Interview with author Judith Rock

Today it is my great pleasure to interview one of my favorite newly discovered authors, Judith Rock, author of the Charles du Luc mysteries, set in 17th-century Paris.

Headshot1[1]For many years a modern dancer and choreographer, Judith Rock founded Body and Soul Dance Company in Berkeley, California, toured extensively with the company and as a solo concert dancer, and studied baroque dance. Research for her Ph.D. in art and theology took her to Paris, where she researched the 17th- and 18th-century ballets produced at the Paris Jesuit College of Louis le Grand.

In a startling leap, Rock then spent several years as a police officer before taking that experience back to the stage as a playwright and actress. Rock has written on dance, art, and theology for many journals and taught and lectured at colleges, seminaries, and conferences across the United States and abroad. The Rhetoric of Death, her first Charles du Luc book, was a 2011 Barry Awards nominee. After several years in New York, Judith now lives in Sarasota, Fl., and when not writing takes care of injured birds at Save Our Seabirds.

SAT: Your bio includes a wide variety of careers and interests, ranging from modern dance to theology to work as a police officer. All of these interests come together marvelously in the Charles du Luc series, but I’m curious to know what drew you to police work after a career in the arts.

JR: There’s lots to say about that, but I’ll try to keep it short. I was living in NYC, had had some dance injuries, and could see the end of my performing career coming. I started noticing female NYPD officers on the street and wondering what doing that job was like for a woman. I knew that when I stopped performing, I didn’t want to do something tame—dancing is very untame. Physically and in other ways, the dancer steps off the edge into the unknown every time she goes onstage. As does the choreographer every time she makes a new dance.

So I followed my curiosity about those NYPD women and over the course of seven years was a volunteer officer and then sergeant in the NYPD Auxiliary Unit, doing street patrol; a reserve officer and later the first female part-time officer (state certified, sworn and armed) in the Northfield, Minnesota police department—while teaching full-time in a college dance department there. (I worked a lot of midnight shifts!) Then I decided to try for a full-time police job and went through a police academy in Florida, where I’m from. Before the end of the training, I knew that full-time police work wasn’t my future—I was forty-nine, my knees had had enough, and there were too many ways I didn’t fit in that world. But I finished the academy, one of only two women who made it through to graduation. We had to run every day, and on the last run, I was, as usual, near the end of the line. As my young fellow recruits passed on their return loop, they high-fived me, chanting, “Judith, dancer, doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit…”

After all that, I took what I’d learned back to the stage in a commissioned one-woman show called Response Time. I was invited to do the show at a statewide meeting of the Minnesota Association of Women Police. It was the scariest performance I’ve ever done–me, with my small experience, doing a show about being a cop for several hundred career police officers? There’s a part of the show about getting to the scene of a chaotic police call: “I get out of the car, and pieces of life script are blowing around my feet. As though some library had decayed and collapsed, and forgotten languages lie there in the street, along with the candy wrappers and ATM receipts and broken umbrellas…” I didn’t know what my audience would make of that kind of allusive language. During the questions afterwards, a soft-spoken sheriff’s deputy from rural northern Minnesota raised her hand. She said, “You know that part where you get to a call, and you feel like everything’s collapsed and pieces of life-script are blowing around your feet? I thought I was the only cop in the world who felt like that.” I burst into tears. I felt like my life as an artist had been justified.

The end of the story is that, after a performance in NYC, a wonderful woman came backstage and said, “I love the writing in your play. I’m a literary agent. What else are you working on?” And that’s how I started writing fiction.

Jesuit ballet character Fire

Jesuit ballet character Fire (from The Sopron Collection via Judith’s website)

SAT: Tell us a bit about your view of the connections between dance and theology, something that appears central to your life’s work as well as to your character Charles.

JR: I think that the deepest human need is the need to make meaning out of being alive, and that making meaning is our deepest human ability. As I understand art and theology, both are human attempts to do that. The choreographer might find a vulnerable turn of the dancer’s neck in a moment of stillness that makes an audience see its own vulnerability and catch its breath in recognition. The theologian might articulate a systematic theology in which thought and feeling almost embrace in the effort to communicate God. The common thing is making meaning. I don’t mean that art or dance needs a religious intent. I do mean that an artist worth his salt is digging deep into what it is to be human.

I’m also interested in how artists and theologians have gone about all this in different times and places. The 17th century ballets produced in Jesuit schools are part of the Charles du Luc books because the ballets were an effort to communicate and teach Christian humanism through a cultural art form.

One thing I love about dance is that intense physicality brings us face to face with physical reality—its glory and its unchangeable limits. That’s a useful antidote to the cultural silliness about “overcoming” everything we don’t like—from weak abs to death. St. Francis called his body “Brother Ass,” and no one knows the truth of that better than dancers!

SAT: What is the writing process like for you?

JR: I write because I love language and have a good ear and memory for it. I can’t remember from one time to the next how to change a printer cartridge, but I can probably tell you what you said two years ago about popcorn or hurricanes or pot belly pigs… I love reading the Oxford English Dictionary, because it gives a word’s background and development and what it used to mean. I wrote art and theology articles and a couple of books while I was dancing and after, but didn’t think seriously of writing fiction until I did the one-woman show mentioned above.

I’ve found that the way I hear language helps enormously in writing characters. Speech rhythm (along with how different people move) helps me differentiate and define my characters. When I’m working on a book, I have to read it out loud—usually to my long suffering husband, or even just to myself. I don’t know if the words are right until I feel them in my mouth and hear them.

rhetoric of deathSAT: Once the first Charles du Luc novel was written, how did you go about finding a road to publication?

JR: My literary agent is the wonderful woman who came backstage after a performance of Response Time. Without her, what I wrote wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I wrote two novels which didn’t get bought, and kept waiting for her to say, okay, we tried, that’s it, goodbye. But she didn’t. She said, ‘Take what you learned and write another one.” Ten years after we met, she sold The Rhetoric of Death, the first Charles book, to Berkley/Penguin. There aren’t enough words in the OED to thank her.

SAT: How did you go about researching Jesuit life in the time of Louis XIV?

JR: I did my doctoral research in Paris in the mid-80’s, and that became (years later and to my great surprise!) the basis for the Charles books. My dissertation focused on the Jesuits’ use of baroque dance in their boys’ school in Paris, called Louis le Grand, and Louis le Grand became the main setting for the books. Part of Charles’s job as a rhetoric teacher is—as it really would have been—helping to produce the baroque ballets, because they were considered physical rhetoric. (Rhetoric meant, as it still does, communication, without any negative spin.)

As I’ve written the four Charles books and the novella, I’ve gone on doing research, on Paris as it was then, who lived there, how they lived, what they believed, what they wore, what they ate, what songs they sang, what they drank, how they saw the political and religious issues of their time, and on and on. I kept a large period map of Paris laid out on a table in my study all the time I was writing. When Charles went outside Louis le Grand, I went to the map.

As I see it, if the period world in a historical novel isn’t right, the characters won’t work, and the story probably won’t, either. I’ve tried to make the people in my books real people of their time, not mine. (One of the hardest things to do was to let Charles have a few fleas and fewer baths!) My characters can’t be democratic liberals, feminists, religiously tolerant, champions of gay rights, or many other things the twenty-first century author may be or value. They can think and argue about some of those things, but only on their own terms and within the truth of their time. They really weren’t just us in costumes!

I made a research trip back to Paris when I was working on the fourth Charles book. Otherwise, I’ve worked with the mass of primary and secondary material I already had, and have also gathered a small library on the social and material history of the 17th century. I also gathered experts for the books: specialists who would answer occasional questions about baroque dance technique, 17th century French cultural history, and Jesuit life and history, when I either couldn’t figure something out or didn’t have time to track it down. The whole process of putting together Charles’s world has been a deep delight!

SAT: I love the way you portray religious tensions between Catholic and Huguenot in the first Charles du Luc book. What inspired you to give Charles Huguenot relations? And what inspired you to place his origins in southern France rather than Paris?

JR: The Louis le Grand Jesuits produced several ballets about the violent Catholic-Protestant conflict of their time—from, of course, the Catholic side of the struggle. At the same time, many Protestant families sent their sons to Jesuit schools because the education offered was so good. So the religious division was present inside the schools, as well as outside. Protestants were especially numerous and strong in the south of France—Nîmes, the town nearest Charles’s family land, was a major Protestant center. Many families in that region would have included people of both religions, and as a Catholic, Charles would have had the experience of being in the minority there. From my husband’s career in inter-religious relations, I knew something about the feelings and fears of religiously mixed families. I wanted Charles to know that family conflict and those feelings and fears, to help him to see and love and take risks beyond his own religious commitments.

SAT: Charles is such an engaging character. How did you go about developing his personality?

JR: First, thank you for that compliment to Charles! Where characters come from is very odd. For me, they show up in so many ways. They’re visions, wishes, fears, memories, psychological projections, exorcisms, nakedly practical solutions to some need or problem in the book being written, descendents of characters in other books read and loved…

At the most superficial level, Charles is a lovely vision of a handsome man! Not being myself a man, I borrowed his “maleness” from men I’ve known—friends, my husband, students, fellow dancers, Jesuits—and also from a rag bag of things I happen to love about men. And no, I’m not elaborating on those!

I made him intelligent because I like intelligent people—and also so that he would hold my interest through several books. And, of course, he had to be intelligent to be a Jesuit—that’s one of the many things I’ve enjoyed and respected in Jesuits I’ve known. I gave Charles a strong sense of humor because I’m always suspicious if humor is absent, especially humor about self and religion—where humor is absent, humility probably is, too.

He struggles repeatedly with obedience, but without rejecting it, and that’s perhaps the most “countercultural” thing about the novels. Obedience is a very negative word in twenty-first century American culture. But Charles is a thinking and independent man who has chosen to be a Jesuit, chosen to be formed by a spirituality that demands very serious obedience. So he wrestles, sometimes refuses to obey, and grows, and I think that helps make him attractive to contemporary readers. Because I have as much trouble with obedience as most of us do, I had to find a personal way into writing Charles’s struggle with obedience. I used my own lifelong struggle to obey my vocation as an artist to do that.

There are many other things about who Charles is, but I’ll finish with just one. Madame du Luc, his always offstage mother, is demanding, generous, and funny, and has certainly shaped who her son is. She simply showed up while I was writing the first book, and I’m not sure where she came from. But I think she may be an ancestor of Peter Wimsey’s mother in Dorothy Sayers’ novels.

SAT: What’s next for Charles? I hope there is a fifth novel in the works!

JR: Sadly, The Whispering of Bones was the last Charles book. I had hoped to write one more, but the publisher felt that Charles wasn’t bringing them enough profit. The books will continue to be available, and I hope readers will go on discovering Charles and his world.

I’m about to send off the ms. of a contemporary mystery, set in an imagined town in south central Florida, whose heroine is a female police officer. And I’m working on two other books: a contemporary literary novel, and a 12th century historical novel, which begins in the pilgrimage town of Conques, ends in Paris, and draws together French and English characters—both real and imagined.

SAT: I’m sorry to say good-bye to Charles, but look forward to reading your next books. Thank you so much for visiting here on the blog!

Visit Judith’s website at for a complete list of the Charles du Luc novels, plus fascinating details about Jesuit ballet and other fun facts about life in 17th-century Paris.

Interview with author Judith Starkston

Author PhotoToday I interview author Judith Starkston. Her fiction debut, Hand of Fire, has just been published, and she was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions as part of her blog tour.

Hand of Fire is a historical novel inspired by Homer’s Iliad. In Hand of Fire, the Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

Please welcome Judith to the blog.

SAT: What originally drew you to Homer’s epics, and what in them continues to engage you today?

JS: When I was an undergraduate, I read in Greek the Iliad, Homer’s epic set within the Trojan War, under the guidance of one of my favorite professors. The deep humanity of the poem has always held me, the insights into who we are and what matters in life. After years of teaching the Iliad, I still couldn’t stay dry-eyed when we discussed the scene at the end of the poem when King Priam of Troy comes into the Greek camp and begs for the body of his dead son from Achilles, the vicious warrior who’s been dragging the body around behind his chariot for days. And then, before our eyes, in the language of epic, that vicious killer returns to his human self because he sees his own father’s grief reflected in Priam—the grief he knows his father will soon feel because Achilles understands he is doomed. Homer tells us everything about the bond between sons and fathers in that scene. There’s so much beauty and resonance. I can’t put what I understand into words but I know I am richer for the experience. That quality will always engage me.

perf6.000x9.000.inddIn much the same way, I thought there must be a rich dimension in the love story between Achilles and Briseis. Homer doesn’t tell us how they can love each other, just that they do. It doesn’t make any sense that Briseis loves Achilles. He has destroyed her city, killed her husband and brothers and turned her from princess to captive. In this case Homer doesn’t give us the resonances, but I knew they were there if I went hunting. I knew it wasn’t, as some suggested, a kind of ancient Stockholm Syndrome, because Achilles questions the whole war. He’s in no position to be a brainwasher. He’s a fragmented mess in need of the kind of healing that I discovered in Briseis’s character as I started letting history and my imagination work together.

People reading my book have no need of ever having read the Iliad or knowing the history involved. I carefully created a book that is independent of the poem in that sense, but I honored the Homeric richness. I don’t contradict what happens in the poem. I worked consistently in harmony with what Homer says. But the reader doesn’t for a minute have to know what Homer says! That’s my job.

SAT: Homer has only a few lines in the Iliad devoted to Briseis. Could you quote them for us?

JS: Briseis’s name is mentioned several times as men fight about her and then try to resolve the conflict, but in those references we get no feeling about Briseis herself. There are only two times when we get any indication of the woman herself. The first is a simple descriptive phrase only. When she is taken away from Achilles, she is described as leaving “all unwilling” with the herald who has come to fetch her.

As to actually hearing her voice, that occurs only once in the Iliad. Briseis laments Patroclus’s death in the lines quoted below. I’m using Lombardo’s translation (which I recommend as a good reading translation).

Briseis stood there like golden Aphrodite.
But when she saw Patroclus’ mangled body
She threw herself upon him and wailed
In a high, piercing voice, and with her nails
She tore her breast and soft neck and lovely face.
And this woman, so like a goddess, cried in anguish:

“My poor Patroclus. You were so dear to me.
When I left this hut you were alive,
And now I find you, the army’s leader, dead,
When I come back. So it is for me always,
Evil upon evil. I have seen my husband,
The man my father and mother gave me to,
Mangled with sharp bronze before my city,
And my three brothers, all from the same mother,
Brothers I loved—they all died that day.
But you wouldn’t let me cry when Achilles
Killed my husband and destroyed Mynes’ city,
Wouldn’t let me cry. You told me you’d make me
Achilles’ bride, told me you’d take me on a ship
To Phthia, for a wedding among the Myrmidons.
I will never stop grieving for you, forever sweet.”

SAT: Your Briseis is such an engaging character! How did you go about developing her personality from these few lines?

JS: The process had two sources. My imagination and the historical details I learned about her world—possibilities of what she could have been from what we now know of the world of Late Bronze Age Trojans and Hittites. From history and archaeology I found her “job” as a healing priestess and what the details of that were like on a daily basis. The imagination part led me to write many chapters about Briseis’s early years. Those chapters all hit the cutting room floor, but they helped me “grow up” with her. Writing them also taught me a lot about voice. I don’t think I ever want to take on the challenge of writing an adult book from a child’s perspective. What a lesson in consistent point of view that exercise was! But I got to know my young lady and I’ve been haunted by a bossy redhead ever since. As you know, if you let the characters come alive in your imagination, they take over and tell you what to do with them. It often feels as if they really are alive somewhere.

SAT: Hand of Fire includes a vivid description of a vision that Briseis has when she is acting as priestess for the Spring Festival. What sources did you use to research and flesh out this kind of visionary out-of-body experience?

JS: I have to say this was an act of pure imagination. The Hittite records about what the priestesses did are never that luscious, and while the precise rituals are very useful to me as a writer, the emotional content of the priestesses’ work couldn’t be found in the historical record. I guess I’ve read about such out-of-body experiences at some point and internalized information, but I wasn’t aware of that as I wrote. Those visions came out of somewhere in me.

SAT: I see that you’re also working on a series of historical mysteries featuring the ancient Hittite queen Puduhepa. How did you become interested in her?

JS: Troy, the setting of Hand of Fire, was located on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Most of that area in the Late Bronze Age, when a Trojan War would have happened (if it truly did), was controlled by the powerful Hittite Empire. Troy was one of a number of small, semi-independent kingdoms on the western edge of this empire. The Hittites and the Trojans share the same culture, religion and other traditions to a large extent. The Hittites, unlike the Trojans, left behind libraries that survived. We know the Trojans had similar written records; they just didn’t make it through the vagaries of preservation. So if a historical writer wants to know details about Trojans, as I did when writing Hand of Fire, the best place to look is in these Hittite libraries—which are on clay tablets written in cuneiform. Fortunately more and more of the tablets have been translated in the last decade or so. We have a window into these people we didn’t have before.

And one of those people that I met in the Hittite libraries is Queen Puduhepa, who reigned from her early twenties until past eighty. She sealed the first extant peace treaty in history between Pharaoh Ramses II and the Hittites. We have her judicial decrees, her haggling with Ramses via letters, and all kinds of great stuff. It occurred to me she’d make a great sleuth. She seems to have had that sort of mind. No one’s written fiction about her because we’ve only known a significant amount about the Hittites for a relatively short time and it isn’t all that accessible unless you are comfortable with ancient languages and archaeology. So the research is pretty complicated, but very fun, and I seem to be among the first to portray this period in fiction.

SAT: As someone who loves both historical fiction and fantasy, I was intrigued by this quote from your blog-hop post on your writing process: “When you have a half-immortal hero among your characters and a main character who connects with her gods in a mystical but very sensual way, there’s a fantasy element to the history. It just happens to be an element that the people living in the period would have considered entirely normal, not fantasy at all, so I didn’t really think of myself as writing historical fantasy.” Would you elaborate on this statement?

JS: I decided early on to keep to what Homer says happened, as I mentioned above. After all, there’s enough I have to make up whole cloth without also rewriting so venerable an authority! And Homer says things like, Achilles’ immortal goddess mother rose from the sea and talked to her son. I struggled for a long time how to work with these elements that we call fantasy. Greeks, mind you, thought the gods would come walking along looking just like a mortal and then mess with human life. They didn’t view this intermixing of mortal and immortal as some giant stretch. So I finally settled on treating these fantastical pieces as though they were ordinary parts of life, in the same way that the school of fiction writing called magical realism will present a man with wings as if that is the most normal thing around. No jaw dropping allowed, but some interesting added dimensions to the tale. I did have Briseis realize that what she hadn’t thought was such a big deal—believing Achilles’ mother is a goddess—did feel pretty hard to understand once she had Achilles right in front of her chatting about his mother sending omens. But it’s more like someone today feels when they meet a celebrity or a famous person. I also borrowed from Hittite mythology a strand that I believe is part of what went into making the Achilles legend in Homer, and I wove it into Briseis’s way of connecting to Achilles. So not only do we have gods and fantasy from the Greek tradition, but we have gods and fantasy also from the historical record of what the people around Troy believed. It gave the love story the kind of resonance I’d wanted to find. It also gives the connection to Achilles a sexiness from early on that otherwise I couldn’t have included and I do think the physical pull is an essential part of their bond.

SAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your road to publication, and so on.

JS: I started to explore how to write fiction when I stopped teaching about a decade ago. I took classes and workshops, found a critique group, and dug into the research. It had quickly become clear to me that I needed to know much more about the material world of this place and time than I’d gained as a classics major and grad student. Every time someone reaches for something, the writer has to know exactly what it looks, feels and smells like. Clothes, buildings, religious rites, political intrigues, customs regarding women, marriage, murder, farming—you name it, I had to figure it out. So that took some time and I didn’t actually start writing this book for many years.

Then when I thought I had a good manuscript, I sent it out to agents and got some excellent criticism that led me to rework and shorten. I worked with some perceptive editors. Eventually I chose Fireship Press, which specializes in historical fiction, as my publishing home.

SAT: How do you go about researching your books? Did you go about researching your new Hittite series in the same way that you did research for Hand of Fire?

JS: Fortunately, the basics of both series are the same. They have different settings, but the same Bronze Age culture in both. It is true that I’m pretty sure I’m moving the sequel of Hand of Fire to the island of Cyprus and that is taking some new research, but not outside the basic framework I’d built.

I work in university libraries and converse with scholars and archaeologists in the field to make sure I’m not off track. I’ve travelled extensively in Greece and Turkey, and now Cyprus. Seeing the real geography of the settings of my books is an essential piece of the research. Even though we do not know exactly where Briseis’s home city of Lyrnessos was, we know where the Greeks thought it had been. I pointed to that spot on a map and told the archaeologist who was guiding me, basically, I want to go look at a city that doesn’t exist. Once she realized what I meant we clambered all over the back side of Mt. Ida and I became familiar with the landscape that a real Briseis would have known. I could place my imaginary city in a genuine landscape.

I’ve done similar work with Puduhepa’s setting. This past spring I went to the archaeological site that we can best surmise was her hometown of Lawazantiya in central southern Turkey. I spent a whole day with the director of the site, climbing the site itself and exploring the surrounding springs which are key to the identification of the site as Lawazantiya.

When Puduhepa leaves her hometown, we know from the record, she goes with her new husband to the city he rules at that time, Hakpis. This summer I accidently ended up in a dramatic city that can reasonably be identified as ancient Hakpis. Had my same archaeologist friend who climbed Mt. Ida with me many years earlier not chosen Amasya to stay that last night because it has beautiful Ottoman hotels, we wouldn’t have struck up a conversation with the resident archaeologist at the tiny Amasya museum. We would not have known that his wife had been conducting a dig on the mountain fortress above us that revealed the tell tale signs of Bronze Age ruins. It’s a new dig, unpublished. The guess that it is Hakpis is still tentative, but it’s such a great guess for me because never has a fortress looked so dramatic. It was made to be part of compelling historical fiction.

So that’s how research in Turkey goes. Archaeology is very fresh and underway all over the landscape. New discoveries are commonplace. It’s all pretty darned exciting.

As I research I combine fun travel with scholarly reading—which is very dry and boring usually—but provides the raw material to create flesh and blood characters who keep the plot moving along quickly so the pages, I hope, won’t stop turning. From library research to good story is a big leap, but I hope I’ve made it.

SAT: Fascinating stuff! I look forward to reading more of your novels.

Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website
Follow Judith Starkston on FB and Twitter
Visit on Goodreads Hand of Fire

Hand of Fire Tour Graphic

Interview with author Elizabeth Zelvin

Today I am pleased to interview one of my personal inspirations, writer Elizabeth Zelvin, fellow member of Sisters in Crime. Please welcome Liz to the blog.

ZelvinHeadshot2014-300dpiSAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your road to publication, and so on.

EZ: How much time have you got? The short version: I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old, I didn’t get published till I was over thirty (poetry), and my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, came out on my sixty-fourth birthday. So the road was rocky. My big mistake was to try to do it alone for the first fifty years. I owe a tremendous debt to Sisters in Crime, the Guppies chapter (we were the Great UnPublished when I first joined in 2002), and Mystery Writers of America. My post-publication road has also been rocky, not surprising since both publishing and the whole world in general has gone through a complete paradigm shift in the past five years. I’d still be writing only mysteries if my first publisher, St. Martin’s (Minotaur) hadn’t dropped me because my sales didn’t soar when the economy tanked in 2009.

SAT: How did you come to write Voyage of Strangers?

EZ: Voyage of Strangers is a historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, from the point of view of a young marrano sailor. It’s more about how I came to create Diego, who first appeared in my short story, “The Green Cross,” and who is the protagonist of Voyage of Strangers along with his sister Rachel. I’ve told this one before, and it never changes: I woke up in the middle of the night with Diego beating on the inside of my head, saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” I really didn’t want to get out of bed, and I hate research—make that hated—but he wouldn’t let me go. I found enough material online the next day to write the story, including Columbus’s log of the first voyage, which is fascinating, and Diego and I were on our way. I’m Jewish, I knew the Jews were kicked out of Spain at the same time that Columbus sailed, and I knew what everybody learns in school about Columbus, but nothing more. But once I started doing the research, I knew Diego had a much bigger story to tell, and that it was darker and deeper than the original mystery. Rachel came out of nowhere too. Diego comes back to find she got stuck in Spain when the family fled, and he has to keep her out of the hands of the Inquisition and prevent her—unsuccessfully—from coming along on the second voyage.

Caravel; Shutterstock ID 185020481SAT: Should readers read “The Green Cross,” the short story that led to Voyage of Strangers before beginning the novel?

EZ: I hope everyone who reads Voyage of Strangers will read “The Green Cross,” but I don’t think it matters whether it’s before or after. Before: readers can see whether they like Diego for only 99 cents. After: you can see not only Diego’s evolution, but that of Columbus, from the kindly detective who solves the mystery in “The Green Cross” to a much more complex and driven, even tragic figure.

SAT: What is different about writing historical fiction? Was the process of writing it different from the way you go about writing the Bruce Kohler mysteries?

EZ: There are two biggest differences. One is that you can’t write historical fiction without reading actual history. You can’t skate by with what you know from historical novels, any more than you can write police procedurals based only on what you’ve seen on TV crime shows—unless you want to be under constant threat of attack from readers. The other is structure. The basic armature of the traditional mystery, like those I write, is that a crime is committed, usually a murder; the protagonist investigates; and there’s some kind of confrontation and a resolution of the mystery. On that, the writer can hang anything she likes: any protagonist (eg my recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler), other characters, relationships, and story arc; setting in terms of place (present-day New York City in the Bruce books and stories) and of the protagonist’s work or interests or environment (the 12-step programs in my mysteries); and a theme or themes (for Bruce and me, recovery from addictions and codependency, and a secondary theme, the power of friendship).

In a historical novel, the armature is what actually happened. The historical timeline at the end of Voyage of Strangers goes back to the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, more than twenty years before the period covered by the events in the book, because so many events had an impact on what happened in 1493 to 1495, the time that Diego and Rachel spend in post-Expulsion Spain and on the second voyage. I’m an into-the-mist writer, but instead of starting right in as I do with my mysteries, I have to do a lot of reading before I begin a historical novel. Then I have to make sure that the fictional characters (about half the cast in Voyage of Strangers) fit in with the historical events. All my characters taken from history, including Columbus, are doing exactly what they did in real life at any given moment in the book.

SAT: What do you like and dislike about writing historical fiction compared with works set in today’s world?

EZ: I’ve gone from being someone who hated research to someone who finds it fascinating, especially when what really happened is stuff you couldn’t make up. For example, did you know that the Santa Maria never made it back to Spain? How the ship got wrecked on Christmas Eve is told in the prologue to Voyage, and what happened to the sailors who got left behind because not everybody could fit into the Niña and the Pinta for the return voyage is a key point in the plot of my novel. I’ve now written two historical novels (to anticipate the next question, yes, there is a sequel), and for me, once I’ve done the research, the actual writing of the first draft has so far gone more easily and quickly for me than it did for my mysteries. My guess is that what slows me down is the puzzle aspect of the mystery. I sail through characterization and dialogue, but I really have to think about the puzzle. I know writers who are just the opposite. It’s very individual. With historicals vs novels set in the present, your characters don’t have to assume the attitudes and biases of the twenty-first century, which can be very freeing. Voyage of Strangers is about being an outsider, so Diego’s and Rachel’s views can be different from those of their contemporaries and, at the same time, different in some ways from what would be considered “correct” today.

SAT: I’m glad to hear there’s a sequel to Voyage of Strangers in the works. Please, tell us more! And are you planning on writing other historical novels beyond that?

EZ: I spent the summer writing the sequel, Journey of Strangers, which takes Diego back to Europe, then to the Ottoman Empire, and then to an island off the coast of West Africa because—well, I’ll just say that I found out about an astonishing historical event that very few people know about that gave me a terrific new protagonist and story line. Bad for the Jews, good for the writer. And I’ll write historical novels as long as I have a publisher who wants them. I find the prospect of getting my work published very motivating.

SAT: Tell us how you went about researching the book.

EZ: I started out online. It was fascinating to find some primary source material, such as Columbus’s log of the first voyage in English. Wikipedia is also a helpful starting place—though not a reliable source. You have to check the facts you find on Wikipedia very carefully. The Internet is also great for specific aspects of the setting. For example, I got a lot of detail about late 15th-century Seville from scholarly material I found online and details of the flora and fauna of Hispaniola by looking up plants and animals of the Dominican Republic. Google Images was great for how things looked. And I took much of how I presented the Taino and the Roma (“gypsies”) from websites created by people who self-identify as Taino or Roma. I also went to books. I used two main sources for the historical details of Voyage of Strangers. One was “The” biography of Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942. Morison actually sailed the routes of all four of Columbus’s voyages in his own sailboat. But his point of view is completely Eurocentric and patriarchal, which is not surprising, given the era in which he was writing. As a foil, I also used radical historian Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise, written when Americans were finally getting it that the genocide of the Taino people in the Caribbean was, to put it mildly, a terrible thing. Morison and Sale disagree on just about everything, so I got to pick and choose what to believe to suit my story.

DWGYS-Cover-FinalSAT: Does your work experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and therapist have any influence on your writing apart from the fact that the Bruce Kohler series is set within the world of a recovering alcoholic who gets by only with the help of AA?

EZ: As a writer who got planted early but bloomed very late in life, I have to say that all my life experience has come in handy in my writing. In writing about the Caribbean in Voyage and the island of São Tomé in the new book, I drew on my memories of tropical sights and sounds and smells. One thing my sources Morison and Sale disagreed about was whether the indigenous Caribe, in particular the Canibale, were actually cannibals. (Yes, that’s where the word comes from.) I chose to agree with Sale, who makes a good case that the evidence isn’t really there in the primary sources, though it’s something that has been repeated as truth by historians for hundreds of years. I have a scene in which Diego’s Taino friend tells him it’s a joking insult people from different tribal groups throw at each other. I got that straight from my Peace Corps experience in West Africa. I had friends who would kid around by telling each other, “Your grandfather ate people!” As for being a therapist, I like to think the feelings, relationships, and emotional growth of my characters is authentic. That authenticity comes from both my professional and personal experience.

Liz CD CoverSAT: Tell us about your CD, Outrageous Older Woman? How would you classify it in terms of musical genre and style?

EZ: Outrageous Older Woman consists of songs I’ve written over the past thirty years. I sing and play guitar, but the reason the album is a dream come true is that a bunch of superb musicians and backup singers—all much better than me!—played and sang along with me on it. The genre is singer-songwriter urban folk with a dash of country and a pinch of gospel, klezmer, or whatever each individual song required. The songs cover a wide variety of subject matter on themes that aren’t too different from those of my fiction and poetry: love, family, friendship, aging, alcoholism and recovery, abuse and healing, inspiring characters. My song about 911, written in New York over the two days after it happened, is on it, as is a story song that’s based on a classic Jewish shaggy dog story. You can get the CD or MP3 download on CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon (where you have to look up Liz Zelvin rather than Elizabeth Zelvin—it’s not on my author page because it’s not a book). And you can hear samples and a few full songs on my music website at

SAT: What’s next for Elizabeth Zelvin?

EZ: If Lake Union, which is the literary and commercial fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing (Amazon’s traditional publishing arm), keeps wanting my historical novels, the next one will put either Diego and my other protagonists or possibly their children into some other situation and setting where there was a Jewish historical presence in the right era. My e-publisher, BooksBNimble, would like to see another Bruce mystery, and I’m working on the first draft of that. The theme is compulsive debting (yes, there is a program, Debtors Anonymous), and the working title is Death Will Forgive Your Debts. I’ve also been thinking for a long time about a mystery/urban fantasy novel featuring my other strong protagonist, Emerald Love, a rising country music star and shapeshifter who’s also a nice Jewish girl née Amy Greenstein. She’s already appeared in an e-novella, “Shifting Is for the Goyim,” (available on Amazon) and in a short story that will appear in the next Sisters in Crime Guppies anthology.

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and author of Voyage of Strangers, a historical novel about Columbus’s second voyage from the perspective of a young marrano sailor. She is also the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. Liz’s short stories have been nominated three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story and once for the Derringer Award. Her publications include two books of poetry and a professional book on gender and addictions. She has also released an album of original songs titled Outrageous Older Woman. Liz currently sees clients around the world on her online therapy website at Her author website is at You can friend her on Facebook at Besides being a shrink, a writer, and a singer-songwriter, Liz is the doting grandma of two gorgeous, brilliant, talented, and well-behaved little girls.

Interview with author Jeri Westerson

jeri_westerson_1Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Jeri Westerson, best known for her Crispin Guest medieval “noir” mysteries.

SAT: Crispin Guest is such a wonderful character! Where did he come from?

JW: I think he probably came from a lot of places, but he mostly formed when I decided what kind of medieval mystery I wanted to write. Once I had come up with the idea of a hardboiled kind of detective on the order of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, he began to form more quickly. Following the tropes of the hardboiled detective, he had to be a loner, down on his luck, hard drinking, hard fighting, tough talking—and a sucker for a dame in trouble. I wanted a knight, because so many medieval mysteries were inhabited (pun intended) by clerical sleuths and I wanted someone completely different, someone who was used to fighting, to being his own man. And I wanted action and a bit of adventure. But I also wanted a sexier sort of detective, so a dark and brooding man, a little Mr. Darcy blended with a bit of Errol Flynn. But I have to say that a great deal of his character stems from his innate sense of honor and justice carved out by his present circumstances, because to make him that loner down on his luck, I had to take away everything that he used to define himself: his knighthood, his title, his lands, his wealth, his very place in such a codified society. And once I did that, he sprang forth pretty much fully formed.

SAT: I was excited to see that a new Crispin Guest novel, Cup of Blood, has just been released. Since Cup of Blood is billed as a prequel, should a reader who is new to the series now start with this book rather than Veil of Lies?

CupofBlood_final_NoBleedJW: I’ll tell you a secret. Cup of Blood was the first Crispin Guest book I ever wrote. At the time, its themes of the Holy Grail and Knights Templars failed to capture the imagination of editors, as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released around that time. So the book was put to bed and the second one, Veil of Lies, was published as the first book in the series. But I never forgot this first book. It’s where Crispin’s sidekick Jack Tucker comes into his life. So while I was between publishers, I decided to brush off the dust and spruce up the writing of Cup of Blood and release it myself as a prequel. So it is entirely appropriate for neophytes to read Cup of Blood first.

SAT: Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, have such a special relationship, and one of the joys of reading the series is watching the way their relationship unfolds. Where did Jack come from? Did you envision his becoming an apprentice from the first? Will Jack strike out on his own one day or do you see him growing into partnership with Crispin?

JW: Jack was going to be in the first book and that was pretty much going to be it for him. But my agent and editor alike both found him to be a very engaging character and so Jack got to stay. And it turned out to be a godsend, because we see Crispin’s stark life tempered by the presence of Jack, sort of the son Crispin never had. And as Jack grows up throughout the series, Crispin begins to see that his own chosen profession has an important place in London, and that he himself has earned his way back from the degradation that was visited upon him. So Jack has become very important to the series. He won’t leave Crispin, in fact, there is more to come on that front. But Jack will get a brief foray into a YA series of his own. At least three books worth.

SAT: A YA series with Jack—Yippee! When will the first one be released?

JW: Hold on there! I have to write the sucker first. And then it’s got to get a publisher, and on and on. But it’s next up on my list of things to write this year.

SAT: I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that you have two non-Crispin novels in the works. Your website describes Though Heaven Fall as “a quixotic tale of fantasy and faith, set in 13th-century England.” Is this the beginning of a new series? What sparked this new novel?

JW: I had such a pleasant experience self-publishing Cup of Blood that I decided to delve into my files of unpublished manuscripts and see what might be marketable. When I first started writing for publication, I wrote historical novels, but they weren’t the kind editors were jumping over themselves to publish. They were about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, with sometimes no crowned heads to be seen. This kind of book translated much better into medieval mystery, and that was where I was ultimately published. But all of those previous historical novels were one-offs, standalones. Though Heaven Fall is definitely a standalone. It’s styled a “Medieval Parable” and I suppose that’s exactly what it is.

SAT: “Fantasy and faith” as well as quixotic impulses also feature strongly in the Crispin Guest series. I love the way you balance the possibility that a relic such as the Crown of Thorns may, in fact, have mysterious and inexplicable properties. As Crispin, though a believer and a man of his times, is also a rather skeptical and analytical character it is especially interesting to view such possibilities through his eyes. What draws you so strongly to this theme, which threads through all of the novels in the series?

JW: Faith truly is in the eye of the beholder, and I think we have a sometimes stilted view of medievals, that they all followed blindly what the Church taught them. But there were many people who questioned those views. A character who believes all what he was taught of Heaven and Hell, but who is also well-traveled and well-educated forming his own ideas on the matter, can follow a logical progression through his experiences and philosophy to a certain amount of skepticism. And it’s fun to pit him against everyone around him and make him question his own beliefs. I always leave it to the reader to decide if mystical events have happened or not.

SAT: The second non-Crispin novel mentioned on your website, Booke of the Hidden, “a quirky-humorous yet edgy-romantic urban fantasy set in a small town in Maine,” is quite a new direction! I suspect from the lovely balancing act you perform with relics in the Crispin series that you have a longstanding interest in the paranormal. (The latest Crispin novel delves into the world of medieval alchemy, a continuation of this theme.) What drew you to finally write a novel in which paranormal happenings become overt?

JW: Well, an author has to diversify, especially when writing in such a niche market as medieval mystery. In order to try to break out, I went back to my roots, as it were, of writing about fantasy and sci fi. The Jack Tucker series will definitely fall into the fantasy category. It’s the sort of thing I read ravenously in high school and college. Booke of the Hidden is a hell of a fun series to write, and I’m hoping that a publisher will fall in love with it as much as I have. It’s sort of Buffy meets Sookie, if you can get your head around that. And there’s yet another series that I will be working on, a paranormal steampunk mystery series. So stay tuned!

SAT: I have my own theories about the crossover appeal between paranormal and historical novels, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the subject as both reader and writer. I love the idea that the two genres might intermingle in your forthcoming Though Heaven Fall.

JW: I love magical elements. I loved the Harry Potter series for its intermingling of magic and mundane and that they coexist. I like the idea of a perfectly normal person suddenly finding themselves falling into this world. I think we all do to an extent and as a reader I’ve enjoyed those sorts of stories for decades. As a writer, I am finally finding the courage to put my toe in the water. I know we tend to think of authors who write a series that we love to be one note players. But most authors have many different tales inside of them. I fully intend to complete the Crispin series many, many books from now, but I also want to meander into different places and see if I can’t reach some modest success there as well.

SAT: How was writing a book set in the present-day world different from writing historical novels?

JW: There’s a lot less research, though there still is research. The Crispin books are dense with prose. Perhaps it is the formality of the time period, of the way people think and talk, but I find the contemporary books move faster, and they are bit lighter in tone, though Booke of the Hidden certainly gets some heavy scenes.

SAT: You also publish the Skyler Foxe Mysteries, a LGBT series. Tell us a bit about those.

