Photo of John D. Cressler

Shadows in the Shining City – Book Two in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series

 Shadows in the Shining City  Comments Off on Shadows in the Shining City – Book Two in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series
Feb 122014

The Golden Age of Moorish Spain was during the 10th century, a time when the benevolent Syrian Arab Caliphs ruled Iberia from Córdoba, the site of the iconic Great Mosque and home to the Royal Library, one of the largest collections of ancient books ever assembled. 10th century Córdoba was the richest, most populous, and most cultured city in the western world. Under the tolerant Muslim Caliphs, the pinnacle of convivencia was attained, that unique period of Spanish history when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative harmony and peace. Multicultural Córdoba was an enlightened city that treasured its books, celebrated art and literature, advanced science and medicine, and its myriad accomplishments were envied by both the west and the east alike.

Shadows in the Shining City is a prequel to Emeralds of the Alhambra, and the second book in the Anthems of al-Andalus Series. Shadows tells the story of the forbidden love between Rayhana Abi Amir, a Muslim princess of the Royal Court, and Zafir Saffar, a freed slave. Young love blossoms in 10th century Madinat al-Zahra, the Shining City, the Caliph’s magnificent Royal Palace located just outside of Córdoba. Their love story is set against the backdrop of the epic rise to power of Rayhana’s ruthless father, a man history will come to both celebrate and revile for the role he plays in collapse of Moorish Spain.

Shadows will be released by Sunbury Press in the spring of 2014. Pre-orders can be made at:

A Collision of English History with Medieval Muslim Spain

 Emeralds of the Alhambra  Comments Off on A Collision of English History with Medieval Muslim Spain
Jul 102013

The following article appeared in the English Historical Fiction Authors Anthology on July 1, 2013 at —

Imagine a time when Muslims, Jews, and Christians found a way to live together in peace. Sound unbelievable? It is historical fact. Convivencia (coexistence of religions) is a largely forgotten triumph of al-Andalus (a catch-all word for the lands of medieval Muslim Spain). Peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christiana and Jews occurred in al-Andalus for nearly 300 years beginning in the 10th century. During the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), Muslims even took up their swords and fought alongside Christians.

By the 13th century, the Christian kingdoms are mid-stream in their attempted reconquista (reconquest) of al-Andalus, having conquered Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Murcia in 1243, and Sevilla in 1248, slowly but surely pushing the Moors into the Mediterranean Sea. (The Muslims of Spain, regardless of ancestry, are known collectively to Europeans by the term “Moors”.) The Kingdom of Granada is the final holdout of al-Andalus, a mere one-hundred mile wide swath of land at the extreme southeastern tip of Spain, stretching from the coast north of Mojácar, through Málaga, to Gibraltar.

Under the moderate Arab Nasrid clan, who rule from Alhambra Palace, the kingdom prospers, and by the 1360s Granada, under Sultan Muhammad V, remains a stubborn bulwark against Christian reconquista. Improbably, Granada is allied with the Muslim Marinid Empire of North Africa and is also a tribute-paying vassal state to the Christian Kingdom of Castile, ruled by King Pedro from Sevilla.

Tensions that have smoldered for decades between Castile and her Christian neighbors finally boil over. Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Enrique of Trastámara, is championed by the king of Aragon, who lusts after a unified Spain under Aragonese rule. Enrique is supported by King Charles V of France and even the Pope himself, who is presently in Avignon, itching to help cleanse Spain of infidel Moors. Enrique brashly declares himself the “true” king of Castile in 1366. The Castilian Civil War becomes a death match between Pedro and Enrique, brother against brother.

Enrique assembles a large army consisting of Aragonese, French, and Breton troops, supplemented by a diverse collection of mercenaries, and invades northern Castile from Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, forcing the unprepared Pedro to abdicate the Castillian throne without a major fight.

Pedro gathers his meagerly funded troops and retreats from Sevilla to Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where he begins frantic preparations for war. Meanwhile, England’s Sir Edward of Woodstock (Edward the Black Prince), in an attempt to head-off France’s thinly-veiled ambitions in Spain, as well as attempt his own land-grab, weighs in behind Pedro, and the Hundred Years’ War creeps south into Iberia. Sultan Muhammad of Granada, as vassal to Castile, walks a thin line between the warring brothers, but in the end, agrees to send 600 of his best cavalry to support Pedro.

Pedro’s ragtag army of 28,000 English, Castilian, Gascon, Aquitainian, Majorcan, and Muslim troops clash decisively with Enrique’s superior army of 60,000 at Nájera, in the Rioja region of northern Spain, on a fine spring day, the 3rd of April, 1367.

Among Enrique’s officers is Sir William Chandon. A strapping twenty-five year old, Chandon brilliantly leads the forces of Jean de Monfort from Brittany to victory over the House of Blois at the Battle of Auray in France in 1364, winning the Breton War of Succession, a linchpin in the Hundred Years’ War. As a reward for his valor at Auray, Monfort appoints Chandon Viscount of Saint-Sauveur in the Cotentin, Brittany, where he settles, a suddenly-landed, wealthy English knight living now as a Breton on French soil. At the request of the King of France, Chandon’s cavalry rides with Enrique.

The famous English longbow makes its first appearance in Spain at Nájera. Edward the Black Prince’s twelve thousand English longbowmen first overwhelm the French archers then train their arrows on Enrique’s cavalry, to devastating effect. Enrique’s Aragonese and French cavalry units panic and turn tail, leaving his flank and rear dangerously exposed. Edward the Black Prince strikes like a hammer.

Enrique’s force of 60,000 is quickly routed, with losses of 7,000 dead to Pedro’s 200. Enrique and his whipped forces limp back to Zaragoza to lick their wounds and regroup for round two of the fight. Pedro settles back into his palace in Sevilla, supremely confident.

Eight days later, on 11 April 1367, a Moor courier in transit from Granada to Sevilla is intercepted in Carmona and his throat slit. In his satchel is an official communiqué from Sultan Muhammad to King Pedro, declaring that Granada, empowered by Pedro’s decisive victory at Nájera, will seize the opportunity to strike north through Jaén and invade the former Castilian border lands presently occupied by Aragon.

Made aware three days later of this bold and unexpected move by the Moors, Enrique, fearing a two-front war, summons Chandon and sends his elite Breton cavalry south to bolster the garrison of Castillo de Santa Catalina in Jaén, only forty miles north of Granada. Enrique’s instructions to Chandon are simple – send an emphatic message that Aragon is off limits to Moor meddling.

My novel, an interfaith love story entitled Emeralds of the Alhambra, begins here with the Breton-Moor battle for Jaén.

Historical Relevance: Anchoring Fiction Upon Non-fiction Roots

 Emeralds of the Alhambra Book Tour  Comments Off on Historical Relevance: Anchoring Fiction Upon Non-fiction Roots
Jun 302013

The following was a guest blog I did on the site Straight-from-Hel ( —


As a non-fiction author, professor and scientist, I come to the noveling business from a unique vantage point. For my first ten years of writing, I published five non-fiction books. My great love remains, however, historical fiction, and in 2009 I decided it was finally time to write a novel. Emeralds of the Alhambra, my debut historical novel, an interfaith love story set in medieval Muslim Spain, was just released by Sunbury Press ( That transition from non-fiction author to novelist was a fascinating one, and exceptionally rewarding. While I suspect I will never return to writing non-fiction, I do think my fiction benefits from my non-fiction career. Let me explain.

Writing non-fiction and fiction are very different, in many obvious ways: tone, narrative style, subject matter. I find that writing fiction requires much more contact with my material, a daily obsession of sorts. What I most enjoy about writing fiction are the nearly constant unanticipated discoveries in plot and character, the unexpected twists and turns.

With Emeralds, before pen ever met paper, I first mapped out the plot in several dozen pages, to bind the themes and characters to historical events, describing in bold strokes what I thought should happen. The magical part of the creative process with fiction is that inevitably the characters and plot threads begin to deviate from plan, assuming a life of their own. I love this! On almost a daily basis, as I was driving to work, thinking about my characters still, retracing the plot threads, thoughts would spontaneously jump into my head: “Well, of course, she needs to do this!” or “Obviously this needs to happen.” These were things that I had never anticipated during my initial planning phase, but were birthed from the creative energy of noveling. While the broad strokes of the story remained at the end of the day, the nuances of plot and character evolved in fascinating ways. That creative aspect is unique to fiction and I find it profoundly satisfying. It is something I have never experienced writing non-fiction.

All that said, I do believe my background in writing non-fiction has served me well as training for my fiction writing. Writing non-fiction forced me to be a detail person, comfortable with facts and figures and dates and people. Emeralds tells an epic story, so being able to balance multiple intricate plot threads with a large cast of characters was key, and my non-fiction writing made me quite comfortable doing that. I think my scientific background (physics and math), my vivid imagination, and my artistic sensibilities also helped me in my description of the magical art and architecture of the Alhambra Palace in Granada (the setting for Emeralds).

In addition, topical relevance was always a big deal with my non-fiction. I attempted to craft books that people needed to read, that were relevant to their lives. Especially in my non-fiction sculpted for general audiences (Silicon Earth and Reinventing Teenagers) this was always my key concern. With Emeralds, this aspect of relevance was also priority #1. I wanted to tell a great story, yes, but I wanted it to be relevant to a modern reader, not just a good yarn set in antiquity.

After quite a bit of research, I found a period of history that suited my goals perfectly: medieval Muslim Spain. As all would agree, our modern world is stained with the blood of religious conflict and fanaticism, and yet somehow we managed to forget that for hundreds of years in medieval Spain, Christians, Muslims and Jews found a way to live together in relative peace, sharing languages and customs, whispering words of love across religious boundaries, embracing a level of mutual acceptance and respect unimaginable today. Together, they launched one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. My fiction is intended to break open this fascinating time period in an engaging manner (a love story). Relevant to 2013? You bet it is!

Is my fiction better for having non-fiction roots? Definitely. While it is fiction full-steam-ahead for this author, my non-fiction background will always be treasured as a foundation for better, more relevant novels.

Virtual Book Tour for Emeralds of the Alhambra

 Emeralds of the Alhambra Book Tour  Comments Off on Virtual Book Tour for Emeralds of the Alhambra
Jun 162013

A virtual tour takes a book through online sites that feature content about the author and title during a short length of time. Virtual tours became popular when the value of book bloggers’ followings became apparent in terms of exposure, promotion, and book sales. On a virtual tour, the book is toured on blogs, forums, social networking pages, frequently updated websites, and video sites.  Content during a tour may include interviews, excerpts, author videos, book trailers, podcasts, original reviews, review snippets, endorsements, cover art, headshots, candids, author essays, articles, book giveaways and guest blog posts.

The Emeralds Virtual Book Tour launched on June 15, and will continue for the next month or so. Stops of the book tour are listed below. Specific urls will be updated as they come available.

6/15, My Seryniti, , review by Nova Reylin

6/15, Romance Reviews Today , review by Jani Brooks

6/15 – 6/29, GoodReads, signed paperback giveaway

6/16, Examiner  , trailer

6/16, Pop Junkee , trailer

6/17, Straight from Hel Blog , guest post and giveaway

6/18, Page 99 Test , excerpt

6/19, Historical Novels Info  , listing (scroll down to The Continent – 14-15th Centuries)

6/19, English Epics 101 , release announcement

6/21 Historical Fiction Daily , guest post

6/23 – 6/29, Venture Galleries  , guest post

6/23, Venture  , listing

6/24, Candle Beam Books Blog  , review by Beth Diiorio

6/26, PWRNetwork , radio interview with Lillian Cauldwell

6/30 – 7/13, The Celebrity Café , signed paperback giveaway

7/1, English History Authors Blog , article and anthology entry

7/1 – 7/8, English History Authors Blog , signed paperback giveaway

7/4, Haselton Reviews and Interviews , interview and excerpt

7/10, Southern Writers Magazine Blog , article

7/14, Fresh Fiction Blog , , guest post

7/14 – 7/18, Fresh Fiction Blog  , signed paperback giveaway   


More stops pending! Stay tuned!

May 202013

It fascinates me that fiction authors really never know which, if any, of the established “review houses” will actually review their work. You send in the bound galley proofs to a couple of dozen houses, cross your fingers, and then…wait…and wait…and wait some more. Either the reviews show up unannounced…or they don’t. And the review houses will never give you a simple “yes” or a “no” that they are actually reading your darn book. Torturous.

I just received my first “Review House” critique of Emeralds of the Alhambra by Jani Brooks for Romance Reviews Today (

Her review will post there upon release (June 15), and is parked on Goodreads until then. Curious what she thought? Take a look:

Emeralds of the Alhambra, by John D. Cressler, to be released by Sunbury Press, June 15, 2013.

Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Review of Cressler’s Emeralds of the Alhambra
May 072013

Having just come to the end of the review cycle by the endorsers of Emeralds of the Alhambra, I have discovered something new in the process. Placing your ‘baby’ into the hands of a diverse set of very well-known people can be incredibly anxiety producing! Thankfully, the results have been truly gratifying. I thought Professor Susan Abraham’s review of Emeralds was particularly insightful. She “got” the broad themes of the book that I was striving for when I wrote it, and codified my message beautifully. I am including her review below. Enjoy!

Emeralds of the Alhambra, by John D. Cressler, to be released by Sunbury Press, June 15, 2013.

“John D. Cressler’s debut novel reveals the infinite artistic capacity of a polymath whose diverse interests create a vivid and gorgeous world of romance, intrigue, murder and negotiations between multiple religions in medieval Spain. Emeralds of the Alhambra is a fascinating and historically realistic portrayal of life in Muslim Spain in the 14th century. Cressler has woven an imaginative and intricately persuasive story that successfully does two things. One, the historical details provide for absorbing reading in the depiction of medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures and religious identities living side by side. Here, conflict, war, assassinations and cooperation for religious, cultural and political survival translate into lessons from history for our contemporary time. Second, a model for interreligious life emerges in these pages: one that is nurtured in the context of intimate, covenanted and familial relationality. Interreligious marriages have been in many parts of the world a prime vehicle for interreligious convivial life. The possibility of intimate love sprouting in the context of multiple religious identities is one that reveals the true meaning of “conversion” to the human and Divine Other. Cressler deftly presents his characters as multidimensional; Jews, Muslims and Christians are not Westernized caricatures of good and evil. The novel prods us to note that there never was a monolithic Christianity, Judaism or Islam in human history, a compelling lesson gleaned through Cressler’s artistic vision. The difference between the Muslim Maghreb and Muslim Granada are meticulously sketched in an imaginative frame to reveal its influence still being played out in our time.

Of the more evocative perceptions the reader is left with at the end of the novel is Cressler’s loving attention to the unparalleled beauty of the Alhambra and the manner that Muslim architecture presents the occasion for glorifying the divine in its sumptuous materiality. Cressler’s engineering reflexes, inflected with a deep love of beauty, are in full view in the various descriptions of the palaces and mosques of the Alhambra. In one exquisite passage describing the Hall of the Abencerrages within the Palace of the Lions, he writes: ‘The mocárabes coalesce into an elaborate eight-pointed star, the heavens, resting upon the cubic hall below, the earth, inviting the visitor’s gaze upwards to the divine….The calculus of the ceiling produces a meditative sculpture on the nature of time, the separation of heaven and earth, Allah and man.’

Emeralds of the Alhambra is a coruscant story of love between human beings, for God, and for the creation so graciously bestowed on us. A thoroughly gripping and engaging first novel.”

─Professor Susan Abraham, Harvard Divinity School

Apr 172013

The Great Mosque of Córdoba (la Mezquita), together with the Alhambra Palace in Granada, are the most important architectural legacies of medieval al-Andalus. The Great Mosque was constructed between 785 and 987 C.E. and even today remains one of the largest mosques ever constructed. Its distinctive red-and-white double horseshoe columns are iconic in medieval Islamic architecture. I visited the Great Mosque in the fall of 2010 while doing research for Emeralds of the Alhambra. Wow! I arrived just after sunrise, before the crowds descended. It was a magical moment, a chance to travel back in time, to imagine. An unforgettable experience. Below are some pictures of the interior as well as an impressionist scene excerpted from book two of the “Anthems of al-Andalus” Series, Shadows on the Shining City.

Interior view of the double-arched interior.


The mihrab, constructed by Caliph al-Hakam II in the late 10th century Córdoba (the setting for Shadows in the Shining City). Over 1800 kg of gold and tons of mosaics were sent as a gift by the Byzantine emperor to help complete the structure.


The gold dome rising above the mihrab.

The second novel in the “Anthems of al-Andalus” series is set in late 10th century Córdoba, at the height of the Umayyad Golden Age (when la convivencia (coexistence) reigned).

Excerpt from Shadows in the Shining City, by John D. Cressler, coming 2014 from Sunbury Press.

“The doubled-tier of arches floats upon marble columns slender as a young girl, evoking a dense forest of date palms ringing a lush oasis in the Syrian desert. The trees are endless, stunning in their uniformity, the view from any vantage upon the floor identical. Umayyad horseshoes, commandeered from the ancient Visigoths and perfected, visually arresting in their alternating bands of red and white, the colors of the Caliph.

The doubled-horseshoes join forces to disperse and break the weight of the low ceiling, producing a complex play of light upon shadow, sound upon silence, a paradox of intimacy bounded by such a vast open space.

There is some magical architectural abstraction at work in the forest of Umayyad palms, a labyrinth without walls, a spatial arabesque of red and white that shouts its metaphor, the infinity of Allah. The worshipper praying at any location in the giant structure resides at the very center of the cosmos, a mirror to Allah’s desired union, Creator with his creation, at one instance of time, at one location in space, there to stretch out in all directions, for all eternity. This is a temple of prayer. This is a communion of souls.

The floor of the great space is a sea of woven hemp, the shifting sands of an endless desert. Rows of the prostrate faithful stretch straight as arrows, hundreds times hundreds. Their foreheads and palms are flat to the sand, the ocean of souls gathered in perfect symmetry about the breathtaking mihrab of Byzantine gold and cobalt mosaics, a pathway opened to Mecca.

The Grand Imam proclaims, “Subhana rabbi al-a la wa-bi-hamdih.” Glory to my Lord, the Most High, the Most Praiseworthy. Thousands of whispers coalesce in echo. Again. A third time. Then the Grand Imam says, “Allahu akbar!” God is Great! Deafening roar. Hundreds times hundreds rise into a kneeling posture as a single organism.”

Mar 232013

Emeralds of the Alhambra takes place in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1366-1369). The Alhambra is the best-preserved medieval Islamic palace in Europe, if not the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada (maps can be found on my website: The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (al-hamra is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada, located in extreme southeastern Spain. The Alhambra Palace complex contained the royal palace of the Nasrid Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the kingdom, and a separately castled garrison.

Like all Islamic palaces, the Alhambra has a remarkably plain exterior, with no hint of the marvels lurking with, and is divided into several distinct palace complexes. Below are pictures I made while visiting the Alhambra in the fall of 2010 while I was doing research for Emeralds.

The Courtyard of the Myrtles in the Comares Palace, with the Hall of the Ambassadors rising behind it. In medieval times the myrtle hedges would have been inset into the ground to avoid obstructing the view of the pool.

An interior view of the Hall of the Ambassadors, the throne room of the Sultan. Note the elaborate stucco carvings on the walls. The Sultan’s throne would have been at the extreme left.

The ubiquitous motto of the Kingdom of Granada, inscribed everywhere within the palace complex. Read right to left, it translates, “There is no victor but Allah.”

The famous courtyard of the Palace of the Lions, containing 124 columns, and the marvelous lion fountain at its center. All of the fountains within the Alhambra (dozens) were gravity powered.

The remarkable prismatic ceiling mocárabes of the Hall of the Two Sisters within the Palace of the Lions.

The prismatic ceiling mocárabes of the Hall of the Abencerrages within the Palace of the Lions.

Tips on How to Sell Your Novel

 Publishing Your Novel  Comments Off on Tips on How to Sell Your Novel
Feb 222013

I thought it might interesting to share my experiences between finishing my debut novel, Emeralds of the Alhambra, and actually selling it to Sunbury Press. The process took…gulp…nearly one full year.

First things first. Publishing non-fiction and publishing fiction are completely different propositions. As a professor, most of my non-fiction (5 books and counting) happened like this. For technical non-fiction (i.e., textbooks), Publisher X approaches me, not vice versa, and says, “Hey, we would like you to consider writing a book on topic Y. You write it, and then we will take care of everything else.” Read: mighty easy.

Fiction is a whole ‘nother story! Let me elaborate. With a novel, the “classical” path to publication is the following. First roadblock: major publishing houses (Random house, Simon and Schuster, Scribners, etc.) do not, and will not, talk to authors directly, unless you have some serious network connection and can pull strings behind the scenes. For the debut novelist like myself, even though already published, no dice. The path from manuscript to large publishing house is gated. And locked. Instead, authors must find an agent, sign a contract with the agent, and then the agent is authorized to speak directly with publishing houses (for a fee, of course, typically 10% of your royalties).

Lession #1? When your manuscript is done and you are satisfied with it, forget getting a publisher, and instead focus on getting an agent!

Sounds simple, BUT, the trick is that you first have to convince an agent, any agent, that it is worth their time/energy to represent you. Read: they need to see that they can make money on you. So you go to some source for listings of literary agencies, either on-line or printed (e.g., Writer’s Market), spend hours sifting to get a short list of agencies that: a) seem to fit your goals/vision (right size, right location, the vibe is good, etc.), and b) handle your genre (for me, historical fiction). Then you go to their web site, check them out, find which agent in the agency handles your genre and their contact point (usually an email address, often manned not by the agent, but by their assistant).

Fine. The next step “classically” proceeds by you submitting a single page (no more!) “elevator pitch,” called a “query letter” to the agent, and if they are sold on your idea, you have “hooked them,” then a dance will commence, typically along these lines. Gate 1 is passed – you got an “interested” response not an outright rejection. Gate 2) Agent emails back saying, “liked your query, send me a synopsis, bio, and the first 3 chapters of the book” (this is called a “partial” request). You send this in and wait. A long while. Gate 3) Agents emails back. “I liked this, send me the full manuscript.” You send this in and wait. A longer while. Gate 4) Agent emails back. “I like this and think I can sell it. Let’s talk.” Hopefully that culminates in a signed agent contract. Then, and only then, does your manuscript begin to move forward to being published. Whew! Exhausting just to think about, right? At that stage the agent does the sales work, and hopefully a publishing house loves your book and agrees to publish it. How long do you wait while the agent works their magic? It may be a long while! No timelines are short in this business.

In my case, I went through this agent process 4 separate times, over about 9 months, and in each cycle I contacted about 15 agents (each time with a modified query letter to try and strike gold). I got decent (though not stellar) responses to Gate 1. About 15-20% of my submissions got an “I’m interested” response. Most, however, were numbing rejection form letters. Trust me, that gets old real quick. So I sent my partials. Gate 2. Some agents bailed there for really weird reasons. Examples: 1) “You write really well, but there is just too much history going on here (reminder: it is a historical novel); 2) “Interesting idea, but I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue (look it up, I had to!). I write back. “I have a pet peeve against expository dialogue, too! Can you point to an example, I don’t see any instances in what I sent you?” No response. “I love this, but it just doesn’t jazz me enough to take it on.” You get the idea.

I ended up at Gate 3 with 4 agents who asked for the whole beast, from 4 respectable NY agencies. Some impressions from that process: 1) It took FOREVER to hear back from them. Many months. 2) When I did hear back the responses were again all over the map: “Much to commend it but just does not give the spark I need to move forward. And there were some ‘intangibles’ too.” No comment other than that. Done. Door closed. Hmmm. BUT there was a universal thread in these Gate 3 responses. As an agent, no way, no how do you ever give substantive feedback to the author or respond to an author’s email response to your rejection. “I am sorry to hear that. Intangibles? Can you explain what you mean by that? I would be happy to revise the manuscript.” Universal silence. And it was very clear from the agent’s comments that they in fact had not read the book to its end (“I like it a lot, but the pacing feels slow” – trust me, the last 150 pages are a roller coaster ride). It was amply clear they had not read to the end of the book. After having kept it for several months before rejecting it.

Certainly, the reasonable person might legitimately say, “Well, if the agent didn’t bother to finish your book, maybe that is indictment enough of how lousy your book is!” Perhaps. In my own case, I used a diverse audience of 25 readers to give me feedback at the draft stage. I was pretty confident it was a compelling read. In one case, I asked the agent directly. “What did you think of my ending?” That universal silence.

I found out from the web site for one of my agents the kind of numbers you are up against in the hooking an agent in this game. She put them in a presentation she gave. It is sobering, so brace yourself. She personally receives 7000 queries per year (she is one of a dozen agents in that agency). You read that right…a 7 and 3 zeros. Of those she will invite 5% to submit 3 chapters (350). Her assistant weeds these before she sees the final cut. Of those, she will ask 10% (35) for full manuscripts. Her assistant weeds these before the final cut. Of those she typically takes on 10% (3-4) to represent. In her case, I made it to the last round, but was not selected. Heavy sigh. No wonder this is such a slog!

So what to do? In my case, I was so disheartened by the whole numbing process that I took a breather, threw all my agent stuff in a drawer and started on book two in my trilogy. Now THAT was fun!

When I had cooled down (took weeks) I did a bit more researching on the topic and found that some folks actually advise skipping this whole agent mess and going after small traditional publishing houses; importantly, there are some of those that actually encourage authors to directly send their manuscripts directly to them, no agent needed. Imagine?!

Fine. One last shot. I decided that if this didn’t pan out I would just publish the dang thing myself. So I went back to Writer’s Market and researched my top 10 small publishing houses that fit my vision, re-crafted my query letter and shipped them the letter and partials (they typically want more than just the query). Within a week I had heard from editors at 3 (3!) publishers saying that they liked my idea and wanted more. Within two weeks, I had the most welcomed news an author can imagine. “…struck an immediate chord — a very timely novel…  We love the trilogy idea and would like to offer you a contract for all three books.”

May you? MAY YOU?! Are you kidding?! PLEASE!

The rest is history. I signed with Sunbury Press, to whom I will always be indebted, and Emeralds of the Alhambra is due out late spring. And I already have a publisher for books two and three. HOORAY!

There you have it!

Moral #1: This whole agent scene leaves a lot to be desired. I am putting that mildly.

Moral #2: You can get your novel published without an agent.

Moral #3: Publishing novels is a crazy business!


Curious about my query letter that did the trick? See below:


Cressler’s Winning Query Letter:


Dear Mr. Publisher:

How could we forget? We live in a world being torn apart by religious tensions and fanaticism, yet we managed to forget that for hundreds of years Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in peace, sharing languages and customs, embracing a level of tolerance and mutual respect unheard of today. Working together, these three peoples spawned one of the great intellectual and cultural flowerings of history. When and where? Medieval Spain. Our aching world desperately needs to recall this forgotten fact, these rich possibilities.

Emeralds of the Alhambra, a historical novel, reawakens this remarkable era via the relationship between William Chandon, a wounded Christian knight brought to the Sultan’s court in Granada, and the strong-willed Layla al-Khatib, who is on a quest to become the first female Sufi Muslim mystic in a male-dominated society. As Chandon’s influence at court grows, he becomes trapped between his forbidden love for Layla, his Christian heritage, the demands of chivalry, and political expediency. Chandon must make a choice between love and honor, peace and war, life and death, a choice which ultimately will seal Granada’s fate as the last surviving stronghold of Muslim Spain.

Emeralds is set in the resplendent Alhambra Palace in Granada during the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), a time when, improbably, Muslims took up their swords to fight alongside Christians.

Emeralds of the Alhambra is the first book in the trilogy Anthems of al-Andalus (I am presently 150 pages into book two). I am a professor at Georgia Tech and have won international awards for my writing (George E. Smith Award, 2007), my teaching (Leon Kirchmayer Award, 2011), and my research (elected Fellow of the IEEE, 2001). I am Editor-in-Chief of a leading technical journal (IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices). I have published five non-fiction books (two for general audiences). Emeralds is my debut novel. I am well-versed in the use of web resources and social media for book promotion, I have conducted book signings (which include presentations), and I routinely speak to large crowds on a variety of topics (both technical and nontechnical). I have appeared twice on TV (CNN and AIB-TV).

The completed 126,000 word manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration and I look forward to hearing from you soon.


The Role e-Technology Plays in My Historical Fiction Writing

 Novel Writing with e-Technology  Comments Off on The Role e-Technology Plays in My Historical Fiction Writing
Jan 282013

As my family knows well, as do my students, I have a love-hate relationship with electronics technology (e-Technology) in most forms (those ubiquitous e-Gadgets). While my laptop is an essential companion and I am addicted to e-mail as a form of communication, I do not carry a cell phone, and I do not text (the horror!). I find smart phones just too intrusive, and the constant interruptions of the insidious “ding” of an incoming text disturb my sense of balance and my need to reflect/think/imagine. But I have been musing of late on the role that e-Technology has played, and is playing still, in my novel writing. Let me explain.

While I grew up writing in longhand (which has since devolved into near illegibility these days!), and have kept a journal for most of my life in longhand, the demands of academic life quickly forced me to learn to compose on a computer using a word processor (i.e., MS Word). I found this cumbersome at first, then more comfortable, then absolutely indispensable, especially with respect to productivity in my writing enterprise (my research team has published over 500 scientific papers).

When I begin to compose I start by laying down a few lines, then editing it, often trashing what I just wrote, then starting anew for another variant, and I repeat this process until the words begin to smoothly unfold in a way that pleases me. Finally, I arrive where I need to be, I find my muse, my voice, and all flows from me rather fluidly at that point. But my habit with composition (especially with fiction) is to do a paragraph at a time, and then go back edit, re-edit, write another paragraph, then re-read/re-edit from the day’s beginning, slowly but surely advancing the wordscape (admittedly at a snail’s pace!). In short, composing is a highly iterative process for me, and one that requires a ton of changes to my prose as I go. When done, I may still tweak what I wrote from time to time, but I don’t rest well with a “rough draft” in a conventional sense, instead preferring to edit/re-edit until it is 95% of what I want (hopefully 100%). It is just my creative style.

During my research for Emeralds of the Alhambra, I traveled to Spain and spent two weeks on site (Sevilla, Córdoba, Jaén and Granada). To my intense chagrin, my laptop died only a few days after arriving. Major panic! At that stage I was already about five months into my writing. One of things I had really wanted to do while in Spain was not just note taking and absorbing, but also some composing, especially while on-site inside the Alhambra while that special world was at my fingertips.

Sigh. It was back to longhand. Wow, what a chore! I filled a whole notebook with scribbling, inked blue with cross-outs and arrows and annotations and whole pages chopped up to insert elsewhere. And the ache in my hand after even an hour of writing! That, I had forgotten. This forced rediscovery of the perils of longhand composition was no surprise, in retrospect, but it did make me step back and appreciate just what a productivity boost electronic word processing brings to the novel writing business. One obvious downside of e-composing? It is not easy to look back and study the changes to an author’s prose with the various drafts as they evolve (I just saw a new book on Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms that includes the various drafts and the word changes and strikeouts and key alterations – fascinating). To at least partially get around this I date-stamp and save my manuscript as I go (every couple of weeks), so that I can look back and see how things went if I ever need to.

What are the attributes to e-composing that I enjoy most? The breeze of cut-and-paste. A quick search to locate a scene from 166 pages back I need to instantly find and re-read, or typing a character’s name in to locate all the scenes they are presently hiding in. Spell checks. Word counts. Passwords.

And then there is Google. Wow! I find that as I write, especially with historical fiction, where so many facts and people and dates are involved, there are constantly things I need to know while writing that I do not know, despite my many months of research. I call these the “unanticipated must-haves.” For example: What types of chain mail were used by knights in the fourteenth century? What did crossbows look like and how were they used? How quickly could they be fired? What was on the flag of the Kingdom of Castile in 1367? How did coinage differ between medieval Christian and Muslim kingdoms? How do you say “good morning” in Arabic? “I love you”? What names were common in the fourteenth century for Muslims and Christians, men vs. women? What did the Sufis’ believe vs. mainstream Muslims in the medieval period? When did Rumi’s poetry make it to Spain? The list is positively endless!

In the old days, one was forced (I suppose) to construct a list of daily information needs and then spend time locked in the library chasing things down. Today, I pop up Google Chrome, do a Google Search, then find a Wiki entry or a map that tells me everything I need to know. The world at my fingertips. I have found that there is a real knack to a quick data track-down of “unanticipated must-haves.” The interruption to my composition process of this search? Minimal. Five minutes to find and absorb and then I am back elbow-deep in my prose and moving forward. I cannot begin to imagine how much slower the writing process would be if the internet were not at my fingertips.

Do I maintain a love-hate relationship with e-Technology? I do. Am I a hook-line-and-sinker subscriber to e-composing with the internet at my fingertips? I am. Believe it!