Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Secret to Writing Conflict

By Nancy Bilyeau

According to what I hear from fellow authors, bloggers, critics and industry wags, book editors are laying down the law: We want more conflict! It’s all about higher stakes now. Drama. Heightened tension. Put your protagonist at greater risk than you ever thought possible. And then ratchet it up again.

To meet the challenge, writers are booking seats at Donald Maass workshops and buying his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, like crazy. One successful mystery-author friend who swears by Maass confided that before she’s done with a book she shuffles all the pages until they’re completely out of sequence and then reads each one to make sure there is conflict on every single page. Other friends plot their books with multi-colored index cards and arrows and circles, making sure to squeeze the drama out of every single moment.

While observing this frenzy, I can’t help but think of Laurence Olivier, who after observing Dustin Hoffman staying up all night so he’d be convincingly exhausted and otherwise punishing himself during filming of Marathon Man, said to him, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

Which is to say, instead of tearing out our hair to generate a book packed with hair-raising challenges worthy of a day at Great Adventure Theme Park, why don’t we create certain kinds of characters and put them in certain kinds of settings that contain inherent conflict? And so it's possible to propel the story forward, and have your main character struggling with obstacles, without needing to visit the dreaded Contrivance Closet.

All too often I read novels with likable, easy-to-relate-to protagonists living nice, easy-to-relate-to lives. That’s all well and good—except then it’s tough to generate conflict on every page. The story gets pretty, well, strained.

May I humbly offer you my thinking in how I came up with the idea for my series. Take from it what you will!

The first thing I decided was that I wanted to set it in a genuine historical period, Tudor England, to take advantage of my near-lifelong (and without a doubt scary) obsession with the 16th century. It was a tumultuous century. I narrowed it to the reign of Henry VIII, who, among other things, destroyed the monasteries in his quest to break with Rome and make himself head of the Church of England. 

Because of the policies of Henry VIII, devised by Thomas Cromwell (see Wolf Hall), the kingdom’s monks, friars and nuns were expelled from the monasteries, often with nowhere to go. A fair number of them were none too happy with the destruction of a 1,000-year-old way of life and they objected. Here’s how Henry VIII handled objection: troublesome monks and friars were imprisoned, hanged, starved, decapitated or disemboweled. Sister Elizabeth Barton, who preached defiance to Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, was hanged and then decapitated. Just to be sure everyone got the message.

So the main character of my trilogy? A nun, a fictional nun based on research. Meet Sister Joanna. The Dissolution of the Monasteries took place between 1536 and 1541. The action running through The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry begins in May 1537 and ends in December 1541.


Next for me was creating a background for my MC. I could have made her a nun from a nice family, very supportive, no issues with the king. Instead, I put her in a family full of tragedy, a real family from history: the Staffords.

To understand why placing a Stafford in the reign of Henry VIII would generate intense conflict, you need to know a little 15th and 16th century history. I can hear what a few of you are thinking: “Check, please.”

No. Stop. We can do this together. It’s really going to be OK.

If you watch Game of Thrones, it will be helpful to the conversation. Because George R.R. Martin has more or less admitted that his books are the Wars of the Roses—plus dragons and White Walkers.

Game of Thrones

My husband likes to say I am drawn to Faded Glory and The Doomed. I won’t quarrel with him here. The Staffords were my kind of people. Definitely a family that had a hunger for action and a lot of style … but not too much sense.

There were three Stafford dukes of Buckingham and they all died violently. The first one, Humphrey, backed Lancaster over York in the civil war tearing England apart. Henry VI was the head of the House of Lancaster, and no one thought he was a particularly good king. Then Henry VI had a complete nervous breakdown and was, from what we can tell reading the documents, close to catatonic. This is the monarch that Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham, backed!

Humphrey Stafford

The enemy, the earl of Warwick, sent word just before the Battle of Northampton in 1460 that he wanted to speak to the king. Buckingham’s reply: “The earl of Warwick will not come to the King’s presence and if he does, he shall die.” (Your move, GRRM!) In the ensuing battle, the duke of Buckingham died protecting his king, clutching a sword.

His grandson, the second duke, is one of the villains of Shakespeare. In Richard III, you’ll remember Buckingham as the king’s right-hand man in getting hold of the princes and shoving them into the Tower of London. Later, according to the play, Buckingham got a case of the guilts and he put together a rebellion against King Richard. It failed, and he was decapitated in 1483.

Which brings us to the third duke, the one who appears in flashbacks in my first novel, The Crown. Henry VIII was an insecure king, deeply threatened by wealthy relatives with noble blood. It would have behooved Buckingham to lay low. Instead he lived lavishly and loudly. Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham, met the axe in 1521.

Edward Stafford
In my trilogy, Joanna is the daughter of the duke’s younger brother. She grows up in aristocratic obscurity in Stafford Castle, already beginning to fall into ruin. The family is in disgrace. Just hearing the name “Stafford” is guaranteed to put King Henry VIII in a bad mood. There are two groups of people the Tudor king automatically dislikes. Blood relatives who don’t bend the knee. And people who have taken vows at monastic orders. Joanna Stafford is both!


When creating her character, I gave Joanna certain “good” qualities—she’s intelligent, loyal and thoughtful. But she’s also impulsive and stubborn, with a hot temper. The sort of woman who is quite capable of getting herself into trouble.


Finally, I bestowed on Joanna a talent. She is very skilled at weaving tapestries. After the Dominican priory in Dartford has been demolished, she tries to survive in the nearby town of Dartford as a tapestry mistress.

