Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Devil's Glove, set in Maine in 1688, reveals the historical backstory to the Salem witchcraft trials

"John Alden says that for some, fear is profit. My mother says that for many, fear is purpose. The union of the two is deadly. An unholy marriage indeed."

Back in 2002, I read Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare, her nonfiction book about the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials. This groundbreaking text demonstrated connections between the victims and accusers dating back to their earlier lives on the violent frontier of northern New England (now Maine).

Lucretia Grindle mines this same rich vein of research in The Devil’s Glove, first in a promised trilogy about Salem and the circumstances that led to the tragedies, a time when the Devil was said to walk in Massachusetts.

The story has a mix of fictional and real-life characters, including Captain John Alden, above (son of the Mayflower passenger of the same name). While Salem history buffs will perk up at some of the other names, I won’t spoil the details for readers who haven’t heard of them – aside from saying that the heroine, seventeen-year-old Resolve Hammond, is the author’s invention. She and her mother, Deliverance, a native of the Channel Island of Jersey, are herbalists who tend to the village women of the tiny settlement of Falmouth. They live alone, with Resolve’s father away for two years on a trading mission.

In 1688, when the local minister calls for Mistress Hammond to tend to Goodwife Hobbs, a dying woman, Resolve’s mother whispers to herself, “Why did they not use charcoal?” She quickly recognizes what others don’t – that Avis Hobbs, who is with child, was poisoned – and she wonders why the antidote wasn’t used. Unfortunately, it’s too late to save the poor woman. The Hammonds secretly suspect that Abigail Hobbs, the victim’s oddly unchildlike ten-year-old daughter, dispensed the poison, but who would believe them?

The Devil’s Glove isn’t a crime novel or a thriller, although Grindle’s previous novels fit these genres. I’d call it a historical novel with strong overtones of psychological suspense that arise naturally from the milieu. The author knows the forces that motivate people to commit dark deeds, particularly the fear that gripped the populace in this remote place. The Indians who attacked the villagers years beforehand, the French, the Catholics – all are seen as threats to the Puritan community. For this reason, Resolve and her mother, who sheltered with the sachem Ashawonks and her people during King Philip’s War, keep their knowledge, affinities, and French ancestry to themselves.

With firm roots in the complex historical politics of the region, this is an atmospheric read with a haunting sense of place and unsettling twists in the character arcs. You don’t have to be a Salem witch aficionado to read the book, but if you are, you’ll appreciate the detailed backstory to the infamous events that happened there.

The Devil's Glove was published by Casa Croce Press in May. I picked it out from NetGalley as a Read Now title.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Crow Mary by Kathleen Grissom evokes the viewpoint of a heroic Indigenous woman in 19th-century North America

Through fiction, authors can grant little-known historical figures a deserving spotlight. Revealing the astonishing heroism of an Indigenous woman she’s wanted to write about for years, Grissom’s luminous third novel accomplishes this superbly.

In 1872, sixteen-year-old Goes First of the Crow people agrees to marry a “Yellow Eyes” (white) fur trader named Abe Farwell. The alliance benefits her tribe, and he needs a Native wife to help make his planned trading post successful.

The narrative delves into the trying realities of their cross-cultural marriage, which begins so promisingly. They relocate from Montana to western Canada’s Cypress Hills, where “Crow Mary” (her English name) single-handedly rescues five Nakoda women from a violent, drunken gang following a horrific massacre, an event with momentous repercussions.

Via her eloquent first-person voice, readers experience her world intimately: family life, nature’s changing seasons (early October is “the moon when the redwing blackbirds gather”), and the vast cultural differences she encounters. Through many trials and heartbreaking indignities, Goes First remains true to herself in this empathetic, indelible portrait of courage and integrity.

Crow Mary was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster on June 6th. I wrote this review for Booklist's historical fiction issue, which came out on May 15. The real Crow Mary's great-granddaughter wrote the foreword to the novel. This is Grissom's third historical novel, after The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Sandra Worth's epic novel Tomorrow We Will Know presents the swan song of imperial Constantinople

Sandra Worth has established a literary career around historical novels about real people during the Wars of the Roses and early Tudor period. Now, ten years after the publication of her last book, she pivots partly around the world with a stunningly detailed historical epic about the final years of imperial Constantinople in the mid-15th century.

