Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Conversation with Bruce MacBain

As a child Bruce Macbain read science fiction and history. Greek and Roman history held a special fascination for him and it led eventually to acquiring a master's degree in Classical Studies and a doctorate in Ancient History. As an assistant professor of Classics, he taught courses in Late Antiquity and Roman religion and published a few scholarly monographs. He eventually left academe and turned to teaching English as a second language, a field he was trained in while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Borneo in the 60s. He recently began writing historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, featuring the senatorial letter-writer Pliny the Younger as his protagonist, assisted by other literary figures such as the poet Martial and the biographer Suetonius. Bruce also reviews books for the Historical Novels Review and Foreword magazine.

Bruce, when and why did you decide to write mysteries of the Roman Empire?

I have degrees in Classics and Ancient History and taught those subjects in university for a number of years. I’ve also always been a mystery fan so, having the leisure now to write novels, it seems like a perfect match. My particular interests are ancient medicine and Roman religion and so in each of my novels so far I’ve worked in one disease (female hysteria, epilepsy) and one cult (Isis, Mithras). I may eventually run out of diseases, but never of cults—there were a lot of them!

Why the fascination with Roman and Greek history? And which Roman and Greek fascinate you most?

I’ve been interested in the Romans since I was a kid. I may hold the world’s record for the number of times anyone has seen Quo Vadis. I’m sure initially it was the costumes, the armor, the battles—that sort of stuff. I read everything I could find on the subject. My interest in the Greeks came later, in college, when I read Herodotus and Thucydides.

It’s tough to pick out one Roman and one Greek who fascinate me the most. For the sake of argument, I’ll pick two wily politicians: Augustus Caesar, who went from rags to riches by founding the Roman Principate; and Alcibiades, the Athenian, who went from riches to rags (more or less) by leading his city into a disastrous military campaign.
Why did you choose Pliny as the protagonist for your latest novel, The Bull Slayer?

I chose him because I like him so much. He’s one of the few Romans I can think of who I would actually like to have dinner with. We know more about Pliny as a person than we do about most figures from antiquity because he was a great letter writer. Through his letters, we see many facets of the man. He was a Roman senator and a lawyer with a successful, if not brilliant, career in the imperial administration. He was a landowner with a beautiful villa on the Italian coast. He was a literary dilettante. He was rather a rather vain, rather fussy man but, at the same time, conscientious and honest. He was a very social animal with hundreds of friends and acquaintances across all classes. His most endearing qualities are his love for his young wife, Calpurnia, his generosity (he endowed a scholarship fund for the boys and girls of his home town), and his humanity towards his slaves and freedmen in an age when that was not common.

By which criteria do you review historical novels? And are they gaining favor in the marketplace?

Historical novels occupy a kind of peculiar niche in literature, somewhere on the borderline between fiction and non-fiction. And for that reason maybe they haven’t always gotten the respect they deserve; although now, with the great critical success of Hillary Mantel’s books, this is changing. For many years I’ve reviewed novels for the Historical Novels Review, the publication of the Historical Novels Society. The criteria I apply are, one: is the novel well-written, with characters that I care about? And two: have I learned something? Not that I think a novel ought to be a textbook—mine certainly aren’t. But I do think that the author has an obligation to lay out briefly, in an author’s note, just what is fact and what is fiction. I do that, and I appreciate it when others do.

Why did you leave teaching the classics to teach English as a second language? And what were the resultant rewards?

I’ve always been a teacher of one sort or another. I love teaching. I left teaching Classics because, frankly, I was doing too much teaching and not enough writing and didn’t get tenure at my university. After feeling sorry for myself for a while, I decided not to become a gypsy professor (as some of my compatriots did) and instead to strike out in a different direction. I had been trained to teach English as a second language as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia and so it felt natural to return to that. I’ve never regretted it. Teaching English and vocational training to Chinese, Hispanic, Somali, and Albanian immigrants and helping them get decent jobs has been enormously rewarding (compared, for example, to teaching the tenses of the Latin verb to college kids). I’ve never felt so much love come back as I have in this job.

What do you like least about writing and what do you enjoy most about the creative process?

What I find pleasantest is the research. I’ve never understood writers who hire ‘researchers’ to do that part for them. Why let someone else have all the fun? What I find hardest (and I’m sure any writer you ask will say this) is turning the fruits of your research into something others will get pleasure from. In academic writing you’re allowed to be boring; people will read it because they have, not because they want to. But to take your research and turn it into a good yarn—that is every writer’s despair and delight.

Advice for fledging historical authors?

Oh, I don’t think I have mileage in this field to be giving other people advice. I always start with character and setting and allow the plot to grow out of that—but maybe that’s what everyone does.

Your web and blog site urls.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Conversation with Lea Wait

Maine author Lea Wait writes the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, staring protagonist Maggie Summer. Sixth in the series, Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding was released  this week. The first novel in the series was an Agatha nominee reviewed by the New York Times and has been well received. She also writes historical novels based in Maine for her juvenile readers. 
Lea, tell us about your Shadows antique print dealer. Where do both you and your protagonist acquire antique prints?

Maggie Summer, my protagonist, calls her antique print business “Shadows,” because she loves history (she’s also an American civilization professor) and she sees 18th, 19th and early 20th century prints as reflections of their times … shadows of worlds that no longer exist. I’ve also been an antique dealer since 1977. Maggie and I buy our prints at auctions, ephemera or paper shows, antique shows, antiquarian book shows, or from other dealers. Details about the antique print business is included in each of the six books in the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series. 

When did you begin writing crime novels as well as children’s historical books?

The first book I wrote, back in the mid-1990s, was eventually the first in the Shadows series – but it didn’t sell right away. It was rejected by over 40 agents. I left corporate life, moved full-time to Maine, and wrote my first historical for young people (Stopping to Home) in 1999 which did sell. It was published in 2001. Then the first mystery (Shadows at the Fair) was picked up by Scribner, published in 2002, and nominated for a “best first” Agatha.
Are both your series based in Maine? 

All the books for young people are based in Wiscasset, Maine, in the 19th century, although one (Seaward Born) does begin in Charleston, South Carolina. Maggie, in the Shadows series, moves around a bit. She lives in New Jersey, and Shadows on the Ivy and Shadows at the Spring Show are set there. Shadows at the Fair is set at an antique show in New York State; Shadows on the Coast of Maine and Shadows of a Down East Summer are set in Maine. And the latest in the series, Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding, is set in Massachusetts. (Antique dealers travel around!)  I grew up in Maine and New Jersey, but I was actually born in Boston.

Is Stephen King a fellow member of the Maine Crime Writers? And have you met?

No; Maine Crime Writers is a blogging group ( and King is not a member. He is a wonderful Maine author, of course. I’ve been lucky to meet him a couple of times; once when I did a signing with his wife, Tabitha.

You have an interesting background. Adopting four children as a single woman must have been difficult. How did you manage while holding down a full-time job?
I didn’t sleep a lot! I was stubborn; I wanted to be a parent, and it didn’t work out that I was married, so I decided to adopt children who needed families as a single parent. My daughters were all school–age when they came home to me, and somehow we made it work.  One parent is a lot better than no parents.
Have you incorporated your employment background into your books?
Not so far. I worked as a corporate manager for many years (had to support those wonderful kids!) butfor the most part so far I haven’t found that part of my life interesting enough to write a mystery about.  You never know what might happen in the future, though. I keep my options open! 
Tell us about your latest release, Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding.
 Maggie’s best friend, doll and toy dealer Gussie White, who lives on Cape Cod, is getting married! Of course, she asks Maggie to come early to help out. But when Maggie finds a body on the beach near Gussie’s new home, and the dead man’s daughter insists he died in Colorado two years before, Maggie wonders why local police don’t ask more questions. She volunteers to translate for the man’s deaf cousin, and begins to learn more (and ask more questions) about this quiet Cape town. And when storm winds and her own beau’s temper start rising … this time Maggie finds murders may be the least of her problems.    

Is your protagonist based on anyone you’ve known?

I didn’t intend her to be, but many people have said Maggie’s a younger me. She’s certainly braver than I am! And she drinks diet soda, while I drink tea. But she is thinking about adopting, and she is an antique print dealer … so, maybe.  

Advice for fledgling mystery writers.

Read all kinds of mysteries, but especially those that are being published today, because styles change. Do your research well, but don’t let it show. And keep the pace fast, and those twists coming!
Thank you, Lea.
You can learn more about Lea at her blog site: as well as her website:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New Release

No Escape: The Sweetwater Tragedy, a Wyoming historical mystery/suspense novel, is the story of a young couple murdered by greedy cattlemen who want their homestead land. It's also the story of a young single woman from Missouri who travels to Wyoming Territory, a year before it becomes a state, to file on homestead land of her own.

Tired of being told what to do by the men in her life, Susan seeks the freedom offered in Wyoming Territory in 1889, including the right to vote, hold political office and serve on juries. When she meets Michael O'Brien, a young veterinarian, when she disembarks from the train in Casper, she decides to accept his offer to accompany him to Rawlins to file for homestead land.

Surviving a tornado in their wagon, she later meets Ellen Watson-Averell and her husband James, fellow homesteaders who operate a road ranch and cafe in Sweetwater Valley along the Oregon-Mormon Trail. The Averells are later hanged by greedy cattlemen who want their homestead land, and the couple is accused of running a rural bawdy house. Ellen "Ella" receives the name "Cattle Kate" following her death and is said to have accepted rustled cattle in exchange for her "favors," lies spread by the lynchers to rationalize their actions.

Witnesses to the murders disappear or turn up dead and the mystery and suspense continue as Susan and Michael flee for their lives . . .

The novel is based on more than 20 years of research and is available on Kindle at (print edition out later this month).