Inspiration Or Compulsion?

My father was a jazz musician. When he wasn’t actively occupied by something else–eating dinner, mowing the lawn, reading out loud to me as a little girl–he wandered into his studio and started tinkering away on the piano or the saxophone. It was like a computer going to screen-saver if unused–music was his default mode.

I mention this because I’m always at a loss when asked why I am a writer. It’s not really a choice on my part, or even a conscious action. Writing is my default mode. When not actively occupied by something else–cooking dinner, reading a book, working out–I am tinkering with a new book idea or musing on some plotting difficulty. It’s just what I do.

Writing appears deceptively simple. Unlike most hobbies, it requires almost no accessories. You do not have to invest in expensive tools (painting). You do not need a certain body type (dancing). You do not have to trek to a specific place to practice it (golf). It does not require feeding (horses), cleanup (pottery), or an expensive instrument (music). All you need to write is either pen and paper or access to a computer, and in this era anybody can manage that. Moreover, writing isn’t specialized–relatively few people learn ballet or oil painting, but we all learn how to put sentences together at some point during our dreary trek through the school system. Therefore, at least theoretically, anybody can write.

But not everybody really wants to. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I’d write a book if only I had the time” and I always want to smile. If you really have a compulsion to write a book, you find the time. I have a friend, holder of two day jobs and mother of several young children, who rises every morning at five a.m. to get in an undisturbed hour in on her book. I have another friend who writes around the duties of running a farm and a family of five. Most people do have the time to write books, but they would rather kick back and watch “Lost”–and why shouldn’t they? Watching “Lost” is much easier than writing a book.

Writing is a compulsion. People who have caught the sickness usually don’t get to watch “Westworld,” or get quite as much sleep as they would like. They are too busy hunched over their laptops, demanding in frenzied tones why the damn book has stayed three chapters from the end for five chapters running. (Spouses of writers know better than to try to answer questions like this.) Writing isn’t a matter of inspiration or choice. It’s a disease. Sometimes quite a pleasurable disease–there are few feelings of accomplishment like the feeling of writing “The End” at the bottom of a novel’s last page. But that feeling comes with a lot of baggage. You don’t even know if this compulsion to put words on paper is accompanied by any talent. Plenty of people write their whole lives and will never publish anything, but they keep filling up drawers in their desks and gigabytes of memory on their laptops anyway, because they have to.

So if you happen to live with a writer or be good friends with a writer, be kind when they respond to “How was your day?” with “Do you think readers will notice if I move the Field of the Cloth of Gold up by six weeks?” Just remember, they didn’t choose this gig. It chose them.

And if you’re a writer, unpublished or not–well, join the club; we have cookies. And ask a friend to fill you in on “Westworld,” because you’re going to be too busy to watch it yourself.

Happy Mother’s Day

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In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d do a post on great historical mothers. Only I can’t think of any great historical mothers–not because they didn’t exist, but because the idea of motherhood changes so radically from era to era. What does constitute a good mother in times past?

For one thing, mothers of the past resigned themselves to losing a lot more children than mothers of the present. Frankly I don’t know how they did it–some scholars like to explain glibly that pre-20th century mothers simply didn’t bond with their children as much because they knew so many would die, but I’m not buying it. Is it so easy to disassociate with your babies? To re-iterate: not buying it.

For another thing,the aims of motherhood in the past changed depending on social status. A peasant woman simply hoped to have enough living children to help with the farm and support her in her old age. A Queen hoped for a few sons to solidify the royal dynasty, and a few spare princesses to cement the odd treaty. In neither case was a mother considered bad if she urged her fourteen-year-old to marry a man in his forties (He’s a wool merchant who will keep you in nice dresses! He’s King of Spain and we need the alliance!) And royal mothers usually were not close and cozy with their children: infant princes and princesses were usually shuttled off to wet-nurses and their own separate households within weeks of birth.

Of course, even with those standards mothers varied. Anne Boleyn, an admittedly lousy stepmother who encouraged her ladies to abuse poor Mary Tudor, cherished little Elizabeth and had to be forbidden from nursing her baby daughter at her own breast–almost unheard-of among queens. Catherine de’Medici, author of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, tried to tend her children with homemade remedies when they were ill, and found herself supplanted by her husband’s mistress who had been appointed keeper of the royal nurseries. A great insult–no wonder she kicked the woman to the curb the minute she could.

