2017 Historical Novel Society Conference: The Recap!

As is now traditional: my recap of the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference! With three HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Portland, 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 2017…

TUESDAY

This year’s travel plan is infinitely more complex than any of my previous HNS road trips. I have a recent book release complicating matters (“The Alice Network,” available on Amazon, iTunes, and B&N!) and a number of launch events both pre and post conference—the trip isn’t just a weekend this time, but a full 10 days long. And since the Overseas Gladiator came home from the Middle East at the start of June and departed cross-country for his new posting the day before I was set to head conference-ward, I didn’t start packing until 6pm the evening before. Normally this would be a cause for screaming, stressing, and otherwise lighting my hair on fire, but I end up blithely jamming things into the mammoth scarlet suitcase known as the Red Monster, sitting on it to get it closed and thinking, “Who knows what’s in there, but I guess I’ll find out when I hit the west coast.”

WEDNESDAY

3:12pm: But before Portland and the conference, there’s Seattle. I’m teaming up there with Jennifer Robson (loved her recent release “Goodnight From London” so much) and the two of us are set for a joint author event at nearby Mill Creek. Good time to give our upcoming HNS scheduled Koffee Klatch “Battle Tested: Women In The World Wars” a practice run. Our plan for this presentation is pretty much “We both revere this subject, we’ve got over a combined decade of research on it under our belts, and our enthusiasm will undoubtedly run away with us. We’ve got this!”

4pm: Seattle hotel is lovely, but why do our beds have throw pillows with Ricky Gervais in full dress uniform?! Jen and I trade perturbed phone calls, avoiding Ricky’s embroidered stare. She saw a portrait downstairs of Frazier/Kelsey Grammer in Napoleonic kit. This is somewhat disturbing.

6pm: Two Ubers and two cabs fail to respond to our calls before we finally land a driver to Mill Creek, so we’re eyeing the clock and wondering if there will be any chance to put something in our rumbling bellies before the event. How fast can two hungry authors eat two sliders apiece at a sports bar counter next to a bookstore? Four minutes flat.

7pm: University Bookstore in Mill Creek! It’s a nice lively crowd with lots of questions and lots of smiles, and they quickly find out two things about Jen Robson and me: 1) That we can gab all night long about women in the world wars, and 2) No really, ALL night long. We close down the store.

8:42pm: Ugh, ugh, ugh. Uber driver treats us on the way home to his unsolicited opinion that strip clubs are overrated because it’s all look-don’t-touch and a guy really should be able to get more bang for his buck. Jen and I adopt identical frosty expressions that Maggie Smith/the Dowager Countess of Grantham/Professor McGonagall would be proud of, and Mr. Skeevy decides silence is wisest. Ugh, ugh, ugh, I need to shower. In bleach.

10:37pm: We grab a glass of wine and a heap of truffle fries at the hotel restaurant and embark on the kind of catching-up gab-fest all writers do when they only see each other once a year at conferences: new book ideas, current writing headaches, secret plans for future books, industry trends, and maybe, if we get through all that, spouses and kids.

THURSDAY

10am: Bright-eyed and clutching our third cup of coffee apiece, Jen and I abandon Ricky Gervais with a certain relief and head for our rental car, carrying on the conversation of last night at a more or less unbroken clip for the next three hours, sometimes at 65 miles per hour (when Jen is driving) and sometimes at 85 miles per hours (when I’m driving). Jen has a plot headache for a future book that is giving her problems. We’re gonna have this solved by Portland.

12:10pm: HNS Conference! Oh, how I’ve missed my people here. Craning my neck through the hotel lobby, I get seen first by a reader who loved my last book, and we chat happily in the check-in line (I’m hoping reader doesn’t notice how awkward and garbled I sometimes get at these moments!) Barely up to my room in time to notice it is unhabited by Ricky Gervais (with or without Napoleonic uniform), I ditch the Red Monster, take a moment to wonder why on earth I packed a set of shower curtain rings, and skid downstairs for my first event. Which is…

1:30pm: Gordan Frye’s “Make Ready!” workshop on historical firearms. Three hours fly by as he gives a fantastic demonstration on the history, model, and loading procedure of everything from a matchlock rifle to a WWII Luger. I don’t quite get my chance to load a Napoleonic-era flintlock, but I still feel very Richard Sharpe as I scribble notes.

6:10pm: I strap on my red conference stilettos…..

….and head down for a fast meeting with my fabulous literary agent Kevan Lyon at the hotel lobby. We talk the recent launch for “The Alice Network,” for which we are both crossing fingers. Then I run into Janie Chang, and we fall on each other happily though we have never met before: Janie is due to join Jennifer and me on a couple of joint author events in Canada post-conference (our shared publisher saw us all in the same city with recent release dates, and said “Why not?” Bless them!) Janie and I have only chatted by email, but she won my heart sight unseen with her suggestion that we privately hashtag our triple-author events with #HystericalFictionTour, a suggestion greeted by Jen and me with unabashed glee. Janie and I are going to get along very well, I can tell. And having just finished her latest book “Dragon Springs Road,” I’m in awe of how well she writes. (Buy this book immediately.)

