Tuesday, October 29, 2013

London Treasure Hunt

By Jeri Westerson

I’ve titled this post as I did because my newest medieval mystery, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, is not only a murder mystery involving a venerated object, but in the course of that mystery is a massive treasure hunt all over London.

Readers have been asking for a map of fourteenth century London, and as promised, there is one in this edition. Since all of the action of five of the so-far six books in the series takes place in London, I naturally needed to acquaint myself with its period streets. Unfortunately, the London I would love to see doesn’t exist anymore. A couple of fires took care of that, along with some re-planning and reconstruction throughout the ages and into the present.

Maps serve to give me the claustrophobic feel of constricted alleys and a puzzle of lanes. In fact, one can lay these maps on the Google Earth version of the present day London and match quite a bit of it. Even some of the names remain the same. My fictional detective, Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective and down on his luck, frequents a tavern to forget his troubles, which is located on Gutter Lane…a street that still exists by that name. I love that symmetry!

But there are still a few locations that can be found in present day London that can renew one’s sense of time and place. One obvious structure is the Tower of London. The outer walls and the White Tower within are relatively the same, sans the murky moat that used to surround it. And walking under the arches and sharp teeth of the portcullises one can get a true sense of its medieval origins, if you can ignore the gift shop signs and colorfully-dressed tourists. It began life as the castle of William the Conqueror and as a residence of each monarch after him until digs in Westminster were built. Only later, well after Crispin’s time, did it become the dreaded place of imprisonment for London’s elite.

I could name so many places that no longer exist or have been changed so radically to its Victorian counterpart that it is almost not worth the mention. London’s city walls, for instance—the square mile that delineated ancient London—have been obliterated by “new” buildings from the Georgian and Victorian periods and our modern time, and it is only with a helpful handheld guide that you can find its remnants. But a walk into a few structures might bring the medieval back to mind. The 12th century Temple Church of the Knights Templar on Fleet Street; the 12th century Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield; the Guildhall, built between 1411 and 1440, which stands off Gresham and Basinghall streets, served as the city hall for hundreds of years.

Then there is the wonderfully intact Westminster Hall, the great hall that was part of the medieval Westminster Palace, whose footprint is now covered by the Parliament buildings. But the hall is as Crispin would have remembered it, even with its current hammerbeam ceiling, that his king, Richard II, put in place to replace the columns that used to support it. It is the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe, measuring 68 by 240 feet. It was used for feasts, great occasions, law courts, religious ceremonies, and entertainments.

And, of course, Westminster Abbey itself got a brush up of remodeling in Crispin's day, and looks a bit different than it did. But remember, the Abbey and the Hall are in what was the City of Westminster, not the City of London.


Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries. Her brooding protagonist is Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London, encountering thieves, kings, poets, and religious relics. Her books have garnered nominations for the Shamus, the Macavity, the Agatha, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Jeri is president of the southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. When not writing, Jeri dabbles in gourmet cooking, drinks fine wines, eats cheap chocolate, and swoons over anything British.  www.JeriWesterson.com

Monday, June 17, 2013

Interview with Sophie Perinot, author of "The Sister Queens"

By Nancy Bilyeau

This Friday I will be in Florida, attending my first-ever Historical Novel Society conference. I've heard so much about the star-power lunches and dinners (this year the guests of honor will be C.W. Gortner, Steve Berry and Anne Perry!), the costume pageant, and the juicy author panels. 