FoxeFire_432JW: Well, some years ago, I was reading some LGBT books that my gay friends recommended and I mentioned to them that I wasn’t too thrilled with the writing. And then the challenge began. “If you think you can do better, write one,” they said. And since I was in mystery mode and penning my very dark and heavy Crispin books, I decided, “why not!” But I wanted something more light with humor (I realize that one’s journey as a gay man or woman can be fraught with hardship, and lots of literature out there reflects that, but it can’t all be gloom and doom. There has to be some happy endings!) And so I created Skyler Foxe, a young, brand new high school English Lit teacher who is a bit of a player and who also stumbles into murder and becomes an amateur sleuth while juggling school, correcting papers, dealing with his students’ angst, his friends, and possible love interest. I wanted to write something more in the style of a sitcom with laughs, great three-dimensional characters, a murder puzzle, some erotica (I’m all about the fan service), and at the same time getting to say something about being an LGBT person in today’s world and get in some digs at the conservative area in which I live. A win-win. The series has been critically acclaimed and started with a sort of serial trilogy that I considered like a pilot to the series (FOXE TAIL, FOXE HUNT, and OUT-FOXED), where the first two books of the trilogy sort of end on a cliffhanger. I self-published a novella (FOXE DEN) that I called “DVD extras” with no mystery but plenty of heart…and erotica, then published with MLR Press again in the fourth standalone book FOXE FIRE, and I’m just finishing up the first draft of the next in the series, DESERT FOXE. After that is another novella to be self-published, FOXE DEN 2: SUMMER VACATION.

They are a hoot to write and it’s fun really working on writing humor. Though the last two are standalones, it really helps know who all the characters are by reading the series in order, but not an absolute. I try to make it possible to catch up if you are coming to it fresh. The Skyler series is my relief writing from the dense prose and piles of research necessary for the Crispin books. See more at

SAT: What’s next for Crispin? Can we expect a sequel to Shadow of the Alchemist?

JW: Of course! I’m already working on Crispin #8, The Silence of Stones: When the Stone of Scone disappears from the throne of England during mass in Westminster Abbey, the populace takes it as a sign to side with King Richard’s rebellious barons. The last thing the king needs is for the mythical stone to be missing, further putting his authority in question, especially after his army suffers a crushing defeat against the Scottish forces. Desperate, Richard himself calls in Crispin to find the missing stone. And to insure that Crispin will do the deed, Richard imprisons Jack Tucker and orders Crispin to find the stone before Parliament convenes in two weeks or Jack will hang for treason.

This one has a lot of magic, with three witches and other mystical activity. Fun!

SAT: Three witches and the Scottish army, shades of Macbeth! Looking forward to it so much. Thanks for the interview!

Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson writes a brooding medieval detective, a feisty female demon-buster, and a gay high school teacher/sleuth. No, not all in the same book. She pens the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries, just began shopping her new urban fantasy series, Booke of The Hidden, and continues her LGBT mystery series, the Skyler Foxe Mysteries. When not writing, she dabbles in gourmet cooking, beekeeping, and herding two cats. See more, including her series book trailer, at

Taking Stock

It’s been just over a year since I left the day job for the freedom of freelance editing and writing. Although I’m no longer officially involved in the academic world, September still feels like the start of a new year to me—much more than January, and I suspect it always will. As I re-start the blog after its long summer vacation, it feels like a good time to take stock of the past year, of what I’ve done and where I’m going, and of what I want to do here in this space with the blog.

The Thinker, sculpture by Auguste Rodin Picture taken in Musee Rodin in Paris, France by wikipedian Pufacz

The Thinker, sculpture by Auguste Rodin Picture taken in Musee Rodin in Paris, France by wikipedian Pufacz

What have I learned?

  • Leaving the day job isn’t a magic bullet. I still struggle with insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night, unable to get my mind to shut down; I still have days when I don’t feel my best; I still have moments of doubt and depression. Yet, overall I am much happier with my day-to-day existence than I was before.
  • I need to remind myself to be grateful that I am able to work from home, set my own schedule, and do the things that are most important to me. I got used to the new routine very quickly! It feels so natural now that I have to stop and tell myself that I am truly privileged.
  • There are still only 24 hours in a day. I’m still learning to manage my time: when to wake up; setting my morning routine; when to exercise; how to balance taking care of myself (time to prepare healthy meals and take daily walks) with accomplishing the writing and other tasks that are important to me. The one cardinal rule that I established back when I was working full time still holds: first things first. For me, that means once the morning routine is done I go immediately to the book I’m working on, 5 days a week.
  • The importance of the online community. My critique partners and my wonderful developmental editor are all people whom I have yet to meet face to face, yet they provide so much support for me as a writer that I truly can’t imagine trying to finish and polish a book without their moral support and critical input. I also love the connections that I’ve made with fellow bloggers who write about subjects that are close to my heart: green living things; writing and books; deeper questions of life and spirituality.

What have I accomplished?

  • I finished polishing and tweaking my genre-bending novel CHIMERA, which deals with a Jesuit priest on sabbatical in Paris who runs into a talking gargoyle on Notre Dame.
  • I began a completely new novel for middle-grade/tween kids, about a 13-year-old witch who must cope with her family’s mysterious move to the “mortal” world. Thanks to my wonderful critique partner, Gigi Pandian, who read through the first draft, and my equally wonderful editor, Ramona Defelice Long, who critiqued the first 50 pages, I’m now close to finishing a polished revision that will be ready for my other “critters” and Ramona’s eagle eye this fall.
  • I completed a short story, “The Black Cat,” and drafted another, “Saint Nick and the Easter Rabbit,” which I intend to finish polishing once the middle-grade novel is done.
  • All in all, a very productive year for me, and I feel pleased with the results.

What’s ahead for the blog?

  • I have a number of interviews scheduled with authors of historical fiction, and I’m quite excited to have these folks as my guests:

Sept. 18  Jeri Westerson, The Crispin Guest series

In these “medieval noir” books, disgraced former knight Crispin Guest turns his talents to private investigation in 14th-century London.

Oct. 9  Liz ZelvinVoyage of Strangers

Young marrano sailor Diego returns from a voyage of discovery to find that his sister Rachel is in danger from the Inquisition as a secret Jew. After failing to find safety in Spain, they sail with Admiral Columbus on the second voyage to Hispaniola, where they must struggle with divided loyalties as the Spaniards’ greed for gold and conquest clashes with the local Taino people’s way of life.

Oct. 16  Judith Starkston, Hand of Fire

Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

Oct. 23  Judith Rock, The Charles du Luc series

Mystery series featuring a Jesuit priest in 17th-century Paris

  • I’ll also continue to write posts on nature, my personal “saints,” poetry and books, and whatever else happens to take my fancy.
  • End of speech. Wishing everyone a Happy New Fall!

Roman Gothic: The Secrets of the Sibyl

roman forum w moon (by RomaOslo)This is the time of year when my reading takes a supernatural turn. The approach of Halloween initiates the mood, and chill autumn evenings invite the pleasures of sitting snug and cozy while vicariously experiencing creepy thrills. During this season, I often find myself turning to old favorites like Edgar Allan Poe or modern masters of the supernatural like Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series.

It’s true for me as a writer, too. I’ve just written a short story called “The Black Cat” that’s a bit of a riff on the tale by Poe. Another short story I composed this time of year, “The Secrets of the Sibyl,” is a conscious effort to import motifs from Gothic literature into the historical setting of my Roman novels, a sort of “Roman Gothic,” if you will.

“The Secrets of the Sibyl” takes place in the 4th-century world of the Late Roman Empire and is set in the ancient town of Cumae. For 4th-century Romans, Cumae had great historical significance. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, their great national epic, Cumae is where the wandering Aeneas, fugitive from the defeated city of Troy, first set foot on Italian soil. Cumae, an ancient Greek city renowned as home to the Sibyline oracle, is already known to Virgil’s hero, and his first thought is to seek counsel from the prophetess:SOTS_sm

“But Aeneas, that righteous man,
The dread Sibyl’s secret sanctuary sought:
A cavern, enormous,
Hewn from the native rock.

A hundred pathways lead there,
A hundred mouths give utt’rance,
Proclaiming with a hundred voices,
The Sibyl’s hidden knowledge.”

–Book 6 of the  Aeneid
(my translation)

For the 4th-century Romans of my story, Virgil was not only the author who had given voice to the legendary beginnings of their nation, but a literary genius whose influence on them and subsequent Italian generations was comparable to that of Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. Once I’d mastered enough Latin to read the Aeneid in Virgil’s original language, I was equally smitten.

