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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: The Wild Queen

The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots
When MARY, BLOODY MARY, my first book in the Young Royals series, was published, I discovered that many people confused Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who became queen of England, with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. (They were first cousins, once removed.) And so Mary, Queen of Scots, was always hovering in the background. She moved front and center after I had written about Mary Tudor's sister, Elizabeth, and about Catherine de' Medici, mother of the boy my Scottish queen was destined to marry. It was all so interconnected--and so confusing!

Nevertheless, I dived in, rounded up a batch of biographies of Mary QofS and histories of the period, and Googled the castles and places in Scotland and France where the action took place. I had been to Scotland to research THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF CHARLEY DARWIN and to France when I was working on THE BAD QUEEN (Marie-Antoinette), and so a trip wasn't needed. (It would have been lovely, but sometimes you have to be practical.)

Mary's story is long and complicated, and my first task was to figure out the arc of the narrative. She became queen of Scotland when she was six days old, so that would not be the main conflict in the story, as it had been in the stories of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth. But her determination to become queen of England as well in the face of opposition by Queen Elizabeth was the driving force in the tragic trajectory of her life.

I decided to open the novel with Mary's departure from Scotland and separation from her mother at the age of six. I have always been fascinated and appalled by the willingness of royal parents to send a very young daughter so far away that they would likely never see her again, in order to marry the girl/child to a complete stranger. (Catherine of Aragon, Catherine de' Medici, Marie-Antoinette, for instance.) Mary Stuart was the youngest. Surely that event must have been traumatic and inevitably influenced the kind of woman that young girl would someday become.

Mary certainly had terrible luck with men and made some really dumb decisions, but did she do what many historians claim she did? Probably my biggest challenge was figuring out how to handle Mary's marriages and the fallout from them. Many of my readers are very young, and I want to handle the material carefully.

A question I'm often asked by young readers is, "But is the story true?" My answer: It's as true as I can make it. I don't change facts. But one of the things I've discovered in my years of writing historical fiction is the amount of disagreement among historians. One writer's "facts" are contradicted or refuted or interpreted entirely differently by another. I choose the ones that work best for the story I'm trying to tell, and then I fill in the gaps as best I can.

So how wild was The Wild Queen? The reader has to decide. Read More 
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Behind the Books: Victoria Rebels

I'm often asked where I get my ideas. My answer is usually "from all over," but the truth is that almost every book I've written has sprung from a different source. By the time CLEOPATRA CONFESSES was finished and in production, my editor and I had already begun discussing what my next book would be. Since we couldn't seem to agree on a subject that really excited me (and would also excite readers), I decided to open it up to my fans--that is, all those people who had emailed me over the past couple of years with questions or comments. I sent out 100-plus emails, asking for suggestions and promising to dedicate the finished book to the first three people to suggest the subject I finally chose.

Queen Victoria got the most votes (Joan of Arc was second). VICTORIA REBELS was the result, and the book is dedicated to Leah Norod, Vankelia Tolbert, and Sydney V. Trebour to whom I am deeply grateful (and who each received an autographed copy when the book was published January 1st.

Between that first email and publication day was the usual amount of work. As usual, I started off knowing next to nothing about Victoria except that she reigned for a very long time, always looked grumpy, and gave her name to an era that I thought of as humorless and (to be honest) sexless. About that time I saw the movie, THE YOUNG VICTORIA, and there was the scene with Prince Albert peeling off Victoria's stocking. Hmmm. Unless the filmmaker was inventing that--and movies routinely reinvent history; I could never get away with that in a novel--there was more to Victoria than being prim and proper.

Indeed there was! As usual, I had a lot to learn. I knew a little about Albert (but didn't remember that he was German) but I knew next to nothing of her family history: Victoria's unhappy German mother or the reason Victoria's father had married her; her beautiful half-sister Fidi; her mother's scheming advisor, John Conroy; her devoted governess; the old king who tried to get around her mother and Conroy; the prime minister she clung to; and of course Prince Albert. These other characters offered tempting subplots--one of the challenges was not to get side-tracked by their stories. Someday, I promise you, I will write a novella from sister Fidi's point of view.

There was no problem in finding out what Victoria was doing--she wrote voluminously in a diary every day of her life. The problem was digging through an overload of material to find the essence of Victoria, the passionate, hot-tempered young girl who didn't get along with her mother, had to fend off the ambitious Conroy, and had to learn on the job what it meant to be queen of an enormous empire.

I was fascinated by the story of Victoria's beginnings: her father's hasty trip to Germany to find a wife to produce a child as quickly as possible so as to secure a place in line for the succession. (This reminded me of people who camp out for days in front of the Apple store order to be among the first to get a new iPhone.) But this wasn't really the best place to begin a novel, and so I had to restructure the novel to start with Fidi's wedding and figure out what to do with all that interesting material I had accumulated (it went into the back of the book).

Finding Victoria's voice was a challenge. She had to come across as a proper 19th century British girl but in a way that would connect with 21st century readers. I wanted to keep some of her snarkiness without making her unpleasant. And I wanted to retain her unique writing style, marked with LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS, fierce underlinings, and her frequent comment, "I was VERY MUCH AMUSED."

Deciding where to begin the novel was difficult, but where to end the story was even harder. (It's always hard, unless it's with a beheading!) Victoria lived and ruled for a very long time. But I chose to focus on the challenges of her youth and leave it to other authors to tell the story of her rule. Read More 
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Behind the Books: Hotlines

Almost 25 years ago I was contacted by a book packager wanting to develop a series of books about high school kids who, in the aftermath of the suicide of a friend, decide to form a telephone hotline for kids to call when they want to talk to someone about a problem. The packager had the concept; I was to come up with characters and plots.

I had never done anything remotely like this, but I was willing to give it a shot. Creating four main characters and a slew of minor characters wasn't too difficult, but developing storylines to run through a series of four books, each focusing on one of the main characters, was a big challenge. I had once helped to develop a hotline for survivors of breast cancer, so I knew basically how they worked. But I still had a lot to learn.

I signed up for training at the suicide prevention hotline operated by the local university. The sessions were interesting , but I was in a panic when I had to take my shifts, sitting in a bare office with a desk and a telephone and hoping that nobody in drastic straits would call. I did listen to a lot of serious problems, but none were suicidal, thank God!

I also hung out at a large high school known for the diversity of the student body; I can't remember now the number of languages spoken, but I think it was in the dozens.

Then I was ready to write. There was the usual back-and-forth with editors on each of the four books. I do remember describing Jenny, the main character in BECAUSE OF LISSA, as "skinny" and being told to change it to "slender," because nobody wants to read about an unattractive girl. That book and THE PROBLEM WITH SIDNEY were published in December 1990; GILLLIAN'S CHOICE came out in March 1991, and THE TWO FACES OF ADAM in June 1991. And I went on to write many other books, becoming more interested in historical fiction.

Fast forward to Summer 2012. My writer pals and I were talking about self-publishing ebooks--we'd all read the stories of Amanda Hocking and others who were hitting it big--and one of my friends said to me, "Why don't you resurrect some of your backlist titles and publish them as ebooks?"

Well, why not? I thought the old Hotline series would be a good candidate. Except I didn't have a clue how to proceed. Fortunately, I knew someone who did: my stepdaughter, Vered, is a book designer and has started her own small company. We quickly struck a deal: I would retype the Hotlines, doing minor editing as I went along, and she would design new covers and perform whatever magic tricks were needed to do the electronic conversions and get them sold through Amazon, B&N, and so on.

Did I say "minor editing"? Well, not so minor. It's a different world , and the original Hotline books are quaintly old-fashioned. Clothes, car models, language have changed, as I expected. The biggest change is the ubiquitous presence of cellphones. They have altered behavior and forced me to rethink some of the plot points.

It was a big job, but the books are out there, starting last fall with the last one issued in January. We'll see how they do. And one of these days I might consider resurrecting another one of the oldies. Maybe one that doesn't involve the use of a phone. Read More 
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Writing and Cooking

We were not a family of gourmets. My mother didn't like to cook, and I was a snoopy eater--no strange vegetables, please, and no weird spices. But when I was sixteen, we visited New York City, and my father took us to a French restaurant. Uncharacteristically, I ordered coq au vin (I was taking French in school and translated: chicken with wine). I probably pushed aside the onions and mushrooms, but the chicken was FABULOUS. My dad bought me a little French cookbook with the recipe. There was a problem--we didn't have any red wine. Or mushrooms. It would be a long time before I ate anything that interesting again.

One summer while I was in college I traveled to Europe, and once again I discovered that food was not just about meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and overcooked beans. When I married a year after college, I still couldn't put together a decent meal, but I got another French cookbook. The first thing I tackled was coq au vin. Success! I worked my way through the recipes--even attempting croissants made with puff pastry; nice try, but pretty awful.

The whole time I was trying to learn to cook, I was also trying to learn to write. This, I discovered, was much more difficult, due mostly to a lack of recipes. I had to figure everything out for myself. Nearly everything I "cooked up"--short stories--were dismal failures. My efforts in the kitchen were somewhat better, but not always great hits. Czech dumplings, for instance--years of failure, and then last Christmas, I finally got it right.

Last week I had a surprise phone call from a man who babysat my children fifty years ago, when he was a young teenager. "You used to sit in the basement and write while I played with the little boys," he said.

I no longer have an office in the basement. My little boys are now fathers. I turned out to be a pretty decent cook, still like to try new things. Pretty decent writer, too, and still like to try new things, even if they don't turn out the way I hope. Read More 
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