Sunday, August 3, 2014

Learning What People Think of My Book on Amazon

By Nancy Bilyeau

It can be tricky writing novels for a mass readership.

Many of us try our best to produce work on a high level. Through multiple drafts we labor on character development,dialogue and setting description, all set to a plot that aims to compel and enthrall. Any historical novel, mystery or no, requires extensive research. And for a significant number of writers, there is also a theme in the work, a message, perhaps even characters, that carry personal meaning.

Yet if you are writing a book for a commercial purpose, you have to send it out there and know that there is no possible way it will be universally adored. Writers are sensitive creatures who must grow the thickest skin possible once the book is for sale.

Our reaction to reviews on amazon and goodreads is the litmus test.

While there are a few readers reviews that made me wince or grumble, I am honestly grateful for the experience of learning what people think. Taking some slaps on amazon is preferable to the alternative—refusing to read any reviews and growing ossified, determined not to listen to any criticism.

And so as my first novel, The Crown, receives its 231st review on amazon, I want to say thank you to the readers who've taken the time to do this--think of a response, write it, and upload it. My page here.

The latest review is one of my best since the book was published by Touchstone (S&S) in January 2012, and I'm grateful!

5.0 out of 5 stars The Crown, August 1, 2014
This review is from: The Crown: A Novel (Paperback)
 The Crown by author Nancy Bilyeau literally took my breath away as a piece of literary brilliance.  I am not huge on historical fiction books that also fit into the genre of thrillers and or mysteries; I usually prefer historical fiction novels that are more centered around the person and their life,  the period in which they lived,  with a little romance popped in.  With this book my forgone conclusion about what I prefer went out the window.

The novel takes the reader into the world and times of King Henry the eighth and some of the events that lead to a young novice named Joanna and her struggle to fight for the preservation of her way of life as a young postulate nun living under the rules of enclosure; Joanna must do this under blackmail from a Bishop who uses her Father as leeway holding him hostage until Joanna finds an artifact that the bishop believes will change the course of actions that are ripping what he considers to be England's true faith into pieces.

Every detail and conversation  between characters was written beautifully and made me feel as if I was there with this young nun;  The scenery was described beautifully and the characters development through out the book made me relate with the characters and literally made this book an addiction as I got deeper into each chapter.   I'd recommend this book highly to anyone who likes historical fiction; Especially Tudor Era genres. 

To people like "butterflywriter," I want to say--keep reading! Not just my novels, but as many as you have time for, and keep sharing...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Strange Gods": A Mystery in East Africa

Annamaria Alfieri is the author of 'Strange Gods,' a new novel set in early 20th century British East Africa. This is where 'Out of Africa' and 'White Mischief' later unfolded, a place of great fascination and allure. We asked Annamaria to share some of the history she learned while researching her mystery in this guest post:

The British Are Coming!

So shouted Paul Revere.

But this is not about those redcoats.

In the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the Brits took hegemony over East Africa.  How and why they came to do that is the geopolitical background for my series of historical mysteries that begins with Strange Gods, which launches on June 24th.

The story begins not in the territory that is now Kenya, but off shore, so to speak.  Wanting a more efficient way to move wealth from India to England, Great Britain dug the Suez Canal. Then, to make sure the canal remained open and in their hands, they needed to take hegemony over Egypt. They concluded that to control Egypt, they needed to control the Nile. To control the river, they wanted to take control of its source. As the engineers began to plan and dig the canal, the legendary and somewhat loony explorers Dr. David Livingstone, Richard Francis Burton, John Speke, and Samuel Baker went out and eventually found Lake Victoria. But controlling the lake was not so easy. To do so, the Brits needed to keep administrators and troops there, men who needed supplies and the ability to communicate with the outside world. Today, in a Mercedes or a lorry one can drive the 525 miles between the lake and Mombasa on the coast in a day. But a hundred and twenty years ago, they had to go on foot and it took months. 

Britain had another great goal in the 19th Century, stamping out slavery.  The area between the coast and Lake Victoria was notorious for slave caravans—know as the “Trail of Tears"-- the route where slaves were dragged from the interior to the coast and then shipped to work in the households of Asia Minor and on the sugarcane plantations of what is now Iraq. 

By the 1880’s, the Brits had spent a great deal of blood and treasure trying to stamp out slavery worldwide.  As part of that effort, they succeeded in convincing the Sultan of Zanzibar—who ruled the coast—to outlaw human trafficking.

 But the prohibition, like all prohibitions, brought in the criminal class.  Contraband always costs more and as profits soar, the cutthroats always move in and sharpen their blades.  The British navy managed to stamp out much of the slave trading in the Indian Ocean ports, but that only went so far.  The practice had to be halted at the source, where the slaves were taken, in the hinterlands.

The weapons that Britain thought to use were a European presence where slaves were captured, the Christian religion, and legitimate ways to get rich in the territory—through trade.   In the words of Dr. David Livingstone, what Britain needed to check the cursed traffic in human flesh was “an open path for commerce and Christianity.”

The dangers and difficulties of transportation from the coast was a major obstacle.  The route from Mombasa to Kisumu was an oxcart trail.  To traverse from the coast took about three months with most of the party walking, carrying water and food.  Ordinarily around three hundred at a time made the trip, most of them tribal porters. 

 Many people died.
So the British decided to build a railroad.
But not everyone agreed.

Calling the railroad a “gigantic folly,” Liberals in Parliament were against the project, saying that Britain had no right to drive what African’s called the “Iron Snake” through Maasai territory.  The magazine Punch called it “the Lunatic Line.”  Politicians and newspaper editors called it a waste of the taxpayer’s money.  Shaky wooden trestles over enormous chasms, hostile tribes, workers dying of until-then unknown diseases—much of what transpired seemed to support those against the idea.

But from the outset, the railroad had its adherents.   Conservatives saw it as an important salvo in the “Scramble for Africa,” that Nineteenth Century madness of the European powers to take over whatever chunks of the African continent they could lay their hegemony on.   As the argument went, if the Brits didn’t take it, their rivals—largely that meant Germany—would.
Construction began in 1896.  It cost Great Britain’s taxpayers 55 million pounds sterling or $33 Billion in today’s money.

32,000 Indians were shipped in from the Raj to build it.  6,724 of them stayed after the work was done and made a life there—many of their descendants remain today. 2,498 perished during its construction, largely of diseases, but also by man-eating lions.

Once the railway was completed, goods and people could make the trip in less than two days.  And they put in telegraph lines along the tracks, making communication all but instantaneous.  Hooray for modern technology.

But that was not the end of their trials.

Having built the railroad, they needed to maintain it.  And they had some special problems to deal with in that regard.

For reasons no one could fathom, rhinos would undermine the tracks, elephants would knock over the telegraph poles, and purloined telegraph wire became the raw material for many a tribesman’s favorite jewelry.  The bill for keeping the trains going was causing great consternation on the home front.  The taxpayers were sick of the expense.  What the railroad needed was paying customers.

Though at the equator, the area around a remote station stop called Nairobi, about halfway along the line, was a mile above sea level and had a climate the King’s administrators called “healthful.”  What a perfect area for farms.  Europeans might be enticed to move in and grow coffee and sisal, raise cattle, cut and ship rare woods, and so on and so on.  Then, they and their produce would pay to ride the rails.  What a swell idea.  And so they did.
Social change in northern Europe coincided with all this.  

Industrialization meant that aristocrats in those countries could no longer remain rich and privileged just by owning land.  But with cheap labor and unexploited resources in Africa, they could have all the servants and entitlements of their former life style.
And in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, there developed an ideal of manhood the proof of which lay in striking off into uncharted territory and conquering it.  Perhaps this happened because Europe had become too manicured and tame for the available testosterone.  That would be my guess.

After the railway was built, shooting safaris became the rage.  An early visitor to the Protectorate was Teddy Roosevelt.

The railway was a huge logistical success and became strategically and economically vital for both Uganda and Kenya.  It helped suppress slavery, and it did away with a lot of suffering by eliminating the need for humans to carry burdens through such hostile territory.  It also allowed heavy equipment to be transported inland, giving rise the economic development.  Coffee and tea grown in the East African highlands could be moved to the coast and exported.   For good or evil,  the railroad cemented the British hold on what soon became the colony of Kenya.

Let me add a personal note: I read Out of Africa as an adolescent who had never traveled further from my New Jersey home than the coast of Maine.  That book gave me a nostalgic longing for a place I experience only in my dreams and had no prospects of ever visiting.  I have been there now, twice, and each encounter made me more infatuated.  Every description of its majesty, every photo I see—even the sepia ones in the books of the New York Public Library’s collection, increases the strength of my attachment.  I imagine that many of the Europeans who went to British East Africa felt much the same.

I have taken that infatuation and longing and poured it into Strange Gods.  I hope you will read my story and travel with me to there and then.

Annamaria Alfieri

“Alfieri aims for the audience who loved Out of Africa, with heartbreaking romance married to a complex mystery.” –Kirkus

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Regency Novel Like No Other: “Of Honest Fame,” by M.M. Bennetts

By Nancy Bilyeau

How do you solve a problem like Napoleon?

For many modern novelists and many more readers, perhaps, the French Emperor is not a problem requiring a solution. Which is, among other things, the point

Of Honest Fame, by M.M. Bennetts
Strictly speaking, the Regency Period lasted from 1811 to 1820, the timespan when the mental breakdown of King George III called for the greater involvement of his oldest son, George, the Prince of Wales, variably described as a spendthrift, drunkard, lecher and patron of the arts. Some scholars liberally extend both boundaries so that the Regency began in 1795 and ended in 1837, the year that Queen Victoria succeeded her dissolute uncles George IV and William IV to the throne. In which case, it was a period of truly astonishing literary output: Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his second wife, Mary Shelley, William Blake, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and John Keats.

