Category Archives: Dark Lady of Doona

#FilmHerStory, #WriteHerStory

CF Cover Banner

As soon as I saw the trending hashtag, I wanted to write volumes. After all, this is what I do. Looking up #FilmHerStory on Twitter is inspiring, but alas, I’m no filmmaker. I am, however, an author, and #WritingHerStory is exactly what I’ve been doing for years. To the left of my desk stands a list of dozens of extraordinary women who have been marginalized by history. It’s a race against time to see how many I can get to.

It began with Dracula’s wife (well, consort, really). When I told people about the story, everyone had an idea. “You should write about Granía O’Malley. She was known as the Irish Pirate Queen,” said my mom’s best friend. I added her to the list. While researching Granía, I discovered a story about a woman who disguised herself as a man to accompany her lover into war, when Spain sent its armada to England in 1588. A visit to the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson introduced me to May Woodman, who, for a time, was the only female inmate in Yuma Prison, after shooting her lover on the same corner in Tombstone where Virgil Earp was shot after the infamous gunfight at OK Corral.

The women I write about cross every era and every culture. Some ruled empires. Others were solitary nomads. Others were strategists and warriors. As each story I write comes to a close, the voices of the unwritten clamor for attention, all wanting to be next. They’re often underdogs who achieved great things despite the odds. Plenty of authors have told the tales of grand ladies such as Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. True, they’re fascinating, but I like to look deeper for the forgotten voices. This misheard and misunderstood. The unusual.

Writing novels about real women in history wasn’t necessarily the theme I set out for when I started writing, but the more I read, the more lost voices I found. I’ve even gotten to the point where I wince a bit when I see a subject line in an email, something along the lines of “Have you heard about her?” “I found a new novel for you to write!” This of course, followed by a links and photos to another fascinating woman from somewhere in time. I wish I could get to them all. That’s why I was so glad to see the trending hashtag on Twitter.


I’m glad to see so many other people thinking about this. My only hope is that if they do get filmed, or novels written about them, that their story won’t be diminished by the Hollywood formula that can corrupt the essence of so many amazing personalities. Don’t make it a love story because you think it’s marketable. If the woman preferred solitude, embrace who she was. Make sure these stories pass the Bechdel test. Audiences are far more diverse than Hollywood gives them credit for, but fortunately, there are many indie avenues to explore and share. The Guardian recently reported that women who self-publish are finding good success, maybe better so than in traditional publishing. That may be so—it’s worked well for me so far.

I look forward to settling into my new home in two weeks and diving back into the fourth novel, which features Enheduanna, poet and priestess in the Sargonic dynasty of ancient Mesopotamia. I also look forward to seeing what happens with #FilmHerStory, to see if anyone makes good on the suggestions. And I also suggest #WriteHerStory as well. Let’s bring some of those forgotten voices into the light.

Dark Lady of Doona in the Suvudu Universe


I’ve evidently been out of the loop, and am probably close to losing my membership card to the nerd girls club. I’ve never heard of the Suvudu Universe. A month ago, I did an interview that appeared on Wendy Van Camp’s No Wasted Ink blog. Though the interview mainly focused on Dark Lady of Doona, it was also an opportunity to talk about my background as a writer. No Wasted Ink is a great blog, and I’ve been back a lot to read some of the book reviews and other author interviews.

This week, I received an email from Wendy to let me know the interview had been submitted and accepted to the Suvudu Universe, a branch of Del Rey–Random House. When I first saw the name Suvudu, the name didn’t click…until I clicked on the link. For those who may have been in the dark like me, it’s a hub of all things sci-fi- and fantasy, with graphic novels, manga, and much, much more. I could hardly believe I was seeing my name and green-eyed selfie shot on the same site where news is shared about Brandon Sanderson and George R. R. Martin. I was soon wandering through everything, and making sure I added them to my social media feeds.

As soon as I shared out the link to friends, word spread and people visited the site to vote up the post. My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who helped to spread the word about my appearance on Suvudu. You, my friends, rock, and I salute you. (I haven’t listened to AC/DC since the ‘80s, but the sentiment still stands.) I look forward to returning to the Suvudu Universe often.