Sophie Perinot

I'm honored to be on a panel with my friend Sophie Perinot, author of the wonderful novel The Sister Queens. Our panel has the awesome title "The Feisty Heroine Sold Into Marriage Who Hates Bear Baiting: Cliches in Historical Fiction and How to Avoid Them." We will try to lay down the law along with Susan Higginbotham and Gillian Bagwell. :)

To generate more excitement for the conference (and let me tell you, I am already very excited), I've updated an interview I conducted with Sophie that revealed her historical knowledge, creativity and savviness about being published:

Nancy Bilyeau: Your first novel, The Sister Queens—telling the story of Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, sisters who both became medieval queens—came out in 2012, can you tell those readers who may not have read it yet a little bit about the book?
Sophie Perinot: The Sister Queens is a sister story first and foremost.  Yes, it is set in the 13th century and the atmosphere, politics and history are richly detailed and appropriate to that time but I wanted to focus my novel on that which is timeless—the way our sisters shape us whether by challenging us or by supporting us. 
I’d like to share the back-cover blurb if I may because I really think my publisher did a brilliant job of summing up the novel: 
“Raised together at the 13th Century court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages—but never truly parted. 
“Patient, perfect, reticent, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. Her husband, Louis IX, is considered the greatest monarch of his age. But he is also a religious zealot who denies himself all pleasure—including the love and companionship his wife so desperately craves. Can Marguerite find enough of her sister’s boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in the guise of forbidden love? 
“Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Her husband, Henry III, is neither as young nor as dashing as Marguerite’s. But she quickly discovers he is a very good man…and a very bad king. His failures are bitter disappointments for Eleanor, who has worked to best her elder sister since childhood. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?” 
NB: What was the most exhilarating moment for you as a debut author? The most humbling? 
SP: The most exhilarating moment was, without doubt, my launch day.  I was able to lunch with a small group of my fellow members of the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the Historical Novel Society including the marvelous Kate Quinn and Stephanie Dray. Afterwards we walked to the nearest Barnes & Noble.  The minute I crossed the threshold I spotted The Sister Queens on the “New Releases” table.  Pure bliss.  Needless to say, many pictures were taken. 
The most humbling moment came about a week later.  I took my youngest child to a Barnes & Noble near our home so that he could see my book on the “New Releases” table.  He took one look, shrugged (really) and said something along the lines of, “that’s nice but the hardback books at the front are displayed standing up.”  Wow.  Yeah, that pretty much deflated my ego. 
NB: We will both soon be headed to the 2013 North American Historical Novel Society Conference.  Can you tell readers a little bit about the topics of the panels you will be sitting on in Florida? 
SP: I will be sitting on two panels.  The first entitled “Location, Location, Location” will look at historical settings, their importance as the foundation of good historical novels, and tricks and tools for building them credibly.  The Second is our panel on clichés. It will examine the good, bad and ugly of common clichés in the genre. I expect both panels to be scintillating, so if any of your blog readers are coming to St Pete’s, I hope they will consider adding these panels to their list of “must see” sessions.
NB: Is the St. Peterburg HNS Conference your first? 
SP: No indeed, I am a veteran of North American conferences, having been at every once since the 2005 inaugural event in Salt Lake City.  I honestly believe my early HNS conferences—before I had a completed manuscript—were extremely important in terms of career building/shaping.  They really made me think about the business end of writing historical fiction, and gave me the information I needed to make educated decisions about what I wanted in an agent and what sort of publication I was seeking.  I think it is very easy for new writers to write in a “creative bubble” focusing solely on developing their craft, but authors are actually small business people and the earlier a novice writer realizes that the better.  I’d recommend attending an HNS Conference to anyone serious about writing in the genre and to interested readers as well.
 NB: When you get home from Florida I am sure it is back to the writerly grindstone.  Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on right now? 
SP: With pleasure.  I’ve moved forward a little over 300 years to 16th century France where I am hard at work on a novel about Marguerite de Valois, the youngest daughter Henri II and Catherine de Medici. 
Marguerite grew up immersed in the political and dynastic struggles which consumed France during the Wars of Religion.  She was a witness to and participant in a lot of fascinating—and sometimes gruesome—history.  Yet she has seldom been explored in fiction, and when she has I am afraid portrayals of her—as a vain, corrupt wanton—reflect more of the ugly anti-Valois propaganda of her time than historical reality.  I hope to give readers a more balanced and nuanced view of Marguerite who was not only one of the most beautiful women of the French Court but also one of the most intelligent.  Readers can expect plenty of mother-daughter conflict between my heroine and her legendary mother, Catherine de Medici, as well as political and Romantic intrigue involving the likes of the Duc de Guise, Henri of Navarre, Charles IX of France and the future Henri III. 
Thanks for a wonderful interview, Sophie, and see you later this week!

