It is my very great pleasure to welcome fellow NAL author Erika Robuck to the blog today for the second in my “Get to Know the Authors I Know” series.  Erika’s debut, Hemingway’s Girl released earlier this month.

Set in Key West in 1935, Hemingway’s Girl centers on a young woman named Mariella Bennet who takes a job as a housekeeper for Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, in order to support her widowed mother and to realize her own dream of starting a charter fishing boat business.  Mariella  quickly becomes entangled in the tumultuous world of the rich, their friends, and a marriage doomed for failure.  Torn between her infatuation with the writer and relationships with a WW1 vet and a boxer, Mariella soon learns that she may be in over her head on all fronts.

1) Erika, Your book tells the story of Mariella Bennet, a fictional maid hired by Ernest Hemingway’s second wife.  Is this book really her story or Papa’s?

Mariella is such a feisty, colorful character, that she stole the show about halfway through my first draft. She has a formidable opponent in Ernest Hemingway, but he never overshadows her.

2) Are you a big Hemingway fan yourself?

I am obsessed with Hemingway, and have been since I was nineteen years old and first read his work, just like my protagonist.

3) Where have you traveled for inspiration and research for Hemingway’s Girl?

My travels began in Key West at his house. I later flew up to Boston to the JFK Museum where 90% of the Hemingway archive is kept. I’m hoping my journey eventually takes me to his grave in Ketchum,Idaho.

4) Truth is often stranger than fiction.  During your research for Hemingway’s Girl what was the most unusual or unexpected thing you discovered?

By far, the most unusual and disturbing story I found was of a Key West resident named Count Von Cosel, who faked being a doctor, fell in love with a tuberculosis patient decades his junior, and mourned her death so terribly that he exhumed her body and kept it in his house for years by rebuilding it with wax and preservatives. When the body was discovered, it was put on display for
several days so the residents of Key West could see it, before being returned to a secret grave in the cemetery where she was originally buried. The most bazaar detail about the story is that the residents of Key West thought that what he did was tragically romantic. The Count makes an appearance in Hemingway’s Girl.

5) Who is your favorite character in Hemingway’s Girl? Who is your least favorite? Why?

Wow, that’s a very hard question. My knee jerk response for my favorite was Hemingway, but then it became Mariella, and then Gavin the boxer, and then John the legless WWI veteran. I can’t pick because they are so vividly alive for me, and I love them all. If I had to pick my least favorite, it would have to be Hemingway’s second wife Pauline, who had an affair with Hemingway while he was married to his first wife, but I do have a degree of sympathy for her.

6) Can you share a secret about your book (or the writing of it–something that readers can’t discover from the text itself?

Yes, and my critique partner, Kelly, is going to kill me for this: In the scene where John tells Mariella that his fiancée had sent him a ‘Dear John’ letter in the mail while he fought in WWI, Mariella tells him she’ll bash in the girl’s legs with a bat if he’d like. Those were the exact words Kelly said to me when an agent had strung me along with my first novel and ultimately passed after I
spent thousands of dollars on an editor. It made me laugh so hard that I had to include it.

7) As someone who came to writing as a second career herself I am always interested in how people become writers.  How did it  come about for you?

In my first life I was an elementary school teacher, but when I had my firstson I left teaching to stay home with him. As his naptimes became regular and lengthy, I finally found time to devote to writing, which I’d done as a hobby
my whole life. It became a wonderful outlet for me that grew and grew until now, when it is a career. I’m very blessed.

8 When you write are you a plotter or a panster?

I’m a definite plantser. I make detailed timelines of historical events, but once I draft, I allow myself freedom with my characters within the confines of  historical truth, of course.

9) Which is most likely to spark the idea for an Erika Robuck novel—a time period, a specific event or a character?

A character, usually connected to a location, sparks my ideas. For my first  novel, it was a visit to the Caribbean that
set my imagination on overdrive wondering what it would be like to inherit an abandoned, haunted plantation. When I visited Hemingway’s Key West house, I was overwhelmed with ideas  for scenes as I walked through each of his rooms. Reading about how much  Hemingway hated Zelda Fitzgerald inspired me to learn more about her, and to visit the places in Baltimore where she and F. Scott had been.

