Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fire and Ice

There's an interesting guest post over at the blog 1st Books by Kate Maloy, author of Every Last Cuckoo. I haven't read Ms. Maloy's book, but I found her discussion of the degree to which authors identify with their characters' emotions as they write, and the comment trail that follows the post, fascinating. Some writers, claims Maloy, have a "splinter of ice" at their core, which allows them to keep their characters at a distance. Maloy characterizes herself as this sort of writer: "I never cried when I was writing, no matter how sad the scene or how intense the anguish of my beloved character, 75-year-old Sarah Lucas." She contrasts this aloofness to writers like Joan Wilder of Romancing the Stone fame, who fully inhabit their characters, crying when they cry, laughing when they laugh, sharing fully in their discomforts and joys. Maloy views her "splinter of ice" as a valuable tool which allows her to focus on craft issues in order to create characters and stories that resonate fully with her readers. "If I had given myself over to Sarah, I'd have been like a surgeon trying to operate on her own child, unable to wield the scalpel for the trembling of her hands."

Commenters on Maloy's post seem split fifty-fifty between the two types of writers. I myself am like Maloy; I've never cried nor become too emotionally involved with my characters. I find this ironic, actually, because in real life I tear up easily and frequently. I think, for me, being in control of my characters and their destinies, choosing what happens to them, removes the sense of injustice or helplessness that causes me to cry in real life when I hear about a person's misfortunes. Like Maloy, I view writing a book as more of an intellectual than an emotional exercise, although, like her, I am striving to create an emotional experience for my readers. I am different from many of my writer friends as far as emotional identification goes; I have a friend who told me she did cry while writing the scene where her main character died, and I've heard of writers who find it difficult to write when a scene becomes too painful. I'm not at all claiming one way is better than the other, just different. It would be interesting to investigate to what degree the sense of author identification with the characters influences the speed or flow of the writing. I can see it working both ways: too much identification could make writing scenes where bad things happen to the character more difficult, yet identifying with the character otherwise might make the act of writing more engrossing and the writer more eager to write.

What are your thoughts on this matter? What kind of writer are you? If anyone's read Every Last Cuckoo, I'd love to hear how caught up you became in the lives of Maloy's characters. Her book, a top five BookSense and an Indiebound pick, won the American Library Association's Readers List Award for Women's Fiction, so she's obviously doing something right!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sidebar Reorg

Just wanted to draw your attention to the newly organized sidebar. I've divided the links into more descriptive categories and added some sites of historic and literary interest, with more on the way. Next up, the "Labels" list, which has grown rather unwieldy. I hope you enjoy some of the newer sites, and please don't hesitate to suggest anything you know of that might be of interest!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fiction and the Academe

As a graduate alumna of an Ivy League university who just went through the college application process with my daughter and will soon to embark on it again with my son, I was intrigued when I saw Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel, Admission (Grand Central 2009), on the New Fiction shelf in the bookstore. The story explores the moral dilemma of a Princeton University admissions officer, Portia Nathan, whose encounter with a brilliant but atypical Princeton applicant forces her confront a difficult secret she has carried, alone, since her own college days at Dartmouth. Having served as an outside reader for the Princeton University Office of Admission for several seasons, Korelitz fills her novel with behind-the scenes details that help demystify what admissions officers do as they struggle to put together an incoming class. I must admit I enjoyed this book immensely. After spending so many months reading college guides and application manuals, it was fascinating to see the entire process fictionalized and tied to broader societal issues. The novel's opening sentence has become one of my all-time favorites: "The flight from Newark to Hartford took no more than fifty-eight minutes, but she still managed to get her heart broken three times." If you're looking for some good non-historical reading, give Admission a try. I will definitely be looking into more of Jean Hanff Korelitz's work.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill" at the Tower of London

Catherine Delors reminded me about the fascinating exhibit being held at the Tower of London through January, 2010. "Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill" gathers together some of the world's rarest arms and armor to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession to the throne. The exhibit displays complete sets of armor crafted for specific events, including the spectacular meeting of Henry and François I at the Field of Cloth of Gold in June 1520. If you can't visit in person, be sure to check out the exhibition website, which features slideshows, descriptions of various pieces, articles on armor and historic battles, even interactive games! This is one exhibition I'm sad I won't be able to see.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Woo hoo, just hit 100 pages on the WIP! There's no turning back now. Forward, march! :)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Captive King

Last we saw of King François, he had been taken prisoner by imperial forces at the disastrous Battle of Pavia (24 February 1525). French troops, fighting to recapture the duchy of Milan that François's predecessor Louis XII had lost, were surrounded and roundly defeated by Charles V's army. The King of France's captivity at the hand of the Holy Roman Emperor would last a little over a year and color the two monarchs' relationship for the duration of their reigns.

After the battle, François was taken to the Castle of Pizighettone near Cremona, where he remained for three months in the custody of the Spanish captain. Captured companions accompanied him, including his childhood friend Anne de Montmorency (who would remain François's most trusted counselor and eventually rise to the most powerful political position in France). These men were eventually given safe-conducts that enabled them to travel back and forth between Italy and France to negotiate the king's release. François appointed his mother, Louise de Savoye, regent during his absence. Louise established her court at Lyons, near the Italian border, to facilitate communications with her son and the emperor.

If François and his mother had hoped that Charles would quickly release him for a cash ransom, they were mistaken. Charles presented a long list of demands that included paying Charles's debts to Henry VIII, abandoning French claims to Milan and Genoa, and most importantly, ceding the duchy of Burgundy. The emperor planned to seal the settlement through the marriage of his niece, Mary of Portugal, to the Dauphin. Although François appeared amenable to some of the terms, he refused to negotiate as long as he continued to be held prisoner. He forwarded Charles's terms to Louise, who rejected them outright.

Hoping to cut short negotiations made all the lengthier by the distance separating the two courts, François begged for a face-to-face meeting with Charles. In June, he was taken to Spain on a fleet of galleys decorated in his honor, given a royal welcome in Barcelona, then moved to Valencia. He asked that his sister Marguerite be given safe-conduct to negotiate a peace, that he be moved closer to the site of negotiations for easier consultation, and that a truce be declared while the talks were in progress. Charles agreed to all three requests, yet continued to avoid meeting with François in person.

When the French ambassadors met with Charles in Toledo, the emperor continued to dismiss any discussion of a ransom. He was willing to make some concessions in his original demands, but claimed there could be no lasting peace as long as Burgundy remained in French hands. France, however, refused to consider surrendering the region; in fact, François, now in Madrid, made a secret declaration to the French ambassadors that he would never surrender Burgundy freely and that, if forced to do so, his action would be null and void.

Charles almost lost his opportunity to profit from the situation when François nearly died in September from a combination of acute depression, anorexia and a nasal abscess. The French king ran a fever for twenty-three straight days and lapsed into a semi-coma after Charles did, finally, come to see him. Later in the month, the abscess burst and François unexpectedly recovered. Peace talks resumed, this time facilitated by Marguerite, who had arrived during her brother's illness, but were suspended once again when Charles found the proposals unacceptable.

By the end of the year, the strain of the king's absence was growing too great for the kingdom. Louise de Savoye decided to abandon Burgundy and convinced François to accept Charles's terms. On January 14, 1526, the parties signed the Treaty of Madrid. In return for his freedom, François ceded Burgundy and abandoned his claims to Italy. He also agreed to hand over his two oldest sons as hostages until the terms of the treaty were fulfilled. In return, he demanded the hand of Charles's sister Eléonore in marriage, in order to keep her from marrying Charles de Bourbon, the prince of the blood who had sided with Charles during the war. Charles, swayed by advisors who believed the French king could be trusted, agreed. Little did he know that two days before the French king signed the treaty, he had made another secret declaration nullifying the surrender of Burgundy.

Betrothed by proxy to Eléonore in January, François remained in Madrid until mid-February, possibly for health reasons. Charles arrived, and together they traveled to meet Eléonore. A few days later, Charles set off to Seville to marry Isabella of Portugal, and François began the long journey back to France with his Spanish escort. The heartrending exchange of the monarch for his two young sons, which deserves a post of its own, was set for March 17 on the river Bidassoa.

[Source: The material for this post was condensed from R. J. Knecht's account in Renaissance Warrior and Patron, pp. 216-48.]