With the quote above as inspiration, I eventually conceived a story that would give my young series heroine an ancient, crumbling villa to explore, a villa located in Cumae. Since the town is on the Bay of Naples, where wealthy Romans typically owned summer homes, it wasn’t too difficult to create the scenario. Add an old servant in possession of a horrible secret, a visit to the site of the Sibyl herself, a nighttime prowl through the decrepit villa—and voila, Roman Gothic. I had great fun composing it.

Does October bring out the Gothic in you? What sorts of things do you most enjoy reading and writing this time of year?

Interview with author Yves Fey

Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Yves Fey, author of Floats the Dark Shadow, an atmospheric historical mystery that absolutely knocked my socks off. Before proceeding to the interview proper, here’s a little introduction to the author and her work:

yves feyFLOATS THE DARK SHADOW is Yves Fey’s first historical mystery, set in the dynamic and decadent world of Belle Époque Paris. Yves Fey has an MFA in Creative Writing from Eugene Oregon, and a BA in Pictorial Arts from UCLA. She has read, written, and created art from childhood. A chocolate connoisseur, she’s won prizes for her desserts. Her current fascination is creating perfumes. She’s traveled to many countries in Europe and lived for two years in Indonesia. She currently lives in the San Francisco area with her husband and three cats. Writing as Gayle Feyrer and Taylor Chase, she previously published unusually dark and mysterious historical romances.

SAT: Welcome to the blog! When did you first become interested in Paris? I don’t mean writing about Paris, particularly, but what drew you to Paris as a place you might like to read about or visit?

YF: I’ve been a movie addict since kidhood. My love affair with Paris began with An American In Paris, which I saw when premiered. What’s very hokey about it now wouldn’t have bothered me then, and even now the Art inspired ballet at the end is amazing, with Lautrec, Renoir, and Dufy etc.  Apparently it was filmed in the studio, but in my mind I’ve added the real Paris backdrops when I think of it.  And then the Belle Époque romance of Gigi…

SAT: Given that, what led you to set a story in Paris?

YF: I used to write historical romance, but switched to mystery because my sensibility was too dark. Although Paris is my favorite city, I was also enamored of the beauty of  Venice and wanted to set my first romance there. I couldn’t find a historical event that pulled me, so I set it in Florence during the conflict between the Borgias and Savonarola. Next book, I planned to do something à l à Colette, set in Paris. I was told that Paris wasn’t romantic to romance readers. Couldn’t I do Scotland?

Paris continued to claw at my brain to have a novel. When I decided to do an historical mystery, it was at the top of the list for setting, with not much in second place. But finding the right story for the setting took some time.

SAT: What do you like about writing historical fiction?

YF: I’m not all that fond of the present, though I do worship at the altar of my big screen TV.  I like reading and writing about history so I can live there vicariously.

SAT: Why fin-de-siècle Paris in particular, the post-Baudelairean Paris of the Symbolist poets and décadents, rather than some other period of French history?

YF: Before I knew who my villain was, I considered a wider time frame, though the 80s and 90s had the edge. I wanted an American artist heroine who was a student of Impressionism or one of the other movements of that era. While there were many artists working in early post-1900 Paris that I love, I do prefer the works of the latter half of the 19th century to the modernists, so that was a big factor. But edging it toward the 20th century also offered a lot of interesting artistic turmoil for the heroine to encounter throughout the series. I didn’t want the shadow of the Civil War hanging over my heroine, so that excluded the 1860s. I was interested in referencing the Commune, but I didn’t want the bleakness of 1870s Paris. I also hoped to have Oscar Wilde as a character at some point (I’d planned a scene where he met the Revenants in Floats the Dark Shadow, but there wasn’t room for it, so he’s just referenced and is an alibi for one crime). I also had hopes of doing Hugo’s funeral in flashback, but that didn’t work out. Those things were all part of the decision, as I looked at who was alive and working in Paris from 1860-1900, and what events I might include.

Somewhere in here, when my first plot wasn’t coming to life, I decided on a Gilles de Rais copycat for my villain. Huysmans book about Gilles de Rais, La Bàs, was published in 1891, so I focused my research on the 90s. In my reading, I found the story of the Bazar de la Charité, and decided it was a wonderful dramatic scene. I love having a big historic event in my books, even if it’s not one that’s well remembered now, so that was the deciding factor for the year 1897. I’d even thought Michel and Theo might meet at the Bazar, but that chapter kept moving toward the center and I wanted them to have some contact about the murders before that. Somewhat later, I found the story of the midnight concert in the catacombs, and was overjoyed that it happened earlier that year. Those were my historic lynch pins. I hadn’t paid a huge amount of attention to the dates of the Commune at first, as it was going to be dealt with in Michel’s memory, but then I saw that it framed the events of the novel as well. As for the poets, the greatest of the era were all mostly dead—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine—but they were still the main influences on the Revenants.floats the dark shadow

SAT: Where did Theo come from? Do you have any background as an artist yourself?

YF: I do have a degree in art, and when I decided to write a mystery set in Paris, I absolutely wanted an artist heroine because I felt I could bring her to life vividly, and have her see Paris in a unique way.  Theo and I share a lot of opinions—but not all, and she’s much braver and more direct and emotional than I am.

I had a completely different character at first, but she refused to be an artist, she wanted to be a journalist. I struggled for months with that character and plot, and had all but given up when my copycat killer idea came up and flipped everything around. Theo and Michel had actually been characters in an abandoned historical romance, an Elizabethan La Femme Nikita. When the cop took on new importance to track down my copycat killer, I seized upon them, but had to really reimagine their backstories, since the spy framework put totally different pressures on them that vanished with the fin de siècle Paris setting.

SAT: Tell us how you went about researching the details of 19th-century police work in Paris that are so essential to your portrayal of Michel and to the plot of your story?

YF: That was and is one of the hardest aspects, as my French is nowhere near good enough to use original sources. I hunted the whole time I was working for more and better information in English. I had a book called Crime Scene Stories that was very useful. And I had a great find in a book of the period, with lots of etchings, called The Paris Law Courts, which had great information on how prisoners were booked and what the interior of the jails was like.

I’ve made Michel a member of the Special Brigade, which was quite real, and let him play a bit fast and loose with the hideously bureaucratic French police and law system. There is lots of information available on Bertillon’s complex system of anthropometry which was in use all over the world at the time, before being supplanted by fingerprints. So I could play around with that. There were a lot of big changes happening, so information on historic cases and changes in practices are relatively easy to find, but basics are elusive.

I have visited parts of the old prison, and the Police Museum in Paris.

SAT: I love your website, and it’s even more remarkable to me that you did it all yourself. Tell us how you went about the process of learning the techniques and designing the site.

YF: It was achieved with much floundering and flailing. I did read up on WordPress, but not nearly enough to be confident. The language was too confusing, even though I’d done a little programming in MOO, I’d mostly forgotten it—I was never good at it. I felt overwhelmed, so I decided to do one thing at a time. But one thing would lead to another, and another…arrgh.

I tried a couple of different themes with pretty colors, but they were too limited.  Then I found Weaver, which promised to let me do pretty much whatever I wanted in terms of color (very important for an artist) and layout. And, I was able to do just about everything that I did want to do, but I would often look for the explanation in the wrong place and spends days or even weeks getting the wrong advice for things that turned out to be relatively simple if you knew where to look.  The biggest of these happened pretty early on. I knew I wanted to have different images at the top of different pages. This is easy to do with what they call the Featured Image.  But I misunderstood and thought that the Featured Image was a picture included in the text of the blog or page. So I asked around on the forums and got the wrong advice, or too difficult advice, or advice that worked but limited something else.  Weeks later, someone asked, Why don’t you just use the Featured Image?  So I got my different banners to introduce my different topics. There were several other things that drove me insane because they required so much hunting to figure out, or find the right widget to make work.  It’s very crazy-making when you think something will take 2 hours and it takes 2 weeks!

Some of the things were easy from the start, like doing my own backdrop and picking font colors, but still took a long time just because I fiddle endlessly. Just recently I changed my background because so many people have trouble reading light text on black. I love black and find it easy to read light on dark. It suited the dark feel of the book, but I caved since it was really a big issue where some people could not read the text.  But I sort of sigh when I land on glaring white pages. I find them really boring. The new background is a teal and I do like it, even if it’s not as Gothic in feel as the black. It’s a huge site, but I did ask friends who had old cranky computers if it would load, and it would, so I’ve gone with what I wanted. It will probably be in progress forever, as far as adding text goes, but all the pages have wonderful art to look at. I’ve done most of it myself, but I did get some help with some of the lettering and with frames on the art. The fun part was hunting the art, though that took ages as well. I knew many of the artists, of course, but I kept finding more and more wonderful relevant art I wanted to include.

SAT: Your current passion is creating perfumes. A most unusual hobby! Tell us how that came about.

YF: My best friend and I had done some perfume quests in the past, and we had a couple of favorite perfumers, Serge Lutens and Les Parfums de Rosine, who were based in Paris. On a research trip, I’d already spent my allotted perfume money on Arabie and Rose d’Éte. It was pretty much time to leave when I happened on a shop in the Marais where you could design your own perfume. I thought that would be great fun, but I’d bought my perfume and was running around trying to finish my research, so I didn’t go in. It wasn’t until after I left that I got the idea to design a perfume for one of the characters. Back home, I began to play around a little without much success. On my next trip, I did design a perfume for my courtesan, Lilias. It came out really well. I thought I could use some to promo the book—but the book took longer to write than expected, and I used up the perfume myself. I began doing more experiments at home, and being an obsessive personality, was soon pretty much lost in my creations. It’s really difficult! I’ve ruined more things than I’ve succeeded at, but I do love it. Theo has been totally elusive. I’ve got a fun spicy rose for Carmine, a dreamy absinthe inspired scent, and a yummy Paris Patisserie.

SAT: Thank you so much, Yves! I’m sure I’m not the only one who eagerly awaits the next installment of Theo’s adventures.

Floats the Dark Shadow has already been listed for a number of awards. For more information, and/or to order a copy, visit the author’s website at:

Medieval Mysteries: Monks or Knights?

My favorite on-going medieval series is Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest. Crispin is a wonderful and wonderfully original character, “a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London,” as her website states. Westerson’s gritty world of “medieval noir” is very different from most earlier medieval mysteries, especially the iconic Brother Cadfael books of Ellis Peters, a series which arguably jump-started the genre.

Monks or knights? Which shall it be? Of course, Crispin is a knight no longer–at least not technically. He retains, however, a knightly frame of mind even as he is cast down into the lowest dregs of society, living hand-to-mouth. Watching his preconceptions transform as he experiences life as the poor live it, is one of the deepest pleasures of the series. Of course, Crispin no longer moves in courtly circles, though his new work sometimes takes him to his old haunts–a difficult experience, as you can imagine.

One of things that I like about the series is, in fact, that it takes place beyond the confines of courtly circles. While my earliest ventures in historical fiction were typically stories of queens and others who lived among the powerful movers and shakers of the time, nowadays I find that I’m more interested in reading about everyday people and how they lived in distant times.

Another favorite medieval series, Sharan Newman’s Catherine LeVendeur, fits this mold, too. Whereas Crispin Guest is a bit of a riff on the courtly knight, Newman’s series has a similar tangential relationship to the familiar world of the medieval monastery. Its heroine, Catherine, starts out as a young novice in the convent of the famous Heloise, of star-crossed “Heloise and Abelard” fame, but during the course of the first book Catherine discovers that, despite her scholarly inclinations, her real vocation lies in the world outside the safe confines of the convent. The series seems to have come to a halt, alas, at least for the time being.

Knights, nuns, and monks all possess a certain mystique. They don’t live like other folks. They have lofty concerns–at least in theory. I’m sure I’m not the only child who was fascinated by knights–partly because I also loved horses. I devoured tales of King Arthur, and still today when we’re in a toy store, I can’t pass a display of colorful knights with their emblazoned shields and fancy helmets–and horses–without stopping to pick them up and examine them one by one.

As I grew older, I became fascinated by monasticism, too. It started, I think, with hearing Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs in a college recital. I loved the music and promptly went out and bought a recording. The back of the album (yes, those were in the days of the LP) listed all the wonderful texts: translations/paraphrases by W.H. Auden of marginalia written by monks in the manuscripts they were copying. I think what appealed to me most about the Hermit Song texts was the prospect of solitude: “Ah, to be all alone, in a little room, with nobody near me …” begins the final song of the cycle, set to a haunting melody that I still can recall word-for-word. A few years later I stumbled on Thomas Merton‘s Seven Storey Mountain and became a Merton groupie. But I’ve never been tempted to actually sign up. I think the prospect of surrendering complete obedience is far more daunting than the other vows of poverty and chastity.But the monastic life continues to fascinate and inspire me.

Though most of us aren’t cut out for the monastic life and none of us lives in the age of knighthood, both lifestyles hold great appeal and account, I believe, for much of the popularity of the medieval mystery genre.

Which do you prefer reading about when you go browsing for medieval fare: knights, nuns, or something else altogether? Stop by and share.

Historical Fiction set in Ancient Times

I had so many great comments on my post last week that I thought I’d share what I learned and give the commentators a little plug in the process. I started out intending to list them all, but there are too many for only one post, so I’ve decided to divide them chronologically, starting with those set in antiquity, maybe adding a few more as I go.

Barbara Monajem, who writes Regency romance, suggested the Lindsey Davis novels featuring Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco. I’ve read several of these myself and find them highly entertaining. The series is set in the first century of the Roman Empire, beginning in the reign of Vespasian, 70 A.D. Falco’s smart-alecky voice and lively first-person narration put these books in the great P.I. tradition. Think Elvis Cole transported to ancient Rome.

Joe De Marco, who writes the Marco Fontana P.I. series, mentioned Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote several different historical series for children and young adults from the 1950s on. The Chronicles of Robin Hood, an Arthurian series, and one set in Roman Britain, beginning with THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH. Because my own historical mysteries are set in ancient Rome, I’m especially intrigued by this. I was also a huge King Arthur fan when I was young, courtesy of T.H. White, so the Arthurian ones sound great, too. So many books, so little time…

Among our commentators, Rome seems to hold pride of place, but I’m sure there are other fascinating historical mysteries set elsewhere in the ancient world. One recent series that’s been high on my TBR list is that by Gary Corby, set in ancient Athens. His narrator, like Falco, sounds like a cheeky fellow. My kind of literary guide.

Rather than ask you to add to this already perilously high TBR tower, I’ll ask: What do you look for in a novel set in antiquity? What kind of voice do you like? Since the author is writing in English rather than ancient Latin or Greek, how do you think she or he should approach the story’s language and dialogue? It’s quite different from looking at fiction set in an English-speaking milieu.

History and Fiction

I’ve always loved historical fiction. I think what started me on the kick was Edward Eager’s Half-Magic, one of the first “real” books I read as a kid. In it, the characters referred frequently to Ivanhoe. A few years later, I stumbled on Sir Walter Scott’s classic in our junior high school library and couldn’t wait to read it for myself. I followed this up with some of Scott’s other novels, then The Three Musketeers and its sequels, and later on, stories about Tudor queens: Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and the hapless wives of King Henry VIII.

More recently, I’ve become enamored of historical mysteries. Colleagues at work introduced me to Sharan Newman‘s wonderful medieval series set in twelfth-century France, featuring Catherine LeVendeur, bookish daughter of a Parisian merchant. I discovered Barbara Hambly‘s A Free Man of Color and learned about the free black men and women who lived in New Orleans in the early nineteenth century, a fascinating culture I’d not known even existed. A new fave is Jeri Westerson‘s Crispin Guest series that takes place in Chaucer’s England, its hero a delightful mix of Philip Marlowe and Errol Flynn.

There’s room for all kinds here, all sorts of tones and moods, from romps through the desert with Elizabeth Peters‘ indomitable Amelia Peabody to the more somber hues of a trip through ancient Rome escorted by Steven Saylor‘s Gordianus the Finder.

I love these books because I love fiction that takes me to new places, to times that are so unlike our own. Yet the human element remains the same from age to age, and it’s endlessly intriguing to see how those who lived in other centuries had to deal with the universals that we all face: finding love, making a living, dealing with times of crisis.

What are your favorite historical novels? I’d love to add them to my list.

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