Friday, December 9, 2011
Wow! It seems as if this year went by really fast. I can't believe it's almost 2012. Looking back, however, I realize this is because it was such a jam-packed year for me, one I've been lucky to share with many of you. Here are some of the highlights:
February 2011 saw the publication of THE TUDOR SECRET, the first novel in my Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles - a wonderful achievement for me, as this is my little-novel-that-could. After years of rejection, I decided to independently publish this novel as The Secret Lion. That version's success helped me regain the confidence that the bruising cycle of submission and rejection had sapped; more importantly, it eventually gained me the attention I needed to catch my agent's eye. In an ironic twist of fate, it was sold, along with the next two in the series, to the same editor who read my very first novel, submitted by my very first agent, 13 years previously. All in all, proof that persistence is everything. To date, THE TUDOR SECRET has been sold in 7 countries and is poised for a massive bestseller campaign in Italy in February, 2012. Apparently, February is turning out to be a good luck month for me!
May 2011 saw publication of the paperback edition of THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI, another novel that underwent a long period of gestation, challenge, and change. From its original 798 pages, it was edited down during various submissions before it finally found its home, and transformed in the process from an epic recounting of 16th century France under Catherine's reign into a far more intimate story of this often vilified and misunderstood woman. The hardcover edition made several Top Reads of 2010 lists and sold out; I like to think that wherever Catherine is today, she's smiling :)
June 2011 brought the gathering of the historical fiction tribe in San Diego for the 4th US Historical Novel Society Conference. Beside the sparkling bay, readers, writers, bloggers, and fans of the genre congregated for two and a half days of panels, dinners and lunches, impromptu meetings, outings, and much laughter and celebration. Some of the highlights for me were lunch with my fellow authors of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency; C.C. Humphreys in blue velvet, playing the libidinous earl of Rochester in the late-night sex scene reading from Gillian Bagwell's The Darling Strumpet; seeing my agent at the podium, receiving the accolade she so richly deserves for all of her and the agency's hard work representing some of our genre's most celebrated authors; drinking wine with my editor; sharing time on panels with fellow authors, and of course fun with friends.
July through September saw me hard at work on THE QUEEN'S VOW, my novel about Isabella of Castile, which will be published on June 12, 2012. I loved returning to early Renaissance Spain and re-discovering Isabella, who'd played such a significant supporting role in my first book, The Last Queen. One of my continuing joys in writing historical fiction is recognizing my own prejudices and preconceived notions, and seeing how my research has influenced these beliefs. Like Catherine de Medici and Juana la Loca (who was Isabella's daughter) Isabella of Castile has suffered from history's verdict, her reign one of great accomplishment but also dark controversy. I hope this novel about her early years and tumultuous rise to the throne, as well as her struggles as a young bride and queen, will help to humanize her for readers. For in the end, that is what historical fiction does best: it helps us to see these long-gone characters from the past as people, first and foremost.
As the year comes to a close, I'm currently at work on the editorial revision of my second Spymaster book, tentatively titled The Tudor Deception. I plan to finish the revision by the start of 2012 and then turn my full attention to my next stand-alone novel, Borgia's Daughter, about the early years of another infamous woman I find fascinating: Lucrezia Borgia.
It's been an incredibly busy and productive year, one which certainly could not have been possible without your ongoing support. Every reader who bought my book; every book club who invited me to chat; every blogger who reviewed my work, interviewed me, or posted a guest post; every recommendation, criticism, or mention - these are integral to my success. I owe it all to you and I want to extend my most heartfelt appreciation.
I wish you all a very happy holiday season, filled with health and love. May we find better ways to live together as a community; to treat our fellow beings, animal and human, with love and respect; to find peace and restore harmony to our much beleaguered planet.
And may we always tell and read stories, for story is the universal tie that binds us.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Historical Fiction: How Real? How True?
by Pam Jenoff
I grew up an avid reader of historical fiction, devouring stories as far away as medieval England and as near as the 20th century. Yet I cannot recall asking myself the top questions my readers now seem to want to know: how much of the story is true? How accurate is it?
I suppose on some level I too was asking those questions, at least subconsciously. I became excited each time a “real” historical figure entered the story and always loved traveling to a place where a story I’d read had been set. But it was not until becoming an author that I seriously considered the matter. How much history and how much fiction and how to combine the two? In some sense, the two go hand in hand – it is history that provides the setting and milieu, and historical events can serve as a powerful inspiration and catalyst for fictional characters. But they can also be in tension with one another – history can slow down a story and make the plot drag.
Readers have very strong views. For example, when my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, was released, I braced myself for the backlash that would inevitably come from writing about a Jewish woman (Emma) who becomes involved with a Nazi. To my surprise, no one seemed bothered by that. Instead, the readers took issue with my portrayal of various historical details: an Orthodox Jewish family would never have named their daughter Emma, one wrote. A secular Jew like Emma’s husband Jacob would not have worn a yarmulke, insisted another. There were others too, but you get the idea.
Nowhere is the passion for reality and accuracy more intense than with readers of novels set during World War II and the Holocaust. Everyone has his or her own world view of these events. Some readers think I’m too hard on the Poles and their role in the war and others say I’m too nice. One reader took issue with a Polish character commenting that the west had taken too long to join the war effort, although that was surely the point of view of a woman trapped in an occupied country. I have found editors to be similarly sensitive to historical detail – with my second novel, The Diplomat’s Wife, we spent much time debating whether a bus would have had doors in 1946 London and would it have cost a two pence or five pence to ride? Wrestling with the historical/fiction balance was particularly challenging in my latest novel, The Things We Cherished, because it jumps between a number of historical periods.
It is an issue that I continually wrestle with as a writer. Sometimes, I choose to stay accurate (keeping the geography of a city intact tends to be particularly important to me.) Other times the needs of plot and narrative thrust dictate that history be bent, such as reducing the approximately eighteen months between the German invasion and the creation of the Krakow ghetto to six weeks. (I felt better upon reading recently that the true story of the Von Trapp family was similarly cut from twelve years to a few months in The Sound of Music.)
I’m mixed about the intensity readers seem to place on “real life” details. I’m not saying that historical writers should not be diligent in their research with the goal of creating a realistic time and place. But this is fiction, not memoir. And I worry sometimes that it becomes a game of “gotcha” where readers, armed with the questionable accuracy of Wikipedia, try to spot mistakes in what is essentially supposed to be a fictional world. It can at times feel, well, a tad adversarial and perhaps take away from the author-reader connection. I wish that I could create a world and as long as my characters followed the rules of that world, I wouldn’t be held accountable to any external standard. I need a little latitude to make the story work (she whines). But then, I suppose, I should write fantasy, shouldn’t I?
Ultimately, though, I do think a degree of accuracy is important to create a believable story and keep the trust that is necessary between the author and reader. I’m glad that my readers are intelligent and pay attention and care as much as I do about the past.
Thank you, Pam. We wish you much success with your latest book. The Things We Cherished is published by Sphere in the UK on November 10 as a paperback original, £6.99. To learn more about Pam and her work, please visit her website.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty
I discovered it in my adolescence, not a good time to read a novel about a child possessed by a demon. It scared me so bad that for months afterwards I felt my bed rocking. In fact, it scared me so much I wouldn’t see the movie until I was in my mid-twenties and guess what? It freaked me out all over again. Written in stark, often obscenity-laden prose, the premise provokes major writer envy. Blatty struck a raw universal nerve, and hit major pay-gold, with his masterful ability to make us believe in the unthinkable.
THE SHINING by Stephen King
I read it while on vacation at the seaside and I couldn’t use the hotel bathroom because I was afraid of the dead lady in the tub. King had already blazed an enviable path with his Carrie and Salem’s Lot, but in The Shining he surpasses himself. Again, the premise provokes envy: a recovering alcoholic author takes a caretaker job in a snow-bound, haunted hotel with his wife and psychic son and starts to unravel. What elevates the story to classicism is its scythe-like insight into the dark recesses of the mind: no writer has ever portrayed the haunting of another writer as King does, and no one has ever been able to scare so many people by putting us in an allegedly empty hotel room.
THE WITCHING HOUR by Anne Rice
She’d already garnered super-star bestseller status with her Vampire Chronicles when Rice turned her velvet-and-blood attention to the world of the hereditary Mayfair witches and the vengeful spirit who haunts them. The series faltered but, oh, the first entry is perfection. From modern day San Francisco and New Orleans to the highlands of 16th century Scotland, Rice plunges us into a historically lush maelstrom of evil and redemption. The writing is drenched in allegory, feverish as only Rice at her best can be; and the moment when Lasher appears will make you shiver.
IMAJICA by Clive Barker
Known as a modern-day master of horror, the disturbed mind behind such film classic demons as Pinhead, Barker has written a number of frightening novels, but in this one, arguably his most ambitious, he delivers a vast, mythological tale of an alternate and often horrific world beyond our own, where assassins and gods and monsters engage in an elaborate chess-board game of power and destruction, offering us a breathtaking, unforgettable elegy for our times. It needs to be read twice.
FEVRE DREAM by George R.R. Martin
He’s world-famous for those fantasy door-stoppers but in this early novel about a mid-nineteenth century steamboat in New Orleans where a race of vampires clash is truly awesome. Martin takes the genre clichés and redefines them; he also makes us both long to be, and conversely dread ever encountering, the now overdone undead.
Happy Halloween, everyone! Read something scary.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Bad reviews are, of course, part and parcel of being published; it comes with the territory and there’s no handbook to teach you how to deal with the emotional impact. Some authors cry. Others get drunk. Some call a friend to gripe. Most get mad. A few take it in stride, or at least pretend to. After all, it’s your book someone just skewered—the tangible fruit of years of labor. You’ve sacrificed valuable time with family and friends; forgone movies, restaurants, sex; you’ve walked the dog aimlessly in circles, muttering like an indigent to yourself; burned or forgotten meals; lost sleep; tussled and agonized over a single word, even screamed at your computer when no one was looking. The hard truth is writing is tough and writing a novel is the epitome of toughness. It takes perseverance, ego, and more than a touch of insanity. I mean, you spend all this time by yourself, locked in your head in a room staring at a screen or piece of paper, conjuring imaginary things, and hoping, praying, someone else will care enough to want to read it, let alone publish it. Then, insomniac, battered and badly in need of a shower, you turn the manuscript in and have to deal with everyone else’s opinion of it— your agent, your editor, the marketing team, the booksellers. In their own ways, they will each shape your work into something that can be packaged and sold to the public. Sentences you slaved over will be cut without mercy; scenes shifted here or re-crafted there; a character will be eliminated and another, to your astonishment, will attempt to hijack the plot. You’ll go back over the same lines time and time again, until you can recite them from memory and your spouse or significant other will look at you furtively as you sit hunched at your desk, crab-handed over those first-pass pages, and remark perhaps it’s time for us to start thinking of taking that oft-delayed vacation.
In the end, the idea that started as a seed in your febrile brain, was nurtured on imagination and the internal chug-a-lug of I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can will become a cooperative project, a team effort. A Book.
And then, it gets sent out. To anonymous people and places you’ve never seen. Newspapers (though these are less and less); trade magazines; online sites; bloggers—hundreds of eyes will peruse your painstakingly crafted prose and, within a few lines, maybe a few chapters, if you’re lucky, pass judgment. To review or not review; to like or not like. After all, this person who will now review your book has no stake in your well-being, particularly. They don’t know if you’re a nice person or a mean one; if you talk on your cell phone when you should be driving; if you donate to an animal shelter or spend too much money on shoes. All they care about is that visceral, subjective moment which you have no control over, when they read your words for the very first time and had a reaction. Or didn’t. So, those words you hoped and prayed were worthy of attention will now, finally, garner words of their own, for better or worse.
In some cases, as in bad reviews, you’ll almost wish they hadn’t. Almost, but not quite. Because in the end, even a bad review is still a review. It means someone cared enough to take the time to say: Hey, this sucks. Don’t bother. Buy a DVD instead. Check out the latest Ikea catalog. Collect stamps. Browse online for new underwear. Do anything but purchase this lousy book.
Yes, someone cared. And isn’t that what every writer dreams of? I know I do. So, how did I deal with the bad review? How else? I cried. I got mad. I pretended not to care. I poured myself a stiff drink and called a friend to complain.
And so it goes.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
I'm delighted to welcome Stephanie Dray, author of Lily of the Nile and its recently published sequel, SONG OF THE NILE (Berkeley Trade paperback, October 2011) charting the middle part of the fascinating, dramatic, and always intrigue-laden story of Cleopatra's surviving daughter, Cleopatra-Selene. Filled with vivid details of the ancient world, as well as its depravity and mysticism, in SONG OF THE NILE, Selene has survived her perilous childhood only to be forced to marry a man chosen for her by the emperor; with the magic of Isis, she rules her realm and wins the love of her new subjects, beguiling her way to the very precipice of power. She has never forgotten her birthright but will the price of her mother’s throne be more than she’s willing to pay?
Please join me in welcoming Stephanie Dray!
Thank you, Stephanie! We wish you much success and I, for one, am really looking forward to the third part of this amazing story! To find out more about Stephanie and her work, please visit her at her website.
I’m delighted to be here because I’m a C.W. Gortner fan and I share his love of history’s bad girls. In my case, I love the bad girls of the ancient world. Let’s face it. Powerful women got a bad rap. This was especially the case for Rome’s first empress, Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus Caesar. She comes down to us as a sort of wicked step-monster of the Julio-Claudian family-one who murders, manipulates and maligns everyone who gets in her way. The ancient writers didn’t much like her. Modern writers don’t like her either.
Played to perfection by Siân Phillips in the mini-series of Robert Graves’ famous I, Claudius, Livia emerges as a delicious villainess. She makes Cruella de Vil rather civilized for merely wanting to turn spotted puppies into fur coats. Personally, I found the lure of such extravagant evil too hard to resist. When writing about my heroine, the orphaned daughter of Cleopatra, who was taken as a prisoner of war at the age of nine and marched through the streets in chains, there were plenty of villains for me to choose from. But my novels aren’t about the the tragedies this real life princess lived through; my novels are ultimately about Cleopatra Selene’s triumphs. So I wanted an antagonist who could show the darker sides of my heroine’s ambitions.
Livia fit the bill.
It’s true that in my novels, Cleopatra Selene plays a dangerous and twisted game with the ruthless Emperor Augustus, who was obsessed with her mother and is now obsessed with her, too. But I wanted to show the other side of the coin--a woman who was nothing whatsoever like Cleopatra of Egypt, but almost as powerful. That’s where Livia came in.
Unlike the seductive Queen of the Nile, Livia was known for chaste and modest public behavior. (At least, after she married Augustus.) She always dressed in voluminous garments that practically covered her from neck to ankle, and of course, her husband would brag that she spun the wool and wove the cloth to make those baggy clothes as well. She was a veritable goddess of domesticity, our Livia. And one who supposedly eschewed expensive jewelry, claiming that her children were the only jewels she needed. In spite of all this puritanical posturing, Livia was, nonetheless, associated with sexual scandal. Suetonius reports that she was rumored to procure young virgin girls for her husband’s bed. That made me wonder if such girls came from within the emperor’s own household and included vulnerable orphans like Cleopatra Selene.
Livia was also rumored to be a poisoner. She’s known to have concocted tonics and elixirs that she said accounted for her extraordinarily good health and long life, but if you were supping at the imperial palace, you might be better off not drinking the wine. At various points, she’s been accused of murdering Marcellus, Drusus, Germanicus, Postumus and even Augustus himself. In my novel, she offers Cleopatra Selene a poisoned cup.
But was Livia really such a she-devil?
Her biographer, Anthony Barrett, paints a picture of a much maligned mother of the empire. She had a documented record of altruism against which her detractors could only conjure up rumor and innuendo. She went to the emperor on behalf of the citizens of the Isle of Samos to return them to independence. She is known to have intervened on behalf of one woman accused of witchcraft; she also saved the life of a man who accidentally appeared naked before her, saying that to chaste women, to look at a naked man was like looking at a statue. Known to advise her husband on political matters, Livia enjoyed a marriage with him of more than fifty years. Especially tricky, considering that she never gave him a child and he rather desperately needed an heir.
I can’t point to a single documented event in which Livia did an evil deed. Her worst crime, it seems, was to have lived for so long and exerted such power over the empire as the wife or ancestress of every Julio-Claudian emperor, that the only way to explain her political success was to make her a monster. In the end, Livia was deified, and worshiped, as a goddess, so maybe she’ll have the last laugh. Certainly, the one regret about my own novels is that I so enjoyed exploiting her bad reputation.
Expect lots of wickedness and depravity in Song of the Nile, but in the third and final book of the trilogy, I hope to redeem myself by giving Livia a little bit of empathy. So, what about you? Are there women in history that you love to hate?
Thursday, October 13, 2011
BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE by Juliet Grey is a prime example of how well this art can both replenish our opinion of a famous personage while at the same time, reinforce the factual record. In this first installment of a trilogy, we meet a young and impetuous Maria Antonia – her given Hapsburg name – one of the brood which Empress Maria Teresa produced with tireless regularity during her astonishing 40-year reign. Unlike the coveted princess-brides of the Renaissance, however, these mid-eighteenth century Hapsburg daughters are woefully under-educated, pretty to look at, yes, but designed to be strictly ornamental, rather than functional, royal wives. Maria Antonia in particular dislikes studying and reading, and prefers to fritter away her time with her sisters chasing butterflies in the garden, though she’s designated to become the wife of none other than King Louis XV’s grandson, the Dauphin Louis Auguste.
One of the delights of reading this novel is meeting our vapid, bubble-headed legend head-on in her preteen years. She starts out in true cup-cake fashion; though not blond (Marie Antoinette was actually closer to strawberry-blonde, as the book points out) she is nevertheless almost everything we’d imagine she would be: undeniably charming and effervescent, quick to point out the frills of her latest gown and how she looks in it; and utterly clueless to the realities of the world around her. Raised in a crème-macaroon world of protective Imperial ostentation, our little Maria Antonia has no idea of the fate awaiting her; and it’s the literary equivalent of watching a slow-motion train wreck as we read of her excruciating Eliza Doolittle-makeover, reinforced by her steel-hearted mother and the ambassadors, all of whom work in concert to turn Hapsburg straw into Bourbon gold. Poor Mari Antonia suffers both physical and emotional humiliations before she’s shipped off to France to be plunged into the corrupt cauldron of stultifying protocol and vicious intrigue of the court of Versailles.
And it’s precisely here, when we least expect it, where the legend ends. Our Maria Antonia is now Marie Antoinette, dauphine of France, and all her giddy optimism and adolescent fears are put abruptly to the test by the jaded splendors of Louis XV’s waning reign. Her husband refuses to consummate their marriage, though physically, he seems able; her father-in-law’s mistress is a jealous and competitive rival; her aunts-by-marriage are a trio of Macbethian spinsters, eager to exploit her; and the advice she receives from her advisers is contradictory, to say the least. Marie Antoinette finds herself the prey of a host of lavishly dressed predators and we cringe as we anticipate them making her their next meal. How she prevails; how she, in fact, ‘becomes Marie Antoinette’, constitutes the best part of this novel.
Ms Grey is a marvelous wordsmith and she doesn’t spare us the realities of life in Versailles, from the urine-drenched corners to the beggars sleeping in the hallways to the lavish excess of dinner parties and salons. A subtle air of rot emanates from just under the sheen of velvet; and we know, as we watch Marie Antoinette steer her way to fame, that she cannot escape it, no matter how valiantly she tries. Yet as she herself tells us her story in her breathy, witty, and often keenly observant voice, we find ourselves captivated by this young girl, unwittingly thrust into a role she must embody if she is to survive. Though very few of us are unaware of the terrors that await her, it is testament to Ms Grey’s skill that we actually forget as we root for Marie Antoinette’s success and finish the novel in eager anticipation of its impending sequel.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
As the title suggests, this is more than a novel about a series of bizarre murders that Grossman’s hero, Detective Willi Krauss, is trying to solve. All of Berlin appears to be sleep-walking, seemingly oblivious to the endemic violence lurking under the surface, epitomized by Nazi thugs and opportunistic politicians scheming to rescue Germany from decades of penury and shame. Krauss, however, senses these fearsome undercurrents, even as he is swept up in a labyrinthine quest to discover why a young woman pulled from the river was subjected to horrific medical experiments. Revered for his recent capture of an infamous serial killer yet haunted by personal loss, Krauss is now beginning to experience a subtle but pervasive fraying of his impermeability. His keen observations of the shifting world around him anchor the novel’s dark, fascinating trajectory into both the high-ranking offices of a crumbling government and Berlin's seamy underworld.
The supporting cast of characters includes an enigmatic prostitute, an extravagant hypnotist, an earnest cadet, a jaded aristocrat, and a street hustler. While some of the characters conform to established cliches, Grossman handles them with sensitivity and style, while his villains— including a terrifying, buck-toothed Josef Mengele—display the sociopathic tendencies which became a Nazi blueprint and are all the more unsettling because they are not fictional. Fast-paced action sequences interspersed with Krauss’s uneasy awareness that the life he’s always believed in is turning to quicksand under his feet give the novel a brooding, unstoppable feel that kept me reading far into the night. Though Krauss fights with every part of his being to halt the shadow sweeping over him, and everyone he loves, we know the inevitable outcome; it is a testament to Mr Grossman's talent that despite this, we still find ourselves rooting for his idealistic, damaged hero, caught up in circumstances far beyond his control, like so many thousands of Germany's inhabitants.
THE SLEEPWALKERS is now available in paperback from St Martin's Press.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
I’ve never met anyone with mismatched eyes. I mean, I know they exist, and I’ve seen pictures and heard tell of them, but I haven’t met them. And yet the woman at the center of my novel The Gendarme, and whose picture adorns the cover, has one eye darker, the other lighter. At book signings and book club events and even by e-mail, people ask me, “Why did you do this?” And I reply, in typical author fashion, that they’ll have to read the book.
