Archives

Tags

Selected Works

Historical Fiction
Six authors bring to life overlapping stories of patricians and slaves, warriors and politicians, villains and heroes who cross each others' path during Pompeii's fiery end.
Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance's most notorious family, three outsiders must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power.
The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web.
The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.
The Year of Four Emperors - and four very different women struggling to survive
A brilliant and paranoid Emperor, a wary and passionate slave girl – who will survive?

Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents

The World's Best Writing Aid: Walking Shoes

March 21, 2016

Tags: writing advice

Every day, rain or shine, I throw on a pair of sneakers, leash up the dogs, and go for at least an hour-long ramble in the local park. Even when I'm on deadline and scrambling to give my WIP every possible minute, I carve that hour out. Why? Because it's the best writing aid in the world, bar none.

Victorians were very fond of long pointless rambles, generally up to some scenic location which could then be penned in endless flowery journal entries, but in the modern era, nobody seems to walk anymore. We don't walk to the grocery store or the post office; we don't have time. We don't let our kids walk to school; too dangerous. We don't walk for exercise; we drive to the gym and get on a treadmill so we can walk to nowhere and know exactly how many calories we burned doing it. But I'm a big believer in walking as an aid to writers, and here are six reasons why.

1. It gets us outside. When you have the ultimate indoor job, a ramble outdoors means you're soaking up some much-needed sunshine on what is probably a pasty-white face. Sun may be bad for you, but there's a reason most early cultures revolve around sun worship: sunlight makes people feel good. Slap on some sunscreen, but get outside; you'll feel better.

2. It makes us unplug. Even if we take our phones, you're still getting away from the hypnotic glare of the laptop screen. We all need to do this more often.

3. It's exercise. Writing is sedentary. Tire your legs out before you sit down for six hours of editing, and you'll be a lot less foot-jittery. Also slimmer.

4. It will untangle your plot problems for you. Seriously. If you've been banging your head repeatedly against the latest brick wall your ms has thrown up in your way, go for a walk. While walking your mind falls into an absent-minded kind of meditation. “Oooh, sunshine . . . Rats, I forgot to put on sunscreen . . . Pretty trees . . . I wonder if “Crimson Peak” is out on DVD yet . . . What should I have for dinner . . . Oh! I know exactly how my heroine gets out of that locked trunk now!” Plotting problems have a habit of unspooling when you let your mind wander in random directions rather than trying to focus hard-core—it's like one of those trick pictures where you see it clearly only by looking slightly to one side. Not to say we can't let our minds wander at home, but most of us have to-do lists that start distracting, emails that start pinging, chores silently begging to be done. Go for a long stroll, however, and your mind has no choice but to wander.

5. It's the best way to talk your way through a new idea. Take a friend on your walk and yatter through your writing problems. Bouncing ideas off a like mind is a fast way to get inspiration for a new project, plan a new book, or unravel that character dilemma you don't know how to handle. And something about walking-and-talking makes the ideas flow twice as fast; no idea why. I take the phone and call the Dowager Librarian every morning as I ramble; by the time we hang up, whatever plot dilemma facing my daily word-count is solved.

6. It makes the dogs leave you alone. Just try hitting your word-count when you have two pooches staring at you soulfully, informing you that you are a monster on a level with Mussolini for not getting up right now and taking them out to chase squirrels. Once back from the walk, they'll go to sleep and leave you in peace. Besides, watching dogs chase squirrels is the cutest mood-lifter on earth if you're a little down after killing 650,000 fictional characters in a mass historical slaughter.

So, grab a pair of sneakers and go for a walk. I guarantee your word-count will thank you.

10 Things About Writer Pals

January 8, 2016

Tags: writing advice, C.W. Gortner, Donna Russo Morin, Laura Kaye, Lea Nolan, Christi Barth, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, Ben Kane, Russell Whitfield, SJA Turney, Sophie Perinot, Stephanie Thornton

1. You can name every book they've ever written, describe their fictional heroes and heroines down to eye color and childhood traumas, and know their writing schedule as well as your own—but aren't 100% sure how many children they have. (Laura Kaye—it's two, right? We've only known each other 4 years . . .)

2. You've beta-read so many of each other's rough drafts that your margin notes look like Sanskrit and you have long lost the need to be polite. (Stephanie Thornton's "The Conqueror's Wife," page 337 of the rough draft: “Seriously, another severed head? Does nobody in this book ever bring anything else to a party? Have they never heard of house-plants?!”)

3. Your lunch dates scare the civilians. Because the waiter invariably walks up as one of you is saying brightly “I killed a baby today!” and collecting high-fives and exclamations of “Omigod, so happy for you!” from around the table. Waiter invariably sprints off white-faced before he hears the accompanying “So, this was in Chapter 9 . . .” (Sophie Perinot and I have probably been banned from most of the restaurants in the greater DC metro area.)

4. You're more accustomed to seeing them in some kind of costume or historical rig than out of it. Especially true of the hist-fic pals. If I ever met Ben Kane, Russell Whitfield, or SJA Turney at a conference where they were in normal clothes rather than Roman breastplates and mail, I'd walk right past 'em.

5. You get the emergency call to show up with ice cream and wine for some serious weeping and wailing. But the drama is all over deadlines, not love-lives. (Eliza Knight and I killed a bottle or two as we cried over our collaborative stories in “A Year of Ravens,” and the impossibility that we would ever get them finished in time.)

6. You've had in-depth discussions about everything under the sun, and you each know what the other thinks about life and death, love and work, politics and art, history and pychology. But three years into the friendship you're turning around in amazement and saying “I had no idea you had a sister!”

7. You know each other's writing so well, you can eyeball a crutch phrase from a mile away and hone in on that sucker like a sniper. (Stephanie Dray knows I will carp like a fishwife the moment I see the word “tresses.” Christi Barth beats me over the head about not using enough commas.)

8. Your spouses commiserate over deadline stress. My husband and Lea Nolan's had old home week at the last dinner party. “Yeah, so my wife's curled in the corner gnashing her teeth this week.” “Why, she copyediting?” “Yep, for two more weeks.” “Yeah, that's rough at our house too . . .”

9. They're some of your best friends on earth—and you've met face to face twice. C.W. Gortner and Donna Russo Morin and I only see each other at conferences roughly every other year, but we always fall on each other with cries of joy and proceed to gab more or less nonstop for three days.

10. You have standing dates, not for book clubs or lady lunches or anniversaries, but for book-release days. Writer friends can be counted on to keep you away from the Refresh button on your Amazon Sales Rankings. They WILL use handcuffs if necessary.


Thank God for writer pals. There's no one quite like 'em and without 'em you'd be in the funny farm.

The 13 Stages of Copyediting Madness

October 25, 2014

Tags: writing advice, copyediting, lady of the eternal city

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.

How To Keep Writing and Keep Sane

June 13, 2014

Tags: writing advice

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 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.

The Beauty of Beta Readers

May 23, 2014

Tags: q&a, writing advice

I'm over on Andrea's blog today, talking about beta readers and why they make your book better. It's my belief beta readers come in six flavors: the Expert, the Nit-Picker, the Language Reader, the Big Picture Person, the Ideal Demographic, and crucially, the Dark Side. That's who I've got in my stable of beta readers, anyway, and I would move to another continent to follow them if they ever left me.

Want to read more? Click here!

DON'T Write What You Know!

November 16, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, writing advice

“Write what you know” is probably some of the worst advice for writers ever. Even authors of modern-day fiction have their problems with that old chestnut. Tom Clancy may have set all his books in the same 20th century America in which he lived, but he didn't write about writers, he wrote about spec-war operatives, even if he'd never been one. And historical novelists do a special kind of hair-tearing when we hear “Write what you know” because we really don't know what we write about. No amount of research will make me know what it's like to watch slaves die in the Colosseum, and Margaret George will never know what it's like to be Helen of Troy either, and that didn't stop either of us from writing about it anyway.

I sometimes like to think “Write WHO you know” instead. As long as I can remember, I've indulged in an idle game called “When Should They Have Been Born?” Any serious fan of historical fiction harbors the conviction from time to time that we were really born in the wrong century. So whenever I was bored to tears in class, or weekly meetings, or family gatherings (which was most of the time), I'd go around the room deciding what century everybody really belonged in, according to their personality. And boy, did the book ideas start flowing.

My acerbic librarian mother who prefers dogs, books, and herbs to the company of people? A Benedictine nun in medieval England, brewing up herbal tinctures and illuminating manuscripts and breaking her vow of silence to coo at the dog she isn't supposed to keep in her monastic cell. A great character for a Middle Ages novel.

My husband, a Navy sailor who'd have made a great Viking raider, swinging a sword over one shoulder and taking his longship out to the edge of the known world and never, ever getting seasick. A made-to-order hero for an epic battles-and-blood Norse tale.

My long-deceased feminist grandmother with her paisley scarves and her wry wit: a born reformer who should have been a 1912 suffragette. She'd be chaining herself to the railing of Number 10 Downing Street and going on hunger strike at Holloway Prison; a dowager in a fabulous hat and a “Votes For Women” banner who could have mentored Lady Sybil from “Downton Abbey.”

My much-tattooed kickboxing instructor has a streak of benign sadism that could definitely have belonged to a Roman centurion . . . my other grandmother is one of those Depression-era Steinbeck matriarchs in black and white who keeps her family together through disaster after disaster . . . my jazz musician father could have doubled for a handsome court musician under Empress Maria Theresa . . . how many book ideas have I gotten, just from looking around at a family gathering or a gym class?

Now, I may not end up writing all those books. I don't really see myself writing a blood-and-battle Viking epic, largely because Bernard Cornwell with his Saxon Stories (among many others) has already covered it so well. But sometimes you do get a solid book idea out of a real person. Case in point, my husband's grandmother: a fiery Sicilian whose cooking could make angels weep, and who would absolutely smack you on the head with a wooden spoon and threaten excommunication if you committed the crime of breaking the pasta into the pot instead of folding it. I had a “eureka” moment and transplanted her personality more or less intact to Renaissance Italy. My husband's grandma ended up personal chef to the Borgia Pope in my last book—and she may be in her nineties now in the 21st century, but she's absolutely tickled to think that in some alternate life she got to cook for a Pope, defraud a convent, and have a one-night stand with Cesare Borgia.

Don't write what you know—write who you know. Look around you at the next boring board meeting or family gathering. What century do these people really belong in? Maybe you'll find the hero of your next historical novel.