For more information on The Sister Queens, go to: http://www.sophieperinot.com/home/

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Interview with "Shadow on the Crown's" Patricia Bracewell

By Nancy Bilyeau

One of the frustrations of my new life as a novelist is not having enough time to read for pleasure. Those precious hours I've carved out for my book series must go to writing and reading for research. I used to buy novels on impulse at the bookstore, walk out of libraries with arms aching from the vertical load, and, most recently, download an intriguing title on my kindle. How I miss that kind of voracious reading.

During a break between my finishing The Chalice and starting my work on The Covenant, I vowed to return to my old life. I bought Shadow on the Crown, the debut novel of Patricia Bracewell. All I knew was that I liked the look of the cover, I'd heard some pleasant buzz about the book on Facebook, and the subject was an 11th century queen named Emma of Normandy. 

From the first page, I was hooked. Shadow on the Crown is a lovely read that kept me turning pages, eager to find out what would happen next. I learned a great deal about a period in English history I'm interested in--the early medieval age--while caring deeply about these characters. Emma, the daughter of a duke of Normandy, became the second wife of King Aethelred of England at the age of fifteen. The novel is about that turbulent marriage, which includes a brief kidnapping by Viking leaders and royal infidelities. Emma is the only queen known to have married successive--and rivalrous--kings of England. Her next marriage will be the subject of Bracewell's follow-up novel.

Happily, Patricia agreed to an interview on her fascinating novel. She grew up in California, where she taught literature and composition before embarking on her first novel. And, best of all, we will meet in person at the upcoming Historical Novel Society conference, where I will no doubt pepper her with even more questions!

Nancy Bilyeau: How did you “discover” Emma of Normandy?
Patricia Bracewell: It happened over a dozen years ago, and it was the first of a number of fortuitous events. I was noodling about on an on-line history bulletin board and I ran across Emma’s name mentioned in a series of posts. I found myself reading about a woman who had been wed to two kings of England and was the mother of two kings, and because I thought myself fairly knowledgeable about the names of English queens, I wondered why I had never heard of her. I started to dig and I grew more and more fascinated. Interestingly, I was never able to find that internet history board again. (Cue spooky music.)

NB: Although Emma of Normandy has had such an eventful life, she hasn’t been written about in historical fiction nearly as often as queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Elizabeth Woodville. Why do you think that is?
PB: I think there are two reasons. One is that Emma of Normandy is not exactly a household name. Graduate students in Anglo-Saxon or Medieval History will have run into her, but most people have never heard of her. You can’t write about someone you’ve never heard of. That’s only part of it, though. Look at Lady Macbeth – one of Emma’s contemporaries. Thanks to Shakespeare, we all know about her, yet few historical fiction writers have placed her at the center of a book. Maybe it’s because until recently, the early medieval period was considered a hard sell. Hopefully that is changing, but it does raise the question: have there been other novels written about that Scottish queen, or even about Emma, that no one was willing to publish? We’ll never know.

NB: How much contemporary documentation is there on Emma’s life? Were you able to unearth little-known facts on her and the other principals in the book?
PB: If one looks only to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is where I began my research, there are only two mentions of Emma’s name in the period covered by my book. Even the manuscript that Emma herself commissioned late in her life, called the Encomium Emmae Regina by scholars, makes no mention of any events before about A.D. 1013. It doesn’t even mention King Æthelred. Historians have had to glean information about Emma from charters, from wills, from the records of gifts made to various churches and from later historians, like 12th century William of Malmesbury who added some juicy rumors to what the Chronicle had to say. So there is very little contemporary evidence for what her life would have been like. I had to look at the general knowledge we have about that period, and apply it to an English queen.

NB: I watched the entire season of “The Vikings” on the History Channel and I’ve also seen “Thirteenth Warrior” and the 1958 Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis film “The Vikings.” The Viking rulers in your book are not as crude and bloodthirsty as those in films and TV series. Do you think there is some stereotyping in the depiction of Vikings?
PB: Yes, and that stereotyping began very early on. What we know of the Vikings comes from what was written about them by the victims of their raids – who never had anything good to say about them – and from 13th century Icelandic sagas which are stories meant to glorify deeds of heroism and, of course, violence. (The History Channel’s “The Vikings” is based on Ragnar’s Saga.) The Scandinavians had no written history until after the 11th century, so there are no contemporary annals by the Vikings themselves to balance the perceived image. Historians of late have tried to emphasize the role of Vikings as traders and explorers, which was significant, as opposed to their reputation as bloodthirsty raiders. My own story is set toward the very end of the Viking Age, two hundred years after events depicted in any of the films you mentioned above, and a great deal happened to the Scandinavian countries in that time, including Christianization (something that did not happen overnight or all-at-once, mind you). Where is the truth? Well, not everyone born in Scandinavia between A.D. 800 and A.D.1100 boarded a ship and went out to savage his neighbors. That being said, the Viking Age was a brutal time, no matter where you lived.

NB: In your study of literature and your teaching career, did you ever imagine that a medieval queen would be the subject of your first book?
PB: I did, but the queen’s name was Guinevere. I was completely entranced by the Arthurian Legend for many years, and I always thought that I would someday write about the Matter of Britain. I’m only off by about 600 years!

NB: Did English queens ever have a harder life than during this time period? I’m thinking of not only Emma but her husband’s first queen.
PB: I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘hard life’. As a queen and peaceweaver, like so many other medieval queens, Emma was a foreigner, thrust into a court where she had no family or noble allies close at hand to support her. So yes, it would have been hard for her to make her way in that world. She would have had to forge those ties from scratch. As for what happened behind closed doors, between husband and wife when there was nothing to bind them but the demands of religion and state, historians do not say. It’s up to the historical novelist to peek behind the bed curtains. Did queens in later eras have it any better? Ask Ann Boleyn.

NB: For you, what is the line between fiction and fact? Are there fictional characters in Shadow on the Crown?
PB: There are fictional characters in the novel, but all of them are in supporting roles. I created them where necessary to flesh out the story. As for the line between fiction and fact, I set out to write a story, not history. Every step of the way I asked myself if what I was imagining was plausible, given the available facts. Often I had to depend upon conjecture. Historians do this, as well, but they make certain that any conjectures they make are specifically identified as such. The novelist doesn’t have that restriction. The Author’s Note, though, is the place where the writer can discuss any deviations from known facts, and I think they are almost as much fun to read – and write – as the stories themselves.

NB: Your book has a passionate romance in it but it also depicts rape within marriage. How hard was that to grapple with as an author?
PB: Any scene that is intensely emotional – whether it is passionate, violent, or sad – is difficult to write. I struggle with all of them. Technically they are difficult because you want to portray physical events that are occurring, and at the same time you want your reader to experience not just the physical but the emotional turmoil that your viewpoint character is experiencing. To do that, the writer has to place herself right there, in that moment – be that character – not just once, but as many times as it takes to get the balance between the physical and the emotional absolutely right. It is, quite simply, hard work and emotionally draining.

NB: Where do you feel historical fiction is headed as a genre?
PB: I think that depends on us, the writers. The more that we demand excellence from ourselves and from each other, the better our books will be and the more recognition we will receive from the literary community. The very fact that there is now a Walter Scott Prize honoring the best historical fiction published in the U.K. is an enormous step forward. I’d like to see a similar prize awarded in the U.S.  

NB: Did you see these books as a trilogy from the beginning? How hard was it to stop where you did?
PB: I always conceived Emma’s story as a trilogy, and I always knew where the first book would end, so stopping wasn’t difficult. I simply turned around three times and began working on the second book. Now that I’ve finished what I hope is a decent draft of that second book, I have to admit that the writing of the final scene this time around was very difficult, and the book ended at a place not originally of my choosing. I’m learning that a novel sometimes has a mind of its own. (Cue spooky music again.)

Thank you for a wonderful interview!

To learn more about Patricia and her work, go to: 

Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Chalice is now on sale.
On sale $2.99, Kindle and Nook

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Help Me Write a Short Story!

Hi All,

I’m in the final stages of rewriting the third Bridget Hodgson mystery, tentatively called The Witch-Hunter’s Tale.

 Once that’s done, I’m going to take a few weeks and try my hand at short stories. One of the ideas I have is to use these shorts – which will appear as Kindle Singles – to cast light on other characters or perhaps on Bridget herself.

I have a few ideas rattling around, but I’d love to hear from you as well.

So tell me, is there a particular character you’d like to know more about? Is there some aspect of Bridget’s life that particularly intrigues you?

At bottom, I need to know this: What question do you want this short story to answer?

Feel free to answer in the comments section below, by email, or through the “Contact” page on my website.

Thanks in advance!


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hey, my bloody good read...

...is finally here!

It's been a really long journey...but I'm pleased and humbled to finally be a published novelist, with today's release of A Murder at Rosamund's Gate (St.Martin's Press/Minotaur Books). 

And to see all those troubling questions which plagued me for so long, finally resolved. Such questions included:

  • How did London communities monitor themselves, before the rise of a "real" police force? 
  • What kind of evidence could someone use to identify a murderer, before the birth of modern forensics?
  • How could an uneducated servant find justice for a murdered friend?  
  • And of course, the hardest question of all: Whodunnit! The first draft I wrote, years ago, lacked the murderer. So suffice it to say, over multiple drafts, I hoped it would all be resolved! 
 I'm just thrilled that it worked out, and I'm so happy to see my book in print!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

As the launch day approaches...advice from two people who know what they're doing!!!

Thank goodness authors no longer have to sing their books
Since my first novel-- A Murder at Rosamund's Gate--will be released next week, I asked my awesome co-bloggers Nancy Bilyeau and Sam Thomas to share some of their experiences and insights into their book launch and that that first week was like, as a published novelist.  

Sam's novel The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery, was released in January, while Nancy's SECOND novel, The Chalice, just released a few weeks ago. So, I view both as all-knowing pros.
What was the experience like, for each of you, as your release date approached? Were you nervous? Excited?  Worried?  What (if anything!) do you remember about the release day? Did you do anything special? 

Sam: The days leading up to the release were far worse than the release itself. So much seemed to be riding on that one day, yet I felt so powerless to do anything about it. Sure I sent out hundreds of postcards to bookstores, libraries, friends, relatives, etc., flogging the book, but even if I had a 100% purchase rate from those - hard to imagine - it couldn't make a difference in the grand scheme of things. At the outset, at least, your book will sell if the publisher decides to put money into marketing. If not, your sales will be modest. Fact. Of. Life.   As for the release, it was pretty unspectacular. I went to work, home for dinner, and then to my launch. No champagne, dinner out, or anything like that. 

Nancy: I was very nervous for both books, in a daze really as it came upon me. I was blogging as much as I could. For the second book I posted four blogs or interviews on the actual publication day.

Describe your first event as a newly published author (book launch). Where did you hold it?  Who came?  Did it go as you expected?

