Thursday, August 30, 2007

Salad at a bad cafe

(sounds like my meal at the Bob Evans on the way home from Hartford)

Members of the Fiction_L listserv have been compiling a list of butchered book titles that library patrons have asked librarians about.

If that's not enough, here's more.

Beverage alert on these. Enjoy.

An old article returns

(warning, slight bragging ahead)

In fall 2005, the editor of Bookmarks Magazine asked me to write an article for them on a historical fiction-related topic. While following their usual format of short recommendations on a variety of titles, I selected 20 benchmark historical novels and described why they were important for the genre. Then I provided several "readalike" novels for the original 20. It was an excellent writing exercise, given that each book summary had to conform to a certain length (short!). When the article appeared, I was surprised and pleased to see it was published as the cover story for the Jan/Feb 2006 issue.

The article has, by far, the most gorgeous layout of anything I've ever written, though I'm afraid the link at the bottom of this post doesn't really convey this. Hard to do, in HTML format. But the cover of the issue gives some indication. I've since learned, via a letter to the editor in Bookmarks' Jul/Aug 2007 issue, that their "historical fiction" issue sold out almost immediately. I was happy to hear this, but felt bad at the same time. A woman desperately wanted to buy it but couldn't. If I'd had any spare copies left, I'd have offered to send her one.

In his response, the editor promised to put the article online as soon as possible. This afternoon, I got notified via Googlealerts that he'd done so.

Coming up with 20 books out of the thousands of historical novels ever published was great fun, and a challenge. I did my best to ensure that as many subgenres and time periods were represented as possible, to show the genre's diversity. Do you agree with my picks? What else would you have included?

Anyhow, please read on, if you so choose:
Masters of the Past: Twenty Classic Historical Novels and Their Legacy

Monday, August 27, 2007

In which I learn I'm officially OLD

The Reader's Advisor Online blog pointed me to an interesting article from Saturday's New York Times. The latest additions to American Girl's collection of historical dolls are nine-year-old Julie and her Chinese-American friend Ivy, who live in San Francisco during the tumultuous and freewheeling 1970s. The dolls accompany a new series of books from American Girl, the first of which is Megan McDonald's Meet Julie.

Um... I was nine years old in the 1970s. Can't say I wore anything like the bell-bottom denims, embroidered tunic, or knitted hat sported by these fashionable young ladies, however. I think I was a bit too young for that; they're dressed more like sophisticated versions of my teenage babysitters than like me. No doubt the styles are meant to resemble those of young adults, unless things were different in San Francisco. Instead, I'm having not-so-fond recollections of Jordache jeans, feathered hair a la Farrah Fawcett, barrettes, and turtlenecks with vests. On the other hand, the red plaid top and dark green jeans do look pretty familiar.

With regard to the NYT piece, I also remember the bicentennial, watching news about the Vietnam War on my friend's parents' TV, and Carter's election to the presidency (which we learned about during 2nd grade recess). My hair was nowhere near long enough to roll up with orange juice cans, though. That practice is actually news to me.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Deaccessioning titles

That's the fancy term for "weeding." Because my collection surpassed 9,000 books last month, I figured it was time to bite the bullet and get rid of books I know I'll never read. Unfortunately, after going through my shelves, I only came up with a few dozen worth eliminating. Most are ones I got for free from some publisher or other, so at least I won't feel too guilty about it.

The weeded titles fall into one of three categories: histories about places/periods I'm not really interested in, fantasy or science fiction that's either too science-y or part of a lengthy series I've given up on, and contemporary fiction/memoir. Plus some out of date reference books.

I've deleted them all from Librarything and Readerware, and a few people on Paperbackswap will be getting items from their wish lists soon. The library will also be getting three large bags of donations. I wish I could say the deaccessioning opened up space on my shelves, but all it did was let me move some books off the floor.

Finally, thanks to Rachel, I now realize why so many people have been googling "sarah johnson data entry" and reaching this blog. I know my name's not exactly unusual, but I hadn't realized it also belonged to a spammer running a make-money-fast scheme. (Though I'm guessing in this case, it's not associated with a real-life person.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Choose your format

Per Publisher's Weekly yesterday, Bantam Dell is starting a new imprint, Bantam Discovery, that will release novels in trade pb and mass-market pb simultaneously. "Whether to publish a book in mass market or trade paperback is one of the toughest decisions in the editorial boardroom, according to Bantam Dell’s senior v-p and executive director of publicity, Barb Burg," PW reports.

