The William Shakespeare Detective Agency: The School of Night – by Colin Falconer

Falconer's William Shakespeare Detective Agency

Falconer’s William Shakespeare Detective Agency

On William Shakespeare’s birthday, I won a copy of Colin Falconer’s The William Shakespeare Detective Agency: The School of Night by simply sending the writer an email asking to enter the drawing. That was easy! (Woot! I actually WON something!)

Stuck in VA for extra days due to endless rain, I figured it was a great time to venture into my freebie. The work is right around novella size and I finished it in four evenings.

The story introduces country bumpkin William Shakespeare, cousin to THE William Shakespeare. Country Will has come to London to seek his fortune and landed on famous Will’s threshold penniless. Of course, he gets into immediate trouble and raucous fun ensues.

I don’t write starred or formal reviews, but I will say this was good entertainment: rough-and-tumble London, complete with murder mystery and forbidden romance. It is a bit bawdy, but then, so is our famous Shakespeare at times, when we high-brow readers are willing to admit it.

The main character is endearing, famous Will is well fleshed-out and the romantic interest has pizazz. Mr. Falconer is setting himself up with plenty of material for future escapades. The second installment – The William Detective Agency: The Dark Ladyhas also been published.

I confess, I’m easy pickings for London, theatre history and Shakespeare, but I’m sure anyone looking for a few evenings of escape to into Elizabethan England will enjoy it.

The author’s historical notes at the end are particularly amusing. Falconer has written these as if commenting on the historicity of the story as a found document/journal and notes various anachronisms or “poor memory” by the original “author”. Clever.

Recommended: for laughs and light reading

You can see Amazon reviews here.

And Goodreads reviews here.

Colin Falconer’s Blog is here.

7 Things I’ve Learned About Twitter

Call me slow, but I have finally joined the Twittershere.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  1. Twitter is not so much about relationships – I guess that time has passed.
  2. No, I don’t want to buy your book. “I mute you. I mute you. I mute you.” (Yay! for Tweetdeck!)
  3. I find it weird that people tweet about themselves in third person.
  4. I’ve found lots of new resources: writing, marketing, history.
  5. And medieval manuscripts –  – images work! I’m an artist. I’m visual. I’m giddy with the eye candy.
  6. But I quickly decided pictures without links to the original source irritate me. So I’m being careful not to post them myself and I’m no longer retweeting them.
  7. I lurked on my first live Twitter chat. That was like drinking from a fire hose. But I figured out how to just follow the feed of the main speaker and block out the other noise.

Not too bad for a newbie.

I’ve updated my Creative Accountability Page with my writing progress.

And added a blog post to the Long Ago & Far Away site. (The blog for Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path).

I’d love to hear how you are using Twitter these days. Have you been at it for a while? Has it changed for you? Do you use it to interact directly with people? Or just participate in the big shotgun fest?

Water for Elephants and Self-Determination in Ageing

Water For ElephantsSara Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge (Philadelphians pursue the Loch Ness monster – World War II) debuted this week at No. 12.

That makes it past time I complete this post that’s been simmering in draft mode for months.

I finally read Water for Elephants last winter. I know I’m swimming against the tide – again – but I didn’t really get the excitement over it.

I’ve not seen the movie, but I imagine the potential visuals were a strong driving force for the project. But the main story? Meh. Sorry, I didn’t find it that interesting. It was just a love triangle set in a circus environment. The lesson here might be that great word-crafting and an exciting context still requires a compelling story with compelling characters. Of course, the book received endless 5-star reviews. So what do I know? But I find it interesting that the critical movie reviewers complained that the two lovers lacked chemistry on screen. There might have been any number of causes: the acting? the directing? the screen play? the editing? But, I found the same problem in the book. The characters didn’t make me care and so I wasn’t convinced all the drama was worth it.

However – really big however – the circus story is narrated by the main character, now a nursing home resident. This character – present-day Mr. Jacob Jankowski – made an immediate, deep and lasting impression on me.