10)  Authors of historical novels walk a line between known historical facts and fiction.  Where do you draw the line on your personal map between accuracy and imagination?

I try to be absolutely true to the time and the events of the subject’s life.  Any flexibility I utilize is found in my fictional protagonists’ stories. If  I’m aware of any specific inaccuracy or ambiguity, I mention it in a Reader’s Note

11) Do you have a special writing spot—a lair perhaps where you like to do your work?  Is there a picture you could  share?

I prefer to write at my desk, in my office, surrounded by artifacts, photographs, and posters of Hemingway and Zelda. I listen to classical music while I work, and always have a mug of coffee or tea within reach.

12) If you could read any book again for the first time, what would it be and why?

I would love to read POSSESSION by A. S. Byatt again for the first time. Her  novel about scholars researching dead poets and their love affair is written in  prose and poetry, in the present and in the past. The poetry is from two different characters and has two distinct styles, and every word has weight. I had assumed they were real poets and real poetry until I found out that Byatt
had created it all. Every last word. I bow to her as the master. Also, the ending was so evocative that I threw the book across the room and cried.

13) What are you working on now?

I’m working on another historical novel featuring the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, as a character. Expect scandal, drama, betrayal, and views of the creative process as redemption.

Thank you Erika for those insights into your novel and your writing process! Readers, if you live in the metro-DC area, Erika will be in Arlington, VA at “One More Page Books” for a signing on September 26th (yes, two days from now).  I for one plan to be there :)

About Erika:  Erika is a contributor to popular fiction blog Writer Unboxed and maintains her own historical fiction blog called Muse. She is a member of the Maryland Writer’s Association, The Hemingway Society, and The Historical Novel Society. She spends her time on the East Coast with her husband and three sons.  Her next novel, Call Me Zelda, is scheduled to release in 2013.  To learn more about Erika visit her website.

 

 

It is my very great pleasure today to welcome friend and fellow historical fiction writer Nancy Bilyeau to the blog. Nancy’s riveting historical thriller The Crown released in paperback earlier this month. Critically acclaimed since its hardcover debut in January, “O” (The Oprah Magazine) called The Crown, “A juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal.” I’ve read it. O is right.

First a blurb to tantalize you: London, May 1537. When Joanna Stafford, a novice nun, learns her cousin is about to be burned at the stake for rebelling against Henry VIII, she makes a decision that will change not only her life but quite possibly, the fate of a nation. Joanna breaks the sacred rule of enclosure and runs away from Dartford Priory to bear witness to her cousin’s execution.
Arrested along with her father at the site of the burning and sent to the Tower of London, Joanna finds herself a pawn in a deadly power struggle. Those closest to the throne are locked in a fierce fight w those desperate to save England’s monasteries from destruction. Charged with a mission to find a hidden relic believed to possess a deadly mystical power, Joanna and a troubled young friar, Brother Edmund, seek answers and clues across England.

And now some questions to take you behind cover-copy (and it’s no exaggeration to say Nancy reveals some things here she has never told readers before):

1) What inspired you to choose a fictional Dominican nun as the heroine of The Crown?

I first chose to set a book in the 16th century—simply because it is my favorite century from history. I love mysteries and thrillers, and wanted to attempt to write one with a female protagonist. It took me a long time to figure out who would be the person. I didn’t want a royal or lady in waiting, yet someone living in a Tudor village, I feared it would be too hard to inject that woman into conflict that rises to the level of a thriller. A nun struggling for her future in the middle of the Dissolution of the Monasteries—when the Catholic Church was being violently dismantled—could be quite compelling. Finally, I picked a Dominican because there was only one such order in England, and that made it special.

2) I found it refreshing that Joanna stayed “in character”—true to the religious sentiments one would expect a 16th century nun to have. How difficult was it for you to achieve that? Do you think it was a risky choice given you are writing for a modern—and generally rather skeptical—audience?

