Monday, November 24, 2014

Interview with Mary Burns

I ended up having to pass on a number of delicious tours while on maternity leave, and one I'm particularly heartbroken about is the tour for Mary Burns' historical mystery, The Spoils of Avalon. Set in 1877, the novel follows famed painter John Singer Sargent and his childhood friend Violet Paget, better known as writer Vernon Lee. I love the whole setup of this series, and I'm thrilled I was able to interview Ms. Burns in lieu of a review.  Hope you're as intrigued as I am -- read on to learn more about her book, her writing, and what she does when she's not writing.  And be sure to enter the giveaway to win a copy!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

My very first piece of fiction was a short story I wrote in the eighth grade (WAY back in 1964) about…ta da! The Beatles! I wrote an ‘odyssey’ story about them that actually pre-dated “A Hard Day’s Night”! The four lads had to get in high gear when John Lennon’s (then) wife Cynthia and newborn son Julian were kidnapped and held for ransom. Each Beatle had his own chapter of adventures around the city of London (which of course I’d never been to) and then they end up grabbing the kidnapper and setting Cynthia and Julian free. I even illustrated it with pen and ink drawings, copying photos of them from the teen magazines. Sadly, the manuscript has been lost to time.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like to find a piece of instrumental music to play every time I sit down to write, which is often in the late afternoon. For my book on John Singer Sargent, it was a Chopin nocturne (Sargent loved Chopin’s music and played excellently.) For The Spoils of Avalon, I listened to two things: Sandy Bull’s Inventions, and a CD of Gregorian Chant.


Was The Spoils of Avalon the original title of your book?

Yes, it was! I am a huge fan of Henry James, and I had recently read his Spoils of Poynton, and then there was that goofy TV series, The Spoils of Bablyon (with Will Ferrell and Toby McGuire), so I guess ‘spoils’ was on my mind – plus, it fit the plot!

As you were writing The Spoils of Avalon, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

You know, all my characters surprise me when I’m writing. I can literally be typing away, and the characters are saying things, revealing things about their thoughts or even things that happened to them previously, and I’m saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that about you!” With actual personages such as Sargent or Violet Paget, I’ve read so many biographies and so much correspondence, I feel like I know them, but they still come up with stuff that’s unexpected. I especially like my fictional characters, though; for instance, Lord James Parke in The Spoils of Avalon—although there actually was a lord with that name at the time, my character is not based on anything real about him. But he kept revealing little things about himself during the writing that I had to just wonder, where on earth is that coming from?

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I’m a book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society, so I read books for them, in addition to all the books I read constantly. I also play the piano and I make stained glass windows. Love to cook and put on elegant dinner parties. Here’s a picture of a recent dinner party appetizer set, and a stained glass window, too.

Read any good books recently?

I just finished The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, it was terrific! She really got into the down-and-dirty details of what it was like for a mid-19th century woman to find herself living in a hut on an island in Fiji—so realistic it made me itch from imaginary mosquito bites! Great story.


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My thanks to Ms. Burns for her time and thoughtful responses.  You can learn more about her and her books via her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.  Be sure to check out the other blogs on the tour to see reviews and more interviews.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Spoils of Avalon (eBook or Print, winner's choice) to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US, Canadian, and Australian readers, ends 11/28.






Sunday, November 23, 2014

Winners!

My apologies for the delay in announcing these winners -- newborns are a bit exhausting!  I'm thrilled to share them now, however.

The winners of Texts from Jane Eyre are ... Tracy B., Shannon D., and Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader!

The winner of A Day of Fire is ... Craig W.!

Congrats to the winners!  There's one more giveaway going on and a few more coming.  Hopefully I'll get back to reading and can share my reviews of the last few books from before I gave birth.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interview with Stephanie Thornton

I have loved every single one of Stephanie Thornton's historical novels and the only reason I'm not reviewing her newest, The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan, is because I've got a six-day old baby.  But I'm dying to dig in (thank you, Ms. Thornton, for sending me a copy!) and I'm excited to share my interview with Ms. Thornton about this book and her writing of it. Be sure to enter the giveaway to win a copy, too!

Was The Tiger Queens the original title of your book?

Actually, it was! I'm three for three with my titles so far... They've all been my creation, which is pretty rare for authors these days. But The Tiger Queens is just the perfect for all of these women, considering how fierce they had to be to survive not only Mongolia's harsh climate, but also the political tumult of Genghis' conquests.

As you were writing The Tiger Queens, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Fatima, a Persian captive, was actually the character who most surprised me, I think because I got rather attached to her and she ends up making some rather surprising choices throughout the story. She's a snob to her very marrow, (although really, it would have difficult for anyone to avoid looking down their noses at the Mongols for their table manners), but that actually becomes one of her most endearing traits, at least to me.

Your novels span the globe and different historical eras. How do you get into the right mindset for each novel?

Research, research, research! (Did I mention research?) I'm a total history nerd so I absolutely eat up all the weird trivialities of life in the ancient world, like the fact that the Mongols really did tenderize meat under their saddles as they rode and participated in the predecessor to today's Naadam festival, a multi-day sporting event featuring the "three manly arts" of horse racing, archery, and wrestling. (Fun Fact: Genghis Khan supposedly proclaimed that all wrestlers compete wearing open vests because a woman once won the competition. And yes, I managed to work that scene into The Tiger Queens!)

You have three books out now, and you're working on your fourth. Do you have one that you're more sentimental about?

I'm sentimental about all my books, but for different reasons. The Tiger Queens was my problem child simply because the story spans eighty years of history, four cultures, and virtually all of Eurasia. So I suppose I'm sentimental about it because it was the most difficult to write, and several times I threatened to throw the entire thing out the window!

Read any good books recently?

I just had the privilege of reading an early version of Kate Quinn's Lady of the Eternal City, and let me tell you, it is phenomenal! I'm also getting ready to dive into George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons--I can't wait to see what happens to Tyrion and Daenerys! (Although if either of them dies I'm going to throw a monumental temper tantrum.)

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My thanks to Ms. Thornton for her thoughtful responses.  You can learn more about her and her books at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.  Be sure to follow the tour and check out reviews on the other blogs.

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Tiger Queens to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US residents only, ends 11/28. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Little Reader is here!

I apologize for disappearing suddenly, but I went into labor last Monday, and at 1:35am on Wednesday, Little Reader arrived! 

Meet Winslow Alcott.  He's about 21 inches long and today, at five days in, weights about 7 pounds, 12 ounces.  He's such a sweetie, although we're all learning how to live together.  Needless to say, I haven't been reading much but I'm hoping once we figure out our routine together, I can resume reading regularly.

I hope to keep updating here, however -- I have some wonderful author interviews coming up, a few giveaways, too, and I will try to keep in touch with folks -- but apologies if I seem to go MIA for a while.

To close, one more photo of the Little Reader...

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interview with the authors of A Day of Fire, part two

I'm thrilled to share part two of my interview with the authors of A Day of Fire: Vicky Alvear Shecter, Sophie Perinot, Ben Kane, Kate Quinn, E. Knight, and Stephanie Dray (here's my review!). They kindly agreed to do a roundtable style conversation about the writing of this book. Be sure to check out part one of the interview to learn how this premise came about and what it was like for these novelists to write together (and there's a chance to win a Kindle copy of this book, too!)

What surprised you most about collaborating with the other authors?

Sophie: The sheer joy of it. This can be a very solitary business and so writers often come together to talk out snags in their work with fellow-writer friends. But this time group brainstorming had an extra layer of “all for one and one for all.” It was the most social writing experience I’ve ever had.

Ben: This part is where I missed out by living on the other side of the Atlantic! I know that four of the others met up a couple of times to bash out ideas, and to improve the storyline etc. I would have loved to have been part of that, as per Sophie’s comment above. I used to be a veterinarian (cue: sociable job) and now I write full time (cue: one of the loneliest jobs there is). I ain’t complaining - my job satisfaction continues to rate over 95%, but the biggest downside of being a writer is the solitude. I am lucky to be part of an historical writers’ association (the HWA), and to socialize with many of its members, but it was still great to collaborate with some new colleagues - now friends.

Kate: The fun part of writing collaboratively is taking advantage of the expertise in the collective pool. For example, Ben telling me that eyeballs don’t collapse when gouged out; they burst. He says he knows this because of the aforementioned veterinary experience. (Sure . . .)

