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Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Spain? with Lisa Yarde

I'm always taken aback when anyone asks why I write about Spain. It seems so inevitable to me that my reaction would include "Why don't you?" if I were a bit less civilized. I sometimes despair at the lack of historical novels in English about Spain. So I asked the wonderful Lisa Yarde the same question. This is what she had to say.

Why Spain?

The question has occurred often and my natural response is to answer, “Why not?” Spain is the predominant setting for half of the books I have written. Inspiration derives from the richness of its history and culture, and the influence of different religions on the architecture and food. Spain is a beautiful country of ice-capped mountains in the north, and sage green grass and red ochre soil in the central tableland. The heat stifles most residents of the south in the months of July and August. Spaniards today inherited a rich legacy from the Celts, Romans and Goths, and Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Toledo surrounded by the Tagus
For more than twenty years, I have explored Spain’s medieval past with a focus on the period of Muslim influence. It began with the North African invasion in 711 and ended in 1492, through the union of the Catholic monarchs of Castile and Aragon. During 800 years of rule, the Muslims ushered in changes and left a permanent mark on the character of Spain. New architectural styles, foods and music, as well as the Arabic language and the religion of Islam altered the peninsula. Almost from the moment of invasion, the Christians pushed back with the determination to recover their country. The boundaries extended at a gradual pace, while daily life required cooperative interactions between Muslims, Christians and their Jewish counterparts. Spain’s medieval period was often turbulent and filled with contradictions, a time of scientific development and superstition, coupled with spiritual fervor and terrible actions done in the name of religion.

With such a diverse heritage, Spain seems to be the perfect location for an adventurous story, but the setting remains rare in mainstream historical. I asked other authors who have also based their stories in Spain to comment on the choice. Jeanne Kalogridis is an award-winning, best-selling author. Her latest, The Inquisitor’s Wife is set in late fifteenth century Spain. On the choice of Spain, Jeanne’s research uncovered irresistible details about the historical figures, which she had to share with readers.

“…I didn't know much about Spanish history but was extremely curious about Queen Isabel and the Inquisition. I knew Isabel had always been portrayed as a saintly person who ordered the Inquisition because of her religious convictions. The more I researched, the more surprised and fascinated I became. For one thing, she wasn't dark-haired, as some out-of-date biographies state, nor was she a small person. She had auburn hair and was taller than her husband Fernando. The other reason I chose Spain was because of its rich history and mingling of Iberian and Arabian cultures; I find it romantic. My novel, THE INQUISITOR'S WIFE, is set in the city of Seville, which for centuries had a vibrant population of Jews, Moslems and Visigoths. It was also the birthplace of the Inquisition.”

Kathryn Kopple has also written about Isabel in her well-received novel, Little Velásquez. Kathryn’s influence for choosing to write about Spain’s history stems from personal experience, and admiration of the traditions.

“I spent so much of my life absorbing Latin American and Spanish culture--first as a scholar and then as a translator--that is seemed natural to me to set my writing in Iberia. I had also lived there--and so I could visualize the places I was writing about--and yet it's a whole other ball of wax when you are trying to reconstruct the historical setting for a novel. I was particularly interested in writing about the 13 years that led to the fall of Granada to the Catholic kings, as 1492 changed the world:  800 years of Moorish rule ended in Andalusia; Columbus set out on his voyage; and the Catholic Kings issued the Alhambra Decree expelling the Jews. The expulsion of the Moors came later. So much was happening--and very quickly. Much of it tragic--and the consequences of that year (which in Spanish hagiography is known as the Year of Miracles, 1492) are still felt today.”

Jeanne shares my puzzlement as to why more novels are not set in Spain. She rightly says, Spain is an exotic, romantic locale, just as interesting as any other.”