One of my pet peeves is characters in historical novels who have modern sensibilities. It’s the easy way out. There is some strange part of my personality that compels me toward the most difficult choices. Sometimes I wish it were otherwise! But as soon as I decided on a nun, I was determined to make her authentic to the spiritual values of the period. I didn’t want to write a book with a reluctant nun who is forced into it by her father or retreats to a priory after rejection by a man. Again, that’s the easy way out. I did worry that readers would be turned off by a spiritual woman but I’ve not seen that reaction. Readers of historical fiction are eager for authentic behavior, I’m more convinced of that than ever. Commit anachronisms at your peril!

The way I tried to achieve it was reading what women in religious orders actually wrote: Catherine of Siena, Hildegarde of Bingen, Teresa of Avila. That helped get me in the proper mood. Also a writing teacher recommended I research the lives of the early female Catholic saints, the ones who were torn to pieces in the Roman Coliseum or who became martyrs in the Dark Ages and medieval period. The thinking of these women is about as far from a 21st century mindset as you can get. Just fascinating.

 3) Your book doesn’t shy away from the unsavory sights or the more malodorous smells of life in Tudor England. In fact, in Joanna’s opening trip to Smithfield the revolting plays a large role. Of course accurate historical details help bring readers to a specific place and time, but I was struck by your very evident emphasis on the unsavory at the beginning of the book. Why specifically did you choose to highlight the grimy side of the 16th century?

I’ve written screenplays and that is a key part of what I like to do: Write visually. It’s not just dialogue and direct character action. I try to do all the research so I can put you on the street, inside the priory cloister, in a barge on the Thames. I wanted to time-travel the reader from the very beginning: You are on your way to Smithfield on execution day in May of 1537, you’re scared and you’re hungry and you’re exhausted—but still resolute. This is what it would feel like, smell like, sound like. Even taste like.

 4) Besides Joanna, who is your favorite character in The Crown? Who is your least favorite? Why?

Brother Edmund is my second favorite—I like to think that he is a pretty original character and for some reason I have tremendous sympathy for him. He’s a mix of strengths and weaknesses. I tried my best to make all the characters nuanced. I don’t like two-dimensional people hurtling through thrillers. Or characters with worn-out identifying descriptions: a natural beauty, a strong-jawed man. Ugh.

My least favorite character? Hmmmm. That’s an interesting question. Did I create a character I personally would dislike? Apart from George Boleyn—and I can’t give away why I wouldn’t want to have encountered him at a tender age, or else that would be a spoiler—it would have to be the young prioress. She was inspired by a boss I once had—a very difficult one. In fact, I drew on my personal work history, my years in the magazine business, when depicting life in the priory. I thought about it a lot, and decided that though the stereotype of a nunnery was of graceful, serene ladies floating down the halls in harmony, I imagined that there would be the rivalries and tensions found in any group of people essentially working together, and in this case living together too. I was very happy to receive an email from a Dominican nun and two emails from friars that said I captured correctly the essential feeling of life in an enclosed religious community.

5) Where have you traveled for inspiration and research for The Crown?

I’ve traveled to most of the places that Sister Joanna Stafford travels to: Dartford, Smithfield, and the Tower of London. Even though the present Tower is closest to what it was in the 1530s, I felt most connected to Joanna in Dartford, in Kent. I walked along the remains of the stone wall that once surrounded the priory of sisters. That is all that remains.
But since I live in New York City, my research trips to England can’t happen as often as I’d like. For inspiration closer to home, I go to the Cloisters Gardens and Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For anyone who hasn’t had a chance to visit, go! The Cloisters was assembled in the 1930s from a series of medieval French abbeys that they brought over, brick by brick. The re-created rooms are filled with paintings, sculpture, and exquisite objects contemporary to that time. In fact, I got the idea for a murder weapon in The Crown while walking through the Cloisters! I’ve never told any other interviewer that.

 6) Truth is often stranger than fiction. During your research for The Crown what was the most unusual or unexpected thing you discovered?

There were certain things I discovered about King Athelstan, the dark ages Saxon monarch, that really surprised me. As much as the Tudor monarchs are over-exposed in some people’s eyes, Athelstan is under-exposed. He arguably was the first king of Britain after he won a enormous battle against the Vikings and the Scots—and no one even knows where the battle was fought. There’s also the question of his sexuality. So interesting.

 7) Authors of historical novels walk a line between known historical facts and fiction. Where do you draw the line on your personal map between accuracy and imagination?

My book is not the kind of historical fiction that tells the story, with imagination and new insights, of famous people who once lived. Some “real” people populate The Crown, but most of the characters are from my imagination. And my thriller plot is rather audacious—that’s what folks tell me. So I mixed the carefully researched truth with the fantastical on many pages.

8. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about the Tudor period which even avid readers of Tudor-era fiction might not know—perhaps a preconception you’d like to overturn?

I had no religious or political agenda whatsoever when I started researching this book. But the deeper I got into it, the more I became convinced that the stereotype of a decaying Catholic church that had lost its relevance was wrong. History certainly was written by the winners when it came to the English Reformation. Dartford Priory, where I set most of the book, was a vital center of intellectual achievement and pious observance. Also there was an infirmary in the town run by the priory as well as an almshouse for the poor, and local girls were taught to read there. All that was eliminated when the priory “surrendered” to the will of Henry VIII and the sisters were turned out.

9) Which is most likely to spark the idea for a Nancy Bilyeau novel—a time period, a specific event or a character?

Time period. I am drawn to the time and place, and after that the characters come. Hmmmm. Is that unusual?

10) Do you have a special writing spot—a lair perhaps where you like to do your work? Is there a picture you could share with readers?

Nancy's writing lair (at least while her laptop battery holds) -- The Cloisters in NYC

I’d give anything for a lair. I wrote The Crown at the New York Public Library, my kitchen table and various Starbucks. But when I had to write a key scene and needed to get into the mood, I would pack up the laptop and head for The Cloisters. The perfect environment. However, the battery on my laptop would run out in two hours and there are no plugs for writers. Still, I’d take it to the chapter house and sit on the stone “bench” and tap away furiously till the power drained – or the guards started coming after me.

11) If you could read any book again for the first time, what would it be and why?

Rebecca. I read it first when I was in high school and it made a deep and lasting impression on me. I’d like to feel the thrill of some of those revelations again. Since then I’ve re-read it at least six times and come away with a boundless respect for Daphne du Maurier’s craft and also I am so curious about some things in the book. For instance, when Max de Winter tells his second wife that on their honeymoon, Rebecca, laughing, her black hair blowing in the wind, told him things about herself “that I would never repeat to a living soul,” I would love to know—What are those things?

12) I know you are hard at work on the next book in this series, The Chalice, can you share a bit about the new book?

It’s my sequel to The Crown. It’s darker in some ways, with even higher stakes. More executions. And more romance too.

13) In The Crown a Joanna brushes elbows with a number of famous historical characters like Catherine Howard and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, can we expect more cameos from the rich and famous in your sequel? Who might we meet?

Oh I had such a fantastic time researching the “real” people of the time. Gardiner returns, of course; this time Joanna encounters not one but two women who marry Henry VIII. There are a number of aristocrats of the time who played very important parts in history but are not often written about—I put them to work in The Chalice. And finally, Joanna comes face to face with none other than Thomas Cromwell.

About Nancy: Nancy Bilyeau is a writer and magazine editor who has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, and Ladies’ Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. She was born in Chicago and grew up in Michigan, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. Now she lives in New York City with her husband and two children. The Crown was nominated for an Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award 2012 by the Crime Writers’ Association, given to Best Historical Crime Novel. Nancy has finished writing a sequel to The Crown, which is called The Chalice.

Share/Save

Today I am lucky enough to be the guest blogger over at the terrific What Women Write. I am talking about the measure of a man—or at least “H”istory’s measure—and taking issue with the traditional definition of success. Stop by and read all about it.

Of if you are in the mood to find out what advice I would give my pre-book-launch self if I had a time machine, stop over at fellow historical author Erika Robuck’s blog. She’s doing a six month anniversary interview with me.

Sep 112012

No, seriously. Watch it.

This Friday I will inaugurate a series of interviews called “Get to Know the Writers I Know” with a guest appearance by Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown.  Then ten days later I’ll be speaking (well, you know what I mean) with Erika Robuck, author of Hemmingway’s Girl.  As you may suspect from what I’ve posted in this space (or as you know for certain if you’ve ever met me) I am not shy, so you can expect some probing questions and interesting answers.

Can a book have a Quinceanera? The Sister Queens has now been on sale for 15-weeks.  I almost forgot because I am hard at work on a new, 16th century, novel. Still a little celebrating is in order lest the toddler book get jealous of the new baby book.  And just in time for the little anniversary party the novel received an excellent review from The Medieval Bookworm.  Meghan kindly calls The Sister Queens:

an excellent work of historical fiction . . . . Certainly the best I’ve read this year set in the Middle Ages.”

and says:

It’s in part the relationships between the sisters, though, that makes this an excellent book. Yes, they have their children and their husbands, but they also always have one another, and it’s the sort of heartwarming female relationship that doesn’t always dominate mainstream fiction in quite the way it should.”

 Cue the confetti!

Birds do it, bees do it, and our ancestors most definitely did it, but should sex be included in the pages of historical novels?  Today at Peeking Between the Pages I discuss the expansion of sexual content from historical romance into straight historical fiction and my views on this trend.

Meanwhile, the latest review of The Sister Queens is in!  The Broke and the Bookish says:

an excellent slice of an extremely interesting period of time. We get the politics and social aspects of not one but two countries (always a bonus!) as well as in the latter part of the book, Louis’ crusade to theHoly Land. I felt very connected to them and their personalities were extremely opposite and varied. I enjoyed watching the sisters grow from young teenagers to mature mothers, queens, and friends. Recommended to all historical fiction lovers!

 

Today my blog travels take me to Just One More Paragraph where I confess (oh heresy) that too much description in a historical novel (even of very lovely gowns) causes my eyes to glaze over.  How about you?

Come over, read my viewpoint on the effective uses of descriptive language in historical writing, and share yours.  While you’re there enter to win a copy of The Sister Queens.

In honor of the arrival of 2012 I am taking a look back at my very first year of blogging—2011.  Here are the five blog posts—some written for “From the Write Angle” others for my personal blog—that I consider my best work.

The top of my list HAS to be “Voice, It’s Not Just for Manuscripts Anymore” discussing how essential it is for writers to infuse their query letters (the letters they use to try to attract a literary agent) with their unique voice.

I would posit that snagging an agent with a good query is NOT merely about what you say but is equally about HOW you say it. For those of you who have seen “The King’s Speech” (and if you haven’t, forget reading my post and get yourself that DVD) think of the moment at Westminster Abbey when Geoffrey Rush (playing speech therapist Lionel Logue) asks Colin Firth’s George VI of England, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?’ The King’s answer. . . “Because I have a voice.” If you want agents to listen to you, to pay attention to the punchy mini-synopsis of your oh-so-clever plot that you spent a gazillion drafts perfecting, then you’d better let the voice that imbues your manuscript sing out from your query letter as well. 

Number two is “Give me A Little Kiss — Sex and the Historical Novelist,” in which I discuss and defend the place of sex in straight historical novels (not just historical romances).

The inclusion of sex in historical novels is neither good nor bad in a vacuum.  It’s not the sexual content that determines whether a particular scene works—it’s whether that scene (sex or otherwise) has a REASON for being in the novel.  Tossing in an orgy (or even a kiss) into your work of historical fiction without a solid reason is a bad idea.  The scene will feel “added on,” and gratuitous sex is no more acceptable in a novel than gratuitous dialogue.

At number three I have selected my reflection on the very act of blogging itself and how it can become a digital distraction from the author’s most important task—writing books:

Blogging takes an enormous amount of time compared to most on-line community participation. A tweet is a quip; a facebook post can be a couple of sentences or a useful link. A blog requires topic selection, thoughtful analysis and a couple of hundred solid words in support of your argument.