Sam: My local library was nice enough to host the launch, and the woman in charge did a marvelous job on the publicity side of things. Thanks to her, I landed a ten-minute spot on the local NPR, which really goosed my numbers. In the end we had about eighty people show up, only a handful of whom I actually knew! In the end, it went as I'd hoped and expected. I read a little (maybe eight minutes in all) and talked a lot about the history behind the book, for a total of maybe half an hour. Then we had about an hour of Q & A, which was great.

Nancy:  For both The Crown and The Chalice, I had a book launch event within 2 days of the book’s official drop date. For The Crown it was a reading at a large Barnes & Noble, followed by a party. I invited absolutely everyone I knew in New York City, plus there were posters in the window of BN and the publisher did a few things to publicize. About 80 people came. For The Chalice, the reading was at an indie called The Mysterious Bookshop. Wine was served and I signed books. I would say 60- 70 people came. I think the second event was more successful because I feel so much more comfortable talking about my books.

What have you learned about doing author talks/book signings? What works well? What works less well?  (I'm eagerly taking notes here! :-)) 

Sam: Be ready for anything. I've been to signings that turned into formal presentations, and book clubs that did the same thing. Other  times, it just becomes a raucous discussion of the book and characters. You can't go in knowing what you want to do. You're just along for the ride.

Nancy: For me, I try to talk about the research and the journey of writing a book, and I keep it positive and anecdote-rich. I actually don’t read more than a few minutes. I remember that I need to enlighten and entertain at a reading. I try not to make it too insiderish to other authors, but interesting to a wide spectrum of people.  I went to one book event where the author went on and on about how hard it was to be published and how her editors tell her she is no Lee Child, and it didn’t make me excited to read her book. I think that sort of thing is for your writers’ group, not potential readers.

What advice about the book release would you offer someone who—say—has her first book coming out next week? 
Nancy:  Blog, post and tweet like crazy the first two weeks. That is key! The first two weeks. And ask friends (like myself) to tweet and post on your book. Because personal recommendations are what counts.

 Sam: Chill. It'll be anticlimactic. Nothing about your life is going to change except you'll be busier.

Thanks, Nancy and Sam! 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

An intriguing 17th century theft

This is the kind of little snippet that really intrigues me as a writer, and as a historian. I came across this interesting 17th century advertisement in the Early English Books. Five valuable books had gone missing--"Lost or Stolen"--and a relatively large reward had been offered for their return.

Early English books tract supplement interim guide ; / E4:2[148]  Date 16--?
Clearly, the books were valuable. Four were bound in rough calves leather and had clasps.  One was in smooth's calves leather and lettered on the back.

But it's the glimpse into the content that intrigues me. Three volumes of Monasticon Anglicanum, also known as The history of the ancient abbies, and other monasteries, hospitals, cathedral and collegiate churches in England and Wales. With divers French, Irish, and Scotch monasteries formerly relating to England (1693) (You can actually read all three volumes here if you like!).  Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire. And Camden's Britannia.

All of them could be viewed as sort of refined travel guides, pointing out the interesting facts and histories of important buildings, ruins, castles, private homes, churches and former monasteries (each was also likely informed by key political and religious tensions of the time, but that's another story.)

This fascinates me: who might have taken these books? (I'm sort of discounting the idea they may actually have been lost...what's the fun of that?)  A petty thief who may have wanted to make a few shillings? Maybe. An armchair traveller, sitting in his oak-panelled chair with spindled arms, sipping some Rhenish wine, dreaming of places he'd never been?  Perhaps.

Or perhaps, and here's the fun part to conjecture, the books were lifted from the bookstall by a master thief. To get the lay of the land throughout Warwickshire. To understand the best ways to travel. To study escape routes. To look for hidden entrances and egresses. 

There's no record as to whether the books found their way back to booksellers Bateman and Brown, but I like to imagine they didn't. Maybe some seventeenth century rogue (or moll) pulled off the heist of the century...and it's up to me to write that tale...

It's less than seven weeks till the launch of my first mystery, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate (Minotaur Books/St.Martin's Press) on April 23, 2013!   www.susannacalkins.com