Friday, December 30, 2011

No Hard Drives in Heian Japan or Regency England

My computer just suffered a rather major hard drive failure (I type this message, slowly, from a mobile device). Now, fortunately, I didn't lose any important files (I make good use of, but I also happen to be over a thousand miles away from home (and other computer) right now. As I won't be returning home for several days, my online presence will be minimal. Thus, no blog entries probably until next Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Royalists, Democracy, and the Sword of the Apocalypse: an interview with historical fiction author Katherine Ashe

Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with historical fiction Katherine Ashe. She's spent over thirty years researching Simon de Montford, a man who played an important, but little known, role in the history of Western democracy.


1) Please tell us about your book.

The Montfort series is the four-volume product of my 34 years of research (some might call that obsessive) into the life of the little known, maligned man who established modern democracy.

2) You've been researching Simon de Monfort for decades. What is it about this man and the period around his life that has inspired such interest?

Principally it was dismay at the lack of knowledge about him, and the astonishingly negative attitude of what little there was.

3) Given that your primary subject lived over 750 years ago, there are obviously going to be a lot more historical holes for you to take advantage of than for someone writing a book on someone from a more recent period. Did you view these holes as an opportunity or were they more a challenge?

There are a lot of holes indeed, but, worse, the material that survives is written from two points of view: that Simon was the Angel of the Apocalypse and that Simon was the agent of Satan. Actually, the chronicler Matthew Paris, who is the finest general source of information during most of Simon’s lifetime, begins merely disliking Simon as a foreign interloper, but he becomes Simon’s friend and supporter as the years go on.

I wrote Montfort in novel form because of the necessity to use extensive speculation to bridge from one recorded event to the next with a reasonable thread of causality. Events often were mutually contradictory: in a surviving letter, the Christian lords of Palestine are begging the Emperor Frederic to name Simon their viceroy; then, according to the chronicles, Simon has joined King Louis’s army in France to fight King Henry of England; then he's leading 100 English knights against Louis’ 30,000. These are chronically successive events! You get the picture.

What happened during those “holes”? Certainly they provide a challenge requiring a broad knowledge of the period, the mindset of the time and the background of each of the major participants in each event. What has “seen print” in “Montfort” is the tip of the iceberg. Discussions in the Historical Context at the end of each volume can only give a sketched explanation of the sources and the reasons for my interpretations, or the work would be considerably more than its 1585 pages.

4) Related to the above, the mere existence of historical holes and interpretation by authors can potentially be a source of controversy. Is this anything you've had to deal with?

Oh, yes. Montfort The Early Years, or rather a blurb that mentioned my view that Simon was the natural father of Edward I, has raised a lot of controversy, some of it quite nasty. However, no one who has actually read Montfort has any problem with my research and interpretation of the material, though they may differ from my conclusions – fair enough. Many scholars think very highly of my work and find in it justification of Henry IV’s seizure of the throne – a return to the legitimate line. But some readers of historical novels have been deeply offended by the blurb because I obviously differ from another novelist who has written about Simon.

5) What has been the most interesting aspect of developing this series of novels?

Exploring the reasons for the advent of elective government so early. And its failure to stick. As well, of course, as the astonishing life of the man who made the first modern democracy a reality.

6) What has been the most challenging aspect of developing this series of novel? One of the things I've mentioned above or something else entirely?

I suppose the greatest challenge has been grasping the 13the century mindset of Simon de Montfort and the other people I write about, and conveying it to the modern reader. One must not only make the physical world of a time long past seem immediate and familiar, but must also make the mental world of these people in their time a part of the reader’s equipment in understanding the characters’ motivations. Too often I find novelists, and even historians, neglect this or feel it necessary to interpret the past according to modern habits of thinking. This modernizing, I believe, makes it impossible to validly explore the motivations of actual people in the past.

7) Francis Fukuyama's pronouncements about liberal democracy being the "end of history" may have been a bit premature, but it's hard to deny that around the world, democratic government is seen as the most desirable form of rule. Thus you'd figure a man involved in the creation of the first directly elected parliament would be better known, but, arguably, he's become somewhat obscure. Do you agree that Simon de Montfort doesn't quite have the historical profile that might be warranted? If so, why do you think that is?

What an excellent question! Simon de Montfort is indeed unconsciounably obscure and was made so deliberately.

During his last years, Simon was thought by many to be the Angel with the Sword of the Apocalypse, bringing in a New Millennium in which kingship and the Church would collapse and a world-wide government would gradually take form, guided by general, free elections. The thousand years since 1258 are not yet completed. We may be in a fair way to fulfilling those expectations, despite a 500 year hiatus caused by the rise of Thomas Aquinas’ theology of immutable hierarchy and divinely granted dominance by kings. Aquinas was deliberately embraced by Pope and kings in the 1260’s in a specific effort to counter the rising democratic/millennial theology of which Montfort was considered the earthly champion.

Apart from religious issues, Simon was guilty of lese majeste, seizing his king and establishing a government in despite of the king’s wishes. An added fillip is that Simon not only established elective government, but attempted to extend full suffrage to the commons. And he appears to have toyed with the idea of the redistribution of wealth and the instituting of a proto-socialism that was being promoted by the Franciscans.

Apparently most English historians of the Middle Ages are staunch royalists. Even to this day most of the few works about Montfort published in England are based on the writings of his enemies and are very critical of him. It was Queen Elizabeth II who signaled an acceptable change in attitude by mounting a celebration of Simon on the 1965 centennial of the battle of Evesham. Yet the latest scholarly work, from Cambridge University, portrays Simon as a Yuppie who accomplished nothing!

Why the silence, relieved by occasional attacks? The 13th century Chronicle of William Rishanger is devoted solely to enumerating the miracles that Simon accomplished AFTER his death. Fearing the rapidly spreading millennial religious movement that centered upon him, and its consequences, King Henry III declared it a capital crime to so much as speak the name Simon de Montfort.

Apart from the Chronicles and surviving documents of the period, the tales of Robin Hood are thought to be a means by which memory of Simon was kept alive among his followers (who did hold out in Sherwood Forest for two years after his death.) But printed versions replace the name Montfort with Richard the Lion Hearted – whose return was definitely not longed for by his over-taxed subjects in England. Even the statue to commemorate Simon, erected in front of the Houses of Parliament, still bears the bogus identity: Richard Coeur de Lion.

This sort of obliteration is a large part of what's driven me. It's unacceptable that most people know nothing of the man who did more than anyone else to give modern government its  form world-wide: Simon de Montfort.


Thanks, Katherine.