             Overlapping the time that some of these novels and poems were proudly published, England was at war, and not just any war. From 1803 to 1815, England allied with Prussia, Russia, and Austria to fight the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican officer turned general turned Emperor. Roughly 5 million people died during the Napoleonic Wars, an estimate that includes civilians. 

               This was a war of "extreme violence," of atrocities committed against the civilian population. Philip G. Dwyer writes, "The sacking of towns, during which soldiers committed murder and rape in what is often called an 'uncontrolled frenzy,' was part and parcel of 18th century warfare." Yet historians agree that the French armies, greatly hardened in the Revolution, took the frenzy to its most pitiless level.
           England was not invaded during these wars, of course, but families were robbed of their young men who died fighting Napoleon, and the population feared and hated the Emperor and was, to varying degrees, aware of the atrocities committed in Europe, particularly in Spain. The country was also riven by poverty, with as much as one-third living close to starvation. Food riots raged. In London, alongside the luxury-driven, gambling-addicted aristocracy, existed squalor and crime.

           This is the time and this is the place of M.M. Bennetts' remarkable novel, Of Honest Fame, a companion book to May 1812. Although the story swings wide, to France, Prussia and Scotland, the focus is on England in that same tense, pivotal year of 1812. According to rumor, Napoleon is turning toward Russia. It's only the British Foreign Office's skilled spy network that can learn the truth of France's plans, yet a sadistic French assassin is picking off the spies on their home soil. In the struggle to outwit the assassin--and discover who in London has betrayed them--a group of men are tested as never before. The layers of intrigue reveal themselves slowly, worthy of a John le Carré plot, but it's in the rich details of the characters' daily lives that the novel soars. They are soldiers, statesmen and spies, driven by their hatred of the enemy.

            No one can blame Jane Austen for not depicting the harshness of war. That was never her brief. To the careful reader, the realities of the Napoleonic Wars do play a key role in Austen fiction. Men who lack the wealth and position of a Mr. Darcy or a Mr. Knightly seek a career in military service, some willingly, others less so. In Pride and Prejudice, the local officers--members of a militia of sorts--are a fatal attraction for the younger Bennett daughters. The deceptive Mr. Wickham is thus introduced: “But the attention of every young lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with an officer on the other side of the way." In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is desperate for a ship after Anne Elliot rejects him due to his lack of social status.

            Napoleon was defeated, exiled, disgraced. England moved forward, to carve its Empire. Yet Bonaparte is an object of eternal fascination in fiction. He appears in two of the  most memorable novels of the modern age. Tolstoy triumphs in his ability to depict a Russian society under strain and then under siege in War and Peace. And in a very different sort of book, it is a letter from an exiled Napoleon that sets the entire plot of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo into motion.

A painting of Napoleon's retreat from Russia

          In the novels written in the late 20th and 21st centuries the presence of Napoleon takes interesting shape. Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwell have each produced masterful novels of men fighting the French. But the wars take a background role in most other Regency-era books, the surge of historical fiction and romances, some, but definitely not all, inspired by Austen. What complicates it further is that the Emperor himself stars in a number of well written historical novels, focusing on his marriages to the calculating Créole Josephine and the stolid Austrian princess Marie-Louise. Even his Bonaparte siblings get a piece of the action.

            Of Honest Fame refuses to flinch from the ugliness of war and its devaluing of human life, the obliterating horror of torture and rape. There are no battles in the book; it is not a "war novel." But each character in the book is molded--if not scarred--by England's grueling conflict with France while retaining his or her innate humanity and need for companionship and love. M.M. Bennetts' book could never be described as romance fiction. And yet it contains a relationship between two outsiders--a rejected and terrified wife and a debauched yet determined spy--that is tremendously moving and quite erotic.

            Still, the novel's power is most keenly felt in its descriptive passages. In two sections in particular, a man finds himself in a new place, and the details of what he sees and hears and feels drive home the needs of each character.

            Boy, the youngest and most psychologically damaged of the English spies, tracks Napoleon's army into Prussia with the utmost care:

Running, zigzagging across the abandoned countryside, past the smoke-blackened houses and empty, eerie Gothic churches which sat deserted and silent, discarded like the playthings of some long-dead giant. Dodging the few travelers and fewer carriages by diving into ditches or behind the low walls and hedges to wait, still and alert, for minutes or longer. To wait until the roads were quiet once more. And only then to emerge, and wary, to begin again.

           Another of the spies, Captain George Shuster, seen as the "cream of the officers' mess" but wearier and lonelier than even he may realize, arrives in Scotland:

He caught sight of the chestnut crest and black mask of a wax-wing. 'Struth, it had been an age since he last walked through a wood like this. Walked, unafraid and unharried, through strands of yew and holly and oak with sunlight dappling the ground and the tree trunks, and underfoot a carpet of wild thyme, garlic and most decaying leaves, their scents crushed together by his boot. Without having to run--crouched over and silent in his breathlessness--wondering when some Frenchie's bullet was going to find its way into the gut or his head. Without fear of stumbling across the corpse of a soldier or a child, half-eaten and decayed. Without listening for the sounds of pursuit or the murmuring of vagabonds or the unnatural silence of waiting bandits. For here there was nought but the incessant callings of the birds--wood pigeons and woodpeckers, robins and thrushes--and the rustling, grunting enthusiasm of Comfit at his heel.

          In moments such as these, Of Honest Fame finds a poetry in the human struggle that no conqueror could ever silence.


To learn more about Of Honest Fame and M.M. Bennetts, go here.




Monday, May 26, 2014

The RT Awards in New Orleans: In Praise of Alligator Po'Boys, Joan of Arc, Voodoo Psychics--and Book Editors!

By Nancy Bilyeau

One of the axioms of screenwriting is "Come in late, get out early." Following that advice--meaning that writers should focus on the meat of the action and not waste precious time in either setting up or winding down a scene--produces lean, lively scripts. But it's not the best way to approach the RT Booklovers Convention 2014 in New Orleans. I arrived late, exhausted, and I left early, panic-stricken. Still, a week later, I am turning over the experience in my mind, which means it left a mark. A good one.

The Tudors Rule! Laura Andersen (The Boleyn King) and I celebrate
Although "RT" stands for Romantic Times and the majority of the 2,000-plus attendees of the annual convention are writers, readers and publishers of romance fiction, screenwriting is relevant to this blog post. One of the two reasons I was determined to fly to New Orleans was to moderate a panel on Friday morning called "Stealing Hollywood's Magic: How Screenwriting Techniques Energize Your Writing."

The second reason was to collect my first fiction award. To my astonishment and delight, The Chalice, set in 16th century England, won the Best Historical Mystery of 2013 prize. It was one of the highlights of my writing career to grip this award.

But before we get to the pleasure, we have to talk about the pain.

My original plan was to attend the entire convention, which ran from Tuesday, May 13th, to Sunday, May 18th. But I am the executive editor of DuJour magazine, and when the production schedule for the summer issue shifted, my travel plans had to shift too. I booked a flight and hotel to arrive on New Orleans on Thursday. I knew I was cutting it close. But I didn't have a choice.

On Thursday, when I walked my daughter to school, it was cloudy but seemed a typical spring day. A check of the weather forecast revealed a long line of storms stood between the East Coast and Louisiana. Proving the power of denial in the human mind, I decided that some rain couldn't possibly affect my plans.


I was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans, a city I'd never visited before, at 6:30 pm Thursday. I actually touched ground, alone and confused and deeply tired, at 1:30 a.m. Friday.

I like to travel, while my husband hates it. The series of flight cancellations and delays I endured on Thursday--some, but not all, caused by weather--confirmed all of his dread of flying and more. The man loves me so he did not gloat but merely commented via email that I could have reached Tokyo in the same stretch of time it took various airlines to deposit me in southern Louisiana.

I wasn't reserved in the Marriott, the convention hotel, because it was booked up by the time I made my plans. Instead, I had a room at the W Hotel in the French Quarter. When my cab dropped me in front of the Chartres Street hotel after an endless ride from the airport--we had to reroute from the highway because of construction, which nurtured a growing suspicion that I was hexed--a calm and welcoming hotel employee supplied me with a room card.

Nothing could look as good to me as my room that night:

I'm told that this is a "signature bed" of the W Hotels
The following morning, I woke up after four hours' sleep, terribly excited. I could tell my fortunes were turning around when I enjoyed a sensational breakfast on the terrace: eggs, sausage, potatoes Lyonnaise, orange juice and biscuit. The coffee...ah, the coffee. Someone said the secret to New Orleans coffee is the chicory? Drinking a pot of it made me think if I was hexed, it had officially lifted.

Breakfast at the W: I could get used to this!
Afterward I rushed to the Marriott Hotel, the official convention destination, to moderate my panel. I've served on a half-dozen panels, from the New York Public Library and Thrillerfest to Historical Novel Society and Bouchercon. I am proud to report that this RT panel gave some very strong value to the writers in the audience. At conferences, some authors tend to promote their books, crack jokes, and offer only vague advice to their audiences, unfortunately. Alexandra Sokoloff (Blood Moon), Patricia Burroughs (This Crumbling Pageant) and Toni McGee Causey (the Bobbie Faye series), successful screenwriters and novelists, shared their techniques in plotting with notecards, structuring a suspenseful plot and visual scene building. In fact, you can download Alexandra's incredibly helpful Story Element Checklist from the blog she updated same day as our panel. These women went the extra mile.