Other historical mothers, of course, were not so good. Isabeau of Bavaria is perhaps the worst mother in history–preoccupied with a mad husband and an unstable realm, she was content to let her younger children go completely neglected; they roamed a dusty deserted palace without servants, clean clothes, or even regular meals. I’ve noticed that Vanora Bennett’s recent novel of the same era called The Queen’s Lover drew complaints from readers who found it hard to believe that the children of a king could have ranged so freely without supervision–well, they did. Peasant children lived better than those poor little princesses, who had only intermittent interest from their queenly mother until they grew old enough to marry off.

Thankfully, historical fiction is better than history at providing great mothers, and I will mention a few in honor of Mother’s Day. Katie Nolan from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, an uneducated housewife who guarded her children’s safety, education, and future with dragon-like ferocity, and shot in cold blood a pervert who attempted to prey on her teenage daughter. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother from the “Little House” books, who slapped a grizzly bear when it threatened her milk cow, and kept her children cheerful through desperate games during a six-month North Dakota winter. And Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, who might have been a wash at tender nurturing but kept her children fed during the worst years of post-Civil War depression, and even safe-guarded their pride–as in the moment when she let her mother’s sewing box to go to a Yankee raider, but begged to keep the sword belonging to her long-dead husband, because she knew her son cherished it above anything else.

Mothers. Even in history, there is no escaping them. Nor would we wish to.

Review: Spartacus Blood & Sand

Given that I just released a book about ancient Rome (buy here if you haven’t already!), I consider it my duty as an author to keep current in my field. This essentially means putting my feet up with a glass of wine to watch any movie or TV show set in ancient Rome, and calling it research. Given that this blog covers all things historical fiction, I decided to start posting reviews on historical fiction in film as well. What to start with?

My novel Mistress of Rome probably began with Kirk Douglas in the original “Spartacus,” and also owes something to HBO’s too-soon-canceled series “Rome.” But I decided to kick off my career as a movie reviewer with Starz’s re-modeled series “Spartacus: Blood & Sand.” For one thing it is still running, making it the most current dish out there for ancient history fanatics, and for another–well, it surprised me. I enjoyed “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” immensely, despite its faults, and will be looking forward to Season 2.

A few mild spoilers may follow.

For those of you who missed the promos everywhere, the new “Spartacus” is not so much a remake of the old Kirk Douglas story as history pumped up on steroids. There was a real gladiator named Spartacus who led a slave rebellion during the late Republic, and gave a lot of Roman senators sleepless nights. He was eventually defeated in battle and killed. Not much more is known than that: who the man was, why he rebelled, or how he did it. Stanley Kubrick made a surprisingly quiet and touching film which showed Kirk Douglas as a rebellious and passionate slave who during his gladiator training has finally Had Enough and launches a doomed mission to free every slave he can get his hands on, marry Jean Simmons, and get away before their child is born. Starz’s version of Spartacus is a lot more naked and a lot more gory, but who’s to say the events are any less plausible? After all, we have no idea what the real facts are.

Starz’s Spartacus is a noble warrior (with beard) who falls afoul of an evil legate and is sold into a gladiator school while his wife is sold into slavery. He becomes a gladiator (without beard), resolving to escape and get his wife back, but instead becomes the champion of Capua, making a few enemies along the way. That’s the bare plotline, but why bother talking plot? This show is all about style.

Notoriously, it’s shot in the semi-comic book style of “300,” and the arena violence is the stylized variety featuring slow-motion leaps and extravagant fountaining blood. Either you like that style or you don’t, so I won’t bother discussing it here. Personally, I think they overused the slo-mo in the arena fights, but real violence of the non-games variety was always filmed more realistically. Sometimes too realistically–I’m not too squeamish, but I would have preferred a cut-away during the scene where a pit gladiator was skinning a victim’s face off. Do not watch this show when you are eating.

