Three Historical Novel Society Conferences: The Highlight Reel

I’m preparing for this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference, and I’m going as a seasoned veteran, with three previous cons under my belt. Each one was fantastic and memorable in its own right. But as I pack my semi-famous red stilettos for this June, I’ve realized it’s kinda fun to look back at my last three conference recaps. Here’s a highlight reel from year to year: what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what always makes it worthwhile to go!

 

CONFERENCE PREGAME

2011: Since it’s my first time at this rodeo, I spend hours agonizing what to wear. I pack approximately thirty outfits for two days, and nothing seems right. If I wear a suit, everyone is bound to be in jeans. If I wear jeans, I’ll be the rube in a power-suited bunch of professionals. Help!

2013: I’m speaking on panels this time around; cue the nerves. Having spent a week agonizing over my presentations and changing my mind yet again about which scene I would be trotting out for the Saturday Night Sex Scene Read-Aloud, I’m packing literally the last minute before my dawn airport shuttle arrives, flinging things into my suitcase with such random logic that my first thought on unpacking is always something along the lines of “Why did I pack a set of wind-chimes and an abacus, but no pants?”

2015: I’ve been to three conferences by now; why do I not have a nicer set of luggage?! My suitcase is missing a wheel, and my carry-on is a battered black backpack in which I could comfortably pack Dwayne Johnson complete with his helicopter from “San Andreas.”

 

OPENING RECEPTION

2011: I take a deep breath and head down for the introductory cocktail hour. I don’t get two feet before Margaret George (!!!) recognizes me. She’s tiny, about up to my chin, and probably wouldn’t outweigh a stack of her own books. We talk shop about Emperor Nero, and I manage not to faint.

2013: I run around shrieking greetings to people I haven’t seen, in some cases, since the 2011 conference in San Diego. I wear my red patent-leather stilettos; the 4-inch ones that turn my toes numb, but give me a Joan-from-“Mad-Men” strut. They’re my good luck charm from the last conference, which I attended as a tongue-tied fan-girl–they were by far the most memorable thing about me. Even more than my name-tag, people at the reception glance at my feet and exclaim, “I remember you!”

2015: My people, there you are! Donna Russo Morin in her spike-heels and Sophia Loren zest for life, Gillian Bagwell and Kris Waldherr, my “Day of Fire” mates Sophie Perinot and Vicky Alvear Shecter, Leslie Carroll and Anne Easter Smith . . . these are my tribe, and it’s delicious to be among them again. C.W. Gortner arrives and the party dials up to an 11.

 

CONFERENCE KEYNOTE SPEECHES

2011: Keynote speech by power literary agent Jennifer Weltz. Not only does she give a great speech on what exactly an agent does all day and what they’re looking for, she has fabulous black lace stockings.

2013: Anne Perry is our guest speaker, and she’s got the voice of a born story-teller: low, lulling, spooky; absolute mistress of the dramatic pause. She paints such a vivid picture of Robespierre in his tumbril on the way to the guillotine, I can practically smell the blood between the cobblestones of the Place de la Greve.

2015: Diana Gabaldon is guest speaker, and she wisely gives us exactly what we want: ALL the dirt on the new Outlander show, the television process, and of course Sam Heughan.

 

BEST PIECE OF ADVICE HEARD AT CONFERENCE

2011: I catch a morning bagel with Michelle Moran, who has about three feet of glossy dark hair, and would look sensational in one of those narrow Egyptian sheaths her heroines are always wearing. “What are you writing about after Rome?” she asks me. “You don’t want to keep doing the same historical era over and over in your books, do you?” It’s a light-bulb moment.

2013: C.W. Gortner during his lunchtime speech, saying Historical fiction is often the punching bag of the industry, second only to romances . . . but remember–we celebrate a genre that is time-honored.”

2015: David Blixt during his sword workshop, complete with actual blades: “The groove down the middle of the blade is called a fuller, and it’s there strictly to lighten the blade. DO NOT EVER CALL IT A BLOOD CHANNEL.” We have all been warned.

 

FAVORITE CONFERENCE PANEL

2011: Four editors, talking about the selling and marketing of historical fiction. One admits she never wants to read another Pride and Prejudice spin-off; another says he’ll howl if he gets another manuscript about Anne Boleyn. I’m right there with him.

2013: Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction.” Mary Sharratt calls Hildegard von Bingen a power frau, Kamran Pasha skewers fundamentalists of all religions with a pithy “Fundamentalism stems from insecurity,” and Stephanie Dray brings down the house when asked when it is appropriate to critique religion: “Always, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise.

2015: What Really Happens During A Historical Romance Cover Shoot?” Kim Killion of the Killion Group walks us through it with the help of her amiable 6’8 cover model who has a set of eight-pack abs on which you could grate cheese. We giggle helplessly as Kim explains how the models start fully dressed for the Inspirational/Sweet Romance covers (the female model gets a dictionary shoved in her hand and is told “Here’s a Bible; think of Jesus”) and once the clothes start coming off, the Sexy/Erotica covers get shot. Male cover model strips down cheerfully to a kilt and boots, gets sprayed with Pam (grapeseed oil for the holistic-living models!), and is a very good sport about all the authors laughing hysterically as he smolders on cue.

 

 

BEST RANDOM HILARIOUS MOMENT AT CONFERENCE

2011: Diana Gabaldon toting a broadsword through the entire opening cocktail reception. “I promised I’d lend it for the costume show,” she explains, and later observes that any girl looking to pick up guys should just walk into a bar with a massive sword. She’s right: every man at the conference bounces up exclaiming “Oooh, can I touch it?”

2013: The costume pagaent, narrated by Gillian Bagwell/Joan, Lady Rivers. First prize is awarded to a hilarious Teralyn Pilgrim in a pristine Vestal Virgin outfit . . . worn serenely over her eight months pregnant belly. Her Vestal-in-denial routine has us all in stitches.

2015: The horror on the faces of 200+ writers as they walk into breakfast the first morning and see a wall of decaf machines. This is a writers conference; nobody drinks decaf! Decaf coffee is like a hooker that only wants to cuddle.

 

POST-CONFERENCE CONCLUSION

2011: I anticipated the great panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips. What I didn’t expect was the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write, represent, sell, and read the books in this world of historical fiction. As a writer, I work alone–I spend my days in yoga pants, curled up on the couch with a laptop in my lap, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. What fun to meet so many people who do the same thing; people who all give the same knowing nods when someone exclaims, “Don’t you just HATE it when the girl on your book cover has the top of her head chopped off?”

2013: HNS 2011 was my first conference, and it was an eye-opener: I’d been a professional author for less than two years, and I was going it entirely alone. It was in San Diego two years ago that I first found out what a wonderful community there is of writers, readers, and friends in this business. I don’t think I realized how lonely this job could be, when you don’t have that community. Two years later, and I couldn’t imagine being without it.

2015: The last few years have seen some sobering changes: the demise of brick-and-mortar stores; the Amazon-Hachette feud, and everything else that can have you convinced that writing is a tougher gig than ever. And it is–but what hasn’t changed is the weird and wonderful world of writers, readers, and friends in this business, nowhere more apparent than at the HNS Conference. This is a lonely job; my writer friends save my sanity on a regular basis. And as I unpack my red stilettos and my 16 new books, I already can’t wait for HNS 2017.

Top Ten Books of 2016

Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, ten of the best books I read in 2016 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .

1. “Fingersmith” by Sara Waters

A taut, atmospheric, Victorian-era thriller with more twists and turns than a Whitechapel alley. At first absolutely no one is likable in this tale, which centers around a queasy scheme to lock an heiress in a mad-house and seize her fortune. But the plot whip-lashes like a snake, accomplishing the impossible in making us empathize deeply with characters we at first despised. And the tender romance that grows between two brutalized women is a heart-breaker.

Buy for: your thriller-loving bestie who has lived for morally-gray anti-heroines ever since “Gone Girl.”

2. “The Betrayal” by Helen Dunmore

Soviet Russia comes to life here in all its paranoid complexity, seen through the eyes of an idealistic young doctor and his quiet wife, both survivors of the devastating Leningrad siege. All they want is to enjoy the tiny pleasures of life allowed by the state, but the wheels of power have a way of grinding people like this into paste, and they both know the danger they are in when the doctor is called to treat the mortally ill son of a powerful party member. Terrifying and intense to the last page.

Buy for: that Marx-reading uncle who still drones on at Thanksgiving about how communism could have worked if only. Chortle silently as you introduce him to the historical reality.

3. “The Engagements” by J. Courtney Hall

“A diamond is forever.” A sharp-witted ad-woman pens the immortal line for Tiffany’s in the 40s, and launches four seemingly unconnected stories of love, marriage, fidelity, infidelity, secrets, and and marriages. Poignant character-building, diamond-bright prose, and witty observations about the insidiousness of the wedding industry make this one a gem.

Buy for: your wedding-obsessed office intern, the one addicted to “Say Yes To The Dress.” Get her thinking about WHY she wants that dress and that big sparkly rock–innate romanticism, or clever marketing?

4. “The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia” by C.W. Gortner

One of Gortner’s most unique heroines. Unlike his other “bad girls of history” leading ladies, Lucrezia Borgia sees the capacity for violence rooted in her family blood as a concrete thing, not a product of the scandal machine. Her struggle isn’t against revisionist history unfairly painting her as wicked and corrupt; her struggle is not to BECOME wicked and corrupt. Inside the shell of papal politics and gorgeous Renaissance settings, this is an extremely personal story about a girl fighting to save her own soul.

Buy for: your psychologist neighbor who lives down the block or in the upstairs apartment. They’ll get a kick trying to diagnose the various Borgia family psychoses, neuroses, and manias.

5. “The Wrath & the Dawn” by Renee Ahdieh

Fairy-tale retellings are nothing new, but mostly we see European fairy-tales being told, and really, it is about damn time someone delved into the rich legacy of stories further east. This YA historical fantasy retelling of the 1001 Arabian Nights stars Shahrzad, a tough, clever girl determined to avenge her cousin, who was the latest victim in the parade of brides to march into the Caliph’s bedroom and out to an executioner’s garrote. On every page the jewels sparkle, the sand grits, the perfume intoxicates, the food is mouthwatering–and the end is a dark cliffhanger. Don’t worry, the sequel is already out.

Buy for: the teenage girl in your life, whether daughter or cousin or little sister, whom you’re trying to wean off Mary Sue heroines to more bad-ass role-models. Be ready for the excited discussion of how quick wits and a fast imagination really are every bit as bad-ass as being Katniss-Everdeen-quick with a bow.

6. “The Scent of Secrets” by Jane Thynne

For all the myriad novels written about the fight against Hitler, there are few that take place in the belly of the beast–in Berlin, rather than on the battlefield or in some sympathetic Allied nation. But the world of Nazi Berlin is exactly what we get in “The Scent of Secrets,” and it’s fascinating. Heroine Clara Vine is half-German and half-English, a Mitford-esque society girl making her living on the Berlin film scene as an actress . . . but secretly she uses her connections to Nazi high society to spy for England. The details of Third Reich weddings, bride schools where German girls are trained for marriage, and the shark-like waters where high-society Nazi wives like Magda Goebbels and Emmy Goring rule the roost make for some of the most chilling world-building I’ve read.

Buy for: your fiery feminist grandmother, who will drop some very ungrandmotherly expletives about the pernicious doctrine of Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche as she devours every page.

7. “The Summer Before the War” by Helen Simonson
Humorous, heart-breaking, tender, and tragic: a small English village with its cast of eccentrics, academics, intellectuals, and locals, all thrown into disarray first by the arrival of Belgian refugees fleeing the pre-WWI conflict in Europe, and then by the overwhelming tide of war itself.

Buy for: your mother, if like mine she swoons both for rural English novels and Wilfred Owen’s war poetry.

8. “The Fireman” by Joe Hill

Writing talent must run in Stephen King’s family, because the horrormeister’s son pens a thrilling tale here. It’s a familiar dystopian saga of a band of survivors hiding from the fallout of a strange incendiary plague–but the high-wire pacing, the sympathetic characters, and some truly detestable villains make this dystopian epic a standout.

Buy for: your brother in the fire department. He’ll get a kick out of the mysterious pyro-gifted hero.

9. “America’s First Daughter” by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Sure, I’m good friends with both authors–but this was one of the break-out historicals of the year, coming 3rd in the Goodreads Choice Awards, so clearly there are plenty of readers out there who agree with me about the merits of this warts-and-all look at one of our most complicated, troubling Founding Fathers. Told through the eyes of Jefferson’s daughter Patsy, AFD examines themes of racism, slavery, politics, revolution, domestic abuse, war, and the secret legacy that all those influences has left in America’s past.

Buy for: your civics-minded dad who still can’t understand how the election turned out the way it did, and who has been reading a lot of American history ever since to figure out how exactly we got here.

10. “Before The Fall” by Noah Hawley

A private plane inexplicably crashes into the ocean fifteen minutes after take-off, and only two survivors emerge from the wreckage. Why? This deeply character-driven twister of a story unravels forward and backward from the central accident: the survivors limping ahead into the chaotic aftermath of the crash, and the dead who one by one tell the stories that brought them to the plane on that fatal morning. Who or what caused the crash? The answer will surprise and move you.

Buy for: your brainiac husband, who lives to untangle plotty whodunits. Bet him dinner at a 3-star restaurant if he fingers the right perp. Smile, collect your filet mignon and bay scallops, and admit you didn’t get this one right on your first read either.

Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!

Guest Spotlight: The Outlander Cookbook!

If you’re a fan of “Outlander” or a fan of food, this post is for you.

A few years ago when my Borgia duology was coming out, I had the idea of putting together a virtual potluck with several food bloggers who would cook Renaissance dishes out of my book. The results were fantastic, and I made the acquaintance of some wonderful cook–among them Theresa Carle-Sanders, pro chef and blogger extraordinaire at Outlander Kitchen, where she has been faithfully recreating one fabulous recipe after another from Diana Gabaldon’s epic series. And with the recent smash hit of the Starz Outlander mini-series, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear Theresa had landed an official cookbook deal!

I’ve already sampled several recipes out of this sensational cookbook (order here!) but this has to be my favorite so far–hands down winner when it came time to pick a recipe spotlight!

GOAT CHEESE AND BACON TARTS

It was a savoury made of goat’s meat and bacon, and he saw Fergus’s prominent Adam’s apple bob in the slender throat at the smell of it. He knew they saved the best of the food for him; it didn’t take much looking at the pinched faces across the table. When he came, he brought what meat he could, snared rabbits or grouse, sometimes a nest of plover’s eggs—but it was never enough, for a house where hospitality must stretch to cover the needs of not only family and servants, but the families of the murdered Kirby and Murray. At least until spring, the widows and children of his tenants must bide here, and he must do his best to feed them.