The new line seems geared towards women's fiction initially, but Bantam Dell publishes a fair number of historicals, so I wonder if we'll be seeing some of them here too.

Simultaneous publication in both formats is common in the UK, but not in the US.

Given the choice, and given identical content, would you purchase a $13.99(ish) trade paperback over a $7.99 mass market one? Remember, also, that Amazon discounts most trade paperbacks to $10-something, while mass markets usually get no discount at all.

I admit I'd probably pony up the extra $2ish for the trade size...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Unique ways to find this blog

Just like Susan did not long ago, I thought I'd post some of the more creative search terms people have used to find this blog in the past week or so. (The overwhelming majority of searches are on authors' or agents' names.)

I was going to comment on each of these, but on second thought, I'll just list them.

Piers Gaveston portrait

wife birthday things to do

marie antoinette from a marxist view

when did castle building stop and why

tim johnson illinois womanizer

book tour for samurai

historical novels not bloody

past tense of the word eat

nobody got sacked for buying IBM

In other news...

- I saw Becoming Jane last Friday while on a family vacation back in Connecticut. As expected, beautiful costumes and scenery, but the movie's first half was quite slow, and while the rest was entertaining, I can't say I believed it for a minute.
- The state of Illinois is on its 20th day without a budget. I supposedly will get paid in August, but after that, nobody knows.
- On the plane back, I finished reading a novel that was written in 1779, which means, just maybe, that one of my 2007 reading resolutions is fulfilled. Now I have to go and write the review, fulfilling yet another of them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Two book piles

A couple photos, below, of recent acquisitions at the Johnson library. These books arrived courtesy of Amazon, Book Depository, Booklist, eBay, Lulu, Paperbackswap, and various publishers.

The size of my library is seriously out of control, but sometimes books just show up on the doorstep, looking for a home, and who am I to turn them down?

Things are progressing nicely with "historical thrillers," and I'm expecting that it'll be a longer chapter than in the previous edition, just like with mysteries. So many new titles have appeared in the last four years. Fortunately, other chapters should be considerably shorter than the originals. I don't expect or want another 800-page book, and I don't think my publisher does, either.

I've heard rumors that copies of HNR's 10th anniversary issue have made their way across the Atlantic to some UK subscribers. If you're one of them, please let me know what you think. US residents can expect theirs within a week or two. Because of the vagaries of the US Postal Service, airmail (or, as they say now, First Class International) takes considerably less time than Periodicals Rate.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Monday's web news

Happy Monday, everyone.

From the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: an article on what they term "Jewish pulp fiction," aka novels about Biblical figures. It's a different angle on the topic, and the editors' comments are interesting to read. However, there are a few errors in content and spelling, plus some insulting remarks ("Jewish pulp fiction, ranging in quality from a Regency Romance to commercial literary fiction") that make me suspect the author's never read a Regency. And, ugh, Fabio.

In an interview with Dear Author, Pocket's Lauren McKenna talks mostly about their fall romance releases, but reveals that they're looking to add more historical fiction to their line:
Q: What should we be on the look out for in the future (i.e., changes in Pocket’s line, new line launches, ebook initiatives).
A: Pocket will be looking to expand our trade and hard cover lists in the areas of women’s fiction and historical fiction.

Bernard Cornwell is appearing in A Midsummer Night's Dream on Cape Cod.

Out of Oregon, an interview with Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, a novel about Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress, Mamah Cheney, which is being billed as one of this fall's big books.

From the Worcester Telegram & Gazette: Jeffrey Marshall, archivist and special collections librarian at the University of Vermont, explains how he found mention of the 1830 abortion scandal that turned into his novel The Inquest.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Reviews of Obscure Books:
Maureen Peters, A Song for Marguerite

Peters, Maureen. A Song for Marguerite. London: Hale, 1984. 172pp.

