The Goodreads list of the most anticipated historical fiction being published in 2014: vote!

This Goodreads list of historical fiction being published next year is illuminating. I’m looking forward to new Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue novels, as well as a number of others.

What’s interesting about the list is that Goodreads readers have weighed in on which novels they are most looking forward to reading.


I’m  hugely pleased that my virtual author friend M.J. Rose’s next novel, THE COLLECTOR OF DYING BREATHS (great title, beautiful cover), is number one on the list!

I’m also quite pleased that THE SHADOW QUEEN is now at #23. Yay!

I would also, of course, be extra pleased if you cast a vote for it. (In fact, in terms of voting, go nuts: you can vote for 100 books.)

Feel free to sprinkle stars all around as well, and add books to your “To Read” shelf. You would be surprised how important this is to publishers.



Ian Mortimer and Hilary Mantel on historical fiction: a cure for complacency, fizzing on the page, and inviting characters to have a seat


I’ve enrolled in “Plagues, Witches, and War”—a free on-line Coursera class on historical fiction. It’s awesome! I’m  busy right now preparing for our move south, but I always have time for reading. You can see the course reading list here.

I read two of the “core” articles yesterday, both of them excellent, ones I would recommend to anyone interested in historical fiction. 

Here’s from the excellent article by Ian Mortimer (who is both an academic, and writer of historical fiction under the name James Forrester), on “Why Historians should Write Fiction“: 

“It teaches you how little you really know about the minutiae of the past, and destroys professional complacency. It humbles even the most experienced researcher. It demands that you think deeply about human character, and how it is formed, and how people integrate. But most of all it shows you that there is a different sort of truth beyond the measurements of facts and dates: truths about human nature which are timeless, or, at least, very slow-moving. And it leaves you thinking that these truths, although they are unproveable, are probably the most important historical conclusions of all, for they reflect what we are, and what we can be, both as individuals and as a society.”

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The other article is a New Yorker profile of Hilary Mantel: “The Dead are Real.” It moved me profoundly.

Mantel on character development

Right now, between drafts, I’m often simply thinking and making notes about Hortense and her world, exploring character. A technique Mantel sometimes uses for getting to know her characters interests me: 

“When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions.” 

(A technique which dovetails nicely with another “course” I’m taking, on learning to meditate.)

Mantel on making changes to the historical record

The following passage reverberated for me especially because I recently had to sort out quite a tangle in THE SHADOW QUEEN because I had tightened the narrative timeline for dramatic purposes. 

“She couldn’t always be sure that a character was in the place she said he was in at the time she put him there, but she spent endless hours making sure that he wasn’t definitely somewhere else. “Once you play around with history, it trips a whole load of consequences,” she says.”

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Mantel on a certain type of writer’s block

This passage expresses a fear I often have, and most writer have as well:

“I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, What if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”

Fortunately, I’m not a writer of phrases that fizz, but there is a certain passion and energy that one brings to a story and I do worry about fatigue. The cure for that, for me, is invariably research and inspiring reading. I’ve chosen to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens for the class: such a passionate writer! 

“Truth-adjacent” fiction?


I recently read a review of the iSteve movie in the July 2013 issue of MacWorld. I quote:

Despite the movie’s liberties–and it takes a lot of them–it adopts at times a surprising fidelity to historical events. In the end, you might best describe the film as “truth-adjacent.”

I like the term “truth-adjacent” and may adopt it. Another description that seems to be used in the UK but not in North America is “biographical fiction,” which describes my work exactly. “Fact-based fiction” is a term commonly used here, but I dislike it: it has a medicinal flavor.

How would you describe fiction that is based on fact?



Juggle this! On plotting, beginning a 1st draft, making a final edit, tweaking a shout line and filling out a beastly author questionnaire …


I’ve begun to gallop along on the YA about Hortense. I’m still struggling with the plot, but nonetheless I’ve started falling into scenes, letting them flower. The processes for plotting and writing are different (plotting is so very cerebral), so it’s not a bad idea to do them simultaneously.


Needless-to-say, I’m busy. There is nothing quite like the absorption of the early stages of a novel to make one just a little forgetful.

Recommended this week: “How to shop at a bookstore: an easy 20-step guide for authors.” This is hahahaouch funny & sad. The one thing I would add is that writers give consideration to appearance before going up the the counter and offering to sign a book. If I’m looking somewhat grubby, I will pass.

The article made me nostalgic. I remembered walking by a bookstore just before I was first published, realizing that I would never again go into a bookstore as a carefree-wandering-reader. Once published, there’s a working relationship. A delicious working relationship, but a working relationship nonetheless.

