Monday, April 28, 2008

The Cover Search is On!

For those following the cover debate, Catherine Delors has posted several possibilities for the cover of her forthcoming novel, For the King. She invites us to take a look and give her some input.

Cinderella at World of Royalty also joined in the cover discussion, speaking of her preference for the use of actual portraits for the covers of novels about historical figures. Check out what she has to say!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Isabella of Portugal and Charles V

In doing research on François I's longtime rival, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), I came across this lovely portrait of his wife, Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539). Isabella married the Emperor in 1526, and despite the match being a political one, the two are purported to have fallen love during their honeymoon and remained devoted to each other for their entire marriage. Isabella died giving birth to their fifth child in May 1539, while Charles was away. The Emperor never recovered; for the rest of his life he wore black and never remarried (although he did father a son, Juan of Austria, in 1547).

Charles visited Fontainebleau on a state visit in December of 1539, only seven months after his beloved Isabella's death. His grief must certainly have affected his demeanor and actions during the weeks he spent as François's guest. Learning of the Emperor's happy marriage and his wife's untimely death is an example of how a fortuitous research find can yield much fruit in the writing of fiction. Now, when I write the section of my second novel which depicts the festivities at Fontainebleau organized in Charles's honor, I will be able to bring some psychological depth to my portrayal of him. In addition, I have a possible seed (an insensitive remark? an unfortunate comparison?) for the intense dislike that springs up between him and another character during that visit, a dislike which has important political and dramatic repercussions.

Plot points aside, I've posted the painting of Isabella here in light of our recent discussions of the use of women's portraits on the covers of historical novels. I find this to be one of the most beautiful Renaissance portraits I've seen--Isabella's grace and gentleness emanate from the canvas, and her costume is elegant but not ostentatious. (And don't you just love her 'do?!) It would make a wonderful cover. The problem with using portraits, however, is that if the painting depicts an easily identifiable person, the face cannot be shown in full. (Especially if the person doesn't even figure in the novel!) In any case, I'm glad to have learned a bit about Isabella. Who knows? Maybe I'll revisit her someday--my list of possible subjects for future novels keeps growing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Dream Covers

A few days ago we had a great discussion on headless women covers and their function as a marketing tool for historical fiction. Sheramy from Van Gogh's Chair made the astute observation that the point of writing historical fiction is often to give faces and voices to women of the past, and then the covers take the faces away. Catherine Delors, whose has described in detail the genesis of the cover for Mistress of the Revolution, designed a cover for my novel which, I was glad to see, left the hapless woman in possession of her mouth. Jennifer described trends in YA historical fiction covers and pointed out that the girls on them don't have to surrender their heads, although they are usually shown from behind or in three-quarters view. We discussed reasons for the differences and for the headless woman trend in general. It was a great discussion, and I thank all the participants!

It was pretty evident from the comments that readers (and writers!) are becoming sick of the trend, especially as it seems to reduce the scope of the story and the main character's trials to the level of a costume drama. That got me thinking--if we were to abolish headless women on our covers, what would we put there instead? I listed a few elements often seen on HF covers: reproductions of artwork (the rights to which, as Sheramy pointed out, are often too costly for publishers to use), landscapes, cameos, calligraphic fonts. What are some other possibilities? How could designers signal to potential readers, mostly women, that the book is historical fiction without making the book look like an issue of Vogue?

I began reflecting on my dream cover for The Measure of Silence. I'd love something that captured all the threads of the book: women's voices, printing/publishing, fabric, and religious choices. I came up with a few possibilities. The first would be a detail taken from a Renaissance painting of a woman's hand holding either a book or a quill, preferably against a backdrop of her skirt or a luxurious tablecloth. This would be my first choice, as I think using artwork captures the atmosphere of the times better than contemporary compositions do. If the cost of a reproduction were too prohibitive, I would love to have a still-life composition of an open book, an ink-pot and quill, an empty birdcage (you'll understand why when you read the book!), and Jollande's cross pendant against with billowing folds of velvet or silk. A third possibility would be a design that mimicked a sixteenth-century binding, although it would have to be an elaborate, jewel-encrusted one in order to catch the 21st century bookstore browser's eye.

If you're writing an historical novel, what do you envision as the perfect cover? If you're already published, what do you think worked (or didn't) about your cover? If you're a reader of HF, what would you like to see as a new trend? What would jump off the table at you and prompt you to read the back copy?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Character Charts

I came across a tool on the web today: the Fiction Writer's Character Chart by Rebecca Sinclair (html version here; pdf version here). I've never used such things in the past, but this time I thought I might give it a try. While writing my first novel, I had the leisure to get to know my characters gradually as the story unfolded. Now that I have a much tighter schedule for the second book, it might help to complete some of these charts in order to become familiar with my characters more quickly.

You can't really know a character until he/she starts to reveal him/herself in the actual writing: in his responses to events, in the actions that he undertakes, in the details that surface through his interaction with other characters and with his environment. In one sense, spending time filling out a chart about the characters' likes and dislikes, habits and strengths, might better be spent writing actual scenes. However, filling out the charts will cause me to think in a focused way about each character; it might make writing some scenes a little easier, in that I won't have to stop and create every reaction, gesture and thought from scratch. Sinclair's questionnaire seems to be a good one, in that it doesn't dwell solely on superficial issues. She asks you to delve deeply into the character's psyche: for example, how does the character think others perceive her? How does she react to problems? If she could change something about herself, what would it be? Thinking about some of these things ahead of time might make for richer scenes with more psychological depth.

Would my characters in TMOS have been different if I'd thought about some of these issues beforehand? Perhaps, in small ways. At the very least, the questionnaire might have prompted scenes that were never written into the book as it now stands. Now, the beginning of a new project, is the time to stretch myself and try a different approach. My great fear as I embark on this second novel is that I'll wind up rewriting the same book in a different wrapping. If I spend some serious time with these character worksheets before I jump into the story, I will at least be able to ensure that the new book's characters are thoroughly different people than Jollande et al.

Have you ever used character worksheets or something similar? What was the result?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Knowing a Book by its Cover

There is no question that, in this day and age, a book's cover is first and foremost a marketing tool. Font, artwork, and layout are all designed to identify the book's genre and to induce the bookstore browser to pick the book off the shelf, examine it and, ideally, make a purchase.

When I enter a book store, the first thing I do is glance at the covers of the books displayed on the tables of new releases and pounce on any that appear to be historical novels. What are the visual cues that make me reach? Of course, for the last several years, headless women in period dress scream historical; other clues include gilded or calligraphied fonts, reproductions of paintings, bands of landscape set between borders of rich color, still-lifes composed of period objects. Covers of historical novels seldom feature photographs; the color palette is somber and dignified; the artwork establishes or at least hints at the novel's era and the setting. Historical fiction covers have a weighty look quite distinct from cartoony chick-lit covers or the artsy, photographic covers of literary fiction. Judgment aside, one should know a book by its cover.

Although I must admit I've had my fill of headless women, I understand the purpose they serve. Readers of historical fiction know the conventions of historical fiction cover art and search out books that fulfill those criteria. An author needs to reach the audience most suited for her work; why confuse the reader or miss her altogether by straying too far from the visual cues she's looking for? If headless women sell books, then I say plunk one on my cover! It's the designer's job to get potential readers to pick up the book, the author's job to distinguish her book from every other headless woman book out there through the writing between the covers. Please just make sure the costume matches the time period and setting of the story as closely as possible! There is nothing worse than finding an English dress on the cover of a book set in France, or sleeves from the 1570's on a book set in 1530.

The entire concept of using the cover to sell the book is quite a modern one. Book covers in the sixteenth century served two principal purposes: to protect the pages and to demonstrate the owner's wealth and taste. Books were bound in a bindery, an establishment distinct from the printing shop. Often times patrons would buy the printed pages unbound and take them to the bindery, where they would chose the leather and tooling that appealed to them and pay to have the book bound that specific way. The leather panels were embossed or stamped with geometric designs, scrolls or floral patterns; the covers of nobles' books were often set with precious gems. The cover revealed more about the book's owner than the content or genre of the work, especially since the title never appeared on it. Imagine having to open the cover in order to discover what a book was about. Browsing in a bookshop takes on a whole new meaning! (For some beautiful examples of sixteenth-century bindings, visit .)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Reader Input, Please!

I've been blogging for a little over three months now and enjoying it very much. It's been great fun to share interesting bits of history with you and to ponder questions of craft. I hope I've succeeded in interesting you in an era you might not have been terribly familiar with beforehand and inspired you to search out some novels or non-fiction works set in or about sixteenth-century France.

I extend heartfelt thanks to all the readers who visit the blog often and participate in discussions through the comment trail. I really want to make Writing the Renaissance worth the time you spend reading it, a destination that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. With that in mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what interests you here.

What, in particular, would you like to see more (or less) of?
  • articles on historical figures and events
  • articles on daily life and customs in the sixteenth century
  • articles about sixteenth-century authors and literary works
  • posts on the craft of writing in general
  • posts on particular issues inherent to the writing of historical fiction
  • posts on the business side of writing: submitting to agents and editors, contracts, etc.
  • reviews of historical novels
  • interviews with authors of historical fiction
  • excerpts from my novels
  • quizzes
  • something not mentioned above
I'd appreciate some feedback as to what you like to see when you click on the Writingren link. I worry that the frustrated professor in me takes over and bores you all with mini-lectures you really have no interest in reading. On the other hand, there are so many fascinating historical topics I could write about... I've tried to make this blog a bit different by mixing historical content with topics on writing. But what do you want to read? Be brave and de-lurk, if you haven't commented before. And if you're a regular participant, jump in and let me know what works--or doesn't--for you.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sixteenth-Century Take-Out

Believe it or not, prepared food was readily available in the sixteenth-century towns. Vendors called rôtisseurs sold all kinds of prepared meals and even arranged dinner parties for wealthy patrons. Partridges, capons and hares, already larded and roasted, cost less than fresh ones from the market. People in general ate little bread and fruit but large quantities of meat. A well-off bourgeois might sit down to a meal featuring five or six different kinds served with a variety of sauces and stuffings. Pastries (meat cooked in dough) were a favorite dish. With such demand, the rôtisseurs' enormous ovens never cooled.

Anyone for a pork chop to go?

Friday, April 11, 2008

National Museum of the Renaissance

Next time you're in Paris, be sure to check out the National Museum of the Renaissance (Musée national de la Renaissance) housed in the beautiful château of Écouen. Located twenty kilometers north of Paris, this museum is a veritable treasure house of sixteenth-century painting, sculpture, pottery, furniture and textiles and is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the era.

The château was built by the Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, between 1538 and 1555 and served as his principal residence. Many of the noted artisans who worked on the renovation of Fontainebleau participated in its construction. Decorated with painted tile, carved woodwork, stained glass, marble statues, fountains, murals and friezes, the château provided a fitting setting for Montmorency's extensive collections of faïence, enamels, paintings, books and tapestries. It remained in the Constable's family until 1632; during the Revolution, it was used as a patriotic club, prison, and military hospital; in 1805 Napoleon dedicated it as a school for educating daughters of members of the Legion of Honor. Amazingly, it continued to be used as a school for young women until 1962, when it passed into the hands of the ministry of culture and, after extensive renovations, opened as a museum in 1977.

The museum's collections are outstanding. Highlights include twelve painted chimneys; all ten panels of the famous David and Bathsheba tapestry; one of Europe's most complete collections of lace; a superb collection of table clocks and watches; and display case upon display case of enameled cups, plaques, and bowls and other objets d'art. The museum is currently featuring an exhibit on sixteenth-century medicine and regularly hosts concerts, lectures, and other special events. Best of all, the website indicates that entry is free up through June 2008.

For decades, Anne de Montmorency was one of France's most powerful men. A trusted advisor of François I, he became even more prominent and prosperous under the protection of Henri II. Montmorency used his extreme wealth to become a noted patron of the arts. The museum's website reveals that at the time of his death in 1567, he owned 130 châteaux throughout France, in addition to two sumptuous Parisian residences. But, it concludes, Écouen remains his masterpiece.

Be sure not to miss it on your next visit!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

So Close and Yet (Fortunately?) So Far

Tudormania is all the rage these days. It seems that every other historical novel published features another of Henry VIII's unfortunate wives. None of these women were French, although one Frenchwoman did come precariously close to wedding Henry: none other than François I's own sister, Marguerite d'Angoulême.

Marguerite (generally known as Marguerite de Navarre) was two years older than François and his only sibling. Like François, she was attractive, intelligent, and extremely well-educated. François's predecessor, his cousin Louis XII, tried to marry young Marguerite off to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and later to Arthur's younger brother, the future Henry VIII. But at the time of Louis's proposal, François's accession to the throne of France was not certain; there remained a chance that the elderly Louis, married to a younger queen, might still produce a son who would inherit the throne before his cousin. Because of this uncertainty, the proposal did not entice the English king, Henry VII, who turned it down. Henry did eventually change his mind and ask for Marguerite's hand either for himself or for his son Henry, but by that time it was Louis who was not interested in a match with England. Marguerite herself hoped for a French match, and in 1509 she married her first husband, the duc d'Alençon. Widowed, she later married Henri d'Albret and became Queen of Navarre. (R. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron, p. 113-114)

How might history have been different had Marguerite and Henry VIII married? Marguerite, though she never outwardly embraced Calvinism, showed herself to be open to reform of the Catholic Church from within and protected many censured theologians at her court in Navarre. Would she and Henry have introduced reform into the Church in England without severing ties with Rome? Would Henry, who had been quite loyal to Rome as a young man, ever have become embroiled in theological disputes if he had married Marguerite and produced a male heir? The questions are many, the answers unknown.

One can only be happy that Marguerite did not wind up as one of Henry's discarded wives. A woman of great accomplishment, she not only wrote poetry and prose at a time when women's voices were seldom heard, but she became an accomplished diplomat and an arbiter of learning and culture at both her brother's and her husband's courts. I often wonder what Marguerite felt as she witnessed the tragic destinies of the women who shared Henry's throne and bed.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

An Historico-Fictional Hybrid

My last post introduced you to Louise Labé, the first middle-class woman to publish under her own name in sixteenth-century France. Captivated by Louise's courage and accomplishments yet hesitant to write a fictionalized biography of her, I decided to use her as a model for Jollande Carlet, the main character of my novel The Measure of Silence.

From the early days of my graduate studies, I knew I wanted to write a tribute to the talented women who were reduced to silence by the conventions and mores of the sixteenth century. I considered presenting Louise's story as a novel, but two things gave me pause: my own uneasiness with using an historical figure as a main character and the fact that little is known with certainty about Louise's life, other than a few names and dates and some minor details gleaned from her last will and testament. Since by necessity I would find myself imagining large portions of her story, I decided to abandon the constraints of biography and create an entirely fictional character based upon her.

Many points of overlap connect the real and fictional women. For one, they share a similar economic status: Jollande, the daughter of a draper (fabric merchant), marries the son of a felt manufacturer; Louise hailed from a family of rope makers and married into another. As girls, both Jollande and Louise received an extensive classical education, extraordinary for women of their time and status. No one is certain how Louise came by her education; I explain Jollande's as the gift of her rich godfather, who allows her to share the tutors he hires for his own daughter. Jollande displays the courage, feistiness and determination I imagine characterized Louise, for like Louise, her literary pursuits brand her as a loose woman and she constantly has to deflect, diffuse or ignore the scornful judgments of strangers.

I chose to set Jollande's story in Lyon, the city with which Louise identified so strongly, because sixteenth-century Lyon was a center of print culture and home to a renowned group of poets. Other details of Louise's life come out in the novel, subtly transformed: the Italian banker with whom Louise spent the last years of her life becomes Marsilio, the Genoan business partner of Jollande's father; Clément Marot, the court poet some sources claim was young Louise's lover (and whose poetry appears in the novel) becomes Gabriel Orland, the published poet who infiltrates the printing shop as a spy for the queen. Finally, like Louise, who saw many of her family members convert to Protestantism yet remained Catholic herself, Jollande must decide whether or not to follow her own loved ones into the Calvinist fold.

Creating a character who shares some biographical traits with the historical Louise yet is not tied to her particular personality and chronology allowed me the artistic freedom necessary to tell what I hope is an engaging and aesthetically satisfying story. Grounded in reality yet free to pick and choose and embellish, I constructed a triad of tightly interwoven subplots that investigate important literary, religious and social issues of the time, some of which affected the historical Louise in only the most general of terms. Broadening the milieu beyond Louise's shop and study allowed me to incorporate a wider range of period detail and historical happenstance (for example, no evidence links Louise to a printing establishment, yet I was able to place Jollande in one and thereby introduce the printing subculture to the reader). The creative freedom this approach to character provided was both exhilarating and intellectually challenging--and okay, I'll admit it--much more fun than striving to color within the lines of Louise's official literary portrait.

Finally, modeling my character after an historical person offers me, as an author, a certain measure of protection. If any future critic complains that Jollande attempts things no sixteenth-century woman would dare contemplate, I can point to Louise and say, "Not true! Here is a woman who did just that, and succeeded most excellently!" {s}