Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lyon in the Lap of Luxury (Fabric)

Sustained by the quarterly trade fairs that attracted merchants from all over Europe, the city of Lyon rose to prominence as one of the most important cloth markets in sixteenth-century Europe. Lyon served as the point of departure for domestic fabric exports, such as the prized woolen cloth originating in Languedoc, Poitou and Berry and the sturdy linen canvas produced in the Lyonnais region itself. More importantly, royal decree designated Lyon as the sole depository for all unwoven and woven silks entering the kingdom. Merchants transported raw silk grown in Spain, Italy and the Middle East from the port of Marseilles up the Rhône River to Lyon, where silk weavers, invited by François I in 1536 to settle in France exempt from tithes and taxes, transformed it into fabric. Other merchants imported finished luxury fabrics directly from Italy: taffetas and cloth of gold from Lucca, figured silks from Florence, ciselé velvets from Genoa. Taxed at a hefty 5%, these luxury imports contributed significantly to the economy of the city and of the kingdom as a whole.

Considering the flow of fabric through the city, it is not surprising to find textile producers and merchants heavily represented on Lyon's tax rolls. In 1545, there were 103 dyers, 51 weavers, and 100 drapers listed. One of these drapers could easily have been Thomas Guillaume, the father of Jollande Carlet, the main character of my novel The Measure of Silence. Thomas makes a tidy living selling serviceable domestic fabrics to the city's inhabitants from his shop at the sign of the Feathered Needle. He cautiously branches out into cloth production by marrying Jollande off to the son of a local felt manufacturer. But when Marsilio Rocini, an Italian cloth merchant, convinces Thomas to enter into a partnership with him, Thomas abandons his natural reserve. Beguiled by Marsilio's talk of instant riches, Thomas stakes all he has to purchase a shipment of luxury fabrics he is convinced will make his fortune. It is up to Jollande to save her father from looming financial disaster-- if she doesn't wind up unwittingly hastening it.

(Sources: Silk, by Jacques Anquetil; Grand commerce et vie urbaine au XVIe siècle, by Richard Gascon; Histoire de Lyon et du Lyonnais, by André Latreille)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Celebrating with Cindy!

I would like to join Cindy Pon, a fellow writer from the Absolute Write forum and a commenter on this blog, in celebrating the news of her THREE-BOOK SALE!!! 

From Publisher's Weekly, 27 May 2008:

Young Adult:  Cindy Pon's SPIRIT BOUND, set in an ancient kingdom based on Chinese folklore, myth and magic, to Virginia Duncan at Green Willow Books, in a three-book deal, for publication in April 2009, by Bill Contardi at Brandt & Hochman (NA).

Cindy has been a wonderful inspiration to and cheerleader for the members of Absolute Write community. I know I am not alone in wishing her much happiness and many sales. 

You can check out an excerpt from Cindy's book and her beautiful Chinese brushwork at paint&prose.

Way to go, Cindy!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Browsing for Books in the Sixteenth Century

If you were browsing through a bookshop in sixteenth century Lyon, what would you find? According to Louis Bourgeois in Quand la cour de France vivait à Lyon (Fayard 1980), book production in the city at mid-century fell into roughly these categories:
  • 28% of books treated religious subjects;
  • 12% were dedicated to science and the arts (medicine and philosophy being most the popular);
  • 33% could be considered belles-lettres  (grammar, Latin and neo-Latin literature, French poetry and prose);
  • 6% discussed history;
  • the remaining 21% were mostly texts of Roman, canon and French law.

  • Good thing Lyon was far from the beach--not a lot of light reading to choose from!

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    Writing Software

    When two writers start talking, one of the first questions they ask each other (after "What do you write?") is "What software do you use?" We all know that most people, when it comes to computers, are either strongly pro-PC or pro-Mac. I'm not about to open that debate. Suffice it to say that now that my Toshiba laptop has died after five valiant years of rough drafts, Curious George games and photo downloads, I am finally able to make the switch to Apple. My husband is ecstatic that our house will finally be PC-free. What I am ecstatic about is I get to write my next novel using Scrivener software.

    Scrivener, as its designers describe it, is "a word processor and project management tool created specifically for writers of long texts." It is available for download here. After the thirty day free trial period, it costs forty dollars to buy the license for continued use. I've been using it for a few days now and am thrilled. The best feature is a virtual corkboard that allows you to create and rearrange index cards, displayed all at once--the perfect tool for developing and plotting story events. You can open research files alongside your text draft, view synopses of each chapter, and keep track of the status of each chapter or scene. Although I haven't actually done it yet (I'm still in the plotting stage), you can supposedly view different threads in a document, for example calling up all the scenes in which a certain character appears, or that take place in a specific setting--an amazing tool for following the execution of story arcs and checking a draft for consistency. I'm not particularly computer savvy and I'm finding Scrivener easy to use. The documentation is pretty straightforward and there is a good tutorial to learn with. (Okay, I do have an incredibly helpful scientist husband to help me when I get stuck, but I'm sure you'll be fine without him.)

    Those of you who write on Mac computers might want to check it out (you can import already existing work into the program). If my experience so far is any indication, Scrivener is worth every penny of the licensing fee. (Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with or compensated by the software designer, just a happy customer.)

    I'll keep you updated on how it goes as I use more of Scrivener's features. And if anyone has other writing software to tout (even if it's for the PC), please feel free to tell us about it.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Sixteenth Century Earthquake

    We have all been shocked to see the devastation and learn of the tremendous loss of life that occurred in China last week during the Sichuan earthquake. While reading about this current disaster, I was surprised to learn that the deadliest natural disaster, in terms of lives lost, was an earthquake that occurred in the Shaanxi province of China, not far from Sichuan, in the middle of the sixteenth century.

    On  January 23, 1556, during the reign of Emperor Jianjing of the Ming Dynasty, a tremendous earthquake shook Shaanxi Province. Scientists have assigned a reading of 8-8.3 on the Richter scale to this quake. Although there have been quakes that have registered higher, no quake has resulted in more deaths. Based on historical records, an estimated 830,000 people are thought to have died. The destruction stretched over an area of 500 square miles; in some counties, over half the inhabitants perished. Many peasants of the time lived in cave dwellings carved into the soft silt cliffs; entire mountainsides collapsed, killing all inside the caves. Aftershocks continued for six months and fires raged for days. I doubt too many Europeans of the time learned of the disaster, but those involved in the spice and silk trade must surely have heard something. The Science Museums of China has information about the Shaanxi earthquake here.

    As we pray for and send aid to the victims of the current catastrophe, let us remember the hundreds of thousands of people who died five centuries ago in eerily similar circumstances.

    The Man Behind the Lists

    After my post on Peter Roget and his thesaurus last week, my father-in-law alerted me to something I'd never heard before--that Roget suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and possibly high-functioning Asperger's syndrome. This aspect of his personality is examined in a new biography of Roget, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of 'Roget's Thesaurus,' by Joshua Kendall. A good deal of depression and mental illness afflicted Roget's family; Kendall views Roget's obsessive list-making as "a heroic defense mechanism," an attempt to order the chaos of his life and keep a grip on his mental stability. The writer of the NYT review of the biography points out, however, that if Roget did suffer from Asperger's, the list-making was not so much a conscious effort but an "involuntary part of who he was." In any case, the biography looks interesting and is definitely going into my TBR pile. The possibility of illness underlying Roget's efforts in a sense humanizes his cerebral masterpiece and is an example of how good things can often result from unfortunate circumstances. (And thanks to my father-in-law for prompting me to delve a bit further into Roget's life.)

    Sunday, May 18, 2008

    Jeu de paume

    As promised, here is the link to an excellent article on the history and current practice of the precursor to modern tennis, jeu de paume. It includes a fascinating account of Margot of Hainault, who in 1427 defeated some of the best male players of the game. Henri II played daily, dressed in white, with white shoes and a straw hat upon his head. He supposedly allowed no deference for his royal status while on the court. Think you'd be brave enough to beat the king?

    Friday, May 16, 2008

    Answers to Quiz #2

    My apologies for the delay in posting the correct answers to Quiz #2. My laptop hard-drive is dying a slow death, so I've been forbidden from using that computer until my husband can back the entire thing up and defragment the disk. I'm working on a different computer now, and it's taking me a bit of time to navigate my way around. And please excuse the lack of accent marks in this post--I haven't figured out how to insert them yet!

    Here are the correct answers for the quiz:

    1. C The House of VALOIS ruled France from 1328, when Philippe VI took the throne, until 1589, when Henri VI, the first Bourbon king, took over. During the sixteenth century, it was actually a minor branch of the house, the Valois-Angouleme, who ruled. The monarchs were: Francois I (15115-1547), Henri II (1547-1559), Francois II (1559-1560), Charles IX (1560-1574), and Henri III (1574-1589). Catherine de Medici served as regent for Charles IX, who was only 10 years old when he became king, and again for Henri III.

    2. A ERASMUS OF ROTTERDAM was the famous Dutch humanist of the Renaissance. Although he never formally abandoned the Catholic Church, his rationalistic biblical commentaries and other writings provided fodder for those who did. In 1519 Francois invited him to head a new college for the study of the classics, but Erasmus valued his intellectual freedom and, not wishing to be tied to any prince, turned him down. (The fact that he did not want to offend Charles V, from whom he was already receiving a stipend, probably also influenced his decision.) The post at the College went to Janus Lascaris, a noted Greek scholar from Italy, instead. Francois's readers formed the prestigious institute of higher learning now known as the College de France.

    3. D TENNIS, or jeu de paume, was the trendy sport favored by kings and courtiers during the Renaissance. There is an excellent article on the history of jeu de paume, which is still played in classical form in France, here. The name "tennis" is thought to derive from the French "Tenez," or "Get ready," called at the beginning of a match; "love" from "l'oeuf," or "egg," meaning "zero." (Wrestling was also practiced by Francois and Henri VIII, but not by courtiers and their ladies as well.)

    4. C CHARLES V (1500-1558) was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, beating out Francois, who had run a close race. With Charles ruling Spain, the Netherlands and sizable portions of Italy, France felt threatened on all sides. The political, personal and military rivalry between the two monarchs remained intense their entire lives.

    5. B Anne de Pisseleu, eventually honored as the DUCHESSE D'ETAMPES, became Francois's mistress after his return from captivity in Spain in 1526. Whereas Francois's first mistress, Francoise de Foix, played no political role, the duchesse d'Etampes was a member of Francois's privy council and, according to one foreign ambassador, the person who wielded the most influence on the king in matters of state. I will do a longer post on Anne later, as she will be one of the main characters in my second novel. Anne's chief rival at court was Diane de Poitiers, the Dauphin Henri's mistress.

    Three people took the quiz--Sarah, Catherine, and Daphne--and they all did quite well. DAPHNE answered all five questions correctly, and Sarah and Catherine only missed one question each. CONGRATULATIONS, ladies! Thank you for playing the game and being faithful readers of the blog. I hope everyone reading learned a little something she didn't know before.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    Elizabeth Chadwick Comments on Covers

    Elizabeth Chadwick, bestselling author of numerous historical novels including The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion, added a comment about her own covers down in the comment section of a previous post. I'm reposting it here so you are all sure to see it. Elizabeth writes:

    The women (and the man in one case!) on my covers aren't exactly headless, and may even have faces next time around but they belong to that school of design - and especially the nice but not historically correct frocks thing. However, since having been given those covers my sales have more than quadrupled and I have gone bestseller. I have heard from a major chainstore bookbuyer in the UK that the general public is still very keen on the headless nice-frock school of jacket and they are still selling big-time. In fact he's going to be saying so in an article for a writing magazine soon.

    Other than that I had a reader write to me to say she so much preferred headless or turned away because then she could imagine the character in her own head and didn't have to put a post it note over their faces for the duration of reading the novel!

    Bottom line: Headless may be a cliche, but at the moment it is still selling books like hot cakes!

    The inside scoop from someone who knows! I thank Elizabeth for her input and hope that she will alert us to the bookseller's article when it is published. Be sure to follow the ongoing cover discussion at Historical Fiction.

    A question for readers: does it bother you tremendously if the depiction of the main character on the book's cover does not match the description of the character in words?

    Monday, May 12, 2008

    Quiz #2

    Time for another Renaissance Quiz! Test your knowledge of the history and culture of 16th century Europe. Post your answers as a comment. Remember, NO GOOGLING ALLOWED! We'll review the answers and announce our winner on Thursday.

    1. The royal house that ruled France from 1328 to 1589 is known as the ______ dynasty.

    a. Merovingian
    b. Orléans
    c. Valois
    d. Bourbon

    2. This humanist scholar is often regarded as the intellectual father of the Reformation. He edited the works of St. Jerome, wrote New Testament commentaries, and authored such works as the Enchiridion and In Praise of Folly. In 1519 François I invited him to come to France to head the newly established college devoted to the study of the classical languages, but he refused. This scholar was:

    a. Erasmus of Rotterdam
    b. Melancthon
    c. John Fisher
    d. Sir Thomas More

    3. This sport was all the rage across Europe in the sixteenth century. Nearly every fashionable château had facilities for its play. Henri II played daily; it was also a favorite pastime of England's Henry VIII.

    a. archery
    b. lawn bowling
    c. wrestling
    d. tennis

    4. The Holy Roman Emperor was the elected monarch of the Holy Roman Empire, a central European state that existed during the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. In 1519 François I ran for the position, but he was beaten by this ruler.

    a. Lorenzo de Medici
    b. the Margrave of Brandenburg
    c. the Hapsburg Charles V
    d. England's Henry VIII

    5. François I was the first French monarch to formalize the position of royal mistress, or "maîtresse en titre." Françoise de Foix, comtesse de Châteaubriant, held this position from about 1516 until 1530, when she was ousted by this woman, who remained the king's mistress until his death in 1547.

    a. Mary Boleyn
    b. Anne de Pisseleu, duchesse d'Etampes
    c. Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois
    d. Agnes Sorel, dame de Loches

    More on Covers, Part II

    Boswellbaxter on HistoricalFiction alerted me to the following article on "body-part" covers and their unfortunate effect of turning off half of a novel's potential readership (ie. male readers), as well as dumbing-down the look of women's fiction.

    Sarah Johnson on Reading the Past gives us a preview of forthcoming historical fiction, including the covers. Some are really beautiful. Be sure to read the comments that follow the post for some inside information on the headless woman trend.

    I installed the Library Thing "Random Books from my Library" widget in the sidebar of my blog this weekend. Seeing the book covers displayed, I realized most of the books in my library have portraits of women with faces. I much prefer these to the headless type, even if the model's features don't necessarily match with the main character's. On the whole, though, all this talk about and examination of covers has proven to me that I tend to prefer the ones that feature landscapes or crowd scenes, like those on Dorothy Dunnett's novels.

    Friday, May 9, 2008

    Ode to a Thesaurus

    Today I thought I'd participate in the Booking Through Thursday meme about books. Each Thursday this site posts a question about books and reading; participants copy the question to their blogs, answer it, then link back. It's a lot of fun--check it out!

    This week's question is:

    Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?


    I could not write without my thesaurus. Seriously.

    My thirty-year old hardback copy of Roget's Thesaurus sits within arm's reach on my desk every time I write. A talisman, perhaps, or simply a visual reminder that I have written before and can write again. It functions not as a static repository of flowery, obscure synonyms with which to prettify my prose, but as a catalyst to my imagination and sieve for my expression. Often times as I'm writing, I'll have an idea of what I want to say, but haven't completely formulated my thoughts. I'll choose a word from the sentence I envision, look it up in the thesaurus, and begin reading the entries for it. Either a word will jump out at me and my thoughts will crystallize around it, or else I will realize that the word I first envisioned really doesn't capture what I want to say. Then the thesaurus offers the invaluable service of providing me with related words that I can explore. I'm very picky about the words I use; they must not only be precise in meaning, but contribute to the "sound" and flow of the sentence. I'll rewrite sentences over and over until sound and meaning mesh. If for some reason I must write without my thesaurus, it's a much more difficult and time-consuming process.

    I've had the same hardback copy of Roget's International Thesaurus for decades now. The spine is cracked, some of the pages loose; the little stickers with the entry numbers have fallen off most of the tabs. I've tried to use a newer copy, but it's just not the same. Since the thesaurus is an idea generator for me, I can't use the newer, alphabetically organized ones. I love how in the original thesaurus words are group according to ideas and there's a progression to the order of entries in the book. And forget the online versions--they are much too spare for what I need them to do.

    My favorite page in the thesaurus is the short biography of its British compiler, Peter Mark Roget (1799-1869). Did you know Roget was actually a medical doctor? He graduated from medical school at the age of nineteen and made a name for himself researching such subjects as pulmonary consumption and the effects of laughing gas. He established a charity clinic in London in 1810 and contributed his services there free for eighteen years. Roget became a Fellow of the Royal Society and served as its secretary for over twenty years. He lectured widely on medical subjects, but his interests were not limited to medicine. According to this biography, he devised a slide rule and worked on perfecting a calculating machine; he wrote articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica; he designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard; in 1828 he headed a commission to study the water supply of London and wrote the first paper of its kind advocating pollution control.

    In 1848 began preparing his thesaurus for publication. He'd begun cataloguing and organizing words according to their meanings in 1805; the first printed edition of his catalog appeared in 1852. He titled it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. That's exactly what I use it for and thank this remarkable man for his efforts.

    A hardbound copy of Webster's New World Dictionary and a thick Harrap's French and English Dictionary keep my old thesaurus company on my writing desk. As for writing books, I have a good number, some of which I can recommend, but that's a subject for another post. Anyway, think of the remarkable Mr. Roget next time you open your thesaurus.

    (I wonder how many different ways there are to say "geek"? There's got to be one there that describes me!)

    Tuesday, May 6, 2008

    Sixteeth-Century Fashion Dolls

    This morning I came across a fascinating on-line article by Yassana C. Croizat titled "'Living Dolls': François I Dresses His Women" (Renaissance Quarterly 60.1 (2007) 94-130). It discusses the exchange of exquisitely attired dolls between members of the courts of Europe as a way of disseminating new fashions. It also examines what motivated François I's custom of dressing the women of his court in splendid attire for which the crown paid. Croizat reveals, for example, that in 1538 François presented each of twenty-two ladies of his court with purple and crimson velvet to make dresses; each gift cost approximately 216 livres, the yearly salary of one of Fontainebleau's painters! The article is an engaging read and features several photographs of period dolls. Lots of material for my novel here.

    Monday, May 5, 2008

    Lyon: City of Commerce and Culture

    Located at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, the city of Lyon was second only to Paris in commercial and cultural importance during the sixteenth century. The third largest city in the realm with a population of close to 60,000 in 1550 (Paris boasted 300,000 inhabitants, Rouen 75,000), Lyon was the home to three industries that linked France with the rest of Europe: banking, silk work, and printing. The city became a major point of entry for goods coming into France over the Alps from Italy; linked to the Mediterranean by the Rhône and to Flanders and Germany by overland trade routes, it became staging center for exports as well. Lyon was home to large populations of foreigners, primarily Italians and Germans, deeply involved in this international trade. The city hosted four trade fairs each year, at Epiphany, Easter, August, and All Saints', each of which attracted 5-6000 foreigners. These fairs helped establish one of banking's first credit systems, the lettres d'échange. Although Lyon had no university in the sixteenth century, the prevalence of the printing trade fostered a healthy intellectual life and led to the establishment of poetic circles and philosophical academies based on Italian models. Lyon was a vibrant and exciting place to be in the years leading up to the Wars of Religion.

    This vibrancy and the interplay of commerce, culture and religion led me to choose Lyon as the setting for The Measure of Silence. In coming posts, I will examine each of these aspects in greater detail and share how each contributed to the development of the narrative.

    (The drawing above dates from the 1800's but shows the high hills that dominate the city and its bustling river trade.)

    Friday, May 2, 2008

    Covers, Egyptian Style

    Michelle Moran has an interesting thread over at Historical Fiction on the cover of her forthcoming novel, The Heretic Queen. The cover of her first novel, Nefertiti, featured a beautiful original illustration of Nefertiti's head and shoulders (no body on this one!). The cover of The Heretic Queen, in contrast, has no portrait at all; it features an illustration of a bird's wing from the tomb of the main character, Nefertari. You can read the story of the cover's genesis here, as well as the ensuing discussion. Michelle said she'll be glad to answer any questions you might have in the comments, below. Thanks, Michelle! Be sure to read Nefertiti in preparation for The Heretic Queen, which comes out this September.

    Interesting Interview

    I'd like to direct your attention to a two-part interview with author Linda Proud at Sarah Johnson's Reading the Past. Linda has published a trilogy of novels set in Renaissance Florence that sounds fascinating. The interview, part one and part two, touches on the historical figures that appear in the book, the role of research in determining the story, small press publishing, and much more.

    Thursday, May 1, 2008

    The Book of My Heart?

    Okay, so I had something kind of freaky happen to me today, and I can't help wonder if it's a cosmic nudge.

    A few months back, when brainstorming ideas for my second novel, I stumbled across an obscure non-fiction book about an historical event that totally blew me away. I had never heard of the event before and the book touched me very deeply, both spiritually and creatively (I'm going to be a little vague here, because I feel quite possessive of the idea! No offense, I hope...). I saw the perfect angle for turning it into a novel and the perfect character to carry the story. I was so enthused, eager to jump in and start writing. The opening sentence came to me fully formed and beautiful: "I envy those who close their eyes and find oblivion." I was certain this was to be what writers call "the book of my heart"--the book I am meant to write.


    When I considered the book from a commercial angle, I realized it would be a tough sell, both to publishers and to readers. The audience might not be as large as it would potentially be for some of my other ideas. There could be no major love interest, for reasons I can't disclose. Parts of the book would necessarily be very quiet and probably very challenging to write. When I ran the idea by my agent, she agreed. This is a third or fourth book, she told me, not a second. It's a book for a writer with an established audience that is willing to follow her when she takes risks and travels uncertain paths. It's not a SECOND book, the crucial-to-your-career, make-you-or-break-you, what-is-the-sell-through book that an author MUST write in today's market in order to have any sort of future. I knew she was right. Chin up, I packed away my notes and my vision, threw myself at some other, more commercial ideas, and not tried to think too often about The Book of My Heart.

    I'd managed very well.

    Until today.

    Today I was at the playground, pushing my toddler in the swing, when an older woman pushing her grandchild in the swing next to us smiled. "I think we know each other," she said. She was right. Years ago, when my now towering teenager was the one in the swing, I'd started a mother's group at our church. The woman had been involved in that, and we'd participated in other parish activities through the years. I hadn't seen her in a long time, and she of course, didn't think a woman pushing a two-year old could possibly be me. (Ha!) We chatted for a bit, then, out of the blue, she mentioned it.

    The book that started it all.

    The obscure, I-had-to-request-it-from-interlibrary-loan, probably-only-three-other-people-in-the entire-world-have-read-it
    non-fiction book that begs me to turn it into a novel.

    I almost dropped dead from surprise right there.

    What are the odds of that being her favorite book of all time? Of us encountering each other at an otherwise empty park after all these years? Of her mentioning the book in the course of a casual, ten-minute conversation?

    I can't help but think there's a message here. Am I supposed to be working on that book and not Fontainebleau? Should I ignore market dictates and write the book that speaks to me most? Should I work on both books at the same time? Or is it simply a reminder that that book, the book I feel destined to write, is patiently waiting. Waiting for me to establish myself as a published author; waiting until my skills are developed enough to do it justice; waiting until the market is ready to embrace a book of its type.

    "Don't forget me," the Book of My Heart told me through this woman. "Don't chase money and fame and forget that maybe I'm why you became a writer."

    "I won't forget," I vowed, fighting the urge to pick up my notes again as soon as I got home.

    I only hope I know when the time is right to make good on my promise.

    What do you think?