Writing in a comfortable studio surrounded by books, the scenes playing in the mind of Mark Ellis are not nearly as peaceful: German dive bombers machine gunning troops on the run, war-torn London, a woman’s bloody body in a hotel room.
The British author’s latest effort is MERLIN AT WAR, in which much of the plot centers around a mysterious letter left behind by an officer killed by those dive bombers. Interestingly enough, the main character is not a soldier, but Chief Inspector Frank Merlin. While war rages, there is no shortage of home front crimes for Merlin to solve.
“People carried on,” Ellis said. “Life carried on.”
And so did crime.
England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.
Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception…
Award-winning author Anna Lee Huber recently discussed her latest thriller, THIS SIDE OF MURDER, with The Big Thrill:
As a new century approaches, Edinburgh is a city divided. The wealthy residents of New Town live in comfort, while Old Town’s cobblestone streets are clotted with criminals, prostitution, and poverty.
Detective Inspector Ian Hamilton is no stranger to Edinburgh’s darkest crimes. Scarred by the mysterious fire that killed his parents, he faces his toughest case yet when a young man is found strangled in Holyrood Park.
With little evidence aside from a strange playing card found on the body, Hamilton engages the help of his aunt, a gifted photographer, and George Pearson, a librarian with a shared interest in the criminal mind. But the body count is rising. As newspapers spin tales of the “Holyrood Strangler,” panic sets in across the city. And with each victim, the murderer is getting closer to Hamilton, the one man who dares to stop him.
The Big Thrill had an opportunity to discuss EDINBURGH TWILIGHT with author Carole Lawrence:
By David Healey
Veteran author Peter Tonkin has written a number of books, thanks in part to his hard-driving writing schedule. (If you want some motivation as an author, follow Peter on Facebook and try to keep up with the pages written that he posts daily.) His most recent novel is AFTER THE IDES: CAESER’S SPIES THRILLER BOOK 2, set in ancient Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination.
This busy writer, retired teacher, and world traveller took some time out recently to answer some questions about Romans, research, and writing in general.
Thrillers such as yours require a tremendous amount of research to make them plausible. What fact did you discover in your research that stood out for you?
It’s difficult to pin down just one. I love the fact that Artemidorus really gave Caesar a list of his murderers on the way into the fatal Senate meeting. That Antistius the physician carried out on Caesar’s body the first recorded post mortem in history. And that Antony’s wife Fulvia drove pins (and a stylus?) through Cicero’s tongue when his head was spiked in the Forum 22 months later – because of the terrible damage his speeches had done to her husband, her family and their fortunes in the interim.
As a writer, how do you get the voice right for characters who lived thousands of years ago?
“Right” is not really the correct term. I try and make them credible and convincing. As Lindsey Davis said when discussing her brilliant Falco novels, it is the suspension of disbelief that’s important. I love to get my facts right, including events, characters and relationships, so Antony has a particular ‘voice’ and Octavian another–extensions of their characterisation in my stories. Reflections of their characters in history as presented by the most up-to-date research I can find.
When an earthquake devastates San Francisco in an alternate 1906, the influx of geomantic energy nearly consumes Ingrid Carmichael. Bruised but alive, the young geomancer flees the city with her friends, Cy, Lee, and Fenris. She is desperate to escape Ambassador Blum, the cunning and dangerous bureaucrat who wants to use Ingrid’s formidable powers to help the Unified Pacific—the confederation of the United States and Japan—achieve world domination. To stop them, Ingrid must learn more about the god-like magic she inherited from her estranged father—the man who set off the quake that obliterated San Francisco.
When Lee and Fenris are kidnapped in Portland, Ingrid and Cy are forced to ally themselves with another ambassador from the Unified Pacific: the powerful and mysterious Theodore Roosevelt. But even TR’s influence may not be enough to save them when they reach Seattle, where the magnificent peak of Mount Rainier looms. Discovering more about herself and her abilities, Ingrid is all too aware that she may prove to be the fuse to light the long-dormant volcano . . . and a war that will sweep the world.
Author Beth Cato spent some time with The Big Thrill discussing her latest novel, CALL OF FIRE:
When a crooked card game leads to murder, young Abraham Lincoln, and his real-life best friend Joshua Speed, are forced to solve the crime. They soon discover, however, that far more than the identity of the criminal is at stake.
The murder takes place aboard a steamboat owned by Speed’s father, and Speed enlists Lincoln to defend the young artist accused of the crime. As the day of judgment hurtles toward them, Lincoln and Speed must fight to save not only the life of Lincoln’s client but also the merit of Speed’s good name.
PERISH FROM THE EARTH also involves a real-life murder that, while nearly forgotten today, was one of the most infamous crimes of the 19th century, provoking newspaper headlines from coast-to-coast and playing a key role in plunging the nation toward civil war. This murder upends Lincoln’s case and forces him to make a fateful choice—one on which the future of the nation may hang. If his client doesn’t first.
The Big Thrill caught up to PERISH FROM THE EARTH author, Jonathan F. Putnam, to discuss the second Lincoln & Speed Mystery:
Marine Corporal Sean Nichols is wounded in a devastating ambush that takes the lives of his three friends and leaves him an amputee. If not for the heroism of his sergeant, Deke Tilman, who pulled him out of the road, Sean would have surely died with his fire team. With the help of Deke, Sean now embarks on his next mission—recuperate from his serious injuries, and visit the families of his fallen comrades as he tries to make peace with such profound loss.
BATTLE SCARS is a thought-provoking drama with compelling characters that illustrates the resiliency and strength of the human spirit, the power of love and friendship, and the ability to overcome even our darkest moments. Gritty realism and original storytelling breathe life into BATTLE SCARS as it inspires us with a surprising tale of heroism and the great sacrifice made by our modern war fighters. A novella you can read in a few hours, but will think about for days.
Author of BATTLE SCARS, David M. Salkin, discussed his latest book with The Big Thrill:
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Unlike my usual thrillers, which are written simply to entertain my readers, BATTLE SCARS is written to tell the important story of the wounded warrior, and the experiences of today’s modern war fighter. A tale of patriotism, heroism and brotherhood, BATTLE SCARS will leave the reader thinking about the story long after they close the last page.
Lily Saint James grew up traveling the European continent, learning languages as she went. In 1938, her mother’s abrupt death brings her back home to Washington, D.C., and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lily comes to the attention of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Her knowledge of German, French, and Italian makes her the perfect OSS Agent, and her quick thinking places her as a nanny in the household of an important German Army Colonel, where she is able to gather intelligence for the Allies. After her marketplace contact goes missing, she makes a late-night trip to her secondary contact only to find him under interrogation by the SS. When he commits suicide, she flees into the frigid winter night carrying false identification papers that are now dangerous and a mini film cartridge with vital strategic information. In order to survive, Lily must make it out of Germany, into the hands of Allied-controlled France, through a path fraught with peril.
The Big Thrill caught up with author, Ellen Butler, to discuss her novel, THE BRASS COMPASS:
By E.M. Powell
For many writers, the excitement of being a published debut novelist is quickly followed by the enormous challenge of the second novel. Some really struggle with writing a second book or sequel in a series, particularly when that debut has been successful, which Radha Vatsal’s historical mystery, A Front Page Affair, most definitely was. Yet for Vatsal, writing her new Kitty Weeks novel, MURDER BETWEEN THE LINES, was easier then book one.
“Being a debut author is fun but also scary,” she says. “There’s a steep learning curve. Everything you’re doing, it’s for the first time. For me nerves were baked right in to the experience.’ When it came to writing the second book, those anxieties had lessened. “It was very freeing and I felt like it flowed easily compared to the first one.”
And flow it does. Vatsal’s young female journalist protagonist Kitty Weeks returns in this pacey, cleverly-plotted story set in New York in 1915-16. Kitty, who works for the New York Sentinel Ladies’ Page is tasked with writing a piece about Westfield Hall, a prestigious girls’ boarding school. Kitty expects to find an orderly establishment teaching the safe, standard fare for schoolgirls in 1915, such as French and dancing. But she’s surprised and intrigued to see the work of students like Elspeth Bright, the daughter of a scientist heavily involved in naval technology, who has inherited her father’s interest and talent for scientific inquiry.
A terrible tragedy strikes soon after their meeting when Elspeth is found frozen to death in Central Park. The doctors proclaim that the girl’s sleepwalking was the cause, but Kitty isn’t convinced. Determined to uncover the truth, the intrepid Kitty’s investigations involve her in a dangerous scenario—a murder that may involve Elspeth’s scientist father and a new invention by Thomas Edison. As with Kitty’s first outing, there are plenty of plot twists and turns to keep the reader guessing right to the conclusion.
The year is 1973, and the last of America’s soldiers are returning home from Vietnam, often shouted down and spat upon by protesters, while the first toxic cracks of mistrust have begun to appear at the highest levels of government. The American Indian Movement has entered into a bloody occupation of Wounded Knee, gas shortages have pushed the economy into deep recession, and violent civil unrest is captured in living color and broadcast nightly on the evening news. But rural Meriwether County, tucked away amid the sweeping river valleys and serrated mountain ridges of southern Oregon, has been left largely untouched by time. Until now. South California Purples is part contemporary western, and neo-noir, a novel of loyalty, passion and murder, crafted with lyrical prose and unforgettable dialogue that weaves together the sometimes poignant, often violent, strains of the 1970s, and the human cost of a nation in transition. This is the first of a new series.
Author of SOUTH CALIFORNIA PURPLES, Baron R. Birtcher, recently spent some time discussing his latest novel with The Big Thrill:
For these American POWs, the war is not over. Abandoned by their country, used as political pawns by Stalin, their last hope for getting home again is backwoods sniper Caje Cole and a team of combat veterans who undertake a daring rescue mission prompted by a U.S. Senator whose grandson is among the captives. After a lovely Russian-American spy helps plot an escape from a Gulag prison, they must face the ruthless Red Sniper, starving wolves, and the snowy Russian taiga in a race for freedom.
In a final encounter that tests Cole’s skills to the limit, he will discover that forces within the U.S. government want the very existence of these prisoners kept secret at any price.
David Healey sat down with The Big Thrill to discuss his latest novel, RED SNIPER:
1399. York is preparing for civil war, teeming with knights and their armed retainers summoned for the city’s defense. Henry of Lancaster is rumored to have landed on the northeast coast of England, not so far from York, intent on reclaiming his inheritance—an inheritance which his cousin, King Richard, has declared forfeit.
With the city unsettled and rife with rumors, Eleanor Clifford’s abrupt return to York upon the mysterious death of her husband in Strasbourg is met with suspicion in the city. Her daughter Kate is determined to keep her distance, but it will not be easy—Eleanor has settled next door with the intention of establishing a house of beguines, or poor sisters. When one of the beguines is set upon in the night by an intruder, Kate knows that for the sake of her own reputation and the safety of her young wards she must investigate.
Author Candace Robb spent some time discussing A TWISTED VENGEANCE with The Big Thrill:
By David Healey
The West Coast in the year 2017 may seem a long way from the English countryside of 1946, but in THE SECRET OF BRAMBLE HILL, California-based mystery author Sue Owens Wright has authored a classic English cozy right down to the tea, crumpets, and drafty manor house.
There are dark secrets best swept under his lordship’s rug, and perhaps a ghost lurking in the forgotten rooms of Bramble Hill.
There is also a dog, Gemma, who steals a scene or two. This makes sense, considering that Wright is best known for a slew (or is that a pack?) of mysteries featuring a basset hound.
Wright is a true dog lover and is active in pet welfare organizations in California. Her Beanie & Cruiser basset hound mysteries include Howling Bloody Murder, Sirius About Murder, Embarking On Murder and Braced For Murder. (The term “braced” has to do with a team of basset hounds working a trail together.) Her nonfiction books include several titles for dog owners (150 Activities for Bored Dogs) and she also writes for magazines for pet owners. She has been nominated 11 times for the Maxwell, awarded by the Dog Writers Association of America.
Armed with a healer’s skill and a witch’s art, Elisha hurries to warn the Holy Roman Emperor and discover how to stop the mancers’ plans. A one-eyed priest, a seductive traitor, a stern rabbi, a merchant of bones—how can he tell friend from foe when he no longer recognizes himself? Every blow Elisha strikes draws him toward the wrong side of the battle. When the enemy retaliates in blood, he fights to keep his humanity lest he be consumed by the spreading darkness and become. . .Elisha Mancer
The Big Thrill recently had the opportunity to discuss ELISHA MANCER with author E. C. Ambrose:
How does this book make a contribution to the genre?
ELISHA MANCER combines historical research with a fast-paced thriller approach—and an approach to magic that exploits the beliefs and fears of the Middle Ages.
Annabel Taylor, a beekeeper’s daughter, grows up wild and carefree on the moors of England in the late 1860s, following in the footstep of her mother, a beautiful witch. Annabel’s closest friend is Jevan Wenham, the son of the blacksmith, who lives his life on the verge of destruction. His devotion to Annabel is full of twists and turns as brutality melds with deepest desire. But when Jevan is forced to travel to London to receive an education, Annabel is devastated. Then Alex—the heir to the Saltonstall legacy and son of Cerberus Saltonstall, the wealthy landowner of the foreboding Gothelstone Manor house—comes into her life.
Alex is arrogant and self-assured, although he cannot stop thinking about the outspoken girl he encounters on the road to Gothelstone. Not only is he bewitched by Annabel’s beauty, he feels drawn to her by something he can’t explain. Alex and Annabel are worlds apart socially, but that doesn’t stop him from demanding her hand in marriage. When Annabel refuses, she is forced into an impossible situation, which leads Jevan to believe she has betrayed him, regardless of the fact that her decision saves him from the hangman’s noose.
As a devastating love triangle unfolds, disturbing revelations thrust Annabel into a startling reality, where nothing is as it seems. Now both her life and Jevan’s are in danger, and her fledging powers may not be enough to save them…
Author Jane Jordan recently took time to discuss her latest novel with The Big Thrill.
By E. M. Powell
Even those who don’t know a great deal of history can guess that they are in for a lively read when it’s a thriller set in London in the reign of the Henry VIII. In DEATH AT ST. VEDAST, the latest in Mary Lawrence’s Bianca Goddard series, they can expect that and more.
Bianca is an alchemist by profession. In her previous two outings, The Alchemist’s Daughter and Death of an Alchemist, she witnessed first-hand what keeps a man alive and what can kill him. This time, she has to use all her skill and knowledge to keep a friend away from the gallows, and time is running out. It’s a fast-paced mystery that has plenty of satisfying twists and turns. Throw in colorful characters and a real sense of the murkiness so characteristic of Tudor London and it’s easy to see why Lawrence has attracted loyal readers.
The idea for the series grew out of Lawrence’s long-standing love for Tudor history. “I was a science major in college,” she explains, “so I never got to take all of the literature and history courses that I wanted to. Top on my list was learning more about Shakespeare’s works. I started reading his plays and became smitten with his use of language and humor. I wanted to learn more about the time in which he lived.”
Like with every writer of historical thrillers, the commitment to research was huge. Fortunately for Lawrence, she loves that aspect. “I could have spent more than a year just researching.” And as always, she found fascinating nuggets that didn’t find their way into the novel. “I read an article on the use of wills as religious propaganda, specifically about William Tracy. Tracy was a wealthy country gentleman who espoused his Protestant views in his testament in 1531 and used them to avoid leaving money to the church. His testament was held up in probate and caused a firestorm of debate resulting in his body being exhumed from consecrated soil and being burned as a heretic. But his testament survived and was widely distributed in pamphlets. If you were caught in possession of one, it was grounds for heresy. They were a bit touchy about details back then.”
Robert Flynn abandoned a sterling military career when his best friend and fellow soldier, Wesley Pike, died under his command. More than a decade later, Flynn’s quiet life is disturbed by the troubles of a fledgling CIA and Alexander Grant, a flashy agent with a lot to prove.
As the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union heats up and the body count rises, the two men fight to find common ground. Grant knows Flynn believes in the cause, but all Flynn sees is the opportunity to fail someone like he failed Wes.
An attack by a Soviet agent spurs Flynn to action and a reluctant association with the agency, and tilts Flynn’s world on its axis with a shocking discovery: Wesley Pike may be alive and operating as a Soviet assassin.
Author J.T Rogers took time out of her busy schedule to discuss IN FROM THE COLD with The Big Thrill:
How does this book make a contribution to the genre?
Set in a world very much like our own, IN FROM THE COLD walks between the raindrops of real history. In conducting research for the novel, I was constantly surprised and delighted by the diversity of the men and women who served in the intelligence community. COLD therefore seeks to play with and deconstruct the James Bond model of spy, and offers up an alternative to his brand of stoic, ironical detachment. The characters in my novel feel—deeply so—and the personal stakes are as important to the plot as the global ones.
The Search for Transformation
What does mention of the year 1918 mean to you?
To Cat Winters, it means the Spanish Influenza, the devastation that was WW I, and the new social spaces that developed for women as a result.
These concerns, leavened with a healthy but skeptical interest in Spiritualism, color all her books to date, starting with In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a supernatural mystery for young adults that featured all of the above.
“I always wanted to write historical fiction. When I started my journey toward publication, I’d written one that I was shopping around. It was set in the 1890s and I was madly in love with it. I submitted it to agents, rewrote it, got rejected. Finally I signed with one agent who sent it out, but historical fiction was a tough sell at the time.”
Winters parted ways with her first agent and tried her hand at contemporary fiction, a suburban satire for adults about a woman married to a vampire. This book led her to Barbara Poelle, the agent she has now. “The plot was a commercial idea, but no one knew what to do with that book. It crossed several genres. It pitched like chicklit but I’d written it in this literary voice. A lot of editors gave me feedback, I rewrote following their notes, but none of them bought it and I ended up hating the book.”
But one of those editors said the only paranormal she was taking was historical paranormal. Winters pitched a book she has already started about WW I, the Spanish influenza, and spiritualism, a book for adolescents. That became In the Shadow of Blackbirds, the first of a series of similarly themed books for young adults (she’s just handed in the manuscript for her fourth, Odd and True).
After she’d written two of the young adult books, an editor from Harper Collins picked up In the Shadow of Blackbirds, read it on the plane, then contacted her agent and asked for an adult book. “That became The Uninvited – the book I was invited to write. And that’s how I started publishing adult fiction. It sounds like an overnight success story, but in reality, it took me two decades to break in.”
Winter’s adult books have their own flavor, different from young adult, which have more of a horror bent (Blackbirds was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award). “My YA books are more traditional horror, my adult books are more psychological horror.”
The Uninvited has now been followed by YESTERNIGHT. Both of her adult books have a few elements in common: “They really focus on people who don’t have the best past. They are trying to reconcile with their past and make new futures for themselves” at a time of great historical turbulence.
By Ron Parham
FESTIVAL OF FEAR is my third novel in the Paxton Brothers Saga, a series about an ordinary American family who find themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances. FESTIVAL OF FEAR is actually a prequel to the first two novels in the series, a story about the Paxton brothers as kids growing up in rural Iowa in the early sixties. It’s unusual in that the protagonist in the first two novels, Molly’s Moon and Copperhead Cove, is only three years old in FESTIVAL OF FEAR. Thus, the reader of the first two novels starring Ethan Paxton will get to witness what his childhood was like. Confused? Let me explain further.
Molly’s Moon, my first published novel released in 2014, takes place during 9/11, in 2001. It follows Ethan Paxton as a businessman in his early forties that was stuck in Europe when the World Trade Center buildings came down. With America’s airports closed for days, he had to find a way to get into Mexico where his teenage daughter had been kidnapped by sex traffickers.It’s a fast-paced thriller with multiple points-of-view, including that of the kidnapper and the kidnapped daughter. My second novel, published in 2015, was Copperhead Cove, which takes place in 2003, two years after Molly’s Moon. Ethan Paxton is now in his mid-forties, helping his older brother, Bo, through a nightmare involving the Chicago mob, dead college basketball coaches, deadly snakes and all sorts of redneck characters.
Got it yet? Here’s where it gets a little weird, and hopefully interesting. My third novel, FESTIVAL OF FEAR, takes place in 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, when the fear and anxiety of the Cold War has the entire country on edge. Ethan Paxton, only three years old, is the youngest child of Clint and Eloise Paxton, who live in a small town in southwest Iowa. Ethan has two older brothers. Bo, who we met in Copperhead Cove, is seven, and oldest brother Nick, a new character to the series, is fifteen, a sophomore in high school and a football star. He is in love with a pretty blonde cheerleader who, unfortunately, is targeted as the next victim of a serial killer of young teenage girls that has been terrorizing the area. Nick is the protagonist, with his football coach, John Walters, playing a prominent role. Little Ethan and Bo are in the background, doing what small children do, even during a crisis. But their personalities are showcased so that the reader of the first two novels can relate to them. Like I said before, it’s a prequel to the first two novels.
Most of Jessica Estevao’s family, including her parents, were born and raised in Maine. Estevao has spent most of her life in New Hampshire, but a few years ago purchased a summer property in Old Orchard, Maine. And now her new historical paranormal mystery series, WHISPERS BEYOND THE VEIL, is set there. “There’s so much history here. It really lends itself to storytelling.”
The mystery, Estevao’s fifth, starts out in Canada in 1898. Ruby Proulx travels the medicine-show circuit, making the snake-oil that her father hawks as a cure-all. When one of her father’s miracle cures goes horribly wrong Ruby has to go on the run. “I wanted Ruby to feel quite desperate to have an anchored home,” she says. “Having her grow up in a medicine show seemed ideal for that.”
Her medicine show background also gives Ruby the skills of a con artist. She is clairaudient, that is, she receives psychic information through her hearing. Estevao had a couple of remarkable experiences of her own that made her interested in where intuition and warnings come from, which is what led her to give Ruby this particular gift.
“When I was a teenager, a new driver, I’d taken my younger sister to a middle school dance. My family home had double driveways, shaped like a lower-case ‘h.’ No one ever took the shorter branch of the driveway. But on my way home from this dance, I heard this voice in my ear telling me to take the second driveway. At first I thought it was weird and dismissed it. But when I got closer to the first driveway, I heard the voice again, louder this time, so I pulled into the first driveway.”
As soon as she did, there was an explosion on the street just ahead of her. A car slammed into a tree right in front of the entrance to the second driveway. Had Estevao followed her customary route, she and her little sister would have been in a serious accident. “There is stuff you can tap into,” says Estevao. “I don’t know how or why or where it comes from, but I appreciate it.”
By George Ebey
Author Ann Parker is back with WHAT GOLD BUYS, the latest in her Silver Rush mystery series.
The time is autumn of 1880. The place is the Rocky Mountains. The opening event, among frost and snow, is the return of Silver Queen Saloon owner Inez Stannert to Leadville, Colorado.
In this silver rush boomtown, those who are hungry for material riches seek their fortunes in precious metals, while others, hungry for spiritual relief, seek to pierce the veil between life and death with the help of fortunetellers, mediums, and occultists. When soothsayer Drina Gizzi is found murdered, strangled with a set of silver and gold corset laces, no one seems to care except the three who find her body—Inez, her lover Reverend Sands, and Drina’s young daughter, Antonia.
The mystery surrounding Drina’s death deepens when her body vanishes without a trace. As Inez and Antonia band together to seek out Drina’s killer, they unearth disturbing evidence of underground resurrectionists, long-held grievances, and unmitigated greed for what gold can and cannot buy. Delving into this dark underworld in search of answers might just buy Inez and Antonia a one-way ticket into unmarked grave.
The Big Thrill recently caught up with Parker to learn more about this epic historical series.
What first drew you to writing historical thrillers?
For me, place and era were the initial attraction. Although my mother and father were from Colorado and I had many relatives there, I had never heard of Leadville, Colorado, until an uncle mentioned that my paternal grandmother had been raised there. My uncle then went on enthusiastically and at some length about this mining town up at 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Leadville, he said, was home to a silver rush in 1879 that rivaled California’s gold rush in adventure, excitement, and stories, adding, “It was a real hell-raising place.” He finished with “Ann, I know you’ve been thinking of writing a novel. You should research Leadville and set a book there.”
Exploring New Worlds
When she was nine years old, Leanna Renee Hieber starred in Oliver! The Musical. From that moment on, she was determined to be an actress.
And a playwright.
And a novelist.
Not all of us see our dream clearly at age nine and then get to live it out, but Hieber did. She remained obsessed with Victorian London. “I’d always felt like I was a bit out of my time period, disconnected from the modern world. I was a kid in rural Ohio, and that feeling of being born in the wrong era was very painful. Then I heard of the concept of past lives. I knew I had a past life connection. I decided I was a reincarnate Victorian.”
Without a time machine, the best way to “back home” was through the theatrical world. Hieber majored in theater performance and minored in Victorian studies. She adapted Victorian works for the stage, from the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke to Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll’s original novel, and incorporating Alice Liddell’s diaries). Writing and staging that play proved that she had a gift for the Victorian vernacular, and the kudos the work received bolstered her confidence to set her fiction in that time as well. “It’s important to de-romanticize the era. The Victorians had many problems. I’m attracted to all of it, not just the grandeur, but also the grit.”
In spite of a grueling performance schedule, she worked on her first novel. “I travelled around the regional theater circuit for ten years after college. There was no time to write, and yet I felt compelled to write. That’s when I first started working on The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker.” (A new, revised version of that book, now simply entitled Strangely Beautiful, has just been released by Tor.)
She moved to New York City in order to pursue her acting career. One day she was at a call-back audition for a role in a Broadway play, but found all she could think about was her book. “I decided if all I could think about at a Broadway call back was my novel, it was time to stop auditioning and focus on the book.”
By George Ebey
The historical novel THE SERVICE OF THE DEAD introduces Kate Clifford, a young widow forged on the warring northern marches of 14th century England. Political unrest permeates York as Richard II and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke fight for the crown. Struggling to dig out from beneath the debt left by her late husband, Kate Clifford must solve a series of murders linked to her guesthouse, crimes that could split the kingdom and spell her ruin.
The Big Thrill recently checked in with Robb to learn more about her work and what the future holds.
What first drew you to writing stories involving historical suspense?
I fell down a rabbit hole.
In graduate school my interests led me away from British literature to medieval studies, a combination of literature and history and early languages, which was not officially sanctioned by my program. But I believed I could convince a PhD committee to allow an exception in my case. Not so. My department would not approve a mixed medieval lit/medieval history/medieval languages/popular culture (Tolkien) topic, and even when I dropped the latter part I was still stonewalled.
In the midst of this frustration I heard about a contest—what would you give Richard Wagner for his birthday? The prize for best idea was two tickets to the Ring Cycle in Seattle. I disliked Wagner, and saw the contest as an opportunity to indulge my grumpiness, so I entered with the snide comment that I would present him Anna Russell’s interpretation of his Ring Cycle to give him an idea of what twentieth century listeners thought of his work. If you have never heard Anna Russell’s hilarious sendoff of Wagner’s precious Ring of the Nibelungenlied, let me just say no one could have mistaken this for anything other than an insult. (And you should go online and find it. Really.)
Lo and behold, I won the contest. Down the rabbit hole. I flew out to Seattle, laughed hysterically through two of the four nights of the Ring, then forgot about it as I explored the area. Within a month, I gave up grad school with an ABD and moved to Seattle, where I entered the world of technical writing/editing. To pay the bills—Seattle is expensive. I loved my job—university campus, access to a good research library, working with people who loved what they did.
Building a Tangible, Unforgettable World
By Dawn Ius
There’s something almost ethereal about M.J. Rose’s novels. From the whimsical cover art to the magical way the story unfolds onto the page, you always know what you’re in for—an experience that truly transports you into a past tale of intense suspense and romance.
THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF STONES, the second novel in Rose’s The Daughters of La Lune series, is no exception, once again taking readers to historic France, where we meet Opaline Duplessi, a watch-maker with a special gift—a form of lithomancy that allows her to translate the energy emanating from certain gemstones into “messages” from the grave. Her customers call it magic, but Opaline would rather believe she is merely a messenger, giving voice to the soldiers who have died in the first world war.
“I became fascinated with stones and rocks as a child,” Rose says. “And jewelry. For me they went hand in hand. Playing with my mother’s pearls, noticing their rainbow finish. Picking up rocks at the beach. A present from my parents—a white box with a dozen compartments and inside each was a different stone.”
But as with her story’s protagonist, Rose always understood that stones have a more important—even integral—role in our world that goes beyond the glitter and polish.
“I think stones are magic,” she says. “They can be ground down to make medicine or paint. They can be used to build shelter. Or used as tools to help us cook and prepare our food. They can be amulets and talisman’s. Things of beauty. Of value. We walk on them. They are our very foundation. I think we are connected to them in a very complicated and profound way.”
In THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF STONES, Opaline learns this firsthand, when one of the fallen soldiers communicates a message meant specifically for her. It now becomes harder for her to deny not only her gift but also her growing feelings for this “ghost” of the past.
Published steadily since 1982, New York Times-bestselling author Karen Harper writes both contemporary suspense and historical novels. As the title of THE ROYAL NANNY suggests, her current release is a historical, but she never leaves her suspense roots. This novel is what author Alex Halley dubbed “faction,” a blend of real events and people with fictional dialogue. Domestic suspense is a growing subgenre today and this novel is that: from the secrets and tragedies of Britain’s ruling Windsor family to the betrayal that led to the brutal deaths of the tsar’s family, to an attack by a World War One I Zeppelin, Harper blends the domestic and the deadly in THE ROYAL NANNY.
Can you tell us what THE ROYAL NANNY is about?
This historical novel is the true story of the Cockney lower class nanny, Charlotte Bill, who reared the children of King George V and Queen Mary, grandparents of the current queen. Two of these six children are well known, the infamous King Edward VIII who gave up his throne and became the playboy and Nazi sympathizer, the Duke of Windsor; and King George VI, “Bertie” of The King’s Speech movie. But the royals chose to hide their sixth child, Prince John, “the Lost Prince,” one of the many mysteries woven throughout the novel.
What sort of situation did “The Royal Nanny” have in the Windsor household?
Actually, she was an outsider who was an insider, caught between the servant class but constantly mingling with the upper class. When I researched this book, it blew my mind that the Victorian and Edwardians let servants rear their children. Because the royals traveled so much and because the parents of that day had a “hands off” approach to their children (the children were presented all cleaned up once a day, usually before tea time) the nannies literally reared the next rulers of the empire.
When Winston Churchill died, he had one photo on his bedside table, not that of his mother, wife or daughter but of his nanny, who was actually his “emotional mother.” Charlotte was that to her royal charges, despite dangers and deceptions.
Tim Baker is a debut novelist with a globe-trotting background and a CV to knock your socks off. I’m delighted to be the lucky girl who gets to interview him!
Tim, you’ve, quite literally, ”seen the world.” How did a globe-trotting Aussie boy end up in the south of France?
I left Australia to live in Rome when I was 23, and whilst there I heard about a friend of a friend who needed someone to look after a place in the centre of Madrid. Who can say no to a freebie like that? However, after a year, it became harder to renew my Spanish residency visa, and I needed to leave the country for three months.
So I headed up to Paris, not realizing what magic and possibility was awaiting me there. Writing gigs and a wonderful rent-controlled apartment quickly came my way. My philosophy has always been that the unexpected is something that’s meant to be: you just haven’t received the memo yet. Marriage, the birth of my son, and a “real job” at the Australian embassy followed. When we heard by chance about a place on the Riviera becoming available just as our son was finishing middle school, we said yes. Yes is always easier to say than maybe or later.
What inspired you to start writing FEVER CITY?
I stumbled across a sound archive of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby and heard two things that shocked me. Were they proof of a conspiracy? Up until that moment, I had always believed that Oswald was the lone gunman, but if there was a conspiracy to kill Oswald, surely that suggested a conspiracy to kill JFK as well. I started doing research and was amazed that what I had heard in that recording had been missed by everyone else. I was on to something new. I started writing…
By Dawn Ius
Leanna Renee Hieber would never willingly tell you how hard the publishing industry is—though she’d have good reason. Like many authors, her road to success has been fraught with highs and lows: the struggle to find a publisher, the excitement in landing a deal, the despair when that deal went sour, and then the sheer determination to find another place for her work.
That effort paid off as STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL eventually sold in a three-book deal to Tor that not only restored Hieber’s faith in the industry—and herself—but also allowed her to go back to the story’s original vision. The result is a hauntingly beautiful romantic suspense for young adults that is peppered with well-placed horror and riveting gothic history.
Hieber often finds herself cheekily referring to the novel as “Victorian Ghostbusters” with action, adventure, mythology and an adorable love story—but that doesn’t quite do justice to the lyrical quality of Hieber’s stunning prose. If the novel’s journey to publication is not indication enough that this is the book of Hieber’s heart, the opening chapter alone provides convincing testimony.
In this interview with The Big Thrill, Hieber openly shares her journey to publication, the inspiration for STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL, and some sage advice for writers—or anyone, really—who has ever wanted to give up.
In STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL the reader is immediately brought into a world that is rich with description and atmosphere. I was blown away. What kind of setting research did you do for this book?
Emotionally and cognitively, I suppose it began with comprehending linguistic differences at an early age, distinguishing a varied vernacular between American and British English. I watched British television shows religiously (I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since Tom Baker, at the age of 7, so all of you who now think it’s cool, you’re behind the curve). I read Victorian novels in grade school and was entranced with anything “across the pond” as far back as I can remember. I grew up in rural Ohio with a soul far more familiar with old European cities.
My last year in college I was awarded a scholarship to travel to London for a senior project about Shakespearean theater spaces. Having always felt “called” to London, the moment I stepped onto its streets, I was home. I could feel the ghost stories. The air felt instantly familiar, like an old friend. Amidst walking tours focusing on ghosts and Jack the Ripper’s haunts, the beginnings of this book that would wholly change my life stirred my already overactive imagination to a fervor. I graduated from Miami University with a BFA in theater with a focus study in the Victorian Era. I can only describe my deep connection to the 19th century as being influenced by past lives.
On the Trail of Shakespeare’s Hidden Partner
Mary Sharratt’s talent for creating richly imagined worlds of the past, in novels such as Vanishing Point, Daughters of the Witching Hill and Illuminations, has won her multiple literary awards. In her new book, she brings to life a little-known woman of Elizabethan England named Aemilia Bassano Lanier, who was the first professional woman poet. As the world celebrates Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death, THE DARK LADY’S MASK takes readers on a suspenseful journey that asks: Was this woman his secret lover and collaborator?
What drew you to the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier?
Aemilia Bassano Lanier (also spelled Lanyer) was the first professional woman writer in England. She was such a strong woman and her life was so filled with drama, suspense, tragedy, and triumph that she completely swept me away.
Born in 1569, she was the daughter of an Italian court musician—a man thought to have been a Marrano, a secret Jew living under the guise of a Christian convert. After her father’s death, Aemilia was fostered by Susan Bertie, a high-minded aristocrat who gave her the kind of humanist education generally reserved for boys in that era.
Later young Aemilia Bassano became the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. As Carey’s paramour, she enjoyed a few years of glory in the royal court—an idyll that came to an abrupt and inglorious end when she found herself pregnant with Carey’s child. She was then shunted off into an unhappy arranged marriage with Alfonso Lanier, a court musician and scheming adventurer who wasted her money. So began her long decline into obscurity and genteel poverty, yet she triumphed to become a ground-breaking woman of letters.
In England at that time, the only literary genre considered acceptable for women to write was Protestant religious verse. Lanier turned this tradition on its head. Her epic poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), published in 1611, is nothing less than a vindication of the rights of women couched in religious verse. Dedicated and addressed exclusively to women, Salve Deus lays claim to women’s God-given call to rise up against male arrogance, just as the strong women in the Old Testament rose up against their oppressors.
What I’ve stated above are the documented facts about her life. The theory that she may also have been the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets only adds to her mystique.
My intention was to write a novel that married the playful comedy of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love to the unflinching feminism of Virginia Woolf’s meditations on Shakespeare’s sister in A Room of One’s Own. How many more obstacles would an educated and gifted Renaissance woman poet face compared with her ambitious male counterpart?
A 17th Century Sleuth Like No Other
A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET is the fourth in the historical mystery series set in 17th century London by Susanna Calkins. The amateur sleuth is Lucy Campion, a chambermaid in the first book. In this fourth installment she works for a publisher, setting type, hawking tracts out on the street, and sometimes, penning a tract of her own.
And she solves murders.
Calkins, a former pirate (living history specialist), was inspired by a treasure trove of 17th century murder ballads, the penny press, and the kind of tracts that Lucy Campion sells. An oft-repeated tale in these sources featured a young woman, strangled or stabbed, found with a note—signed by her lover—tucked in her pocket. Her lover was rounded up, arrested, tried, and usually hanged for the crime. Calkins wondered, “Why would a young woman go to such a tryst, anyway? Why did the murderer sign the note? Why not remove the note after his victim was dead?”
Those questions are answered in the first novel in the series, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, set in London in 1665, right after London was hit by the Great Plague.
The second novel, From the Charred Remains, is set in 1666, right after the Great Fire. Early forensic science is used to find the killer.
The third, The Masque of a Murderer, is set in 1667. A man dying after what appears to be an accident reveals that he was murdered, and Lucy has to solve the crime. This novel was nominated for the Lefty, the Agatha, and the Mary Higgins Clark award.
Writing Car Chases With Chain Mail
By Dawn Ius
Put two readers of historical fiction in a room together and within seconds, the accuracy debate will begin. For writers of the genre, this can often lead to the daunting task of dodging ALL CAPS emails condemning everything from perceived inappropriate character depiction to the most minuscule detail—no matter how many sources the author has sourced to back it up.
For E.M. Powell, the author of three medieval thrillers, including THE LORD OF IRELAND, released this month, shouldering the weight of potential historical inaccuracy is just part of the genre—or perhaps, more accurately, part of being an author.
“You see it time after time: authors called out on a detail that’s not correct in legal thrillers, tech thrillers, medical thrillers, police procedurals. Or at least in the opinion of the commenter,” Powell says. “I have had thundering condemnation of things in my books for which I have at least three reputable sources. As for mistakes? Yes, despite my best efforts, I make them from time to time—as does every writer I know.”
Errors appear to be few and far between for Powell, though, as sales for her first medieval thrillers have launched her to a prime spot among her peers—book two in the series, The Fifth Knight became an Amazon UK #1 bestseller in Historical Fiction, and the series has sold more than 100,000 copies.
The key to her success, Powell says, begins with thorough research and ends with scenes that are rich with character—something she struggled with early in her career—and most important for readers of historical fiction, a strong sense of setting.
“Readers of historicals like quite a lot of setting, in much the same way fantasy and science fiction readers do,” she says. “It boils down to the fact that we’re trying to build an unfamiliar world and make it believable.”