Sunday, November 24, 2013

The delights of Soho, then and now: C.C. Humphreys guest blogs today

Today I'm delighted to host C.C. Humphreys on my blog, a wonderful writer of the Jack Absolute series. His latest is out, The Blooding of Jack Absolute. Is that not an incredible book jacket? Publisher's Weekly describes Jack Absolute as "an 18th-century 007 lifted from Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals." And if that doesn't interest you, then I don't want what can be done for you.

Today Humphreys tells us about his favorite (although he'll add that British "U"--I love it) neighborhood (wait--"neighbourhood") of London. I'll let him take it from here.

The first half of ‘The Blooding of Jack Absolute’ is, at least in part, my love letter to the area in London I love best: Soho.

            When I left school at 18, I decided to take a year off before I went to drama school. My parents had just moved to Spain, so I needed to work to live. After a brief, underpaid spell with a bank, I decided I needed to earn much more money, so I became a motorcycle messenger, that mad breed whizzing around the metropolis delivering papers to businesses. It was dangerous work – taxi drivers seemed determined to kill us! But if you worked hard you could earn a lot of cash. That also depended on getting to know London really well, all the short cuts, all the illegal cut throughs – you were paid per delivery.

            The company was based in Soho, just off Soho Square. Since this was the '70s, the area still retained its sense of sin, with striptease bars and invitations to visit ‘Buxom Model: First Floor,’ on cards in many a doorway. There was still a famous brothel in Meard Street and, on quiet days, the working girls would delight in leaning out of the windows and making this naïve youth blush beetroot!

            It was also – still is – a very 18th century part of the world for that was when it was really developed. The houses are mainly those classic, narrow, three storey affairs. So it was natural for me to set a lot of my new novel in the streets I loved. I got hold of John Roque’s map from 1746 and enjoyed what was the same, what had changed. The area where Brewer Street meets Wardour Street has lost its name since then – it was called ‘Knaves Acre,’ a title I had to use. There’s also Thrift Street that, after some time of Cockney pronunciations – they cannot say ‘th’ making it ‘f’ has become what it is now: ‘Frith Street.’ And in the little alley that runs between Dean Street and Wardour Street, where I used to go and get a bacon sandwich between rides, there’s little dog-leg halfway along it – that’s where Jack visits the occasional prostitute, Matilda.

            Ah Soho! I still love going back now. I am a member of a club, Blacks, in Dean Street, in a house where Samuel Johnson had a dining club. It's cleaner now, less sinful But I still blush when I remember some of the things those working girls said to me, when I was near as young as Jack Absolute!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I'm touring...virtually!

I have just released an ebook version of Woman of Ill Fame (traditionally published by Heyday Books in 2007)...for the first time, Nora gets to please the fellas in electronic form!

I'll be touring in early December with the wonderful Amy Bruno of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. She's promised to be a wonderful media escort and separate the M&M chaff from the wheat (ie., only green M&Ms!!! Or I'm gonna trash the green room, no pun intended!)

I'm looking forward to giving Nora Simms a second launch. She really is a delightful Gold Rush woman of ill fame, and she deserves a chance to wiggle her way into your Nook or Kindle.

Here's the link to the tour.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Buy lunch for JLK

JLK being silly
We give money to strangers throughout our lives. You may have just sent money to the Phillipines via the Red Cross. We gave money after Katrina, after Sandy, after's a noble thing to send a donation to people you don't even know.

Today I'd like to persuade you to take a stranger to lunch.

JLK is Jennifer, a six year old girl in Gilroy, California. She had her sixth birthday very recently. On her birthday, she was given a diagnosis that may not permit her to be a seven year old. She has DIPG, a particular kind of tumor that attaches to her brain stem. Because many important functions--like breathing--are controlled in that area, doctors can't just go in and excise the tumor. There's no surgery for this tumor. There's no cure for this tumor. The symptoms that brought her to be examined were simply vision problems and headaches. Very minor symptoms that led to a devastating diagnosis.

What will happen, and is currently happening now, is that Jennifer gets radiation therapy for six weeks to shrink the tumor and buy her some time. After she recovers from the therapy, she will have a period of feeling good and being back to "normal." But statistically, after six to nine months, she will start to feel bad again...and that's supposed to be it. As in, that's all there is.

Her family has been connected to the Make A Wish foundation, and Jennifer's wish will be expedited.

Her family has to process all this, and quickly, and figure out how to make the most of what time they have. Jennifer has a mom and dad, Libby and Tony, and three younger siblings.She is cute as a button, and although we moved from Gilroy several years ago, I remember her vividly.

Libby has been journaling about Jennifer at, and reading through her posts is like reading a holy tome. There is a stark elegance and chaos to these bewildered words. Throughout history, women have agonized at the circumstances that rob them of their children. I feel like I am turning pages of heavy parchment, as I enter Libby's world and read about her attempts to face the worst thing that can happen to a mother. She is a beautiful and talented writer, and although I know she couldn't care less at this point, she probably has a book in her.

As I read through her posts with sobs wracking my body, I wonder, does my grief help at all? In those remote and cold heavens, does anyone pause to listen, scraping back their chair to listen to the lamentations below? I know many people believe fervently in prayer, and I will pray too. I have. I have tried to make strange bargains with God for Jennifer. I hope that my small scratchings, like a mouse behind the wall, have helped in some way. Because otherwise I feel helpless.

But actually there is one thing I can do. I can use this blog to get the word out, and to hopefully encourage people to help this family financially. What can money do? It can let Tony take time off from work to enjoy his can pay for the expensive can send them to Disneyland. If Jennifer gets into an experimental trial it can pay for that.

Here's my request. That you, reading this, send $15 to the family. You will buy them lunch. After each treatment, I learned from Libby's journal, Jennifer, she and the family member or friend who held newborn Charlotte (can you imagine this? Libby is going through all this with a babe-in-arms) go to the hospital cafeteria and have lunch.

Let's picture the lunch you will treat them to. Jennifer has a gluten-free selection, because on top of everything else, she has Celiac disease. Let's give Libby a roast beef sandwich so she can dig her teeth into this meat and borrow some savage animal spirit to fight this fight. The friend who held Charlotte can have a crisp, cold, chef's salad. Eating lunch out everyday adds up; it's expensive. Although you won't be there in the cafeteria at the cash register, opening up your wallet, you can still take these sweet people to lunch.

How do you do it? Visit and click on "Help our Family." You can paypal money or use the gofundme link. And then....go fiercely hug the ones you love.

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Monday, November 11, 2013


It's been a whirlwind the last few days--a trip out of town to see my best friend who I haven't seen in several years, trying to catch up on some pretty hefty freelance deadlines, cleaning our house and getting rid of stuff in preparation for a move, grading a backlog of student essays...oh, and talking to a wonderful editor in New York!

I'm delighted to announce that a young adult novel of mine has been picked up by Michaela Hamilton of Kensington in a three-book deal. The series is about a young American teen and her family who must go live in the ancestral mansion in England, only to learn that it's not....quite...uninhabited. It's Gothic fun and the series is tentatively titled The Arnaud Legacy. We have to come up with a new title for the first book. We also have to come up with a new title for me; this book will go under a pen name to separate my adult fiction from my young adult fiction.

Michaela's wonderful, and I'm so happy my tormented teen has found a home at Kensington.

More later... the book was based on a nightmare I once had.....

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Interview on Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

I’m so happy to host Mary Sharratt today. She and I are both witchcraft authors; her novel The Witching Hill focused on the Pendle (England) witches of 1612. Because of our witchy connection, we presented together at the Historical Novels Society and have developed a warm camaraderie. Besides being a well-spoken advocate for witches, Mary’s a fantastic writer (I also loved her earlier novel The Vanishing Point, set in Colonial America).

Her latest book Illuminations focuses on perhaps the best-known anchoress of all time, Hildegard of Bingen. Anchoress, you say? So…she was a sailor in charge of the anchor?

No, an anchoress was someone who chose to remove herself from society for religious reasons and often was permanently enclosed in a cell attached to a church. She bricked herself in to meditate, pray, and offer counsel through a window to the outside world. Says Wikipedia,

In the Germanic lands from at least the tenth century it was customary for the bishop to say the office of the dead as the anchorite entered her cell, to signify the anchorite's death to the world and rebirth to a spiritual life of solitary communion with God and the angels.”

An anchorite is a male anchoress (so Wikipedia messed up! Surprise.)

Hildegard of Bingen (Germany) lived a rich life despite her confined adulthood. Let’s learn more from Mary…

Who was Hildegard of Bingen? 

Born in the Rhineland in present-day Germany, Hildegard (1098–1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy. Late in her life, she and her nuns were the subject of an interdict (a collective excommunication) that was lifted only a few months before her death. Hildegard nearly died an outcast. 

In October 2012, over eight centuries after her death, the Vatican finally canonized her and elevated her to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for the most distinguished theologians. Presently there are only 33 Doctors of the Church, and only three are women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux).

What inspired you to write a novel about this 12th-century powerfrau?

For 12 years, I lived in Germany where Hildegard has long been enshrined as a cultural icon, admired by both secular and spiritual people. In her homeland, Hildegard’s cult as a “popular” saint long predates her official canonization. 

I was particularly struck by the pathos of her story. The youngest of 10 children, Hildegard was offered to the Church at the age of eight. She reported having luminous visions since earliest childhood, so perhaps her parents didn’t know what else to do with her. 

Mary Sharratt

According to Guibert of Gembloux’s Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, she was bricked into an anchorage with her mentor, the 14-year-old Jutta von Sponheim, and possibly one other young girl. Guibert describes the anchorage in the bleakest terms, using words like “mausoleum” and “prison,” and writes how these girls died to the world to be buried with Christ. As an adult, Hildegard strongly condemned the practice of offering child oblates to monastic life, but as a child she had absolutely no say in the matter. The anchorage was situated in Disibodenberg, a community of monks. What must it have been like to be among a tiny minority of young girls surrounded by adult men?

Disibodenberg Monastery is now in ruins and it’s impossible to say precisely where the anchorage was, but the suggested location is two suffocatingly narrow rooms built on to the back of the church.
Hildegard spent 30 years interred in her prison, her release only coming with Jutta’s death. What amazed me was how she was able to liberate herself and her sisters from such appalling conditions. At the age of 42, she underwent a dramatic transformation, from a life of silence and submission to answering the divine call to speak and write about her visions she had kept secret all those years.

In the 12th century, it was a radical thing for a nun to set quill to paper and write about weighty theological matters. Her abbot panicked and had her examined for heresy. Yet, miraculously, this “poor weak figure of a woman,” as Hildegard called herself, triumphed against all odds to become one of the greatest voices of her age.   

What special challenges did you face in writing about such a complex woman?

Hildegard’s life was so long and eventful, so filled with drama and conflict, tragedy and ecstasy, that it proved mightily difficult to squeeze the essence of her story into a manageable novel. My original draft was 40,000 words longer than the current book. I also found it quite intimidating to write about such a religious woman. In the end, I found I had to let Hildegard breathe and reveal herself as human.

If Hildegard has long been venerated as a “popular” saint in Germany, why did it take the Vatican so long to canonize her? Why Hildegard and why now?

The first attempt to canonize Hildegard began in 1233, but failed as over 50 years had passed since her death and most of the witnesses and beneficiaries of her reported miracles were deceased. Her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music. According to Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric and even the authorship of her own work was disputed. Pundits began to suggest her books were written by a man.

Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence were due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey. In 1956, Marianna Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully-documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation. Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical Dominican monk Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centered spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th-century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.

Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist icon. Ironically, it is his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, defrocked Matthew Fox—finally gave Hildegard her due. Reportedly, Joseph Ratzinger, a German, had long admired Hildegard.

What relevance does Hildegard have for us today?

I think that Hildegard’s legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women. While writing this book, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women priests and bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while Pope John Paul II called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was thrust into an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, that can inspire us today.

The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating lifeforce manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. 

Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg in the womb of God.

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

What’s next? Do you have a new novel in progress?

I’m working on a new novel, The Dark Lady’s Masque, which explores the life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier (1569–1645), reportedly the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The highly-cultured daughter of an Italian court musician, she was also an accomplished poet and the first English woman to publish a collection of poetry under her own name. 

Mary, thanks so much. I wish the best success for your novel and for the world to get to know Hildegard, who was so deeply extraordinary.


To view a book trailer for Illuminations, click here.

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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Shelters of the Donner Party

Members of the Donner Party were not all housed together. Far from it. The literal Donners--George and his family, and Jacob and his family, and their teamsters and a few others--fell behind the others and were forced to create makeshift shelters as snow literally piled up on them. They built those shelters at Alder Creek. George and his family built their shelter against a tree. The images show the tree that was long believed (but since disproved) to be that tree, and a drawing of how it could've worked. Jacob and his family built a separate shelter.

The tree? Probably not.

Building against the tree trunk
Gratuitous selfie in Alder Creek parking lot

A full seven miles away, on the shores of what is now Donner Lake, three other shelters served the non-Donner members. One was a fairly decent log cabin used by Moses Schallenberger two winters before (like the Donners, he wintered at the lake, and his memoirs make good reading). Patrick Breen and his family were presumably the first to arrive at the lake, and first come-first served. On the site of the Breen cabin now stands the Pioneer Monument, a fairly ghastly depiction of man, woman and child groping their way to California.

Pioneer Monument
Famously, the base of the statue is 22 feet, the snowfall the winter of 1846. Lots of people dispute that number, saying it was the accrued snowfall that melted and refell--that at no time would 22 feet of snow stand. But check out this factoid from Truckee's wikipedia entry: "The maximum 24-hour snowfall was 34.0 inches (86.4 cm) on February 17, 1990." Unfortunately, there were no meterologists monitoring things at Donner Lake that year, but we have reports of unrelenting snowfall from Breen's extant diary.

Here's a close-up of the plaque on the monument. I cannot believe it mentions virility, since it was the men who made the disastrous decision to take the fatal Hasting's Cut-off, while poor Tamsen Donner clearly advocated staying on the proven trail. A fellow traveller's journal reports her sour disposition as the men overruled her.

Here's a drawing of the Schallenberg cabin as it might've appeared when the emigrants first arrived, before it dawned on them that they weren't going over that mountain range anytime soon...

And the same cabin now covered in snow, only its two chimneys visible. Sobering sight.

The Breen cabin, windowless, with no true roof and covered by buffalo hides, was the best of the shelters. The Murphy family built their shelter against the side of an enormous rock.

Murphy cabin site with docent

Here's a drawing of how the rock/cabin combo might've worked.

Yet a third structure was built, for the Graves and Reed families. Here's what's so extraordinary. Of course the Donners were far away at Alder Creek; George had become injured fixing his wagon, so they had to stop and reassess. But the families that made it to the lake--why did they build their structures so far apart? After all, there is safety in numbers, especially for people that had seen firsthand how Native Americans could endanger them (major historical irony). Historian Kristin Johnson thinks they were just so exhausted by dealing with each other--after the worst.roadtrip.ever.--that they chose to set their cabins far apart, even if meant terrible slogs through 22-foot snow to reach each other with news or to ask for food.

Standing at the Pioneer Monument (i.e, the Breen family cabin), you can barely see in the distance the tall Shell gas station sign (a yellow blob atop a pole in the center of this photo: look just to the right of the green road signs) which marks the approximate spot of the Graves-Reed site. In the opposite direction, walking from the Breen site to the Murphy site is a good, brisk walk in decent weather, and would be quite an undertaking in snow.

The layout:
 Murphy rock ---> Breen (pioneer monument) -------> Graves-Reed

Walking from the Murphys to the Graves? You'd need a car.

At Breen site, looking towards Graves-Reed

Tired of the Donners yet? There's more to come.

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