The “Meet My Main Character” Blog Tour

June 23, 2014

Tags: protagonists, historical fiction, novelists

WeaverGrace tagged me to continue a tradition of bloggers begun here. Meet My Main Character Blog Tours resemble radio interviews: keep on reading for answers to questions posed to me, and a week or two later for answers to the same questions posed to a couple of other authors whom I’ve selected. This tour asks the authors of works-in-progress (in my case, the sequel to The Executioner's Heir) to answer questions about the main characters of their historical novels. So, meet my main character . . .

What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Charles-Henri Sanson is my main character, and he was a real person. Born in 1739, he was destined to be the master executioner—maître des hautes œuvres—for the city of Paris in the second half of the 18th century. He remained executioner right through the French Revolution; after serving the royal law courts and two kings of France for nearly forty years, he concluded his career by being the man who would guillotine Louis XVI (and a lot of other people).

When and where is the story set?

Paris and elsewhere in northern France, in the late 18th century. The Executioner’s Heir, the first of two novels about Charles Sanson, takes place between 1753 and 1766, during the last decades of the old regime. The sequel, the work in progress, will take Sanson from the 1770s through the Revolution and to about 1800.

What should we know about him/her?

That, despite his official title and the “yuck” reaction most of us would have to a professional executioner, Charles Sanson was a decent, compassionate man trying to make the best of a terrible career that he was stuck with because of fate and social pressure.

Executioners throughout Europe, in the 18th century and before, were social outcasts, so the trade remained in the family—owing to superstitious fear and revulsion toward executioners, no one outside the profession would employ an executioner’s son, so they were forced to stay within it and take jobs as executioners where they could. Nevertheless, the position of master executioner of any major French town, but especially of Paris, was well paid and was equivalent in rank to that of a magistrate, though ordinary people rarely saw it that way. Among other executioners, Charles’s family, which possessed the lucrative Parisian title and passed it down from father to son, was definitely aristocracy.

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

The fact that Charles is the son of the master executioner of Paris in the 1750s messes up his life from the day of his birth. He has no options but to join and remain in the family trade, as he eventually realizes, though he would much rather be a doctor. He studies medicine, operates a free clinic for the poor, and tries to help people as much as he can as a healer, but his profession of executioner, the cruel punishments common in 18th-century France, and—above all—the knowledge that the prerevolutionary justice he is expected to carry out is often arbitrary and tyrannical, always overshadow his life.

In the second novel, Charles reaches middle age and has more or less come to terms with the fact that he can't escape the family destiny. What messes up his life? The French Revolution--a wonderful series of reforms at first, which will give him and other executioners civil rights they could not previously have dreamed of, but eventually, with the Terror three years later, a nightmare. Charles may have accepted his profession of executioner, but not when it involves executing dozens a day--or executing royalty . . .

What is the personal goal of the character?

As a young man, Charles’s goal is to escape the family business, to study at a medical school elsewhere in Europe where no one knows who he is, and to become a doctor. As the years pass and circumstances complicate his life, he realizes that he can never break away from the profession and title of executioner, and his goal becomes, instead, to be the most honorable and humane man he can be, within the job that he can’t escape, even during the Revolution.

Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The Executioner’s Heir: A Novel of Eighteenth-Century France is the first book of the two. It’s already in print and available to buy online or order at your local bookstore. The working title of the second novel, in progress, is The King’s Executioner: A Novel of the French Revolution.

When can we expect the book to be published?

Uhhh . . . *blushes* I really need to get back to work, and I’m not a fast writer. Ummm . . . I’m aiming for publication of The King’s Executioner sometime in the first half of 2016. We’ll see if that works out.

* * * *

Thank you, Grace, for tagging me!

The tour continues with:

Susan Higginbotham, who writes marvelously researched novels and nonfiction about fifteenth-century English history and the Wars of the Roses;


M.E. Kemp, author of five historical mysteries set in late-seventeenth-century Boston and featuring two nosy Puritans who ferret out sin . . . especially the sin of murder.

Check out their websites on July 7th to see their responses to the interview questions.

Even Beloved Classics Got Rotten Reviews

November 21, 2013

Tags: Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, literary criticism, book reviews

Authors, take heart!

While working on A Tale of Two Cities: A Reader's Companion, I stumbled across the following lengthy and scathing review of A Tale of Two Cities, published on December 17, 1859 in The Saturday Review, soon after the novel’s publication. It was by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, a judge and occasional journalist and literary critic of the day (and uncle of Virginia Woolf). Evidently Sir James didn’t think much of Dickens at any time, but it’s clear he had an especially low opinion of a novel which has since become a widely-read, much-analyzed, and mostly-beloved literary classic. With the exception of a few plot spoilers, I reproduce the entire (more…)

An Unsuitable Job For a Gentleman

November 1, 2013

Tags: Sanson family, guillotine, executions, French Revolution, Reign of Terror

Throughout history, people have regarded the public executioner much as they regarded the undertaker. The undertaker’s job has always had an “ick” factor attached, originating from a superstitious dread of human corpses and people who dealt with them. But the person who, in a formal judicial process, deliberately transformed a living person into a corpse was far worse.

So who would willingly choose to become an executioner, and choose to remain in the job?

