December 2008

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31 Dec Καλό Ποδαρικο!

First FootKalo Podariko, or Happy First-Foot!

The Broadcasting Legend™ occasionally teaches me snippets of Greek, and this is a traditional greeting for New Year’s Eve. As in other countries around the world (notably Scotland, which figures in my own heritage), the first person to set foot in one’s house in a new year can bring either good or bad luck.

The custom goes that immediately after the stroke of midnight, all the lights in the house are turned off and everyone goes outside. Then a particularly lucky person, often the youngest child, steps back into the house. Right foot first, please! All other family members then follow, also entering with the right foot, and all the lights are re-lighted for the new year.

May we all be blessed by good luck in 2009!

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30 Dec Retrospection

One of the things I always do at the end of December is re-read my daily personal journal for the year just past. It’s surprising and a little daunting to realize how much one forgets, even in the course of a year. The annual retrospective reading keeps me honest with myself.

I’ve been keeping a daily journal since 1983. Yes, there’s a lot of minutiae there—but I like to record the everyday things I do, well, every day. Walks, shopping lists, lunches, pleasures, griefs, dreams, success, failures. I can read a journal entry from any day at random and it brings back the shape and taste and experience of the day itself.

It’s remarkable and revealing to connect with my younger self, and I only wish I’d begun my journal earlier. Queen Victoria began keeping her famous diaries when she was thirteen! How I would love to be able to go back and read the truth about my own teenage years—I suspect it would not be anything like how I remember it today.

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29 Dec The Seed Catalog

burpeecatalogHere we are in the dark of winter, and on my desk I have the 2009 Burpee seed catalog. I am paging through gorgeous scarlet tomatoes (“slicers,” as my father used to call them), crisp green lettuce and cucumbers, berries and melons bursting with juice. And then there are the flowers—pansies with teddy-bear faces, dazzling marigolds, ruffled pink begonias and old-fashioned truly blue bachelor’s-buttons. More and more of my garden is being given over to herbs, too, partly for cooking, partly for scent, and partly just for pleasure—basil and dill, oregano and Italian flat-leaf parsley, lavender and peppermint and rosemary and rue.

I love reading the seed catalog in the middle of winter and dreaming of summer gardens. What better expression of faith could there be? As with all versions of scripture, however, the seed catalog can be contradictory: this year’s cover veggie is a “seedless” tomato, which one grows by purchasing (very expensive) seeds.

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27 Dec Silent in the Sanctuary

I much enjoyed Silent in the Grave, the first book in Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series of historical mysteries, and if anything Silent in the Sanctuary is even better. Suitably for the Christmas season, the book is set at Christmastime in 1887. It’s a version of the tried-and-true house-party murder, with Julia, her family, various friends, hangers-on and servants snowbound in the March family seat, an ancient Abbey.

The Marches are as March-Hare-esque as ever; “enquiry agent” Nicholas Brisbane is present but Julia is surprised (of course she conceals her true feelings) to find him engaged to a beguiling but empty-headed (or is she?) widow. Much mordant repartee ensues, as does, eventually, murder. The background effervesces with jewel thievery, ghosts, gypsies, kidnappings and family scandals. The murder might possibly have happened a bit earlier, but because I love the rich and deliciously-rendered detail of late-Victorian country life I’m happy to forgive Raybourn the slowish pace of the first half of the book.

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26 Dec Revisions and Flames

“You write,” notes editor, publisher and author Arthur Plotnik, “to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”

Let the fire show through the smoke. That’s it, exactly. That’s what I’m doing right now. Barbara and Alfonso and all my other characters have fire burning inside. I have fire burning inside. Now what I have to do is clear away the smoke and let the fire show through.

Alfonso’s historical device was a flame with the motto Ardet Aeternum—“Burning Forever.” Could anything be more appropriate?

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25 Dec A Renaissance Christmas

A Renaissance Christmas by the Boston CamarataThe Boston Camarata is a wonderful ensemble based in (of course) Boston and dedicated to preserving and performing European and American music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Here, from their breathtaking CD entitled A Renaissance Christmas, is a tiny taste of what people in the Renaissance might have listened to at one of their Christmas festivities:

Nouvelles, Nouvelles

Nouvelles. News. Tidings. “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

Good tidings and great joy to everyone on Christmas Day.

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24 Dec Historical Adventures

From the Associated Press:

SAQQARA, Egypt (AP) – A pair of 4,300-year-old pharaonic tombs discovered at Saqqara indicate that the sprawling necropolis south of Cairo is even larger than previously thought, Egypt’s top archaeologist said Monday. The rock-cut tombs were built for high officials – one responsible for the quarries used to build the nearby pyramids and another for a woman in charge of procuring entertainers for the pharaohs.

A woman in charge of procuring entertainers for the pharoahs, 4,300 years ago! Wouldn’t you love to know more about her? How did she become the, er, procuress? What kind of entertainers? How did she become a “high official” and how did she die? It’s almost enough to make me abandon sixteenth-century Ferrara and dive into ancient Egypt. (Almost, but not quite. I have new work to do on The Second Duchess, and I’m excited about it.)

So much fabulous history, so little time.

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23 Dec Christmas Music

I love Pandora. Right now as I work I’m listening to a shuffle of “Classical Christmas,” “Peaceful Holidays,” “Folk Holidays,” and my own Christmas channel.

I love Christmas carols, from the Renaissance-y ones like The Holly and the Ivy, I Saw Three Ships, and Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella to the traditional favorites I sang in a dozen childhood Christmas pageants. It’s amazing how the music brings back the words—a little while ago I found myself singing (lustily) all five verses of We Three Kings without missing a word. Shades of Proust and his madeleine!

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22 Dec Winter Stars

Auriga from Urania's MirrorOne of my lifelong avocations is stargazing—not in a serious astronomical sense, but just to see the pictures in the sky and learn their fascinating historical lore (I’m always a sucker for historical lore). This week’s constellation is Auriga, the Charioteer or Wainman. At the left we see him as he appeared in Urania’s Mirror, a set of hand-painted cards published in London around 1825. (The scan is courtesy Ian Ridpath.) The constellation was first described in ancient times along the Euphrates River, in much the same form as we imagine it today.

Auriga appears in the sky as a pentagon shape, which represents the Charioteer himself. Alpha Aurigae, or Capella, is a first-magnitude (very bright) white star representing a she-goat the Charioteer is carrying in the crook of his left arm, and the three smaller stars forming a long triangular shape beneath Capella are the she-goat’s kids. Auriga Sky

Why is a Charioteer carring a goat and her kids? There’s no one explanation. Some say that the unusual formation of bright Capella with her three kids beside her came first, and the Charioteer was later imagined around them. In any case, if you look directly overhead around midnight on a winter evening (if you are in the US—in other parts of the world the positions of the constellations will vary) it will be easy to pick out bright Capella and her triangular cluster of three kids, and consider the fact that you are seeing the same stars the Babylonians saw, and the same picture they imagined.

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21 Dec Christmas Cookies

Today I’m baking kourambiethes, a Greek holiday cookie that’s traditional in my husband’s family. They are delicious—the texture is very creamy and pastry-like and the cookies melt in one’s mouth. Here goes:


1 pound sweet butter or clarified salt butter
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 ounce brandy, whiskey, or ouzo (the recipe says “optional” but don’t leave it out!)
3  3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
More confectioner’s sugar for coating

Allow sweet butter to soften to room temperature. Beat with electric mixer for 10 minutes until white and creamy. Add egg yolk, sugar, orange juice and liquor, beating all the while until thick as mayonnaise. Sift flour and cornstarch into the bowl and continue mixing. Finish by kneading for 5 minutes. Refrigerate for an hour or two until the dough is of a good consistency to work with.

Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll into balls about the size of walnuts. Place on ungreased cookie sheet about half an inch apart. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for twenty or twenty-five minutes—until they are just slightly golden.

Drop hot-from-the-oven cookies into a bowl of confectioner’s sugar and toss gently until each cookie is well-coated. Cool before serving or transferring to a serving dish.

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19 Dec Leonardo’s Swans

Just finished Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex. I love historical fiction in general but I was particularly drawn to this book because of its connection with the Estensi of Ferrara—its heroines, the sisters Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, are my Duke Alfonso’s great-aunts, and its milieu is just seventy-five years or so before my own setting.

Leonardo (da Vinci, of course) struggles with the timeless artistic affliction of starting projects he never finishes. Isabella’s infatuation with Beatrice’s husband Ludovico Sforza is one of those things that might have happened, even if it is not generally documented. The intricacies of the French and Italian politics of the day are always intriguing. I liked Leonardo’s Swans very much, and my only quibble was with the occasional anachronistic turn of speech, which jolted me back to the twenty-first century when I would much rather have stayed happily in the fifteenth.

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18 Dec Going to the dogs already

I’ll write about my dogs from time to time, I’m sure, so I’ll introduce them now:

Little Brother Big Sister

On the left, Boudin, so named because he is a Cajun doggie adopted through a Houston rescue organization. And of course food products always make good names for beagles. On the right, Cressie, also a rescue, a native of Canada.

My book features two “pocket beagles” (a gift to the new Duchess Barbara from Elizabeth Queen of England) named Tristo and Isa, who are based on my own beagles.

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17 Dec What am I writing?

Earlier this year I finished a novel based on Robert Browning’s 19th-century narrative poem “My Last Duchess.” It’s mostly based on real history, but the history is intertwined with Browning’s fictionalization and some of my own what-ifs.

It’s told in the first person by Barbara of Austria, the Duke’s second wife. Also starring are the Duke himself, Alfonso II d’Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara, the polished and manipulative narrator of Browning’s poem; and in a parallel narrative the murdered first Duchess—beautiful Lucrezia de’ Medici, hardly more than a child, willful, sensual, and vengeful.

It’s my baby, my preciousssss—and I love the setting and the characters so much I can’t bear to give them up. What did they do next? The summer of 1566 simmered with intrigue in Ferrara…

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15 Dec Hidden Objects

Recently I’ve become enamored of what are called “hidden-object” games. Remember when you were little, those black-and-white puzzle-pictures you’d look at and try to find the carrot or the cupcake camouflaged in the lines of the drawing? These games operate on the same principal, although they’re much more sophisticated and much more gorgeous.

Sometimes the hidden objects are actually camouflaged. Sometimes there is just such a rich and crazy profusion of objects within the scene and one must go over it slowly and carefully to sort out what’s what and what one is really looking for.

It occurs to me that life is like that.

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14 Dec Waiting

Writers wait a lot. We wait for good news and sometimes—oh, lovely sometimes—we get it. Other times, not so much. Here are some of the things I do to distract myself from waiting.

  • Write something new.
  • Walk with the doggies.
  • Eat chocolate.
  • Do the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle.
  • Do housework (of which there is a never-ending supply).
  • Read (as there is likewise a bottomless to-be-read pile).
  • Write some more of the new thing.
  • Sleep.

I suppose now I can add blogging to the list. It could certainly replace housework.