To celebrate our 25 years of marriage, my husband and I traveled to romantic Scotland. Although we spent about two weeks there, we did not visit many places. Rather than running around and seeing everything, we like to get a feel for what it would be like to live in the places we visit.
We spent 5 days in Inverness, the “capitol” of the Highlands. We stayed at the Bluebell House, a lovely bed and breakfast on Kenneth Street. Inverness is more town than city, and in our time here we learned to get around without a map and find our favorite places. I explored some residential neighborhoods to discover where the protagonist of my next novel would live and walked frequently along and across the River Ness, where some exciting events will take place.
Here are some pictures of the lovely Inverness:
As you can see, not your normal tourist photos. Still, there were some tourist-y type things we had to do. We visited Culloden Battlefield and the Clava Cairns.
We also visited the Isle of Skye, which has exploded with tourists–so much so, that the roads cannot handle the increased traffic. Potholes and the smallness of the lanes make for dangerous driving. Fortunately, we booked a Happy Tours guide who took us along Loch Ness and to the Isle of Skye, so we didn’t do any driving that day.
From Inverness, we visited Pitlochry and Aberdeen, then traveled to Cruden Bay and Slains Castle, the setting of one of my favorite novels.
My next blog post will be about that visit and what it is like to see places you’ve read about in a favorite story.
It has been a long time since I last posted on this blog. I’ve been busy! For the past year, I was much busier at school than normal, teaching more classes and doing a lot of committee work. Thank goodness for the summer!
In a few days, my husband and I will be visiting Scotland! I’ve wanted to visit this country for a long time. Last year was our 25th anniversary and we waited up to travel this summer. While there, we will be seeing sites, getting to know the natives, visiting key scenes in Outlander and The Winter Sea, and I will be doing research for my next novel.
When the trip is over, I will share pictures and talk about the trip here. If you are facebook and/or instagram friends with me, you will likely get more recent updates and pictures. If you aren’t social media friends with me, please friend me–or wait until I post another blog to learn about my Scotland adventures.
Books are my inspiration and my solace. No matter how busy I am, I make time to read. It is how I relax and stay sane. Below are the best of the books I read this past year. Intended audience key: MG: for middle grade readers (children ages 8-13), A: for adults.
2018 was the year I discovered N.K. Jemisin (A).
I was blown away by her Broken Earth trilogy (The Fifth Season,The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky), which takes place in a fantasy-earth world where magic controls geology–to a certain extent. Creative and brilliant. You can read here what I wrote about that series in the summer. I also enjoyed Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods. In this world, gods and godlings mix regularly with mortals. The politics of the humans and the gods are elaborate and deadly. Incredible world building. The most appealing thing to me about Jemisin is her use of women and people of color as central, complex characters.
The rest of the books are listed in the order in which I read them:
Unless by Carol Shields (A)
Rita Winter is a mostly happy, forty-something successful Canadian writer whose teenage daughter drops out of university in order to sit in silence on an Ontario street with the sign “goodness,” for reasons nobody understands. Shields’ ability to develop characters, imagine relationships and make a reader care about people is amazing.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (A)
Claire DeWitt is a private investigator who obsessively follows the advice of a book she found as a teenager. Something mysterious happened to young Claire and that is slowly revealed as background to the actual mysteries. In the first book Claire is hired to discover what happened to a missing district attorney who may or may not have died during Hurricane Katrina. In the second book, Claire investigates the death of her ex-boyfriend in San Francisco. These mystery novels are strange and dark and, for me, entirely engaging. I eagerly await the next installment.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (A)
In 19th century Ireland, a young girl survives for months without eating. Some call it a miracle, but the church needs “proof.” A skeptical nurse is hired to watch over the child and see if she is eating. Soon the nurse realizes that her watchful eyes could be preventing the secret delivery of food which will eventually cause the girl to die. I found this story fascinating on so many levels: the character development, the religious politics, the plight of women in male-dominated societies, and the discovery that there are many actual historical references to young-girl-not-eating “miracles.”
The Knowledge by Martha Grimes (A)
For years I’ve been a fan of Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries and this one I found especially good. A murder occurs outside an invitation-only elite gallery/bar, and the alleged culprit immediately escapes to Africa, but he is followed by a young girl who is part of an underground-network of pickpockets, cab drivers, and people watchers. There is a lot going on, and I won’t spoil it. If you haven’t read any Richard Jury novels, I’d suggest reading them all, in order, as part of the fun is catching up with the side characters that are Richard’s friends.
Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley (A)
I’ve never met a Kearsley novel that I didn’t whole-heartedly love. This is my new favorite. As usual, there are two parallel stories. A modern day tale of a Canadian archivist who is hired to make a museum of an old Long Island house, allegedly haunted by someone murdered during the French and Indian War. The historical story follows the origin of the ghost story. In the 1700s a family is forced to billet an enemy Canadian solider, and a relationship develops between the soldier and the family’s daughter. But, of course, there is much, much more going on. Kearsley is a master at bringing history to life, at creating complicated and emotional relationships: both romantic and familial, at weaving suspense between past and present, and by being a little bit spooky. A clever and satisfying story.
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (MG)
Many people think this may win the 2018 Newbery Award, and I won’t be surprised if it does. I’ll admit the story started slow for me, but then I got caught up in it and couldn’t put it down. Candice finds a clue in her grandmother’s house that could lead to finding a large amount of money for the small South Carolina town where she is currently living. Unfortunately, chasing after this fortune ruined her grandmother’s career and reputation. In a parallel story, we follow the historical injustice that happened in that town and created the inheritance. This is an impressive puzzle-mystery that children will really get into, and it also covers important topics like racial injustice, segregation, divorce, bullying and more. That makes it seem heavy, which it isn’t. It’s a fun read with humor and great characters.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (A)
This is a collection of essays written by Ann Patchett for magazines and newspapers, for speeches given at commencements and conferences. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I love Ann Patchett, so I gave this collection a try. Every story rang true for me. Interesting and engaging and wise. The title comes from one essay– not all the writing is about marriage. Many of the essays involve advice to writers or observations about writing, but Patchett covers many other topics as well.
Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (MG)
This children’s novel takes place in the middle ages and follows the adventures of a hunchback boy who is hired to carry a bag for a pilgrim. They have adventures as they travel and the reader comes to realize there is something unusual about the boy (who doesn’t eat and can talk to animals) and the pilgrim (who is more a thief than a religious person). I cared a great deal for Boy and found this story a lot of fun.
Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (MG)
Kate DiCamillo’s writing always draws me in. There is something about her style I find appealing: it’s simple and yet deeply true, personal and heartfelt. This story follows Louisiana, a character from DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale. Louisiana has been raised by her crazy, odd-ball grandmother who, at the beginning of this book, wakes Louisiana in the middle of the night to “run away,” leaving behind all the girl’s adored pets and new friends. An empty gas tank and a toothache cause them to end up in Richford, Georgia, where Louisiana learns much and finds what she needs.
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (MG)
Amal’s dreams of becoming a teacher are dashed one day when she doesn’t give up her pomegranate to the richest man in her Pakistani village. He calls in her father’s debts and Amal ends up a servant in the Khan’s household. This is an engaging story with an intelligent and strong protagonist. It took turns both expected and surprising. A well-needed story explaining the indentured servitude that occurs to many young women around the world.
Circe by Madeline Miller (A)
Circe is a daughter of Helios, Titan and god of the sun, and the nymph Perse. My knowledge of Greek mythology and Homer’s The Odyssey is rather mediocre. It was great fun to see the cast of characters I knew (the minotaur, Icarus, Jason) and and did not know (Aeetes, Hera, Scylla) pass through Circe’s story. The writing is beautiful and the character and world development perfect. Great fun.
I’d love to hear what your favorite books are of the past year.
News #1: A month or two ago I mentioned that Syncopation: A Memoir of Adele Hugo was named a “diamond” and that a review on the Discovering Diamonds website would be forthcoming. The review is up, and it is lovely.
News #2: Syncopation: A Memoir of Adele Hugo is now available as an e-book on amazonUS and amazonUK.
If you have already read Syncopation, consider writing a review of it on amazon: all reviews are welcome, whether you loved it or hated it. After all, no book is for everyone, and shoppers should know if it is a good match for them or not.
Discovering Diamonds is a book review site for historical fiction, bringing attention to well written books published by small presses or self published. The reviewers read many independently published books, and most are not designated a Diamond. I’m stunned and honored that Syncopation is receiving this accolade.
Discovering Diamonds is a wonderful resource for readers of historical fiction who would like to find new books, especially exceptional books overlooked by mainstream publishers. I encourage you to visit the site, to find and read some of the other Diamonds they have discovered.
ElizabethCF: Hi Elizabeth, welcome to my blog! How did you first get involved in the HNS?
ElizabethKM: I first heard about HNS way back in 2011 when I received an email asking if I was interested in attending the San Diego conference as a blogger and author. I had never heard of HNS before but I was immediately intrigued and ended up joining. I had no idea that a group existed that shared my love of historical fiction. It was like the best kept secret. I’ve been a member ever since.
ElizabethCF: One of the wonderful things about the HNS conference is that all writers attending have the opportunity to pitch to an agent or editor. Can you tell us what exactly your job as Agents and Editors Liaison entails?
ElizabethKM: My job involves being a liaison between the conference and the editors and agents. I initially contacted all eight editors and agents who are attending this conference this year. Several of the editors and agents such as Irene Goodman, Anna Michels and Kevan Lyon have attended the conference before but several are new to the conference. I’m also responsible for putting together the pitch schedules for each editor and agent which involves a great deal of juggling.
ElizabethCF: Who are all of the agents and editors attending the conference this year?
ElizabethKM: Our editors this year are Anna Michels from Sourcebooks, Lucia Macro from Harper Collins, Bess Cozby from TOR books, Martin Biro from Kensington. Agents include Irene Goodman, Kevan Lyon (Marsal Lyon Literary Agency), Jennifer Weltz (Jean V Naggar Literary Agency) and Erin Harris (Folio Lit).
ElizabethCF: You are the author of the blog Scandalous Women. Launched in 2007, the site has averaged over 20,000 hits a month and was named on the the 50 Top History Blogs by Zen College Life. Can you tell us what prompted you to start this blog?
ElizabethKM: Frankly I was bored blogging about myself. I’ve always been a huge fan of biographies and historical fiction since I was a child, particularly the novels of Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton. It seemed natural to start blogging about all these fascinating women that I was reading about. And everyday I would discover more and more women that I had never known about. It was really a labor of love from the very first day.
ElizabethCF: Do you have a favorite scandalous woman–or one you would enjoy telling us about?
ElizabethKM: Wow, that’s really hard. All of the women that I’ve written about are my favorites. But if I had to choose one, it would be a toss-up between Anne Boleyn and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were hugely controversial during their lifetimes, misjudged, and misunderstood. Anne Boleyn, of course, Henry VIII’s second wife who ended up losing her life after less than three years of marriage, but gave the world Elizabeth II. And Mary Wollstonecraft traveling to France to see the Revolution first hand, wrote “The Vindication of the Rights of Women”, gave birth out of wedlock, and managed to make a living as a writer in the 18th century. It took huge courage for her to leave the safety net of a job as a governess to create an independent life for herself. And course she was the mother of Mary Shelley.
ElizabethCF: How do you go about researching each of the stories?
ElizabethKM: For any of the women that I’ve written about, I start off with what I can find on the Internet, read several biographies before I sit down to write. Some of the women I’ve written about such as Gertrude Bell and Lady Hester Stanhope were so fascinating that I could have gone on researching them forever. I’m really looking forward to watching the new film about Gertrude starring Nicole Kidman, Queen of the Desert.
Elizabeth CF: After several years of success as a blog, Scandalous Women became a book: Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women, published in 2011 by TarcherPerigee. Was it difficult choosing which women to include in the book?
ElizabethKM: Yes, it was terribly difficult. I wanted to include several of the women that I had already written about on the blog, but it was also important to have new content for readers. My agent and my editor wanted to make sure that there was a nice mix of women that were recognizable along with many women who might not be. Also, my word count was only 75,000 so I had to limit the number of women that I profiled. I think that 35 turned out to be a great number. I went back and forth on several women who ultimately didn’t make it into the book including Princess Diana, Patty Hearst and Gloria Steinham.
ElizabethCF: Can you tell us anything more about yourself?
ElizabethKM: I’m a former actress and producer, mainly classical theatre. Also, in my spare time I like to dance. It relaxes me. Ballroom dancing in particular especially American Rhythm, rumba, cha-cha, mambo, East Coast Swing, bolero and samba.
Elizabeth CF: Thanks, Elizabeth! It was great to learn more about you, Scandalous Women and the HNS Conference.
Today I’m welcoming Martin Lee to my series of author interviews. Martin writes historical crime novels under the name M. J. Lee. His books include the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, the Danilov series, and the Pepys series.
Elizabeth: Welcome, Martin–or would you prefer to be called M. J. ?
Martin: Hi Elizabeth, Great to be here. Martin’s fine. Unfortunately, there are about six other Martin Lee’s writing: that’s why I use my initials.
Elizabeth: Your latest mystery, The Somme Legacy features Jayne Sinclair. Can you tell us a bit about this novel and why this series is labeled as “genealogical” mysteries?
Martin: The Somme Legacy is set in the years around the first World War. It’s a follow up to The Irish Inheritance. I was drawn to the story because it was such a dramatic time for people in England; women were demanding the vote, the nation went to war and, caught up in this maelstrom, are two young lovers, David Russell and Rose Clarke. Jayne Sinclair is trying to prove they actually married in order for an ancestor to claim an inheritance. You’ll have to read the book to find out if she succeeds!!
I love genealogy, history and crime stories so these genealogical mysteries are my way of wrapping my three loves all in one book. They are a joy to write, and, I hope, a pleasure to read. At heart, genealogy asks the question ‘Who are we?’ In a more and more dislocated age, where ‘fake news’ abounds, answering that question becomes truly important to our sense of self. And besides, there are some wonderful family stories out there.
Elizabeth: I assume your Pepys series features Samuel Pepys, seventeenth century English diarist. Can you tell us about these mysteries?
Martin: I love Samuel Pepys. An auntie gave me the edited diaries when I was 15 and I loved the wit, bonhomie and sheer bravado of the man. I’ve now read the complete diaries three times, so I thought it was about time I brought him to life. He was such a great observer of human nature; he would have made a great detective. If fact, he did organize an investigation into his own wrongful imprisonment in 1688.
Elizabeth: Your third series features Inspector Danilov of Shanghai; tell us more about the detective and the setting.
Martin: Talking about this, I’m beginning to think I write too many series!!! Danilov came to me when I was working in Shanghai. One night, I was walking through the art-deco area behind the Bund. The area went quiet, and I suddenly imagined I was back in the middle of 1930s, with jazz pouring out of clubs, flappers on the streets and long, streamlined Studebakers prowling. Danilov was born and demanded to be written. The third in the series, The Murder Game, will be published on March 31st.
Elizabeth: You have lived in many places: Shanghai, London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, and Bangkok. How has this influenced and informed your writing?
Martin: All my novels have a very strong sense of place. The cities are characters themselves. This is just as important to me as plot, voice, structure and all the other elements of the novel.
Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your stories?
Martin: A lot but hopefully it isn’t too obvious. I love research and took a research degree in history. I’m very comfortable working with original documents. For example, my novel, The Irish Inheritance, is set partly in the Easter Rising of 1916. We’re very lucky as there is an extensive archive of interviews with the participants in the Rising at the Irish Archives, the Bureau of Military History, on RTE, the state television station, the Pension service, as well as many memoirs for the period from the likes of Eamonn O’Malley. The Bureau of Military History in Dublin contains over 1200 interviews from people involved in the Easter Rising, transcribed in the 1950s. These are a wonderful trove of original material which I used extensively to ensure the events I described actually took place. Historical accuracy is incredibly important to me, but I’m writing a novel not a work of non-fiction. The imagination comes into play when I see the events through the eyes of my characters, with all their eccentricities and flaws.
Elizabeth: You worked for more than 25 years in advertising before becoming a novelist. How do you feel that background has helped or hindered you as a historical mystery writer?
Martin: Definitely helped. I’m used to working to deadlines and creating under pressure. I never (touch wood) suffer from writer’s block or anything like that. I sit down in front of my PC and the words flow. And working in advertising means I enjoy editing: shaping and refining something to make it better.
Elizabeth: What is your writing process?
Martin: I’m sort of half a plotter and half a pantser. I usually plot the first 30,000 words and then listen to the character and the story, letting them take me where they want to go. If a novel is all plotted, it can feel very formulaic, lacking those twists and turns that keep a reader reading.
Elizabeth: What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?
Martin: I did a lot of research on the suffragettes for The Somme Legacy. And, having a young daughter, I find it amazing that women are still arguing for the same rights and treatment as men 100 years later. How can it take until 2050 before we approach pay parity? How can we have boardrooms dominated by men? How can women still be unequal in this day and age? It defies belief.
Elizabeth: Yes, it defies belief. I could go on and on about that injustice, but instead I’ll stick to our interview. Can you tell us more about yourself?
Martin: I was dragged up in Manchester and both my parents were Irish. Unlike most people I think I was a pretty crap writer at school despite the ministrations of countless good teachers. Writing sort of grew on me as a way of expressing what I love. I went to University and got a degree in History, going on to do a research degree which I never finished. Mrs Thatcher saw fit to cut my grant. For the rest of my life I have been working and traveling. Every seven years, I took a sabbatical from work to do what I loved at that time; traveling, writing, being with friends. I think the worst thing one can do with a life is work. I mean, how many people when they hit 60 wish they had spent more time in the office? Do what you love and love what you do.
Elizabeth: Excellent advice! We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?
Martin: Both. Coffee in the morning and Chinese tea to keep me going.
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Martin: Mountains, there’s always another to climb in the distance.
Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?
Martin: Hiking every day of the week. I shop once a year and only if I have to. Bookshops, of course, don’t count as shopping.
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Martin: Violin. Anything by Bruch.
Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?
Martin: Mystery. Although I am a great Game of Thrones fan.
Elizabeth: Scarlett O’Hara or Jane Eyre?
Martin: Jane Eyre. Scarlett was a spoilt brat…
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Martin: Death scene. Love scenes are so hard to write convincingly…
Elizabeth: To buy Martin’s M.J. Lee books or to learn more about him and his writing visit these sites: