Long before I was an author, I was a reader. I loved to read books on history and horror, celebrity bios and stories of witches and vampires.
One day while strolling through an old book store in a quaint and quiet part of downtown Frederick, Maryland, I found a book which changed my life.
It was “Covenant with the Vampire” written by Jeanne Kalogridis.
When I read:
“Mary has been asleep for hours now, in the old trundle bed my brother Stefan and I shared as children. Poor thing; she is so exhausted that the glow from the taper does not disturb her. How incongruous to see her lying there beside Stefan’s small ghost, surrounded by the artifacts of my childhood inside these crumbling, high-ceilinged stone walls. Their corridors awhisper with the shades of my ancestors, it is as if my present and past suddenly collided.”
I was swept away to the history and lore of medieval Romania to a time when Prince Vlad the Impaler ruled and I was hooked.
I could not put the book down. I mean, literally, the book was attached to my hands and I could do nothing more but read on and become captivated by the history, the romance and the bloodlust of Vlad and his sadistic relationship with his descendants.
After finishing the book, I took pen to paper and wrote Jeanne Kalogridis pouring my heart out to her. I was in awe of her talent and her melodic book and although I had aspirations of being a writer “one day” I knew that I could never, ever write anything as beautiful.
She was kind and gracious enough to respond and laughed having felt the same way when she read The Vampire Tapestry, a 1980 fantasy novel by Suzy McKee Charnas.
She encouraged me to “find my own voice” and to write what I loved. I took that advice to heart and began my journey as a writer.
I vowed that one day if I was ever in a position to help a writer, whether it be one just starting out on this wild and crazy ride or one who is established, that I would. She took the time to reach out to me and it showed me that no matter how successful a writer she was, we were all in this together.
I never forgot that.
Today, I am proud to say that I have gone on to become a best-selling author of nine books and Jeanne Kalogridis is still one of my all time favorite authors.
Her books carry you away to another time and you become enveloped in her words, the dark history of her stories and you forget everything around you.
I had the pleasure of talking to Jeanne recently and again, she was gracious enough to offer words of wisdom and advice to not only me but to all writers who take this journey.
Her words are golden and her advice invaluable for anyone wanting to be a writer…I advise you to take heed…
With your extensive education and background, how much research goes into writing your historical novels?
An obscene amount. I used to teach graduate students how to write a research paper, and I have a true addiction to research–I love knowing details. Generally, I’ll read 30-40 books about the time period and the character I think I might want to write about. I’ll read for a couple of months before I even think about sitting down and writing the story outline. And I make sure that the sources I use are reputable–I made a fairly big error in THE BORGIA BRIDE, mentioning chocolate in Italy in the year 1492–when, of course, chocolate came from the New World and wasn’t available in Europe in 1492. I got the information from a 1940-ish biography about Lucrezia Borgia. Turned out that the biography relied on other biographies that weren’t accurate. So now I stick with recent biographies and historical nonfiction written by modern historians who are looking at original sources from the time period I’m writing about.
There’s a phenomenon that scientists call “research rapture”–the more details one learns, the more details one wants to know. I’ve certainly got a bad case of it, because I also continue to do research during the writing of a novel. As an example of how detailed I like to get: I’m currently writing a novel about a young pickpocket in Renaissance Florence. I was thrilled when I discovered a street map from the period which showed where all the most infamous taverns in Florence were located, with some juicy gossip about each one. I don’t “make up” any details about a period, and a lot of things that seem as though they spring from my imagination are actually based on solid research.
How did you get involved in writing Novelizations for Star Trek?
First, let me clarify that novelizations involve turning a bare-bones script into a nice fat novel, so in this case, the script comes first, and the novel is written from the script, not vice-versa. In the case of STAR TREK, I wrote the novelizations while the script was being filmed, and actually got to go on the set and see stills that helped me visualize what the final result on the screen would look like. I didn’t get to see the film until it was released.
As to how I came to write the movie novelizations: Like many writers who were also STAR TREK fans, I noticed that there were TREK books coming out that involved original stories using the STAR TREK characters. So I wrote one–my first novel–and to my surprise, Pocket Books (the only publisher licensed to print TREK novels) bought it. Then I wrote another original book, then another…and one day I got a call from my editor asking me if I wanted to do the movie novelizations. I was thrilled speechless.
I wrote under the name J.M. Dillard (my maiden name) for STAR TREK. I used my married name of Kalogridis when I wrote my deliciously historical vampire trilogy THE DIARIES OF THE FAMILY DRACUL and, of course, my historical novels. (I’ll shamelessly promote the latter here: THE BORGIA BRIDE; I, MONA LISA; THE DEVIL’S QUEEN, THE SCARLET CONTESSA and THE INQUISITOR’S WIFE.)
