Monday, December 29, 2008

Art and Love in Renaissance Italy

I just discovered this exhibition running at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 16: "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy." Here is the description of the exhibit, taken from the Met website:

This exhibition explores the various exceptional objects created to celebrate love and marriage in the Italian Renaissance. The approximately 150 objects, which date from about 1400 to the mid-16th century, range from exquisite examples of maiolica and jewelry given as gifts to the couple, to marriage portraits and paintings that extol sensual love and fecundity, such as the Metropolitan’s Venus and Cupid by the great Venetian artist Lorenzo Lotto. The exhibition also includes some of the rarest and most significant pieces of Renaissance glassware, cassone panels, birth trays, and drawings and prints of amorous subjects.

There is a link to view photographs of various objects displayed, as well as links to the Met's excellent essays on Renaissance art topics. What a wonderful exhibit! Anyone had the good fortune to attend?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Wordy Christmas

Back in May I posted about my trusty Roget's thesaurus, which I relied on all throughout high school, college, and graduate school and which is never far from reach as I write my novels. The pages are dog-eared and the labels on the thumb-index tabs have fallen off; the contents finally separated from the cover (in one bound chunk, thank goodness). I've tried using newer thesauruses, even on-line ones, but I absolutely HATE the alphabetically-ordered versions. I much prefer Roget's original scheme, where words are organized by category. It's so much easier to browse and find exactly what I'm looking for when I can follow trails of related words. I swore I'd never abandon that maroon-covered book, no matter how tattered it became.

Well, my family had other plans.

When my husband asked my daughter what she thought I might like for Christmas, she suggested a new thesaurus. Knowing my tastes in the matter, my husband searched high and low to find one organized by category. None of the brick-and-mortar stores carried it; he had to order it on-line. He warned me not to open the box that would be arriving.

When I found the box from Barnes and Noble on the doorstep a few days before Christmas, I figured it was the thick cookbook I had mentioned a few weeks earlier--the box was the perfect size. I was kind of bummed, thinking I had guessed my present. I was all ready to feign surprise as I opened the wrapped book on Christmas morning...and found I didn't have to pretend! I was, in fact, quite pleased. The 2009 edition of the thesaurus contains many new words added over the last twenty years. The type is easier on my eyes and I don't have to worry about pages detaching from the spine as I turn them! Husband found the perfect present for his geeky wife.

The new thesaurus sits beside me on the desk now when I write. I've retired the old one, but refuse to discard it. Saying goodbye to that old friend--comrade, buddy, companion--would be too painful. A memento of the first half of my writing life, it can rest in peace on my bookshelf, proud of its long service and satisfied with a job well done.

Now, if only my husband could find me book of plot twists... 

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Greetings

The Adoration of the Shepherds (1546)
by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74)

May peace and joy be yours
this season!

Thanks for reading Writing the Renaissance.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Give Yourself a Gift

"The Gift of the Magi," a short story by O. Henry, captures the spirit of Christmas giving in a way no other story does. I first read this story in eighth grade and it has remained with me ever since. If you've never read this short but profound piece, give yourself an early Christmas gift and go read it here. If you have read it, it only gets better on further telling. It's amazing how the author can create such a deep sense of character in such a limited space.

Merry Christmas, a few days early!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Page 56 Meme

Cindy Pon tagged me for the "Page 56 Book Meme." I'm supposed to pick up the nearest book, turn to page 56 and post the fifth sentence and a few after that. I have Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Harper trade paperback edition) at hand. Page 56 falls at the end of a chapter; since there is no fifth sentence, here is the concluding paragraph:

It was only late at night, when I was lying in bed (unable to sleep with excitement, my heart bursting at the memory of all that had happened that day and with all the plans I was making for my future with John), that I heard Elizabeth retching behind the closed door of her room, and the scrape of a chamber pot, and William's nasal whispering. I couldn't hear his words, but his tone was the mix of reassuring and nervous you'd expect from any father-to-be. It began to dawn on me what the reason for her sudden discomfort might have been.

Next, I'm supposed to post from page 56 of my manuscript. I don't have The Measure of Silence on this computer, so I'm going to post from my work in progress. And since I don't have 56 pages yet, here's the opening paragraph of Chapter 2:

Anne d’Heilly de Pisseleu, Madame d’Etampes, perched on the bottom step of the sunken pool. Her flushed skin, still hot to the touch from the steambath she had quit moments before, welcomed the cool caress of the tepid water that closed beneath her chin. Her toes curled in delight as the water buoyed her buttocks and legs off the floor; tipping back her head, she released her arms and floated on the surface of the violet-strewn water. Brightened by weekly applications of honey oil, her hair spread like a sun-spun caul, entangling blossoms and bugs alike in its strands. Except for her youngest attendant Cécile, who strummed the lute with deft fingers in the furthest corner of the room, Anne was alone. Gloriously alone.

Thanks for the chance to play, Cindy! Here are the five people I'm tagging:






Enjoy all the snippets. I hope everyone finds some new books to read!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mystery Solved

One of my readers was kind enough to identify the cover portrait for me. The painting, Portrait of a Young Girl Holding a Book, was painted in 1545 by the Florentine painter Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Il Bronzino (1503-72). Nicknamed in all likelihood for his dark complexion, Bronzino was the pupil and adopted son of the painter Pontormo. For most of his career Bronzino worked as court painter for Duke Cosimo I de' Medici. He decorated the private chapel of the duke's wife, Eleanor of Toledo, and painted a highly detailed portrait of her and her son in 1550 (below). Bronzino is known for his vivid use of color and analytical detachment from his subjects, as well as the enamel-like finish he gave his works. He painted many religious and allegorical themes (a fine example is An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, below) but is best known for his portraiture. He helped found the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts in 1563. Also a poet, Bronzino wrote and circulated more than 300 poems over the course of his career.

To view more paintings by Bronzino, as well as some by Rosso Fiorentino, one of the characters in my current novel, visit The Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino Room at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The young woman in the portrait remains unidentified but is probably connected to the Medici court. Many thanks to reader Ody for help in placing the painting!



Saturday, December 6, 2008

Virtual Cover

I was goofing around the other day and made myself a cover for The Measure of SIlence. I'd been looking for a sixteenth-century portrait of a woman holding a book and was thrilled to find this one (although I didn't note the artist or title, and now I can't remember where I found it!). Anyway, I proceeded to cut off most of her head--otherwise no one would realize the book is a historical novel. *wink* I don't have an art program on my laptop, so just imagine my name and the title in the blue area in the upper left. Voilà. They say if you want to succeed at something, visualize yourself doing the thing successfully. We'll see how it works!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Literary Stocking Stuffers

There has been much internet talk about buying books as Christmas gifts in order to bolster the publishing industry. Lucy Pick has started a meme describing ten books she's enjoyed this year in order to give people ideas of books they might like to read themselves or buy for another. Here's my contribution to the effort:

Lawrence Hill, Someone Knows My Name: A beautifully written fictional account of the life of an African woman during the colonial era: her abduction by slave traders as a child, her harrowing journey to South Carolina and its indigo plantations, her escape to New York and relocation to Canada, and her eventual return to Africa and work with British abolitionists. I learned many new things about British involvement in both the slave trade and the abolition movement. The colonial timeframe is a nice change from the standard Civil War setting.

Vanora Bennett, Portrait of an Unknown Woman: Although I haven't finished this one yet, I'm finding it an engaging account of the interaction between the painter Hans Holbein and the family of Sir Thomas More, with an intriguing twist on the story of the Princes in the Tower. The depiction of sixteenth century life and thought is quite detailed and accurate.

Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Française: The interrelated stories of a vast cast of characters caught up in the German Occupation of France. Beautifully executed characters detailed from a wryly ironic perspective; the author explores human weakness and the heroic self-sacrifice in ways that makes both extremes sympathetic. 

Alice McDermott, After This: A lyrical account of the inner lives of the members of an Irish Catholic American family during the Vietnam War era. McDermott captures the dynamics of the large Irish Catholic family so perfectly as she charts the course of the various Keane siblings during a turbulent era.

R. J. Knecht, Renaissance Patron and Warrior: The Reign of Francis I:  A thorough account of the life and times of François I, who ruled for thirty-three years as the Renaissance blossomed in France. The author shies from a strictly chronological approach and organizes the material thematically within loose boundary dates. Well chosen photographs and artwork support the text, which introduces many major figures the sixteenth-century Europe. If you've always wondered when or why something happened in Renaissance France, this is the book to start with.

The other books I've loved this year I've already blogged about: Catherine Delors's Mistress of the Revolution, C.W. Gortner's The Last Queen, Michelle Moran's Nefertiti.  If I can remember others (why do I always go blank when someone asks me for book suggestions?) I'll add them to the list. 

Happy book browsing. I hope you find lots to like this season at your neighborhood bookstore!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's Conference Time!

Exciting news: registration is now open for the Historical Novel Society North American Conference.

This year the conference will be held June 12-14 at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield in Schaumburg, IL. The guests of honor, both of whom will speak, are bestselling historical fiction novelists Margaret George and Edward Rutherford. Many other authors--among them Catherine Delors, Michelle Moran, C.W. Gordon, Diana Gabaldon, Anne Easter Smith and Lauren Willig--will be in attendance. The registration fee includes an opportunity for attendees to pitch to one of the agents or editors who come to the conference looking for new talent.

This conference is wonderful because it's open to all lovers of historical fiction: readers and writers, editors and agents. The panels are timely and informative, the entertainment high spirited, and the networking possibilities endless! Best of all, everyone there loves to talk about what you love best--historical fiction. The conference is limited to 300 registrants, so if you're interested, visit the registration site soon.

If you have any questions about the conference, I'll be happy to try to answer them. I attended the last conference in 2007 and have been counting the days until the next one.

See you in Schaumburg in June!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Talents, Rank and Beauty

Poking around on the web today, I found a wonderful site that reproduces exquisite color plates of French women's costume from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries. The plates are taken from a collaborative work by eighteenth-century artist Louis-Marie Lanté and engraver Georges-Jacques Gatine entitled Galerie française de femmes célèbres par leurs talens, leur rang ou leur beauté (French Gallery of Women Famous for their Talents, Rank or Beauty), published in 1827. The author-artists are known, among other things, for recording French regional costumes of their era. The Galerie features "portraits" of many of the women featured here--Louise de Savoie, Queen Claude, Marguerite de Navarre, Madame d'Etampes, Catherine de Medici.... I'm trying to find out how accurate the costume portrayals are, but to first order they appear trustworthy. In any case, they're beautiful. I couldn't find any public domain images to post, so be sure to visit the site. Click on a thumbnail to view a larger version. The sixteenth-century columns and personalities begin with Queen Claude's mother, Anne de Bretagne, in the middle of the fourth row and continue through the eighth row and the court of Henri IV.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Plum of a Queen: La Reine Claude

Despite his taste for forbidden fruit, François I felt true affection for his first wife, Claude de France (1499-1524). Claude's father, King Louis XII of France, betrothed her to François in 1506 when it became clear that Francois would inherit the throne. Claude's mother, Anne of Brittany, disapproved of the match--she was still hoping to produce a male heir herself--so the couple was unable to marry until Anne's death in 1514. François and Claude's marriage lasted ten years, until Claude died after a brief illness in 1524. Together they had seven children, five of whom lived past infancy.

Claude was plain, her body contorted by scoliosis--a stark contrast to the stunning women who surrounded François at court. Yet her sweet nature and pleasant conversation made up for her lack of physical beauty. A visitor to court described her thus: "The Queen is young and though very small in stature, plain and badly lame in both hips, is said to be very cultivated, generous and pious." He also noted that "It is a matter of common report that he [the king] holds his wife the Queen in such honour and respect that when in France and with her he has never failed to sleep with her each night."

Constantly pregnant or recovering from birth and by nature drawn to spiritual matters, Queen Claude withdrew from the hedonistic glamor of François's court. Her household, which included Anne Boleyn (Anne was the same age and probably served Claude as an English translator), spent most of the time in retirement at Amboise and Blois. Claude only rarely participated in public events, although she did appear, heavily pregnant, at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting between François and Henry VIII of England at Calais in 1520. 

Claude died at Blois in 1524. François, who was a prisoner of Charles V at the time, mourned her loss and claimed "If I could bring her back with my life, I would gladly do so." Her body was embalmed and temporarily housed in the chapel at Blois. It was later moved to the Abbey of St. Denis in Paris in 1527 after François returned to France.

A great patroness of the art of the miniature, Claude commissioned two exquisite works, a Book of Prayers in 1511 and a Book of Hours in 1517. The Morgan Library and Museum has the entire Book on Prayers on virtual display here. The book, which fits into one's hand, is a stunning example of sixteenth-century devotional art. 

Today, a tribute to Queen Claude lives on in the "Reine Claude" plum, a richly flavored cultivar of the fruit introduced into France from Italy during François's reign and named after the queen. They are also known as "la bonne reine," "the good queen," plums, in honor of Claude's gentle disposition. 

(Sources: R.J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron; E. Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A NaNo Snippet

I can't resist. I'm so excited about the new novel I thought I'd share a snippet with you. Remember, it's an early draft, so don't judge too harshly. I hope you enjoy it.

I scrape away the globs of white with the palette knife and swirl a touch of blue onto my brush. Jamet will never equal Father in skill, of that I am certain. Whereas if Father would only give me a chance…

I should be thankful to be at court painting feathers and bows instead of scraping carrots in my mother’s kitchen, yet each day spent at Fontainebleau tries me past endurance. An army of artists slaves to transform this hunting lodge into the showcase of Europe, and all I can do is watch. Rasping saws and clanging chisels taunt me as I sit at Father’s desk, tallying accounts; whiffs of wet varnish, undercutting the reek of courtiers’ perfumes, entice as I arrange the fall of sitters’ skirts. Marble gods beckon for caresses as I cross the palace gardens toting Father’s paintbox; tumbling putti wave as I pass beneath cloud-swathed vaults with pails of water to launder chalk dust from Jamet’s sleeves. Knowing I’ll never plaster the garlanded frescoes or tint the stuccoed fauns eats at me like acid on an engraver’s plate. I shan’t even gild the “F’s” that monogram the paneled walls of the king’s
grande galerie.

“Is it ready?” Jamet fills the doorway, blocking the light that streams in from the courtyard.

Finishing the last of the pearls, I don’t look up. “Father says she doesn’t expect it until next week.”

“Not the portrait. My bag.” I hear him grunt as he spies his leather satchel on the bench beneath the window. “I do hope you packed new chalk. That last batch of black splintered under the slightest pressure.” He clucks his tongue as though I fired the faulty charcoal myself, just to vex him.

Sibling rivalry takes on an entirely different dynamic when women's roles are severely circumscribed ...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Right Tool for the Job


Not much writing to report, but my new Macbook arrived today! Can I rave? This machine is beyond awesome. No more clicking--just tap the mousepad. Scroll up or down pages with a two-fingered swipe of the pad. The glossy screen is crisp and clear. I'm sure there are many more amazing features I just don't know about yet. I'm trying to get everything set up quickly so I can get down to some serious work.

No more excuses for not writing, since no one is allowed to use this laptop but me. I no longer have to cede the desktop to high schoolers with homework and toddlers who want to play Curious George. I can escape the noise and the chaos and retreat into my imaginary world. It had better be a productive one, though, to justify the expense of creating it.

Off to write now...

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Save the Publishers!

The book industry, like many others, is suffering from the economic downturn. Moonrat, the anonymous editor who gives authors wonderful advice at her website Editorial Ass, discusses the difficulties particular to publishing in this important post. Among other things, the situation is resulting in a reluctance on the part of publishers to take on previously unpublished authors. Moonrat explains what lovers of books can do to counteract these dangerous trends. Please be sure to read her post before you begin your holiday gift shopping!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Never Say Never

Just poking my head in during a quick break from writing. I'm so excited about my new book and how it's coming together. I'm surprised (astounded might be a better word!) to find myself doing two things I swore I never would--writing in first person and using present tense. I've always been partial, as a reader and a writer, to close third person as a narrative perspective. That's how I wrote Measure of Silence and I began writing this second book that way, too. But after a few thousand excruciatingly slow words, I found it just wasn't working. I fought making a switch out of principle, but since I have, words are flying off my fingers and the main character is showing me just how different she is from the protagonist of my first book. Writers are always called to challenge themselves, so I figure doing something out of the ordinary (for me, at least) can only help me grow. It doesn't hurt that first-person narratives are the popular ones these days in the genre (the novels of Michelle Moran, Catherine Delors, C. W. Gortner, and Lawrence Hill are all written in first-person).

As for my use of the present tense, which I've always viewed as an empty stylistic flourish--all I can say is this story insists on it, at least at this point. Whether I leave it in present or not, it's too early to tell.

I haven't abandoned third person all together. The way I envision it, sections from the main character's perspective will be in the first person, alternating with chapters from the secondary character's viewpoint in close third. I was wondering whether this sort of structure would fly when I began reading Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman. Guess what? Bennett does exactly what I was considering. The chapters of her book told from Meg Grigg's point of view are in first, those from Hans Holbein's in third. I'll be in good company, it seems.

Do you, as readers of historical fiction, have preferences in regard to the use of first or third person? I'd love to hear what you have to say. Meanwhile, back to writing...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Cover for Silver Phoenix

Isn't it gorgeous? This is the cover of Cindy Pon's novel, Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia, a YA fantasy novel to be published by Greenwillow/ HarperCollins in summer 2009. The jacket copy reads:

No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved—despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family—to be unbetrothed, free, and not some stranger’s subservient bride banished to the inner quarters.

But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Spring in search of her beloved father—missing these many months—is so much more than that. Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard . . . she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.

It is Chen Yong who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own Chen Yong offers that help...and perhaps more.

Cindy is thrilled with the cover--as well she should be!--and says she was kept abreast of the design process every step of the way. Her editor showed her mock-ups of the cover before they reached a final version. Photographers took 500 photos of the model in five different Chinese costumes! The amount of input Cindy had is unusual for a debut author and shows the confidence HarperCollins has in Cindy and her book.

Cindy said she'd be glad to answer any questions you might have about the cover itself or the process. Ask away! She did reveal on another forum that hair is very important in the story and she was happy the designers featured the model's long braid so prominently.

(In the context of our earlier discussions on cover art, I'm just glad the model got to keep her head!)

Congratulations, Cindy, on your amazing journey. I, for one, can't wait to read Silver Phoenix and share it with my daughter and friends.

Visit Cindy, learn more about her book, and view her own beautiful Chinese brush painting at cindypon.com

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Aboard!

So I've jumped on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) bandwagon. I thought it would be a great way to forge ahead on Fontainbleau. I doubt I'll hit 50,000 words by the end of November, but I'd be more than happy to reach 30,000. 1000 words a day--4 typed pages. It's more than I'm used to writing (slow writer that I am), but if I push myself I should be able to do it.

Anyone else participating? I'm julianned on the NaNo website, if you'd like to friend me. We also have a thread running on Historical Fiction Online.

Happy writing! If you're watching from the sidelines, keep an eye on my FB wordcount over in the sidebar and prod me if I start falling too far behind, okay?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Harrowing Journey, à la Sixteenth Century

Welcome to all those traveling today on the rounds of Angela Nickerson's Blogapolooza! Angela asked the thirty or so bloggers participating to recount a strange or scary travel journey. Try as I might, I could think of no harrowing journey of my own to share, so I decided to borrow one from Marguerite de Navarre . This is the opening to Marguerite's book of tales, The Heptameron (published in 1558, although composed during the 1540's). Flooded inns, washed-out bridges, drowned companions, lame horses, murderous bandits, hungry bears: it's enough to make one more than grateful for the comforts and relative safety of modern travel.

"On the 1st of September, when the baths of the Pyrenees begin to have efficacy, several persons from France, Spain and other countries were assembled at those of Cauterets, some to drink the waters, some to bathe in them, and others to be treated with mud; remedies so marvelous, that patients given over by physicians go home cured from Cauterets. [...] [A]s they were preparing to return home, there fell such excessive and extraordinary rains, that it seemed as though God had forgotten his promise to Noah that he would never again destroy the world with water. The houses of Cauterets were so flooded that it was impossible to abide in them. [...] [T]he French lords and ladies, thinking to return to Tarbes as easily as they had come from it, found the rivulets so swollen as to be scarcely fordable; and when they came to the Béarnese Gave, which was not two feet deep when they crossed it on their way to the baths, they found it so enlarged and so impetuous that they were forced to turn out of their direct course and look for bridges. These, however, being only of wood, had been carried away by the violence of the current. Some attempted to break its force by crossing it several together in one body; but they were swept away with such rapidity that the rest had no mind to follow them. They separated, therefore, either to look for another route, or because they were not of the same way of thinking...

"[A] widow of long experience, named Oisille, resolved to banish from her mind the fear of bad roads, and repair to Notre Dame de Serrance. [...] She met with no end of difficulties; but at last she arrived, after having passed through places almost impracticable, and so difficult to climb and descend, that notwithstanding her age and her weight, she was compelled to perform the greater part of the journey on foot. But the most piteous thing was that most of her servants and horses died on the way, and that she arrived with one man and one woman only at Serrance, where she was charitably received by the monks.

"There were also among the French two gentlemen who had gone to the baths rather to accompany the ladies they loved than for any need they themselves had to use the waters. These gentlemen, seeing that the company was breaking up, and that the husbands of their mistresses were taking them away, thought proper to follow them at a distance, without acquainting any one with their purpose. The two married gentlemen and their wives arrived one evening at the house of a man who was more a bandit than a peasant. The two young gentlemen lodged at a cottage hard by, and hearing a great noise about midnight they rose with their varlets, and inquired of their host what was all that tumult. The poor man, who was in a great fright, told them it was some bad lads who were come to share the booty that was in the house of their comrade the bandit. The gentlemen instantly seized their arms and hastened with their varlets to the aid of the ladies, holding it a far happier fate to die with them than to live without them. On reaching the bandit's house they found the first gate broken open and the two gentlemen and their servants defending themselves valorously; but as they were outnumbered by the bandits, and the married gentlemen were much wounded, they were beginning to give way, having already lost a great number of their servants. The two gentlemen, looking in at the windows, saw the two ladies weeping and crying so hard, that their hearts swelled with pity and love, and falling on the bandits like two enraged bears from the mountains, they laid about them with such fury, that a great number of the bandits fell, and the rest fled for safety to a place well known to them. The gentlemen having defeated these villains, the owner of the house being among the slain, and having learned that the wife was still worse than himself, despatched her after him with a sword-thrust. They then entered a room on the basement, where they found one of the married gentlemen breathing his last. The other had not been hurt, only his clothes had been pierced and his sword broken; and seeing the aid which the two had rendered him, he embraced and thanked them, and begged they would continue to stand by him, to which they assented with great good-will. After having seen the deceased buried, and consoled the wife as well as they could, they departed under the guidance of Providence, not knowing whither they were going.

"[...] They were in the saddle all day, and towards evening they descried a belfry, to which they made the best of their way, not without toil and trouble, and were humanely welcomed by the abbot and the monks. The abbey is called St. Savin's. The abbot, who was of a very good house, lodged them honorably, and on the way to their lodgings begged them to acquaint him with their adventures. After they had recounted them, he told them they were not the only persons who had been unfortunate, for there were in another room two ladies who had escaped as great a danger, or worse, inasmuch as they had encountered not men but beasts; for these poor ladies met a bear from the mountain half a league this side of Peyrchite, and fled from it with such speed that their horses dropped dead under them as they entered the abbey gates; and two of their women, who arrived long after them, reported that the bear had killed all their men-servants. The two ladies and the three gentlemen then went into the ladies' chamber, where they found them in tears, and saw they were Nomerfide and Ennasuite. They all embraced, and after mutually recounting their adventures, they began to be comforted through the sage exhortations of the abbot, counting it a great consolation to have so happily met again; and next day they heard mass with much devotion, and gave thanks to God for that he had delivered them out of such perils." (Excerpted from Walter Kelly's online English translation)

Several other of the original companions at the baths show up at the abbey, after having endured similar adventures; while waiting the twelve days necessary to construct a new bridge, the group amuses itself by telling and discussing tales of love--a most excellent activity for those inevitable dead hours that occur on every trip. If you're not one for telling tales yourself, you can read Marguerite's next time you're stuck in an airport somewhere. I assure you, lost luggage or a cancelled flight will no longer seem like a "harrowing travel adventure" when you're through.

A big thank you to Angela for inviting me to take part in her Blogapalooza. Be sure to visit her fabulous travel and book blog, Just Go!, and register for one of the three marvelous goodie bags she's giving away. You'll also find links to all the other blogs participating in the party. Please visit as many as you can and comment. I'm sure you'll be adding several of them to your blog roll.

Bon voyage!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Second Unrealized Tudor Match

As I revealed in my last post, François's sister Marguerite d'Angoulême was offered as a child bride to the young Henry VIII of England. Fortunately for her, perhaps, she was rejected. Another match between the Tudors and the Valois--this one between François's second son, Henri, and Henry VIII's first daughter, Princess Mary--came much closer to fruition.

Mary was three years older than Henri, and discussions regarding the union of the two royal children grew serious around 1530, while the young prince was being held hostage by Charles V in Spain [subject for a post of its own]. The Peace of Cambrai (1529), which secured the ransom of François's sons, included a clause affirming the French-English marriage. But in October 1530, negotiations with England stalled, for two reasons: François suspected Henry VIII intended to use Henri as security for the debt François owed him, and secondly, questions over Mary's legitimacy were beginning to cloud the issue. Henry VIII was by this time seeking an annulment of his marriage with Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon, and François feared marrying his son to a bastard. Negotiations did continue until 1532, but once the outcome of Henry VIII's suit became evident, François abandoned the match. Instead, he wed Henri in 1533 to Caterina Maria de Medici, the cousin (often called the niece) of Pope Clement VII. 

How would the match between Henri and Mary, had it occurred, have changed history? It's interesting to speculate. It doesn't seem as though it would have derailed Henry VIII from his quest to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon, since he continued with his suit even as he negotiated with France. What is interesting is what would have happened once Henri became Dauphin. At the time of the negotiations, he was only second in line to the French throne. However, his older brother François died in 1536. The couple would eventually have ruled both France and England. This surely would have had great repercussions on the playing out of the religious question in the two countries.

[Source: Henry II, King of France 1547-1559 by Frederic Baumgartner (Duke UP, 1988)]

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Pearl among Pearls: Marguerite de Navarre

Two posts ago, I told you about Louise de Savoy, the mother who concentrated all her energy and sacrificed her physical and personal freedom to ensure her son François became king. A third, equally devoted individual complimented this mother-son pair: François's older sister, Marguerite, the eventual Queen of Navarre. François and Marguerite maintained throughout their lives the close affectional bond nurtured during the childhood years they passed as virtual prisoners with their mother. Playing upon one of the meanings of her name, the king fondly--and proudly, given his sister's accomplishments--referred to her as "La Marguerite des marguerites," a pearl among pearls.

Marguerite was born in 1492, two years before François. Raised in enforced seclusion by their mother after their father died and François became the heir presumptive to the throne, Marguerite shared in the expansive humanist education Louise provided for her son. Tutored by the finest of scholars, she learned to read Latin and to speak Italian fluently. Her love of letters and learning remained constant throughout her life. As princess and queen, she supported writers and poets and animated literary circles at court. She herself wrote poems and plays and authored the Heptaméron,  a collection of tales and debates about love modeled after Boccacio's Decameron. The Heptaméron, one of the earliest works of prose fiction written in French, first appeared in print in 1558, although it circulated in manuscript form well before that.

Much of Marguerite's work is religious in nature, as she was a strong supporter of the burgeoning Protestant faith. Although she herself never broke with the Catholic church, she supported the early evangelicals Guillaume Briçonnet and Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples, humanists who called for reform from within the church itself. She protected writers such as Clément Marot and Bonaventure Des Périers when they got into trouble with religious authorities. She invited Guillaume Farel to preach at her court in Nérac and corresponded with Jean Calvin. Several of her own works came under censure by the Sorbonne for their unorthodox religious content, although her proximity to the king protected her from punishment. It was primarily through her influence that François remained tolerant of the new faith for as long as he did.

When Marguerite was eleven, her mother had tried to marry her to Henry VIII, but was refused. Marguerite's one true love, Gaston de Foix, died a hero in the Italian wars in 1512. At seventeen, Marguerite was married to Charles d'Alençon in a political match; after he died a few years later, she wed Henri II, King of Navarre. She bore Henri a daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, in 1528; her only son, born when she was 38, died in infancy. Sister to one king, Marguerite became the grandmother of another: her daughter Jeanne's son Henri became King of France (as Henri IV) in 1589.

In addition to her learning and openness to new ideas, Marguerite de Navarre was known for her great charity and kindness. In her later years, she devoted herself to good works and provided education for poor children in her kingdom. Born two years before her beloved brother, she died two years after he did, in 1549. This "pearl among pearls" was indeed one of the most influential women of the Renaissance. Her poems, plays and prose allow us to witness the evolution of evangelical thought in France and provides us a vivid example of the curious mingling of the earthly with the divine that characterizes Renaissance culture.

If you'd like to read some of Marguerite's tales, you can find an English translation of the Heptaméron here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

100th Post!

This post is the hundredth post on Writing the Renaissance. When I began the blog back in January, I was worried that I wouldn't have anything to say. Somehow, that hasn't been a problem! I've been amazed at how subjects for posts often seem to fall in my lap just when I need them. I've found I have a lot to say, but unfortunately, not enough time to say it all. 

I've really enjoyed sharing my passion for historical fiction and the sixteenth century with you. I thank all my regular readers for their faith that I might actually say something interesting! I'm humbled and inspired that you return again and again to read and to share. I'd also like to thank authors Michelle Moran, C. W. Gortner, and Catherine Delors for graciously sharing their time and expertise by answering interview questions and participating in discussions. I have made many new friends in the historical fiction community since beginning this blog, and I value each and every one of them. Thank you all for welcoming me into the writerly blogosphere. I've had a wonderful time and look forward to participating for years to come.

In honor of the centennial, I'd like to open the post up to you. What do you like especially about the blog? What would you like to see more (or less) of? Should I expand the focus a bit or are you happy with the spotlight on France? I'm open to any and all suggestions--I want to keep this blog interesting for you, the reader.

And if you don't have any comments about the blog, I'm curious to know--what is it about the sixteenth century that draws you in? If you could go back to sixteenth century France for a day, what would you most like to see?

Thanks again for your support! I'm looking forward to reading your comments.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Two by Two

The important women in François I's life seem to come in pairs. The king spent the first two decades of his life in close relationship with his mother and sister. As an adult, he married twice and had two official mistresses. Even his daughters followed the pattern: of the four he fathered, two died extremely young and two lived long enough to marry off. Over the next few weeks, I'll briefly sketch these pairs for you and try to give you a glimpse of what life as a women in the French court was like.

François's mother, Louise de Savoye, devoted her life to seeing her son, whom she called her "César," named king. François's father, Charles d'Angoulême, died when François was only two, leaving his nineteen year old wife, Louise, a widow with two small children (François and his sister Marguerite). The Angoulêmes were a minor branch of the House of Valois, but, unless the aging reigning monarch, Louis XII, produced a male heir, François was next in line for the throne. Louis allowed the widowed Louise to retain custody of her children, but only if she agreed not to remarry and to live under conditions imposed by him. Louise accepted the terms and lived with François and Marguerite as virtual house prisoners under the tight surveillance of Pierre de Rohan, seigneur de Gié, for years. During this time, Louise provided her children a broad humanist education, laying the foundation for the love of learning and the arts that would inspire François throughout his reign. Louis, meanwhile, fathered two daughters, Claude and Renée; his only son was stillborn in 1502. In 1506, Louis finally affianced Claude to François; the marriage took place in 1514 and François ascended to the throne the following year.

Louise never did remarry, even after her son became king. She remained active in politics during the early years of his reign and served as regent in 1515 and in 1524 when François went to war. Her influence in foreign affairs was great. Wolsey referred to Louise as "the mother and nourisher of peace." An English ambassador in 1521 described her influence over the king:

I have seen in divers things since I came hither, that when the French king would stick at some points, and speak very great words, yet my Lady would qualify the matter; and sometimes when the king is not contented he will say nay, and then my Lady must require him, and at her request he will be contented; for he is so obeissant to her that he will refuse nothing that she requireth him to do, and if it had not been for her he would have done wonders. [Quoted in Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron 113]

Louise was one of the principal negotiators of the Treaty of Cambrai, known as the "Paix des dames" ("Peace of the ladies") in 1529, which put an end to the second Italian war between François and the head of the Hapsburg dynasty, Charles V. She died in September, 1531 at the age of fifty-five. François was not with her when she died, but gave her a magnificent funeral. Her body was taken to he abbey at Saint-Maur-des-Fossées, where her wax effigy was displayed. After a funeral service at Notre Dame in Paris, she was buried at the abbey of Saint-Denis, where French royals were customarily laid to rest. With her passing, François lost one of his greatest supports and the woman who had formed him as man and king.

Next up, François's sister, Marguerite de Navarre. But as my next post will be my hundredth, she'll have to wait until the festivities have ended!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Rise and Fall of a Royal Mistress

A fascinating and powerful figure at court during the second half of François I's reign was Anne de Pisseleu d'Heilly, the duchesse d'Etampes. Anne was born in 1508 (making her fourteen years younger than the king) and began her career at court as maid of honor to François's mother, Louise de Savoie. When François returned to France in 1526 from his imprisonment in Spain, he discovered the lovely--and ambitious--Anne and took her as his lover. She became his official mistress and for the next twenty years, until his death in 1547, she wielded significant influence in political and artistic circles at court.

The poet Charles de Sainte-Marthe called Anne de Pisseleu "la plus belle des savantes et la plus savante des belles" ("the most beautiful among the learned and the most learned among the beautiful"). Indeed, Anne needed intelligence and a sharp wit, in addition to looks, to keep the attention of François, who prided himself on his learning. She cultivated poets and writers like Jodelle, Magny and Dolet and championed the artist Primaticcio, Rosso's chief competitor at Fontainebleau. She beautified the many properties the king bestowed on her and her husband (in 1532, for propriety's sake, François married her to Jean de Brosse and elevated the couple in rank) and undertook architectural projects. Through her favor, distant relatives and sympathetic friends obtained appointments to court offices and the military. She completely outshone, in beauty and influence, François's second wife, Eléonore d'Autriche, sister of Charles V, whom François was forced to marry as a term of his release.

Though she faced no competition from the queen, Anne did face a real threat to her power and influence from another source: Diane de Poitiers, the dauphin Henri's mistress. As relations between François and the dauphin soured, the court split into factions: those who supported Anne and her circle, those who looked to the future and threw their support behind Henri and Diane (including the powerful Grand Master of France, Anne de Montmorency), and the few who remained quietly on the sidelines with the queen. Anne did all she could to contrast her youth to Diane's age (Diane was only five years younger than François, and therefore twenty years older than Henri); she also differentiated herself by embracing the religious ideas of Luther and Calvin. Whereas Diane remained an ardent Catholic, Anne, along with François's sister Marguerite de Navarre, adhered to the reformed faith and encouraged François's tolerance of it as long as she could. Politically, her circle threw its support behind François's third son, Charles, the son François preferred.

Unfortunately for Anne, Charles died before François and upon the king's death, Henri took the throne. Anne's rivalry with Diane assured she was no longer welcome at court; in fact, she was accused of selling state secrets to France's enemy Charles V, stripped of her jewels and many of her possessions, and banished to her estate in Brittany. She died there in 1580, having outlived both Henri and Diane by many years.

The duchesse d'Etampes, pictured above around the time she became François's mistress and to the right at the height of her influence in the late 1530's, is one of the viewpoint characters in my new novel. Despite her importance, little has be written about her; much of what has been written focuses on her rivalry with Diane. An interesting source in French is this excerpt from a book by Etienne Desjardins; David Potter has written a recent article on the politics of the various court factions. In the novel, I'll be considering whether those rumors of her selling secrets to Charles V just might be true.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review: The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

Can she escape the legacy of her aunt Neferiti, the reviled Heretic Queen who, together with Pharaoh Akhenaten, robbed Egypt of its ancient gods and imposed a new, monotheistic religion on its people? This is the question that dogs Nefertari, the orphaned and outcast protagonist of The Heretic Queen, Michelle Moran's second historical novel (Crown, September 2008). Determined to marry her childhood friend Prince Ramesses and rule at his side as Chief Wife, Nefertari must overcome her own discomfort at her ancestry as well as the people's mistrust and resistance if she wants to succeed.

I'll admit I was a bit apprehensive when I began reading. After all, both novels are narrated in the first person by teenaged Egyptian princesses--how different could they be? Quite, it would seem. Mutny, the narrator of Nefertiti, is an observer. Sister to the queen, she is always guessing at Nefertiti's motivations and true allegiances. Nefertari, on the other hand, is a doer. She is not observing the actions of a queen, but reigning as one. Nefertari is a strong, determined character who, after some initial hesitations and lapses in confidence, decides what she wants--to rule with Ramesses as Chief Wife--and does everything she can to obtain her goal, endangering her own safety and security to win back the love and trust of the Egyptian people. Although the reader knows Nefertari will ultimately succeed--why write a book about a protagonist who fails in her quest?--Moran keeps the reader's interest by setting obstacle after obstacle in Nefertari's path. As the machinations devised by those who desire to prevent Nefertari from becoming Chief Wife become increasingly malicious, the reader eagerly turns the pages, wondering what Nefertari will do next and whether it will be enough. The suspense, as well as the growth in Nefertari's character, carry the reader through to the novel's very satisfying climax. 

The Egyptian setting does not wear thin in the second book, as the Egyptian court travels between Thebes and Avaris and Moran takes the reader into schoolrooms, temples, audience chambers and military encampments. She depicts a wide swath of Egyptian society: viziers and courtiers, ambassadors and priestesses, generals and architects, nursemaids and dancers and slaves. Instead of lecturing the reader about Egyptian culture and religion, Moran deftly allows elements of both to shape the character's outlooks and actions: for example, the knowledge that any record of her family's deeds has been erased from temple murals and therefore lost to posterity as well overlooked by the gods eats at Nefertari and motivates her to clear her family's name. Moran does a wonderful job of weaving her knowledge of ancient Egypt into the details of the story without ever sounding didactic or heavy-handed. Her historical fiction reads with the flair of contemporary fiction yet never stumbles into anachronism.

The relationships between all of the characters are believable, consistent, and nuanced. Nefertari has a touching relationship with her nurse, Merit, who has raised her since her parents' deaths; the animosity between Ramesses's two aunts, Woserit and Henuttawy, which has far-reaching consequences, is convincingly established and maintained. I was a bit disappointed that Nefertari doesn't have more of a struggle in falling in love with Ramesses. I thought that Asha, the third member of their childhood trio who seems to be in love with her, will complicate things, but he readily steps aside and winds up with a secondary character in the end. Nefertari, to her credit, truly loves Ramesses and not just his power; this keeps her sympathetic during her rivalry with his other wife, Iset. Moran's story is about the individuals, not just the history, and her grasp of their psychology makes them vivid and dynamic.

No sophomore slump here: Michelle Moran has written a fascinating and engaging book that merits praise for the fineness of its historical detail as well as the quality of the writing. While the reader must wonder whether Nefertari will escape the shadow of her notorious aunt, there is no question that The Heretic Queen will equal or surpass the fame of its predecessor, Nefertiti.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Author Interview: Michelle Moran, The Heretic Queen

Michelle Moran's debut novel, Nefertiti (Crown, July 2007) was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and a favorite of readers and critics alike. Michelle's second book, The Heretic Queen, goes on sale tomorrow and is sure to be an even greater success than the first. It tells the story of Nefertari, the only surviving member of reviled Queen Nefertiti's royal line. When Ramesses, the Pharaoh's son, falls in love with Nefertari and announces they will marry, his outraged people rise up against her rule. The couple's reign is filled with conquest and strife, yet great achievement--and even greater love. Michelle graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss The Heretic Queen with me.

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1) How did you decide on the title The Heretic Queen? I find it ironic that the story is about Nefertari's struggle to break free of the legacy of her heretical ancestors, yet the novel carries the moniker that designated her aunt. Why did you not choose something that was wholly Nefertari's, like The Warrior Queen? Was it so as not to destroy the suspense of whether or not Nefertari would manage to escape her family's reputation?


What a wonderful question, and I suspect I’m going to get it quite a bit. A more appropriate title for the book would certainly have been The Warrior Queen, but that sounded too much like a fantasy novel, and with the ambiguous cover, I didn’t want to risk that. Even Nefertari would have been appropriate, but that sounded too much like Nefertiti. So ultimately, I chose The Heretic Queen for exactly the reason you mentioned. I wanted the book to focus on how the sins of the older generation can be visited upon the young, and the question of whether Nefertari would ever be able to overcome that.

2) You wrote both Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen in the first person from the viewpoint of a teenaged girl. Was it difficult to create two different voices? Did you ever consider writing the second book from the third person? What motivated your choice?

I adore first person fiction. I do like third person POV as well, but I find that I’m better at writing through the voice of someone else rather than the all-seeing narrator. I have no doubt there will come a time when my readers will have had enough of first person fiction from me and a change will need to be made, but I’m hoping that change isn’t for another few books! I try very hard to distinguish the voices of my narrators from one another. People’s approaches to life and their attitudes are shaped (in part) by the people they’re surrounded by, and since no one in The Heretic Queen is quite the diva that Nefertiti was, Nefertari’s voice is (I hope) far different from Mutny’s (who narrated the first book and had to put up with her sister’s attitude).

3) I was fascinated by the presence of the Habiru in the novel and the fact that you purposely choose not to introduce material found only in the Hebrew Scriptures. Could you talk a bit about the position of conquered peoples within Egyptian society? The Scriptures portray the Hebrews as being slaves, whereas in your novel the Habiru are incorporated into the Egyptian army and Ashai and Ahmoses seem to move about freely. Also, is the detail of Ahmoses teaching Akhenaten about monotheism entirely of your making, or is there evidence of Jewish influence on Akhenaten's faith?

Oh wow, what a big question! Like many societies in the ancient world, slavery was both common and accepted in Egypt. Conquered peoples were taken to Egypt and their fate depended heavily on luck. Some would be sent to the quarries (and an early death), others would be sold in the marketplace to the highest bidder, and still others would be saved for Pharaoh’s palace. Of course, none of these fates were very lucky, but in terms of life and death, those who were sent to the auction block or the palace fared much better than those who were forced into manual labor in the mines.

Slavery in Egypt was not quite the same as slavery in other countries. In ancient Rome, for instance, slaves were not allowed to marry or have any official say whatsoever in their fate. In Egypt, however, slaves could marry and have children. In Rome it is estimated that one out of every three people were slaves (a dangerous number, as Spartacus proved), whereas the slave trade in Egypt was quite small. In many ways, the slaves of Egypt were more like indentured servants who could work toward their own freedom if they were wise and capable and served with distinction (not that this makes their slavery any more acceptable, just slightly less harsh).

And the historical Habiru were indeed part of Pharaoh’s army. However, there is no evidence that Akhenaten’s belief in monotheism was based on Habiru teachings. Does the possibility exist? Certainly. But is there evidence for it? No.

4) Tell us more about the role of priestesses. Were the appointments as high priestess honorary ones? Why would the sisters of the Pharaoh become priestesses instead of being married off to Egypt's allies, the way European princesses were? Were temples used in the same way as convents, as a place to educate the daughters of nobility or to dispose of superfluous female offspring?

That’s an interesting question! Appointments to the priesthood seemed to have been both honorary and merit-based, depending on where the temple was located. In the Theban temples positions like high priest or priestess were taken by the sons and daughters of Pharaoh. Queen Kiya’s son Khaemwese, for example, was the High Priest of Ptah. And the High Priest Sheshonk was a son of Pharaoh Osorkon I. Unlike other kingdoms, Egypt didn’t marry her princesses off to foreign princes, which was a huge boon for the young ladies of the royal family. The ancient Egyptians were too proud of their country to even consider sending their princesses to far-away realms where they would suffer the indignities of having to live beneath Egyptian standards. So the royal daughters often found themselves in charge of religious ceremonies.

And in some ways, yes, the temples were used as ancient-day convents where women could be educated and brought up. But in many other ways, the idea of a convent would have been incredibly foreign to Egyptians. Priestesses were not expected to be celibate and could even adopt children if they wanted. The goddesses the women worshiped were images of fertility, so it would have been incredibly counter intuitive to ask that their worshipers abstain from reproduction and sex. The High Priestess of Amun (frequently called God’s Wife) was often a position held by Pharaoh’s wife or daughter. Even the priestesses who ranked below God’s Wife - the Divine Adoratrices - were not celibate. Some of the women who held this position were Huy (the mother of Queen Meritre Hatshepsut) and Seniseneb, the wife of the High Priest Puyemre. In the 19th dynasty, things began to change for the Divine Adoratrices when Ramses VI gave the position to his daughter Aset and required of her both abstinence from sex and the promise never to marry. However, this was unusual.

5) In addition to the first and second wives, the Pharaoh seemed to have an entire harem of women (the harem of Mi-wer) at his disposal. What advantage was there for a woman to be part of the Mi-wer, since most of them could only have spent time with the Pharaoh rarely? How was a woman chosen to become part of the Mi-wer, and was she cared for until her death? In regards to the position of First Wife: could a woman lose that position if she displeased the Pharaoh, or was it hers for life?

I cannot imagine why any woman in Egypt would have ever wanted to be part of the harem of Mi-wer. This harem was so far removed from court that Pharaoh almost never visited there and the women inside were doomed to live loveless, childless, family-less lives. There were several reasons a woman would have been sent to Mi-Wer. Perhaps the current Pharaoh had inherited her from his father, or she was old and in some way displeasing to him. A woman sent to Mi-Wer could expect a life not of luxury, but of hard work in order to maintain her place in the palace. The women sewed garments, grew plants, and all of them were expected to contribute in some significant way. Being sent to Mi-Wer was a social death sentence, since you would never see your parents again, never live a real life in Egyptian society, and never experience physical love (unless it was with a woman).

As for the position of First or Chief Wife, a woman could certainly lose it, especially if she was discovered to be part of a conspiracy in the harem. Just such a plot was uncovered during the reign of Ramesses III. It was led by Queen Tiy who wanted to assassinate Ramesses and place her son on the throne. Although nothing is known of her fate after the trial, we can imagine that she didn’t remain queen for very long.

6) The Heretic Queen is your second book. How is writing a second novel different from writing the first? Did you learn anything from writing your first book that helped you the second time around?

There really is nothing like publishing for the first time. The expectation, the excitement of the unknown, and the wild drive that pushes an author to do anything and everything they can for their very first book doesn’t compare with the experience of publishing successive novels. Since Nefertiti was my first novel, I had no idea what to expect. What would happen on the first day of publication? Or if I made a bestsellers list? Or if I didn’t make one? Should I do signings? What about drive-by signings? Do bookmarks really work? Of course, all of these questions were answered in due time. And now, for The Heretic Queen, I know that bookmarks are useful, that if I make the bestsellers list my editor will call at an ungodly hour on her – gasp – personal phone to congratulate me, and that drive-by signings can be just as effective as signing events. There is an inner peace – at least for me – in publishing the second novel that wasn’t there for the first book when everything was uncertain and new. The nervousness is still there – will people like it? will I let down my publishing house? – but this time I know what to expect.

7) What do you want readers of The Heretic Queen to come away with?

I’d like readers to feel that if a time machine were to suddenly appear and whisk them away to ancient Egypt, they wouldn’t be totally lost. They would recognize the traditions, the gods and goddesses, and know what to expect in Pharaoh Ramesses’s court. I have tried my best to make the writing accessible to a modern audience. That means not dating the dialogue, or using too many long and unwieldy Egyptian names, or overdoing it with ancient Egyptian terms. Hopefully, by doing this, readers will come away with the sense of not only having been there for a little while, but of relating to the Egyptians. Because for all of the technological, medical and philosophical changes the world has undergone in the past three thousand years, people have remained the same. They had the same desires and fears in ancient Egypt that we have today, and I hope that readers can come away with an understanding of that.

8) Can you tell us a bit about your next book, Cleopatra's Daughter?

Cleopatra's Daughter will follow the incredible life of Cleopatra's surviving children with Marc Antony -- twins, named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a younger son named Ptolemy. All three were taken to Rome and paraded through the streets, then sent off to be raised by Octavia (the wife whom Marc Antony left for Cleopatra). Raised in one of the most fascinating courts of all time, Cleopatra's children would have met Ovid, Seneca, Vitruvius (who inspired the Vitruvian man), Agrippa (who built the Pantheon), Herod, his sister Salome, the poets Virgil, Horace, Maecenas and so many others!

9) Do you think you will always write about the ancient world? What other possible settings interest you?

Oh, I seriously hope not!! My academic specialties are ancient Rome and the Middle Ages (seemingly very different, I know… but there are similarities!). Once I finish writing on ancient Rome, I fully intend to skip forward and explore more “recent” history. Recent, of course, meaning men on horses wearing suits of armor versus men riding chariots!

10) What advice do you have for aspiring authors of historical fiction?

Learn as much as you can about the business of writing. Because we writers feel an emotional connection to our stories, we tend to feel that publishing is also emotional. If I’m nice, they’ll publish me. If I send them chocolate with my query letter, they’ll see what a good person I am. But publishing isn’t personal and most of the time it’s not emotional either. It’s about numbers and sales and - at the end of the day - money. So learn everything there is to know about the business before you send off your material, especially once your material is accepted for publication. That’s when business savvy matters most, and knowing important publishing terms like galleys, remainders and co-op is extremely important when trying to figure out how you can best help your book along in the publication process. Learn everything, but above all, keep writing!

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Thank you, Michelle, for your detailed answers and for the chance to take part in The Heretic Queen's launch. I wish you all the best with this novel and your writing career and look forward to reading many more books by you in the future.

You can find out more about Michelle, her novels, and ancient Egypt at her website. Tomorrow I'll be posting a review of The Heretic Queen, so please check back then! In the meantime, if you have any questions for Michelle, post them in the comments and she'll stop by periodically to answer them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Forthcoming Author Interview: Michelle Moran

This coming week is an exciting one: Michelle Moran's second Egyptian-themed historical novel, The Heretic Queen, hits the shelves on Tuesday, September 16. If you've read Michelle's first book, Nefertiti, you'll know why I'm so excited.

I will be posting an interview with Michelle about the book and the writing of historical writing on Monday. On Tuesday, I will post a review of the book, which I read in advance. Michelle always stops by to answer questions in the comment section, so be sure to visit.

Another spot definitely worth a visit is the blog Historical Tapestry, which will be running a "Michelle Moran Week" all next week! Stop by there and post some questions for Michelle come Monday and you could win a signed copy of The Heretic Queen. And while you're there, you can read the blogging team's great reviews of other historical novels.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Author Bios

Author biographies, those little blurbs that accompany the author photo on the inside back cover flaps of hardbacks, give us glimpses into the lives, personalities and credentials of authors. The author bio is primarily a marketing tool (hence its placement on the cover) whose purpose is to convince you that the book you are considering buying will be worth your investment in time and money. The biographies are usually quite brief--a few sentences that tell where the author lives and what other books she has written. For example, "Author X lives in Maine with her four cats. She studied nineteenth-century English literature at Famous University. The Book in Your Hand is her first novel."  The main point of such bios is to establish the author as Someone Worth Reading: someone who knows how to write and whose credentials demonstrate her grasp of the subject matter. 

Sometimes author bios "go off the board" and include picturesque details about the author and her interests. For example, the author bio for The Heretic Queen tells us that author Michelle Moran "lives in California with her husband and a garden of more than two hundred roses." I thought that was a neat detail to include, for it tells me something about the author's sensibilities. Now, as I read Michelle's books, I will be on the lookout for descriptions of flowers and their scents and colors to see how they demonstrate Michelle's love of gardens. I find that I appreciated this type of bio more than the standard resume type. Not only is it more interesting to read, but it helps me imagine the person behind the name better. Unfortunately, when I checked out the author bios on a dozen of the hardbacks on my shelves, very few were as engaging as Michelle's. This is a shame, because I think more personalized details could forge bonds with potential readers just as effectively as credential-type details, if not more so.

So, some questions for you:

1.  Do you read author bios?

2.  What type of details do you like to see there?

3.  Does the author bio affect your decision to buy the book? Have you ever bought/not bought a book based on what you read in the bio?

There is an even greater issue lurking behind this discussion of details: why is the author bio important at all? Does it matter whether the author likes cats or runs triathalons? Shouldn't the book be judged on its own merits?

I'm looking forward to reading  your answers to these questions and your thoughts on the larger issue. In the meantime, off to brainstorm some interesting details for a bio of my own...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Words to Write By

Moonrat, the anonymous editor at editorialass who shows us what it's like on the other side of the desk, advises writers who are obsessing over the slow pace at which the publishing industry moves to distract themselves by writing. She says:

The thing is, and I can vouch for this, writers develop really quickly and constantly, so the next book you write will--guaranteed--be better than the one  you've already written. This is a reason for you absolutely to keep writing and writing.

Just what I needed to hear. Thank you, Moonie! 

Sunday, August 31, 2008

No Heads to Fall, But Wings to Soar

Last spring, during our discussions of cover art for historical novels, I directed you to author Michelle Moran's comments on the genesis of the cover for her forthcoming novel The Heretic Queen (unfortunately, I don't believe the link to historicalfiction.org works any longer). I received an advance copy of Michelle's novel yesterday in order to read it for review, and let me tell you, the cover is just beautiful. It features a pair of ivory, blue, and green wings that wraps around the spine of the book. The book's title and the outline of the wings are gold leaf, enough of a highlight to make the cover eye-catching but not gaudy. The gold also affirms the Egyptian rather than Native American provenance of the wings, as does the small band of hieroglyphics that runs along the bottom edge of the cover. With its white background, the book looks clean and crisp and should attract attention on the shelves. The novelty of the cover--its lack of a headless woman or portrait of any kind--could be its strongest point. Readers who read and loved Michelle's first book, Nefertiti, will buy The Heretic Queen regardless of the cover; the unusual artwork should entice people who wouldn't normally pick up a woman-themed cover to examine the book. I admire Michelle and the designers for being willing to try something different and think this cover will prove to be very successful.

I'll be busy for the next few days reading and hope to post a review and an interview with Michelle on September 16. If you haven't already read Nefertiti, try to do so before the new book comes out. The Heretic Queen isn't technically a sequel to Nefertiti but does feature characters from the same dynasty. In any case, by reading Nefertiti now, you'll only prolong the treat of escaping into the world of ancient Egypt that Michelle evokes with such grace and immediacy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

She Doesn't Write Historical Fiction, But...

If you read a single book this year, read one by Alice McDermott. I read Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award, several years ago, and loved it; I just now finished After This, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It might sound corny, but I am sitting here in total awe of Ms. McDermott's command of language and insight into life. She is one of those writers whose books might seem simple on first glance but resonate with amazing depths of meaning the more you think about them -- and think about them you must, because she doesn't spell things out for you. She reveals the sacredness of everyday life through echo and juxtaposition and innuendo. Her depictions of the complex relationships that link members of families -- in particular Irish Catholic ones -- are spot on in their nuances and evolutions. Her spare and elegant style shows a deep respect for and love of language. As she says in an engaging online interview for Powell's Books,

"I wouldn't want to spend the energy just telling a story. I've got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them but by the language with which they're described. That's what I love when I read. It's too much work just to tell a story; there's not enough reward in it. The reward is when you know you've labored to make the best use of language you possibly can."

McDermott fully deserves the rewards she has earned. Read one of her books and you'll know what I'm talking about. As a writer, a mother and a Catholic who's not ashamed of her faith, she's my hero.

Monday, August 25, 2008

HistoricalFictionOnline

I want to help spread the word of a "new" website, HistoricalFictionOnline. The old forum at HistoricalFiction.org, died unexpectedly; several of the members went to great effort to get a new site up and running in a matter of days.

HistoricalFictionOnline is a great group of people, both readers and writers, who love historical fiction. Discussion topics range from what we are currently reading to our favorite historical villains to the ethics of historical fiction. The voracious readers who frequent the site post frequent reviews of historical fiction titles; each month, readers participate in a virtual book club discussion on a pre-designated novel. There are separate categories in the forum for different historical eras, so participants can find just what they're interested in. It's a wonderful place to relax, chat with people who share common interests, and learn about historical novels you haven't yet had a chance to read.

Be sure to visit HistoricalFictionOnline.com. See you there!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

More on François's Funeral

In the comment trail to the previous post, a reader asked for some further clarifications on François I's death and the use of the effigy. I'm posting these excellent questions and their answers here so everyone is sure to see them.

Dawn Firelight asked:

a) When you say: "François was not buried until May 22, as his successor, Henri II, wanted to combine his father's funeral with those of the king's two sons who had predeceased him and whose bodies had to be transported to Paris." Sorry, I'm a bit confused. Whose sons were those? Henri's or Francois'? What did they die of?

The two sons in question were François's, the dauphin François (1518-36) and Charles d'Orléeans (1522-45). Henri (1519-59), who succeeded François I as king in 1547, was the second of François's three sons. The dauphin (crown prince) François, named after his father and groomed to be king, died suddenly and under rather suspicious circumstances on August 10, 1536 at the age of eighteen. After playing several rounds of jeu de paume, he asked for a drink of water. His secretary, an Italian named Sebastiano de Montecuculli, brought it to him; after drinking it, the dauphin fell ill and died several days later. Montecuculli, accused of being a spy for Emperor Charles V, was convicted of poisoning the dauphin and executed in Lyon. It is now thought that the dauphin died of natural causes, probably tuberculosis; he was buried in the city where he died, Tournon, 500 kilometers from Paris. François I's third son, Charles, died of a mysterious illness in 1545, just before he was to marry the Emperor's niece as part of a peace treaty between France and the Empire. His body had to be moved from Beauvais for the triple funeral.

b) You mentioned that Francois' body was taken to Saint-Cloud. The effigy, you say, was laid out in the great hall. Where was the body laid?

The king's heart and entrails were removed, placed in two caskets and buried at the priory of Haute-Bruyère, a few miles from Rambouillet, where he had died. The embalmed body, placed in a casket, was transported to Saint-Cloud, to the palace of the archbishop of Paris. A contemporary book describing François's funeral, which can be read in the original French here at the British Museum website, tells us that the body was "placed on a bed of scarlet satin covered with rich embroidery in a richly tapestried chamber of the said palace and continously accompanied by his said servants and officials and by 48 religious of four orders...who said incessant masses, vigils, rosaries and other prayers. It stayed in this state until the hall next to the chamber was prepared and honorably decorated to receive it." That hall is the one I described in my last post, where the effigy was displayed and meals held in great ceremony for eleven days. Interestingly, the book emphasizes that the king's body remained in the adjoining room the entire time the meals were held, reminding the reader that the effigy was an extension of the king's royal person and presence. When the eleven days were up, the effigy was removed, the hall redecorated in black, and the casket and biere moved from the chamber into the hall for aspersion with holy water by visitors. The effigy of the king, joined by effigies of his two sons, was carried in solemn procession on a litter through Paris to Notre Dame. The next day the litters were taken to Saint Denis, where the effigies were removed and the coffins placed in a vault.

c) What was the effigy made of? Was it common practice to make effigies of the dead?

It was common practice to make effigies of royalty, I believe. As soon as François died, the court artist, François Clouet, was called to his bedside to make a cast of the king's face and hands. The casts were made of plaster and painted; the body of the effigy was stuffed with straw and richly clothed. The festival book assures us that the face was "faict apres le vif & naturel," made from life; it goes into great detail describing the clothing that adorned it: a scarlet satin undershirt, a tunic of azure satin embroidered with fleur de lys, a great royal coat of purple satin line with ermine, the collar of the Order of Saint Michael, and a red bonnet topped with a jeweled imperial crown. Clouet made two sets of hands for the effigy. The first set, clasped in prayer, were used on the effigy that lay in state in the hall at Saint-Cloud; these hands were removed and replaced with a hand holding the scepter and one holding the main de justice, a scepter topped with a hand opened in benediction, when the effigy was paraded through Paris.

If you read French, be sure to visit the British museum webite to read the source text in all its fascinating detail. If you don't, Robert Knecht incorporates many of the details in his description of the funeral ceremony (The French Renaissance Court, pages 120-23).

Many thanks to Dawn Firelight for her questions and another reader for reminding me of the festival book website.