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.

The Beauty of Beta Readers

Beta readers: to use, or not to use? I’m a fan, and I’ve found that it’s good to have different beta-readers who you look to for different things. Such as:

1. The Expert. This reader might change from book to book, depending on what you need fact-checked, because this reader doesn’t care about your characters or your pacing, but is reading simply to fact-check you. I had some Roman Army re-enactor types who were good for this. “Make your hero older, it was against Roman regs for a legionary to make centurion before 30.”

2. The Nit-Picker. The person who can be counted on to catch eeeeeeverything little minor mistake. “He can’t wave from the doorway because you already said she saw him *come in.*” I have a goddess named Christi who did this for my last two books.

3. The Language Reader. The reader who hears language like music and will instinctively “hear” where your prose is clunky, where your pacing on a scene is lagging, and hand you the list of verbs you are over-using. For me this is the Dowager Librarian: “Run a word check on `shrug,’ `wink,’ `saunter,’ `shriek,’ and `whisper,’ and cut at least 50% of them.” Yes, Mom.

4. The Big Picture Person. The one with the big-picture eye for story and character development, who can tell you where your story is slowing down or where it needs to be paced up, and who can tell you that your heroine’s turnaround needs to be better set up. Also the Dowager Librarian, for me, as well as Stephanie Dray. (And yes, if you are lucky you will get a Two For One or even Three For One special with some of these beta readers.)

5. The Ideal Demographic. The reader who might not give you much in the way of concrete feedback, but who represents the exact demographic you are trying to hit. For me that’s dear friend Kristen: a voracious bookworm with a solid grounding in history and an enthusiasm for my genre. If she raves about a book of mine, I knowI’ve hit the target. If she’s “It didn’t quite resonate like your last one” I know I’ve got work to do.

6. And finally, The Dark Side. The reader who pushes you to think about going further, whether with your characters or your plot. You’re thinking of writing about an arsonist? This reader suggests a murderer. You want your hero to get beaten up? This reader wants your hero lose a hand. You want your heroine to cheat on her fiance with his friend? This person will suggest she cheat in a threesome with TWO of his friends. Sure, maybe you won’t end up taking the advice. But you’ll consider going further than you ever did before, and it will lead you interesting places. For me, that’s the hubby.

Do you use beta readers?

Q&A with Stephanie Thornton, Daughter of the Gods!

The historical genre can sometimes abound with wafty heroines – moody princesses and soulful courtesans and sighing queens. If you’re tired of reading about these virginal ninnies, then Stephanie Thornton is the author for you, because her historical heroines rock. I loved her Theodora in “The Secret History,” a tough-as-nails girl who rose from street urchin to courtesan to Empress – and I couldn’t wait for Stephanie’s second book on Hatshepsut, the badass of ancient Egypt who took the Pharoah’s double crown for herself.

Wait no longer – Hatshepsut in “Daughter of the Gods” is here, and she’s a gem: whip-quick, smart-mouthed, unabashedly sensual, driving a chariot like a hellion and dreaming a man’s dreams of power. Have you ordered “Daughter of the Gods” yet? You should.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Book Depository

Stephanie Thornton was nice enough to drop by the blog today to answer some questions! Ok, some one-sentence answers to give some context . . .

1. First project?

My first finished novel was actually “Daughter of the Gods,” but in a strange twist, “The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora” was the first published.

2. Current project?

Up now is “Daughter of the Gods,” the story of Pharaoh Hatshepsut and her tumultuous path to Egypt’s throne.

3. Next project?

My next book to hit the shelves will be “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan,” followed by a novel about the sister, wives, and assorted lovers of Alexander the Great. (Let’s just say he was a busy guy…)

4. I’m seeing a pattern here. Publishers talk a lot about an author’s “brand,” and a lot of the time it seems like BS – most of us don’t have an over-arching thematic arc for all the books we’re going to write in our lives! But with successive novels on actress/courtesan/empress Theodora, Pharoah Hatshepsut, the wives and daughters of Genghis Khan, and a current work in progress on the women of Alexander the Great, you really do seem to have a clear brand of “Badass Unexplored Women of the Past.” Was that deliberate?

Heck yes! I’m a high school history teacher by day, and I get so tired of the lives of ancient women being summed up as their being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. There are a number of mostly ignored, but incredibly badass women in history that should be household names along with Cleopatra and Elizabeth I. (Okay, I realize most households probably don’t spend a lot of time talking about historical women… That might just be my house.)

5. What was your favorite scene to write out of Hatshepsut’s extraordinary life? Most difficult scene?

The battle scene where Hatshepsut is out collecting hands from the dead Nubians is my all-time favorite. I could visualize that scene before I ever wrote the book’s first page. Not only that, but there’s historical evidence that Hatshepsut might have done exactly that in real life, which goes to show that she’s a true badass.

The most difficult scene was definitely the one where Hatshepsut breaks the news to Aset that she’s going to be pharaoh [not Aset’s son]. Depending on who was reading, I was told to make her meaner, have her cry more, or find a really good excuse for why she felt she had to be pharaoh. In the end, there was a good reason for her to seize power, but I also didn’t want her falling all over herself in apology for taking the crown. After all, she deserved it!

6. She sure did! I loved that about her; that she didn’t apologize for being ambitious. Ok, what was the weirdest, whackiest thing you learned in the course of your research?

First, that ancient Egyptian women used a pessary of crocodile dung as a type of birth control. I’m sure it was highly effective at keeping the men away, simply because that’s pretty foul. Second, I am now an expert on stampeding hippos and how best to sacrifice a bull. (Always make sure you have their back legs secured.) Thank the gods for YouTube, because their videos were my go-to for research!

7. Hatshepsut carries her story all on her own, but she’s got a great surrounding cast: her icky-but-sympathetic brother/husband Thut, fellow wife Aset with whom she strikes up a surprising friendship – and of course, charismatic common-born architect Senenmut who alone out of pretty much all of Egypt has the guts to flirt with an all-powerful female Pharoah. Who plays your ideal cast in the multi-million-dollar HBO mini-series? (Because surely Alan Ball and David Benioff are leaving you messages, right?)

So many messages–that’s why I’ve had to hire secretaries! (See Question #9.) I would dearly love to see Hatshepsut played by a dark-haired Emilia Clarke and Senenmut MUST be played by a pre-Voldemort, English Patent-era Ralph Fiennes. *swoon* I’ve always seen Aset as looking like Penelope Cruz and although I’m not sure about Thut, I’m thinking someone like Alfie Allen… someone you could possibly like, but prefer to hate.

8. All your heroines come to dinner–Empress Theodora, Hatshepsut, the wives and daughters of Genghis Khan. How does that evening progress?

First, I hope Theodora’s cooks are in charge of the meal because no one wants to eat food from ancient Mongolia. (Boiled mutton, raw horsemeat, and lots of fermented mare’s milk… Far from a culinary paradise.) I’d daresay there would be some serious gossip on their men’s idiosyncrasies, followed by a rowdy shouting match over who had the greatest obstacles to overcome in order to rule their kingdoms. “I ordered 30,000 people killed after the Nika riots!” v. “I had to marry my brother and then steal the throne from my stepson-nephew!” v. “Dude, my dad is Genghis Khan and he threatened to pour molten silver down my throat if I didn’t clean the ger!”

9. We all know a writer’s life is exactly like you see it on “Castle,” so take us through a typical day for you: the red carpet premieres, the private jet to the 19-city book tour, the weekly lunches with Diana Gabaldon and Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, the publisher-funded research trips where they rent out the Valley of Kings so you can walk in Hatshepsut’s footsteps all by yourself . . .

Actually, I’m writing this in a vintage Chanel suit while on board my private yacht while my army of secretaries sort through the details of my book tour and fend off offers from HBO to turn all my books into mini-series. All in a day’s work…

A girl can dream, right?

Actually, my terribly glamorous day starts at 6AM as I stumble out of bed and head off to teach an assortment of history classes. Then I pick up my daughter, rush home for a flurry of afternoon activities, and throw dinner on the table. Only after my daughter is in bed do I get to change into my yoga pants (the required writer uniform, right?), and sit down to scribble a few pages before falling asleep on my laptop.

However, I did get to travel to Egypt a few years ago in order to research Hatshepsut’s story, although that involved traipsing through her mortuary temple and the Valley of the Kings with all the other throngs of gawking tourists. In August, at mid-day. ‘Cause I’m insane like that.

10. What sets your books apart from other historical fiction out there on the shelf?

My whole goal in writing historical fiction is to bring to light these kick-ass, forgotten women and to tell their stories in a way that makes modern readers appreciate all the nasty, gnarly obstacles they had to overcome. I also revel in all the cringe-worthy details that reveal how brutal life in the ancient world could be. Consider yourself warned.

And finally, a fun bonus question: everybody asks writers “Where do you get your ideas?” We both know there’s no meaningful answer to that, so here’s your chance for a snarky response. Where do you get your ideas (and I don’t care where you say as long as it’s not true!)

I drink a lot of wine, study my cats for hours on end, and indulge in marathons of Doctor Who in order to find my inspiration. There’s nothing better than a Syrah-induced haze and the idea of a time-traveling cat to stir the imagination about ancient Byzantium, Egypt, Mongolia, or Greece.

Oh wait… drinking, staring at my cats in a comatose state, and mega-Doctor Who marathons are what I do after my writing deadlines…

Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel. Visit her website at www.stephanie-thornton.com.

The Lion and the Rose: The Movie

I always have fun with my yearly “Let’s cast my latest book as a movie!” blog post. But with my Borgia duology “The Serpent and the Pearl” and “The Lion and the Rose,” I have a particular dilemma not faced before with any of my other books: there have been a LOT of movies already about the Borgias. Who to cast when so many have been cast already? Here’s my version, a mixture of old faces and new:

IL PAPA BORGIA

His Holiness the Borgia Pope has been played, among others, by John Doman and Jeremy Irons. Jeremy Irons was excellent as always, but a bit too languid and refined for the explosive Rodrigo Borgia (in my opinion). John Doman was better, but that flat L.A. accent . . . I think I’ll go with Sergi Lopez, who not only can play both sensual and scary (“Him and Her,” “Labyrinth of Pan”) but is a Catalan Spaniard just like the Borgia Pope. Rodrigo’s Spanish pride, Spanish temper, and Spanish enjoyment in life’s sensual pleasures were defining traits.

GIULIA FARNESE

Giulia La Bella was sweet, bubbly, petite, voluptuous, and extravagantly blond, so in the Showtime series she was portrayed as a moody redhead (Lotte Verbeek), and on the European series as a bitchy brunette (Marta Gastini). I’m going with Holliday Grainger, who played Lucrezia in the Showtime series. But doesn’t she look quite a lot more like the alleged Raphael portrait of Giulia Farnese? And after three seasons of watching her on The Borgias, we know she can show both sweetness and steel.

 

LEONELLO

Giulia’s bodyguard is a dwarf, which does limit the question of who can play him. I wouldn’t want to shrink an actor down with CGI; dwarfism poses limits on the body–and on Leonello’s character–which are critical to his particular brand of cynicism, idealism, and courage. Peter Dinklage is the too-obvious choice, but he’s busy playing Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones.” Let’s find another fabulous actor with dwarfism and give him a great role as my knife-throwing butt-kicking dwarf with the love of books and the biting tongue.

CARMELINA

My secondary heroine is a tall skinny Sicilian girl; a professional chef with a knife up her sleeve, a pocket full of secrets, and a biting tongue. How about Coral Amiga, who not only has the perfect sharp-edged face, frizzy curls, and lanky frame, but showed serious chops on “Rome” as Kevin McKidd’s embittered eldest daughter.

 

CESARE BORGIA

There’s nobody to play Cesare Borgia but Francois Arnaud. His sexy, sinister Showtime stint as history’s ultimate bad boy puts all others in the shade.

 

LUCREZIA BORGIA

Lucrezia goes from twelve to seventeen, so we need an actress who can play both innocent child and sophisticated young wife. Kaitlyn Dever fills the bill–on “Justified” she plays a pretty but cynical fourteen-year-old, and nearly steals the show from Timothy Olyphant. Blond her up a bit and she’ll be a great Lucrezia.

JUAN BORGIA

David Oakes was Juan Borgia in the Showtime series, and he was fantastic: vicious, handsome, ultimately pathetic. No need to mess with a good thing here.

 

ORSINO ORSINI

Jonathan Jackson would work as Giulia’s pretty but weak-willed husband. Orsino Orsini is just the type who would have a soul patch and no spine.

BARTOLOMEO SCAPPI

Not only is Eddie Redmayne a true ginger with plenty of freckles, just like Carmelina’s chef protege Bartolomeo, but he can play younger than his years. Good for a teenage apprentice who bides his time on his crush until he’s eighteen, then mounts a campaign to sweep his 7-year-older lady off her feet.

So, that’s my fantasy cast for my mythical movie. If you’ve read my Borgia duology and have your own casting ideas, I’m all ears!

 

Virtual Potluck Part II!

I’m a foodie at heart–you can always count on there being delicious food in my books. (And the best part about fictional food? Zero calories!) My Borgia duology “The Serpent and the Pearl” and “The Lion and the Rose” has the most mouth-watering food out of anything I’ve written, because one of my heroines is a chef: Carmelina, a tart-tongued girl with near-magical skill in the kitchen, who has the job as maestra di cucina for the Borgia Pope’s mistress.

Serving under her is teenage apprentice Bartolomeo Scappi, a historical figure who will grow up and become one of the greatest cooks of the Renaissance–his cookbook is still in print today! Now, it’s a curious thing that most of the world’s mega-chefs tend to be men, but ask any of them how they learned to cook, and it’s always a female name that comes out. (Most usually “Mom” or “Grandma.”) So when I leafed through Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook, I asked myself “Who taught him all this?” And the answer presented itself: “I’ll bet it was a woman.”

Fortunately we know very little about Bartolomeo’s beginnings, when he was born, or where he trained, so I was free to invent Carmelina as the girl who teaches the greatest culinary genius of the Renaissance everything he knows. When these two get together in a kitchen, sparks fly, knives are sometimes hurled, and magic happens–along with a lot of great food!

When “The Serpent and the Pearl” was released, I put together a virtual pot-luck with six fabulous food bloggers who combed the book for recipes and trooped off to their kitchens. The results were mouth-watering, and I know we had to host a re-match for “The Lion and the Rose.” Today I’m joined by Theresa from Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles, who cooks from Diana Gabaldon’s fabulous Scottish saga; Chelsea from Inn At The Crossroads, who recently co-authored a fabulous cookbook based on “Game of Thrones” recipes; Christiane from Taking On Magazines, who cooks her way through the likes of “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Bon Appetit” utterly undaunted; Lori from Little White Apron who is a pro chef as well as a blogger extraordinaire; Deana from Lost Past Remembered who recreates food from myriad centuries gone by; and Heather Webb from Between The Sheets who took time off from her
recent smash-hit novel on Empress Josephine to indulge her foodie hobby.

And today, we’re all posting our results! Recipes included.

Inn At The Crossroads: the Roman-style tenderloin Bartolomeo makes when Carmelina’s stuck in a convent with the Pope’s daughter Lucrezia.

Island Vittles: the candied nuts which all the Borgias are constantly snacking on as they plot. And as a bonus? The fried tubers from the New World, which feature heavily in a scene my readers have taken to calling simply �the aphrodisiac potato scene.�

Little White Apron: the salad of blood orange, fennel, and olives served to the Duke of Gandia, and the beef en brochette served at a very illicit Vatican party.

Lost Past Remembered: the fish pie flavored with oranges, nutmeg and dates which Bartolomeo whips up after changing Carmelina’s menu behind her back (and boy, does he get in trouble for that!)

Taking On Magazines did TWO posts! The venison in cream and brandy sauce served after Juan Borgia’s latest hunt, and the tortellini with basil and parsley filling with which Bartolomeo hopes to woo Carmelina.

Between The Sheets: the endives stuffed with cheese and drizzled in olive oil which are served at the Menagerie Masquerade Ball, and the pastries layered with honey and blood oranges on which Lucrezia nibbles while waiting for a divorce.

As for me, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled a recipe from Chapter 17 of “The Lion and the Rose:” a walnut and pecorino cheese tourte Carmelina muses on to keep herself sane during a dull period stuck in a convent.

 


From the book:

“Three eggs, whisked together with a mixture three parts sugar to two parts strawberry honey,” I recited aloud as I swept the convent courtyard. “Add two cheeses, a soft sheep’s milk cheese and a very fresh pecorino cheese from Pienza, and then a double handful finely chopped walnuts . . .” The lay sisters were supposed to recite their prayers as they went about their work–a rosary, or perhaps an Act of Contrition if they were feeling guilty about anything. I recited recipes.

This is a recipe I got from a little volume of Vatican recipes through the ages, and supposedly dates from the days of Pope Pius II. Given that a handful of walnuts and a hunk of cheese are just about my favorite snack of all time, I was intrigued by the idea of putting them together in a pie, and dying to tackle this for the virtual potluck! I made a few modifications to the ingredients–Wegman’s does not carry strawberry honey–but the result is still delicious: a sort of early-Renaissance version of a classic cheesecake. The texture is identical, and the flavor mild and nutty, the saltiness of the pecorino melting into the honey and sugar. If you would like a bolder flavor, dust the top of your tourte with cinnamon instead of powdered sugar. The perfect holiday dessert for that one family member who isn’t big on sweets.

Serves 12 — Prep time 30 minutes — Cooking time 55 minutes, plus at least 2 hours for chilling

3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 1/3 cup very fresh grated pecorino cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups shelled walnuts, finely chopped
12 egg whites, whipped stiff (to avoid the mess of breaking 12 eggs, just use those egg whites that come in cartons for low-fat omelets)
Whole walnuts and powdered sugar or cinnamon, for garnish
Pre-made pie shell or short-crust pastry of your choice

1. Whipping egg whites into peaks takes both time and muscle if done by hand. If you don’t have a hunky kitchen apprentice with arms like a god (Carmelina does), then use a stand mixer and get your egg whites beating with a whisk attachment as you prepare the rest of the pie. If you do have a hunky kitchen apprentice with arms like a god, what on earth are you doing in the kitchen?

2. Make your pie-crust if you are making from scratch (use a pre-made shell if you’re low on time). Either way, pop the crust into the oven at 325 degrees and do a pre-bake for a few minutes, so you don’t end up with a soggy bottom crust once filling is added.

3. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, and honey in a large bowl.

4. Gradually add the pecorino cheese, ricotta, flour, and chopped walnuts, and blend together. When egg whites have been whisked stiff, add bit by bit to the walnut and cheese mixture, and blend.

5. Give mixture one final stir (the nuts will want to sink to the bottom) and then pour into pie shell. There will be enough for two pies.

6. Bake 55 minutes at 325 degrees, checking frequently toward the end. You want a nice golden top, not a burned blistered pie.

7. Let cool, sift with powdered sugar, and decorate with whole walnuts. Chill thoroughly before eating.

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Be sure to check in on the others for some more great recipes! And as for the food bloggers who kicked in on this project – Theresa, Lori, Heather, Christiane, Chelsea, and Deana – thank you all so much!

Meet The Heroine, II: A Chef Contemplating Murder

My secondary heroine from “The Serpent and the Pearl” is usually very tough to track down–as a working girl (cook to the Borgia Pope!) she’s always on the move and on the job. But now she’s at loose ends, and consented to be interviewed!

 

Carmelina: Ask as many questions as you want. As long as we’re held captive here, I haven’t got anything to cook.

Me: You know how many readers accused you of ruining their diets?

Carmelina: Diet? What’s that?

Me: It’s when people swear off butter or cream or pasta.

Carmelina: Why would anybody ever do that? Swear off pasta? Pasta is delicious!

Me: Well, it’s fattening. People stop eating it so they can be thinner.

Her: Who wants to be thin? My mistress Giulia Farnese is the most renowned beauty in Rome, and she’s a solid size 14 in your sizing charts.

Me: Jesus, I wish I lived in the Renaissance.

Her: No, you don’t. I’m the best cook in Rome, and I don’t even get paid for it because I’m a woman.

Me: Fair point. So, how are you faring in captivity?

Her: Madonna Giulia has managed to keep the French from raping us all, God bless her. If she can hold them off a few more days, the Pope should have us all ransomed and home. Can’t be soon enough for me.

Me: Leonello said that you . . .

Her: That little bastard talked about me?

Me: A little. He said he knows things about you . . .

Carmelina: How dare he!

Me: Look, I’m your creator. Believe me, I already know all your secrets. What people really want to know is this–are you really planning to poison Leonello before he outs you? Because you were looking pretty determined . . .

Ok, Carmelina just stomped out. Looks like you’ll have to wait till tomorrow to see if she put hemlock in our hero’s wine or not!

Meet The Hero: A Dangerous Dwarf On His Deathbed . . .

My “Lion and the Rose” hero is still flat on his back on a stretcher, but he consented to an interview. 😀

 

Leonello: Consented, hah. You cornered me, woman. It’s not exactly like I can run away when I’m full of broken bones.

Me: Yes, I’m sorry about that.

Leonello: Nothing to do with you. I’m a bodyguard and I defended my charge, simple as that. My own decision, I assure you.

Me: Well, I am your creator.

Leonello: As if you ever made me do anything I didn’t want to do.

Me: Fair point. How are you feeling?

Leonello: Like a French army stamped all over me. Which it did. I’m probably dying.

Me: Surely not . . .

Leonello: If the blood loss doesn’t kill me, the cook probably will. She hates me.

Me: What did you do to her?

Leonello: Carmelina? I know a few things about her that could make life very uncomfortable. I may have rubbed it in, when I pointed that out.

Me: Was that entirely necessary?

Leonello: Just because I am small does not mean I am cute, kind, or cuddly.

Me: No, it certainly doesn’t. Not only do you have a tongue like a razor, you kick a surprising amount of butt for a person of reduced height

Leonello: Dwarf. Call it what it is.

Me: We’re more politically correct in this century.

Leonello: Dio, I don’t even want to know what that is. Am I done now?

Meet The Heroine: The Pope’s Mistress In Captivity

“The Lion and the Rose: a novel of the Borgias” releases in just three days! Usually I’m nervous for my release days, but this time around I just can’t wait. Because this book is sequel to “The Serpent and the Pearl,” which came out last August and ended on just a leetle bit of a cliffhanger, and I’m delighted that this time around, I didn’t have to leave my readers hanging for too long. (I really am sorry, “Empress of the Seven Hills” fans.)

And my three main characters of “The Serpent and the Pearl” were all in a very tight spot on the last page–captured by the French army, with their lives very literally on the line! Over the next few days I’ll be interviewing each of my characters here on my blog as a promo. Today let’s welcome Giulia Farnese, mistress to the Borgia Pope and currently a French captive when she got waylaid by an invading army on her way home from a family visit . . .

Giulia: Do you have any of that stuff called chocolate which you introduced me to at our last interview? You left me in a very bad place, sticking me with the French between books, and frankly if a girl ever earned an out-of-her-century treat, it’s me.

Me: Yes, of course. Try a Snicker’s bar, you’ll love it.

Giulia: Thank you. I always eat when I’m being held hostage.

Me: I truly am sorry about leaving you in enemy hands for five months . . .

Giulia: Oh, that’s all right. It’s not as long as five months in my world. Snickers, why is it called that? Nothing to snicker about, being a French captive. They’re pigs.

Me: Are they really?

Giulia: Well, they’ve been relatively nice once they realized what Rodrigo–

Me: Can you tell the readers who that is, for the ones who didn’t read the first book?

Giulia: Rodrigo Borgia. His Holiness, Pope Alexander VI. I’m his mistress.

Me: Wow. Our current pope, um–well, he’s a little different. I don’t really know what would happen if he came out and told the world “Hi, I have a twenty-two year old girlfriend with floor-length hair.”

Giulia: Maybe he’d be more relaxed. It’s a very tiring job, being Pope.

Me: Well, anyway. The French?

Giulia: They’ve been relatively nice to me once they realized what the Holy Father would pay to get me back.

Me: So you’re going home?

Giulia: On page 1. God knows if it’ll be in time to save my bodyguard, though. Leonello, his name is, and he nearly killed himself protecting me–the French beat him so badly. I’m making them pay for it.

Me: How?

Giulia: I’ve acted like an utter haughty bitch ever since they captured me. I’m normally quite an easy-going sort of person, but I’ve been complaining and pitching fits for that French general ever since he laid hands on me. He’ll be quite glad to see the back of me, I assure you.

Me: Sounds like you have things well in hand, then. Good luck, Giulia!

Giulia: Can you do me a favor? Pray for my bodyguard. I’m going to be all right–I just want to get home to Rodrigo, who isn’t nearly as frightening as people seem to think all the Borgias are. But I really don’t know if Leonello’s going to live or not.

Me: I could tell you, but that would spoil the surprise. Thanks for dropping by!

Top Ten Books of 2013

In compliance with federal law, which apparently states that all book bloggers must post a “Top Ten Books I Read This Year!” list on their blogs in December, I’m giving you mine–and in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2013 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .

1. Longbourn by Jo Baker. Jane Austen meets “Downton Abbey”–this is the story of the mostly-silent servants who make their way through the Bennet house in Pride & Prejudice–and this is their story, not Elizabeth and Darcy’s, which is what makes it refreshing. Housemaid Sarah wants to do something with her life besides empty chamber pots and scrub petticoats, and that’s far more important to her than who any of the Bennet girls marry. But like Elizabeth, Sarah has her choice between a charming unreliable suitor and a silent passionate one, and like Elizabeth, Sarah will take her chance at happiness into her own hands. Buy for: your Janeite bestie, the one whose Pride & Prejudice blu-ray skips automatically to Colin Firth climbing out of the pond. The descriptions of Regency housework alone will keep her from ever sighing again “I wish I was born back then!”

2. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. One of the sweetest and tenderest stories about young love I have ever read; good enough to touch even a cynical heart like mine. The plot couldn’t be simpler: two brainy sixteen-year-olds with variously screwed-up home lives meet on a school bus and fall in love. The genius is in the details: the awkward pauses, the fragility of emotions, the pitch-perfect dialogue of smart kids who can throw around words like “phylum” and discourse on Shakespeare, but then get flustered and only mutter “God!” Buy for: that awkward teenager in your life, be it a younger sister or a teenage son. They will read this book thinking, This is my life.

3. The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell. The latest installment in the Saxon Stories, with the always entertaining shield-wall adventures of cranky Viking-trained hero Uhtred as he kills enemies, insults priests, and strides around being the colossus that he is. Cornwell never fails to entertain, and this one is fabulous blood-and-battle fun. Buy for: your husband, who you recently got hooked on the Uhtred books during a long car ride, and who has been plowing through them ever since with a feverish gleam in his eye like a heroin addict (ahem).

4. The Secret of the Glass by Donna Russo Morin. My favorite book from one of my favorite writer friends. The nice thing about Donna’s historical heroines is that they always have something on their minds besides their love life–and Renaissance gal Sophia might have a Tom Brady look-alike sending her passionate glances, but this girl already has her hands full running her dying father’s glassblowing business, and knowing it will be scooped out of her hands as soon as he dies because of course, women can’t run glassblowing businesses. Rarely has the helplessness of historical women at the hands of society been so well explored; I spent much of this book in a fit of outrage on Sophia’s behalf. Buy for: your feminist cubicle mate, who will realize all over again that women today might be saddled with the GOP, but we’ve still got it a lot better than our historical counterparts.

5. BZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant. I’m a born Luddite who can break a computer just by walking past it, so if you’d told me I’d be this riveted by a YA thriller about nanobot technology, I’d have laughed in your face. But Grant’s tale of the Hallmark company trying to enslave the minds of humanity and the teenage hackers who try to stop them is hard-edged and riveting. Light YA this ain’t; Grant pulls no punches in depicting a covert revolution where death, enslavement, and madness are right around around the corner for all concerned. Buy for: the office nerd you drew for Secret Santa. Sit back and enjoy the fun as he becomes paranoid: “I know I’ve got bots on me, I just KNOW it!!”
6. Wool by Hugh Howey. I devoured this post-apocalyptic doorstopper in a matter of days, unable to look away from Howey’s compulsively readable and utterly horrifying vision of a future where humanity lives in underground silos–but what’s really outside those silos? And the heroine, a tough as nails mechanic, is just a delight from start to finish. Buy for: your garage mechanic uncle. He’ll be tickled to read a story where the mechanic saves humanity from destruction, rather than some covert ops James Bond type.

7. The Queen’s Pawn by Christy English. Don’t be fooled by the quietness of this historical novel that mostly takes place in the cushioned spaces of a queen’s medieval solar–this is a nail-biting examination of female power-play in an era where women weren’t supposed to have any power. Eleanor of Aquitaine takes one half of the narrative, and facing her as protege and eventual rival is Princess Alais of France who Eleanor raises as future wife to Richard the Lionheart, but who will strike out on her own in a grab for Eleanor’s throne and Eleanor’s husband. But this is no cat-fight story of two women fighting over a man–Eleanor’s fierce pride in Alais never wavers even when Alais moves against her, and Alais’s love and respect for Eleanor proves a beacon when her ambitions begin to falter. Buy for: your mother, because this is a mother-daughter story unlike any you’ve ever read.

8. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset. A riveting trilogy set in medieval Norway, following a headstrong girl, her feckless but charming husband, her many sons, and the richly-textured community in which they live. Astounding that 800 pages of a woman obsessing about sin could be so flat-out absorbing, but then again, it’s a classic for a reason. Buy for: that niece who’s backpacking to Norway to see the Northern Lights. Be prepared for a puzzled email about why she missed the Northern Lights because she was too wrapped up in a medieval Norwegian girl obsessing about sin.

9. Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling. Mas respect for Rowling, who didn’t coast on the success of Harry Potter but struck out into other genres–first adult contemporary with Casual Vacancy, and then even more brilliantly into crime with Cuckoo’s Calling. This is old-fashioned noir at its best: a brilliant down-on-his-luck detective and his sweet-as-cream Gal Friday negotiating the seedy glamour of the high fashion industry as they try to discover why a supermodel plunged to her death from a locked apartment. Buy for: your dad, who loves the crime shows but wishes they’d move away from the damn evidence labs and the DNA stuff, and go back to the Colombo model of Detective Who Just Asks Questions.

10. One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson. Ibbotson’s last delightful comic romp in a long career. Here she gives us a lonely little rich boy whose parents can’t see why he’s upset when the dog they’ve rented for one weekend just to give him “the dog experience” has to be returned. Hal refuses to accept this, and takes off with the dog. Adventures ensue, and Ibbotson’s trademark humor lifts her prose a cut above, such as when a fiery little Pekinese reflects, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with old ladies, but when your ancestors have been bred to ride on the saddle of the Emperor when he gallops off to war, you do not feel like being told you are an itsy-bitsy little doggie, aren’t you.” Buy for: that person in your life who needs a little comfort food for the soul. Maybe that’s you–because the stream of disasters from the daily news or your latest Gillian Flynn binge is leaving you depressed, then this is the book to cheer you up.

Merry Christmas!

How Authors Become Friends, and Why You Should Buy Stephanie Dray’s “Daughters of the Nile”

I always face a bit of a dilemma whenever an author friend’s book is released. On the one hand, I want to pimp the hell out of their book because I want it to do well. On the other hand, I know that if I do that, there’s a decent chance people won’t believe me when I say “This book is awesome!” because “She’s just saying that because her friend wrote it.”

No.

My friend Stephanie Dray has a book out today called “Daughters of the Nile,” and yes, I’m going to pimp the hell out of it. And in the interests of full disclosure, you get the full story of this author friendship so that you understand why I am telling you to buy this book, and why I am not just saying that because she’s my friend.

Stephanie and I are both Berkley Books authors, but we lived on opposite sides of the country and had never met. She had a book about Cleopatra’s daughter coming out, called “Lily of the Nile” – and she’d apparently read and enjoyed my book “Mistress of Rome,” so she asked her editor if I might consider reading “Lily” for a cover quote. My editor asked me (the deadline was tight), I said “Sure, I read fast, send it over.” And the book apparently vanished in a puff of smoke from the Berkley mail-stream, disappeared into the ether, and reappeared forty-eight hours later in exactly the same place, faintly singed and smelling of brimstone and definitely NOT in my hands. By then it was too late for a cover quote, even if they’d re-mailed it. So I didn’t blurb “Lily of the Nile,” and Stephanie was merely told “Yeah, the quote’s not happening.” She later told me she plunged into a gloomy “Kate Quinn hates my book!” funk, and ate a pint of gelato for dinner.

But I read “Lily of the Nile” when it hit the shelves, and I liked it. The heroine was smart, and I love a smart heroine. She was just a teenager, but this was no YA chick moping about her love triangle; Stephanie had made Selene the survivor’s-guilt-ridden heir to the complicated legacy of Cleopatra and Mark Antony: bitter, damaged, ambitious, devious, and proud. I liked that even better. So I dropped Stephanie an email about how much I’d enjoyed the book, and told the story of the post-office snafu, and she jumped on that and asked if I might blurb the second Selene book. I read “Song of the Nile,” and I liked it even better. Selene had grown up into a vengeful, passionate, seductive, scheming priestess-queen, and if that weren’t enough, she had the world’s creepiest love-hate relationship with Emperor Augustus (who “I, Claudius” fans will have a VERY hard time identifying as affable Brian Blessed from the mini-series). So I was happy to write a cover quote for “Song of the Nile,” and when the hubby and I moved out to Maryland a year or so later—Stephanie’s state of residence—she took me out for a thank-you lunch.

Authors are always a little nervous on meeting each other in person. “I liked your books so much—what if I don’t like you?” Or “I like you a lot, but I’ve tried your books and I just hate them . . . what do I say?” So Stephanie and I eyed each other over the napkins at an Indian restaurant with a certain unease at first, but that wore off fast. Because we’d both read and genuinely enjoyed each other’s books before either meeting in person or ever needing a favor like a cover quote out of each other, and that’s a good place to start. Soon enough we were gabbing it up about Isis worship, Emperor Augustus, Latin profanity, Bernard Cornwell, crazy Amazon reviews, and everything else under the sun. Lunch turned into coffee turned into a Barnes & Noble run, and it was the start of a beautiful friendship. (Stephanie blogged her own version of our meeting here, and I will state for the record that I don’t drive that fast, and we were nowhere near being arrested, and I said the exact same thing to the cops.)

Fast-forward a couple of years, and Stephanie is now one of the best author friends I’ve got. We get together on book launch days, and forcibly stop each other from checking our Amazon Sales Rankings. We’ve complained about sales trends, crazy hate-mail, and headless-heroine covers. We missed a plane flight at 1am, coming back from the Historical Novel Society conference, and like a pair of Roman empresses we planned evisceration and crucifixion for the hapless cretins of United Airways who caused the screw-up. We’ve bitched about one-star reviews. We have a running joke about hippos that never gets old.

I was there at Ground Zero when Stephanie wrote “Daughters of the Nile,” the concluding book to her trilogy about Cleopatra Selene. I talked her off a ledge when she was convinced she couldn’t write a metaphor anymore. I commiserated about an early version of her cover, which we called “Troll of the Nile” because Selene looked like a hunchback. I beta-read her rough draft: “This scene in the reeds is swoon-worthy! But your epilogue needs work; what about this . . .”

“Daughters of the Nile” is out in stores today, and I feel like a proud auntie. I want to see which of those three different endings Stephanie put in (I voted for Version #2, when the panicked “Which of these is the best???” email went out 12 hours before deadline). I’ve read this book in rough-draft form, and even without the final polishing it’s since received, I can tell you it’s dark, mesmerizing historical fiction: the final gut-wrenching act in the twisted car-wreck of a relationship between Selene and her mentor-suitor-madman Emperor Augustus. There’s tragedy to punch you in the gut, and tenderness to make you cry, and moments that will just plain prickle your hair. I’m taking Stephanie out to lunch today, and after lunch we’re heading to B&N so I can buy my copy of “Daughters of the Nile.”

And I tell you with zero fake “I’m supporting my friend” enthusiasm that you should buy it, too.

Daughters of the Nile slide

 

From critically acclaimed historical fantasy author, Stephanie Dray comes the long-awaited new tale based on the true story of Cleopatra’s daughter.

 

After years of abuse as the emperor’s captive in Rome, Cleopatra Selene has found a safe harbor. No longer the pitiful orphaned daughter of the despised Egyptian Whore, the twenty year old is now the most powerful queen in the empire, ruling over the kingdom of Mauretania—an exotic land of enchanting possibility where she intends to revive her dynasty. With her husband, King Juba II and the magic of Isis that is her birthright, Selene brings prosperity and peace to a kingdom thirsty for both. But when Augustus Caesar jealously demands that Selene’s children be given over to him to be fostered in Rome, she’s drawn back into the web of imperial plots and intrigues that she vowed to leave behind. Determined and resourceful, Selene must shield her loved ones from the emperor’s wrath, all while vying with ruthless rivals like King Herod. Can she find a way to overcome the threat to her marriage, her kingdom, her family, and her faith? Or will she be the last of her line?

 

Read the Reviews

 

“A stirring story of a proud, beautiful, intelligent woman whom a 21st century reader can empathize with. Dray’s crisp, lush prose brings Selene and her world to life.” ~RT Book Reviews

 

“The boldest, and most brilliant story arc Dray has penned…” ~Modge Podge Reviews

 

“If you love historical fiction and magical realism, these books are for you.” ~A Bookish Affair

 

Read an Excerpt
Below me, six black Egyptian cobras dance on their tails, swaying. I watch their scaled hoods spread wide like the uraeus on the crown of Egypt. Even from this height, I’m paralyzed by the sight of the asps, their forked tongues flickering out between deadly fangs. I don’t notice that I’m gripping the balustrade until my knuckles have gone white, all my effort concentrated upon not swooning and falling to my death.

And I would swoon if I were not so filled with rage. Someone has arranged for this. Someone who knows what haunts me. Someone who wants to send me a message and make this occasion a moment of dread. My husband, the king must know it, for he calls down, “That’s enough. We’ve seen enough of the snake charmer!”

There is commotion below, some upset at having displeased us. Then Chryssa hisses, “Who could think it a good idea to honor the daughter of Cleopatra by coaxing asps from baskets of figs?”

The story the world tells of my mother’s suicide is that she cheated the emperor of his conquest by plunging her hand into a basket where a venomous serpent lay in wait. A legend only, some say, for the serpent was never found. But I was there. I brought her that basket. She was the one bitten but the poison lingers in my blood to this day. I can still remember the scent of figs in my nostrils, lush and sweet. The dark god Anubis was embroidered into the woven reeds of the basket, the weight of death heavy in my arms. I can still see my mother reach her hand into that basket, surrendering her life so that her children might go on without her. And I have gone on without her.

I have survived too much to be terrorized by the emperor’s agents or whoever else is responsible for this.

If it is a message, a warning from my enemies, I have already allowed them too much of a victory by showing any reaction at all. So I adopt as serene a mask as possible. My daughter blinks her big blue eyes, seeing past my facade. “Are you frightened, Mother? They cannot bite us from there. The snakes are very far away.”

I get my legs under me, bitterness on my tongue. “Oh, but they’re never far enough away.”

###

 

Daughters of the Nile cover

 

Available now in print and e-book!

 

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Kobo | Powells | IndieBound | Goodreads

 

 

Available now in print and e-book!

 

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Kobo | Powells | IndieBound | Goodreads

 


 

Stephanie Dray Headshot
STEPHANIE DRAY is a bestselling, multi-published, award-winning author of historical women’s fiction and fantasy set in the ancient world. Her critically acclaimed historical series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has-to the consternation of her devoted husband-collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

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