The acting is good–Spartacus is noble and chiseled, and his gladiator buddies vary convincingly from thugs to good guys–the Gaul with the unlikely Marine flat-top was particularly touching, both bone-headed and deep of feeling. Spartacus’s wife is a trifle dreary, but she gets killed off halfway through, thank God. On the Roman side of the table we have the deliciously smarmy John Hannah (Scottish accent? whatever) and the depraved but always funny Lucy Lawless as his voracious wife (Australian accent? whatever!) There was also more historical accuracy than I had anticipated: the training exercises were authentic, as was the arena, a great deal of the Latin terminology, and much of the armor down to the ridiculous gladiator helmets.

There is a great deal of sex in the show: Lucy Lawless bangs a gladiator, Spartacus bangs his wife in flashbacks, John Hannah bangs pretty much anything that moves, and even when people aren’t banging there are still plenty of half-naked gladiators and slave girls walking around for eye candy. This will either offend you or it won’t, like the violence, so I won’t bother discussing it too much. I will say that while some things were blatantly inaccurate (surely slave girls wore more than that during the winter? Surely the gladiators didn’t walk around in loincloths all the time?) there were some things that were quite accurate. The lust that patrician women felt for star gladiators, much as today’s women fawn over movie stars. The casual attitude towards homosexuality and nudity. The nonchalance many slave-owners felt about sex with or in front of their slaves.

All in all, I had fun with “Spartacus: Blood & Sand.” It’s already been renewed for a second season, and I’m glad. I’m not getting into any kind of rating system here, so I will merely recommend it if you like sex and violence with a little history, or history with a lot of sex and violence.

Mistress of Rome Blog Tour!

This month as “Mistress of Rome” is released, I am abandoning my own blog and writing guest posts for others! First up are my contributions to “Dear Author,” to Allie’s blog “Hist-Fic Chick,” Amy’s blog “Passages To The Past,” Kailana’s blog “Historical Tapestry,” Daphne’s blog “Tanzanite’s Shelf and Stuff,” Darlene’s blog “Peeking Between The Pages,” Lizzie’s blog “Historically Obsessed,” Julie P’s blog “Booking Mama,” and Ms. Lucy’s blog “Enchanted By Josephine.” Click below to read my guest blogs: one a feature on book clubs and another on historical research; one a post on fun historical fashions and one on my progression as a writer through some very bad early work, one explaining my fascination with ancient Rome and another explaining my fascination with psychotic emperors; one discussing the state of women in ancient Rome and one linking my two passions of history and opera. Allie, Amy, Kailana, Daphne, Darlene, Lizzy, Julie, Ms. Lucy, and the ladies of “Dear Author” – thanks for having me!

Dear Author

Hist-Fic Chick

Passages To The Past

Historical Tapestry

Tanzanite’s Shelf and Stuff

Peeking Between The Pages

Historically Obsessed

Booking Mama

Enchanted By Josephine

Sharpe’s Hornblower

First of all, an apology: I haven’t been blogging for the past few weeks (er, months) because I’ve been busy blogging for other people. I’ve been working on ten–ten!–different guest blog posts for various blogs of historical fiction. It’s thrilling to be asked, and when the time comes I shall post links to all of them, but I do have to admit my own blog has suffered. So, a post that doesn’t have anything to do with ancient Rome or my book Mistress of Rome which is due out in a few weeks and about which I cannot think without hyperventilating.

Some historical periods are just more appealing than others when it comes to fiction, and one of the stars of history is the Napoleonic Wars. C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brien, Bernard Cornwell, and countless others have written volumes of fictional prose about the Napoleonic Era, which is stocked with enough passion, intrigue, violence, and larger-than-life historical figures to furnish a thousand swashbucklers. But two fictional figures stand above the rest for me, bracketing the entire Napoleonic War period from two very different perspectives: C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, and Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series.

Forester’s Hornblower came first, tripping his way through eleven novels, and Cornwell’s Sharpe followed in frank tribute through twenty-two novels and counting. The two series make splendid companion reads not only because they showcase two different sides of the Napoleonic War–Sharpe is a soldier who tears his way through the land battles; Hornblower is a naval officer whose career stays on the water–but because the two men are absolutely nothing alike. In fact, they probably would have hated each other.

Hornblower is the son of a doctor, raised without much money but plenty of education. Sharpe is the son of a whore who grew up to become a chimneysweep, a thief, a murderer, and eventually a soldier, and only learned to read in his twenties during a stint in prison. Hornblower suffers acute agonies of shyness as he climbs the ladders of rank and nobility. Sharpe is hated by superiors and nobility alike and could care less. Hornblower is moody, melancholic, constantly questioning his own courage and leadership. Sharpe bashes his way through everything with snarling defiance to the odds, never pausing for doubt.
Despite their differences, both men are such heroes. Hornblower may doubt himself constantly, but his exploits on the sea will raise the hair on your arms: the night attack where his tiny frigate captures a Spanish two-decker without a life lost; the grueling battle where his outmatched ship takes on four French ships and destroys three before going down herself; his thrilling escape from a French prison. Sharpe’s savage efficiency in battle causes his officers to shudder but General Wellington remarks that with an army of Sharpes he could conquer Napoleon in a month–and you will agree after watching Sharpe capture a French eagle at Talavera, lead an assault on the fortress at Badajoz over the bodies of countless failed assaults, and single-handedly halt a French charge at Waterloo.

The great pity is that these two men will never meet. Sharpe does have one adventure on the sea–a ship he boards from India to England ends up in the middle of Trafalgar–but he doesn’t meet Hornblower there. Hornblower has a few adventures on land–he spends two years captured in Spain–but he doesn’t run into Richard Sharpe, as much as I hope for it every time I read the book. Bernard Cornwell is a huge fan of the Hornblower novels, and would apparently like nothing better than to write C.S. Forester’s hero into one of Sharpe’s adventures, but copyright issues make it unlikely. A pity, because what a book it would be. Hornblower would be appalled by Sharpe’s savagery in battle, and Sharpe would be scornful of Hornblower’s endless ruminating, but the two men just might come to a wary respect after some mutual feat of arms.

Maybe the two can meet up in retirement. Both live to be old and happy men, though each finds happiness in typically opposite fashion. Hornblower ends as a lord and Admiral of the Fleet, venerated and rich, while Sharpe ekes out a cheerful living on a farm in–of all places–France. Maybe Hornblower will take a trip to France in his old age, looking to see the country he fought for so many years, and his carriage will break down at a little chateau in Normandy. He’ll knock to borrow a cart–a white-haired admiral hung with gold braid, with ingrained powder stains on his hands from all the French ships he captured in his youth–and be greeted by a tall scowling officer with a scar on his cheek and an old-fashioned rifle in hand.

I don’t imagine they will like each other even in old age.

In Memoriam: Robert B. Parker

I am taking a sabbatical from the discussion of historical fiction to pay homage to a giant in a very different field: Robert B. Parker, king of noir detective fiction, who died yesterday morning at his writing desk.

Parker is famous enough for his output (a staggering sixty-five books in thirty-seven years) and for his reincarnation of the classic noir literature (most notably his Spenser series). I stumbled on Parker a long time ago and have enjoyed his work for a host of other reasons. I list them here, in no particular order, in honor of a great writer.

1. Dialogue. Parker’s dialogue is crisp, snappy, and personalized; an object lesson for anybody looking to write funny yet realistic speech for different characters. When Parker really gets it going, the zingers come back and forth like the rat-a-tats of Spenser trading bullets with the latest villain. A joy to read, and rare to find in a genre known for heavy-handed prose.

2. Tough guys. Unlike many authors, Parker understands that a fictional hero does not come across as tough because he swaggers and calls himself so. He is tough because of what he does, and how others react to him. And there are no tough guy cliches to Parker’s heroes. Spenser, the consummate tough guy, is also a gourmet cook who reads poetry and knows how to make piecrust. Hawk, his fearsome assassin sidekick, wears powder blue suits with pink shirts. Sunny Randall is a perky little blonde fit to co-star in a Meg Ryan comedy. But does anyone laugh when they narrow their eyes and produce a gun?

