Sunday, March 30, 2014

Killing off the Darlings

The rather lovely cover at the left is one that will never grace a book of mine. I had to kill it when I realized it was not my character the midwife Mariel Frasier shown in the picture who was avenged in 1603, but the Queen of Scots, and to a large degree, the dead queen of my novel was avenged through the acts of the same young Scottish woman who has commandeered my computer and reuses to give it back, the redoubtable and fictional  Daisy Kirkcaldy, daughter of the Knight of Grange, who is letting me have my laptop back long enough to write this post, on the condition that I write her out of the mess she has created for herself in my work in progress In the Shadow of the Gallows.  She is giving me to the end of 2014 to do it.

There is a well known saying in the world of publishing and writing, "Kill your darlings."  The saying is generally attributed to William Faulkner, and it suggests that an author excise those little personal anecdotes that creep into his work.  Killing them is painful.  Here is one of mine cut out of my historical mystery fantasy (an awkward  mix of genres), The Green Woman, coming soon to wherever odd books written effortlessly are sold. Daisy is letting me tell you about it since she is by nature curious and has no idea why anyone would eat tomatoes since they are a variety of nightshade introduced to Scotland in 1590 by a barber, thought to be moderately poisonous and only good  for use as table decorations.  Hence, she is allowing me to share what I have cut out of my fantasy -adventure  The Green Woman, which she assures  me is too phantasmagorical to ever make it as a novel, although she rather likes the idea that my protagonist can throw a Jed Axe and hit her target.

When I was his age, eggs came in cardboard egg-crates and milk came in waxed cartons, and the farms were in Pleasanton and their product trucked south by Safeway and Vons,  all except tomatoes.
There was a different dynamic when it came to trucking tomatoes.
  I had discovered from driving up and down the mighty Golden State Highway #5 that all tomatoes grown in the Imperial Valley near the Mexican border were trucked to San Jose, and all of the tomatoes grown in Salinas and the San Joaquin Valley were trucked south to Bakersfield and points south.  I learned that half of the tomatoes trucked north ended up in Pleasanton where they were trucked south to Los Angeles and made into salsa. 
 I looked at my half-uneaten sandwich and inspected something that looked very much like a slice from a California Beefsteak tomato and I asked Willie where the tomatoes in Scotland came from.
“The big farms grow ‘em in greenhouses or poly tunnels but the small farmers grow ‘em outdoors and sell ‘em at stands along the road during the summertime or in the local markets.  The BBC’s very big on growin’ tomatoes.”
Since I was fairly certain that the BBC was not in the business of growing tomatoes, I presumed they had a garden hour when they were not promoting  chauvinistic rants by David Starkey.  
“But the ones  grown near Glasgow-- Do they get shipped to Aberdeen?”
“Why would a body want to do anything as dumb as that?”
Perhaps the legends were all wrong and growing up on the Borders was far less stifling than growing up in the Southern California suburban sprawl.  My study of the migration of the California Roma had yielded naught.  On second thought, perhaps not entirely naught: at least I have a feel for where ketchup comes from.

The inspiration for this  personal insight of mine  came from our trips back and forth to Chico when our son Russ and wife 'Cio were experimenting with going to university.  During tomato season the off-ramps were littered with all kinds of fresh vegetables.  If I happened to be hungry, we would stop.  The Romas were the least likely to be squashed and were easily washed from the roadside grime without bruising their tougher skins.  Every now and then an entire truck of them would dump.  With luck, an occasional onion truck would contribute to the roadside salsa.  It was then that I noticed the phenomena existed on both sides of the road.  Yes, northern tomatoes were headed south.  To find garlic for the salsa, the best bet was to head west at Gilroy where they grow garlic on the shores of Monterey Bay.  You know you are close to your treasure trove when you can smell it before you see it.  But if your preference in vegetables happens to be sugar beets, the Golden State is not the answer. You need to follow the south bound tomato trucks into the Imperial Valley, and before you hit Highway 8, you will find giant sugar beets on the shoulders of both sides of the road.  So now, the reader knows that ketchup started out as road kill, a fascinating bit of trivia but not necessary to my plot line in a novel about a female historical fiction writer who is either hallucinating or has fallen down Alice's legendary rabbit hole and ended up in early 17th century Scotland. 

This is not the only darling I have  killed.  In my mammoth (too mammoth, perhaps) epic The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, I excised an entire love-and-betrayal relationship between Kirkcaldy and a German servant in Dover Castle named Grethe.  Even then, the book topped at 712 pages.  Sometimes mercy killing is not quite so controversial after all.  But for Grethe, the killing was permanent.  The early versions of Last Knight were victims of a computer crash.  Daisy is delighted I cannot revive her because her father had far too many peccadilloes in his lift without her.  
In the course of my nearly four year effort as a novelist, I have also killed my share of covers.  The green woman at the top of the page is an example. While she is appropriately ferocious, she is not quite as mystical as the one my graphic designer son is producing. Another example of a murdered cover is the alternative cover to my debut, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, proposed from my submitted art  by the designer at Createspace as an alternative to the Mally Flemyng who appears on the logo to this blog.  I am glad I stuck with the lady behind Door #1. 

There were several alternatives to the cover chosen for The Last Knight.  My favorite is my watercolor entitled Surrender.  However, the survivor, a creation of artist Russ Root is far better suited to the epic, which is the story of Kirkcaldy more than it is of the queen.

The first covers I selected for The Midwife's Secret Series were produced entirely on Cover Creator and would have worked just fine.  However, concepts changed and so did the covers and the titles. The subtitle of The Mystery of La Bella Ecossaise became The Mystery of the Hidden Princess and the Queen's Daughter became 'The Other Daughter' when  the character Daisy Kirkcaldy stole her way into my laptop and took control. 

 I was prepared to go forward with a modification of the above covers  when I discovered the photographs of Darja Vorontsova on Dreamstime, whose work brought my midwife Mariel and her cousin Daisy Kirkcaldy to life.   

 photography by DarjaVorontsova,@ Dreamstime-  cover designed on Cover Creator@

I sincerely hope Ms. Vorontsova keeps photographing her popular model, who I believe is named Katja, so I can permit Daisy to mature.  Although she is a handful, I am rather partial to her.  She is indeed the  darling I cannot kill.

Look for Daisy's next exploits late in April in 1603: the Queen's Revenge, in which Daisy proves once again that the knight Kirkcaldy's Other Daughter ( is not a lass to mess with.
Photo by Darja Vorontsova, Dreamstime

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Every now and then comes a Trumpet Blast worth Reckoning!

I do not generally review books on my blog.  Usually my in-depth reviews appear on The Review and my casual ones on Amazon and Goodreads.  But this is a book that is underselling its potential because its subject is John Knox. But fear not, potential reader. This is not a tale of Fire and Brimstone. It is more likely to leave you with a wry grin forming than in desperate need of salvation.  And do not be put off with the liberal use of Scottish dialect.  You might learn a phrase or two to use when you stub your toe in the presence of your wee ones.

A novel by Marie MacPherson
    A review by Linda Root

The  prevailing  view of John Knox is of a towering,  bearded and overbearing personification of the term ‘Fire and Brimstone’ -- an image that both  his disciples and his critics sought to create.In The First Blast of the Trumpet, author Marie MacPherson treats us to a different view.What makes her offering unique is that she does it in a way that is both witty and entertaining.  For those who think that a story centered on Knox  will of necessity lack romance,  intrigue, tongue-in-cheek wit and ribald humor, MacPherson’s book  will be a revelation.
19th century engraving by John Burnet from painting by Sir William Allan, \

I did not embark upon my review of First Blast of the Trumpet expecting to have fun.  Being a fellow member of the community of historical novelists drawn to the life and times of Marie Stuart’s Scotland, I was no stranger to the author’s wit or her writing style, so I should have been forewarned. My first surprise was discovering  that MacPherson’s first book  in the Knox trilogy is not a novelized biography of the early life of John Knox. It is a feasible if fictional tale of the politics and persons who produced him, especially the Sixteenth Century persons  MacPherson cleverly nominated to serve as his parents. She takes full advantage of the fact that the details of the Reformer’s origin remain vague  and picks a pair of actual characters whose histories would have made them compatible. If  Knox was not their son, he  certainly could have been.

Thus, this  is not  a story about young  Knox,  although he is central to the theme. It is more the  tale of Elizabeth Hepburn,  a sixteenth century Scottish woman  who becomes  a female monastic by accident, not design, and who manages to survive a long list of mishaps with little  help from anyone but herself and a cluster of amazing  women who stand beside her. The plot emphasizes how little control most Reformation era women and many men had over their fates. Through the eyes of  MacPherson’s characters, we acquire insight into the  non-religious circumstances that brought so many men and even more women kicking and screaming into the monastic life. The same holds true of the political considerations that drove ambitious men  into the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.  

In First Blast, David Beaton is an excellent example and he  makes an outstanding and almost sympathetic villain. After all, he too is a victim of the times. While there are exceptions, generally, the men other than martyr  Wishart  do not come out looking quite as heroic as the women in MacPherson’s book.
Cardinal David Beaton from  17th century engraving by S. Freeman,

Many readers will be surprised to find very little about Knox in the first half of the book. Instead we are  treated to an excursion into pre-Reformation Scotland, getting an ample lesson in the need for clerical reform as we are introduced to the parade of mistresses and bastard children of the leading clerics of the day. This is pure, accurate and compelling Scottish historical fiction spiced with irony, wit and just enough comedy to make us wonder why we expected this to be a somber read. Even the minor characters  advance the story insofar as they reveal not just who Knox was, but in the artful way they demonstrate why Knox wasOne of my favorite scenes illustrates  the rivalry between the king’s favorite mistress Margaret Erskine and Cardinal Beaton’s mistress and mother of his many children Marion Ogilvy. It is much more fun to explore the ecclesiastical excesses of the Sixteenth  Century Catholic Church by looking into Mistress Marion’s mind and life situation than it would be to sit through one of Knox’s sermons on the topic. Also, the cultural color introduced in the pages is not limited to personalities. The rituals and celebrations of the Stewart court enliven the story with little resort to narrative. We see that not all of Sixteenth Century Scotland was somber. There were robust good times offered to those who knew where to look and how to earn a ticket.
The martyrdom of George Wishart, Knox's mentor {{PD-Art}}

 It is also surprising to find a book  with such an auspicious title with such a  generous  helping of romance. Trysts  are not limited to just those between the protagonist and her sometimes lover, who MacPherson writes in and out of the story artfully and with a bit more empathy that he perhaps deserves. Even Cardinal Beaton’s lovelife is explored with a tad more tolerance than his assassins thought to be his due.  MacPherson  presents the romantic entanglements of the protagonist in a light that makes the reader crave a romance novel’s satisfactory  ending while knowing that in the climate of Early  Reformation Scotland, it is unlikely to happen. Overall, it is surprising just how entertaining a well researched historical novel can be. Even though the story involves a historical person many of us see  as a stiff-necked disciplinarian with a propensity for serving up large portions of hell  and damnation in long-winded sermons,  it is hard to finish the last page without glimpsing a very human side to John Knox.

If there is a single  feature that some readers may find troublesome in the early  pages, it is the liberal use of Scottish slang and vernacular speech in especially in the early pages. For those unfamiliar with Scots, after the first two chapters, the Scots will no longer be distracting and will add authenticity and color to the reading adventure. One might even pick up a phrase or two from the character  Betsy.

It is settled fact that the historical Knox had the ability to fill a kirk to overflowing. This  fine book deserves the same large audience. It is brim full of love and hate, bravery and cowardice, hope and disillusionment  and  a large helping of  intrigue.  The visual imagery is superb, from the tender though sparse love scenes between the abbess and her lover to the account of  Knox’s mentor Wishart’s martyrdom or  the descriptive fate of Cardinal David Beaton’s pickled corpse. I take heart that this is part one of a trilogy. There is a Reformation on the horizon and I expect Marie MacPherson to  present it  with the integrity of a historian  and the lusty wit of a balladeer.  

A note:

You can find this book in the US and Kindle editions on Amazon.  I would provide a link but then, the Amazon police would accuse me of being a promoter instead of a voracious reader who knows an exception book when she finds it. I do know Marie MacPherson as a fellow member of the Marie Stuart Society with an educational background in the history of the Scottish Reformation.