Stephanie: Had we to do it again--and I think there will be an again!--we would Skype Ben and Vicky into our plotting chats because the brilliance of working collaboratively is that we were able to take advantage of everyone’s skill set in a different way. We were able to solve each other’s problems. Six heads are better than one!

Eliza: I agree with Stephanie! “A Day of Fire” was so much fun! Plus, being able to bounce ideas off each other made writing a lot easier--and the way Kate, Stephanie and Vicky teased me about my frustrations with the Roman naming process! I literally said at one point, does everyone have to be named Julius??? lol.

Sophie: Forget skyping Ben in! We need to fly over, put on the garb and do one of his fabulous ancient Roman charity walks with him! How about it Ben? Ladies welcome?

Vicky: An ancient Roman walk across the pond? Oh, I’m so there. And as we march, we could brainstorm. That is the only possible way I can imagine topping this experience!

Kate: I do my best thinking while walking. I’m bringing the gladius hanging over my computer. And can we get Ian McKellan’s voiceover from Ben’s Romani Walk film floating over our heads as we all saunter along? “These six authors are bitching about inaccurate Roman armor in Hollywood movies and planning a new project where no gladiators are wearing medieval bracers . . .”

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My thanks to the authors for their time and thoughtful answers.  You can learn more about the authors and find their websites here. And you can check out part one of the interview to enter to win a Kindle copy of the book!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Cover Reveal: A Study in Death

I had the pleasure of meeting Anna Lee Huber at the Historical Novel Society's conference in St. Petersburg, FL in 2013.  We were both audience members at a panel and she had a fabulously striking manicure. That got us talking, and then I learned about her 19th-century historical mystery series. Her books are on my maternity leave TBR, and I'm delighted to share details about her fourth release, coming out next summer.

A STUDY IN DEATH is the latest installment in the award-winning Lady Darby mystery series by national bestselling author Anna Lee Huber. It will release on July 7th, 2015 from Berkley Publishing, but is available for preorder now.

Scotland, 1831. After a tumultuous courtship complicated by three deadly inquiries, Lady Kiera Darby is thrilled to have found both an investigative partner and a fiancĂ© in Sebastian Gage. But with her well-meaning—and very pregnant—sister planning on making their wedding the event of the season, Kiera could use a respite from the impending madness.

Commissioned to paint the portrait of Lady Drummond, Kiera is saddened when she recognizes the pain in the baroness’s eyes. Lord Drummond is a brute, and his brusque treatment of his wife forces Kiera to think of the torment caused by her own late husband.

Kiera isn’t sure how to help, but when she finds Lady Drummond prostrate on the floor, things take a fatal turn. The physician called to the house and Lord Drummond appear satisfied to rule her death natural, but Kiera is convinced that poison is the real culprit.

Now, armed only with her knowledge of the macabre and her convictions, Kiera intends to discover the truth behind the baroness’s death—no matter what, or who, stands in her way…

GIVEAWAY!

To celebrate the unveiling of the cover of A STUDY IN DEATH, Lady Darby Book 4, Anna Lee Huber is running a giveaway on her Facebook page. Entrants must comment under her post displaying the cover of A STUDY IN DEATH for a chance to win a copy of the audiobooks of Lady Darby Books 1-3 (THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE, MORTAL ARTS, and A GRAVE MATTER). Please see post for Giveaway Terms and Conditions.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Interview with the authors of A Day of Fire, part one

Yesterday I reviewed the faaaaaaaaahbulous A Day of Fire, a marvelous historical novel set during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Uniquely, it's penned by six authors -- Vicky Alvear Shecter, Sophie Perinot, Ben Kane, Kate Quinn, E. Knight, and Stephanie Dray -- but reads as a single work, devastating and exciting in equal part.

On a whim, I asked if the authors would consider doing a roundtable interview/discussion for my blog and to my delight, the authors agreed! I'm so excited to share this interview -- it confirms what I've suspected: that authors really are among the most fun people out there! I've split the interview into two parts, so here's part one (part two to be live on Friday).

And I loved this book so much I've decided to splurge and offer a giveaway, so be sure to enter!

How did this project come about?

Stephanie Dray: It started when Kate, Sophie, and I were celebrating Kate’s latest book release and began chatting about how, in the romance genre, they write continuities all the time. We thought it would be a coup if we could pull one off in the historical genre.