3. Light-heartedness. Noir can be very dark–alcoholic detectives plowing morosely through an assembly line of glamour girls while getting depressed by gun battles and criminal atrocities. Parker had a lighter touch. Spenser, except for the occasional blip caused by a bad case, is a remarkably serene and contented individual. Hawk, both single and emotionally distant, is perfectly happy that way. How refreshing.

4. Boston. After living in Boston eight years, I miss it. Flipping through the latest Spenser book is always like coming home. The pinpoint accuracy of the city’s layout, the widespread obsession with the Red Sox, the exact look of the bridge over the pond in the Boston Public Gardens at dusk–Parker has it nailed.

5. Fine writing. Parker may get dismissed as a writer of light, amusing mysteries, but his writing his better than that–and sometimes searing about social issues. Prostitution, immigration, teen gangs, race violence, school shootings, professional sports–Parker has blasted them all in his backhand way.

I’m going to miss Mr. Robert B. Parker, along with his friends Spenser, Hawk, Jesse, Sunny, Spike, Vinnie Morris, the Grey Man, and the rest. No more twice-yearly dose of Boston-infused wit and danger. No chance to ask Parker in exasperation if he can please set Spenser up with somebody besides that wretched Susan.

The wretched Susan aside, I’ll miss them all.

Bah, Humbug!

Goodwill and happiness has descended upon us in the form of the holiday season, and I am in my usual cynical funk. Having absorbed all the canned Christmas music I can stand in the course of holiday shopping, I am now in no mood to praise anybody. So allow me to sharpen my claws and sink my teeth into a piece of holiday historical fiction which I loathe with the fire of a thousand suns: namely, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

I admit, I am not a Dickens fan. I find his humor cumbersome, and overall he’d have benefited from one of those short-tempered old-fashioned editors who flip through the manuscript and bark, “Cut 50%!” Dickens’s other books are bad enough, but A Christmas Carol is a piece of sanctimonious treacle that was forced down my throat in some institution of learning or other, and on which I have been gagging ever since.

For one thing, (though this is not precisely Dickens’s fault) there is no reason why A Christmas Carol should ever have become family holiday reading in the first place. It is first and foremost a ghost story, and the triple incantation of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come is likely to scare imaginative kids silly, especially if they have ever heard of the decidedly non-Christian legend of the Three Fates. Even for adult readers, the visions Scrooge sees can leave a bad taste: abandonment, betrayal, bitterness, and death. Did he really deserve all that? Why not visit the Three Christmases on a murderer or a wife-beater instead of a crusty old bachelor whose only crimes were a tight fist and a non-politically correct work environment?

This leads to my second point, which is that Scrooge’s change of heart is decidedly suspect. The sentimental might sigh about the power of Christmas having awakened a true desire for change in the old man’s wizened heart, but the cynical among us smell a rat. Scrooge’s transformation from crusty curmudgeon to human saint is less about altruism and more about self-interest. He has, after all, been shown a terrifying vision which convinces him that unless he mends his ways, he will spend eternity in hell clanking around in chains like his former business partner. So, with businesslike efficiency, he proceeds to mend his ways. Smells less like Christmas spirit to me, and more like he was covering his ass with both hands and a stocking.

My third grudge against the book is Tiny Tim. I can’t stand the little wretch, and I doubt Scrooge will be able to either, at least not for long. I always hope he’ll snap halfway through his Christmas chez Cratchit and push the little bugger out a tall window before I have to read the nauseatingly cute “God bless us, every one!”

My last grudge is probably not Charles Dickens’s fault either . . . but do we have A Christmas Carol to blame for what Christmas in America has turned into? Christmas didn’t always use to be a family-centered, child-oriented celebration of treacle. Christmas has its roots in the pagan Saturnalia, which involved all kinds of drunkenness and celebration but no sentimentality. The Puritans made sure to spoil all that pagan fun by making Christmas revolve around church services–any Bob Cratchit who had whined about Christmas dinner to them probably would have gotten a grim lecture on the evils of gluttony. But then the Victorian era came along, and so did the idea of a more family-centered holiday . . . and then came A Christmas Carol, which added all the secular trimmings of food, gifts, games, children, and family gatherings that give us so many headaches in the modern holiday season. Mr. Dickens, you have a lot to answer for.

