January Author of the Month: Kim Taylor Blakemore

Photo supplied by Kim Taylor Blakemore

I shall start off the New Year Author Interviews as I mean to go on, with a truly talented storyteller. Presenting: Kim Taylor Blakemore, a fierce woman who tells tales of the “thieves and servants, murderesses and spoiled doves”, winner of Tucson Festival of Books Literary Award, WILLA Literary Award, and three Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) grants and member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Historical Novel Society.

Her genres are Historical and Women’s Fiction, which has come out breathtakingly in her first adult debut historical mystery novel, The Companion, which is out today: 14 January 2020.

Without further ado, let’s meet Kim!

When looking for a new read, what stands out most for you: the book cover or the description?

Book cover and then description. A great cover will always reel me in.

E-books vs physical books, where do you stand?

I like both! I don’t think one is better than the other, merely different. Personally, I read fiction on my Kindle app on my phone and read nonfiction (including research materials) in print, so I can write notes in the margins, highlight, turn over pages, add Post-It notes and have the stack of research books on my desk in easy reach.

Do you have any mascots or rituals you do when writing?

My pets are definitely mascots – the leader is Toughie the blind cat, followed by Rocky the shepherd/Doberman/100% mutt mix, Naomi the old gal, and little Calvin. They all sleep in the office when I write, bark at passing trucks and squirrels (to remind me to take a break) and never let me forget dinnertime. Picture included. J

Photo supplied by Kim Taylor Blakemore

I do have specific rituals when I write at the library – a specific chair at a specific table, facing the mysteries. I’m out of sorts when it’s not available.

Which books defined your childhood and which ones define you now?

Nancy Drew, for sure. My mother read every Agatha Christie novel when I was very little; I think she was prepping me for the master. My family are voracious readers, so the library was a weekly event. In my teens I was obsessed with Gone with the Wind. That obsession moved into Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I read pretty widely, so there isn’t really a genre that I read more than others. I can devour a Jasper Fforde book and follow it with an Emma Donoghue and then a Connie Willis.

But I will say that it is Daphne DuMaurier who informs my work. She is brilliant at deception and deflection, teasing out one small detail at a time until the story is filled with delicious dread. I have a portrait of her above my desk. She is very fierce in it, very stern, and a strict taskmaster. I can hear whisper, “Make it worse.”

What was the first Historical Fiction book you read?

Wow. I don’t remember. Probably Pride and Prejudice, but that isn’t really historical fiction, is it?

As a writer of Women’s Historical Fiction what was it that first drew you into this genre?

I love women’s history, and I’m impelled to learn how women lived and what made them tick in the past. So often, this history is not found in textbooks or history tomes, but in diaries and letters, and when I read those, I see such rich worlds.

The Companion

Book cover image supplied by Kim Taylor Blakemore

How and when did the story for the book first come to you?

Lucy came to me in a dream, about 15 years ago. Her name at the time was Polly Bunting, and the dream was a fleeting image of a young woman caught in the act of stealing the pearl necklace from her (dead) mistress’s throat. I just started writing her voice, letting her speak, but at the time, I didn’t have much of a story and left it alone after about twenty-five pages. But that young woman never left me, and I picked up the manuscript and played around with scenes and ideas over the years. Each time I said to myself, “You’re not a good enough writer for this story yet.” And I’d put it away. But at one weekend workshop, Lucy came barrelling out at the first prompt and didn’t stop. I was all set to write a fun breezy book about an all-female jazz band in the 1930s, but Lucy had her own ideas. And I knew it was time. The book was complete in a year and a half.

Which character in your book are you able to connect with the most?

Lucy. She is maddeningly charming and dishonest and conniving and tough and vulnerable all at once.

Did you edit anything out of the book?

During developmental edits, we deepened some area and characterizations, and lost a murder as it pulled focus away from the main story. But nothing significant was edited out.

Lucy and Rebecca are both at some point companions to Eugenie, when first reading the book I thought the title referred to Lucy as she is the main character, but now I don’t think it is as cut and dry as that. What do you say?

Yes, that’s right. There are three companions in the piece – Rebecca and Lucy both serve as a companion to Eugenia, but the Matron is Lucy’s companion, also.

I love the description and atmosphere of the Burtons house, it’s perfect for the story, did you do research for this by having long weekends at a historical house?

I make sure I visit at least one historic house wherever I travel. In fact, I make sure to visit the historical societies also. I am obsessed with how people lived and moved through their time and their domestic spheres, and houses are telling. The Burton’s home is an amalgam of New England houses.

You don’t mind shining a light on the dark stories and the nitty-gritty which intrigues me and keeps me reading, is there anything you find too dark or nitty gritty to write about?

Rape and torture. Can’t go there at all.

Having Eugenie Burton blind in the book is a unique twist, it puts her in a very vulnerable position even though she is capable. Would you say Eugenie is the manipulated or the manipulator?

Eugenie is both. She manipulates the household and pretty much gets everything and anything she wants. She point blank tells Lucy that during one of their first conversations. But she is also manipulated by others in the house who have their own desires – for power, for love, for money.

And Rebecca, manipulated or manipulator?

As above. Rebecca is the poor cousin that is shuttled from house to house, an in-between in the household, and looking to keep any modicum of status she can. It’s an uncomfortable place to live – not close family, not distant staff, not much say over anything, even as it relates to her own life.

Do you think Eugenie’s love for Lucy was real?

I do. I think Eugenie found someone who didn’t coddle her, didn’t see her as a blind person, and saw her as an equal.

I have to ask, who killed Mary?

You may ask, but I may not tell. 😉 I will leave that to you to decide.

The novel has elements in it that at times that remind me of the works of the Bronte sisters or Daphne du Maurier did these gothic horrors influence you when writing this novel?

Thank you for that! Daphne du Maurier is my idol. She is a master at the reveal, giving away tiny bits of information – much seemingly innocuous – until the sum of the parts become a dreadful horrible whole. Then it’s too late to turn back. For the characters and the reader.

And the atmosphere in du Maurier’s works, like the Brontë’s, is used so well, each description worked to its fullest to provide not only the settings, but the feeling of dread and unease.

Lastly:

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished the draft of my next book for Lake Union. It’s super dark and twisty: an asylum, an apparent suicide, and a woman who doesn’t buy the story she’s told about her sister’s death. And she won’t stop until she finds the truth. (Can I say she’s pretty kick ass?) It’s set in the same area of New Hampshire as THE COMPANION, though ten years later. It’s tentatively titled AFTER ALICE FELL, and will be released in January 2021.

How can we follow you?

I’d love if you joined my mailing list! I post new content monthly, from tidbits on my research trips to giveaways to stories of fierce women, and exclusive excerpts and other writings. Sign up here: http://eepurl.com/gjxqib

You can also follow me at:

Instagram: www.instagram.com/blakemorekimtayl

or Facebook: www.facebook.com/kimtaylorblakemore

December Author of the Month: Charlie N. Holmberg

Author Photo Provided by Charlie N. Holmberg

This article contains spoilers for The Fifth Doll

I am proud to present the fantastic Charlie N. Holmberg as my Author of the Month for December. This amazing fantasy author is best known for The Paper Magician series but the first book I read of hers and fell in love with was The Fifth Doll.

Let’s learn a bit about you!

What book would you say defines your childhood and which book would you say defines you now?

  • My favorite books as a kid were the Goosebumps books and the American Girl books (even though I never owned an American Girl doll). As an adult, I was shaped a lot by epic fantasy. I think the most influential was Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.

Which was the first book to make you cry and which was the first to make you laugh?

  • I’m not sure which title first brought me to tears, but the first book to make me UGLY cry? Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. I was all snot and tears for that one. I’m not sure on laughter either, but it could have been Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

How long have you been writing?

  • I started writing when I was 13, so… 18 years?

What’s the funniest typo you’ve ever written then caught yourself?

  • I’ve accidentally dropped profanity into books where I didn’t mean to. I also have a weird thing where I type “back” when I mean “bag.” All. The. Time.

Do you have a writing mascot or ritual?

  • Not particularly? I write in the mornings after my kids go to school, Monday through Friday. I’m very disciplined about it.

How do you handle deadlines and priorities?

  • I just do them. I know that’s a weird answer, but it’s how I’m wired. I have never once missed a deadline.

Do you use any writer’s apps and if so are there any you would recommend?

  • I don’t. Just me, my brain, and Microsoft Word.

The Fifth Doll is a favorite of mine, especially because I have an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and so many elements of the novel deal with issues that were in my course. I have been known to use the book as an illustration in arguments similar to The Matrix, red or blue pill. With that being said I’d like to quiz you about this novel.

Book Cover Image supplied by Charlie N. Holmberg

How did the idea for the novel first come to you?

  • So I was preparing a class on magic systems for a local conference, and I wanted to get the attendees to think outside the box and create a magic system of their own. I was walking around my house, writing down random things I saw—forks, thread, newspapers—so that I could have the class come up with magic revolving around them. I reached the shelf that had my matryoshka dolls on them and paused. Magical matryoshka dolls… that sparked something in me. Needless to say, I kept that one for myself!

What research did you do for the book?

  • A lot of late 18th-century Russian research. Most of the book is quasi-Russia, so I had some leeway, but I had to research some stuff about relevant tzars and how marriage was handled, clothing, food, etc. I also revisited Freudian psychology, since that has some influence in the novel as well.

Did you edit anything out of the book?

  • Nothing major. Not that I can recall.

A room of villager nesting dolls is a terrifying image, what would you do if you found a room filled with nesting dolls of people you know, would you open one?

  • Oh, totally. That would be a true WTF moment. Though I would be terrified of getting caught.

In Matrona’s position would you fight being given stewardship?

  • You know . . . I’m not totally sure I would. I would probably 100% play along until I figured out for sure what was going on, and then make a judgment and potentially a secret betrayal, ha.

At the end of the book, we are confronted with the concept of freedom and if it is truly desirable. Do you think true freedom is desirable?

  • True freedom is always desirable. The freedom Matrona achieves, not so much.

Which would you choose, the world within the dolls or the real one?

  • I would probably choose to stay in the dolls! (SPOILER>) The reality Matrona takes everyone into is a winter- and war-ridden one. They have literally nothing. It’s going to be CRAZY HARD to make a life and a living, especially in the throws of WWI. If I had to choose between those two worlds, I would choose the nice sunny one, thank you very much.

Have you considered writing a sequel or prequel to the novel? If so I wish to pre-order.

  • Considered? Briefly. Will I write one? No. Sorry!

Lastly

What are you working on at the moment?

  • I am working on SO MANY THINGS. I’m finishing up my Spellbreaker duology, the first book of which will release in fall 2020. I also have a high fantasy duology I’m working on with Caitlyn McFarland (author of the Dragonsworn series). Then I have a book called STAR MOTHER that I’ll be doing my first round of edits on soon (from my alpha readers—haven’t sold that one yet!).

How can we follow you?

  • Instagram: @cnholmberg
  • Twitter: @cnholmberg
  • Facebook: @cnholmberg
  • Website: charlienholmberg.com
  • Amazon: https://amzn.to/2CzffcW
  • Goodreads: https://bit.ly/36Zfaxe

Author of the Month: November – Faith L. Justice

Authors Photo provided by Faith L. Justice

Faith L. Justice is my Author of the Month for November. This Historical Fiction writer has penned 5 novels and a collection of short stories that if you haven’t read yet, you must! So, without further ado, let’s get to know Justice.

How has your upbringing inspired how you write your books?

I grew up reading historical fiction—much more exciting that the history texts in school. I think a lot of people feel the same way. We can immerse ourselves in a different world with exotic settings, but still see the humanity that binds us, through stories, across time—and learn a little something about history.

As I grew older, I read more straight history and noticed something depressing: nearly all the subjects were men and their accomplishments (usually in battle)! When I started digging, I found all sorts of fascinating women—scientists, generals, pirates, mathematicians, empresses, courtesans, spies, adventurers—too many to write about in one lifetime. I wanted to share their stories with a general audience, so historical fiction was the right fit. It allows me to tell women’s stories—specific and general—from all classes and situations.

What book would you say defines your childhood and which book would you say defines you now?

I from a farm country with a large family, so The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder captures the rural and family dynamic I grew up with. Although we had a few bad snowstorms and our house did catch on fire once, we never experienced the frontier hardships that family had to deal with. However, the sense of community is still the same.

What book defines me now is much harder. I’d like to say Sex in the City by Candace Bushnell because I’ve lived in New York for over thirty years, but you know the old saying, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t the country out of the girl.” I’m afraid I live a very staid life. James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a better fit. I spend my time daydreaming and telling stories—although I’m rarely the hero!

Do you have a favorite season, time of day, etc you like to write in?

Writing is my job, so I treat it like one. I get up, feed the cats and myself, and am at my writing computer by 10 am. I write until 1 pm—sometimes longer if I’m on a roll. Not all writing is on novels. I have short stories, reviews, blog posts, free-lance articles, etc. I’m trying to up my novel writing time, however, because I have so many ideas. I also fiercely protect these three hours—no phones, no internet, no family. Sometimes I write on the weekends if I’m on a deadline or the muse strikes me.

Afternoons are for miscellaneous publishing projects: rewriting, proofing, marketing, interior layout, and research. I try to knock off by six. During nice weather, I spend time digging in the dirt—my garden or volunteer archaeology projects. I just got back from a dig in Tuscany, Italy where we worked on a Roman villa that was occupied from the first through the fifth centuries. We uncovered some lovely mosaics!

What is the funniest typo you’ve ever written?

Oh my! I’ve forgotten so many. The most recent I can remember was a blog post where I talked about “navel battles”—belly button wars! Glad I caught it before I posted it.

Book Cover Image provided by Faith L. Justice

Your latest book and first installment in The Theodosian Women series has become a firm favorite with me. Now, I’m excited I get to interview you on it!

Which historical character in your book would you have loved to have gone back in time and interview for the book?

That one is easy: Placidia. There is so little in the primary sources, I’d love to see what I got right and what I got wrong. Another interesting choice would be her daughter Honoria. There’s a lot of controversy about her life and historians don’t agree on much.

I’m a strong believer in ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’, what is the strangest thing you have had to research for the Twilight Empress?

Doing the research is the most fun part of writing historical fiction for me. I can really go down the research rabbit hole. One of my favorite historical tidbits that I included in the novel was Emperor Honorius’ fondness for his pet chickens. When a messenger told him, “Rome is gone!” (after the Goths took the city in 410), Honorius—referring to one of his favorite roosters named Rome—said something like, “But I fed him from my hand just a few minutes ago!”

Placidia married twice; Ataulf, King of the Visigoths and Constantius III, Roman Emperor, between the two who would be your love?

You’re asking me to choose between the Bad Boy and the Sensitive Guy? Actually, they were quite similar: both were successful and respected generals/leaders, smart and politically astute. Both seemed to have married for love—unusual for the times. My head says go with the more powerful Constantius, but my heart flutters for Ataulf the better horseman!

Placidia keeps going never letting herself truly breakdown though out all of the disasters she goes through.  Why do you think she never broke down?

I think she did break down a couple of times. When her first child died, she went into a deep depression and it took loving friends and St. John’s wort (an herbal anti-depressant) to help her out of it. She has a couple more depressive episodes at key moments in her life. What I tried to portray in her character was a bed-rock sense of duty. She was raised to rule and felt it was her duty to give her life to the Roman Empire even at the expense of her own happiness or the happiness of those she loved.

As a reader, reading the chapter where Placidia’s stepchildren are viciously murdered after her first husband’s death was heart-wrenching.  How did you feel when writing it?

That was hard, even though the deaths took place off-screen and we only see the aftermath. I’m a mother. Writing anything where a child is hurt or suffering makes me cry while writing it and when reading it later. I tear up just writing about writing it! I try to channel those raw feelings and describe them for the reader because that is what normal people feel and I want my characters to reflect real feelings.

Placidia treats her biological children differently from each other, if you could what advice would you give her?

I did give her advice…through other characters! Her niece Pulcheria saw the children’s faults and potential. She tried to help, but Placidia was blind to her own mistakes. From what little I could deduce from the history, I believe Placidia did indulge (and therefore stifle) her son and didn’t train her daughter in the more dangerous art of wielding imperial female power. I consider Placidia’s overprotectiveness of her children, her “tragic flaw.” Pulcheria offered to help, but was rebuffed.

In Placida’s position, how would you have handled Aetius?

That’s a tough one! I’m not sure what I would have done differently. Placidia struggled as a woman to preserve the imperial throne and its power for her minor son. I think she did a credible job of pitting Aetius’ ambition against that of other generals for quite some time. He was not alone in thinking a woman should not have the power that Placidia assumed as Augusta. He was a brilliant general and shrewd politician. Aetius would naturally look down on any female—no matter how talented—and assume he could do better. Nothing other than death or exile would deter him from trying to assume as much power as he could. And both death and exile would have been a disaster because Aetius was the glue that held the frontier together for decades. Without him, Western Rome would have fallen earlier.

Do you think Justa Grata Honoria meant the ring included in her plea letter to Attila to be a proposal of marriage?

Personally, no. I think she wanted to indicate the authenticity of the message. By inviting Attila to “rescue” her, she wanted to use him as she thought her mother had used the Goths throughout her life, as a threat against domestic opposition (in this case, Honoria’s brother Valentinian) or possibly as a last ditch escape from a hated marriage or possibly prison.

Do you think you will ever write Justa Grata Honoria’s story?

I’d like to! I also want to write about Placidia’s daughter-in-law Eudoxia and granddaughters Eudocia and Placidia the Younger who have fascinating stories of their own to tell later during the Vandal invasion and looting of Rome.

Would you call Placidia the ‘She-Wolf’ of Ancient Rome and if so are there any other strong women of her time you would add to the list?

Yes, Placidia was certainly fierce and I gave her the Roman Wolf as her standard when she returned to Ravenna. There were many strong (overlooked) women during that time. I’ve written about two Theodosian women (Placidia and her niece Pulcheria) and have a third novel started about Athenais, wife of Theodosius II. There are four generations of strong Theodosian women to explore—many more than I have time to write about. Outside of royalty, I’d recommend people look at the life of Hypatia, the Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. She was a renowned mathematician, astronomer, and civic leader. Her students held major offices in both the Church and government. It was while researching her life for my first book Selene of Alexandria—in which Hypatia is a major character—that I found Placidia and the rest of her impressive female relatives.

Have you visited the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy?

Yes, I spent days tramping around Ravenna, visiting its various museums and historical sites. The Mausoleum is a beautiful building. Remarkable that it has survived from the fifth century.

FUN FACT: As I mentioned in my author’s note, I used the Mausoleum’s interior as the model for Placidia’s actual tome in Rome. That tomb was torn down to build St. Peter’s. The Mausoleum in Ravenna was most likely a chapel built by her son Valentinian to honor St. Lawrence—considered the patron saint of the Theodosian line. The sarcophagi in the building supposedly used for Placidia, her husband, and her brother are all dated to different and later times. The building was probably rebranded as Placidia’s Mausoleum during Medieval or Renaissance times to attract tourists.

Finally:

What are you currently working on?

So many projects, so little time! My second novel in the Theodosian Women series Dawn Empress about Placidia’s niece Pulcheria, is in final production and will be out in early 2020. I’m in the final editing phase of a prequel novella Twilight Princess about Placidia’s three years in Rome during the Goth sieges. That should also be out next year. The third novel in the series, Athenais’ story (wife of Theodosius II) is outlined and partially written. I’m celebrating the tenth anniversary of publishing my first book Selene of Alexandria with an audio edition and new cover and updated author note for the print and eBook. I’m trying to get back to a second book in my female gladiator series called Song of the Gladiatrix which is outlined and partially written, but I keep getting distracted with the Theodosians. I’m in the beta read phase with my second book in my middle-grade children’s series Adventurous Girls…oh my! It makes me tired just typing this.

Where can we buy your books and keep up to date with all your doing?

Thanks for hosting me on your blog, Zoe! To show my appreciation for your readers I’m giving away an eBook short story featuring one of my favorite fictional characters from Twilight Empress, please go to my website at FaithLJustice.com and sign up for “Angel of the Marshes.”

My books are available in print, eBook, and audio at all the usual online places or order from your local bookstore. People can connect with me online at my website or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Happy reading, everyone!