Today’s guest is Laurel A. Rockefeller, author and historian. She’s here to speak with us about her numerous publications and the mind-blowing amount of research that goes into each work.
Hi Laurel, and welcome to Authors to Watch. Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
Hello everyone! I am author-historian Laurel A. Rockefeller. I was born, raised, and educated in Lincoln, Nebraska USA. I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln with a bachelor of arts in writing, psychology, and history. My first national publication was a sonnet called “Why Bilbo?” in 1991 with the American Tolkien Society. I started writing professionally in 2011 when I began work on my first novel, “The Great Succession Crisis” (now in its third edition). That book published on 12 August 2012. Since that time I have published a total of twenty book titles across multiple non-fiction and fiction genres. I also have two of my books out in Chinese translation and two are out on Audible thanks to the talents of British voice artist Richard Mann.
When did you begin writing?
I started as a singer-songwriter actually. I had an especially violent childhood and I coped by making up songs. As soon as I learned to read, I started pecking the lyrics to my songs out on my father’s typewriter. Though I maintained a focus on my poetry until around the age of thirty, I spent my summers as a teen writing fan fiction novels to favourite science fiction television series. Majored in writing with focus on stage and screen writing. But I was under fierce family pressure to get a “real” job, especially upon graduation from university, so I stopped submitting scripts for production and started working any job I could find. I continued to write as a hobby, but did not consider it a profession again until I lost my job in Manhattan right after the big crash of 2008. Even then I looked for “real” work and even started a couple small businesses which failed quickly. Finally in March 2011 I felt I had nothing to lose by pursuing writing as a profession. I took about a month working out the physical details and social structure for planet Beinan and the Peers of Beinan series was born!
You’re a very versatile author. You write both fiction and non-fiction. Can you tell us about The Peers of Beinan Series and how you came up with the idea for it?
Like so many great science fiction and fantasy series, the Peers of Beinan Series was originally conceived as fan fiction. In this case, I wanted to write prequel stories to the short-lived “Benji, Zax, and the Alien Prince” from 1983 which was my favourite show as a tween. The original title of the series (which was supposed to be just one novel) was “Prince of Antars” and it was supposed to explore the character Trask and his relationship with both the royal family and with the evil Zanu.
My prince quickly became a princess though and Trask mutated into the very different Lord Knight Elendir (Ghosts of the Past). Though there is of course a “revolution” like there is in BZAP, the Peers of Beinan Series bears very little resemblance to Benji, Zax, and the Alien Prince. As a matter of fact the only detail I kept from that series really is the number 2.337 – the number of Beinarian shir-ors (hours) in one Earth day.
The Peers of Beinan Series itself is world building at its finest. I literally built both the planet and the society from the ground up using what I considered the best elements from classic science fiction and fantasy and combining that with my history background. Key influences include the Dune series by Frank Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the original Star Trek series, Babylon 5, and the original Battlestar Galactica. The idea for the heraldry came from a combination of my twenty years experience in the Society for Creative Anachronism and seeing heraldry used in the SciFi channel’s adaptation of Dune.
Who is your favorite character from this series and why?
Lord Knight Elendir. He’s a very flawed hero. In chapter one of “The Ghosts of the Past” both of his parents are murdered by terrorists and he grows up in the Ten-Arian monastery. After he comes of age and becomes a knight, he begs his best friend Prince Kendric for permission to investigate his father’s death. Along the way his youth and youthful bad judgement is used by the villains to sidetrack him from finding the truth about his father. Through their manipulations he is also tricked into creating the very monster who kills most of the people he loves, including Kendric himself. Elendir redeems himself in “Princess Anyu Returns” of course but it is his journey from reckless youth to wise sage that makes him so real and easy to relate to.
Okay, let’s switch gears. I’m intrigued by The Legendary World of Women non-fiction series you’ve written? Can you please give my readers an idea of what this series entails?
The Legendary Women of World History Series explores the lives of women from across history who still touch ours today. These are role models, women of great intelligence, courage, and conviction who made a real difference.
Each book is a short – from 30 to 80 pages plus extensive “suggested reading” bibliographies and usually other reference materials as well. Most of the books have a timeline; Boudicca does not because we don’t have precise enough dates for most of the events in her life.
Unlike most biographies you’ve seen, these are creative non-fiction. That is the content is strictly non-fiction but I use a fireside storytelling narrative format. Reading or listening to these books is like sitting with your mother or grandmother and listening to a true story about something that happened to them or someone they knew. It’s putting the story back into history with all its passion, humour, and drama.
People who detest non-fiction and history in particular LOVE these books. And the best part: the more times you read/listen to them, the more you learn. I’m very concise. You really cannot tell how much information is in these few short pages until around the fourth or fifteen reading/listening when it finally hits you! It’s learning without effort while you are having fun. Does it get any better?
What age group would most benefit from reading this series?
The reading level for the books is around the fourth grade – which is usually when most schools first introduce social studies to students. But seriously the books are so carefully crafted and beautifully rendered that I think there’s something for absolutely everyone in them – no matter how old or young. Instead of telling our children fairytales from the cradle, I think we should be reading/listening to these biographies. True stories are the best kind. Certainly as a child I preferred hearing a story that was true over something that was made up.
Kids in particular have razor sharp instincts when it comes to sugarcoating things or leaving out important information. So while I respect that many parents and educators want to shield children from the parts of life that are unpleasant, I think we do children a disservice when we fail to be open and honest about history and current events. We don’t have to be graphic (and I am careful not to be), but we do need to be honest with children about the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the past.
That said, in my experience and based on reviews across all four books adults actually learn from and appreciate better these books than children do. They really are a great family bonding experience with something for everyone. I put the equivalent of a university thesis into each one, so there’s always something new to learn each time you read/listen to the books.
What inspired you to write this series?
In early March 2014 I ran an informal poll asking Americans and British to name five to ten women from history as part of Women’s History month. When less than 10% could do so, I found myself really upset. But instead of fuming, I decided to do something about it. Three weeks later I published Boudicca: Britain’s Queen of the Iceni. Two months after that, I posted Boudicca to ACX (Audible’s publishing platform) for audition. Very fortunate that British voice artist Richard Mann decided to join ACX the very same day. After listening to the auditions I received I chose Mr. Mann to narrate the audio edition which came out 9th September 2014. Absolutely one of the best decisions in my life.
Which historical person have you enjoyed writing about the most?
You know that is really hard because I write about women whose stories really speak to me. Boudicca is I think the most inspiring of the four women I’ve directly covered. She achieved what very few people, female or male, have ever done in truly uniting Britain against a common enemy – even Winston Churchill was not quite as successful as Boudicca was, even with all his advantages like modern technology to aid him.
Catherine de Valois overcame tremendous adversity to become one of the most courageous of English queen consorts, right up there with the highly celebrated Eleanor of Aquitaine. After Henry V’s death on 31st August 1422 Dowager Queen Catherine defied an act of parliament and remarried for love, a love that ultimately led to the unification of England and Scotland 202 years after her birth.
Then you get into Queen Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth Tudor, two of some of the most fascinating and celebrated women of all time. Like most of you, I thought I knew who these women were before I started only to discover that I was gravely mistaken there. The real women I met sing and dance through the pages in ways I certainly have never seen or heard done before. Literally. The pages of Mary Queen of the Scots and Queen Elizabeth Tudor: Journey to Gloriana are filled with period music. Chapter one of QET opens with “Sumer Is Icumen In” in Middle English which was actually one of the first medieval songs I ever learned to sing – along with “Greensleeves” which Queen Mary sings as a lullaby to her son James. The music and dance really make the two interlacing biographies a lot of fun!
Which book required the most research?
It’s a tie between Mary Queen of the Scots and Queen Elizabeth Tudor. With MQS I had to start from the very beginning – with ancient Scotland and then move forward from there. You see that research reflected in the opening poem to the book called “Of Scotland Forgotten.”
Woe to thee, oh Scotland
Our Pictish mothers’ tears like highland rain
For the queens of old are forgotten
Their valour now seen as depraved.
Where is your love for your queens
For Picts and Scots, Gaels and Brigantes?
For fair Mary your queen — cast aside
And praised instead the Puritan’s hateful hand.
You drove the fairest queen far away
To die disgraced on an English axe
Spilling the fairest and most Scottish blood of all.
And with her died the Scottish heart: brave and free.
With Elizabeth I used more sources. Part of that was there is so much out there about Elizabeth that there are a lot of contradictions to sort through. Not everything you read about Elizabeth is accurate (that applies to all the subjects of the LWWH, but especially toward Elizabeth) and there is a lot of commentary and opinions. So of course when I see disagreement, I have to do a lot of sifting to find the consensus and ultimately decide what really happened.
On average, how much time do you spend researching each book?
On average a book takes from two to four months. Research is about 80-90% of each book, so it’s very time intensive. The results of course speak for themselves. The research shows in the quality of each biography.
What’s next for this series?
Next is Empress Wu Zetian which actually was intended to be the third book. That plan shifted with the audio release of “Catherine de Valois” two months ahead of schedule and the need to have another book ready for audio production at Richard Mann’s convenience.
For those who have never heard of her, Empress Wu was the only woman to rule China completely in her own right. She lived in from 655-683 CE, ruling as part of the Tang dynasty. She was bright, highly educated, and very wise. She patronized both arts and sciences including and especially agricultural sciences. The perception by most Chinese that the Tang dynasty was a golden age is largely due to her wisdom and able governing and the intellectual flowering that came through her policies. Though we probably do not think about it, there is not a life born in the last one thousand years who is not touched in some way by her courage and wisdom.
Can you tell us about other books you’ve written?