I believe in Christmas. But crusty old misanthropes should be able to celebrate it too, with neither bad dreams nor overly cute children to ruin the occasion.

The Heaven Tree

Every so often a book comes along that does more than stop you in its tracks. It yanks you in, envelops you, makes the rest of the world dim and cloudy. While in thrall to such a book, everything outside its covers is unimportant. Housework, homework, any other kind of work goes to the wayside. Family and friends will be baffled, possibly irritated, hopefully understanding. And after the book is done, you wander about for a week in a cloud of irritation, expelled from the world that held you so completely.

Edith Pargeter’s The Heaven Tree is such a book. It involves a terrible blood bond between three people in the Middle Ages, a bond that descends through years and generations, and revolves around the building of a great cathedral. Do not say a word about Ken Follett’s Pillars of Earth. This is the best book about cathedral-building ever written, and many other things as well: a character study, a drama, a romance, and a ripping good yarn.

It begins simply enough with Harry Talvace, a cheerful young English lordling who gives up his birthright to follow his passion, which is carving stone. His dream is to build a great cathedral, and he at last gets the chance when he meets Ralf Isambard, a powerful and enigmatic marcher lord from the border of Wales who hires Harry as his cathedral architect. Joining this band are various other characters: Benedetta, Isambard’s beautiful and serene Italian mistress; Gilleis, Harry’s fiery little wife; and Adam, Harry’s best friend and chief stonemason. The cathedral begins to rise.

So far, so good–a bustling story of the Middle Ages, with a few fascinating sidebars into Welsh-English politics and the technical aspects of stone-carving. The book’s genius is in the slow-building dread of its plot, for Harry has made a rash promise to Isambard, and events will force him to break it. No one breaks promises to the terrible and inexorable Isambard, and Harry’s life is forfeit. No one can save him, not even Benedetta who has come to love Harry–but she can foil the execution. The scene that follows is nearly unbearable, as the life and soul of a good man are stretched between the woman who loves him and the lord who loves him too but loves vengeance more.

The Heaven Tree is technically a trilogy, though it reads as almost one book. The next continues a generation later with Harry’s son, now a young man and thirsting to avenge his father’s death. His attempt fails, and he becomes Isambard’s prisoner. A game of cat and mouse ensues as young Harry tries to remain firm against the old lord’s wiles–and find out what it is Isambard wants from him, and from Benedetta who is now living a hermit’s life in the Welsh mountains. Over everything looms the cathedral his father made, a miracle in stone that may hold redemption even for Isambard.

There are passages of extraordinary lyrical beauty. The weeks when the first Harry, knowing his death is imminent, pours his frustration and fear and will to live into his stone-carving, filling his nearly-finished cathedral with all his angel’s soul. The time when Benedetta flings the gauntlet down before Isambard. The scene by the river, nearly impossible to read. An incidental passage where a crusty old saint quietly dies in the grass outside his hut. And the final chapters where Isambard and Benedetta, in the cathedral Harry built, come to terms with everything they are and everything that has gone before them.

This is a long book, and it is slow to begin. Do not make the mistake of abandoning it after forty pages in frustration. Stick with it until Isambard and Benedetta join Harry, and their fateful triangle is in place. The Japanese have a term called en, which refers to a karmic connection between people which draws them inexorably together throughout their lives. The en between Harry, Benedetta, and Isambard is a thing of beauty and terror, blood and genius.

This book is not well known. It should be. It is a work of unbelievable power.

Ladies of History

Last time around, I made a list of the hunks of historical fiction who have warmed my heart. I’d hate to be accused of being unfair to the boys out there, so here’s a list of the female heroines of historical fiction who make the hearts of men go pitter-pat, and had me vowing as a child to grow up more like them:

1. Elizabeth I, from countless books. My original heroine. She’s been cast in enough books and movies to make her legitimately tired, but that would probably please the queen who is still remembered fondly by Englishmen everywhere. She survived an insane father, a homicidal sister, and many hostile enemies; she inherited a shaky little island riddled with debt and left it a political powerhouse with a full treasury and a cultural renaissance; she began as a scared little girl and ended a near-goddess. Elizabeth I is the original mother goddess: brilliant, inexplicable, maddening, beautiful, and eternally fascinating.

2. Boudicca, from Pauline Gedge’s Eagle and the Raven: the red-haired queen of ancient Britain who damn near kicked out the Romans. Pauline Gedge draws a compelling vision of a blunt-spoken six-foot swordswoman who goes from reluctant ally of Rome to avenging mother after her tribe is sacked and her daughters raped. Her war didn’t quite succeed, but her legend lingers; the amazon before who all men knelt in reverence.

3. Genevieve Pasquier, from Judith Merkle Riley’s The Oracle Glass. One of my personal favorites; a girl in the court of the Sun King who turns a gift for reading the future into a first-class con. Genevieve is nineteen years old, cynical, worldly, and intelligent, and with nothing more than a classical education and a gift for fortune telling she deceives the wealthy courtiers of Louix XIV’s court into believing she is a 150-year-old sorceress who can read their futures. People that gullible deserve to be rooked.

4. Katie Nolan, from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One of the great mothers of all literature; tough, fierce, and hard as nails. Her prowess went beyond the feats of quiet endurance like working as a cleaning woman to keep her children fed and in school. Who can forget the moment when this illiterate Brooklyn housewife sees her daughter being molested by a criminal, goes upstairs to get her husband’s gun, and without turning a hair shoots the attacker in a place that ensures he will do no molesting ever again?

5. Benedetta Foscari, from Edith Pargeter’s The Heaven Tree. Great acts of defiance are not always done with weapons, and Benedetta Foscari, an Italian courtesan who is mistress to a ruthless medieval warlord, has a quiet but blazing moment of glory. Her warlord has decided to execute an innocent man–a man Benedetta loves. Not only does she foil his execution, but she throws her love for him in the warlord’s face before all the onlookers. One of the great eff-you moments of literature.

6. Livia, from Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. A great villainess, but one I always admired nonetheless. A scheming Roman Empress who calmly plotted, murdered, and poisoned her way through eight or nine relatives to ensure that her son became the next Emperor. Amoral, ruthless, and detestable, yes, but the woman had style.

7. Scarlet O’Hara, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. The original Southern belle, but much more than that besides. Her tempestuous love life is what most of us remember best from the book, but just as interesting is her growth from spoiled teenager to flinty-eyed woman who will pay any price to make sure her family and her beloved plantation survive the American Civil War. Scarlett is not always likeable–hot-tempered, bull-headed, an indifferent mother and an overly sharp businesswoman–but she is always admirable.

8. Linda Voss, from Susan Isaacs’s Shining Through. Not a well-known heroine, and she should be. Linda comes from Jewish-German immigrant stock in Queens, and works as a secretary to a powerful Washington intelligence agent in the years just before World War II. Her fluent German lands her a job as a spy in the house of a Nazi bureaucrat in Berlin, where she spends a year and a half cooking strudel for fascists by day and smuggling secrets out by night. A fascinating dual portrait of Germany and America during the war, as well as a realistic portrayal of the sheer repetitive danger and boredom of real spy-craft. No James Bond gadgets or sexy seductions here; Linda walks the tightrope of her dangerous mission on common sense and plain New York toughness alone.

9 and 10. This one’s a two-way tie between two very different ladies from George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire.” Arya Stark is the ten-year-old daughter of a great lord, more inclined to practice her fencing than her embroidery. When her family is destroyed in a civil war she finds herself on her own, and swiftly turns from scruffy tomboy to lethal little street-rat, dispatching her first enemy with aplomb and waging a one-girl war on those who brought down her family. Brienne of Tarth is a very different heroine, a tall and ugly girl who trained as a knight and is shunned by real knights everywhere. Not because of her ugliness, or because she can beat the men who challenge her, but because in her shining moral courage and unflinching sense of honor she is the living embodiment of the knightly ideal. An ideal that most other knights do not live up to, and so they cannot bear to look Brienne in the face.

Any other additions to the list? I’m all ears!

Historical Hunks

Greetings all, and thanks for putting up with a month’s absence as I went on my honeymoon. In keeping with the theme of honeymoon bliss, this week’s blog post will center around favorite heroes of romantic fiction: the men I fell in love with on the page long before I ever met my husband.

If, like me, you are a woman whose heart goes pitter-pat for a man in chain mail, you are sadly out of luck in the 21st century. We resort to books instead to satisfy our craving for warriors. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites:

1. Aragorn, from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Long before Viggo Mortensen brought him to life, I fell in love with Aragorn. He swung a sword, he knew poetry, and he helped save the world. What’s not to love?

2. Robert the Bruce, from Nigel Tranter’s trilogy of Scotland. William Wallace was the hero in Mel Gibson’s version, but Scotland’s most famous hero king springs to vibrant life in this trilogy. The writing is chewy, but Robert the Bruce is a hunk for the ages. Whether politicking with the highland clans, grieving for his much-loved wife who was held captive in England for eight years, or braining a hated enemy in single combat right before the battle of Bannockburn (true), this King was everything a King should be.

3. Ralf Isambard, from Edith Pargeter’s Heaven Tree trilogy. A more obscure and less sympathetic hero, but a fascinating one. Isambard is a medieval warlord in Pargeter’s tale of the Middle Ages: charismatic, handsome, and deadly. I hated him for three hundred pages when he executed his best friend on a point of honor and then had his adored mistress thrown into a river for falling in love with someone else–but the next three hundred pages slowly redeemed him as grief and guilt turned him from an amoral game-player to a man of grace. What’s more appealing than a redeemed devil?

4. Rhett Butler, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.� Just to prove that I don’t only go for men with swords. Rhett’s charm, dash, and devotion to his lady won me over along with every other woman in America the moment I read Gone With The Wind.

5. Mr. Rochester, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Some might choose Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, but I found him a boor and a bore. Mr. Rochester has it all, the original brooding hero after which all other heroes must brood inadequately. His verbal duels with Jane prove once and for all that intelligent conversation is the best aphrodisiac: the two trade more sex in a few pages of wordplay than in all the grunting and sweating of today’s R-rated movies.

6. Derfel Cadarn, from Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur trilogy. Another sword swinger; a blond Saxon warrior who is King Arthur’s most feared champion, but on his off days loves nothing so much as to pile his little girls into his war shield and take them sledding. Cornwell coined the phrase lord of war, and this man defines it to the life.

7. Xavier March, from Robert Harris’s Fatherland. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call this book historical fiction; what it really is is alternate historical fiction. Xavier March is a German detective in the early sixties . . . in a Berlin where Hitler won World War II. Surrounded by a world filled with Nazi horrors (mostly designed by Albert Speer) March is a grim investigator beside whom all the CSI actors fall short, as he methodically goes about uncovering the biggest horror of all–the truth of the Final Solution.

8. Sam Damon, from Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle. Another historical fiction that might be called borderline, but it does begin about a hundred years back, so close enough. Sam is an idealistic boy who joins the army in World War I, wins the Medal of Honor and a battlefield commission, and ends his career as a retired general and military observer in Vietnam. Sam is perhaps the most palpably saintly hero in fiction, but one who somehow manages not to be a bloodless prig or a cardboard white-hat.

9. Emperor Claudius, from Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. Just to prove that not all heroic men are men of action. Claudius won my heart even before I saw the TV series: a man who overcame a stammer, a limp, and a scornful family to become a fiercely intelligent scholar and one of Rome’s shrewdest Emperors.

10. Arius, from Kate Quinn’s Mistress of Rome. Another hero from ancient Rome, and yes, I am going to put in one of my own characters. What else is a blog for? Arius is a gladiator in first-century Rome, filled with violence and pain and passion. My husband, after reading Arius’s story, accuses me teasingly of liking my men “large, hard, and hurting” and I can’t say he’s wrong. If I ever met Arius off the page, I would follow him into the sunset in a heartbeat. My husband would just have to understand.

11. A man of both fierce intelligence and fierce strength, who can swing a sword like a samurai and wield a pistol like a sharpshooter, who can come up with a line of poetry or a cutting riposte at a second’s notice. Fortunately he’s neither fictional nor historical. He’s the man I married.

12. Your choice. What historical fiction heroes do you swoon over?

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