In Which I Learned to Fight Like a Viking

Most of my love of history is experienced through books, although I always try to visit museums and historical sites when I travel. Recently, I had the amazing chance to experience some history in a more hands-on way – I found a place in my hometown of Calgary that offers sword-fighting classes! It’s called Dark Age Creations, and they also have lots of really cool weapons on display and for sale.

See? So many unique swords!

I signed up for the Introduction to Viking Combat class, because who doesn’t want to be a viking for a day? However, it turned out to also be a really good introduction to historic weaponry in general, because we got to try out a variety of them, including round shield, sword, hand axes, daggers, and spears.

The round shield was the primary point of focus in this style of combat, and we used it almost continuously throughout the class, carrying it while we learned some basic footwork and even marched in a shield wall, and then practiced coordinating it with other weapons. It gets heavy after a while, but it really becomes clear how useful and versatile it must have been. We learned how to use a rolling technique with the edge of the shield to knock our an opponent’s shield aside, and how to use the weapons to hook it aside as well – the axe worked really well for that, or the hilt of a dagger.

There’s one of the thirty-inch round shields in this photo – and some axes

I went into the class expecting to love the sword best of all, but to my surprise, spear ended up being my favourite, with axe a close second. It turns out this preference is even a bit historically accurate, because not many soldiers during the time period could afford to have a sword, since the steel was very expensive, so many of them did fight with axes.

I learned so much in this hands-on environment that I really can’t describe it all in a blog post. It was an amazing experience – not only did I indulge my love of history, I also enjoyed the chance to try something new and to get in a more exciting kind of workout than going to the gym.

Now I just need to plot out a Viking novel…


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Book Addiction: The Phantom’s Apprentice

Today is the publication day for Heather Webb’s latest novel, The Phantom’s Apprenticea gorgeous reimagining of the Phantom of the Opera. I was extremely lucky and got to read it early, and I recommend it to everyone!

Atmospheric and immersive, The Phantom’s Apprentice kept me reading late into the night, luring me to dream of arias and elegant French theatres. I loved the gothic setting and luscious descriptions, and the powerful scenes between Christine Daaé and the Phantom shine particularly bright through the escalating tension weaving through the story. Whether you’re familiar with the Phantom of the Opera or new to the classic tale, Heather Webb’s fresh and entrancing take on the tale makes it sparkle.

Heather has kindly agreed to chat about the book, her writing process, and her opera recommendations. Welcome, Heather!

What was your inspiration for The Phantom’s Apprentice?

My new book is a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera from Christine Daaé’s point of view, featuring illusionists, spiritualism, mystery, and all of the Gothic, glittering darkness of the original.

It’s inspired by Gaston Leroux and Andrew Lloyd Webber, of course, but it’s also inspired by a book I love dearly—The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I wanted to transport readers to this lush and atmospheric world set in one of my favorite eras: Belle Époque France, complete with hackney cabs, gilded mirrors, crushed velvet, ghosts, and masquerade balls. Plus a dash of romance and self-discovery never hurt anything.

In your novel, readers will meet Christine Daaé with a fresh twist, and she’s also an illusionist (I love that). What three words would you use to describe Christine’s character?

Gentle, brave, clever

Did you face any unexpected challenges or pleasant surprises while working on this novel?

In writing The Phantom’s Apprentice, I have to admit, I felt quite a bit of trepidation. The original novel by Gaston Leroux is one of the most widely read in history, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version has amassed over one billion views. (In fact, it’s the longest running show on Broadway, and just hit its thirtieth year last week.) The Gothic setting of the story, the unrequited love, the tormented characters, have engendered serious “phans”, and many of them are quite vocal about their opinions. Could I take on a project like this, reshape such a famous character and make her my own without burning down the opera?

Every step of the way I questioned myself. But the Muse insisted, so I gave Christine Daaé a voice, a more modern sense of agency, and, therefore, more relevance to today’s reader. Balancing canon of not one version, but two—the novel and play, which differ—as well as my own ideas, proved to be no easy feat.  How much of the original do you incorporate? How do you balance your own creation with another that is so well loved? You could call this a major pitfall. You could also call it a wonderful challenge. It was one I knew I had to take.

Unexpected pleasant surprises:  I really, really, really love opera and had so much fun learning about it! I also had a ball learning about illusions and magicians and spiritualism, séances…. I’m such a nerd!

What was your favourite scene to write?

My favorite scenes to write were when Christine sees Raoul for the first time at Carlotta’s salon, when she confronts Carlotta near the end, and also the masquerade ball when she discovers a few unsavory details about all those she has cared for and trusted.

What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict schedule or can you write anywhere, anytime?

I aim to write 1,000 words per day, and about 5,000 words per week. With young kids in sports and activities, as well as my freelance editing and speaking engagements, this can be very challenging, but I do my best. Sometimes you have to be kind to yourself and take a break or just get the house clean! I write at home at my desk, or at Starbucks in town for a change of pace. I’m freshest in the morning, but I’ve learned to be more flexible about work times. With my schedule, that might mean I’m sitting down at my computer once the kids are in bed around 9 p.m. This is my least favorite time to work, but alas, a writer must write.

If you could pair your book with any drink or snack, what would you recommend?

I’d recommend a full-bodied red wine and dark chocolate-covered almonds, or perhaps boeuf bourguignon with a red wine.

Did you listen to opera music while writing? If yes, what would you recommend for us to listen to?

Absolutely. I cranked the Giacomo Puccini opera station on Pandora like every day. Ha!

How can we stay updated on your book news?

I’m all over the internet so please join me on your preference of social media platform!
Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

From the book jacket:

In this re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera, meet a Christine Daaé you’ve never seen before…

Christine Daaé sings with her violinist Papa in salons all over Paris, but she longs to practice her favorite pastime—illusions. When her beloved Papa dies during a conjurer’s show, she abandons her magic and surrenders to grief and guilt. Life as a female illusionist seems too dangerous, and she must honor her father’s memory.

Concerned for her welfare, family friend Professor Delacroix secures an audition for her at the Nouvel Opéra—the most illustrious stage in Europe. Yet Christine soon discovers the darker side of Paris opera. Rumors of murder float through the halls, and she is quickly trapped between a scheming diva and a mysterious phantom. The Angel of Music.

But is the Angel truly a spirit, or a man obsessed, stalking Christine for mysterious reasons tangled in her past?

As Christine’s fears mount, she returns to her magical arts with the encouragement of her childhood friend, Raoul. Newfound hope and romance abounds…until one fateful night at the masquerade ball. Those she cares for—Delacroix, the Angel, and even Raoul—aren’t as they seem. Now she must decide whom she trusts and which is her rightful path: singer or illusionist.

To succeed, she will risk her life in the grandest illusion of all.

Author Biography:

Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels Becoming Josephine, Rodin’s Lover, and Last Christmas in Paris, which have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, France Magazine and more, as well as received national starred reviews. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was selected as a Goodreads Top Pick. To date, Heather’s novels have sold in multiple countries worldwide. She is also a professional freelance editor, foodie, and travel fiend. She lives in New England with her family and one feisty rabbit.




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Book News

The Wardrobe Mistress has been nominated for a 2017 RT Reviewer’s Choice Award and I’m so thrilled! My To-Be-Read list grew again after I looked at the list of nominations, as well. There are a lot of excellent-sounding books in the full list of nominees, and I feel lucky that my book is in such good company.

Obviously, I’m quite excited about this book news, especially because it was unexpected. But there’s more on the horizon, too! A large print edition of The Wardrobe Mistress is coming out soon (in February, I think) and it has a different cover.

Isn’t it pretty? I like that, between my two covers, one dress is red and another is blue. As I’ve written about before, and anyone who has read the book knows, tricolour is an important theme in the book because of the symbolism of the tricolour rosettes during the French Revolution.

I couldn’t resist adding the original again since the colours are so bright together.

That’s all the big news for now! I also finished another book on New Year’s Eve – meeting my goal of completing the first draft by the end of the year with a whole hour and a half to spare. I’ve done some edits and have sent it to my agent, so with luck there will be some news on that front down the road.