All three of the main characters once lived, although one whose early life isn’t well documented is given a different name (you can read more in the comprehensive author’s note).

At first glance, Zoe Notaras has an illustrious life ahead: she’s the beautiful auburn-haired daughter of a high-ranking noble family in the Eastern Roman Empire, her father is immeasurably wealthy, she’s a talented musician, and she’s well-versed in literature. But she has the misfortune to be her mother’s least favorite child, for reasons she doesn’t know, and since childhood she’s had a crush on Constantine of Mistras, the emperor’s younger brother and heir, who’s destined for a marriage of state.

Constantine, over twenty years older than Zoe, has been widowed twice and bears a heavy mental load after his brother dies and he ascends the imperial throne. Though bolstered by fortified walls, Constantinople’s geographic position makes it vulnerable to attack by the Ottoman Empire; the city is also heavily reliant on outside support. Also, with his people bitterly divided about potential union with the Pope in Rome, Constantine XI finds himself in a no-win situation with a dwindling range of options.

The historical circumstances are nimbly revealed through the characters’ experiences. Although undoubtedly devoted to his country, and to Zoe – whose love he eventually returns – Constantine makes several key misjudgments and fears that a famous prophecy (implying his reign will be the empire’s last) will hold true. The arrival of a Genoese nobleman named Justiniani Longo who vows to defend Constantinople seems the answer to his prayers, but Justiniani falls in love with Zoe, complications ensue.

Worth has devoted extraordinary attention to her settings, creating a banquet for the senses on the page, from the glittering palace d├ęcor to the lemon-scented breeze along the shoreline. Zoe may seem somewhat idealized at times, but she remains easy to root for; her main fault is that she’s too trusting and romantically inclined, which leaves her unable to see flaws in others. The 53-day siege of Constantinople, which extends through much of the book’s second half, takes you step by step through the military decisions of both Constantine’s forces and those of Mehmet, the Ottoman Empire’s young and ruthless sultan – and their personal consequences.

Replete with human passions and deep-rooted courage, Tomorrow We Will Know brings readers front and center into a major turning point in history.

The novel was independently published in February; thanks to the author for the e-copy.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

State of the historical fiction industry: a report on this #HNS2023 conference panel

In between numerous work commitments, I’ve been spending the last week attending (virtually) the Historical Novel Society’s conference, which has been taking place in person down in San Antonio, Texas, and via Zoom. I was up bright and early on Saturday morning for the 8am State of the State: Publishing in All Its Forms panel, aka the editor/agent panel – in which four representatives from the industry responded to questions about trends and current issues in historical fiction relating to traditional publication. The panelists were Amy Durant, editorial director at Sapere Books in London; Shannon Hassan, agent at the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency; Marcy Posner, agent at Folio Literary Management; and Mitchell Waters, agent at Brandt & Hochman, all of whom work with historical novelists. The moderator was author Maryka Biaggio, HNS conference board member and editor/agent liaison.

This was a plenary session, very well-attended in person, and with around 70 virtual attendees at the highest point. While the panelists were enthusiastic about historical fiction and its potential to reach readers, the overall tone relating to the industry was sobering. Publishers are understaffed, and aside from a few chosen titles, books aren’t getting the editorial or marketing attention they used to. Agents are overworked and taking on additional tasks to get authors the support they need. Authors should get their manuscripts in as close to publishable shape as possible before submitting their work. They should also realize that they’ll need to take on many marketing activities themselves.

With all that said, let’s look in more detail at what was discussed on the panel.

Regarding trends in historical fiction: Mitchell Waters feels authors should write the book they need to write but also look around at what’s being published currently: “If you haven’t seen any books on a certain period, ask yourself why that is.” It’s hard to anticipate trends, but there are enduring themes and topics. He’s found that some editors are reluctant to go back too far in time with historicals, like before the mid-19th century. Marcy Posner said it’s hard to chase trends because they will change, and editors can be fickle; she echoed Waters’ comments that authors should write that they want and write it well. Amy Durant looks for consistently popular subjects: Tudor, medieval, Victorian, and military fiction (naval and aviation). Shannon Hassan underscored the importance of contemporary relevance for historical fiction subjects, using an example of recent novels about the Trojan War.