To date I have published twenty titles across four book series. Two of those are flash fiction and forever free on Smashwords, iTunes, and Barnes/Noble. “American Poverty: Why America’s Treatment of the Poor Undermines Its Authority As A World Power” took me out of my comfort zone as I explored the relationship between poverty, public policy, and foreign policy, a topic raised by Russia’s recent aggressions towards the Ukraine and America’s inability to dissuade Vladimir Putin from continuing to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. It’s a powerful book grounded in data collected from top sources like Forbes, CNN Money, the New York Times, and American Express. Best of all it’s completely free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
By contrast “Preparing for My First Cockatiel” takes me into one of my favourite subjects in the world: BIRDS. Probably the first thing anyone learns about me personally is my love and adoration for birds, especially my cockatiels Mithril and Arwen who are the joy of my life. I always have my birds close to me and feel their absence intensely if I’m away from home for any length of time. I’m very dedicated to my birds and that shows in the book. In this book I explore everything a new or potential bird owner needs to know before taking home your first bird with focus on the specific needs of cockatiels. I look at proper housing for your birds (primary, hospital, and travel cages), play spaces, toys, food, food dishes, and beyond. Plus I share my thirty five years experience living with and loving these birds with personal stories and lots of photos so you get a clear idea what you are getting yourself into when you decide to add cockatiels to your family.
And then of course we hit the bulk of my book titles in the Peers of Beinan and Legendary Women of World History which we’ve touched upon just a little. The Peers of Beinan really does have something for every taste. The universe is grounded in science and in classic science fiction, integrating the ideas I feel really work (like units of time, distance, and physical details unique to planet Beinan) and avoiding the things I really think do not work – like Earth references when you are not on Earth. Beinarian society is a futuristic feudal culture (a Frank Herbert influence) grounded in my knowledge of British history. You encounter heritage weapons (like crossbows) and modern weapons (like laser épées). The Poisoned Ground is social science fiction ripped right from the headlines: the story of an environmental disaster triggered by corporate greed and government corruption takes Lady Abbess Cara away from the safety of the Ten-Arian monastery as she investigates the real cause of the sudden plague of cancers attacking the city of Nan-li. It’s a powerful story with important messages that resonate right here on Earth.
Finally I would like to call everyone’s attention to the second LWWH biography, “Catherine de Valois.” Princess Catherine is not the household name that Boudicca, Queen Mary Stuart, and Queen Elizabeth Tudor are, but she should be. Born in 1401 to King Charles VI of France and Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, she survived her father’s mental illness, a civil war at home, and King Henry V’s vicious war with France to become one of the most courageous of English queen consorts. She lived at the heart of some of the most violent and turbulent events in French-English history in an environment that would normally crush the spirit of most people. I am very proud of the audio edition. My narrator Richard Mann went outside of his comfort zone to sing in Medieval Latin in the book, expertly performing in English, French, Latin, and German. It’s a beautiful audiobook that deserves more attention than it’s received since its release in May.
Is there a particular period of time you find most fascinating that you haven’t written about yet?
I’ve always loved medieval history. So I’m looking forward to working on the biography of Empress Matilda of England (daughter of Henry I and mother-in-law to Eleanor of Aquitaine) who was the first woman to claim the throne of England in her own right. Queen Emma, wife of Canute, is another woman from the medieval period I would love to cover.
If you could go back in time to a certain setting and time period, what would be your first choice?
Well if I could go back and change history, I would certainly go back to the year 59 CE and warn Boudicca that the Romans were going to murder Prasutagus and perhaps help prepare her better for what the Roman strategy would be. The entire fate of Britannia rested on ONE military decision. Boudicca believed so strongly in the rightness of her cause (which most of us would agree with – freedom and equality for all people over the slavery, racism, and sexism of the Romans) that she was blind to the trap set for her by Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus.
If I were going back in time just to observe, I think I would like to be a lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn, both as a young woman in the French court and through her adventures and misadventures back in England which, sadly, eventually cost her life.
If you could sit down to dinner with five historical figures, who would you choose?
Anne Boleyn, Queen Mary Stuart, Alan Turing, Margaret Thatcher, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
What advice would you offer to new or aspiring writers?
There is no substitute for experience. The more you know, the more of the world you see and experience first-hand, and the more you write, the better your writing will be. Imagination is great, but you have to ground your work in FACTS. When I write, I always assume that the people reading my work know more about a given topic than I do. That’s important grounding and it’s served me VERY WELL professionally. I’ve had numerous academic challenges from scientists, historians, you name it! And I’ve passed all these challenges because I’ve been very careful to be accurate in my work. You cannot shortcut this and you certainly will never write your first book as you will your twentieth.
There’s a learning curve to all of this and you must approach this craft and this profession humbly, especially when marketing your finished work. Remember that you are your brand. So be careful to conduct yourself online in a way that positively reflects on your work. If they like you, they will buy your books. Be likeable!
To learn more about Laurel A. Rockefeller, please visit the following links: