Of Kings and Griffins – an interview with author Judith Starkston

Please welcome author Judith Starkston to the blog. Her latest novel – Of Kings and Griffins – launches today. Here’s what one reader had to say about book #1 of the series: A delightful story that carried me off to a lavish, half-historical, half fantasy world. The result of the author’s mingling of fact with fantasy was a tale I didn’t want to put down.


Mary kindly invited me to join her on her blog today to describe the historical fiction I write and how it has changed over time. In my case, the changes have been so extensive, I have ended up writing fiction that straddles two genres—historical and fantasy.

I write novels focused on the life of an extraordinary queen—which is true, of course, of a lot of historical fiction. As readers, we are eternally captivated by royal women. “My” queen, however, steps onto the page from an unusual period of history, the Hittite empire of the Late Bronze Age, and she brings along some magic.

The queen I call Tesha, (her real name was Puduhepa) first appears in the historical record around 1274 BCE. She ruled for decades over the powerful Hittite empire, stretching roughly across what’s now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Her great rival, Ramses II, the Pharaoh in the Biblical story of Moses, is well known, but, unfortunately, Puduhepa is considerably less so, because the world of the Hittites was lost to history for so long—literally buried in the sands of time. This remarkable queen corralled Ramses II, diplomatically speaking, into a peace treaty that suited her needs far more than his. He was a notoriously arrogant bully, so that’s an immensely satisfying moment in history to me. The clay tablets of that agreement, the first extant peace treaty in history, are on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. This ancient female leader doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves. My novels focus on the early part of her story as she met the great love of her life and followed a very bumpy road to power. 

Along with being, eventually, an influential queen much admired in her own time even if forgotten later, she was also a priestess who had visionary dreams from her goddess. “Tesha” in Hittite means “dream,” hence my choice of name for her. She performed elaborate rites that we would call magical. The instructions for many of these ceremonies also survive on clay tablets. They often fall into the category of “you couldn’t make this up” and provide a wild and rich source to develop the magical, fantastical elements of the series.

Grounded as I am in history—my training was as a classicist—I didn’t start off envisioning my novels as a combination of history and fantasy. I thought I’d write historical mysteries, using this smart, puzzle-solving queen as my “sleuth.” It wasn’t until I became fully immersed, that I realized the Hittite predilection for psychologically fascinating magic was a vein of gold to mine deeply. I also began to find layers of international intrigue that raised the stakes for my characters and moved the plot of each book beyond the question of who killed whom. My historical fiction had taken “a quarter turn to the fantastical,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s term. It has been a dramatic journey. As you may notice from the cover of the latest book in the series, Of Kings and Griffins, I also adopted as characters the mythical griffins depicted in Hittite artwork and adorning the walls of ancient throne rooms—and griffins are even more fun than dragons! 

Of Kings and Griffins is book 3 in the Tesha series but is easily read as a standalone. The two earlier books in the series are Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara.

For more about Judith Starkston, her newsletter, and the historical background of her novels go to her website.

Of Kings and Griffins by Judith Starkston ~~ A vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess. Can Tesha outmaneuver foes from these three different worlds?

For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.

As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?

Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.

Many thanks, Judith! Best wishes for your latest novel. I’ve already put it on my TBR list!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Setting – Authors’ perspectives and techniques

This is the last post dealing with setting – one of the seven elements of historical fiction. Over the years, authors have shared thoughts on transporting readers in time and place. I’ve pulled together a number of their perspectives in today’s post.

Katharine McMahon offers an introductory comment: research underpins the vividness of the story telling, but an emotional connection to the past is critical to successfully write historical fiction. The reader and I both know that I’m going to interweave the two – fact and fiction – as seamlessly as I would if I were writing a contemporary novel.

As does Judith Starkston: Developing an immersive world is hard work that has to feel seamless to the reader. And isn’t that one of the most profound transformations for fiction to accomplish—to place ourselves into another way of seeing the world and to try on how it feels to be another person?

Let’s hear from other authors ~~

Research: Jane Johnson’s approach to research: I need to immerse myself in the research – each novel usually requires a year of research – before I write the book. It’s partly a matter of confidence – knowing what I’m talking about! – partly the need to feed the compost heap from which the story emerges. All those facts, all that information needs to be piled up and then to mulch down to a rich material that will allow the story to grow straight and true (or twisted and strange!) but with its own integrity and power. I don’t want to have to fact-check three times in every sentence, or even every page: it breaks up the flow. I always go back to primary sources first, since I’ve learned only too well that even academics wing it sometimes and I’ve caught a number of so-called experts out in fudges and errors. I want the work to be accurate and to reflect as truthfully as possible the times I’m trying to portray. The story and characters are of course paramount, but if you’re going to write fiction which purports to be ‘historical’ I think you owe it to the period and to the readers to get it as right as anyone can. I want to offer readers verisimilitude and good value: and I don’t want anyone to suddenly stop and say ‘hang on, I don’t think that’s right’ – that’s the easiest way to lose the trust between an author and a reader. https://wp.me/p29Qar-hC

Perspective: R.N. Morris — I think you have to convince people that you have actually been there, into the past in a time machine, and that you’re writing from direct observation. That’s not the same as showing that you’ve done the research. You have to do the research, of course, but you have to process it and write it as though it’s from first hand observation. https://wp.me/p29Qar-kG

Technique: Blythe Gifford — As I get into the story, I’m always searching for the sensory details that will allow me to walk around in that world and experience it.  I have a map and a calendar at hand to keep me grounded, and in some ways, I find images better research than words.  But the physical sensations, scent, touch, sounds, really put me in touch with my characters.  The “everydayness” of real historical life is, of course, the most difficult thing to pin down, particularly before literacy was wide-spread.  https://wp.me/p29Qar-lK

Technique: Anne Easter Smith — if your historical characters are real people, you must know where they were and when and what occurred at these points in time; Anne Easter Smith offers her approach: First of all I get down on the floor with a big flip chart and make a graph with my main characters along the top and a monthly/yearly timeline down the side. Then I go to my favorite–and trusted–books on the period, turning to the index and finding my character (or her leading man, because as we know history is about men and written mostly by men!) I systematically go through every entry marking on my chart where she (or he) was at any specific time and what they were doing there. Once I have a goodly number of entries and have finished Part One of the book, I write down a list of all the places I have not been to and begin to plan The Research Trip. I need to walk the walk and see what my characters would have seen. Once I’m home again with a bag full of photos, brochures, maps and notes then I feel ready to start writing. https://wp.me/p29Qar-m9

Technique: Helen Bryan — Research is the easy part. In the main, this consists of burying myself in the British Library, to read about whatever period I plan to write about, and making notes by hand. While I can’t imagine writing on anything but a word processor, handwriting research notes tends to fix information in my brain, and significantly, at this stage the landscape of the novel starts to take shape.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy. However, research isn’t limited to books. Useful information for a writer can crop up anytime, anywhere – newspaper stories, a snatch of conversation overheard in the street, a color, the weather, a landscape, any small detail that will pull a reader into the story. In particular, I am always on red alert for names. Characters must have exactly the right name, and only then do they begin to be real for me.  That’s when I begin writing, fitting them into that landscape. https://wp.me/p29Qar-mf

Technique: Indu Sundaresan — For The Twentieth Wife (and a few other novels following) my notes are in big binders, categorized as ‘food,’ ‘clothing,’ ‘transportation,’ maybe ‘roles of women,’ ‘court etiquette.’  This all forms a practical binder—what I absolutely need to know. For each novel, I also have a timeline binder.  I begin from the first recorded mention of my character(s) and continue through until their death, in between I jot down everything I’ve read about them—wars, battles, who they loved, whom they hated and why (or possibly why) and who mentions them and why. https://wp.me/p29Qar-yj

Technique: Jessica Brockmole — General history books are excellent starting points. They can help us plan our novels from the onset, letting us wade through much history in order to zero in on the few essential tidbits. They can also point us in the direction of other resources. I always follow footnotes to the end bibliography in search of more to read, especially published primary sources. I’ve come across some gems that I may not have found on my own. In researching WWI and WWII, I read collections of letters between soldiers and sweethearts, war diaries, and memoirs.

Research: Marina Oliver — find books on “historical slang, synonyms and foreign phrases … dictionaries of quotations, books of names, books on furniture, costume and houses, second-hand copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack, hotel and tourist guides and maps”. Oliver says there are different levels of research. First there is the general background … then you will need more specific information, relating more closely to the location and the time, and finally tiny details to illustrate something in the story, to back up some action or make a plot development possible.

Technique: Delaney Green – Readers want to be transported.  Humans know where they are by taking in information through their five senses. Therefore, I try to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell past places by finding out what there was to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. https://wp.me/p29Qar-QM

Technique: Margaret Evans Porter: I rely on portraits of people and places as they were at the time the novels take place. I study maps, floor plans of building. I hunt for objects used by or connected with my real-life characters. I study types of clothing worn, and because I worked in the theatre for many years, I have the advantage of having performed in the costumes of every era I’ve written about—so far. I read recipe books, dictionaries, conduct books published at that time. I listen to music that might have been familiar to my characters, read the poets and authors they would’ve read, and study the plays they attended.

Technique: Leah Klocek: offers several suggestions she uses for research.

Eyewitness to History is exactly what it sounds like. A rather plain and ad-filled website hides a valuable collection of excerpts from first-hand accounts from all throughout history. It’ll give you some great ideas and at least one cited source per page for you to follow.

Best of History Websites is definitely strongly tilted towards teachers, but it’s still quite helpful to the rest of us. It’s an index of websites organized by time and place in history. Each website listed within the larger index includes a description of what it holds and a review of the website for usability and accuracy – and there are some amazing websites in there. It also has a section specifically aimed at researchers containing advice and tools to assist both beginners and experts.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project contains collections of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts. Here you will find an index of a wide variety of primary source documents from just about everywhere and everywhen. The page is old and not often updated, but don’t let this stop you.

And finally, The Avalon Project is a digital library of historical documents related to law and diplomacy dating back to the beginning of written history. It’s a veritable cornucopia of documents ranging from Roman Republican agrarian laws to the 9/11 Commission Report. As many, if not most, historical plots intersect with conflict, law, or diplomacy, bookmarking The Avalon Project will not be a decision you regret.

Technique: Elizabeth St John. — What was most fascinating to me were the footnotes, for from there emerged the original source documents. That was my second research methodology – going deep into the contemporary documents of the times. Subscribing to British History Online and the National Archives opened up the world of digitalized manuscripts; and Google Books unlocked the Calendars of State Papers. Now I was humming! The hunt was on for every single character that would be making an appearance in my book, and the riches provided by these online sources were boundless. I quickly realized the need to have a pretty accessible filing system to be able to store and retrieve all the documents that were emerging – letters, pleadings, court appearances, dispatches. Some were written by my characters; others mentioned them in passing. Each provided a clue to the personality and motivation of the people of my book.

Perspective: Geoff Micks — Any writer in any genre needs to know the rules of their world well enough to know which rules can be broken, bent, or ignored. Writers of historical fiction need to go even further, because it is their responsibility to train their readers from the very first page about how that world works differently from the one we live in today. By the time the characters and conflicts are made manifest, readers need to be able to imagine what is happening for themselves without heavy-handed spoon feeding of exposition, explanation, and context. That kind of fluency and familiarity only comes from a deep understanding of what you, the writer, are going to write about. For me,  https://wp.me/p29Qar-139

Perspective: Myfanwy Cook, author of Historical Fiction Writing – A Practical Guide and Toolkit, says that setting provides a stage on which the characters can act out their drama.

Setting is not just a colourful frame in which to showcase an author’s characters, but is in many ways an extra character … it deserves to have a detailed ‘character sketch’ of its own, which is as accurate and suitable for the subgenre of historical fiction as possible.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into setting. Now I have to decide which element to tackle next: character, plot, theme, dialogue, conflict, or world building.

Links to earlier posts on setting:


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

An Unusual Royal Love Story

I’m in awe of authors who write about truly ancient times – and  Judith Starkston is one of them! This tale of ancient marriage and political intrigue comes from her novel Priestess of Ishana, the first book in her Tesha series, which is available free on Amazon October 2-6 as part of the launch Oct 14 of the second book, Sorcery in Alpara.

An Unusual Royal Love Story: When Hattusili Met Puduhepa ~~ by Judith Starkston

I write historical fantasy based on the Bronze Age Hittites (c. 1275 BCE)—an empire of the ancient Near East nearly buried by the sands of time. In spite of the vivid glimpses of this lost kingdom brought to light by recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets, there still remain vast gaps in historians’ knowledge. To be honest about my imaginative filling of those gaps, my storytelling combines fantasy and history.

For instance, I give my historical figures fictional names, though often only minimally different from their real names. I also let the magical religious beliefs of these historic people find full expression in the action. My “quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, allows me to honor what we actually know while also owning up to my inventive extensions. Allowing room for the fantastical elements suggested by Hittite culture makes for the best storytelling.

At the heart of my series is a love story—one that spanned about forty years. The historical record tells us about the start of this relationship between Puduhepa, priestess of Ishtar at the goddess’s temple in Lawazantiya, and King Hattusili, younger brother of the Great King of the Hittite Empire. (In my novels the character who represents Puduhepa is named Tesha after the Hittite word for ‘dream’ because the historic woman was famous for her visionary dreams. Hattusili goes by the shortened name Hattu.)

The usual path for a royal family member was an arranged marriage designed to solidify relations between kingdoms or powerful families. Hattusili, royal prince, also served as king of one of the most troublesome parts of the empire—a lesser king to the Great King, but powerful and trusted by Great King Muwattalli. Thus his marriage would have been more consequential than most.

Hattusili did make a politically useful marriage, but we have no evidence that Great King Muwattalli arranged it. Instead the record gives us an intriguing tale with mystical elements.

Hattusili composed a document that is sometimes referred to as his “Autobiography” or “Apology.” In form it is the announcement of the dedication of a landed estate to the goddess Ishtar, and it describes the ways Hattusili has experienced Ishtar’s divine providence throughout his life. It’s not an unbiased account—if such a thing exists. However, other documents, such as prayers and decrees, as well as his actions support the authenticity of Hattusili’s devotion to Ishtar and therefore the integrity of this narrative.

Hattusili described in this document how when his brother decided to go to war against Egypt, he served as his brother’s general and brought his small kingdom’s troops and chariots with him. A good deal later, on the way home from this military encounter known as the Battle of Kadesh, Hattusili made a detour to dedicate his portion of the battle loot to his goddess Ishtar at her most illustrious temple in Lawazantiya. He believed he owed his victory over Egypt to his goddess, and he put his money on that belief and paid her back. Of the unexpected event that occurred while making these offerings, he said (Hoffner’s translation):

At the command of the goddess Ishtar I took Puduhepa, daughter of the priest Pentipsharri, as my wife. We joined in matrimony, and the goddess gave us the love of husband and wife. We had sons and daughters. On this occasion the goddess my lady appeared to me in a dream saying: “Serve me with your household!” So I served the goddess together with my household. The goddess was there with us in the household which we made, and our household thrived. This too was a sign of Ishtar’s honoring me.


Ishtar arranged, even commanded, his marriage, and the results were harmonious.

In the same autobiographical document, Hattusili also mentioned accusations of sorcery brought against him around this same time. I used this bare outline of events as a foundation to build the plot of Priestess of Ishana.

We know from the poignancy of Puduhepa’s prayers on her husband’s behalf (he suffered poor health) and many other indications that this historic couple gained profound support from their love for each other. They worked as equals, which was allowed under Hittite law and custom, but wasn’t the common king-queen relationship. Puduhepa showed brilliant skills as his queen in many areas: administrative, diplomatic, judicial, religious and familial. Ishtar’s command, which they both said they received via dreams, suited them well. Their long partnership certainly suits my fiction well.

rock carving in Turkey along the old Hittite trade road that depicts Puduhepa and Hattusili making offerings

Of course, no marriage is without troubles, and I do not spare these two characters—conflict is the sustenance of good storytelling. The insiders’ view of this marriage’s unusual beginning serves as an excellent starting point for the first book in the series, Priestess of Ishana, and the overall arc of their relationship underpins the other books. I chose in the second book, Sorcery in Alpara, to put their love to some striking tests because I have observed that long-lasting, happy marriages get there by slogging through bad times, not by having fairytale endings. Although these “tests” qualify as one of those gaps I fill imaginatively, I cannot believe two rulers of a fractious, problematic kingdom who were beset by enemies on all sides could have entirely avoided marital crises. They would have had to learn by trial and error how to conduct that enduring partnership. There were few if any models around them, and their marriage stood out among the ancients as famously remarkable—a true equal meeting of minds and hearts.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7, Priestess of Ishana, depicting the moment Tesha and Hattu first lay eyes on each other, the beginning of this unusual royal love story:

Cries of alarm arose from the courtyard of Ishana’s temple.

“It’s a curse.”

“No one’s safe!”

“It will kill us.”

Hattu worked his way through the throng to the base of the steps that led to the sacrificial area. A curse? His limbs hummed with tension as they did in battle.

At the center of the crowd, a trembling boy leaned against an old man with a white beard and weather-beaten face.

Hattu looked at the frightened child, then signaled his men by the entryway to be watchful. Marak caught his eye and nodded.

A distinguished, gray-haired man dressed in the fur-trimmed, black robes of Grand Votary of Ishana appeared at the top of the stairs and raised his hands to order silence.

“Where are these shepherds?” The Grand Votary spoke with forbidding sternness.

The child shrank against the old man.

A servant stepped forward and pointed. “There, sir.”

The shepherd, pushing the boy along, stepped closer. Hattu thought they must be the same two he’d seen earlier on the lower trail.

In the shadows of the portico behind the open area for sacrifices, folds of a red gown swung into view. One of Ishana’s priestesses. For a moment, the striking profile of a woman leaned into the light and then slipped back out of sight—all but the outline of her shapely arm. Hattu stretched to catch a better view.

“This old man and his grandson say they found a dead body,” the servant said. “They saw signs of sorcery in the cave.”

“The cave?” The Grand Votary’s voice grew shrill. “What’s this?” He descended the stairs. The old man panted with shortness of breath. The boy’s small chest rose in jerks of fear and the sound of his sobs carried to Hattu.

The young priestess came into the open, down the stairs, past the Grand Votary, close to the grandfather and child.

At the sight of her, an unfamiliar surge in Hattu’s heart caught him off guard. Slipping from under her veil, her long black hair glistened with the iridescence of a dragonfly over water. He could imagine it pouring through his fingers. He took in her luxuriantly proportioned body and recalled his conversation with Marak about bedmates. He ducked his head to clear it. This wasn’t a moment to let a pretty girl distract him.

He stepped closer. Her gaze went straight to him for an instant and she nodded, as if she recognized him. A sense of familiarity drew him to her. Impossible. Hattu shook off the sensation. A curse threatened.

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston, available free on Amazon Oct 2-6  ~~ A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.

An award-winning epic fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.

A malignant curse from the Underworld threatens Tesha’s city with fiery devastation. The young priestess of Ishana, goddess of love and war, must overcome this demonic darkness. Charred remains of an enemy of the Hitolian Empire reveal both treason and evil magic. Into this crisis, King Hattu, the younger brother of the Great King, arrives to make offerings to the goddess Ishana, but he conceals his true mission in the city. As a connection sparks between King Hattu and Tesha, the Grand Votary accuses Hattu of murderous sorcery. Isolated in prison and facing execution, Hattu’s only hope lies in Tesha to uncover the conspiracy against him. Unfortunately, the Grand Votary is Tesha’s father, a rash, unyielding man, and now her worst enemy. To help Hattu, she must risk destroying her own father.

What a wonderful story, Judith. Some day you’ll have to tell me how you became fascinated with the Hittites!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.