Mitchell Waters and Shannon Hassan speaking on the editor/agent panel at HNS

What about World War II? This question has reappeared at the last several conferences. I dare say many of the attendees were curious whether it was still hot or not. Waters admitted to feeling fatigue with the number of submissions dealing with WWII and the Holocaust, and there was a sense that some publishers were pulling back from the era, but with this topic and others, he emphasized the importance of a fresh approach: that there must be something to interest readers other than the quality of the writing.

On editing and marketing: it’s definitely the case (as mentioned by Marcy Posner) that less effort is being placed on these aspects by publishers, compared to years past. Some top books receive a great deal of attention, while others don’t; publishers are making choices about which titles to devote most of their time to. Authors and their agents must pick up the slack. Shannon Hassan said that coming to this conference gives authors a great start (my own thoughts on this: it can help them not only learn the craft but establish a network that helps them navigate the industry). Mitchell Waters noted that he has to spend less time on revisions with authors, that they need to have their books “closer to ready to go.” He cited an example where he once spent 18 months getting a manuscript ready for publication, but he can no longer do that since the volume of work has “increased exponentially.” He described a manuscript he missed out on acquiring (and which later got a good book deal), which he regrets, because he was too busy. Shannon Hassan echoed that she doesn’t have time to provide detailed feedback on queries, and it may not even be appropriate if she doesn’t fall in love with a book. Marcy Posner echoed this, saying she’s now doing the job of five people (relating to editing, marketing, counseling authors, etc.). The gist: editors and agents are swamped, something authors should keep in mind when querying.

Maryka Biaggio then asked the panelists about the issue of cultural appropriation – writing outside your own ethnicity – which generated conversation in the virtual chat room. The topic comes up frequently at HNS conferences; audience members have asked the same question of speakers at this conference, and I also remember it being asked at the in-person 2019 conference and the virtual event in 2021. The responses from industry representatives have been consistent, and I agree with the Zoom chat comment that it feels like writers (those not from the cultural group they want to write about) keep asking the question as if they’re hoping for a different response.

From Amy Durant: it’s important for writers to be sensitive to these issues, do their research, think carefully about their characters, and also question whether they’re the best person to be telling this story. Mitchell Waters tackled the issue from a marketing standpoint as well, in asking writers to consider if people will be interested in them as the author of the book, if the characters’ experiences are too far away from their own. Generally: write the best story you can, do diligent research, approach your subjects with sensitivity. For a related question dealing with depictions of LGBTQ characters in history, since there’s increased industry and reader interest in marginalized lives, Marcy Posner mentioned the importance of showing the joyful aspects of these characters’ lives, not only the struggles they face.

I didn’t make notes about the question dealing with why people might want to leave an agent, or vice versa, or the number of authors they signed from conference meetings, although the latter was a small number. Other notes from the Q&A: Waters shared some of the positive aspects of historical fiction: that people have an underlying reason to want to read it, aside from whatever beautiful writing they come across: it offers a rich canvas about a wide range of time periods (though he acknowledged some are trendier than others). The ‘60s and ‘70s are popular settings, which provides a sense of nostalgia. Advice for midlist authors: they should realize they’ll be responsible for doing additional work before submitting and after publication. He mentioned Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers as the author’s breakout book. She’d written many earlier novels, but The Shell Seekers was a more substantial book in many ways (in terms of scope, setting, and length – my thoughts) that allowed her to break out of the midlist. However, her situation is unusual, especially today, with publishers having less time to devote to books. Also, the phrase “fictional novel” or “fiction novel” (redundant!) looks bad in a query letter.

On prologues: These insights were especially interesting and on point. Waters mentioned they’re so frequent now because “readers have no patience” and “need to know from the first page what the stakes are.” Prologues can be a useful way of signaling to readers about events later in the plotline and can motivate readers to continue. There’s been considerable debate in the industry about whether they’re helpful. Regarding marketing strategies, Amy Durant commented that it can be hard to market an author with just a single book, so she looks for the potential for a series. (Sapere publishes many novels in series.) A question from the audience on artificial intelligence and synopses: the panelists discussed the pushback against AI (such as the model clauses for publishing contracts newly developed by the Authors’ Guild, as mentioned by Hassan). Amy Durant mentioned AI could be used as a tool for synopsis ideas, but writers should take care to write them in their own words.

So there you have it. Optimism about historical fiction, tempered with realism about the industry. The recording isn’t up yet, so this writeup is based on two pages of scribble. My fellow attendees: if I missed anything important or got anything wrong, please drop me a note or comment!

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Katherine Reay's A Shadow in Moscow shows two courageous women's lives in Russia during the Cold War

There are some historical settings most comfortably observed from a safe distance, like the pages of a novel. We can be simultaneously gripped by the characters’ world and relieved we aren’t living through the same dark, pressure-laden environment. Such is the case with Cold War Russia, where Katherine Reay’s A Shadow in Moscow takes place.

The story alternates between two women in different eras, both of whom risk their lives in spying against the Soviet regime.

In 1980, Anya Kadinova is a senior at Georgetown University through her home country’s Foreign Studies Initiative, enjoying a romance with a fellow student, a spring break trip, and the freedom to read English-language novels. But her “case officer,” an upwardly mobile young man with the KGB, keeps a close eye on her movements and meets with her monthly to exchange news. After Anya returns to Moscow, she intends to emulate her parents and conform to the Soviet ideal, but when the KGB targets her good friend, she’s compelled to reach out to the CIA.

A second plotline set years earlier features Ingrid Bauer (not her real surname), a native of Vienna, who grows up in a household full of secrets she doesn’t always understand. A decade after her world was shattered during WWII, she weds Leo, a Russian man she barely knows, and settles into life in Moscow, knowing she must keep her maternal British heritage to herself. As her husband’s career expands (Ingrid suspects he’s with the KGB), their lifestyle becomes more opulent while the family’s sense of paranoia increases. No one suspects that she, a model Soviet wife and much-admired hostess and museum worker, could be passing secrets to the British.

The dialogue-heavy plotline ensures quick pacing for the story, which immerses us in the ultra-tense environment of a totalitarian regime where the state takes primacy over individual freedoms or thought. Homes and public phones are frequently bugged, and the steps the protagonists take in the “dry cleaning” process – losing any enemy agents on their trail – are elaborate and time-consuming.

Although Ingrid’s astonishing success (she comes to influence world politics at the highest level) feels far-fetched at times, the novel does demonstrate the clandestine heroism of the two women, whose roles are kept so closely guarded by their handlers that they aren’t aware of one another except by code name. The setting, within the living memory of many people today, is chilling and makes one admire the courage of anyone who dared to reach out from behind the Iron Curtain.

A Shadow in Moscow will be published by Harper Muse on June 13. This review is part of the book's online tour coordinated by Austenprose PR.

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AUTHOR BIO

Katherine Reay is a national bestselling and award-winning author who has enjoyed a lifelong affair with books. She publishes both fiction and nonfiction, holds a BA and MS from Northwestern University, and currently lives outside Chicago, Illinois, with her husband and three children.

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Thursday, June 01, 2023

Interview with Stephanie Cowell about her new historical novel The Boy in the Rain (and giveaway)

Please help me welcome novelist Stephanie Cowell to the blog. Her newest novel, The Boy in the Rain, focuses on the enduring love affair between two young men in Edwardian-era Nottinghamshire and London: Robbie Stillman, an art student; and Anton Harrington, a banker who later achieves prominence as a socialist speaker. Because of the brutal legal punishment for homosexuality at the time, as well as the social opprobrium, the two must conceal their intimacy from the world.

I've known Stephanie for many years through the Historical Novel Society and am happy to see the novel she's worked on for so long appear in published form at last. It's out from Regal House today. 

I'm offering a giveaway at the end of the post since I wanted to give another historical fiction enthusiast the opportunity to read it. I'll be arranging for the novel to be sent directly from a bookseller to the winner's address (via either Amazon or Blackwell's, for non-US readers).

Thanks for Stephanie for doing a Q&A for my site!

How did the complex love story between Robbie and Anton capture you to such a degree, compel you to tell it, and get it out into the world?

The two men came to me in a sort of vision while walking down the outside wood steps of an old country house and haunted me from 1984 until I sold the novel a few years ago. I would put it away for four or five years at a time. I did not know if they came from some deep mystical place inside myself or had really lived in the past.

Reading the novel, and immersing myself in the viewpoints of Robbie and Anton, was such an intense experience. Their relationship, and how it changes over the years, feels so real and vibrant. How did you go about re-creating the worlds of gay men in Edwardian England?