7pm: Opening reception! Libbie Hawker stalks through in Viking gear, carrying a drinking horn…Stephanie Thornton drops in with Alaska breezes still ruffling her hair, whispering the latest bit of Roosevelt-related humor she’s had to google for research (her forthcoming book is on Alice Roosevelt)…C.W. Gortner greets me with a hug, wittiest man alive and perennial conference favorite…Meghan Masterson is visibly walking on air, her debut centered around Marie Antoinette coming out this August…Leslie Carroll who as Program Chair has a faint mad gleam in her eye (a gleam familiar to those who have ever felt the frenzied pressure of planning a large important event) but she looks red-carpet-worthy as always in gold sequins. Costume contest happens tonight, and there are some stellar get-ups here: Margaret Porter‘s teal satin 18th century gown with panniers, a Victorian lady, and a Greek muse.

9pm: Dinner is all individual parties tonight, so I head out to eat with Heather Webb, Judith Starkston, Kris Waldherr, and everyone else we can round up. We eat at a deeply artisanal restaurant across the street, eyeing the beef-heart tartar and honey-drizzled grilled cheeses with a certain caution.

11pm: Back to the hotel bar to circulate! Sophie Perinot staggers in hollow-eyed after the flight from hell where she was practically booted out of the cargo hold and strapped on a wing; I order her a Cosmo the size of a bucket. She and Anne Easter Smith and I talk recent historical TV series—even if you’re no fan of “Vikings” or “The White Princess,” isn’t it good to see historic series being produced? And I meet the absolutely fabulous Kate Forsyth, with her enchanting Aussie lilt and her twinkling eyes and her stupendous literary talent (have you read “Bitter Greens”?! And her next is on the Pre-Raphaelites!) Kate and Christopher and I gossip happily.

FRIDAY

8am: Who needs sleep? There are panels to go to and people to see. First up, star editor Lucia Macro from HarperCollins and star agent Irene Goodman with “Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Staying On top.” They have great points and harsh truths here, and for 8am they are also wryly funny.

9:16am: “Imagining the American Revolutionary Era” with Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie, Lars Hedbor and fellow Chesapeake Bay HNS Chapter member Matt Phillips. Matt has a great line about Tories, Loyalists, and native Americans: “They were Americans too; Revolutionary stories are also their stories.” 

Afterwards I corral some of my favorite hist-fic ladies before I can lose them in the shuffle—conferences are all about the crowd-wriggle, the elbow grab, and the exclaimed “THERE you are…!”

10:30am: “Innovative Promotion: Big Book Campaign on a Not So Big Budget,” with the stellar Kristina McMorris. This should be required listening for any novelist who wants to build a career, and we’re all taking notes (the room is huge; don’t be fooled by the empty seats–she got a great crowd). Wow, wow, wow—Kristina is a revelation. And where does she get all that energy?!

12:36pm: Lunchtime speaker Geraldine Brooks is mesmerising. She talks about the “swordfish-silicone implant moment” that answers the age old question “how do you get your ideas?” I am at once filled with endless sorrow that I do not have a swordfish-silicone implant story. #lifegoals

1:14pm: My one event of the day: Koffee Klatch with Jen Robson on women of the two world wars. After the Mill Creek event and the subsequent hours of car-ride gabbing, we’ve got this. Our circle of attendees is packed, and there’s fabulous give-and-take as everybody chips in with their own research stories. We could have talked for hours.

2:38pm: Gab for a while with a lovely reader named Taylor about early monotheism and polytheism in ancient Rome, then finally have a chance to catch up with Lis from our local Chesapeake Bay chapter. Lis has me sign one copy of “The Alice Network” for her, and one for the friend house-sitting her cats, who has refused to return them unless a book is forthcoming. I sign the book to her with a plea of “Please release the cats!”

4pm: Weina Dai Randel—I’m a bit in awe because I loved loved loved her recent duology on a young Empress Wu. Chinese history is so fascinating, and we badly need more HF about it; “Moon In The Palace” and “Empress of the Bright Moon” are smashing reads. Weina is as wonderful as her writing.

5:48pm: I’m not signed up for Hooch For History, but apparently nobody who went liked the absinthe. Boo. How can anyone dislike a drink nicknamed the Green Fairy that requires a special silver-grated antique spoon to prepare?

6:12pm: Kevan Lyon of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency takes all her clients out to dinner—and there are 8 or 9 of us here, so it’s a big fun-fest of historical geekery all at one table. I meet the lovely Chanel Cleeton whose Cuba-set novel comes out soon, and we bond over cherry crumble and weird reviews.

11:45pm: Another “let’s close down the lobby” night, this time with Stephanie Thornton. We talk her next project after Alice Roosevelt—VERY exciting. Trail up to bed with heels in hand, facing six hours of slumber before it all begins again.

SATURDAY

9:11am: I sleep through the 8am round of panels despite my best intentions—there’s just enough time to apply the flat-iron I christened Excalibur to my hair, before sprinting off to the first of my morning panels: “Let’s Do The Time Warp: Controlling The Chaos When Writing Different Eras” with C.W. Gortner, Steph Thornton, and Heather Webb. This turns out to be a fun one as we all debate the various reasons we jumped time periods and Christopher brings down the house with his line about liking to dip into many eras “I’ve always been promiscuous!”

10:32am: No time to waste; next panel runs back to back as I run up to the table barely in time to join Libbie Hawker, Judith Starkston, Amalia Carosella, and the fabulous Margaret George in “Mythic Tradition & Legend vs. the Historical Record.” This one gets lively as Amalia and I have a mock-squareoff about whether the Iliad’s Paris was a coward (I’m pro, she’s con) and then we all debate the necessity of including the gods in modern narratives. Questions from the audience are great, and someone snaps a terrific pic where we all look deeply skeptical. Or maybe just Muppet-like.

11:48am: Lunch! David Ebershoff is our keynote speaker this time—I didn’t think anyone would be able to match Geraldine Brooks, but he gives a wry and moving speech about being inspired by Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, and how she became his heroine in “The Danish Girl.” David’s absolutely delightful and of course we all want to get pics and find out more about the recent film adaptation with Eddie Redmayne (!) and Alicia Vikander.

1:15pm: Sitting down to “Race: Writing About the World’s Most Provocative Topic” with Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, Chanel Cleeton, Weina Dai Randel, Vanitha Sankaran, and Teralyn Pilgrim. Great questions, and they don’t shy away from discussing the hard ones. The issue of more diverse stories and how to get them out to the reading public has been a hot topic, and the more discussions like this, the better.

2:34pm: A lovely Q&A with both our guests of honor, David and Geraldine, who are funny and self-deprecating as they’re being interviewed by Ed Goldberg. Such effortless stars; I can see pretty much the entire room trying not to fangirl.

I head to the book-signing afterward, catching up with some of my favorite book bloggers (yay, Erin Davies!)…

…and fellow authors (Pat Bracewell, I’m dying for that third Emma book)…

…and then it’s off to the big dinner and final evening! I’m back in tall heels and striding along at a nice height of 5’6, enjoying all the unaccustomed oxygen at this altitude.

7:22pm: The HNS Chesapeake Bay Chapter rallies for a commemorative photo around our Chapter Queen & HF book blogger extraordinaire Meg Wessell.

Queen Meg, First of her Name, long may she reign, sends us back to take our seats for what turns out to be one of the most magical events of the conference: the lovely Kate Forsyth takes the stage to tell us all the fairy-tale of Tam-Lin, and with nothing more than her voice and a few gestures has everyone completely under her spell. Hundreds of people sit silent, unmoving, not checking their phones, not even BREATHING, as Kate tells us of the icy Faerie Queen and her whip, of the tormented mortal knight in her thrall, and the brave girl who saves him.

10:56pm: A lovely tribute to Edgar Doctorow comes from Leslie Carroll, Christopher G, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Gillian Bagwell—then it’s time for the Hellfire Masquerade! I get a pic with Susanna Kearsley whose sumptuous Austenesque ballgown positively begs you to ask for a turn about the room, and then proceed to dance a gavotte with Sophie Perinot as the dance-caller patiently (so very patiently) teaches us the steps. Whist is played on the fringes, and the gossip flows…how can this conference possibly be almost over? I trail off to bed long after midnight.

SUNDAY

1pm: The conference exhaustion haze is starting to hit, and a deeply foodie lunch doesn’t help. Portland, I know you’re artisanal and hip, but sweet zucchini waffles with tartar sauce is NOT a good idea.

4:22pm: HNS 2017 is officially over (boo!) and friends are departing in all directions. I’m back from the panel at the nearby Multnomah library where several fellow Morrow authors (Jennifer Robson, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Heather Webb, Sofia Grant, and I) did a joint Q&A before we split in all different directions and left town. But I had possibly the biggest thrill ever walking into the hotel lobby and seeing a reader engrossed in her book in a lobby armchair. And it was “The Alice Network.” This has NEVER happened to me before.

8:17pm: I’m supposed to meet my agent for dinner later, but putting on yoga pants in the interim may have been a tactical error. Cannot…move…at…all…and I’ve got three author events post-conference to attend starting with tomorrow’s flight to Seattle…

10:10pm: Flinging all my new conference books into the Red Monster (I have to sit on it and bounce a bit before the zipper wants to close), I’m already missing all my friends who have departed. This is my fourth conference and I can without doubt say it’s the biggest and best so far. Interesting panels, great pre-conference workshops, and superb speeches from our guests of honor. Bravo to Jenny Toney Quinlan and Mary Tod for doing such a fantastic job coordinating the volunteers and to board members Vicky Oliver, Maryka Biaggio, Caren Wasserman, Vanitha Sankaran, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Leslie Caroll–I hope they stagger home in a haze of exhaustion and sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Meanwhile, I’m off to meet Janie and Jennifer for our upcoming Canada events, where we are destined to run into a marriage proposal and then a black bear. But that’s another recap…

Reese Witherspoon’s Next Book Club Read: The Alice Network!

Reese Witherspoon and her online book club voted “The Alice Network” as their next read.

*faints dead away*

Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who cast their votes for TAN!

If you haven’t checked out THE ALICE NETWORK yet, pick it up for the 4th of July weekend and read along with Reese! It’s the tale of two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—brought together in a road trip like no other…

Amazon: https://goo.gl/G1WNFp
iTunes: https://goo.gl/iKnVkZ
Barnes & Noble: https://goo.gl/FAZh9J
Kobo: https://goo.gl/PwTuiB

The Research Game: Fake It Till You Make It

There’s a bit in “The Avengers” where Cobie Smulders/Agent Maria Hill asks Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark “When did you become an expert in thermonuclear dynamics?” and he deadpans, “Last night.” That’s pretty much what it’s like to be a historical novelist: the sinking realization that you need to become an expert in some new historical period, epoch, or event—and this needs to happen immediately, or your next book/next chapter/next paragraph will never happen, either.

As I set about researching The Alice Network (diving into a new historical era means major, major, MAJOR research mode) I realized that there are four distinct research phases involved in writing a historical novel. Each has its own delights and hazards…

The Dog-Paddle comes first. You have a new book idea, probably something rather vague and unformed, and you’re reading everything you can get your hands on about Murano glass-blowers or the reign of Frederick the Great or Finnish lake mythology. This is the stage where you grossly over-use the One Click Buy feature on Amazon as you load up on used research texts to dog-ear and underline; you also make dire use of the “Customers who bought X also bought Y” feature. Your plot hasn’t firmed up yet, so right now everything is grist for the imagination, and blinding flashes of inspiration come from random footnotes. You have no idea what will be useful, so you read it all, dog-paddling in leisurely fashion through an ocean of sometimes only barely connected reading material, daisy chaining from a book about Polish airmen in World War II to the bombing of London to the building of St. Paul cathedral, and realizing that with a single brilliant plot twist you can tie it all together in one smash-hit novel. This is the fun stage.

Stage two is The Deep Dive. You have your book idea; the era and plot are chosen. Now you need to narrow your focus; understand EVERYTHING about the historical period and events you will be covering. This is where you read every account you can find on the Battle of Crecy or the early life of Machiavelli. You want the picture in your mind as complete as possible before you start playing on that historical stage. It’s easy to get lost in the research here, because no historical picture will ever be complete. There’s always more to know. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing.

Stage three is The Fast Patch. This is when you’re in the throes of writing, and hit a road-block. You cannot go any further in this chapter until you have accurately figured out the mechanical innards of a Pe-5, or figured out what boat will get your hero out of Dunkirk alive. So you repair to the books, the web, and the library for a quick research fix. You don’t need to dive deep here, find out every conflicting opinion out there on the building of a Pe-5 or every single kind of boat used at Dunkirk. You just need a fast, reliable bit of historical information that will bridge the gap to firmer, more well researched ground.

Stage four, and most dreaded of all, is The Rabbit Hole. This generally comes in the editing phase, the stage where you are tearing your manuscript apart in a haze of caffeine-fueled paranoia, fact-checking everything just to be sure you are catching every single historical error that could possibly have sneaked in there. This is when you stay up till 3am trying to figure out exactly when buttons replaced ties on women’s dresses. This is when you obsess over whether there were black bears or brown bears in Imperial Rome-governed Dacia. This is when you calculate centuries-old lunar cycles in an effort to see if your heroine really could have been looking at a full moon that night. This is the stage where you vow to take up a career as a clam-digger or a burger-flipper—anything but a historical novelist.

Until the book is off to your editor, and you start thinking about the next book, and a wonderful vague idea hits. Something about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and the Grail myth . . . and then there you are, one-click buying on Amazon for all you’re worth, happily anticipating when your new research books will arrive, and thinking that you have the best job on earth.

 

 

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?)

Archives

Trailers for THE HUNTRESS & THE ALICE NETWORK!