If you'd like to read more from Katherine, please check out her Montford blog at or her personal blog at

Montfort: The Founder of Parliament: The Early Years, can be purchased in physical or ebook format at Amazon, along with the other volumes of the series.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Magical Mondays #12: Kushtaka, the Otter Men

Welcome to Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly examining various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


Untamed wilderness is both wondrous in its beauty and threatening in its separation from the careful tool-wielding hand of man. It's hard not to imagine all manner of mysterious creatures surviving in places people rarely tread.

This is something I've been thinking about tonight after speaking with my stepfather. He's from Southeastern Alaska. I've been to visit several times. It truly is a beautiful part of the country, a huge state with a low population density both in modern times and the past. The rich mythology of the native people speaks of all sorts of strange creatures.

In 1900, a group of prospectors traveling in the Thomas Bay area reported a rather odd encounter, as related in this excerpt:

"Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again. Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn't call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys-yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint."

The Strangest Story Ever Told, Harry D. Colp

Given the wide variety of wildlife in the area, one can come up with a variety of possibilities for what these men might have seen, but the sighting is often associated with a long existing native legend of the Tlingit people of Southeastern Alaska, a legend about a shape-shifting creature called the kushtaka.

In the Tlingit language, the word kushtaka roughly translates as "otter man of the land".  These creatures are a type of shape-shifter that the myths report can assume several forms including that of a human and an otter. In addition, the legends also grant them a sort of in-between form that would correspond roughly to what was described in the above sighting, explaining why the existing kushtaka legends have been associated with it.

The stories of the kushtaka don't present an entirely consistent account of their behavior of the creatures. While often they are presented as dangerous tricksters who lure men, particularly Tlingit sailors, to deaths with illusions and faked cries of love ones, other stories talk of them saving people from drowning or cold. What's interesting, though, is that in both the hostile and friendly accounts, they often end with the human being turned into a kushtaka. In the least friendly versions of the stories, the kushtaka tricks end with them not just inadvertently leading humans to drowning, but with the creatures attacking and murdering them. 

Though even the friendly encounters are arguably bad for the human benefactors. For example, if a person is saved from drowning by the creatures, their souls will be trapped with the creatures and they'll become a kushtaka. Given that the native beliefs of the Tlingit involve a soul passing onto the Land of the Dead and subsequent reincarnation into descendants, being stuck as a kushtaka and separated permanently from the tribe might be considered by some a fate worth then death.

The alleged anti-kushtaka protection methods are reflective of the environment and culture that produced them: fire, copper, and human urine. Of course, avoiding the creatures entirely and areas they are believed to frequent is also recommend in the myths. Although I've focused on the Tlingit in this entry, many other native Alaskan groups have similar legends.

I've not talked about other shape-shifting legends of the natives of North America in my Magical Mondays segments, so just I'll note that the kushtaka are somewhat distinct in that they are a distinct class of being as opposed to being the result of a type of evil human magic. From my admittedly cursory review of the mythology of the indigenous peoples of North America, the latter is more common.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

English Secret Agents and Sprawling Continental Espionage--Not 007, but 1812: An interview with historical fiction author M.M. Bennetts

Today, I'm talking with historical fiction author M.M. Bennetts about her latest novel of espionage during the Napoleonic Wars, Of Honest Fame.

1) Tell us about your book.

The novel is titled, Of Honest Fame, and it opens on a summer night in 1812 as a boy sets fire to a house in Paris before escaping over the rooftops. Carrying vital intelligence about Napoleon’s Russian campaign, he heads for England.  But landing in Kent, he is beaten nearly to death.

The Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, is desperate for the boy’s information.  But he is even more desperate to track down the boy’s assailant – a sadistic French agent who knows far too much about British intelligence network.

Captain George Shuster is a veteran of the Peninsula, an aide-de-camp to Wellington, now recalled from the continent and struggling to adjust to civilian life.  Thomas Jesuadon is a dissolute, living on the fringes of society, but with an unrivalled knowledge of the seamy underside of the capital.  Setting out to trace the boy’s attacker, they journey from the slums of London to the Scottish coast, following a trail of havoc, betrayal, official incompetence and murder.  It takes an unlikely encounter with a frightened young woman to give them the breakthrough that will turn the hunter into the hunted.

Meanwhile, the boy travels the breadth of Europe in the wake of the Grande Armée, witnessing at first hand the ruination they leave behind and the awful price of Napoleon’s ambition.

2) If there's one constant throughout the history of mankind, it's warfare. What attracted you to the Napoleonic Wars versus other periods of struggle?

Well, until about 1917 or so, the Napoleonic wars were universally referred to as The Great War.  It was the first World War and it was total war, unlike the conflicts of the seventeeth and eighteenth century. It stunted or eliminated the industrial revolution across the Continent, but as a by-product turned Great Britain into the premier industrial and naval power of the 19th century.  It swept away national borders and traditional governmental structures (many of which had been around since the Middle Ages) across the Continent and brought Russia as a power-player into western politics for the first time.  And it took the lives of over probably six million people--that's more than half the population of Britain at the time.  It took Europe 100 years to recover the population levels it had had in 1789.  It was a man-made catastrophe such as the world had before never seen.

But it wasn't the warfare that first captured my imagination.  It was the architecture. 

I'd been specialising as a mediaevalist, with a particular focus on Quattrocento Italy which is also a period of great upheaval--religious, intellectual, artistic, political...and I was living on a large estate where the big house was one of Robert Adam's first designs, before he came south to England.  And I was popping down to Edinburgh, which is a gorgeous Georgian city, about once a fortnight...

And so there I was, sitting in front of the coal fire, preparing for my orals with everything ever written about Quattrocento Roman churches by Palladio open in front of me and there, hidden amongst the books, I had John Summerson's Georgian London.  I already had, if you will, a mental 'in' with the period.  I had intended to be a concert pianist until not too long before that, and I had lots of Beethoven in my repertoire, so you might say, in that sense, I already understood how they thought.  Music is the great open door for getting inside the heads of those who've gone before us. 

At the same time, I'd been reading Dorothy Dunnett's sequence of novels set in 16th century Europe and I was agog.  She combined all the disciplines and all the countries--art, music, poetry, politics, diplomacy, economics, the war against Suleiman the Great's empire--and put them together to present life as a whole.  And I thought, that's it.  I want to do that.  I want to write books like that!  (I must have some terrier blood in my ancestry somewhere, because I just started reading and researching absolutely everything I could find on the period and not letting go of the trail.)

3) What inspired you to focus on the typically lesser-known espionage battles rather than the grand field campaigns or the desperate guerrilla struggles of the Napoleonic Wars?

Well, this is a very funny thing.  Until just recently--like about five minutes ago--all British histories or historical fiction ever looked at was either the Peninsular campaign as led by Wellington, or the Royal Navy as led by Nelson.  Which isn't surprising.  These are tales of great heroism and derring-do.  And who wants to read about disasters like the Walcheran campaign, anyway?  That would suck.  Then too, for the most part, we didn't have troops involved in Europe (though we did often have advisors there) so "British history" just ignores all the rest.  It's that simple. 

It was like this at the time, too, though.  The British press of 1812-14 was completely transfixed by the raunchy marital discords of the Prince Regent and Princess Caroline, and the marital prospects of their only daughter, Princess Charlotte. 

Then too, the Victorians didn't approve of the Regency.  And it wasn't just a matter of the perceived immorality of the age.  It was that the Regency didn't suit their vision of what Britain should be, in any way.  And for a lot of the Victorian statesmen, the Regency and the Napoleonic Wars had been what they did in their youth--a bit like being Flower children, one suspects.  So there was just this blanket whitewash.  They kept the national heroes, Wellington (who was Prime Minister) and Nelson, and jettisoned the rest. 

Add to that another 'funny thing' which is that until recently historians and the British establishment denied that Britain ever 'spied' on anyone.  The line has always been, "Oh no, that's what those nasty Froggies do.  We don't engage in that kind of thing.  We are, after all, gentlemen..."  So there was nothing to be found on it.  Just this blank wall of denial. 

Anyway, over the past decade I would say, there's been a lot of opening up of these previously denied or ignored cans of worms.  There have been several well-received histories of the Napoleonic Wars that have been about the whole war, rather than just our little bit of it.  There's been a determination to look again and to ferret out 'what really happened' rather than relying on the so-called historical truths passed down through two centuries' of Whig historians.  There's been some fine work done on the intelligence war--Elizabeth Sparrow is the leader in this field.  

But there's been more available about Sir Sydney Smith--who definitely did his bit in the intelligence war.  And Cochrane's exploits have been published.  So it's only recently been possible to gain access to the kind of information that would support a novel on the intelligence war.

And let's face it, the struggles of the guerrillas in Spain have been done to death.  I mean, it would be utterly stupid to set oneself up against the might of Bernard Cornwell and the Sharpe novels.  What's curious there too, though, is that similar local struggles against the Napoleonic state--like in Naples and in Germany--those have been completely ignored.  (Though I've just got my hands on some stuff about Italy, so I'm really chuffed about that...)

4) The geographical scope of this novel is on a par with any modern espionage adventure. Is this reflective of the struggles of this period or was this somewhat enhanced to interest modern readers?

The former.

I initially thought the novel was going to switch back and forth between London and Paris.  And I thought it was going to have a strong smuggling element too--to which end I did a lot of research about smugglers in the New Forest and in Rye.  (Which hardly got used at all.) 

But then, I read Adam Zamoyski's stellar 1812:  Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow, and it blew my socks away.  The atrocities, the wanton destruction of Poland and Prussia and of all those men--I couldn't get it out of my head.  Those thousands upon thousands of refugees!  What happened to them?

Also I knew that regardless of what Napoleon's propaganda machine said, the French army committed atrocities across Europe (Spain as detailed by Goya was not a one-off) and I had to write about it.  It just wouldn't leave me alone.  And by that point, I'll be honest, it was becoming a different novel from anything I'd planned--the synopsis had gone onto the floor to be trampled and chewed up by the dog, and I just wrote--researching the segments that take place in Poland and Bohemia as I went. 

5) The very nature of espionage often means that those involved leave less of a historical footprint than then soldiers and generals on the battlefield. Did you find this a difficult subject to research and did you need to fill in a lot of the blanks?

Well, yes and no. 

Yes, in that there were probably dozens of spies we don't know anything about. 

But Elizabeth Sparrow has found so much documentary evidence about the British end of the business, it gets a bit silly.  They spent millions of pounds on intelligence--we're talking sums that I cannot even begin to comprehend.  And there was no audit.  Not ever.  The government ministers would just hand the dosh out as they saw fit and they were all united in their belief that Parliament shouldn't be told and shouldn't know anything about it, though they did keep records of a sort.  So there are these money trails.  And names and itineraries. 

And that's only the English side of things. 

There's been quite a lot of work done in France on Fouche--the famed and feared French minister of police--but he, it turns out, was probably in British pay.  Which is why the French 'caught' so few British spies.  The Russian court was so full of spies, you wonder who wasn't a spy.  The Tsar had his official spies and then he had his private spies, because he didn't trust the court spies.  Metternich and the Austrian secret service had spies everywhere and wrote down and annotated everything, so it's all there for one to see...

6) The late Georgian Period is often glamorized by many authors despite the tumult of both the Napoleonic Wars and social unrest in England. What drew you to these more gritty aspects of the period?

I think this goes back to our fondness for putting history in boxes.  Here we have the heroic military history with Nelson and Wellington.  Huzzah and thrice huzzah!  Here we have the Industrial Revolution and the Luddite backlash against that--but that's up North, so we don't need to think about that, do we? 

Here we have Napoleon.  But his wife wore pretty dresses, so he must be 'all right', mustn't he?  Here we have Beethoven writing all this very non-Mozart-like music--what did he have to do with the world, he was deaf.   And here we have the Romantic poets--they were just looking at lice and mountains and things, so they're too artsy fartsy to count.  And the Tsar?  Well, he was Russian--he didn't even speak what could he have to do with Jane Austen?  (Except that he visited Britain in the summer of 1814 and the whole country turned out to see him--he was the hero of the age!  He had defeated the anti-Christ, Napoleon.) 

It's like a TV dinner with all the tasty bits separated into the little trays and nothing touches.  But history's not like that.  Life's not like that.  It's one great big pot of beef stew, all bubbling and roiling away, with tomatoes and carrots and garlic and onions, mushrooms and herbs and dumplings and half a bottle of good wine chucked in... 
Then too, history or the perception of history has undergone quite a transformation in the last decade.  There are all the Horrible Histories for children by Terry Deary.  We have Dan Cruikshank looking into old buildings--so much of the London we love was built on the earnings of prostitution.  Dan Snow did a series on the telly all about how different cities smelled 200 years ago.  (At which point we were all grateful our tellies didn't come with scratch and sniff screens.) 

We've got forensic scientists analysing the bones found in the Napoleonic mass graves from Smolensk and what they're telling us about how these men died and what diseases they were carrying is a lot different from Napoleon's official version.  There's Amanda Vickery reading all the letters and journals of late Georgian women and showing how what we think they lived like isn't what it was like, at all.  There are biographers writing about people like Beau Brummell and refusing to be coy about the syphilis that killed him.  There's this united determination to get at the truth, whatever that may be  (even if it doesn't ultimately sit well with our pre-conceived notion of what a BBC costume drama should look like) and a determination to understand

Then too, I do live in a combined 17th century and Georgian house, so you might say I'm on intimate terms with the Georgians' foibles...with their draughty windows which aren't set straight in the walls, with their wonky ceilings, their interesting ideas about how many fireplaces one room requires, with their cobbled together doors that don't match each other, with the doorframes upon which anyone over 5'10" will bean themselves, with cleaning the ashes from the grate...

7) Your debut novel also focused on the espionage aspects of the Napoleonic Wars. How are your two novels similar and how are they different?

The first novel is Bennetts writing a love/war story and examining the domestic crises of May 1812--chiefly the assassination of the Prime Minister on 11 May 1812.  

So in the first, there's a focus on the 'wholeness' of life of those who lived at the time and worked in government circles.  Their lives weren't neatly compartmentalised.  Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary and Wellington's closest ally and friend, was the husband of a patroness of Almack's and regularly turned up there to see her.  He had a vastly active social life at the same time as he was sitting up in the House of Commons till all hours as Leader of the House.  And he went on to be one of the greatest Foreign Secretaries the world has ever seen. 

And I really wanted to do something with that lovely Russian literary form, the slice of life.  But I left out the gulags and the borscht, and instead did a month in the life of a chap who worked in the Foreign Office.  So it's, if you will, the Home Front--because, don't get me wrong--Britain was entirely unique at the time.  It was the one country which hadn't suffered the devastation of French invasion--it was a haven of a green, untrampled landscape!  And they loved it for that.

The second book has been described as 'Bennetts without the nice'.  The world of espionage--which was a key element of the war against Napoleon, particularly as Britain was subsidising the Austrian, Prussian and Russian efforts against France to the tune of millions of pounds--provided this fantastic window through which to look at all sorts of aspects of the Napoleonic wars that normally get swept aside:  the police state that was France, the refugee crisis, the aching loss of it all, and the contrast between Britain which had suffered none of the depredations of war and Europe which was rent by war.  And who doesn't want to write a cracking historical thriller?


M.M. out for a bit of a canter.

Thanks for stopping by, M.M.

If you'd like to read more from M.M., please check out her website at

Of Honest Fame can be found at the following retailers:

The Book Depository

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There was no Christmas in Heian Japan, but there was in Regency England

Due to some holiday travel and holiday family gatherings, there will be no Heian nor Regency posts this week.

However, I do have a fascinating interview with a Regency historical fiction author that will be going up Thursday afternoon, and I learned a few interesting things about British spies during the Napoleonic Wars from the interview myself. My themed (read: self-researched) content will resume per normal after Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Magical Mondays #11: The Power of Internal Anatomy To Tell The Future: Haruspicy

Welcome to Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly examining various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


Given the practical value that would come with knowing the future, it's not surprising that many forms of divination have developed across many cultures. While some forms of divination strove for a somewhat objective method of interpretation by allowing only yes/no answers, many forms were quite ambiguous. A believer might attribute this to the difficulty associated with peering into the future, the cynic might note that such ambiguity allowed ancient diviners to claim a higher success rate.

Among the ancient Etruscans and later Romans (although likely borrowed from other earlier cultures), one common form of divination involved examining the entrails of animals particularly slaughtered as part of ritual sacrifice. This type of divination, like many types of ancient divination, required a specialist: a haruspex. in general, haruspicy was supposed to be conducted in conjunction with different techniques provided by other divination specialists, similar how many modern studies often involve two different scientists independently examining the data. The haruspexes themselves also tended to have some knowledge of interpretation of other omens, such as the meaning of lighting strikes (obviously, that type of divination was a bit less human-directed and controllable).

The haruspex was supposed to fast for a decent period, anywhere from a half-day to three days before the procedure. They were supposed to pray and have a proper mindset to beseech the gods for aid. This was often supposed to come as part of a meditation period where the haruspex concentrated on the question being answered.

An animal, typically something like a sheep or a chicken though occasionally something more grandiose like a bull, would be ritually slaughtered and its organs extracted. Different organs may be used for inspection, but the liver and heart were common. The haurspex was supposed to example patterns, folding, bumps, and other markings in particular areas that were supposed to correspond, potentially, to different particular interpretations based on their links to particular deities. So, in theory, this type of divination was at least attempting to be more precise but given the tremendous amount of liberty about determining what was worthy of note in a particular region, a lot of the ambiguity was retained.

Archaeologists have even found an Etruscan liver model that was either a "practice" liver or a handy reference tool:

The Piacenza Liver: An Etruscan haruspicy practice liver

After conducting the divination procedure, the slaughtered animals would typically be consumed in a feast. Waste not, want not.

Although many forms of divination throughout history have been associated with major events, there is one particularly important ancient Roman event wnere haruspicy was involved. The diviner who allegedly warned Julius Caesar to "beware the Ides of March" was a haruspex. In that case, I suppose one could chalk that up as a "success" for haruspicy.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A dream of a great tree: An interview with fantasy author Katie Stewart

Today I'm talking with fantasy author and artist Katie Stewart.


1) Tell us about your book.

Treespeaker is a fantasy set in a forest in a Late Mesolithic-type society. It’s the story of a man who has long taken the idyllic nature of his life for granted, until he is forced to leave by a stranger from outside. Rejected by his own people, he sets out to find a way to save them from the slavery and death he knows the stranger will bring. In the process, he learns what he needs to know about himself for the new role he is to take on. That’s if he ever makes it home.

2) What inspired you to write this book?

A combination of things; firstly, I had a dream about a huge tree that provided sustenance for everyone who lived beneath it. It was a really strange but very vivid dream. Months later I found a picture of a tree in Ireland that was hundreds of years old and so like the tree in my dream that it was creepy to see it.

Secondly, I went through a patch in my life where I felt rejected by a group of people I’d always considered "my people". So, even though my main character is male, there’s a bit of me in him (though I didn’t set out to save anyone). The story is a long step away from my experience, but that’s where it started.

Thirdly, I came across a Scottish actor with a face that simply had to be written into a character. It took a while for the three things to stir together into a story idea, but when they did, the novel flowed easily.

3) Is there a main theme that defines your book?

When I first wrote my blurb, I said that it was a book about "balance, belief and belonging". The need for balance in everything comes out quite clearly. The people in the forest live in balance with the forest. The people outside the forest have lost that balance and are suffering the consequences. It comes across as an environmental theme, though I didn’t intend it that way. Stephen King would be proud of me! (He says a writer shouldn’t write to a theme but let it come out naturally.)

As for belief, I’m a firm believer in doing what you believe to be right, no matter what the rest of the world is saying. It’s often a hard road to follow. My character sets out in faith. It’s his belief in the ‘rightness’ of what he is doing that gives him the strength to go on.

Belonging is something that every human craves and when you lose it, it’s devastating. So the book explores that. In a way, the barrenness of the land outside the forest is a reflection of Jakan the Treespeaker’s state of mind when he is forced to leave. Life without the forest, without the ability to heal, is his worst nightmare.

4) The presence of some form of magic is a major portion, arguably, in what defines something as fantasy. Can you tell us a little about the magic system in your book?

The healing magic of the Treespeaker comes from Arrakesh, the spirit of the forest. A Treespeaker is able to hear the forest and use its energy to heal. He knows the forest’s will and can feel when something or someone is going against the flow of life in the forest. It’s gentle, subtle magic. No wham-bang spells or fireballs.

The antagonist, on the other hand, has magic defined by his own feelings. He can summon negative emotions into a ball of energy that will kill. He can control minds, both human and animal, to do his will simply by thinking it. So it’s magic from within, but because he chooses to use negative emotions, it eats away at him. This is something I explore more in the sequel that I’m writing at the moment.

5) Many current popular fantasy series are notable for their darkness, grittiness, and a tendency toward moral relativism. Some claim this is about imparting more "realism "to fantasy and arguably it's also just a strengthening of the Robert Howard-substrate of fantasy that was somewhat eclipsed by the success of Tolkien and Tolkien-inspired works that have dominated fantasy until relatively recently. Your book eschews gratuitious violence and sex. Was this in any part a reaction to the reign of grittiness in current fantasy?

My stories are very much a reflection of my own personality, I’m afraid! I’m a very quiet, introspective person and so my books tend to be the same. My personal heroes are people like Gandhi and Mandela, not those who charge into battle. I prefer characters who use their brains rather than muscle. At the same time, I try to keep the story twisting and turning enough to keep those pages flipping.

Sad to say, I’ve never read any Robert Howard. Conan’s muscles never attracted me. On the other hand I’ve never managed to read Lord of the Rings either, but that was Tolkien’s writing style, rather than his world –way too much description for me. I quite enjoyed the movies. Frodo is definitely the sort of hero I like. But then there are all those battles…not my scene.

I don’t know that I consciously reacted to the grittiness of other fantasy. I simply wrote the story that was in me. I like to read the sort of fantasy that I write.

6) Do you see your work fitting into any broad fantasy tradition similar to some of the ones I outlined above? Did you have any particular literary influences?

I think one of the problems I’m having is that my book doesn’t really fit into any particular fantasy tradition. I’ve had trouble trying to categorise it on Amazon and Smashwords because it doesn’t fit anything but "General Fantasy" which really doesn’t tell anyone anything. It’s what I think of as High Fantasy, in that I’ve created a completely new world, but that’s as close to categorising it as I can get.

I’m a great fan of Paolo Coelho, Ursula Le Guin and Juliet Marillier. They all write quite simply, but there’s a magic to their stories and their characterization is brilliant. I’d like to think something from their work has rubbed off on me, but I don’t know.

7) What was/were the book(s) that initially drew you into fantasy literature?

When I was a child, I read widely, but particularly liked historical fiction and the classics, which were, after all, historical in themselves. I read the Narnia Chronicles which I loved and had a particularly favourite book of English fairytales that I read and reread a hundred times. The artist in me loved to draw strange creatures and strange places that I’d seen in my dreams and in my imagination or read about in the fairytales.

When I was 19, someone lent me the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. I absolutely loved those books. I could see Le Guin’s world in my head and her characters were real, as if she’d sculpted the paper to form them and they walked right out of the book. I was smitten with fantasy and have been ever since. I know some consider her ‘old fashioned’ but as builder of completely new worlds, she’s second to none in my opinion.

I think though, that what really got my mind working towards maybe writing fantasy was an assignment I had to do at university. I’d started university expecting to do a degree in English, but one year of murdering beautiful books to get to "what the author really meant" was enough to put me off and I went into Anthropology and History instead. One of my Honours assignments was to "create a society" in detail, with all its social strata, economy, religion etc. I got an A+++ on that assignment, something I’d never managed before, simply because I enjoyed it so much. That godlike power of creating my own world was bliss! That’s what I really love about fantasy – being able to create something completely new and make it seem real. It satisfies the artist in me as well as the writer.

8) Can you tell us a little about your other works?

I have one other ebook out at the moment, a children’s fantasy called The Dragon Box. I wrote it for my son who was being bullied and it’s aimed mainly at boys, though I’ve had a few girls tell me they loved it, which is lovely.

I’m also working on getting another book out early in the new year. I’ve been calling it Young Adult, but like Treespeaker, I’m really not sure that it fits any particular category. The protagonist is a young girl, but it’s really a crossover novel. Anyone could read it and I hope they will. So I’m loath to lose it in the YA section where it might not compete well with zombies and sparkly vampires. Wherever it goes though, it is definitely fantasy and explores the opposition of power and love.


Thanks, Katie.

If you'd like to see more from Katie, you can visit her at her website,

Treespeaker is available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble.
The Dragon Box is available at Amazon.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 12: How about a rubber of the popular Regency card game, whist?

Welcome to my continuing series on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.


"As soon as a whist party was formed, and a round table threatened, I made my mother an excuse and came away, leaving just as many for their round table as there were at Mrs. Grant's."

Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, February, 1811.

There were a number of entertainment choices we take for granted that were noticeably absent in the Regency periods: television, computers, and the internet. Even good old-fashioned radio still lie many decades in the future. Of course, the fine people of the Regency had many fine ways to amuse themselves. While things obviously might vary depending on class and background, these various recreational activities ranged from very individual activities such as reading a novel or poetry (which, I suppose, could be done in groups, too) to many types of outdoor and indoor group diversions from balls (of course, those often had other social functions a well) to even things such as co-ed archery.

One popular pastime, though, that many enjoyed was playing cards. Although there were a variety of card games enjoyed during the Regency period, today I want to focus on a particularly popular one: whist.

Whist arose in the 1600s, a descendant of earlier trick-taking card games of the previous century. Although there are many variants and traditions that developed over the years,the core game itself isn't all that complex. It is played with a standard 52-card deck by four players in teams of two. The suits are ranked from highest to lowest with the ace being higher than the king. The dealer deals out cards until each player has thirteen. The final card, which goes to the dealer, is turned-up to indicate the trump suit.

The first player (usually the one to the dealer's left) can lead with any card to open the trick. Each player then plays their own card but must follow suit if possible. The entire trick is won by the by the highest trump played, or if no trump was played, the highest card. After the trick is over, the cards are turned face-down. When all thirteen tricks are played, the partners get one point for each trick won past the first six. The partnership that gets to five points first, wins.

As noted above, there are various traditions and elaborations, but that's the basic game. Not too complex in design, but the challenge comes in trying to remember and adapt to which cards have already been played, particularly between tricks. By the Regency era, it was fairly common to play whist in a set of best two out three "rubbers". These rubbers, in term, comprised three games/hands.

Early on after the development of whist, the game was something somewhat sneered at by the more respectable classes, but by the middle of the 18th-century it had become fashionable and respectable for all levels of society. Whist parties became common, and it was played in many clubs (which may or may not have been respectable).

Many people liked to spice up their whist games with a bit with gambling. As this was well before the later Victorian-era push-back against gambling, many respectable men and women felt quite comfortable with gambling, and arguably excessive gambling was even more rampant among the upper classes (and particularly, but not exclusively, younger aristocratic men). The big issue with gambling, rather than gambling itself, was more excessive gambling and not paying one's debts (e.g., the popular master of Society Beau Brummell had to flee to France over his gambling debts) Something as minor as the occasional exchange of money over the card table was really no big deal.

"On entering the drawing room she [Elizabeth] found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below with a book."

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8.

Loo is different than whist, but just as many people gambled at whist, whether at private parties or at men's clubs. Note that Elizabeth's concern here isn't that they're gambling but rather that they are playing for high stakes.

Of course, the mere existence of gambling around whist didn't mean that people couldn't just enjoy a good game of cards, as one American traveler notes:

"In the evening we joined the ladies above stairs, and tea being over, I was invited to join several of the reverend masters and professors, in, what do you think?--A disquistion concerning the Hebrew points,k the quadrature of the circle, or the possibility of perpetual motion?--No--I was invited to join them in a rubber at whist!--not a gambling match, but a pastime."

A Journal of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland, And of Two Passages Over the Atlantic in the Years 1805 and 1806, Benjamin Silliman, 1810

Incidentally, although modern trick-taking games like bridge have overshadowed whist, the game is still played today.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Music, Medieval Scotland, and Time travel: An Interview with author Laura Vosika

Today, I'm talking with Laura Vosika about her tale of two men and time-travel to medieval Scotland.


1) Tell us about your book.

Blue Bells of Scotland is the story of two men, polar opposites but for their looks and love of music, who trade places in time. Shawn, a celebrated musician and philandering, gambling, drinking, self-centered scoundrel, finds himself caught in medieval Scotland with the fate of a nation on his shoulders, while Niall, a devout Highland warrior, must navigate the roiled waters of Shawn's life--amorous fans, angry mistresses, pregnant girlfriend, and a conductor ready to fire him (an ominous notion to medieval ears!)--trying to get back to save his people.

2) What inspired this book?

Strangely enough for a book about a gambling, drinking philanderer, I was inspired by a children's novel and a piece of trombone music. In the Keep of Time was a childhood favorite, about four siblings who go into a Scottish tower and come out in medieval Scotland. One of the things I liked about it was that it neither romanticized nor condemned the time. It showed the good and the bad of a very different time and place. I hope I've done the same in my writing. Blue Bells of Scotland is a theme and variations written to show what trombones are capable of. It's based on an old folk song by the same name, which talks about noble deeds and streaming banners, and those always make good stories. Throughout the series, I have loved getting to know some of the great deeds of the Scottish heroes of the Wars of Independence.

3) Most time travel books tend to focus on one party traveling to one point, but you've set-up a temporal exchange. Why did you decide to approach your story this way?

Well, it was a combination of inspiration, wherever that comes from, and a what-if sort of thing that evolved. The story started off about Shawn--a man who's taken the wrong path in life, hurt a lot of people, and has the power to continue doing it, who is suddenly confronted with the loss of that power, and people who don't have to put up with him. But as I researched castles in which Shawn might wake up, the image I had was instead of a man from the past waking up in ruins. It happened to be Castle Tioram I was looking at, at the time. I wondered what was happening back in Shawn's time, if he disappeared, and of course the next thought was, What if they didn't notice he disappeared? What if someone else walked into his place? I have really enjoyed contrasting their two opposing world views, as the series progresses, and how they each learn from the other, how they overcome their differences to forge a deep bond of brotherhood.

4) You have a lot of references to music in your story, likely, I suspect somewhat influenced by your own musical background. That being said, books are a visual and not an auditory medium. Thus, properly getting across the feeling and sound of music with only words can be very difficult. Is this something you found challenging? Did your background in music help or hinder you (perhaps by making it more frustrating) with this?

It's interesting you ask this question. I'm pleased to have heard from readers that I describe the music so well they can almost hear it, or even, in some cases, that they feel as if they've experienced it. But no, although I certainly take my time and work at it, I don't find it a challenge.

I have spent years in music, performing on multiple instruments ranging from flute and harp to trombone, in every imaginable setting from soloing to large groups, from playing on docks and street corners to concert halls, from orchestral to jazz. I've experienced music as a student, performer, teacher, and director. I know the experience of music well, I have a thesaurus (and I'm not afraid to use it!), and when I'm writing about a piece I'm less familiar with, I turn it on and play it over and over on youtube, listening and watching. (I can guarantee my kids love hearing the same song 38 times in a row. Really!) I put myself in my characters' heads, with what's been happening in their lives, and experience it as they would. Then I write. And apparently, it's working.

But of course, the wonder of our new technology is that we're no longer limited to words on a page. I have a page on my website ( where readers can listen to the pieces mentioned in the book, and I have already had some conversations with others in the field of e-books about creating more multi-sensory books, where, for instance, the music might actually play when the reader comes to the page where the song is mentioned.

5) How much research did you do in preparation for this book?

As a writer, I'm probably guilty of parsing words, but in prepartion, not much. I just started writing, and researched as I went. However, hundreds of hours, perhaps into the thousands, of research go into my books. I use every possible resource on the web, from sites to forums, to tracking down whatever experts will talk to me. I try to get multiple sources confirming my research. I'm on a number of forums and discussion groups about medieval history, Scotland, weaponry--all kinds of neat things. I use youtube to watch trebuchets fire repeatedly, to see how they're built and operated. I use google maps both for aerial views and to go down to street level and see the places where my scenes are set.

I use the library, own a couple shelves full of books on medieval Scotland, history, even the languages of Niall's time. I have been studying Scottish Gaeli, and have books on both old and middle English.

Before Blue Bells was published, I flew to Scotland and went to every location mentioned in the book, asking questions wherever I went. I put on my brother-in-law's SCA leather boots, much like what Shawn would have worn on hs trek, and climbed Sron na Claichain in Killin, to get an idea of exactly what Shawn, unused to hiking, would feel like after four days of it. (Let's just say I was in quite a bit of pain after only one day of it!) We drove as far into the area Shawn hiked as the roads allowed, but unfortunately didn't have enough time to hike his actual path ourselves.

Maybe it's redundant to say after all of that, but I love the research part of writing!

6) Blues Bells of Scotland is the first of a trilogy, with your second coming in 2012. Were you set on having this as a trilogy from the beginning?

No. I wrote the first book, handed it out to family and friends, and the response I got back was, "I liked it, but you quit in the middle. I want to know what happens next." I thought I'd put a rather final ending on it, and went back in surprise to see what they were talking about. Then I saw how the ending I wrote didn't actually spell out what I intended. I liked their interpretation. So I wrote what happens next.

And as of only a few days ago, The Blue Bells Trilogy has become The Blue Bells Chronicles. Blue Bells covers only about two weeks in the lives of Amy, Shawn, and Niall, while The Minstrel Boy covers a full year in the present, and two years in the medieval half of the story line. So it has now become two books, and quite likely, the original book 3 of the trilogy, which also covers about a year in the present time and two years in the past will most likely be broken into two books, as well, making a 5 book series.

I'd also like to put together a collection of non-fiction stories about the people and places of the Blue Bells Chronicles, and one reader has already informed me that she would like recipes in that book! I'm looking forward to having more time to work on that.

Thank you for having me on your blog!


You can see more from Laura at her blog .

Blue Bells of Scotland is available in physical and eBook formats at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #10: Beautiful impracticality-Women's Court Dress

Welcome to my continuing series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


Like many other things in the Heian era, aristocratic clothing was influenced by China, in particular a Chinese tendency in the later Tang and Sung dynasties toward layered clothing. The formal clothing of aristocratic Heian women, the karaginumo (Chinese coat skirt), was not a simple copy of  Chinese designs, but, instead, a garment that elaborated on during the relative isolation of the Heian era to produce something Chinese-influenced but still very much Japanese in flavor.

The karaginumo is often referred to as the junihitoe, an expression that translates as "twelve unlined robes." Although this does accurately reflect the layered nature of the the clothing, it's a bit of a misnomer in that there was no special fixation on twelve exact layers or even unlined clothing. The tendency to refer to the karaginumo as junihitoe stems from an over-extrapolation based off a single popular literary source from the period. The actual number and nature of the layers would vary by season and occasion. In many cases, it would exceed twelve, though modern versions of the karaginumo, which are mostly only worn in ceremonial occasions by members of the imperial court, tend toward a small number, often five.

Emperor (then Crown Prince) Akihito and Empress Michiko at their wedding in 1959.

At the core of all these layers, aristocratic women wore a narrow-sleeved robe called the kosode. These were normally made of silk. The kosode would be tucked into a type of baggy ankle-length divided skirt-like affair called a hakama. There would be another, longer hakama worn over the first.

Over the above, were the actual  layers,  loose-fitting robes referred to as uchiki. These would be unlined during the summer and lined during colder seasons. Over the various uchiki, the proper lady would wear a half-coat and a train decorated with streamers. The sleeves of the robes were straight and extremely long. Each uchiki was smaller than the layer beneath it. This resulted in the layer edges being visible at the hem, sleeves, and neck.

Although most uchiki didn't include some of the extensive patterns seen in later-era kimono-wear, the individual uchiki were typically dyed in various solid colors except for the two top layers. The top layers would normally be brocaded silk and could include patterns.

Now, with all these layers, long hakama, and what not, one might think this would have a serious impact on mobility. Indeed, the elaborate court clothing of the Heian-era aristocratic woman didn't make movement easy at all. It wasn't unusual for intra-room movement to be confined to knee-based movement. Unsurprisingly, these women required servants/ladies-in-waiting to aid them in getting dressed.

The crippling of their movement wasn't a particular disadvantage to these women under normal social circumstances. For the most part, their day was spent sitting in a limited number of locations.

Of course, the huge number of layers obliterated any real hint of body profile. For all the Heian-era obsession with beauty, various indications from period literature and diaries at the time seem to suggest that the Heian-era aristocracy didn't actually find the actual body beautiful.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Magical Mondays: Reader's Choice

For various reasons, including today being my birthday, I didn't prepare a Magical Monday entry. So, I'll throw the floor open to suggestions for next week whether it be a specific tradition you'd like me to research, a general area, a general culture, or whatever. Just let me know in the comments.

If everyone's too bashful to suggest anything, I'll just think something up for next week. I'll take suggestions up until Friday, so that I'll have a couple of days to do the necessary research.

Accepting yourself and rising above your circumstances: An interview with author Khiana Washington

Today, I'm talking to Khiana Washington about her tale of overcoming abuse and negative circumstances, Looking Past the Mirror. 


1) Tell us about your book.

Looking Past the Mirror is a gripping novel about a young girl by the name of Faith. The story begins with Faith attending her beloved grandmother’s funeral. Faith is affected strongly by this situation, but finds what she believes to be the easiest way to deal with it. Soon Faith’s drug-addicted mother decides that it is time for a change and offers Faith the chance to start over by leaving her abusive father and moving to Michigan. Just as Faith begins to believe that change will come, we see Faith endure a series of traumatizing events that will shape her as she grows into a mature young woman.

2) What inspired this book?

Although this novel is not about my personal life, my inspiration is my family. When my granddad died that was the first time I had really experienced dealing with grief and the concept of death. To this day I am still affected by it and it shocks me when I realize this. I wanted to write a story about what I feel hasn’t been shown enough today in young adult novels: the truth. Being a teenager myself, I think is good I have the fresh look out about how it really is.

3) What you say the fundamental theme of your book is?

The theme of my book is all about finding yourself. Through the main character Faith, Looking Past the Mirror shows how important it is to accept yourself and love yourself in order to just be happy in life.

4) With all the hang-wringing about in certain parts of the literary community about darkness in young adult books, why do you think it's important that young adult books deal with dark themes?

I think it is important because young adults are already living in the nightmares that dark themes suggest. It is unfortunate, but that it the truth. Why should the truth be covered when it can be highlighted? When writing Looking Past the Mirror I was never afraid to say what really goes on because that’s what teens need to hear, that’s what they are going to relate to, and that’s what can possibly help them in the long run.

5) Do you have any literary influences?

Yes, I most definitely do. Of Mice and Men is one of my favorite stories that has stuck with me and that’s what I want to be able to do with my writing: forever engrave it into readers minds so that they never forget me.

6) Penning a novel at 15 is an impressive feat. Many writers much older than you experience a lot of self-doubt. Did you ever question yourself during the writing process?

Yes, of course. A lot of the time I felt myself asking “Why am I doing this? Am I really good enough to be an author? I’m only 15.” Then I instantly had to say, “Good enough for whom?” and my moment of doubt passed. I have always been told that I could do anything if I put my mind to it so that is exactly what I did. I had to prove to myself that I could finish what I started. I had to have faith in myself and I never gave up.

7) What sort of projects are you working on for the future?

I am currently working on several other projects, but the main items would be two completely different novels which are currently titled Good-bye and Bystanders. Good-bye really focuses on the value of relationships and how they can change at any given moment. Bystanders is a story that solely focuses on the supporting characters of the novel, rather than the main character because it aims to show how standing by when negative situations are happening and not doing anything, can be just as bad or worse than being in the situation. I have also written a screenplay and in the future I hope to write and produce many more.


Thanks, Khiana.

You can visit Khiana at her website,

Looking Past The Mirror is available in both physical and electronic format at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lonesome cowboys and camels? An interview with thriller and romance author Louise Crawford

Today, I'm speaking with Louise Crawford about her co-written (with Ramona Butler) contemporary western romance, Sagebrush Cinderella.


1) Tell us about your book.

Ramona Butler and I teamed up to write humorous romance novels, and this was the 3rd in a Nevada, modern-day, western series about 3 brothers who run a ranch near Carson City. 

2) This is #3 in the Lonesome Cowboys series. Can you tell us a little bit about the other books in the series? Reading the other books didn't seem required to understand Sagebrush Cinderella.

We started off the series with Sabrina Says which won a contest for short contemporary romance.  Sabrina Says introduced Clay, Rusty, and Zack Daniels,  who run a ranch together. The youngest, Zack, runs an advertisement on a billboard for himself and his brothers, looking for some romance in their lives. This starts off the first book about part-time sheriff, Rusty Daniels, and Sabrina Sayers, a visitor from Los Angeles, looking to get over her divorce.  She's supposed to be writing a weekly column for the love-lorn, but in reality it's her greandmother, Aggie, who is writing the column.  So when Rusty writes in for advice to impress Sabrina, he gets a tad misinformed with comedic results.  The second book, Trouble in 3-D, is about Clay Daniels and his new hired hand, a redhaired card dealer from Reno, who happens to be a triplet.  When her identical triplet sisters arrive on scene, all kinds of humorous events occur.

3) What inspired this book?  

Sagebrush Cinderella was inspired by Zack's fun character and knack for getting into trouble or getting his brothers into it, in the first book, and Joy Littlebear's passion for animals of all sorts, as well as for Zack.

4) Why did you choose your particular setting? It's interesting in that you've produced a contemporary Western romance, but the emphasis is on different elements than you typically see in the sub-genre.  

Ramona and I were in a critique group together in Sacramento.  She moved to Carson City, Nevada.  Western romances seemed to be doing well in sales, so I asked her if she wanted to write one.  She'd been writing a humorous column for The Bee, so I knew she had a funny bone.  Romances about sheriffs and ranchers also do well, so I combined the two in Rusty's character, she liked the idea and we got started.

5) Exotic animals play a large role in the plot. Did you do a lot of research on the animals?  

Yes, we did.  Camels had been brought over and left in Nevada in the 1800s and the Virginia City Camel Races had gone on for many years as an annual event.  Ostriches were also a part of the races.  We wanted to incorporate some of the local annual events into our stories.  In our High Flying Love novel, we use the air races for several scenes, and our protagonists who fall in love are a stunt pilot and a tribal policeman.

6) Co-writing is an interesting phenomenon. Writing is typically considered an intensely personal experience. How did you and Ramona divide up the writing?

We got together and plotted out the story, chapter by chapter.  I then wrote a rough draft of each chapter, emailed it to her, she rewrote/revised/edited, and emailed it back.  We kept the work going back and forth until we were both happy with the result.

7) Did you have any creative debates as the novel progressed? 

We agreed that we would keep our egos out of the process and look at what would make the best book.  If one person felt very strongly about an idea or change, then we discussed it and came to an agreement.  We already knew we got along well in the critique group, so it didn't seem like it would be a problem writing together, and it wasn't.  I'd been writing dark fantasy and epic fantasy novels, and I wanted to try humor and shorter stuff, so writing with Ramona seemed like a fun way to accomplish both.


Thanks, Louise.

You can see more of Louise's diverse body of work ranging from thrillers to romances at both and

You can see more from Ramona Butler on her Amazon page.

Sagebrush Cinderella is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Honor is more important than power: An interview with urban fantasy writer Coral Moore

Today, I'm talking with Coral Moore about her urban fantasy, Broods of Fenrir

1) Tell us about your book.

Broods of Fenrir is about a man who just wants to be left alone. The brutality of his own people disgusts him, and he really just wants nothing to do with them. When he finds out a woman is murdered by one of them in his town, he resolves to find out who killed her and make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are two side-by-side struggles he deals with throughout the story: his inner conflict with his own feral nature, and his outer conflict with the members of his race that don’t want to change from their primitive roots.

2) What inspired this book? Have you always had an interest in werewolves?

My interest in werewolves is relatively new. In fact, if you had asked me when I started writing almost two years ago if I would ever write a werewolf story, I would have said it was unlikely. It’s a bit of a tired trope, but I had a few ideas while I was working on another story that just kept coming back. The more I tried not to think about Brand (his name came to me very early on), the more scenes kept writing themselves while I was driving or showering or trying to sleep. Finally I just decided to just start writing it, and I hoped that I would work it out of my system, but the whole book happened rather quickly. The first draft was done in less than four months, and I’ve made it through the entire process in just over a year.

3) Werewolf-based urban fantasy is extremely hot right now, but that same popularity can make it hard to stand out in the crowd. What distinguishes Broods of Fenrir from other books in this genre?

Two werewolf differences and an addendum afterwards. First, my werewolves are not infected or cursed. They are a separate sub-species that can blend in seamlessly with humans most of the time. Second, my wolves aren’t very magical. There are some unknown forces at work obviously, but rather than mystical I’ve gone more natural. Think of my werewolves as shamans where others are sorcerers. The addendum is that my story is darker than most of the genre. I’ve gone for grit rather than magic and that gives the book a different feel from most UF.

4) Why did you choose to incorporate Norse mythology elements?

I was doing research for a completely unrelated story. While glancing over the Wikipedia page on Fenrir (to this day I don’t know how I ended up there) I came across the phrase broods of Fenrir. It was translated from a Skaldic poem and used as an alternate name for Fenrir’s two offspring, Skoll and Hati. The phrase really resonated with me and I don’t think it left my head for a month afterwards. There’s a little bit of history I’ve worked up for them that you can find here if you’re interested:

5) What would you say is your protagonist's greatest strength?

His unwavering adherence to the line that separates right from wrong. It gets him into a lot of trouble, but it truly does define him. His struggles all stem from his inability to compromise on this one point.

6) What would you say is your protagonist's greatest weakness?

He’s single-minded. When a problem presents itself, one solution occurs to him and that’s the only one he’ll consider. Even when another character (or his author!) thinks another way is probably better, he goes his way.

7) What two key themes do you think define your book?

Friendship will succeed where strength fails. Honor is more important than power.


Thanks for stopping by, Coral.

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Broods of Fenrir is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.