Actually, there are several reasons. The Gendarme is the story of 92 year-old Emmett Conn (then Ahmet Khan), who fought for the Turks in World War I, was injured during the war and lost much of his memory, and only later in life, and after emigrating to the U.S., begins to recall things from the beginning of the war, including his serving as a gendarme and escorting Armenian women and children out of Turkey into Syria. Among his charges is a young woman, hidden under cap and billowy clothing, whose beauty astonishes him when he sets sight upon her. She is young, maybe early teens. She has mismatched eyes.
Most Americans, I’ve discovered, know very little about the Turks and Armenians. The Armenians were a large Christian sect living in eastern Turkey, Iran and the areas near the Black Sea, descendants of an earlier Armenian kingdom, and one of the oldest of Christian peoples. There is an Armenian quarter in Jerusalem, an Armenian Orthodox Church. A small country of Armenia exists today, sandwiched between Turkey and some of the other former Soviet states in the Caucasus. At the beginning of World War I, the Turks were at war with, among others, the (Christian) Russians. Fearing collusion among their large Armenian minority, they rounded up and killed most of the Armenian men, and sent the women and children and old people on an overland trek across the desert to Syria.
When I first started researching the book, I found myself trying to understand how this could have happened. What were the Turks thinking? What circumstances led to this horror? I decided to try and write the book from the point of view of a Turk—a gendarme—escorting these people away from their homeland. In my novel Ahmet first views these deportees as having sewn the seeds of their fate, what with their clannishness and divided loyalty, but as the march goes on, and after he meets the young woman, Araxie, he begins to view the group with greater compassion, to actually see them as displaced, suffering, sympathetic people.
The mismatched eyes are part of the exotica that attracts him to her, but they also reflect the duality lying at the book’s heart—the capacity of everyone to do good and evil. As one character says at the end, there is no blood test that defines us as either bad or good, saint or sinner, Turk or Armenian. The other side of love is hate, and what greater hate is there than apathy? Turkey today, one of the most modern countries in the Middle East, denies responsibility for what happened, turning a blind eye (if you will) to the past. One can only hope that one day things will be different, that wrongs will be righted or, at the very least, acknowledged. A difference as great as, say, light eyes and dark, and all of the combinations that can be evidenced in between.
Please join me in welcoming Elizabeth Chadwick!
Getting out the dressing up box, 12th-century style
by Elizabeth Chadwick.
Hello and thank you to the brilliant C.W. Gortner for inviting me to guest post on Historical Boys! I thought it might be interesting to answer the question. What did a 12th century woman wear? Let’s take a look at how a lady living at the time of Lady of the English would have dressed.
Underwear:The answer to this is that no one knows what mediaeval women wore under their dresses when it came to covering their most intimate areas. There is very little evidence and historians are still arguing among themselves. So with sensible speculation, what might a 12th century lady have worn? She might have used a similar arrangement to that employed by men, which basically consisted of a pair of very baggy underpants, a bit like very oversized boxer shorts, to which were attached hose by means of straps or ties. he might have worn some form of loincloth, or she might have worn nothing at all. We don't even know what kind of arrangements women made at certain times of the month because no one wrote about it at the time. Most chroniclers were men of a clerical persuasion and such subjects would have been totally inappropriate. Not even the medical treatises deal with the practicalities of menstruation. There are very vague hints about linen cloths that might have been used – presumably attached to a belt, but there is no full and concrete evidence.
Legs: On her legs and feet the lady may have worn stockings made out of wool, linen or silk, held in place by pretty garters made out of ribbon or braid. http://www.flickr.com/photos/claning/3673629562/ She might also have worn in winter, thick woolly socks. Both socks and stockings could be made by a technique that the Vikings called naalbinding. It's a form of knitting done with one needle. You can see an archaeological find here. http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/artefacts/sock1.htm
And here is an example of a replica pair of socks. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_3lL358s5Eyw/TSIQRe2vITI/AAAAAAAAAnY/BpsvfBPLJiI/s1600/elsashukka1.jpg
Feet: Her shoes would have been made from leather – cowhide and goatskin usually, and came in a variety of styles, but without heels at this date, and frequently made by what is called the turn shoe method - where the shoe is stitched inside out and then turn the right way when it's done. This is a photo of a pair of my shoes. (add photo titled My medieval shoes). The vamp strips down the middle are made of silk and dyed with woad.
Dress: The dress in this period follow several styles, but generally speaking if one was high status, the gown would involve plenty of fabric to show you were rich enough to afford cloth which was labour intensive to make, and it would be made of a top quality wool, dyed in expensive colours such as dark red or dark blue. Deep colours cost more because the dying process was more involved – a garment might have to be dyed more than once to acquire the correct shade, and dyes such as woad involved lengthy preparation processes.
The Treasury of Roger of Palermo in Sicily boasts a surviving purple silk gown from the empress’s period and you can see it here: http://medieval.webcon.net.au/extant_holy_roman_tunicella.html%22%3Ehttp://medieval.webcon.net.au/extant_holy_roman_tunicella.html
Cloak: The aristocratic noble lady of the 12th century would usually wear a circular floorlength cloak fastened either with clasps or a brooch. Very high status ladies would have cloaks lined with animal fur such as Russian squirrels (vair), red squirrel and sable. Royalty would wear ermine, which was the winter fur of the stoat. Lesser folk made do with linings of cat and lambskin. There was also a garment called a mantle which was similar to a poncho in shape with a hole in the middle for the head and full sides to cover the body. Rectangular cloaks were known too.
Headdress: Generally, all married women wore head coverings. They would wear a linen cap, with a wimple over the top. The wimple was a large rectangular piece of linen that was draped over the head and pinned into place. There is a great deal of speculation and experimentation still ongoing among historians and practical archaeologists as to how wimples were arranged. Wimples tended to cover head and throat. When just the head was covered, then the garment is often called a veil. Sometimes for the high status lady, the wimples were made of silk.
Accessories: Accessories were used to accentuate certain aspects of the female body in attractive ways. Finger rings were popular at this period and a great show made the hands and hand gestures. Ornate and decorated belts drew the attention to the waistline and hips, and the side lacing is where the chemise might just poke through the gaps and give a man a thrill! The rich used magnificent brooches and clasps to pin cloaks and mantles. The poor use less ostentatious decoration but again of similar type.
So, there you have it. The everyday outfit of a 12th century woman at the time of the Empress Matilda. Would you like to dress like this?
Monday, August 15, 2011
On the book release front, in case you missed it, THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI is out in paperback with a beautiful new cover. I'm enjoying hearing from people who have read it and am always available to chat with book groups. Like THE LAST QUEEN before it, this novel has generated some marvelous book group chats so far, with readers expressing strong opinions of who Catherine was and what she did. For me, it is the highest praise to be among readers who care enough to debate the life of a woman who lived and died so long ago.
My novel on Isabella of Castile is finished and currently with my editor. Various titles are being mulled over, so as soon as I know the official title, I'll tell you. Title changes can be difficult for a writer to cope with; if we have a working title we really love and have become attached to, it's hard to re-adjust our thinking and think of something new, but between my agent, editor, and I, we've come up with some great alternatives. The novel is scheduled to be published in the US on June 12, 2012. When I have a UK date, I'll make sure to let you know.
I'm still writing SPYMASTER 2. It does have a working title, which I won't reveal, because as circumstances have shown, who knows what it'll end up being? However, I'm enjoying returning to Brendan and his dark, Tudor world. This time, he's on a mission in Mary Tudor's court and must overcome the lethal Imperial ambassador, scheming earl of Devonshire, and another, unexpected opponent. Elizabeth is once again in peril, and Brendan must set aside much of what he thinks he knows about her to safeguard her life. Oh, and of course he gets to match wits again with Robert Dudley, now imprisoned in the Tower with his brothers. THE TUDOR SECRET has generated a lot of new fans for me - which I love - but it also increases my desire to give you a worthy sequel. I've had to do some significant plot revisions, so I'm not sure about publication dates at this time. Most likely, it will hit stores sometime in 2013.
Lastly, I signed a contract with Ballantine Books for my fourth stand-alone historical novel, this time about the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. I'll be exploring her Vatican years, when she found herself being used as a marriage pawn by her father, Pope Alexander, and her tumultuous, dangerous relationship with her seductive brother, Cesare. I love the Italian Renaissance and the Borgias, who hailed from Spain, are the perfect family for journeying into the cutthroat politics, elaborate pageantry and power-plays of papal Rome. I'm researching the novel now and am finding Lucrezia as interesting, and misinterpreted, as my previous Italian-born heroine, Catherine de Medici. I'm excited to bring her to life, as I've had a fascination with her since I was a child. The chance to work with her is a dream come true.
I hope you're all having a wonderful summer and thank you for reading!
Sunday, July 31, 2011
I'm delighted to welcome Carson Morton, author of the debut historical mystery STEALING MONA LISA. Set in 1911, this novel is based on the real-life theft of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece from the Louvre in Paris - an event I knew nothing about and was fascinated to discover. This is a sophisticated, suspense-laden evocation of a thrilling crime, with enough twists and turns to keep you reading well past bedtime. Elegantly written, it features a wonderful, diverse cast of characters, including a charming master thief, a street orphan, a volatile forger, a beautiful pickpocket, and of course the priceless painting and Art Deco-era Paris herself - which Mr Morton has recreated in all her elegant, dangerous and irresistible contradictions. Please join me in welcoming Carson Morton.
Boots (well, sneakers) on the Ground
by Carson Morton
Until a few years ago, the closest I had ever come to Paris was as an eleven year old boy, emigrating with my family from England to the United States. The Queen Mary steamed out of Southampton and docked for the night in Cherbourg to take on more passengers. I slept through the whole thing. So I found myself, many years later, working with my first editor, Marie, on the manuscript to my novel, STEALING MONA LISA, set, naturally enough, in Paris. She casually asked if I had ever been to France. Does being fast asleep in Cherbourg count? She gave me a look, turned back to the manuscript , and simply said, “Well, you need to go.” Six months later, I checked into my hotel in the Marais district, bleary-eyed but excited after sleeping a good twenty minutes on the flight over. Immediately I hit the streets to head for the Seine. Within minutes I was totally lost in the meandering, medieval streets of the Marais, one of the oldest sections of Paris, loving every minute of it. Eventually, I walked out onto the Pont Neuf for my first sight of the Seine, Notre Dame, and in the distance, standing proudly above the mansard roofs of the city, the Eiffel Tower. It’s an experience that everyone needs to have at least once in their life, preferably twice.
The thing was that my novel was already finished. I had chosen the locations of my story through careful research online and in books, and I felt fairly confident I had made all the right choices. I was soon to discover, however, that was not necessarily the case. The plan was simple: walk through my story to make sure all the pieces fit. My first stop was a sequestered series of courtyards, known collectively as the Cour du Rohan, just of the bustling Boulevard St. Germain in the St. Germain des Pres area. It was a bit tricky to find at first but, armed with my handy-dandy Moleskin Paris City Notebook, I soon found myself walking across the cobblestones of the first courtyard. Barely minutes from a major boulevard, the Cour du Rohan’s cloistered serenity was a welcome respite from the bustling city. I had chosen the courtyard as the location of the boarding house of Madame Charneau where the mastermind and his cohorts plan the heist of the century. I found the location in a “Paris – Then and Now” book and was encouraged by the fact that it had been used for some of the exterior shots in the movie, Gigi. I had gotten it a 100 percent right. The atmosphere, location, and physical layout were perfect. At this rate, I wasn’t going to have to make any changes at all!
Next stop was the Louvre Museum. Armed with my trusty Paris museum pass, I strolled in and made a beeline for the Salon Carré, the original home of the Mona Lisa. The painting was moved in 2005 to the Salle des Etats where it resides in its own free-standing wall hiding behind bullet-proof glass. It’s typically awash in a sea of tourists but instead of the songs of seabirds, one hears the phrase, “I didn’t realize it was so small,” spoken in dozens of languages. Much nicer to stand by myself in the Salon Carre before the spot where, a hundred years ago, Vincenzo Peruggia walked up, took it off the wall, and stuck it up his blouse. So far so good, but then came the dawn. I had the thieves making their way out through the wrong side of the museum. There’s no way they would go all the way over to the Passage Richeleiu on the rue de Rivoli when all they had to do was descend a maintenance stairwell to the Quai des Tuileries to make their escape across the Seine. This part I had gotten dead wrong and couldn’t wait to get home to my computer to make the necessary changes. Well, actually I was in Paris for another five days, so I definitely could wait.
Now, there was only one piece missing, the location of the house of the Marquis de Valfierno, the mastermind behind the plan to sell six copies of The Mona Lisa to unsuspecting American Robber Barons. I pondered this as I made my way through the meandering streets of the Marais and turned into rue Picardie, a street barely wide enough for one vehicle, and made my way back to my small hotel, the hotel du Vieux Saule which had obviously once been a grand house…. wait a minute! This was perfect. A house tucked away on a small side street, hidden deep within the labyrinth of streets that make up the Marais.
Not only did I spend a wonderful week in the world’s most beautiful city, but my book would be greatly improved. And, with any luck, next time I stay in that hotel I’ll bring along a copy of the book and maybe they’ll give me a special rate!
Thank you, Carson. We wish you the best of success! To learn more about Carson and his work, please visit his website.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Please join me in welcoming Melanie McDonald!
In Eromenos, my debut novel, the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia recounts his affair with the Roman emperor Hadrian during the second century CE—a relationship far more intimate than Hadrian’s sanctioned political marriage, though it lasted only seven years. Readers have asked why I decided to write about Antinous and Hadrian. Although I knew a little about Hadrian, because of the wall he had built on the border between present-day Scotland and England to keep barbarian tribes out of Roman Britain, I had not heard of Antinous until I read the novel Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.
These two were real people, not fictional characters, yet their story involves the same eternal verities—sex, love, death, loss, power, transformation—as classic love stories found throughout mythology, literature and the arts, in works like Orpheus and Eurydice, Romeo and Juliet and Aïda. Even after two thousand years, the story of Antinous and Hadrian remains too complex, sad and beautiful ever to be lost to the dust of antiquity (or, for that matter, to the sludge of homophobia). I began to read non-fiction historical works about Antinous and Hadrian, and was struck by how none of these sources ever revealed any thoughts or words attributed to Antinous, although his beautiful image still may be found in works of art in museums around the world. History had silenced Antinous. I hoped that another version of their story, told this time from his point of view, might be able to give back a voice to this young Greek, the beloved of Hadrian, who seemed to have none.
I enjoyed doing the research for Eromenos. At first, I just wanted to know enough about life in Rome in the second century CE to make the story believable for those readers who happen to be knowledgeable about the era. The deeper I dug into life at Hadrian’s court, however, the more I discovered about the many other interesting individuals who had surrounded Antinous there. I knew they would make wonderful characters in a novel. Take Favorinus of Gaul: A hermaphrodite once accused of cuckolding a powerful Roman citizen, a “barbarian” who spoke perfect Greek (his accent was better than Hadrian’s), he kept up a running feud with Polemo of Smyrna, another philosopher of Hadrian’s retinue. Only Favorinus, though, was nervy enough to contradict even the emperor on occasion.
Another court member who fascinated me was a physician, Marcellus Sidetes, who wrote about the symptoms of and possible treatments for lycanthropy. Yes, werewolves, in ancient Rome. Marcellus notes that those afflicted: ". . .go out by night in the month of February, hanging about tombs and behaving like dogs or wolves until morning returns, leaving them hollow-eyed, dry-tongued, listless, and thirsty."*
Marcellus writes as well about his own experiments in treating injured gladiators. The battlefield always has provided gruesome inspiration for the surgeon. New weapons inflict terrible new wounds upon human flesh, and this in turn calls for the healers to devise new techniques in the sometimes futile attempt to treat these injuries.
Given the accomplishments of such individuals, why not play around with the idea that Antinous, the famous beauty, also serves as a source of inspiration for others at court, not just for Hadrian? So the novel also explores the idea of Antinous as muse, and shows how he may have listened to this physician about his theories, or encouraged that philosopher to gather his thoughts in book form, or suggested that a fellow Bithynian, Arrian, write down those stories he told about hunting and hounds. Beauty and power often have found themselves bedfellows—and beauty has a power all its own, albeit one more fleeting and fragile than other kinds of power.
Once the actual writing got underway, I gave myself permission to take some liberties—to make up interactions between Antinous and other individuals at court, and even to make up characters, such as the servant girl Calliria, to serve the story. Eromenos is a work of fiction, after all, not a factual account of history. And although it’s a story with a tragic ending, I tried to incorporate scenes of humor and discovery, as well. The court of Hadrian included the most brilliant minds to be found in the empire, and Hadrian himself was extremely intelligent and well educated, engaged in many areas of study, including architecture, literature, art, poetry, and philosophy. The imperial court of Hadrian, fourteenth emperor of Rome, must have been an amazing place in which to come of age for a bright, educated, beautiful young man like Antinous.
Eromenos was a pleasure to write, and I hope it proves a pleasure for readers, too. Thanks very much, Christopher, and happy ear-rubs for Paris the Corgi from me!
Thank you, Melanie! For more information about Melanie and her work, please see her website.
*Marcellus Sidetes, translated by Daniel Ogden in Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002. Quoted in Eromenos, p. 113, by permission.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Please join me in welcoming Donna Russo Morin.
I consider myself extraordinarily blessed that my profession allows me the indulgence of historical research. Self-confessed nerd, I happily spend hours, days, weeks, months with my nose stuck firmly in centuries old public records, estate accounts, and paper-and-ink-pungent text books, pouring over account after account of any one man or woman’s life. A sketch is rendered, it’s given dates of birth and death and momentous moments, its clothed in activities and choices and consequence. But it is a flat translation, so like the paper dolls I played with as a child, with little consideration of emotional motivation. Perhaps it is my own sensitive nature, perhaps it is the psychology degree I obtained by accident, but as I lay the clunky antiseptic tomes aside, lean my head back, and close my eyes, my mind—and my muse—ruminate on the emotions—the elation and the torment—that is the true essence of any human life.
In my first book, The Courtier’s Secret (2009) it was the Sun King, Louis XIV, who intrigued me the most. The charismatic, libidinous man dedicated his life to the puppet-master manipulation of his nobles, creating ritual after ritual, requirement heaped upon requirement—many of such convolution that few could wade through the depths and succeed in finding his favor. In truth, none would ever truly have it, for the man who would be the longest ruling sovereign in France’s history hated all nobles with caustic venom. His life would be forever imprinted by the fear such nobles had infused in him when, as a child, they threatened his life and that of his mother in the rebellion known as the Fronde. It was a childhood trauma—as devastating and long-lasting as any abuse. Heedless of the child in their midst, the blue-bloods of the age came at his home with weapons and anger, vicious hate upon their tongues. From the moment he reached his majority, from beneath the guise of rule, Louis would make them pay for their violent disloyalty for the rest of his life. And yet it was these very actions—his dedication to be the most privileged king of all—which would lead to the destruction of his progeny, a heart-rending vicious circle of emotional flotsam, the thick, gooey stuff that pronounces us as humans, not just a compendium of dates.
Genius, fanatical curiosity, profound religious beliefs crashing against scientific fervor…all this and much more percolated beneath the surface of Galileo Galilei. But perhaps the most formidable undercurrent of his life was the haunting command of survivor’s guilt. As portrayed in my 2010 release, The Secret of the Glass, Galileo was the only man to survive a bizarre encounter from which others were not so fortunate. While on a walking tour of the Tuscan region, thirty-eight-year-old Galileo and a few of his migliori amici, his most beloved friends, were inadvertently exposed to the noxious vapors festering from out of the Caves of Costozza. Each one died, save Galileo. Though he too was stricken with illness, an auto-immune-like condition that would plague him the rest of his days, it was his guilt as the sole survivor that impelled him to make his life—the only spared on that fatal day—worthy of the gift. It kept him resolute, even as the Vatican itself did its utmost to grind him and his heretical scientific work to a halt. Galileo’s deep and abiding need, one too powerful to be denied, coupled with his beliefs, would allow no such obstruction, no matter the cost.
My latest release, To Serve a King, is based on nothing if not the proposition that with true remorse, one may find true redemption. It is true of my main fictional character; it is true of the king that haunts her so. François I is forever portrayed as a cruel and lecherous hedonist, and justifiably so. But little is said of him in his years of decline. When writing François I, I was not unmindful or blind to his brutish youth, however I was deeply aware of the personal hardships he had encountered—the loss of spouse, the loss of beloved children, the slow torture of watching his own power diminish as he aged. In the major biographies read during my research, I found a great dichotomy between his early years and those of his latter days. I was struck by the notion, and the hope, that we have the ability to become truly conscious beings and in the clarity of vision such consciousness affords, we can look back and see the road behind us with all its potholes and wrong turns. It is distasteful to have regrets—the acidity sticks in the craw and repeats offensively—but if conscious of their power, the enlightened can use them to find remorse, and it is in remorse that we are redeemed. Thus was how I found François; it is how I wrote him. I can say with certainty there was a wish in such a rendering.
I’ve lately just finished my next book, the first where I base a main character on the life of an actual person. But in this, The King’s Agent, as in my others, the true question will not be what he did—the illegal procurement of precious works of art—but why he did it.
I was recently asked in an interview what it was that most intrigued me about historical fiction and I answered…the human experience, that which is found deep within every one that shares this existence… human experiences that are unchanged whether ten days or ten centuries apart. It is that resounding repetition that I seek to uncover as I immerse myself—happily, readily—to those hours, days, weeks, and months of research.
Thank you, Donna! To learn more about Donna and her work, please visit her website.