The copy-edit of The Shadow Queen is now back with Doubleday. I always find it surprising how emotionally tangled up I can get over whether a word is capitalized or not.

girl pulling out hair copy

Now I’ve the beastly Author Questionnaire to finish filling out. The required AQ is perhaps the best reason to stay with one publisher! On the first page (of many pages): list every edition of every book you’ve ever published in all languages. No. No. No.

The catalogue copy of The Shadow Queen for HarperCollins needed some tweaking. (The title was wrong, for starters.) Here’s what we’ve got now for a “shout line”:

A seductive, gripping novel about the lure and illusion of power, and the plight of a woman caught up in the deadly black magic of the woman she loyally serves: the Shadow Queen.

Shout lines are damn hard … Some suggest that you begin writing the shout line at the same time you begin writing the novel.

As usual, I’m reading too many books at once. (A little ADD anyone?) Pride and Prejudice, as well as a book about Jane Austenas mentioned in my last blog. Tiny Beautiful Things by tell-it-like-it-is Cheryl Strayed. Astonished, by my friend (and fantastic writer) Beverly Donofrio. A historical novel for a blurb—I don’t recall the title, but I’m enjoying it very much. Manage Your Day-to-Day by Jocelyn K Glei, for obvious reasons.

Etc. etc. etc. If only I had five lives.


And … how could I forget! I’m nearing the end of Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellows. Primal lion screaming! I read that Joni Mitchell was inspired to write “Both Sides Now” reading this amazing novel. I read it in my teens and loved it. Although I found it a little thick in the middle, it still has incredible power.


At the top, a very unusual portrait of Hortense by Appiani. Antique images from BibliOdessy.


The New Yorker: a six-course meal

In addition to finishing The Unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce—a wonderful novel—I finally worked my way through the Oct. 15 issue of The New Yorker. I have quite a bit to say about Harold, but the NYer must come first: my husband has been waiting for the hand-over.

This was an exceptionally writerly issue. First, a profile of the religious right-wing writer Lynn Vincent, “Lives of the Saints.” Vincent gives a writers’ workshop on “The Sacred ICPID”: an acronym for I couldn’t put it down.

She’s into formulas, and, being a former math major turn novelist, I particularly liked this one: (B+C-I-P)n, which translates: (Butt + Chair – Internet – Phone) times the number of words you can write without breaking a sweat. Her magic number is 350, the number of words she aims to write twice a day. There’s something about that concept that appeals to me. It’s not nearly as intimidating as 1000 words in one go, which is what I aim for when I’m cooking.

And then there was a lengthy profile of the divine Hilary Mantel, “The Dead are Real.” This article, by Larissa MacFarquhar, had quite a bit to say about historical fiction.

“Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws.”

“It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.”

One of the wonderful things about Mantel winning two Bookers—the first for Wolf Hall, and the second for Bring up the Bodies—is that it plants the Historical Fiction flag firmly in the land of Literary.

I am full of admiration for Hilary Mantel’s work. Having read both novels, I’m tempted to read them again in anticipation of the third and final volume. I have heard that she works in an office lined with corkboard, onto which she pins index cards of scenes. I long to know how she manages the depth and freshness of detail that she does. The wit and the humor!

“I like filing systems. But the whole process of writing novels is the opposite of that—it’s do not label, do not define, do not decide, leave everythign loose. You have to say to yourself, I take my hands off, I let my unconscious work for me. It’s desperately uncomfortable!”

She is a writer with a huge brain. “… I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it.”


At the end of The New Yorker issue was an article on how women became readers: illuminating. I loved this quote from an account of the reception of the novel Pamela by Richardson:

“The blacksmith of the village had got hold of Richardson’s novel of “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded,” and used to read it aloud on the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience.”

Is that scene not enchanting?

Real-life update: I’m back in San Miguel de Allende now, and most everything is sorted out. (What goes where, etc.) I’ve been working hard on draft 9.0 of In the Service of the Shadow Queen, which I intend to print out tomorrow.

I’ve started a newsletter, which I hope to get out soon: I have Real News! If you’re not on the newsletter mailing list, sign up here.

On Sunday my husband and I will pack for a trip to California to see my soon-to-be-95-year-old dad and the rest of my family for a wonderful U.S. Thanksgiving. Our son is flying out from New York, and our daughter, her mate, her step-daughter and baby flying down from Toronto. There will be twenty-four at the table, and all my dad’s progeny will be there. Thanksgiving, indeed!