Q&A With Roma Nova Author Alison Morton!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo courtesy of Britannia www.durolitum.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, in a nutshell: what is AURELIA about?

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

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

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

And now, my thoughts!

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

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

Buy AURELIA here!

Book trailer for AURELIA

More about the ROMA NOVA series:

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series

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

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

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

More about Alison:

Nova Roma blog | Facebook Author Page | Twitter
Goodreads

Lady of the Eternal City: The Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Gift For My Readers

I have been hugely touched by the good wishes, the prayers, and the wonderful support coming in from readers after my house fire of two weeks ago. It’s been a rollercoaster two weeks, but the Overseas Gladiator and I are fighting our way back to normality: burns healing, belongings recovered, progress made slowly but surely on our half-ruined house. I have the best readers, friends, and fans in the world, and I wish I could give you something back.

Fortunately, I can. Sometimes the fates line up like that.

It’s just a hair under two weeks till Lady of the Eternal City is released, and around this time, I’ll usually release the coming book’s first chapter as a sneak preview. This time I’ve gone one better: not only are you getting a teaser excerpt from LEC’s first chapter, you’re getting three bonus stories not included in the book.

LEC has been the book from hell for many reasons–some books are just problem babies while others are angel–and one of my early plot snarls came from the fact that I started the story too early in the timeline. I wanted to pick up right where Empress of the Seven Hills left off–with Vix wrestling with the impossible choice of killing his best friend; with Titus wondering if an executioner was coming for him; with Sabina in an ever-developing condition. But I ended up scrapping my original start and opening a year after the events of Empress of the Seven Hills, as Hadrian makes his long-awaited entry into Rome as Emperor. It was the right choice, but there were scenes on the cutting-room floor that I always regretted losing. And they made three self-contained little stories all on their own, so I realized I could bundle them together here: three prequel stories taking place in that missing year between Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City.

“Blood”
Battered warrior Vix has always been Hadrian’s bitter enemy, and he vows that will never change, even when he is made Praetorian Guard and Imperial watchdog. But with his family’s lives on the line, Vix faces a bitter choice: kill a friend, or serve a foe?

“Omen”
Mild, scholarly Titus might once have been favored as Imperial heir, but he never wanted the throne. All he desires is peace in the arms of his new bride–but the jealous Hadrian has other ideas. A horror of bloodshed and violence interrupts Titus’s wedding night, and the man of peace finds a choice at sword-point: honor and death, or betrayal and a cell?

“Prophecy”
Elegant, elusive Sabina is desperate to escape the bleak future that awaits her as Hadrian’s Empress, and even more desperate to conceal the secret growing in her own body. But when she begs a famous seer for a glimpse into her future, she receives an astonishing vision of the Eternal City under Hadrian’s rule, and the new Empress must choose: her own freedom, or the glory of Rome?

Three former friends find new futures in blood, omen, and prophecy. Three prequel vignettes to “Lady of the Eternal City, in an exclusive e-release titled The Three Fates.

The Three Fates is available for FREE download on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Scribd, and Page Foundry. It is available on Amazon Kindle at 0.99, which was the lowest possible price option. The Three Fates is NOT available in print, since this is an e-release only–and there is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Lady of the Eternal City tucked in the back.

I hope you enjoy it–and again, thank you. Thank you all.

Quinn’s Inferno

Last week my house suffered a catastrophic fire.

I’ve been asked “How did it happen?” so many times I could tell the story in my sleep, but I’ll tell it again on the page. I think for a writer, it isn’t real until we’ve written it down.

The Overseas Gladiator was home from the Middle East, having been given ten days to fly home for his grandmother’s funeral. The day after the funeral we made the long drive home, lit a big fire in our fireplace as we’d done a thousand times before, poured a glass of wine each, and settled down to relax for the rest of a cold Wednesday night. Twenty minutes later, we were homeless.

As we sat in the firelight reading, the fire quietly ate its way out of the back of the fireplace and spread through the wall of the house. By the time a neighbor pounded on our door to let us know the back of the house was kindling, the fire had already raced up inside the wall to the attic and was sweeping through. The Overseas Gladiator tried to hose down the back wall as I raced upstairs to get the Praetorian Dog who had been locked in the bedroom since the commotion started. That was when an enormous boom of a backdraft ripped through the house, a rush of super-heated air and ash billowing down from the burning attic. The blast knocked the Overseas Gladiator back against the deck railing, and flung me down the stairs like a rag doll. Shortly after we were standing barefoot in the icy parking lot, clutching the dog and watching as three separate fire trucks arrived with sirens blaring, and fire started licking its way over our roof.

