Sunday, August 31, 2008

No Heads to Fall, But Wings to Soar

Last spring, during our discussions of cover art for historical novels, I directed you to author Michelle Moran's comments on the genesis of the cover for her forthcoming novel The Heretic Queen (unfortunately, I don't believe the link to works any longer). I received an advance copy of Michelle's novel yesterday in order to read it for review, and let me tell you, the cover is just beautiful. It features a pair of ivory, blue, and green wings that wraps around the spine of the book. The book's title and the outline of the wings are gold leaf, enough of a highlight to make the cover eye-catching but not gaudy. The gold also affirms the Egyptian rather than Native American provenance of the wings, as does the small band of hieroglyphics that runs along the bottom edge of the cover. With its white background, the book looks clean and crisp and should attract attention on the shelves. The novelty of the cover--its lack of a headless woman or portrait of any kind--could be its strongest point. Readers who read and loved Michelle's first book, Nefertiti, will buy The Heretic Queen regardless of the cover; the unusual artwork should entice people who wouldn't normally pick up a woman-themed cover to examine the book. I admire Michelle and the designers for being willing to try something different and think this cover will prove to be very successful.

I'll be busy for the next few days reading and hope to post a review and an interview with Michelle on September 16. If you haven't already read Nefertiti, try to do so before the new book comes out. The Heretic Queen isn't technically a sequel to Nefertiti but does feature characters from the same dynasty. In any case, by reading Nefertiti now, you'll only prolong the treat of escaping into the world of ancient Egypt that Michelle evokes with such grace and immediacy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

She Doesn't Write Historical Fiction, But...

If you read a single book this year, read one by Alice McDermott. I read Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award, several years ago, and loved it; I just now finished After This, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It might sound corny, but I am sitting here in total awe of Ms. McDermott's command of language and insight into life. She is one of those writers whose books might seem simple on first glance but resonate with amazing depths of meaning the more you think about them -- and think about them you must, because she doesn't spell things out for you. She reveals the sacredness of everyday life through echo and juxtaposition and innuendo. Her depictions of the complex relationships that link members of families -- in particular Irish Catholic ones -- are spot on in their nuances and evolutions. Her spare and elegant style shows a deep respect for and love of language. As she says in an engaging online interview for Powell's Books,

"I wouldn't want to spend the energy just telling a story. I've got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them but by the language with which they're described. That's what I love when I read. It's too much work just to tell a story; there's not enough reward in it. The reward is when you know you've labored to make the best use of language you possibly can."

McDermott fully deserves the rewards she has earned. Read one of her books and you'll know what I'm talking about. As a writer, a mother and a Catholic who's not ashamed of her faith, she's my hero.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I want to help spread the word of a "new" website, HistoricalFictionOnline. The old forum at, died unexpectedly; several of the members went to great effort to get a new site up and running in a matter of days.

HistoricalFictionOnline is a great group of people, both readers and writers, who love historical fiction. Discussion topics range from what we are currently reading to our favorite historical villains to the ethics of historical fiction. The voracious readers who frequent the site post frequent reviews of historical fiction titles; each month, readers participate in a virtual book club discussion on a pre-designated novel. There are separate categories in the forum for different historical eras, so participants can find just what they're interested in. It's a wonderful place to relax, chat with people who share common interests, and learn about historical novels you haven't yet had a chance to read.

Be sure to visit See you there!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

More on François's Funeral

In the comment trail to the previous post, a reader asked for some further clarifications on François I's death and the use of the effigy. I'm posting these excellent questions and their answers here so everyone is sure to see them.

Dawn Firelight asked:

a) When you say: "François was not buried until May 22, as his successor, Henri II, wanted to combine his father's funeral with those of the king's two sons who had predeceased him and whose bodies had to be transported to Paris." Sorry, I'm a bit confused. Whose sons were those? Henri's or Francois'? What did they die of?

The two sons in question were François's, the dauphin François (1518-36) and Charles d'Orléeans (1522-45). Henri (1519-59), who succeeded François I as king in 1547, was the second of François's three sons. The dauphin (crown prince) François, named after his father and groomed to be king, died suddenly and under rather suspicious circumstances on August 10, 1536 at the age of eighteen. After playing several rounds of jeu de paume, he asked for a drink of water. His secretary, an Italian named Sebastiano de Montecuculli, brought it to him; after drinking it, the dauphin fell ill and died several days later. Montecuculli, accused of being a spy for Emperor Charles V, was convicted of poisoning the dauphin and executed in Lyon. It is now thought that the dauphin died of natural causes, probably tuberculosis; he was buried in the city where he died, Tournon, 500 kilometers from Paris. François I's third son, Charles, died of a mysterious illness in 1545, just before he was to marry the Emperor's niece as part of a peace treaty between France and the Empire. His body had to be moved from Beauvais for the triple funeral.

b) You mentioned that Francois' body was taken to Saint-Cloud. The effigy, you say, was laid out in the great hall. Where was the body laid?

The king's heart and entrails were removed, placed in two caskets and buried at the priory of Haute-Bruyère, a few miles from Rambouillet, where he had died. The embalmed body, placed in a casket, was transported to Saint-Cloud, to the palace of the archbishop of Paris. A contemporary book describing François's funeral, which can be read in the original French here at the British Museum website, tells us that the body was "placed on a bed of scarlet satin covered with rich embroidery in a richly tapestried chamber of the said palace and continously accompanied by his said servants and officials and by 48 religious of four orders...who said incessant masses, vigils, rosaries and other prayers. It stayed in this state until the hall next to the chamber was prepared and honorably decorated to receive it." That hall is the one I described in my last post, where the effigy was displayed and meals held in great ceremony for eleven days. Interestingly, the book emphasizes that the king's body remained in the adjoining room the entire time the meals were held, reminding the reader that the effigy was an extension of the king's royal person and presence. When the eleven days were up, the effigy was removed, the hall redecorated in black, and the casket and biere moved from the chamber into the hall for aspersion with holy water by visitors. The effigy of the king, joined by effigies of his two sons, was carried in solemn procession on a litter through Paris to Notre Dame. The next day the litters were taken to Saint Denis, where the effigies were removed and the coffins placed in a vault.

c) What was the effigy made of? Was it common practice to make effigies of the dead?

It was common practice to make effigies of royalty, I believe. As soon as François died, the court artist, François Clouet, was called to his bedside to make a cast of the king's face and hands. The casts were made of plaster and painted; the body of the effigy was stuffed with straw and richly clothed. The festival book assures us that the face was "faict apres le vif & naturel," made from life; it goes into great detail describing the clothing that adorned it: a scarlet satin undershirt, a tunic of azure satin embroidered with fleur de lys, a great royal coat of purple satin line with ermine, the collar of the Order of Saint Michael, and a red bonnet topped with a jeweled imperial crown. Clouet made two sets of hands for the effigy. The first set, clasped in prayer, were used on the effigy that lay in state in the hall at Saint-Cloud; these hands were removed and replaced with a hand holding the scepter and one holding the main de justice, a scepter topped with a hand opened in benediction, when the effigy was paraded through Paris.

If you read French, be sure to visit the British museum webite to read the source text in all its fascinating detail. If you don't, Robert Knecht incorporates many of the details in his description of the funeral ceremony (The French Renaissance Court, pages 120-23).

Many thanks to Dawn Firelight for her questions and another reader for reminding me of the festival book website.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dining with the Dead

François I died of illness on March 31, 1547, but that didn't prevent his courtiers from dining with him ever again. His meals were served to his effigy, as if he were still alive, for eleven days as part of an elaborate funeral ceremony rife with symbolic meaning.

François was not buried until May 22, as his successor, Henri II, wanted to combine his father's funeral with those of the king's two sons who had predeceased him and whose bodies had to be transported to Paris. This gap allowed for an elaborate ceremony to unfold.

Immediately after François's death, court painter François Clouet arrived to cast the king's death mask and to take measurements for his effigy. During the two weeks it took to fashion the effigy, the king's heart and entrails were removed and buried at the priory of Haut-Bruyère, a few miles from Rambouillet. His body was embalmed and taken to the palace of the cardinal-bishop of Paris at Saint-Cloud to await the arrival of the bodies of his sons.

The king's effigy was laid on a bed of state in the great hall at Saint-Cloud, which was hung with blue velvet and cloth of gold. Robert Knecht, in his excellent book The French Renaissance Court (Yale UP 2008), describes the scene thus:

[The effigy] wore the state robes, the collar of the Order of St. Michael, and the closed, imperial crown. On either side, on pillows, lay the sceptre and hand of justice. There was a canopy over the bed and, at its foot, a crucifix and holy-water stoop. Two heralds kept watch day and night, and offered the aspergillum to anyone wishing to sprinkle the effigy with holy water. Four candles provided the only illumination. Along the walls were benches for nobles and clerics, who attended the religious services and meals served to the effigy. These were the strangest parts of the ceremonial. For eleven days the king's meals were served as if he were still alive. His table was laid and the courses brought in and tasted. The napkin, used to wipe his hands, was presented by the steward to the most eminent person in attendance, and wine was served twice during each meal. At the end, grace was said by a cardinal. (p. 121; emphasis mine)

What was the purpose of these strange meals? Knecht's explanation is an interesting one. He links the meals to the French adage "le roi ne meurt jamais" ("the king never dies"), and explains that the monarch's dignitas, or authority, outlived his bodily presence. A king succeeded to the throne upon the death of his predecessor; he could exercise his authority from that moment, but he could not be seen to act as king until his predecessor had been buried. The effigy, along with the feigned meals, created the illusion that François was still alive pending his burial; the new king, Henri, effaced himself during that time so as not to destroy the illusion. As soon as the last meal was served on May 4, the effigy was removed and the salle d'honneur became a salle funèbre; black drapes replaced the blue and gold and the king's coffin was placed in the center of the hall. Henri appeared in public for the first time to sprinkle his father's body with holy water.

I can't help but wonder about the thoughts of the nobles and clerics who attended these pantomimed meals. Did they question the show, or were they respectful of its symbolism? Did they truly believe François still present? The entire ceremony (you can read Knecht's fascinating description of its various stages on pages 120-123) is a prime example of the extent to which the sixteenth-century mentality differed from modern sensibilities.

Friday, August 8, 2008

"Meet Me at the (Renaissance) Fair!"

Have you ever been to a Renaissance fair?

Believe it or not, I've only been to one. We live in Northern California, so several years ago we attended the Renaissance Pleasure Faire held in Novato (this fair, one of the country's oldest, has since relocated to Hollister). It was a wonderful afternoon. The setting was lovely and the weather not too warm. Eleven and eight years old at the time, the kids really got into some of the activities, trying their hands at archery, munching roasted turkey drumsticks, and waving to the Queen and her courtiers as they paraded through the site. The highlight of the day was the tournament, where riders in armor jousted with pine lances. I still remember the thud of hooves as horses pounded down the list and the clash of lance colliding with shield. It truly gave me a glimpse of how exciting a real sixteenth-century joust must have been.

I'll have to admit, though, it took me a little while to get into the spirit of the fair and to stop reminding myself that these were modern people running around in costumes and pretending to be something they weren't. The bawdiness of some of the acts and behavior at these fairs of can reach questionable levels; with kids in tow, one really has to be careful what one stops to watch. I was a little put off, too, by the commercial nature of event; there were many vendors selling things that were only remotely tied to Renaissance culture. On the whole, the fair seemed more show than substance, more an excuse to dress up and have a good time than to learn about life in a different era. From what I gather, this controversy over the nature and purpose of Renaissance fairs permeates the field. The detailed Wikipedia article on Renaissance fairs claims that whereas European fairs tend to resemble living history museums where the re-enactors strive to explain historical life to modern visitors, American fairs tend to cater to their patrons' greater interest in eating, drinking, shopping and watching farce than learning about the past.

Knowing better what to expect now, I think it's time to try the Northern California Renaissance Faire again. It will be held weekends, September 6-October 12, at the Casa de Fruta in Hollister. I'd love to hear about your experience with such fairs, in the US or abroad. And if any of you plan on attending the Hollister fair, let me know and maybe we can coordinate our visits.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Motivations for Writing Historical Fiction

Ever wonder why an author of historical fiction chooses to write about a particular era?

I suppose there are a lot of reasons. Some might be commercial--an author casts about for a topic or event in a time period that is enjoying a current craze, or picks a historical character that bookstore browsers will instantly recognize and want to read more about. Faced with several possible subjects, the author picks the one that she is most certain will sell.

Other reasons are personal. Perhaps an author knows something of his family history and wants to explore the time or setting or events that affected his ancestor's life. Perhaps he traveled to a place and became fascinated by certain aspects of its history. Perhaps she learned a lot about the history of an era or place for a different reason (an academic degree, perhaps? :) ) and decides to explore what she knows in a completely different way, by writing fiction. Perhaps the reason remains elusive, other than a writer feels a certain affinity for a time or place and desires to recreate it for others. Some might ascribe this to past lives or simply intellectual curiosity. In any case, to write historical fiction that fully engages the reader, that makes her feel as though she has escaped her own time for a spell, the author must feel a passion for what he is writing about.

I often wonder why I am so absorbed by the sixteenth century, France in particular. I think I explained in an earlier post how I fell in love with France on the day of my very first French class in eighth grade, at the age of twelve or thirteen. I devored Jean Plaidy novels and spent hours outside of class studying French. The highlight of a whirlwind high school tour of Europe for me was the Loire valley and its châteaux. I still remember standing in a window in the gallery at Chenonceaux, staring out over the river rushing beneath me and wishing I had lived then. I thought the love story of Henri II and his mistress Diane de Poitiers, represented by the intertwined H & D's that one sees everywhere at Chenonceaux, was the ultimate in romance. (Now that I'm a middle-aged matron myself, I feel much more sympathy for Henri's wife, Catherine de Medici.)

Not able to get enough of French, I decided to major in it in college and then went on to earn my doctorate. In graduate school, one is required to specialize in a particular century. For me, it was a struggle to choose between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (with a bit of competition from the nineteenth century--I love those long novels by Stendahl and Flaubert). I remember one professor asking why I wanted to specialize in the sixteenth century and not medieval (of course, he was the medieval specialist trying to convince me to join his field). He pointed out how the medieval era is so much more feminine--the whole play of chivalry and fin amors, the importance of the Blessed Mother--than the sixteenth, with the rise of the state, the revival of classical literature, voyages of exploration and imperial wars. It's true, at first glance I would seem to be more drawn to the medieval era. But something about the sixteenth tugged at me. I think it's the amount of questioning that went on, the upsetting of long-held world views and the dawn of a new age, arrived at, ironically, by studying the past. I've always been fascinated by the religious conflicts of the time, especially the fact that people were willing to disrupt their families or actually die for their beliefs. I know these things happened elsewhere and at other times, but the combination of these issues with the amazing architecture and exquisite art of the era was just too strong for me. I felt too comfortable with the medieval mindset; I needed examine my own religious and philosophical beliefs alongside the curious and courageous men and women of the sixteenth century.

The literary critic in me can't help but wonder what underlying issues prompt a writer of historical fiction to choose certain topics, and on a broader level, what needs in society fuel the waves of popularity. Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, does the Tudor era hold such fascination for people? Is it the religious thing, a yearning in an age when many people write religion off entirely, to read about people who had to make life-threatening decisions about it? Is it the divorce issue, people looking for parallels or justifications for today's easy divorce? Is it the astounding wealth and rampant materialism that speaks to us? If I had to choose dissertation topic again, I think I would look at different eras in history and see what historical subjects were popular with readers of the time and why.

Anyway, I love to hear the stories of how authors fell upon, or chose, their topics. If you write historical fiction, tell us why you're working on the topic you are. If you're a reader, what do you most enjoy reading about and why? If you're a lurker, please come out of hiding. I'd love to meet some of the people who frequent the blog but haven't commented. I promise I won't bite. Pull up a chair and share, newbies and regular commenters alike. There is much here for discussion.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Ready, Set, GO!

I did it! Tonight I began writing my second novel. I've been mired in research for months, but hadn't yet written a word. I finally decided to take the plunge, and now I'm happy to say the first 324 words--more than a page!--of the novel whose working title is Fontainebleau (FB for short) actually exist. Can you tell I'm excited? Now if I could only figure out how to install one of those nifty progress bars...anyone have a suggestion where to find one?