17 May 2014

Christopher Columbus and Me

by Elizabeth Zelvin

For those of you who haven't yet discovered my latest novel, Voyage of Strangers, it's about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, and it's the sequel to my short story "The Green Cross", which first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Short Story.

Here's how it came about that I wrote "The Green Cross." One night about five years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with an unfamiliar but insistent voice knocking on the inside of my head.

"Let me out! Let me out!" it said.

It was Diego, a young marrano sailor, who would board the Santa Maria with Columbus in 1492, on the same day the Jews were expelled from Spain.

"Leave me alone!" I said. "I don't want to get out of bed and write your story down. I don't write historical fiction. I don't want to do research. I hate research."

"Let me out! Let me out!" Diego said. "I've been waiting five hundred years for you to tell my story."

Eventually, if only to shut him up, I got out of bed and scribbled a few notes. In the morning, reading them over, I still didn't want to write the story. I hated research. But Diego's voice was still insistent. I went online and discovered that material was readily available. It even included portions of the logbook that Columbus himself kept on the voyage. Within half an hour, I had enough for that first story, which took place on the Santa Maria and ended with the sighting of the first signs of land.

In turn, "The Green Cross" led to its sequel, "Navidad," which also appeared in EQMM. The novel itself continues the story of my protagonist Diego and his sister Rachel on Columbus's second voyage in 1493-1495. By that time, I had changed my mind about research, having fallen under the spell that motivates writers of historical fiction, learned a lot more about the tragic course of Columbus's discovery, and become fascinated by the many details that were more mindboggling than any I could have invented. My character Columbus changed from a kindly father-figure with detective skills to an obsessed and deluded leader who destroyed an earthly paradise and committed genocide on its people.

Diego and Rachel, secret Jews and therefore outsiders surrounded by the Spaniards' Christian culture, come of age in this doomed paradise, experiencing divided loyalties, love, and heartbreak in the course of Voyage of Strangers. Rachel, who was born as I wrote the first draft, is one of my favorite characters among all those I've created. Her voice and Diego's got stronger and stronger. The story poured out of me--not my usual experience with the first draft of a novel--my hero and heroine's fictional adventures weaving themselves almost effortlessly into the fabric of what actually happened in history.

In another of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios, as I wrote Voyage of Strangers, our own early-twenty-first-century world underwent a paradigm shift. The publishing industry imploded. By the time my novel was ready, everything had changed for both readers and writers. Over the next two years, I tried assiduously to find an agent or a publisher. I had some near misses, but the net result of 150 attempts was zero. Finally, I decided to publish Voyage of Strangers myself as an e-book.

But it ain't over till it's over, and it wasn't over yet. Two months after I uploaded Voyage of Strangers to Amazon as an indie e-book for Kindle, I got an email from a senior acquisitions editor at Amazon Publishing's Lake Union imprint for literary and general fiction, saying they loved the book and wanted to publish it and market it to a wider audience. So Voyage of Strangers will be out again in September as an e-book and trade paperback from Lake Union. And I'm happily researching and writing a sequel, which takes Diego first to war-torn Italy and then to Istanbul, where many of the Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition found refuge.

Note: A version of this post appeared on Poe's Deadly Daughters.


  1. The story of how you wrote this is as fascinating as the story it seems you have told in the book. I adore historical fiction, so this goes on my list. But I also have a piece of historical fiction in progress that's as intimidating as it is demanding (its characters have loud voices like Diego's). Thank you for sharing this journey with us.

  2. Always fascinating to encounter stories of "where it came from."

    Great post!

  3. Liz, the changes Diego and Rachel wrought certainly worked. I suspected you had deeply buried research genes and I’m ecstatic they surfaced.

    Readers won’t know we’ve exchanged brief notes, mainly when I spot an article or learned the NiƱa and Pinta replicas docked in Fernandina Beach.

    I’ll certainly keep a spyglass out for Diego and Rachel when they dock at my local (or Amazon) bookstore.

  4. Thanks, Leigh, Dix, and Anonymous. :) Yes, intimidating and demanding--and exhilarating too.

  5. Elizabeth, I read and enjoyed the story that began this journey for you. Congratulations on your success thus far! I hope the following works are huge hits!


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