At 90+years-old, Jacob is fighting for self-determination. His nurses are kind and do their the best for him. They are trying to keep him out of trouble; keep him from danger. But he longs for freedom and he proves that he is capable of much more than they are comfortable with. No doubt they have residents with varying abilities, and so, like all institutions, they must standardize and systematize, reducing everyone to a lower commonality or else they would be undone. But Jacob clings to every last bit of control he can grasp.

The Take Away – I am helping my parents make the continuous adjustments that come with growing old: Dad no longer drives. Mom got rid of all their glassware. Throw rugs are gone – taken up to prevent falls. And now we are working to get them moved from ten hours to ten doors away. Water for Elephants sent up all sorts of flashing lights for me – not circus lights, warning lights. And they continue to flash every time I am about to make a decision that affects my parents’ lives: Am I making a decision for them based on my own preferences? Is this choice something they can and should still make for themselves? What do THEY want?

Jacob constantly reminds me: Let them have a say in every possible decision. There will be enough, and increasingly, fewer choices for them. Stop first and consider: Is this a question of danger in any way? If mom wants her new walls painted marigold when I would use a cooler color – what’s that to me?

Find every opportunity to let our elders retain their self-respect and determination.

– Recommended

Would I read more from Ms.Gruen? You bet.

Time Management and the Disordered Life – Update #1

Must Keep Writing!

10,000 new words in six days! Whew. Mostly rubbish but something to work with. I’m trying to set short-term goals based on what looks possible within the next chunk of time. Those six days were spent away from home, helping my parents with their move. While I am with them, we have a standing agreement that I spend my mornings working on my writing. I am often able to squeeze additional time (mostly reading, research and social media) into the evenings.

I’d set myself a minimum of 1500 words/day while there – see here – enough pressure to keep me focused but not so much to make failure inevitable. I’m not sure of the exact final count because I often delete chunks of in-line notes along the way. But I definitely averaged above my 1500 word/day goal.

Now I am home again – for about a week. This time must include unloading and finding room for the belongings I always cart south by truck and small trailer on these trips; quarterly and 2014 tax paperwork, phone calls regarding all of the preparation needed to establish Mom and Dad in their new home: new doctors, Invisible Fence estimates, lawyers; buying paint for their “new” house, the usual personal catching up (laundry), and, if the weather will allow, some exterior painting on my own house.

So, my next short-term goal is: a minimum of 500 words/day on the manuscript (blog posts don’t count!) and putting together some reference lists that I feel I need to finally tackle. I’m at the point in my scribbles where placeholders for the names of minor characters, major articles of clothing, architectural terms, etc, are slowing me down. One can only have so many Whosywhatsits, So&Sos and thingamajigs in a manuscript before going nutso.

Collateral Damage

The Shepherd's Song

Ever wonder about those poor peasants who are always raped, pillaged or wholesale deported to foreign lands?

I do.

I love reading historical fiction about movers and shakers; kings and queens whose passions turn the wheels of history. But every time a village is burned and the women and children are dragged off by their hair I think, what about them?

They are the red shirts of history.

Maybe I identify with them. Since childhood, I have read about historical upheavals and wondered, how do the regular folks survive? How did people get on with their lives during the bombing of Britain? What became of the ethnic Koreans deported to the Kazakh SSR? How do you feed your family when Boko Haram is in the neighborhood?

It is hard enough to hold a steady course when my plans are derailed by a sudden car repair..

Kings, queens, statesmen – the important people – are fascinating because they have choices and their choices affect the rest of us. Writers like Sharon Kay Penman and Hilary Mantel get into their heads and humanize them so we can imagine great moments in history through their personalized visions. But from my little person’s view I’m drawn to those who have to constantly adjust to a world not of their own making. Writing my novel is an exercise in answering this question: how does the baker, the miller, the foot soldier, the dairy maid, the sailor navigate this volatile world?

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction – Longlist:

I see a pattern. Do you?

  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – England, Turkey, India – WWI
  • Arctic Summer by Damon GalgutEngland, Cairo, India – 1912 (unclear from reviews if/how much WWI figures into the story)
  • Mac and Me by Esther Freud – England WWI
  • The Lie by Helen Dunmore – WWI France; Post-WWI Cornwall
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – 1922 England, Post-WWI
  • Wake by Anna Hope – England Post-WWI
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth – England Post-1066

Observations:

  1. Western writers and readers obviously still can’t get enough of WWI and WWII.
  2. The 1600s remains a popular era.
  3. The context of war is fertile soil for story.

Publishing note: The Wake by Paul Kingsworth appears to have been originally published in 2014 by a crowdsourcing process. See:

http://unbound.co.uk/books/the-wake

Can you guess which just jumped to the top of my TBR list?

More From Ancient Egypt: Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile

Another “catch up” cross post from my Long Ago & Far Away blog:

Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile, is an imaginative rendering of Cleopatra Selene’s formative tween years. Selene, daughter of the Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, was raised in the Roman household of Caesar Augustus after his triumph over her parents led them to commit suicide.

Rough start for a kid. But Dray’s Selene is no ordinary princess.

I usually resist anything suspect of girlishness but had picked up the book at the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 conference after hearing Ms. Dray talk about her work. Having recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God and The Quest, I figured I should get the last of my ancient Egypt stack taken care of. Although Lily of the Nile mostly takes place in Rome, the protagonist fits in my Egypt category.

I was pleasantly surprised at the unsentimental nature of Dray’s work and her ability to embed the historical context within an engaging story. I confess to an irresponsible lack of knowledge about the times and events so I was at Ms. Dray’s mercy for the facts but came away feeling better inform on all levels: people, events, culture and worldview.

Three areas of particular note:

1. Culture clash: I’d never given thought to how cold and rigid Roman culture must have felt to the conquered peoples. Selene’s Ptolemaic Egypt now seems the perfect foil to Augustus’ masculine authoritarianism.

And Dray’s representation of Isis worship in conflict with Roman religion was eye-opening. I’d always thought of Rome as primarily universalist – as long as the official gods were publicly honored. Dray makes it clear why the Romans might have seen Isis as a threat to their ordered social strata.

2. The Isis faith: Before reading Wilbur Smith’s stories mentioned above, I knew next to nothing about Isis or any of the Egyptian religions. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray does an excellent job of showing how the Isis religion may have contributed to the receptivity of Christianity and it’s eventual expression. Since Sunday School, I was taught that Rome’s Pax Romana paved the way for Christianity by facilitating the swift spread of ideas. I have some understanding of Hellenistic influence on the early church, and have a better-than-average awareness of other influences on the historical development of Christianity, but I was not aware of an active Egyptian religion contemporary with the birth of Jesus which preached love, appealed to the downtrodden and had a “Queen of Heaven” at the center. Okay, Isis also married her brother and included temple prostitution and magic in her cult. So there are plenty of differences. But after Dray’s portrayal of Isis it is hard to miss the universal tendency of human felt need for a Mother figure.

3. Dabbling in Fantasy: As with Wilbur Smith’s The Quest, Dray’s Lily of the Nile allows the magic of the worldview to manifest itself in the “real life” of the historical fiction. Maybe Smith’s The Quest prepared me for it here since I found it less disconcerting in Dray’s work. Possibly I was more jarred by it in The Quest because Smith’s earlier work, River God, with the same characters, did not blur the lines of genre. Suddenly, finding myself in a fantasy world threw me for several hundred pages. In reading reviews of The Quest and Lily of the Nile some readers are seriously put off by this genre mashup. I do not have a problem with it in principle – hey, we’re primarily telling fun stories here – as long as I feel prepared for it in some way. Since I don’t read back covers, synopses or reviews before reading, I take a bit of a risk when I venture in unaware. But I think that’s my own problem, not the writer’s, if there has been some hint beforehand.

I’d like to know what others think about this question. I love a story that goes deep into the worldview of the characters, but how do you feel about blurring the genre lines between historical fiction and fantasy? Historical fiction is fraught with plenty of debate already. (How much are you allowed to make up or change “history”?). I suspect some folks will want to keep the categories tight. I’m more inclined to let imaginations run wild as long as we all know we are reading fiction, in spite of my own experienced disconcertion. I do think the reader needs some kind of “heads up” though. How much of the supernatural should be there before labeling the book with a sub-genre?

Lily of the Nile: Recommended

If you would like to read story synopses and reviews for Lily of the Nile, check out the following links:

Goodreads

Amazon

I do plan to read Stephanie Dray’s next Cleopatra’s Daughter installment Song of the Nile.

But next up here is: Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri – Historical Mystery set in early 20th Century East Africa!

Hooked on History II

Roman Main Street

The rest of the story. Originally posted on my Long Ago & Far Away blog in August of 2013:

It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?

The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?

It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.

I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.

That was in 1993.

My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was, though, compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)

Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!

About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.

What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.

I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?

Hooked on History

Two Men in Osh

This was originally posted to my Long Ago & Far Away blog in August 2013. I thought I should include it on this site since it explains how I came to this adventure:

Most people can testify to at least one teacher who made an otherwise dreaded subject come alive. I had several excellent English teachers but already enjoyed literature and drama. History required a master storyteller. I’ve forgotten his name but he made American History sound like it had happened to him. Last week. He knew all these tidbits and side stories that were not in the text book. He transformed a dull, irrelevant topic into entertainment for junior high students. This miracle might qualify him for sainthood.

But my true love of history occurred much later. Why are so many of us hooked on history only after we reach adulthood? I think it is then that we ask new life questions. It’s no longer, “Why can’t I borrow the car?” but rather, “Why do people behave this way?” Or, for me, “What happened here?”

I became interested in Christian history around 1987. I was back to church after several years of distraction (college) and wanted to understand the development of my own traditions and theology. I’d been taught the Bible since I was a child but wondered how we got from those stories to the present. At the time, I was a temp word processor for a major corporation. Work was slow so I brought in reading material. On my desk sat, Here I Stand (a bio of Martin Luther), and a stack of Puritan history books. People kept asking me if I was taking a course. They were mystified when I confessed I was reading for pleasure.

My next phase came when I moved to London. Try to walk around London for a day and not long to spend the rest of your life exploring every layer of the past hidden in each cubic inch of that soil. So, for the next few years, I devoured British history. I lived in the East End surrounded by Bengali, Pakistani and Somali immigrants and I built deep friendships with many of the women. Over time I became fascinated with early Islamic history. I asked the same questions of Islam that I’d asked of my own faith – where did this come from? How did what I saw in 1990s London come from what happened in the seventh century Near and Middle East?

Meanwhile, I had been a painter, a theatre designer, and an inner-city community worker. The accessibility of London gave me opportunities to travel: Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the newly dismantled USSR – every location steeped in stories. Can you stand in the open air markets of Fez, Morocco or Osh, Kyrgyzstan without feeling you’ve just experienced time travel? Without imagining the sights and sounds of a thousand years? I found a new love for old travel books – stories of The Great Game and intrepid Victorian women – but writing, of any sort, was not on my radar.

Not yet.

Squeezing in Some Reading Time

This is a repost from my Long Ago & Far Away blog. (And pardon the weird formatting. Not sure why it’s happening, but I’ve no time to fiddle with it. I need to be writing my own novel just now.)

Wilber Smith’s River God and The Quest – Some Observations

In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.

From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.

So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.

Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.

Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.

I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.

It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.

And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.

River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)

The Quest: Recommended with caution – here’s it’s review page on GoodReads (also very divided opinions). And one from the Historical Novel Society.