Empire’s Exile by Marian L Thorpe – Lena’s story of a long and challenging journey

When your book and its reader are meant for each other.

Northern Reader

A tremendous final book in a stunning trilogy, this is a gripping and sometimes moving book in which a young woman has to find a new way of surviving. Following on from “Empire’s Daughter” and “Empire’s Hostage” this book goes seriously beyond an Empire with a strong resemblance to the Roman Empire into vastly new territory. These books present an alternative history which is nevertheless impeccable in its research and holds together brilliantly; it is a consistent tale in both its setting and characters. Lena has changed much over the preceding two books, from an older girl who loved and lost her partner Maya over the need to defend their women’s village from a seaboard attack. Not only did she learn to become an effective warrior in defence of her home village over a period of some days, but also she began to learn and appreciate the problems and possibilities…

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Oraiáphon: A Novella of The Empire by Marian L. Thorpe

A lovely review of Oraiáphon from Liis Scanlon’s blog. Thanks so much, Liis!

Cover to Cover

SourceFormatPagesPublisherGenrePublication Date
Authorebook165Arboretum PressHistorical FantasyFebruary 29th, 2020

You may have noticed I failed to include the blurb for the novella – that was on purpose due to potential spoilers as this novella follows what is one of my favorite trilogies out there: Empire’s Legacy!

Now, there is a small chance that you have missed out on reading my reviews for the trilogy. Fear not, and you are forgiven, here are the links again for your comfort 😉

Empire’s Daughter * Empire’s Hostage * Empire’s Exile

As a brief, this trilogy starts off with some serious girl power vibes, moves into the very intriguing political atmosphere and has complicated web of personal relationships throughout with some of the most epic and sweat inducing love stories (inc same sex love stories) I have ever come across. The most important vibe…

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I might have just left this story to the reader’s imagination, except three things happened.

Some myths are true

Orpheus with his lute made trees,

and the mountain tops that freeze,

bow themselves when he did sing:

To his music plants and flowers

ever sprung; as sun and showers t

here had made a lasting spring.

Every thing that heard him play,

even the billows of the sea,

hung their heads, and then lay by.

Shakespeare; Henry VIII

Without readers, where would writers be? We are storytellers, and while I like telling my characters’ stories to myself, I prefer telling them to other people. But some of those readers become highly invested in the characters, and want to know more.

The last book of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy ended on an ambiguous note, with an epilogue that makes things clearer (for most readers. Some truly didn’t get it, even then.) But between the end of the last chapter and the brief epilogue is a three-year gap, and some important things happened in that time. I might have just left them to the reader’s imagination, except three things happened.

One was that in beginning the next, related trilogy, I realized there were a couple of major backstory pieces that had to be explained, and two, quite a few of my readers begged to know what happened in those missing years. The third consideration was that I was switching narrators (I write in 1st person), and while readers knew my new MC as a supporting character from the first trilogy, I thought they needed an opportunity to get to know him a bit better.

So I wrote those loyal readers a story that I hope meets their wishes, explains the backstory, and moves the character Sorley from supporting actor to a leading role. It launches February 29th in all markets. Here are the links:

Amazon US

Amazon Canada

Amazon UK

Amazon AU

World-building through Historical Characters: Gnaius and Galen

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political.

“Exactly so,” Gnaius agreed. “May I say more? I have lived in many of Casil’s provinces over the years. A physician travels with the army, if he wishes to become a skilled surgeon.”

– from Oraiáphon: A Novella of the Empire, 2020.

In my Empire’s Legacy series and its sequels (both completed and planned), the supporting character Gnaius plays, and will play, an important role. Gnaius is a physician, erudite and highly skilled, who has held many positions with both the army and to the Empress of Casil. He is a product of my imagination, of course, but he is based on the historical physician Claudius Galenus, best known to the modern West as Galen.

Galen (public domain)

I want to talk about Galen not so much in terms of the historical person, but as an example of how, in my alternate-world historical fiction, I use history to inform my world without being bound by it. The city in my world, Casil, is physically based on 4th century Rome, but politically it’s a blend of Rome and Byzantium. However, many of the conflicts that occur are from later in Europe’s history, between about 600 and 1000.

Galen lived in the 2nd century of the common era, at the same time as the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who appears as a figure from the past in my series (under a different name, of course). But this doesn’t matter: I’m not writing history. What matters is that Galen did almost everything I wanted Gnaius to have done: travelled extensively, learned about surgery and wound treatment in the field, practiced medicine in the capital city and became the personal physician to Emperors. So I have, effectively, lifted Galen out of the 2nd century and inserted him into my world at a later date.

There are both pros and cons to doing this. Readers will fall roughly into three categories: those who know nothing about early-medieval medicine, and will assume I’ve made Gnaius up entirely; those who have some knowledge of Galen, may well recognize consciously or unconsciously that Gnaius seems familiar, or right for the times; and those who know a fair bit about the subject, and may object to him being dragged forward several centuries.

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political. The real-life Galen fits neatly into the world, he’s just in the wrong century. (Certain readers may throw the book across the room in disgust at recognizing Gnaius as more-or-less Galen, although if they are that wedded to historical accuracy, they’ve probably given up on the series long before Gnaius makes his appearance 2/3 of the way through the third book.)

By some combination of serendipity and synchronicity, I learned in my research trip to Rome last week that Galen had lectured extensively at The Temple of Peace in the Forum, and indeed had stored his writings there for safekeeping. This plays right into the plot outline for the book (#5) I was there to research…and then I learned a fire at the Temple destroyed a fair number of those works. I’d already considered a fire in that general location as a plot device; now I have a historical occurrence to build around. The fire is not just plausible, it happened, and the destruction of some of Galen/Gnaius’s writings may well feed part of the plot of book #6, which is now little more than a concept.

The Temple of Peace in 1749 (public domain)

Gnaius is a minor character, although an important one. But by using Galen’s life as the basis for his, the verisimilitude of setting, character and plot is strengthened. Reviewers frequently comment on the depth and quality of world-building in my books: this is one way I do it. What are your methods for creating believable worlds?

The Travelling Writer

When both writing and travel are important, how do you balance the two?  I’m on the road far too often to not write while travelling, or I’d never get my books finished. Over the years they’ve been written at picnic tables in campsites and parks all over North America; in cafes across the world; in planes and trains and ships; and in tents in Mongolia and cottages in England.

There are three major considerations to writing while travelling: teaching yourself to write anywhere; keeping your work safe, and managing the technology. I didn’t used to be able to write unless I had complete privacy. Some of that was the beginner writer’s desire for secrecy, the reluctance to reveal to the world what I was doing. As I became more confident, and as I had deadlines to meet, that reluctance dissolved. The deeper I am into a story, the easier it is for me to write absolutely anywhere.

If noise distracts you, consider earplugs or listening to music. Or start with planning, writing character sketches, descriptions: background information you’ll need, if you can’t get into your story in a public place. I do better with dialogue; often I’ll fill in the description and actions afterwards, but I can almost always ‘hear’ the discussion between my characters, wherever I am.

Several years ago, just before a 9-week, 4-country, 27-flights trip, I bought a tiny laptop: not a netbook, because I am almost always places without internet. It fits neatly into my backpack, cost me $300 Canadian, and it has SD-card storage, as well as USB. Several points here: if I lose the laptop, or it’s stolen, or broken, it was cheap. Secondly, the removable storage was important. My work is not on the hard drive. It’s saved to the SD card, and to a flash drive, and those two things are kept (separately) on my body with my passport and wallet. Plus, I back up to cloud storage whenever and wherever possible, so my work is as secure as I can make it. It’s easy to get sloppy about doing this, but so far I’ve maintained the discipline…and when my laptop stopped working in Fiji (it didn’t like the 100% humidity) I could relax, knowing I wasn’t losing work. (It began working again back in drier, air-conditioned Canada, and has kept on working ever since.)

Managing the technology is again mostly a matter of discipline. Charge the laptop whenever you can: this means ensuring you have adaptor plugs. Carry a spare charge cord – unlike iPhone charge cords, which I’ve been able to buy everywhere in the world except Antarctica, it’s not easy to get a replacement laptop cord. Because my husband and I have identical laptops, we always have two charging cords. If access to electricity is rare, run your laptop on airplane mode, with the Wifi search off too – it will save power. Dim your screen. Turn it OFF, not to sleep. And of course, carry notebooks and pens or pencils. Writing doesn’t require a laptop – I just prefer it.

Finally, don’t leave your laptop at security after it’s been x-rayed. That may sound self-evident – but for all my experience, I’ve done it twice, in busy airports where security was busy and crowded. Luckily both times we were called back! 

What are your tips for writing when traveling? Please share!

Of Bere and Beer

I demand historical accuracy of my alternate-Europe: its geography, social constructs, and history may differ somewhat from the real world, but the background is as correct as my research allows. (And my interpretation of that research, of course.) But this conversation between two characters in the work-in-progress, Empire’s Reckoning, led me down a research path I hadn’t expected.

 “Should I put the meadows along the water to the plough, if I can find seed? They’ve been grazed, but we’ll not have sheep in numbers for a few years yet.”

“If those meadows are like the Ti’ach’s, they’re wet,” I said. “Better leave them to the sheep, and plough better drained land, if you can.”  He’d be late getting the barley in…

And then I stopped. This scene is taking place in early May, in a land that is an analogue of lowland Scotland, in more-or-less the 7th century.  Was this TOO late to plant barley?  Would it mature before winter came? (I have a graduate degree in crop science, and so I think about these sorts of things.)

I googled  ‘medieval Scotland planting date barley’…and discovered something I didn’t know. (Not terribly surprising, that, except that due to the aforementioned graduate degree in crop science, I actually do know a fair bit about the origins of cereal grains. And the professor who taught that bit was not only a Scot, but a whisky aficionado…which will become relevant.)

What I discovered was ‘bere’ (pronounced bear): a barley race introduced to northern Scotland by the Vikings in the 8th century or earlier (earlier was good). Peter Martin, director of the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), says, ‘Bere is probably the oldest cultivated barley, definitely in Britain and probably one of the oldest still in cultivation in Europe.’ Adapted to the climate and soils of the far north, it matures in 90 days. Plenty of time for my character to plant it in lowland Scotland in mid-May (or even June by the time he gets those fields under plough) and harvest it in late summer.

It’s also taller than modern varieties, which means it has an unfortunate tendency to lodge, or fall flat on the ground near to harvest in heavy rain or wind. I knew this about older barley varieties, so I’d already written this later scene, a different landholder and a different year than the earlier one.

In the long summer twilight, the clouds and rain now blown eastward, we walked up to the barley fields. Much of the grain lay flat. Roghan clicked his tongue. “Harder work for the men,” he said. At the greener field, he shook his head. “It will mould before it ripens. We’ll try to rake it, but likely I’ll turn the cattle out on it in the end.”

At the start of this century, there may have been less than 10 hectares of bere left in Scotland, grown only in small fields in the far northern and western islands. What has saved it is its unique flavour when used to brew beer or whisky. Small breweries and small distilleries produce short-run, expensive beverages with it, aimed at the increasing market for local-provenance food and drink. Barony Mill, a watermill on Orkney, produces flour (beremeal) from it as well. It’s a tough grain, difficult for modern machinery to handle — and would likely have ground down the teeth of people who ate it regularly (that and the flakes of stone from the grinding).

I’m visiting Orkney  in April, too early to see bere growing. I’ll look for the whisky, if it doesn’t break the bank. Well, maybe one glass, somewhere on that northern island, in honour of my constructed world and the real one it’s based on.

Two Men and Two Bears: by BD Rennie

When my husband’s fictional world and characters meet mine, who comes out on top?

BD Rennie is my husband, and he is currently in the last stages of writing a YA trilogy. Both his books and mine have an incident involving a bear, and our protagonists’ different ways of dealing with the bear have been the subject of a great deal of loving teasing over the last couple of years.

Today, he presented me with this story.

Two Men and Two Bears

The large, brown she-bear moved slowly through the bushy scrub, stopping to wait for its half-grown cub. The cub sniffed every leaf, fascinated with its new world. Birds sang overhead and squirrels chattered as they ran along branches.

From opposite sides of a slight rise, two men watched the bears, each unaware of the other. Kahj, an old Wooden Man from Klend, feared the animals might attack the two children he had committed himself to protect for the past thirteen years. Cillian, a diplomat from Linrathe, worried the bears might attack a woman from one of the fishing villages, a woman he secretly loved.

The two children and the woman stood on the same riverbank, hidden from each other by the bend in the river and the dense bushes. None were aware of the bears approaching them as they enjoyed the sunshine and the splashing water. The two men knew that the roar of the fast-moving river would mean any calls of warning would go unheard.

The men each set about preparing, in case the bears should attack. Kahj checked the fletching on his arrows, with their dull, wooden tips. As a Wooden Man he could not use iron. Cillian, facing no such limitations, sharpened the edge of his arrows’ iron tips. Both strung their bows, ensuring the sinew was flexible and subtle.

 Noises from the undergrowth told the men the bears were on the move towards the river. As the animals were between them and their loved ones, neither man felt they could run through the bushes to warn the woman or children. That action might just drive the bears closer to the river. Taking their bows in hand, they each notched an arrow and moved towards the bears.

Cillian of Linrathe thought about the books he had read dealing with hunting. He had never killed before, but he knew the theory of a kill shot. Kahj of Klend, an experienced hunter and great warrior, knew the key was to stay downwind so that the bears would have no idea someone stalked them.The bushes started shaking violently and both men realized that the bears were charging their loved ones. Kahj raced out into the open in time to see one bear run at the children. His first arrow hit the bear in the cheek, irritating it, but doing no real harm. The bear looked from the man to the children, unsure which to attack. Kahj’s second arrow hit the animal in the flank, and it abandoned the children. The man ran to the tree he had selected, quickly climbing out of reach. The bear snarled at Kahj and clawed at the tree, then moved away, frustrated.

Cillian saw the second bear break free from the bushes and run towards the river. Although it was moving away from the woman, he felt compelled to act. He had read that men did such things. As soon as the bear came into range, he released his arrow, taking the animal in the shoulder. The steel tip cut deep into its flesh. Confused and bleeding, the bear looked around in wide-eyed terror. Cillian, now confident he could make the kill, approached the wounded animal and sent his second arrow deep into its chest from only a few paces away. The bear collapsed with a cry. Cillian had protected his woman: he felt proud.

The she-bear, hearing the dying cry of her cub, ran at Cillian, taking him unawares from behind. Kahj heard the screams of the man as the bear mauled him, but he chose to ignore it. He likely deserved it, he thought. Walking their separate ways from the river, the children and the woman wondered who the idiot was who had managed to get himself eaten by a bear on such a beautiful day.

And now my rebuttal story:

Lena heard the deep scream from Cillian, but she kept walking, her heart pounding. She had to trust he had listened to her, although her instinct was to run to help. But they were not alone along this river, and the old man had moved like a hunter.

He had his belt knife, and one of her seccas, and he was agile and fast. And that scream had sounded like a threat, not a cry of pain. She circled around the hill, senses on alert. Everything she had learned when she had trained as an assassin was coming back. She dropped to her belly, crawling through the rough grass.

Another sound from below: definitely one of pain, but animal, not human, or so she hoped. She kept crawling forward. At the top of the rise, she lifted her head. Below her was the old man and the two children she had seen earlier. They had not reacted to Cillian’s scream, and there could be only one reason for that: the old man wanted him dead. Did he know she was with Cillian? Was she hunted, as well as a hunter?

She had one secca. Studying the group, she decided the boy and girl were perhaps thirteen: two of her assassin cohort had been no older, but they’d been trained. The man was old, his muscles ropy. A vēsturni, perhaps? The boy could be his apprentice, but who was the girl?

The trio were eating now, a cold meal. Lena lay still, watching. Behind her, she heard ragged breathing. With all the discipline she had learned as a guard on the Wall, she didn’t look around.

The hand that touched hers was bloody. “I hope that’s bear’s blood,” she whispered.

“Mostly,” Cillian murmured. “It raked my shoulder before I could kill it. A knife—mine, not yours—in its throat. What’s happening?”

“Nothing much. I would think they were just travelers, but from where? To where? And the old man didn’t try to help you, which makes me think he knew we were here, and wanted us—or you, at least—dead.”

Cillian gazed down on the small party. With his eyes on them, Lena turned to look at his back. His tunic was ripped, and the gashes beneath it oozed dark blood. “Gods, Cillian,” she said, “That must hurt.”

“Pain is to be ignored,” he murmured. His beloved philosopher, Lena thought in resignation. Why had she fallen in love with this annoying man? Maybe she’d fall out again, and then she’d be glad she had never told him.

“I’ll clean it up later,” she said, her mind wandering appreciatively to the feel of his muscles under her hands…She wrenched her attention back to the three people they were watching.

“We have two choices,” Cillian said. “We approach them, or we let them leave.”

Or we kill them, Lena thought, but she wasn’t going to voice that. Bears were one thing, but in the Empire, she was sure Cillian would have suffered the same fate as his uncle: castration, for not being able to kill. And that would be a pity, she mused. He’s far too good in bed.

“Perhaps,” Cillian said, “the old man is deaf. Perhaps he didn’t hear me scream at the bear. Watch the three of them. The children always face him when they speak, and they stay close.”

Lena watched. “You may be right,” she said. “And they just can’t be that important, can they? Just travelers, going from one village to another. Let’s leave them alone.”

“Stories that have barely crossed,” Cillian said. Oh, gods, Lena thought, don’t get started on philosophy again.

“Come,” she said. “Back to the river. Let’s get those wounds washed, and I’ll make some anash tea against any infection.”

Sitry looked up from where she sat, eating the last of the midday meal. “How strange,” she murmured.

“What, my child?” Kahj asked. “A vision?”

“No, not quite. An odd feeling….as if I had woken inside one of our lore books. A story come alive. But not one I remember – are there huge cities in any of these lands?”

“Not that I ever heard of,” he told her. “Just your imagination. Come, children. It’s time to move.”

Songbird: A Novel of the Tudor Court

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world.

A review with a guest blog from the author, Karen Heenan.

I absorbed my father’s love for Tudor history almost by osmosis, and it’s never left me, although the better-known aspects of Henry VIII’s six wives and his rift with the Roman Catholic Church were never the parts that interested me the most. Social history and the lives of people who were not courtiers or nobles, but still affected by the massive changes that Henry brought to England during his reign, are my area.

Karen Heenan’s Songbird caught my attention as soon as I heard about it, pre-publication. I knew about Henry’s love for music: he was reputed to be a skilled musician himself. I knew, vaguely, that he had court singers and minstrels, and with a little thought I would have related the name William Cornysh with Henry’s court, and I might have even known he had something to do with music.

This tale of Bess, a young girl sold to the King for her pure, lovely voice, and of her training to be part of the troupe of singers who entertained Henry and his court plunges the reader into the lives of a group of young men and women of the back corridors and rooms of the palaces. Like all royal servants, they had little control over their lives; they were subject to royal demands and whimsies: sing now; travel now; perform now, as they moved in and out of favour.

It would be easy to see them as pawns, unimportant, but Heenan crafts a rich and satisfying story around three lives, the girl Bess, the boy Tom, and the outsider Robin. The names expected in a Tudor court story are there, of course: Henry himself, Queen Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey. But they are the minor characters.  Through Bess’s eyes, we see events unfolding that are familiar to any student of Tudor history, but we also see the intimate details of her own.

Heenan writes with confidence and style, vividly drawing the reader into the Tudor court. Each character in her story is fully real, even the enigmatic Robin, and as they mature over the course of the book, their personalities develop. They become much more complex, but in ways that seem fully consistent with the children the reader first meets.

Court intrigues and politics; the fear of almost-random death from disease or accident; the divisions of class and the restrictions of religion: all these form the background to a bittersweet love story that unfolds over the course of the story. Each colours Bess’s view of life. her expectations, and her determination to grasp as much control of her life as is possible for a young woman in her position.

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world both familiar and new. I didn’t: I rationed myself, to enjoy it longer. I await its planned sequel with impatience.

William Cornysh and the Alchemy of Fiction

by Karen Heenan

Songbird was inspired by a throwaway fact in a biography of Henry VIII: the music-obsessed King once purchased a child from his mother to sing in the chapel choir. That was all it took to send me down the rabbit hole of history.

Then, of course, it occurred to me that meant I would be writing a book about music. I knew next to nothing about Tudor-era music, its structure, or its instruments. Thankfully, my main character, Bess, was a singer, so I could start there and learn as I wrote.

I quickly encountered the King’s Music, the name used for the royal company of minstrels who entertained at court, both publicly and in private, and placed Bess among them.

On researching the Music, and the topic of Tudor music generally, it was impossible to miss William Cornysh, who, in addition to being a significant composer of music both religious and secular, was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and also managed many of the musical and dramatic entertainments at court.

Those few facts were enough to start building the man, and then, with the strange alchemy that is fiction, when I learned more about him, those new facts fit the character I had created. Cornysh was talented, hard-working, and seemingly underappreciated, having only been rewarded with a grant of property shortly before his death in 1523. He was also a father figure to the choristers, many of whom were quite young. When the court was in London, the children often spent nights at Cornysh’s house with him and his wife, Jane, giving them a taste of normal life.

Much of my research for Songbird was done in the dark days of the pre-internet era, which on one hand meant I stumbled across interesting facts that I didn’t know I needed, but on the other meant I didn’t always find what I needed, except by the same happy accident.

As an example, the story had moved on from Bess’s early days with the Music, and Cornysh was mentioned only rarely. Then, while reading an online article totally unrelated to him, I saw a mention of his sudden death.

What to do? He wasn’t a major character at that point, and leaving him alive wouldn’t be egregious because history would not be changed in service to the story, but my sense of accuracy meant I could not suffer a man to live who had actually died.

Back I went to give him his end, and the story was actually stronger for his loss.

Songbird is available on Amazon

Steps to a Successful Book Launch

Book launches, unless you are a famous author, are primarily for the family and friends of the author to celebrate their success. It’s a little like a graduation.

This past Sunday night, one of our indie press’s authors had her first book launch. This was only the second launch by the press, so we’re far from experts. But by almost all measures the launch was an overwhelming success.  I’m going to take a look at why.

What are our measures of success?

  • About 75 people attended.
  • We sold out all the paperbacks we’d ordered, and we sold another 17 in advance of the next shipment.
  • The other two authors who also read sold books too.
  • The musicians sold a bunch of CDs.
  • All the food was eaten and the bar did good business.
  • The buzz in the room told us people were having fun.

Book launches, unless you are a famous author, are primarily for the family and friends of the author to celebrate their success. It’s a little like a graduation. Judge the number of people who will come by that measure. Keeping that in mind, what can I share about a successful launch?

Location. We chose to go with the upstairs bar at our indie bookstore for several reasons. The space is frequently used for book launches: it has a stage, a sound system, and staff familiar with the entire process. By holding it there, it guaranteed free advertising on their website, and the book in their new releases section, and, the week of the launch, in their front window. There is a charge for the space, but for us the benefits were well-worth the cost.

Even though the space is downtown, on a Sunday night there is plenty of free parking, and it’s close to public transit, both serious considerations.

Day and Time: Because our author had friends and family coming from some distance, a weekend was ideal. Saturday night looks good at first glance, but there is competition for the space, for parking, for the musicians’ bookings. So we chose Sunday from seven to nine p.m: after dinner to not too late. Sunday afternoon worked well for another of our authors last winter, for most of the same reasons.

Format: The author’s book and her reading were the focus of the evening, but not the only entertainment. Two other authors with our press did very brief readings, and there were live musicians. Between the readings by the ‘warm-up act’ readers, and the author, the duo played two songs specific to the era and location in which her book is set, taking those of us old enough to remember (most of us) to Montreal in the late 60s.

Other readers help reduce the author’s anxiety, and it also encourages friends and family of those people to attend. Reading before the author means that any adjustments to the sound system or the lights that weren’t picked up in the sound check don’t fluster the author, and it settles the room.

We had an MC, a member of our press collective who is trained in drama and improv, but any outgoing person who can think on their feet can take this role. We also had a schedule, and she did a fine job of keeping us to it.

Book Sales: at the back of the room, with the author’s signing table well away from it to not block the flow of people. Once someone has the book in their hand, they’ll wait for the signing, whereas they may get impatient with waiting to both purchase and get the book signed. I suggest a tablecloth, stands to show off the books, clear pricing, plenty of small bills for change, a receipt book, bags for the few who want them, and, if possible, the ability to take credit and debit cards. We use the Square, and having it meant we sold a third more books than we would have otherwise. We’d also anticipated (too late) the possibility of selling out, so had created vouchers for people who wanted books but couldn’t get one.

Food and drink: We’d advertised hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar. The venue has a finger-food menu for these events, but it’s not necessary to feed people immediately after the dinner hour, if the budget doesn’t run to it.

What didn’t (on the surface) work?

We did a lot of (free) publicity for this event, through the events section of our local print and on-line papers, and through the indie bookstore that hosted the event in their upstairs bar. But nearly everyone who attended was a friend of the author, through work or community. On the surface, this looks like it wasn’t worth it. But looking at it more closely, that advertising means a lot of people in our town have seen an image of the book, and when they go into the bookstore and see it on the new-releases shelves, they’re a little more likely to pick it up. It’s familiar. (The bookstore has told me it’s selling.) So while this tactic didn’t bring in people on the night, it may have longer-term benefit.

A few other ideas: name tags for all the people helping out are useful. Make sure the MC points out washrooms, coat rooms, and any other ‘housekeeping’ type announcements. Tip the bar staff. Send thank you notes to everyone involved the next day.

And a ‘graduation’ present for the writer, especially if it’s a first book, is a nice touch. I suggest a bottle of Writer’s Tears Irish whiskey, personally.

And the book we were launching? Nikki Everts’ Evidence of Uncertain Origin, a mystery set in Montreal in the late 60’s, against the backdrop of FLQ violence. Published by Arboretum Press, it is most easily available in wide release from Amazon, in both paperback and ebook formats.

Trillium: an author interview with M.L. Holton

Trillium, a multi-generational saga set in Ontario’s fruit-growing Niagara Peninsula.

I recently reviewed M.L. Holton’s novel Trillium, a multi-generational saga set in Ontario’s fruit-growing Niagara Peninsula. I live less than an hour north of this area, and local history has always been an interest of mine. I thoroughly enjoyed the book (my full review is here), so I asked the author to talk a little bit more about the work.

Tell us about what inspired Trillium.

I had been thinking for awhile about how I wanted to focus on a rural environment rather than an urban one as per my last two novels, Economic Sex and The Gilded Beaver by Anonymous.

Small farming communities are tightly-bound social networks of multi-generational cross-breeding. They are, in the main, supportive and stable. In North America, they are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as the young move to the cities for better employment opportunities and generational farmers, with miniscule profit-margins, sell-out to larger agri-business concerns. The migration is undercutting the bedrock of our uniquely Canadian society.

I also wanted to explore and expand on the on-going controversy between ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’. How do we become who we are?

Trillium spans a period of 250 years, from early settlement on the Niagara Peninsula to the early 2000. This timeframe gave me a much larger canvas to work.

❖ How has your life influenced your writing, specifically in this book?

There’s no question that I have pulled on my life experiences to craft this work.

I grew up on the fringe of a farming community in Halton County. We raised sheep and fowl on a small scale. As a child, I watched and learned from my enterprising father, (born and raised in the area), as he constantly interacted with the landscape and livestock on our property. Nature was omnipresent – dictating birth, life and death. Working outside with my brothers and my father was always fun and pleasurable. Wind in our hair, dirt up our fingernails. This quasi-bucolic country lifestyle was very far removed from the social lifestyle that my mother managed to create for our family. She was involved with various local charities, sport associations and social clubs ‘in the city’. That activity widened our community circle and life experiences. My father’s family business was involved with the early development of a yarn company in Hamilton during the 19th century. But, by the mid 1980s, this century-old family firm experienced an acute downturn as a result of cheaper South American and Asian imports. We all had to adjust.

As example, I was removed from a distanced private school of 600 students and started attending a nearby public high school of 3000 students. Rather than getting picked up by a bus, I walked to school. To a wide-eyed teen, the differences between the two learning institutions were acute. Coordinated school uniforms were replaced by the media-driven trends of ‘fashion’. Individual ‘popularity’ was valued more than team work or basic ‘competence’.

These kinds of juxtapositions caught my eye and ear and became a kind of foundation about my evolving observations about the ‘otherness’ of people. I seemed a perpetual ‘outsider’, and did not fully integrate into any group ‘clique’ after the transition.

I believe this ‘outsider’ status has served me well, long term.  It gives me not only an individualistic perception of ‘what’s going on’ but it provides a critical emotional distance to ‘assess’. I have always thought of myself as a ‘witness’ more than a participant. It is a good vantage point and strong starting point for any writer: distanced observation.

❖The cover is your own art work! Tell us about it.

I wanted a cover image that amplified the central idea of natural growth in the story. In this instance, the focus was on a regional grape vine. Initially, I started with a stark photo image but it was too hard. I then tried a stylized graphic but it was too ephemeral. I finally settled on a close-up detail from an oil painting I had done some years ago ~ of a man’s hand holding a grape cluster. To my mind, the image is perfect. It is a human hand connected to the growing land.

❖What do you hope readers will take from Trillium?

My intent was to write an entertaining as well as enlightening book about the evolving rural area around the southern end of Lake Ontario, in Canada.  

In order to do that, I crafted the bedlam and chaos of a ‘good story’, filled with emotional arcs and empathy etc,, but interwove the story around fascinating pieces of local history from the Greater Hamilton and Niagara area. The medley of colourful characters is also influenced by larger global events, like the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s and the two World Wars of the twentieth century. I wanted to make this fictional story ‘believable’ to the contemporary reader. As far as I know, no-one in the vicinity has attempted a similarly ambitious ‘grassroots’ construct.

I think my voice is rather unique in the telling. But, ultimately, readers must determine if that is true or not.

What is odd or quirky or engaging about your story or characters?

There’s plenty of quirk in this work, primarily because each character has an early failing or foible that manifests later. These insights drive the story forward so that there are ‘aha’ moments when a later incident clicks into place. It’s basic ‘cause & effect’ that amplifies the intimate causality of human interactions.

Character names were chosen to reflect the ethnic origins of their families and to help readers keep the large cast of characters clear in their minds. As example, Gregorio is clearly not part of the O’Sullivan clan …

One outstanding quirk was the development of the simpleton savant Anna. Illiterate and sheltered from the world by her protective Italian family, Anna, untethered from normal social conventions, has an uncanny knack with plants. She can grow anything. Her simplistic yet attuned capability irreversibly alters the course of her family’s evolution. To say more may ruin the story for some, so I’ll stop there except to say, readers do seem to resonate with her. She’s a peach, so to speak.

To whom would you recommend this book to? Are there any trigger warnings or age restrictions?

I would recommend this story to anyone who loves rambling family sagas, epic storytelling, and historical fiction that rides the vicissitudes of human logic and emotions. There’s a lot going on in this story: good, bad, ugly and even, at times, indifference as the narrative voice pulls back to ‘observe’.

As each generation matures into adulthood, Trillium could be seen as an adult ‘coming-of-age’ tale. As for warnings, there are three sex scenes that are rather graphic. Their violence is an integral part of the story, so that’s that.

Would Trillium translate well to the screen? If so, who should make it or star in it?

Ideally, I think this would make an engaging Canadian series ~ a timely cross between the British drama, ‘Peaky Blinders’ and the well-scripted American family drama, ‘Bloodline’, set in Florida.

Trillium would, of course, have to be 100% Canadian. Why? Because Canada is still very young on the world stage. We are in desperate need of these in-depth local stories to explain the unique evolution of our own particular civil society. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be swamped by better told English-speaking stories from elsewhere.

My dream team would be a co-production between Anglo-Canadian, Irish and Italian producers (to achieve maximum market share), with a well-rounded cast from each ethnic origin. The director, showrunners and crew would be Canadian. It could all be shot on location around the southern end of Lake Ontario – from hovels to mansions.

I have done a preliminary casting, just for fun. In the end though, that’s a pipedream for a writer. If the title was optioned by an established production company, all those casting and location decisions would be their responsibility. Yes, I am the originator of this story, but a team of seasoned scriptwriters would have to flush it out to make it truly noteworthy as well as globally marketable. The story is all there, for the right team.

What genre is Trillium? Is this your preferred genre to write in? What do you read?

I call this a hybrid historical fiction. As I explained above, I wrote a ‘good story’ around many current and timely issues.

In the past, I have written poetry, social history, journalism, and two other long-form fictional works. I love the nuances of languages and the endless possibilities that they offer to an open imagination.

My reading, as a human on the planet, has always been ferocious.

Tell us about your writing process.

For this title, I followed a strict regimen. From February to October of 2018, I did nothing but write, edit, re-craft and finalize the work. Literally, 10am to 6pm, 5 days a week. I took weekends off to recharge and took hourly lunches during the writing week to refresh myself.

It may interest your readers to know that I wrote a detailed outline for Trillium almost a decade ago. That outline smouldered in my writing box until I found the key to access the story. The key was ‘technology’.

Technology has transformed our lives over a very short period of time. I wanted to ‘document’ that evolution and could do that quite clearly within a historical context.

I stopped this story before the internet became ubiquitous.

LINKS – CA Amazon – https://amzn.to/2q0iEeL

US Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/Trillium-Margaret-Lindsay-Holton/dp/0992127289