So if blogging is such a huge time-suck, why do we do it?

 Blog number four tackles the question of why our sisters (or more broadly our siblings) are NOT very much like us.

I’ve certainly had moments when I’ve thought how can my sister and I have had such a different experience of the same childhood or how could we have played the same games (together), walked to the same school (together) and heard the same family stories and yet turned out so very differently? If you have a sibling chances are you’ve had such thoughts as well.  At the heart of my questions lay the idea that nurture shapes people, and since my sister and I were raised in the same environment that should have made us similar.

Turns out that’s just dead wrong when it comes to siblings.  Being raised in the same environment helps to make us different.

And finally, sitting at number five, is the first blog I ever wrote—“Not THAT Sophie.”  This one is all about the marketing lessons I learned from a teething toy.  Half-a-year after I wrote it, as I struggle to build my author brand, I still marvel at the power of Sophie the Giraffe.  And yes, she STILL comes up before I do in an Amazon search and she continues to top the ranks of baby items.

Coming behind a rubber toy in a “suggested search” list is a humbling experience. But when I looked more closely at Sophie G, I realized I could learn a thing or two. Sophie is NUMBER ONE in the Amazon “Baby” bestseller rankings (we will not discuss how far from number one I am on any list presently). She gets an average of 4.5 stars from reviewers. And she is able to command some serious cash for a figure only 7” tall. In fact, a single giraffe teether costs $7.00 more than a copy of my novel. Wow (hint to readers, buy the book – I don’t care if you chew on it).

Sophie G is obviously doing something right. Here’s what I think. . .

 Happy New Year all!!!

Once upon a time I was young.  No, honestly.  Then as now I was a history nerd—big time.  In fact (trivia alert), I was the first member of my graduating class to declare a major in history.  Anyway, one day the younger me was given a postcard by her Woman’s History professor.  A postcard showing the black and white image of Belva Lockwood.  This image as a matter of fact.

It took me a while to discover the importance of this gift, delivered, as I remember it, with no real explanation beyond the mild-mannered comment, “I thought you might like this.”  With age and distance I now realize my professor gave me the postcard to galvanize me to action; to make me angry—not at him but at the way history was taught and who got left out.  You see Belva Lockwood was the first woman to have her name on the ballot for President of the United States (yes, I know Victoria Woodhull “ran” but her name did not appear on official ballots and votes for her were never tallied).  She was also the first woman to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court (though mind you she had to write to President Grant just to get the law diploma she’d earned and it took an act of Congress to see her admitted before the High Court).  But I’d never heard of her.

That DID make me angry, and it also made me think.  Just what does a woman have to do to be noticed, historically speaking?  Give birth to a King?  Have her head chopped off?  How can that be when there were so many women throughout history who did so much more?  Even today, Belva remains only the tip of the “over-looked” iceberg.  And because we continue to under-represent women in history and underestimate their activities readers—both of non-fiction history and historical fiction—often think writers get it WRONG when they accurately report what historical female characters did.

I recently saw an example of this in a book review.  A reviewer took Author X to task because her female main-character pressed her right to rule her own territories.  “How dare the author suggest,” and I am paraphrasing here, “that a woman in the Middle Ages would assert such authority, or would even have the desire to rule in her own right!”  The reviewer went on to castigate Author X for imposing modern feminist ideas on long dead women.  But the truth is plenty of women held territory (and titles) in their own right during the time period of the author’s book.  The reviewer was just wrong—likely because he/she had never heard of such women.  I remember wondering what said reviewer would make of the fact that my main characters’ uncle, Thomas of Savoy, was Count of Flanders only by marriage and lost that title when his wife died and her title passed to her SISTER.  My guess is the particular reviewer would think that bit of history was made-up, feminist-revisionism as well.

It is time to recognize, as consumers of history and historical fiction, that women have filled many, varied, roles throughout the centuries—even if we haven’t always heard about them.  Some women did extra-ordinary things with those roles (e.g. just like male rulers, some female rulers were better at it than others), but the fact women held such roles wasn’t, in and of itself, necessarily as extraordinary as modern audiences seem to think.  In each period of history we need to look at the specific facts rather than relying on broad assumptions.  For example, to assume things were necessarily better for women later in history than they were earlier is to incorrectly posit a linear progression in women’s rights and opportunities.

I am happy to say that, imo, there’s a lot of really wonderful historical fiction celebrating women who have been historically overlooked these days.  There are also fabulous books that examine “big name” historical women in new ways—as more than “ornaments of royal courts” or “mothers of kings.”  Personally, I am very interested in telling the stories of women who are more obscure than they deserve to be.  Probably because of that darned postcard.  When I stumbled upon a footnote in a history of Notre Dame de Paris about Marguerite of Provence (her image is carved over Notre Dame’s Portal Rouge) and her sisters I had a Belva Lockwood moment.  Clearly these young women (all of whom made significant political marriages) were celebrities of the High Middle Ages.  Marguerite and Eleanor were the queens of France andEngland for heaven’s sake!  Yet I had never heard of them.  I made up my mind right then to tell their story.

I wish Professor T was alive today.  I’d send him a copy of my book and I’d put the Belva Lockwood postcard in it—as an excellent bookmark and a thank you of sorts.

Have you ever walked into a bookstore, picked up a historical novel set in renaissance Italy and thought “my goodness WHAT is this headless woman on the cover wearing?  Her gown is SO obviously Tudor!”  Yeah, me too.  And here’s the thing, before I started writing historical fiction I might have drawn some erroneous conclusions based on such a book cover.

First, I might have concluded that “author X” hadn’t done her research or just didn’t care that her cover model was wearing a gown from the wrong period.  Since becoming an author I’ve learned that this is probably not the case.  Shall I tell you a secret?  Authors have VERY limited influence on the covers of their books.

I am NOT saying that good publishers don’t seek author input before holding a cover conference.  My editor asked me for examples of existing covers that I loved as well as examples of covers I didn’t like.  She encouraged me to explain why I felt as I did.  She also asked me to collect images from fine art imbued with the feeling I wanted my cover to have, and to submit descriptions and pictures of what my 13th century sisters might have worn.

What I AM saying is my cover was still a big surprise when I saw it.  So if you LOVE the cover of The Sister Queens, I am glad but, please, give credit where it is due.  I did not create the cover painting (you should be thankful for this – profoundly thankful), the cover artist did.  And folks in the design department picked that gorgeous lettering.  So send your warm and fuzzy thoughts (or compliments) their way.  And if you HATE the cover of my book (or any author’s book) please spare me a note upbraiding me.

This leads me to the second flawed conclusion I might have drawn back in my “fan-but-not-a-writer” days: covers exist to accurately portray a period of history, or a scene from a book.  Nope.  Sorry.  Some covers may do those things, but covers in general are designed for one reason and one reason alone – to sell books. This is precisely why authors don’t (and probably shouldn’t) design them.

I never viewed covers as sales tools until I signed my book contract.  But believe me once you have a book coming out selling books is foremost in your mind.  I want to sell books, and more than that, I want to sell books to people who are not ME.   Therefore, what I would personally like to see on the cover of my book runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will find attractive.  And the truth is I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer.  I am not trained to do that, nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things. The folks in my publisher’s art and design departments, on the other hand, ARE in a position to predict what will make a reader reach out and lift The Sister Queens off a table full of books all looking for a home.  They have been designing covers for years.  That’s why design departments and not authors get the final say over what book covers looks like.

Perhaps the folks designing the cover for a historical novel know that a certain color gown makes books jump off the shelf and into readers’ hands, so they use that color even if it may not be precisely “period.”  They might even (gasp) put Tudor gowns on non-Tudor-era women because books about Tudors sell like hotcakes and they are hoping to entice readers of Tudor historical fiction to pick up, and ultimately try, something new.  Who can say?  As an author I certainly can’t.  And as a reader I am now careful to examine covers with a different eye than I did in my pre-writing days—I may still judge the book by its cover, but I no longer judge that book’s author.

Authors are in the business of writing books, design and art departments are in the business of covering them.