On the Trail of Patrick Colquhoun in Scotland

Last time I was in London, I posted a blog sharing some of the places that would have been familiar to John Pickett, the young Bow Street Runner who is the hero of my Regency-set mystery series. Since I had a chance to visit Scotland this past summer as part of a 2-week British Isles cruise, it only makes sense to give his magistrate, the real-life Patrick Colquhoun, equal time.

While our ship was docked at Greenock, my husband and I arranged for a car and driver—Mike made it very clear that he did not intend to spend his vacation learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road!—to take us to some of the places that would have been familiar to Patrick Colquhoun.

Dumbarton Castle, as seen from across the River Clyde

Our first stop was Dumbarton, where Patrick Colquhoun was born in 1745. You can see Dumbarton Castle long before you get there, as it is situated on the north bank of the River Clyde—directly across the river from the road that connects Greenock to Glasgow, which means you must go some way past it before you can cross the river and backtrack. It is visually quite imposing, built on a volcanic plug that has been fortified since the Iron Age, and would certainly have been a familiar sight to our man.

Me, standing on a bridge overlooking the River Kelvin.

His wife, Janet (whose maiden name was also Colquhoun), was also from here; in fact, her father was the provost (think “mayor”) of Dumbarton. Going his father-in-law one better, Patrick Colquhoun became Lord Provost of the much larger Glasgow—a position which meant he was also Lord-Lieutenant of the County of the City of Glasgow and a Commissioner of Northern Lighthouses. He built an estate in Glasgow’s West End, along the River Kelvin, and called it Kelvingrove. The house no longer stands (and, alas, he sold it in 1792, some years after moving to London, which means I can never send John Pickett there), having become Glasgow’s first municipal museum in 1872 and demolished in 1899, when the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was built in its place. Its grounds were absorbed into what is now Kelvingrove Park. I spent a very pleasant hour wandering through the park and along the river, imagining myself following in his footsteps.

Kelvingrove Park. The spires of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum are visible in the background.

One thing I noticed was that the locals seemed very gratified to discover that I knew how to pronounce “Colquhoun” correctly! (For the record, it’s “Ca-HOON.”) Upon learning what I was doing there, more than one boasted that, yes, “Glasgow is Colquhoun country,” and asked if I had visited Luss. I was pleased to tell them that I had.

Luss, besides being a picturesque little village on the shores of Loch Lomond, is the ancestral home of Clan Colquhoun. Although he was never chief of the clan, not being in the direct line of succession, Patrick Colquhoun would certainly have been aware of the connection, and might well have visited the village or the ancestral seat, a fine Georgian manor called Rossdhu House.

Rossdhu House. Since I didn’t get to see it in person, I looked it up online!

(Rossdhu, by the way, now serves as the clubhouse of the Loch Lomond Golf Club, and still contains many of the original furnishings and artwork, on loan from the family. My driver tried to get me close enough for a glimpse of the house, but the gates were locked, and the landscaping blocked any view; apparently they’ve seen me driving off the tee.)

Picturesque cottages of Luss.

Loch Lomond.

Foiled in my attempt to get a look at Rossdhu, I had to content myself with strolling through the village and down to the loch, finishing up my time in Luss by trying haggis (yes, really!) at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel, a former coaching inn owned by the present clan chief, Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, 9th baronet of Luss.

Lunch at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel: haggis (center) with neeps (turnips, at bottom) and tatties (potatoes, top).

Mediterranean Cruise

One of the questions writers hate the most is “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the reason we hate it is that the honest answer would be, “Duh, I don’t know.” Seriously. Out of more than twenty books, there are only three or four that I could definitely say what inspired the story.

A recent exception would be my first romantic suspense novel, Moon over the Mediterranean, which was just released. When my husband and I started planning this trip, I thought it would be nice if I could get a novel out of it. Since the setting wouldn’t really lend itself to the Regency period (because, you know, Napoleon was running amok all over Europe), I decided to try my hand at the type of book that I credit with giving me a lifelong craving for travel: a romantic suspense novel in the tradition of Mary Stewart, M. M. Kaye, etc. Since the book’s publication, several reviewers have recommended it as a summer “beach read,” largely because of its exotic setting(s). So now, I’m going to be like that annoying neighbor who invites you over and then proceeds to show you all the home movies from his vacation. Except in my case, it’s not movies, but some of the sights we saw on our trip, which also figure in the novel.

Hubby Mike and me on Formal Night. (No, I’m not that short; he, at 6’5″, is that tall.)

Since I’m a firm believer in not talking down to readers, I’m not going to tell you what this is. I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure it out.

Me, standing in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The two-toned cream-colored house in the right middle ground is the Keats-Shelley House, where the poet John Keats died in 1821. It’s now a museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets.

Stunning view along the hair-raising road from Naples to Sorrento.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. In the book, Robin has a fright here; while I wasn’t assaulted, like she was, I did find the too-aggressive salesmen too much of a deterrent to do any shopping.

The windmills of Mykonos, Greece.

The section of Mykonos known as “Little Venice,” because of the way the balconies hang out over the water. One of the “mushier” scenes in the book takes place here.

Street scene in Ephesus, Turkey. The large building on the left is (or was) the Celsus Library.

The Parthenon, Athens.

The Erechtheion, with the “Porch of the Maidens.” It’slocated on the Acropolis, like the Parthenon, which is only a stone’s throw away. (No pun intended.)

A close-up of the Porch of the Maidens.

The Doge’s Palace in Venice, as seen from the balcony of our stateroom.

 

 

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, with the Doge’s Palace on the left and the prison on the right. The “sighs” were from prisoners glimpsing the outside world for the last time as they crossed the bridge.

 

An interview with audiobook narrator Joel Froomkin

Joel interview pic

Those of you who have been listening to the audio versions of the John Pickett books may have been wondering about the man behind John Pickett’s voice. (He’s actually the man behind Julia’s voice too, as well as Mr. Colquhoun’s and all other other characters.) I’m pleased to give you this glimpse “behind the scenes” at award-winning audiobook narrator Joel Froomkin!

SCS: Tell me a little about your background. How much of your voice work is natural talent, and how much is theatrical training?

JF: Well, I grew up in Bermuda, which is a British colony, and that kind of forged the way for me to be a little bit of a dialect freak. I went to a British school where my teachers were from all over the UK. So I grew up absorbing all these different sounds without even being conscious of it. My best friend was Scottish, my “adopted” grandparents were English, and I lived in London for three years. So I was lucky, growing up around all these sounds AND having American parents. In terms of training, I did my undergrad in performance at USC, and then my MFA in directing—which is actually ideal for audiobooks, because you are usually your own director. Being able to listen with an objective ear and say to yourself, “Nope, that doesn’t sound truthful” is a real help. So to answer your question, I think I ended up with a really unique combination of “nature” and “nurture” that allows me to tackle unique projects as a narrator.

 SCS: What do you look for when choosing a project to audition for? What appeals to you?

JF: It really depends. But I get really excited about things that allow me to play with a lot of characters and dialects. I think that’s because my passion for audiobooks came from listening to Roy Dotrice and Jim Dale, who really create an entire cast of voices. Personally, I love cozy mysteries (M. C. Beaton and Alexander McCall Smith are my favs), so working in that genre is a real treat. John Pickett’s adventures let me enjoy both of those things. I’d love to do fantasy as well, because it allows so much latitude with vocal characterization. Because of my background, I’m often hired to do books that feature American AND British characters. People who have listened to only my British books get really confused when they hear one of my American titles!

 SCS: After we contracted to do the John Pickett mysteries, you had me send you a spreadsheet listing every speaking character, along with each character’s age, occupation/social class, three words describing them—and one unexpected item. Can you tell my readers what that was, and why you find it helpful in creating a voice?

JF: It’s important to me to try and get a real sense of what was in the author’s imagination. I’ve found authors tend to think of their characters more visually than vocally—so I have a series of questions that helps me focus in on the aspect that most concerns me.

I ask them the age of the character; very often, the minor characters—servants, etc.—are not really given much detail—and I can interpret them as 86 years old and find out three books later that the author refers to them as 22! The level of education is important—especially for British material, where dialects are very much tied to level of class. I need to know if they grew up in any specific region, and whether any other characters in the book were also raised there, because they will share sounds.

I ask if there is a particular celebrity the author imagines would play the character in a movie. About half the time, these suggestions aren’t useful, because the author is thinking visually, not vocally—so they will tell me that Chris Pratt would be a character in a British Victorian story. That doesn’t help. But when they are able to tap into the voice type, knowing that someone sounds like Eddie Redmayne vs. Sean Bean, that is helpful.

The last thing, which actually is the most helpful, is what kind of animal they think the character would be—kind of like what is their Patronus. LOL. Knowing an author imagines a character is a weasel vs. a toad or a Persian cat vs. a bear is a huge help to find their voice.

 SCS: Okay, so I’ve sent you the character spreadsheet and the book manuscript. What’s next for you? Walk me through your process.

Then I read the book, with the author’s character sheet right by my side. It’s important to know the arc of the story and the characters before I start—particularly with a mystery, because I have to be careful not to telegraph the ending by making the murderer too obvious. Mysteries are also very tricky because there are often “mysterious voices” that are overheard, or anonymous telephone calls (in more modern material). Those are always really tricky to figure out how to voice so the listener doesn’t identify the bad guy!

 SCS: Let’s talk for a minute about the John Pickett books. What part of the books presents the greatest challenge for you? What part do you find the most enjoyable?

JF: I think getting to voice the prequel, Pickpocket’s Apprentice, was a huge help to me.  [SCS: Joel also won an Earphones Award from AudioFile for his work on this book, which I suspect increased his affection for it exponentially!] It meant that we have been able to chart his growth in education and his ability to assimilate into a class above his station. He still speaks in what we would call “mockney”—certainly not BBC English. But when he is speaking with servants, his dialect shifts to seem more relatable to them. When he is with the upper classes, he tries not to drop consonants or use glottal stops. Very often, historical writers make the mistake of assuming that lower-class people can just “pretend” to have an upper-class sound. But if that were the case, there would be no reason for My Fair Lady to exist—Eliza Doolittle wouldn’t have needed Henry Higgins! So we’ve found a way to progress John Pickett that I really enjoy. I love the character—in my head, I’m playing Eddie Redmayne playing John Pickett. For some reason, when I’m voicing Lady Fieldhurst, I always think of a young Eva Green.

 Thanks so much! I look forward to working with you on the other books in the series. Fun things in store  include a whole family of Scottish characters (in Family Plot, Book 3), John singing “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” while pretending to be drunk (Waiting Game, another John Pickett novella, Book 4.5), and of course the romantic resolution (Too Hot to Handel, Book 5). I can’t wait to hear what you do with them!

(If you’d like to hear a sample of Joel’s work, here’s a short excerpt from A Dead Bore. Enjoy!)

USA Today HEA interview

In spring of 2016, I had the good fortune to be featured on USA Today’s HEA blog in an article on historical mystery series with strong romantic elements! Since there were eight authors referenced in the article, everyone’s interview had to be abbreviated due to space constraints. I’ve included my entire interview below; if you’d like to read the HEA blog entry (I’ve been told it was one of the most popular they’ve ever done, and was shared more than 1,400 times!), you can read it here

1) Did you plan from the start to include the romantic element in your book or series, or did it evolve in the writing of the stories? If the former, why? If the latter, at what point did you realize this element would be significant to the book/series?
Yes, the romance was a big part of the series from the very beginning. I’d had success with “across the tracks” romance in my self-published Regency romance The Weaver Takes a Wife, so when I got ready to develop a mystery series, I decided to go back to that particular well, in this case pairing a young and inexperienced (in more ways than one) Bow Street Runner with the widowed viscountess who is his chief suspect in the murder of her husband (Book 1, In Milady’s Chamber). I knew from the first that I was asking readers to suspend a great deal of disbelief in accepting that a Bow Street Runner, even a young and handsome one, might become romantically involved with an aristocratic lady. In fact, I felt this scenario was well-suited for a series, as it would allow for the gradual development of a relationship that might be difficult to pull off in a single title.

2) Does the romantic element develop over several books or is it strong from the start?
It seems a bit sacrilegious to mention my own books in the same sentence as Dorothy L. Sayers, but at the risk of sounding presumptuous, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane was my model, as far as developing the romance goes. In the first book, the attraction is all on John Pickett’s side. Julia, Lady Fieldhurst is far more concerned with saving her neck from the gallows, but even aside from that, a woman of her class would never think of a man of his station in those terms. It was interesting to see reviewers’ response to this one-sided attachment. One reviewer said, “If you’re looking for a romance, you won’t find it here,” while another said, “The romantic tension crackles, because absolutely nothing happens”!

3) What is the relationship between the protagonist and the significant other, and the role of the significant other in the story? (Are they partner sleuths, or is the “other”, while involved in the story, not one of the primary investigators? If you are writing a series, does your protagonist have only one significant other, or are there a series of them?)
In the first book, he was investigating her husband’s murder, and she was the primary suspect. In the later books, they keep running into each other—sometimes coincidentally, other times not. Because of her social position, she can go places that he can’t, and ferret out information from people who might refuse to talk to him. The most recent book, Dinner Most Deadly, found them at cross purposes for the first time, with Julia reluctantly agreeing to protect her best friend’s estranged husband, who is a suspect in the case Pickett is investigating. And it makes her miserable, which goes a long way toward making her realize just how important he has become in her life.

4) If you are writing/have written a series, how is the romantic element maintained after the couple marry or otherwise have a meeting of the minds on their relationship?
I don’t want to give away too much detail here, because the book that resolves the relationship has not yet been published. Suffice it to say that I’d expected the series to end once that resolution came, but after writing that book, I realized that the daily challenges of making such an unequal match work offered plenty of opportunity for conflict—and comedy—that deserved to be explored.

5) Do you think the romantic element is important to the marketing of your books? Is it featured, by either you or your publisher, in the marketing materials? If not, do you know why?
I think it’s very important—in fact, I doubt if there’s a single person who reads my books strictly for the mystery! While my publisher markets the John Pickett series as part of its mystery line, I write my own copy for the cover flap, and I make sure to mention the issues within the developing relationship as well as the mystery. I also promote it on romance review websites, and next month I’ll be attending the Romantic Times conference for the first time.

6) There are historical romances with strong suspense of mystery plots. How are those different from the books that you write?
The most obvious difference is the fact that my series follows the same couple over a number of books—and that, four books into the series, the romance is still unresolved and unconsummated. I also think my books contain more humor than the historical romances with mystery or suspense elements, which seem to deal with darker themes and/or tortured characters. I don’t do tortured characters; John Pickett is rather like a Regency “Chuck” (from the titular character of the TV series, portrayed by Zachary Levi) in that he’s brilliant but utterly lacking in self-confidence.

Reading: An interactive experience

7781751Back in my YA-writing days in the 1990s, there was a popular series of books for preteen and early-teen boys called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Every few pages, the reader would be faced with a choice. For instance, one page might end: “To enter the cave, go to page 43. To continue up the path toward the abandoned farmhouse, go to page 26.” The idea, I assume, was that the books would be more appealing to boys (many of whom are/were reluctant readers) if they were interactive.

Something happened recently, though, that has made me realize that all books are interactive to some degree. My husband came home from work and mentioned that one of his co-workers had read one of my John Pickett mysteries. “Hannah [not her real name] said she really likes the characters, especially Lady Fieldhurst.” He continued, with his voice carefully neutral, “She said Lady Fieldhurst is really the smart one of the two.”

Now, I don’t know what book Hannah read, but I’m not at all sure that it was mine! Julia is certainly not stupid, but after years of being treated as little more than a pretty but useless accoutrement to her husband, she’s just beginning to find her voice. (Just wait; the mouse will roar in Book 5, Too Hot to Handel, coming in spring 2016.) John Pickett, on the other hand, is very clever, but largely self-educated. Because he’s painfully aware of how far he falls short of the men in Julia’s circle, he tends to not rate himself very highly. I wondered if perhaps Hannah was taking him at his own valuation of himself.

Then my husband went on to explain that Hannah is a feminist, to such an extent that she scolds my husband for opening doors for her. Aha! The light dawned. Hannah wanted a book in which the female lead is actually smarter than the purportedly clever male, and so she interpreted it according to her own preferences. At first I found it a bit galling that my work was being so misunderstood, but then I realized that it’s a good thing readers to connect with my characters, even if that connection may not take the form I had intended.

7761322I’d experienced a similar phenomenon a year or two earlier, while reading reviews of French Leave on Goodreads. For those unfamiliar with the book, it’s the third in the trilogy that began with The Weaver Takes a Wife, and finds the Brundys, now married for four years, experiencing marital difficulties. Although it ends happily and the farcical misunderstandings that separated the pair are resolved, 18% of the Goodreads reviewers were unhappy with, if not downright offended by, what I had naïvely supposed was a funny and harmless book. (One reader felt so strongly that she changed her original 5-star review of The Weaver Takes a Wife to a 1-star, simply because she disliked the sequel so much!) As much as this hurt at first, a fellow writer pointed out that readers responded this way because they felt so invested in the couple’s “happily ever after” that they couldn’t bear to see it threatened, even temporarily—and that this was something I, as a writer, should be proud of.

She was right. After all, connecting with readers is why we write. Without that interaction, the manuscripts might as well be left to languish in a drawer—“safe,” perhaps, and not misunderstood, but not enjoyed, either.

I hate blogging!

I have a confession to make. I hate blogging. (You’d probably already figured that out, given that my blog hasn’t been updated since last July.) But blogging seems to be expected of writers these days, along with a lot of other things that didn’t even exist back when my first novel, Wrong-Way Romance, was published in 1991. But while I don’t mind Facebook, for instance—in fact, it’s fun to share book covers, reviews, etc. with readers—I begrudge every minute I spend writing blog entries, including this one. For one thing, I don’t think my life is so thrilling that people would want to read about it every week. (I’m reminded of the cell phone commercial from years ago, in which a man “tweets” such thrilling tidbits as “I’m sitting on the porch,” much to the chagrin of his mortified teenaged children.)

More than that, though, if I’m writing, I want to be WRITING. There are only so many hours a day that I can devote to it, and I’d much rather spend those hours writing a book than a blog. In other words, I’d rather be living the writing life than waxing philosophical about it.