Now there is one man known throughout all of mid-16th-century Europe as an impassioned collector of tapestries, a true connoisseur who would pay any amount to get what he wanted. You guessed it: Henry VIII. At the beginning of my third book, Joanna is handed a royal summons in Dartford. She has no choice but to appear at Whitehall to submit herself to a king intrigued by her talent. A king whom she hates and fears

And that is the triggering conflict that sets my novel The Tapestry into motion.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com

Thursday, September 25, 2014

That sense of "being watched"--how realistic is it in a mystery?

Anthony van Dyck - Paris : Gallimard, 1998.
Have you ever had that creepy feeling of being watched?  

And then, when you look around,  someone really is staring at you?  

A strange sensation to be sure.  Certainly, this eerie sixth sense is a staple of crime fiction, especially novels of suspense.  

I was thinking about this recently because I read a mystery where the protagonist just knew she was being watched by someone behind her.  It actually pulled me out of the story a little bit because I started to wonder about how plausible that sensation actually is. There was no other indication that someone was behind her, except that she sensed him looking at her.

So I began to explore this question, and it turns out there's been some research on: (1) whether people can truly sense when someone is staring at them, and (2) whether they can know when someone is staring at them from behind. (Of course some of these explanations are a little more scientific than others).

So, on the more scientific end, there is a phenomenon known as gaze detection. Even from a peripheral angle, the brain is always perceiving the positions of other people's heads and bodies and their relative positions to us. The brain will note anomalies, causing us to become alert (or get that chilly sensation). For example, your brain may take note that there is a woman near you who has her feet pointed away from you, but that her head is faced in your direction.  Your brain might note this unusual positioning and tip you off, because it is wired to let you know when you are danger.

Apparently, gaze detection also suggests that we may be able to note the whites of another person's eyes even at a distance, so we can perceive when someone is looking at us. So, gaze detection may help explain this phenomenon of being watched. 

However, gaze detection can only account for someone who is staring at us from our periphery.  It can not explain someone staring at us from behind.  

So a more popular explanation is the idea of morphic resonance,   which contends that: "Natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind, however far away they were and however long ago they existed," Sheldrake (1988) (as quoted by Michael Shermer)

Say what?

I think Sheldrake means that there is a kind of telepathic vibration among organisms, which seems to somehow explain how people "know" someone is staring at them. This concept is critically examined by Scientific American and discussed by Morgan Freeman in Through the Wormhole. Not sure I buy this one, but it's certainly imaginitive.

Personally, I think it's more likely that when you get that weird feeling, and you turn around, that the person beside you notices you turn around and ends up meeting your eyes, hence looking like he or she was staring. 

 So, since my mysteries are not supernatural in nature, I wanted to make sure that I had a logical and plausible explanation for any such feelings of super-awareness that I mention in my characters.  Did my character spy something out of the ordinary? Was there a movement at the corner of her eye? Did she hear a twig snap, alerting her on some level that someone was behind her?

But what do you think?  Is a little sixth sense okay, or should there be a logical explanation for such feelings? 

And yes, I am looking at you...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dominic Selwood: Turning History Into Thrills

By Nancy Bilyeau

I learned about the fiction of Dominic Selwood by reading a piece of riveting nonfiction--an article in the Daily Telegraph titled "How a Protestant Spin Machine Hid the Truth About the English Reformation." (Read it here.) In the nearly 10 years I've been researching England's break from Rome, the backdrop to my historical thrillers, I'd come to many of the same conclusions about Henry VIII and Cromwell's actual agenda as this writer. I "etroduced" myself on twitter, and soon learned that apart from being a historian and former criminal solicitor, Dominic too was writing fiction. His thriller, set in modern times, is called The Sword of Moses.

I downloaded the novel and proceeded to not get much sleep for the next two days. Every spare waking moment, far into the night, I read Dominic's page-turning thriller. First of all, it's extremely well plotted and very scary, with an archaeologist protagonist named Dr. Ava Curzon recruited by American intelligence to find the African militia who've stolen the Ark of the Covenant from its Ethiopian hiding place. In the story, Ava comes up against brutal warlords, devious intelligence officers and modern-day power players who hold beliefs that are ancient and highly dangerous. She must contend with those who seem to believe in the values of the Knights Templar and the Nazis, and others desperate to obtain the most prized relics of all time. Having researched the world of relics for my first novel, The Crown, I know what a pull they can exert on any writer! Dominic's deep knowledge of the Ark and the Bible--and many other topics!-- is put to fascinating use in his book.

Dominic kindly agreed to subject himself to my questions. I hope you will enjoy getting to know this successful novelist. As of this week, The Sword of Moses ranked No. 4 on amazon U.S. in the list of all bestselling historical thrillers.

Is it true that your interest in the Crusaders began in childhood, when you explored the island of Cyprus? What was it that most intrigued you?

In the 1970s, Cyprus was one big, undiscovered, archaeological site. There were no tourists or ticket offices. Not many people visited. So you could just wander freely around classical Greek and Roman temples, medieval castles and churches, and unidentified abandoned ancient buildings near sleepy villages. You would be completely alone, and it was utterly magical. The Greek and Roman remains were always imposing and mysterious. But it was the more intimate Crusader ones that really fired my imagination the most. One I used to visit a lot was Kolossi, a crusader castle where the air and trees were full of cicadas, bees, and the aromas of hot stone, honey, mimosa, and wild rosemary, I can still close my eyes and smell it. What fascinated me then, and still does today, was what it must have felt like for its European inhabitants, to be in the eye of a cultural storm, with so much progress and knowledge coming out of the collision between such radically different civilizations.

Dominic Selwood

  Your first book, Knights of the Cloister, was a straight history book on the Knights Templar, and you blog regularly for the Daily Telegraph on quirky history. How much of a change was it to write The Sword of Moses?

I’ve always been obsessed with the past, and that fuels all my writing. I have to know exactly what things were like, what caused them, and how people felt about it all — whether it’s the rise of Christianity in pagan Rome or the first deployment of chemical nerve agents in World War I. I love the fact my history writing and my fiction are both detective work into the past. The research needed for both is very similar — finding topics that fascinate me then working them into something fun (hopefully!) to read. The big difference, of course, is that straight history is all about solving existing puzzles in our world, whereas writing fiction is about making new puzzles in an imaginary world. They’re both addictive!

Do you think there are public misconceptions about the Knights Templar, and if so, why do you think they formed?

There are definitely misconceptions about the Knights Templar. For me, the most prominent is when people twist the genuine history to align the Templars with modern groups — like seeing them as new age gurus, extremist fundamentalists, white supremacists, Protestant knights, or any other absurd anachronism. They were a medieval religious order whose values could only ever have come out of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some people willfully distort the history. But on the whole I think the great majority of misconceptions are down to people being misled by writers and TV/film makers who press the Templars into whatever dramatic mould they need for the occasion.

Were the Knights Templar purely victims of the Pope at the time and the French king, or did they in any way contribute to their downfall?

That’s a great question. The French king was undoubtedly a vicious, nasty, insincere, and ruthless man. The pope was his puppet — too weak to stand up to him — and the Templars made the tragic mistake of assuming the pope would protect them. The imprisonment and tortures they faced were horrific, and it’s no wonder many of them confessed to the absurd charges the king of France brought in order to destroy their order and steal its wealth. But, at the same time, the broader evidence shows unambiguously that a number of Templars did hold some highly odd beliefs, and they indulged in some deeply peculiar rituals. The king of France was cunning, and he took these small sparks of controversy and famed them up into a raging fire that eventually consumed the whole order.

The first headquarters of the Knights Templar, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

How would you describe the connection between the Knights Templar and the Freemasons?

 The pope closed the Templars down in 1312. But the key thing is that you then have to wait until 1599 for the earliest records from a freemasonic lodge (Lodge of Edinburgh No. 1). That leaves a gap of 287 years, which is about one and a half times longer than the Templars officially existed! There is, sadly, no firm evidence of any historical link spanning this period, but there is enough information in the public domain about Freemasonry to know that there are some striking and unexplained similarities between Freemasonry and the Templars. So I would describe the connection as ‘unproven but tantalizing’!

Grand Lodge of Scotland, Freemasons Hall

How did you go about researching The Sword of Moses and what was the most surprising thing you learned?

I’m familiar with a lot of the places, organizations, objects, books, and so on covered in The Sword of Moses, so it was more a question of reminding myself of details as I went along, either by walking around locations or double checking the historical facts. Of course, the process is never as clean as you think it will be, as checking up on one fact invariably leads to getting distracted by all sorts of connected facts. The joy is that you never know where these tangents will take you, and often it is to somewhere much more interesting than the place you started! One thing that did really surprise me when I was looking into eugenics for The Sword of Moses was that in the 1910s, no less a person than Sir Winston Churchill (who is still a massive national hero in the UK) was an avid supporter of sterilizing people he called “feeble minded”. Although this kind of racial selection horrifies us now, it is shocking to realize that it was a trendy idea in the early twentieth century. Reading deeply about it was a reminder to me of how society’s values really do change in big ways, often in quite a short period, and also of how selective we are in what we choose to remember about people or events.

How do you think working as a barrister informed your thriller writing?

There are definite similarities between courtrooms and thrillers. They are both carefully managed dramas in which the ultimate resolution only comes at the end, after running down dozens of blind alleys. My years as a courtroom barrister focused mainly on criminal trials, which regularly ran high on emotion, while getting sidetracked by imperfect information and often outright deceit. In that environment, you learn quickly that people’s motivations for evasion, deception, or silence can often be for reasons that are unconnected to the main focus of the case. I was lucky to have these experiences, as when planning a thriller many characters’ real motives lie unseen and unsuspected, driving the drama and only becoming fully clear at the end.

What was the inspiration for The Sword of Moses?

I have always loved adventure stories and history books, above all other genres. When I was growing up, I hoovered up every adventure story I could find. I was at a boys’ boarding school, and I suppose it was a way of dreaming about the tantalizing world beyond the school gates. The masters who ran the school were the generation which fought the Second World War, so the place buzzed with stories and rumours of what they had done in Europe, north Africa, the Middle East, in submarines, fighter planes, and artillery divisions. There was always such a sense of mystery about their prior lives. It was heady stuff for young boys, and, as no TV was allowed, adventure books were endlessly passed around the dormitories. There was also a wonderful quiet, wood-panelled library with old encyclopaedias, where I used to love looking up things I had read about — places, weapons, intelligence services, all of it. For me the two went hand in hand: adventure and history. So, more than anything, The Sword of Moses was inspired by my lifelong love of adventures based on odd, but true, historical facts.

  I was fascinated by the histories of biblical objects of great power. Why do you think these legends and theories have such a hold over us as readers?

People usually sacralize objects that have been in contact with what they revere. This is not only true of religious people and relics. For instance, I was wandering around Charles Darwin’s house-museum the other day, and I was struck by how excited people got at being close to his possessions. (I can only imagine what the atmosphere must be like at Gracelands!) The biblical objects in the book — the Ark of the Covenant, the Menorah, and the Spear of Destiny — are some of the most hyper-sacred objects in Jewish and Christian history. In the case of the Ark and the Spear, billions of people believe they have actually touched the divine, which puts them into a supernatural league all of their own. They’re magical objects, really, and I think our collective fascination with them is that, on some level, most of us want magic to be real.

Page from the Morgan Bible, 13th century: David brings the Ark to Jerusalem

I found the Middle East sections of The Sword of Moses very evocative. Did you decide from the very beginning to set part of your novel there?

In the last decade and a half I have visited the Middle East a lot, and I’ve just moved back to London after living over there for the last few years. In that time I’ve watched how the Middle East has attracted increasing global media coverage because of the terrible wars that have been blighting it. But at the same time, it’s becoming somewhere an increasing number of foreigners live and work, and it’s now on people’s radar in a way it never was in previous decades. So I felt I could legitimately and realistically place Ava into a job in the Middle East, and it’s perfect for her — exactly the sort of place an adventurous kick-ass biblical archaeologist would wind up today.

Why were the Nazis—and those who hold similar beliefs since World War Two—so obsessed with the occult?

Well, not all Nazis were obsessed with the occult. Hitler was infatuated with certain objects, like the Spear of Destiny. But it was his deputy, Heinrich Himmler, who was the real occult fanatic. As he personally ran the SS as a state within a state, he was free to use the SS as a testing ground for his fantasies. Hence the SS insignia and mythology were infused with his obsessive occultism, as was the Ahnenerbe occult research institute he founded at the secret and mysterious Wewelsberg castle – which will be familiar to anyone who reads The Sword of Moses. Why Himmler’s obsession with the occult was so strong is partly the age he lived in, and partly his own character. Crackpot, and often very dark, esoteric, religious ideas about race circulated wildly in Europe between the wars, and one particular strand, known as ariosophy, came to obsess groups like the Thule Gesellschaft and people like Himmler. Once the war was over, the legacy remained, and has spawned a fascination with trying to understand what it all meant to the Nazis.

The Sword of Moses is your first novel, and I found the suspense quite intense. How easy was it for you to plot this novel?

I loved every minute of writing the book, of getting into the characters’ world and seeing the action unfolding. But I think a lot of the fun came because I knew exactly where each scene was going before I started it. When I began the book, I forced myself to plot it out in the minutest detail before I even began the first word of chapter one. Devising the plot felt like simultaneously playing several games of chess (a game I am hopeless at). But it was an amazing thrill when the plot started to come together, and it set me up to just relax and really enjoy the actual writing free from plot worries.

Tell us about your second novel, please!

I cannot say too much, but I am really loving working on it. Ava is back for her next adventure, and she finds herself up against some extremely dangerous people. A lot of action takes place across Europe and the Middle East, and Ava again has to draw on her deep knowledge of biblical mysteries as well as all the mental and physical skills she learned in MI6. It’s going to be just as adrenalin-charged as The Sword of Moses, and I really hope people are going to enjoy it as much!

To learn more about Dominic Selwood, go to his website.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical novels set in 16th century England, the protagonist a Dominican novice. The Crown and The Chalice are on sale in North America, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Learning What People Think of My Book on Amazon

By Nancy Bilyeau

It can be tricky writing novels for a mass readership.

Many of us try our best to produce work on a high level. Through multiple drafts we labor on character development,dialogue and setting description, all set to a plot that aims to compel and enthrall. Any historical novel, mystery or no, requires extensive research. And for a significant number of writers, there is also a theme in the work, a message, perhaps even characters, that carry personal meaning.

Yet if you are writing a book for a commercial purpose, you have to send it out there and know that there is no possible way it will be universally adored. Writers are sensitive creatures who must grow the thickest skin possible once the book is for sale.

Our reaction to reviews on amazon and goodreads is the litmus test.

While there are a few readers reviews that made me wince or grumble, I am honestly grateful for the experience of learning what people think. Taking some slaps on amazon is preferable to the alternative—refusing to read any reviews and growing ossified, determined not to listen to any criticism.

And so as my first novel, The Crown, receives its 231st review on amazon, I want to say thank you to the readers who've taken the time to do this--think of a response, write it, and upload it. My page here.

The latest review is one of my best since the book was published by Touchstone (S&S) in January 2012, and I'm grateful!

5.0 out of 5 stars The Crown, August 1, 2014
This review is from: The Crown: A Novel (Paperback)
 The Crown by author Nancy Bilyeau literally took my breath away as a piece of literary brilliance.  I am not huge on historical fiction books that also fit into the genre of thrillers and or mysteries; I usually prefer historical fiction novels that are more centered around the person and their life,  the period in which they lived,  with a little romance popped in.  With this book my forgone conclusion about what I prefer went out the window.

The novel takes the reader into the world and times of King Henry the eighth and some of the events that lead to a young novice named Joanna and her struggle to fight for the preservation of her way of life as a young postulate nun living under the rules of enclosure; Joanna must do this under blackmail from a Bishop who uses her Father as leeway holding him hostage until Joanna finds an artifact that the bishop believes will change the course of actions that are ripping what he considers to be England's true faith into pieces.

Every detail and conversation  between characters was written beautifully and made me feel as if I was there with this young nun;  The scenery was described beautifully and the characters development through out the book made me relate with the characters and literally made this book an addiction as I got deeper into each chapter.   I'd recommend this book highly to anyone who likes historical fiction; Especially Tudor Era genres. 

