Review of ‘Mortal Fire’ by Claire Dunn

I finished reading Mortal Fire after 11pm last night, but, as the first chapter of  the second in The Secret of the

Kells Foll.  Christ Enthroned.
(c) Wikimedia

Journal series (Death Be Not Proud) appeared at the back of my Mortal Fire download, I had to read that too.  Result: a very late night.

Let’s mention the awards first.  Mortal Fire won Gold in Adult Romance ForeWordBook of the Year Awards in 2012.  Rope of Sand, the third in the Journal series, was a finalist in the Foreword Book of the Year Awards in 2014.  So it looks like I’ve got to download two more books and get reading.  I really can’t leave main character, Emma D’Eresby, where I’ve left her (at the end of chapter 1 of Book 2).

Mortal Fire is not historical fiction, but a novel about historians.  Emma D’Eresby, an academic historian based in Cambridge, takes up a post at a university in Maine, USA, so that she can pursue her obsessive interest in a journal written by an obscure seventeenth century Englishman, who emigrated across the pond.  Other than the journal, her specialism in history is torture, particularly how torture has been used, not to extract information, but to cure souls.  Although she wishes to spend her year in America studying, without distractions, men on the academic staff of this American university find her irresistible and her Russian friend, Elena, is also very keen to pair her off.   Despite her resolution, she falls for Dr Matthew Lynes, who, she quickly realises, is different, although, for the most of the novel (which is, of course, only the first in a series) the reader is invited to overlook how different.  He’s just old fashioned and courteous, isn’t he?  A good doctor.  If you were reading something I’d written, Dear Reader, that’s how it would be because all my work is based on solid, feet-on-the-ground reality, but, as I reached the end of Mortal Fire, I began to understand that this is not just romance (even though it has won awards for adult romance) but speculative, and I suspect that the story becomes more speculative in the second and third books.

The novel covered a whole spectrum of emotions, complex emotions as you would expect from characters who are academics,  even though Elena comes across as shallow, schoolgirlish and silly, but, having once lived alongside girl historians, eminently believable.  There is love, passionate and raw, and longing so intense that the characters cannot believe in it, also blind hate and the need to destroy, all the more potent for not being explicitly explained.

Mortal Fire is  – definitely – Christian fiction, a story about an ordinary woman living out her Christian faith in the everyday worldIt has expanded my understanding of what Christian fiction is and the topics and emotions it may encompass.  Whereas older Christian fiction (and much contemporary Christian fiction) sticks to a rigidly straitlaced path, Claire has shown that it is possible to include explicit sexual touching (although not full sexual intercourse) and graphic violence.   Christian fiction (a growing market, apparently) is changing and developing, whilst in no way diluting the Christian message, generating sub-genres such as Christian speculative.  Only today I came across the webzine, Mysterion, which carries the strapline A speculative fiction anthology—rediscovering the mysteries of the Christian faith.  We have moved a long way from the so-called religious fiction of Dan Brown and his imitators.

So, do read The Secret of the Journal series, which you buy this book at any of these places listed on Claire’s website.  We didn’t get to learn much about the Journal in Mortal Fire.  I suspect that comes later.

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Why do you love historical fiction?

(c) Wikimedia (c) WikimediaWell, why do you?  I know why I love historical fiction but I’m not saying.

Maybe you can’t stand historical fiction.  If that’s you, I’d love to hear from you too.

Why?  Well, the Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, which will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, wants to hear our views, for a feature in the new year.  An expanded version of my blog post on the Anne of Green Gables Museum in Prince Edward Island, Canada, appears in the current edition of the Review, btw.

A few weeks ago someone put me on the spot by asking me what I meant by historical fiction.  There is no such thing, she said.  It has to be historical something, so let’s think for a moment about the various historical genres, excluding, of course, proper non-fiction history (popular and academic):

Documentary Fiction – blow by blow, and often biographical, accounts of what actually happened, written as (most frequently) drama or film (eg Steve Jobs film, which I haven’t seen)  or in the form of a novel.  TV companies can’t get enough of documentary fiction, especially if it features self-important generals.  I often feel they’ve run out of proper fiction.

Historical romance – Georgette Heyer’s girl-meet-boy stories, normally set in the Regency period, are good examples, if old fashioned ones.   A rollicking good read, all of them.

Fictional biography – Think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which featured Thomas Cromwell’s life story, written up in a dense novel.

Historical mystery/ crime – A rapidly expanding genre.  Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series (written in the 1960s and 1970s) is my favourite.

Family sagas – ‘The Forsyte Saga’ by John Gallsworthy, or Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, or (dare I mention it?) Downton Abbey.  I read most of the Palliser novels a long time ago.  (In those days, I was dependent upon the public library and its stock.)

Alternate history and historical fantasyDestiny’s Rebel, by Philip Davies, the last book I read, falls into this category.  It was all about a princess in a fictional land in a fictional world, but loosely based in medieval times.  Much  fantasy fiction is set, very loosely, in the medieval world.  Vampires and zombies may also feature.

Steampunk (a sub-group of historical fantasy/alternate history)  Think G D Falksen and his astonishing pastiches, incorporating jingoism, lots of brass, goggles, dirigibles and all things that fly.

Children’s historical fiction – Same sort of thing, but for kids.

So, what do you like about historical fiction – or not?  Please let me know by commenting.

Author Interview – Wendy Jones

Wendy H Jones, authorWe are very lucky to have with us this week, Wendy H Jones, whose latest book,  Killer’s Cross, is published today (Monday, 16 November 2015). Wendy writes police-based crime fiction, featuring DI Shona McKenzie in Dundee.  When Wendy, herself a Dundonian, mentioned Ninewells Hospital in a Facebook post last week, bells rang out loud and clear in my head.

Cover of Killer's Cross by Wendy H JonesKillers Cross is the third Shona McKenzie novel.  The previous two, Killer’s Countdown (a best seller on Amazon in October 2014, and consistently since then) and Killer’s Craft (published in July 2015 and also an Amazon and Waterstones best seller), I have thoroughly enjoyed.  (You know how I love crime fiction, Dear Reader!)   I believe that a fourth is being written for NaNoWriMo as I write this. Amazon lists the Shona McKenzie novels as noir, btw, but I wouldn’t.  Now over to Wendy:

  1. Question: I understand that you are writing a fourth Shona McKenzie book for NaNoWriMo. Did you write any of the other three Shona McKenzie books for NaNoWriMo? If so, was the editing humongous (as many other NaNoWriMo writers expect theirs to be)?

Wendy: The bulk of the first two books was written during NaNoWriMo. The basic story was there at the end of the process, but you are right in that this did involve a lot of editing. The books were reviewed and changed a number of times. The endings changed completely in both cases. This was because it suited the book better and gave a stronger climax to the story. Book four is going through the same process but will be edited and reworked in a lot of different ways before it is completed. I am working with an editor to ensure that the book is ready for publication.

  1. Question: Shona McKenzie is fierce, forthright, dominant and with a tendency to put her foot in it. If I met Shona McKenzie face-to-face, I don’t think I’d like her, although she’s great to read about. How did you develop this character? Or did she develop herself as you were writing?

Wendy: Before coming up with the character of Shona, I sat down and answered one hundred questions about her as though she were being interviewed. I did this with all the major characters in the books. I wanted her to be a strong female character as this is often missing in books. Women in literature can come across as vulnerable, and somewhat weak. Given that this is a crime book a fragile character would not work. I agree she is fierce and dominant, but I wanted to portray her as being funny, and in a lot of ways, caring. She did change as I wrote and rewrote the book. You are right about her being dominant. She started out as a lover of fine wine, but she soon informed me she preferred scotch whisky. This was a bit of a problem for me as a writer. I know a lot about wine, but knew nothing whatsoever about whisky. I now know more than I could ever need. .

  1. Question: Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

Wendy: I’ve been reading crime fiction pretty much since I could read. I cut my teeth on The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Famous Five and Secret Seven. I then moved on to Sherlock Holmes and any Agatha Christie I could lay my hands on. It’s been a love affair with crime books ever since. It was a natural progression into writing crime. Also, I had an idea for the first book and just ran with it. This developed into the Detective Inspector Shona McKenzie Mysteries.

  1. Question: Your police characters are always eating. Why is this?

Wendy: I was in the services for many years and food is a large part of institutional life. I know a lot of policemen and they say that there are always cakes and biscuits around the station. Food, eating and hospitality are also a part of Scottish Culture. They say that if you turn up to anyone’s house in Dundee, they’ll immediately say, “You’ll be staying for your tea?” I also wanted to give a flavour of Scotland through the food, hence the pehs, as Dundonians call a pie filled with spicy mince.

  1. Question: Shona is a serving police officer and, in your books, it is evident that you have a thorough knowledge of how the police work. What advice would you have for hopeful police-based crime writers about research? Particularly about familiarising themselves with police procedures.

Wendy: I have a very good relationship with the local police. One of the sergeants came around my house and spent a few hours telling me about everything. I try to stick to things as far as possible. However, I will give you the advice that both he and Val McDermid gave me. Do not write exactly what the police do. If you did that the reader would die of boredom by page three. As an example, the police in Scotland are not armed. If guns need to be used then specialist units step in. That wouldn’t work in a book as your main character needs to be the one to catch them. Tayside Police tweet about DI Shona running around the streets of Dundee with a gun in her hand. So my advice is be as true to life as possible whilst taking liberties where you need to.

  1. Question: As someone who has set up their own – very successful – publishing company and who has just returned from a promotional tour, have you any tips for other writers about promoting their books?

Wendy: When it comes to promoting books you need to be both proactive and bold.  Be enthusiastic about what you’ve written. Ask bookshops if they will take your books. The worst they can do is say no, and I have found most of them say yes. People who work in bookshops love books. Think outside the box and take every opportunity that you can without driving everyone up the wall. I have given talks in libraries, village halls, church halls and a primary school. Yes, you heard that right. I was the visiting author for Scottish Book week last year. The kids absolutely loved it and went home raving about it. I had them writing the opening to a crime book. The teacher said she had never seen them so enthused about writing. I have also done book signings in Costa Coffee, and in local cafes. People who see me in one place and don’t buy a book, often come to find me in another venue and buy signed copies. I buy postcards of my book covers on one side and the blurb and places to buy on the other. If anyone expresses an interest in my books I hand out the postcards. I also have postcards at book signings, if they are not taking place in a bookshop. Many people will take the postcards. I then find that I have a spike in sales on Kindle, Kobo, iBooks etc. The motto when it comes to promoting is seize the day.

Thank you very much, Wendy, particularly for your answer on publicity.  I don’t know about you, Dear Writer, but  it’s the getting it out there and persuading someone to read my work which terrifies me!

Author Interview – Patsy Collins

Firestarter_coverThis week we are privileged to have with us, Patsy Collins, whose latest novel, Firestarter, is being released in Kindle format today (5 November).  Read the first question in Patsy’s interview and you’ll see why 5 November was chosen as the launch date.   Although Firestarter has been available in paperback since September, I have to confess that I haven’t read it yet, because I read everything on Kindle.  I’m looking forward to it.

Patsy is a full-time writer, with 250 womag stories published (plus others in ezines and anthologies) , 4 novels and 2 books of short stories and is a frequent contributor to Writing Magazine.  Even though Patsy Collins, authorshe is now established, she provides helpful feedback to hopeful writers on writing forums and has been a wonderful writing friend and support to me for many years.  Below are the questions I asked her:

  1. Although Firestarter is available in paperback now, its launch on Amazon Kindle is scheduled for 5 November. Any connection with Guy Fawkes Day?
    Patsy:  Sort of. I think of 5th November as bonfire night, and as this book has plenty of metaphorical fireworks as well as a few flames, I couldn’t resist selecting that date.
  2. Firestarter is your fourth novel. Most novelists have ideas for three or four novels going round in their heads at any one time. Is Firestarter based on ideas which have been with you for a while or did it come to you quite quickly?Patsy:  I started writing Firestarter very quickly after I had the initial idea and just kept going. You’re right about having lots of ideas in my head at once though. There are two others roughly planned out and I have another in the very early stages of plotting.
  3. How do you plan your novels? Do you plan your novels, or are you one of those people who love to see a blank Word screen in the morning and to take it from there?

    Patsy: 
    Planning seemed to me like a bad idea before I tried to write a novel. I imagined that if I knew the major plot points and how it would come out in the end, it would be no fun to write. I was wrong about that and now plot first.

    My plots are just outlines really and I tend to add in more scenes as I work. As I learn more about the characters they help me to build up the story and provide extra twists and turns. (That bit will probably sound slightly mad to any non writer.)
    4. In Escape to the Country and A Year and a Day, I see your womag roots very clearly, but Paint Me a Picture – my favourite – is more serious. I once read that you took ten years to write Paint Me a Picture. Why was that?

Patsy:  It’s true – it did take that long. In part that’s because it didn’t start off as a novel. It was a short story which got out of hand. There was no planning at all. Not only did I not know how it would end, I wasn’t sure it ever would – before editing it was over 130,000 words.

5.  How do you fix on names for your characters? Mavis Forthright in Paint Me a Picture sticks in your mind like a Dickensian moniker and sums her up beautifully.

Patsy:  In that case you’ll like the Bakewell sisters, who’re sweet (and whom Mavis would probably consider a little tarty) Tony Salmon who’s a bit of a cold fish and Hamish Mustarde who’s hot stuff!

To start with I just pick names, especially first names, almost at random. They might be ones I’ve recently heard, or which come to mind as I type. Then if they don’t seem to fit I change them to something more suitable. Actually, it’s fairly rare that I do change names once I’ve started writing. Like people, characters seem to grow to fit their names, or sometimes react against them in a way which helps form their personality.

Surnames aren’t usually created until I need to put them in the text, so I know enough about the characters to select something appropriate by then.

6.  So far, all the main characters in your novels have been female. Would you ever contemplate writing a novel with a male main character, or do you take Jane Austen’s view about not knowing how men speak when women aren’t present?

Patsy:  Odd you should ask that, as I’m working on a novel for NaNo with a male main character.

I’ve written short stories from a male point of view and not found it to be a particular problem.

I take JA’s point – but I don’t know how fashion conscious young women or middle-aged spinsters talk when I’m not about either. If I stuck to only using characters who think and speak as I do, then I’d write nothing but my autobiography.

7. You always write with a third person point of view and in the past tense.  Is this because you feel more comfortable writing in this way?  Or do you have specific reasons for avoiding first person point of view and present tense? 

Patsy:  I suppose I do feel more comfortable with past tense. I’ve written short stories in present, but it’s harder (for me at least) to sustain it over a longer word count and I feel it can be more demanding to read too.

The choice between first and third person is down to the story. Some just seem to work better with one than the other. I use first quite often in short stories and my NaNo novel is currently in first person too.

8. We’re told over and over again that womag stories must convey lots of emotion.  Have you any hints for us about ramping up the emotion?   

Patsy:  Our own experiences can help us imagine how characters feel and act. Generally we won’t have been in the exact same situation, but that’s what imagination is for. When our character is in love, pain or danger then we should think back to when we were and recall and adapt the details.

I build up in layers. The first draft of the scene might just say ‘she fancied him’. Later I’ll think back to my nearest memory and add in what exactly attracted her – his smile perhaps. Then I’ll explain how that makes her feel and show her reacting to him. It wouldn’t matter if I’d never actually been attracted to a man’s smile. My emotions would be very similar if it had been his voice which I’d liked, or if I preferred women’s smiles.

When it comes to painful emotions, pick your time to write them. It will be upsetting, so make sure you can either do, or write, something more cheerful immediately afterwards.

Try to think of characters as real, complicated people. Even when we’re madly in love, our partner can annoy us. In the saddest of situations a funny incident can still raise a smile.

*****

Thank you very much, Patsy.  I’m very proud report that Bachelor Boy, one of my favourite stories, has this week been published by A Long Story Short.