Maureen Peters is an extremely prolific Welsh novelist. Under her real name, she writes mostly about royalty, though lately she's been writing Victorian gothic romances. As Catherine Darby (her best known pseudonym), she's written many gothic novels, mostly historical, from a variety of eras. I own nearly all her books though am missing a significant few. Peters is a strong storyteller, concentrating on the interpersonal relationships of royals and nobles. She can create a regal atmosphere using prose and dialogue alone, so much that you nearly forget that apart from descriptions of clothing (which I can't judge the accuracy of), there's almost no real historical detail. Her accuracy, with regard to people, locales, and events, is OK in places but far off in others, and in A Song for Marguerite, there are some genealogical mistakes - but more on that later.

When I stopped by my Robert Hale bookcase yesterday, this title popped out at me - and I couldn't resist reviewing it because I know Edward II has his online fans. It's also short; you can read it in an hour or two. Unfortunately for poor Marguerite, but fortunately for you ladies, A Song for Marguerite deals far more with the Edward II-Piers Gaveston relationship than it does with this little-known queen.

We first glimpse Marguerite as a ten-year-old princess living at the court of her brother, Philip IV of France. She knows she's plain and can never compete in the beauty department with her older sister, Blanche. When the English king's brother Edmund, called the "English duke" (what is he duke of? I believe he's the Earl of Lancaster), pays a visit to France to discuss a possible treaty, he tries to arrange Edward I's marriage to one of the royal daughters, probably Blanche, on condition that Gascony be part of her dower. Nothing happens in this regard for about five years (dates are very vague), at which point the Queen Mother decides that the bride will be Marguerite, not Blanche, who's already been promised to Austria. And a good thing for Marguerite, for she prefers an older, more stable man for a husband, even if he's over sixty, and is simply glad to marry at all. She also longs to live in England.

The basic historical story follows: Edward I and Marguerite are happy together, though he treats her more like a cosseted child than a wife. As Edward grows older, he becomes more condescending, waxing on about his adored first wife, Eleanor of Castile, and making it clear to Marguerite that she doesn't measure up in the brains department. Marguerite, though sweet and kind, remains remarkably naive throughout. To her credit, she goes out of her way to befriend her stepson, Ned, as well as his constant companion, Piers Gaveston, and defends their friendship almost to the point of absurdity; she refuses to believe anything improper about them.

Piers Gaveston is easily the most compelling character. He's very charismatic, and people are naturally drawn to him, even Edward I, who reluctantly makes him leave court when it becomes obvious he's a bad influence. Marguerite, too respectful of her much older husband to show her true self with him, can relax around Piers and open up to him about political matters and the royal court. One scene at Woodstock, where Marguerite and her children rest before she's summoned north to join the king in Scotland, is particularly revelatory. Much of an age, the two speak frankly about her marriage and laugh about Henry II and Rosamund Clifford, whose ghost was said to haunt the estate. To Marguerite, Piers jokingly reveals his cynicism about true love, using the earlier royal pair as an example: "'If Henry the Second were to haunt every chamber where he laid a woman,' says Piers, 'he'd have precious little time to spend in Heaven.'" Piers makes humorous asides such as this throughout the novel.

Ned appears as a blond, muscular youth who, to his father's dismay, prefers to spend his time on pursuits suitable for peasants - rowing, swimming, and, yes, thatching. And young Isabella, Marguerite's niece, is described as a beautiful, charming child who turns into a gorgeous young woman. She grows up in truth once she realizes Ned's true feelings toward Gaveston. The scene where she tries to explain the reasons behind her unhappy marriage to her very naive yet older aunt is both touching and sad.

Now to the genealogical mistakes. When puzzling out relationships between characters, Peters occasionally mixes up Marguerite's sister-in-law, Jeanne of Navarre, Queen of France (called by the English equivalent Jane for some odd reason), and her mother, Marie of Brabant, the queen dowager. For example, it's not Marie's mother who married Edmund of Lancaster as his second wife, but Jeanne's mother. Peters repeats this incorrect fact several times. Gaveston also never consummates his marriage or has children; wrong. And the historical background - well, it's lightly sketched, to put it mildly. Edward I does go on campaign to Scotland, and all sorts of nasty things get done to William Wallace (off-screen), but Marguerite doesn't like politics, so we don't see much else.

This is undoubtedly more screen-time than this brief novel deserves, but as the saying goes, if I'd had more time, I'd have made it shorter. It's a smooth, easy read that gives insight into some members of Edward II's circle, and completists will probably want to read it, though be on the alert for historical errors. There are more that I haven't mentioned, and probably others still that I didn't pick up on.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat

Believe it or not, some Winter 2008 catalogs are already out, so I've updated the HNS forthcoming books page with new novels from Simon & Schuster and Penguin through next May. I also added St. Martin's Press titles through December. Note that Penguin will publish three historicals next January with the word "serpent" in the title - by Suzanne Arruda, Ariana Franklin, and Bernard du Boucheron. Are you tempted?

Useless historical fiction fact du jour: Winter Serpent is the title of two older historical novels, one from Maggie Davis (about the Vikings) and another by Aileen Armitage (about Rasputin).

Looking at my Librarything account, there are an awful lot of historical novels with "serpent" in the title. Now we'll have three more.

Moving along, a few days ago I posted the August issue of Historical Novels Review Online and the ToC for the print HNR's August issue, which should be leaving the printer any day now, if it hasn't already done so.

As of yesterday I'm done with my historical mystery chapter, aside from assigning keywords to the annotations and revising the intro. I'll probably work on historical thrillers next, but with 95-degree temps all this week, I'm finding it hard to get motivated. I'm also awaiting more review books in the mail. The new Lian Hearn, which I hope will be here tomorrow, has my name on it.

Meanwhile, an ARC of Ken Follett's World Without End showed up yesterday, all 960-odd pages of it. It weighs 3 1/4 lbs.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick, part 2

For Part 1 of this interview, see yesterday's post.

I wonder if you can talk about the dialogue and speech patterns you created for Emma and the other Bethelites, because they feel very natural for people of their history and background.

Thank you for that! I didn't want to use dialect as I think it can detract from the flow of the story. I decided I'd use a few German words and phrases and focus on sentence structure. Many of those phrases I heard often from my own grandmother and great aunts and uncles. (Gee, you might even be able to see it my structure here!)

I love listening to people and trying to figure out where they came from regionally, and seem to have a good ear for small nuances in speech patterns. There is often a sentence construction unique to a region such as "Throw the horses over the fence some hay." That's a phrase I heard often in my German community. Most of us would say, "Throw the hay over the fence to the horses" or "Go feed the horses," but you can see the difference in word placement. I did use one phrase for the character named Jack where he'd say "I might could do that," something tentative. It was his marker. But when I asked my German linguist friend to read the text, he said I couldn't use that phrase because a German speaker learning English in Missouri wouldn't say that. My stomach dropped! He said only people from Texas, Mississippi, or maybe Arkansas would say "might could." But he told me I could say "Maybe could" so that's what I did.

Oh, and the books are being recorded unabridged, and I was asked if I wanted the reader to use a German accent throughout. I said no, that German is a difficult accent to hear over a long period of time. Unlike French, it tends to make the character harder over time instead of soft and flowing. I didn't want Emma seen that way. What I asked for in a reader was a woman whose voice could convey many emotional states and to use the sentence structure and the few German words in the text to convey that these were German-Americans. The production company hired an actress, and we spoke for an hour or more talking about certain words, phrasing, etc. She's going to be terrific!

In the Q&A at the back of A Clearing in the Wild, you mention that Emma's parents left their own religious tradition to follow Keil, yet their family had a tradition of questioning religious authority, and one of Emma's uncles served as ambassador to France. I admit I was used to thinking (maybe wrongly!) about utopian societies as isolationist and conformist, with minimal connections to the outside world. Could you speak some more about Emma's family background, and the appeal that the Bethel colony may have had for them and others?

I'm with you in thinking these utopian societies wanted to be isolationists. But what I learned in reading the historical context is that the 1700s in Europe were times of great tumult, often related to the suppression of religious freedom and the freedom of expression in general. Religious authorities became entrenched in rules and regulation over the spirit of belief. In the 1800s, many of these people made their way to North America, where they saw the hope of being able to worship without the rigidness of religious rule and without state interference, but they didn't see themselves as being isolated from their neighbors. In fact, Emma's family embraced the communal aspect of giving to the common fund, and everyone drawing from it as needed, as being a foundation of living a Christian life. “Love your neighbor as yourself” being one of the great commands of the New Testament.

We see the Mennonites settling western Canada then, for example. And this is when the Hueterittes, Shakers, Inspirationalists and others formed in the US, the early 1830s. But these groups discovered that there is a delicate balance between isolation and engagement. Faith communities today have similar struggles, really. Most of the communities needed economic interaction with their neighbors to survive. Some of the religious groups sought new recruits from the larger society but others simply wanted to be left to live in peace and support their families.

There is some evidence that Emma's grandfather, father and uncles might have been part of a group in Bavaria who petitioned the emperor about reforms and were banished as a result of this perceived disloyalty and challenge. They didn't see themselves as disloyal people. When they came under attack by their government, they fled. But they were accustomed to being followers, so it seems likely they'd seek another strong leader to follow who kept the faith, so to speak, but who didn't get caught up in rules and regulations. They found this person in George Rapp in Pennsylvania.
But leaders sometimes get taken with themselves! When this happened, Wilhelm Keil was one of the first to resist. When he broke away from George Rapp, Emma’s grandparents followed suit. Her father remained with Keil until the 1870s, but an uncle, the ambassador, did not. Correspondence suggests that the brothers remained close despite having chosen different paths, a sign of religious tolerance and engagement in the larger world through political means. Until Keil seemed to lose some of this egalitarian focus, Emma’s family faithfully followed him.

Do you have a preference for writing about historical as opposed to fictional characters, or do you go with whatever stories inspire you?

Joyce Carol Oates in a lecture I heard said one of the things a good story should do is to be a witness to voices that would otherwise not be heard. I'm drawn to actual historical people, often those whose stories have been overlooked in my mind. Women in particular. Native women, for example. Or in this instance a woman involved in a male-dominated religious community. But certain events also capture me. I'm always wanting to answer, "How did that happen?" or "What was she trying to do that got her there?" and then finally "What does her story have to say to a woman/man/community of today?"

I always loved biographies as a young reader. But while they answered what and when, they never answered why very well for me. Probably the mental health person in me seeking information. Fiction - story - allows that speculation. And from what my readers tell me, they find inspiration and encouragement in the lives of people who actually lived or in authentic fictional characters dealing with a particular historical challenge. It's become my "brand" as they say: Real stories, real people, real hope.

What do you hope readers will take away with them after finishing your novels?

That living in communities of all kinds requires the ability to change, to know when to stand firm and when to be flexible. That life is filled with challenge and uncertainty, and it's a mark of our character how we allow others to help us find new direction in a time of trial. That all of us need to have our voices heard. That grief has many siblings, and loss must be honored and witnessed to or it will hold us hostage. That engagement with community enriches the soul and contributes to the larger world even if all desires of one's heart are never fully met. That doing the best we can for our families without losing ourselves in the process is worthy work that has been going on especially for women for generations.

I once spoke to a group of second graders asking how they'd describe the word "powerful." To me it means being able to set a goal and then gather resources in order to achieve it. I think most of my stories are about how people did that back then, how ordinary people did that and what they have to teach us about doing that today. But the kids said things like "rich" or "strong" was what powerful meant. Then this one boy sitting quietly in the front said "Oh no. Powerful is when you want to quit but you keep going." I hope my readers find within themselves that kind of power through my stories.

Thank you, Jane - this has been fascinating!

To recap, A Clearing in the Wild was published by WaterBrook Press ($13.99, 370pp, 1578567343) in 2006, and A Tendering in the Storm ($13.99, 383pp, 9781578567355) in April 2007. Visit Jane's website at and her blog,, for more information.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick, part 1

Jane Kirkpatrick's Change and Cherish Historical Series traces the life of Emma Wagner Giesy, a German-American woman who became one of Oregon's earliest pioneers. Both the Wagners and the Giesys, Emma's parents and in-laws, belonged to the Bethelite colony, a utopian religious group in Bethel, Missouri, whose members believed in simple and communal living.

The first novel, A Clearing in the Wild (named a 2007 WILLA finalist last week), begins in 1851 and sees Emma's marriage to Christian Giesy, a kind man of her father's age who assists Wilhelm Keil, the Bethelites' founder, with the colony's leadership. Then Keil, believing that the outside world is encroaching too much on their lifestyle, decides to send a group of scouts, Christian included, on a mission to found a new settlement in the Pacific Northwest. Strong-willed Emma, who has always chafed against the restrictions against women in their sect, demands to accompany the group.

A Tendering in the Storm begins in 1856 and sees the Giesys settled with their young family along Willapa Bay in Washington State. Conflict arises when Keil arrives at Willapa with a second contingent of Bethelites, insisting that the land they have come to love is inhospitable. While Keil's group moves south to Oregon Territory to found a new colony, called Aurora Mills, the Giesys informally break away from the Bethelites. Then tragedy strikes, leaving a pregnant Emma to raise her family alone -- which makes her vulnerable to bad influences, including her husband's cousin, Jack.

All of the main characters are historical figures; character lists and maps are included. Both novels are lyrical, compelling, and inspiring reads, bringing to life a little-known woman from the mid-19th century who sought balance between her need for independence and her desire for community.

Jane, who like Emma is a native Midwesterner who settled in the Pacific Northwest, is an award-winning author of many historical sagas, mostly based on early women pioneers. A Clearing in the Wild was published by WaterBrook Press ($13.99, 370pp, 1578567343) in 2006, and A Tendering in the Storm ($13.99, 383pp, 9781578567355) in April 2007. Visit Jane's website at and her blog,, for more information.

You mention that you first found Emma's name in a quilting book. With so little information to go on, how did you begin researching her?

I contacted the author of the quilting book to find out where she got some of her information as a place to start. She sent me to the Aurora Colony. But the society was in a huge remodeling project, and it wasn't convenient to have me explore their archives then, so I pursued the Bethel angle. I located articles written about the colony, some in German, that my local librarian helped me get a translation of. I made contacts in Bethel, Missouri, found there was a historical society there as well, and posted on some genealogy sites that I was seeking information. That led me to Willapa Bay in Washington State, where the scouts of which Emma was a part first settled.

Census records were a gold mine. Territorial records gave me more details. At the Washington historical society, I gathered up copies of correspondence from the 1920s between descendants trying to identify all the scouts of this colony. Emma wasn't even included in the discussion! Well, that just encouraged me to go deeper, as she'd been overlooked in my mind. A passing comment to a photographic archivist at the state historical society introduced me to a specialist in communal studies who happened to live in the community Emma eventually moved to, the one with the remodeling project. He got me into the archives. The society ran an article about my interest, descendants contacted me, and from there... the rest is history, as we say.

Did you find the research process for this series any more challenging than for your other novels, given that the Bethelites were a German-speaking community?

Because the community lasted for more than twenty years and were the only communal society to really survive that long in the West, there were several non-fiction books that included sections about them. Some of these were written in German but had been translated into English already. When I located some descendants, I learned that they had many letters, in German, that they'd slowly been translating. There was a great day when we had a huge dining room table of some of the translated letters lying around. I happened to pick one up, read it and discover it was signed by Emma herself! Her great-nephew hadn't realized he had that letter... he'd been looking for letters from his great-grandfather. But overall, their German-speaking was less of an issue than researching my Tender Ties series based on the life of Marie Dorion, a Native American woman! Now that research had its challenges!

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Christmastime at the Wagners' home in the beginning of the first book. Where did you learn about these and other German-American traditions?

A book written in the late 1800s, in English, about several colonies included some of these tidbits. Another descendant wrote about the Bethel Colony as recent as the 1990s included a few more. I was fascinated that they celebrated Christmas so early in the morning or that they etched eggs with great beauty for Easter or other occasions such as births! And because their musical instruments were so unusual, the state historical society had done an article some years back about those. There were actual letters from the leader, too, that identified some of the traditions. Websites about German-speaking people offered up clues. I had German friends who own a B&B and taught me about German dishes and traditions.

My own heritage is German-American, and when I read about women recording their daily activities in those little almanacs "Bessie had her calf today" or "Rained four inches. Rivers flooding" I remembered my aunt doing that when I was a child. It's how the women kept their stories and often those almanacs of treasured data are not kept when a woman dies the way a journal might be. But for many busy women, those were her journals.

What made you decide to write this series in the first person, with Emma as principal narrator?

My own need for variety, I think in part. I'd done my last seven books in third person. Then, too, as I learned about how women's voices weren't often heard in this colony, I felt a greater need to explore what kind of a woman would be remembered through the generations and how she might have thought. First person allows a little more intimacy with the reader; but then the character has to be able to sustain that intimacy and fascination, too, for a first person trilogy so it was a challenge. I wanted people to like Emma, and yet she made some pretty puzzling decisions, or at least they seemed puzzling until I dug deeper into the historical records.

While A Clearing in the Wild is told exclusively from Emma's viewpoint, A Tendering in the Storm alternates between Emma, Wilhelm's wife Louisa, and Emma's sister Catherine Wagner. What made you decide to include two new viewpoints in the second book? Will we be seeing more of Louisa and Catherine in the third?

I wanted a way to tell about the trials of both women as wives of leaders and their challenges in two different sites. Since the story was being told through Emma's eyes, I couldn't put her 150 miles away in order to share what was happening in that offshoot colony in Oregon while she was in Washington Territory. And since some of the tension came from the reluctance of the Missourians to sell the property back there and join the leader in Oregon, I needed a way for Emma and Louisa Keil to know about that and used the epistolary format for that from Emma's sister, Catherine. In the draft, I actually had many more letters from Catherine, but my editors suggested we cut some of them back.

Plus, I knew that eventually all three women end up in Aurora, so I wanted to introduce the other two women's points of view in the second book to prepare for the final book, coming out in the spring of 2008. I also thought that three different people exploring the same events can remind us that the way we see the world is not the only way to see it.

Over the course of the two books, Emma is forced to reevaluate her feelings about the Bethelites, and Wilhelm Keil in particular. In the course of your own research and writing, did your feelings about either change from your initial impressions? Did you learn anything about either that surprised you?

Yes. I was pretty much not liking Wilhelm Keil during most of the first book. Then while writing the second I discovered the divorce petition Emma had filed thirty years after she left Washington State and the letter I mentioned earlier. That petition answered some family stories that had been confusing -- which included her first husband's death, then her remarriage to a cousin of his with the same last name! Both of these suggested that Wilhelm Keil had befriended her later on and made a safe haven for her. He even had a house built for her in Aurora. I also learned of the death of four of his and Louisa's children of smallpox, and some of his behavior after that softened me to him. And I saw Louisa as a strong woman in her own way, and she stayed with him so there had to be something there.

I had made him a pretty hard person in the first book, so I had to find a way to make him less so, or Emma would not have rejoined the main colony. She didn't do so for several years, and that needed an explanation too. And then there was one final surprise I had to weave in for the third book that I won't reveal here. It was another puzzle I had to work out.

Part 2 of the interview with Jane Kirkpatrick will be posted tomorrow!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

My view from the PC, and short takes

This is the latest version of the bookshelf to the left of my PC, as of last week; I like to change the display every so often to reflect new purchases and pretty covers. It's already changed a bit since then.

On this slow Sunday morning, we're expecting another day of 90 degrees, which means I'll probably be out on the porch most of the day, alternately reading and trying not to fall asleep, though we may go up to Champaign later.

I haven't posted any reviews in a while, and these books deserve longer writeups, but I figured short takes were better than nothing. Most of the other recent reads on my sidebar will appear in a future NoveList column.

Molly Brown, Invitation to a Funeral (St. Martin's, 1999, c1995). Restoration playwright Aphra Behn takes the stage as amateur detective. She scours all of London to discover the murderers of two brothers who kindly arranged a funeral for her father, who died aboard a ship en route to Surinam with her and her mother fourteen years earlier. This madcap adventure presents a who's-who of Restoration England, for nearly everyone of importance (Nell Gwyn, Samuel Pepys, Louise de Keroualle, and of course the rakish Earl of Rochester) makes an appearance, save Charles II himself. Brown has a gift for comedy: Aphra tries and fails to teach a beautiful empty-headed thespian how to act, and Louise de Keroualle, publicly on a hunger strike in despair over the loss of the king's affections, secretly raids the royal kitchens after dark. Great fun. This appears to be Brown's only novel. What ever happened to her?

Marjorie Eccles, The Shape of Sand (St. Martin's, 2006). In 1946, while her family's former country estate of Charnley is being renovated for new owners, construction workers uncover letters and a diary belonging to Harriet Jardine's mother, Beatrice, who disappeared after a house party in 1910. Harriet and her two sisters, teenagers at the time, believed the gossip that Beatrice ran off with her half-Egyptian lover, whom she'd met on a visit to Egypt seven years earlier. The truth is none so simple, as the sisters learn when workers uncover a mummified woman's body behind Charnley's walls. Scenes shift between the postwar and Edwardian periods, with glimpses of Egypt as seen through Beatrice's journal. Readers expecting a traditional mystery may find it moves at a languorous pace, and there is no formal detective, just a gradual uncovering of the mystery. Yet it's a gripping character study that makes you wonder how well it's possible to know someone.

Melanie Gifford, The Gallows Girl (Piatkus, 2006). I bought this novel from Book Depository purely based on the blurb, as I'd heard nothing about it elsewhere. This is a shame, because despite having no "marquee names," it's an atmospheric story with a completely unpredictable plot. In 18th-century Hampshire, Isaac and Harriet Curtis run a coaching inn, Green Gallows, along a major thoroughfare to London. They raise their elder daughter, Lucy, to be a lady, hoping to find her a rich husband, while they treat their other daughter, Rachel, more like a servant. Fifteen-year-old Rachel has always loved working the stable yard, and ignores her unkempt appearance, though can't help feeling jealous of the attention Lucy receives. When rumors of a new toll road reach Green Gallows, Isaac fears for their livelihood and takes action, selling off Lucy into marriage to an odious, wealthy older man. And that's only the beginning. Most remarkably, though the setting rarely leaves Hampshire early on, it never feels claustrophobic, and it introduced me to a richly described world of financial struggles amongst the rising middle classes in small-town Georgian England. This dark, suspenseful novel of power, obsession, and revenge is also a very unusual coming-of-age story.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bits and pieces from the web

Simon & Schuster emailed earlier to announce a live web event featuring Philippa Gregory that will be broadcast on Sunday, September 16th, at 2pm EST. Details here:

Philippa Gregory LIVE will feature a live simulcast streamed through the Internet of Gregory speaking to an audience in London. She will discuss her historical research; writing process; her latest novel, The Boleyn Inheritance; the upcoming major motion picture based on The Other Boleyn Girl; her next novel, The Other Queen; and much more. Throughout the one-and-a-half-hour long event, online attendees will have the opportunity to ask Philippa their own questions and interact with other fans and book clubs.
You can sign up at and get a reminder in your email with login directions when the date draws closer. I vaguely recall that this is a weekend date I signed up to work the reference desk; I hope I'm wrong.

From Smart Bitches, Trashy Books comes this article by Pam Jenoff, author of The Kommandant's Girl, on the vagaries of genre classification. Her novel was nominated for a Quill (it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly) in the romance category, and the PW review called it "historical romance at its finest," yet it's not really a romance by definition. The novel itself - not to mention its title and cover art - have gone through several iterations, mainstream to romance to mainstream again, before final publication.

And then we have the UK cover, which keeps the same title yet shows an embracing couple from the WWII years; decidedly more romantic, which may have helped it become a bestseller there. I can't help but remember the frilly, sentimental UK cover of Michael Wallner's April in Paris, which features another embracing couple. Yet if readers pick up that novel expecting a traditional romance (rather than a fairly dark thriller with a love story on the side), they'll be quite surprised.

Finally, something every household needs: possessed books. Amuse your friends, scare your enemies. (And your cats.)

Alice Borchardt, 1939-2007

Just read on RRA-L (the soon-to-be-defunct list Romance Readers Anonymous) that historical novelist Alice Borchardt, sister of Anne Rice, passed away last week, July 24th, of cancer. Word hasn't really gotten out yet otherwise, I don't think, though her Wikipedia entry has been updated with the news. The next novel in her Guinevere series had been listed on Amazon UK for a while, but it was removed some time ago; apparently due to her ill health, she wasn't able to complete it.

I'd never gotten around to reading her novels, though I own copies of them all. Her obituary is in the Houston Chronicle.

Things may be quiet around here as I try to get my historical mystery chapter completed (I'm almost done, and it's - sigh - quite long), but I'll be posting the first part of my interview with Jane Kirkpatrick next Monday.