Women’s History Month – guest post from Brenda Clough

Brenda sent me this early… and my life (as you might know) went awry. Some of the things she alerted us to in the post are about to happen, however, so I’ve added links. The first link you might want to check out is one to the writer herself! Also, to my favourite book by her: http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/how-like-a-god/

I write novels. My current project: to create a powerful female protagonist, but to set the work in the 1860s. I shall fulfill a long-felt need, and write about Marian Halcombe, heroine of THE WOMAN IN WHITE. If you have read Wilkie Collins’s quintessential Victorian thriller you too probably wonder why there are no more stories about Marian. I got tired waiting for someone else to do it properly; if you want a job done right you do it yourself. And so I wrote A Most Dangerous Woman, due out in 2018.

And why does she have to be powerful? Well, putting aside how Collins himself wrote her, that’s where the reader comes in. Everyone who reads this book will be born in the 20th century, possibly the 21st as well. Do you want to read about a passive and ladylike Victorian woman who allows the men do to everything for her? No? Me neither. The first rule of the novelist is, write what you want to read! And I want to read about a powerful woman who is yet totally a creature of her historical era, and who works within the parameters of her culture.

To write a novel set in the past means putting on the mentality of that era, a fascinating challenge. It’s more than just ensuring that you don’t have Abraham Lincoln taking a selfie of himself outside Ford’s Theater. Because the characters have to think like Victorians, you have to think like one too. I have no patience with the sort of novel that seems to be about modern-day Americans only it’s set in Florence in 1490 and they wear houppelandes. It is unreasonable and totally anachronistic, for a woman born in Europe in 1826 to think a feminist. There was no such thing at that time; even Mary Wollstonecraft was but a proto-feminist. One must pursue accuracy, everywhere, like a pillar of flame by night and a pillar of smoke by day.

A purely perfect historical novel should be like stepping into a time machine – essentially stepping back into the past. But this purity of perfection is theoretical, as unachievable as the speed of light. You can never completely write that. Besides, I have to sell this thing. Characters and plot must appeal to persons who are alive today. This is the nub of the problem when a historical novel involves a powerful woman. That character must be fully historical, and yet have modern appeal. It’s like walking a tightrope.

My heroine cannot going to rebel against the strictures of her culture. To us the Victorian proprieties look as confining as whale-boned corsetry. But to Marian they are simply her environment – she is of her time. She can chafe under limitations that Victorian England placed upon women of her class and age, but she can’t overthrow them. She has to get around them in an appropriate way for the time period. And somehow her struggles have to attract the modern reader.

To ensure this, and also to make the novel more fun, the novelist has some good standard tools in her bag. I immediately began supplying the heroine with things that are allowable and historical, but that a 21st century reader would expect and enjoy. A husband, easy – that allows her to have sex in a period when all women were sorted into boxes as either virgins, mothers or whores. Modern novels mostly include sex; I haven’t tested this but my theory is that if you counted the incidents of nookie in any given romance novel you would find the number correlates to its copyright date. A gun – ladies in the 1860s could shoot, so why not Marian? Money, because adventure is so much easier and more colorful if you can afford the travel and the gear. Marian was an impoverished spinster in the Collins novel, but since I’m already supplying her with a hot-blooded husband there is no reason why he can’t be reasonably well-off. And there could be relatives, many boisterous relatives, because kindred can get into trouble and drag the plot and the heroine along.

A husband is especially convenient for social rebellion; a Victorian wife can blame him for everything and use him as an excuse for nearly anything she wants to do. He wants me to rescue him, so of course it is my wifely duty to do so! And I can’t stand characters that are unintelligent. Marian and her husband have to be self-aware; they know they are maintaining layers of masks that allow them a level of behavior that is not ordinarily accepted in their society. And once I began digging into the period I was thrilled to learn that this was by no means unknown historically. Author George Eliot (Marian Evans) had a number of poly friends, and worked an editor who kept wife and mistress in the same household — all kinds of sexual creativity, thinly veiled by concessions to propriety, elided by loyal biographers, and discreetly ignored by adoring fans. People are always people, throughout history, doing the same crazy or fantastic things – that’s the charm of historical fiction.

And plot? Well the story too must be perfectly in period. If for my readers I am sneaking in adumbrations of rebellion and feminism, I must be doubly accurate on the historical side. These modern baubles must be hung on a perfectly Victorian armature. So I have borrowed freely from the literature of the period: bigamy, unwed motherhood, murders accused and genuine, Balkan anarchists with bombs, journals improbably complete in detail left for others to devour.

And I’ve been enlisting historical characters for guest gigs. If my characters are living in London in the late 1860s they are going to meet and interact with at least some of the people who were there at that time. Charles Dickens is an easy one; the Inimitable is almost a fictional character in his own right. But people like Dr. Baker Brown, famous for prescribing clitoridectomy for every female ailment from headache to infertility. Or Isabella Robinson, the woman who wrote a lurid fantasy journal (unless it was fact!) about her torrid affair with her hydropathy doctor. There wasn’t room for all these people in the first novel, so there are sequels, again perfectly in period.

The novel is to come out from SerialBox in the grand Victorian manner, in nine parts each ending with a cliffhanger. Dickens and Trollope would be pleased, and I hope this is a book they would enjoy.


Life has been quite interesting recently. Some of it has been gloriously interesting and some of it has been interesting in ways that take a fair amount of dealing with. That’s why I’ve not updated. I hadn’t even quite finished Women’s History Month. I plan to do that this week. The last posts, including the links to all the posts, will all appear. Not that there are many of them – I was so close before life started interfering!

The not-so-good can wait, but my news right now is that The Time of the Ghosts has now been published by Book View Cafe and I’m dealing with hiccups in accessibility this week, but it should be orderable online in paper form any time now. It’s already orderable in e-book from here. What’s more, there’s a sample of the novel there – you can read a bit and run screaming if that’s your preference.

My next publication is a collection of my short stories and is only a few weeks away. Lost short stories, known short stories, new short stories: all and more. Also an introduction by the amazing and generous Sherwood Smith. And a cover by one of my favourite cover artists of all time. There will be a launch at Continuum in June, among other things. There may be feminist biscuits, for Judith’s story (the sequel to The Wizardry of Jewish Women) is in the volume.

That’s not until next month though. This month, nay, this week, I’m giving a keynote address at a conference. I like giving keynote addresses. I get to talk seriously and about stuff I care about very much. This one will have controversial elements, but they will all lead to some biting conclusions and… I am writing notes again, in case anyone wants this one to be published. I was quoted the last one at myself recently, which made me feel as if I’d crossed into a strange universe where people knew who I was.

I’ll be at Continuum in June, and a Canberra conference (for literature experts) in early July. At the Canberra conference I get to give an ordinary academic paper … about myself. The topic of the conference happened to describe my life exactly. It’s not precisely about myself. It’s more about how the research I do provides bridges from one world to another. The oddity of this is that it’s about my new research and about my fiction and about my history and examines what they do (sort of) and is in my own university. The only two other givers of papers who know me are both in my position ie fiction writers who do academic research. Except that they’re far more establishment than I am and way more respectable.

I may be out on a lonely limb at my own university right now (it’s a long story) but at Eurcon (Nemo, in Amiens in July) it’s going to be quite different. I needed to go to Amiens for research, can’t really afford it but wanted to counterbalance all the things I’m not talking about in this post, and have always wanted to attend a French SF convention and… I’m on the programme. Right now I’m in four items, but I’m sure that will diminish. I’ll find out if I’m speaking/panelling/being interviewed in French or English or both closer to the date.

I’m researching for two novels there, because it’s what I needed for both. For the 17th century novel I need Amiens proper, the other I need the bus route between Arras and Lievin, and a few streets from Lievin itself. If I have time, I also want to visit Arras, for it’s been too long and it has an underground. Almost everywhere in that part of France has an underground, but I know where the entrance is in Arras (or I used to) and I want to see the rocks again. Bookish reasons, of course. And everywhere it’s the Middle Ages, of course. Everywhere except Lievin, which was flattened by war and is oddly new.

If friends turn up the week of research, and if one of them has car and a wish to do things, my dream is to pay my respects at the new war memorial and then do some exploration of the places near it. Or to go to Cambrai and Bethune and other places with epic legend links. If there are no friends with cars, then I am limited physically, but there is so much to do that I doubt this will be a problem. In fact, I know it won’t be. Why do I think this? Because today when I was madly busy, I stopped and perused a document of dialects of certain key works written in a fifty year period and noted all the ones written in Picard… This is one of the regions that gave France its epic and legendary self.

