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Judith Starkston’s Fantasy Trilogy

In this feature I’m asking authors to share their knowledge about writing, publishing, and marketing their books. I’m calling it “Ten Questions,” and I’m hoping the feature will be valuable for readers who are curious about the “behind the curtain” aspects of what it takes to bring a book into the world. It’s always a special pleasure to participate in an author’s book launch, to know how long it took to write the book and what went into the research. Thank you, Judith Starkston, for allowing us to share in your excitement about your new book release, Sorcery in Alpara.–Marylee MacDonald

A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.

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Judith Starkston’s PRIESTESS OF ISHANA is available free on Amazon Oct 2-6 in anticipation of the Oct 14 launch of the next book in the series, Sorcery in Alpara. An award-winning historical fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life adventures of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.

Judith Starkston’s Author Tip: “I found as I learned the craft that pacing was both the hardest part to get right and the most essential. If readers aren’t compulsively drawn through my story, it doesn’t matter how beautiful my writing is and all the rest (though I work hard to get all that nailed).”

priestess ishana

The Priestess of Ishana is the first book in Judith Starkston’s fantasy trilogy about the ancient Hittite Empire.

Judith Starkston is the author of three books of historical fantasy based on the Bronze Age Hittites—an empire of the ancient Near East nearly buried by the sands of time. Her books take “a quarter turn to the fantastic,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s phrase, and give full expression to the magical religious beliefs of these historical people. She immerses her readers in the authentic Hittite world while also creating spell-binding stories of fantasy and magic in the Bronze Age.

MM A book begins as an idea in the writer’s imagination. Eventually, this grain of sand turns into a pearl. What was the grain of sand that fired your imagination?

JS When I was researching my first book, Hand of Fire, set in the Trojan War, I made a startling side discovery—a queen I’d never heard of who ruled for decades over an empire I’d barely heard of, despite my training and degrees as a classicist. It was the Hittite empire, of which, it turns out, Troy was a part. The queen was Puduhepa (whom I call Tesha in my fiction–the Hittite word for “dream”). I’m particularly interested in the theme of women as leaders, so I was hooked. The Hittite empire could be called the forgotten empire, but fortunately, recent archaeology and the decipherment and translation of many thousands of clay tablets have filled in parts of the lost history. I use shifted names in my series, such as Hitolia for the Hittite empire, to cue my readers to how much I have to fill in imaginatively from those fragmentary records. We do now have many Hittite letters, prayers, judicial decrees, treaties, religious rites and a variety of other documents. All that juicy primary source material, an extraordinary female ruler, and an ancient world that totally intrigued me all became my grain of sand for Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara.

MM How did you approach turning this idea into a manuscript, and eventually a book? Did you take classes, read books, or just plunge in?

JS I did a great deal of research in a couple of university libraries and built my own personal library of resources. Just as important, I traveled to the archaeological sites, landscapes and museum collections of the Hittite world—that is in modern Turkey. The Hittite empire of the Bronze Age (my novels are set around 1275 BCE) spread also into what is now Syria and Lebanon. I had already taken a lot of classes and workshops about the writing craft—a process that never stops because developing my writing is a constant growth not a static goal.was considering which of many plot ideas I would use for my writers’ critique group, and I thought this would be a lot of fun to write. I wondered what if someone came to the party with murder in his heart and poison in his pocket? From there, I just plunged in.

MM Authors today have many options when it comes to publication. Did you work with an agent, find a publisher through other means, or self-publish your book?

JS  I published my first book through a small press, but have since gotten my rights back. I’ll just say that wasn’t a happy experience. Later I signed with a great agent and he took my next series out to market. In the end, I decided to publish it myself. Editors loved my manuscript, but they clearly didn’t see dollar signs in a historical fantasy series based in the Hittite empire. There certainly isn’t a booming market in Hittite books—write WWII if you want to go with the current trend for bestsellers. But that’s what I write and I want to keep writing this series for a long time to come, so I decided that handing my rights over to a publisher that could kill at will wasn’t part of my life plan. I love to write and readers are enthusiastic about my fiction, so I’ll build my readership over time. That has been working very well. It means learning a lot about every aspect of publishing and marketing, but I enjoy the challenges.

MM What is the biggest single lesson you learned during the writing process?

JS Write regularly—every day if you can—and don’t be afraid to learn new things, whether that is a new approach to the actual writing craft or a marketing approach or whatever it might be. Be open to new skills and always listen with an open mind to criticism.

MM What would you advise others who are still at the idea stage?

JS Write at least a little bit every day and give yourself permission to write “bad words.” What do I mean by that? Just write and don’t worry whether it’s crap or not. Later you can go back and edit or trash if need be. I find that it is often the days when I think I’m writing the worst that I discover on later read, I’ve written some of my best. And you can only fix words that are actually on the page.

MM Were there any writing tools you’d recommend? Did you use apps like Grammarly, Scrivener, or another outliner to help you structure your book?

JS I use Scrivener and like that program very much. It allows me to see my manuscript from the bird’s eye view and to jump between scenes and chapters easily. All that is especially useful in the editing stage, but even in the drafting stage, being able to open Scrivener to the very place I left off the day before—no hunting and waiting—is an advantage over a big Word doc. I use a couple approaches to outlining and organizing my manuscripts. One is very character/theme/pacing driven, Libbie Hawker’s book Take Your Pants Off. The other, very plot and pacing driven, is a storyboarding technique that means I’ve got each of my books laid out on a three-sided board like we all used for our school science projects. It’s explained in Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. You’ll notice in both the word “pacing.” I found as I learned the craft that pacing was both the hardest part to get right and the most essential. If readers aren’t compulsively drawn through my story, it doesn’t matter how beautiful my writing is and all the rest (though I work hard to get all that nailed). A good story is hard to put down—that’s something we all intuitively know. The corollary is that if a story is hard to get through, it isn’t very good!

MM Was it hard to decide on a cover, or did you or your publisher hire a professional designer?

JS I have no talent or vision in the graphic arts department, so my approach to covers is to research and hire the best designer for my particular style/genre of book. I love my book cover artist, Heather Senter. My covers are dramatic, eye-catching and immediately tell readers that my books are fantasy with strong historical world-building. She shows me draft ideas all through the process so that I can say yes or no to them. I could never imagine beforehand the amazing designs she creates, but each has felt exactly right.

MM Who is your ideal reader? Who would particularly enjoy your book/s?


Sorcery, magic, political intrigue, and a compelling love story in the ancient Hittite (Hitolian) Empire are what give this fantasy series its broad appeal. Sorcery in Alpara officially goes on sale on October 14.

JS All the marketing gurus say that I should have a very specific answer to that question, but I don’t. When I’m writing, my audience is someone like me, a book I’d want to read. That’s the only brain and heart I have full access to. But when I go to events, whether book signings, library events, Comicons, reader conferences and the like, I look out and see a delightfully diverse crowd, across the age, race, culture, gender spectrums. And that’s true of my online interactions, also. I would have guessed that my books, heavy on strong female characters, would appeal more to women than men, and I would have guessed that those women would be mostly middle-aged, but that’s not turning out to be true. And thank goodness for that! I enjoy the diversity. So when I’m supposed to “target” my marketing, I’m always at sea, but, on the other hand, I have great conversations with my readers.

MM How do you connect with readers? Do you like to do live events, such as book fairs or library talks, or have you found readers through social media, Goodreads, or Amazon?

JS I do enjoy live events and do as many as fit in my schedule. Online, I have created a community that is interested in the ancient world, archaeology and history, and is open to both historical fiction and historical fantasy based in the distant past. On my website I write a weekly blog that highlights what’s the latest in archaeological discoveries and connects my readers to other historical fantasy and historical fiction authors they’d enjoy. That’s my “brand” on Facebook and Twitter, as well. My newsletter is the best place for readers to hook into my community.

MM What has been your greatest reward in undertaking this publishing journey? (This doesn’t have to be a financial reward.)

JS The long hours at my desk lost in the world that I write in the company of my characters.

For more about Judith Starkston’s trilogy, read on:

“What George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones did for the War of the Roses, Starkston has done for the forgotten Bronze Age Hittite civilization. Mystery, romance, political intrigue, and magic…” -Amalia Carosella, author of Helen of Sparta

Priestess of Ishana, ebook ASIN B07KNYWT36, $2.99, Paperback ISBN 978-1-7328339-2-0, $15.99, buy link

Sorcery in Alpara,  ebook ASIN B07X9XD849, $2.99, Paperback ISBN 978-1-7328339-4-4, $15.99  buy link

Hand of Fire, ebook ASIN B07HMD4TC1, $2.99, Paperback ISBN 978-1732833906, $15.99, Buy link:



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