Have a great week, everyone! If you have read and loved any of the other RT nominees, let me know which ones so I know where to start!


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Writing Resolutions for 2018 and Tips to Achieve Them

2018 crept up on me this year, and I haven’t made any writing resolutions yet. I was on the home stretch of my latest book through the last few months of 2017, and I was completely focused on finishing that. I did (yay!) and now I’m sure revisions will have to go on my writing goals list, when I get around to making it! I’ve been seeing a lot of 2018 writing goals on Twitter, and it got me thinking about my best tips for some of the most common ones. And so, voila!

Goal: Write a book / Finish a Work-In-Progress

Maybe you’re always working on something, but some of your projects are stuck in limbo, half-finished but not forgotten. Or perhaps you’re a seasoned writer with a few completed books, but this particular WIP is dragging, or you have an ambitious deadline. These three tips might be helpful for either scenario.

Dedicate time to work on it

You know your schedule, so pick the best time for you to be productive and focused. It doesn’t need to be a long stretch; you might do better with 3 fifteen-minute sessions through the day than a single, long one. And yes, fifteen minutes is acceptable if it’s all you can do – every bit counts. I get the bulk of my writing done right before bed, because I like writing at night and I can focus better when everything else for the day is done. Mornings or lunch breaks might be better for you. Whatever time it is that you choose, focus on writing for that time. Even if you only write ten words, it’s still progress.

Get competitive

I joined a NaNoWriMo group last year, for the first time, and it was an amazing experience. We were more of a supportive than competitive group, but I loved it when I could share that I’d made my goal, rather than admitting I hadn’t. I had a fair share of both days, but overall November became an extremely productive month for me. It was comforting knowing that I wasn’t alone with my word count struggles.

If this appeals to you, join a year-round writing group – even a casual one, like Twitter’s #5AMWritersClub – or see if a couple of writing friends want to join. If your schedules match up, sometimes it’s fun to pair up with a friend and each focus intensely on writing for the same amount of time (probably just a half hour stretch) and see how many words you can get out. Then you can congratulate or commiserate with one another.

Set specific goals

It’s a lot easier to focus on a goal like, ‘draft cat disaster scene’ than it is to stay on track with one like, ‘finish the entire book before year end’. Plus, if you’re like me, you love checking things off your to-do list, and having a greater number of shorter goals means more of that great feeling of marking them complete. (I write my weekly writing goals on a white board behind my desk, mostly for the pure joy of checking them off). Keep them reasonable, too. Maybe you can only edit one chapter this week because of other ‘real life’ commitments, but the next week you can spare a bit more time for an extra 1,000 words.

If you’ve got multiple projects on the go, having specific goals can also help you keep track of them so you aren’t surprised by a half-forgotten deadline.

I’d like to write at this desk! Or just daydream for hours…Photo by antonychammond on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Goal: Challenge yourself to grow as a writer / Write something new or scary

No, I don’t mean you have to write a horror – although that could be fun! Maybe you’ve been writing secretly for years, but you never show your words to anyone. What if you changed that, at least once? Perhaps you’re safely ensconced in a writing routine with your favourite genre, and you’ve pretty much become an expert in it. What if you tried something new, even if it’s just a piece of flash fiction or a personal essay? I’d been writing so much historical that I fell in love with flash fiction last year – partly because of the challenge of keeping it short, but also because for some reason my flash fictions are almost never historical.

One of my writing challenges this year is to let go, at least partially, of my beloved first-person narrative and try something with third person. I also haven’t used multiple POV very much, and I think it’s about time I did.

To be honest, this post is a actually bit of a challenge. Even though I’ve been doing this blog for almost five years (!) and I’ve got a book published, I still sometimes feel like a fraud when I give writing advice. Imposter Syndrome is real, but also silly. If you write, you’re writer. There’s not a 17-step initiation full of dangerous trials (although that might be an interesting plot for a taut but nerdy thriller…)

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Goal: Get published

This is a big goal for lots of writers, and there are lots of roads to success. Getting a book deal with a traditional publisher can take a while, especially if you need to find an agent first, but that makes it a perfect goal to break down into specific steps. And there are lots of roads to publication. Maybe you want to submit a short story to some fiction contests, or submit an article to your favourite online magazine. It doesn’t have to be straight to having a full-length book published.

Goal: Get rejected

This could be controversial as a goal and I have not seen anyone list this, but I think it’s important, especially for writers who are new to sharing their work. First, it ties into challenging yourself. It’s scary entering a contest – or what if that favourite online magazine passes on your pitch? The last one happened to me. It was fine. I’m still here, still writing. Having an editor or agent pass on your project, no matter what it is, is an unavoidable part of publishing that will happen to everyone more than once. It just proves that you’re trying new things and challenging yourself. Plus, this is probably the easiest goal on the list to achieve! Then you can pat yourself on the back and have a drink.

Lastly, this Writer Unboxed post has some more great writing lessons for 2018 if you’re feeling inspired or looking for writing ideas. Happy Writing in 2018!


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Book Addiction: The Lost Season of Love and Snow

Jennifer Laam is a special guest on my blog today to answer some questions about her latest historical novel, The Lost Season of Love and Snowset in 1800s Russia. And to celebrate her fabulous book and kick off 2018, we’ve got a giveaway! To enter, you can comment on the Facebook contest post, or Retweet the contest post on Twitter. And if you don’t have an account, just comment here on the blog. This giveaway is open until Saturday, January 6th (US and Canada only, sorry).

Jennifer Laam’s latest is a beautiful, nuanced portrayal of a woman whose reputation through history hasn’t been kind. Natalya Goncharova, wife of famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, is often blamed for his death in a duel. The Lost Season of Love and Snow paints a more sympathetic, realistic depiction of her as a complex person caught between politics and personal relationships. Her romance with creative, rebellious Alexander is passionate and often turbulent, and their scenes together light up the pages, making it impossible to put down. I gladly fell for Natalya within the first few pages, when I immediately related to her feelings about needing to wear glasses – and how often do we get heroines, especially historical, who wear them? I found myself thinking about the characters and their emotions and actions long after I’d read to the visceral conclusion. Highly recommended!

What was your inspiration for The Lost Season of Love and Snow?

In 1837, Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, died after a duel fought to defend his wife’s honor. For a long time, I knew Natalya Goncharova only as that beautiful wife, but I always wanted to understand her version of the events that led to her famous husband’s death.

A few years ago, I came across several references to Natalya in the novel Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith. Let’s just say the characters in the book aren’t kind to her. At one point, she is even called “Pushkin’s whore.” There’s something intriguing about a woman with a bad reputation and I decided the time had come to learn more about Natalya. Once I did, I knew I needed to tell her story.

On another level, I felt compelled to write this book because in my view, Natalya had been mistreated in older histories told largely by men. For example, she is sometimes “accused” of being the tsar’s mistress. First of all, there is no evidence of this. Natalya may have been charming to the tsar, but if the tsar flirts with you, are you really in a position not to flirt back? Like so many women before and after her, Natalya was under tremendous pressure to please men – to be attractive and charming. And then, perversely, she was condemned for fulfilling those same expectations.

Alexander Pushkin is – very intriguingly – described as Russia’s ‘most lauded rebel poet’. Did you read much of his work while writing the novel? What poem would you recommend to others just discovering him?

While researching this book, I had the pleasure of reading several of Pushkin’s love poems. His writing definitely influenced the way I depicted Alexander and Natalya’s amorous relationship. Even though it wasn’t written for Natalya, my favorite poem is “I Loved You,” a perfect expression of enduring romantic adoration. For readers interested in Pushkin, I would also recommend two works I reference frequently in The Lost Season of Love and Snow. Eugene Onegin or Evgeny Onegin features a memorable heroine and what in retrospect seems like a prophetic duel. I also enjoy Pushkin’s epic poem The Bronze Horseman, which animates both the great flood of 1824 and St. Petersburg’s famous statue of Peter the Great and his horse.

Your novel brings Natalya Goncharova’s side of the story to life, giving the reader a sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of her. What three words would you use to describe Natalya’s character?

First and foremost, Natalya was a true romantic and passionately in love with Alexander. Their relationship is the heart of my story. At the same time, she had a romantic view of the world overall, and this drew her to the beauty of the imperial court, despite the dangers that lurked therein. Secondly, Natalya was resourceful. While in a near constant struggle to stay afloat financially, she experienced the pressures incumbent in being a famous writer’s wife, expected to partake of the social life of tsarist Russia. She balanced these competing demands admirably. Finally, the way Natalya handled herself during the scandal that surrounded the duel and in the aftermath of her husband’s death speaks to her great resilience. She made a life for herself both in her marriage and afterward, even in the face of the great limitations placed on nineteenth-century women.

Did you face any unexpected challenges or pleasant surprises while working on this novel?

A challenge in writing historical fiction is trying to imaginatively recreate a past world. My travel budget is limited, but I’m fortunate to have wonderful local resources at my disposal, most notably the UC Davis Shields Library, which has shelves of book devoted to Alexander Pushkin. One of the pleasant surprises in writing this novel was discovering that Pushkin wrote Mozart and Salieri, the basis for the play and film Amadeus, one of my all-time favorites.

What was your favourite scene to write? 

I loved writing the scenes between Natalya and her sister, Ekaterina, particularly in the first chapter when they attend the dance master’s ball. I don’t have a sister myself, but I find the dynamics of love and rivalry between sisters fascinating. And I have to admit, it was fun to let them say the nastiest things to one another.

What’s your writing process like? Do you have a strict schedule or can you write anywhere, anytime?

The early chapters of The Lost Season of Love and Snow were written quickly and I felt so compelled to tell Natalya’s story that I truly could write anywhere and anytime. Once I was under contract, though, I knew I needed to keep myself on a strict schedule to meet my deadline. I finished the remaining chapters by working two hours each morning before my day job began, and in longer stretches on weekends.

When not under contract, I’m not someone who can stick to writing every day. I need days off to refuel. Still, I try to make my writing time a high priority, even when life gets hectic. Sometimes this means writing just a few hours each week, but at least I’m sticking with it.

If you could pair your book with any drink or snack, what would you recommend?

Champagne! I was tempted to say a White Russian or another thematic cocktail, but champagne is meant for celebration. Alexander and Natalya’s relationship represents principles worthy of celebration: love, devotion, passion, intellectual curiosity, and creative energy.

How can we stay updated on your book news? 

Thanks for asking!

Twitter: @jenlaam

Instagram: @jenlaam  

Facebook:  Jennifer Laam  


From the book jacket:

The unforgettable story of Alexander Pushkin’s beautiful wife, Natalya, a woman much admired at Court, and how she became reviled as the villain of St. Petersburg.

At the beguiling age of sixteen, Natalya Goncharova is stunningly beautiful and intellectually curious. At her first public ball during the Christmas of 1828, she attracts the romantic attention of Russia’s most lauded rebel poet: Alexander Pushkin. Finding herself deeply attracted to Alexander’s intensity and joie de vivre, Natalya is swept up in a courtship and then a marriage full of passion but also destructive jealousies. When vicious court gossip leads Alexander to defend his honor as well as Natalya’s in a duel, he tragically succumbs to his injuries. Natalya finds herself reviled for her perceived role in his death. In her striking new novel, The Lost Season of Love and Snow, Jennifer Laam helps bring Natalya’s side of the story to life with vivid imagination—the compelling tale of her inner struggle to create a fulfilling life despite the dangerous intrigues of a glamorous imperial Court and that of her greatest love.

Author Biography:

Jennifer Laam is the author of The Secret Daughter of the TsarThe Tsarina’s Legacy, and The Lost Season of Love and Snow, all from St. Martin’s Griffin. She is represented by Erin Harris at Folio Literary Management. Jennifer has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, and currently resides in California’s Central Valley. When she is not busy writing or reading, Jennifer spends her time obsessing over cosplay, trying new vegetarian recipes, line dancing, and spoiling cats. She works for her alma mater, University of the Pacific.

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2017 Blog Flashback

2017 was a roller coast of a year for me. My first book came out! I read part of it in front of people for the first time! I wrote most of another book and had to scrap half it and start over! (For some reason the exclamation point in that last one makes me feel better about it). I’m grateful that it was such a productive writing year though, and sometimes I can still hardly believe that there are real print copies of a story I wrote and that people actually have them in their houses. Thanks so much to everyone who has read The Wardrobe Mistress, and to everyone who stops by my blog.

Last year, I put together a 2016 blog recap, and it was kind of fun revisiting some of the random or fun posts I’d almost forgotten about, so it’s officially a tradition now. Here are my favourite posts of the year, by month.

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I put together a quiz so you can test your knowledge of troublesome turns of phrase.

I creeped myself out a little bit with this Flash Fiction

I’m still baffled that this bad decision in history was a real event


I discovered the delight of madeleines and managed to connect my adoration to literature

I wrote about belladonna and I feel like I should point that out because there’s a lot of poison in the book I’m writing now.


I rounded up a list of all the people in history who died from laughing too hard.

I made a compilation of entertaining quotes by Winston Churchill because I guess I’m not even pretending to be cool anymore.


I interviewed Crystal King about her delectably dark novel, Feast of Sorrow.

Apparently having caught the interview bug, I pretended to interview Ophelia.  (Yep, fully accepting of my nerdism by now).
PS, I still hate Hamlet


Since I spend so much (too much) time sitting at a desk, I shared some helpful stretches.

Jenni Walsh swept me away to a jazzy speakeasy with Bonnie and Clyde in Becoming Bonnie.


I went to the Historical Novel Society conference and it was the best time ever.

I wrote a Flash Fiction about a fractured family and now I’ve just realized that ‘Fractured’ would have been a better title than ‘Goodbye’.

Nina Laurin stopped by to talk about her compelling and suspenseful novel Girl Last Seen.


I wrote my favourite flash fiction piece so far.

I found out that most queens had pet dogs but one had a pet gazelle.

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I was whisked away to a beautifully dangerous fantasy world in Callie Bates’ The Waking Land.

I wrote a short story about the ‘diamond necklace affair’ that scarred Marie Antoinette’s reputation even though she was innocent (and you can still get a free copy!)


August was a busy month for blog posts because I was celebrating the publication of my debut novel, The Wardrobe Mistress. 

I’ve basically got everything you ever wanted to know about Marie Antoinette (just kidding, her life was super complicated) but there’s plenty of details like: surprising facts, her musical nights with the Chevalier St. Georges, a black composer who led a fascinating life and should be more well remembered than he is, how she liked to give her friends personalized perfume, how she did not say ‘let them eat cake’,  a couple of her feuds, and why her dresses were considered scandalous and not for the cost.

Just so you’re educated in preparation for the extremely slim chance that you get whisked back in time to revolutionary France, I covered what you should wear. Full disclosure, given the choice, I would not time travel to revolutionary France.

I once again proved how obscure my sense of humour is with some affectionately mocking fake quotes from the French Revolution.

And finally, I stopped writing about France to gush over Elise Hooper’s novel The Other Alcott.


I became obsessed with the idea of moonlight gardens and I’m determined to turn my back yard into one.

I interviewed Devin Murphy about his complex historical novel The Boat Runner.

I wrote about a mayor with an extremely villainesque name whose bad decision burned up a bunch of buildings and caused an unknown number of fatalities.


I don’t want to sit next to any of these literary characters at dinner and you probably don’t either.

I love the escapism aspect of reading and found examples that physical descriptions in fiction can help transport the reader.

I shared my treasured apple cake recipe with you all as a token of my esteem.


I was lucky enough to have a group of other authors contribute to my three part ‘Lessons from Debut Authors’ series, with tips on submissions, publishing surprises, and advice for book signings, as well as fun stories of publication day celebrations.

Renee Dahlia stopped by to talk about her Bluestocking series, and shared some intriguing snippets.


I shared some anecdotes that should make us all grateful for modern surgical procedures.

2017 was a busy blog year, but I have to admit that my favourite blog post is still this one about foxes from last year.

So what’s going on in 2018? I’m having a lot of fun with my Flash Fiction series, so that will continue. Book Addiction will as well, and I already know a few of the amazing books I want to feature and I hope I can point some of you to a new favourite. I think Bad Decisions in History will transition to an occasional post instead of a monthly feature. I’ve been posting that one pretty regularly for two years now, and honestly it’s getting hard to come up with new topics. I might do a few more posts with advice for writers trying to get published, because there’s been some interest in the Lessons from Debut Authors series. (If this would interest you, or if you would like particular topics, let me know in the comments or by email or Twitter).

I hope you have enjoyed all 56 (!) posts of 2017. Lastly, I’m going to take this opportunity to make a small plea of my own – if you’ve read The Wardrobe Mistress, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Even if you didn’t enjoy it – I promise I won’t even read it, but reviews are so important to authors – and readers – to help new books get discovered. (An excellent thing to keep in mind for other books too!) Thank you so much to everyone who has supported my book with reviews, social media sharing, buying a copy, or just expressing interest in the fact that I even wrote one. You’ve brought the book alive and I’m so grateful.

Cheers to 2018! Stay tuned for the blog to be back on January 3rd with a special book giveaway.

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Bad Decisions in History: featuring Robert Liston

It’s not exactly news that surgery through history was very dangerous and unhygienic compared to today’s standards. In a time when germs and bacteria were poorly understood, and anesthesia was either nonexistent or in early development, needing surgery would have been a terrifying prospect. Due to the lack of anesthesia, surgeons tried to complete their surgeries as quickly as possible, and a good surgeon was considered to be one who was ‘fast with a knife.’ Indeed, in Florence Nightingale’s ‘Notes on Nursing’, she noted that the danger to the patient was in direct ratio to the time the operation lasted.

Robert Liston was a Scottish surgeon, noted for his lightning quick surgical abilities. In a time where the pain of a prolonged surgery could directly correlate to the patient’s chances for survival (assuming infection didn’t set in afterward), he was impressively said to be able to amputate a leg in under three minutes.

Perhaps he was a bit too quick; Dr. Liston is most remembered today for few infamous cases.

Bad decision: Rushing surgery to the point of carelessness

There are three cases where Liston’s surgical haste caused additional injury, or even death. The most reckless of these cases is a young boy who had a tumour in his neck, which might have been an abscess, or a more dangerous aneurism in the carotid artery. Deciding that the child was too young to have an aneurism, Liston quickly lanced what he thought was an abscess. He was wrong, and the patient died of arterial blood loss.

Liston also has the dubious honour of supposedly performing the only operation known to history with a 300% mortality rate. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Well, in his rush to amputate a patient’s leg in under two and a half minutes, he accidentally slashed through the fingers of his assistant, chopping them off too. With the energetic arc of his surgeon’s tools, he also cut the coattails of a surgical spectator. Allegedly, this man was so frightened that the knife had pierced his vitals that he died of a heart attack. The patient and the assistant both later died of infection.

Liston’s third most infamous case also involves the amputation of a leg. He sawed off the limb so quickly and carelessly that he accidentally castrated the patient as well. Assuming he didn’t succumb to infection, that patient must have been quite distraught, to say the least.

It’s worth noting that better surgical hygiene practices began to improve after 1847, partially due to the connection made between surgical hygiene and infection and mortality rates by a doctor at the Vienna General Hospital, named Dr Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.

Though Liston’s surgical mistakes leave the impression of a reckless man with little care for his patients, he was actually recorded as being charitable to the poor and kind to the sick. Early surgery was a risky procedure, and during Liston’s lifetime, speed was considered the best way to reduce pain for the patient, a practice he certainly embraced. Though nitrous oxide was discovered in 1799, it was not pursued as an anesthetic at that time. Similarly, though an operation with ether was performed around 1842, it wasn’t commonly used for several more years. Since Liston passed away in 1847 – the same year of the improved hygiene for surgery at the Viennese hospital – he didn’t have a chance to access any of these new advances in medicine.

Outcome: three horrible surgical mistakes, reasons to be grateful for modern medicine


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