History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 February 2010

Confessions of an Unjustified Ignoramus: The Pleasures of WOLF HALL

If I could give it six or seven stars out of the allowable five, I'd do so, is what I recently wrote on Goodreads.com about this splendid historical novel that kept me reeling and squealing with pure reading pleasure last week while the rest of my life ground to a halt around it.

Not that I'm exactly alone in my appreciation. The reviews have been rapturous, the accolades universal. Wolf Hall didn't only receive Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize this year; it was the oddsmakers' favorite since the short list of (spectacular) finalists was announced.

But I'm probably relatively alone -- if not in my pristine ignorance of its subject, then in my complete lack of prior interest in it.

Because before I read this book, not only did I know absolutely zip about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall's towering, tough, surprisingly sympathetic, and entirely absorbing subject (who was King Henry VIII's chief minister and active fixer during the period of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn).

But I had very little curiosity about his period, having learneed barely enough to get through high school European history: Henry leaving the Catholic Church and seizing the monasteries was about all you needed, though the lonely heroism of Thomas More might be worked into an essay question, while "one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded" might get you some extra credit. And I continued not to care much, even amidst all the Philippa Gregory hoopla of the last few years. I didn't bother about the Scarlett Johansson movie or the Tudors on TV -- though I will cop to always feeling slightly smug, knowing why Donwell Abbey is Donwell Abbey.

Of course, there was the high school pilgrimage to see A Man for All Seasons on Broadway, obligatory during a certain era for honor students from Long Island. But if there were any surprises to be found there, any ironies or complications of the mid-twentieth century liberal chronicle of Thomas More's resistance of conscience in the face of Henry's cynical operatives (Thomas Cromwell being chief among them), I've got to say they quite eluded my impatient adolescent imagination. While the King himself, bigger than life in the famous portrait, has, I confess, always seemed to me somewhat less than alive, so meticulously outlined by Hans Holbein the Younger's brush, so easily and too readily understood as a creature of outsized will and appetites.

Lusty -- isn't that the word that comes to mind, and much too quickly, imo. Odd how sometimes a word can obscure so much more than it reveals.

Which is not, necessarily, to fault Robert Bolt for what I might have missed in his play. While as for Holbein's painting: certainly the nuanced subtleties of his portrait of Henry -- the massiveness of the shoulders surrounding (as Mantel's text points out) the pampered daintiness of the mouth -- are there to see for anyone who really looks. It's clearly nobody's fault but my own that I wasn't understanding much.

But what I have to marvel at is, that thanks to Wolf Hall, my ignorance and inattention have been quite deliciously, almost unfairly rewarded, by allowing me such a fullness of latter-day discovery of this past world and its events though Mantel's rendering of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, who rose to the heights of power amid the intrigues of the Tudor court. As Mantel tells it, the story of the man who managed Henry's divorce and marriage (avoiding war with the Pope while expropriating vast church properties) is an ongoing astonishment, a brilliant use of what historians do know and what they can't -- to build a credible human being, who just (we think and think and think again as the story unfolds) might have been something like that; a Thomas Cromwell who might have seen, thought, experienced things in just that way.

Credible and yet astonishing. As real people in the real world sometimes emerge from the background when we manage to see the world through their eyes for a brief empathic instant.

I don't think it would have worked without its brief, brilliant, brutal opening scene.

"So now get up."

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

Another blow -- from the then-fifteen-year-old Thomas Cromwell's insanely, inexplicably violent father -- does come, but it's not properly placed and doesn't kill him. Nor does the boy get up. Not yet, anyway; he's got the remainder of the book in which to rise to the fabulous fullness of his political power. Now he simply absorbs the violence, plays for time, profits from a momentary lucky distraction to creep away, pass out, and survive the blows of a world he didn't make. Coming to consciousness the next day, he escapes his father's rages by leaving England, spending his young manhood on the continent as a soldier, a trader, a secretary and translator -- picking up the ways of the world as he goes, not only in courts, but in kitchens and counting houses.

Look again at that portrait of Henry, and at Holbein's portrait of Thomas Cromwell, here. Look only only at the men, though, but at the richness of the fabrics, the furs, the textiles and carpets, the stuffs that were being measured and traded out of Antwerp, the metals and minerals coming in on ships from the New World. Mantel's Thomas Cromwell is a man who's learned at first hand about the ways of wealth. When we meet him again -- after he's returned from his young man's education in the world -- we meet a man whose fingers know the weave of a carpet, the weight of a bag of coins.

But we know from that first scene that he's also a man whose body knows the ways of blunt, stupid, arbitrary power. The writing continues unfailingly, densely immediate as Cromwell measures, evaluates, acts, judges, and also desires and loves, mourns and endures. He loses a beloved wife and daughter in an afternoon of summer plague. It's a world where things are both bigger and smaller than we're accustomed to, wherein a man of Cromwell's competence can gather the tools of power, hear the hums and feel the stirrings of new religious and philosophical knowledges as though mastering the fine points of forging horseshoes in his father's smithy.

Written in a continuing present tense and an unremitting Cromwell-centered point of view (one of the few examples of that p.o.v. technology I've encountered that justifies the word deep), I read it as a kind of manna from historical fiction heaven, the best example of what I want from that kind of writing: the marvelous plenitude of detail and evidence and the daring, wide-ranging speculation that creates a world and a person within it. oneThe felt knowledge, as I've written more than once on this blog, that our now-familiar past was someone else's challenging, don't-know-how-it'll-end present.

Can one accomplish that in historical romance? Ultimately no, I think, though I do try for momentary effects, flashes of understanding, and challenges to the genre's received wisdom (surprise! the British Home Office wasn't all wisdom and gentlemanly rectitude post-Waterloo, devoted only to the good of its citizens and the defense of the Prince Regent's substantial person).

But in the main, historical romance has other virtues, other structuring characteristics. As I've written about before and as I'll try to write about again in the light of Wolf Hall.

What a book.

Have you read it? Do you intend to? And if you have, what did you think of it?

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24 February 2010

What a story! Real-life personals as literary inspiration

Pvt. George S. Gaines, First New York Mounted Rifles

A young soldier, of two years' standing in the armies of the Republic, is desirous of conducting a correspondence with some American lady, not over 24 years of age, with the view that it may lead to a mutual desire to become personally acquainted -- that such acquaintanceship may ripen into love, and, by the consummation of our affection, two lives be blended into one; or, in the plain King's English, I am quite anxious to marry . . . None but those who are sincerely disposed to look this matter "square in the face" need reply. In regard to his personal appearance, qualifications and character, the advertiser prefers to say nothing -- a carte de visite, the contemplated correspondence and the future will disclose all that is necessary or desirable to be known on the subject . . . Address Charles P. Hanover, First New York Mounted Rifles, Suffolk, Va.

May 27, 1863

That letter, with a few others dating from the second half of the 19th century, was originally printed in the New York Herald, and these letters were reprinted on the Sunday Opinion page of the New York Times this past Valentines Day, edited by Pam Epstein, a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the author of a blog called "Advertising for Love."

1st Sgt. Frank W. Mills. First New York Mounted Rifles

I was so struck by this letter that I read it aloud to my husband across the breakfast table the following morning, my eyes brimming with tears. So many thoughts simultaneously crossed my mind as I read it that Cupid might as well have tied each one to an arrow and unleashed his entire quiver at once, every dart striking my heart with a true aim.

First, the letter reminded me of the way I met my husband Scott -- he was stationed overseas. I was a NYC girl at home, looking, hoping, wishing, and wanting love. And by that point, I was open to all possibilities. Scott's first letter to me was also so, well, well-written (and what writer doesn't want an introductory love note that is perfectly spelled and grammatically correct?) that I wanted to know "Who IS this guy?"

When I read Charles Hanover's personal ad in the Times, his writing style struck me as well; his letter was so impeccably crafted, so sophisticated, that I tried to imagine your average grunt today writing something so perfectly phrased, peppered with French, and just skirting the saber's edge between florid and heartfelt.

Pvt. Allen Curtis Smith, First New York Mounted Rifles

And before I began to wonder what he might have looked like (somewhat older than advertised, perhaps, which might have accounted for the sophisticated prose, the French, the initial unwillingness to reveal any details about his looks), I thought ... did he come home?

And then, as a historical novelist I wondered, if Johnny (or rather, Charles) Came Marching Home, had he met his future wife during the war as a result of his personal ad in the New York Herald? How did their courtship play out in letters? And what happened when they finally met in person? Was one or the other of them disappointed? Delighted? Having had the best of intentions, did they eventually wed, or did reality crush their epistolary dreams? What did Charles bring back from the Civil War? Was he wounded? Physically, psychologically, or both? Could his sweetheart begin to comprehend and cope with what he had experienced?

And who was she? What was her backstory? An old maid with pragmatic dreams or a young girl with her heart open to the sky? From the North or from the South? And how would that impact their relationship? What was her family's experience of the war?

Pvt. Reuben Webb, First New York Mounted Rifles

And what if Charles didn't make it home in one piece, or as a sentient being, and what if he came home in a box instead of on two legs, or even a crutch? What happened to the widow that never was?

Have you ever read a letter (not one written by a well known or "famous" person) and thought "Wow! What a novel this would make!" If so, what was the gist of the letter that sparked your imagination. Did you write the story?

By the way, here's a link to some history on Charles Hanover's regiment. http://www.dmna.state.ny.us/historic/reghist/civil/cavalry/1stMtdRifles/1stMtdRiflesMain.htm

A foootnote to history from that site: September 6, 1865, the regiment received the designation, 4th Provisional Regiment, N. Y. Volunteer Cavalry, and its final record will be found under that head.

The regiment lost by death, killed in action, 1 officer, 18 enlisted men; of wounds received in action, 1 officer, 12 enlisted men; of disease and other causes, 4 officers, 125 enlisted men; total, 6 officers, 155 enlisted men; aggregate, 161; of whom 8 enlisted men died in the hands of the enemy.

23 February 2010

Winner of Improper Relations

Susan Wilbanks won a signed copy of Improper Relations.

Congratulations, Susan, we'll be in touch!

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22 February 2010

Improper Relations? Or just good friends?

I'm writing today about my new release Improper Relations and early nineteenth century attitudes toward female friendship.

Friendships between women in the Georgian era were often expressed in passionate language in frequent letters; it was the age of feeling, of sensibility. It was also an age of advancing female literacy and leisure among the middle classes, and the absence of men--whether it was to prizefights or war--led women to seek like-minded companionship.

The Ladies of Llangollen are probably the most notorious example of passionate female friendship. In 1778, Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby eloped to live together for over fifty years of devoted bliss, enjoying literature, gardening, and a gorgeous house (which they decorated in Gothic splendor) in Llangollen, Wales. This charming portrait is of their cats in 1809 by artist Maria Taylor. They became celebrities who were visited by the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Wellington and Lady Caroline Lamb.

As their names suggest, they were members of the Irish aristocracy, and both women had upset their families by claiming they would never marry. Eventually they were reconciled with their families and, following interest from Princess Charlotte, received a royal pension.

So I find it extraordinary that Austen's view of female friendship is so negative. Friendship is a sometime thing and not always sincere; one of the participants at least may have an ulterior motive, despite appearances.
The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves. They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor befriends Lucy Steele to discover the nature of her engagement to Edward, and the two perform a complicate dance of suspicion and revelation. Do you really think Elizabeth Bennett will maintain her friendship with Charlotte Lucas; or rather, do you think Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Collins will write frequent, warm letters to each other?

For Austen, true intimacy and love is between sisters, not friends.

My book, Improper Relations, which came out last week from Little Black Dress, is about a friendship between two women and the conflict caused when their loyalties to each other are challenged by new loyalties to their respective husbands. Yes, it's a romance (splutter, it has an arranged marriage and a duel! A wedding night!). I made the mistake of telling some women at a conference a few months ago that my next book was about relationships between women because they were so much more interesting and brought the table to an embarrassed silence.

Here's an excerpt, as recounted by the hero:
[Charlotte says] “She is my friend. My best friend. She knows me better than anyone in the world. When she fell in love I was lonely. I felt I had lost her and part of myself, too.”

I am silent. I have friends; I have lost friends, too, an inevitable consequence of the times in which we live and my former profession. But I have never felt incomplete without anyone—or rather, until now, I have never felt the possibility that I could feel this way. For I realize fully now what Charlotte means to me, my other half, my love, the one whom I can turn to and who knows my secret self. It has taken her confession of love for another to make me realize how deeply I love my wife, an extraordinary business to be sure.
Do you agree with my assessment of Austen's view of female friendships? Does it trouble you that Lizzie Bennett doesn't grieve for the loss of her friend? Prove me wrong, please!

I'll give a signed copy of my new book to a random commenter. Meanwhile, do visit my site and find the links to soundbites from my Regency chicklit books on the home page, enter the contest and read another excerpt from Improper Relations.

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20 February 2010

The Reliable Wife: Bleak Romance with a Questionable "HEA"

There are some books I finish and I just sit there for a minute at the end and think "What was that?" That's what happened when I read the Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. I must admit, I picked it up because I liked the title, and the cover said ROMANCE: A headless woman in a beautiful Victorian-looking red dress standing in front of a train.

Now this was not the original cover, which was much more staid and literary looking (a simple title on a sign), so I figured the new cover was meant to target me, a romance fan.

Well, was I in for an interesting read. I read the whole book in a few hours, with my eyebrows raised at the purple prose, the complete implausibility of the plot, and sex-obssessed characters that were hard to like and unsympathetic. But I kept reading. For some reason I wanted to know what happened. The ending had a sort of "happily ever after" ending, but without giving anything away, I honestly didn't buy it. Not after the extreme emotional and physical abuse these characters suffered and put each other through. But what bothers me the most are the literary reviews---so many said this book was a BODICE RIPPER! Now come on. Who ever calls this book a "soap-opera bodice ripper" hasn't read one. I've read a few.

Was this book a romance? No. Decidedly not. It also had a queer way of making me feel icky at the end, even with the so-called happy ending that the author likened to the end-style of a Jane Austen novel: Everything solved to everyone's satisfaction in the few final pages. NOT!

I have taken the liberty of posting this review by Ron Charles, who reviews for the Washington Post. I think he sums it up fairly, if not favorably. I agree with most of what he wrote, except I still have a hard time believing that these severely damaged people could ever forgive themselves and each other.

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009


By Robert Goolrick

This Story
FICTION: Loneliness, Lust and the Mail-Order Bride
FICTION: Living Far From Home
COMIC NOVELS: If Animals, and Zombies, Could Write
Algonquin. 291 pp. $23.95

"Don't be fooled by the prissy cover or that ironic title. Robert Goolrick's first novel, "A Reliable Wife," isn't just hot, it's in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at a time with agonizing restraint. It works only because Goolrick never cracks a smile, never lets on that he thinks all this overwrought sexual frustration is anything but the most serious incantation of longing and despair ever uttered in the dead of night.

The curtain rises in 1907 during a Wisconsin winter "cold enough to sear the skin from your bones." Ralph Truitt, the wealthiest man in town, stands frozen in place on a train platform, but inside he's burning with the unsated desire of 20 solitary years.

Ralph is waiting for his mail-order bride, a woman he requisitioned through a classified ad: "Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons. . . . Discreet." That may sound as horny as Sunday school, but Ralph isn't entirely what he seems, standing there on the platform with "his eyes turned downward, engraved with a permanent air of condescension and grief." Inside, the 58-year-old widower is startled by the intensity of his desires, consumed with thoughts of sex and murder and madness in homes all around town. "Sometimes his loneliness was like a fire beneath his skin," Goolrick writes. "He had thought of taking his razor and slicing his own flesh, peeling back the skin that would not stop burning."

This first chapter, in which everything appears stock still, is told in a husky whisper of something lurid and painful, "the terrible whip of tragedy." Again and again, we hear this refrain, like a judgment and a curse: "These things happened."

Keep this in mind as you're scanning the personal ads in the City Paper.

When Catherine Land finally arrives, looking prim and dour, she isn't what she appears to be, either. She threw her extravagant party dresses out the train window a few miles from town, and she has hidden jewels in the hem of her black wool dress. She's not even the woman in the photo she sent Ralph during their summer of tentative correspondence. And she's carrying a bottle of arsenic and "a long and complicated scheme."

Poor Ralph has some awfully bad luck with women: the matrimonial equivalent of sailing to Europe on the Titanic and flying home on the Hindenburg. "This begins in a lie," he tells Catherine sternly as he picks up her bags. "I want you to know that I know that. . . . Whatever else, you're a liar."

All Ralph wants -- or pretends he wants -- is "a simple, honest woman. A quiet life. A life in which everything could be saved and nobody went insane." That's so hard to attain when your new bride hopes to poison you straightaway. But damned if he doesn't almost die in a spectacular riding accident while bringing her home from the station. Poor Catherine finds she's got to nurse Ralph back to health before she can start killing him.

Don't worry: I'm not giving anything away. Neither of these two steely people is playing straight with the other, and Goolrick isn't playing straight with us, either. The floor collapses in almost every chapter, and we suddenly crash through assumptions we'd thought were solid. Goolrick keeps probing at the way people force themselves not to know something -- not to believe the truth -- in order to fulfill their deepest longings.

The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. The whole thing takes place in a fever pitch of exquisite sensations and boundless grief in a place where "the winters were long, and tragedy and madness rose in the pristine air." The word "alone" spreads through these pages like mold in the cellar, until it's everywhere.

The stillness and whiteness of the Wisconsin setting eventually give way to the lush depravity of St. Louis, lined with music halls and opium dens. Much of this section takes place in "a tented, brocaded bedroom, like a palace abandoned before a revolution."

I'm reluctant to quote much more for fear of making the book sound silly -- "Love that lived beyond passion was ephemeral. It was the gauze bandage that wrapped the wounds of your heart" -- but once you've fallen into the miasma of "A Reliable Wife," it's intoxicating. (Columbia Pictures has already grabbed the rights for what could be an inflammable movie.) I'm reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's stories with their claustrophobic atmosphere, hyper-maudlin tone and the extravagant suffering that borders on garishness. (Yes, Goolrick includes a forlorn castle, too.) These are all qualities the author displayed in his equally gothic memoir, "The End of the World as We Know It" (2007). But his inspiration for "A Reliable Wife" reportedly came from "Wisconsin Death Trip," a grim collection of antique photographs published in 1973. The editor of that book, Michael Lesy, reproduced pictures of children laid to rest and parents in shock, along with newspaper anecdotes about murder, illness, assault and insanity -- the same kinds of ghastly tales that obsess Goolrick's overheating characters.

Ultimately, this bizarre story is one of forgiveness. But the path to that salutary conclusion lies through a spectacularly orchestrated crescendo of violation and violence, a chapter you finish feeling surprised that everyone around you hasn't heard the screams, too."

So what do you think? Have you read this book? Is this a bodice-ripping romance with more literary-suffering than you usually like?

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17 February 2010

Heart Tug Moments – Angst, Rejection, and Repudiation

I like to do a romantic moments blog around Valentine’s Day. This year I thought I’d focus on moments where a happy ending for the couple in question seems an impossibility. Sometimes they are the ending to a story. Sometimes they are the bleak moment before a triumphant ending. Either way, they can be intensely romantic, despite or perhaps because of the edge of sorrow.

My examples are mostly historical and come from novels, films, and a Broadway musical.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. Damerel sending Venetia away for her own good. I feel a heart tug every time I read about him throwing her up into the saddle for the last time. Much as I want to shake Damerel, there’s something that always gets me about a guy trying to be noble.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Cecilia running after Robbie and embracing him before the police take him away. The fact that she stands by him against the seeming evidence, against her family, against the pressures of class prejudice stunned me the first time I read the book and stunned me the film version as well.

The Silicon Mage by Barbara Hambly. Antryg saying farewell to Joanna before sending her off to her own world, both of them fully expecting him to die. There’s a lovely restraint to the scene which makes the words all the more powerful.

The Empire Strikes Back by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas. Princess Leia saying farewell to Han Solo before he’s frozen in carbonite (“I love you.”/”I know.”). I was talking about this scene to a friend over dinner on Valentine’s Day. The moment my thirteen-year-old self fell in love with Han Solo/Harrison Ford. I still remember sitting with my parents in a restaurant afterwards and saying “It’s so unfair we have to wait so long to find out what happens next.”

“Send in the Clowns”, A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Desirée’s song captures the poignancy of the moment when love seems lost, wry irony with a wealth of pain underneath.

Casablanca by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Rick putting Ilsa on the plane. I can’t think of another scene that is at once so poignant and so satisfyingly right.

Shakespeare in Love by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Will and Viola saying goodbye. I find this scene much more painful than the end of Casablanca. And yet there’s the power of the fact that you can already see Will beginning to think about writing again and you see Viola’s will to go on.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig. Robert sending Charlotte away for her own good. Like the scene in Venetia, this one brings a lump to my throat. But unlike Damerel, who simply thinks he’s too tainted to make Venetia happy, Robert is caught in a dangerous web he really can’t tell Charlotte about. Fortunately for both of them, the intrepid Charlotte unravels things on her own.

Any examples of your own to add? What makes this type of scene work or not work for you? Writers, do you find these scenes harder or easier to write than happy love scenes?

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15 February 2010

Welcome, Jane Toombs!

Nightingale Man
by Jane Toombs
Available now!

I love the idea of a WWI romance, so I'm very excited to welcome Jane here today.

During World War I, Luke is recruited by the British Secret Service from the American pilots flying with the French Air Force. He's told his mission is to rescue Nurse Edith Cavell, captured by the Boche, imprisoned in German-occupied Belgium and doomed to be shot as a spy.

All too soon his mission becomes a challenge to stay alive. Who's double-crossing him?

Can it be the English gal he's falling in love with?

Nightingale Man is set during World War I before the United States joined England and France to fight against Germany. Is there a particular reason you chose this setting?

First of all, I was born between WWI and WWII, so the war I heard about as a child was the first, not the second. When I was twelve years old, my father was appointed to be Deputy Auditor General of Michigan, so we moved from the Upper Peninsula to Lansing, the state capitol. My best friend Betty’s father was Director of Aeronautics in Michigan and sometimes took us flying in his private plane. It fascinated me that he was a pilot and I asked my father about him. Being a historian he, as usual , told me more about the late war than I wanted to know. But I learned some American men who could fly didn’t wait until the United States entered the war, instead joining the French Escadrille in the late war to fly with the French against the German enemy. Betty’s father was one of them. I was impressed, and never forgot it.

How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

Because I lived through WWII, becoming a Cadet Nurse, that war was real to me. WWI, on the other hand, was the past, a time I hadn’t lived through and so seemed more glamorous. I loved to read stories about England in the time before that war and during it.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

All war is brutal of course. But while I was becoming an RN, I had to take a class in Nursing History. I read with horror how the Germans had executed, by firing squad, Nurse Edith Cavell as a spy, simply because she helped wounded Belgian, French and English soldiers recover enough to slip out of German-occupied Belgium. I even had bad dreams for awhile about the incident.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

Research didn’t uncover any plan for the British to try to sneak into Belgium and rescue her, but I ignored that for purposes of the story I was writing. Why? Because that was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book.

