1. You can name every book they’ve ever written, describe their fictional heroes and heroines down to eye color and childhood traumas, and know their writing schedule as well as your own—but aren’t 100% sure how many children they have. (Laura Kaye—it’s two, right? We’ve only known each other 4 years . . .)
2. You’ve beta-read so many of each other’s rough drafts that your margin notes look like Sanskrit and you have long lost the need to be polite. (Stephanie Thornton’s “The Conqueror’s Wife,” page 337 of the rough draft: “Seriously, another severed head? Does nobody in this book ever bring anything else to a party? Have they never heard of house-plants?!”)
3. Your lunch dates scare the civilians. Because the waiter invariably walks up as one of you is saying brightly “I killed a baby today!” and collecting high-fives and exclamations of “Omigod, so happy for you!” from around the table. Waiter invariably sprints off white-faced before he hears the accompanying “So, this was in Chapter 9 . . .” (Sophie Perinot and I have probably been banned from most of the restaurants in the greater DC metro area.)
4. You’re more accustomed to seeing them in some kind of costume or historical rig than out of it. Especially true of the hist-fic pals. If I ever met Ben Kane, Russell Whitfield, or SJA Turney at a conference where they were in normal clothes rather than Roman breastplates and mail, I’d walk right past ’em.
5. You get the emergency call to show up with ice cream and wine for some serious weeping and wailing. But the drama is all over deadlines, not love-lives. (Eliza Knight and I killed a bottle or two as we cried over our collaborative stories in “A Year of Ravens,” and the impossibility that we would ever get them finished in time.)
6. You’ve had in-depth discussions about everything under the sun, and you each know what the other thinks about life and death, love and work, politics and art, history and pychology. But three years into the friendship you’re turning around in amazement and saying “I had no idea you had a sister!”
7. You know each other’s writing so well, you can eyeball a crutch phrase from a mile away and hone in on that sucker like a sniper. (Stephanie Dray knows I will carp like a fishwife the moment I see the word “tresses.” Christi Barth beats me over the head about not using enough commas.)
8. Your spouses commiserate over deadline stress. My husband and Lea Nolan’s had old home week at the last dinner party. “Yeah, so my wife’s curled in the corner gnashing her teeth this week.” “Why, she copyediting?” “Yep, for two more weeks.” “Yeah, that’s rough at our house too . . .”
9. They’re some of your best friends on earth—and you’ve met face to face twice. C.W. Gortner and Donna Russo Morin and I only see each other at conferences roughly every other year, but we always fall on each other with cries of joy and proceed to gab more or less nonstop for three days.
10. You have standing dates, not for book clubs or lady lunches or anniversaries, but for book-release days. Writer friends can be counted on to keep you away from the Refresh button on your Amazon Sales Rankings. They WILL use handcuffs if necessary.
Thank God for writer pals. There’s no one quite like ’em and without ’em you’d be in the funny farm.
As I wrote A YEAR OF RAVENS with my six co-authors Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Simon Turney, and Russell Whitfield, we were often asked about the collaborative process. How exactly does one go about writing a book-in-seven-parts? Well, it involves a lot of emails, a lot of Skype sessions, a lot of back-and-forth Facebook chats–and we undertake it with a great deal of seriousness, as you see from this collection of direct quotes as we moved through the stages of collaboration this year.
As We Outline Our Stories
Simon: I have an eight-page outline, anyone want to have a look?
Kate: My entire outline is eleven words.
Stephanie: I want to talk over-arching themes. What are we trying to say with this book? What’s our overall message?
Vicky: Why are we talking overarching themes before we even know what happens?!
Ruth: My heroine’s name–Ria or Narina? Oh well, I’ll decide by the time I’m done.
Eliza: Really?! I can’t move forward at all until my heroine has a name.
Russell: Hey guys, my story’s already finished!
All of us: (outwardly) Wow, youre so motivated! (Inwardly) Bastard.
As We Research
Ruth: This poem I’m reading on Celtic wooing practices, `The Wooing of Etain . . .’ Not a lot of wooing in it. Sparky bunch.
Stephanie: Russ, you walked Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman armor–does chain-mail really go thunk-scratch as you walk?
Russell: It’s actually more wunk-thunk-kitch, wunk-thunk-kitch.
As We Research Some More
Stephanie: My Roman procurator’s villa is in Narbo. But I might need to change the color of the grapes in his vineyard. Maybe we can’t be sure of the climate in that specific place for whatever variety of grape existed before modern variations 2000 years ago.
Kate: Don’t mention the color of the grapes. Just say they’re ripe. Nobody cares what color the grapes are.
Stephanie: I’m putting in the color of the grapes! You can’t stop me. I’ve gone rogue.
Kate: Is that the mulish streak of an author thinking “I looked it up. I researched it. It’s going in the book or time is wasted?”
Stephanie: Absolutely! I don’t even drink wine. I don’t know the difference between a Syrah and a Chardonnay. You think I researched grape regions in France for my health? No, Madam. I did not.
As We Write
Stephanie: The f*cking king still isn’t burned.
Ruth: So many Iron Age names are completely unusable. Corotica, Auumpus, Aessicunia . . .
Russell: My hero can’t keep his willy in his subligares.
Vicky: All right, break for lunch, then back to the slaughter.
Eliza: My muse today is a bitchy bitch who bitches.
Simon: I’ve managed to put two tines of a fork into my hand.
Kate: I love you guys.
As We Procrastinate
Kate: Hey, look at this! `Buzzfeed quiz to find your Celtic name!’ I got `Floraidh, the Gentle Petal.’ Jesus. What are you guys getting?
Simon: `Muireann, born of the sea. For a man who has to travel 50 miles to the ocean, I find that amusing.
Russell: `Aidan the Fiery Rider. The ancient Celts would have seen you as the bringer of light.’ And I’m a complete slacker . . .
Vicky: I got Muireann too. And I live 250 miles from a beach.
As We Finish Our Rough Drafts
Stephanie: Slept for ten hours straight after writing 22,000 words in 4 days.
Eliza: Pulled four all-nighters and is now drinking wine straight from a jar.
Vicky: Cross-eyed from maneuvering her mind around the mental contortions needed to plausibly excuse a massacre.
Ruth: Mightily glad I finished my story when I did, because seconds later a huge spider ran across the desk. I’ll be decamping to the kitchen until it’s died of old age. Or possibly until I have.
Simon: MIA. Apparently fled all the way to Wales to get away from the non-stop barrage of Boudica emails.
Kate: Killed approximately 80,000 fictional Celts and has used every synonym in the book for “slaughter.”
Russell: Smiling like a cat in the cream because he finished his story first and didn’t skate across the deadline over-caffeinated, under-slept, and hooked up via IV to the nearest alcoholic beverage like his co-authors.
As We Edit Each Other
Stephanie: Kate, don’t have your hero kick the severed head. Soooo disrespectful.
Eliza: Two stories to edit AND another book out this week . . .
Vicky: Wait, you guys feel sorry for my story’s homicidal maniac?
Simon: ______ ______ _____! (Editing while on holiday, bumping down a Welsh country road in the passenger seat of a Vauxhall Zafira, going 25 mph behind a horse caravan).
Ruth: Well, my heroine’s unconscious through all of THAT story, so that saves me writing her any dialogue . . .
Kate: Russ, editing your foul-mouthed optio is having a deleterious effect on my vocabulary. I just told my cranky old plug-in coffeemaker to `Hurry up, you dozy f***ing cow.
Russell: You’re welcome, luv.
As We Fact Check
Stephanie: Eliza, stop looking up etymological roots! You can’t FIND a word that’s old enough! That’s the beauty of writing in the ancient world; you don’t have to do this!
Eliza: I. Can’t. Stop.
Ruth: I’ve spent the day only leaving the computer to hunt out books I haven’t used in years. I must go remind Husband that I’m still alive.
Kate: Russ, you say Gaulish, but should we go with Gallic?
Russ: Gaulish. Gallic brings to mind berets, stripy shirts, Gauloise cigs and accordion music.
As We Fact Check Some More
Kate: So, state funeral in the morning and then the pillaging starts . . . you think it could be done by 3pm or so?
Ruth: You know, I’m not sure how long pillaging takes. It’s not something I’ve ever given a great deal of thought to.
Kate: If the funeral is done by morning we have just enough time to kick off the pillaging. If that’s done by mid-afternoon, we can schedule the flogging . . . I sound like a demented event planner trying to rent a hall.
As We Make Continuity Changes
Kate: The blond slave girl mentioned in Story #3 cannot suddenly become a brunette in Story #5; the queen in Story #1 cannot possibly make it all the way north by Story #2 unless we involve a TARDIS; and that Druid cannot die in Story #4 by drowning AND in Story #7 by evisceration.
Stephanie: We need to decide on `Mona’ or `Ynys Mon,’ or the history police will crucify us.
Ruth: Crikey, don’t the history police have anything better to do?
Several voices in unison: No.
As We Work On Promo
Vicky: Ok, everyone pitch in on this Q&A.
Stephanie: Talks overarching theme.
Ruth: Talks archaeological evidence.
Simon: Talks character development.
Russ: Makes hilarious rude jokes.
As We Celebrate Book�s Launch
Ruth: Really, this was wonderful. It’s been like a crash course in writing combined with group therapy, only funnier.
The rest of us in unison: AWWW . . .
(Then the Yanks wonder: Do the Brits hug?)
(As the Brits wonder: Five hour time difference . . . too early for the Yanks to pour celebratory drinks?)
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.”
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.
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.”
Available now in print and e-book!
Available now in print and e-book!
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.
I met historical fiction novelist Stephanie Dray for the first time last week in celebration of her second book’s release, and frankly I am getting nervous. She is kind and witty, self-deprecating and sassy, a sparkling conversationalist and an eager listener–just like a lot of the writers I’ve been lucky enough to meet. Are there no trolls in this business? Or am I just lucky enough only to meet the the nice ones? I’ve had the great privilege of meeting Michelle Moran, Margaret George, Diana Gabaldon, C.W. Gortner, Sophie Perinot, Anne Easter Smith, Christy English, Gillian Bagwell, Sandra Worth–and they were all delightful.
I think people have the wrong idea about how writers interact. For one thing, they assume we don’t interact at all; that we spend all our time huddled in our solitary libraries over a computer, and for a large part we do. But there’s Facebook, there’s email, there are conferences where we can meet face to face–I met most of these people at the Historical Novel Society Conference this year. However we do it, lots of us get to know each other, and for the most part there’s no backstabbing and jealousy (another popular assumption about writers). The people I’ve met were all sincerely rooting for each others’ success–after all, the more of us who sell books and make historical fiction popular, the bigger the audience is and we all benefit.
The other popular assumption is that if we don’t hate each other, we cheat. Write blurbs for each other just to get a blurb back, talk up each other’s books when we haven’t read them–a big incestuous group all scratching each other’s backs just to get a scratch in return. I haven’t seen much of that, either. If anything, there’s a slightly nervous look on both faces when two writers meet for the first time. I like your books so much; what if I don’t like you? I like you but I haven’t read your books; what if I hate them? It’s a great relief once you can relax, realizing that you like both an author and their work.
The other relief in meeting a fellow historical fiction author is that here at last is someone who understands. Here is someone who nods unfazed as you start reeling off the family tree of the Julio-Claudian emperors; who gets your toss-off reference to the Wars of the Roses; who shares your interest in Egyptian mummies. Those of us with a passion for history are resigned to blank stares or rolled eyes from those who think we’re weirdos for knowing more about the wives of Henry VIII than the husbands of Elizabeth Taylor. Meet another HF writer and after a while there is a great internal shout of “Yes! She GETS me!”
Finally, there’s a relief in knowing you aren’t alone. Writers do spend a lot of time alone, and most of us like it that way–but at times one misses the cameraderie of an office or worksite, work friends to bitch and moan with about work problems. With only two books published, I’m a relative newbie in the author scene–I went at it alone for the first few years. Now my circle is expanding, and I’ve realized that I do have work friends. They may be scattered all over the country, but they’re as supportive as the office friends I used to meet around the water cooler.
So what do two authors of historical fiction do when they meet up? Stephanie Dray and I hit an Indian restaurant for lunch where, yes, roast goat was on the menu. We agreed it was something both her Egyptian heroine Selene and my Roman heroine Thea would have eaten, and we’d be fools not to follow suit. So we ate goat and dished on Isis worship, Roman emperors, plotting problems, and snarky reviews. Lunch turned into coffee; Stephanie wheedled a couple of spoilers from Empress of the Seven Hills out of me, and I wheedled a few from her on the next Selene book (sorry, we’re both sworn to secrecy). Stuffed with goat and coffee, we parted good friends.
Stephanie, congratulations again on the launch of Song of the Nile. Next lunch is on me.