Monday, January 28, 2008

Renaissance Ghost Town?

I apologize for the lag time between posts—I’m heavily into researching my next book. Thank God for interlibrary loan! I can hardly find my laptop amidst the piles of library books on my desk. I love reading old histories written in French during the 1920’s and ‘30’s—what they lack in documentation and objectivity they more than make up for in evocativeness and flair. For those of you interested in a modern history of the French court, I highly recommend Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I by R. J. Knecht (Cambridge UP, 1994), a very thorough yet readable account of the first half of the century. I’m learning all sorts of fascinating details about events and personalities of the day.

For example, François I built the immense château de Chambord, the 218-room castle reminiscent of those in the illuminations of the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, from scratch over twenty years at tremendous cost to the crown. Yet the stunning château was inhabited only a few times while the king hunted in nearby forests; the court, as a whole, resided at Chambord only about forty days during François’ entire thirty-year reign. Thanks to his ambitious architectural program, the king and his traveling court had many lodgings to choose from along the route. The château de Fontainebleau, located in prime hunting territory yet closer to Paris, ultimately became François’ preferred seat (and the setting for my new novel). Chambord, which stood in empty splendor during the Renaissance, became a favorite lodging of Louis XIV and is a must-see destination for millions of tourists today.

Spies and Lies

Joanna Bourne, a fellow member of the Compuserve Books and Writers Community, has recently published a smashing historical romance, The Spymaster’s Lady (Berkeley, January 2008). She’s receiving rave reviews for her use of language and well-constructed plot (see here and here). Annique Villiers, a French spy entrusted with plans for Napoleon’s invasion of England, meets her match in the head of British Intelligence, Grey. Sparks—as well as bullets, knives and other sundry projectiles—fly as Annique seeks to evade both him and her traitorous French colleagues, who all want the plans she wishes she had never seen. I’ve almost finished reading and highly recommend the book. Congratulations, Jo! Jo’s next book, My Lord and Spymaster, is due out this July.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Writing as a Job

On the writers’ forum I frequent, there is a discussion in progress on writing turning from joy into work. Is the disappearance of “inspiration,” of the spontaneous “high” that envelops a writer deeply caught up in her writing, a sign that something has gone wrong? Or is it a normal part of the writing process, particularly as querying and deadlines approach? Should a writer panic when worries about technique and output quench the joy of storytelling?

If a writer writes not as a hobby but in the hope of eventual commercial success (however she defines that), writing has to become a job. Any job, no matter how fulfilling or glamorous, has unpleasant aspects. Nurses empty bedpans; teachers deal with cranky children. Writers face writer’s block, fluctuating self-confidence, rewrites and edits and ruthless critiques. I don't think it's possible to become a better writer without the writing becoming onerous to some degree—especially since many of the difficulties stem from the writer’s own rising standards.

The euphoria a writer often feels in the early days stems either from a firm belief in the glory of her words or a complete absorption in the world of her story at the expense of the telling. Once a writer realizes that her writing can improve, that she needs to pay attention to things like word choice and syntax and pacing, the process of writing necessarily becomes more demanding, less “fun.” But, in the long run, this is a good thing, for it shows the writer is maturing. She is paying more attention to the product of her efforts than to the emotional state she reaches through writing. It's like slipping from the heady romance of courtship into the nitty-gritty of a ten-year-old marriage: though the crazy exhilaration of falling in love wanes, the couple’s love deepens as it weathers the challenges of life and strives towards common goals. A writer must sacrifice some of the emotional thrill of writing if she wants to hone her craft and advance from hobbyist to professional. If a writer embraces this change as evidence that she is progressing towards her ultimate goal—becoming the best writer she can be—the pain of the loss is easier to bear.

The satisfaction of finishing my novel and holding the completed manuscript in my hands definitely beat any of the ephemeral highs I experienced in the early days of writing. And I can easily imagine that seeing my published book on the shelf someday will quickly erase the memory of the many doubt-filled, stressful hours of butt-in-the-chair effort it took to get it there. [s]

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ten Writerly Things Meme

Susan at The Writer's Tale tagged her readers with the following meme: 10 Writerly Things about You. Here goes!

1. Your genre(s)?

Historical fiction.

2. How many books have you completed?

One (Two, if you count a 400 page dissertation on Clement Marot!).

3. How many books are you working on now?

One. I'm a one-book-at-a-time-kinda gal.

4. Are you a linear or chunk writer?

Definitely linear! I only wrote one chapter out of sequence for the first book and found it very hard to work in later. I outline the main events of each chapter before I begin writing; I have to know the end of the story, at least in general terms, before I begin. Just like I never leave the house without a map, I'd never start a book without an outline! It's fluid and subject to revision, but completely necessary for me.

5. The POV you're most partial to?

Limited (or close) third person. I think creating an authentic sixteenth-century first person would be quite challenging.

6. The theme that keeps cropping up in your books?

Surprisingly (or not? {g}), motherhood and sacrifice. I never set out to write about mothers, but found that I explore the bond between mothers and children in several different ways in my completed novel.

7. How many days a week do you write?

I try to write or at least research every day, although my success depends on what life has in store for any given week!

8. What time of day do you get your best writing done?

By necessity, I write at night after the baby is in bed. I do often manage to squeeze in some daytime writing during his nap, but fear I won't have that luxury much longer. But then again, preschool is right around the corner...

9. Who are your mentors?

I don't have any mentors, although I do have an inspirational coach in my husband, who has always supported my writing and reminded me that anything worth doing is never easy.

10. Who are your favorite authors to read? (different from mentors)

Dorothy Dunnett, Sigrid Undset, George Eliot.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

New Novel on Renaissance Florence

I'm excited to see that Salman Rushdie set his new novel, to be released in June 2008, in Renaissance Florence and the Mughal court. Here is the story in Publisher's Weekly. I haven't read any of Rushdie's books, but I'm thrilled to see a writer of his caliber choose the Renaissance as a setting. Rushdie's novel takes place during the late fifteenth century and deals with Florentine, rather than French, politics, but I'll be looking forward to reading it nonetheless.

I'm deep in research of my own at this point, learning about the Italian artists who embellished François’ château at Fontainebleau and the production of Limoges enamels. Material for later posts!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why Write Historical Fiction?

Why write historical fiction? I suppose most writers of historical fiction hardly give the question a second thought as they sit down to write. Since historical fiction is probably what they most enjoy reading, historical topics or settings are what naturally come to mind when they pick up the pen. Specific eras or events captivate their imaginations and they decide to explore them in greater detail. Perhaps the biography of a particular person enthralls them and they seek to capture the personality behind the cold facts. Sometimes an object or painting from the past begs for explanation. Often it is a simple “What if?” question that compels an author down the path towards a story.

One thing is certain: writing historical fiction carries with it a set of issues particular to the genre, as does any type of writing. How does one incorporate research into the seamless flow of narrative? How does one respect the sensibilities of the time yet create characters that engage a modern reader? How particular does one need be about the language and colloquialisms one employs? (These topics will provide meat for future discussions!) Sometimes it seems as though it would be so much easier to write stories set in a contemporary setting and be done with the mental hassle.

But then the magic of the past reasserts itself and this writer, at least, finds herself hopelessly caught in the challenge of living in two worlds. {s} Reading the novels of Jean Plaidy as a young teen, I fell in love with France and the sixteenth century and haven’t been unable to shake my obsession yet. For many reasons, that era, despite the hardships of everyday life, speaks to me in a way other times don’t. There’s the picturesque side of it, of course, the clothing and the castles and life at court, but there’s definitely more—the excitement of scholars rediscovering antiquity, the expansion of literacy and the vigor of an educated merchant class, the courage of people willing to die for their faith and ideals. I find as I write about people from the past, I learn a lot about myself and what I’m searching for.

What eras in history speak to you? If you write historical fiction, why did you choose your particular setting? If you’re a reader of historical fiction, do you tend to choose books about a certain era or country? I'd love to hear from you about it!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Soyez les bienvenus!

Welcome to my new blog, Writing the Renaissance—a place to make new friends, share the joys and trials of writing fiction, and revel in the glory and grit of life in Renaissance France.

I hope to share with you my fascination and admiration for the people of the sixteenth century. This amazing era saw the explosion of print technology, the development of the modern state, the construction and embellishment of the châteaux, the rise of humanist learning, the clash of religious ideologies, the imitation and importation of Italian art and architecture…The individuals involved in these developments—King François I, Catherine de Medici, Marguerite de Navarre, Mary Queen of Scots, Erasmus, Rabelais, Louise Labé, Rosso and Primaticcio and Cellini, to name only a few—led lives of glamour and intrigue and accomplishment. Ideas abound for writers of historical fiction!

Interest in the history of the English Tudors is at an all-time high; I'd love to divert some of that interest into neighboring France. Kings Henry VIII and Francois I, separated by only three years in age, were sometimes friends and always rivals; young Anne Boleyn served as lady-in-waiting to François’ wife Queen Claude; Mary Queen of Scots was raised at the French court and ruled for two years as Queen consort to François II before the latter's untimely death. The history of sixteenth-century France is as dramatic as that of England, but not as familiar to American readers. It’s my job to help change that. {s}

So here in my blog I plan to share tidbits of research as well as news about my novel, The Measure of Silence, currently under submission. Measure is the story of Jollande Carlet, a women writer in sixteenth century Lyon who must overcome society’s censure, her own guilt, and a secret vendetta in order to see her poems into print. I’ll also start discussions on craft issues and navigating the world of agents and publishers, as well as anything else you, my readers, might find interesting!

So, once again, welcome! Please be patient with me as I find my feet here in the blogosphere. I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to comment whenever fancy strikes.

A la prochaine fois!