In fact, lately I’ve been so consumed with my characters that when I’m not writing about them, I’ve started drawing them. I haven’t done any freehand sketching in years, but for some reason I decided to give it a whirl. I used to draw a lot when I was younger, but to my frustration, I couldn’t draw anything realistically; everything I drew had a cartoony look to it. With the rise of manga, however, I decided that cartooniness might actually be a good thing. And so I drew this sketch of John Pickett and his Lady Fieldhurst, from the mystery series.

And it was FUN! So much fun, in fact, that I drew another, this one considerably . . . warmer. (When I texted it to my younger sister, she promptly texted back, “Oh, get a room!”)

So, I’ve fulfilled my writerly duty and updated my blog. Now it’s your turn: do you blog? If so, what do you find to write about? Do you read blogs? Obviously you’re reading this one, but why? What do you think of authors on social media—do you enjoy getting an inside look at what their lives are like, or would you rather they spent that time working on their next book? Do my sketches look anything like you imagined John Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst, or do you think I should put the colored pencils down and stick to writing? Inquiring minds want to know!

How a Social-Climbing Southern Belle from Mobile, Alabama Changed the History of the World

PictureAlva Erskine Smith (later Vanderbilt) as a young woman.

The social climber in question, Alva Erskine Smith, was born in 1853 to Murray Forbes Smith, a wealthy cotton merchant in Mobile, Alabama. (Her childhood home has long since been demolished, but my friends in Mobile will know exactly what I mean when I say that it stood at the present site of the Government Plaza on Government Street.) The family summered at Newport, Rhode Island, the popular playground of wealthy Americans, and left Mobile for New York City in 1857. Alva was sent to a private boarding school in Paris, and returned to New York afterwards to make her social debut. In 1875, she married William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius (aka “Commodore”) Vanderbilt. The couple had three children, two boys and a girl. It is their daughter, Consuelo, who concerns us.

  Meanwhile, back in merrie olde England, the Spencer-Churchills, dukes of Marlborough, needed money—again. The magnificent Blenheim Palace had been constructed between 1705 and 1722 as a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough in gratitude for military victory over the French and Bavarians. It had been an albatross around the family’s necks ever since. The house—so huge that if its wings could be folded out straight, the façade would measure half a mile in length—required constant infusions of cash. What to do? Why, what every titled Englishman in need of funds was doing in the late 19th century: marry an American heiress. Charles Spencer-Churchill (aka “Sunny”), the 9th duke, looked about him for a likely candidate, and found Consuelo Vanderbilt and her railroad millions.

  He could not have asked for a more formidable ally than his prospective mother-in-law. Almost from the moment of Consuelo’s birth, Alva had been grooming her daughter to make a brilliant marriage, and no marriage could possibly be more brilliant than one to a duke, the highest level of British aristocracy. And not just any duke, but the Duke of Marlborough, whose wife would be mistress of Blenheim Palace. The drawback that Consuelo was in love with someone else? Unimportant. The fact that Sunny, at only five feet six inches tall, was shorter than his bride—ludicrously so when she was dressed in the high heels and large hats of the day? Insignificant. Alva wanted the Duke of Marlborough for Consuelo, and that was the end of it.

  Consuelo, only eighteen years old, was no match for her mother’s ambition. And so she and Sunny were married on November 6, 1895, with the future duchess in tears as she marched down the aisle. Of course, she was expected to ensure the succession by giving birth to a son. In the meantime, the duke’s heir presumptive was his second cousin, Winston. (Yes, Winston. Of the Spencer-Churchills. You figure it out.) Sunny’s grandmother put it to Consuelo in no uncertain terms: “Your first duty is to have a child, and it must be a son, because it would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston become Duke.”

  Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, outdid herself. She not only had a son to inherit; she had two, and it was she who coined the term “heir and the spare.” Since it was obvious that he would never be Duke of Marlborough, young Winston Churchill was obliged to find something else to do with his life—something appropriate for a scion of one of England’s greatest families. Something like, oh, politics. The rest, as they say, is history. Alva and Winston were not related by blood, but they had the same bulldog tenacity. Had anyone else been Prime Minister during World War II, who knows what would have been Britain’s fate—and, by extension, America’s?

  And that is how a social climber from Mobile, Alabama changed the history of the world.


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The Duke of Marlborough and his family, by John Singer Sargent. Left to right: Charles Spencer Churchill (“Sunny”), 9th Duke of Marlborough; Marquess of Blandford (later the 10th Duke of Marlborough); Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough; and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill (the “spare”). Notice how poor little Lord Ivor is practically shoved out of the edge of the painting, while the eldest son and heir is the focal point of the picture!

Living in the Shadow of WRONG-WAY ROMANCE

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As I write these words, I’m packing my bags (okay, I ought to be packing my bags) for a trip to Denver for RomCon, a 3-day conference for readers and fans of romance. Although I’ve been to writers’ conferences galore, this is my first experience with a fan-centric function. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, at some point during the weekend, someone comes up to me and says, “I know who you are! You wrote Wrong-Way Romance!”