I shall have finished the current novel by Continuum. It’s not as easy to write with all the stuff happening. One thing I didn’t realise was quite how hard it is to write a novel where I’m giving someone with illness one kind of life and then find that what I give her is not being given to me. This very obscure statement will make sense one day, in a sad way.

My roller coaster life has bigger highs and lower lows this year. I was trying to explain why I needed something yesterday and got a very blank look from someone when I mentioned – in passing, the way one does when one mentions past events – a couple of the bad things of recent years. What this means is that my life is no longer credible. It’s just as well I don’t want to write an autobiography.

Women’s History Month – guest, Mary Victoria

Women’s History Month was rudely interrupted by Passover, so I had to take a break. When we finish for the year, I’ll do you a nice list of all the posts so that you can find everything. Until then, enjoy!

Right now, enjoy Mary Victoria talking about a writer who I also love.

The wonder of this year’s topic has been finding out what good writers think of other good writers. These are the writers we think should be remembered, or should remain in the sunlight and be read. While you read, I’ll sit back and remember a conversation I had with Helen had about where some of my ancestors would fit in her invented world Mary’s own writing always evokes memory for me, and this piece is no exception.

She writes with aplomb; with heart; with grace. She is a New Zealander, a Christchurch earthquake veteran and a lover of trees. To those of you in the know, these few words will immediately evoke the name ‘Helen Lowe’. But perhaps there aren’t as many of you in the know as I should like, so I will introduce my chosen writer for Women’s History Month with a quote from one of her books. This is how she begins the tale of Lady Mouse, or Myr, one of the main protagonists of Daughter of Blood and easily my favourite Lowe character to date:

“Outside, the latest Wall storm had blown itself into a brief respite of calm weather, but inside the Red Keep the storm that had been raging between the ruling kin for weeks continued to generate acrimony and raised voices. Although, Myr thought, wrapping her arms around her drawn-up knees, ‘raised voices’ was only her former governess Ise’s way of being polite. Anyone else would say shouting, usually over the top of whoever else was yelling at the same time.”

Immediately, we are there. In one brief line, the excerpt conjures up the sound of winds blowing on a fantastical world – on Haarth, with its mysterious Wall – but more particularly of voices arguing, an all-too-familiar and very human sound. The family argument overheard by the young daughter of the House of Blood, Myr, could have taken place anywhere, from ancient Babylon to modern Brooklyn. The dispute, we intuit, is probably some petty power play between the members of a rich and influential family. With a few strokes of her pen, Lowe does something rather marvellous: she puts us elsewhere, on a strange new world, while keeping us firmly anchored to the here and now. Who hasn’t heard that family argument?

There aren’t that many writers of fantasy who are able to seamlessly blend the familiar with the strange. Often, a novel will pile strangeness upon strangeness in an attempt to shock or entertain. Characters sweep onto the scene with mind-boggling superpowers, or act with a level of amorality and brutality that would have any normal human being vomiting in the gutter, suffering from severe PTSD. It’s all done in the name of fun and games but it doesn’t necessarily convince. Lowe, on the other hand, while she doesn’t shy away from calling on strange powers and superhuman characters, also knows how to do the opposite. She knows how to draw a character whose potency and strength lies in just how recognisably human, flawed and weak she is. Myr has no special powers, nor does she need them to fully inhabit her role and win our hearts.

I was lucky enough to meet Helen some years ago, and indeed stayed for over a decade in her native New Zealand (a place I miss greatly.) She first made contact with me, in her wonderful open-hearted way, in 2010, to interview me for a podcast about a publication. And so I found myself chatting to a delightful, intelligent person about our shared love of Ursula K. Le Guin, trees, and any number of other subjects dear to both of us, a conversation that has continued in one form or another ever since. Along the way, there have been life-changing events. In February 2011, Helen’s home town of Christchurch was battered by a devastating earthquake that damaged a good portion of the city, including its historic centre, leaving nothing but rubble for blocks. People lost their homes or were left without power or plumbing, their livelihoods destroyed. Many left the city at that time. While Helen’s house still stood, it was like a great number of others undermined and affected, subject to ongoing repairs. Insurance payouts were slow, while the city merely struggled to survive. Throughout these trials, however, Helen decided to stay in Christchurch. She didn’t abandon her home, but continued to live, and write, in the city she called home.

Several instalments of the Wall series later, she is still there. I left New Zealand in the meantime, but continued to follow her exploits with interest on her blog after returning to the UK. I have discovered along the way that she is an accomplished poet as well as a novelist, and – most recently – that she is something of a star in the world of tree conservation. You won’t catch her blowing her own trumpet, though: she simply does what she does in that typically understated, Kiwi way, and manages to be a force to be reckoned with. Needless to say, I am full of admiration for her both as a writer and an activist. She doesn’t just survive: she conquers.

In sum, if you haven’t yet had the chance to discover Helen Lowe’s writing, do yourself a favour and pick up the Wall of Night series, or read Thornspell. She will not disappoint. Meanwhile, remember New Zealand, that deliciously green island of dreamers and tale-weavers in the South Pacific, and explore its worlds a little. It will show you wonders to behold, including a fine tradition of writers of fantasy. You can’t go wrong where the clouds are long, and the wind sings haere mai.

Women’s History Month – guest, Helen Hollick

In Awe of Alison Morton and ‘Roma Nova’

Alison Morton writes a thriller series. But wait a minute, isn’t this supposed to be Women’s History Month, not Women’s Thriller Month? Ms Morton has created what is, I think, something unique for her novels, not thrillers placed in an historical setting – there are plenty of those of a good, middling or poor standard – but thrillers placed in an alternative historical setting. Imagine, as she has so superbly done, if the might that was Rome, with its military and administrative expertise, had not collapsed in the West in the fifth century. Imagine if sixteen hundred years ago a group of steadfast Roman exiles had given all they had to preserve that Rome, from its language to its customs, to its gods and its ideals. The only thing to change, as the centuries wore on, were the leaders, the ones in charge. They were women. Morton’s Roma Nova series features modern twentieth and twenty-first century Praetorian heroines. With a few hunks of male heroes and a smattering of dastardly baddies thrown in for good measure. The result is a series of engrossing, intelligent, entertaining – and dare I say, thrilling – novels that have no respect for lights-out at bedtime, but an addictive and compulsory need to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. Nor does the excitement leave at the end of each book. Thank goodness for Kindle where ordering the next in the sequence is instantaneous.

Morton’s passion for Roman history is evident, as is her knowledge of military matters. She spent six years in the UK military service and a lifetime of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction. From an early age, Morton says; “I was intrigued by the role of female soldiers, probably influenced by a feminist mother and a father who was ex-military.” She saw no reason why women could not represent their country alongside men in the armed forces and joined the Territorial Army in the special communications regiment. She eventually finished her career as a captain, a career which included a variety of interesting, and some secretive things that she still cannot talk about. Which is, perhaps, as frustrating for us as it is for her, but highly valuable for a writer in need of conjuring up plots for exciting thriller novels based around a fictional military regime.

A fascination as a child with the Ampurias mosaics in Spain and the wonders of Roman engineering kick-started her interest in Roman history, and in particular the role of women. The Roman Empire spread from small beginnings via a republic to an imperial regime with periods of political stability, expanding conquest and the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in the then known world, possibly only partially matched ever since by the Victorian era British Empire. Interspersed with this stability and expansion, however, were insane or power-lusting emperors, administrative chaos, bloody battles, scheming political intrigue, inter-family at top level squabbling and murder. Morton, however, began to wonder what a modern Roman society would be like if it had survived all that, and was run by strong, capable women… Tough, disciplined, dedicated heroines who had the guts and capability to deal with any or all of the issues of the past that could re-raise their ugly heads. Even the passing of centuries does not eliminate a lust for power and disrespect for the law to achieve it. A fact which Ms Morton uses well to her advantage.

From the striking covers, which give an immediate sense of the grandeur of Rome, and the very cleverly thought-out titles – Latin, but recognisable and pertinent to each storyline – the novels themselves whisk you into an entirely made-up imagined world, but one that is utterly believable and completely convincing in the locations, the plot, the characters and the action. But in layers beneath these adventures, she does more than merely entertain. Morton examines some eternal themes: power, betrayal, personal and political breakdown and the many facets of love. While not necessarily being pro-feminist, by using an alternative historical framework she prods us to consider that public agency in a historical environment – government, military service, open political power – is not always exclusively a male prerogative.