To people like "butterflywriter," I want to say--keep reading! Not just my novels, but as many as you have time for, and keep sharing...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Strange Gods": A Mystery in East Africa

Annamaria Alfieri is the author of 'Strange Gods,' a new novel set in early 20th century British East Africa. This is where 'Out of Africa' and 'White Mischief' later unfolded, a place of great fascination and allure. We asked Annamaria to share some of the history she learned while researching her mystery in this guest post:

The British Are Coming!

So shouted Paul Revere.

But this is not about those redcoats.

In the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the Brits took hegemony over East Africa.  How and why they came to do that is the geopolitical background for my series of historical mysteries that begins with Strange Gods, which launches on June 24th.

The story begins not in the territory that is now Kenya, but off shore, so to speak.  Wanting a more efficient way to move wealth from India to England, Great Britain dug the Suez Canal. Then, to make sure the canal remained open and in their hands, they needed to take hegemony over Egypt. They concluded that to control Egypt, they needed to control the Nile. To control the river, they wanted to take control of its source. As the engineers began to plan and dig the canal, the legendary and somewhat loony explorers Dr. David Livingstone, Richard Francis Burton, John Speke, and Samuel Baker went out and eventually found Lake Victoria. But controlling the lake was not so easy. To do so, the Brits needed to keep administrators and troops there, men who needed supplies and the ability to communicate with the outside world. Today, in a Mercedes or a lorry one can drive the 525 miles between the lake and Mombasa on the coast in a day. But a hundred and twenty years ago, they had to go on foot and it took months. 

Britain had another great goal in the 19th Century, stamping out slavery.  The area between the coast and Lake Victoria was notorious for slave caravans—know as the “Trail of Tears"-- the route where slaves were dragged from the interior to the coast and then shipped to work in the households of Asia Minor and on the sugarcane plantations of what is now Iraq. 

By the 1880’s, the Brits had spent a great deal of blood and treasure trying to stamp out slavery worldwide.  As part of that effort, they succeeded in convincing the Sultan of Zanzibar—who ruled the coast—to outlaw human trafficking.

 But the prohibition, like all prohibitions, brought in the criminal class.  Contraband always costs more and as profits soar, the cutthroats always move in and sharpen their blades.  The British navy managed to stamp out much of the slave trading in the Indian Ocean ports, but that only went so far.  The practice had to be halted at the source, where the slaves were taken, in the hinterlands.

The weapons that Britain thought to use were a European presence where slaves were captured, the Christian religion, and legitimate ways to get rich in the territory—through trade.   In the words of Dr. David Livingstone, what Britain needed to check the cursed traffic in human flesh was “an open path for commerce and Christianity.”

The dangers and difficulties of transportation from the coast was a major obstacle.  The route from Mombasa to Kisumu was an oxcart trail.  To traverse from the coast took about three months with most of the party walking, carrying water and food.  Ordinarily around three hundred at a time made the trip, most of them tribal porters. 

 Many people died.
So the British decided to build a railroad.
But not everyone agreed.

Calling the railroad a “gigantic folly,” Liberals in Parliament were against the project, saying that Britain had no right to drive what African’s called the “Iron Snake” through Maasai territory.  The magazine Punch called it “the Lunatic Line.”  Politicians and newspaper editors called it a waste of the taxpayer’s money.  Shaky wooden trestles over enormous chasms, hostile tribes, workers dying of until-then unknown diseases—much of what transpired seemed to support those against the idea.

But from the outset, the railroad had its adherents.   Conservatives saw it as an important salvo in the “Scramble for Africa,” that Nineteenth Century madness of the European powers to take over whatever chunks of the African continent they could lay their hegemony on.   As the argument went, if the Brits didn’t take it, their rivals—largely that meant Germany—would.
Construction began in 1896.  It cost Great Britain’s taxpayers 55 million pounds sterling or $33 Billion in today’s money.

32,000 Indians were shipped in from the Raj to build it.  6,724 of them stayed after the work was done and made a life there—many of their descendants remain today. 2,498 perished during its construction, largely of diseases, but also by man-eating lions.

Once the railway was completed, goods and people could make the trip in less than two days.  And they put in telegraph lines along the tracks, making communication all but instantaneous.  Hooray for modern technology.

But that was not the end of their trials.

Having built the railroad, they needed to maintain it.  And they had some special problems to deal with in that regard.

For reasons no one could fathom, rhinos would undermine the tracks, elephants would knock over the telegraph poles, and purloined telegraph wire became the raw material for many a tribesman’s favorite jewelry.  The bill for keeping the trains going was causing great consternation on the home front.  The taxpayers were sick of the expense.  What the railroad needed was paying customers.

Though at the equator, the area around a remote station stop called Nairobi, about halfway along the line, was a mile above sea level and had a climate the King’s administrators called “healthful.”  What a perfect area for farms.  Europeans might be enticed to move in and grow coffee and sisal, raise cattle, cut and ship rare woods, and so on and so on.  Then, they and their produce would pay to ride the rails.  What a swell idea.  And so they did.
Social change in northern Europe coincided with all this.  

Industrialization meant that aristocrats in those countries could no longer remain rich and privileged just by owning land.  But with cheap labor and unexploited resources in Africa, they could have all the servants and entitlements of their former life style.
And in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, there developed an ideal of manhood the proof of which lay in striking off into uncharted territory and conquering it.  Perhaps this happened because Europe had become too manicured and tame for the available testosterone.  That would be my guess.

After the railway was built, shooting safaris became the rage.  An early visitor to the Protectorate was Teddy Roosevelt.

The railway was a huge logistical success and became strategically and economically vital for both Uganda and Kenya.  It helped suppress slavery, and it did away with a lot of suffering by eliminating the need for humans to carry burdens through such hostile territory.  It also allowed heavy equipment to be transported inland, giving rise the economic development.  Coffee and tea grown in the East African highlands could be moved to the coast and exported.   For good or evil,  the railroad cemented the British hold on what soon became the colony of Kenya.

Let me add a personal note: I read Out of Africa as an adolescent who had never traveled further from my New Jersey home than the coast of Maine.  That book gave me a nostalgic longing for a place I experience only in my dreams and had no prospects of ever visiting.  I have been there now, twice, and each encounter made me more infatuated.  Every description of its majesty, every photo I see—even the sepia ones in the books of the New York Public Library’s collection, increases the strength of my attachment.  I imagine that many of the Europeans who went to British East Africa felt much the same.

I have taken that infatuation and longing and poured it into Strange Gods.  I hope you will read my story and travel with me to there and then.

Annamaria Alfieri

“Alfieri aims for the audience who loved Out of Africa, with heartbreaking romance married to a complex mystery.” –Kirkus

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Regency Novel Like No Other: “Of Honest Fame,” by M.M. Bennetts

By Nancy Bilyeau

How do you solve a problem like Napoleon?

For many modern novelists and many more readers, perhaps, the French emperor is not a problem requiring a solution. Which is, among other things, the point.

Of Honest Fame, by M.M. Bennetts

           Strictly speaking, the Regency Period lasted from 1811 to 1820, the timespan when the mental breakdown of King George III called for the greater involvement of his oldest son, George, the Prince of Wales, variably described as a spendthrift, drunkard, lecher and patron of the arts. Some scholars liberally extend both boundaries so that the Regency began in 1795 and ended in 1837, the year that Queen Victoria succeeded her dissolute uncles George IV and William IV to the throne. In which case, it was a period of truly astonishing literary output: Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his second wife, Mary Shelley, William Blake, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and John Keats.

             Overlapping the time that some of these novels and poems were proudly published, England was at war, and not just any war. From 1803 to 1815, England allied with Prussia, Russia, and Austria to fight the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican officer turned general turned emperor. Roughly 5 million people died during the Napoleonic Wars, an estimate that includes civilians. 

               This was a war of "extreme violence," of atrocities committed against the civilian population. Philip G. Dwyer writes, "The sacking of towns, during which soldiers committed murder and rape in what is often called an 'uncontrolled frenzy,' was part and parcel of 18th century warfare." Yet historians agree that the French armies, greatly hardened in the Revolution, took the frenzy to its most pitiless level.

           England was not invaded during these wars, but families were robbed of their young men fighting Napoleon, and the population feared and hated the French emperor and was, to varying degrees, aware of the atrocities committed in Europe, particularly in Spain. England was also riven by poverty, with as much as one-third living close to starvation. Food riots raged. In London, alongside the luxury-driven, gambling-addicted aristocracy, existed squalor and crime.

             This is the time and this is the place of M.M. Bennetts' remarkable novel, Of Honest Fame, a companion book to May 1812. Although the story swings wide, to France, Prussia and Scotland, the focus is on England in that same tense, pivotal year of 1812. According to rumor, Napoleon is turning toward Russia. It's only the British Foreign Office's skilled spy network that can learn the truth of France's plans, yet a sadistic French assassin is picking off the spies on their home soil. In the struggle to outwit the assassin—and discover who in London has betrayed them—a group of men are tested as never before. The layers of intrigue reveal themselves slowly, worthy of a John le Carré plot, but it's in the rich details of the characters' daily lives that the novel soars. They are soldiers, statesmen and spies, driven by their hatred of the enemy.

            No one can blame Jane Austen for not depicting the harshness of war. That was never her brief. Yet to the careful reader, the realities of the Napoleonic Wars do play a key role in Austen fiction. Men who lack the wealth and position of a Mr. Darcy or a Mr. Knightly seek a career in military service, some willingly, others less so. In Pride and Prejudice, the local officers—members of a militia of sorts—are a fatal attraction for the younger Bennett daughters. The deceptive Mr. Wickham is thus introduced: “But the attention of every young lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with an officer on the other side of the way." In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is desperate for a ship after Anne Elliot rejects him due to his lack of social status.

            Napoleon was defeated, exiled, disgraced. England moved forward, to carve its Empire. Yet Bonaparte is an object of eternal fascination in fiction. He appears in two of the  most memorable novels of the modern age. Tolstoy triumphs in his ability to depict a Russian society under strain and then under siege in War and Peace. And in a very different sort of book, it is a letter from an exiled Napoleon that sets the entire plot of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo into motion.

A painting of Napoleon's retreat from Russia

          In the novels written in the late 20th and 21st centuries the presence of Napoleon takes interesting shape. Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwell have each produced masterful novels of men fighting the French. But the wars take a background role in most other Regency-era books, that surge of historical fiction and romances that is to some degree inspired by Austen. What complicates it further is that Bonaparte himself stars in a number of historical novels, focusing on his marriages to the calculating Créole Josephine and the stolid Austrian princess Marie-Louise. Even his Bonaparte siblings get a piece of the action.

            Of Honest Fame refuses to flinch from the ugliness of war and its devaluing of human life, the obliterating horror of torture and rape. There are no battles in the book; it is not a "war novel." But each character in the book is molded—if not scarred—by England's grueling conflict with France while retaining his or her innate humanity and need for companionship and love. M.M. Bennetts' book could never be described as romance fiction. And yet it contains a relationship between two outsiders—a rejected and terrified wife and a debauched yet determined spy—that is tremendously moving and quite erotic.

            Still, the novel's power is most keenly felt in its descriptive passages. In two sections in particular, a man finds himself in a new place, and the details of what he sees and hears and feels drive home the needs of each character.

            Boy, the youngest and most psychologically damaged of the English spies, tracks Napoleon's army into Prussia with the utmost care:

Running, zigzagging across the abandoned countryside, past the smoke-blackened houses and empty, eerie Gothic churches which sat deserted and silent, discarded like the playthings of some long-dead giant. Dodging the few travelers and fewer carriages by diving into ditches or behind the low walls and hedges to wait, still and alert, for minutes or longer. To wait until the roads were quiet once more. And only then to emerge, and wary, to begin again.

           Another of the spies, Captain George Shuster, seen as the "cream of the officers' mess" but wearier and lonelier than even he may realize, arrives in Scotland:

He caught sight of the chestnut crest and black mask of a wax-wing. 'Struth, it had been an age since he last walked through a wood like this. Walked, unafraid and unharried, through strands of yew and holly and oak with sunlight dappling the ground and the tree trunks, and underfoot a carpet of wild thyme, garlic and most decaying leaves, their scents crushed together by his boot. Without having to run--crouched over and silent in his breathlessness--wondering when some Frenchie's bullet was going to find its way into the gut or his head. Without fear of stumbling across the corpse of a soldier or a child, half-eaten and decayed. Without listening for the sounds of pursuit or the murmuring of vagabonds or the unnatural silence of waiting bandits. For here there was nought but the incessant callings of the birds--wood pigeons and woodpeckers, robins and thrushes--and the rustling, grunting enthusiasm of Comfit at his heel.

          In moments such as these, Of Honest Fame finds a poetry in the human struggle that no conqueror could ever silence.


To learn more about Of Honest Fame and M.M. Bennetts, go here.




Monday, May 26, 2014

The RT Awards in New Orleans: In Praise of Alligator Po'Boys, Joan of Arc, Voodoo Psychics--and Book Editors!

By Nancy Bilyeau

One of the axioms of screenwriting is "Come in late, get out early." Following that advice--meaning that writers should focus on the meat of the action and not waste precious time in either setting up or winding down a scene--produces lean, lively scripts. But it's not the best way to approach the RT Booklovers Convention 2014 in New Orleans. I arrived late, exhausted, and I left early, panic-stricken. Still, a week later, I am turning over the experience in my mind, which means it left a mark. A good one.

The Tudors Rule! Laura Andersen (The Boleyn King) and I celebrate
Although "RT" stands for Romantic Times and the majority of the 2,000-plus attendees of the annual convention are writers, readers and publishers of romance fiction, screenwriting is relevant to this blog post. One of the two reasons I was determined to fly to New Orleans was to moderate a panel on Friday morning called "Stealing Hollywood's Magic: How Screenwriting Techniques Energize Your Writing."

The second reason was to collect my first fiction award. To my astonishment and delight, The Chalice, set in 16th century England, won the Best Historical Mystery of 2013 prize. It was one of the highlights of my writing career to grip this award.

But before we get to the pleasure, we have to talk about the pain.

My original plan was to attend the entire convention, which ran from Tuesday, May 13th, to Sunday, May 18th. But I am the executive editor of DuJour magazine, and when the production schedule for the summer issue shifted, my travel plans had to shift too. I booked a flight and hotel to arrive on New Orleans on Thursday. I knew I was cutting it close. But I didn't have a choice.

On Thursday, when I walked my daughter to school, it was cloudy but seemed a typical spring day. A check of the weather forecast revealed a long line of storms stood between the East Coast and Louisiana. Proving the power of denial in the human mind, I decided that some rain couldn't possibly affect my plans.


I was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans, a city I'd never visited before, at 6:30 pm Thursday. I actually touched ground, alone and confused and deeply tired, at 1:30 a.m. Friday.

I like to travel, while my husband hates it. The series of flight cancellations and delays I endured on Thursday--some, but not all, caused by weather--confirmed all of his dread of flying and more. The man loves me so he did not gloat but merely commented via email that I could have reached Tokyo in the same stretch of time it took various airlines to deposit me in southern Louisiana.

I wasn't reserved in the Marriott, the convention hotel, because it was booked up by the time I made my plans. Instead, I had a room at the W Hotel in the French Quarter. When my cab dropped me in front of the Chartres Street hotel after an endless ride from the airport--we had to reroute from the highway because of construction, which nurtured a growing suspicion that I was hexed--a calm and welcoming hotel employee supplied me with a room card.

Nothing could look as good to me as my room that night:

I'm told that this is a "signature bed" of the W Hotels
The following morning, I woke up after four hours' sleep, terribly excited. I could tell my fortunes were turning around when I enjoyed a sensational breakfast on the terrace: eggs, sausage, potatoes Lyonnaise, orange juice and biscuit. The coffee...ah, the coffee. Someone said the secret to New Orleans coffee is the chicory? Drinking a pot of it made me think if I was hexed, it had officially lifted.

Breakfast at the W: I could get used to this!
Afterward I rushed to the Marriott Hotel, the official convention destination, to moderate my panel. I've served on a half-dozen panels, from the New York Public Library and Thrillerfest to Historical Novel Society and Bouchercon. I am proud to report that this RT panel gave some very strong value to the writers in the audience. At conferences, some authors tend to promote their books, crack jokes, and offer only vague advice to their audiences, unfortunately. Alexandra Sokoloff (Blood Moon), Patricia Burroughs (This Crumbling Pageant) and Toni McGee Causey (the Bobbie Faye series), successful screenwriters and novelists, shared their techniques in plotting with notecards, structuring a suspenseful plot and visual scene building. In fact, you can download Alexandra's incredibly helpful Story Element Checklist from the blog she updated same day as our panel. These women went the extra mile.

It wasn't until the lunch break that I explored New Orleans a bit. Because I have a French last name, people have asked me over the years if I'm from New Orleans, and I always feel as if I'm disappointing them when I say no. (My French Huguenot ancestor, Pierre Billiou, settled in 1665 in what was then called New Amsterdam, later New York City.)

Now, at last, I'd made it to the Big Easy. Because I adore exploring historic buildings (especially churches) and experimenting with food, falling in love with the French Quarter was inevitable.

Alligator time!
At lunch with Pooks (Patricia Burroughs), I couldn't resist ordering the alligator po'boy sandwich. (Wouldn't Andrew Zimmern be proud?) In answer to the question "Does it taste like chicken?" the answer is...no. It tastes like alligator--tangier than chicken and a bit tougher.

Chartres Street, French Quarter

The buildings along Chartres Street exuded a 19th century charm--in a few cases, 18th century. The St. Louis Cathedral off Jackson Square is among the oldest cathedrals in North America: The first church on the site was built in 1718. I liked the statue of an armored Joan of Arc, donated in 1920.

"The Maid of Orleans" statues can be found all over N.O.
Outside the cathedral, interestingly, I faced a long row of psychic booths, set up for tourist business. I've always been fascinated by voodoo (anyone who reads my books knows I'm intrigued by not only churches but prophecy and the magical world). So it was simply not possible to pass by the most colorful booth of all, the one belonging to Fatima, a.k.a. The Bone Lady. She told me she was fifth-generation, trained since childhood in tarot and palm reading. I learned I have a long life line and may come into some money in the next 18 months (good!) but a friend secretly wishes me ill (bad!).  I began to doubt Miss Fatima's psychic skills when she said I'm single. Um, no, I've been married 21 years. Things went downhill from there. She ferreted out that I'm worried about a family member and said she could perform a "protective" voodoo cleansing in a private ceremony for an undisclosed amount of money. I guess I wasn't surprised that someone sitting in a booth in the middle of a tourist area would try this sort of manipulation. But it was still a letdown.

Overall, I feel about Miss Fatima as I do about the alligator po'boy: glad I sampled, but I wouldn't repeat the experience.

The RT folks said I could bring a cheering section of one or two to the awards ceremony, and I asked my friend, fellow historical novelist Judith Starkston, who's written Hand of Fire, a fantastic book about Briseis, the lover of Achilles, to sit with me. The only award winner I knew personally was Laura Andersen, who won Best Historical Novel for the enthralling The Boleyn King.

As Judith and I listened to the award recipients' brief speeches (one minute max, we'd been instructed), it struck me how many of them gave fervent thanks to their editors. And not because the said editor was sitting in the audience--I don't think that was often the case. The relationship between writer and editor is such an important one, and these women wanted to honor it.
My moment of truth at the RT Awards ceremony
When my time came to take the stage--I wore stylish flats so I wouldn't pull a Jennifer Lawrence--I told a joke revolving around learning that I'd won the award while waiting for the subway. It came off well. I hope. But then I shifted from silly to sincere, and thanked the editors of The Chalice. Because the book was published simultaneously in North America and the United Kingdom, I had two talented editors on it: Heather Lazare, with Touchstone, and Eleanor Dryden, with Orion. Back in 2012, I told them, "Give me everything you've got--I want this book to be as good as I can make it." And they did. :)

Thanks to Heather and Eleanor--an award!
Because the rates at the W Hotel skyrocket Saturday night, I booked my return flight Saturday afternoon. That meant I had to unfortunately miss the last day and a half of the convention. But also when I selected a 3 pm flight I didn't take into full account the 11 a.m to 2 pm Book Fair, an author signing event that dwarfs any other such signing I'd ever seen.

When it was time for me to dart out early, I was faced with a half-hour-long checkout line. And, of course, I hadn't allowed enough travel time to the airport in the first place. I missed a flight at Phoenix Airport two years ago. It was a horrible experience, and I did not want miss this one. I'd had a memorable time in New Orleans but I wanted to get home, to be with my husband and kids.

Still, I couldn't bypass the convention checkout line because I had a book to buy. A half-hour earlier I'd introduced myself to an author I've long admired, Barry Eisler. I read The Detachment and was blown away by the pacing, plot twists and character depth. Barry couldn't have been nicer, and I snatched up Graveyard of Memories, his new thriller that goes deeper into the history of the series' protagonist, the enigmatic John Rain. Barry signed it for me--I had to buy this book!

I paid for Graveyard of Memories, ran to the hotel, flagged down a cab (New Yorkers can always find a cab), and, stomach churning, checked the time on my watch every 30 seconds along the way. When we made it the airport with less than an hour left until takeoff, I was fighting back tears. I'd missed that flight from Phoenix to NYC when I cut it this close. How could I do it again?

But as I scrambled to the United Airlines counter, my suitcase flying behind me, a uniformed woman stepped forward and said, "You look upset. What flight are you on?" She didn't flinch when I told her it was the plane to JFK in 45 minutes. She calmly checked me in and directed me to the gate, telling me I'd be fine.

"It was nice to see you again," she said in an accent of the Deep South.

"No, this is my first time in New Orleans," I said.

She smiled. "We've met before," she said, without a trace of doubt.

It wasn't until I was safely on my flight, Barry Eisler's novel in my lap, that I realized she could have been the special connection I'd been hoping for on this trip.

New Orleans, I will be back.

A riverboat on the Mississippi, something I've ALWAYS wanted to see