Sunday, February 27, 2011

#SampleSunday: The Burning Candle, Chapter One

PART I: Chapter One – Blood Moon
Crépy-en-Valois, France – February 1096

A billowing shadow, the color of dried blood, devoured the full moon. Isabel clutched the folds of her blue mantle tightly around her and traipsed across the frost-covered ground. The cold penetrated the soles of her leather shoes. Sluices of the evening air tore through her body beneath layers of wool and an ermine-lined mantle. Her heart fluttered inside her chest, but the blood moon enthralled her more than it frightened.

After Vespers, the moon had dispelled the encroaching gloom of dusk and bathed the snowbound landscape at Crépy-en-Valois in its golden glow. Then the light faded, before the ominous darkness began consuming it. Isabel had rushed from the great hall of her father’s château for a glimpse of the sight. Now, her father’s guards and men-at-arms stood in circles around the bailey. They whispered and gestured toward the strange sight in the sky.

“Come away from here, milady.”

Isabel turned at the sound of her nursemaid, Claremond, who shuffled across the bailey. A green mantle fastened across her shoulders with cords trailed in her wake. Beneath Claremond’s ponderous weight, granular deposits of ice cracked. She held a rushlight aloft at an angle in its iron holder. The dim flame illuminated the sagging jowls of her pallid face. Deep folds carved around her opaque eyes and the fleshy wattle under the chin betrayed her advanced years.

Isabel pointed at the rust-colored moon. “What does it mean, Claremond?”

The older woman followed her gaze. “It is an ill omen, milady. First, there were the fires in the sky last April and now this, another sign of God’s displeasure and judgment.”

Isabel shuddered at the thought of righteous anger raining down brimstone and fire on their heads, as her father’s chaplain often preached about during Mass.

Her nurse draped an arm over her shoulders. “No good shall result from anything which occurs this night. It is why I am especially fearful for you.”

“You’re afraid for me? But, why should you be?”

“Come away with me into the great hall and you shall learn. The Comte de Vermandois sent me to fetch you. He and your mother wish to speak with you, before you retire.”

Isabel nodded and fell into step beside Claremond. “Are my parents with the monk who arrived earlier today?”

“They are with Father Onfroi, milady. He is not a monk.”

“He wears the habit of the Benedictines.”

“He does, milady, but he does not live in a monastery, which a monk would never do. He is a priest and confessor.”

“Then why is he here? Father has his own confessor.”

“Patience, milady, you must learn patience. A woman must never appear too eager for anything, including information. Father Onfroi is the envoy of the Comte de Meulan, who is a great magnate and a hero of the conquest of England. I believe Father Onfroi is here to finalize plans for your marriage to the Comte, milady.”

Isabel’s heart leapt. All her concern about the portent of the strange moon vanished. “I cannot wait to be married.”

She picked up the trailing edge of her mantle and dashed toward the château.

“Wait, milady! Milady, please. Proper young ladies do not run.”

Isabel ignored Claremond, who gasped and panted, her bulk slowing her.

Set in the midst of two wooded valleys, the stone-built château of the Comte de Vermandois featured a square stone tower that had stood from the time of Isabel’s maternal uncle Eudes. Eleven years later, the tower still dominated the site. Home to trusted retainers and Isabel’s family, she knew only peace and comfort behind its walls.

The carved wooden door creaked when the guardsmen stationed beside it opened the portal. Isabel drifted through the entryway. Iron wall brackets supported beeswax candles colored a dull brown. Isabel pressed a hand to her pulsing heart and inhaled a deep breath. A sweet honey fragrance wafted through the air. She entered the hall. Every breath from her lips escaped in a thin stream of white vapor. Cold dampened the innermost sanctum of the walls, despite numerous tapestries.

Her parents sat in massive chairs on a raised wooden dais, opposite the entrance. Isabel crossed the hall in rapid strides. A loud gasp escaped her when she reached them. Beyond the central hearth in the midst of the room, stood the black-robed, tonsured Father Onfroi who faced her father and mother. When she darted past him, she felt his stare at her back. With a deep curtsey, she greeted her parents.

Comte Hugh de Vermandois gripped the gilded arm of his chair and leaned forward. He seemed impossibly larger than usual, draped in an ankle-length blue tunic embroidered with gold at the hem and neckline. A gold-studded belt encircled his thick waist. Beside him, Comtesse Adele appeared bored as she fingered several of her rings. An array of topaz, sapphire, cornelian, beryl and sardonyx set in gold shimmered on her long, delicate fingers. When Isabel curtsied, her mother paused in her examination and regarded her husband for a moment. Then she returned her attention to the jewelry.

Isabel straightened but averted her stare. Silence suffused the room, broken only by the shuffle of Claremond’s footfalls when she finally entered the room. With a slight wheeze, she also curtsied and stood beside Isabel, who avoided her stern gaze with a resolute stare at the rush-strewn floor.

“Why were you so long in coming?” Comte Hugh’s baritone rumbled through the hall.

“Forgive her, milord,” Claremond began but an impatient wave of the Comte’s burly hand silenced her. “I addressed my daughter, crone, not you.”

Isabel flushed and dared look toward her father. His moon-shaped face had flushed red. Black brows knitted and framed his deep-set eyes, gray as a storm cloud, the same color as Isabel’s own.

Her mother ceased her inspection of her bejeweled fingers. Her long nails tapped against the chair arm.

“Answer your father, Isabel. Why did you not come to us earlier? Where were you?”

The childlike whisper of Comtesse Adele’s voice belied the strength of her steely gaze. Isabel drew back and her father’s frown deepened.

“I was outdoors, milord. The moon is a strange color tonight. I wanted to see it.”

“It warns of great evil. How strange that such a sight should attract the interest of a child.”

Isabel turned toward the sonorous rumble of Father Onfroi’s voice. Torchlight gleamed off his baldpate. His ovoid blue eyes, set beneath golden eyebrows in an angular face, studied her before he frowned. “Why was the child out of bed at this hour?”

His gaze, full of condemnation, swung to Claremond.

Isabel stepped between them and partially blocked her nurse from his view. “You may ask the question of me.”

“Isabel, you may address Father Onfroi when he speaks to you, not before. Be silent before I force you to leave.” With a nod toward the priest, Comte Hugh apologized.

Father Onfroi mused, “She has willfulness, hardly a desirable attribute in a female. But I would suggest if her nurse,” he paused and looked beyond Isabel again, “is too old to supervise her constantly, that the woman should not travel with us to Pont Audemer.”

“Pont Audemer? Why am I going there? Why must Claremond remain behind?” The inquiry slipped out before Isabel could refrain from it. She received stares of rebuke from both her parents.

Comtesse Adele rose from her seat. Her grey woolen robe, draped in loose folds around her trim figure, swept across the floor as she descended from the dais and stood beside her daughter. She studied her with slate-colored eyes.

Isabel dipped her head and avoided her mother’s penetrating stare.

The Comtesse clasped her hands together. “My daughter knows nothing of these circumstances, not even of her betrothal. We expected she would have had more time to ready herself for this union.”

“She is eleven years old, is she not? A suitable age at which most Norman girls prepare to be wed,” Father Onfroi pronounced.

Comtesse Adele raised her auburn-colored eyebrows and peered down her aquiline nose at the priest. “My daughter is no mere girl. She bears the blood of kings of France from Charlemagne onward. Your Comte aims high in this match.”

Comte Hugh rose and nodded to Father Onfroi. “Forgive the Comtesse. She forgets the Comte de Meulan bears the blood of an ancient and noble line, and that he is also a descendant of the Comtes of the Vexin, Amiens and Valois, as is my wife.”

He glared at the Comtesse for a moment before he took his seat again.

“I do not forget!” The Comtesse’s shrill cry rang around the hall. “It remains a concern for me - the blood ties between my daughter and the Comte de Meulan.”

Father Onfroi said, “We have addressed this issue, milady. An envoy is even now in Rome, requesting a papal decree regarding the matter of consanguity.”

Comte Hugh added, “I have decided to undertake the Holy War against the Saracens, as well my wife knows. My pledge shall be enough to satisfy the Church.”

Isabel sighed at the thought of her father’s departure. She could not fathom why the Holy Land concerned the Church so much. Pope Urban II had proclaimed in the previous autumn that true Christians should liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Saracens. Isabel did not understand why nor did she care. If Jerusalem was as far away, as her father had described, a journey of many months by land and sea, events there did not matter.

“Our daughter is the granddaughter of a French king,” Her mother’s voice banished her morose thoughts. “Does the Comte de Meulan understand her value?”

“He does indeed, milady. Truly, with the wealth of his French and English estates, the Comte is well suited to your daughter. There are no legitimate reasons for concerns about the match. If you can keep your daughter’s pride in check, I do not doubt her betrothed shall be satisfied.”

The Comtesse sneered. “He likes his women docile, does he?”

Father Onfroi bowed. “It is the natural state … for some women.”

Comtesse Adele turned her back on him. With a sigh, Comte Hugh waved the priest from the room.

Isabel looked from his retreating figure to her parents and Claremond. She grasped her nurse’s hand. “You shall be with me wherever I go. You must be.”

“She shall not.” Comte Hugh interjected. “More suitable arrangements must be made for your companionship.”

Isabel forced aside tears. “But I want Claremond.”

“What you want is irrelevant.” Her father glared at his wife again. “I swear each and every day, she grows more like you.”

“Good.” Comtesse Adele regarded Isabel once more. “Then she has my fortitude and none of your weaknesses.”

She ignored her husband’s sigh of disgust. Isabel stared up at her, wide-eyed. As a child, she often marveled at the sight of her parents: her father large and bovine next to her mother, slim as a reed. They seemed ill suited in all respects.

“My daughter, three years ago on the occasion of your eighth birthday, your father betrothed you to a rich and powerful man. He is confidante to an English king and has great estates in that country.”

“Must I live in England with him?”

“I should hope not. It seems an incredibly dull place and there remains a great deal of resentment among the natives for their Norman oppressors.”

Isabel glanced at her father. “Have you met my betrothed, milord?”

Comte Hugh grunted. “At your uncle’s court a few years back when he came to do homage to King Philip. He attended the assembly of nobles at Poissy.”

“Please, tell me more about him, milord. How shall I know my future husband? Tell me of his appearance and his manner.”

Her father shrugged. “He is tall with yellow hair. I do not remember much else of him. What does his appearance or demeanor matter? His wealth shall he enough to make you happy. ”

Comtesse Adele sighed and grasped Isabel’s shoulders. “The Comte neglects to mention that your betrothed is also old. He has lived for fifty years. He is older than your own father.”

“I do not mind so much, milady.”

The Comtesse scowled. “You may when everyone blames you for not bearing his children.” She turned her frown on her husband. “Do you hear that, Hugh? The man may not be capable of siring an heir. Then people shall accuse our daughter of failing him.”

“Isabel comes from good breeding stock. You have borne me several children including her. How could anyone think she is barren? Now let her retire, it is late.”

Isabel and Claremond curtsied. Her father waved them off. As they walked the length of the hall, Isabel halted and spun around. “Milord, I thank you for seeing to my future. I shall be a good wife to my husband and never shame our family.”

Comte Hugh nodded. “See that you do not.”

Isabel de Vermandois, descended from French Kings, was the beautiful wife and lover of two powerful Anglo-Norman Earls in the early twelfth century. The Burning Candle, a story of her life and loves, will be published in 2012.  

Friday, February 25, 2011

New Voices: Author Richard Warren Field, Swords of Faith

Short Attention Spans: Fiction Writing Style in the Early 21st Century

Those of us who write fiction today face a lot of competition among story-telling formats. Not only do we have movies and television (and movies on television), but the internet now offers any number of entertainment formats still evolving (including movies and television on the internet). These many formats lead to a near overload of choices, and that leads to audiences with shorter and shorter attention spans.

Before the 20th Century—before movies and later, television—books offered one of a few story-telling mediums for people. The theater was available, but on an irregular basis, as a special event. If a person wanted to immerse into a new story, having heard all the stories from family and community enough times, a book was the best way. Long descriptions of setting and character were welcomed by readers. The book could very well be the best source for information and images, the best passport to exotic places and fascinating people. Readers appreciated a good book that would last.

The expanded set of story-telling choices today offers a special problem for writers of historical fiction, because exotic settings and unfamiliar people and time periods require more exposition at a time when long expository passages run the risk of losing the reader quickly. Modern writers are told to “show, not tell” to address this situation. (Does that mean the art of turning a clever phrase is lost? No, but a writer is advised to turn that clever phrase describing dramatic action or within dialogue, not as part of a long narrative expository passage.) This maxim is difficult for the writer of historical fiction, writing in a genre that requires more stage-setting than a novel with a modern setting. Many times, readers will say a book “starts slowly.” This is usually a sign of a lot of narrative exposition—telling not showing— to set the stage for the dramatic action to begin. Historical fiction runs that risk more than other types of writing because setting the historical stage is important—essential—to the genre.

I have developed my own style to address this situation, a style I have applied to my historical fiction (The Swords of Faith, 2010, published by Strider Nolan Media and the upcoming sequel, The Sultan and the Khan), as well as to other writing (The Election, 1997; Dying to Heal, 2011). I read as a suggestion somewhere that a writer should start a scene in the middle of the action. I like that idea. I think it creates a quick pace, and constantly engages the reader. I like to give a caption, with time and location, at the beginning of the scene, then start right up, most often with a piece of intriguing dialogue. I offer a few lines of exposition/description to orient the reader to the scene, then let it unfold, in real time, with as much dramatic action per word as possible. I like to burst into a scene, to energize the pace. Because movies and television permeate our world, readers have seen many exciting and exotic locations on screens of one sort or another. It doesn’t take many words to put them in the locale. Impatient readers often skip those paragraphs anyway.

Whether my methods have been successful will be decided by readers. But I know I enjoy this sort of story-telling—I enjoy reading books with a good pace, characterized by less narrative exposition and more dramatic action. I am a product of the times I live in; so much to do, so many things to read and watch and absorb. My attention span is no doubt as short as that of the readers I have been describing! So, I write with that in mind.

Richard Warren Field is the Scribbler's New Voice in February. He is the author of Swords of Faith, available now, and a dear friend with a gift for writing authentic historical scenes.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Second round of ABNA

Today, entrants in the second round of the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel were announced. From a total of 5,000 entries in each category (General and YA Fiction), 1,000 have each been selected based on the best pitches. Congrats to all my fellow writers who've advanced in this round. Saw a few names I recognized. It was thrilling and surprising to find my own. Those 300-word pitches were hard as hell to write, but I'm glad to know mine worked, as it is also the back blurb of Sultana.

So what's next? On March 22, the quarterfinals lists will indicate the next 250 people to move on, in each category. The editors, including author Lev Grossman, Marysue Rucci, and literary agent Jennifer Joel and one lucky (?) Amazon Top Reviewer will judge the 3,000 - 5,000 word excerpts that accompanied each pitch. The excerpts are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 for their overall strength, prose and style, plot, and originality of the manuscript.

How do I think Sultana will fare? I haven't the slightest clue - I'm just delighted the pitch worked! Until March, I'll just be:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Back to scribbling in Brooklyn

As opposed to a medieval city with cobblestone streets, and ancient castles and cathedrals. Talk about a change of scene and society - just what I needed to re-invigorate and recharge the old writing brain. Highlights included a day trip to the birthplace of Saint Teresa of Avila and the city of Segovia. I had a fabulous time and will have lots of photos and anecdotes to share in future blog posts about being there. There was enough time to see the most popular and famous sites, which made the visit so memorable, yet short enough to avoid feeling as if I'd overstayed my welcome.

There is no way to describe to anyone who doesn't write historical fiction, how meaningful it is to visit certain sites. When you can personally experience the culture and sights of places in which your story is set, it lends an authenticity to your writing that's sometimes elusive. I found this on my first trip to Spain almost ten years ago, where I visited the Alhambra, which is the setting for Sultana. Although this last trip was primarily a vacation, it was great to wander the streets of Lisbon, in part existing as they would have during the 17th century. Now I know exactly what my pirate hero in an upcoming novel, Renegade, would have seen as he sailed up the River Tagus.

If you are also a historical fiction writer, take advantage of any chance to walk the paths your characters may have walked. Your writing will be all the better for it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

#SampleSunday: Renegade, Chapter Four

Chapter Four – The Grand Admiral of Algiers

Algiers, Algeria - July 1631

By noon, Murad stood at the high, narrow stern of the fluyt, surrounded by most of his principal officers. The ship entered the swirling, turquoise waters of Algiers. Atop the mainmast, a red flag fluttered overhead, the crescent moon symbol at its center gleaming white.

Twelve bronze guns of the fluyt and its consort, the more-heavily armed Dutch man-of-war, boomed in unison. An answering signal from the long-range guns perched on the lofty summits of the Kasbah’s citadel, echoed though the sweltering air.

Whitewashed, brick residences with galleries and flat roof patios or gardens dotted the green, undulating land. The denizens of the white city spilled out on to their terraces. Some lined the waterfront, pointing with amazement and excitement as the lead ships, followed by their Spanish and Irish prize vessels, slowed and bypassed them, heading for the harbor. Algiers welcomed its most-famed corsair captain home. In unison, its citizens greeted his return with the words, “Al Hamdu li Allah ala Salamtek.”

Beside Murad, Mathys repeated the phrase. “Praise be to God for your safe return.”

A line of fortresses towered along the Mole, a semi-circular breakwater of white stones protecting the harbor. Their batteries roared a welcoming salvo, to which the fluyt and its consort responded with their thunderous guns. Just beyond the gateway of the fortified Mole, Ali Bichnin, the Grand Admiral of Algiers stood. Gleaming diamonds and sapphires covered his bulbous, yellow turban. His ever-present retainers, a group of fifty pages, swarmed him like bees. The boys wore golden silk, almost as fine as their master’s embroidered, jeweled waistcoat. Four slaves bore a silken canopy on poles, sheltering the admiral beneath it from the fiery, midday sun.

Born Niccolo Piccini, a Venetian by birth, Ali Bichnin led the corsairs’ council. Murad first met him several years before, and then, as now, he did not like him. Ali Bichnin’s opulent palace in the city, his arrogant claims regarding the sixty ships and thousands of slaves he owned, and the mosque he had constructed, which also bore his name, marked him for a boastful fool. However, his appearance on the Mole offended more than it disturbed.

Murad glared at Heyreddin, Ali Bichnin’s minion. “Has your master arrived to collect the required ten percent of the spoils and the port fee himself? Doesn’t he trust you, his faithful dog, to accomplish such a meager task?”

Heyreddin flushed to the roots of his black hair. “His appearance here means he does not trust you, captain. The nature of your latest enterprise remains a mystery to the Taife Raisi. What really drew you into making such a bold attack on the Irish? Tell me, for you must know there can be few secrets kept from the corsair council for long.”

Murad smiled. “I believe the Taife Raisi will not care for my purpose when the prizes are distributed. Surely, you have learned this in your years of devoted service to the Grand Admiral. Greedy men care little about the source of their wealth, so long as coins fill their coffers.” He edged closer to Heyreddin and pitched his voice low. “And my secrets, if I have any, are mine to keep. You’d do well not to pry into matters that are not your concern.”

Heyreddin gasped. “If you make threats against me, a representative of the council, you also threaten your fellow corsairs and the Pasha!”

Murad splayed his fingers and cracked the knuckles. “I am a man of deeds, not idle words. Has our voyage not proven this to you?” With a smile, he descended the short steps from the stern.

Bastardo, may wild asses defile the grave of your grandmother!” In the din of the roaring guns and bloated waves, Heyreddin’s staccato voice sliced through the wind but Murad continued his stroll, undeterred.

Light and swift galliots, brigantines, fleet xebecs, and a few sleek galleys vied with the captured prizes of other nations for moorings along the crowded harbor. The captains and crews of other ships hailed Murad from their vessels. He acknowledged them all, even fellow corsairs whom he viewed as enemies, rather than compatriots. Renegades all, their love of the corso, or trade in piracy bound them to a common goal: plundering the wealth of the sea from Sicily to Gibraltar and beyond.

As his crew tossed the mooring lines ashore, he entered the hold. The captives, whom he had consigned below earlier in the morning, now stared with widened eyes. He understood their palpable fear and uncertainty. Andries stood from his position beside Mistress Joane Broadbrook, who clutched her belly and groaned.

Andries whispered, “It’s her time, captain. May I have your permission to ask for Kara Yahudi?”

Murad growled low in his throat and squatted beside her. She jerked away even as he reached for her shoulders. “Damn you, woman, your belly does its business now of all times?”

She reared back, struggling against his firm grip. “I don’t want my child born aboard this heathen ship. Do as you like with me, godless pirate, but I won’t let you have my baby!”

When he pushed her away, she thudded against two casks of water. He stood and swept the cavernous hold with an assessing glance. The men, more so than the women, shrank under his gaze. Perhaps they anticipated what would come, while for their females, the bliss of ignorance seemed a preferable state. He did not need Ali Bichnin witnessing their desperation, not when they were still aboard his flagship. He needed absolute control of them, now more than ever.

He turned to Andries. “Summon Kara Yahudi and then prepare the slaves for the initial inspection. The leader of the Taife Raisi has come.”

“Ali Bichnin? But, why now?”

Murad did not reply, though he knew the answer. He mounted the stairs again and walked to his cabin. When he entered, the door swung back on its hinges, revealing Moira crouched on the floor. She covered her ears with her hands. Her charge, Alice, glanced at him before pressing her face against the bulkhead.

“Have we been attacked? I heard the cannon fire.” Moira raised her tear-stained face. “What’s to become of us? Seized by another band of pirates? Murdered? Are we never to return home?”

His rumbling laughed filled the cabin. “Be at ease, girl. The guns salute my successful, safe return. Our voyage has ended.”

She wiped her cheeks. “We’ve reached Algiers? Will there be anyone here to ransom us? Some of the men said so. Will you do it? Will you let our countrymen buy our freedom?”

Grasping her chin in his hand, he gripped her tight. “The Pasha, the local ruler, will decide the fates of many, and indeed, some could be ransomed by the English ambassador here in Algiers. Though it is unlikely, for Sir Thomas Roe rarely negotiate ransoms, except for the nobles. I doubt the villagers of the Cove are so important to their government. Whatever the fates of your fellow captives, you will not share it. You will remain with me.”

She struggled against him. Her fingers tore at his hold. “Don’t touch me! What do you want of me?”

He released her abruptly and sighed. “Nothing. Everything. Now, follow me. You must appear on deck. Many of my people will want to see you and your people.”

“Why? I am certain they’ve seen pirates return with their poor captives many times over.”

He hauled her up hard against him. “When I tell you to do something, do it. You do not ask questions. This is your last….”

He had barely finished speaking when Alice sprang at him. “Let her go!”

Her jaws snapped closed on his forearm. He shoved Moira away and she crumpled. He clouted Alice’s head and kicked her legs from under her. “Bitch!”

Moira pulled Alice against her, cradling the girl who still refused to cry. “You’re the very Devil! How can you be so brutal? She’s just a child. What sort of man hurts a child? Look at what you’ve done to her, to us. Stolen our freedom in the dark of night and destroyed the Cove, the only home we have ever known. You brought us here aboard this accursed vessel to be slaves of your people. Alice’s father and sister are dead now, because of you. Why did you do this to her, to us? Why?”

She rose and stood defiant before him. Her fists tightened. As did his.

“Must I train you so soon, woman? Do not try my patience. Now, come.”

When he reached for her, she stood her ground. “I won’t go.”

He backhanded her with such force that she toppled, and struck her head against a chest. Hauling her against him by her ravaged neckline, he drove his fist into her nose. Blood smeared his knuckles. Another blow caught her chin. Her head lolled backward. The fourth aimed for her right eye. Only when crimson flecks dotted his silk shirt and she lay prone beside the weeping girl, did he stop.


When Murad emerged from the cabin in a fresh waistcoat, Mathys wore a grim expression. He stood between Ali Bichnin and Heyreddin, the latter of whom sniggered when Murad approached.

“Praise be to God for your safe return, captain. I am pleased your vessel and consort have returned.” Ali Bichnin splayed jeweled fingers over his belly, as though he savored the prospect of a fine meal.

His dark expression belied the placid greeting. Murad was the only corsair who rivaled him in wealth and prestige among all the renegades. Ali Bichnin did not like rivals.

“Likely, you are more pleased at the prospect of fair virgins for your bed, Ali Bichnin,” Murad said.

The Venetian scowled. “You will address me with more respect. Must I remind you, I am leader of the Taife Raisi and Grand Admiral of the Pasha’s corsair fleet?”

Murad sneered and turned away as Andries emerged from below decks. “You forget, Ali Bichnin, I have been an admiral before.”

“Then go back to Salé, if you dare, renegado.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? It would make it a little easier for you to hold the Pasha and corsair council in your sway if I returned to Morocco. My deepest regrets, but you will have to suffer me a little longer. I’ll make my way to Salé in my own time.”

Andries knelt beside him and at his gesture, stood and whispered in his ear. “Kara Yahudi came. It happened fast. A stillborn girl. Mistress Broadbrook lives.”

Murad nodded. “A pity, but it will make it easier on the mother.”

Ali Bichnin edged closer, a curious expression on his leathery face. Murad eyed him. Andries had done well, deliberately addressing him in a language only he and Mathys knew.

In Sabir, Murad ordered Andries to assemble the captives on deck. “And fetch Mistress Crosbie and her charge.”

While he spoke, Heyreddin joined Ali Bichnin in a conspiratorial whisper.

The admiral smiled and regarded Murad with renewed interest. “You’ve been especially kind to your captives, I hear. Extra rations for a woman with child and even sheltering one of the fair maidens in your cabin.”

Murad nodded. ‘My generosity knows no bounds, even to those who don’t deserve it.”

He glanced at Heyreddin, whose black eyebrows knitted together in a puzzled expression.

Shackled together by long chains dragged at the heels, the people of the Cove emerged from the hold. Some blinked harshly against the noonday soon glinting off the white city spread before them. The men preceded the women and children. Andries emerged from the cabin, herding Moira and Alice before him. Manacles soon connected them to the others.

When Mathys glanced at Murad, he shrugged.

Ali Bichnin strolled across the deck with Heyreddin, the captives averted their eyes. He paused a few times when he reached the women and spoke in low tones with Heyreddin. The Turk made notes on a sheet of vellum draped over his arm.

Near the end of the line, where Moira sagged against Alice, Heyreddin and his master’s voices soon rose in a crescendo.

“But this can’t be her! Look at her face.”

“She wasn’t like that when I first saw her, Admiral. It is the same woman. I recognize her yellow hair. Ask Murad Raïs what happened to her.”

When Ali Bichnin summoned him, Murad dutifully walked toward the man and his minion. “How may I aid you?”

“Heyreddin says this,” Ali Bichnin’s long fingers gestured toward Moira, “was the woman you sheltered in your cabin.”

“I regret my generosity. She proved disagreeable, particularly after the loss of her lover during the voyage, father of the girl standing beside her.”

“How do you know she had a lover?”

“She claims she was his servant, but I never saw such a one so devoted to her master.”

“Is the child hers?”

“She says not, but who can be certain with these treacherous English, eh? There was another child with them, though younger, who took sick with ship’s fever. The woman’s lover dove overboard with the body. And she hasn’t been the same since.”

Ali Bichnin turned a baleful glare on Heyreddin. “Come, I’ve seen enough. The Pasha awaits us.”

When the admiral and his servant left them, Mathys joined Murad. He nodded to Moira, who covered her swollen face with her hands while she sobbed. “Was it truly necessary?”

Murad grunted. “Ali Bichnin chooses the fairest women for the Ottoman Sultan and the Pasha, but always keeps the most flawless of the yellow-haired ones for his pleasure. You know how he treats his slaves. I am a far less cruel master than he could ever be.”

Alice wrapped her arms around Moira’s waist and held her. He could only guess at whether she whispered words of comfort to soothe the battered woman or her own fears of the auction.

He did not care either way. He followed in Ali Bichnin’s wake, Mathys behind him.

“Cursed pirates!” Moira screamed her fury at their backs.

Only Mathys acknowledged her. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. Murad slowed his pace.

Mathys bellowed, “Shut up, woman! He’s done you a kindness.”

“A kindness? By all the blessed angels, you call his fists in my face a kindness? Then, I should wish he was cruel instead, by that false measure.”

“He’s saved you from a worse fate. One day, you may thank him for it.”

Murad shook his head. He doubted it very much.

Thanks, as always for visiting the blog or re-tweeting this post. I truly appreciate it. Please share your writing on Twitter by using the #SampleSunday hashtag in your blog post- it's a great chance to connect with readers, site visitors and other writers.

Friday, February 18, 2011

More on self publishing: perceived value + quality = credibility?

Hola from beautiful Spain. As I write, I'm traveling up to Avila and Segovia, willing the Internet and BlackBerry to cooperate.

I thought the comments on my last post about perceived value and credibility were great, because they are at the heart of the dilemma facing self published authors: how do we escape the collective stigma currently associated with our work?

In part, it requires good writing. Someone on Twitter who I'll paraphrase said, "Self publish but write like you're aiming for one of the big NY six." Great advice. Self publishing is commonly associated with unedited crap, poor covers and general unintelligible nonsense. That's not my sweeping generalization, by the way, it's a perception I've heard on discussion boards and within my own writing circle, and seen in some self published books. The crap doesn't do any self published author's cause any good. Can we all agree on that?

The question that arises is; what is the mark of good, self published writing that rises to the standard of the NY six? Used to be that an agent or editor would be the gatekeeper to spot this gold standard. Self publishing has circumvented that. Proponents of it are asking our potential readers to make that judgment with their minds and more importantly, wallets.

This in turn leads to perceived value. Since self publishing has gotten such a bad rap, the perceptions of its value are not overwhelmingly in favor. It often feels like those of us who do it have to pass a higher bar to gain approval. Say someone has a quality book, as judged by agents and editors who may have read it but declined to publish for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing, and makes the foray into self publishing. Without an aggressive marketing plan, including building word of mouth advertising, that author's efforts will flounder. How does word of mouth spread when an intended audience won't even consider it?

Again, if we feel a little persecuted and overwhelmed, can you blame us? I can't agree with an earlier comment that we are not targeted and picked on. I speak from personal experience. I know I'm breaking a cardinal rule about ignoring bad reviews but I have to, in order to bring home the point. One of my unfavorable reviews was followed up by the less flattering comment, "Another self publishing dud, huh?" Pissed me off more than the actual review. I've seen similar comments on other self published works. Can we deny the perception is out there? It makes me so angry that as hard as authors work, this collective perception is used to canvas self published works regardless of their quality. It implies that as hard as we work, the perceived value of that work will never rise. How can we change entrenched views when, at times, the very audience we are trying to reach has already dismissed our work without reading it? How do we gain credibilty?

I don't expect to change opinions on either side of these issues but it's useless to pretend they don't exist. I will continue to resent them, point them out where they exist and do my damn best to avoid being mired by them. Something tells me I've got a hard road ahead of me. Good thing for me, I don't mind hard work. Part of why I write historical fiction.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Double standards in reviews of self-publishing: a rant

The picture at left should have been your first warning. If you chose to ignore it, here's another: I am now going to sink into crazy lady mode. I'm usually calm, but there are some things that tick me off.  Last chance to walk away from the blog now. OK, let the insanity begin.

This morning's rant is about the portion of readers who decry positive reviews of self-published books from other self-published authors. Not people who don't like self-publishing in general. Been there, don't that. Are we clear on who’s bugging me? If you happen to be one of them, I'd love it if you would de-mystify something for me. How is it acceptable for traditional or mainstream authors to give each other blurbs and reviews, but if self-published authors do the same for each other, those comments are automatically suspected as being tainted or padded?

I've found this viewpoint commonly expressed on Goodreads, Amazon discussion boards, etc. enough times to know it truly exists. I've tried to analyze it in different ways. Perhaps self-published authors are their own worst enemy. Those who write incoherent, unedited babble and scribble cover artwork that looks like a Crayola nightmare make it hard for everyone, even those who pay editors and cover artists, and can string coherent sentences together. Except, there are self-published authors who rise beyond the folly of their less savvy fellows every day. Don't believe me? Take a look at USA Today's recent bestseller list and count how many times Amanda Hocking's titles appear.

Maybe it’s because self-published authors are unknown entities and somehow lack the sophistication to judge the work of others. Is it all a matter of credibility? That argument presumes that self-published authors have no background to discern excellent writing for themselves. Thing is, I've smelled shit before and I don't need anyone to tell me when it stinks. Why do I need any other opinion but my own to judge other writers?

Perhaps the problem doesn't lie with just self-published authors, but with authors who may be friends, inclined to inflate each other's reviews. Strangely, that hasn't made blurbs any less popular in traditional publishing. So, why doesn't it work just as well for self-published authors?  

I've heard enough of the assumptions about self-publishing to last me a couple life times. It's the thing you do when no one else will take on your work. It's the last act of desperation before a writer gives up and succumbs to their bitter fate as a hapless nobody. It will kill your future as a mainstream writer. Blah blah blah. For a reality check, head over to JA Konrath's blog for interviews with self-published authors who are blowing these myths out of the water each day.

Perhaps the last hurdle for such writers will be the segment of the reading public that automatically dismisses self-publishing, paints its authors with a collective tainted brush and assumes their work will always be trash. For these people, I say the following: you're entitled to hold your opinion and judge the work of such authors in any way you please. But I have to ask two favors from you: don't dare tell me that your view is the only valid one in the world. Don't presume that your opinion applies to every self-published book. Otherwise, I’ll have to tell you to take your high-minded opinion and shove it so far up your ignorant ass, that you can't ever sit or walk again.

Rant over. Now back to the regularly sane blog posts.

Monday, February 14, 2011

New post on BDCWB - how to handle critical reviews

With all the Internet chatter about how authors handle reviews, my latest post on BDCWB tackles the topic, in an article entitled, "Sorry, your baby is ugly." I can't even begin to describe the photo that accompanies this one, but I can only say it fits the title perfectly. See for yourself and tell me what is the harshest advice you've ever had that has helped improve your writing. I promise to share mine, too.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

#SampleSunday: Renegade, Chapter One

Chapter One – The Village

Baltimore, West Cork, Ireland – June 1631

Murad Raïs sprang from the Spanish barca-longa into the swirling, midnight waters of Roaring Water Bay. Hours before dawn, a gray mist shrouded Baltimore’s harbor. In iron-soled slippers, he crept between rough, semi-submerged rocks, wet trousers clinging to his shins. At the shoreline, rocks gave way to shingle. He crouched and seized a handful of the weathered stones and pebbles. The midsummer wind rolled inland. A foul stench from a nearby fishery vied with the brackish whiff of the bay. In the near darkness, faint outlines of houses beckoned from the Cove, Baltimore’s hamlet.

Behind him, forty crewmen and their military escort came ashore from the barca-longa and two smaller, single-mast fishing vessels. Six others stayed behind, bobbing in a launch towed behind the Spanish ship. Other stood on either side of Murad. The black-haired Turk, Heyreddin Agha; Oruc Agha, the leader of the Turkish janissaries and the bash-raïs, Mathys van Bostel, Murad’s second-in-command, directed the crew with hand signals. The men fanned out along the shoreline, wielding scimitars with curved blades and daggers, and elongated metal bars with a bowed, two-pronged edge. Some also carried twisted and coiled ropes steeped in tar.

Oruc Agha owed his allegiance to Murad IV, Sultan of the Sublime Ottoman State. At his master’s command, he had sailed with Murad. Now, he deployed two hundred of his best warriors. He lifted the sole torch among the group and lit their way. The janissaries held bows and quivers of arrows, and hefted muskets at their shoulders. Their swords remained sheathed.

Murad gripped the pronged pommel of his short saber and drew the weapon. Kufic calligraphy etched into the damascened steel shimmered in moonlight. The janissaries carried the same curved sword. Unlike them, Murad had never used his to kill another human being. He kept it only for sentimental reasons. The familiar weight in his hand evoked fond memories.

Murad’s gaze scoured the woodland that edged the dirt track. He warily searched the darkness. With his crew and the janissaries readied, he looked to Mathys, Heyreddin, and Oruc. “Now, just as we planned.”

The janissaries spread out, their black boots soundless as they headed for the Cove. Oruc divided them into groups of eight or nine men, intent on the twenty-six houses looming before them. They took a position below the arc of windowless houses. Moonlight and Oruc’s torch illuminated their bright red waistcoats. The crew drew up just behind them. Oruc looked over his shoulder. With a wave of his saber, Murad directed him the beginning of the attack.

Oruc’s torch lit the coiled ropes covered in tar. The crew lobbed them on to the thatched roofs. Some rolled away, useless, and few layers of straw ignited. Enraged, Murad ground his teeth. He expected a different result. Others would pay for that mistake.

Oruc scrambled forward and shoved the torch against the roof of the nearest house. An orange glow sparked and crackled. Fire devoured the thatch. He repeated the action along the row until several houses were ablaze. Flames encircled the stone chimneys. Black smoke billowed. The janissaries drew their sabers and with a triumphant yell, descended on the Cove.

They bashed against wooden doors with the butts of their muskets. The fire on their roofs woke some of the occupants. Villagers streamed into the dirt road, coughing and covering their mouths.

Murad waved his crew onward, Heyreddin leading them. When they swept through the Cove, screams of terror filled the air. The crew snatched at the frightened people, who desperately ran back to their smoke-filled houses. Their throats strained with desperate pleas for mercy. Unrelenting, the crew dragged them out. Women and children flailed against their attackers. Their men defended their homes and families with anything they could wield.

Their opposition interfered with a well-laid plan, yet Murad almost admired their courage. Through varying experiences, he had once believed Englishmen only dealt in cowardice and betrayal in equal measure. Perhaps for these English colonists, transported to Ireland over two generations past, the hardy, bold character of the land and its people inspired them.

A villager brandished a scythe against the invaders. He struck a deathblow against one of the Turks, who manhandled a screeching woman beside him. The other janissaries stabbed their short sabers into the man’s chest. He fell and joined the warrior he had killed in death.

The woman wailed and hauled him up by his bloodstained tunic. “Great God. Timothy! Oh, Timothy, no.” The janissaries subdued and dragged her off, though she still screamed.

A single villager clutched his temple. Blood streamed between his fingers. He crumpled to the ground before two of the janissaries heaved him by his arms.

“I want captives! The dead and dying are no good to me!” Murad exhorted. He spoke Sabir, a hodgepodge dialect of Italian, French, Greek Persian, and Arabic. With his sword drawn, he advanced with the rest of his crew and a contingent of the janissaries. The Cove glowed in a fiendish blur of orange flames.

Heyreddin and another crewman wrestled with a woman who struggled in vain for her two, mewling children. Her belly burgeoned underneath her clothing, which suggested she would soon deliver another baby. When janissaries hefted the frightened children and bore them away, the woman’s desperation reached new heights. She clawed at the faces of her captors. Despite her pregnancy, she landed a solid blow with her shoe heel in the groin of one man. Heyreddin raised his arm threateningly, glaring at the woman.

Murad intervened, clutching his arm before the Turk struck. “I want her unharmed, Heyreddin. Are you too much of a fool Turk to realize she is twice as valuable as any other woman?” He gestured toward her distended stomach. “If she or her child suffers any harm, you shall die. Not even your master, Ali Bichnin, or his fellow council members of the Taife Raisi will protect you from my wrath. Now find Mathys, I entrust her to him.”

Heyreddin grunted and steered the woman before him, none too gently. She thrashed and fought him at each step. Her screams echoed through the Cove. “Stephen, where are you? God help us. Stephen!”

Raucous laughter pealed behind Murad. When he turned, a panic-stricken, young woman kept four janissaries at bay with a knife, held at her own throat. Her hand shook unsteadily. Loose hunks of blonde hair hung over her pale green eyes. Her rapt gaze remained on the janissaries who laughed and baited her with their weapons. She backed away from the curving blades. Two children with ink-black hair hid behind her wrinkled skirt.

Despite her foolery, Murad admired her courage. He closed the distance between them. Her nostrils flared for a moment, but she kept her gaze on the Turks, with no other outward sign that she had noted his arrival.

“Well then, you cannot take me children,” she whispered. “I shall kill them and me self first.”

The musical lilt of her English, slightly accented and tinged with fear, drew him. She seemed old enough for a family of her own, perhaps in her early twenties by his estimate. Yet, neither of the girls she protected resembled her. One of them almost reached her shoulder in height.

The janissaries edged toward them warily. The woman pressed the blade to the large vein beneath her florid complexion. The man closest to her raised his curved sword. Murad did the same. His blade dug into the man’s neck. The janissary gasped and turned. His eyes widened. Steel dug deeper into his flesh. He held himself quite still. His companions traded wary gazes between him, the woman with her knife, and Murad. Tension thickened in the air.

With a loud wheeze, Oruc appeared. “My lord, what is the meaning of this? Why do you draw your blade against one of my men?”

“Only you have the right to punish your officers,” Murad said. “But I swear I shall slice open him if he harms this woman and those in her care.”

Oruc raised his hairy hands in supplication. “Please, he meant no offense.”

“Then tell him to withdraw.”

The janissary hesitated. Oruc slapped his beardless face. “Do not dare to disrespect Murad Raïs or I shall kill you myself.”

The janissary lowered his sword, and backed away, shame-faced.

Murad lowered his weapon. Oruc bowed before him and led his men through the burning hamlet once more.

Alone, Murad stared at the woman. She met his gaze without flinching. He doubted she saw him as her rescuer, just another among the marauders.

“He shall not hurt you.”

She drew back. Shock registered on her face the moment he addressed her in English.

“There is no one else to help you against us,” he continued. “Best you and the children come with me.”

She pressed the blade against her neck again. Blood welled at the edge.

He shrugged. “Well then, you can kill yourself if you want, but I doubt you would ever harm the girls. If you die here, you shall fail them. Then, what do you suppose would happen?”

She shrank and clutched the smaller of the children to her side.

“Who are you?” Her breath escaped in a horrified whisper.

“I am no monster who kills women and children.” He sheathed his sword. “Tell me your name.”

She scrutinized his features in a long, searching look. “Moira Crosbie.”

He crouched before her and the children. Both girls recoiled. The younger one hid her face in her guardian’s black skirt. The other girl peered down her aquiline nose at him, her eyes murky like a clouded day. A spark of rebellion glittered at their center before she averted her gaze. He chuckled at her arrogance, for it was admirable, if also a little foolish.

The sight of her bundled with her charges also aroused unwelcome memories, buried deep. A woman and her children, their hands outstretched and tears in their ears. He shook his head, and banished the intruding thoughts to the past, where they belonged.

“You are not the mother of these children, then, Mistress Crosbie.”

Though he did not pose a question, the children’s bedraggled protector shook her head. “I am Dermot Meregey’s maid. These are his daughters, Alice, and the younger, Susannah.”

He nodded and stood. “I shall not harm you, but I cannot allow you to hurt yourself or your charges. It is a mortal sin.”

“Why should you care about sin? You are a godless pirate. Master Meregey’s warned us about your kind, how you raid villages along the coast, ravish the women, and enslave everyone.”

She probed his gaze, as though daring him to deny the charge. He offered her a smile only. She frowned. “Who are you, pirate? What would you know of sin or Christian souls?”

“I know more about Christians than you may think. Give me your knife. Come here to me now, Mistress Crosbie. I shall keep you and your charges safe.”

With her dubious expression, she weighed his words against the truth of her circumstances. She wavered, a sob caught in her throat at the spectacle surrounding her.

Murad’s men herded the villagers toward the shingled shoreline along the dirt road. Bewildered, the captives did not resist. The men secured them with ropes. A scrawny boy yelled for his father. A janissary thumped him with the heel of his musket. He quieted, slumped against the shoulder of a woman who cried as she hugged him.

A lanky young man sprinted toward Murad. He stopped short and grasped his knees, the breath torn from his lungs.

Murad clapped his shoulder. “Winded by such a short dash, Andries? You are too young for that.”

Andries gasped for air, blunt cut yellow hair falling over his eyes. “The smoke is burning my eyes. The bash-raïs wants to know about two of the prisoners.”

Murad looked beyond Andries’ square shoulders. At the shoreline, his second stood with his arms akimbo, booted feet splayed. His balding pate glistened in the torchlight. Two people crouched before him, set apart from the other captives. The aged man and a decrepit woman beside him, with limp gray hair around her shoulders, clasped their hands in appeal.

Murad shook his head. “Tell him to let them go. No profit can be made from such skin and bones.”

Andries returned to Mathys, who gave orders to the crew. They forced the pair to the ground, seated back to back, and tied them together. Eyes bulging red, they looked between the villagers and the wreckage of their homes.

“Your people have no shame, treating an old man and woman so.”

Murad’s attention returned to the woman, Moira. She had followed his stare. Her eyes watered and her lips trembled, but she gazed resolutely at the sight of her people in bondage.

He grinned. “I have released them. I showed mercy.”

“What about mercy for your other captives? We deserve as much.”

He extended a hand to her. “Come now. You have my solemn vow never to harm you or the children in your care. Now, give over.”

Her fingers curled into a tight fist around the knife, until the knuckles whitened. She clamped her eyes shut for a moment. Then she opened them again and her lips parted. Only a strangled whimper issued. In silence, she lowered her weapon. When he grabbed the knife and tucked it into his belt, she offered no struggle. She shepherded her charges down to the shoreline. The elder of the girls stood stubbornly still at first, but Moira goaded her.

“Best you both move on now,” Murad urged them, “Good girl.”

Moira glared at him over her shoulder, but she did not resist when his men appeared and shoved her forward.

He admired the square set of her shoulders. She would not break easily. He nodded, knowing she would require her strength for the trial of the coming days. A trial he recalled with perfect clarity, even after twenty years.

Renegade explores the history of one of the most daring and dangerous pirates to sail the Mediterranean Sea in the 17th century. In the summer of 1631, Barbary raiders kidnapped hundreds of people from an Irish coastal village and sailed away with them to the coast of Algeria. The leader of the pirates was Murad Raïs.

Murad, admiral of the Barbary corsair fleet is a man of many secrets. From his base in Morocco, he raids merchant vessels and deals in stolen goods and slaves. He develops a reputation as one of the most ruthless pirates of the Barbary Coast. In the greatest coup of his career, he storms ashore at a remote Irish village and enslaves its people, bound for the markets of North Africa. Years later, a beautiful young woman named Lysbeth arrives in Morocco. She challenges Murad to atone for his past. Some sins do not deserve forgiveness. Some secrets lie buried too deeply. It may be too late for Murad to undo all he has done.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Published your work on Kindle?

Kindle authors, are you looking for an easy way to offer free samples of your published Kindle books directly from your website or blog? Do you want a dedicated page that can integrate your book trailer, customer reviews and other sites where your book is being offered, with the sample? Kindleboards Book Profile is a simple solution.

You'll need the ASIN code of your book; the unique Amazon Standard Identification Number that has been assigned to your published work. Then copy and paste the following link into your browser: Add your ASIN immediately after the equal sign. The cover of your Kindle title, its price, publication date, bestseller ranking and a link to the online sample will appear at the top of the page. You may have to scroll to the top for this information; by default, the page view goes directly to the bottom where your sample is available through Kindle on the Web. Your customer reviews are shown immediately above the sample.   

Want to do more? There's a link at the bottom right of the page, author control panel, which you can add a message from you, or indicate other sites where your book is sold online, your author bio, a link to your Kindle book on, other Kindle books you've made available, and your book trailer. 

Do you have a book trailer on YouTube, Vimeo or any other video hosting site? Get the unique ID of your trailer; I easily found mine by clicking on the Embed button, to get the code; you'll want the ID that appears immediately after UNIQUE ID. Cut and paste the ID from the embed code exactly as is into the field, Book video trailer (Enter YouTube video ID).

The full link to your Kindleboards Book Profile can be added to any website, blog or your personal email signature. Looks like a great tool for promoting your content. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

#SampleSunday: The Rule of Love, Chapter 2

Chapter Two
The Aims of Life

Kausambi, India – Late Summer

In the Reign of Kamaragupta I (5th century CE)

His breath freshened with betel and his body cleansed, Vatsyayana followed the slave boy, Bana.

An image of the yellow flowers around his neck being suddenly scattered on the floor taunted him. His hands itched for the petals, but he closed his fingers into fists, resisting the intense urge.  He had better control of his emotions than that.

The boy who walked ahead of him could not be more than half his age, yet Bana held himself with a quiet reserve Vatsyayana envied even now, much less when he was the same age.

They mounted the wooden stairs to the second storey. Down a long corridor open to the garden courtyard below, they walked in silence. Sunlight glinted off the roof and shimmered in the pond at the center of the court.

A few prostitutes idled on the walkway, yawning behind their hands or showing off the jewels in their hair, or on their limbs. All eyed him as he passed. One reached out and caressed the small boy’s shoulders with her hennaed nails. When she grinned at him, Vatsyayana groaned in disgust. Did these women think nothing of including children in their pleasure games, too?

“You’re being a good boy today, my son?” the prostitute asked.

“I am, Mother.” Bana bowed before he continued walking.

Vatsyayana stared at his back and then looked at his mother, horrified.

She laughed and threw her head back, exposing her graceful neck. “Did you believe he was my lover?”

Her companions laughed at him. His face hot, he rushed past them. He followed the boy until they reached the end of the hall.

A turquoise door hanging edged with gold filigree rustled, before the servant Sarama stepped out. She patted the boy’s head. “Thank you, Bana.”

She looked to Vatsyayana. “Mistress will see you now.”

She drew back and allowed him entry beyond the curtain, her hand resting lightly on the handle of the dagger at her waist.

He stepped into the small antechamber. A multicolored round carpet with geometric designs was at its center, encircled among purple and red pillows edged with tassels. The shelves on the left hung with red ashoka and yellow champa flowers and rows of jasmine, durva herbs, incense sticks, scented pots, and bowls of cardamom and citron peel.

Chandi entered the room, sheathed in a plain, white dhoti with a jeweled kamarband belting the garment and a necklace of jasmine adorning her. Her eyes sparkled, as she greeted him with her warmest smile and most reverent bow. A fringe of her dark hair fell over her eyes when she did so. Her vibrant appearance startled him. He had heard her distinct, tinkling laughter echo from the inner courtyard most of the previous night.

“There are dark circles under your eyes, Vatsyayana. Was your evening unpleasant?” She looked at Sarama after she said this. He frowned, wondering why she would think the woman affected his mood in any way.

“I am unaccustomed to the revelries I heard last night.”

Chandi nodded. “Well, yes, you’ve spent several years of your life at Nalanda. But, surely as a child, you must have seen prostitutes bless marriages at Varanasi?”

When he shook his head, she added, “I assure you, your father enjoyed the company of the women here on many occasions. It was our pleasure to entertain him.”

His nostrils flared. “My father did not consort with prostitutes!”

Chandi raised her black eyebrows. “Gatherings in this dwelling extend to more than just courtesans and their lovers. Our guests were storytellers, who recited the legendary epics and ancient history, singers, poets and a variety of scholars, including Brahmins. Kausambi is a gilded city, bedecked as a bride upon her wedding day, and the courtesans of Kausambi are its jewels. Your father never disdained the pleasures of music and dance, or the companionship of beautiful women. He understood the true nature of such refinements.”

Before he could argue further, she gestured to a pillow on the floor before settling herself on another beside it.

He gritted his teeth and joined her. Her servant knelt at her side and stared at him impertinently.

Chandi said, “I delighted in receiving your father’s message. It had been too long since I heard from him, when the court was last at Ujjain before the monsoon rains. But, now I expect his master the Maharaja has returned to Pataliputra and your father with him. Tell me, how does your learned father fare?”

He looked away, but her gaze followed his. “What is wrong?”

His eyes watered. He clenched his fists at his side. He could not show weakness before such people.

Fighting past the lump tightening in his throat, nearly choking him, he whispered, “My father is dead.”

She reached blindly for the jasmine garland around her neck. The knot of flowers ripped in her hand and fell to her lap.

Her servant grasped and kissed her hand. “I grieve with you, Mistress.”

She patted the slave’s head. “Tell me, please, Vatsyayana, how did he die?”

“He had been ill for some time. He chose not to speak of the sickness to anyone, not even me.” Resentment crept into his tone. He rushed on. “My father suffered daily bouts of fever. The Maharaja’s chief physician advised him to bathe in the waters of the Shipra River. It did not help. He lost his appetite for all his favorite meals. He took only lentil broth in the afternoon for a month. My younger sisters summoned me from Nalanda. I arrived in the morning. He died the following night.”

He clasped his hands, his eyes averted.

Chandi nodded. “Then, I cannot mourn, for he is at peace.”

He glared at her. “At peace, you say?”

“Death is inevitable for us all. But, it is not an occasion for sadness. In truth, I will miss your father. His is a great loss for me, for the world. Yet, I rejoice in his passing, for it is but a casting off of the physical body. As the ancient gurus teach us, ‘the soul of man is indestructible, it cannot be pierced by sword, fire cannot burn it, air cannot dry it, water cannot moisten it.’ We must rely on such truths and never mourn your father.”

Breathing harshly, he shouted and tabbed a finger at her. “How dare you? How dare you quote the Bhagavad-Gita to me, one who has studied its meaning all my life? Don’t you know who I am, who my father was? You’re nothing compared to us.”

She rose with her servant’s aid. “Yet, your father admired and respected me and I loved him for it.”

“You’re no more than a well-practiced whore. A whore cannot love anyone or anything, except money.”

The slave beside her gasped, but Chandi smiled. “I did love him, Vatsyayana. Believe what you must of me, but believe also in my love for him. When I visit the temple today, I will honor him.”

“With the trinkets you’ve earned from last night’s debauchery? Such gifts would profane my father’s good name. I cannot allow that.”

“Yet, you cannot prevent me from honoring him as I please.”

“Why do you care if he is dead? You cannot expect me to believe you enjoyed any…relationship with my father. He could not have been your patron. My father kept strict accounts. I oversaw everything his steward did, whenever I returned to Varanasi. He did not add to your coffers, woman. I refuse to believe it.”

When she said nothing, his hearth thrummed and readied to explode from his chest. “Were you and my father lovers? Were you? Tell me the truth.”

She shook her head, a glimmer of sadness sparkling at the corners of her eyes. “You would not understand the truth. You are not ready to hear it.”

When she turned away, he grabbed for her wrist and held her firm. She cried out and shrank away from him.

The slave jerked the dagger from its sheath. “No one touches Mistress without her permission!”

Chandi raised a hand, halting her. “Sarama, Vatsyayana is our guest. You must not harm him.”

He sneered, though his hand fell away from her. “As if she could hurt me.”

Chandi rubbed her wrist. Her servant kissed the reddened area he’d released. “I could hurt you, young master, for her.”

Chandi shook her head. “That is not necessary, Sarama. Please, don’t upset him further. He is in pain. He is right to seek answers at such a time.”

He shook with setting rage. “Then, answer my question. Were you and my father ever lovers?”

Yet, fear soured his belly as he awaited her answer. Could his father have done it, taken this preening peacock of a woman to her chambers, and worshipped at the temple of her flawless body? It occurred to him that he hadn’t truly known his father after all, for how could the old man have kept his liaison with this whore secret from everyone? He shuddered. Did his mother know? Could he wound her so deliberately by betraying such a possibility?

Chandi whispered, “We were never lovers.”

He sagged as relief overwhelmed him. “Then, how did you come to know him?”

She withdrew her fingers from her slave’s hold. “You must not ask me. You are not prepared to learn such things. Not yet.”

She clasped her hands together. “Your father commanded me to teach you the rule of love. For the love I still bear him, I will fulfill his last wish. We will begin our exploration with the three aims of life. It is time for your first lesson.”

He glared at her. “What lesson might that be?”

“Kama,” she answered over her shoulder, before heading toward the door.

He called out after her, “And, what must I learn of desire and voluptuousness?”

“You said earlier you were seeking knowledge,” the servant interrupted, as she gathered a tray of ointments and perfumes. “My mistress will show the way.”

If you liked this chapter but missed the previous one, catch up on Chapter 1.
There are some great writing samples circulating the blogosphere every #SampleSunday that you can check out. If you're not already doing so, be a part of it now. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Rule of Love.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Taking on a new role

Recently, I was offered the chance to take on a new role, as a weekly contributor at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog - cool name, or what? I'm so thrilled that my first article is up, Genre Fiction: A Love-Hate Relationship, about the joys and pitfalls of writing fiction, and whether or not I have a split personality (Hint: if you think I'll admit to that, good luck). Big thanks to Adrienne Crezo and Cortnee Howard at BDCWB for a great opportunity to connect with writers and readers, and do what I love best.

Why I don't write bad reviews

Can you guess why? Pop quiz time!

A - I'm a chickenshit
B - Karma is a bitch!
C - The Golden Rule; do unto others as you would have done unto you, especially applies to writers
D - My opinion isn't the only one that should matter
E - All of the above
F - All of the above, except A cause you know me and you know I ain't no chickenshit!

If you follow this blog or my reviews at Historical Novel Reviews, you know how much I love writing, historical fiction and other writers. I truly believe my role in this amazing community of writers is to give back generously because of the number of writers who've helped me. It's also part of my role to be positive and uplifting of other writers' careers.  So, what happens when I put on my book reviewer hat and get down to reading something that, in my opinion, isn't quite up to snuff?

A couple weeks ago, I finished reading someone's work that had been submitted for review. The concept sounded amazingly interesting and I knew it was just the right book for me...until I started reading it. The plot just didn't work and the characters weren't on the page long enough for me to connect with them. I was hugely disappointed, but I'm sure, no more so than the writer whom I wrote to and explained that I couldn't publicly post a review. It was one of the hardest emails I've ever had to write. I know what it feels like to hear that someone thinks your work isn't good, but my conscience wouldn't allow me to slam another writer like that.

Whoever said "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," must have been thinking about writers reviewing each other's work. Fortunately, I'm not the goddess of great writing - I'll take my imperfect attempts any day over having to write consistently perfect prose, thank you very much. I still have a lot to learn and fortunately, the writing community teaches me something each day. With that in mind, my estimation of the quality of someone's work isn't the only opinion that matters. I would hate for my negative opinion to be the first for a book under review. Some people might say, hell, you're just telling an ugly truth that the other writer needs to hear. Maybe. But it goes deeper than that.

The writing and book blogging community is a little incestuous. Many of us who review also write, particularly in the same genre. It's a little hard to be objective and avoid imposing some of "this is how I would have done it" into your views on another writer's work. Also, that thing about karma being a bitch and the Golden Rule - yeah, I know all about that. When you bring someone else's writing down, you're just opening yourself up for the same criticism.

I leave it up to the readers, who are not writers themselves and who have no ambitions to take on the challenges that we do, to post the bad reviews. I'll just keep doing my part to support fellow writers.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sultana: Final Cover Artwork

Remember last month when I was agonizing over the cover artwork for Sultana? Some of the blog visitors who commented were helpful in the selection process and I'm thrilled with the end result. The foreground image is A Jewish Girl of Tangiers by Charles Zacharie Landelle (1812-1908), while the background is Adolf Seel's Innenhof der Alhambra (1829-1907). Both paintings are public domain images made available through Creative Commons. My brilliant cover artist Lance Ganey compiled the two images and created the cover font - he's so talented. The original Landelle painting has a gray, non-descript background. In addition to the beautiful girl on the cover, I wanted something of the majesty and beauty of the Alhambra, too. It was a stroke of luck finding Seel's painting. In addition to the compilation, Lance also made subtle changes to the artwork, making it truly unique. You can see the originals and his handiwork in the comparison below.

Sultana's been a labor of love for me and it deserved a gorgeous cover that captured the essense of the story. I think the artwork achieves that aim. What do you think?

Time flies when you're having fun, or writing novels.

It's been a tremendous twelve months. A new job and health issues have impacted my writing time, but I'm still at it, trying to wrap...