Friday, January 25, 2013

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"There were all manner of shapes, men and women, half men and half horse, sirens, serving-maids with baskets, French lilies and delicate crenellations all round made from dry twigs bound together and the afore-said evergreen quick set shrubs, or entirely of rosemary, all true to the life, and so cleverly and amusingly interwoven, mingled and grown together, trimmed and arranged picture-wise that their equal would be hard to find."

Thomas Platter (1574-1628), Swiss physician, traveller and diarist
Describing topiaries in garden at Hampton Court, 1599
[translated by Clare Williams, 1937]

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Author Interview: Patricia Bracewell, SHADOW ON THE CROWN

Today I welcome author Patricia Bracewell to discuss her debut novel, SHADOW ON THE CROWN, coming from Viking/Penguin on February 7. SHADOW ON THE CROWN is the first in a trilogy of novels about Emma of Normandy, whose marriage in 1002 to an English king set in motion events that would culminate in the Norman Conquest of 1066. Publishers Weekly calls it "an enthralling debut," and having read an advanced copy, I can assure you that it is all that and more!

1.  SHADOW ON THE CROWN is based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. How much did you know about eleventh-century England prior to undertaking this novel? Why does this period appeal to you?

I knew very little about eleventh century England until I started my research. I’d taken a course in British History in college, so I had a vague knowledge of pre-Conquest England but not specifically the details of that eleventh century world. In my literature classes I had studied some of the better known Anglo-Saxon poetry – Beowulf, for example, and The Wanderer, which has always been one of my favorite poems. But I’d been drawn more to the stories of Arthur and the historical era associated with his legend. The century before the Conquest, and the events that led to it, were a mystery to me, and I suppose that mystery was what intrigued me about the period as much as anything else.

2. What was it about Emma of Normandy that inspired you to write about her? 

The more I learned about Emma, the more I realized how significant a role she must have played in the events that occurred in England in the early eleventh century, and how perilous, at times, her position must have been. The bare fact that she was married to two different kings of England and that those two men were mortal enemies is pretty stunning. She must have faced enormous difficulties – physical, emotional, political. The more I learned about her, the more astonished I was that today she is virtually unknown. I wanted to change that.
3. How do you maintain a balance between history and fiction in your books? What principles guide you as you write?

I suppose the image in my mind is of a tree with a trunk and naked limbs. That’s the history. In writing the story, I’m drawing leaves on that tree – filling in the blank spaces, imagining the events, the conversations and the intentions that nobody bothered to write down. Sometimes I come up with questions about historical events that are really very difficult to answer, and I have to make certain that the answers I come up with fit the story and fit the history as well, at least as far as we know it. My guiding principle is to not change the facts that are known, but I may interpret events in a way that adds to the dramatic action. In the end, I am a storyteller, not a historian.

4. Can you give an example of how you re-interpreted an event? 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that a certain high ranking nobleman committed a traitorous act. As a result, his son was brutally punished, yet the ealdorman remained on the king’s council with no loss of stature or power. This didn’t make any sense to me, and I decided that there must be more to the story than the annals were telling us. So I made up a back story that put the treachery on the shoulders of the son rather than the father. Is that what really happened? I don’t know, but it works much better in my story.

5. What was something you learned about eleventh-century Europe that surprised you? 

I was surprised by the distances that people and goods traveled. It’s common to think that someone born in a village in England would never stray more than ten miles from home, and that’s very likely how it was for most people. But goods, silk for example, made their way to England from Constantinople. Furs from the north and spices from the south were traded in London, Paris, Rouen and Aachen. Men appointed to the archbishopric of York or Canterbury traditionally journeyed to Rome to receive confirmation of their office from the Pope. In 1027 a king of England made that trip, and he was one among many pilgrims, men and women alike, who went to Rome or to other pilgrimage sites like Santiago de Compostela in Spain or Lough Derg in Ireland. The journeys would have been difficult and hazardous, and may have taken months, but the elite, the clergy and the traders made them. And the Vikings, of course, went everywhere. 

6. What is your favorite scene in the novel? Which scene was the hardest to write? 

My favorite scene is probably the Prologue. It was one of the last scenes that I wrote and was not even part of the original manuscript. It came to me at one sitting – one of those writing moments when you almost feel as if Someone Else has taken control. The hardest scene to write was one that takes place in a tunnel and is seen through the eyes of a viewpoint character who suffers from claustrophobia. I wanted to make it terrifying reading without making it over-the-top melodramatic. Readers will have to tell me if I succeeded.

7. What has been the most difficult part of your journey to publication? The most exhilarating? 

The hardest times were the moments when the writing was going badly or I had received another rejection letter, and I asked myself if I wasn’t merely wasting my time – even wasting my life. Perhaps my time would be better spent volunteering in an after-school reading program or going back into the classroom. My friends, especially my writer friends, helped me through those rough spots. The most exhilarating moments were my visits last fall to New York and London to meet with my agent and my editors. Their enthusiasm for the book was overwhelming.

8. What do you hope readers take away from reading SHADOW ON THE CROWN? 

First of all, I hope that they will fall in love with Emma of Normandy, as I have, and that they will recognize her as a strong female character in a brutal world and in a particularly brutal time. I also hope that they will recognize that England’s history extends back before the Norman Conquest, and that what happened prior to 1066 is every bit as fascinating as what came after. Finally, I hope that they will want to read the next two books in the trilogy and learn more about the characters who have become so much a part of my life.

Be sure to return on February 7 to read my review of SHADOW ON THE CROWN. In the meantime, visit Patricia's website and view photo galleries of the locations she visited while researching the novel. She recounts her travels and shares fascinating tidbits about life in eleventh century England on her blog.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Dancing is practiced to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savor one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odor as of bad meat."

Thoinot Arbeau (1515-1595), Canon of Langres
Orchésographie (1589)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Wicked Anne d'Étampes

If you read French, here's an excellent article on Anne d'Heilly, the duchesse d'Étampes, François I's official mistress for over twenty years and protagonist of my current novel. Is Anne's reputation as a "méchante" (wicked one) deserved? The author of this pulp novel certainly thought so... 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Moan Zone

After watching my alma mater get soundly beaten in the National Championship game Monday night, I was feeling down. Very down. Especially since, on the writing front, I have officially entered the Moan Zone.

The Moan Zone is a specific, generally unavoidable stage in the process of writing a novel. Like the "red zone" on a football field, which covers the last twenty yards before the goal line, the Moan Zone comprises the last quarter of a novel, those final ten or so chapters that precede "The End."

diagram from Sports Morsel

First-time novelists don't expect the Moan Zone, and even seasoned writers forget. After all, you, the writer, have already moved the ball (your manuscript) eighty or so yards down the field. Maybe it wasn't always smooth going, but enthusiasm and discovery powered you forward. Your characters pulled together, your muse juked the best defenders, the refs made all the right calls. You ground out hundreds of pages, pleased with your progress, impressed with your skills. Now the goal line beckons, tantalizingly close. Just a few more plays and you'll score what's sure to be a best-seller.

Then you hit the Moan Zone.

All of a sudden, you feel deflated, exhausted, scared. Those last twenty yards stretch longer than the eighty you've already traveled. The characters who played seamlessly on the trek downfield turn ornery and fumble-prone, misreading cues, dropping passes, flubbing routes. The antagonists loom larger than ever, fused in a chink-free wall, determined never to allow the ball into the end zone. The seats behind the goal post are filled with opposing fans wearing t-shirts that read "Your novel stinks like old cleats!" and "Even your mom won't read it." Your cheerleaders snarl and snark, tossing aside their pom-poms and chanting "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!" through their megaphones to confuse and dispirit you even more.

The play clock ticks down as you try to devise the perfect play, a clever route past these obstacles. But the game plan that seemed so brilliant, so clear-cut in the first quarter is now a tangled mess of dropped themes, dead-ends and forgotten details. Instead of coalescing, the threads of the novel break formation, zipping about like fans storming the field. You bang your head against your clipboard, cursing your ineptitude. You're convinced you've lost control of the team. There's nothing left to do but punt.

The Moan Zone is a painful, frustrating, messy place to be.

But, if you've done your job right, it's exactly where you want to be.

Look at it this way. You've spent the last three hundred pages making life difficult for your players, complicating their relationships, foiling their plans, lobbing problem after problem at them. You've stumbled onto plot twists you never envisioned--never could have envisioned--when you first stepped onto the field. Motifs and metaphors have bubbled up from your subconscious. Backstory has offered new insight into character. Tangents have multiplied and gained importance. Now you find yourself drowning in possibility, despairing over how to make it all fit together in the final chapters. Don't lose heart! Instead, rejoice in the challenge--the riot of ideas shows you've delved beyond the obvious, the straightforward, the cliched; you've pushed yourself and your material to exciting, provocative places. Of course it's going to take effort to bring everything to an effective close, but that's what makes a great game. If you knew who was going to win before you started, why bother playing?

When you reach the Moan Zone, you must ignore the jeers and groans and listen to the story. The story will offer its solution, but only if you silence the defeatist voices and let it speak.

So buck up and buckle down. If writing a novel were easy, everyone would pen one. Only two teams play in the National Championship, and they didn't get there by freezing at the opponent's twenty yard line.

Best thing is, when you write a book, you get unlimited downs. If a play fails, scratch it and try something else. Go back to previous plays and make adjustments. Repeat the opening kick-off as many times as you need. Unlike a real game, you can do things over and over until you get them right.

If you up your game in the Moan Zone, you'll not only cross that goal line--you might even take home the trophy.

Now crank up the Fight Song and let's play ball.

photo credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A New Year's Tradition: Les Étrennes

photo credit:
It has long been a tradition in France to give gifts on New Year's Day. The word étrennes (as opposed to the more generic cadeaux) refers specifically to these New Year's gifts, now usually given as signs of appreciation to the doorman, the letter carrier, and others who provide service throughout the year.

In the sixteenth century, Christmas was observed as a religious holiday, so gifts were given at the turn of the new year. So popular was the practice that it took on a poetic form. François I's court poet, Clément Marot (1496-1544), sent short, epigrammatic poems to members of the court at the holiday. Although he wrote étrennes throughout his career, in 1541 Marot published a collection of forty-one of them addressed to the ladies of the court. In each poem, he presents a gift to the lady in question.

For example, to Queen Eléonore (François's second wife and sister of his enemy Charles V) he grants accord between her husband and brother:

Au ciel ma Dame je crye,
Et Dieu prie,
Vous faire veoir au printemps
Frere, & mary si contents
Que tout rye.

Madame, I cry to heaven,
And beg God,
That you may see by springtime
Your brother and husband so happy
That everyone laughs.

To the Dauphine, Catherine de Medici, barren for the first decade or so of her marriage, he grants a child:

A Ma Dame la Daulphine
Rien n'assigne:
Elle a ce, qu'il faut avoir,
Mais je la vouldroys bien veoir
En gesine.

To Madame la Daulphine
I prescribe nothing:
She has what she needs,
But I would really like to see her
On the point of giving birth.

To Marguerite de Navarre, the king's sister, who was one of Marot's staunchest supporters:

A la noble Marguerite,
Fleur d'eslite,
Je luy donne aussi grand heur
Que sa grace, & sa grandeur
Le merite.

To the noble Marguerite,
Flower of the elite,
I give the good fortune
That her grace and greatness

And to Madame d'Etampes, the king's long-time mistress:

Sans prejudice à personne,
Je vous donne
La pomme d'or de beaulté,
Et de ferme loyaulté
La couronne.

Without wronging anyone,
I give to you
The golden apple of beauty
And the crown
Of firm loyalty.

In these brief and often mordant poems, Marot provides us a snapshot of the personalities and the concerns of the French court in 1539 --a literary version, if you will, of the Clouet's chalk portraits. One wonders if the courtiers played guessing games with the étrennes as they did with the portraits.

Though I'm no Marot, I'll follow his lead and wish you all a healthy, happy new year filled with good fortune of every kind!

[Marot's verse quoted from Gérard Defaux's edition, Classiques Garnier (1993). Translations mine.]
This post originally appeared on Writing the Renaissance on January 1, 2009.