The Alhambra in Granada seen from the Generalife gardens
Part of the difficulty is access to the historical record. Chronicles written in Spanish, Latin and Arabic still require translation, which makes research difficult for non-native speakers. While stories of Spain’s past are less common, the history of the country remains intriguing and influences the character of its people today. Their ancestors turned back the tide of Moorish conquests and forged a strongly Catholic identity, which dominates the country. Spaniards are also appreciative of myriad aspects of their history, and celebrate multiple influences that make Spain unique. It is my hope the novels of Jeanne, Kathryn and others like myself have written will broaden interest in an often-neglected area.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unusual Historicals: The Traitor Countess

I'm honored to have a guest post at Unusual Historicals today. It's a wonderful site that makes readers aware of the less-well-covered topics in historical fiction. They're all the more fascinating for their obscurity. Please check out what I have to share with you about "The Traitor Countess" in history and legend.

Full disclosure: "The Traitor Countess" is on my list of choices for the basis of my next novel. But it's sort of negative, and I'm also attracted to the "Romance of Prince García" and a couple of other topics. Time to decide!

The picture at the top of this post is the "author" illustration from the beginning of Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna, where I get all the sources mentioned in the Unusual Historicals post. It's well-worn, but anything having to do with Alfonso X is beautiful to me (I'm funny that way). Most deluxe manuscripts have a presentation page, where the illustration often shows the author presenting the book to his (or her!) patron. Alfonso X is both the patron and the "author," so his deluxe books have author pages with him in the center, giving the knowledge for the book to the scholars in attendance who would actually write it down -- the workshop I mention in the Unusual Historicals post.

Why have two traitors when you can have four? I discuss the vile actions of the traitors in The Seven Noble Knights of Lara at the SNKL site today.

Not enough medieval Spain for you? Come back next Monday for a hyper-Spanish guest post from novelist Lisa Yarde.


Monday, April 22, 2013

First Award for Seven Noble Knights

Time to feast!
The Seven Noble Knights of Lara was longlisted in the Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest! I count this as a real accomplishment because they had more than 1,200 entrants and the variety must have been huge. I've received a partial scholarship to attend one of the actual seminars. There's no way I can afford airfare to Lithuania or Kenya, so I'll have to pass.

They let me know my work impressed them and that it "placed beyond the mean of this year's submissions." So at least it's a nice pat on the back. My writing isn't the worst.

The ones who won must be really good. See them here.

Happy Earth Day! I'll have some belated poetry for you.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

New Review and How to Get a Free Copy of No Turning Back

No Turning Back recently received a new review. It's thorough and articulate about the great things about this crazy novel as well as pointing out what makes it so special -- things that could be seen as negatives to some readers. Some highlights:

"If you are interested in the politics and feminist movement of post-Franco Spain, chances are you already know the work of author and activist Lidia Falcón. If you don't, you should."

"...any writer can learn from and be inspired by her masterful treatment of memory and time. I wish US authors felt free to be as fearless as Falcón."

"As Elisa remembers how she was confronted with doubts about the Party and about Arnau, the reader is simply carried along, often uncertain for a moment who is speaking or when or to whom. So what? You just keep reading and it all makes sense. It works."

"Here in the US., once Franco died, I'd blithely assumed that Spain was "free." I had no idea of the struggles and uncertainty that followed. This novel opened my eyes."

Thanks so much to this reviewer, and to anyone who takes the care and the time to discuss the finer points of a book they care about. Trust me, you aren't being presumptuous if you'd like to go online and tell the world your opinion. Such dialogues really help the book and books in general.

Previously, No Turning Back had one really positive review. See the full reviews here and add yours if you've read it!

You can borrow the Kindle edition for free until April 26. Please do! It's a great deal for you and helps us out, too!

And yes, epub lovers, that means No Turning Back will be available on Nook and possibly Kobo very soon. Watch for it!

And last but not least, don't forget to enter in the Goodreads giveaway for a FREE paperback copy of this engrossing book until May 15 only!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

No Turning Back by Lidia Falcon

No Turning Back

by Lidia Falcon

Giveaway ends May 15, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win
The part of the review that gave me pause was the final paragraph: "I know Jessica Knauss as a very astute and intelligent editor. What I didn't know--because she never told me--is that she is also a literary translator. When I came across No Turning Back, she confessed, yes, the translation was her work. I am grateful to her for making this novel available in English." How nice to be acknowledged in that way!

I've read that you should keep your blog as a writer focused and simple. Don't confuse your potential readers with too many different topics! So I changed my banner to say simply "Author." The simplification leaked into the rest of my life. How can I let everyone know that I'm an accomplished editor, a translator, a publisher, a short story author and most recently, a novelist, without overwhelming them or seeming full of myself? I guess I can start by changing the banner. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Place in My Heart

I'm going to be moving to Oregon soon, and my mother tells me that if my husband and I can finally find some stability there, I won't feel the pull back to Boston, Massachusetts. The depth of the grief and rage I felt at the bombing of the Marathon on Monday indicates to me that Boston is still the Hub of my personal American universe.

I hope the people of my favorite place in this entire country will recover as best they can very soon. And everyone else will stay calm and seek solutions other than lockdowns and revenge. (There I go with that irrepressible optimism again!)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Thanks, 3000 Twitter Followers!

Look at all the birdies!
(I took this in Arcos de la Frontera, Spain and used it for the
cover of Dusk Before Dawn)
Maybe I'm a total amateur to be amazed by this, but I recently reached the milestone of 3,000 Twitter followers!

This comes at a time when I'm already thrilled to have more than 300 likes on my Facebook author page.

Followers are awesome -- yes, you are! I follow back. I'm thinking of other ways to pay it forward, but for now, know that you have a tremendous amount of gratitude from this struggling author!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Adventures and Journeys, Ancient and Current

Kathleen Flanagan Rollins is the author of  Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa and Past the Last Island, the first two books in the Misfits and Heroes series on ancient explorers. Today she tells us about the epic journey she took in order to create the series and the real journeys she's basing the books on.

The differences between the two books

Actually I wrote most of Past the Last Island before I wrote Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, but when it came time to publish one of them, I felt Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa was in better shape, so I went with that. Also, I felt it was “meatier,” especially with the African story-telling included.

When I went back to Past the Last Island, I contacted an editor to get her input. That proved to be an interesting and complicated arrangement. Being a hopeless pleaser, I tried to follow all of her advice. That meant no “head-hopping” – jumping from one character’s point of view to another, which I’m frequently guilty of doing, and providing more show and less tell. Also, she hated all adverbs as well as any form of the verb to be, though I argued with the latter. Let’s face it: sometimes there’s nothing like the copulative verb. Consider “To be or not to be.” 

In any case, I rewrote 75% of the book trying to improve it. Then I became addicted to editing. I deleted a whole section (about forty pages), shortened almost every chapter, and moved and reworked other chapters repeatedly, not always for the better. After almost a year of that, I realized the endless editing wasn’t really helping, so one night I declared the book finished, though it still carries traces of edits on top of previous edits. A minor character in the Albert Camus classic The Plague wanders through the novel coming up with different variations of a single sentence describing a girl he saw, but it’s never quite right. I suspect that was a reflection of Camus himself and perhaps every serious writer. However, as my sister, a professional artist, said, “There comes a time when you stop working on it and sign it.”

Emotional and physical misfits

The main characters in Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa are emotionally scarred, some through personal tragedy and some by events they’re forced to witness. Several of the characters in Past the Last Island are physically flawed. Nulo is a dwarf. Aeta is a “short person.” Hao is a hunchback. Half of Sula’s face is crushed in. Each becomes both a gift and a liability to the group. Nulo is a dreamer, useful for warnings of disaster but limited as a fighter. Hao is a navigational genius but emotionally unstable (based on Magellan’s original navigator who was so unstable he wasn’t allowed to join the expedition even though he’d planned out most of the voyage). Aeta is haunted by the belief that she carries death with her, and perhaps she does. 

Despite these flaws, the group becomes as close as family during their impossible journey across the open sea. It’s only after they arrive in the New World, at the end of the book, that the group begins to fall apart. Some readers find their relationship too “nicey-nice,” but I wanted the opposite of The Lord of the Flies. If you found yourself in a world with no wars, no political boundaries, and no other people competing for amazingly abundant resources, how would you react? Wouldn’t each person become more valuable because there were so few? Perhaps that rarity would also color the relationships between men and women. These characters are, in some ways, the innocents.