“Sit down by me,” he said to Jenny, taking her arm and gently guiding her to a seat on the bench beside him. She looked surprised—it was her habit to wait on him when he came—but sat down gladly enough. It was late, and she was tired; he could see the dark smudges beneath her eyes.

—VOYAGER, chapter 4, “The Dunbonnet”

From Theresa: Vegetarian options were tough to come by in the eighteenth century, and goat meat can be hard to find for some in the twenty-first, so I’m claiming food-from-fiction license with this switch-up from a meat pie to one-bite puff pastry rounds topped with a savory goat cheese spread. A delicious addition to the snack table at your next book club meeting or office party.

From Kate: These are a wonder. Cheese, bacon, and herbs all packed into one delicate, flavorful bite. A recipe done easily in several stages; light work for big payoff (especially if you go with frozen puff pastry). A winner!

***

Ingredients

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into ¼-inch strips
½ recipe Blitz Puff Pastry (page 29), chilled, or 1 pound (450 grams) frozen puff pastry, thawed
8 ounces (225 grams) goat cheese
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon, grated or minced
1 large egg
2 tablespoons butter
36 small fresh sage leaves, or 18 large ones, cut in half lengthwise

Method

Move a rack to the top-middle rung and heat the oven to 400°F.

In a frying pan, crisp the bacon over medium heat. Drain on paper towels.

On a lightly floured counter, roll the pastry out to a 16-inch square. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the goat cheese, bacon, poppy seeds, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and lemon zest in a small bowl and stir well. Cover and refrigerate.

Lightly beat the egg with 1 teaspoon cold water to make an egg wash. Use a 3-inch round cutter to cut 36 rounds from the pastry. Transfer to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet and brush with the egg wash. Bake until puffed and golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool completely on the baking sheet.

Reduce the oven to 300°F.

In a small frying pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the butter until bubbling over medium heat. Fry the sage leaves in batches until crisp. Drain on a paper towel–lined plate and repeat with the remaining sage leaves.

Top each puff pastry round with a teaspoonful of the goat cheese mixture and a
fried sage leaf. Heat in the oven for 5 minutes and serve. Makes 36.

The World’s Best Writing Aid: Walking Shoes

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

A selection of my favorite author pals from the last Historical Novel Society conference: Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Stephanie Dray, and Eliza Knight, with Ben Kane photoshopped in for the complete “Day of Fire” team!

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.

Favorite Books of 2015

Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, the best books I read in 2015 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for. Why eleven and not the usual ten? I got bored, so you get a bonus book.

1. “The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd.
Is there any fictional setting more delicious than the seamy underbelly of Victorian England? Lynn Shepherd dives deep under the prim-and-proper surface of 1850s London with this superbly atmospheric tale of a young detective on the hunt for a missing child and a mysterious killer who might just be a young Jack the Ripper. Street urchins, Whitechapel prostitutes, powerful men with depraved secrets, not-so-insane patients locked up in lunatic asylums, and a Dickensian Bleak House twist make this one a winner, and better yet, the first in a series. Shepherd’s young detective goes on to star in at least two more adventures.

Buy for: your mother, if like mine she is pining for the return of “Penny Dreadful.”

2. “Praetorian” by S.J.A. Turney
Delicious unpredictability is what sets “Praetorian” apart from the rest of the guts-and-glory Roman HF out there. A villain looks like he’s shaping up to be a long-term adversary, only to be suddenly killed off. Emperor Commodus comes onto the scene, trailing hints of madness, hubris, and Joaquin Phoenix, but is unexpectedly . . . a nice guy? You never quite know where the twisting path of the plot will take you, so all you can do is follow along with stalwart and endlessly likable legionary Rufinus as he is promoted from simple legionary to Praetorian guard, and thrust into a world of plots, shadows, assassinations, and heart-stopping swordplay.

Buy for: that teenage boy in your life, be it son or grandson or nephew, who doesn’t like history. He’ll be sucked into Rufinus’ adventures before he knows it, and probably beg for a gladius. Settle for getting him “Rome: Total War” and the sequel to Praetorian which is already out.

3. “The Secret Life of Violet Grant” by Beatriz Williams
A charming, quirky, witty dual narrative that snaps back and forth between Vivian, a ’60s career girl struggling to make a name as a journalist, and Violet, her scientifically-minded aunt struggling to be accepted as a physicist in pre-WWI Berlin. Vivian’s narrative as she tries to untangle her aunt’s long-buried secrets is flippant, funny, and delightful.

Buy for: the most irreverent member of your Girl Squad. She’ll see herself in Vivian.

4. “Defending Jacob” by William Landay
Read about teen killers in the media, and we all shake our heads. How could their parents not have known?” William Landay dives into that question in this tense and terrifying tale where a teenage boy is accused of murdering a classmate, and quickly becomes the town pariah as the court case grinds on. The boy’s staunchest defender is his powerhouse lawyer father, who wrestles legal demons and personal ones as he comes to face the question: what if his son is guilty after all? An unputdownable book that screams to a breathtaking climax.

Buy for: your legal beagle cousin. Watch him switch his dreams from prosecution attorney to family law.

5. “Rodin’s Lover” by Heather Webb
Camille Claudel would not have been an easy woman to know, but she sure was a fascinating one to read about. The daughter of French bourgeoisie, she has zero interest in marriage or domesticity–zero interest in anything, really, except becoming a sculptor. Prickly, proud, disciplined, and obsessed, Camille pushes away friends, alienates suitors, and uses family, all in the fierce pursuit of art. Her partner in art and love is Rodin, who understands Camille’s drive because he shares it. Powerful, poignant, beautifully written.

Buy for: your niece going off to art school. Tell her that if she starts hearing voices like Camille, for God’s sake go to a doctor.

6. “Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen
The first in a fascinating new fantasy series revolving around a young queen struggling to protect her country from a terrifying neighboring empire which demands monthly Hunger-Games-like slave tributes. There is magic and mayhem and battle, but the real draw here is the young Queen herself: refreshingly plain, resolutely blunt-spoken, headstrong and compassionate and brave. She’s a real girl who dreams about romance but has no time for it with a new throne and an incipient invasion on her hands. I look forward to the next installment in her adventures.

Buy for: that smart-as-a-whip little girl in your life, whether sister or daughter or just the kid down the block who you babysit. Promise you’ll take her to the upcoming movie of this book once it comes out, starring Emma Watson.

7. “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey
Space opera for the ages by an author team who knows how to turn up the tension like almost no other writers I’ve ever read. The world-building is impeccable, the science is sound without drowning the story in techno-babble, the space-battles are thrilling, and the characters solid: an idealistic ship captain and his shattered crew running from a lethal secret in a world where humanity has colonized the solar system but not yet the stars. There are four books following “Leviathan Wakes” in the Expanse Series, and a Sy-Fy TV show airing this month.

Buy for: your geek buddy at work who hates how women in sci-fi/fantasy so often fail the Bechdel Test. She’ll be in agony which Expanse character to cosplay next: tough-as-nails Marine Bobbie, brilliant engineer Naomi, or foul-mouthed little politician Avasarala.

8. “The Conqueror’s Wife” by Stephanie Thornton
Stephanie Thornton is rapidly becoming my favorite author for badass women of the ancient world, and this is her best yet. The focus here isn’t really on Alexander the Great, but on the people who surrounded him and shaped his legacy: his tomboy sister Thessalonike who yearns to be a warrior; scientifically-minded Persian princess Drypetis who seethes in captivity after her father is dethroned; ruthless beauty Roxana who craves power as Alexander’s wife; and the lovable Hephaestion who is the conqueror’s boyhood companion and lover. All these narrators are fascinating, and their voices interweave in a gorgeous chorus of stirring battles, opulent feasts, luxurious palaces, and a never-ending web of intrigue.

Buy for: that old college history professor you still meet now and then for coffee. He’ll swoon for the lush historical detail. If you’re feeling really evil, buy an extra copy for that anti-gay-marriage drone you drew for Secret Santa at work, and watch their heads explode as they read about all these sexually-fluid Greeks.

9. “Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy.
A tortured, beautiful, moving story of the friendship between four boys attending an elite Southern military academy, surviving brutal hazing and the agonies of first romance even as the school goes through its own growing pains with integration, institutional racism, and the looming threat of the Vietnam War. Betrayal and tragedy will strike one of the four before graduation, but the ending is full of a savage and gorgeous payback.

Buy for: your ex-Army dad. Ask him if all officers really had to go through hazing this horrible.

10. “The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner
The third in Gortner’s rip-roaring series about Tudor spy Brendon Prescott, who has his hands full this time around: a poisoning attempt on on the newly-ascended Queen Elizabeth, a missing lady-in-waiting, and a dire Spanish plot–not to mention a deadly adversary come back to haunt him. Tudor fiction can feel tired, but the Spymaster trilogy is fresh, fast-paced, and delightful.

Buy for: your uncle, the one whose wife made him sit through all of “The Tudors” and now consequently thinks the whole era is bodice-ripping and leather pants and pouty-lipped kings. Brendon’s sword fights and spy games will balance the scales.

11. “Medicis Daughter” by Sophie Perinot.
This is Renaissance France meets Game of Thrones: dark, addictive historical fiction that coils religious strife, court intrigue, family hatred, and betrayed innocence like a nest of poisonous snakes. Princess Margot, daughter of the infamous Catherine de’Medici, is our guide to the heart of her violent, incestuous family: a French Sansa Stark who transforms from naive beauty to accomplished game player to woman of conscience.

Buy for: your sophisticated older sister, because she reminds you of Margot’s worldly, witty, and hysterically funny mentor the Duchesse de Nevers. We all need such women in our lives.

And we all need these books in our lives, too. Hurry outside, go buy them–and Merry Christmas!

Collaborative Writing: An Irreverent Look Behind The Curtain

As I wrote A YEAR OF RAVENS with my six co-authors Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Simon Turney, and Russell Whitfield, we were often asked about the collaborative process. How exactly does one go about writing a book-in-seven-parts? Well, it involves a lot of emails, a lot of Skype sessions, a lot of back-and-forth Facebook chats–and we undertake it with a great deal of seriousness, as you see from this collection of direct quotes as we moved through the stages of collaboration this year.

As We Outline Our Stories

Simon: I have an eight-page outline, anyone want to have a look?
Kate: My entire outline is eleven words.
Stephanie: I want to talk over-arching themes. What are we trying to say with this book? What’s our overall message?
Vicky: Why are we talking overarching themes before we even know what happens?!
Ruth: My heroine’s name–Ria or Narina? Oh well, I’ll decide by the time I’m done.
Eliza: Really?! I can’t move forward at all until my heroine has a name.
Russell: Hey guys, my story’s already finished!
All of us: (outwardly) Wow, youre so motivated! (Inwardly) Bastard.

As We Research

Ruth: This poem I’m reading on Celtic wooing practices, `The Wooing of Etain . . .’ Not a lot of wooing in it. Sparky bunch.
Stephanie: Russ, you walked Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman armor–does chain-mail really go thunk-scratch as you walk?
Russell: It’s actually more wunk-thunk-kitch, wunk-thunk-kitch.

As We Research Some More

Stephanie: My Roman procurator’s villa is in Narbo. But I might need to change the color of the grapes in his vineyard. Maybe we can’t be sure of the climate in that specific place for whatever variety of grape existed before modern variations 2000 years ago.
Kate: Don’t mention the color of the grapes. Just say they’re ripe. Nobody cares what color the grapes are.
Stephanie: I’m putting in the color of the grapes! You can’t stop me. I’ve gone rogue.
Kate: Is that the mulish streak of an author thinking “I looked it up. I researched it. It’s going in the book or time is wasted?”
Stephanie: Absolutely! I don’t even drink wine. I don’t know the difference between a Syrah and a Chardonnay. You think I researched grape regions in France for my health? No, Madam. I did not.

As We Write

Stephanie: The f*cking king still isn’t burned.
Ruth: So many Iron Age names are completely unusable. Corotica, Auumpus, Aessicunia . . .
Russell: My hero can’t keep his willy in his subligares.
Vicky: All right, break for lunch, then back to the slaughter.
Eliza: My muse today is a bitchy bitch who bitches.
Simon: I’ve managed to put two tines of a fork into my hand.
Kate: I love you guys.

As We Procrastinate

Kate: Hey, look at this! `Buzzfeed quiz to find your Celtic name!’ I got `Floraidh, the Gentle Petal.’ Jesus. What are you guys getting?
Simon: `Muireann, born of the sea. For a man who has to travel 50 miles to the ocean, I find that amusing.
Russell: `Aidan the Fiery Rider. The ancient Celts would have seen you as the bringer of light.’ And I’m a complete slacker . . .
Vicky: I got Muireann too. And I live 250 miles from a beach.

As We Finish Our Rough Drafts

Stephanie: Slept for ten hours straight after writing 22,000 words in 4 days.
Eliza: Pulled four all-nighters and is now drinking wine straight from a jar.
Vicky: Cross-eyed from maneuvering her mind around the mental contortions needed to plausibly excuse a massacre.
Ruth: Mightily glad I finished my story when I did, because seconds later a huge spider ran across the desk. I’ll be decamping to the kitchen until it’s died of old age. Or possibly until I have.
Simon: MIA. Apparently fled all the way to Wales to get away from the non-stop barrage of Boudica emails.
Kate: Killed approximately 80,000 fictional Celts and has used every synonym in the book for “slaughter.”
Russell: Smiling like a cat in the cream because he finished his story first and didn’t skate across the deadline over-caffeinated, under-slept, and hooked up via IV to the nearest alcoholic beverage like his co-authors.

As We Edit Each Other

Stephanie: Kate, don’t have your hero kick the severed head. Soooo disrespectful.
Eliza: Two stories to edit AND another book out this week . . .
Vicky: Wait, you guys feel sorry for my story’s homicidal maniac?
Simon: ______ ______ _____! (Editing while on holiday, bumping down a Welsh country road in the passenger seat of a Vauxhall Zafira, going 25 mph behind a horse caravan).
Ruth: Well, my heroine’s unconscious through all of THAT story, so that saves me writing her any dialogue . . .
Kate: Russ, editing your foul-mouthed optio is having a deleterious effect on my vocabulary. I just told my cranky old plug-in coffeemaker to `Hurry up, you dozy f***ing cow.
Russell: You’re welcome, luv.

As We Fact Check

Stephanie: Eliza, stop looking up etymological roots! You can’t FIND a word that’s old enough! That’s the beauty of writing in the ancient world; you don’t have to do this!
Eliza: I. Can’t. Stop.
Ruth: I’ve spent the day only leaving the computer to hunt out books I haven’t used in years. I must go remind Husband that I’m still alive.
Kate: Russ, you say Gaulish, but should we go with Gallic?
Russ: Gaulish. Gallic brings to mind berets, stripy shirts, Gauloise cigs and accordion music.

As We Fact Check Some More

Kate: So, state funeral in the morning and then the pillaging starts . . . you think it could be done by 3pm or so?
Ruth: You know, I’m not sure how long pillaging takes. It’s not something I’ve ever given a great deal of thought to.
Kate: If the funeral is done by morning we have just enough time to kick off the pillaging. If that’s done by mid-afternoon, we can schedule the flogging . . . I sound like a demented event planner trying to rent a hall.

As We Make Continuity Changes

Kate: The blond slave girl mentioned in Story #3 cannot suddenly become a brunette in Story #5; the queen in Story #1 cannot possibly make it all the way north by Story #2 unless we involve a TARDIS; and that Druid cannot die in Story #4 by drowning AND in Story #7 by evisceration.
Stephanie: We need to decide on `Mona’ or `Ynys Mon,’ or the history police will crucify us.
Ruth: Crikey, don’t the history police have anything better to do?
Several voices in unison: No.

As We Work On Promo

Vicky: Ok, everyone pitch in on this Q&A.
Stephanie: Talks overarching theme.
Ruth: Talks archaeological evidence.
Simon: Talks character development.
Russ: Makes hilarious rude jokes.

As We Celebrate Book�s Launch

Ruth: Really, this was wonderful. It’s been like a crash course in writing combined with group therapy, only funnier.
The rest of us in unison: AWWW . . .

(Then the Yanks wonder: Do the Brits hug?)
(As the Brits wonder: Five hour time difference . . . too early for the Yanks to pour celebratory drinks?)

2015 Historical Novel Society Conference: The Recap

As is now traditional: my recap of the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference! With two HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Denver, I knew two things going in: 1) There would be much fun and very little sleep, and 2) What happens at the conference, stays at the conference.

Even with that last caveat, there was plenty of fun that’s printable. So here it is: HNS 2015 . . .

THURSDAY

9:58am: Packing for the conference literally at the last minute, I realize I am sadly lacking when it comes to adult clothes. I live my life in yoga pants and Old Navy tank tops; there aren’t a lot of button-downs and responsible slacks in this closet. But I do have my ace in the hole: the infamous fire-engine-red patent leather stilettos that I dust off every conference because they give me a Joan-from-Mad-Men swagger and the lofty height of 5’7. The question is, can I pair them with yoga pants?

10:14am: Why, why, why do I not have a nice set of luggage by now? My suitcase is missing a wheel, and my carry-on is a battered black backpack in which I could comfortably pack Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson complete with his helicopter from “San Andreas.”

12:02pm: Checking in with Spirit Airlines behind a pair of obnoxious suburban families who keep whacking everyone else in line with their snuggies, their sulky toddlers, and their Ford Taurus sized strollers. Idly consider swapping out the babies in the strollers to see if any of the parents notice.

3:30pm: I made a vow to myself that I would finish Part II of the current top-secret WIP before I disembarked in Denver. I’m literally typing the last sentence as the plane taxies in. 65,000 words and half done! Now it’s time to party.

5:42pm: Run into David Blixt, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, and Heather Webb the minute I step into the lobby. David immediately envelops me in a bear hug, expressing his general approval that I am alive after February’s house fire, and gives me another bear hug for good measure from his absent wife, legendary Shakespearean ginger Jan Blixt. I berate him for her absence, because I adore Jan and frankly I couldn’t care less if she has to work. David, you should have blackbagged her and slung her into the trunk of your car, Henry V rehearsals be hanged.

6:32pm: Get dressed for group dinner tonight, surrendering to a brief craven wish for a long-sleeved cocktail dress. I have a burn scar on my right forearm now, remnant of the Great Conflagration, and while it’s not too noticeable, I’m still horribly sensitive about it. But I refused to re-wardrobe myself in wrist-length sleeves for the the rest of my life, so I sling some pearls around my burned wrist and tell insecurity to go fuck itself.

7:01pm: My people, there you are! Donna Russo Morin in her spike-heels and Sophia Loren zest for life, her absolutely delicious English partner who worships the ground she walks on, Gillian Bagwell and Kris Waldherr, my Day of Fire mates Sophie Perinot and Vicky Alvear Shecter, Leslie Carroll and her silver fox husband . . . these are my tribe, and it’s delicious to be among them again. I rhapsodize to Vicky about her upcoming ancient Rome YA novel (I’m beta reading; it’s delicious) and tease Donna’s Englishman about his insistence on well-done steak (so English: “cook until gray.”)

10pm: The Lobby Posse reunites when Deann Smith and Marci Jefferson join the party! This is from the San Diego conference, when a group of us closed down the hotel lobby gabbing about everything under the sun. We’re missing Michelle Moran and Teralyn Pilgrim this time around, but it’s heaven to see the others.

11:08: Cocktails, yes, keep them coming. Christopher Gortner arrives, and the party dials up to an eleven. He’s just gotten a film option for The Last Queen; toasts are drunk as I speculate who could play Juana.

12am: Return to my room to discover I have locked myself out. Trail back down to lobby for new room key. Seven hours of sleep . . .

FRIDAY

8:05am: Why are there so many decaf machines alongside the ordinary coffee? This is a writers conference; nobody drinks decaf! Decaf coffee is like a hooker that only wants to cuddle.

9am: David Blixt’s sword workshop! He opens up with stage-combat buddy Brandon with a fight from Macbeth, in which David loses his head to a scarily-real-looking axe stroke, and Brandon immediately becomes Brandon The Decapitator in my mind before everybody resurrects and gets to the nitty-gritty of sword history. Fascinating stuff–did you know that the dances of the time mimic the fight styles? Did you know that the loop on the back of a man’s shirt was originally there to keep his baldric from slipping down and trapping his sword arm during a fight? I didn’t.

11:19am: The hands-on stuff begins. I beeline straight for a crusader broadsword, while Eliza Knight channels her Highland romance side and heads for the claymore. Feel very proud that I successfully master a sort of cross-lunge move whose name I’ve forgotten–it’s the move Inigo Montoya uses to take down three enemies in the castle hallway during “The Princess Bride.” You know the one I mean.

12noon: Lunchtime. Return to my room for my phone, realize I have locked myself out. Trail back down to lobby for new room key.

1:31: The afternoon sword workshop, on rapier/dagger/short sword–Gillian Bagwell is my sparring partner. And for everyone’s information, the groove down the middle of the blade is NOT a blood channel; it has nothing to do with blood. It’s called a fuller, and it’s there strictly to lighten the blade. We have all been warned.

6pm: Cocktail reception, and the conference officially begins! I strap on The Shoes and race around shrieking greetings to people who, in some cases, I haven’t seen since the last conference. Favorite topics include the recent Outlander smash hit on Starz, the recent shake-up at Berkley/NAL, and are headless-lady covers really finally out? (Yes, thank God.)

7:41pm: C.C. Humphreys is our first speaker and guest of honor. He’s got one of those mellifluous stage-trained English voices you can eat with a spoon–I still remember him giving the Crispin’s Day speech at my first HNS conference in San Diego. His speech is bang on (I’m absolutely with him that we are storytellers first, not historians), and he closes with a joke about a Roman centurion ordering a martinus at a bar which makes us all groan.

9:37pm: Everyone adjourns to the bar to keep gabbing. Arm in arm with Stephanie Dray in a fabulous peacock necklace, I run into an old friend–the delightful Stephanie Cowell, and take a moment to bliss out about her wonderful Marrying Mozart which was my favorite re-read of the year–and then bump into a new friend, Stephanie Thornton of the kickass ancient queens–I got to beta-read her epic upcoming novel on the women of Alexander the Great, The Conqueror’s Wife. All these Stephanies; I love every one of them.

10:32pm: The Day of Fire authors all take a picture together–we are minus Ben Kane, but otherwise a full contingent. Happily gab with Alison Morton of the splendid Roma Nova series, who gave ADoF a great review, and wants to know if the gang is doing a reprise. More on that later.

11:11pm: End up down by the fire-pit outside the pool area with Christopher, Donna + Englishman, Heather, and Anne Easter Smith. We dish dirt happily under the stars. I get strict instructions not to get too near the firepit, because I’ve already nearly burned up once this year.

12:01am: Trail upstairs only to find I have locked myself out of my room. Trail back down to lobby, barefoot, red stilettos dangling from hand, for new room key. Six hours of sleep . . .

SATURDAY

7:04am: Prepping for the day, I unleash my secret weapon–a flat-iron that heats to a temperature at which you could forge swords, and which is the only thing to reliably smooth my waist-length mass of curls. It has a steely blue glow like it’s being thrust out of a lake for incipient kings, so I dub it Excalibur. Excalibur beats my curls into submission and out I sally.

9:15am: I’m going to miss Stephanie Dray and Christopher Gortner’s panel on “The Gender Divide,” dammit. My own panel is at the same time: “Trends In Historical Fiction” with Eliza Knight, blogger Meg Wessell, and my agent Kevan Lyon. We have a blast, and our audience is packed to standing room. Analyzing trends in publishing is like trying to analyze patterns in a goldfish bowl, but we all agree that 20th century topics are hot right now, so are love-in-a-time-of-war stories, and so are dual narratives that twine a contemporary with a historical timeline.

10:30am: I am dragged off with Heather Webb and the “Day of Fire” ladies to what turns out to be the best laugh riot of the entire conference: “What Really Happens During A Historical Romance Cover Shoot?” Kim Killion of the Killion Group walks us through it with the help of Jesse, her amiable 6’8 cover model who has a set of eight-pack abs on which you could grate cheese. We giggle helplessly as Kim explains how the models start fully dressed for the Inspirational/Sweet Romance covers (the female model gets a dictionary shoved in her hand for a western shoot and is told “Here’s a Bible; think of Jesus”) and once the clothes start coming off, the Sexy/Edgy/Erotica covers get shot. Jesse strips down cheerfully to a kilt and boots, gets sprayed with Pam (grapeseed oil for the holistic-living models!), and is a very good sport about all the authors laughing hysterically as he goes through his paces and smolders on cue.

10:59am: Oh dear Lord, this just got funnier. Jesse and his female counterpart demonstrate various clinch poses. “Cover his nipple, for the nipple haters on Amazon!” Kim calls to the female model, who obediently shifts her hand on Jesse’s Pammed-up chest. “See that space between them? That’s where I photoshop in the castle, or the flying hair. Or maybe I cut his head off.” Heather Webb and I can barely stand, we’re laughing so hard. For the record, Heather has an absolutely filthy laugh that promises all kinds of wickedness; her Empress Josephine would approve. We all line up for pics later with the amiable Jesse. I text mine at once to the Overseas Gladiator.


12:15pm: Lunch, and keynote speaker Karen Cushman, author of Catherine, Called Birdy. She has a particularly lovely phrase that catches me: Words are a net to catch the wind.

1pm: I sit down with the “Day of Fire” ladies, all of us armed with notepads, and discussion continues for over an hour. Let’s just say something’s a-brewing.

2:15pm: Coffee with my agent, the fabulous Kevan Lyon of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency. We discuss my WIP, all 65,000 words of it, and she’s in full cheerleader mode. Tremendously relieving, because this project has had me scared at times–it’s so different from anything I’ve ever done, it feels like I’m striking out into the open ocean on a cardboard raft.

5:01pm: Change for the book signing and dinner, wielding Excalibur on the frizzies popping up around my hairline. On my way to the signing, I stop for a moment of mutual shoe admiration with Donna (in leopard spikes), Christopher (in Prada loafers), and me in my 5-inch stilettos. Who cares if my toes curl up and drop off? I love being 5’7.

6:38pm: The Day of Fire crew all sits together, so those buying our Pompeii tale can go down the line if they want it signed. We gab happily with bloggers and readers galore: Stephanie Moore Hopkins, Erin of the fabulous Flashlight Commentary, Jenny Q, Darlene Williams . . . I love these ladies, and I owe them for many, many fabulous reviews. Most of all Amy Phillips Bruno of Passages to the Past, for whom I would happily donate a kidney after she saved my bacon and ran my Lady of the Eternal City blog tour for me less than three weeks after the Great Conflagration.

6:59pm: Book signing done–and it was fun, but a mess. Half the books weren’t ordered properly, and some authors had no books at all in store for the readers to buy. Leslie Carroll lets her Bronx show about that, and she’s absolutely right.

7:36pm: Dinnertime! Diana Gabaldon is guest speaker, and she wisely gives us exactly what we want: ALL the dirt on the new Outlander show, the television process, and of course Sam Heughan.

8:12pm: The HNS Indie Prize is announced. A Day of Fire is one of the four finalists but none of us think we have a shot of–wait, we won second place?! Go careening onstage with Vicky, Stephanie, Sophie, and Eliza, congratulating Anna Belfrage on her well-deserved first place win, and taking more pictures. Later, Stephanie’s white knight husband photo-shops Ben Kane into the picture with the rest of the Pompeii crew. The Overseas Gladiator does one better and photo-shops in Tony Stark from Ironman.

9:12pm: The Costume Pageant, narrated hilariously by Gillian Bagwell Joan, Lady Rivers. Stephanie Dray fan-girls all over a George Washington, a Viking housewife brings down the house detailing all the bits of her costume that have been stolen by her husband on a raid, and Carmen Miranda makes an appearance with a fruit-tastic headdress.

10:10pm: David Blixt comes to waltz me randomly around the dinner tables before heading off to emcee the sex scene readings. Last time I was up to read (Cesare Borgia pinned my heroine to a table, lucky girl) and I’m happy just to watch this time around, parked next to C.C. Humphreys who has terrific sotto-voce comments throughout. Stephanie Dray’s romance alter-ego puts in a guest appearance, reading a sultry movie-palace threesome from her 20s erotica collection It Stings So Sweet that has us all reaching for our fans. Judith Starkston reads from her wonderful Trojan War epic Hand of Fire, warning us drolly not to enact this scene at home because only if you are banging a demi-god like Achilles can you have sex being held entirely in the air. And giggles split the room at a Holmes/Watson case that takes an unexpectedly X-rated turn . . . let me just say I will never look at lemon curd the same way again.

10:37pm: More drinks. The HNS Chesapeake Bay chapter (those of us in attendance) assemble for a picture around our new chapter head/Queen, Meg Wessell. We all pledge oaths of fealty to Queen Megan, First Of Her Name, and cheer wildly for several chapter-mates who got requests from agents at this conference to send their manuscript partials. Congrats, all!

11:16pm: I talk Game of Thrones plot twists with Deann, advertising tips with Christopher, Trojan War myth with Amalia Carosalla, and project advice with Stephanie Thornton (for the love of God, NO, do not write about that topic; we both know what it is, and we both know you hate the very idea, so don’t do it!) I feel absurdly pleased when C.C. Humphreys says I do an excellent British accent, and I’m in stitches when Alison Morton calls all the UK Roman-blood-and-battle authors “the bash-and-crash boys.” Things get sober as we talk declining sales in historical fiction and the current lack of interest in seemingly anything that isn’t 20th century . . . but we’re soon smiling again. Me especially, after Facebook friend Janet Butler Taylor gives me a 2013 World Champion Red Sox photo-mag. Bliss!

12:48pm: “One more martini” turns into “Closing out the bar.” I end up dancing with David around the tables again, this time a music-less swing beat. Pat Bracewell and I talk Vikings with Gillian Bagwell; internet trolls are vivisected with gusto over pretzel bites and beer-cheese; and I finally manage to buttonhole Libbie Hawker to tell her how I raced through her Egyptian epic House of Rejoicing in two days flat.

2am: Trail upstairs only to find I have locked myself out of my room. Trail back down to lobby, barefoot, black stilettos in hand, for new room key. Five hours of sleep . . .

SUNDAY

7:44am: Wake up 45 minutes before my alarm–this weird mountain altitude has everybody’s sleep schedule out of whack. No time to wield Excalibur this morning; the hair goes in a ponytail. I feel like I’ve crawled out from under a bombed building, but the wonders of foundation and a red shirt leave me looking deceptively bright-eyed.

8:32am: Bacon and croissants with Marci, Sophie, Sam Thomas and–is that be Beatriz Williams?! Why, yes, it is. I manage not to stammer too embarrassingly when I tell her how much I adored her Secret Life of Violet Grant.

10:03am: After talking Nero for a while with the always delightful Margaret George, I head upstairs to get my luggage and check out. I have locked myself out of my room again. God DAMMIT.

10:15: Time for my Koffee Klatch. I signed up for this without the faintest notion what it was–readers signing up for a 45-minute gab session with any author they like. I kept wondering what I’d be expected to talk about, but it turns out great: I end up with a group of about eight, and we gabble excitedly about character development, where to sell ancient world fiction, and who our favorite Roman historical figures are. (Augustus and Livia, for me–world’s original power couple.)

11:50: Koffee Klatch ends 5 minutes early as my shuttle arrives ten minutes in advance. Pile on with my crammed suitcase, head spinning. Is the conference really over already?

12:34pm: My flight is late. Why is my flight always late?

3:40pm: Four hour layover in Chicago. I read Lauren Willig’s That Summer cover to cover in one sitting–Pre-Raphaelite art, a secret affair, and scandal galore; it’s wonderful.

10:17pm: My connecting flight is also late. Rot in hell, Spirit Airlines.

2am: The Overseas Gladiator is long asleep by the time I trail wearily through the door, but the Praetorian Dog greets me with sleepy rapture. By this point I am so far beyond exhausted I might as well be on another planet; sleep is impossible and coherent thought is a distant memory. Tuned somewhere between Zen and stoned, I drop my bags in the middle of the floor in a shower of hotel room keys, pour a double whiskey, and read David’s Master of Verona for the next three hours. He’s the only other conference member still awake, being midway through an overnight drive back to Chicago with his weapons arsenal, so when Brandon the Decapitator takes the wheel, David and I end up texting back and forth at 4am about the Palio races and Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.”

5:12am: Oh, look, sunrise. I should probably go to bed.

There it is in a nutshell: HNS 2015. Apologies to anyone I’ve left out of my account, or if I’ve recounted something wrong–it’s all a big whirl in my memory, so who knows what fell through the sieve? And I may have exaggerated here and there for comedic effect. (I only locked myself out of my hotel room twice, I swear.)

But what I didn’t exaggerate is just how wonderful it is to join that group of like-minded history-mad nutcases known as the Historical Novel Society. HNS 2011 was my first conference, which I attended as a wide-eyed newbie, and HNS 2013 was my sophomore lap when the world of publishing was still pretty rosy. The last few years have seen some sobering changes: the demise of brick-and-mortar stores; the Amazon-Hachette feud, and everything else that can have you convinced that writing is a tougher gig than ever. And it is–but what hasn’t changed is the weird and wonderful world of writers, readers, and friends in this business, nowhere more apparent than at the HNS Conference. This is a lonely job; my writer friends save my sanity on a regular basis. And as I unpack my red stilettos and my 16 new books, I already can’t wait for HNS 2015.

Q&A With Roma Nova Author Alison Morton!

Alison Morton was kind enough to host me for a Q&A on her blog when LADY OF THE ETERNAL CITY came out – now that Alison’s latest book in her ROMA NOVA series has been released, I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog today!

Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre–regular and reserve Army, RAF, WRNS, WRAF–all over the globe.

So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now.

But something else fuels her writing. Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.

Now, she lives in France and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines.

Delighted to have you on my blog, Alison! I know from past conversations that you and I are both huge fans of Robert Harris’s brilliant FATHERLAND (hair-raising thriller that leaps off the premise “What if Hitler won?”) What provided the spark for your “What if” moment, the “What if the Roman Empire survived?” question which drives your ROMA NOVA series?

Thank you for inviting me, Kate! Well, the start of Roma Nova goes back to my own ancient history. Picture an eleven-year-old girl, curly hair, sun hat fallen off her head because she is crouching down on a vast Roman mosaic, and too fascinated by the patterns to pay attention to her mother’s warnings about sunstroke. This was me in Ampurias, north-east Spain. I tipped my head up and asked my father–numismatist and senior Roman nut–who the people were who had made such floors. Who were the children who had played there? Who were the families? He explained about senators and soldiers, traders, merchants, slaves and scribes, how the Romans had come there, what they believed in, how powerful and ingenious they were. When I asked what the ladies and children did, he said they did what the men told them to do. “What would it be like if the women were in charge?” I piped up. He smiled, and said “What do you think it would be like?” And the seed of the idea grew.

I really enjoyed the cultural details from ancient Rome which made their way into your version of modern Rome: elite military forces that still carry the name Praetorian, the noble patrician families and the honored images of their ancestors, the Latin terminology and the references to the gods. But I’m a history geek who has already read a lot of these details in my own research–how did you go about making these historical touches accessible for a reader less familiar with Rome’s ancient history?

It’s a mixture of familiarity and strangeness. First and foremost, the story must be strong and connect with concerns that everybody can identify with: in AURELIA, it’s mother and daughter relationships; a woman balancing career, duty and love; good guys versus bad guys. These anchor the thread of the story for the reader.

The second is context. Readers don’t want to be hit over the head with a big lump of information, so I feed in detail or explanation via a character’s reaction to something or conversation, more often argument, with somebody. And putting a character in an environment they’re uncomfortable with lets them compare it with what is usual for them–a great opportunity to slip in some detail. As you yourself know, tiny touches of detail here and there can go a lot way!

As an example, on the first page, Aurelia walks by the imagines–statues and busts of ancestors–in the hallway in her house and the reader sees how significant and precious they are:
I left my side-arm in the safe box in the vestibule and walked on past the marble and plaster imagines, the painted statues and busts of dead Mitelae from the gods knew how many hundreds of years. Only the under-steward was allowed to dust them; I’d never been allowed to touch them as a child.

And later, Aurelia is asked to translate an incriminating note from Latin–another chance introduce a little more background about when that kind of note would be written.

And the Latin/German expressions and names? As with any historical fiction, the reader needs to feel the strangeness, to be a little off balance, to experience the unique flavour of the world and time they are entering; dropping in foreign language words is one of the most effective ways of doing this. However, no vital plot point should ever be obscured by these expressions. I’ll confess, I was a professional translator before I started writing novels and love playing with words in this way!

I loved the twist you gave on the role of ancient Roman women as guardians of the family hearth and family honor: allowing that role to expand so that the women of Roma Nova act as family heads and even Empresses in their own right. How did you envision that change overcoming the more traditional role of women in ancient Rome?

Ancient Roman attitudes to women were repressive to our eyes, but towards the later Imperial period women gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types. Divorce was easy and step and adopted families were commonplace.

Apulius, the leader of Roma Nova’s founders in AD 395, had met Julia, the tough daughter of a Celtic princeling in Noricum. She left her native Virunum, travelled to Rome, found Apulius and married him the day of her arrival. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Their four daughters were amongst the first Roma Novan pioneers so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.

Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next fifteen centuries.


Photo courtesy of Britannia www.durolitum.co.uk

AURELIA is a bit of a shift for you your previous ROMA NOVA books concentrate on Aurelia’s granddaughter Carina, and her adventures in a modern-day Rome. What made you realize that Carina’s forceful grandmother Aurelia and her adventures in the tumultuous 60s deserved their own story?

Well, in a way, it was a natural choice. As I was writing the first three books, Aurelia fascinated me more and more. She’s not only Carina’s grandmother but also acts as her “wise councillor”, drawing on a long life of service to the state. What had she done as a young Praetorian officer? And what part had she played in the Great Rebellion twenty-three years before we met her, a seasoned politician and imperial advisor in INCEPTIO? How was she connected with Conrad, Carina’s love interest, whose family was ruined as a consequence of the rebellion? Glimpses of Aurelia’s past life in the first three books were as tantalising for me as well as for readers; several demanded to know her backstory. So did I. As soon as SUCCESSIO, the third book, went to my structural editor, I attacked the keyboard.

Finally, the question you posed to me: do you think historical or alternate fiction does anything to help us understand the past, or is it purely entertainment?

We only have glimpses of what people said or felt in the past based on diaries, accounts and official and unofficial histories written at the time or later and, for the ancient Roman period at least, none of them is complete or unbiased.

Our ancestors lived in different, sometimes (to us) very strange conditions but I firmly believe they worried, celebrated, loved, laughed and wept in ways we would immediately understand. In alternate history, writers and readers can also explore different possible outcomes to historical events: what if Julius Caesar had taken notice of the warning that assassins wanted to murder him on the Ides of March? Or if Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776? Delicious fun!

If it’s well-researched and intelligently written, historical fiction, including alternate, stretches out a hand to us and guides us into a world that might have been. It fleshes out the gaps that the historical record leaves yawning. I’m a life-long learner–I went back thirty years after my first degree to study for my history masters–but I’ve found that I remember something best if I’ve been entertained at the same time.

So, in a nutshell: what is AURELIA about?

Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone–her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead–and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver–Roma Nova’s lifeblood–on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklas, a known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles and pursues him back home to Roma Nova…

And now, my thoughts!

AURELIA is something of a prequel in the ROMA NOVA series, detailing the adventures of Aurelia Mitela who is grandmother and adviser to the heroine of the earlier novels–but it stands alone with ease, and will be enjoyed by those new to the series and those who have been reading along. Aurelia is as steadfast as a Roman column, brave and capable, newly head of her illustrious patrician clan and struggling with the age-old balance of work, family, children, love, and the demands of her country. Roma Nova is practically a character in itself; the Roman Empire surviving through the centuries to become a tough little city state that values its women as well as its men, and still prizes Roman virtues like gravitas and service to the Imperium. Fans of ancient Rome will delight in the clever historical details woven throughout: elite guards still called Praetorians, the full pantheon of gods still worshipped, the Roman villas that might have come intact from the age of Augustus, but which are now decked out in 60s technology!

A mysterious industrial smuggling scam sends Aurelia on the hunt, only to find that she is the hunted. The pace never lets up as Aurelia tracks an old enemy from Roma Nova to Germany and even further–and what an enemy he is. He reminded me of my own smug golden-boy villain Pedanius Fuscus from LADY OF THE ETERNAL CITY, with the result that I was grinding my teeth in rage as I flipped pages faster and faster to see if he’d get his come-uppance. A racing climax and a fully satisfying ending–recommended for fans of alternate history and fans of ancient Rome!

Buy AURELIA here!

Book trailer for AURELIA

More about the ROMA NOVA series:

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series

– shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award
– B.R.A.G. Medallion finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year

PERFIDITAS, second in series
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year

SUCCESSIO, third in series
– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– Editor’s choice, The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014

More about Alison:

Nova Roma blog | Facebook Author Page | Twitter
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Lady of the Eternal City: The Movie

HBO just called, and they’re giving Lady of the Eternal City the “Game of Thrones treatment!

Sigh – I wish. But until the day Weiss & Benioff are leaving me urgent voice-mails, a girl can dream – and I don’t know a writer out there who doesn’t know exactly how they’d cast their beloved characters if given a movie set and total production control. (Which we’d never get, because no writer does. But this is fantasy, right? Come on, I’ve already planned what I’m wearing to the 2016 Oscars to watch LEC win Best Picture. Red Valentino and Louboutins; very 2011 Jennifer Lawrence.)

Anyway, here’s my dream cast for Lady of the Eternal City.

Sabina: for my elegant mid-thirties heroine, I’m going with Lyndsey Marshal. As Cleopatra on HBO’s “Rome” she had an inscrutable elegance that will wear nicely on my secret-keeping Empress. Not to mention an adorable pixie cut under the various Imperial wigs.

Vix: Dan Feurriegal played a tough-grained foul-mouthed heart-of-gold gladiator in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” – I think he can handle Vix. He’s already got the skills for Vix’s fight scenes, Vix’s wicked grin, and Vix’s ferocious expression. (He’s my arm candy for the 2016 Oscars. We look lovely on the red carpet together.)

Emperor Hadrian: this role is a tough one, since Hadrian is endlessly mercurial and vibrates between cruelty, kindness, friendship, enmity, hatred, love, and every other set of extremes you could imagine. Eric Bana with his “Troy” beard – those intense dark eyes are SO Hadrian.

Antinous: Vix’s adopted son, Hadrian’s lover, and also one of the most famous and beautiful faces of the ancient world – yeah, this one’s a poser. I’m going with Douglas Booth, who has a face so perfect it looks carved, but all that perfections melts into a surprisingly sweet smile.

Titus: I loved Tobias Menzies in Rome, and now that he’s tearing it up as Frank/Black Jack Randall on “Outlander,” I can see he’d be perfect for my sweet, serious, noble-souled Titus.

Annia: My secondary heroine has a fiery temperament and the hair to match, a marathoner with a fierce soul who has to save the Empire at the end when all the adults have screwed things up. Molly Quinn showed on “Castle” that she could play tough, intelligent, and funny, just like Annia.

Marcus: Zach Gilford, because I adored him as Matt Saracen in “Friday Night Lights,” showing the same blend of sweetness, intelligence, and awkwardness as my young Marcus Aurelius. Who never wrote “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” in his Meditations, but should have.

Pedanius Fuscus: for the swaggering golden-boy teenage ass who makes everyone’s lives a living hell, I have to go with the ultimate swaggering golden-boy teenage ass of all time–King Joffrey/Jack Gleason.

Servianus: the white-haired orator constantly droning “In my day . . .” could be played by no one other than Julian Glover/Maester Pycelle from “Game of Thrones.”

Mirah: for Vix’s fiery Jewish wife with a rebel’s soul, Brigid Brannagh would work very well.

Simon bar Kokhba: one final “Game of Thrones” alum. The charismatic Jewish leader whose ferocious rebellion nearly brought Rome to her knees has relatively little screen time in LEC, but he needs to pack a powerful punch. Pedro Pascal accomplished exactly the same thing in his cameo role of the Red Viper on GoT.

 

Hope you enjoyed my fantasy casting. Who do you see as Vix/Sabina/Hadrian & Co.?

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