Wednesday, May 24, 2006

article and fine historical fiction

I just started Jane Harris' debut novel, THE OBSERVATIONS, and have fallen in love. This book truly lives up to its accolades.

Also, I have an article on long range writing goals up on Media Bistro:

Friday, May 19, 2006


This review from MINNESOTA MAGAZINE was so wonderful!

Mystery and Intrigue in the New World

In 1689, May Powers set sail for the New World, leaving behind her life in England, as well as her reputation as a brazen and wanton young woman. In America, she was to settle down and become respectable. She was to marry a man she'd never met--Gabriel, a plantation owner and the young son of a distant cousin.

Three years later, her little sister, Hannah, set off to join her. All brain where May was all heart, Hannah was her father's daughter. She had learned the craft of medicine by going with him on his rounds and was secretly practiced as a healer and a surgeon. She took with her to America her late father's surgical kit, a supply of healing herbs, and a strong hope that the new land would allow her and her sister to live the lives they were meant to live.

But the new world was no more enlightened than the old world. May's first encounter upon disembarking was with a group of people jeering a woman who was being dragged behind a boat. The torture--the woman nearly drowned--was punishment for adultery. Hannah's first encounter was with a family whose father was suffering terribly from kidney stones. Her shy offer of medical help was met with horror at her impropriety.

Mary Sharratt's new novel, The Vanishing Point, is a page-turner, a mystery, a quietly feminist tale, and a richly researched historical novel with ever-unfolding plot twists. An author's note indicates that Sharratt, who also wrote Summit Avenue and The Real Minerva, spent 10 years researching the medicine and mores of the 17th century, and her expertise is evident. Her hand is sure as she guides us through the story, sprinking confident and casual references to birth control (did you know that honey kills sperm?), and healing herbs, and the Diggers and Levelers, English rebel groups who sought an end to feudal ways.

The Vanishing Point is also an examination of love, loyalty, and betrayal.

Hannah and her trunk eventually make it up the river to May's new home, but once there she finds that nothing was as she had expected. There was no plantation, just a rough cabin in the forest. The seven hired men the cousin had spoken of weren't there--no one was there except for Gabriel. May herself had vanished, and Gabriel told Hannah that she and their baby had died in childbirth.

There is no way for Hannah to leave, and during the weeks that follow--as Gabriel builds a dugout canoe to take her back down the river--the two fall in love. Gabriel is a mountain man with long hair and buckskin clothing. He clearly guards his thoughts and feelings, and it appears he has something to hide. But something in his gentle and vulnerable nature appeals to Hannah, and once the canoe is ready, she decides, instead, to stay.

Over time, the stories around May's death change, and change again, and Hannah fights growing doubt and guilt. Is it right to have found happiness with her dead sister's husband? What if he had been the cause of May's death? She finally realizes she must choose between her love for Gabriel, and her loyalty to her sister's memory. Which will win? And is May really dead? And if she is, how did she die?

The plot questions will keep you reading. But Sharratt's underlying message will keep you thinking long after the questions are answered.

Laurie Hertzel

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Latest on the Living History Tour

I have some new dates and venues to add to my upcoming Living History Tour for The Vanishing Point in June.

Since it's a Living History Tour, I will be wearing authentic 17th century costume. As a special treat, at each of my bookstore readings, I will be raffling free copies of The Vanishing Point to people who also turn up in 17th century costume. This should be fun to see how many re-enactment fans and history people come out of the woodwork!

(Obviously I can only do this at regular bookstores, not at the living history sites and museums where everybody is walking around in costume! One free book will be raffled at each bookstore event.)

5:00 Friday, June 9: Bay Books, California, MD

1:00 Saturday, June 10: Mystery Loves Company Bookstore,Baltimore, MD

11:00 Sunday, June 11: Annapolis Visitors Center, Annapolis, MD

2:00 Sunday, June 11: The Compleat Bookseller, Chestertown, MD

1:00 Monday, June 12: Bowes Books, Lexington Park, MD

7:00 Tuesday, June 13: Chapters: A Literary Bookstore, Washington, DC

7:00 Wednesday, June 14: Robins Books, Philadelphia, PA

4:30 Thursday, June 15: Hard Beans & Books, Annapolis, MD

5:00 Friday, June 16: Book Crossing, Brunswick, MD

11:00 Saturday, June 17: Historic St. Mary's City, St. Mary's City, MD

4:00 Saturday, June 17: Colonial Williamsburg Museum Bookstore, Williamsburg, VA

12:00 Sunday, June 18: Jamestown Settlement Museum Bookstore, Jamestown, VA

4:00 Sunday, June 18: William & Mary College Bookstore, Williamsburg VA

7:00 Tuesday, June 20: Merriam Park Library, St. Paul, MN

7:00 Wednesday, June 21: Micawber's Bookstore, St. Paul, MN

7:00 Thursday, June 22: Amazon Coop Bookstore, Minneapolis, MN

7:30 Friday, June 23: Majors & Quinn, Minneapolis, MN

7:00 Saturday, June 24: Northern Lights, Duluth, MN

tba Sunday, June 25: Drury Lane Books, Grand Marais, MN

7:30 Wednesday, June 28: Barnes & Noble, Edina Galleria, Edina, MN

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Guest Blog: Debra Hamel


Whatever Apollodorus had to say about Neaira, however many half truths he conjured in court in his bid to convict her, Neaira herself could say nothing. As a woman, she was not allowed to speak in court. Instead, as I've already mentioned, she was represented by Stephanos, the Athenian citizen with whom she'd been living for some thirty years.

One interesting thing about Apollodorus's speech against Neaira is that he's forever referring to her by name. This is interesting because it wasn't the done thing: women, in ancient Greece, were supposed to be, to a great extent, invisible. In his famous Funeral Oration, which was preserved in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian statesman Pericles says that women achieve glory by being the least talked about among men. We have numerous examples in the Athenian court speeches of litigants referring to women but going to great lengths to avoid using their actual names. A woman might be referred to as the daughter of
Theodotos, wife of Eukrates, for example, but she probably won't be mentioned by name--unless she isn't, or the speaker wants to suggest that she isn't, a respectable woman. Neaira had sold herself on the streets, as it were, for decades. She'd been the "entertainment" at male drinking parties. Apollodorus doesn't seem to have had any qualms at all about naming Neaira: he does so more than fifty times in his speech.

That women couldn't speak in court in Athens is hardly surprising. While it's not correct to say that women weren't citizens--they were--it's certainly the case that women's rights were restricted. They did not vote or otherwise take part in Athens' political life. (But of course this was true of modern democracies until very recently, so we should not fault Athens for failing to be millennia ahead of its time.) Rather, women--traditionally employed women, that is, as opposed to prostitutes--were active in the domestic sphere. They remained in their homes, spinning wool, overseeing the slaves, and attending to the very many chores that needed doing in the pre-industrial home. It was not a small responsibility.

Readers will perhaps have heard that ancient Greek women were confined to their homes, in essence segregated from men. To an extent, this is true. There were separate women's and men's quarters in Greek homes, and women were for the most part expected to stay apart from men who were not their relatives. On the other hand, their social lives are likely to have been more full than references to "segregation" suggest. Women gossipped with their neighbors and attended religious festivals. They grieved for their dead at funerals. And poorer women whose husbands could not afford to keep their wives cooped up away from prying male eyes will of
necessity have attended to errands outside the home. Some of them even managed to have affairs...

My job in writing Trying Neaira was to tell Neaira's story as well as I could, using as my primary piece of evidence a speech that was biased against her and that was composed and delivered by an oily lawyer-type who was not above misleading his audience. Complicating the task was the fact that Neaira herself can have left no testimony, and that women in general in ancient Greece were more or less mute as far as contributing to the historical record goes. One cannot expect from a history of this period the sort of detailed account that histories of later, better documented eras can offer. Not if you're reading nonfiction, at any rate: it remains for someone more talented than I to take up Neaira's fascinating life story and flesh it out more fully than our sources allowed me.

Mary Bryant: The Girl from Botany Bay

ITV aired a very moving historical drama based on the life of Mary Bryant, 18th century convict, transported to a penal colony in Australia for the crime of stealing a lady's cloak in order to feed her family. Later Mary organised an escape: she, her convict husband, two young children, and several male convicts stole a boat and escaped all the way to East Timor, thousands of miles away.

More about Mary's story

More about the ITV drama

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Yet another Sarah!

Sarah Dunant's new novel, In the Company of the Courtesan, is taking the U.S. bestseller lists by storm. Thanks to Sandra Gulland for the link.

Sarah Dunant: Renaissance Woman

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Holy Sarah Trinity

Three of the most active and enthusiastic champions of Historical Fiction happen to be named Sarah and they all have wonderful sites that are must-visits.

Sarah L. Johnson is now Editor-in-Chief of the Historical Novels Review. A professional librarian and highly insightful reviewer, she has also written a nonfiction book on the genre. Her excellent blog can be found here: Reading the Past

Sarah Park Rankin's delightful Historical Fiction site features reviews, interviews, and original short stories. Not to be missed: Pipes and Timbrels

I first met Sarah Cuthbertson when taking over as Reviews Editor for her at the Historical Novels Review. Little did I suspect what a tough act she would be to follow. Sarah now publishes a regular email newsletter on all breaking news and reviews in the Historical Fiction world and her blog should be bookmarked by everyone. Sarah is a Goddess and I am in awe: Sarah's Bookarama

Guest Blog by Debra Hamel


I wrote Trying Neaira because I wanted to introduce readers who are not familiar with the ancient world to some of the more interesting aspects of classical Greek, and especially Athenian, society. I use the case of Neaira as a prism through which to view her world. Neaira's story is particularly suited to this task. In part, frankly, that's just because a relatively large amount of information about her survives, but it's also because her life story, as interesting as it is, touches on so many topics--the role of women in Greece at the time, the sex trade, religious practices, inheritance and citizenship issues, and the peculiarities of Greek law. Lest you think that the last is a dry subject, know that the "peculiarities" to which I refer include the right of an aggrieved husband to introduce a large radish into the anus of his wife's paramour should he come upon the two in flagrante delicto. Seriously.

Thus, unpacking Neaira's life proves very illuminating.

Relatively illuminating, at least. Because in telling Neaira's story I was of course limited by the source material I had to work with.

Before I got the idea for a book about Neaira I'd had it in mind that I'd like to write a popular history on some Greek subject. But I had pretty much despaired of ever doing so. I've read some wonderful popular history set in more recent periods--Eric Jager's The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France springs to mind as an excellent example of the genre. But historians and authors writing these slices of relatively modern social history have much more evidence to go on, usually, than ancient historians have. Medievalists, for heaven's sake, sometimes have lengthy private letters to work with! So, lacking that kind of source material, I figured I would never be able to write such a book myself. One day, though, with thoughts of popular histories still haunting the back of my mind, I had one of the few lightbulb moments of my life. I was reading a blurb on the back of a book--someone commenting on how interesting social history was being written about trials--and it hit me at once that the case against Neaira might just be able to sustain a book-length narrative, given that one would have to explain a good deal of background information in order to tell Neaira's story to a non-specialist audience. I started working on the book the next day.

While we know far more about Neaira than about most ancient Greek women, the infomation we have is stll quite limited. As the above summary of my book (see Part I: WHO AM I AND WHY AM I HERE?)suggests, the speech that the prosecutor in Neaira's case,Apollodoros, delivered against her in court survives. Unfortunately we do not have the defense speech, which Stephanos (Neaira's Significant Other) will have delivered on Neaira's behalf. Naturally I used other sources in writing my book to round out my account, to provide the social, legal, and historical context of Neaira's story. But apart from scattered references in other sources, nothing terribly detailed, our main source of information about Neaira's life is the text of Apollodorus' speech, an undeniably biased document.

The hardest part about writing Trying Neaira was trying to wrestle the truth from Apollodorus' speech. This is made difficult not only because we don't have access to Stephanos' counter-arguments, but also because the logistics of Athenian trials gave Apollodorus a lot of wiggle room when it came to telling the truth. Neaira's case will have been heard in a single day by a jury of some 501 Athenian male citizens. There was no professional judge overseeing the case, no debate among the jurors prior to giving their verdict, no review of the evidence presented. Jurors processed information about the accused at the speed of speech. Thus litigants who could make an argument sound good for the duration of a day's trial--whether or not that argument could stand up to scrutiny upon reconsideration--were at an advantage. Apollodorus was a litigious man with a lot of experience in courtroom speaking. Many of his arguments in fact don't stand up to scrutiny. Some of them don't make sense. Some of them are irrelevant. But bellowed out by a convincing speaker in an Athenian lawcourt, in front of hundreds of hungry jurors who were eager to collect their pay and get home, his arguments may indeed have seemed reasonable enough. Unfortunately we don't know how his speech was received, whether Neaira was found guilty of the charges against her and sold back into slavery (the likely result had she lost the case), or if she was able to live out the rest of her life peacefully with Stephanos. That the outcome of the case is unknown is disappointing, but it is hardly surprising given the nature of our sources from the period.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Guest Blog by Debra Hamel


You may well be asking yourself just that because the blog you're standing in, Mary Sharratt's Sphinx Rising, is devoted to historical fiction and the strong female protagonists therein. I haven't written any historical fiction, or published any other kind of fiction, for that matter. But Mary thought it mightn't be a terrible thing to include the occasional mention of nonfiction on her blog. So I'm in.

In my book Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece (Yale University Press, 2003; ISBN 0300107633) I tell the story of a woman, Neaira (pronounced "neh-EYE-ruh"), who was put on trial in Athens in the 340's B.C. when she was in her fifties. She had been a high-class prostitute (a "hetaira") earlier in her life, but prostitution was not illegal in Athens and it was not the reason she was tried. Indeed, the offense for which she was hauled into court was not on the face of it a particularly interesting one: the claim was that Neaira was a non-citizen (which was certainly true, and no one was contesting the fact) and that she had broken the law by living with an Athenian citizen as his wife rather than, say, as merely a concubine: marriages between citizens and non-citizens were illegal at the time, while less formal relationships were unproblematic.

But in trying to prove Neaira guilty of the charges against her...or perhaps I should say, in trying to prejudice the jurors against Neaira so that they'd vote against her for some reason, the prosecutor in the case--a certain Apollodoros--wound up dragging into his speech all manner of dirt. Thus we learn about Neaira's early life in a brothel, and about her stint as the sex slave of two joint owners, and it is alleged that Stephanos, the man with whom she supposedly lived as a wife, pimped her out to other men even after she had bought her freedom and settled down with him. We're also told a great deal about Phano, who was either the daughter of Neaira or of Stephanos (or both), and who reportedly followed Neaira's example when it came to behaving licentiously. Apollodoros used all of this back-story to make his case that Neaira was not an Athenian citizen, a charge, as I said above, that no one was denying. When it came to proving his second point, that Neaira had acted as if married to Stephanos, the prosecutor was on far shakier ground.

Apollodoros himself may not have believed that Neaira was guilty of the charge leveled against her. He and Stephanos had been enemies for some time, and part of their feud, at least, had been playing itself out on Athens' legal stage. Stephanos had attacked Apollodoros in court at least twice before, on one occasion actually prosecuting him for murder. In bringing a case against Neaira, an innocent bystander in his feud with Stephanos, Apollodoros was merely seeking vengeance. If she was found guilty by the jurors, so much the better, but harassing Stephanos by making him prepare a defense and by disrupting his home life may have been its own reward.