Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

What, exactly, is a romance novel?

I remember that section in the English Lit text book in high school that was called “The Romantic Period.” Romantic novels, the text books said, were associated with wild nature, free thinking, resistance to rationalism.

I have to confess that even back then, that’s not what I thought a romance novel was. I can still remember how surprised I was that Edgar Allen Poe was considered a writer of romantic novels. A romance novel to me was a love story and it had the classic formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl reconcile and live happily ever after.

I know, I know, there’s more to it than that. If it was that easy, everyone would be doing it, right?

My newest novel, Sins of the Empress, certainly doesn’t follow that formula, but it is, nevertheless, what I consider a very romantic novel. It’s the fictionalized story of Catherine the Great of Russia. It is set in the lavish courts and stark battlefields of eighteenth century Russia and Germany, full of political intrigue, love, and betrayal. Of course there’s sex, after all that’s the first thing many people associate with Catherine, but, like my original perception of romance novels, there was more to her than that. The story is based on exhaustive research not only of Catherine, but of Russia, the books she read, and the people with whom she associated.

In the novel, you’ll see her growth from a very naïve German girl to the most powerful woman in Europe. She had to learn to think for herself, break some rules, and learn to play a man’s game along the way.

Here’s the way Catherine perceives it in an excerpt from the book:


I was on my way to depose Peter on the eighteenth anniversary of the day I was officially betrothed to him.  Once again I remembered the young girl I had been, the one who was so eager to understand him and to please him, so eager to be Russian.  I had to acknowledge that girl was gone forever.  I didn’t mourn her passing.  Somehow I had always known that she was destined to become what I had become.  Now that the moment had arrived, however, I couldn’t help but be saddened by what the journey had entailed, what it had inevitably done to Peter.  No, I didn’t mourn her passing, but I did miss her innocence.


Peter III, the heir to the Russian throne and the man Catherine was chosen to marry made life difficult for her. He was both emotionally and physically immature. Modern researchers now say that was probably caused by the fact that he began heavy consumption of alcohol at approximately the age of nine. Here’s another excerpt and an example of their interaction. Peter is a grown young man, and Catherine is approximately sixteen and being pressured to produce an heir.


“Why do you not take me as your wife?” I asked.


“What a silly thing to say,” he said without looking up from playing with his toy soldiers which he’d brought with him to bed. “I took you as my wife months ago at that long ceremony in the cathedral.”


“I am speaking of the physical sense of things.”


He gave me a puzzled look.


“We should join our bodies and produce a child. Do you understand what I’m saying?”


His expression changed from puzzlement to terror.


I reached under the covers and took his small, withered penis into my hand. “I want you to put this inside me here,” I said pointing to my vagina. 

“When you do that and release your seed, that is what produces a baby.”


He hastily pulled himself away from me and got out of bed. “You are disgusting!” He left my bedchamber without noticing that he had knocked several of his toy soldiers to the floor.


Catherine took many lovers after that, not only because she was pressured to produce an heir but because she was seeking love and affection. She found it in more than one of her lovers. The people of Russia were less shocked by her romantic exploits, however, than they were by the fact that she started schools to educate women, that she had intellectual discourses with the likes of Voltaire, that she espoused doing away with serfdom, that she took it upon herself to rewrite all the laws of Russia to bring it into the modern era of eighteenth century Europe.

Sins of the Empress is the story of a woman of passion who wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted. That’s what I call a romance novel.



To find out more about Paula Paul and her books, visit www.paulapaul.net. And for a chance to win Sins of The Empress, just leave a comment below. Giveaway open to U.S/Canada only.


*Giveaway sponsored by the author

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It’s 1777, and a fledgling country wages an almost hopeless struggle against the might of the British Empire. Brought together by a fateful kiss, Anne Merrick and Jack Hampton are devoted to each other and to their Patriot cause. As part of Washington’s daring network of spies, they are ready and willing to pay even the ultimate price for freedom.

From battlefields raging along the Hudson, to the desperate winter encampment at Valley Forge and through the dangerous intrigue of British-occupied Philadelphia, Anne and Jack brave the trials of separation, the ravages of war and an unyielding enemy growing ever more ruthless.

For love and for country, all is put at risk-and together the pair must call upon their every ounce of courage and cunning in order to survive.


There’s a scene in the movie Little Women, when Jo March finishes her novel, and gently tucks a bloom under the bit of twine she’s tied her manuscript pages with, and it’s all done – off to find a publisher!

Louisa May Alcott books are near and dear to my heart, and Little Women is top of the heap. I’ve watched the newest movie adaptation several times, and this particular scene always makes me smile, and then cringe when think about what a complete pain it must have been to be a novelist back then. Just think about writing hundreds of thousands of words with a quill pen that was not equipped with a delete key! Writing without the ability to cut and paste! Without the opportunity make countless and endless revisions with the simple click of a keystroke!

Hmmm… On second thought, that last one might be actually be an advantage!

As an author, handwriting is a device I use to get my creative juices flowing. I always begin a writing session with pen and paper. My pen of choice is a medium tip Liquid Flair, and the paper, an 5” x 8” spiral bound notebook. With these two tools I can curl up in a chair or a window seat and let my mind wander off to the 18th century. Once my margins become cramped with notes and swinging arrows, and the writing starts to become illegible for the scratch outs and carrotted inserts, I take the pages over to my trusty Mac to be finessed and endlessly revised.


It is said Louisa May Alcott was a very fast writer, able to finish thirty handwritten manuscript pages a day. Keep in mind, novelists of yore had to contend with the mechanics of the quill pen and the often uneven quality of paper made from cotton fiber. A writer had to be a master of the penknife, able to shape and cajole a nib from the heat-tempered quill of a feather into the precision instrument of her craft.


The quill dip pen reigned supreme for over a thousand years. Illuminated manuscripts, Shakespeare’s plays, epic poetry, edicts, law, letters to loved ones – all written by the dip and scratch of a feather. Luckily, bird feathers are a sustainable commodity, as quill pens were notorious for wearing out quickly. Feathers taken from living bird in the spring were considered the prime source for a long lasting pen. The five outer quills of the left wing were most prized by scribes, as the plumes curved outward for use by the right-handed.


The type of feather used made a difference in the quality of your stroke. Though goose feathers were most common, scarce swan feathers were the “Mont Blanc” of the quill pen world. Crow feathers were preferred for fine line work, but the feathers from the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey could all be used in a pinch. Charles Dickens was famous for his need to have a large array of different types of quills at his disposal, so he could easily switch pens to match the quality of his penmanship to the prose he was writing.


And it didn’t end with paper and pen. Beyond the aforementioned penknife, a writer needed all manner of accouterments to write even a simple letter. A sprinkling of powdery pounce – a mixture of cuttlebone, pumice and gum sandarac – was dispensed from the salt-shaker like pounce pot to speed the drying of the ink. Extra absorbent blotting paper was manufactured specifically for the purpose of dabbing up the blips and blobs and blobs inherent in dip pen writing. Wells made of silver and glass held inks made from lampblack and linseed oil were essential, and a mahogany writing box lined with leather kept your writing gear in good order.


As I tap out this blog post, I think about future writers accessing holographic images from their bionic nanochip implants, of us 21st century folk slaving over iMacs. I imagine they will shake their heads with bemusement, smile, cringe and telepathically communicate with the collective, thinking, “Keyboard and mouse! What a pain that must have been!”

Giveaway: Bayberry Candle Bundle – the perfect light to read your secret messages by. A bayberry candle burned to the socket bring Lucks in the home, food in the larder, and Gold to the pocket.

Author Christine Blevins writes what she loves to read – historical adventure stories. The Turning of Anne Merrick is the second in a 3-book series set during the American Revolution, and the companion book to The Tory Widow. A native Chicagoan, Christine lives in Elmhurst, Illinois, along with her husband Brian, and The Dude, a very silly golden-doodle. She is at work finishing the third novel inspired by a lifelong fascination with the foundations of American history and the revolutionary spirit.

Christine’s website.


Leave a comment to be entered in today’s giveaway. Good luck!

*Correction: We originally had the wrong giveaway information posted. Giveaway is for the candle bundle. Sorry for any confusion.

*Giveaway sponsored by the author

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Turning family history and American history into fiction

It started with a box. A fairly large, unwieldy box, heavily taped and tied with grocer’s string. Sent, with love, from my mother in western Nebraska to me in New York City in 1981.

This time, it wasn’t a box of brownies. My mother, born Maxine Marguerite Morgan in a Nebraska sod house in 1910, had shipped our family history, or as much of it as a single box could contain. Letters, family portraits, fragments of diaries, and one fairly substantial memoir, thirty-five pages single-spaced on someone’s old typewriter, left by my great-uncle Eb Jones, pioneer and frontier character in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Perhaps, my mother suggested in the accompanying letter written in her elegant hand, I could do something with all this. I don’t know what she had in mind: a family history to be circulated to the relations, perhaps? One of those Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill and the bear at the family picnic things, preserving all the family yarns for posterity?

I did read Uncle Eb’s memoir, pieced together from memory after the diaries he kept for forty years were lost in a house fire in the 1930s. It was lively stuff: frontier murders, a goldrush or two, the Civil War, a drive to bring a thousand head of buffalo from Arizona to Wyoming. The massacre at Wounded Knee, where he was a scout for the cavalry.

I put the box aside and forgot about it. Somewhere along the line, in one of my numerous moves, most of it was lost. Twenty years later, a conversation with my sister aroused my curiosity about those old letters and memoirs, because two things struck me: first, there was a doozy of a story in there, which I had been too obtuse to see the first time around. Second, there was a remarkable confluence, over a period of nearly 150 years, between the history of my family (or more specifically, my mother’s family) and the history of the United States.

The first members of the Jones family had arrived in the Boston area before the American revolution. They drifted south as far as Mississippi, where John Milton Jones was born in 1830. John Milton left the south to walk to California with seven or eight friends after gold was found on the West Coast in 1849. As far as we know, he was the only one to survive. He returned to the Mississippi River with enough capital to buy what he called a “store boat,” which he operated on the river in partnership with a freed slave until they came under Confederate fire during the Civil War.

John Milton sold the boat and moved north to South Dakota, arriving as one of the first pioneers in the Sioux Falls-Yankton area in 1863. He married a woman who was part Sioux and fathered several children, two of whom, Eb and his brother Squier, became the protagonists of my first novel, Sun Going Down.

Both boys were fluent in Lakota, but Eb was perpetually restless. He scouted for the cavalry, worked as a sheriff in Spearfish and elsewhere, tried ranching in a dozen locations at a dozen times. Squier settled down in Brown County, Nebraska and built a ranching empire, beginning with a 160-acre homestead.

It was on that ranch that the essential conflict of this trilogy was borne, when Squier’s daughter Velma, my grandmother, became pregnant by one of his bronc riders. Squier kicked the pair of them off his ranch and set them up in a miserable homestead with a tumbledown soddy. After my mother was born, the bronc rider broke her arm in a quarrel and Squier went a little farther: he drove the young husband out of the state, leaving Velma to try to figure out how to survive, along with her two small children on a desolate homestead.

She might have pulled it off, but Velma learned she had tuberculosis in 1915 and spent most of the rest of her short life in and out of the sanitarium in Denver while her children were shuffled back and forth among orphanages and various family members willing to take them in.

In historical terms, it was all there, a primer of American history in the story of a single family: the great Mississippi River and the steamboats, the California gold rush (and a later gold rush in the Black Hills) the Civil War, the westward expansion, the Indian wars, World War I, the Roaring 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II. Somewhere along the line, members of the extended Jones family were always part of it.

I set out to tell the story. Six years after I began reassembling the stories in the original box, with the help of sisters, cousins and aunts all over the western U.S., Sun Going Down was published by Touchstone Books.

The first novel began in 1849 and ended at the beginning of the Great Depression, in 1933. The second, Come Again No More, is set entirely during the Depression years and researching it was less difficult, because I heard much of it directly from my parents. They lost their farm in Nebraska during the 1930s and joined the great migration to the West Coast, moving to a small Oregon mill town where my father, a former boxer, had a job in the mill. After six months, he decided he couldn’t stand the rain and dragged the family back to Nebraska.

Like Sun Going Down, Come Again No Moreis an attempt to get at the general truth of our common history through the particular history of a single family. It is one thing to read the history of the 1930s or to review the painful statistics of a time when a third of the American work-force was unemployed. Those statistics come home, however, only when you find a way to bring alive the impact of hard times on ordinary folk.

There is an odd process a writer goes through when turning family history into fiction. The real characters fade and are replaced by the fictional characters who become as real, in the imagination, as living friends and relatives. Thus Squier Jones for me will always be Eli Paint, his fictional counterpart, and Eb Jones is Ezra Paint, Eli’s brother.

The character Emaline in both books is, of course, my mother. With her hot-tempered, quick-fisted husband Jake McCloskey (my father, the first Jack Todd) she is alive to me as both fiction and memory. In Come Again No More, I attempted to tell their story, the awkward marriage of the rather prim young woman who loved Chekhov and Balzac to a character so rough, he would drive a steel bolt with his bare fist.

As Come Again No More ventures into the world, I’m completing the third novel in the series, The Rain Came Down, set almost entirely during World War II and based, in part, on the letters of my mother’s younger brother Jimmy Wilson, a gunner on the battleship Tennessee from Pearl Harbor to Japan. The contents of another box, in other words.

A lesson for writers everywhere: beware the boxes you open. You may find yourself, years later, still entranced by the old stories, the characters who stare out at you from the black-and-white photographs, the hasty letters dated 1887 or 1910 or 1944. More novels, waiting to be born.


Thank you Jack for joining us today! You can find out more about Jack and his books here. Or here http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Jack-Todd/44580857/widget.

Leave a comment below for a chance to win COME AGAIN NO MORE. Good luck! 😀

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Happy Friday! 🙂 St. Martin’s Press has generously offered me three copies of THE DEVIL’S QUEEN by Jeanne Kalogridis to do a giveaway here on the blog. Contest will run from today, July 31st until Monday, August 10th. Winners will be chosen on Tuesday, August 11th and will have 48 hours to email me their info to get book sent out. Easy to enter for a chance to win one. Just tell me what you’ve read lately that I must get my hands on. 😉


From Jeanne Kalogridis, the bestselling author ofI, Mona Lisa and The Borgia Bride, comes a new novel that tells the passionate story of a queen who loved not wisely . . . but all too well.

Confidante of Nostradamus, scheming mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots, and architect of the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Catherine de Medici is one of the most maligned monarchs in history. In her latest historical fiction, Jeanne Kalogridis tells Catherine’s story—that of a tender young girl, destined to be a pawn in Machiavellian games.

Born into one of Florence’s most powerful families, Catherine was soon left a fabulously rich heiress by the early deaths of her parents. Violent conflict rent the city state and she found herself imprisoned and threatened by her family’s enemies before finally being released and married off to the handsome Prince Henry of France.

Overshadowed by her husband’s mistress, the gorgeous, conniving Diane de Poitiers, and unable to bear children, Catherine resorted to the dark arts of sorcery to win Henry’s love and enhance her fertility—for which she would pay a price. Against the lavish and decadent backdrop of the French court, and Catherine’s blood-soaked visions of the future, Kalogridis reveals the great love and desire Catherine bore for her husband, Henry, and her stark determination to keep her sons on the throne.

There’s also a freebie e-book you can check out that’s connected to THE DEVIL’S QUEEN, titled BOOK OF BLACK MAGIC: THE DEVIL’S QUEEN GRIMOIRE.

*****Sorry, Giveaway open to US and Canada residents only.******

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