Kate Quinn: Yep, that’s how it happened. There was champagne, and it certainly helped the ideas start flowing.

Ben Kane: Doesn’t champagne always help ideas flow?!

Kate: Certainly does.

Sophie Perinot: It wasn’t the champagne that made me giddy, it was the idea that we could be a FIRST. None of us could think of any previous continuities in the straight historical fiction realm. The three of us immediately started an idea list--wow, was that a long list. I believe we settled on the right historical event in the end. What could be more exciting than the destruction of Pompeii? And because Vesuvius was an equal-opportunity destroyer, we were able to incorporate characters from every walk of life.

Vicky Alvear Shecter: I had never even HEARD of continuity projects, so when I was approached to participate in “A Day of Fire” I had two responses: 1) YES PLEASE! and 2) Wait, what? How does this work?

Stephanie Dray
Stephanie: Vicky was so down with this project from day one, that we knew we’d asked the right author. And the entire project could never have worked without her brilliant first story.

Eliza Knight: I’m also a fan of champagne, so when I got a call from Stephanie asking if I wanted to rip out the heart of readers, I couldn’t resist and popped the cork! :)

Stephanie: Personally, I’m very fond of writers who like to rip out the hearts of readers.

Ben--when you were first contacted about a project full of Americans what were your thoughts?

Ben Kane
Ben: The first I knew of it was when Kate contacted me. We knew each other a little from various internet fora. I thought the idea was brilliant - who wouldn’t? Rome? Pompeii and THAT day in AD 79? - and said yes on the spot.

Stephanie: I didn’t realize Ben wasn’t American when we pitched the project to him, but I’ve been delighted to see the differences between the two markets, and to learn from his expertise from that side of the pond. Also, he’s very charming.

Groundwork: Was there a single thread decided on for the overall novel-in-six-parts storyline, or did it evolve as folks worked on their individual pieces?

Kate Quinn
Kate: We knew from the beginning that we could NOT all show the eruption, or else we’d have the Groundhog Day effect: If that mountain blew in every story, the reader would have eruption fatigue by Story #3. So our first concern was distributing segments of the timeline.

Sophie: I agree that setting the timeline was a HUGE and very important step. I think we made several wise decisions there--keeping it tight with some, but decreasing overlap; and gathering some of our number together in person to hammer it out once Ben’s story was in hand. (He wrote his first.) I think we benefitted from the fact that people were flexible. I would have loved to write a story with more destruction, but early stories were needed too, and I knew I could create characters--like Sabinus--who people would want to follow to the dramatic end of the book.

Ben: We talked a lot about timeline before we got started, and as others have said, it was important to do so. ‘Eruption fatigue’? I like the sound of that! but it would have switched many readers off. Portraying the whole event, from ‘before’ to ‘after’ was crucial, in order to convey some/all of the horror that must have been that day. It was also necessary for everyone to be flexible - and they were! This has felt from beginning to end like a great team effort.

Vicky Alvear Shecter
Vicky: I think it was both--the single thread had to be set at the beginning but that doesn’t mean things didn’t evolve as the project matured. We each came to the table with the germ of our story ideas and then discussed ways others characters could weave in and out of them. I was a little surprised at how easily that happened. For example, in one early draft, Kate suggested I have my character run into Ben’s gladiator since he was walking by that area anyway. Perfect! It served to introduce a character we will meet later, and also allowed my character to ruminate on the very thing he’s struggling with--what does it take to feel like a man, which is triggered when he a hugely muscled gladiator taunts him. And the more we interwove our individual pieces the stronger the overarching plot became.

Stephanie: For a very brief time, we considered simply making “A Day of Fire” an anthology of separate, unrelated, stories, to make it easier for everyone to write. Once we had Ben’s story in hand, however, we were able to see how to use it as the centerpiece around which the rest of the stories could be built. And I think that was the smartest decision we made. It turned the project from something fun that a bunch of authors worked together on, into a more challenging piece of art. And I’m so proud of what we accomplished!

How much did your original premise change as you worked with the other authors?

Ben: I believe I may be the exception. Because of the way things turned out - we had talked the storyline through, and had an ‘almost’ deal with a traditional publisher on the table, which was then shelved - I decided to write my story a year ago. I had just finished a novel, and had time to spare. If I’d left it until our plan moved forward, I would have been one third, say, or halfway into a new novel. I didn’t want to have to turn around at that stage and write a completely unrelated short story. So I just got on and wrote it, and hoped that the project *would* come to fruition. Lucky for all of us, it did.

Eliza Knight
Eliza: I have a penchant for killing people… so it was pretty much a given that my story would be very dark. Kate and Stephanie have said the motto for my historical fiction should be: Everybody dies… But, before we kiss them goodbye, I like to really drag out the emotion and explore the human condition in whatever situation has been presented. I knew where I wanted my story to flow. So the hardest part for me may have been weaving in the other authors’ characters. That is because my story begins and ends inside. Ultimately, the characters from the other stories made “appearances” in mine through flashbacks. As far as changes in my own story, originally, I wanted to take the perspective of my heroine and her husband, but then I realized that her father had a lot more to lose, so it was important for me to use him as a POV character.

Stephanie: I really deliberately held off in formulating the specifics of my prostitutes with hearts-of-gold-and-mud story until other people nailed theirs down because I was taking the last slot. This gave me more flexibility to accommodate everyone else. But I’m not the only one who had to bend, and I was very grateful to Ben for changing an entire character in his story to help mine work better.

Sophie: Stephanie, I think everyone appreciated your ability to “ride the curve” of the developing plot arc. You had a tough job batting clean up, because you were taxed with providing closure to other people’s characters which meant letting them step back onto the stage. I deeply enjoyed being able to be Sabinus again during your story--I’d missed him.

Did your writing process change in response to the collaboration, or did you write the way you normally do regardless?

Sophie Perinot
Sophie: Writing as a collaborator is different than writing as a solo act. Collaboration means cooperation, and cooperation, in my opinion, has a multiplying effect. It makes things more intense in a good way. Characters come MORE alive by interacting with other writer’s characters. I knew who Aemilia and Sabinus were before I wrote my first word, but I got to know them better when they had to react in real-time to something Stephanie’s Capella or Kate’s Diana said or did.

Vicky: The original premise of my story didn’t change much but it certainly deepened as I read the other stories and went back to my own. The other stories inspired me in ways that I could not have anticipated or expected. It was a wonderful experience!

Stephanie: I definitely wrote differently because I had to manage voices of characters that weren’t mine. Better to let Kate write some of the senator’s dialog, for example, than for me to write it myself. Which meant that I would leave chunks of the story unfinished while I moved on.

Eliza: I have a specific way of writing that doesn’t really change story to story, but one thing that was done differently with this collaboration which I really enjoyed was that we used GoogleDocs to write specific scenes together (that involved mutual characters) at the same time. It was really fun doing that!

Ben: I wrote my story before anyone else’s, as I have already explained. So at first, I didn’t have to think about the collaboration. This changed of course as the others wrote their stories, and they needed to have some of their characters appear in mine. That felt a little strange - I have never collaborated with other authors before - nor had I added in other characters. It’s a mark of the others’ professionalism and ‘coolness’, therefore, that I found the process very easy. It was enjoyable too! I loved reading the others’ stories, and found it very exciting that my characters appeared in their storylines, and it was soon quite clear that to do this would make the characters rounder, and turn the whole dang thing into a damn good story!

Kate: An interesting corollary to this discussion of writing process in collaborative work is the question of writing style. I write funny; Stephanie writes dark; Ben writes bloody, etc. And that’s before we even get into the fact that some of us write in first person and some in third, some in present tense and some in past! After much discussion we decided to give ourselves free rein rather than try to conform to a “house style,” and in the end I was hugely relieved to see that the styles didn’t clash - if anything, they enhanced each other. The book has a real panorama of flavors, and everyone’s strengths played to a different part of the drama, i.e. Ben could use his flair for violence in describing the mountain blowing up, I could use my penchant for humor to give the reader a last chuckle and loosen them up before Eliza ripped their hearts out!

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My thanks to the authors for their time and thoughtful answers.  You can learn more about the authors and find their websites here.  Be sure to check back on Friday for Part Two of the interview!

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a Kindle e-book copy of A Day of Fire to one lucky reader!  To enter, fill out this brief form.  Open to US and international readers, ends 11/14. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.