For the characters, we meet Carina Mitela, the heroine, in Book One, Inceptio in modern-day New York, although even here things are not quite as expected, for this is not the USA as we know it. This is the Eastern United States, similar but not the same; I personally find it fun to ‘spot the difference’ where Ms Morton has made subtle changes: Central Park is Kew Park, for instance, a nod to London’s Kew Gardens? At first you think she has made a mistake, then you cotton-on to her adept twists of what is ‘our’ world and her alternative Roma Nova existence. Very cleverly done.

Here, though, at the start of this part of the series, our heroine is Karen Brown, a law enforcement officer who finds herself suddenly plunged into confusion, kidnapping, threats to her career and life – and a meeting with an arrogant Roma Novan Praetorian special-forces officer, Conrad Tellus. Karen is forced to flee with him to the homeland of her deceased mother, Roma Nova, situated somewhere in Europe, roughly in our modern Austrian/Switzerland area, and finds herself re-established as Carina Mitela, the granddaughter of one of the most important administrative families. She enrols in the law enforcement service, but remains determined to discover who it is who wants her dead, and who is hunting her so ruthlessly. Romance, of course, comes into it via Conrad, known as Conradus on his own turf, and other dominant males. Action, adventure, thriller, military precision: “The Hunger Games meets Lindsey Davis’s Roman detective Falco,” as one fan from a book club summed it up.

Perfiditas, the next instalment follows on, with Carina risking being terminated by the security services and a variety of chilling conspirators. Her decision to seek help from a less-than-legal friend brings her close to wrecking her marriage and her career. There is betrayal, emotional decisions, loyalty and hard-gut determination in this novel. The true stuff of heroines and heroes. Successio, Book Three, sees Carina working as an experienced officer in military intelligence – you can clearly recognise Morton’s own experiences in this particular book. Carina is given the task of protecting Roma Nova from a last remnant of the Empire that has survived into the twenty-first century, but to do so she must find the mental and physical strength to face her nemesis. And make some very hard decisions.

With Aurelia, Book Four (or IV, as Morton numbers them) the author not only surprises her readers but shows to full extent her magnificent talent as a competent and creative writer. She takes us back to the early 1960s and the story that lies behind Carina’s esteemed grandmother, Aurelia Mitela. Investigating silver smuggling, silver being one of the financial mainstays of Roma Novan survival, she clashes with Caius Tellus, a personal enemy since their childhood, and an enemy of Roma Nova, for through him the destruction of everything that has been established looms immanent. The story continues to a breath-taking, heart-pounding climax as a trilogy through Insurrectio and Retalio. Yes, you know that Aurelia will eventually win the day, she has to for she is there in the first three books set several years after this trilogy, but it is her journey, her fight, her courage, that is important here. Morton’s skill at pulling off such an engrossing set of classy thrillers to entirely absorb, gasp at, cheer at and ultimately, at the last page, to whole-heartedly applaud, is, to use a common phrase, awesome.

All six of these Roma Nova full-length novels have been given the Indie BRAG Medallion of excellence, with several of them carrying other as prestigious awards and Editor’s Choice selections, (Discovering Diamonds, The Bookseller, Historical Novel Society, etc.)

The latest addition, Carina, is a novella set after Inceptio but before Perfiditas and focuses on Carina’s early experiences within Roma Novan society and law. She is an inexperienced officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, and through folly, is disgraced and reprimanded for her undisciplined actions. To extricate her from embarrassment she is sent to the Republic of Quebec (Canada) to return a traitor to Roma Nova, but in true thriller adventure style, things do not go to plan.

There are several essentials that can turn a good book into a brilliant book (or a good series into a brilliant series). Obviously, good writing and good editing are two of these essentials, but for whatever the genre and sub-genre believability for the plot, the locations, the characters, indeed the entire package, is as essential. For her Roma Nova series, Alison Morton has created a cast of characters, various exciting adventures that befall them, and an entire fictional world for them to ‘perform’ in which, quite frankly, has left me open-mouthed with admiration. Nor does she pull any emotional punches. How on earth does Morton manage so consistently to write book after book to match, and outrank, the previous one for quality, continuity, thrills, spills and page-turning entertainment, again, and again and again? The answer is, without doubt, top-class writing skills, dedication, scrupulous attention to detail, in-depth research and books that are professionally produced from cover-to-cover.

My only comment against Ms Morton is that she has no regard for permitting her readers to go to sleep at night, or notice the required stop on their bus or train travels. But then, the ability to engross your reader so deeply in a novel is a very fine talent, and Alison Morton possesses that talent by the bucket-load. Once discovered, her books are pounced on by her readers; her work is an exemplar of the current crop of high-quality independent self-published writers, a group that has well and truly established itself in the genre of historical fiction writing.

© Helen Hollick

A modern Alpine Village – or, alternatively, Roma Nova?


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction, due to be published in 2018. She founded Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, in January 2017.

Discovering Diamonds

Women’s History Month – guest Jacey Bedford

This is another background post. Jacey wrote it for the year I was so ill that things went awry. I asked her if she minded if we used it here, and she’s updated it. Why is it so important? That overnight success in only twenty years is true of so many writers. I’ll let Jacey explain…

Overnight Success in Only Twenty Years

Here’s the quick intro: I’m Jacey Bedford, a British writer of science fiction and fantasy published by DAW in the USA. I have five books out so far and a sixth under contract. The Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways and Nimbus) is complete, Published by DAW in the USA. My Rowankind fantasy trilogy has two books out so far (Winterwood and Silverwolf) and the third, Rowankind, is due from DAW in November 2018. I used to have kids; now I have adults, but they don’t get any less expensive with age. I live with my husband (songwriter, singer, recording engineer) Brian Bedford (no, not the Canadian actor who died recently, this one is still very much alive and kicking). We have a black, long-haired German Shepherd (a dog, not an actual shepherd from Germany) and live in a rambling old house on the edge of Yorkshire’s Pennine hills, barely nine miles away from where we were both born. (Same hospital, different years.)

The beginning of my writerly story is lost in the mists of my childhood. I struggled with writing at school because, being a fluent reader by the age of five, I was put into a class of kids who’d already had over a year in school. Playing catch-up, my mum encouraged me to write a twenty-minute story every lunchtime (I went home for lunch in those days). Result: compulsive writer. I’ve never been able to stop. I’m not a writer because I can write. I’m a writer because I can’t NOT write.

I started my first novel aged 15 and the world will be highly relieved to know that I only managed to write the first six chapters, though I may have been a little ahead of my time as it was a future dystopia. (Take that, Hunger Games!) Unfortunately it was peopled by close analogues of my favourite pop stars. Oh, well… at least my school friends thought it was brilliant. (Lesson number one: never ask your closest friends to be your critique partners.)

So let’s not start right back at the beginning, let’s skip a few years to 1994 when a friend lent me her Amstrad PCW on which to write my magnum opus. Before then I’d always written longhand and being a lousy typist might never have got to the stage of having a finished manuscript. So when I returned said machine I was bereft and immediately went out and bought one. Own up, how many of you started writing on an Amstrad in all its glory: non-WYSIWYG, with green-screen and a dot matrix printer? And wasn’t it glorious compared to an Imperial 66 manual typewriter or a notebook and pen? (Lesson number two: have the right tools for the job.)

I wrote my first two (unpublished) novels on that Amstrad, juggling husband, kids and widowed mother while also carrying on a singing career with a cappella folk trio, Artisan (www.artisan-harmony.com) which involved a lot of travelling. The family was, if not supportive (because they barely knew what I was up to) at least tolerant of erratic mealtimes, late nights, obsessive keyboard hammering. Then I transferred to a PC, discovered email, got on the triple ‘W’ and found a usenet writers; group called misc.writing. There I learned about essentials like manuscript format, how to submit to a publisher and… the fact that if I was serious about this writing lark I needed an agent. (Lesson number three: talk to other writers and learn all you can from their experience.)

By this time, through a friend of a friend in the music business, I’d met American writer Elizabeth Ann Scarborough who was writing a series of novels with Anne McCaffrey. One Annie talked to the other on my behalf and an introduction to an agent in New Jersey ensued. By that time, though I’m British and based in Yorkshire, Artisan was playing regularly in the USA, so I even got to meet said agent in person. (Not always the case when you live half a world away from each other.) She shopped around my first novel and got a ‘we-nearly-bought-this’ from HarperCollins, but regrettably didn’t actually sell it to any one of the (then) nine major publishers of fantasy and science fiction in the USA. I wasn’t too disappointed. First books don’t always sell, right? But I’d made a big rookie mistake in that the second book was a sequel to the first. (Lesson number four: stay flexible and keep your eye on practical possibilities.) Yeah, my agent shoulda, coulda warned me, but she wasn’t a hands-on agent, and we didn’t have that kind of relationship. In those days I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a hands-on agent. Anyhow, I tried to make the sequel feel like a standalone and sent it to her. After a couple of months I got an email to say that she couldn’t sell the second book.

Now, it had taken over a year for her to decide she couldn’t sell the first book, and I got a list of which publishers had seen it and when. With the second one she was vague and somewhat evasive. Who’s seen it, I asked. Everyone. Well, can you give me a list? No answer. Did HarperCollins see it? They don’t want to see the same book twice. It’s not the same book… You get the idea? So (politely) we parted company. (Lesson number five: when something is really not working walk away with good grace and no acrimony.)

Getting agent number one had been so easy that I had no concept of how difficult it would be to get another agent. I was back at the beginning, learning how to write a cover letter and deal with the whole submission process. I was used to submitting short stories to magazines (I’d sold a few) and even sending full books to publishers’ slushpiles, so I had the no simultaneous submissions rule pretty firmly in my head and I carried that forward into my submissions to agents. Submitting to only one agent at a time, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Some agents (bless them) rejected pretty quickly, some took six or nine months to reject (sometimes after going through the send-the-full-MS stage) others never responded at all. Skip forward eight years, and in that time I’d made about nine agency submissions, one painful long-drawn-out application at a time. (Lesson number six: Don’t waste time and/or opportunities.)

And then I got my break, a relatively new agent with a big New York agency who was just building a client list and whose guidelines said that [agent] did not necessarily require an exclusive submission, but if the author wished to give [agent] an exclusive then [agent] would respond more swiftly. I’d been giving agents exclusives for eight years! So I submitted, made sure [agent] knew it was an exclusive submission and waited. Bang on the time given in the agency guidelines I got a response asking for the full manuscript and shortly after that an offer of representation.

I was elated!

Unlike my first agent, Agent2 was a hands-on agent and worked with me to improve my manuscript before finally saying it was good enough to send out. I really liked Agent2 and was very hopeful. Then… with my book under submission, my agent decided to get out of agenting. Devastated doesn’t even begin to cover my feelings.

So now I had a book that Agent2 thought was perfectly marketable, but had already been seen by at least four of the major publishers with no success so far, and I was back to square one. No agent and no book sale. Though I did have a much improved book, thanks to my agent’s editorial advice.

But by this time I’d begun to wise up. (Lesson number seven: REALLY don’t waste time.) There’s nothing in the (unwritten) rules of submitting that says you can’t sim-sub to agents. I figured that I didn’t want to waste another decade with eight or nine agency submissions, so I decided to submit to all of them at once. Well, not quite all of them and not quite all at once, but…

I decided to make getting an agent my ‘job’ for the next few months. I began with research. There are a lot of websites out there that list agents and what they are looking for, one of the best being agentquery.com which claims to be the internet’s largest free database of literary agents. I can easily believe that, though it is North-American in bias. I supplemented this with the Writers and Artists Yearbook in the UK (I’m British and I was looking on both sides of the Atlantic), and Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents, a blog on the Writer’s Digest website.

Then, having built up my own database I started with my top picks and sent individual targeted submissions to each one, checking their websites and following their own guidelines. I also wrote a fresh cover letter for each one, picking up on their likes and dislikes if at all possible. I sent out fifty of these in a month. It was practically all I did. I was straight with them that the book Agent2 had submitted had already been seen by four publishers and that the only reason I was looking for a new agent was because my previous agent was retiring from the business, but that in the meantime I had more novels in reserve, seven in total. (Lesson number eight: whether your books are selling on not, keep writing, build up a portfolio.)

In the meantime I sent my manuscript to a publisher I really liked and one that I knew had not yet read the manuscript that Agent2 had submitted. I did it with a recommendation from a friend already published by that publisher, which may have placed me closer to the top of the slushpile and certainly got me a note from the editor promising that she would read it as soon as she could but that she was very busy. Being very busy all the time is the natural state in which editors exist. (Lesson number nine: don’t be afraid to make use of contacts freely offered – but don’t be obnoxious if contacts are NOT freely offered.)

I began to get responses from my agent submissions. Some were form rejections, others were polite personal rejections and a few – enough – were requests for full manuscripts, which was encouraging.

My fifty submissions were still in the early stages. I’d ruled out about twenty of them, had not heard back from another twenty or twenty five, yet (but there was still time) and I had sent full manuscripts to a few and was waiting to hear back. I wasn’t getting despondent.

Then in July I got that email that every author wants. Sheila Gilbert at DAW said, I want to buy your book, when can I phone you?

Let me just say that again: I want to buy your book, when can I phone you?

And it was Christmas and my birthday all at once.

I didn’t need an agent now… but, hang on, yes I did. Why? Agents do more than sell a single book, they negotiate contracts, offer career advice and support and sell books for foreign language translation. My editor said she was happy to do the contract direct with me or to work through my agent, to which I said: Can you give me a week on that? She agreed. And then she asked the magic question: What else have you got?

So while I sent Sheila two more finished manuscripts I looked back at my list of agency submissions and picked out my ten favourites. Some had already asked for full manuscripts, some had not yet responded and one had already sent me a rejection, but I figured with an offer on the table she might change her mind. She didn’t – but I respect her for that. My email basically said I’d had an offer for my book and I would need a response within the week if the agent was interested in discussing the matter of representation further.

To cut a long story short: I received five offers of representation. Within a week I’d had long telephone conversations with the five who made offers, narrowed it down to one British and one American agent, both from highly respected agencies, and dithered for a couple of days, weighing up pros and cons. In the end, there was nothing to choose between them, so I went with my gut feeling and picked the one I’d been most comfortable chatting to. And I’m so pleased that I did. That agent was the lovely Amy Boggs of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York. Amy developed DAW’s initial offer into a three book deal, two of them already written, Empire of Dust and Winterwood, and a sequel to Empire, to be written from scratch. This turned into Crossways.

So there you have it, my overnight success only took twenty years. (Lesson number ten: don’t ever give up, and when the big moment happens grab it with both hands and hang on.)

An then, because nothing is ever straightforward in the world of writing and publishing, after a couple of years Amy left the Donald Maass agency, however my contract is with the agency, so I wasn’t too worried, I knew they’d have to settle me with another of their agents. What I didn’t expect—and what I’m absolutely over the moon about—is that I would be taken on by Donald Maass himself. (Lesson number eleven: things sometimes work out just fine without your intervention, so enjoy the ride.)

Thanks to Gill for inviting me to participate. If you want to know more about me this is where to find me and my books:
Web: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk
Blog: http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @jaceybedford
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer
Books: Empire of Dust, Crossways, Nimbus (The Psi-Tech Trilogy)
Winterwood, Rowankind (The first two in the Rowankind trilogy)

Women’s History Month – guest post by Catherine Hokin

Sharon Kay Penman

For such a seemingly simple term, Historical Fiction covers a wide ground. The spread of novels within the genre balance their engagement with ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ at quite different levels. They frequently cross into other territories such as romance or crime, or fantasy. And increasingly with novels such as Lincoln in the Bardo and Days Without End, set in the past but perhaps more remarkable for what they do with structure and theme, stray into what could be termed as ‘literary fiction.’ All these variations have their place but speak to librarians and readers (although perhaps not publishers) and the demand for ‘genre historical fiction’, what author Sarah Johnson has referred to as ‘historical fiction that simply goes out to tell a good story’ seems as constant as it was when Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton ruled.

Readers of genre historical fiction usually come at their chosen work from one of two directions: they know the novel’s world and want to extend, or prove, their knowledge; they have a vague interest in the period and a story, rather than a text book, is their way in. For both types engagement with the history is at the forefront. They demand a high level of historical accuracy which will allow them to experience the past, and the people in it, in an emotional way, living and feeling the characters’ worlds. There are many writers who do this well, taking their readers on a vast sweep through an historical landscape, focusing on the small details that make the period vivid just as well as the big events. One of the best is the American author Sharon Kay Penman.

Penman’s first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, which famously took 12 years to write on account of the theft of the original manuscript and the effect this had on the author’s confidence, was published in 1982. Since then she has written a further seven historical novels and a series of four mysteries, all set in the medieval period between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Her most recent novel A King’s Ransom (2014) recounts the last years in the life of Richard the Lionheart and her next, The Land Beyond the Sea, set in twelfth century Jerusalem, is expected in August 2018.

The Sunne in Splendour is an account of the Wars of the Roses but is, more specifically, a re-telling of the life of Richard III. Although Penman’s writing style has evolved (Richard the Lionheart’s personality matures and deepens through the two novels focused on him) reflecting historical events through depictions of characters towards whom she takes a very particular view is a characteristic of Penman’s style. Her Richard is highly sympathetic: he is not an usurper or a murderer, in fact he is hardly flawed at all. He is thoughtful, kind, loyal, popular (in the North at least) and romantically in love with his wife. This was, at the time, an interesting re-appraisal of a much-maligned figure but it is perhaps one of the shortcomings of Penman’s approach that she takes a polarised or simplified stance on historical figures. Maud in When Christ and His Saints Slept is cold, Stephen is chivalrous, Henry and Eleanor are motivated by lust. If Richard does one bad thing, he must be all bad, therefore no fault can be admitted. This ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ approach to characterisation makes him less human and less plausible, especially in the context of the bloody period he lived in. It feels old-fashioned on a recent re-read, but may be a style readers will need to learn to love – see Lionel Shriver’s recent article on the call-out culture.

Other shortcomings? Penman’s books are epics and this can effect pace, either slowing it under the weight of exposition or tumbling event on top of event. There is too often the sense that the rest of the novel is the reward for the slow-burn first hundred pages. Sentence structure can be cumbersome and word choice can veer rather too close to cod-medieval in places – for certes is an over-used favourite. The sheer weight of characters can cause confusion in the narrative perspective and she has said herself that she has not always felt comfortable allowing fictional characters to inhabit the same stage as her historical figures, although, when she lets them fly and stops being hide-bound by detail, they are as good as if not more rounded than their ‘real’ counterparts. In a sense it is detail that makes or breaks the novels: Penman sets the research bar very high and has no qualms about including everything she knows, there are no quick sketches here. For readers unused to this heavily research-overt style, it can be a daunting prospect; for those who love it, she is unrivalled.

Criticisms then, so what makes her so incredibly successful and still one of my go-back-to authors? It’s actually quite simple: she tells a great story. Penman’s books, for all their shortcomings, are incredibly readable, the kind of book you open and emerge from hours later slightly unsure of which time period you are actually in. Her novels breathe life into long dead figures and shine very bright lights into some of the most fascinating aspects of our historical past. She’s not an historian, although some approach and criticise her as such, but she has all the best aspects of one in her love of subject. What Penman is is an historical novelist in its very purest sense, and a very fine one at that.

Catherine Hokin Bio

Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. This sparked an interest in hidden female voices resulting in her debut novel, Blood and Roses which brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot, Myslexia and Writers Forum magazines – and blogs monthly for The History Girls. She is represented by Tina Betts of the Andrew Mann Literary Agency.
Novel: Blood and Roses
Purchase link

Social media and web links:
Twitter @cathokin
The History Girls

Sharon Penman
a sense of authenticity in everything
Language quotes

Women’s History Month – guest post by Liz Williams

Today’s guest is UK writer Liz Williams, writing about the work of Mary Gentle. Those few words hide so very much interesting stuff. I was going to write a lengthy introduction but I lost all the time to exploring her fascinating web presence. Liz needs her own essay. If someone reading this writes it, I’m happy to host it. She’s one of many women fantasy writers who have received recognition (shortlisted for many awards) and are still less visible than they ought be. Her writing and her web presence displays how very wrong we are to let this happen. Where does one start? With her novels, and with some of her other articles.

The first time I picked up a book by Mary Gentle it was, as was usual for me, the title which attracted me. It was Rats and Gargyoles, and for a reader who loved the Gothic, this seemed tailormade. I couldn’t put it down and I searched – in the days before the internet – for anything else by Gentle written in that world. I found it, in The Architecture of Desire and Left to his Own Devices, and I couldn’t believe, and still can’t believe, how many risks she took with this short series. (“I can’t believe she – ” will be a mantra running through this little article, by the way, so get used to it). The same characters, but different universes: radically different. One a kind of urByzantium (the city at the heart of the world in Rats and Gargoyles); an alternative Carolingian London (alternative because both Charles and Cromwell are women); and a version of our world in the yuppy 1980s. Couldn’t believe she’d done it; couldn’t believe she got away with it. I don’t think you could publish this kind of daring now, and with a female protagonist who was so many things: a lover, a fighter, a schemer, somewhat of a crook, and a rapist. Valentine, the White Crow, is not the stereotype feisty-yet-beleaguered heroine of so much urban fantasy. She sexually assaults another woman. She’s manipulative and unkind. And yet she is vibrant and comes to life in a way that many cardboard cut-out fantasy heroines simply fail to do. So does her lover Casaubon: huge, crafty, charming. No-one whom Gentle writes is off the shelf. Her characters are difficult and complex, often unsympathetic, sometimes downright unlikeable. Much like her worlds, in fact.

The City at the Heart of the world remains one of the great pieces of fantasy worldbuilding: fuelled by a magic taken mainly from the Renaissance Hermeticism. At its heart lies the knot of rats who, mysteriously, are human sized. They are like Narnia’s Reepicheep, gallant and flamboyant, but often less kind. There are sphinxes, the great Decans of the hours, and women with cow’s tails. The world of the City is fluid, with shifts between sexuality and species. You’re never quite certain what’s going on. I don’t know if anyone has yet done a study of the use of Hermetic magic and alchemy in the works of Mary Gentle, but they really should.

Orthe, the world in Golden Witchbreed and its sequel Ancient Light, is as strange, SF rather than Fantasy. Christie and Ruric Ohrlandis are another great partnership: Ruric, again, is very real, understandable even when we learn what she’s done. Ancient Light, in particular, demonstrates Gentle’s enormous capacity to take risks as a writer and makes huge demands on the reader. At the end of the book, I couldn’t believe what she’d done. It upset me for days. I still can’t quite get my head around it.

And then there’s Grunts! – a satiric fantasy whose heroes are those traditional villains, the Orcs. Again, this is Gentle refusing to play safe, and she carries this to an extraordinary degree with another, unrelated novel: Ash: a Secret History. Gentle normalizes women as fighters, women as mercenaries (she is herself a sword-fighter). Ash reads like a fantasy novel but it isn’t: it’s science fiction. It stands in my mind along with John Crowley’s Aegypt (which also draws on Hermetics) as one of the great novels of alternate worlds.

I caused a bit of a flap in the 1990s by taking issue with the description of China Mieville’s work and that of M John Harrison as the ‘New Weird.’ To me, China’s writing – which I think is superb, by the way – had the ground prepared for it by Gentle, and it annoyed me that she was left out of this new, hip category (not, I should add, necessarily by the two men mentioned, but by the wider genre as a whole). This is partly because critics have a tendency to run after the new shiny, like ferrets, but also because, sigh, Gentle is a woman. I’d love to know that she’s got her place in the genre canon: I think a lot of people find her work too strange, too imaginative, too – something. And yet I’ve never met anyone who didn’t at least profess to respect it. I’m still thinking about her work, years after I’ve read it and she has definitely been an influence on me in that she taught me through her work that you don’t have to stick to one thing, that you must constantly try to stretch the envelope, constantly try new things. And make your work as strange as you can. She’s one of those writers with whom you can’t wait to see what she does next, although I fear that the publishing industry does not quite ‘get’ her, and may never do so. If they do not, it will be our loss. I hope she continues to take those risks, and exhibits that daring, for many years to come.

Women’s History Month – guest, Milena Benini

My guest today is Croatian writer Milena Benini. I love her writing (and just ordered a volume that contains a vampire story by her), but I asked her if she’d write for this year’s WHM because she understands the language barrier that we all face when the best writing is not in a language we read or a culture that’s on our doorstep, and also because of something that struck me when I visited Croatia a few years ago as a guest of Croatian fandom.

Croatian literary culture is amazingly rich. It’s also complex. We’ve seen one aspect of the former Yugoslavian literary cultures in the work of Alma Alexander, and now we’re seeing quite a different one. Simple generalisations do not work when we’re trying to understand popular culture or fiction by women or fiction in languages that we ourselves don’t speak, yet we take refuge in them all the time. We also choose token authors. We choose a single writer as the only one we should take note of when we look at a gender, or a culture, or even a nation. These token authors can be brilliantly gifted writers, but they write as themselves, not as representatives. Milena shows us just how much we can miss when we don’t ask “What writers do women from this particular background read? How important are they?” Ask these questions and then we who come from other places, other cultures, can begin to understand fiction by women writers.

The best kept secret of Croatian (popular) culture: Marija Jurić Zagorka

Every country has a popular culture canon: Britain has Jane Austen, BBC comedies, and Vivienne Westwood; Americans have jazz and blues, Hollywood, and the hard-boiled writers; Italy has Calgari’s pirates, la Cinecittà, and Bonelli comics. Croatia is no different in that respect: it has a tradition of journalism (now largely devastated, but that is a different issue), popular novels, and film (again, largely devastated nowadays, but a different issue). The trick, however, the problem, the key element of this particular narrative is that all of these threads lead back to one woman: Marija Jurić Zagorka.

Born in a prosperous family on March 2 1873, Zagorka did not have a particularly happy life. She was educated in Zagreb and Varaždin, but plans to send her to Switzerland to a young ladies’ finishing school fell through due to her mother’s opposition. When the fifteen-year-old Zagorka expressed a desire to become an actress, her family reacted by arranging a marriage for her: her husband, Hungarian railway official whom she hadn’t even met before the marriage, was seventeen years her senior and required from his wife absolute obedience: later, she described her marriage as similar to being constantly “subjected to a moral inquisition” (Prohaska, quoted in Jakobović Fribec, 2006, 196). After three years, in desperation, Zagorka fled from her husband and Hungary, and returned to Croatia, where her family refused to accept her, even though her father secretly supported her with small sums of money, and helped her obtain a divorce. Because of her escape, and due to her own mother’s testimony, the divorce procedure left her husband blameless and Zagorka destitute, with no right to alimony of any kind. She settled in Zagreb, and started looking for a way to sustain herself independently.

Her first article was published in 1896 in Obzor, one of then most popular dailies. This made her the first female journalist in this part of Europe. After the article, Bishop Strossmayer, a hugely influential figure, personally supported her getting a job at the paper. The opposition to the very idea of a female journalist was so strong that, at first, she had to work in a separate room, for fear that the sight of a female colleague would be too much for the male journalists to bear, and that the newspaper itself would lose readership if they found out that a woman was working for them. She covered politics, both national and international, and quickly became a go-to anonymous expert in Croatian-Hungarian relations – anonymous, because the idea that a woman might not just be following but understanding and explaining political situation was inconceivable, so she was never signed under her articles. Later on, in 1925, she also founded the first Croatian women’s magazine, Ženski list, which she edited and wrote for. She also founded and edited another women’s magazine, and served as journalist or editor in a number of other prominent magazines and dailies in the region, including a period when she single-handedly edited the Obzor daily, while most of the male staff was in prison for counter-government activities. All of this should be enough to have her name in every textbook, but, of course, it wasn’t. Until very recently – and I mean the last ten or fifteen years, well within the 21st century – Zagorka’s name was barely mentioned in journalism histories of Croatia, and when it did appear, it was usually as a footnote, a curiosity, a “fun fact” for those too bored to read the actual text. Part of the reason for this lies, of course, in the mere fact that she was a woman. Another reason, however, can be found in Zagorka’s astounding second career, that of a novelist.

Zagorka started writing fiction even before she started working as a journalist: she published her first short stories in 1886, and even as a child, before her marriage, she had worked with local theatre, writing short plays. But true literary fame – of a peculiar sort – will come to Zagorka in the early 20th century, when she started writing historical novels. It is accepted lore that she was spurred to do so by the aforementioned Bishop Strossmayer, who apparently told her that historical novels would be the best way to awaken national awareness in the general public, resisting the pressure of Hungarian and Austrian cultures that produced most popular entertainment at the time. This is probably true, up to a point: however, to dismiss a literary career spanning more than half a century and producing literally thousands of pages and thousands of devoted fans as the result of a single sentence is to reduce Zagorka, once again, to the role of a poor lost female soul who wouldn’t know what to do with her life if a man hadn’t shown her the way.

Zagorka’s first historical novel, written in the period between 1912. and 1918., remains probably her most popular work: Grička vještica (The Witch of Grič) is a behemoth of a novel, consisting actually of seven tomes, of which the first, Tajna Krvavog mosta (The Secret of the Bloody Bridge) can be read independently, even though it shares characters with the rest of the saga. Set during the reign of Maria-Theresia, it tells the story of a young Croatian noblewoman, countess Nera, who is fighting against prejudice, particularly against the then still current witchcraft trials. The story, which includes dark passages, even darker secrets, forbidden love and court intrigue, but also social commentary, women’s issues and political question, could hold its own with anything written by Walter Scott or Charles Dickens, or any other famous writer.

Even here, the traditional story claims that it was supposed to be a one-off, and that it was the publisher’s thoughtless promise that there would be more of the story after the end of the first novel that produced the remaining six tomes. Some sources even talk about the “yoke of everyday writing” (Croatian Wiki* ) that forced Zagorka to produce her novels.

The first novel in the series was, indeed, very popular, and the first locally-written popular novel to truly capture the public; but it will be with the second one, Countess Nera, that Zagorka will become the legendary name that she is today. The sheer number of children named Nera (and Siniša for the boys, after the main male character of the saga) even today shows the enduring popularity of Zagorka. Published and re-published (with around 20 separate editions since World War 2, not including the repeated serializations), the brave young countess and her adventures left her trace on generations of Croatians.

She also wrote or at least co-wrote the script for the movie based on the novel, as well as the script for another historical spectacle, Matija Gubec, based on the life of a real serf from Zagorje who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1573 and was later executed for his role in the events. Neither one of these movies (made in 1920 and 1917 respectively) was preserved, but, judging from the materials that did survive, they are today considered as key works in the development of Croatian cinema. Both are mentioned in just about every story of early Croatian film; again, Zagorka’s name only began appearing and her work credited in the 21st century.

But Zagorka did not stop there: she also wrote the first Croatian mystery novel (Kneginja iz Petrinjske ulice, Dutchess of Petrinjska Street, 1910), the first Croatian science-fiction novel (Crveni ocean, Red Ocean, 1934) numerous other historical novels (including a saga even more ambitious than The Witch of Grič, a 12-tomes story of Gordana, set in the 15th century) and a number of other works, among which the most famous is Kamen na cesti (A Stone on the Road, 1937), a semi-autobiographical novel in which Zagorka spoke about her life, particularly the pressures and hardships that she encountered in the first half of her life. Completely different from the rest of her work, this novel alone should have, again, put Zagorka’s name into Croatian literary canon, as it provides a chillingly realistic image of a woman trying to make her way through life alone in Zagorka’s time. Not only did this not happen: for decades, Zagorka was considered a worthless female hack who had only produced “stories for cowgirls” (reputedly this was the assessment by Ksaver Šandor Đalski, himself one of the immutable parts of Croatian literary canon whose works have not produced a single child’s name that I know of). This expression, “cowgirl” or “cow-herder”, kravarica, which also encompasses women working with dairy products, had followed Zagorka for a long time. Famously, her own first editor in Obzor called her “a cowgirl from Zagorje and, what’s more, infected with a socialist mentality and feminist notions” (Lasić 1986, 69).

The infection with socialist mentality did not help her much in the supposedly socialist post-World War II Yugoslavia: old and frail, Zagorka spent some time on the brink of starvation: when her still strong fan-base found out about her circumstances, they provided her with help. This show of affection restored Zagorka’s spirit, and inspired her to write again – or at least, that is the accepted story, since obviously the woman must have been incapable of desiring to write without outside support. Her last novel, Jadranka, was published in 1953. Zagorka died in 1957, still beloved by her readers, yet decades away from any serious critical appraisal or recognition.

Today, her apartment houses the Zagreb Centre for Women’s Studies and serves as a museum for her work: they have digitalised part of their collection of papers, and held numerous scientific gatherings dedicated to her life and work, in all of the areas where she left a trace. Her novels still get new editions every few years, and still get read. And, although this is not a personal essay as such, I must add, at the end, that most Croatian female writers I know inevitably count Zagorka as the gigantic, sometimes decisive influence on their lives and careers – myself included.

* Croatian Wikipaedia has been hijacked by a group of traditionalist, rightist editors with nationalist leanings: for them, Zagorka remains immensely important because of her open support for Croatian language and culture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; however, it is obvious that they do not want to give her too much credit, since she is a woman.

Jakopović Fribec, Slavica. “Jurić, Marija (1873-1957).” In: A Bibliographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms: Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries. Eds. Francisca De Haan, Krassimira Daskalova, Anna Loufti. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2006. 195-199
Lasić, Stanko. Književni počeci Marije Jurić Zagorke (1873–1910): uvod u monografiju. Zagreb: Znanje, 1986.

Guest post – from Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

In the music of the spheres, Love is the chord that holds everything together

Somewhere in her youth writer Jennifer Stevenson pieced together way too much about betrayal, loss, healing, death, and second chances. Wanting to understand, she soaked up information from family, books, and schools, ending up with advanced degrees in counseling and (I suspect) simultaneously realizing that she knew too much—and too little—about human nature.

On this journey it looks like she became interested in stories that addressed all the things she valued, and realized that 1) the bass note of her musical universe was the enduring nature of Love, and 2) all forms of human sexuality are real, no-we’re-not-kidding magic. Stevenson dove headfirst into reading about ancient religions, patriarchal suppression of joy and sexual expression, and how our ancient ancestors viewed the many forms of magic (yes, there are multiple kinds). Then she realized that writing fiction might be the only place she could address all these concepts in a manner any woman (and many men) might find entertaining. . .inspiring . . .


Stevenson’s work is all about how whether we like it or not, the world revolves around fertility I.E. sex, I.E. love. Why? Until very recently for humanity, fertility was everything. Raising up children—many of them—to adulthood was the only way to keep a homestead together, to have a roof over your head in old age, to see immortality in the face of a descendant. In pre-patriarchal religions almost every goddess was petitioned for abundant fertility, relief of sexual problems, and for safe pregnancy and childbirth. Even the warrior goddesses of many cultures were also fertility goddesses, something that first the men and then later cultures and religions tried to sever.

The curious can find over at Wikipedia a sampling of the fertility spirits and deities whose names are still known to us. Stevenson recommended to me Patricia Monaghan’s Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines (New World Library (May 6, 2014)). When I looked at parts of the world not as well known to me, I kept finding unusual names and the words “believed to be a goddess in [XYZ] culture.” The goddesses whose tales we still know are the powerful ones, the ones worshipped most recently–or still worshipped. Their names were impossible to erase and many were absorbed as wives to patriarchal gods or as saints.

With her highly praised novel Trash Sex Magic (Small Beer Press, June 1, 2004) Stevenson tackled class issues, sexualization of children, and animistic magic. Her family of trailer trash sex workers is deeply rooted to the land they have magically claimed. With this novel Stevenson set up three “rules” for what was happening and why. First, that sex itself is magical and transcendent—so much so that we instinctively attempt to tame and control it, essentially making it less magical. Second? That people can and do work magic all the time—they just don’t recognize it as magic. Her third premise is that people in the dominant American culture who are best at animistic magic mostly don’t know how they’re doing it. No one gets any training, they have no language or replicated ritual for their magic, and they may even be embarrassed about their powers and attempt to hide or dismiss them. Animistic magic is messy—but it’s powerful.

Once down the rabbit hole of multiple forms of magic, Stevenson could not resist examining where psychology and ritual magic intersected. Her Hinky Chicago books take place in an alternative contemporary world where magic is inexplicably erupting into urban centers. Some cities have already been overwhelmed. In Chicago, IL they cope with the weirdness and fight to keep it off the front pages of newspapers and social media.

Originally planned as romantic comedies where an alpha male was magically locked into a bed (and could not escape until he had satisfied a hundred women) the Hinky Chicago series morphed into questions about consent, self-image, personal power, sex workers, pornography, and sexual harassment. Its magic is rooted in curses reflecting deepest desires and personal character flaws, rebounding and resonating through time. Ritual magic weaves together scholarship and psychology—but emotion can undermine it every time.

Jen Stevenson once told me that most grimoires (written books of spells and reflections on magic) reflect what the men writing them pursued—the medieval equivalent of fantastic wealth, immortality, and their neighbor’s beautiful wife. (If you do a little research, you’ll find that the few grimoires found written by female magicians pursue different goals.)

These tendencies sent Stevenson off on another path. Jewish and Christian traditions (among others) have versions of demonic entities that exist to entice men and women into sexual “sin” as defined by the newer religions. If you read up on what the old dominant religions were in the areas where the new patriarchal religions began to flower, you will see everything that existed to celebrate and enjoy fertility and sexual congress was suddenly labeled as evil. In many cases, goddesses from earlier pantheons became demons of the next religious roundup.

Turn the kaleidoscope another 5 degrees and you may ask, “Where do retired gods and goddesses end up?” Stevenson suggests that many of them end up as incubi and succubi, working for the new religions (specifically, for the Regional Office—Hell—which tempts in opposition to what the Home Office—Heaven—claims it wants, including sex.) If your culture mistrusts sex, or women, or both, there’s work for sex demons.

Why not? Hell doesn’t want souls (no one can take your soul, it’s you). It wants people tempted to its side of the line. At least that’s one story—as we wander through the Slacker Demons books, we recognize two bloated, opposing administrations that are barely functioning. Working as a sex demon is a great way to duck dealing with your problems for a few decades. . .centuries. . . millennia.

But woven through the Slacker Demons and Coed Demon Sluts books is the mysterious woman called Delilah who implies that she’s a recruiter for Hell. Who is she? Does she really work for Hell? (Are the slacker demons and sluts themselves really working for Hell?) What’s her end game? It’s not really a spoiler to say that some powerful deities of love, sex, and fertility are still trying to push the ultimate drug—love. (Heaven and Hell, on the other hand, are pushing their version of sex, love and fertility. Cultural versions always come with strings attached.)

More—if ancient gods turned incubi sleep with the same person too many times, their power “rubs off” on their partners. They start to turn a mortal into a Power.
From It’s Raining Men:

With a wave, she silenced me. “Whether you love or not, the process will continue until you are fully yourself. Because your powers are activating, this will happen far more rapidly than it does to–” she stirred a hand vaguely in the air “–all these ordinary women.”
“It could happen to any of them? I don’t believe it! Why doesn’t anybody know? I can’t believe, with all these heavens and hells, that nobody knows what love can do!”
“You think all those heavens and hells want ordinary women to know that they could be goddesses?” Aphrodite gave a silvery laugh. “They would hide it from you. They have hidden it from you.”
“But you’re telling me.”
Aphrodite smiled. “Ah, but I am a reckless goddess. My purpose is to propagate life at all costs. If I give away the secret that sexual magical power is inherent in everyone and in everything? So what? It’s not really a secret. It is the juice that makes life happen when you throw a forkful of lightning through a mud puddle. . . .”

Stevenson calls the magic of the Slacker Demons series contagious magic—if you look hard for it throughout history, the belief in it may be older than dirt.
Her Coed Demon Sluts, on the other hand, are ordinary women offered a chance to solve (or avoid dealing with) their own problems by becoming succubi. When researching for her books, Stevenson asked a lot of men and women, gay and straight, what it would take to get them to sign a contract with Hell to become a sex demon.

A broad, informal survey of my acquaintance showed that my male friends, and my lesbian friends, all agreed that the reason they would sign up for a gig as a sex demon was simply the sex.“But my straight women friends had lots of different answers.“I’d do it for the power.“I’d do it to be the boss in bed for once.“I’d do it to have more fun in bed.“I’d do it for the money.“I’d do it because I’m bored.“I’d do it to be young / thin / healthy / normal.“I’d do it to make myself extraordinary.

A nearly immortal, nearly indestructible body, malleable to whatever you want to look like, free rent and utilities, thirty pieces of antique silver a month (so the pay ranges from excellent to sky’s the limit) and a requirement to eat 4500 calories a day or you get fat. You will like sex—the body is designed to be a man’s greatest fantasy. The price? Tempt three people a month into indiscretion—bonus if they act on it! The catch? You are still you—the problems you are running from still need resolving.

Of course craziness follows. And if you have a good imagination (and these women do) you can do—and be–all sorts of things with this body. The creative drive begins here. This is what Stevenson considers the shmoo form of magic—magic that can be or do anything through wish fulfillment. It’s an irrational magic, and this form is what infuriates people who rave against “making things up.”

Of course all these tales are talking about magic—sexual energy–as the ultimate metaphor, the creative impulse that humans struggle to understand, explain, corral, form into patterns, or simply accept as the oldest story ever told. Aphrodite is Life, and she’ll use whatever it takes to form new creations. Her job is to start things, to plant the first seeds—of love, bonds, marriage, child-rearing, community-building. You may start out toying with sex (or any other form of creation) but if you get hit with one of those arrows of love? You’re down the rabbit hole into wonderland. There is no greater drug, and romance readers return again and again for their favorite hit.

Of course romance novels are one of the most subversive forms of writing out there, celebrating variations of partnership and equality, the idea that committed relationships can and do work, and that the millions of complications thrown at lovers can be defused, averted, and overcome. But examining that facet of Stevenson’s mission is another story.

Where will Stevenson go next? I know she has promised her fans some funny romcoms, and has another Hinky Chicago book in the works. But she’s also mentioned a thriller delving into the dark side of knowing the soul of someone you love. In the meantime, remember the immortal words of Delilah the hidden goddess:
“Aren’t you tired of doing everything right?

Wouldn’t you like a second chance to go back and do it wrong?”

Partial bibliography of suspected and confirmed goddess, magic, and feminism sources for Stevenson’s works:

Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates
The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature), Mary Carruthers (Stevenson recommends reading The Book of Memory after The Art of Memory)
The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature), by Mary Carruthers
Devoted To You, ed. Judy Harrow
The Book of Goddesses & Heroines, Patricia Monaghan
Eros & Magic in the Renaissance, by Ioan P. Culianu and Margaret Cook
Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, Ted Anton
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Frances A. Yates
God of Desire, Catherine Benton
Golden Dawn Society writings
The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex, and the Woman in Question, Ruth Brandon
The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, Wayne Shumaker
The Qabalistic Tarot, Robert Wang
Real Magic, Isaak Bonewits
Reflections on Gender and Science, Evelyn Fox Keller
The Theosophical Enlightenment, Joscelyn Godwin
Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes

About Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Cat Kimbriel walks both sides of her preferred genre’s line. She’s written about future world colonization with a gaze at odds with traditional space adventures, and writes alternative history fantasy about a tough young pioneer teen. She’s currently working on a contemporary fantasy about curses, forgiveness, and very different—even radical–ways of looking at the twilight worlds. She’s also working on a short Nuala piece and mulling over a new Alfreda novel.
You can find her fantasy & science fiction, including free samples, at her Book View Café bookshelf. Cat builds worlds that contain compassion and justice — come join the journey.

Women’s History Month – guest, Kelly Gardiner

On Emma Donoghue’s queer histories

‘Stories are a different kind of true,’ Ma tells five year-old Jack, in Emma Donoghue’s award-winning Room.

This urban contemporary thriller was a global bestseller, won numerous awards, and was adapted by Donoghue into a 2015 film for which Brie Larson won an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Actress.

Reading Room is a masterclass in voice, dramatic irony, and point of view. The entire novel is narrated by Jack, in a pitch-perfect child’s voice, and as a protagonist who has no idea what is really happening in the story, set in a room in a backyard, somewhere in modern North America.

It is also dramatically different from most of Donoghue’s other novels. From Slammerkin (2000) to her most recent, The Wonder (2017), this Irish-Canadian novelist and scriptwriter has been largely concerned with re-examining past lives, and particularly queer lives – something that apparently came as a shock to some fans of Room.

She is also a literary historian of note, with a PhD from Cambridge (her thesis was on friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction), and several books bridging the academic and popular cultural and literary history markets: Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), the biography We Are Michael Field (1998), and Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (2010).

In Inseparable, Donoghue traces the strands of overt and subtextual portrayals of lesbians, in particular, in literature throughout history and argues that they have become important and recognisable archetypes lasting into the twenty-first century. She categorised these portrayals as:
• the Cross-dresser (often as a Female Bridegroom)
• the Amazon
• the Passionate friends
• the Rival (to the hero)
• the Desperate lover/suicide
• the Monster
• the Devil-may-care lesbian
• the Icon (Donoghue 2010).

Several of these character types arise from ancient portrayals of Sappho, in particular, or of warrior women of antiquity. Donoghue argues that classical and early modern literature firmly embedded characters such as the Female Bridegroom and the Amazon in literature and, by extension, in the popular imagination, making queer women, masculine women, and women dressed in men’s clothes, familiar and even beloved. The Female Bridegroom story is one in which a woman wanderer (or picara), dressed as a man, is accidentally betrothed to or attractive to another woman – like Iphis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Oronce in Amadis de Gaule, or Viola in Twelfth Night. The Amazon story positioned the cross-dresser as a noble warrior woman, usually defending either her people or her family. Both appear repeatedly in literature and especially on stage throughout the centuries, providing an opportunity for public depictions of cross-dressing and same-sex attraction (and showing off women’s legs).

Donoghue’s analysis was incredibly important to my own work on historical representations of crossdressing women in my PhD thesis and post-doctoral writing about literary history. To those groupings of depictions, I added another two: Folly, and the Androgyne, both representatives of subversion, parody and masquerade – although Folly is also a fairground figure of laughter.

This also informs my creative work, as it clearly has for Donoghue. My novel Goddess, based on the life of the crossdressing, sword-wielding opera star, Mademoiselle de Maupin (also known as Julie d’Aubigny), makes a conscious reference to each of these archetypes, and also to the picaresque works in which they often appear; partly because earlier depictions of La Maupin’s life story inevitably categorise her as an Amazon or a Sappho. I reasoned that the real La Maupin might have read many of those key texts, such as Metamorphoses. I also wanted to recognise that legendary women like her helped along the development of those archetypes in literature, the arts, and the public imagination – through to her portrayal as a kick-ass babe in comics and popular culture today. I’m sure nobody noticed, but it’s there, embedded in the text.

Clearly, for women like La Maupin, all or any of those archetypes might apply to various stages of her life, and in the different versions of her character created by others over time. The Female Bridegroom, for example, was doubled and doubled again, in Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). These are forceful, sometimes unconscious, tropes that surface in depictions of many women, but particularly what is now called ‘the strong female protagonist’ (annoyingly, as if other female protagonists aren’t strong).

It’s no surprise, then, that these ideas crop up in Donoghue’s own historical fiction, particularly her 2014 novel, Frog Music, based on the lives of real women involved in an 1876 murder in wild old San Francisco. Jenny Bonnet is a frog-catcher, an enigma in death and in life, and in some ways the embodiment of the female wanderer, even down to the trousers she wears in spite of constantly being arrested for crossdressing. She runs down her destiny in the street – riding her bicycle right into Blanche’s swirling skirts:

But the voice – not a man’s, Blanche realises. Not a boy’s even. This is a girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline. One of those eccentrics on whom the City prides itself. (p13)

Blanche is an erotic dancer who is thrown into the role of amateur sleuth, although she’s not very good at it. She is driven to solve the twin mysteries of (spoiler!) Jenny’s death and her son’s disappearance, but ends up chasing red herrings through to the final pages. ‘The case,’ she decides at one point, ‘is goddamn unsolvable’ (2014, p 318). She is, like many young women, vulnerable and seemingly ruled by the men in her life, until she meets Jenny, who both implodes and explains her unstable life. Blanche remains as slippery as a frog, and poor Jenny, well:

‘Jenny should always have strolled, loose-limbed, up- and downhill, taking the whole City for her stage.’ (p 294)

What reads as a compelling Neo-Victorian novel is distilled through years of research and analysis in archives, and in ancient, early modern, and Victorian texts. The fiction wears this mantle very lightly. Jenny, the charming, cross-dressing frog-catcher embodies the spirit of the early modern Amazon who wandered the countryside, and the pages of the picaresque novels: a figure of pity, reverence, and fun, and always an outsider. She, like many of the characters that populate Donoghue’s historical fiction, is based on a real person from the past, and her story fuses Donoghue’s critical, historical and creative interests.
Fiction, after all, is a different kind of true.

Room trailer

Dr Kelly Gardiner is a novelist and a lecturer in creative writing at La Trobe University. Her books include 1917: Australia’s Great War, Goddess, and the young adult novels Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes. She is the co-host of Unladylike, a podcast on women and writing.