A Long-Running Island Love Affair: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman


Sara Ackerman is unlikely to stop writing novels set in Hawai’i any time soon. This is good news for fans of her books. They could almost be called a series, but in fact each story features different characters and sometimes different time periods, although World War II is a recurring theme.

In many ways, as in her previous four novels, Hawai’i is the real hero of The Codebreaker’s Secret (MIRA Books 2022). The book’s dedication (Hawai’i has my heart) is an early indication of this, but many linguistic and other references to Hawaiian culture permeate every scene.

Ackerman says that Hawai’i is ‘both unique and misunderstood’. The islands were deeply affected by the war years. Both sides of her family were there during those times. She grew up on their wartime stories. Despite martial law, rationing, blackouts, racism and exploitation, people banded together to support each other through the tough times.

‘I really do feel like Hawai’i is its own character in the books,’ Ackerman agrees, adding that she tries her best to portray it realistically, as the multi-faceted place that it is, a place of great raw beauty. Yet it is not ‘all rainbows and coconut trees’.

The Codebreaker’s Secret is her first dual timeline novel. The earlier of the two timelines is set in 1943, during her favoured time period of World War II. Ackerman says that she has always enjoyed a good dual timeline novel, and ‘I figured it was time to try my hand at it’. It proved to be an even harder challenge than she expected. After talking to other authors to see how they approached the writing, she decided to write the 1943 story first, ‘so that I knew what happened’, and then layered in the 1965 storyline.

author photo by Tracy Wright Corvo

Events during the second timeline take place 20 years after the end of the war, during the grand opening of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller it was the first resort hotel on the island.

Deciding where to slip in the 1965 chapters was tricky she says, because of the need not to give things away – all ‘part of the magic of fiction’.

Linking the two timelines is the character Matteo Russi, the starting point for the plot. Ackerman wanted to write about a pilot on a top-secret mission and show him during the war, and then years later.

Ackerman has a graduate degree in psychology, so has always been interested in the psychological effects of war on combatants. ‘The things that these men went through was unthinkable,’ she says, and in this particular mission, (based on a true story), there was also some moral ambiguity. Trauma was not really talked about at the time. No one knew how to deal with shell shock, nor with the effects of war on internees, POWs and the civilians dealing with war on their doorstep on a daily basis.

Her interest in codebreaking emerged while working on her second novel, The Lieutenant’s Nurse (MIRA Books 2019). Reading about a shadowy, underground, top-secret place called the Dungeon, and its importance to the war effort, she knew she would like to write about it. A later discovery of the huge role that women played in codebreaking on the Japanese codes and ciphers gave her the Hawai’i tie-in that she needed.

Ackerman’s personal library provided much of the necessary detail on Pearl Harbor. But codebreaking was a whole new research area. In addition to reading specialist books on the activities and training of the men and women codebreakers, Ackerman took on the added challenge of learning the difference between a code and a cipher and trying to gain a rudimentary understanding of JN-25, the Japanese Naval Code that was allegedly unbreakable. ‘That these women were able to learn all of this in such a short time is nothing less than amazing,’ she says.

Her next book, Her Most Perilous Flight, will be set in 1927 during the golden age of flight and is loosely based on the infamous Dole Air Race. A dual timeline story, the events will take place on Hawai’i Island (the Big Island, as it used to be known). ‘It’s been fun veering away from the war years,’ she says, but as to veering away from Hawai’i? Ackerman says she has many other book ideas, but all are set at least partly in Hawai’i. ‘To me … it is simply home.’

About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in the Victorian Central Highlands. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil Wars. She is currently writing her third novel. You can follow updates on her blog.

This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website https://historicalnovelsociety.org/a-long-running-island-love-affair-the-codebreakers-secret-by-sara-ackerman/

I Could Do Angels – An Impossible Promise by Jude Deveraux and Tara Sheets


Jude Deveraux is the author of forty-three New York Times bestsellers, including Sweet Liar, the Nantucket series, and A Knight in Shining Armor.  While she was first known for historical and contemporary romance novels, she also writes murder mysteries, time travel and paranormal.