In the third book of the series, the two groups meet. More accurately, more than the two groups meet, and things get very complicated. In the fourth book, a group from what is now northern Spain joins the others. This group brings the Solutrean Age technology, especially bifacial points and atlatls (spear throwers), eyed needles, painting and textile decoration, as well as a lot of trouble. The two main characters are definitely not too nice.

So that’s the mix so far. 

And what’s the thread that binds all of these?

Despite their differences, which are many, all of these characters want very much to make a new life somewhere else, yet once they get there, they realize it’s not enough; they want to meet others. No one group is large enough to flourish on its own. So they seek out other people, but they bring more than themselves to the meeting. New languages, new cultures, new perspectives, new diseases, new problems are also part of the mix.  The thread that binds them together is that they are all heroes, not because they have super-powers or because they’ve always been applauded as champions but because they rise to each challenge they face, even the ones that require forgiveness. That’s why I like spending time with them.

As it turns out, 14,000 years ago is not that long ago

I find ancient explorers fascinating, but I’m learning that my novels, set 14,000 years ago, couldn’t possibly deal with the oldest explorers. New research shows that people, or at least the ancestors of modern humans, were finding their way to what is now England 500,000 years ago! Hominids were hunting with spears topped with worked points 460,000 years ago! Controlled fire? Over a million years ago. First jewelry? 82,000 years ago. First mixture of paint? 80,000 years ago.  (Check out the Misfits and Heroes blog for more of this, with sources).

Even in the Western Hemisphere, we know that one of the earliest human settlements in the Americas was at Pedra Furado in eastern Brazil, which has been dated between 33,000 and 56,000 years ago. In the layer dated 33,000 years ago, archaeologists found pieces of pottery and examples of rock art. What’s closest to eastern Brazil? West Africa. In fact, in 2012, a young woman rowed from West Africa to South America, solo, in 70 days.  So, with the currents and prevailing winds, the Senegal area seemed like a logical choice for some of the early explorers in Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa. Also, early Olmec art features gigantic basalt sculptures of very African-looking individuals. Perhaps Mesoamerica saw several migrations from West Africa.

However, there is also a very strong Asian and Pacific Island look to Olmec art, so in Past the Last Island, I imagined the greatest open water navigators in the world crossing the Pacific Ocean and ending up in the New World, just across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from the group from West Africa. That combination may well have sown the seeds of the greatest civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Past the Last Island by Kathleen Rollins

Past the Last Island is the second book in the Misfits & Heroes series, but it has none of the pitfalls of a traditional sequel. From the subtle cover that hints at the adventure inside to the psychologically complex characters, this book gets everything even more right than the first.

I enjoyed Nulo's misfit story the most out of all the threads. He has none of the advantages of even the average people in this community where everything is changing. His transformation is gradual and accomplished realistically through showing craftsmen what a good worker he can be. He still doesn't gain real acceptance until he has to lead the willing people into the unknown, relying on his dream visions and compass rocks. In the end, he'll always feel removed from the others, so the whole trajectory is sympathetic and believable.

But the overall book is about bigger, outward changes that inspired me even though I have no prospects for travel in the near future. The daring and the risks are so real.

The text seems effortless, so I can only stand in awe of the gargantuan effort it must have taken to make it that way. The research and dedication required for a historical novel to really put the reader in the characters' shoes is huge -- how much more dedication and imagination must it take to create such convincing landscapes, seascapes and headscapes for people who lived before history, whom we can know only by the non-verbal evidence they left behind? Kathleen Rollins does it well, and could consider her accomplishments complete, but something tells me she'll be gracing the world with another compelling story before long.

Find it at Amazon here, or request from your local bookstore!