It wasn't until the lunch break that I explored New Orleans a bit. Because I have a French last name, people have asked me over the years if I'm from New Orleans, and I always feel as if I'm disappointing them when I say no. (My French Huguenot ancestor, Pierre Billiou, settled in 1665 in what was then called New Amsterdam, later New York City.)

Now, at last, I'd made it to the Big Easy. Because I adore exploring historic buildings (especially churches) and experimenting with food, falling in love with the French Quarter was inevitable.

Alligator time!
At lunch with Pooks (Patricia Burroughs), I couldn't resist ordering the alligator po'boy sandwich. (Wouldn't Andrew Zimmern be proud?) In answer to the question "Does it taste like chicken?" the answer It tastes like alligator--tangier than chicken and a bit tougher.

Chartres Street, French Quarter

The buildings along Chartres Street exuded a 19th century charm--in a few cases, 18th century. The St. Louis Cathedral off Jackson Square is among the oldest cathedrals in North America: The first church on the site was built in 1718. I liked the statue of an armored Joan of Arc, donated in 1920.

"The Maid of Orleans" statues can be found all over N.O.
Outside the cathedral, interestingly, I faced a long row of psychic booths, set up for tourist business. I've always been fascinated by voodoo (anyone who reads my books knows I'm intrigued by not only churches but prophecy and the magical world). So it was simply not possible to pass by the most colorful booth of all, the one belonging to Fatima, a.k.a. The Bone Lady. She told me she was fifth-generation, trained since childhood in tarot and palm reading. I learned I have a long life line and may come into some money in the next 18 months (good!) but a friend secretly wishes me ill (bad!).  I began to doubt Miss Fatima's psychic skills when she said I'm single. Um, no, I've been married 21 years. Things went downhill from there. She ferreted out that I'm worried about a family member and said she could perform a "protective" voodoo cleansing in a private ceremony for an undisclosed amount of money. I guess I wasn't surprised that someone sitting in a booth in the middle of a tourist area would try this sort of manipulation. But it was still a letdown.

Overall, I feel about Miss Fatima as I do about the alligator po'boy: glad I sampled, but I wouldn't repeat the experience.

The RT folks said I could bring a cheering section of one or two to the awards ceremony, and I asked my friend, fellow historical novelist Judith Starkston, who's written Hand of Fire, a fantastic book about Briseis, the lover of Achilles, to sit with me. The only award winner I knew personally was Laura Andersen, who won Best Historical Novel for the enthralling The Boleyn King.

As Judith and I listened to the award recipients' brief speeches (one minute max, we'd been instructed), it struck me how many of them gave fervent thanks to their editors. And not because the said editor was sitting in the audience--I don't think that was often the case. The relationship between writer and editor is such an important one, and these women wanted to honor it.
My moment of truth at the RT Awards ceremony
When my time came to take the stage--I wore stylish flats so I wouldn't pull a Jennifer Lawrence--I told a joke revolving around learning that I'd won the award while waiting for the subway. It came off well. I hope. But then I shifted from silly to sincere, and thanked the editors of The Chalice. Because the book was published simultaneously in North America and the United Kingdom, I had two talented editors on it: Heather Lazare, with Touchstone, and Eleanor Dryden, with Orion. Back in 2012, I told them, "Give me everything you've got--I want this book to be as good as I can make it." And they did. :)

Thanks to Heather and Eleanor--an award!
Because the rates at the W Hotel skyrocket Saturday night, I booked my return flight Saturday afternoon. That meant I had to unfortunately miss the last day and a half of the convention. But also when I selected a 3 pm flight I didn't take into full account the 11 a.m to 2 pm Book Fair, an author signing event that dwarfs any other such signing I'd ever seen.

When it was time for me to dart out early, I was faced with a half-hour-long checkout line. And, of course, I hadn't allowed enough travel time to the airport in the first place. I missed a flight at Phoenix Airport two years ago. It was a horrible experience, and I did not want miss this one. I'd had a memorable time in New Orleans but I wanted to get home, to be with my husband and kids.

Still, I couldn't bypass the convention checkout line because I had a book to buy. A half-hour earlier I'd introduced myself to an author I've long admired, Barry Eisler. I read The Detachment and was blown away by the pacing, plot twists and character depth. Barry couldn't have been nicer, and I snatched up Graveyard of Memories, his new thriller that goes deeper into the history of the series' protagonist, the enigmatic John Rain. Barry signed it for me--I had to buy this book!

I paid for Graveyard of Memories, ran to the hotel, flagged down a cab (New Yorkers can always find a cab), and, stomach churning, checked the time on my watch every 30 seconds along the way. When we made it the airport with less than an hour left until takeoff, I was fighting back tears. I'd missed that flight from Phoenix to NYC when I cut it this close. How could I do it again?

But as I scrambled to the United Airlines counter, my suitcase flying behind me, a uniformed woman stepped forward and said, "You look upset. What flight are you on?" She didn't flinch when I told her it was the plane to JFK in 45 minutes. She calmly checked me in and directed me to the gate, telling me I'd be fine.

"It was nice to see you again," she said in an accent of the Deep South.

"No, this is my first time in New Orleans," I said.

She smiled. "We've met before," she said, without a trace of doubt.

It wasn't until I was safely on my flight, Barry Eisler's novel in my lap, that I realized she could have been the special connection I'd been hoping for on this trip.

New Orleans, I will be back.

A riverboat on the Mississippi, something I've ALWAYS wanted to see

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

London Treasure Hunt

By Jeri Westerson

I’ve titled this post as I did because my newest medieval mystery, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, is not only a murder mystery involving a venerated object, but in the course of that mystery is a massive treasure hunt all over London.

Readers have been asking for a map of fourteenth century London, and as promised, there is one in this edition. Since all of the action of five of the so-far six books in the series takes place in London, I naturally needed to acquaint myself with its period streets. Unfortunately, the London I would love to see doesn’t exist anymore. A couple of fires took care of that, along with some re-planning and reconstruction throughout the ages and into the present.

Maps serve to give me the claustrophobic feel of constricted alleys and a puzzle of lanes. In fact, one can lay these maps on the Google Earth version of the present day London and match quite a bit of it. Even some of the names remain the same. My fictional detective, Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective and down on his luck, frequents a tavern to forget his troubles, which is located on Gutter Lane…a street that still exists by that name. I love that symmetry!

But there are still a few locations that can be found in present day London that can renew one’s sense of time and place. One obvious structure is the Tower of London. The outer walls and the White Tower within are relatively the same, sans the murky moat that used to surround it. And walking under the arches and sharp teeth of the portcullises one can get a true sense of its medieval origins, if you can ignore the gift shop signs and colorfully-dressed tourists. It began life as the castle of William the Conqueror and as a residence of each monarch after him until digs in Westminster were built. Only later, well after Crispin’s time, did it become the dreaded place of imprisonment for London’s elite.

I could name so many places that no longer exist or have been changed so radically to its Victorian counterpart that it is almost not worth the mention. London’s city walls, for instance—the square mile that delineated ancient London—have been obliterated by “new” buildings from the Georgian and Victorian periods and our modern time, and it is only with a helpful handheld guide that you can find its remnants. But a walk into a few structures might bring the medieval back to mind. The 12th century Temple Church of the Knights Templar on Fleet Street; the 12th century Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield; the Guildhall, built between 1411 and 1440, which stands off Gresham and Basinghall streets, served as the city hall for hundreds of years.

Then there is the wonderfully intact Westminster Hall, the great hall that was part of the medieval Westminster Palace, whose footprint is now covered by the Parliament buildings. But the hall is as Crispin would have remembered it, even with its current hammerbeam ceiling, that his king, Richard II, put in place to replace the columns that used to support it. It is the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe, measuring 68 by 240 feet. It was used for feasts, great occasions, law courts, religious ceremonies, and entertainments.

And, of course, Westminster Abbey itself got a brush up of remodeling in Crispin's day, and looks a bit different than it did. But remember, the Abbey and the Hall are in what was the City of Westminster, not the City of London.


Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries. Her brooding protagonist is Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London, encountering thieves, kings, poets, and religious relics. Her books have garnered nominations for the Shamus, the Macavity, the Agatha, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Jeri is president of the southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. When not writing, Jeri dabbles in gourmet cooking, drinks fine wines, eats cheap chocolate, and swoons over anything British.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"In Lone Magnificence, a Ruin Stands": Tintern Abbey

By Nancy Bilyeau

This post is the next in a series on the monastic ruins of England. In the first installment I wrote about Furness Abbey in Cumbria; in the second I wrote about Thetford Priory in Norfolk. I launched this project with my post on English Historical Fiction Authors: "Listening to Blackfriars." And now I move the series to a treasure of Wales...

Tintern Abbey

On the Welsh bank of the River Wye, Tintern Abbey, founded in 1131, soars to the sky nearly six hundreds years after the last monks departed. It survived the Edwardian Wars, the Bubonic plague, even the destruction of the monasteries--roofless, yes, and crumbling in many places, but far more intact than most other medieval abbeys. Tintern has proved a potent force of inspiration for writers, painters, and musicians, ranging from poet William Wordsworth to metal band Iron Maiden--not to mention Alan Ginsberg!

Tintern Abbey

THE FOUNDING: Walter de Clare, lord of Chepstow and a relation of the Bishop of Winchester, founded Tintern Abbey. The De Clares were a vigorous, often violent Norman family that jostled for power from the time of William the Conqueror up to the early 14th century. When Walter, abbey founder, died childless, his nephew Gilbert De Clare assumed control of his lands, becoming the first Earl of Pembroke while earning the nickname Strongbow for his soldiering, mostly on behalf of King Stephen during the war over succession with his cousin, Queen Mathilda.

A view of the abbey church
Tintern was the second Cistercian abbey to be established in England; its monks arrived from Blois in France. Over the next century, the high point in England's history of monasticism, Tintern's land holdings grew rapidly. Thanks to the patronage of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, the monastery was blessed with a large, ornate church, following a cruciform plan. More than 200 feet long, it was built in red sandstone in the Gothic style.

THE ORDER: The Cistercians, also known as the White Monks, were formed with the goal of reform. They were very popular--by the year 1200 there were more than 500 Cistercian abbeys in Europe.

THE GLORY: The beauty of Tintern was a source of great pride to the surrounding countryside. Because its location was somewhat isolated, the abbey did not suffer any attacks during King Edward I's brutal conquest of Wales in 1282. Other monasteries thought to be sheltering Welsh leaders were damaged.

Gilbert De Clare
Tintern might have come under the protection of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Hertford and Gloucester and commander of the king's forces for a time. Because of the family's connection to Tintern, it is possible the "Red Earl"--so named for his red hair and dangerous temper-- ordered the abbey left  alone. The Red Earl was a noble perpetually scheming and fighting and changing sides. He supported Simon de Montfort instead of Henry III, but betrayed him and later became young King Edward I's greatest champion, eventually marrying one of his daughters. Undoubtedly guilty of horrific murders, he often spoke of a desire to go on Crusade to the Holy Lands. In his 50s, he fought so bitterly with another nobleman over a land dispute, he was briefly imprisoned. De Clare was most definitely a creature of the medieval age.

After the battles in Wales were over, Tintern's renown grew. In 1326 Edward II, the son of the Red Earl's patron-turned-punisher, spent two nights there.

It was not a king or a nobleman but a disease that dealt Tintern its most serious blow. In 1348 or 1349 the Bubonic Plague reached Wales, killing one-third of the population. Wrote Welsh poet Jean Geuthin:
A plague doctor
 "We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.’
Monasteries were hit the hardest of all, with their enclosed populations. Once the disease entered, it was likely to annihilate one and all. Tintern needed a great many monks to maintain it because of its size, and between the plague and a gradual decline in vocations, it was never the same thriving abbey after the year 1400.

THE DISSOLUTION: When Henry VIII broke with Rome and set loose the laws that dissolved the monasteries, some of the abbots and priors, monks and friars, resisted and incurred the wrath of the king. Tintern was not one of them. On Sept. 3, 1536, Abbot Wyche surrendered the abbey and all of its lands. If a monastery was in or near London, it was likely to be transformed into a home for a nobleman close to the king. But no one took Tintern as a home. All valuables were taken and the roofs were stripped for their lead.

THE LEGACY: Few visited Tintern and no one much cared about its history until the Romantic movement, keen for picturesque ruins, discovered the abbey. Just about the time Turner painted the monastery, William Wordsworth in 1798 wrote the much-admired  "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":

William Wordsworth
"...These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: -- feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life..."

Tintern Abbey became a popular destination, inspiring other poets, novelists, painters, and scholars. Parties especially liked to go at night to see the torchlight dance off the soaring walls.

Painting by J.M.W. Turner
The crown purchased the land from its owner, the duke of Somerset, in 1901 and the buildings were better maintained.

In 1967 Allen Ginsburg took an acid trip at Tintern and wrote a poem dedicated to "clouds passing through skeleton arches."

But of all the dedications to Tintern, perhaps the one least predictable by its medieval monks and lords was the band Iron Maiden, in its video for the song "Can I Play with Madness." It makes excellent use of the ruins site:

To learn more about visiting Tintern Abbey, now owned by Cadw, go here.


"In lone magnificence a ruin stands" is contained in The Ruins of Netley Abbey, by 18th century poet George Keate.


Nancy Bilyeau is writing a thriller trilogy set in 16th century England during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The first novel, The Crown, published by Simon&Schuster in North America and Orion in the United Kingdom, was on the short list of the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award in 2012. The second novel, The Covenant, was published earlier this year. The next book in the series: The Covenant. For more information, go to

Monday, June 17, 2013

Interview with Sophie Perinot, author of "The Sister Queens"

By Nancy Bilyeau

This Friday I will be in Florida, attending my first-ever Historical Novel Society conference. I've heard so much about the star-power lunches and dinners (this year the guests of honor will be C.W. Gortner, Steve Berry and Anne Perry!), the costume pageant, and the juicy author panels. 

Sophie Perinot

I'm honored to be on a panel with my friend Sophie Perinot, author of the wonderful novel The Sister Queens. Our panel has the awesome title "The Feisty Heroine Sold Into Marriage Who Hates Bear Baiting: Cliches in Historical Fiction and How to Avoid Them." We will try to lay down the law along with Susan Higginbotham and Gillian Bagwell. :)

To generate more excitement for the conference (and let me tell you, I am already very excited), I've updated an interview I conducted with Sophie that revealed her historical knowledge, creativity and savviness about being published:

Nancy Bilyeau: Your first novel, The Sister Queens—telling the story of Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, sisters who both became medieval queens—came out in 2012, can you tell those readers who may not have read it yet a little bit about the book?
Sophie Perinot: The Sister Queens is a sister story first and foremost.  Yes, it is set in the 13th century and the atmosphere, politics and history are richly detailed and appropriate to that time but I wanted to focus my novel on that which is timeless—the way our sisters shape us whether by challenging us or by supporting us. 
I’d like to share the back-cover blurb if I may because I really think my publisher did a brilliant job of summing up the novel: 
“Raised together at the 13th Century court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages—but never truly parted. 
“Patient, perfect, reticent, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. Her husband, Louis IX, is considered the greatest monarch of his age. But he is also a religious zealot who denies himself all pleasure—including the love and companionship his wife so desperately craves. Can Marguerite find enough of her sister’s boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in the guise of forbidden love? 
“Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Her husband, Henry III, is neither as young nor as dashing as Marguerite’s. But she quickly discovers he is a very good man…and a very bad king. His failures are bitter disappointments for Eleanor, who has worked to best her elder sister since childhood. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?” 
NB: What was the most exhilarating moment for you as a debut author? The most humbling? 
SP: The most exhilarating moment was, without doubt, my launch day.  I was able to lunch with a small group of my fellow members of the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the Historical Novel Society including the marvelous Kate Quinn and Stephanie Dray. Afterwards we walked to the nearest Barnes & Noble.  The minute I crossed the threshold I spotted The Sister Queens on the “New Releases” table.  Pure bliss.  Needless to say, many pictures were taken. 
The most humbling moment came about a week later.  I took my youngest child to a Barnes & Noble near our home so that he could see my book on the “New Releases” table.  He took one look, shrugged (really) and said something along the lines of, “that’s nice but the hardback books at the front are displayed standing up.”  Wow.  Yeah, that pretty much deflated my ego. 
NB: We will both soon be headed to the 2013 North American Historical Novel Society Conference.  Can you tell readers a little bit about the topics of the panels you will be sitting on in Florida? 
SP: I will be sitting on two panels.  The first entitled “Location, Location, Location” will look at historical settings, their importance as the foundation of good historical novels, and tricks and tools for building them credibly.  The Second is our panel on clichés. It will examine the good, bad and ugly of common clichés in the genre. I expect both panels to be scintillating, so if any of your blog readers are coming to St Pete’s, I hope they will consider adding these panels to their list of “must see” sessions.
NB: Is the St. Peterburg HNS Conference your first? 
SP: No indeed, I am a veteran of North American conferences, having been at every once since the 2005 inaugural event in Salt Lake City.  I honestly believe my early HNS conferences—before I had a completed manuscript—were extremely important in terms of career building/shaping.  They really made me think about the business end of writing historical fiction, and gave me the information I needed to make educated decisions about what I wanted in an agent and what sort of publication I was seeking.  I think it is very easy for new writers to write in a “creative bubble” focusing solely on developing their craft, but authors are actually small business people and the earlier a novice writer realizes that the better.  I’d recommend attending an HNS Conference to anyone serious about writing in the genre and to interested readers as well.
 NB: When you get home from Florida I am sure it is back to the writerly grindstone.  Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on right now? 
SP: With pleasure.  I’ve moved forward a little over 300 years to 16th century France where I am hard at work on a novel about Marguerite de Valois, the youngest daughter Henri II and Catherine de Medici. 
Marguerite grew up immersed in the political and dynastic struggles which consumed France during the Wars of Religion.  She was a witness to and participant in a lot of fascinating—and sometimes gruesome—history.  Yet she has seldom been explored in fiction, and when she has I am afraid portrayals of her—as a vain, corrupt wanton—reflect more of the ugly anti-Valois propaganda of her time than historical reality.  I hope to give readers a more balanced and nuanced view of Marguerite who was not only one of the most beautiful women of the French Court but also one of the most intelligent.  Readers can expect plenty of mother-daughter conflict between my heroine and her legendary mother, Catherine de Medici, as well as political and Romantic intrigue involving the likes of the Duc de Guise, Henri of Navarre, Charles IX of France and the future Henri III. 
Thanks for a wonderful interview, Sophie, and see you later this week!

For more information on The Sister Queens, go to: