Category Archives: Musings

Under the Headlines

HNS2017small@2xWhether you are a lover of historical novels or just someone who happens to write them, it would be hard not to be impressed with this year’s line-up of guest speakers and attendees at the annual HNS Conference in Portland (#HNS2017)


The guest of honor, Geraldine Brooks, is one of my all-time favorite writers. Before she was a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist for her second work of fiction, March, she was a brilliant international correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden life of Islamic Women, written twenty years ago but still relevant today. The other guest of honor David Ebershoff, perhaps best known for his novel The Danish Girl, also has a biography that would knock your socks off – not only is he an award-winning novelist in his own right, but also the distinguished editor of multiple New York Times bestsellers. One could not be blamed for having an acute attack of “Fan-itis” amidst such luminaries. As my stepson used to say whenever at a loss for words, “You hadda be there.”


The top line take-away for me was Gratitude. Continue reading Under the Headlines

Hath not a Jew eyes?

Shylock's revengeYesterday I walked out of a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that was showing at our local cinema. It was the brilliant, “internationally acclaimed” production from the Globe Theater Company, directed by Jonathan Munby and starring Jonathan Pryce. But I walked out twenty minutes before the end because I couldn’t bear to sit through another minute after watching the utter humiliation of the Jew, Shylock, at the hands of his triumphalist Christian “opponents.” Yes, it was “just a play,” and a play I have seen many times before, but there was something frighteningly contemporary about what was playing out on the set, something which created a reaction in me that I had never experienced watching previous productions of this play.

A quick background: Shylock, a Jew in 16th century Venice, lends money to a merchant, Antonio, who in turns gives the money to his dear friend, Bassanio, so that the latter can pursue his love interest in a manner befitting a gentleman. Shylock hates Continue reading Hath not a Jew eyes?

Creating Fact from Fiction – More Adventures in Field Research

Two years ago, in November 2013, I wrote an epilogue to my research trip in France and Belgium, entitled “The Challenges of Field Research” in which I lamented the things that can thwart the best-laid schemes of mice and moles digging for information. I am a great believer in field research, particularly when it comes to checking out the basic lay of the land where the novel is set, which, unlike most things, doesn’t change that much over the centuries. This kind of research can save an author from many embarrassing mistakes such as sending one’s hero on a trek that is supposed to last only three days, but in the 12th century would have taken at least three weeks (due to forests, rivers, mountains etc., not to mention the fact that the journey had to be made on foot!). Of course, a good topographical map can save the day, but not always. And there is no faster way to lose one’s credibility as an author than misrepresenting the land or seascape, or describing a topographical detail that doesn’t and probably never did exist – occasionally a “local” may actually read your book! And so, mindful of the value of such research, a few weeks ago I headed for Sardinia.

La Cathedrale, Sardinia

I was originally scheduled to be in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Antalya, Turkey, both of which play a far greater role than Sardinia in my second novel, Holy the Sword, set in the time of the Second, Third & Fourth Crusades, 1146-1204. However, as of the summer of 2016, discretion seemed to be the better part of valor as far as visiting Istanbul was concerned, and so I abandoned my plans for Turkey in favor of Sardinia. Apart from the fact that I had never visited that island before, there was a fairly good reason in terms of the novel.

My hero Rohan de Brancion, a young crusader on the way to the Holy Land in 1148, is caught up Continue reading Creating Fact from Fiction – More Adventures in Field Research

Is Historical Fiction an Oxymoron?

In a recent post, I referenced an excellent article by Michael Caines published in the Times Literary Supplement last month on this subject, apropos of the HNS Conference in Oxford this September. Taking the assertion that historical fiction is a “deeply bogus” genre, the author goes on to argue that while history tells us “what was,” fiction tells us “what might have been.” And yet as the popularity of historical fiction today suggests, the public continues to enjoy venturing into this hybrid genre, bogus or not. I would also add that the majority of successful historical novels today are deeply researched “for historical accuracy,” even the most imaginative page-turners among them – my own personal favorites in that category being C.J Sansom’s Shardlake, a brilliant series about a lawyer/detective in Tudor England and anything that rolls off the pen of Bernard Cornwell.

By contrast, the historical novels I first fell in love with (back in the time which some today would consider “history”) historical accuracy was barely Continue reading Is Historical Fiction an Oxymoron?

Who can tell a book by its cover?

Apparently a lot of people, judging by the emphasis placed on cover design by the experts at the Historical Novel Society Conference I attended recently in Oxford (UK not OH!). Famed Oxford Book Shop, Blackwell’s, had a stunning array of books by conference presenters and attendees on display in the reception area (which in my overwhelmed state I forgot to photograph) but here are some examples taken from promotional material created by and for the authors in attendance.
In this new era of self-publishing, hybrid-publishing, as well as the proliferation of independent publishers (so-called “indies”), authors potentially have far greater control over how their story is represented in promotional material and above all on the book’s cover, and so for example Continue reading Who can tell a book by its cover?

Talking of heroes and great men…

Here is one who gets a lot more credit in both categories than he deserves thanks to the infatuation of the Victorians with the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Richard I of England, better known as Richard the Lion Heart (or Coeur de Lion in his native French!) is the only English king to be honored with a statue in front of the Houses of Parliament, implying some connection with that ancient institution, or at least the country it represents. Richard, although a great soldier (credit where credit is due) spent almost no time in his English kingdom, preferring his lands in France when he wasn’t half way around the world slaying “infidels,” while soaking his poor English tax payers to finance his crusade (not to mention pay his enormous ransom when he was careless enough to get captured). Oh well, the English have always loved a “romantic” figure!

Richard I

Funnily enough, just around the corner, more or less tucked away, is another statue, the oft reviled Oliver Cromwell, Continue reading Talking of heroes and great men…

London, Sunday September 18th

The Elizabeth Tower (the “house” of the great bell, Big Ben)

Big Ben strikes the quarter hour. The streets of London’s famous Parliament Square are all but deserted on this early Sunday morning. A few stragglers are heading for Westminster Abbey for matins, a very few. We are shunted off to Saint Margaret’s, the lovely Abbey Church next door. It turns out that in a few hours there is to be a memorial service in the Abbey to commemorate the Battle of Britain when pilots from all the allied nations

The Great Winston Churchill

(average age 22) fought in the skies above England for three long months between July and October 1940 to beat off the formidable forces of the German Luftwaffe. Most of us today owe our freedom to the fact that they succeeded, or to put it in the eloquent words of the British Prime Minister at the time Winston Churchill, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”


The Man who walked through walls 

More from quirky Montmartre. OK so it may not be Rodin but this – can we even call it a statue? – has quite an impact and clearly has attracted its share of fans since its first appearance back in 1989 judging by his burnished left hand – the suggestion that touching those long extended fingers dispels “writer’s block” may have something to do with it!  His name is M. Dutilleul , a character in a science fiction story by Marcel Aymé published in 1943. Although otherwise a nonentity, Dutilleul discovers that he has the rare gift of being able to walk through walls, a gift he uses to hilarious effect until one day while escaping from an irate husband whose wife he had been “visiting” something goes wrong  – “Et Voilà” as the the French say, here he is, stuck for eternity! Poor Dutilleul.

Brancion – October 2 2013

View of Village from Castle Brancion
View of Village from Castle Brancion

I first visited Brancion several years ago on a Pilgrimage through Burgundy. This ancient medieval village, tucked away on a hilltop above the valley of the river Grosne immediately captured my imagination. You enter by way of a covered stone gateway (the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones is still almost audible). To your right, and elevated above the village, stands the ruins of the 12th century keep with its later 14th century additions still more or less intact.

View of Countryside from Brancion
View of countryside from Brancion

The views from its walls are spectacular and offer a clear view of the surrounding countryside – no enemy was going to sneak up on the lords of Brancion. But who were these lords who built this place? Continue reading Brancion – October 2 2013

Cluny – October 2 2013

Cluny today from end to end
Cluny today, from end to end

Cluny breaks your heart – at least it breaks mine. Traveling around France you become accustomed to seeing the destruction visited on Cathedrals, Churches, Abbeys and religious artifacts during the French Revolution (1789-1799), but in my view nothing compares with the loss of this once magnificent architectural and spiritual marvel of Medieval Europe, the greatest Abbey in western Christendom and Motherhouse of the Benedictine order. Little remains today of the glory that was Cluny, although you can still see the foundations extending from the remaining towers and running for nearly quarter of a mile parallel to the market square and streets of present day Cluny (now in part the site of the lovely little hotel de la Bourgogne.) Continue reading Cluny – October 2 2013