The world they lived in came gradually in bits as I read many social history books of the times. It was the personalities of the two men which fascinated me and how, though their strengths and needs changed, they still felt their real home was with each other. When I was a young teenager, my mother told me about Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for two years with hard labor, which he had to suffer for loving another man. It made her so angry. But I couldn’t put in much of the danger of the law against homosexuality in the novel at first, because I have always had a difficult time putting my characters in danger.

When I was writing my last big revision, Covid had arrived. I was alone in my apartment in NYC, the world epicenter of the epidemic for a time, hearing all the ambulances rush below my window. Those months, a real sense of danger came into the novel, the feeling that we didn’t know when we too would catch it. I wondered if it was anything like men’s fear of being dragged from their lives. Actually, Robbie likely didn’t have to hide much with his London artistic friends, but Anton had to be very cautious in his world. The boys’ brothel was based on something I had come across in my research.

George Langstaff, the country vicar who takes in and becomes a guiding force for Robbie, quickly became a favorite person of mine. How did his character come about?

I was raised without religion. At the time I began the early drafts of the novel (1984) I was drawn to the Church of England. At the same time, I was working on my novel Nicholas Cooke in which the main character becomes a priest. I joined an Anglican church in NYC. I think Mr. Langstaff’s character is much drawn from the father of a dear friend who was such a guide to me and who, with his wife, took me in to live when I was 18 and had to leave home. His passionate typing and heaps of books and way of walking and being went into creating George. He played the piano clumsily too. The vicar was also drawn from the small English rector in my own church.

Early 20th-century England was a time of huge political and social change. What drew you to this atmosphere for your setting?

The political and social worlds were not in the novel in the early drafts, though the book contained the story of how Anton had been forced by his father to separate from the penniless girl who was bearing his child. A friend who read the novel then said, “I think a guy like Anton would go up to Parliament to try to change laws to help the poor.” I began to revise that way.

I was also compelled by what I read about poverty in England at that time. I think the first book I read was by Jack London, who went to London and lived among the poor in disguise. It’s called People of the Abyss. It was the oddest thing when the Labour and Liberal parties were trying to get a bill passed to help the poor and aged in 1910, that the King, Edward VII, bullied the House of Lords into passing it. And of course, as a character points out in the novel, these high taxes on the wealthy meant that it would be harder to sustain the lives of the country house owners, such as the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. It was awful back then. Ploughmen would live on twelve shillings a week, and no one in their family had anything but bread and tea. And children of five or six would work in factories and mines twelve hours a day.

I enjoy how your historical novels delve into the lives of artists – painters like Robbie, authors, actors, musicians, and more – and the challenges they face in pursuing their craft. What do you hope readers take away from your work about the role of art in people’s lives, and in society?

I don’t think I ever wrote about anyone who was not an artist in some way! That was my world when I grew up. It was inconceivable to be anything but an artist, writer, dancer, actor. And of course, we all faced difficulties in making a living. Louise, Anton’s ex-wife who lives in a lovely London townhouse and knows people with money, helps Robbie to make a living painting portraits. There was a need for that then, following the footsteps of the great artist John Singer Sargent.

It is an oddity in the book that eventually Robbie is painting the wealthy to support Anton’s political campaign whose aim is to tax the wealthy! I guess I would like to show once again how precarious an artistic life can be. It was in my previous books showing how hard Mozart, Monet and Shakespeare struggled. When I was a single mother trying to make a living from music, we had trouble paying basic bills. The phone was shut off several times. Then I’d have to go down to the payment office to charm and distract them into turning it on again or give them a check that I “forgot” to sign!

In your author’s note, you talk about the lengthy writing process behind The Boy in the Rain and how you kept returning to the story in between publishing other novels. I was glad to have the opportunity to read it at last, and that you persevered! Did you have any favorite parts of the writing process, or key moments in the creation that you’d like to share?

I had to persevere because Anton and Robbie and their friends simply would not let me go. The novel kept almost being sold in earlier versions, and then editors would decide they wanted something easier to market, but its long gestation gave me a chance to develop the complex way the men related to each other. In some odd way they are both parts of me.

~

Stephanie Cowell has been an opera singer, balladeer, founder of Strawberry Opera and other arts venues, including a Renaissance festival and an outdoor arts series in NYC. She is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart, and Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet. Her work had been translated into nine languages and adapted into an opera. Stephanie is the recipient of an American Book Award.

6/10:  And the giveaway has ended.  Thanks to all who entered, and congrats to Pam! I'll be in touch via email.