Sunday, July 31, 2011

Guest post by Carson Morton, author of STEALING MONA LISA

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

Guest post from Melanie McDonald, author of EROMENOS

The Roman emperor Hadrian has always fascinated me. I love Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and devour any other book on him I can find. Unfortunately, there aren't that many, so I was delighted to hear about Melanie McDonald's EROMENOS, about the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia's affair with the emperor during the second century CE—a relationship far more intimate than Hadrian’s sanctioned political marriage. I'm also very pleased to welcome Melanie here on the first league of her virtual tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Tours.

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

Guest post from Donna Russo Morin, author of TO SERVE A KING

I'm delighted and honored to welcome Donna Russo Morin, author of several adventurous historical novels set in Italy and France, including her latest novel, TO SERVE A KING. Donna always offers exciting fresh settings and intriguing plots; this marvelous guest post from her offers a glimpse into Donna's creative process.

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.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Guest post from Helen Hollick, author of SEA WITCH

I'm honored to welcome Helen Hollick as part of her 2011 tour for the re-release of her exciting SEA WITCH series. I've been a fan of Helen's work since her debut Arthurian-themed novel, The Kingmaking; her pirate books featuring the rakish, sexy, unpredictable Captain Jesamiah offer a galleon-load of adventure, danger, and fun, and are now available in brand-new beautiful editions from Silverwood Books.

Please join me in welcoming Helen Hollick.

The setting sail of my Sea Witch series of pirate-based historical adventure fantasy books has not been all calm seas and fair winds. But it has been fun and immensely exciting! When historical fiction was foundering on the rocks of unpopularity a few years ago, my (ex) agent suggested I write something more “sellable”. “What about Harry Potter?” she said.
“Well I don’t really write teenage or fantasy do I?”I grimaced back. This was the Bespectacled Wizard period – prior to the Twinkly Vampire phase. It was also the opening manoeuvres of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, though. And a pirate novel appealed…Enjoying the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, I had become intrigued by the facts of the Golden Age of Piracy – a short-lived period in history, from the late 17th – early 18th Century.
Soon after my dispiriting chat with my agent, the entire plot and most of the characters came to me one afternoon in late October, while on vacation in Dorset, England. I remember the afternoon well.

It was drizzling with rain and I had the entire beach to myself. I looked out at the grey English Channel and saw instead the sparkling blue of the Caribbean (proves I have a fertile imagination!) I started writing as soon as I got back to the hotel, and didn’t stop for the next three months, except for Christmas Day when I took pity on my family who had almost forgotten what I looked like. My agent hated the result. “This isn’t for boys!” she exclaimed.
Er, no. I don’t write for children. I write adult fiction. I specifically wrote Sea Witch for the many adults (especially us swooning ladies) who enjoyed the movie, loved Jack Sparrow even more, and were desperate for similar pirate-based fiction to read.

There are plenty of nautical fiction books around; Hornblower, Patrick O’Brian – the fabulous Frenchman’s Creek… but nothing that came even remotely close to the excitement, humour, fantasy - and sex-appeal, of Captain Sparrow. As a writer the solution had seemed simple and obvious. Write the book I wanted to read. My agent did not believe me when I told her adults wanted to read pirate adventures, and historical adventure fantasy. She told me to write it for teenage boys. I stuck to my 9lb pirate guns and refused. I knew I had a good story. I knew my main character - Jesamiah Acorne - had the potential to, one day, become a winner.
So my agent and I parted company, and I was simultaneously informed that my UK publisher had decided to not re-publish my back list.

It looked like my writing career was finished. I sobbed for two weeks, then pulled myself together and found a small independent UK company who offered to take me on with their even smaller mainstream imprint. There were a few hiccups, and the books were not as well produced as I would have liked – but at least Sea Witch, and my backlist - having regained the rights, were in print. I went on to write two more Jesamiah stories and Sourcebooks Inc in the US picked up my serious historical fiction – the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, Forever Queen (entitled A Hollow Crown here in the UK) and I am the Chosen King (Harold the King in the UK) I was back in business again – plus I am co-scriptwriter for a planned movie 1066. Everything was looking good. Fate has a habit of bursting your bubble doesn’t it?

In early spring, my UK publisher hit financial problems and I found myself, once again, on the verge of being out of print here in the UK. I was not going to let that happen. I adore my characters and value my readers too much, so using a small legacy inherited from my Mum, I took my books to a UK assisted publishing house – SilverWood Books. Not having my files I have undertaken a mammoth re-edit of all my books. The Arthurian Trilogy is to be completed but Harold the King, Sea Witch, Pirate Code and Bring It Close are in print here in the UK, with the Sea Witch Voyages out very soon via (and hopefully in bookstores, although it is hard for UK writers to get books into US stores, even if I am officially a Bestselling Author with Forever Queen!)

I have faith in my charmer of a rogue pirate, so as soon as Amazon manages to list the books Jesamiah will be making full sail with all guns cleared for action! I describe him as Sharpe, Hornblower, Indiana Jones and Jack Sparrow all rolled into one; and the books as a “sailors yarn”. They are based on historical fact – although I do bend accuracy a little (liberties are clarified in my author’s note.) My nautical scenes are as accurate as I can get them, thanks to editing by US maritime author James L. Nelson, and the fantasy elements are more akin to the Star Wars Force, not Harry Potter wizardry, for all that Jesamiah’s woman, Tiola Oldstagh, is a white witch!

There are storms at sea, pirate chases; fighting, humour and romance – the goddess of the sea, who wants Jesamiah for herself and Jesamiah’s ghost of a father - everything expected in an adventure series! As Elizabeth Chadwick kindly endorses (she loves the books, I am delighted to say): "A wonderful swash-buckler of a novel. Fans of Pirates of the Caribbean will love this to pieces of eight! Prepare to be abducted by a devil-may-care pirate and enchanted by a white witch. Helen Hollick has written a fabulous historical adventure that will have you reading into the small hours!" I hope so!

To learn more about Helen and her work, please visit her website
or visit the Sea Witch page