Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I Learned about Writing in 2009

As 2009 winds to a close, I spent some time considering the things I've learned about writing over the course of the past year, with one book on submission and a second in the works:

1. Books don't write themselves. The screen will be just as empty of words tomorrow as it was yesterday if I don't put any there today.

2. It's easy to consider myself a writer without actually writing anything.

3. Ideas need time to percolate. The subconscious mind continues to work and create between writing sessions. If I make use of odd free moments just to picture a scene and the characters in it, things go much more smoothly the next time I sit down to write.

4. The internet is the greatest threat to my productivity, even more distracting than frantic college freshmen and whiny four year-olds. I can tame it, however -- at least temporarily -- with a timer and a smidgeon of self-discipline.

5. The oft-repeated strategy of tricking myself to write by telling myself I'm only going to write for fifteen minutes or a half hour really does work. Starting is the hardest part; once I get going, time flies by and I find myself reluctant to stop.

6. I can't write out of sequence, no matter how stuck I am. I can, however, start a new chapter without knowing exactly what will happen in it.

7. Scrivener is the most amazing writing software EVER.

8. Readers of historical fiction don't care how many obscure historical facts I know if these details bog down the story or deaden my characters. Conflicts and crises keep readers reading, not descriptions of banquets or slashed sleeves. Detail enhances the flavor of the story, but can never compensate for a lackluster plot.

9. Celebrating other writers' successes and publicizing their books makes the wait for my own sale easier to bear. My turn will come -- and if it doesn't, I've spent my time in a positive way and nurtured new friendships in the process.

10. I might have picked the absolute worst moment in the history of publishing to try to sell a debut novel, but I'm incredibly lucky to have the time, resources and support to pursue my dream.

11. I can do it again! I do have a second novel inside me, and a third and and maybe even a fourth...

12. It doesn't matter how many people believe in me if I don't believe in myself.

Writers, what have you learned about writing this year? Please share! And here's to 2010 -- may it be a year of personal growth and dreams fulfilled for all of us!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Wishes


"Le grand petit enfant de Bethlehem soit a jamais les delices et les amours de nostre cœur!"

"May the great though tiny Child of Bethlehem ever be the delight and the love of our heart!"

François de Sales (1567-1622), bishop and saint
Letter CXVI to Saint Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal
on the Feast of the Birth of Our Lord

Painted enamel plaque attributed to Jean II Pénicaud
(active 1531-1549)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"On the following day he [King François] sent for me at his dinner-hour. The Cardinal of Ferrara was there at meat with him. When I arrived, the King had reached his second course; he began at once to speak to me, saying, with a pleasant cheer, that having now so fine a basin and jug of my workmanship, he wanted an equally handsome salt-cellar to match them; and begged me to make a design, and to lose no time about it. I replied: 'Your Majesty shall see a model of the sort even sooner than you have commanded; for while I was making the basin, I thought there ought to be a saltcellar to match it; therefore I have already designed one, and if it is your pleasure, I will at once exhibit my conception.' [...] When I appeared again before the King and uncovered my piece, he cried out in astonishment: 'This is a hundred times more divine a thing that I had ever dreamed of. What a miracle of a man! He ought never to stop working.' Then he turned to me with a beaming countenance, and told me that he greatly liked the piece, and wished me to execute it in gold.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), Florentine sculptor and goldsmith
The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Ch. XVI
Translated by John Addington Symonds

Photo credit: Jerzy Strzelecki (1994)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Golden Life

Interesting article in the news today...

Last year, French experts exhumed the body of Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), the mistress of King Henri II. They tested her body and found high levels of gold in her hair. Since Diane was not queen and did not wear a crown, the only explanation for such contamination points to the ingestion of drinkable, or "potable," gold.

Diane was famous for the flawless skin and stunning beauty she preserved well into her fifties. She became Henri's mistress when she was in her thirties and he only in his teens. Despite being twenty years older than the king, she remained his favorite for over two decades and was banished from court only upon Henri's death in 1559.

Diane attributed her flawless complexion to daily bathing and swimming in frigid river water (her château, Chenonceau, spanned the river Cher, and she used to swim from the river's banks). Although these practices undoubtably helped, it appears she may have resorted to other, more expensive, measures.

Considered an elixir of life, gold posed a challenge to alchemists, who strove to render the element into an ingestible form. Paracelsus (1493-1539) and Birringuccio (1480-1539) each developed recipes for dissolving gold in nitric acid, which could then be drunk. Potable gold was prescribed for a wide variety of illnesses throughout the Renaissance. It was thought to have a particularly beneficial effect on the central nervous system and was often used to treat melancholy, epilepsy, and hysteria. An Italian monk used it to treat psoriasis and ulcers. In our day, gold salts are being investigated to treat autoimmune disorders such as lupus and psoriatic arthritis. ("A Brief History of Potable Gold" by Stata Norton, Ph.D.) In addition to its therapeutic powers, potable gold was reputed to be a strong aphrodisiac--something of considerable value to a royal mistress, one would imagine.

Anecdotal accounts claim that Diane drank a homemade broth every morning after bathing. Did this "broth" contain potable gold? Whether Diane drank gold to ward off illness, preserve her beauty, or increase her ardor, it appears to have worked--despite an occasional fling, King Henri never lost his fascination with her. The memoirist Brantôme, who visited her right before her death at the age of 66, claimed she was as beautiful and seductive as ever. Even allowing for some gallant hyperbole on Brantôme's part, Diane seems to have given new meaning to the term "golden years."

{Go here for an additional article on the discovery.}

Friday, December 11, 2009


Elena Maria Vidal's new novel, The Night's Dark Shade: A Novel of the Cathars (Mayapple Press, 2009) dramatizes the conflict between the Good Christians (otherwise known as the Albigensians or Cathars) and the Roman Catholic Church that roiled southern France throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Raphaëlle de Miramande, a young heiress whose father and fiancé both die in the crusade against the Cathars, travels to the château de Mirambel to wed her cousin, Raymond de Tourmalet. Raphaëlle discovers only after she arrives that her intended and his family are themselves Good Christians--in fact, Raymond's mother, Esclarmonde, is a Perfecta, an ascetic spiritual leader who instructs the faithful and leads the sect's rituals. In accordance with Cathar beliefs (which considered material reality evil and procreation undesirable because it trapped spirits in physical bodies), the situation at Mirambel is irregular, to say the least. Esclarmonde, given over to fasts and conquering her body, shuns her husband, who lives in an open physical relationship with a serving woman; Esclarmonde's son, Raymond, is a sexual deviant given to violent outbursts and bullying; tenants cohabitate without the blessing of marriage and rid themselves of unwanted children both before and after birth. Horrified by what she witnesses and unwilling to repudiate her Catholic faith, Raphaëlle refuses to marry Raymond, forcing her uncle, who desires to gain control of her lands, to imprison her until she agrees to wed his son.

Romantic feelings for Martin de Revel-Seissec, a knight of St. John pledged to celibacy but renowned for breaking hearts, complicate Raphaëlle's plight. Rescued for a time from her uncle's castle, Raphaëlle weds a different man, but her penchant for Martin prevents her from making a sincere effort to fulfill her marriage vows. Raphaëlle struggles with reconciling the notion of romantic love, promoted by the troubadours, with the self-giving and faithfulness that undergird a sacramental marriage. Like the Cathars, whose efforts to transcend the body reduced sexual relations to physical functions devoid of unifying sacredness, Raphaëlle's obsession with the unattainable Martin endangers her emotional connection with her husband and threatens to destroy the marriage she has vowed to uphold.

Ms. Vidal creates a cast of vivid characters caught in a quick-moving, well-constructed plot. Her novel paints an intriguing picture of Cathar beliefs and practices set in direct contrast to Catholic theology. As the perspective belongs solely to young Raphaëlle, a devout Catholic, value judgments are hardly equivocal. Yet even Raphaëlle recognizes how Cathar beliefs sprang from distorted Christian teaching. The novel illustrates how easily and insidiously the abhorrent becomes desirable, the selfish honorable when individuals seek nothing beyond the fulfillment of their own desires, a message perhaps even more relevant today than it was centuries ago.

Ms. Vidal has a master's degree in European History and is a specialist on Marie Antoinette. To order The Night's Dark Shade or learn about the author's other novels, Trianon (1997) and Madame Royale (2000), please visit her blog, Tea at Trianon. An interview with the author may be found here.

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Au dict an, samedy huictiesme mars, fut pendu et estranglé, devant le pillory, à Paris, un jeune garçon qui n'avoit pas seize ans, serviteur de Jean Crevecoeur, joyaullier et orfèvre de Paris, à cause qu'il luy avoit desrobbé environ pour huict ou dix mille livres de bagues et joyaux et de pierreries. Et, pour ce faire, il estoit monté, de nuict, pardessus les maisons, en son grenier, où il y couchea de nuict, et le lendemain dimanche, fit le larcin, pendant que ceux de la maison estoient au seremon."

"In the said year [1516], on Saturday, March 8, a young boy who wasn't yet sixteen, a servant of Jean Crevecoeur, jeweller and goldsmith of Paris, was hanged and strangled in front of the pillory in Paris, for having robbed the jeweller of about eight to ten thousand livres' worth of rings and jewels and precious stones. To accomplish this, he climbed during the night across rooftops and into his [Crevecoeur's] attic, where he spent the night, and the next day, a Sunday, committed the theft while the members of the household were at church."

Anonymous, Journal d'un bourgeois de Paris (1515-1536)
Translation mine

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Treasure Trove of Photos

I was contacted last week by a reader of the blog who shares my interest in "Francis and his posse." Stephen Bove, a screenwriter and accomplished photographer, has visited many of François's favorite châteaux and photographed the sites in marvelous detail. He has posted the photos in the following threads on Flickr:

Clos Lucé (the house near Amboise where Leonardo da Vinci died)
Eglise de St. Denis (tombs of François and other French kings)

I can't thank Mr. Bove enough for sharing these breathtaking glimpses of the beauty François created for himself and his court.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"This court is like no other. Here we are completely cut off from business, and if by chance there is any, no hour, day or month is set aside for certain to deal with it. Here one thinks of nothing but hunting, women, banquets and moving house."

The Bishop of Saluzzo, complaining about the French court
in a letter to Cosimo de' Medici

Quoted in C. Terasse, François Ier: le roi et le règne
(Paris 1945-70), vol. 3, p. 23.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Robin Maxwell's O, JULIET

Robin Maxwell, the author of seven historical novels (including SIGNORA DA VINCI, which I reviewed here), has a new book coming out in February: O, JULIET, a historical retelling of Shakespeare's tragic tale.

Before Juliet Capelletti lie two futures: a traditionally loveless marriage to her father's business partner, or the fulfillment of her poetic dreams, inspired by the great Dante. Unlike her beloved friend Lucrezia, who looks forward to her arranged marriage into the Medici dynasty, Juliet has a wild, romantic imagination that takes flight in the privacy of her bedchamber and on her garden balcony.

Her life and destiny are forever changed when Juliet meets Romeo Monticecco, a soulful young man seeking peace between their warring families. A dreamer himself, Romeo is unstoppable, once he determines to capture the heart of the remarkable woman foretold in his stars.

You can read a sneak peek of O, JULIET at Ms. Maxwell's website and participate in the Love Games she has created to celebrate the publication of the book. I'll be posting a review of the book sometime in January.

The tag line on the book's front cover reads: "Their love was the stuff of legend. But the legend is only half the story." Come February 2, 2010, we'll know the rest!