When her agent suggested the multi-award-winning author might like to write a trilogy, he said that he would get her a co-writer if she came up with an outline. The stumbling block was his suggestion that it should feature vampires and she declined.  “He said, ‘Zombies?’ Nope. I don’t like them either. I said, ‘I could do angels.’”

Within hours Deveraux had come up with the basic idea that a person had done something bad but for a good reason, so angels let him/her have a second chance. She could already see where the story was set. “Plotting has always been easy for me,” Deveraux says. Her mind was working so fast that she didn’t sleep that night. At 3 a.m. she started typing the outline of the series. Thus began the story of the Providence Falls trilogy, featuring a romance set in two different centuries, two different countries – and angels.

Keeping to his half of the bargain, her agent gave her a shortlist of three different authors to work with. Deveraux chose Tara Sheets, whose debut novel, Don’t Call Me Cupcake (Zebra Shout 2018) received the 2016 Golden Heart® sponsored by Romance Writers of America. Its plot also featured the paranormal.

Sheets, who has always been fascinated with “fables and fairy tales” says working together on the trilogy is “a fascinating collaborative journey. Jude has a wonderfully vivid imagination, and she’s the one who came up with the idea of Liam and Cora’s star-crossed love story as well as the setting in 1844 Ireland”.  Deveraux laughs when she says that she believed her “outline was perfect. Tara had the wisdom to see that it had several plot holes. The list of questions and suggestions she sent me made so much sense that I did a major overhaul of the plot. Also, she came up with names for people and places — something that I struggle with.”

An Impossible Promise (MIRA 2021) is the second book featuring Irish rogue Liam. Transplanted from 19th century Ireland to 21st century North Carolina, he has one purpose in this life—to push Cora (the woman he loved in their previous life) into the arms of another man, Finn. The angels have warned him this is the last chance to save his soul.  Cora doesn’t remember Liam or their past lives, nor is she impressed with his attempts to guide her in any way. In An Impossible Promise, Liam and Cora, now police officers, are partners on a murder investigation, drawing them closer together —exactly what Liam is supposed to avoid. There will be a final book, tying up the series and filling in the past of Finn, himself an intriguing character.

Sheets had not written a novel set in 19th century Ireland before, but she “jumped at the chance to help bring Liam O’Connor’s character to life” when Deveraux told her the premise. The small town of Kinsley, Ireland immediately began taking shape, and “the rest was, well, history”.  Deveraux provided Sheets with “photos of houses and clothes, things that I love”. Sheets did most of the research, scouring historical records, news articles, and artists’ renderings from that time period.

Given their shared interest in the supernatural, it is no surprise to discover that both Deveraux and Sheets have been influenced by strange things happening in real life. Sheets describes her family living in a house in Cairo. “Lights turning on and off by themselves. Footsteps in empty bedrooms and hallways. The scent of old-fashioned rose perfume wafting through the library when no one was there. That experience definitely helped shape my interest in supernatural elements later when I began writing.”

Deveraux has also lived in Cairo, but in her case it was a 1709 house in England where she experienced “a ghost that made us all crazy for 3 days at April Fools. Tom thought it was hilarious to play annoying tricks on us. We got used to him, but he scared the daylights out of workmen. Telling them, ‘Tom will turn off the lights at 4,’ made them roll their eyes. Gravel flew as they sped out at 4:05.”

This romance/thriller/fantasy trilogy has perhaps created a new subgenre of historical novel. Sheets calls spinning so many elements together “an interesting challenge” but says that she would be happy if there were more books that straddled the line the way this trilogy does.

“I love mixing fantasy in my stories,” Deveraux adds. “Spirits from the past and angels helping people suits me completely!”

About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th century England during the English Civil Wars. She has recently completed writing her second novel, The Tawny Sash. You can follow updates on her blog.