Someone noticed at some point that my arm and shoulder and cheek were toasted medium rare–I wasn’t feeling a thing–and then the night turned into a round of emergency rooms, hospital beds, paperwork, and the slow shocky process of realizing we were still alive. I was only in the hospital for one night (the burns weren’t as bad as they looked) but it was a long, strange night full of glass-sharp individual recollections.

I remember the blast that kicked me down the stairs, half tumbling and half scrambling to get under the wave of fire and ash that was falling all around me like a halo. My hair was crisped all across the top; lying in the hospital bed later, I ran my hand across my ashy knotted bun and realized that if I hadn’t clipped my hair up that night, my two-foot banner of hair probably would have gone up like a torch.

I remember seeing the OG in full-on hero mode, shoving me toward safety as he charged upstairs into a wall of smoke to save the dog–and later collapsing in the hospital corridor when he realized I was ok.

I remember unloading every curse I knew in the ambulance once the pain from my burned arm finally kicked in. I know a lot of curses. The EMTs were apparently impressed.

I remember laughing like drunken hyenas on our respective gurneys as the OG said into the silence, “Well, on the bright side, I’m not flying back to the Persian Gulf in two days.”

I remember lifting my charred eyebrows and saying “Seriously?” when an earnest young ER doc asked me “So, are you in any pain?”

Most of all, I remember the astonishment of seeing just how many people rushed to help us friends, family, complete strangers.

One week later, and things are a lot better. We’re in an apartment that is starting to feel like home, and our burned-out house is scheduled to be renovated over the next six months. My burns are healing up, the pain slowly fading toward a hell of an itch. The Overseas Gladiator keeps me smiling with a never-ending string of incredibly crass jokes about barbecues, bonfires, and our very own Ash Wednesday. Insurance is paying to replace what we’ve lost, and we’ve been able to save a surprising amount the bust of Clio (muse of history) on my desk; a laptop and all my writings; my red conference stilettos.

The astonishment is still there, however, when I think how many people have stepped forward to help us. Our families, swooping in with advice and money and offers to dog-sit. Our friends, coming by with armloads of towels and supplies and home-cooked meals. The Navy, bending over backward to keep my Overseas Gladiator from having to go back overseas until this is handled. Complete strangers donating to a GoFundMe page with good wishes and prayers.

I look around me and I feel nothing but grateful. I lost a house, but I have so much: a husband, a dog, and the best family, friends, and fans in the world.

Thank you.

 

**From the Overseas Gladiator**
I asked Kate, the estimable 5’2 Toasty Badass, if I could write something to tack onto her blog post about our recent house fire.

When I asked, and she said yes, I had this vision in my head of writing some moving piece about the preciousness of life, about how everything has unappreciated value, about how the fire happened, about how you realize what you really need in life, all the typical platitudes from your average run-of-the-mill romance novel. Which tends to get turned into a cheesy movie. Starring, I dunno, Ryan Gosling.

But all I keep returning to is…… Ash. Smoke. Fire. Fear. Chaos. Grief.

Hearing the pounding on our front door by our neighbor, who saved our lives.

Hearing the terrifying, You’re on FIRE! YOU’RE ON FIRE!! and feeling everything just simply stop as the words hit like cold, methodical punches to the brain.

Seeing flames licking out from the side of our house.

Feeling like we were drowning in liquid panic as we just couldn’t move fast enough to get the hose hooked up.

That feeling of absolute, blind futility, of the purest form of utter helplessness, as I watched the flames just climb up the side of our goddamn house despite pouring water on it as fast as I could.

Hearing the backdraft explosion happen, blinking stars out of my eyes as I briefly wondered what the fuck just happened, and why am I on my back?

Hearing a series of thumps that only later I realize was my wife falling down the stairs.

Hearing her scream that the dog is trapped upstairs, and knowing that death is literally seconds away from everyone in what used to be our refuge, our sanctuary, our world, as we felt the flames spread.

Shoving Kate and our neighbor toward the front door, screaming, Out, out, out!! Everyone get the fuck out, NOW!!

And, finally checking everyone outside. Realizing that somehow we’re still alive. Injured. Damaged. Dazed. Burnt. Concussed. But alive.

This is what we keep coming back to. This what I keep coming back to. That despite it all, despite the terrible loss of our stuff and our lives being thrown into a maelstrom, we’re alive.

So…..hopefully I don’t have to stress the sanctity of life, of how everyone should appreciate what and more importantly who they have in their lives. Just find your significant other, give them a hug and a kiss. Call your parents, hug your kids, what the hell ever you think would work.

Because I damn near lost the most important person in my world. And believe me when I say that it re-calibrates your perspective.

And finally, thanks for all the love and support, everyone. It’s been simply….astonishing and wonderful to know that so many amazing people are willing to help.

From the depths of this salty Sailor’s heart, from both of our hearts; thank you. With everything we have.

Top 10 Books of 2014

I’m about to start a long road trip, throwing the Praetorian Dog in the car and heading off to spend Christmas with the Dowager Librarian in California–but I’ve got just enough time to turn out the mandatory Top Ten Books I Read This Year!  blog post, just in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2014 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .

1. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. A quirky and unabashedly intellectual book about smart people thinking smart thoughts. Renee is a Paris concierge, hiding her passion for books and art behind a concierge’s stereotypical surliness; Paloma is a twelve-year-old genius being driven mad by school, life, and the stupidity around her. She’s planning to kill herself when she turns thirteen, more or less out of boredom–but a cautious friendship with the prickly Renee and a contemplative Japanese businessman changes all three lives in astounding ways.

Buy for: that ultra-smart kid in your life, whether it’s your bookworm daughter or your genius little brother or that eleven-year-old you babysit for who gets bullied because she’s already reading Jane Austen. That kid will see themselves in Paloma, and like she did probably develop a passion for French art and Japanese calligraphy.

2. “Blood Eye” by Giles Kristian. I found Kristian’s Viking series after going into serious withdrawal from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, and it doesn’t disappoint. This story of a boy named Raven swept up into the crew of a Viking longship is everything you want from guts-and-glory historical fiction: bone-crunching shield-walls, pulse-pounding adventures, and prose of blood-stirring action and sometimes lyrical beauty.

Buy for: your mother, if she’s like mine and absolutely adores a good skull-crushing with her evening glass of chardonnay.

3. “Prince of Shadows” by Rachel Caine. I know nothing about Caine except that she has a YA vampire series, so this book was an expected shock of deliciousness: Romeo and Juliet retold with a surprising twist. The hero and heroine here are Benvolio (Romeo’s steady best friend) and Rosaline (Romeo’s first infatuation, ditched for Juliet). This pair is smarter, older, and far more savvy than their more famous counterparts, and they struggle to stop the inevitable–all the while feeling like the “curse on both their houses” may be a literal catalyst for all this disaster, and not just a poetic conceit.

Buy for: your office-mate whose cubicle is pasted with Shakespeare quotes, and who can be heard muttering Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day as she watches the clock move toward 6pm. She’ll geek out on the way Caine weaves Shakespeare’s lines into her own dialogue.

4. “One Plus One” by Jojo Moyes. A feel-good book which also manages to be whip-smart and side-splittingly funny–no small feat to pull off. Ed is a tech-head millionaire currently on the outs for unwitting insider trading, hiding from his family and looking for new purpose. New purpose storms into his life in the form of Jess, a blue-collar single mom with a giant farting dog, a sullen teenage stepson, and a genius daughter who has to get to Scotland for a math competition if she has any chance of getting into an elite school and out of the cycle of poverty. Ed ends up driving the band of misfits to Scotland, and over the next week as his car and his life are systematically dismantled, something else starts to form–a rag-tag little family.

Buy for: that friend who’s been a bit battered by life lately, and really needs a smile on her face. Reassure her in advance that the dog doesn’t die.

5. “Live by Night by Dennis Lehane. Sequel to his fabulous “The Given Day,” and centering around a cocky Irish boy who starts low on the rungs of the Boston mob during Prohibition, and rises steadily through the roaring 20s until he is running the Florida division of the mob’s liquor business. Shifts effortlessly from 20s-era Boston to Florida to Cuba in a whirl of crime bosses, hit men, bathtub gin parties, good girls gone bad, bad girls gone good, and the inevitable consequences to a life of crime. Seedy, violent, glorious.

