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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: Beware, Princess Elizabeth

The Tudors: Princess Elizabeth
Elizabeth is probably England's best-known queen. We call her Elizabeth I, to distinguish her from England's present queen, although of course she didn't think of herself as "the First" because she had no way of knowing if and when there would be another with the same name.

Writing a novel about Elizabeth was a no-brainer for me, once I had written about her half-sister, Mary. Both were the daughters of King Henry VIII, and if ever there was a sibling rivalry, it was this one. When Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce a male heir, Henry decided he needed a new wife. Anne Boleyn got the job as Wife #2, but she too failed in her royal duty; Elizabeth was her only child.

Mary was seventeen when Elizabeth was born. To say that the two step-sisters were never close is putting it mildly. Each was a threat to the other. The challenge for me as a writer was to switch sides and to take my reader's sympathies with me. In MARY, BLOODY MARY, little Elizabeth is the rival. In BEWARE, PRINCESS ELIZABETH, those roles are reversed. That led quite naturally to that determined seductress, Anne Boleyn, who gets her own story told in the next Young Royal, DOOMED QUEEN ANNE.

The common thread through the four Tudor books is King Henry himself--tall, handsome, athletic (great tennis player), charming, talented (played several instruments well), brilliant, and very very rich (just don't cross him, or you'll find yourself without your head). There was no lack of material available about Henry, no shortage of wonderful places in England to visit to imagine what life in his court must have been like.

And that's always the question I have in mind when I first begin to feel my way into the story: "What must it have been like to be the daughter of such a man?" Then I do my best to give the reader a believable answer to that question. Read More 
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Behind the Books: Mary, Bloody Mary

The Tudors: Mary, Bloody Mary
"I'm sure you get messages like this all the time," Kristen A. writes, "but I just wanted to thank you, with all my heart, for the impact your books (especially your Tudor series) have had on my life. I discovered your work when I was eight years old, and I can honestly say that it changed my life....Now, I'm a European History major in college, and I cannot overstate the amount to which that is due to you...."

Well, I do get messages like this--not all the time, certainly, but often enough to make me grateful and keep me energized. The "Tudor series" began in 1999 with MARY, BLOODY MARY, the story of Mary Tudor, the suggestion of my editor. "I know you're interested in history--why don't you think about doing something on British royalty?"

I protested that I knew next to nothing about British history, and royalty hadn't ever attracted my interest. Then I discovered King Henry VIII, a character you couldn't possibly invent, and I was hooked. All those fascinating women in his life! I decided to start with his daughter Mary. (Mary Tudor is often confused with her cousin, Mary Stuart, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots.)

That was fifteen years ago. The world of Tudor England was new to me, although I'd been to England a few times. Why was she called Bloody Mary? Did it have anything to do with the scary game? (Googling "scary game bloody mary" scares up 1,590,000 results; I'd never heard of it, let alone played it.) But the biggest question was this: What must it have been like to be the daughter of a larger-than-life man like Henry VIII?

I had no idea when I began my research that Mary, Bloody Mary would be the first in a series, called "The Young Royals." Or that fifteen years later, I'd still be looking for the next big idea.

Thank you, Kristen. Read More 
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Behind the Books: Cleopatra Confesses

Writing about Cleopatra was a big leap for me. As a rule of thumb, the more distant the subject lived from the present, the less material is available for research. Queen Victoria, who lived until the beginning of the 20th century, left a lifetime of diaries; Mary, Queen of Scots, who died in 1587, has been the subject of many biographies. But when I considered writing a novel about Cleopatra, I didn't have a lot to go on, aside from the speculation of historians.

The upside was that I was free to speculate, too--especially on her early years, which interested me most. The downside was that I had to invent a story without much to go on. The date of her death is well established, but not the means (the snake story is probably legend). No one knows exactly when she was born (probably 69 BC), or who her mother was. There is some confusion about the names and number of sisters. There are many legends about her life, and there are movies. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of "Cleopatra," starring Elizabeth Taylor, with Richard Burton as Marcus Antonius and Rex Harrison as Caesar. (Watch the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRrHqcUBIQQ). But the movie was about Cleopatra as an adult and a queen, not as a young princess. Fun to watch, but not a great research source.

I have always enjoyed travel as a part of the research process, partly because it stimulates my visual imagination, and partly because museums and artifacts supply ideas and details. And so I booked a trip to Egypt, to see what I could learn. I loved the boat trip down the Nile, visiting some of the very sites Cleopatra had once visited. I saw the pyramids, ancient even to Cleopatra's dazzled eyes. The museums were indeed interesting.

But the trip to Alexandria, where Cleopatra grew up and spent most of her life, was disappointing. The library, famous in her time, was destroyed by fire centuries ago and replaced by a beautiful new complex. The lighthouse that served as a beacon to sailors more than two thousand years ago was destroyed by a tsunami, and the royal palaces are all at the bottom of the sea. There are plans to build an underwater museum someday, so that visitors can tour the ruins, and that would certainly be worth another trip!

Discovering Cleopatra's voice as the narrator was even tougher than finding any artifacts associated with her life. Her native language was Greek (her forebears were Greek, and the ruling class in Egypt spoke only Greek), but she learned Egyptian as well as several other languages of the Middle East and was fluent in all of them. So how do I express that in modern English? My editor and I debated at great length whether she would use contractions--isn't, can't, I'll, she's. Not to use them made her narrative voice sound stiff and formal. Using them too freely seemed overly casual. My solution was to use the informal language when she was speaking to her sisters, brothers, servants, and tradespeople, but to be formal when addressing her father and other high-ranking individuals.

Aat the same time, I had to create a believable personality that was both consistent with her age and gained maturity as she grew older. That meant deciding when to begin her story and when to end it. Starting when she was ten seemed too young, but that was at a critical point in her life and an event filled with drama: the return of her father, the pharaoh, from Rome, and I decided to risk that readers would not be turned off by her youth. On the other hand, it seemed better to end the book before the birth of her expected child. This was not to be a book about her adult life, but about her growing up. Her reign and all those hot scenes with Caesar and later with Marcus Antonius, would have to be described in another book. Read More 
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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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The Most Useful Girl, Chapter 2

Janey, who was chosen The Most Useful Girl in 9th grade, continued to excel in high school at everything at which I did not excel. Fortunately, there was no such thing as a "Best Dressed Girl Award," or she would have walked--or danced--away with it, and I would have continued to show up in clothes bought for me by my mother, who was more interested in "quality" than she was in "fashion"--at least for her daughter. I'm remembering a particularly hideous green dress with some sort of a bustle arrangement in the rear. I looked terrible in green, and still do. And I didn't need a bustle.

I was beginning to hit my stride in high school. I edited both the school paper and the class yearbook. I got great grades, and I vowed I 'd never take another math course. But Janey continued to outclass me, particularly in the one area where I wanted very badly to succeed: she had a boyfriend, which meant that she always had a date for the big dances, whereas I....well, you can figure it out. The prom was at the end of May, and I started worrying about it in January. I did get the Most Useful Girl Award at the end of my senior year, but I didn't have a date for the dinner dance.

Janey's boyfriend was a smart, fun, sweet guy named Tom. Janey's dad was a doctor; Tom's had a little grocery store. One night her dad caught them making out in the backseat of his Cadillac, and Tom was banished. They weren't allowed to see each other ever again. He was only a grocer's son. Her parents wanted it over.

The odd thing is, I lost track of Janey after that. We went off to college, and I made up my mind I was going to be a writer someday, though I didn't have a clue how to make it happen.

But one year I went to a high school reunion and sat next to Tom. Janey wasn't there, and Tom was relieved. He told me about the Cadillac incident. His heart had been broken, he said. He found someone else and married her. And he became a doctor. Neither of us was quite sure whatever happened to Janey.  Read More 
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The Most Useful Girl

I first met Janey in kindergarten. She was a beautiful child with a winning smile and pretty curls, and her mother dressed her in nice dresses with big bows in the back. Janey was taking music lessons and learning to tap-dance. At Halloween she appeared costumed as a fairy princess with a sparkly crown and a wand with a star at the end of it. Our teacher, Miss Keller, chose Janey to lead the parade through the parlor and the dining room and back to our schoolroom. I was a shy little girl with thick glasses, buck teeth, and no discernible talents, and my mother had put me in a clown costume. I could bring up the rear, Miss Keller decided.

I didn't see much of Janey until we were both in junior high. By then she was a classic beauty in expensive clothes. She'd become a fine pianist and she could dance to anything. I had progressed to braces, bad perms, and clothes my mother was misguidedly convinced were "smart." Despite such profound differences, Janey and I were friends.

The Awards Assembly was coming up at the end of ninth grade, and I was convinced that I would be chosen The Most Useful Girl. I participated in all kinds of activities, wrote for the newspaper, sang in the chorus, took part in assemblies, and got almost all A's except in gym. When the principal called me to his office a few days before the Awards Assembly, along with Janey and a few other kids, I expected to hear that I'd been picked The Most Useful Girl. Why else would I have been summoned? When I heard that Janey was to get the award, I was crushed, so upset that I almost didn't hear what I WAS to get: the Math Award. I hated math, even though I got A's! Almost as much as I hated gym class! How could this be happening?

Janey got her award, we remained friends, high school life went on. But there's more to the story, and I'll continue it next week.  Read More 
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Things I Love, Besides Books

Generally, as everybody knows by now, my days are quite structured, starting with a morning walk and then writing all day and reading in the evenings. But there's more to life than writing and reading, and for the past couple of weekends I've been indulging myself.

Last Friday I went to the opera, "Madama Butterfly"--beautiful music (Puccini), but also a straightforward storyline with themes that interest me. After a Sunday morning concert (performed in a warehouse) with a Mozart string quartet, I saw an exhibit of Japanese Art Deco at the Albuquerque Museum. This Friday, as I was finishing up planting pansies and other green stuff in my balcony gardening at 7 pm, a friend called with a last minute invitation to a modern dance performance; by 8 o'clock I had washed my hands and was in my seat at the symphony hall, watching a visually stunning performance by Momix. Yesterday afternoon I went to a friend's book signing (more stuff to read!). Today's Sunday morning concert in the warehouse began with some really contemporary piano stuff that I don't enjoy at all but am willing to sit through for the second half of the program: Bach's Partita #6 in E Minor. Somewhere there's a camera that projects a view of the keyboard and the pianist's flying fingers. Wonderful!

And now, for the next three hours I'm going to write, and then--I'm going to the ZOO! Read More 
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