Any gaffs or mea culpas you want to fess up to before readers get their hands on the book? I know I always seem to find one after the book has gone to press. *sigh*

Not that I yet have found.

Tell us a little about your hero.

Lucky” Luke Ray idolized his father and blamed his mother for the fact his father left them, leaving him behind. He has a lot to learn during the course of the story.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

I’ve mentioned my friend’s pilot father and Nurse Edith Cavell. As a nurse myself, I couldn’t help but identify with her.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

Major is right! I knew nothing about Belgium, for one thing. Most of the research was done years ago when my second husband was still alive. He became interested in WWI after doing a book for a packager about it. Packagers are people who set up an organization, plan a series of books and then recruit authors to write them, usually using the same pseudonym on all the books, the author’s name appearing only on the copyright page. We wrote quite a few books for this packager. So , though we’d never actually done a book together, we planned NIGHTINGALE MAN and split up the research. But he died before we’d done much more that plot it out and begin it. So it sat there for years before I decided to take a look and see if I could write it alone. Reading through it, I realized , since neither of us had know anything about flying, I’d need help. By then the Viking from my past had come back into my life and, hey, he’d been a Navy pilot and flown all kinds of small planes since WWII. Turned out he’d always been fascinated by old planes. So we took a trip to Rhinebeck, NY where they have all those WWI planes and stage mock dog fights. He talked to the pilots and made sure he knew the differences in the old planes and the ones he’d flown. Research provided the rest. He didn’t do any of the writing but kept me on track while I wrote about the planes--correcting any errors.

What/Who do you like to read?

What I read depends on my state of mind. Right now I’m into suspense and mystery. So both Faye and Jonathan Kellerman. Dana Stabenow, Nevada Barr and Michael Connelly.

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I’m a single draft plotter. By that, I mean I do a lengthy synopsis of the book first, then begin. The synopsis is not written in stone and my characters frequently depart from it, but never so far I get off track. I allow myself to go back and edit the chapter before the one I’m about to write.. This continues all the way through the book--but one chapter back only. The only exception is if I discover something has to be changed back farther. This method works for me. Keeping it limited to one chapter allows me to get back into the flow of the book, cuts down editing at the end of the book, and doesn’t permit me to waste time. After I’m done, I start from the beginning and edit my way through. But this is learned behavior. I wrote and sold my first two books as complete books. My agent couldn’t give away my third. Then he called me and said a packager was doing a Zodiac series and needed an author for Sagittarius. Could I get a synopsis and three chapters to him? Green as grass Jane asked, “What’s a synopsis?” After a pause, he told me. So I did what he said, wrote three chapters and got a contract. What an eye-opener. After a time I went back and wrote a synopsis for that third finished book and could clearly see I’d wandered all over the place. So I wrote a new synopsis and redid the book. He sold it, and I learned a valuable lesson--I needed a guideline to keep from straying.

What are you planning to work on next?

I made a New Year’s resolution to finish the first book in every series I’ve begun that I deem salable in today’s market. The only departure from this can be for a novella already contracted-for, as I’m one of the twelve Jewels Of The Quill, a closed promo group who promote each other. One of the ways is our Tales From The Treasure Trove Anthologies--up to seven now. We do holiday themed ones as well. Other than that, I can’t begin anything new until I’ve finished the first book in these six series. The first series I’m set to do is a trilogy--Darkness of Dragons, with the first book Dragon’s Pearl. However, I’ve already sold and finished the first two books in the Desperate Deception Series of eight books So after the first two are out, I’ll have to finish the third--and so on. Winters are long in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula…

12 February 2010

Jane Digby El Mezrab - Part II

Jane Digby’s life in itself was an eye-opener; her life in the deserts of Syria was an eyebrow-popper! Six months of the year she and the sheikh of her life, Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, spent in the palatial residence she built in Damascus; the other six months they lived in Arab tents in the desert. Isobel Burton, stationed in Damascus while husband Richard collected notes for his translation of The Arabian Nights (and his later Terminal Essay on Arabian sex life and customs), observed that:

“When I say the men are riding djerid (the wild, plunging charge of Bedouin horseman),I mean that they are galloping about violently, firing from horseback at full speed, yelling, hanging over in their stirrups with their bridles in their mouth, playing with and quivering their long feathered lances in the air, throwing them and catching them again at full gallop, picking things from the ground, firing pistols, throwing themselves under the horses’ bellies and firing under them at full gallop . . . ”

And Jane loved every minute of it. Apparently she made no attempt to change the Bedouin pattern of violence, or convert them to Christianity. She lived among them, keeping her own beliefs. Another interesting note is that Medjuel “the adored, the noble, lion-hearted, independent lover, never availed himself of Jane’s considerable family fortune. Instead, he preferred to acquire funds in ways traditional to his people - raiding other tribes for horses and camels.

Inter-tribal warfare was common, often over questions of pasturage and trading concessions. In one skirmish, the Mezrabs suffered losses of men and cattle and their camps were sacked. Jane, now a grandmother, rushed off to join the fray beside Medjuel. The entire tribe was devoted to her.

Jane gathered about her the European residents of Damascus, members of the Consular and Government Services, and visitors for occasional “rooftop” suppers, which Isobel Burton remembers:

“How I look back to those romantic days ... when the mattresses and cushions of the divans were spread on the housetop...then the supper was prepared on the roof, and there remained with us the two most interesting and remarkable characters of Damascus,the two who never knew what fear meant - the famous Abd El Kadir and Lady Ellenborough.”

Even at sixty-one, Jane was still a beautiful woman, a true grande dame, commanding and queen-like. Jane dressed simply, plaited her hair in two long braids down to the ground, milked camels, served her husband’s food, offered water to wash hands and face, sat on the floor washing his feet, poured his coffee, offered sherbet.

Not only did Jane dote on Mezrab, she loved animals; at one time she had horses, donkeys, dromedaries, a pelican, Persian hounds and parrots. And 100 cats, each with its own plate. A long-suffering serving maid cared for the pets.

In 1859, after a snowy winter, famine, and unrest, Moslem and Christian came to blows. In Beirut, the Druze massacre of the Christians spread waves of terror across the country. The fervor reached Damascus, and Kurds and Druzes set fire to the city, smoking out Christians, who were raped, dismembered, or killed. Corpses rotted in the gutters, and all who could leave, did so. But Jane and Medjuel remained to help. Medjuel tried to reason with the mob, then opened his house as sanctuary for Christians.

As the Christian wife of a Moslem, Jane’s position was dangerous. Fires raged. The foreign consulates were burned. Damascus became an inferno. Yet Jane left the protection of the Mezrab household and went into the city, alone, to do what she could. Neither her person nor her house were touched out of respect for her position among the Arabs, but she defended her Christian faith with a notable lack of tact. Medjuel took an equally firm stand for Islam and finally left Damascus and Jane.

Jane was desolate; she adored Medjuel as she had never loved another man. They later reconciled, but Jane was now 74 years old and began to find life in the Bedouin tents too rough and the long desert rides too exhausting. Medjuel went to and from the desert without her, but she felt it bitterly.

During the summer of 1881 cholera swept through Damascus. Most of the Europeans left, but Jane and Medjuel stayed on in the house with its fountains, gardens, the menagerie of animals. Jane died in August from an attack of dysentery with Medjuel by her side.

But when the funeral cortege slowly wound toward the Protestant cemetery, the desert Bedouin, which Medjuel was at heart, rebelled. The funereal gloom and ritual sickened him. He escaped the carriage and fled. The funeral continued, and just as the last words of the service were being read, there was the sound of horses’ hooves.

Medjuel had returned, riding Jane’s favorite black mare. He galloped up to the open grave and then rode out into the desert and where he sacrificed one of his finest camels in her memory.

Sources: The Wilder Shores of Love, Lesley Blanch; Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, post, October 2007.

11 February 2010

Research Books You Can't Get Enough Of

Every one of my reference books has its own story to tell. Most of them entered my house to help a specific book but some came because I simply couldn’t live without it. And the books I’ll buy most often, whether or not I need them at that moment, are the ones about words.

I have a hardcopy edition of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus (American Edition), plus the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus that resides on my computer. Yes, I know there are websites but what happens when you can’t reach the Internet? Been there, done that, gotten so messed up! When it comes to dictionaries, I’m a girl who insists on having backups for her backups.

I love foreign language dictionaries, too. Big, fat ones for commonly met languages like French and Spanish and German. Lots of smaller dictionaries on the same language – needed to ensure full coverage, of course – like Irish, Scots, and Galician Gaelic. If I ever found a dictionary for Breton (a distant relative of Gaelic), I’d probably invent a Breton character just so I’d have an excuse to use it.

One of the vast advantages to writing western historical is that it gives me an excuse to snatch up books on Old West lingo. Ramon Adams’ Western Words: A Dictionary of the Old West provides lovely definitions (including suggestions for alternatives) for words sometimes familiar and sometimes startlingly unusual.

As you might guess, I enjoy researching word histories. Well, it does come in handy when writing historicals! The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories graces my shelves, full of concise life stories. Chambers’ Dictionary of Etymology goes far deeper into words’ ancestry and development, especially when they came from foreign languages. I particularly enjoy its discussion of pronunciation.
One of my favorites is William Brohaugh’s English Through the Ages, which organizes words according to when they were in use. It’s therefore very easy to figure out what vocabulary a fourteenth century character would use, as opposed to a nineteenth century persona. This is far simpler than the more typical research technique of picking one’s brain for a word, then fumbling through a series of dictionaries and thesauri to see if it was in use – and meant the right thing – during that era. It’s also fascinating to get at least a hint of each era’s cadence, based on its proposed vocabulary.

Personally, I find phrase origins harder to research, probably because I seem to fumble for what’s the most historically important word in the phrase. But books about their lineage are endlessly fascinating, like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. It boasts a delightful selection of characters from popular culture of all eras, as well as phrases. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins neatly sums up phrase after phrase and frequently suggests alternative or linked phrases.

And then there are the books, which select alternative ways to state something. It’s rare to find a thesaurus for phrases, like Jean Kent and Candace Shelton’s The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book.

But my true obsession is finding a good thesaurus. Great definition, who used it and when, plus suggestions for alternatives – heaven on earth! Alan Richter’s Sexual Slang differentiates very neatly by era, gender, and sexual preference, unlike most in its sub-genre, which makes it very helpful. Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words gives the story behind a large number of unprintable terms, dating from Anglo-Saxon times to the present. Oh yes, it also gives era and suggests alternate usage, which can be very handy.

A previous employer of mine gave everyone access to all of the OED dictionaries – quotations, different languages, legal, etc. I could browse those darlings for hours, exploring the obscure paths that popped from apparently innocuous searches. One day, they will all be mine again…

What research books do you lust after? Have you ever shattered your budget on a reference book and, if so, which one?

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10 February 2010

Introducing Rose Lerner, Historical Fiction Author!

It gives me the greatest of pleasure to introduce debut author Rose Lerner, whose first book, In For a Penny, will be hitting the shelves on February 23rd. Rose discovered Georgette Heyer when she was an impressionable young miss of thirteen and never looked back-- fortunately for all of us!

In the midst of book launch madness, Rose has graciously taken the time to stop by today to share with us some of the more fascinating bits of her research for In For a Penny.

Welcome, Rose!

When I started writing In for a Penny, about a rich brewer's daughter who marries an impoverished earl, I realized I was going to have to do some research to figure out how people in the Regency thought about class. I had general ideas, obviously, but if I was going to write about my heroine from the point of view of my antagonist, the snobby poacher-hating Tory Sir Jasper, or write about my heroine meeting the hero's newly-middle-class tenant farmers, I needed to understand more.

I quickly discovered that there were endless gradations, just as there are today:

1. A biography of Hannah More tells this story: the Duchess of Gloucester "desired one of her ladies to stop an orange-woman and ask her if she ever sold ballads. 'No indeed,' said the woman, 'I don't do anything so mean, I don't even sell apples!'"

2. Miss Bingley finds it ridiculous to imagine a portrait of Elizabeth's uncle, a lawyer, next to one of Mr. Darcy's "great-uncle, the judge." While Elizabeth says she and Mr. Darcy are in the same class--"he is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter"--the difference seems huge to Lady Catherine.

3. As far as "new money" went, bankers and brewers were less respected than gentlemen and peers, but more respected than factory-owners and men who made their fortunes in new, Industrial Revolution professions.

4. When I was reading the opera reviews Leigh Hunt did for his journal, the Examiner, I was surprised by how often ideas of "vulgarity" and "coarseness" came up--and not at all in the sense of dirty jokes or inappropriate content. The words were primarily used to describe lapses in taste (for example, affected, show-off-y singing). "Vulgar" and "elegant" seem clearly linked to "working class" and "upper class." Yet, Leigh Hunt was a member of a middle-class, politically radical group of poets and thinkers (including John Keats, son of an apothecary) who were nicknamed "the Cockney School" and constantly described as "vulgar" by their gently-born critics. "Vulgar," it became apparent while doing my research, was a buzz-word of the time. It seems to have been especially popular when someone wanted to insult someone else for being of a lower socioeconomic class, but didn't want to admit that's what they were doing.

The moral is that, like today, everybody was very interested in where they stood on the ladder. They were probably very aware of the rungs a few feet above and below, and the distances between them, while everything farther away blurred together.

The distance between the nouveau riche and old money was small enough that old money was very, very vividly aware of it--and very eager to maintain it. I was occasionally startled by the scorn heaped on lower- or middle-class people who "rose above their station" or were perceived as trying to do so. I read one quote in particular again and again when trying to get the right tone for my villain. It's from an open letter by Lord Byron to his publisher John Murray, attacking the Cockney School:

It is in their finery that the new under school are most vulgar, and they may be known by this at once; as what we called at Harrow "a Sunday blood" might be easily distinguished from a gentleman, although his clothes might be the better cut, and his boots the best blackened, of the two--probably because he made the one, or cleaned the other, with his own hands.

He clearly believes that he's said something incredibly scathing, but all he's actually said is that he and his fellow aristocratic students at Harrow used to laugh at people who wore their best clothes to church, simply because they looked different, and couldn't afford to pay someone else to make and care for all their clothes. (I do love Byron, by the way, but I also love using him for research because his contemporary prejudices are so very shameless.) It's that quote, and what it represents--the terrifying humiliation of trying and failing to look like a gentlewoman--that has shaped my heroine from childhood.

The other part of this, the part I had the most trouble wrapping my head around, was the way all of these distinctions were perceived as natural. The differences between rich and poor weren't differences of education or culture; they were in the blood. That type of thinking has fallen out of fashion (possibly because we know more about genetics nowadays), but to write this book I had to try to understand it. This quote, from The Methodists by James Haskins, was my touchstone for that. It knocked me flat the first time I read it:

"[The Methodists'] doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors," the Duchess of Buckingham had observed in the mid-18th century, "in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions[...] It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth."

It's hard to imagine a world where it seems completely intuitive that being rich would make you less sinful. But as a historical romance author, it's my job to try.

Rose will be giving away a shiny new copy of In For A Penny to one person who comments on this blog....

05 February 2010

Telling a Book by its Cover Redux

"Just looking at its cover, would you guess that this is a very sexy romance novel?"

A fellow romance writer held up a copy of my now out-of-print The Slightest Provocation at lunch last summer.

And the answer, repeated 'round the table of history hoydens? Sadly (especially sadly in light of such a lovely, period-appropriate cover) the answer was a resounding NO!

The consensus being that you'd more likely suppose The Slightest Provocation was a classy -- even an elegant -- historical novel, perhaps of the snobby "stealth romance" variety.

"Ah, yes," a distracted shopper might tell herself as she makes her way past it on the bookstore shelves, "I think I read somewhere that Pam Rosenthal writes 'poetically.'

"Maybe I'll check it out later," said shopper might think, "when I'm in the mood for something improving and uplifting."

But sexy? No way.

While as for hot (not to speak of hawt?) -- not a chance.

Which is a big part of the reason this June the mass market edition of The Slightest Provocation will look like this -- officially encoded as sexy by means of those pecs and abs, and (these days -- go figure) by that arcane female leg action so ubiquitous on romance covers and so rarely found in nature.

Even, I dare to dream, encoded as hawt. Well hot, anyway.

Which is a good thing. Because The Slightest Provocation isn't a sweet, shy sort of love story, but probably the most challenging, turbulent historical romance I've written, Mary and Kit certainly my angriest, sweatiest, most contentious pair of lovers.

DearAuthor.com called the book "envelope-pushing, smart and astonishing," and thanked me for my "courage to break so many conventions." You can read the whole review here, and get links to some other enthusiastic praise here -- though I haven't posted this one yet, received unsolicited last December in an email from Regency romance writer Christine Wells, who said The Slightest Provocation was:
...unlike anything I've read, devoid of romance cliches, yet it was such a satisfying romance, I cheered at the end.
But let me also be clear that The Slightest Provocation made a couple of reviewers angry too. I didn't save the links, but I'm sure Google will help you chase down those opinions too.

All of which leads me to think conclude that the original elegant and sedate cover wasn't exactly right for a controversial, "raw, unflinching" romance (thanks, Contra Costa Times) between an estranged couple whose relationship might at first not seem worth salvaging.

Maybe a little more graphic passion and a little less period rectitude would made for a more accurate representation of what's between the covers of The Slightest Provocation (because when NAL asked me for some hints on what I remembered from the erotic scenes, I wrote back, "overgrown greenery... rain... rumpled linen," some of which it seems they actually caught).

In any case, I'll be eager to think what romance buyers think next June.

And right now, eager to hear what what you think as well.

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03 February 2010

Welcome Historical Fiction Debut Author Christine Trent!

I’m so happy to welcome historical fiction author Christine Trent, whose debut novel THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER, is was released on December 29, and has garnered a tremendous amount of attention, including an interview that was reprinted in The Washington Post.

On the brink of revolution, with a tide of hate turned against the decadent royal court, France is in turmoil - as is the life of one young woman forced to leave her beloved Paris. After a fire destroys her home and family, Claudette Laurent is struggling to survive in London. But one precious gift remains: her talent for creating exquisite dolls that Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France herself, cherishes. When the Queen requests a meeting, Claudette seizes the opportunity to promote her business, and to return home. Amid the violence and unrest, Claudette befriends the Queen, who bears no resemblance to the figurehead rapidly becoming the scapegoat of the Revolution. But when Claudette herself is lured into a web of deadly political intrigue, it becomes clear that friendship with France’s most despised woman has grim consequences. Now, overshadowed by the spectre of Madame Guillotine, the Queen's dollmaker will face the ultimate test.

THE QUEEN’S DOLLMAKER is set during the era of the French Revolution. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

I’ve always been interested in French and English history, but the period of the French Revolution is just so full of political upheaval and the destruction of centuries of royal rule that it’s easy to become totally absorbed in the era. I can’t imagine the turmoil the average citizen must have experienced. Also, as much as Marie Antoinette has been vilified over time, I think it’s difficult to do a thorough study of her life and not begin to feel a bit of sympathy – if not outright respect – for her. Given her spoiled and pampered upbringing, she really demonstrated nerves of steel when her world began falling apart. I find the period simply fascinating.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

The mass killings were simply appalling, particularly because they were so indiscriminate. If your neighbor was jealous of you, he might report you as harboring royalist feelings, and that pretty much ensured prison time, if not a visit to the guillotine. Robespierre thought that everyone would support his idea of “purification through bloodshed,” when in reality, people just wanted food because they were hungry. In terms of careful plotting, I tried to ensure that Claudette’s adventures with Marie Antoinette very closely tracked to the day-to-day historical record in the days surrounding the queen’s imprisonment and subsequent execution.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

I’d love to be able to say that I traveled to Paris and Versailles for research, but, alas, instead I was forced to rely on my memory of a trip I took many years ago. I also surrounded myself with lots of biographies on Marie Antoinette, and they exist aplenty. Prior to researching, I had no idea that Count Axel Fersen made a trip to England, and he quite took the country by storm. Fortunately for my storyline, I really needed Fersen in England to meet my dollmaker, so it was one of those “Aha!” moments where fact met fiction in a very neat intersection.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

In 2003, I had just finished reading Antonia Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY, and was also in the process of weeding through my doll collection (and somehow I never parted with a single doll). Turning the book over in my mind as I was handling all of my precious babies, I remembered that Marie Antoinette enjoyed dolls and frequently sent them to her mother and sister. It occurred to me that there was a nugget of an original story in the queen’s dolls, one that had never been explored before. I finished the manuscript in 2006 and sold it in 2008. So thoughts of the late French queen have literally been swirling around in my head for years.

Please share a bit about your writing process. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I am a 100% plotter. I greatly admire novelists who can sit down and write, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and let the story go where it will. I typically develop a ten-page synopsis detailing the entire storyline and work from there. Sometimes I’ll make some plot changes once the story is underway, but I usually stick pretty close to that synopsis. As a result, I tend to type up a first draft without cleaning as I go, then doing multiple reads to make corrections.

Please tell us about your background, and what led you to become a novelist.

My husband says it was a “no-brainer” for me to write books, because I’ve been collecting them for so long. The poor man spends most of his spare time building me bookshelves. I started out writing as a bit of lark (“Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write a book?”). It only got serious when page followed page and all of a sudden three years later I had a finished book. That’s when I realized the next step was to try and sell it. I was fortunate to be picked up by Audrey LaFehr at Kensington Publishing.

What/Who do you like to read? And are you one of those authors who tends to avoid reading the same genre you’re currently writing in during the in-progress stages of your own novel?

No way. I love historical fiction and I can’t read enough of it. Writing full-time makes it tougher to get as much reading done as I’d like, but I’ve always got a big pile of historical novels on my nightstand. Waiting for me right now are Michelle Moran’s CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER, Lauren Willig’s MASQUE OF THE BLACK TULIP (I’m way behind on Lauren), C.S. Harris’ WHAT REMAINS OF HEAVEN, and Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL. I just finished up Harris’ four previous St. Cyr mysteries, as well as Philippa Gregory’s THE WHITE QUEEN. All excellent books. There’s more in my to-be-read pile (including, of course, Leslie Carroll’s NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES as research for future novels), but we probably don’t have enough space to list them all.

What are you planning to work on next?

I just wrapped up a sequel; the working title was THE WAX APPRENTICE, but I've been asked to come up with a different one. This novel follows the adventures of Marguerite Ashby under her apprenticeship to the great waxworker Madame Tussaud. It’s a swashbuckling tale brimming with historical figures, political intrigues, and a heroine determined to live life on her own terms. Whatever title THE WAX APPRENTICE ends up with, the novel will be at your local bookstore in early 2011.

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