This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website https://historicalnovelsociety.org/i-could-do-angels-an-impossible-promise-by-jude-deveraux-and-tara-sheets/

Why Flavius Ferox left Vindolanda: The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy


Adrian Goldsworthy studied at Oxford, where his doctoral thesis examined the Roman army. He became an acclaimed historian of Ancient Rome, author of numerous works of nonfiction including Caesar and Hadrian’s Wall. But it is as a novelist, author of the Vindolanda trilogy, set in Roman Britain, that he has gained fame among readers of historical fiction – those who want the historic background to be a major player, not just light window-dressing.

In his new novel The Fort (Head of Zeus Ltd 2021), Goldsworthy once again features fictional Roman centurion and Prince of the Silures, Flavius Ferox, along with his usual entourage of “Vindex, Enica, Philo and co.” But this time the action takes place during the Emperor Trajan’s Dacian wars (modern-day Romania).

While Goldsworthy was an academic first, he says that he has always enjoyed adventure stories and historical novels. His first attempt at writing a novel was after finishing his doctorate – “a cold and damp winter when I had lots of energy and no money”. Ten years later he got the urge again, but he was told there was “no market for historical fiction, which never sounded right.” That second novel got him a literary agent “and a better class of rejection letters from publishers”, before, a few years later, he succeeded in having a novel published. Surprisingly, the story was set not in the Roman world but in the Waterloo era, another period which fascinated him. “Ultimately,” he says,” I write the sort of books that I want to read, but that do not exist – you just have to hope other people like them as well”.

In the meantime, Goldsworthy taught and wrote nonfiction, becoming so successful that he gave up teaching to become a fulltime writer. His aim as a historian was always to “convey why history is exciting, and to look at the big figures and the big events”.

When planning the Vindolanda series, Goldsworthy “was careful to set the … stories so that they just preceded the Dacian Wars”. In other words, the concept of adventures for Ferox in other parts of the Roman empire was there from the start, although it was decided to keep the initial trilogy in Britain.

One of his themes, he says, is “what it meant to be a Roman”. Ferox is a prince of the Silures, but educated in the Roman empire, a citizen and a centurion. In The Fort, the first of a second trilogy featuring Ferox, Goldsworthy lets Britons, specifically the Brigantes, “loose in the wider Roman empire, trying to get to grips with … the way the empire worked when they’re caught up in a conflict that they do not really understand.”

Adrian Goldsworthy, Author, Broadcaster, Historical consultant 

He decided to stick with Ferox and other central characters in the new trilogy “because there were more stories I wanted to tell about them”. But while they feature Ferox, Goldsworthy has tried to write them so that they stand alone, rather than being an obvious continuation of the Vindolanda series. The idea behind The Fort was to explore sieges in the Roman world. Goldsworthy enjoys the opportunities of playing around with ideas about how the Romans might have done things. Whereas a historian’s duty is “to say when we do not know something”, a novelist can have fun filling in the gaps in history. He has just finished writing the second story, THE CITY, which sends Ferox off to the east. The third one will be called THE WALL!

Goldsworthy’s fascination with Dacian culture is an important element of the book. Frustratingly, he says, while the “Dacians clearly were a remarkable and militarily formidable people”, little evidence survives about them, or the wars fought between Dacia and Rome. He wanted them to be different to the Britons, and also from the Sarmatians who appear in The Fort.

While most chapters are told from Ferox’s point of view, The Fort also includes chapters from the viewpoints of up- and- coming future emperor Hadrian, and Brasus, a fictional Dacian nobleman. As a central part of the novel is about a siege, Goldsworthy wanted it to show events from both sides. He also wanted the Dacians “to be human and not just faceless enemies”. Brasus is “a decent man, young and a little naive, who is forced to challenge some of the things he has been taught.”

Hadrian on the other hand is portrayed as utterly ruthless. Goldsworthy says that while Hadrian was “probably a very good emperor”, he was, like many successful leaders, “not the nicest person”. He says that Hadrian was clever and capable, but “could not resist showing off”. Goldsworthy has tried to reflect the negative commentary on Hadrian that is apparent in the few literary sources about his reign.

Hadrian received rapid promotion around the time of the outbreak of the Second Dacian War, but the reason is unknown. The war took the Romans by surprise, so that Trajan only reached the Danube after a good deal of fighting. It gave Goldsworthy “enough leeway as a storyteller to create the scenario in The Fort.” His fictional version of events offers a compelling reason for Trajan’s sudden decision to promote Hadrian. Goldsworthy says that he always tries to make the story “something that could have happened and does not conflict with any of the evidence”.

Goldsworthy’s complementary passions for history and writing fiction are obvious to anyone who reads his novels. “You do not write well about something unless you care about it,” he concludes, “and unless the world you create seems real to you”.

About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil War. She has recently completed her second novel, The Tawny Sash. You can follow updates on her blog.

This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website. https://historicalnovelsociety.org/why-flavius-ferox-left-vindolanda-the-fort-by-adrian-goldsworthy/

Let them eat cake

If Marie Antoinette had little idea, supposedly, of what her own, poorer fellow countrymen ate, the task for the historical novelist is of course harder.

So what was available in 1640s England? “Can’t they eat something but stew?” my editor complained, tired of the monotonous diet of the roving armies. They could, of course. But army rations, for the luckier soldiers whose commanders had organised food for them, were pretty unexciting – bread or biscuit, cheese, bacon, pease pudding (a kind of lentil stew) were the staples. Sometimes an army took their meat on the hoof, driving cattle and sheep along with the foot soldiers – and making for a very slow pace of march.

Vegetables were generally conspicuous by their absence. This was partly because they had a shorter life than hard cheese and salted bacon; and partly because diets, at least for those with the means, were very meat-centred. A soldier in the field, marching long distances while carrying heavy weapons and his personal possessions, needed 4000-5000 calories a day. That meant around 1lb of meat and 2lbs of bread. And beer was part of the daily ration.

Fish was a normal part of the diet of most of the population, whether it came from their nearest river or lake or from the ocean. So much so that London apprentices petitioned to be given salmon no more than 3 times a week. But during the civil war Parliament controlled the fishing ports. This led to King Charles, in his capacity as head of the Church of England, suspending the statutes prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent for fear his soldiers, deprived of fish, the usual substitute during Lent, would be too weak to fight.

When billeted in a town or village overnight, soldiers dined on whatever their host family did. They did better if they were part of a garrison, for the inhabitants of the town and surrounding villages would be obliged to supply cattle, pigs, poultry and eggs. This might be a formal procedure in the form of demands sent to each “hundred”. Cavalry attached to a garrison spent much time on the mundane task of collecting these levies. Sometimes the garrison just raided the local market town, as did the Basing House garrison in 1644.

“Villains, papist thieves!” Men and women traders grabbed at their baskets of cheeses, herbs or ribbons. Eggs smashed as stalls overturned. Shop keepers yelled at their apprentices to get the shutters up again. Those with livestock vainly tried to herd their startled beasts from the square. Two loose bullocks added to the confusion. (The Tawny Sash)

And in our own days of obsessive hand washing, I was interested to discover that in an earlier era of “share plates” it was the height of bad manners not to wash your hands immediately before eating. Forks were a very recent invention and even the gentry ate with knife, spoon and fingers. Most soldiers (and civilians) carried their own spoon and knife around as a matter of course. More on that another day.

References: Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton and Malmesbury Garrison Accounts

Reading the Past

An Unlikely Partnership

Ghost of the Bamboo Road (A Hiro Hattori Novel) by Susan Spann

Susan Spann has recently published Ghost of the Bamboo Road, (Simon & Schuster 2019), the seventh novel in her Hiro Hattori series, set in 16th century Japan. “Spann is meticulous about the details but weaves in various aspects of this medieval, foreign culture so skilfully, the reader is never taken out of the story with mere information,” was the verdict of the Historical Novel Society reviewer, Mary Burns, on the second book in the series, Blade of the Samurai. In 2015 Spann was chosen as Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year.

This ability to include enough detail, but not too much, is something Spann is conscious of when writing.

“I try to focus only on the details I need to immerse the reader in the time, place, and setting—and to keep the story moving,” she explains, “While still ensuring that the historical details I include are both accurate and historically plausible.”

16th century historical novels are more likely to tread the well-worn path of subjects like the Tudors, but Spann has always been fascinated by what Japan was like during that turbulent century. She has loved, and studied, Japanese history and culture all her life. In college, she majored in Asian studies, with a focus on medieval Japanese history, art/architecture, and culture.

“I have always liked the 16th century in particular because so much was happening (culturally and politically) in Japan at that time,” she says.

Spann acknowledges Agatha Christie as one of her all-time favourite authors.  Fans of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (Collins Crime Club 1934) will enjoy the claustrophobic atmosphere of protagonist and characters trapped in a snowy village.

Each novel explores different elements of the culture, despite being set in the same time and country. Spann does this by choosing victims (and killers, and methods of death) that allow her to send her detectives—and, by extension, the readers—into those particular areas. Ghost of the Bamboo Road delves into the culture of the supernatural, as well as the troubles faced by villagers in the remoter regions of Japan’s medieval travel roads.

Although resident in the USA, Spann makes regular research visits to Japan. When writing Ghost of the Bamboo Road, she hiked one of the ancient travel roads three times to get the details right. The characteristics of the road are not just interesting background; they are important to the plot. Spann explains why.

“Japan’s historical travel roads were frequently-traveled and well-maintained, but also subject to dramatic changes as a result of natural disasters,” she says. In several places, historians and priests explained the way the roads would shift in the wake of these disasters, often as a result of falling trees or landslides that damaged portions of the roads that ran through mountainous areas. I wanted Ghost of the Bamboo Road to include a landslide to force the characters to deal with the way the changing physical landscape had an impact on the roads (as well as the people who lived and worked along them)”.

The detective duo who feature in each of the books are an unlikely combination – a Japanese ninja and a Portuguese Jesuit priest. The ninja detective, and main protagonist, Hiro, was not the result of preplanning.

“In a sense, my ninja detective, Hiro, chose me,” she says. “He jumped into my head fully formed.”

The Jesuit priest, Father Mateo plays Watson to Hiro’s Sherlock Holmes. While narrator Watson’s solid common sense serves primarily as counterpoint to Holmes in terms of solving a problem, the dramatic contrast between Hiro and Mateo serves a dual purpose. It is also entirely possible from the perspective of authenticity.

“Since the mid-16th century was not only the height of the historical ninjas’ influence in Japan, but also a narrow window when Westerners (Portuguese Jesuits) were permitted to live and work in Japan, a Portuguese priest seemed like an excellent foil for Hiro, as well as a useful tool for translating Japanese culture to the reader.”

Rather than narrative explanations of burial practices, village superstitions and Japanese concepts of honour, the Portuguese priest constantly questions what is going on and why. This is a similar approach to the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus modern detective novels by Faye Kellerman (HarperCollins) where orthodox Jewish practices are explained through the technique of having a man brought up as a Southern Baptist (Decker) marrying an orthodox Jewish woman (Lazarus).

Spann is very aware of the Holmes and Watson parallels, but explains that in the case of her characters,

“Father Mateo developed into a far stronger character than I anticipated. I originally planned him to play the role of ‘Western Dr. Watson’ to Hiro’s Japanese Sherlock Holmes. In reality, each one brings unique strengths (and weaknesses) to what has become a far more balanced partnership,” she says.

Spann is committed to portraying “the culture and its people honestly and accurately.” She acknowledges that there were many things that are difficult for modern people to accept in the culture of 16th century Japan, and which she personally disagrees with. However (in comparison to, say Tudor England of that period) Japan was more enlightened in many aspects.

“16th century Japanese women were allowed to own and inherit property, to own businesses, and to belong to many artisans’ guilds in their own right’” she explains. “While many women were subservient, many others were independent, and many even took a leading role in their communities.”

Beyond that, she aims to avoid stereotypes and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

A.J Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She is writing a series set in 17th century England about the English Civil War. Book 2, “The Tawny Sash” will be released in 2020.

(This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website in 2020.)

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