Buy for: your dad who has a passion for gangster movies. Tell him it’s “The Godfather” and “The Departed” rolled into one.

6. Speaking of living by night, try “The Quick” by Lauren Owen. This is Bram Stoker-style Victorian gothic at its best; buttoned-up London suits and properly closed doors, and the horrors that sometimes live behind them. A shy young poet comes to London and is introduced to a secret society of London’s most lethal men–a society that will have to be fought with blood when the poet disappears, and his determined sister comes to town looking for answers. A brave heroine, a band of eccentric vigilantes, and a villain named Doctor Knife–this will have you reading far into the night, and falling asleep with all your lights on.

Buy for: your gay bestie, because there is a tender and wonderful m/m romance tucked into all the supernatural tension.

7. “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan” by Stephanie Thornton. Four narrators handing the torch to each other in turn: the Khan’s seeress first wife, his brash tomboy daughter, a Persian captive turned councillor, and finally a watchful daughter-in-law who will seize the reins when the great Khan’s empire begins to fracture. Other women have roles to play as well: a tough-as-nails adopted daughter; a rape-ravaged princess whose madness will have unspeakable consequences for one of the four narrators. These women are fascinating, and there isn’t a weakling among them.

Buy for: your sister, so you can speculate how the two of you would have fared managing a ger and drinking fermented mare’s milk.

8. “Joyland” by Stephen King. No one can write a coming-of-age story like (ironically) the master of horror. This beauty has it all, a bittersweet and moving tale of a college boy whose summer stint at an old-fashioned carnival turns out to have a lot of firsts: first love, first heartbreak, first real job, first sex partner–and since there is both a ghost and a serial killer on the loose in the carnival, first brush with death and the supernatural.

Buy for: your nephew going off to college for his own coming-of-age story. Write your phone number on the inside: If a girl dumps you and you get as depressed as the hero in this book, don’t sit there listening to the Doors and thinking about suicide the way he does. CALL ME.

9. “The Magicians Trilogy” by Lev Grossman. This is the book for you if you ever wished you could go to Narnia or Hogwarts. Quentin is a brilliant student with a fanboy crush on a series of books clearly based on CS Lewis’s Narnia; the kid who never got over the fact that he didn’t open a wardrobe and find a fantasy paradise. But he does get his Hogwarts letter, finding himself accepted to a college called Brakebills which trains the gifted few in the arts of magic. Quentin is a bit of a prat through the first two books, but the world-building is wonderful: Brakebills is like Harry Potter with drinking, screwing, and swearing.

Buy for: your older brother, so you can reminisce back to the days when he played Peter, you played Lucy, and you both just knew you were going to open a door to Narnia someday and become High King and Queen of Narnia.

10. “The Complete Unwind Dystology” by Neal Shusterman. YA dystopia stories are a dime a dozen these days, but this quartet is a cut above the rest, envisioning a world where the abortion debate and most of the world’s diseases have been solved in the most horrific way possible: abortion is illegal, but from the ages of 13 to 18, parents can elect to have their problem teens Unwound, their bodies harvested as replacement organs and parts for the nation’s diseased and wounded (it doesn’t count as murder, the argument goes, because all the dead teen’s parts are still alive, just in separate bodies!) The book starts with three teens on the run from this grim fate, but spans out to encompass many more characters. A horrifying, thought-provoking, unflinching read through four unputdownable books.

Buy for: your bookworm grandma who thinks YA has turned into nothing but sparkly vampires and love triangles. Be prepared for a long thoughtful discussion on the social ramifications of organ harvesting.

And for a final bonus book . . .

11. “A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii” by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter and, yes, me. Normally I wouldn’t list one of my own titles on any best-of list, but I only wrote 1/6 of this collection–I had no idea what my collaborators were going to come up with, and I was as agog and delighted as any strange reader when I got to read the whole collection A-Z. Vicky’s heart-breaking boy on the cusp of manhood; Sophie’s quiet engineer hero; Ben’s disreputable ex-soldier with his dogged loyalty; Eliza’s young mother-to-be and Stephanie’s pair of lion-brave whores–these characters didn’t come from my brain, and they combined into a wonderful whole to tell the story of Pompeii’s last fatal day, so I feel justified in pimping my fellow authors. Buy for: everybody you know. Absolutely everybody. Because I want to see this book on the NYT list, don’t you? Let’s make it happen.

Merry Christmas!

The 13 Stages of Copyediting Madness

 

1. Page 2: Hey, this book isn’t so bad.

2. Page 81: That’s the fourth misspelled word . . . and those are just the ones I caught. Wait, how many am I missing?!

3. Start over.

4. Send panicked email to writing buddy begging for one more reread of that problematic eighth chapter.

5. This book is terrible.

6. Realize you said the Roman eagle standard was silver, when Imperial-era eagles were gold. Make change, exhale, then grow cold. That was just the historical error you caught. HOW MANY AM I MISSING?!

7. Incorporate Chapter 8 changes from writing buddy, who read your pages at 11:30 at night on what was supposed to be a dinner break in the middle of their own deadline crisis. Hit the Vatican website and start petition to have writing buddy canonized.

8. Spend four hours untangling the timeline inconsistencies pointed out by your copyeditor, then realize it’s all because you miscalculated your hero’s age, i.e. you can’t count.

9. Get the shivers when your primary source says the Chapter 19 lightning strike happened fifteen years earlier than you placed it in your story. Ransack research materials wildly looking for that vindicating second source, which is missing. Finally found under sleeping, resentful dog who has not been walked in days.

10. Compose email offering your editor your first born child and a kidney if you can have another week to finish this. Delete email, go back to work.

11. Deadline Day. Writing buddy comes to your house, handcuffs you to the sink, and presses Send for you.

12. Thank writing buddy. Set a date next week to do the same for her when she needs to press Send.

13. Start drinking.

My House Is Tidy. And I Hate It.

The reason everything is tidy is because my husband is gone.

Now, he’s not a slob–the faucets in our bathrooms are shined to pass a Navy inspection, and he actually reproaches me if I do the vacuuming without him–but clean and tidy are two very different things. The man I married leaves a swathe of discarded objects in his wake wherever he goes, and I notice it immediately now that he has been transferred overseas, has departed for pre-training, and will not returning home for more than a year.

My carpet is tidy. There is no scatter of boat-sized shoes across the living room, lying everywhere but in the actual shoe bin. It’s less of a tripping hazard–if you tossed his shoes into the sea, they’d have to be registered as shipping hazards–but this shoe-free carpet makes me sad.

My dining room table is tidy. No scatter of Dr. Pepper cans, Red Bull cans, and water bottles, all opened and drunk down to exactly the 1/3 mark.

My kitchen counters are tidy. No enthusiastic-amateur-chef’s mess of spice jars, onion peelings, Wusthof filleting knives, and garlic in every permutation in which garlic can possibly be sold (whole, cloves, peeled, diced, coarse powder, fine powder, and in a paste).

My bedroom is tidy. No clothes that have been dropped on the carpet exactly six inches from the laundry basket. No random pairs of sleeves that have been hacked off yet another t-shirt which he has decided will be more comfortable if sleeveless. No torn and paint-spattered cargo shorts hanging up next to the immaculately pressed Navy whites.

My bookshelves are tidy. There are now gaping holes where his massive and varied collection of Asimov, Heinlein, Shakespeare, and Calvin & Hobbes have been packed for the Middle East.

My driveway is tidy. No screaming-red speed-demon of a Subaru with its “Skydiving: My Drug of Choice” bumper sticker, its exhaust which can be heard from three blocks away, and its horsepower upgrades which probably only the motorheads on Top Gear would call street-legal.

My walls are tidy. One third of the weapons collection is packed into sea-bags, since it would be sheer sadism to ask my sword-mad spouse to pass a year without his replica Legolas daggers, his Japanese short sword, and his combat-grade-steel bastard-length broadsword. At the very least.

No tangle of extra car keys. No Rise Against CDs or vintage Varitek baseball jerseys or thick science textbooks bookmarked to the section on black holes. No emails with links to The Colbert Report or George Takei comics or recipes for truffled lasagna (Dinner tonight?)

I’m a tidy sort–my shoes are always in the bin, my clothes are always in the laundry basket, my eight varieties of garlic are all put away. I groan at the man I married for all the reasons above, though it’s a humorous groan. The year ahead of me is going to be very tidy. Not lonely–I have a ferociously protective and loving dog, a vast circle of friends, and more attentive neighbors than I can count, all within arm’s reach.

But it’s going to be a very tidy year.

I will welcome the mess when it comes home.

I Hated Your Book!

Negative reviews for books: it’s a touchier subject than ever these days. Hardly a day goes by when you don’t read some online flame war between a cyber-bully and a writer in tears, or a beleaguered blogger attacked by a writer with thin skin. I have five books out and they’ve all gotten some bad reviews, and while I don’t love that part of my job, no book is going to please 100% of its readers. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I try to learn from my negative reviews–or at least, I try to laugh. And sometimes all you can do is laugh, because some of the reviews and emails-from-the reader that cross my computer screen are downright wacky.

I think a little more laughter–a little more humor–is something we could all use, in this never-ending debate about book reviews. So here it is, my semi-annual “I hated your book!” blog post: the top ten oddball reviews or nutty emails I’ve received this year, along with the responses I make in my head. As always, details have been changed to keep the reviewer/commenter anonymous, but all remain true in essence.

1. “Interesting book about Julius Caesar, his lovers, and his enemies.”
But–but–none of my books are about Julius Caesar, his lovers, OR his enemies.

2. “Everybody loves Emperor Trojan in this book, and I don’t get it. Trojan crushed other cultures without mercy.”
Ok, maybe you didn’t agree with his expansionist policies, but do the man the courtesy of getting his name right. He’s an emperor, not a condom.

3. “The Borgia’s might be an interesting clan, but this book about the Borgia’s put me to sleep.”
And your misuse of the apostrophe is driving me mad, so I’d say you got the better end of the deal.

4. “The historical inaccuracies made me wince. I mean, the heroine was cooking strawberries in the winter!”
This book has a mummified saint’s hand that moves around under its own power, and it’s strawberries in winter that snaps your suspension of disbelief?

5. This book seemed good, but it had a depiction of adultery and I’m sorry, but I will not read anything with a depiction of adultery.
That depresses me. Not so much that you’re missing out on my book, but that you’re missing out on Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Anya Seton’s Katherine.

6. Would have given this book four stars except for the fact that the hero and the heroine didn’t end up together. Why couldn’t they have a happily ever after?
Um . . . because history says they didn’t get one?

7. “I liked this book about the Borgias, but in the end I’m looking for something more serious, like the Showtime series.”
Howls with laughter.

8. “Can’t believe Margaret George said this was `literary.’ Then again, considering what Margaret George writes–”
Now wait just a minute. Call my books whatever you want, but if you start running down my idol Margaret George, you and I are going to have WORDS.

9. “A bunch of stuff in here is wrong, like the pimp.”
I assume you are objecting to the slang term pimp and not the concept as a historical job occupation? Because I assure you that while the Romans might have had their own Latin terms for a procurer, the career of exploiting women in the sex trade was a lucrative and time-honored lifestyle choice in A.D. 100.

10. “Crappy story about Julius Caesar.”
Oh, for f*ck’s sake.

10 Warning Signs of a Bookworm Child

Do any of these 10 things seem familiar? Then you were (or have given birth to) a bookworm child.

1. An advanced ability to walk while reading. Forget those skits where the kid walks book-first into a glass door. A true bookworm child can navigate a full schoolbus route including steps, greeting the driver, finding a seat, successfully locating their stop, and walking the mile and a half home without ever running into anything or lowering the book from their nose.

2. The inability to pass even a 1-minute waiting period without reading. True bookworm children will whip out the Kindle while waiting for their coffee to finish its 60 seconds of heating, rather than spend that 60 seconds just, you know, waiting.

3. Bookworm children are drinking coffee by 11.

4. A complete inability to pace themselves when reading. Bookworm children will pack seventeen books for a week-long family vacation in Cabo, read all seventeen by day four, then complain bitterly that the only books available are crappy Gothic romances or Harry Potter y la orden del Fenix. Will spend the rest of the vacation plowing grimly through Barbara Michaels, and come home with the ability to cast Unforgivable Curses in Spanish.

5. Will read anything. You probably imagine your bookworm child adorably curled up with War and Peace, but in truth they will read anything. They will read 2009 editions of Popular Mechanic if there is nothing else available in waiting rooms. They will read books they don’t even like: a paperback R.L. Stine surreptitiously read under a desk is still better than geometry.

6. Detention slips for being caught three times during class reading an R.L. Stine under the desk.

7. Stores of arcane knowledge. Bookworm children soak in everything. They’ll tell you what a turbo engine and how it works at age 12–because they remember that 2009 issue of Popular Mechanic.

8. A dour expression. This originates from dealing with adults routinely demanding “What are you going to do with all those books?” (Use them for firewood?)

9. A hatred of reading programs. Most bookworm kids will avoid librarians with summer reading lists like the plague. They’re not interested in filling out the form, getting the sticker, or being a Gold Star Reader. They simply want to be left alone to read, dammit.

10. The ability to sneak. Sneak Dad’s library card out of his wallet, that is, so they can get around the librarians who refuse to let “I, Claudius” go out on a kid card. The true bookworm child also has a practiced doe-eyed expression as “My dad told me to get this for him when I got my Babysitter Club Books” trips innocently off the tongue.

And yes: I did pretty much every one of these growing up.

How To Keep Writing and Keep Sane

There are a billion blog posts out there about how to write a book, how to market a book, how to sell a book. How to up your word-count; how to make your characters pop; how to hook an agent. There’s not so much about how to be happy as a writer. How to live your life, write books, and stay sane.

I certainly don’t have everything figured out along those lines, but I’ve written six books in six years, and I’m not in the nut-house yet. (Barely. Last book came close.) For what it’s worth, here are a few things I’ve figured out, through trial and error, about keeping a word-count and keeping balanced. Because it ain’t easy.

1. Figure out how you write best.
Forget the people who say you’ll never succeed if you can’t crank out at least 4,000 words a day. Forget the people who say longhand is the only way to go. Forget the people who say writing out of sequence is the key to keeping it fresh. How do you work best? Can you churn out a book in a few minutes here and a few minutes there throughout your day, or do you need a solid block of time? Do you write best with notepad or laptop, at the crack of dawn or the dead of night? Can you manage 2,000 words a day, or does the word-count thing stress you out and you’d rather measure your progress in scenes completed? Figure out what works for you. I’ve found that I work best in the afternoons, need at least five hours, and can produce about 2,000-3,000 words on an average day–but everybody’s different. My system probably won’t work for you, and yours wouldn’t work for me.

2. Now that you know how you write best, arrange your life to make it happen.
Not easy, I know. Especially when you’ve got the demands of kids, family, and day job. I need uninterrupted time to work, and in the days when I had a full college class-load and three jobs, all I could do was carve out my weekend afternoons for writing. I have a friend who writes around three kids, and she’ll whip out her laptop while waiting in the carpool line or the pediatrician’s office. Whatever you need, make it happen.

3. Realize that something’s gotta go.
I always thought that once I was writing full-time, I’d have time for everything: research, writing, housework, two-hour stints at the gym, and cooking gourmet dinners every night. Nope. No matter whether you’re writing around a day job or not, there is never enough time. To carve out that space in your day to write, you will have to give something up. Maybe it’s your Dr. Who marathons that go bye-bye. Maybe it’s that extra hour of sleep in the morning. Or maybe you didn’t see your daughter score the winning goal because your spouse took her to her soccer game so you could stay home and work. But something’s going to the wayside. I have very little social life and the only show I watch on TV is Game of Thrones. So be it.

4. That being said, make time to get outside.
Let’s face it, writers are pretty much glued to their computer screens. We have to make ourselves unplug, and getting outside is a good way to do it, even if it’s just a five minute stroll around the block with the dog. Besides, I’ve found that a brisk walk away from my Facebook updates and stack of emails is just about the best way to think through a knotty plot problem.

5. Hit the gym.
I know this is starting to sound like one of those health-and-wellness posts, but hear me out: working up a sweat can really help your writing. Writers over-think everything; the book is never “off” in your head–but that isn’t always a good thing. Try taking an hour away from that chapter that’s driving you crazy and focus on your sprint time or your downward dog–your brain just might present you with the bingo solution as you’re sluicing off your gym sweat in the shower. It’s like seeing something clearly only when you look slightly away from it. So if you’re stuck, try working out–my friend C.W. Gortner swears by yoga, my friend Stephanie Thornton trains for half-marathons, I like to hit a punching bag. Whatever works for you.

6. Try to physically separate writing from your ordinary life.
Maybe your brain is never entirely “off” when it comes to the work-in-progress, but you’ll find it a lot easier to relax after your daily stint if you have an office or working sanctum to physically exit when finished. Ideally, of course, this would be a wood-paneled private library a la Downton Abbey complete with fireplace, desk the size of an air-strip, and Carson The Butler bringing you fresh coffee whenever you ring the bell. In real life, we make do with what we’ve got: a spare bedroom made over into an office; a corner of the living room with a makeshift folding desk; a laptop designated as work-only. Don’t have even that much space? I’ve got friends who made the local Panera their office. Anything that separates writing from life, so you can close the door on it when you’re done. If nothing else, it’s a helpful cue for family members: the kids will learn very quickly that Mom is not on call to wash soccer uniforms or make Kool-Aid freezer-pops until she is back from Panera or has exited the spare bedroom and shut the door behind her.

7. “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Flaubert said that, and good old Gustave was right. I know the pervasive stereotype of a writer’s life is hard partying alternating with all-night writing binges . . . but you’ll be more productive with a steady routine, whatever that routine is. (If blowing off steam at a party relaxes you, then make that part of your routine.) When I was working a 9-5 day job, my routine was “Day job Monday through Friday, write all day Saturday, write all day Sunday. Rinse-and-repeat.” These days it’s “Get up, walk the dog, go to the gym, shower, eat lunch standing up in front of the fridge, go to spare bedroom-turned-office and write for the next six hours. Rinse-and-repeat.” It’s mindless. It’s repetitive. It’s certainly not glamorous. But it’s soothing. Soothing is good for your word-count.

8. Speaking of stereotypes, don’t be the substance-abusing writer.
I know; plenty of geniuses like Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote masterpieces around drug-and-alcohol problems. Still don’t recommend it. Most writers probably have a bit of a self-destructive bent built in–after all, our job is not just to nourish the voices in our heads, but talk back to them. Still, it’s probably wiser to soothe the crazy with routine rather than vices. Stephen King is the most successful author in the history of the published word, and what does he attribute his success to? “Staying sober, and staying married.”

9. Speaking of married: toxic relationships are toxic for your word-count.
It’s tough living with a writer–my husband could tell you all about the midnight scrambles to write an idea down before it fades into sleep; the wild-eyed work binges at deadline time; the fact that some part of my brain is always, always on the work-in-progress. But we’re happy, and happiness = productivity. Nobody should settle for less. If your significant other condescends about your cute little hobby, tells you to get a real job, or just plain resents having to do more of the dishes when you’re on deadline, kick ’em to the curb and watch your word-count rise in your new-found solitude.

10. Make friends with other writers.
Even the most loving spouse won’t know deadline agony quite as intimately as a fellow writer. Friends like this will literally save your sanity, not just by reading your entire 500 page manuscript in 3 days over Christmas week when you really need feedback fast, but by understanding where you’re at. When my last book had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown, my husband brought me flowers, made me dinner . . . and arranged for my nearest writer friend to take me out to coffee and talk me off the ledge. It worked. Whether these people live in your hometown or are a Facebook PM away, know who you can reach out to.

This list is by no means complete–it’s just a few things that help me stay the course so far, and I know I’ll keep learning as long as I keep writing. Because there’s no end in sight. This profession is a race with no finish line. Once you hit one goal (You got an agent! You got published!) it’s instantly replaced by another one. You’re always learning, always working, and there’s no magical point at which it becomes easy. Diana Gabaldon with her millions of readers, multi-city book tours, myriad bestseller lists, and Starz mini-series still had to get up at 4:30 in the morning to finish her galley edits, according to her Facebook update. Margaret George still stresses about getting her historical research accurate. Nobody gets a pass on the ups and downs of this life, no matter how successful. I have days when I cry into my coffee and contemplate a career in burger flipping, and I guarantee you, so does Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell. Just remember to keep an even keel. Keep sane. Keep writing.

What tips help you do that? I’m all ears.

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