Sunday, December 30, 2012

Exhibit on Mannerist Painter Rosso Fiorentino

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is holding an exhibit on Renaissance painter Rosso Fiorentino, one of the main characters in my novel-in-progress. Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing runs through February 3, 2013, and features one of only three paintings by Rosso in the United States, his Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist (1520). Twenty drawings by other Renaissance artists, including Andrea Del Sarto, Agnolo Bronzino and Giorgio Vasari, complement the painting.

Rosso is considered a leading proponent of the Mannerist movement. Born and trained in Florence, he made a name for himself in Rome before coming to France at the invitation of François I in 1530. He spent the next decade as the French King's Director of Artistic Work, overseeing the expansion and decoration of the château de Fontainebleau. The ornate Galérie François I at Fontainebleau is Rosso's best known extant work. Well-read and richly rewarded by King François, Rosso lived as a wealthy gentleman at Fontainebleau until his mysterious death in 1540 at the age of 46. The New York Times has written a review of the exhibit that includes some details about Rosso's sensational, troubled life.

I'm thrilled to see his work on exhibit here in the United States. He deserves to be better known by the general public. I've previously posted about Rosso and the galérie, his Descent from the Cross, his Pièta, and the Royal Elephant.

Friday, December 28, 2012

2013 TBR Pile Challenge

It seems all I've done is post lists lately... I promise this will be the last one! I've decided to attempt the 2012 TBR ("To Be Read") Pile Challenge sponsored by RoofBeam Reader. To conquer the challenge, I must read twelve books I've had on my bookshelf for at least a year and write a review for each, all before December 31, 2013. These are the books I have chosen:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett
Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
Queen Margot by Alexandre Dumas
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex
The Light Possessed by Alan Cheuse
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
The Girl at the Lion d'Or by Sebastian Faulks [completed 1/27/13]

Particles and Luck by Louis B. Jones
The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Olov Enquist

Twelve books leaves me plenty of room for new releases, as I read nearly thirty books this past year. If I make it through these twelve, I won't feel guilty replenishing my shelves!

Have you read any of them? Where should I begin? I still need to finish Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and Abraham Vergese's Cutting for Stone before I start another book. I'm halfway done with each of those.

There's still time to join the challenge! Find twelve unread books published before 2012 on your shelves and link to your list at RoofBeam Reader's blog.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best Reads of 2012

I enjoyed all of the books I read in 2012, but these seven stand out:

THE TWELVE ROOMS OF THE NILE (2012) by Enid Shomer
Hands down my favorite book of the  year, TWELVE ROOMS imagines an impassioned friendship between conflicted spinster Florence Nightingale and ill and unproven writer Gustave Flaubert. Both voyaged along the Nile River as tourists in 1850, though no one knows if they ever actually met. In Shomer's luscious tale, they do, and are forever changed by the experience. Polar opposites motivated by equal measures of sensitivity and ambition, Florence and Gustave find in their relationship the courage necessary to flout conventional roles and devote themselves to heroic callings. A well-paced, adventure-studded plot counterbalances finely nuanced character development and breathtaking descriptive passages.  

ACCIDENTS OF PROVIDENCE (2012) by Stacia Brown
In seventeenth-century England, a unwed glove maker's apprentice gives birth in secret. The next day, the apprentice's employer finds the dead child buried near a slaughterhouse. Did the apprentice kill the child or simply try to hide a stillbirth? The law of the day does not distinguish between the two acts. With seasoned manipulation of chronology and point-of-view, this relatively short novel recounts the apprentice's trial, imprisonment and miraculous fate, as well as the love affair that sets everything in motion. A masterful debut, gripping in both plot and voice.

Many thanks to Sarah Blakewell for curing me of my aversion to one of the sixteenth century's most revered authors, Michel de Montaigne. Her delightful book, a thoroughly engaging mixture of biography, social history and philosophy, makes Montaigne and his era come alive like no other. Each of the book's twenty chapters confronts the central question that preoccupied Montaigne--how does one live?--by mining his life and Essays for answers: "Pay attention," "Use little tricks," "Question everything." The Sunday Times describes the book as "Superbly conceived and exquisitely written...enormously absorbing," and I couldn't agree more. As Blakewell makes abundantly clear, Montaigne's insights are as relevant today as they were five hundred years ago. Highly recommended for readers curious about the era, the man or human nature itself.

CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA (2009) by Ildefonso Falcones
A sweeping historical novel of fourteenth-century Barcelona in the tradition of Ken Follett and Alexandre Dumas. Arnau Estanyol, son of a fugitive serf, carves a new life for himself as a stoneworker in the free city of Barcelona. His ascent of the city's social ladder parallels the soaring construction of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar, to which he contributes labor, lucre, and love. Revenge for past offenses spurs his success, and his passion for a forbidden woman, the daughter of a Jewish friend, pits him against his beloved adopted brother, a priest of the Inquisition. A very satisfying read that in many ways offers a blueprint for successful historical fiction.

CASCADE (2012) by Maryanne O'Hara
As the fictional town of Cascade, Massachusetts, fights to escape inundation upon the construction of a regional reservoir in 1935, artist and new wife Desdemona Hart struggles to separate duty from desire, disregard from destiny. This luminous first novel, which I reviewed in detail here, explores the theme of drowning, on both the literal and figurative levels, as artist and town fight to preserve their integrity against the onslaught of circumstance. An author to watch, O'Hara writes with the discerning eye and soulful heart of a painter.

SHADOW ON THE CROWN (2013) by Patricia Bracewell
Coming from Viking/Penguin in February 2013, SHADOW ON THE CROWN is the first in a trilogy on Emma of Normandy, whose marriage to an English king in A.D. 1002 set in motion a series of events that would lead to the Norman Conquest of 1066. I will be reviewing Bracewell's novel in detail in January, but as I read an advanced copy in 2012, felt I should include it here. Bracewell does a magnificent job of recreating the early medieval world and breathing life into the events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Her feisty, clever Emma captures the reader's heart, and the echoes of MacBeth that color the plot make this a suspenseful and highly enjoyable read.

BLUE ASYLUM (2012) by Kathy Hepinstall
A lyrical exploration of love and madness set at a secluded insane asylum during the Civil War. Iris Dunleavy, a plantation wife committed for willful behavior, falls in love with Ambrose Weller, a traumatized soldier given to fits that can only be calmed by focusing on the color blue. Far from mad, cunning Iris yearns for freedom and plots her escape...but dare she take broken Ambrose with her? Stunning language and quirky characters make this novel, alternately harsh and dreamy, linger in memory long after the cover closes.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"Each of Us is Bethlehem"


Simon de Chalons (1506-1568)
Adoration des bergers (1548)
Il n'est maintenance difficile à  trouver, car l'on a veu son estoille en Orient, qui tire chascun à le servir et adorer. Assez y a qui savent bien qu'il est né en Bethleen (qui est maison de pain et de réfection) et l'enseignent à ceux qui le demandent, mais n'y vont portant l'adorer. Chascun de nous est Bethleen, car par foy est en nos coeurs le doux Jhesus, qui nous repaist sans desfaillance: "Dominus pascit me et nihil midi deherit, etc." Car il nous a mis en plaine pasture de grace exuberante, de laquelle nul est excluz.

"He is now not difficult to find, for we have seen his star in the East, which draws each one of us to serve and adore him. There are plenty who know well that he was born in Bethlehem (that house of bread and renewal) and teach it to those who ask, yet never go there to worship him. Each of us is Bethlehem, for in our hearts, through faith, is sweet Jesus, who feeds us our fill without fail: "The Lord shepherds me; there is nothing I lack, etc." For he has put us in an open field of exuberant grace, from which no one is excluded."

Guillaume Briçonnet (1472-1534)
Bishop of Meaux, spiritual advisor to Marguerite de Navarre
Letter to Marguerite de Navarre
26 September 1524

May you have a happy and blessed day!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Angels We Have Heard on High...

Agnolo Bronzino,  Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), 1539-40

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Winner of the Historical Holiday Blog Hop Prize

And the winner of C.W. Gortner's THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI is......


Congratulations to our winner and thanks to everyone who visited Writing the Renaissance during
 the Historical Holiday Blog Hop.

Happy Holidays!

Come back soon!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Year in Books

Last year, someone asked me how many books I typically read in a year and I realized I didn't know. So this year, I decided to keep a list of all the novels and nonfiction books I read for enjoyment. Here is the complete list:
  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  2. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
  3. Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart
  4. The Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton
  5. The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas
  6. The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot
  7. My Antonia by Willa Cather
  8. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  9. Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones
  10. The Odds by Stewart O'Nan
  11. Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara
  12. How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
  13. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  14. North River by Pete Hamill
  15. 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.
  16. The Passion of Artemesia by SusanVreeland
  17. The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore
  18. The Expats by Chris Pavone
  19. The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  20. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
  21. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
  22. Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
  23. Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
  24. Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat
  25. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer
  26. Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown 
  27. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham [currently reading]
  28. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese [currently reading]
  29. The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis [currently reading]
A respectable number of books, considering this list doesn't take into account all the research reading I did for my work in progress. (I will probably only manage to finish one of the last four on the list before the calendar turns, but as they are all hefty books that I've nearly completed, I wanted to account for the time spent reading them.) All in all, a book every two weeks. My English teachers would be proud.

How did I choose the books I read? Several factors guided my choices.
  • Last Christmas, I received a Kindle and loaded it up with free classics. Six of the books on the list (Wilde, Stewart, Wharton, Cather, Chopin, and Maugham) were books I'd been meaning to read for years and finally did, in the electronic version.
  • Six other books were written by author friends. These books I read and reviewed here on the blog (Loupas, Perinot, O'Hara, Moran, Bracewell [review coming in January], and Perrat). I'm very grateful to these friends for sending me copies of their wonderful novels and allowing me to help spread the word about them.
  • Other books were penned by authors who are clients of my agent, Stephanie Cabot, or other agents at The Gernert Company (O'Hara, Jordan, Pavone, O'Nan). Another (Falcones) was recommended to me by Stephanie. It is always very useful and inspiring (and not a little humbling) to see what gorgeous works the agency represents and sells to publishers.
  • Several books I found at random on the new book shelf at the library (Gottshcall, Pillemer, Moore, Hepinstall). I love discovering an unexpected gem!
  • Others books I picked up because of a review I'd read on the internet (Shomer, Ennis, Verghese, Brown, Bakewell). There are several bloggers and reviewers whose judgment I trust and I hasten to read the books they recommend.
  • One book I read because I enjoyed listening to the author speak at the 2011 Historical Novel Society Conference (Vreeland).
  • Two others books on the list were works by favorite authors of mine (Hamill and Zafon). I always look forward to reading new work by favorite authors, or working my way through their previously published corpus.
Now, you might ask, which books stood out as my favorite reads from among these twenty-seven? That, friends, will be a post for later in the week, after I draw a winner for the Historical Holiday Blog Hop giveaway!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Historical Holiday Blog Hop Giveway!

Welcome to the First Annual Historical Holiday Blog Hop hosted by Passages to the Past! I have a new, hardback copy of C.W. Gortner's THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI to offer one lucky winner here at Writing the Renaissance. I reviewed THE CONFESSIONS back when it was released in 2010 and can assure you it would make a fine gift for that lover of historical fiction on your list. Or keep it yourself and read it curled up in front of a crackling fire with a warm cup of cocoa!

To enter the random drawing, please leave a comment below with your email contact information. Entries will be accepted until 11:59 pm ET on December 17. Winner will be posted sometime December 18. Open to continental US entrants only.

But don't stop here! Dozens of other bloggers are participating in this hop, each hosting a giveaway at her site. Go the Passages to the Past for the complete list and get busy hopping!

While you're at it, be sure to leave a comment at Passages to the Past to enter the drawing for one of four grand prize packages. Your favorite historical fiction authors have donated books, many of them signed:

1. Oleanna by Julie Rose (pb)
2. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (pb)
3. Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell (Audio Books)
4. The King's Daughter by Barbara Kyle (pb)
5. The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien (pb)
6. Royal Romances: Titillating Tales of Passion and Power in the Palaces of Europe by Leslie Carroll (pb)
7. The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell (pb)
8. The September Queen by Gillian Bagwell (pb)
9. The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
10. The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
11. Sea Witch by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
12. Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell (pb)
13. Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell (pb)
14. The Queen's Vow by Christopher Gortner (pb, UK edition)
15. Into the Path of Gods (Book 1, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (pb)
16. In the Shadow of Dragons (Book 2, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (pb)
17. The Anvil Stone (Book 3, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (hc)
18. A Land Beyond Ravens (Book 4, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (hc) 
19. Pale Rose of England by Sandra Worth (pb)
20. The Rose of York: Love & War by Sandra Worth (pb)
21. A Dance of Manners (A Regency Anthology) by Susan Flanders, Cynthia Breeding, Kristi Ahlers, Gerri Bowen and Erin Hatton (pb)
22. The Book of Lost Fragrances by MJ Rose (hc)
23. The Sumerton Women by D.L. Bogdan (pb)  
24.  Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland (signed pb)
25.  The Master of Verona by David Blixt (hc)
26. Before Versailles by Karleen Koen (pb)
27. Four Sisters, All Queens by Sherry Jones (pb)
28. At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Barnhill (pb)
29. What You Long For by Anne Barnhill (pb)
30. Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara (signed hc)
31. The Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift (pb, UK edition)
32. The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman (signed pb)
33. The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd (pb, with Tower of London Tea Sachets) 
34. The Mischief of the Mistletoe (2 copies - 1 pb, 1 hc - both signed)
35. The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot
36. The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton (pb w/bookmark)
37. The King's Grace by Anne Easter Smith (pb)
38. Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (hc)
39. Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice (2 copies - 1 pb, 1 eBook)
40. A Thing Done by Tinney Sue Heath (2 copies, pb)
41. Rebel Puritan by Jo Ann Butler (pb)
42. The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen (audio cd's)
43. By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan (2 copies, pb)
44. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
45. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
46. The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
47. Movement of Stars by Amy Brill (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
48. Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
49. The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry (hc)
50. The Virgin Queen's Daughter by Ella March Chase (pb)
51. Three Maids for a Crown by Ella March Chase (pb) 
52. Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn (pb) 
53. The Forgotten Queen by D.L. Bogdan (ARC)
54. The Sign of the Weeping Virgin by Alana White
55. A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick (pb)
56. The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau (signed pb)

57. Second Lisa by Veronica Knox 

Complete contest rules are available at Passages to the Past. Many thanks to the amazing Amy Bruno for organizing the hop.

Thanks for visiting Writing the Renaissance. I hope you'll stay and look around a bit now, or come back soon for a longer visit. Happy reading!

Fête des Lumières Videos

Here are links to videos of the 2012 Fête des lumières in Lyon. The video of the Saint Jean cathedral is a must-see. Be sure to watch it full screen!

Videos courtesy of

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review: SPIRIT OF LOST ANGELS by Liza Perrat

As villagers drag a frantic mother to the river to "float" her for witchcraft, she yanks her talisman, a carved bone angel pendant, from her neck and presses it into her daughter's hand. "Wear it always," she tells Victoire. "It will give you strength, and courage."

Victoire Charpentier, heroine of Liza Perrat's debut novel SPIRIT OF LOST ANGELS (Triskele Books 2012), has need of both, and in great quantities. Set during the height of the French Revolution, Victoire's story is one of survival: of poverty, of loss, of depression, imprisonment, and political upheaval. It is the story of a woman who, plagued by melancholy and accused of a crime she cannot remember, escapes from a hellish prison with a new identity and a renewed purpose: to wreak revenge on the nobles that stole her father and her virginity, forced her to abandon her child, and changed the very fabric of her life. It is ultimately a story of vindication, of healing and of new beginnings, a testimony to the ties of blood and the power of words.

SPIRIT's plot moves at a pace that at times leaves the reader breathless. So many misfortunes befall Victoire that one wonders how a woman prone to melancholy could possibly withstand them. Yet weather them she does, with a resourcefulness that never seems forced. Perrat brings an inventive freshness to Victoire's plight and ultimate redemption. A prison friendship with Jeanne de Valois, the notorious con woman behind the infamous Affair of the Necklace that brought down Marie Antoinette, sets Victoire on a new path in life, providing her the resources to live as a single woman in Paris and an entry into the world of the theater and the salon. A literate and skilled storyteller, Victoire writes plays that further the ideals of the Revolution, satires that expose the cruelty and shallowness of the nobility; she translates the feminist tracts of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and pens similar pleas of her own. Words become the weapons of her revenge; she uses them both to lay her ghosts to rest and to open the path to a better future for women of the lower stations.

But in the end, it is her roots that Victoire returns, to her village in the Lyonnais, to the family that remains and the inn waiting to be reopened. To the questions that linger, the events she can't remember, the witness who, at long last, eases her guilt. To the future, born of a painful past without which it never would have taken flight. True to her name, Victoire triumphs over adversity, passing on the legacy of strength and courage she received from her mother.

SPIRIT OF LOST ANGELS is itself a triumph for the author, a vivid and evocative first novel that convincingly recreates the tumultuous world of eighteenth century France. Strong writing, unexpected plot twists and a heroine who never surrenders to the seductive tug of oblivion kept this reader turning pages until the story's satisfying end.


Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator.

Since she completed a creative writing course ten years ago, several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine and France Today.

She has completed four novels and one short-story collection, and is represented by Judith Murdoch of the Judith Murdoch Literary Agency.

SPIRIT OF LOST ANGELS, published  in May 2012 under the Triskele Books label, is the first in a historical series set against a backdrop of rural France. Her agent is currently trying to sell the second in the series, WOLFSANGEL, and Liza is working on the third story, ANGEL OF ROSES, set in the 14th century plague years of France.

For more information on Liza or her books, please refer to her website or blog.

Liza provided a guest post, published earlier this week, on Lyon's Fête des Lumières.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lyon's Fête des Lumières: The Black Death Illuminated, by Liza Perrat

Lyon, France is a city dear to my heart, the setting of my first novel. Each December, Lyon stages a spectacular Festival of Lights that draws visitors from all over France and Europe. This year, the festival runs from December 6th-9th. Here to tell us about the festival and its history is historical fiction author Liza Perrat, who lives in a small town on the outskirts of Lyon and whose novel, SPIRIT OF LOST ANGELSI will be reviewing at the end of the week.

The Black Death Illuminated

by Liza Perrat

"Protect us from famine, war and plague, Seigneur," cried the Lyonnaise people in 1628. Alas, their pleas came too late--the bubonic plague had already crossed the Rhône River, terrifying the inhabitants and killing half of them.

The desperate people prayed to the Virgin Mary to return good health to the city until miraculously, in 1643, the plague disappeared and the Lyonnaise people never doubted their divine protection. So, how did this episode of divine intervention become the largest modern-day international light festival?

Well, it all began on December 8, 1852, with the inauguration of a statue of the Virgin Mary, erected on Fourvière hill next to the site of the present-day Basilica. The Lyonnaise people showed their gratitude to Mary by lighting candles on their windowsills, the gesture proving more and more popular as the years passed.

Over a century later, in the 1980s, in conjunction with the advent of the lighting plan, the city of Lyon decided to transform the December 8 festival into the Fête des Lumières (light festival). On the eve of the winter solstice, in a magnificent urban ritual, the city's public places would be illuminated in a different way each year.

Residents, associations, cultural groups, humanitarian associations and the local government work with artists, musical and theatrical performers, photographers and lighting engineers to provide the colored symphony of light that bathes the city in today's celebration of light.

The festival, which attracts over four million visitors to Lyon, includes other light-based activities and lasts four days, with the main events occurring on the 8th. The focal points are generally the Fourvière Basilica, Saint Jean Cathedral, and the Place des Terreaux, where music, dancing, parades and food stalls transform the old district of Lyon into a place flooded with light, beauty and sound.

photo credit: mondoramas

I began attending the festival back in 2002. Crossing the Saône River, my first glimpse of the illuminations was the Fourvière Basilica, overlooking the city on Fourvière hill. Symbolic of the people's devotion to the Virgin Mary, the basilica was constructed between 1872 and 1884. Its oriental and neo-classic columns and columned porticos, blended with mediaeval-style machicolated towers, were lit in spectacularly fluorescent shades of green, blue and violet.

On Place des Terreaux, the ancient stones faded beneath a cinematic screen of stars and moons. Colored lights and shapes danced on the stages of renaissance architecture, and, as a bloodied revolutionary soldier crept across the starry sky, I lost all sense of dimension.

"December 8 has always been a show of thousands of people strolling together on a winter night in a city transformed simply by their presence," said one of the artistic directors. "This moving public is at the heart of the festival, just as it is at the heart of urbanity, each person being a vector of light within the nocturnal landscape."

Since its origin in the nineteenth century, December 8 has taken on an undeniably futuristic allure. But despite the magnificent illuminations, it seems that for the Lyonnaise people, the soul of the light festival remains within the beauty of thousands of tiny candle flames burning in unison along their windowsills. As people come from all over the world to share the rejoicing and emotion of these four breathtaking nights, the Lyonnaise people, lovers of tradition, continue, to pay homage to the Virgin Mary for banishing the Black Death from their midst.

For more information and stunning photos, please refer to the festival's official website.


Liza grew up in Wollongong, Australia, where she worked as a general nurse and midwife for fifteen years. When she met her French husband on a Bangkok bus, she moved to France, where she has been living for twenty years. She works part-time as a French-English medical translator.

Since she completed a creative writing course ten years ago, several of her short stories have won awards, notably the Writers Bureau annual competition of 2004 and her stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines. Her articles on French culture and tradition have been published in international magazines such as France Magazine and France Today.

She has completed four novels and one short-story collection, and is represented by Judith Murdoch of the Judith Murdoch Literary Agency.

SPIRIT OF LOST ANGELS, published  in May 2012 under the Triskele Books label, is the first in a historical series set against a backdrop of rural France. Her agent is currently trying to sell the second in the series, WOLFSANGEL, and Liza is working on the third story, ANGEL OF ROSES, set in the 14th century plague years of France.

For more information on Liza or her books, please refer to her website or blog.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Michelle Moran, THE SECOND EMPRESS

First she wrote three novels about ancient Egypt. Then she set a novel in revolutionary France. For her fifth novel, bestselling author Michelle Moran combines elements of both milieux to create a lavish tale of love, duty and alterity: THE SECOND EMPRESS, A Novel of Napoleon's Court (Crown 2012).

In 1809, Napoleon is at the height of his power but desperate for an heir. He divorces his beloved wife Josephine and demands the hand of young Maria Luisa of Austria, scion of the Hapsburg line that has ruled for centuries. The princess has little choice: if she refuses to wed Napoleon, she will subject her homeland to another bloody campaign and further humiliations. Torn from her family and the man she loves, Maria travels to France to bind herself in a marriage that the Pope refuses to recognize. At Napoleon's court, she lives as a stranger, detested by the Emperor's family, subjected to his cruel tongue and savage caprices, and regarded with suspicion by a populace who beheaded her great-aunt, Marie-Antoinette, little more than a decade before. Grit, pride, and love for the son she bears sustain her and earn her Napoleon's grudging respect. Departing on his ill-fated conquest of Russia, the Emperor appoints her regent; as the French army falters and Austria threatens certain defeat, Marie-Louise must determine where her true duty lies.

Moran sets Marie-Louise at the center of a triptych, flanked on one side by Napoleon's beautiful sister Pauline, and on the other by Pauline's Haitian chamberlain, Paul Moreau. Pauline is as corrupt as Marie-Louise is virtuous, as weak as she is strong. Luscious and alluring as an over-ripe fruit, Pauline is  rotten at the core, riddled by venereal disease and unhealthy desire for her brother. Obsessed with Egyptian history and art, she yearns to marry Napoleon and rule with him as brother-sister couples did along the Nile. Jealousy towards Marie-Louise consumes her, especially once the second empress becomes pregnant with Napoleon's child. Pauline's willful selfishness leads to the death of one lover and makes life an exquisite torture for devoted and dependable Paul, who has adored her--or at least his dream of her--since the two met as young adults in Haiti.

A man of mixed race, Paul finds himself caught between the white and black cultures of Haiti and flees with Pauline during the slave revolt, traveling with her to France as her chamberlain. An educated idealist who earns Napoleon's trust, Paul debates political philosophy with the Emperor, but can never convince him to abolish slavery on the island colony. Paul's "otherness," his limbo-like existence between two worlds, two Paulines (the ingenue of the Haitian idyll and the depraved European courtesan), allows him to forge a link of sympathy with Marie-Louise. Just as the Empress must decide which of her duties to follow, Paul must choose which of his lives to embrace. But whereas Marie-Louise's decision leads her back to family and the love she left behind, Paul finds himself alone, a new man in a strange land, free to forge his way in a place that, paradoxically, has become more of a home for all its changing.

The themes of duty, love and otherness that link Marie-Louise, Pauline and Paul crystallize in the person of Napoleon. A perpetual outsider, a Corsican outcast, Napoleon imposes his will not only on France but the whole of Europe. Duty forces him to abandon Josephine, yet his unquenchable love for her distorts all his other relationships. A volatile, controlling, often despicable tyrant, Moran's Napoleon nevertheless evokes a measure of sympathy. Ever defensive and uncomfortable in his own skin, always seeking but never finding balance, he lashes out at the very people who might heal him, and like them, continues to chase dreams that remain forever out of reach.

Moran's strong characterizations and nuanced themes overcome some confusing politics and uneven pacing towards the end of the novel. Fans of her books will savor this latest offering, while new readers will be happy to learn that she has four other novels for them to read.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"God Almighty first planted a garden; and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
English philosopher, statesman, and scientist
"On Gardens" in The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, by Francis ld. Verulam Viscount St. Albans (1625)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Whereas before, sugar was only available in the shops of apothecaries, who kept it exclusively for invalids, today people devour it out of gluttony [...] What used to be a medicine is nowadays eaten as food."

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)
Flemish cartographer and geographer
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1572)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

CLAWS OF THE CAT Cover Reveal Tour

Ready for a mystery? Here's the clue:

Did you guess tea? Tea is the second clue in the cover reveal tour for CLAWS OF THE CAT, Susan Spann's debut Shinobi Mystery novel, coming from St. Martin's/Minotaur Books on July 16, 2013. A teahouse features prominently in this novel, set in sixteenth century Kyoto, Japan:

When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has just three days to find the killer before the dea man's vengeful son kills both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto's floating world, where they quickly learn that everyone from an elusive teahouse owner to the dead man's dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai's death a mystery.

Susan tells me tea came to Japan from China during the eighth century, but initially the beverage was a luxury item consumed mostly by priests and nobles. A monk named Eisai, who founded the Zen school of Buddhism, returned from a trip to China during the twelfth century with another tea-related custom: making tea from powdered leaves rather than steeping the tea leaf whole, which gives the tea a rich green color and stronger flavor. The introduction of powdered tea led to the development of the now-famous Japanese tea ceremony, which involves the ritualistic preparation and consumption of powdered matcha tea.

During the Muromachi period (1533-1573), tea's popularity increased substantially. People of all social classes enjoyed the beverage, and the wealthy often gathered for "tea drinking parties" where they passed cups of tea around the room and tried to guess the name, type and location of each variety sampled. Teahouses rose in popularity, and one of the geisha's many talents was proper preparation of tea for her male patrons.

Fascinating facts all woven into the rich setting and enthralling plot of CLAWS OF THE CAT!

Susan is revealing the cover of CLAWS OF THE CAT over three days. The first bit appeared yesterday at Tammy Salyer's blog; the third piece will appear tomorrow on Heather Webb's. On Friday, Susan is hosting a contest on her own blog: leave a comment on the cover reveal and contest post between the time it appears on Friday morning and midnight Friday night for a chance to win a $20 Barnes & Noble gift card!

Now off to brew a nice cup of tea...

CLAWS OF THE CAT is available for pre-order at Barnes &,  Powell's Books  and booksellers near you.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar

When you inspected your child's bag of Halloween sweets, did you find any comfits? Marzipan? Torrone? What about a pennet or some candied lemon rind?

Such were the treats your child might have received on All Soul's Day in Renaissance times.

During the sixteenth century, the sugar industry boomed.  Portuguese and Spanish entrepreneurs planted cane fields and built state-of-the-art refineries in the Caribbean and South America. Sugar flooded onto the European market at a stable price. Though still a luxury item, sugar's ready availability allowed creative cooks to develop it into new and novel treats. Some of the more common ones were:

  • comfits: seeds, spices and nuts coated in sugar. Best-selling varieties included combinations of aniseed, coriander, cinnamon, pine-nuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Comfits were manufactured by placing the nuts and spices in a pan and repeatedly coating them with sugar syrup. Each layer had to dry before the next layer was applied; sometimes the comfits were hardened in a stove between coatings.
  • marzipan (or marchpane): a malleable candy dough made from almond paste, confectioner's sugar and rosewater. Marzipan could be sculpted, painted, and trimmed with gold leaf. Nuns often created and sold marzipan fruits and vegetables to support their convents. As a teen, Leonardo da Vinci sculpted figures from marzipan and presented them to the Prince of Milan, whose guests gobbled them up with little appreciation for their artistry. Da Vinci also made marzipan models of cities and military fortifications for Lorenzo de Medici.
  • torrone: a nougat candy made from egg white, honey, sugar and nuts. Layered torrone, challenging and time-consuming to create, became a delicacy of Italian courts.
  • pennets: twisted sticks of pulled sugar mixed with starch and sweet almond oil.
  • candied fruit peel: the chopped rind of citrus fruit preserved in sugar.

In accord with classical teaching, Renaissance healers considered sugar to have medicinal value--it tempered the powerful and often harmful strength of spices and brought them into fuller humoral balance within the body. Most medicines contained sugar, and, being a medicine itself, sugar was sold in various forms and grades at apothecary shops. Apothecaries sold sweet treats as well as plain sugar. Specific treats were prescribed for various ailments: patients with sore throats could suck on chips of damascene sugar, while those with upset stomachs might find relief by eating pennets. To regain their strength after childbirth, women benefited immensely from a healthy intake of marzipan and comfits.

Too bad the reputation of sugar has plummeted in eyes of today's medical community. Imagine feeding your child--or yourself--candy bars and gummy bears without a twinge of guilt!

Now go sneak that Hershey's Kiss from your child's goodie bag. I promise I won't tell!


Encyclopedia of Kitchen History by Mary Snodgrass (Routledge 2004)
Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence by James               Shaw and Evelyn S. Welch (Rodopi 2011)
Sweets: A History of Candy by Tim Richardson (Bloomsbury 2002)


Read other posts on the topic of "Candy" by members of my writing group:  Marci Jefferson and Susan Spann.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

photo: Janezdrilc
"I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed."

Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510)
Catholic saint, mystic and nurse

Treatise on Purgatory (1551)
Chapter II

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Daily Life at Fontainebleau

The French newspaper La Croix recently ran a story about daily life at Fontainebleau--daily life in the twenty-first century. The paper interviewed security guards, cleaning services, gardeners, cashiers, as well as administrators in order to better understand what is involved in maintaining this historical treasure and keeping it accessible to the 450,000 people who visit each year. Here are some interesting facts from the article, which is in French:

  • The palace contains 1500 rooms; the grounds cover about 300 acres.
  • Security's biggest fear is fire, which would directly menace eight hundred years' worth of tapestries, furniture, wood carvings and art objects
  • Boars in the park and bats in the eaves often set off security alarms.
  • The public rooms are dusted for 45 minutes daily before opening.
  • It takes the palace horlogier (clock specialist) two hours to wind the forty working clocks in the various salons each day.
  • The cashiers claim the politest visitors are the Japanese; the rudest, the French.
  • The palace welcomes 45,000 students, from grade school through high school, each year. There is a specific tour for each level, supported by an Internet site to prepare the students and teachers for the visit.
  • The French court spent time at the château de Fontainebleau continuously up until 1870. The palace's collections include 40,000 pieces (textiles, furniture, objects from everyday life).
  • Fourteen gardeners take care of the gardens and park.
  • A fontainier (fountain specialist) oversees the water system. A canal, various basins, and seven fountains are fed by two aqueducts and a water-tower. Most of the water system was constructed by François I and relies on nineteen regional streams.
  • The grand canal is drained every forty years, revealing various discarded objects. Three years ago, an elderly couple committed suicide by drowning themselves in it.
  • The jeu de paume (tennis court) was constructed in 1601 by Henri IV and is one of only three operational jeu de paume courts in France. About sixty players use the court to play the original game.
The article includes a slide show of the grounds and people at work there.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

photo: 3268zauber

"Une rose d'automne est plus qu'une autre exquise."

"More exquisite than any other is the autumn rose."

Théodore Agrippa d'Aubigné (1552-1630)
French poet and Huguenot chronicler
Les Tragiques (1616)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"François I: le Rois des rois"

I just watched and want to share with you "François I: le Roi des rois," an episode of France 2's television series Secrets d'histoire. First aired in August 2011, the episode is available for viewing on the internet. It boasts beautiful photography of François I's châteaux, interesting anecdotes about his life and relationships, and critical insights into his reign by leading French historians and writers. Definitely worth watching, even if you don't speak French. You can find it, divided into three parts, on Dailymotion: part 1, part 2, and part 3. I was greatly pleased to see that Monique Chatenet, an historian who has written definitive works on Fontainebleau and the sociological role of architecture in the establishment of François's kingship, contributed to the show.

Check out the official Secrets d'histoire website for other episodes of interest, posted in their entirety.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Forbidden Fruit

First grade. Late October. Art class.

Assignment: Draw a pumpkin. Not any pumpkin, but the "follow-the-teacher's-instructions-EXACTLY-so-they-all-look-the-same" kind of pumpkin.

Little parochial-school me did as she was told. I'm a fairly decent artist, so my pumpkin actually resembled the ripe orange fruit. But that pumpkin looked so lonely sitting there in the middle of the page. A page with room along the margins. Plenty of room for me, lover of words that I was even then, to prove that I not only knew how to draw a pumpkin, but I could spell it.


I scrawled beneath that merry orange globe.

It looked so cool.

So cool that Robert, sitting next to me, wrote the same thing on his.

The teacher, however, did not think it cool.

Remember, this was forty-odd years ago, back when "invented spelling" was not tolerated, much less encouraged.

Besides, I had not only disobeyed the teacher's instructions, I had tempted a classmate into sin. (Did I mention my middle name is Eve?) Had I been older, I'm sure she would have marched me right off to confession.

Instead, she took my paper and Robert's and tore them to pieces in front of the entire class. A strident warning to any of the other students who might have contemplated following us down the path of verbal insurrection.

The mute, proper pumpkins she hung the around the perimeter of the room. For the next few weeks, every time I looked up I was reminded of my transgression. Forgive me, Father, for I have misspelled.

But I didn't care. For the first time in my life, I had used the written word to declare my independence. I had refused to let the expectations of others stifle me. It was a heady feeling.

I look back on that incident and frankly, I'm surprised. Surprised that teacher didn't scare my love of words right out of me. Surprised I ever had the guts to pick up a pen--or crayon--again.

If anything, it only made me more determined to use them.

Perhaps my quest for publication is nothing more than a desire to prove to Miss Fitzgibbons that now I can spell. But I don't think so. It's more than that. It's a declaration of who I am.

I'll prove the naysayers wrong. Someday, I'll hold a published novel in my hand and this time they won't be able to wrest if from me.

I wonder whatever happened to Robert. I don't remember his last name.
Maybe it was Ludlum.

photo credit: Evan Swigart


"SCHOOL" was the prompt Susan Spann suggested to our writing group this week. The other members' posts can be found here, here,  here, here, here, and here. Join us! Link back to your own memory of or meditation on school.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

Portrait by Titian

"My cousin Francis and I are in perfect accord--he wants Milan, and so do I."

Charles V (1500-1558), Holy Roman Emperor

Monday, October 15, 2012

A December Surprise

Imagine for a moment that only two years after the 9/11 terrorist attack, President Bush announced that he was inviting Osama Bin Laden to pass through the United States on his way to Canada. Not only would the President guarantee America's worst enemy safe passage, he intended to organize parties and receptions at each of the cities along the route, culminating in an extravagant gala at the White House, which was being completely redecorated for the event. And, by the way, no politics would be discussed at all during the visit, for fear of forcing Bin Laden to make, for politeness's sake, concessions he otherwise would never consider.

What would your reaction be? SURPRISE, surely, if not outrage.

Such must have been the reaction of the French populace when they learned that their King, François I, had invited the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to pass through France on his way to Ghent in 1539. Charles V and François had been mortal enemies for over a decade, ever since Charles captured François at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 and held him hostage for more than a year, releasing him only after receiving a huge ransom, François's two sons as hostages, and the king's pledge to marry his sister Eléonore. Seemingly perpetual war broke out between the two monarchs after François returned to France, with François determined to regain both his honor and the duchy of Milan, lost at Pavia. The campaign of 1536-38 was particularly devastating to France, with Charles invading and laying waste to huge portions of Provence. Encouraged by the Pope to unite against the Turk, the monarchs entered an uneasy truce in the summer of 1538. Then, in 1539, when Charles needed quick access to the Low Countries to suppress a rebellion there, François, to the consternation of many, invited the emperor to pass overland through France rather than travel by sea.

Of course this overture had political motives. François hoped to obtain through friendship what he had failed to win through war. In an effort to secure Charles's promise to marry his daughter to François's youngest son and grant the couple Milan as a dowry, François spared no expense or effort on this extraordinary visit. He met Charles in person in southwestern France and traveled with him north all the way to Paris. Cities along the route staged elaborate entries; François entertained his royal guest at his finest châteaux with feasts and jousts and pageants. A month of sumptuous December festivity left the sober, somber Spaniards aghast at the French king's extravagance. As promised by the connétable de Montmorency (the chief promoter the king's new strategy), the subject of Milan was never broached directly while Charles was on French soil. Showered with expensive gifts and words of affection, Charles departed, promising to reach a decision regarding the proposed marriage soon.

And what decision did Charles reach? Surprise, surprise -- the wily emperor decided to keep Milan and marry his daughter elsewhere, humiliating François a second time and ensuring continued war between France and the Empire for years to come.

Surprised to see his strategy fail in such stupendous fashion, the connétable de Montmorency could hardly be surprised to find himself disgraced and banished from François's court.

And you -- don't tell me you're surprised that I think this a splendid setting for a historical novel!

This post is my contribution to my writing group's new weekly topic challenge. Author Susan Spann, author of the forthcoming ninja detective novel CLAWS OF THE CAT (Thomas Dunne, 2013), will propose a topic on her blog each Monday and we each of us will respond. Marci Jefferson (author of THE DUCHESS OF RICHMOND, St. Martins, 2014) posted her response on Susan's blog. Amanda Orr, working on a novel set in New Orleans, "the poor man's Paris," posts about a surprise 9-months-in-the-making and its effects on her writing. Feel free to join in and post your link in the comments below!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven."

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) 
English statesman and martyr
Letter to his daughter Margaret
July 5, 1535, eve of his execution

I love you, Dad.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Recreating Henry VIII's Crown

King Henry VIII's crown, which was melted down by Cromwell's government in 1649, has been recreated in minute detail according to images in royal portraits and information from inventory accounts. Harry Collins, who retired this year as royal jeweler, crafted the crown using Tudor metalworking techniques. Historic Royal Palaces donated the materials, which cost an undisclosed five-figure sum. The crown will be on display at Hampton Palace after October 27. Read more here and watch the fascinating video.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An Anne by Any Other Name: What to Do When Historical Characters Share the Same Name

In the novel I am currently working on, this sentence:

François said to Charles, "Never cross Anne."

could mean sixteen different things.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sixteen.

You see, in this novel there are four François, two Charles and two Annes: four different subjects who could be counseling one of two characters against annoying either of two others. The King could be warning the emperor not to vex the royal mistress, or the court portraitist cautioning the prince not to betray the grand master, or perhaps it is the Arabic-speaking Italian painter tipping off the prince about the duchess... If I've done my math correctly, readers of my novel could understand the aforementioned sentence sixteen different ways.

Did I intend to confuse and confound them?

No. That's simply what happens when historical characters bear the same name.

At one point or another, most writers of historical fiction face the challenge of how to differentiate between historical characters who share identical given names. The task is not trivial, since readers will abandon a book if they are unable to keep its characters and their relationships straight. Writers of contemporary fiction avoid the danger by endowing their characters with unique and unusual names that distinguish them from every other member of the cast (and imaginary characters, unlike modern children, are not burdened with having to repeat and spell these original names aloud each they make a new acquaintance). Writers of historical fiction, however, are bound to respect the given names of their historical characters if they wish to remain true to the historical record. In early modern Europe, convention forced parents to choose baby names from a restricted roster of saints, historic figures, and ancestors; in some regions, the birth order of the child limited these options even further. Just as an author of historical fiction has little freedom in choosing which characters figure in the action of the historical events she recounts, she has even less leeway in deciding what to call those characters.

These circumstances can result in the author having to tell a tale involving, ahem, four François, two Charles, and two Annes, with a Catherine thrown in for good measure.

The problem becomes even more complicated when one takes into account other issues, such as the fact that historical figures are often referred to by different names in different countries and that what the characters call each other is not necessarily what the narrator must, or should, call them.

So what can an author do to prevent her reader from becoming hopelessly befuddled? Here are some of the strategies I've employed:

1) Provide contextual clues. 

It happens that one of my Annes is a man (the duc de Montmorency) and the other a woman (Anne d'Heilly, the duchesse d'Étampes). So if a passage describes the cut of Anne's gown or examines Anne's duties as Grand Constable of France, the reader should be able immediately to surmise which Anne is in question. Likewise, one of the four François is king, the other three artists; the king would probably not bemoan the laziness of apprentices, nor the artists debate the details of a peace treaty. Setting (boudoir versus council chamber, throne room versus studio), interlocutors, topic of conversation, actions and inner dialog should all offer clear indications as to the identity of the characters. If not, there is more wrong with the scene than faulty nomenclature.

2) Use honorary titles and/or place names instead of given names.

In my novel, I usually refer to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, as "the emperor," "Charles-Quint," or "le Hapsbourg" in order to distinguish him from the king's son, Charles, the duc d'Orléans. Since another duke figures prominently in the action, I cannot, except in precise circumstances, refer to the king's son as "the duke"; I must call him "Orléans" and the other duke "Montmorency."Anne d'Etampes, on the other hand, is the only duchess, so she enjoys the privilege of claiming that title and avoiding confusion with Anne de Montmorency. As two of the Italian artists are Francescos, one becomes Boulogne (French for the man's city of origin, Bologna), and the other goes by his last name, Pellegrino. Using honorary titles or designating characters by their place of origin avoids the problem of identical given names altogether.

3) Substitute nicknames.

Another way to simplify the problem is to invent or unearth nicknames for your characters. As King François's best friend and his lover are both Annes, I have him call his mistress by the diminutive form of the name, Annette. Anne d'Étampes and Orléans, when speaking of their common enemy Anne de Montmorency, refer to him by a private nickname known only to them--"l'Autre" (the "other" Anne). One of the artists, François Clouet, goes by the historically documented nickname Jamet. Both he and his father, Jean Clouet, used the nickname interchangeably throughout their careers (much to the chagrin of art historians). In the novel, I restrict use of the nickname to the son, thereby distinguishing him both from his father and from the other two artists named Francesco.

4) Provide a list of characters at the beginning of the book.

It is particularly helpful to include, for the reader's easy reference, all the titles and nicknames associated with each character throughout the story.

5) Ensure that the names of fictional characters are different from each other and dissimilar to the overused historical names.

When creating fictional characters to round out a historical setting, endow them with distinctive, memorable names. Like any good modern parent, I found obscure, yet historically documented, names for my fictional characters: Tiphaine, Agnolo, Sandro, Faustine. Little chance, I hope, of the reader confusing them with the more prominent Annes, Charles and François.

Final words of advice: once you, as author, decide how to distinguish between similarly-named characters, BE CONSISTENT in the terms you use. Don't refer to a character one way in the first chapter and a different way in the next. Of course, characters will refer to each other in varied ways, depending on their social status and degree of intimacy; again, decide how each character will address the others and do not stray from those conventions.

Your readers will not only thank you, but might even remember your name.

Readers: How do you prefer to see an author handle this issue?

Authors: What devices do you use to avoid name confusion?

I'd love to hear your suggestions!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Maryanne O'Hara: Why the 1930s?

Maryanne O'Hara, author of CASCADE, discusses the genesis of her novel and her reasons for choosing to write about America in the 1930's.

Why the 1930s?
by Maryanne O'Hara

Cascade was originally going to be a few different short stories. One was going to be about an artist who worked for Roosevelt’s New Deal public arts projects in the 1930s. I was interested in writing about what had then been a new idea, at least in America: that the artist’s job was just as important as the bricklayer’s or plumber’s. Another story idea was inspired by the ‘threatened town’ setting that had haunted me since I was a child, when I first saw the Quabbin Reservoir, a vast Massachusetts water supply that covers what were once four towns.

These ideas came together as a novel the day I wondered: what would happen if I set an artist’s story in a similarly threatened place? I was particularly interested in challenging myself to write beyond 1930s stereotypes. We hear “The Great Depression” and visualize runs on banks, and people on street corners selling apples. But when I interviewed people who actually lived through those times, I consistently heard, “Oh, yes, it was a terrible time, although it wasn’t so bad for us. My father always had a job.” One neighbor of mine, a brilliant and vivacious woman who almost lived to be 100, told me about the roadster her father bought her for her 17th birthday, two months after the market crashed in 1929.

I came to realize that it is uncertainty that makes hard times hard for everyone, which is something that everyone can relate to. My characters, Dez and Asa, are managing well enough in Cascade, but at one point, Dez feels for herself “the undercurrent of anxiety that had plagued people everywhere these past years: How much worse can things get? If I have a job, how long can I keep it? What will I do if I lose it?

Today, our economy is the worst it’s been since those lean Depression years, and yet now, as then, everyone's experience is different. For example, as I write this, I’m on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Pleasure boats sail the waters. All over the island, shops and restaurants are packed. The Vineyard is a privileged spot, no question, yet it is just as much a microcosm of the USA as anywhere else. Amongst the vacationers who are here for the entire summer, there are many who are here for a single, precious week. The local fishermen are all complaining that catches are low—two stripers caught on a license that allows five, at four dollars a pound, and some days, there are no stripers at all. These fishermen worry about more than the coming winter; they worry about now. And they are just one segment of an island community that hustles to survive during the long months when ferries carry few visitors and the sun sets at 4pm. 

Because I really feel that not a whole lot changes in this world of ours, beyond the magic of mass communication and air travel and such, I wanted to challenge myself to write about the thirties in a way that felt contemporary and real. When you read Edith Wharton, or watch a well-done period movie like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” you realize that good writing is timeless because it portrays people as they are and always have been. So even though Cascade is set in the past, it reveals, I hope, our underlying human sameness. I hope it recognizes the humanity, not just the history, of those who lived before us.


Maryanne O'Hara earned an MFA from Emerson College and spent many years as Associate Editor for Ploughshares, the award-winning Boston literary journal. Her short fiction has won numerous prizes and has appeared in anthologies and literary journals. CASCADE is her first novel. You can watch the trailer for CASCADE here, as well as visit her website and blog. Maryanne and CASCADE were recently featured in a lengthy feature in the Boston Globe.