Monday, March 31, 2008

Those old-timey covers

While I was sitting watching Dancing with the Stars tonight, an email came in from my dad, who alerted me to an eBay seller's historical fiction listings. His name looked familiar, so I checked around and remembered I used to get his catalogs when I was in high school and undergrad (Pandora's Books). They were large format, newspaper style, very tiny print.

Anyway, take a look at the listings if you want to see many more examples of 1950s-70s style historical novel covers, such as the one on the left. I own many of the books in other editions, so I'm not really tempted to bid, but it looks like everything starts at 99 cents if you're so inclined.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

On how to pen compelling book reviews

Like many of you, I'm sure, I read about the Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing from Tuesday's Paper Cuts (the NYT's book blog). Since reading all that snark puts me in a rather snarky mood, I can't resist pointing out that the phrase "startling predictability" sounds like an oxymoron. And "pen" used in the sense of "write" is a perfectly acceptable verb, and has been for about five centuries. That doesn't mean people shouldn't sometimes eschew it for a simpler word (sorry).

On the other hand, I would be happy if I never saw the word "chthonic" in a book review again. (Of course, now that you know what it means, you may want to use it in a sentence yourself. Right?)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Karen Swee, historical mystery novelist

(cross-posted from the HNS e-list, with modifications...)

HNS just received word of the death of Karen Swee, a longtime HNS member. She was the author of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Murder (Bridge Works, 2004), a mystery set in New Jersey during the American Revolution. Some of you may remember her from the Salt Lake conference in 2005… Karen enthusiastically moderated a panel on researching the historical novel.

Here are a photo of Karen and two fellow historical novelists at the event and her obituary from the Newark Star-Ledger.

Karen's husband David emailed with the following remembrance, which I thought I'd share.

Karen H. Swee, author of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of MURDER, passed away suddenly in March. Karen's first novel was highly regarded by scholars of the American Revolution as well as the general reader, and many of them were eagerly awaiting the sequel she had been working on. Karen was a wonderful addition to the mystery and historical novel communities, enthusiastic and always eager to help her fellow writers. She had that rare gift of empathy--the ability to understand and reflect other people’s feelings. This gift made her not only a fine writer, but also a cherished companion and friend. She will be deeply missed.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Does this look familiar? and other news

The weekend is finally here, after a 6-day work week that included two late-night shifts and one Sunday... My annual evaluation portfolio is done, the book reviews that are in have been edited; I'm hoping I can get back to reading.

My gallery of reusable cover art saw a considerable increase in traffic on Tuesday, after the Smart Bitches linked me; check out the comments on their post, too, for some interesting discussions on the reuse of art (specifically classic paintings) on historical fiction covers. I've added half a dozen new entries to the gallery since then, thanks to some eagle-eyed readers who spotted yet more dupes and emailed me about them. (Thanks, folks!)

A reader from Australia notified me about the reuse of La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1814) on two different book covers, but neither one was from a historical novel, so it's not included in the gallery... yet. I swear I've seen this painting before on historical fiction, though. Does it ring a bell with anyone?

If so, let me know and I'll credit you in the gallery.

Other random bits and pieces:

If you've been thinking about joining the HNS but haven't gotten around to it, March may be a good time; readers from North America who join or renew during March will be entered into a drawing to receive either Nicole Galland's Crossed or Tasha Alexander's A Poisoned Season, courtesy of HarperCollins. We have five copies of each to give away.

The next Historical Novel Society conference in North America will take place on June 12-14, 2009, at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield in Schaumburg, IL. Mark your calendars if you plan to attend; speakers and registration info will be announced at a later time.

Kelly Hewitt of Loaded Questions told me she'll be publishing an interview with Judith Merkle Riley in the near future, and holding a giveaway for copies of The Serpent Garden, which I reviewed about a month ago... watch her blog for details.

This year I'm planning on attending BookExpo Canada rather than the usual American show, so I'll be in Toronto from June 12-16, networking with Canadian publishers, attending workshops, and visiting a couple friends. If anyone reading this is also attending or will be in town then, let me know! I'll be back at BEA next year, when it's in NYC.

Now on to some publishing deals.

DeAnna Cameron's THE BELLY DANCER, set during the 1893 Chicago Worlds' Fair, in which a sheltered young woman's marriage and attempts to enter high society are threatened by a scheming widow with designs on her husband and by her fascination with the Fair's scandalous Egyptian dancers and their handsome, mysterious manager, to Jackie Cantor at Berkley, by Ellen Pepus.

Shawna Yang Ryan's LOCKE 1928, which weaves history and mythology around a community of Chinese immigrants in a small California town in 1928, exploring the lives of a beautiful young prostitute in love with the preacher's daughter; a husband and wife mysteriously reunited after ten years; a lovesick brothel owner who can see into the past and the future, and the ghosts haunting them all, to Jane Fleming at Penguin Press, at auction, by Daniel Lazar at Writers House. [HNR covered this in late 2007, based on its original publication by a small press. Very nice review.]