While writing The Executioner’s Heir (2013), the first of two novels about eighteenth-century Parisian executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, I came across the autobiography of Albert Pierrepoint, the most famous British executioner (more…)

A Waste of Space

October 18, 2013

Tags: Marie Antoinette, royalty, guillotined, beheaded

October 16th, a couple of days ago, happened to be the 220th anniversary of the raccourcissement—“shortening”—of Marie-Antoinette. Naturally, various historical websites I visit, and various historical writers’ blogs, have lately been full of weepy commemorative articles with titles like “Marie-Antoinette went to the guillotine on this date, displaying unmatched courage and dignity.”

Poor, poor, victimized, saintly Antoinette, riding to the scaffold with great courage and dignity, as if she was the only person who ever did so. Boo hoo.

Give me a break.

What is it about this spoiled, vacuous, overdressed waste of space, much of whose life was significantly lacking in dignity (though I'll grant that she didn't lack balls), that grabs people’s imaginations? Only, apparently, that she was her decade’s No. 1 Party Queen and then had her head chopped off. If, instead, (more…)

No, It’s Not Actually the French Revolution: Les Misérables and History

January 3, 2013

Tags: les mis, les miserables, film musical, french revolution, french history, insurrection

[Spoiler alert! If you don’t know the story of Les Mis and want to see the film without already knowing a lot of plot points, including the ending, then stop right now.]

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a shameless Les Misérables fan. I’ve always loved the story, since seeing some movie version or other as a child. I became a passionate fan of the stage musical back when it opened on Broadway in 1987, when I still had good intentions of (more…)

Propaganda, Clichés, and History

October 2, 2012

Tags: historical myths, French Revolution, Reign of Terror

This post is adapted from “Don’t Just Swallow the Propaganda and the Clichés” in Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, and first appeared in the group blog at Historical Fiction eBooks.

“Truth isn’t in accounts but in account books.”
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time

You’d think that a history geek who’s passionately interested in a particular historical period, and who has made something of a career writing about it, would be delighted when she discovers more fiction set in her favorite period.

Unfortunately, my response to novels set in the French Revolution is often that of clutching my head and quietly moaning “No, no, no . . .”

We’ve probably all read A Tale of Two Cities or seen one of the various swashbuckling stage or screen adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Which is really too bad, since (more…)

Passion, Bloodshed, Desire, and Death

June 3, 2012

This essay first appeared in the "Author! Author!" section of the Spring 2012 issue of Mystery Readers Journal.

“Wow! You write novels!” people who come to my summer yard sales exclaim when they meet me and see the crisp hardcovers, all featuring my name, arranged on the patio table. “What are they about?”

“Well,” I reply, “I write historical mysteries . . .” (they perk up, thinking perhaps, oh, like that nice medieval whodunit, featuring a sleuthing nun, that I borrowed from the library last month), “. . . set in Paris . . .” (cool! Paris!) “. . . during the French Revolution.”

And then I wait for that familiar, baffled expression to flicker across their faces. Because I know that the next question, or at least the (more…)

The French Revolution and the 99 Percent

January 10, 2012

A slightly shorter version of this essay first appeared at fellow author Suzanne Adair's blog, Relevant History.

* * *

Most people’s knowledge of the French Revolution, picked up from movies and lurid novels, is pretty much limited to 1789, Bastille Day, and howling mobs, illustrated with snippets from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Guillotines, old hags knitting, innocent aristocrats being persecuted, lots of gore. The Reign of Terror, with rising flames in the background, as depicted in every bad remake of A Tale of Two Cities. Yuck.

So what should make all that stuff relevant to us in the twenty-first century? We in North America don’t have kings and queens to overthrow. There’s no palace of Versailles with its obscene opulence, no titled (more…)

Plotting a Mystery By the Seat of Your Pants

August 4, 2011

Tags: writing, plotting, mystery writing, plot structure

They say there are two types of fiction writers: plotters and pantsers.

Plotters are blessed with the ability to create complex plots from beginning to end; they write down a complete outline, whether in a loose synopsis, a tightly structured timeline, a series of index cards, or whatever, before they write Word One of the actual novel. Pantsers, on the other hand, can’t possibly think that far ahead, and take an idea, a situation, a setting, a character or two, with a rough idea of where the story is going, and just plunge onward, writing “by the seat of their pants.”

There are advantages to both of these methods, and which method works for you depends on what kind of writer (and basic personality) you are. I, for one, am a pantser. I write mysteries, among other things, and I couldn’t come up with the entire outline of a novel, particularly a mystery novel, even if you held a gun to my head. But if I begin with a basic idea, if I know (more…)

Guest Blog by author Janet Kellough: Another view on "Rewriting History?"

October 25, 2010

[Note: Janet was also a member of the panel on historical accuracy that inspired the "Rewriting History?" entries, below.]

Me and The Rest of the World

I love reading a book that takes me some place I know nothing about. Sometimes my ignorance is geographic--through literature I’ve learned about the landscape of places as different as East Africa, Chile and the Russian steppes. Sometimes fiction has given me insight into a foreign culture--the astounding ethnic and religious diversity of India, for example, or the highly structured society of Japan. But the best books are the ones that educate me through a history that I had previously been unaware of.

I grew up reading historical fiction. As a ‘tween I loved the swashbuckling novels of Thomas Costain, who could sweep me from (more…)

Selected Works

The Aristide Ravel Mysteries:
Stand-alone Historical Novels:
Biographical fiction about Charles-Henri Sanson, Paris's public executioner
A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths

Quick Links

Find Authors