the_maid_and_the_queenThis year marks the 600th anniversary of the birth of St. Joan of Arc, one of the most courageous and inspiring people, man or woman, ever to have lived. And what better way to honor Joan’s memory than to retell her story and introduce a new generation to the leading actors in her thrilling drama?  But be careful, I warn you, this fascinating medieval web of intrigue, war and triumph can become addictive…

The Story of Joan of Arc, Part I

Joan of Arc was a young peasant girl, living in the small, obscure village of Domrémy, at the very edge of the kingdom of France, during the time of the Hundred Years War. The Hundred Years War was a major conflict between England and France that lasted—you guessed it—one hundred years. But England and France didn’t fight each other continuously through that period. The Hundred Years War was actually conducted in two distinct stages. The first stage began about 1350, long before Joan was born, when the English king, Edward III, and his son, the Black Prince (don’t you just love that name?), won a great battle and took over all of western France. It took the French thirty years, until about 1380, to push Edward and his English soldiers out of their kingdom, but they finally managed to do it. And then, for the next thirty years or so, everybody took a well-earned break from hostilities, and England and France lived in relative peace.

Joan of Arc’s story takes place during the second stage of the Hundred Years War, which began in 1415, when she was about three years old. That’s when Henry V—he’s the English king in Shakespeare who says “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” that’s Henry V—invaded France and mowed down nearly all of the French army at the famous battle of Agincourt. (There’s a good movie about this with Kenneth Branagh playing Henry.)  Because the French crown lost so many soldiers that day, the kingdom was unable to resist further encroachment, and over the next few years England basically took over all of western France and the capital city of Paris.  The dauphin, who was the French king’s surviving son (and the legitimate heir to the throne), was disinherited, and Henry V married the dauphin’s sister Catherine (played by Emma Thompson in the movie) and went on to claim the thrones of both England and France.

But the dauphin, whose name was Charles, refused to surrender his inheritance without a fight. Forced to flee Paris, he declared war on England and escaped south, heading straight for the court of the most experienced and powerful politician in France, the one person who he knew was adroit enough to help him defeat the English and reclaim his kingdom.

The Story of Joan of Arc, Part II

Charles, the dauphin of France needed help from his mother-in-law, whose name was Yolande of Aragon. She was queen of Sicily, duchess of Anjou and Maine, and countess of Provence.  Yolande was wealthy, educated, and of royal birth. She owned castles and property in France that she did not wish to see captured by the English; even more importantly, she wanted Charles to regain his throne so that her daughter would be queen and her grandson could inherit the kingdom after his father. She strongly encouraged Charles to resist the English militarily, providing him with much-needed money, supplies and allies.

But despite her efforts, the war went badly for Charles.  He lost battle after battle. He despaired, believing that he could not defeat England because God was against him. He began to doubt whether his cause was just, whether he really was the legitimate heir to the throne.

Yolande, who had known Charles since he was ten years old, had in fact brought him up with her own children, tried to reassure him. She knew that it was imperative that he keep fighting for his throne, that the English were not invincible. But Charles was terrified to put another army into the field for fear that his soldiers would be annihilated as they had in previous battles. He refused to listen to her.

Around this time, when she was just thirteen years old, Joan began to hear voices. At first they frightened her but before long she began to trust them, and to identify the voices as belonging to angels. One of the angels whose voice she heard was Saint Michael, divine commander of the forces of good against those of evil. Over the years, as Charles’ campaign against the English went from bad to worse, Saint Michael began to urge Joan to leave her small village of Domrémy, and travel to the royal court, in order to offer her aid to thedauphin. When she was sixteen Joan heeded his call and ventured out to the nearby fortress of Vaucouleurs to ask a local captain, Robert de Baudricourt, to send her to the dauphin. But Robert refused to take her request seriously, and she was forced to return home.

Six months after Joan was rebuffed at Vaucouleurs, England, determined to break what was left of the dauphin’s spirit and take over the rest of the kingdom, launched the siege of Orléans. Orléans was a large, walled city on the bank of the Loire whose citizens were still loyal to Charles. The English tried first to scale the walls and barrage those inside with cannonballs, but the city was too well defended, so eventually the enemy commanders decided simply to dig in for the winter and encircle the town. Blockades were then set up to prevent supplies from getting in. The intent was clear: the English meant to use hunger to bring Orléans to submission.

Yolande did everything she could to compel Charles to defend this important city. She organized an immense relief effort and paid for the supplies herself. She brought together an army that included the most seasoned warriors in the kingdom.  She coaxed important noblemen to Charles’ court to give him courage. But still the dauphin, haunted by his previous defeats, refused to act. As the weeks passed, and Charles continued to delay, his loyal subjects in Orléans began to starve.

And then Yolande had an idea.

The Story of Joan of Arc, Part III

All of her life, Yolande of Aragon loved literature.  She was known for having amassed a notable library.  After the duke of Orléans was captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt Yolande had all of his books transferred to his castle at Saumur for safekeeping.   Her passion for fiction had been nurtured in childhood by her parents, whose court ranked among the most literary in Europe.

There was one novel in particular that had made an enormous impression on Yolande in her youth.  It was called The Romance of Melusine.  The Romance of Melusine, which was written twenty years before Joan was born, when Yolande was a girl of twelve still living with her parents at their court in Aragon, was wildly popular.  Think of it as The Hunger Games of the fourteenth century.  It told the story of Melusine, a fairy in the guise of a beautiful woman, who befriends a nobleman named Raymondin.  Raymondin has gotten himself into trouble by accidentally murdering his cousin and is wandering around in the forest trying to figure out what to do about it.  Melusine offers to help Raymondin in exchange for marrying her.  By following Melusine’s sage advice, Raymondin goes on to become one of the richest and most successful lords in all of France.

In fact, The Romance of Melusine was more than just a fairy tale, as Yolande well knew.  Underneath the fantasy were tucked the accumulated military and political lessons gleaned from the first stage of the Hundred Years War, so on one level the book also operated as a medieval how-to manual.  Melusine’s advice to Raymondin (and by extension to princes and noblemen in general) included how to get back an inheritance that someone else has stolen from you, how to make a murder look like an accident and so gain political capital from it, how to isolate enemies and lure allies to your cause, and how to train soldiers and win battles.  The author camouflaged this wisdom by layering it into a romance to confuse the English and keep this hard-won knowledge out of the hands of the enemy.  They did that sort of thing all the time in the Middle Ages.

For Yolande, The Romance of Melusine was more than just a novel she had loved from young adulthood; it was the book of her family.  Her maternal grandmother had inspired the author to write the story and he had dedicated the work to her.  More than this, the author, who knew Yolande’s mother’s side of the family very well, had actually written Yolande’s parents, the king and queen of Aragon, into the book as important characters.  It is easy to see how Yolande, faced with a military crisis and Charles’ stubborn intransigence, made the connection between the dauphin’s predicament and that of Raymondin.  Charles, too, had murdered his cousin, an English ally; Charles had also been deprived of his rightful inheritance; and certainly, if anyone needed lessons in how to win a battle, it was Charles!

Many people in the Middle Ages, Yolande included, believed in fairies.  But where—and more importantly how—to find a Melusine?  And could she be discovered in time to stave off almost certain defeat and rescue the starving people of Orléans?

 

Visit Nancy Goldstone’s website to learn more about her.


velva_jeanRight now I am so busy juggling two books, that my readers and friends worry about me. Their primary concern is that my work is too isolating and that it keeps me too burdened down at my desk. I am at my desk a lot, especially at this moment as I’m editing what’s called the galleys or first pass of my upcoming book (to be released September 25), Becoming Clementine; producing, writing, directing, designing, acting in, and scoring a trailer for the book; and researching/outlining/writing the book that comes after, due to my publisher September 15. It’s true I’m at my computer or working somewhere for hours every day. But, while I may at times feel overwhelmed (to put it mildly), I never feel limited.

jennifer_niven_places1As a little girl, the thing I loved most about writing was that it could take you anywhere. Through my stories, I could see the world– the universe!– or imagine a new one. I could be anyone or anything.

Now that I’m all grown up and writing for a living, this is still the thing I love most about writing. I get to travel, through words and computer, to distant, exotic, foreign lands, often going back in time to long ago worlds or forward in time to ones that haven’t even been created.

One of the other best things about writing books is that they can literally take you to the most interesting places.

jennifer_niven_places2I’ve written each of my books because they were stories I wanted to read. I didn’t write them because I wanted to travel to this setting or that one to do research or because I hoped I might be invited on nice trips someday. But that’s exactly what has happened.

For research, I’ve been all over Scotland and Canada. I’ve been to Paris, London, Maine, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Vermont, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, the Smoky Mountains, Missisippi, Newfoundland, and the tiny town of Wilson, North Carolina, to eat barbecue with the son of Arctic heroine Ada Blackjack, the subject of my second book. I’ve toured Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and climbed around the imposing Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stood on the dock in Victoria, BC, where the men of the Ice Master expedition set sail in 1913. For my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, I even reunited with my high school classmates in our small Indiana hometown, retracing the steps of my big-haired, boy crazy teenage self.

With my publishing team from Pan Macmillan, I was one of the first to ride the London Eye, soon after jennifer_niven_places3it opened.

I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the jawbone of one of the sailors I wrote about in The Ice Master to reunite his last remains with his great-nephew while teams of news crews filmed us.

I was invited to Venice, Italy, to speak to the Italian Explorers Club and receive the Giuseppe Mazotti Prize for Literature, Italy’s highest literary honor.

I’ve attended a ball on the Queen Mary, had tea at the home of Lord George Emslie, Lord President of the Court of Session and Lord Justice General, Scotland’s senior judge from 1972 until 1989, and drunk moonshine with gold miners in the mountains of Georgia. I’ve posed for pictures in front of icebergs and on top of mountains, in graveyards and ruins, and with puffins and moose and llamas. I’ve become good friends with the families of the men and women I’ve written about.

In 2005, a few years after the publication of my Arctic nonfiction adventures The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, I was invited to the high Russian Arctic for two weeks aboard an ice breaker. With Quark Expeditions, I traveled up the Bering Strait, stopping at remote Inuit villages, before reaching Wrangel Island– the setting for those first two books– where I was dropped by helicopter with Bob Headland, then head of the Scott Polar Research Institute, and a Russian translator, and allowed a private tour.

jennifer_niven_places4I appeared at the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show in Charlotte, North Carolina, where award-winning designer Joycelyn Armstrong had created a kitchen inspired by Velva Jean Learns to Drive.

Just last year, I returned to my Indiana hometown for the official book release party for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and listened to Mayor Sally Hutton proclaim it “Jennifer Niven Day.”

In 2014, I’ve been invited to go back to the Arctic– for a month this time– for the 100th anniversary of the Ice Master expedition rescue, and will once again travel by ice breaker up the coast of Siberia to Wrangel Island.jennifer_niven_places5

Most recently, I was invited to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for a Velva Jean Learns to Fly Aviation Adventure, hosted by Adventures by the Book. As we were on our behind-the-scenes tour, exploring the basement of the museum where all the planes are constructed and refurbished, my boyfriend said, “You get toJennifer Niven, author of Velva Jean Learns to Fly go to the coolest places.”

And I do. But perhaps none cooler than the places I get to go to every day when I’m just sitting at my desk.


scandal_in_veniceI love Valentine’s Day!  Even in years when I’ve been single I’ve loved it when the stores fill up with pink and red boxes of candy, poetic cards, and bouquets of balloons.  I like crying at jewelry commercials (even when the jewelry is ugly!) and re-watching favorite romantic movies.  So I was very excited when I heard that Signet would be re-launching their Regency line, with my first book Scandal in Venice, on this great holiday.

Another thing I love is researching traditions and rituals in other cultures and other historical periods (which is one reason why I enjoy writing books set in places like Venice).  So I thought I would take a look at how Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in the past….

Historians trace the origin of Valentine’s Day to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a holiday on February 14th to honor the goddess Juno (among other things the patron of women and marriage, though maybe Venus might have been a better Valentine’s Day choice!). On the following day, February 15th began the fertility festival called ‘Feast of Lupercalia,’ which often turned into a big, wild party.

An interesting custom of the Feast of Lupercalia was to bring together young men and women who otherwise were strictly separated. On the eve of the festival names of young Roman girls were written on a slip of paper and placed into jars. Each young man drew out a girl’s name from the jar and was paired with the girl for the duration of Lupercalia. Sometime this pairing lasted until the next year’s celebration, and sometimes the couple would fall in love with each other and marry.

But it was actually due to the Christian priest and martyr St Valentine that today’s holiday got its name. The story goes that during the reign of Emperor Claudius, Rome was involved in several bloody and unpopular wars. Recruting new soliers was hard because a lot of men didn’t want to leave their wives and families to take part in such hopeless campaigning, so  Claudius canceled all engagements in Rome.  Saint Valentine defied Claudius’s orders. and performed secret marriages. When his defiance was discovered, Valentine was brutally beaten and put to death on February 14, about 270 AD and later became a saint.

Around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day to honor the martyr Valentinus and to end the pagan celebration.  By the Middle Ages, Valentine became a heroic and romantic figure in England and France, perfect for the cult of chivalry.  Valentine’s Day Cards are even said to have originated in medieval France. Charles, Duke of Orleans is said to have written the first Valentine’s Day card. He was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and wrote a poem or ‘Valentine’ to his wife while locked in the Tower of London. This letter is still in the collection of the British Library in London, England.

There was a popular belief in Great Britain and France during 14th and 15th century that birds begin to mate on February 14, halfway through the month of February. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (spelling modernized), addressing the favored suitor:

And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.

Unmarried girls in Britain and Italy used to wake up before sunrise on Valentine’s Day. They believed that the first man they glimpsed on Valentine’s Day (or someone who looked like him!) would marry them within a year. Girls would wake up early to stand by their window and wait for the right man to pass by. Shakespeare mentions this tradition in Hamlet (1603). Ophelia sings:

Good morrow! ‘Tis St. Valentine’s Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine! 

Another tradition in Great Britain made women pin four bay leaves to the corners of their pillow and eat eggs with salt replacing the removed yokes (yuck!) on Valentine’s Day eve.  Unmarried girls also wrote their lover’s names on paper and put them on clay balls that they would drop into the water. It was believed that whichever paper came up first, that man would be their future husband…

These are just a few of the fun Valentine’s Day traditions out there!  I like to imagine that my heroines would receive letters and bouquets (and maybe a diamond bracelet or two!) from their heroes, but I hope they wouldn’t resort to eating eggs full of salt.  What are some of your favorite Valentine’s Day traditions?  How will you or did you celebrate the day??


duchess_diariesMy husband and I were married on Valentine’s Day over twenty-five years ago in the middle of a tumbleweed storm. During our marriage we’ve celebrated our anniversary in a number of romantic and not-so-romantic ways.  We’ve toasted our togetherness in the traditional manner at a beach-side restaurant in Malibu, at a charming Santa Barbara inn, and in a hotel in Beverly Hills that featured gourmet dining for your pampered pets—no, we didn’t bring the dogs. If nothing else you can usually count on the California sunset and a coastal drive to provide a perfect backdrop for a celebration.

The freeway is another story—the truth is that my husband and I have celebrated a few awkward dates over the years.  We set out one night for a dinner together only to be thwarted by an emergency phone-call from Grandma.  Our daughter had croup. We hit Wal-Mart for cough syrup and the rest of the evening—well, it’s a blur. We passed another less-than glamorous anniversary at a quaint German restaurant that we’d decided to try at the last minute. Our gourmet meal included frozen fish sticks with peas and carrots.  A ventriloquist plunked his dummy down on our table and entertained us with a repertoire of terrible jokes. We laughed about it for months.

Once we drove to a murder-mystery dinner theater in Palm Springs. It was like playing Clue.  It would have been a great memory except we got lost on the way home, and my husband locked the car keys in the trunk. There’s nothing like a walk along a dark desert road in evening clothes looking for a locksmith to cap off a romantic evening. We dined at Chasen’s in West Hollywood and my husband neglected to wear a tie so the house provided one. I know we’ve spent at least two Valentine’s Day anniversaries at Barnes and Noble, sipping coffee and browsing books.

This year we’re staying home again by choice. We’ll dine on homemade spaghetti in the courtyard by candlelight with the fountain splashing and Dean Martin serenading in the backyard.  We’ll eat spumoni and then—we won’t linger like lovers should.  My husband has a software project due, and I’m blogging about my latest Penguin romance The Duchess Diaries on the Book Binge.

I think it’s fair to say that we’re versatile Valentines.  We’re still passionate about each other but practical.  And on that note I wish you all good hearts today whether you’re celebrating by yourself with chocolate or are out on the town.


They always say (those “they” people) that you should write for yourself rather than for other people. Well, what if your writing happens to be self-help and you’re meant to be writing for other people? It’s been a challenge finding the balance in writing self-help, but I’ve been on the see-saw for some time now, and I feel like I’ve found a little place the middle that seems pretty comfortable.

My first book, Meeting Your Half-Orange, is about how to use dating optimism to find your other half, and my new one, Bright Side Up is about how to embrace life optimism and enjoy every day. And as much as I wanted to write each of them “for myself,” how could I? I was giving advice. So I did the next best thing: Each time I sat down to write, I had one person in mind.

For my dating book, it was a friend who’d been disappointed again in love; for my new happiness book, a woman I’d met at a party who was trying to be more positive but didn’t know how. The faces I wrote for changed along the way, but with one person’s face and struggle in my mind each time I typed, I was able to speak to them heart to heart, so my words felt less pat and more human.

The fact is, writing for hundreds or thousands of potential readers of different ages, genders, backgrounds and experiences is ridiculously intimidating! How in the world can you possibly pinpoint advice that will work for everyone, right? That, after all, is what sent me into the fetal position crying while planning my wedding five years ago: How the heck do you plan a party that will please country mice and city mice ranging in age from 2 years old to 85?

Well, when you write with one person in mind (or plan a wedding with the goal of a plain ol’ good time in mind) you don’t have to worry about pleasing everybody. Because the truth is, we are all more similar than we think. The details of our stories change, but what we want from life—love, happiness, fulfillment—we all want that. Which leads me to the second thing I’ve learned about writing self-help.

It happened the day I was reading an early draft of Bright Side Up and found my own mind wandering. It felt like homework, somehow. My own book, it was boring! I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong until I called my mother, who’d been reading the same draft.

“I love when you tell stories,” she said.

“But Mom,” I said, “I have to give real advice. I can’t just write stories in every chapter.

“Why not?” she said. “I love stories.”

When I went back to the book, I realized she was right. Yes, of course I needed to give real advice. But why not wrap it up in entertaining tales from real life? Even I don’t want to read a lecture or a list of must-dos, after all. I want to dive in. I want to feel like I’m part of it. I want stories.

So that week, I chopped out page after page of my yawn-y lectures and replaced them with stories of people who used these happiness ideas in real life, from famous to friends from home. And although my book is about one hundred small chapters you can read at random, I also built in a story for people who wanted to read it all the way through—the personal one about my husband and my on the difficult road of starting a family, full of miscarriages and failed IVFs. The way I saw it, writing a chipper book about happy rainbow things wasn’t going to help anyone. When real life doesn’t give us a happy ending, we have to make our own, and what better way to express that than by sharing my own struggle with my optimism. It’s about getting real. Personal stories, heart to heart.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, the advice I share in my books won’t just help that one person I picture each time I’m writing. Maybe, hopefully, it’ll also help one more.

Sign up for Amy’s weekly Vitamin Optimism email and visit her blog TheLifeOptimist.com. Follow Amy at twitter.com/datingoptimist.


blackveilFantasy. The term evokes images of rainbow unicorns, fire-breathing dragons preying on virgin princesses, and sparkly elfy-welfy magic, or maybe even exotic dancers in a nightclub. The word used to categorize the type of fiction I write doesn’t sound very serious, does it? There are others who call it “imaginative fiction,” or “speculative fiction,” perhaps to avoid whatever perceived stigma “fantasy” suggests. While I am uneasy with the term, I also try to embrace it.

The application of the term “fantasy” in publishing to indicate a category has been in use for a long time. According to my editor, Betsy Wollheim, it’s been around since the early 20th century and was used to label the works of such greats as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Robert E. Howard (Conan), and H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulu). But it was her father, the legendary Donald A. Wollheim, writer, editor, and founder of DAW Books, who, while he was an editor at Ace, spurred the modern fantasy genre into popularity by publishing an unauthorized paperback edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1965. If he hadn’t, fantasy might have remained obscure and non-commercial.

Books fall into categories, or genres, because it simplifies marketing and indicates where they should be shelved in stores. As a result, it’s relatively easy for people to locate the kind of books they wish to read. The problem with categories is that one may begin to make assumptions about what a whole genre is about, when really books lumped together in a particular genre can be quite diverse. Are all novels shelved in the mystery section Agatha Christie cozies? Are all romances bodice rippers? And do all fantasy novels feature rainbow unicorns and fire-breathing dragons?

For my part, I write traditional fantasy adventure. Traditional fantasy is often set in a secondary world. Magic may play a part or not. Often the books have great sweep to give depth and complexity to the worlds that have been created, and the immersion into these worlds, the experience of it, is often what draws readers. Sometimes they do feature unicorns and dragons, but if you think their use is all rainbows and sparklies, you might be surprised. Traditional fantasy is a very archetypal genre with roots as old as story-telling itself. Archetypes allow us to see our own world through a different lens. For instance, the conflict between an evil overlord and a resilient hero may sound a little too familiar, but depending on how the writer uses the archetypes of good and evil, the reader may find deeper meaning in the savagery of war, and the cruelty or nobility of human beings. Modern traditional fantasy has mostly leaped beyond its…well, its own traditions, and become sophisticated and gritty and full of sharp details. I think of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. One of his central characters is a slave who struggles between hope and defeat, and who through force of will transcends the cruelty inflicted on him and his fellow slaves.

Over the last decade or so, the genre has become ever more diverse, leaving behind its traditional origins and leading to highly imaginative tales and different sub-categories. I’m not sure how to classify Anne Bishop’s work, but it is dark, yet deeply touching and romantic. You would not naturally associate “romantic” with the domain of Hell, and it may not be obvious to think of Saetan as a loving father, yet Bishop makes it work. She spins our assumptions on their heads, making her Dark Jewels books such a fabulous read.

Historical fantasy is a sub-category of fantasy that offers an alternate version, or vision, of our own history. Authors must artfully combine the requirements of both the historical and fantasy canons to make their novels work. In Jacqueline Carey’s “Kushiel’s Legacy” series, we get an alternate Europe where angels once walked the Earth, making for a creative re-imagining of European culture and religion. To top it off, the lead character is a courtesan. And not just any courtesan, but one whose “gift” is to receive exquisite pain as pleasure. (You would not have seen a protagonist like this pre-21st century!)

What about those dragons? They still roam the worlds of fantasy, but not necessarily sniffing out virgin bait and hoarding caverns full of treasure. In Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire series”, dragons populate Napoleonic-era Europe, which impacts not only the war between Britain and France, but cultures across the world.

Urban fantasy has been in ascendance for some years now, frequently featuring vampires, werewolves, fairies, and zombies populating our modern world. One of the best known practitioners is Charlaine Harris whose Sookie Stackhouse books have been adapted into a popular television series.

There are more sub-categories of fantasy fiction than I can enumerate, and more and more often fantasy overlaps with other genres, such as romance. There are even literary novels that borrow fantasy conventions, yet are not considered fantasy.

I guess what it all comes down to is that today’s fantasy ain’t your grandpa’s fantasy, and its creators are wildly inventive, challenging the once accepted boundaries of the genre. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a great time to be a reader.


velva_jeanAs I’m researching my fourth novel in the “Velva Jean” series, I am reading through book after book written by or about movie stars and movie moguls from the 1940s. I’m reading about the studio system, the star machine, the inner workings of the movie musical, every bit of Hollywood and Los Angeles history, and the studios themselves. In all these many, varied books one thing stands out– very few are well researched, well resourced, and well documented, and the majority of them take great liberties in reporting fact.

The one I’m reading now, for instance, is a book about Clark Gable and all his women (written by a woman who never knew Gable or the women in question). The author quotes pages of dialogue supposedly spoken between Clark Gable and his various wives and mistresses, yet she doesn’t list any notes or sources. Perhaps she was there for every single one of these private, often intimate, conversations, hiding behind a curtain or underneath a bed or lurking in the shadows while Gable and Carole Lombard or Gable and Joan Crawford or Gable and his first wife, Josephine Dillon, were deep in discussion, but somehow I don’t think so. This woman has written other books on Hollywood stars of yesteryear, just as sloppily reported and shoddily researched, but she isn’t the only one. She is just one of– unfortunately– many nonfiction “writers” who bend and fluff and spice up the truth to suit the story. She is just one of many authors who rely on hearsay, rumor, legend, and unreliable secondhand resources– magazines, newspapers, other books– and then fails to document where she got most of her information. I have approximately 133 books on my Hollywood shelf, and I would estimate that only 15 of these have the right to be called nonfiction.

jennifer_niven_nonfiction1Hollywood-related books are not the only ones guilty of this. There are plenty of other books on plenty of other subjects– from literary biography to World War II to Appalachia to Anne Boleyn– that are filled with conjecture and theory, without actually calling it conjecture and theory, but instead putting it out there as hard fact. Which is especially unfortunate when the subject or subjects being written about are no longer here and able to speak up for themselves.

I look at writing nonfiction as a privilege, one that needs to be respected. As a writer of nonfiction, you are, after all, dealing with real people and real lives and real events. Even in my historical fiction, I try to keep the nonfiction mindset of researching my subject thoroughly and staying as historically accurate as possible, shaping my character to fit history as much as I can, rather than shaping history to fit my character. I write both fiction and nonfiction, and one reason I do so is because fiction is where I can make things up. Nonfiction is where I do my best to retell a story. It is also where I provide pages and pages of endnotes to back up my telling of that story, one of my least favorite aspects of writing. But also a very necessary one.

jennifer_niven_nonfiction2Because I’m such a meticulous, unrelenting, passionate stickler for fact (my mother, who almost strictly writes nonfiction, is the same), I hate it when writers repeat or pass off as truth unsubstantiated “facts” or “blur” the edges for dramatic effect. I also hate it when people ask me, “So your first two books are nonfiction– how much of what you wrote in there is true?” The answer: all of it.

If I didn’t know something, I left it out. If it didn’t happen, I didn’t pretend it did. After all, truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Why embellish?

jennifer_niven_nonfiction3Although I certainly formed opinions about the people I was writing about in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack– especially controversial expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson– I worked hard not to color the prose with my opinions. Who cares what I think? That’s what author interviews are for. Besides, I wasn’t on those expeditions. Even if I feel justified in expressing an opinion about Stefansson or his methods or this person or that one, the simple fact is: I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the men and women of the expeditions speak for themselves, through the material found in letters and diaries and other firsthand materials from the time.

(Speaking of speaking for themselves, in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, as well as in my memoir,The Aqua Net Diaries, the only dialogue that appears is quoted from actual resources. While I would have loved to add additional exciting pages of dialogue to the book, I would have had to call it a novel.)

jennifer_niven_nonfiction4To me, the saddest thing about that question I’m often asked is this: if a book purports to be nonfiction, why do we, as readers, naturally assume part of it must be untrue? Perhaps because so many– too many– writers take liberty with fact. And the danger there is that by doing so, the real story, the true story of the men and women and children involved, becomes lost.

As a writer, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?

Visit Jennifer Niven on her website.


cold_dishWalt Longmire’s New Year’s Resolutions

1)      Read more.

2)      Lose some weight.

3)      Adopt a more professional relationship with staff.

4)      Give Dog a name.

5)      Finish cabin.

6)      Drink less beer (see #2).

7)      Run with Henry more (see #2).

8)      Call Cady less, so as to not annoy her.

9)      Fix doorknob on office door.

10)  As Vic says, no more crazy shit (see #3).

2011 was a heck of a year, with making the New York Times Bestseller List and the announcement that A&E was green lighting LONGMIRE for a ten-episode, debut season in the summer of 2012. All these things are truly wonderful, but would you like to know the thing that really keeps me in the game, why it is its so easy to write a novel a year?

Walt.

The Longmire novels are written in first-person, which means that the sheriff is never very far from my thoughts or narrative. I tend to refer to Walt as a detective for the disenfranchised, a man whose secret weapon is his compassion for the less fortunate or forgotten members of society. I think he has an empathy for the outsiders because, in a sense, he’s one himself; a rogue male somewhat driven off from the herd, even if it is a self-imposed exile.

longmire_mugAnother thing I like about him is his ability to surprise me. I was talking to Greer Shephard, the producer of the A&E series based on the books, and she asked me if I thought of Walt as being a verbose person and I said yes. She told me to go through one of my books and highlight his dialogue, what he actually says… She was right; he thinks a great deal but doesn’t say much—it was a genuine revelation.

The eighth book, As the Crow Flies, takes place almost exclusively on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and is, as you’ve grown to expect, a departure. There is the regular ebb and flow of characters but there’s always one stalwart, a guy I can depend on to tell the story with me, a guy whose company I still enjoy even after eight books.

I’ve really come to appreciate the guy, and I’m sure glad you do, too.

See you on the trail,

Craig


city_lostI like crossing genres.  Lovecraftian westerns.  Sci-fi detective stories.  Primate interpretive line-dancing romance.

Okay, I made that last one up.  Honestly, it hurt just to think of, so I can’t imagine what it did to your brain.

One of my favorites is mixing crime and horror.  I think they work pretty well together, like chocolate in your peanut butter.  No matter how you sping it both genres are pretty bleak.  Think about it, even a cozy mystery is pretty dark.  I mean, there’s a dead guy in there somewhere.  And if you make it noir, well, now you’re really bleak.

There are no happy endings in noir or horror.  You got yourself a double whammy there.

When I wrote City of the Lost, I wanted the protagonist, Joe Sunday, to really have his life spiral out of control.  He’s a guy who isn’t big on fear.  He’s a thug who collects money, beats people up, kills them if needed.  He’s usually the baddest bad-ass in the room.  Not a lot spins him.

So I killed him and brought him back as a zombie.  Figured you don’t get much more screwed than being the living dead.

It’s a noir tale with a darker twist.  He’s used to dealing with bad people, but this just cranks it up to eleven.  He knows how to deal with corrupt cops and guys trying to kill him, but demons, magic and the undead are an entirely different thing.

Throw them all together and you get a pretty fun mix.


cookieI am entranced by decorated cookies. They are fun to create by oneself or with others, especially kids. My mother followed the classic rolled sugar cookie recipe in Joy of Cooking and a simple confectioner’s sugar and butter icing that didn’t harden. She divided the icing into several bowls and added food coloring to each. My sister and I sprinkled colored sugars or chocolate jimmies on top, and we did so with enthusiastic abandon.

One of the pleasures of writing the “Cookie Cutter Shop” series is that I get to daydream about decorated cookies. I bake and eat cookies, too, but daydreaming doesn’t result in dirty dishes and weight gain. Since I do need to get words on paper to get paid, baking all day, every day, is not feasible. Neither is unfettered daydreaming. So to point my imagination in the right direction, I’ve collected an arsenal of sights, smells, and tastes that conjure up the experience of baking and enjoying decorated cookies. A whiff of ginger, and I’m entering The Gingerbread House along with Olivia Greyson, my main character. Those sensory cues draw me quickly into Livie and Maddie’s world, where cookies abound and murder waits around the corner.

When I settle down to write, a stack of cookie cookbooks wait within reach. They range from helpful, informative books for the beginning baker to more advanced collections that include challenging recipes I will leave to Olivia and her sidekick and best friend, Maddie Briggs. All the cookbooks have stunning cookie photos that feed my imagination. They also make me want a cookie. Right now. For cookie cutter inspiration, I have copies of Cookie Crumbs, the Cookie Cutter Collector’s Club newsletter, which is filled with information and color photos of vintage cutters. For even more, I can always go online to check vintage cutters for sale, though that route leads to temptation.

If photos and recipes aren’t enough, I turn to my ever-growing collection of baking spices, flavorings, gel food colorings, decorations, and, of course, cookie cutters. When Maddie chooses teal gel coloring for a pastry bag full of royal icing, I feel as if I’m standing beside her. I smell the sweet lemon extract she adds to her cookie dough. I watch the purple edible glitter sparkle as she sprinkles it on a tulip-shaped cookie with pink icing. And, of course, on occasion I have to eat a decorated cookie to remind myself what one tastes like. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my work.

Much as I love decorated cookies, I have to admit that cookie cutters, especially vintage ones, are endlessly fascinating. And less fattening. Like Olivia, I wonder about the succession of bakers who once pressed a vintage cutter into rolled dough to create that ephemeral delight, a cutout cookie. Was the cutter passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter? Was it used to cut sugar cookies? Gingerbread cookies? A secret family recipe? Might there have been a teensy dollop of poison in the dough?