. All your heroines come to dinner–Empress Theodora, Hatshepsut, the wives and daughters of Genghis Khan. How does that evening progress?
First, I hope Theodora’s cooks are in charge of the meal because no one wants to eat food from ancient Mongolia. (Boiled mutton, raw horsemeat, and lots of fermented mare’s milk… Far from a culinary paradise.) I’d daresay there would be some serious gossip on their men’s idiosyncrasies, followed by a rowdy shouting match over who had the greatest obstacles to overcome in order to rule their kingdoms. “I ordered 30,000 people killed after the Nika riots!” v. “I had to marry my brother and then steal the throne from my stepson-nephew!” v. “Dude, my dad is Genghis Khan and he threatened to pour molten silver down my throat if I didn’t clean the ger!”
9. We all know a writer’s life is exactly like you see it on “Castle,” so take us through a typical day for you: the red carpet premieres, the private jet to the 19-city book tour, the weekly lunches with Diana Gabaldon and Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, the publisher-funded research trips where they rent out the Valley of Kings so you can walk in Hatshepsut’s footsteps all by yourself . . .
Actually, I’m writing this in a vintage Chanel suit while on board my private yacht while my army of secretaries sort through the details of my book tour and fend off offers from HBO to turn all my books into mini-series. All in a day’s work…
A girl can dream, right?
Actually, my terribly glamorous day starts at 6AM as I stumble out of bed and head off to teach an assortment of history classes. Then I pick up my daughter, rush home for a flurry of afternoon activities, and throw dinner on the table. Only after my daughter is in bed do I get to change into my yoga pants (the required writer uniform, right?), and sit down to scribble a few pages before falling asleep on my laptop.
However, I did get to travel to Egypt a few years ago in order to research Hatshepsut’s story, although that involved traipsing through her mortuary temple and the Valley of the Kings with all the other throngs of gawking tourists. In August, at mid-day. ‘Cause I’m insane like that.
10. What sets your books apart from other historical fiction out there on the shelf?
My whole goal in writing historical fiction is to bring to light these kick-ass, forgotten women and to tell their stories in a way that makes modern readers appreciate all the nasty, gnarly obstacles they had to overcome. I also revel in all the cringe-worthy details that reveal how brutal life in the ancient world could be. Consider yourself warned.
And finally, a fun bonus question: everybody asks writers “Where do you get your ideas?” We both know there’s no meaningful answer to that, so here’s your chance for a snarky response. Where do you get your ideas (and I don’t care where you say as long as it’s not true!)
I drink a lot of wine, study my cats for hours on end, and indulge in marathons of Doctor Who in order to find my inspiration. There’s nothing better than a Syrah-induced haze and the idea of a time-traveling cat to stir the imagination about ancient Byzantium, Egypt, Mongolia, or Greece.
Oh wait… drinking, staring at my cats in a comatose state, and mega-Doctor Who marathons are what I do after my writing deadlines…
Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at www.stephanie-thornton.com.