Beth Kery's TEMPTATIONS OF TIME, a present day detective travels back in time to 1906 Chicago in order to save the woman featured in a set of discovered erotic photographs from being murdered, to Leis Pederson at Berkley Heat, in a nice deal, in a two-book deal, by Laura Bradford at Bradford Literary Agency.

John Pipkin's WOODSBURNER, chronicling the lives of a lovesick Norwegian immigrant farm hand, a struggling bookseller, a fire and brimstone preacher, and a pencil maker named Henry David Thoreau as their stories intersect over a fire Thoreau accidentally set which burned 800 acres near Walden Pond, moved with Janet Silver to Nan A. Talese, in a good deal, in a pre-empt, by Marly Rusoff at Marly Rusoff & Associates.

Rory Clements' MARTYR, a first historical thriller pitched as in the vein of CJ Sansom, about John Shakespeare, chief intelligencer to Queen Elizabeth, ordered to protect England's "sea dragon" Francis Drake from an assassination plot, to Kate Miciak at Bantam Dell, by Patty Moosbrugger at Patricia Moosbrugger Literary Agency.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bermuda book report

This blog has been silent for the past week and a half because Mark and I took a short vacation to Bermuda -- the first major non-conference-related trip we've taken in four years. Bermuda had pretty much everything we expected: warm temperatures, good food, beautiful beaches...

Colorful houses...

Gorgeous sunsets...

And, of course, a few bookstores here and there.

Directly above is the Bermuda Book Store, on the corner of Front and Queen Streets in downtown Hamilton, and fortunately a short walk from our hotel. Note the mopeds out front (one of the primary modes of transportation). Bermuda isn't exactly a book-hunter's paradise, as the bookstores are pretty small, and there are few bargains to be had. Everything's imported, and American titles that normally sell for $7.99 in the States were marked up to $10 or more.

On the other hand, since Bermuda's a British overseas territory, the shops stock a nice mix of British and American titles. I took advantage of this by doing some shopping, buying the latest historicals (paperbacks) by Kate Tremayne, E.V. Thompson, and Janet Woods. I also bought a giant trade pb of Mary Gentle's Ilario for my airplane reading home. To my disappointment, I couldn't find any British hardcovers at all, probably due to the price.

The Bermuda Book Store is about the size of an airport bookstore. Rather larger was The Bookmart, a couple of blocks away on Front Street, which was more the size of a mall Waldenbooks. We visited a couple of other shops out at the Dockyards and in St. George, but both were on the small side.

To the left is a newspaper clipping of author Terry Tucker doing a signing of Woman Into Wolf, a historical novel about Queen Isabella (you can guess which one) at the Bookmart on July 14, 1968. I only know this because I own a signed copy, and Tucker had written in the date. The purchaser had apparently cut out the related newspaper piece and included it in the book. Sometime in the intervening forty years, that copy made it to an online British bookseller, from whom I bought it several years ago. According to the "about the author" blurb, Terry Tucker, born on the Isle of Wight, married a Bermudian and made the island her permanent home, after which she spent her days writing local books on "every aspect of Bermuda life." As well as historical novels about English queens.

I probably should have made Woman Into Wolf my airplane reading on the trip down, to complete the book's journey back to its home, but I didn't think of it at the time.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

And the winner is...

... Betty, who submitted her entry for the Pinkerton's Secret drawing over email. Betty, I'll be in touch with you shortly to get your mailing address. Hope you enjoy the book, and thanks to all who entered!

This is all I have time to post at the moment, but I'll be back next week with info on forthcoming books, deals, reviews, and more of the usual.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Guest blogger: Eric Lerner, author of Pinkerton's Secret

Today Eric Lerner is visiting Reading the Past to talk about his debut historical novel, Pinkerton's Secret (Henry Holt, $25.00, 317pp) , which will officially be released tomorrow. In it, he gives voice to Allan Pinkerton, a Scots-born detective and spy who relocates to downtown Chicago in the pre-Civil War years and opens America's first private detective agency. No doubt you've heard of it, and him. Pinkerton's good at what he does, and knows it - he'll tell you himself - but nothing prepares him for what happens after Mrs. Kate Warne stops by his agency in response to a help-wanted ad...

The topic of Eric's post - how he created a story out of historical facts, and how he developed his protagonist's narrative voice - is something of potential interest to both historical novelists and readers. We've also got another contest and giveaway opportunity; see the very end of this post for directions on how to enter.

Ten years ago, while browsing the new arrivals shelf at my public library, I spotted a biography of Allan Pinkerton. The name conjured up images of wraiths in long black coats hunting down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and crushing striking steel workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. What I discovered instead was a man who contradicted the myths, but whose life created one of those tantalizing historical mysteries that can only be unraveled in the imaginative realm of fiction.

Pinkerton, I learned, was not just America’s original Private Eye, nabbing forgers, railroad thieves, and confidence men, he was a political radical who had fought for the rights of working men and women in his native Scotland, and then became passionately involved in Abolitionism when he arrived in America. In the 1850s his home in Chicago was a station on the Underground Railroad, and he counted John Brown and Frederick Douglass among his close friends. On Abraham Lincoln’s railway journey to his inauguration in 1861, Pinkerton saved the president-elect from an assassination plot in Baltimore. During the Civil War, he established the first Secret Service, hunting down rebel spies in Washington and sending his agents behind Confederate lines.

In all of these adventures, the biographer informed me, Allan Pinkerton was ably assisted by Mrs. Kate Warne, the first female detective, whom he’d hired when he first started his detective agency in 1856. The biographer assured me that despite the rumors at the time, Pinkerton’s relationship to the “attractive widow” was strictly professional.

Strictly professional? When I stopped laughing, I realized I might have a great story.

I read all the other biographies of Pinkerton, as well as Allan’s own autobiographical account of his exploits in the Civil War, “The Spy of the Rebellion.” I obtained a rare copy of Kate Warne’s actual logbooks, recounting how she accompanied Lincoln on the secret train from Philadelphia to thwart the Baltimore assassins. But I couldn’t find any clue to an involvement between Pinkerton and the female detective that wasn’t strictly professional...

Then I came upon a photo of Pinkerton’s grave. Buried on one side is his wife, and on the other, just over his shoulder, Kate Warne rests for all eternity. None of his biographers had mentioned that fact.

I began to wonder if the novelist does not have a better opportunity than the historian does to uncover certain truths that are buried in the available documents known as the historical record. As a writer of fiction I could easily imagine that Allan Pinkerton, a detective by profession who literally invented the modus operandi of investigative disguises, would go to great lengths to disguise himself in order to protect his professional reputation while he was alive as well as for posterity.

As I reread over and over Pinkerton’s accounts of his own exploits, and the biographies that drew strongly on his accounts, I put together a chronology of Allan Pinkerton and Kate Warne’s whereabouts during the period of two years when Pinkerton’s exploits became the stuff of legend. They were side by side for the whole time. Moreover, it was clear to me that Pinkerton faced enormous opposition from clients, many of his male employees, and members of his own family for employing Kate Warne as well as an entire bureau of female detectives under her direction.

The story that emerged in my mind was not just about the nature of the real relationship between Allan and Kate, but the nature of their deception. This was a story that could only be constructed in fiction, because the real life protagonists had constructed a fiction of their own to hide their actions from the world.

Once I had constructed the plot of this story, I was faced with the challenge of how to tell it. For me, every novel is a unique universe whose internal rules don’t have to conform to any other universe, but have to be entirely consistent within itself. For reasons I can’t quite explain, even though the events in Pinkerton’s life are not well known, I found myself bound to the real historical occurrences. If Pinkerton actually got on a train from Baltimore to New York City in February of 1861, accompanied by Kate Warne, to warn Lincoln of the impending attack on his life, then Allan and Kate had to take that train in my novel.

But what occurred between them on that train?

There is no historical account left by either one of them. It is a blank space. The blank spaces I identified were the places where I could construct my characters, where the words, thoughts and motivations of Pinkerton and Kate Warne could take shape.

But there are other characters in this story, and some of them are well known historical personages. The novel wouldn’t be complete in my mind without Abraham Lincoln. Yet Lincoln is such an American icon that the task of re-creating him in fiction was daunting at first.

Before I could deal with Abraham Lincoln, however, I had a bigger problem to solve. While I could see the story, I couldn’t hear it, and every attempt I made to tell it sounded false to me. Then one night I was awakened at three a.m. by the voice of Allan Pinkerton. Late in his life he had suffered a devastating stroke, and here is how he described it to me:
Most people don’t think being paralyzed hurts, because they can stick people pins in you and you don’t feel anything. But as I’ve made abundantly clear, most people are utter morons.
It was the voice I had encountered in his letters and the directives that poured out of the office of The General Superintendent of The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a voice that brooked no opposition or tolerance for anyone who did not understand, as he did, the difference between right and wrong, and was willing to fight for it.

It was the only voice that could narrate his own story, defend the choices he had made in his battles and his love affair. He would defend his actions to himself as much as to his readers, and to others whose identities would become known only at the end of his story.

Pinkerton the narrator also gave me a free hand to characterize Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Rose Greenhow—The Wild Rose of the Confederacy, and Frederick Douglass, among others. Allan Pinkerton knew these men women and if he wants to tell the world that Abraham Lincoln was a ninny, he was free to say so, and elaborate. After all, it is his memoir.

It took me a full decade to work through the several versions and many drafts of the novel until I completed the final one with a great editor, Jack Macrae at Henry Holt & Co. If you want to check out an intriguing representation of the novel in words and images, go to the website:


After graduating from Harvard College with a degree in Sanskrit and Indian Philosophy, Eric Lerner spent several years traveling and living in Buddhist monasteries and communities in Asia and America. He wrote a memoir about his experiences, Journey of Insight Meditation. For several years he edited Zero, a journal that presented Buddhist thinkers alongside original work by Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and the Pulitzer Prize winning poet John Ashbery, among others. This arcane background served him well during his subsequent twenty year career as a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. His films include Bird on a Wire, starring Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn; Kiss The Sky, starring William Petersen and Terrence Stamp; and Augustus, starring Peter O’Toole and Charlotte Rampling. Pinkerton’s Secret is his first novel.

And from Sarah, again: Thanks, Eric, for stopping by!

Eric will be providing an autographed copy of Pinkerton's Secret to a randomly selected reader of the blog. (The drawing's limited to American readers this time.) To enter, either leave a comment on this post, or drop me an email at with "Pinkerton's Secret" as the subject. Deadline is the end of the day this Thursday, March 6th; I'll notify the winner later that evening. Good luck!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Not that good of a movie.

Sorry for not blogging more often lately. The usual reasons apply - work, deadlines, other commitments, and I haven't had time to read much, either. And my poor neglected manuscript - good thing I'm ahead of schedule on that.

Mark and I went to see The Other Boleyn Girl last night up in Savoy, something I considered a professional obligation. While I can write a decent book review, I won't even make the attempt to do a full-fledged writeup of a film… besides, I think the NY Times review speaks for itself. So, instead, I'll point out a few thoughts that occurred to me while watching, and since.

Here Be Spoilers, below. You've been warned.


While walking into the theater, I was surprised to note how crowded it was (this hardly ever happens with period pieces shown in area cinemas) and how most of the audience consisted of high-school and college-age girls. I was pleased to see so much interest in historical topics (and Gregory's novel in particular) from a younger crowd, although their reactions to certain scenes made it clear they didn't know much about the characters or period, and that most hadn't read the novel. For example, the audience gasped loudly when the suggestion of possible incest between Anne Boleyn and her brother, George, was raised - which anyone who'd read the book would have known.

Despite this supposedly shocking moment, the film does play it safe, more so than Gregory's novel did, and not just in that instance. Johansson's Mary Boleyn = meek, quiet, and biddable; Portman's Anne = outspoken, witty, daring, and ambitious. Making them polar opposites simplifies things, and rendered the movie superficial. Gregory's version of Mary was more well-rounded, and therefore more interesting; I found it hard to root for either sister, despite it being blatantly obvious that their father and uncle were using them to fulfill their own ambitions ("pimping them out" is the phrase the NYT review used, and rather aptly).

The pacing was very uneven; Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon flashes by within minutes. The film moves very quickly from Anne's pressuring him into breaking with the church, to Catherine's protests to the Pope, to Anne's being crowned, whereas Mary's life as (and adjustment to being) his mistress takes up the entire first half. Furthermore, what happens to William Carey, Mary's first husband? In one scene, King Henry, while in bed with Mary, asks her teasingly if she'd mind if he sent her husband away from court. Carey's never mentioned again, although one assumes (in the film) that he died, because William Stafford indicates his interest in her not long after. This is reminiscent of soap operas in which a child who's become superfluous to the storyline gets sent off to boarding school, whereupon *poof* he's erased from their universe entirely. Maybe in the director's cut on DVD, we'll find out about William's untold demise, as well as the mysterious third child running around in the English countryside in the final scene (which parallels the three Boleyn siblings, shown running around in the same field in the film's opening). One's Mary's son, presumably; the other's Princess Elizabeth (because Mary Boleyn flees the court with her!). Mary never gives birth to daughter Catherine in the movie, so who knows.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Elizabeth Boleyn) and Ana Torrent (Catherine of Aragon) play their roles with conviction, stealing every scene they're in. Natalie Portman, of the three leads, does the most believable job; Johansson portrays Mary rather limpidly. Bana is attractive enough, but the role doesn't suit him. Elements of foreshadowing (visceral scenes of cleavers chopping meat, just as King Henry first arrives at the Boleyn home for a royal visit) were cheap and silly. Pretty costumes; some stunning imagery of riders along the English coastline at twilight; lots of drama and intrigue, at the expense of character, but about what I expected.

Even considering its own slant on the events, the book was more enjoyable. Perhaps I should have seen The Other Boleyn Film instead, aka the TV miniseries; I understand it was better.