 
And they would be right. Way back in 1990, I sold my first novel, and a year later, in February 1991, Wrong-Way Romance was published by Bantam Books as part of its popular teen romance series, Sweet Dreams.

I went on the write four more Sweet Dreams titles—which have since then been translated into Polish, Chinese, Dutch, and French—but that first novel must have struck a chord that none of the others were able to match. If you look them up on Amazon or Bookfinder.com, you’ll find that used copies of most of them can be had for mere pennies—except for Wrong-Way Romance, which as of this writing can’t be found for less than $270. Yep, a 136-page paperback that originally sold for $2.95 is now listed for almost 100 times that amount–an increase of over 9000%. Not only that, but scarcely a month goes by that I don’t get an email from someone in their 30s who remembers reading that book as a teenager, and wonders if I have old copies to sell. (The answer is “no”; this was, after all, my first novel, and I didn’t know that I should buy up as many copies with my author discount as I could afford. Then again, who knew that it would be commanding those prices more than twenty years later?)

But wait; there’s more. I’ve been to more than one writer’s conference where another attendee, upon seeing my name badge, exclaimed, “You’re the one who wrote Wrong-Way Romance! That’s the book that made me want to read, and then write, romance!” At the close of the 2012 conference of Romance Writer’s of America, I met a finalist in the Golden Heart Awards for Best Young Adult Novel on the van taking a load of conference attendees back to the Los Angeles airport. When she learned who I was, she told me that was the book that led her to write for teenagers. After she got off the van, another woman told me, “That gave me goosebumps!”

It gives me goosebumps, too. And yet . . . sometimes it’s frustrating, living in the shadow of my first published novel. Some part of me wants to say, “Have you tried reading what I’m writing now?”

Don’t get me wrong. I am genuinely humbled to think that something I wrote more than twenty years ago is still being read, much less influencing people’s lives, today. It’s the sort of thing most of us as writers dream of.

But at the same time, I would hate to think that I peaked with my very first novel, and that it’s all downhill from there. I know that my writing is more finely crafted today than it was then, and my current novels, set in Regency England, are much more demanding, as they require more research and are over 2½ times as long in terms of word count.

I suspect part of the problem, if it can be called a problem, is simply the fact that Wrong-way Romance was a book written for, and read by, 12- to 14-year-olds—in other words, readers at an age where their tastes, preferences, and life goals are still being formed. I can still remember quite plainly books that made an impact on me at that age—or even younger—and my discovery of Georgette Heyer at age sixteen was certainly a watershed moment. But although I’ve discovered authors as an adult that I read (and re-read) faithfully, I can’t think of any who have had a truly life-changing impact on me. This is not to say anything against those writers; it’s simply that I have more of a backstory of my own, so to speak, and each individual book I read is a smaller percentage of the whole than it would have been when I was, say, thirteen years old, reading voraciously for a glimpse of what life “ought” to be like.

And, in all fairness, I’m not the same person I was twenty-five years ago, when I wrote Wrong-Way Romance. Ironically, I quit writing for teenagers about the same time my daughter and her friends began reading in the genre; suddenly I was looking at those high school years as someone’s mother, instead of writing from the perspective of the insecure teenager I once was. Maybe that’s why most successful young adult authors are still young themselves.

And so I’ll keep plugging away at Regency England, aware that lightning of the sort that was Wrong-Way Romance probably won’t strike twice. In the meantime, Ethan Brundy of The Weaver Takes a Wife has a devoted contingent of fans, and John Pickett of the mystery series got me noticed by both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

And maybe that, added to the early success of Wrong-Way Romance, is all any writer has any right to hope for.


An Interview with Gary Corby

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Since winning a copy of his fourth book, The Marathon Conspiracy, in a Goodreads giveaway, I’ve become a serious fangirl of Australian author Gary Corby, whose series of mysteries set in ancient Greece are published by Soho Press. I sent him a message via Goodreads asking for an interview, and he was gracious enough to grant it. 

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From the detailed Author’s Notes at the end of each of your books, I get the impression that you were knowledgeable about Greek history long before you started writing your novels. Am I right? Tell me a little about your background.

 You’re right.  I was reading history even as a teenager — mostly ancient Greek and Roman.  But also mediaeval and WW2.  That was just for fun.  By training I’m a mathematician, weird as that may sound.  These days I’m a full time writer of murder mysteries.

 Classical Greece was an easy choice, when I decided to write a historical mystery.  To start with, I already knew a lot about the period.  Or I thought I did.  It’s one thing to know about the wars, the great art, and the geopolitics.  It’s another thing to know how the drains work!  Also how houses were built, what people ate, how they wore their hair, etc.  Now I know all that stuff, too.

 I first traveled about Greece, Turkey and the Aegean when I was in my early twenties.  Little did I know then that one day I’d be writing about the place.  But that local knowledge helps with descriptions.

 Mysteries are so series-oriented that it’s important to create characters that we, as writers, won’t get tired of writing about, and that readers won’t get tired of reading about. I can assure you that you’ve accomplished the latter! Can you tell me a little about how you created Nicolaos?

 Poor Nico!  He’s the dumbest guy in the room.   

 At the time Nico’s alive and detecting, there are about a dozen world-class geniuses walking around Athens.  There’s Pericles the famous statesman; Socrates the world’s greatest philosopher, but at this point he’s only twelve years old; Diotima the priestess-philosopher; Aspasia the brilliant speech writer; Hippocrates the Father of Medicine; the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; Herodotus the Father of History…the list goes on.

 Even Sherlock Holmes would struggle against this lot.  It meant that my detective couldn’t be the smartest guy in the room.  Since he couldn’t be the smartest, he had to be the dumbest.

 So Nico’s little brother is a genius.  His girlfriend is a genius.  His boss is a genius.   But Nico’s the one expected to solve all the puzzles. 

What about Diotima, Socrates, and the other real-life characters? Where does the historical figure end and the fictional portrayal begin?

 It varies with the character.  Socrates is easily the best documented person from that entire century.  There are good descriptions of his demeanour, his family, lists of his friends, where he lived, very long reports of his dialogues.  There’s even a first-hand account of his actions during a for-real battle. 

 Diotima on the other hand only gets mentioned in one place.  But if you can only get mentioned once in history, Plato’s Symposium is a good choice.  Her character I had to create.  Her intelligence was obviously top notch for her to have taught philosophy to Socrates, and for him to have been grateful for it.  She heads the most powerful student-teacher chain in history.  Diotima taught Socrates.  Socrates taught Plato.  Plato taught Aristotle.  Aristotle taught Alexander the Great.  Alexander conquered the world. 

 You can pull all sorts of enlightening tidbits from recorded history.  I have Pericles as being very stingy with his money, for example.  That’s because there’s a surviving court case in which it emerged that he underpaid his own son.

Many of the people who read my blog are writers themselves, who know that anything can happen during a speaking engagement—especially when you’re talking to kids! Would you please share with them your experiences when speaking at your daughter’s school (which you describe at the end of The Marathon Conspiracy), and how that experience gave you unexpected insight into Diotima’s character? Besides being a charming story in itself, it demonstrates how anything and everything becomes grist for the writer’s mill!

 It was the custom at the time that, when a girl came of age, she dedicated her toys to the goddess Artemis.  It was a coming of age rite. 

 I once gave a talk at my daughters’ school about ancient Greece, where I described the lives of girls in classical times.  I talked about how they wore their hair, what their clothes looked like, how school worked, etc.  Then I mentioned the dedication of the toys. 

 The girls were shocked.  Absolutely stunned. 

 It was instantly clear to me that my heroine Diotima would have done something about this rule.  To find out what she did, you’ll have to read the book!

From your Author’s Notes (which, by the way, I enjoy as much as I do the novels!), I suspect you’ve made at least one trip to Greece, Ephesus, etc. to research your books. My husband and I are planning a Mediterranean trip in the next few years. What locations do you suggest I and other literary-minded travelers might want to check out that might add to our enjoyment of the novels?

 For The Pericles Commission, you definitely want to visit Athens.  I know of people who’ve taken The Pericles Commission with them, to find the places.  The first murder scene is on an important rock outcrop beside the Acropolis, a place called the Areopagus.  You can easily find the spot where my first victim dies, and where Nico was standing when it happened.  (I plotted this out myself.)    Then go up to the Acropolis.  To the north you’ll see the agora, which Nico accidentally destroys in the book.  Also the Panathenaic Way which is the major connecting road.  To the south is the road to Piraeus, on which Nico has a knife fight in a later book.   If you look straight down from the Acropolis you’ll see the Theater of Dionysos, which is the setting for the next book, Death ex Machina.

 For The Ionia Sanction, visit the magnificent ruins at Ephesus, which these days is on the west coast of Turkey.  This is the same Ephesus that appears in the Bible (think Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians).   But in classical times it was a major port city.  The theater, the marketplace, the road to the wharves, the ancient brothel, Marble Road where Nico and Diotima have a flaming row…all those places are there to be seen. 

 Sacred Games is set at the ancient Olympics.  Go straight to Olympia!

 The Marathon Conspiracy is mostly set at a temple sanctuary at a place called Brauron in the ancient language, and Vravona in modern Greek.  The sanctuary and temple is a remarkably small area, but it was the world’s first official school for girls.  If you travel up the coast road from there you’ll come to the plain of Marathon, where they fought what was probably the most important battle in history. 

What’s next for Nico and Diotima? When can we look forward to reading about their next adventure?

 The book scheduled for next year is already written.  It’s called Death ex Machina and will be a rather theatrical mystery. 

 Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers or potential readers? Here’s your chance!

 People haven’t changed over thousands of years.  The same desires and fears that drive us today, greed, lust, ambition, love…those are what drove people two thousand five hundred years ago.  All that’s changed is the setting!

Thanks, Gary!

Note to my readers: If you haven’t read Gary’s books yet, I urge you to do so! And I strongly suggest that you start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with The Pericles Commission,  so you can follow the relationship between Nico and Diotima from the very beginning. You’ll love Nico, you’ll laugh out loud, and you might just learn something about Greek history.


When fan mail . . . isn’t.

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Looking back, I should have known what was coming when I saw the subject heading “Incorrect Word” in my email inbox. But like a fool, I opened it anyway. This is what I saw, reproduced here exactly as it appeared on my computer, complete with lack of salutation:

 “On page 11 of ‘A Dead Bore’ the correct word should be eminently in the sentence: ‘Although imminently suitable, …’.

 ”Also, in the same sentence you wrote ‘…was so daunting …’ As daunting means intimidating, why would Lady Fieldhurst accept the invitation that very day? Wouldn’t she hesitate to accept if she was intimidated? 

“I gave up reading at this point.”

I have to admit, the writer (I can hardly call him a “fan,” except, perhaps, in the worst sense of “fanatic,” and given that he quit reading on page 11, “reader” would hardly seem to fit, either) is correct in the first instance. The “eminent/imminent” distinction is one of those subtleties of language that I have to be constantly aware of, and in this case it managed to slip by not only me, but my critique partner and my editor at Five Star as well.

In the second example, however—and I admit to going back to look, secure in my understanding of the word “daunting”—he completely misread the sentence. Apparently he was so offended by the “eminent/imminent” issue that his reading comprehension skills were affected. Poor guy.

Now, I’ll admit, I hate it when I make this sort of error—most every writer I know does—but these things happen, and will happen as long as writers are human. That same typo (or “mindo” in this case, as it was my mind taking a brief hiatus, not my fingers hitting a wrong key, that was responsible) that jumps out at a reader is surprisingly difficult to spot when the words are my own. I knew what I “meant” to say, and that’s what I read. Every writer I know has this same dilemma.

Don’t get me wrong. Every reader has the right to put aside a book that isn’t working for them. I’m sure we’ve all done it; I know I have. And everyone has their hot buttons, things are deal breakers when it comes to finishing a book or not. Maybe it’s because I was the target here, but I thought this one gaffe was pretty small, compared to some I’ve seen. Ironically, just before I received this email I’d finished a book in which the author cited “The Lady or the Tiger?” a full eighty years before the short story of that name was published. While it did pull me briefly out of the story, I didn’t throw the book down in disgust. In fact, I kept on reading, and would have cheated myself out of a very enjoyable read if I had done otherwise. While as for contacting the author to point out her error and inform her that I was casting the book aside, and why—well, such a thing would never cross my mind. Who does that, anyway?

Seriously, I’d really like to know. What did the writer of the email hope to accomplish? Given that the edition he was reading was published in 2008, there was nothing I could do about it at this late date. (I might also add that this book earned me my first-ever review in Publishers Weekly, who called it “delightful,” so apparently it had some redeeming qualities.) What did the writer get out of this, except perhaps a brief feeling of superiority? Perhaps more important to me personally was the question: what was I to do about it? How should I respond?

I wrestled with that one all afternoon. Maybe I could send a very polite and charming email, acknowledging my own error in the first instance, and pointing out his in the second. Then I could offer an exchange: if he would give the book another try, I would promise to be more careful with my eminent/imminents in the future. But no, polite and charming or not, wasn’t my real goal to say “I’m right and you’re wrong?” Wasn’t that exactly what he’d done to me? And, that being the case, would I really change his mind, even if he agreed to such a bargain? Or would he be that much more determined to catch me in some new error?

So what did I do? Nothing. I decided not to engage with him in any way. Was it satisfying? Of course not. Part of me still wants to point out his error, as a gentle reminder to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But unsatisfying as it is, I know silence is not only the best policy, but the only real option. I’ll have to be content with imagining his frustration as he wonders if I’ve received his email yet, or if its arrival is still imminent. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Better yet, I can stay busy preparing for the release of the next book in the series, coming out in November.

Because as they say, success is the best revenge.