What advice would you give a writer just starting out in the business?
Park your ego at the door and start developing a tough hide.
Because you, and every other writer in this universe, needs to be edited. NO ONE just sits down one day and writes a perfect book by the seat of his or her pants. It simply doesn’t happen. Also, I think most of us come to writing thinking that we either “have it” or we don’t–that if an editor thinks that something needs changing in the book, then our entire book must be a failure. (At least, I was frightened by criticism because I thought it meant I was no good. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that a few people actually think ALL editors are wrong, and that their book is perfect as written. But I don’t run into those types very often.) It was so very hard for me to deal with being edited at first, but fortunately, I got used to it and now am eager to learn from constructive criticism (as long as they’re well read enough to know what they’re talking about.)
We all need to realize that writing is rewriting. It’s like masonry. You’re not going to construct a cathedral your first day on the job, but you can get there if you work at it. And if you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right. There are a lot of techniques to learn, but the good news is that once you practice one technique a time or two, it becomes second nature and you don’t have to think about it again. Then it’s on to the next technique. Here’s how I did it: I read as many books on the craft of writing that I could, and with those in mind, reread my favorite authors to see how they used the techniques. Then I practiced using the techniques myself.
By the way, these so-called techniques aren’t something dreamed up by creative writing teachers. They’re distillations of what we readers want and expect from a satisfying story.
There are two things that make a writer; one of those things can’t be learned, but happily, the other can.
As Stephen King said, “First, be talented.” By that, I think he meant that some people are good with words and can produce an evocative sentence that’s nice to read or hear. Some people have the ability; some don’t. That can’t be taught.
However, storytelling can be taught. And it’s the hardest part of writing fiction. I don’t know of any first-time novelist who had complete mastery over plot, character, point of view, and heart (and if they’re out there, I hate them :)). I’m pretty much self-taught from books and thirty-two years in the industry (my first book was published in January 1982, and I’m now working on my 37th novel). I was clueless when I started out and made every “new writer” mistake possible. Unfortunately, most of my earliest books with those mistakes are in print still. But I’ve learned a lot and continue studying to get better and better; that attitude is essential for anyone who wants to get and keep a readership.
In sum: Separate your ego from your work. It isn’t about what’s best for you; it’s about what’s best for the story.
What are you working on now?
A historical novel set in Renaissance Florence called THE ORPHAN OF FLORENCE. My young female protagonist, Giovanna, survived by becoming a pickpocket (that was fun to research!) and so after writing many novels about the period’s upper classes, I get to have fun romping through the seedier parts of Florence. Giovanna gets involved with a mysterious benefactor who claims to be a powerful magician, but there’s much more to him than meets the eye. Young Lorenzo de’ Medici plays a prominent role. It’s set during the uneasy time of the Pazzi War, when Florence was in grave danger from powerful enemies. In essence, it’s a fast-paced thriller with a lot of twists.
If you could spend one day with anyone, either living or dead, who would it be and why?
The truth is, I’d want to spend it with my sisters, who’ve both passed away. But if we’re talking about famous characters from history, I’d have to say Lucrezia Borgia. I want to know whether her father, Pope Alexander VI, or her brother, Cesare, was the father of her illegitimate son. (A once-sealed papal bull declared that her child was the rightful heir to everything Pope Alexander owned–in essence, acknowledging the boy’s paternal bloodline.)
Bibliography of works
The Diaries of the Family Dracul
Covenant with the Vampire (1995)
Children of the Vampire (1996)
Lord of the Vampires (1997)
Specters (1991) (as J.M. Dillard)
The Burning Times (1997)
The Borgia Bride (2005)
I, Mona Lisa (2006) (UK title: Painting Mona Lisa)
The Devil’s Queen (2009)
The Scarlet Contessa: A Novel of the Italian Renaissance (2010)
The Inquisitor’s Wife (2013)
The Fugitive (1993)
Bulletproof Monk (2003)
Star Trek: The Original Series
The Lost Years (1989)
Star Trek Movie Novelizations
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek Generations (1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Possession (1996) (with Kathleen O’Malley)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Star Trek: Enterprise
Surak’s Soul (2003)
The Expanse (2003)
War of the Worlds
The Resurrection (1988)
Star Trek: Where No One Has Gone Before – A History in Pictures (1994)
Star Trek: The Next Generation Sketchbook – The Movie: Generations & First Contact (1998) (with John Eaves)
Thank you Jeanne for an amazing interview and for being my guest today! I wish you much love, happiness and success.
Also, thank you for being an inspiration to me and being so kind to an aspiring author many years ago. It helped me in ways you will never know!
“There is a reason why all things are as they are.”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula