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06 Mar “Windflowers, Nightshade and High Adventure”

(I love that quote so much that I just have to use it as my post title.)

Julianne Douglas of Writing the Renaissance is one of the first advance readers of The Flower Reader, and she has written a lovely, thoughtful, in-depth review.

She has put her finger on one of my ongoing themes—what people believed in the sixteenth century versus what we believe now. I won’t say “versus reality,” because who knows what people will say about us, five hundred years from now? Anyway, so much of what people in the sixteenth century saw as “magic” and “miracles” was actually science or psychology, and it fascinates me to explore what their mindsets might have been&#151how they believed they were right just as absolutely as we do today. I am digging even more deeply into that idea with all my material on alchemy for The Alchemist Prince.

It’s both terrifying and wonderful that The Flower Reader is going to be released in less than a month…

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21 Feb Shrove Tuesday Pancakes

Wow—my coconut cookie post was a big hit, it seems! So today I’m going to post another recipe, although this time, sadly, I don’t have a picture—we ate these all up before I put my fork down long enough to get out the camera. This picture, therefore, is not the real Oat Pecan Pancakes, but an imposter—a sort of placeholder of pancake-y goodness. Picture or no, though, take my word for it—these are really good, and with the richness of the pecans, perfect for that Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras/pre-Lent splurge.

 

Oat Pecan Pancakes Chez Loupas

1 cup flour (For more nutrition use 1/2 white and 1/2 whole wheat. You can also use 1/2 white and 1/2 cornmeal for a johnny-cake-like flavor and texture.
1 1/2 cup rolled oats. (You can break these up a bit in a food processor, or use quick-cooking oats, but I like the heartier texture of old-fashioned rolled oats.)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tablespoons molasses (You can use dark brown sugar for a slightly milder flavor.)
2 tablespoons melted butter

1/2 cup chopped pecans

—–

Stir together dry ingredients—flour, oats, baking powder and salt.

Stir together wet ingredients—eggs, milk, molasses and melted butter.

Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir just to combine.

Let stand for a few minutes. This is important—it will soften the oats and make your pancakes fluffier by giving the baking powder a head start.

Just before cooking, fold in the pecans. Want to keep these crisp!

Ladle batter onto hot, lightly oiled (or buttered or cooking-sprayed) griddle by quarter-cupfuls or so. When bubbles have formed on the top and the edges begin to look dry, flip. The second side will be done in about half the time it takes to cook the first side.

These are utterly heavenly with real maple syrup. They’re pretty darn good with plain old pancake syrup, too.

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08 Feb Research Adventures

I’ve been digging around in various sources trying to pinpoint the marriage dates of Isabella de’ Medici and Lucrezia de’ Medici. The thing to remember here is that although Isabella is a secondary character in The Alchemist Prince, at the time the story starts she’s been married to Paolo Giordano Orsini for over fifteen years, and the specific date of her wedding is pretty much irrelevant. But two of my favorite books on Isabella and her contemporaries—Caroline Murphy’s Murder of a Medici Princess and Gabrielle Langdon’s Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love and Betrayal—give different dates. This sort of thing is irresistible to historical novelists. How could the specific date of Isabella’s marriage be in question? What was it really?

Part of the answer may be in the damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory,” the erasure of a personage from the historical record) that appears to have been instituted against Isabella after her ignoble (for her time and place, at least) death. One would think there would be more portraits and letters and records of a woman who was Cosimo I de’ Medici’s eldest surviving daughter, the “star of the house of Medici” and the de facto first lady of Florence from her mother’s death until her brother’s accession. But no. So much seems to be missing.

Isabella’s younger sister Lucrezia, of course, is one of the narrators of The Second Duchess. The date of her wedding ceremony is given over and over: 3 July 1558. This is supported by Alfonso d’Este’s presence in Florence for the wedding, and the lavish celebrations and games. But Murphy gives the date of Isabella’s wedding as 3 September 1558—after the wedding of Lucrezia, who was her younger sister (something that would have been extremely unusual for the time), and as a sort of private family party as opposed to a public celebration. Langdon says rather vaguely that Isabella was married in “June 1558,” with no source given for the date. So what is going on here? Was Isabella married before or after her younger sister? And if Paolo Giordano Orsini and Isabella were not yet married, why did he sponsor an elaborate and expensive game of calcio (Florentine football) as part of Lucrezia’s wedding celebration, with one team dressed in cloth of gold and the other team dressed in cloth of silver? Surely he was already a member of the family?

In the state archives of Florence (Archivio di Stato di Firenze) I found a paper by Georgia Arrivo giving brief biographies of Medici women, and extensive bibliographies and source notes. This paper gives Isabella’s wedding date as 29 January 1557, with the consummation delayed until 3 September 1558. (Aha, so it was the consummation. Leave it to the Medici to make a family party out of it.) Of course, with dates in January before the Gregorian reform of 1582, we’re never entirely sure if the year is given “old style” or “new style.”

To me it makes sense that Isabella would have been married in the January prior to Lucrezia’s wedding in July, so in January 1558 new style. Part of this is due to the fact that Alfonso d’Este was originally betrothed to Maria de’ Medici, Cosimo’s eldest daughter, and most likely her wedding would have been the first of the Medici daughters’ weddings. Sadly she died (there were whispers that her father murdered her, which couldn’t possibly be true—could they?) in November 1557, and Lucrezia was hastily substituted as Alfonso d’Este’s bride. With Maria dead, Isabella became the eldest daughter and the first wedding was her due. So my personal conclusion is that she was indeed married in January 1557 (1558 new style), and because she was not yet sixteen, the consummation was delayed until September, after her sixteenth birthday at the end of August.

Now none of this has anything at all to do with the story of The Alchemist Prince. But I’m writing about Isabella and I wanted to know such an important detail about her life, or at least come to a conclusion that worked for me. I needed to know. I do just love historical fiction…

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26 Jan The Best Crispy-Chewy Coconut Cookies Ever

 

Well, in my opinion, at least. I cobbled together two or three other recipes to come up with this, and experimented on my own with chopping the coconut finer and finer. I’m very pleased with the result, which combines the crispness of a shortbread with the chewiness of coconut. The trick is whizzing the coconut in the food processor until it’s chopped very very fine. The original cup of shredded coconut should be reduced to a rounded half-cup when finely chopped.

The chopped coconut also makes slicing the cookies easier, and I love slice-and-bake refrigerator cookies—so easy.

It occurs to me that if you like Mounds candy bars (which I do), you might like these with a bittersweet chocolate frosting instead of the plain (but deliciously vanilla-y) powdered-sugar glaze.

Here’s the recipe:

Coconut Cookies

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut, chopped very fine in food processor

Cream together the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Mix in the flour until just blended. Fold in the coconut. Roll dough into a log with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice dough into quarter-inch (or so) slices and bake just until golden around the edges, 12-15 minutes. Cool and ice thinly with powdered sugar glaze.

Naturally I had to look up some of the history of coconut as a foodstuff. Rather to my surprise, I found that the nux indica, the Indian nut, was at least known in Europe as a botanical curiosity as early as Marco Polo, and possibly earlier. The term “coconut” itself is later, and derives from the Portuguese and Spanish “coco,” “grinning face,” as a description of the face-like markings at the base of the shell. Vasco da Gama (who died in 1524) is supposed to have brought coconuts to Europe from India. So it’s entirely possible that the Este and the Medici, living in very wealthy Italian courts in the mid-sixteenth-century, could have been served coconut as an expensive and exotic delicacy. Rinette in faraway Scotland? Sadly I think it’s pretty certain she never tasted the sweet, chewy deliciousness that is the coconut.

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23 Jan A Silent House


 
The doggies are spending the day at the Canine Health Club, Day Surgery Center and Spa (aka the vet’s) to get their teeth cleaned, claws clipped, bloodwork done, and other delights. They got no breakfast this morning, and they were NOT amused. Hopefully all will go well and they will be home by dinnertime. But the house is unnaturally quiet without them. And how will I get my cardio without getting up to let them in and out a couple of thousand times a day?

I am presently re-acquainting myself with the third-person viewpoint. I’d never written anything in first person until I wrote The Second Duchess, and I found I really loved the sense of seeing and feeling and touching and tasting right along with Barbara and Lucrezia, and also with my beloved Rinette in The Flower Reader. But The Alchemist Prince is turning out to be a different animal altogether. There’s so much happening to so many fascinating people that there’s no way one (or even two or three) characters can be present for all of it. And I want it all—I can’t bear to leave any of it out…

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20 Jan Blogs are In Out In

I started out keeping a pretty personal blog—writing about the beagles, of course, but also cooking and baking and reading and gardening and stargazing and history and general barefoot living here in the house with three pear trees. Well, two pear trees now. Vale, third pear tree. But anyway.

Then I got caught up in Being an Author. Everything I read and everyone I spoke to encouraged me to “have a presence” on Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and LinkedIn and every other social networking site in the known universe. Blogging was out, I was assured. No one cared. No one would read anything longer than 140 characters anyway.

I tried. I really tried. But all that social networking is so not me. I feel awkward doing it, just as I feel awkward walking up to a stranger (or for that matter, an acquaintance) at a big party and saying, “Hi, there, here I am, let’s talk about something.” The down-to-the-bone truth is that I am an introvert’s introvert. I like to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings (sometimes literally, given my favorite subject matter of the sixteenth century) with one other person. One a really good day, two other people. I liked blogging because it was like talking to one person. You. Yes, you.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I came across this on tribalwriter.com, Justine Musk’s intense and sometimes terrifying blog. (A blog? Oh, wait, are blogs not dead after all?) She is writing about reading a book and getting online to “prolong the experience of the novel by remaining in contact with the author’s voice.” She says:

What I wanted to find wasn’t standard self-promotion….but the author’s own personal idea-space, where she had offloaded enough of her mind and voice and personality (through blog posts and ongoing conversations) to invite me in relationship with her brand.

Now I do flinch a little at “offloaded” and “brand,” but in general that post hit me right between the eyes. Maybe I didn’t have to force myself to socialize in a way that felt so unnatural to me. Maybe I could simply go back to writing here, talking to one person in a little more depth and detail. I cannot tell you what a relief that was.

So I’ll be blogging more and social-networking less. I am happy! Thank you, Justine Musk, for twisting the lens and bringing that into lovely satisfying sharp focus for me.

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11 Jan The Flower Reader in the UK

I am so happy to be able to announce that The Flower Reader will be released in the UK (including Australia/New Zealand) by Random House/Preface. The publication date is set for June, so readers in the UK and Australia (you know who you are) should be able to find The Flower Reader in local shops only a couple of months after the US release.

I am absolutely over the moon! Preface has also bought the UK/ANZ rights to The Second Duchess, for publication in 2013, and to my new book, tentatively titled The Alchemist Prince (more Medici! more murders! exotic alchemical experiments! and Barbara of Austria’s little sister Giovanna!), which is scheduled for 2014.

In a press release from Preface, my wonderful editor Rosie de Courcy said:

From the moment I read the first sentence of The Flower Reader, I was spellbound and had butterflies in my stomach. I adore the mixture of romance, history and menace which is the hallmark of Elizabeth’s writing.

*Dies.*

The Flower Reader is also going to Germany and Italy so far, so my heroine Rinette and I have an exciting year coming up. I am so grateful to everyone who read and reviewed and talked about The Second Duchess, because by doing that you helped make The Flower Reader a reality.

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10 Jan Barefoot Again

Our trip to Nashville was wonderful, but oh, what a delight it is to be barefoot again after four whole days of wearing shoes. I am so not a shoe person.

Of course I have to post a picture of our Bella. Beauty and the Beast was wonderful, Bella as Belle was simply spectacular, her brother Isaiah was fall-off-the-chair funny as Le Fou, and the rest of the cast was terrific.

Give me a day to catch my breath and then I have something lovely to share.

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