Be sure to come back on Wednesday for a very special guest post by the author!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rhinos, the Media, and Leonardo DiCaprio

Rhinos have a huge capacity for love!
Borrowed from
Battleground: Rhino Wars (an Animal Planet miniseries) has come to a conclusion with two positive outcomes: they nabbed a couple of poachers, and the show must have raised awareness in the US of the rhinos' dire situation. But now the highly-trained military men have left, and the problem is far from solved. They knew they couldn't wipe out all rhino poaching with two arrests. Wherever rhinos are present, the money has to come from somewhere to keep the punishments consistent and severe.

A stick can only do so much without a carrot. The convicted poacher they had on the show as a consultant was creepy and remorseless, but when they arrested the other two, I started thinking about what their motives could be. Perhaps they needed a large influx of money to feed their families or save their farms. If there was a way to reward people for leaving the rhinos alone -- to make the rhinos worth more alive than dead -- it might knock the legs out from under the complex network necessary to obtain rhino horn and export it to international markets. Hemanta Mishra discusses such programs being successful in the past in Nepal in The Soul of the Rhino. Again, such a project would need a good base of cash, and I'm not familiar with the specifics of any site, but in theory, it should work wonders.

The most necessary piece of the puzzle is education. Rhino Wars helped spread the word a lot, though I'm not sure it was to the right audience. People with the resources to demand rhino horn must learn that rhino horn does not cure any diseases or have any other biological benefits. We also need to explain to them how senseless it is to kill these animals and how much suffering it causes. A person must be suffering tremendously in order to take rhino horn as a drug, but bringing more suffering into the world will not decrease theirs.

How to educate? A recent Vietnamese PSA shames the consumers, and maybe it works for that market. I've always liked the personal approach, like this poster that suggests rhinos have feelings, too. (They really do!) Nothing gets people more enthusiastic about a cause than when they find something they can identify with. The media has the power to bring stories of individual rhinos and the humans who care for them to people who would never otherwise experience one of these animals in person.

My short story, "Not Extinct Yet," does just that. I made the story a fantasy for two reasons. First, the rhinos can speak human languages, so it's a quick way to get people to sympathize with their plight. Second, in a fantasy, I can find a solution to the poaching problem and have it work long before it's too late.

"Not Extinct Yet" features Suzanne, a linguist who travels to South Africa to find out if rhinos are among the species who can talk. When they reveal that they can, she gets to know several charming rhinos and takes their survival as her personal reason to live. After trying everything she can think of, logic takes over and Suzanne asks a rhino what should be done. It would make a fun, happy film people would enjoy watching even as they learn about the real rhino wars taking place right now. (Find excerpts here, under Rhinoceros Dreams.) The story is about to win a literary prize.

The Hands Off My Parts campaign has the support of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Emily VanCamp, Josh Bowman, Stacy Keibler, Alyssa Milano, Ian Somerhalder, and Ethan Suplee. I've heard Coldplay has expressed its support for rhinos, too.

I would like to suggest that anyone with access to production facilities and media outlets (preferably the ones listed above, who love rhinos already) make a movie of "Not Extinct Yet" (change the title if you like!) and distribute it as widely as possible. Raise awareness of rhinos with a fun story! People love stories!

Using the story this way seems like the best use of my limited resources for the rhinos' benefit. Please contact me if you'd like to read it and you have the ability to get the message out there. Those of you who don't have such access, please use the powers of social media to let everyone know about this idea.

Why should we save the rhinos? I don't know anyone who's been in the presence of a rhinoceros who would ask that question. For me, individual rhinos are beautiful souls who make me feel I should do everything in my power to defend them. The guys on Rhino Wars seem to have had a similar experience, so I'm not alone in that. As a group, the five species of rhinoceros are a magnificent example of something self-sufficient that needs nothing from humans in order to live natural, peaceful lives. Now that we humans have messed with them so nastily, it's our responsibility to try and undo the damage.

Here I am enjoying the rhino mom and baby during rhino
siesta at Fossil Rim last summer. What's not to love?
But don't take my word for it. There have been at least three experts who expounded eloquently on this question recently.