Friday, February 29, 2008

A Voice of Her Own

Little could be more scandalous for a sixteenth-century shopkeeper’s daughter than selling her body—unless it is selling her words. Jollande Carlet, the protagonist of my novel The Measure of Silence, knows publishing her poems will compromise her reputation. She never imagines it will endanger her life.

Educated beyond her station through her godfather’s generosity, Jollande intends to publish her poems in tribute to her mother, whose verse vanished at the time of her death. But before she can convince her godfather to print them on his press at the sign of the Fountain, Jollande’s husband dies defending her honor from a stranger’s insults. Overcome with guilt, Jollande destroys her manuscript, vowing never again to set pen to paper.

But Jollande’s muse cannot hold her tongue. Neither can Nicolas Vernier, the Fountain’s flippant new typesetter, an unconvincing heretic who scoffs at the very notion of a woman poet. Nicolas’s jibes—and his discovery that a member of their literary circle has plagiarized her poems—goad Jollande past her shame. Yet as soon as she sets to work reconstructing her manuscript, the cycle of destruction begins anew. Scandalmongers deface the printing shop; the family fabric business goes up in flames. When the city guard accuses the Fountain of distributing Calvinist tracts and seeks her arrest on suspicion of heresy, Jollande can no longer deny that someone is determined to silence her at any price. Caught in a personal vendetta that encapsulates the cultural and religious tensions of Renaissance France, Jollande must find a way to save herself, her family, and her dream.

The Measure of Silence is currently under submission to publishers. I hope to have good news to share about it soon!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Will the Real François Please Stand Up?

I’ve been preoccupied with the issue of historical versus fictional characters lately (as you well know!) and a recent reading experience confirms my fears. I’ve begun reading a historical novel set at the same time period as the new book I’m working and featuring a cast of characters pulled directly from history. I’m only two chapters in, but the book’s depiction of François I is so caricatured and sensational, such an exaggeration of the historical accounts, I’m ready to throw the book across the room!

François was a notorious womanizer; in addition to his two consecutive royal mistresses, Françoise de Foix, the Duchesse de Châteaubriant, and Anne de Pisseleu, Madame d’Etampes, he surrounded himself with a “petite bande” of beautiful noblewomen whom he showered with gifts of fine clothing, jewels and other marks of royal affection. Yes, he probably had amorous liaisons with some of these women, and yes, he most likely frequented the “filles de joye” on the royal payroll as well, but despite his appetites he was far from the ribald lecher the novel portrays him to be. He strove to refashion the French court according to Italian examples, where the art of conversation and rules of courtoisie ruled supreme. A well-educated amateur of poetry and the plastic arts, he surrounded himself with beautiful women and beautiful things, establishing the French court for a time as the apex of culture and refinement among the courts of Europe.

I was concerned when I began reading that this novel would cover too much of the same ground to make mine worthwhile. Not to worry; my François will be quite a different fellow. There are only so many sources on the Renaissance king that one can consult; how can two authors read the same things and create such different characters? Yet I’m sure we would both be surprised if we could discover where the real François fit into the spectrum of our creations!

A writer’s fictionalization of a real character always risks conflicting with the reader’s pre-formed image of the historical person. In order not to alienate the reader, the author can’t deviate too far from the accepted norms established by historical accounts. The challenge is to alter the norms just enough to make the characters interesting, engaging and amenable to the plot.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Do Not Disturb

I just read an excellent interview with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Pat Strachan in the Poets & Writers March/April issue. (You can read the interview online here.) In the interview, Ms. Strachan was asked what she thought about the state of books in this country. Here is her response:

“[I] certainly don’t think books are going to go away. The object itself it too essential. The idea of having your privacy is too wonderful. A book signals to other people to stay away. I’m in my private zone right now. I think that’s why so many women who are over-stressed read.”

I found this answer fascinating, for I’ve never associated reading with the idea of privacy, and I think it’s spot-on. We are all familiar with the idea of reading as escape—escape from problems and stress, escape from the dullness of everyday life, escape from the limits our location in time and space. We know what we are escaping from when we read—yet what, exactly, are we escaping to?

I think Ms. Strachan nailed it—we are seeking space to be with ourselves, to examine and expand the range of our thoughts without the danger of interference or interruption. In a true sense, reading is a conversation with ourselves, a conversation mediated through the voice and words of the author but one whose ultimate goal is self-knowledge.

Okay, you’re thinking, here she goes waxing philosophical on us again. [s] But think about it. Comprehending the words the author set on the page in a specific arrangement is exciting in itself, yet it is our engagement with these words and ideas they express that is the truly exhilarating part. What do we think about what the author says? How do these words make us feel? Does our reaction to them teach us something new about ourselves? Do we alter our perception of the world as a result of encountering them? As we read, we are engaged—privately—in such a dialectic, even if we never realize it on a conscious level.

I think this might be one reason why it is often so difficult to explain to someone else why we love a certain book. The experience of reading a book that touches us to the core is an intensely private affair, an experience that can be next to impossible to put into words someone else will understand. We usually resort to saying, “Read it and see for yourself.”

It’s interesting from a historical point of view how reading has become such a private activity in the modern world, for it wasn’t always so. In the days of limited literacy, reading was usually a public affair—a teacher or priest or master would read aloud to the women, children, servants. Instead of an open book being a sign for people to stay away, it was an invitation to gather, to join together on a journey into the new. It is interesting to consider prohibitions against women reading (and writing—more on that in another post) in light of the inherent danger of being alone with one’s thoughts, of watching them change and follow new paths. From authority’s point of view, it is far safer for minors to be read to, so the reader can direct and guide their thoughts into safe, controllable channels.

Any thoughts?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Renaissance Portraits

Ever wonder what the Renaissance women you read about looked like? Now it’s easy to find out. A wonderful Webshots album entitled Grand Ladies of the 1500s displays a stunning collection of portraits of famous women of the sixteenth century. Even if the women's identities are not familiar to you, the album is worth a view for the fashions alone. Heartfelt thanks to the compiler!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Full Circle (Well, Almost!)

It all began with Jean Plaidy.

My mother used to take us—all six of us—to the swimming pool on Saturdays to escape the St. Louis summer heat. Splashing in the water and slurping root beer floats in the clubhouse afterwards was welcome relief from the humidity, but usually I couldn’t wait to leave. The best part of the day, for me, came last. On the way home, we’d stop at the public library and load up on books for the coming week.

I remember wandering through the open stacks, excited and overwhelmed. I wanted to read every book there! As a younger child, I sought out Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels and biographies about girls from earlier times—Molly Pitcher and Florence Nightingale were my hero(in)es. Once I hit the age of twelve and was allowed to check out adult books, Jean Plaidy became my favorite fare. I can still see the covers—horizontal bands of rich blue or green or burgundy bordering portraits of people dressed in stunning period costume.

Many of the novels recounted the life of a queen or noble lady from the pages of European history. The story of Lucrezia Borgia was my favorite, but those of Anne Boleyn and Catherine de Medici were close seconds. Other Plaidy books traced the lives of kings—I fell madly in love with Richard the Lionheart while reading the Plantagenet series. Plaidy’s novels were my first exposure to the history of England and the Continent, and the book’s romantic spin fed my teenage thirst for intrigue and adventure.

Thankfully, Jean Plaidy, whose real name was Eleanor Hibbert, was a prolific writer who kept me busy reading for years. I would have said, if asked, that I had read all her historicals, but I just learned she published some in the late eighties and early nineties that escaped my notice. I’m curious to read them now and see if they work the same magic they did on my impressionable teenage imagination.

It all began with Jean. In a way, it ends with her, too--the agent who represents Plaidy’s estate and negotiated with Three Rivers Press to reissue Plaidy’s books was the first agent to request the full manuscript of my own historical novel. Although I ultimately signed with a different agent, I was thrilled to have forged a link with my inspirational predecessor. Though I’ll never write as many books as Plaidy, I do hope my novels captivate readers and foster their love of history the way her novels did for me.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rub-a-Dub-Dub, A King and His Tub

I was surprised to learn recently that Greek and Roman notions of public bathing enjoyed a serious revival among the moneyed classes during the sixteenth century. Even as public baths in French cities were devolving into dens of vice and prostitution, nobles were building suites of bathing chambers in their châteaux. Like their Roman and Greek counterparts, these baths were intended to function as gathering places for learned men to discuss literature, art and politics.

François I constructed a sumptuous appartement des bains at Fontainebleau. Though the baths themselves have not survived subsequent centuries’ renovations, descriptions of the appartement abound in contemporary sources. Six rooms composed the suite: the bath proper (étuves), the steam bath (étuves sèches), the barber’s room, and three rooms for resting or sleeping.

The bath itself was square and five feet deep; spouts provided hot and cold water. A wooden balustrade painted to look like bronze, around which people could walk two abreast, surrounded the pool. The vaulted ceiling of the bath chamber, decorated with frescoes and stuccoed relief by the artist Primaticcio, depicted the story of Callisto. [R.J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron, p. 412]

The three resting rooms housed the jewels of the king’s art collection: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Andrea del Sarto’s Charity, Titian’s Magdalen, Rosso’s copy of Michelangelo’s Leda, Raphael’s Saint Michael. The twenty or so paintings were fixed to the walls at the center of elaborate stuccoed relief. [Louis Dimier, Fontainebleau, p. 96-97]

Always eager to impress, François would take favored guests and courtiers to the baths to relax, converse, and marvel at the paintings. Modern art historians shudder to think of these masterpieces housed in the damp atmosphere of the baths, but as Knecht points out, “a cultivated Renaissance gentleman would have seen nothing incongruous in the dedication of a building simultaneously to the care of the body and the pleasures of the mind” [p. 416]. Other noblemen followed the king’s example; the Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, built a similar suite at his nearby château, Ecouen.

Can you imagine a better setting for a scene of intrigue? The naked limbs of painted goddesses and lounging statesmen peeking through wisps of steam; the smell of damp wood and wet plaster mingling with the sweat of over-perfumed bodies; the murmur of conversation rising and falling amid the plucking of lute strings and splashing of water. Just reading the description of place set my mind racing. Rest assured, my readers and I will spend time aplenty in François’s luxurious appartement des bains.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Ethics of Historical Fiction

Is it ethical to write stories using historical personages as viewpoint characters? This is a question that troubles me as a writer (and reader) of historical fiction. No matter how meticulously researched, historical fiction is just that—fiction, a construct of the author’s imagination. Given gaps in the historical record, the novelist fabricates a character’s thoughts, motivations, even aspects of his personality. This poses no problem when the author creates a character from nothing. But what if the author writes about a person who actually lived? Is it “right” to assign words and thoughts and feelings to a person, when there is often no way of knowing if the person actually thought or felt or would ever consider saying those things?

The label “historical novel” alerts the reader that a certain degree of authorial inventiveness colors the portrayal of the book’s characters. But does this absolve the novelist of the “sin” of accidental or intentional misrepresentation? Can an imaginative work, even if it casts the character in a positive light, be a disservice to the memory and repute of the person portrayed, in that it might not be true? Fictional portrayals do affect how readers think of history and remember its players. I could name plenty of historical figures I knew first through novels; only grudgingly did I change my image of them once I’d read more “objective” sources [and let’s not even touch the question of how factual sources are potentially (necessarily?) biased constructs themselves!]. And just think of the number of readers who accepted The DaVinci Code’s outrageous claims as true, even though the book was labeled a novel.

I suppose it comes down to this: three or four centuries from now, would I want a novelist, who could only know the most cursory things about me, portraying what I supposedly thought and felt and said, especially since I’d have no way of correcting mistakes or defending myself against inaccuracies? Is it right for me, then, to do this to someone else?

Unnecessary scruples, perhaps. But nevertheless a compelling reason to be as meticulous in my research and as responsible in my storytelling as possible.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New Novel on the French Revolution

I would like to draw your attention to Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors, a new hardback coming out from Dutton on March 13, 2008. Mistress is the fictional memoir of Gabrielle de Monserrat, a French noblewoman. As a young woman, Gabrielle falls in love with a commoner, Pierre Coffinhal, whom her family forbids her to marry; years later, Pierre sits on the Revolutionary Tribunal that presides over Gabrielle’s trial. Advance reviews call Catherine “A stunning new talent in historical fiction.” You can read more details about the book here on Amazon.

I introduced myself to Catherine over the Internet; she and I share the same agent, Stephanie Cabot. Catherine graciously sent me a copy of Mistress to read; I’m about a third of the way in, and the book is as riveting as the early reviews portray. Catherine has agreed to do an interview here at Writing the Renaissance. As soon as I finish reading, I’ll send her some questions and post her responses. So check back soon to read Catherine’s thoughts on her book and on the writing of historical fiction. In the meantime, you can visit her website and blog at

Monday, February 4, 2008

Contest Finalist!

Wow. Nathan Bransford, the agent from Curtis Brown who maintains an incredibly informative and entertaining blog, ran a contest over the past week on opening pages. Readers submitted the first 500 words of a current work in progress and Nathan and his friend chose six finalists, from which the blog's readers will choose the winning entry by vote. Nathan received 675 entries...and the one I submitted made the list! It was the opening page of a piece of contemporary women's fiction (my apologies to historical fiction fans, but my new opening wasn't ready yet). If you'd like to read my entry and the other finalists', go to Nathan Bransford--Literary Agent. You can vote for your favorite in the comments section by Tuesday at 5 pm Pacific Time.

Thank you, Nathan, for the hours of hard work that went into hosting this contest! It was a lot of fun and quite enlightening. Now all of us unpublished writers have a better idea of what an agent's daily life is like and how important it is to hone those first pages in order to capture the agent's--and reader's!--attention. Good luck to all the finalists!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Characters: Fictional or Historical?

It’s funny how ideas the ideas come. My first book presented itself as a character. Having studied in literature courses how difficult and scandalous it was for women of the sixteenth century to publish under their own names, I knew I had to write a book about one who did. At that stage of my writing career, I wasn’t comfortable writing a fictionalized biography, so I took Louise Labé, the first non-noble woman in France to publish poetry under her own name, as a model and created a fictional character. I began with this character and built a story around her struggles and successes. Only one historical person has a speaking role in the book; the rest of the characters, as well as the events the story narrates, are completely fabricated.

This time, for my second book, things are different. The events of a two-year period in a particular setting are begging to be told; historical figures insist on taking prominent roles in the account. Though the majority of the characters will be historical personages, I still want the freedom that creating a main character from scratch provides. Finding this character is proving to be a great challenge, for not only must this created person link the real characters’ histories, but her imagined story must be substantial enough to compete with and in a sense “carry” the historical record. Her story can’t just be a framework for historical events; it must catalyze them, or there is no sense in having her there at all. Having to dovetail the real with the fictional is much more difficult than creating with abandon, though in the end it might prove more rewarding. Who knows? {s} Perhaps by my third book I’ll rise to the challenge of taking a historical person as my viewpoint character.

This leads me to ask: to what extent do you prefer historical people to populate your historical fiction? If the setting is authentic and the events plausible, do you mind reading about fictional characters, or do you want the cast list pulled directly from the Who’s Who of whatever century?