Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana
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Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston

Twitter: @JudithStarkston

Author Interview: Sherry Thomas

I am writing an article for the Historical Novel Society about Sherry Thomas and her awesome new book in the Lady Sherlock series. However, I thought it would be fun to post the raw interview Q&A here since my finished article for HNS will be quite different. 🙂 Thank you very much to Ms. Thomas for taking the time to respond to my questions! I always love seeing author interviews and Q&A, so I’m delighted that I get to share this with my own readers as well.

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Sherry Thomas, courtesy of sherrythomas.com

Her Grace’s Library: The interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles is so interesting in your novels. There’s just so much to unpack with gender identity in the Lady Sherlock series, especially in The Hollow of Fear. I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times before, but what made you want to write a Lady Sherlock series to begin with?

Sherry Thomas: I am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, in which Holmes meets a female partner every bit as formidable as himself. That’s the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own, but I didn’t have any concrete idea what I want to write about so I didn’t do anything.

Then came the BBC Sherlock, which was so dynamic and stylish, and which did such a fantastic job updating the character to the 21st century. That’s when I said to myself, hmm, if BBC Sherlock already made Sherlock Holmes thoroughly modern, and Elementary on CBS made Watson a woman, then the only thing left to do was to make Sherlock Holmes a woman.

So that’s what I did.

HGL: Can you comment more about Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine? I love her references to her “maximum tolerable chins.”

ST: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a casual user, taking to cocaine when he doesn’t have any stimulating cases. And he turns down plenty of cases if he finds them of insufficient interest. That’s because, as it is often deduced, Sherlock Holmes comes from either minor aristocracy or upper gentry, and has an independent income and doesn’t rely on his work as a consulting detective to pay the bills.

Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation. She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet thing. But of course she wants to still fit into her clothes, and “maximum tolerable chins” becomes her gauge for judging whether she can indulge in an extra slice of cake or must regretfully refrain.

HGL: What is the hardest part about writing a character who seems to experience the world so differently than the rest of us? Is Charlotte supposed to be on the autism spectrum?

ST: Charlotte would probably be considered on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, if she lived in this day and age. And it isn’t hard at all, as strange as it seems, to write how she experiences the world. Very freeing, in fact, because she sees the world as it truly is, with all the niceties stripped away.

HGL: What was your favorite scene that got edited out of The Hollow of Fear?

ST: The first ten thousand words I wrote for The Hollow of Fear were thrown out entirely, because they were about séances in Scotland, whereas the final version of the story concerns itself with neither séances nor Scotland.

But I didn’t have any favorite scenes from that, because it was just an exploratory draft to show me what not to do. Very seldom do I have good scenes that get cut because I typically underwrite in my preliminary drafts—usually due to time pressure—and in later drafts I need to fill in the scenes that should be there or should be written to greater depth.

It’s not a bad way to write. It ensures that every scene that is in the book is there only by necessity.

HGL: I read on your website that English is your second language. That’s amazing to me; I don’t think I could ever write very well in another language, let alone a well-crafted novel! Can you talk about how writing in a language that is not your native language has impacted your writing? What is the hardest part?

ST: English might be my second language, but by now it’s my primary language. (I arrived in the U.S. when I was 13, and that was 30 years ago.)

I don’t know that I ever found the language part of writing difficult. Storytelling is hard. Good ideas do not drop into my lap very often. But because I think in English, expressing ideas in English has become as natural as breathing.

I do sometimes wonder whether the fact I write largely historical fiction is because I learned English reading a lot of historical romances and even at age 18 possessed the vocabulary of a Victorian old lady.

Certain tenses in the English language elude my grasp. My critique partner is always correcting my usage of would/will, because I don’t do the subjunctive tense properly. Then again, I don’t think most of the reading population know or care about the subjunctive to the extent she does!

HGL: Who are some of your favorite authors/ literary influences?

ST: I read a great deal of martial arts epics when I was growing up in China. When I arrived in the states I read a ton of romance and science fiction. Later on I glommed onto fantasy and mysteries. So you can definitely say that I am a reader—and a lover—of genre fiction.

HGL: What are you reading right now?

ST: I just got done with The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett last night. And am also reading Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor.

HGL: What’s on your playlist right now?

ST: I just finished a YA adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan (nothing to do with Disney). And for some reason, when I write a martial arts story with romantic elements, I always play Josh Groban’s My Confession on a loop.

HGL: What is the best thing you have learned about writing?

ST: That it’s like working with clay. It’s malleable. And readers can’t tell by the final product how ugly it was in the interim.

HGL: That last line of The Hollow of Fear…gah! The wait for the next book might kill me. Can I ask if there is a fourth Lady Sherlock book in the works? Will there be finally happy things in store for Livia?And Charlotte and Ingram? These poor, tormented characters! Or is it poor, tormented readers? We love it, though…

ST: Yes, I have already signed a contract for books 4&5 in the series and am busy working on book 4. Dear Livia will definitely have interesting things in store for her. Lord Ingram will be there too. And I don’t know yet what exactly will happen in this book, but I certainly hope characters will change and grow in the course of an exciting venture, which is the goal I have for every book I write.

Trigger Warning

I adore Neil Gaiman. I love his vivid imagery, the subtlety of the stories, the unique way he has of seeing the world. He himself is awesome as well, and is someone I would love to have a beer with. Here is a wonderful interview of Neil on the Diane Rehm show. She is painful to listen to, but thankfully he is not. I loved his discussion about being read to, how adults never get stories read to them anymore and it’s tragic. I agree entirely with his comments that it is odd to put trigger warnings on literature, especially literature for adults.

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-02-19/neil_gaiman_trigger_warning
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Hand of Fire: interview with Judith Starkston

So, a cool thing happened this weekend with my book club meeting. A few months ago, while reading Sharon Kay Penman’s blog, she put up one of her infamous Book Bankruptcy Blogs. In it, I noticed a name I recognized – Judith Starkston, who was publishing a book called Hand of Fire.

“Is that… it can’t be… maybe it is a common name?” said my brain.

“I bet Google will know!” replied the rest of my brain. It can have some good ideas on occasion. So off we went to ask Google and lo, and behold! We were rewarded with a link! To a website! We clicked it!Read More »