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Historical Fiction

Votes for Women via Flickr: by psd using license CC BY 2.0

Votes for Women via Flickr: by psd using license CC BY 2.0

It wasn’t necessarily a theme I set out for when I started writing. Yet over time, a pattern became clear: I was mostly inspired by history, and I had a knack for finding extraordinary women who were often little more than footnotes in history books. Sometimes they had a few paragraphs, and legend and facts intermingled. It didn’t seem fair, and I realized it wasn’t always the fault of the writer (well, except in cases such as Professor Jared Sparks at Harvard, who threw out the letters of Ben Franklin’s sister while working on a biography of Mr. Franklin). Such details were simply not recorded, depending on the era and culture. When I researched the woman known as the wife of Prince Vlad Dracula (though evidence indicates she was a consort), her actual name was unknown. My portrait of her is based more on reading about medieval life in Eastern Europe. Even when I went to Romania to talk to historians, they shrugged helplessly when I pressed for detail, though they were very helpful in filling in many gaps I couldn’t obtain in books.

When I worked on Dark Lady of Doona, I found many of the stories about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley were repeated with variations on details from book to book, and there weren’t that many reliable biographies to use. The novel I’m currently working on, about a woman who lived in Tombstone, Arizona, during the time of the gunfight at OK Corral, has had its challenges as well, and that’s as close to modern times as I’ve gotten as I add to my list of stories to tell.


The biggest obstacles come when studying my favorite era: ancient history. Sumerian tablets provides precious few mentions of incredible women, from High Priestess Enheduanna to the only woman on the King’s List. If it weren’t for Herodotus, I doubt we’d have ever heard of Artemisia of Caria. How lucky that she now is immortalized in the sequel to 300, Rise of an Empire! I keep kidding to my husband that I’ll carry Herodotus’s time with me to the theater. He jokes that the old historian won’t be there to autograph books.

The list of novels and stories to write has become so long that I sometimes fear picking up another history book, for fear I’ll discover another woman with a compelling tale to tell. There are several novels on the list that stray from historical fiction entirely, with an epic fantasy and some speculative fiction. I can only hope that future advances in nanotechnology can prolong my life and ability to keep writing, or upload my consciousness into a computer so my thoughts translate directly into Scrivener (or whatever writing program will exist!)


The first week of March has been celebrated as Read an Ebook Week for the past few years. March is also Women’s History Month. While the focus is often on American women in history, I always look globally. Amazing women who have changed the course of history are everywhere. They may have been behind the scenes, people may have deliberately erased their names, or were forgotten as cultures merged and evolved, but I intend to tell as many of their stories as I can, and share out the best works I can find of others who have found themselves on a similar path.


A small selection of books that have inspired me, in no particular order:

  1. The Memoirs of Cleopatra, by Margaret George
  2. The Whip, by Karen Kondazian (a story about a women who lived as a man, driving stage coaches, in the Old West)
  3. Boudica by Vanessa Collingridge
  4. Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers
  5. Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna, by Betty De Shong Meador

And to honor both Read and Ebook Week and Women’s History Month, my two historical novels are available for free, exclusively on Smashwords, through March 8, 2014: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love and Dark Lady of Doona. Use code RW100 during the check-out process. Please enjoy, and celebrate by sharing the stories of the women who have inspired you.


Offerings for Read an Ebook Week 2014

Ebook Week 2014

I’m always happy to share good news about Smashwords. It was through Mark Coker’s vision of making the indie author movement more accessible to writers and readers alike that I became convinced to publish my work through his platform. When Forbes announced that Smashwords made the list of America’s Most Promising Companies in 2014, it was thrilling news. How far self-publishing has come. Coker’s innovative plans have given countless opportunities to authors, libraries, and like-minded organizations who have helped sweep away the old stigma. The new site design is fabulous. He gets the relationship between authors and readers, and seeks to find ways to build upon that relationship. So every year, when they encourage participation in Read and Ebook Week, I jump at the chance to support the Smashwords mission.

To that end, both of my novels are available for free this week, March 2-8, 2014, only on Smashwords. Enter code RW100 during the check-out process. If you’re so inclined, I’d greatly appreciate any feedback in reviews! Thank you for supporting indie authors like me. 🙂

The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love

 VM front panel

Legend has it that the love of Prince Vlad Dracula’s life committed suicide during a siege when the odds of winning were slim. This is the story of Ecaterina Floari, consort to the Wallachian prince who served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A ruthless warlord in the fifteenth century, Prince Dracula fought valiantly against those who would control the land of his ancestors. As his consort, Ecaterina accompanied him in the turbulent years of exile and discovered an ancient force influencing their lives. Her devotion to him was eternal, and she followed him into immortality…


Dark Lady of Doona

 Doona Front

Known as “Granía of the Gamblers,” Granía O’Malley makes a high-stakes bet to buy her freedom and the ability to continue her livelihood as pirate queen on Ireland’s west coast. She enters into a dangerous agreement with Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and soon finds herself caught up in a web of intrigue that is plunging her country, as well as her family, into chaos. At war with a cruel governor while serving as one of Walsingham’s many spies, Granía struggles to maintain stability within her family and fleet and provide an enduring legacy for her heir to the seas. A story full of adventure and passion, Dark Lady of Doona portrays the life of a formidable woman who defied traditions by commanding her own fleet of ships and leading her loyal followers into rebellion.


And you can check out all the other books enrolled in the Read an Ebook Week program here.

Medieval Salmon Pie With Tangy Shallot Sauce

“If you would be so kind as to offer us shelter, I’ll tell you all about our ordeal,” I said, clapping him across the shoulders. My drenched sleeve left an impression on his fur-lined vest. “I’m just grateful we had no losses. What is your wonderful cook preparing for us today?”

Callum laughed. “I told you, Granía. She’s an exceptional cook. Is that why you came to visit me? My army, my food—is that all you care about?”

I walked up to him and grabbed him by the front of his coat. “That’s not all and you know it.”

His eyed widened in feigned terror. “I guess we give you run of the camp, boss.”

I craved a hot meal. Callum’s famed cook served us piping hot salmon pie. I savored the buttery crust and salmon with dates and almonds made up the filling. After a few bites, I put my spoon down. “That’s it. I’m taking her with me. If all goes as planned, we’ll be celebrating Richard’s becoming the MacWilliam, and we’ll need a feast.”

“I should hope that if we succeed, I’ll be invited to this celebration, in which case I’ll gladly bring my steward and his wife. She can cook for you then. But she comes home with me. She’s the heart of this camp,” he said.

I smiled. “Come for the battle, stay for the celebration of victory.”

Dark Lady of Doona, Chapter 6

Salmon Pie 1

 We’re enduring the onslaught of the fiercely named blizzard “Nemo.” Yes, I could think of the captain of the Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. However, due to Disney’s relentless marketing tactics, all that comes to mind is a goofy clown fish. The joke’s on us, though, since the city of Boston is completely snowed in. People who own Minis are not able to distinguish their little cars from a snow drift. It’s a good day to stay inside and cook.

Coincidentally, Granía O’Malley was treated to the same recipe after an epic storm as well, in the Dark Lady of Doona. The first time I made this salmon pie, my sweet-toothed husband loved it, but I found it to be overly sweet. As I continued to modify the recipe, I found adding onion and crumbled bacon balanced the flavors nicely.

Medieval-style Salmon Pie with a Tangy Shallot Sauce

(Either use store-bought crust, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, make your own—I followed the recipe in the 
Joy of Cooking)
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks butter
1/4 cup shortening
1/3 cup plus 1 tbs ice water

1 1/2 lb. salmon fillet, sliced in small chunks
1 medium red onion, chopped
3 to 4 strips bacon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. ras el hanout spice mix (optional, but highly recommended!)
1/2 cup dates, chopped
1/2 dried figs, chopped (I’ve also used fig preserves, such as Dalmatia Fig Spread, flavored with orange)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup almond milk
1/2 cup slivered almonds


To make the crust, mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Working quickly, cut butter into the dry ingredients. Use pastry blender to chop butter into pea-sized bits. Add shortening, and mix in blender—do not over-stir and let it get soft. Drizzle water and blend. You may need to add another tablespoon or so of ice water to have the dough stick together enough. Divide dough in half, press each into a round disk. Wrap each one in plastic and refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes. If you’ve never made pie crust before, I’d recommend reading up on the process—it can be tricky!

Preheat oven to 375 F.

In a skillet, cook bacon until crispy and set aside. Cook chopped red onion in bacon fat, until browned.

In a bowl, mix dates, dried plums, raisins, salmon, and spices together. Add onion and crumble in bacon. Pour almond milk over and mix gently until the milk is completely soaked in. Arrange the filling in the pie crust, with the dried fruits toward the bottom and salmon chunks toward the top. Sprinkle with almonds.  Bake the spiced salmon pie for about 40 minutes or until the crust is golden brown.

Tangy shallot sauce: 
2 shallots
1/2 stick butter
1 cup white wine
1 tbs smooth Dijon mustard
5 tbs crème fraiche
1 tbs finely snipped chives

For the sauce, peel, halve and finely chop the shallots. Melt the butter in a small pan, stir in the shallot, and cook gently for about 5 minutes until soft. Stir in the mustard and then add the white wine. Boil, uncovered, until reduced by half. Stir in the crème fraiche and chives. Simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens.

Serve a generous ladle of sauce over each serving of pie. Enjoy!

(Originally published February 2013)  

Claire Messud on the Interior Life and the Masquerade of Femininity


Confession: I haven’t read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Yet. As I sat in the cozy Thompson Room at the Barker Center for another of the wonderful series, Harvard Writers at Work. After attending a reading, I popped open my Goodreads app and saved it to be “want to read” list. The author’s insight into writing, society’s perceptions of gender, and the interior life was fascinating. Messud began with a description of an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, where she was confronted with a negative statement about the likability of her characters. In her view, likability isn’t the way to frame a story—it shows the reader identifying it with a personal experience, rather than taking the story on its own merits. Likeability, she said, should be an aim for writers, given the vast and diverse audience. If she were to create a Venn diagram of the personal likes of the audience before her (which was big, standing room only and people lingering in the open doorway to the hall), the intersection would be small, she asserted. It poses an interesting question. All too often one hears, “I couldn’t read that book. I didn’t like the characters.” Is that truly the role of the author? In the literature courses I’ve served as a teaching assistant for, I can name a long list of books in which the characters were thoroughly unlikable, but I still got plenty out of the story in terms of plot, description, and writing style. The prof I work for frequently states one of the key roles of literature is to confront the reader and to pose difficult questions. It seems superficial to judge a book on whether you’d like to have a beer with the protagonist. I can’t name a single character in Let the Right One In I’d want to hang out with, but it’s stylistically one of the most innovative and amazing novels I’ve read in the past few years.

The topic soon turned to the angry protagonist. Messud cited Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog as an inspiration. In the Woman Upstairs, the protagonist, is more than angry, she’s ranting. Nora Eldridge is aware of the necessity of being “in touch with her fury,” and rails against a world dependent on appearances. This is no Mrs. Rochester. Unlike the woman banished to the attic room, Nora lives a quiet and tidy life, and would likely be very likable in public, Messud said, but it’s the character’s interior life which drives the novel. After spending years focused on others, she experiences an awakening in midlife and realizes there are many unfulfilled dreams and disappointments. Like Marianne Faithfull’s “Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” she’ll never drive through Paris with the wind in her hair, carefree and with all roads open to her. Messud questioned the perception of appropriateness when it comes to angry men vs. angry women. While she felt boys could go about their business more easily in the classroom, girls are trapped in a process whereby they try to be sweet and likable, particularly by being self-deprecating. “Being called sweet is a triumph,” she said, despite the fact that the true aim for some is to be recognized as the smartest girl in the room. And, hiding behind these masks becomes more entrenched as girls get older, eventually becoming immovable. “Femininity is a masquerade,” Messud said. It provoked an interesting conversation in the Q&A.

It all tied into the idea of the interior life, and how there are so many aspects of the self that never break the surface and are incommunicable. Like in The Lady with the Dog, sometimes, the most important thing in a person’s life is never revealed to another soul. It’s Claire Messud’s aim to bring that interior life to light in her work.

Since I tend to write about obscure women in history, and am admittedly “of a certain age,” this reading gave me a lot to think about, and it’s haunted me for days as I continue to write new works. I know my stories tend to be dark, and there are novels to come where the interior life is the key to understanding the protagonist’s development. And I certainly have some ranting women, and Granía O’Malley from Dark Lady of Doona would be rightly justified in being so angry, considering the atrocities heaped upon the Irish over the centuries. Paying more attention to my inner life, and ranting on occasion, has been part of a pronounced change for me in the past couple of years. With the realization that there is in fact a finite amount of time, it has made me look at my list of works in progress with a sharper eye. Which stories are worth telling? Some of the best advice has been “write the story you want to write.” Don’t get hung up on what’s marketable and who’s likable. Follow Hugh Howey’s advice: “Write your books with the idea that no one will ever read them. This will allow you to take risks, worry less about following trends and conventions, and produce your best work.” Considering the success of his amazing Silo Saga (read Wool, seriously!), even though there was no initial marketing at all, the guy’s words are well worth heeding.

(Originally posted in July 2013) 

Food in Historical Fiction: Medieval Ireland

            “Come join me for dinner and we can discuss your needs,” Callum said, sweeping a hand toward the stone home. There were no windows, and a good fire took the chill out of the air. The smell of food made me realize how long it had been since I had eaten. While I carried plenty of provisions, I was often too busy to eat during a voyage.

            Callum laid out two bowls of lamb and barley stew and a fresh loaf of bread with butter. Colorful rings of leeks and carrots dotted the stew. I wasn’t much of a cook myself, but the rich broth was also flavored with thyme and rosemary and a touch of ginger. The bread was also flavored with rosemary, and a sprinkling of salt baked into the crust. “Who makes this wonderful bread?” I asked. —Dark Lady of Doona

I’ve written about food in historical cooking in the past. And as I keep working on new novels, I can’t help but explore more recipes. What could be more satisfying to medieval Irish sailors and Scottish mercenaries than a lamb and barley stew with fresh bread?

Here is my somewhat modern adaptation of the recipe. As much as I hate anachronism in historical fiction, I don’t mind it when I’m cooking. After all, my spice cabinet alone represents nearly every culture known to man, and I love to improvise. When I realized my characters kept noting the rosemary and ginger, Stubb’s Rosemary and Ginger Rub was a natural choice.

Stubbs rub

Lamb and Barley Stew

2 lb. lamb, cut in bite-sized pieces
3 tbl. flour
3 tbl. olive oil
3 large carrots, chopped
4 leeks, cleaned and sliced
1/2 tsp. dried thyme (or 1 and 1/2 tsp. fresh thyme)
1 tsp. Stubbs Rosemary and Ginger Rub
1 tsp. minced ginger
1 bay leaf
1 bottle Fraoch Heather Ale
5 to 6 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste

Season lamb with salt and pepper and Stubb’s Rosemary and Ginger Rub, and coat with flour. Brown in cast-iron pan for about 5 to 7 minutes, remove and set aside.

Heat olive oil in stock pot and cook carrots and leeks for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add lamb, then broth and ale and herbs, simmer 20 minutes. Add barley, cover stock pot, and simmer for another 30 to 40 minutes. Adjust seasonings as desired.

I found the Fraoch Heather Ale to be an essential ingredient that really added to the flavor of the stew, but it may be hard to find. Check shops known for their beer selection. It’s an ancient recipe, using heather rather than hops.



Rosemary Bread

3 cups flour
1 cup water (approx. add more as needed)
1 packet yeast
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. dried rosemary, ground (I use mortar and pestle)
2 tbl. butter, softened

Mix yeast with small amount of water, add a small pinch of sugar to activate. Add flour, rosemary, and salt, butter, then add water and knead until dough is smooth and workable, about 10 minutes. Let dough rise, covered, for 90 minutes. Punch down and let rise for another hour. Punch down again, shape into loaf and place in greased bread pan (I use butter here, too) let rise for another 20 to 30 minutes while oven heats to 450.

Halfway through baking, when crust is just getting golden, remove bread from oven. Fill small bowl with water and salt – it should be a thick mixture. Use basting brush to lightly coat bread with mixture, then return it to the oven. The salt-baked crust is a nice touch! Serve bread with the best butter you can get: organic, homemade, or European style.

It’s a simple, hearty meal. You may empathize with my protagonist, who is pondering stealing away her friend’s cook…

            Callum sat back, quiet. I ate while he pondered, nodding as he offered another serving of stew. “Give your steward’s wife my compliments.”
           Callum winked at me. “You want to take her back with you as well?”
            “Well, I don’t want to be selfish, but if your steward and his wife are seeking greener shores…”