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01 Jan Freckled Paws and Hoppin’ Jim

 

Kalo Podariko! (“Happy First Foot,” the Greek wish for a happy new year.) The first foot over our threshold this morning (as it is pretty much every morning) was a freckled beagle paw belonging to our Miss Cress. I love her freckles—I’ve given her freckled paws to Seilie, Rinette’s little hound in The Flower Reader. Since Cressie is a typically beagle “merry little hound,” I think she’ll bring us happiness in the year to come.

Living in Texas as we do, we’re also supposed to eat black-eyed peas for luck on New Year’s day—the dish is called “Hoppin’ John,” the etymology of which is obscure. Sadly, the Broadcasting Legend™ and I don’t really like black-eyed peas. Heresy, I know. What we’ve done is create our own version, which we call “Hoppin’ Jim.” Heh. It’s a sort of bean soup made with ordinary white beans and the bone from the Christmas ham, and it is delicious. I’d post a recipe, but none of the things Jim cooks actually have recipes. He’d say something like, “Well, you take the ham bone and put in the beans and some other stuff and simmer it all afternoon.” Right.

I like vegetables—shredded carrots and greens of some sort—in my Hoppin’ Jim, but I have to add those separately so as not to sully the purity of the original.

Warmest new year wishes to all, and God bless us every one.

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21 Dec Christmas with the Second Duchess

A tiny snippet with mouthwatering details of a Renaissance Christmas celebration in Ferrara. Note also the hints of intrigue swirling around Duchess Barbara and her new husband’s opulent court:

        On Christmas Eve we fasted: we ate no meat, but our supper was made up of dozens of different fish dishes, rice with nuts and spices, sweet pastas, fruits, and a fabulous subtlety in the form of St. George’s dragon breathing fire, the delicate curling melted-sugar flames painted with cinnamon and saffron and gilt. On Christmas Day we went to Mass; the rest of the day was given up to the performance of a magnificent chivalric fete entitled Il Tempio d’Amore, which featured even more elaborate machinery than La Festival delle Stelle, as well as dazzling verse, music and dancing, and an astonishing pyrotechnical conclusion.

 

        The second day of Christmastide, St. Stephen’s Day, there were tennis matches—the duke was one of the best tennis-players in Europe, and even in the winter sometimes arranged matches in the large courtyard of the Castello. After supper we gathered to hear Torquato Tasso recite excerpts from his romantical work Rinaldo. Crezia was everywhere, whispering with everyone, dancing with her handsome lover, and celebrating the season with a fine goodwill. Nora was present as well, as she had been for all the Christmastide events; apparently she was back in her brother’s favor for the moment at least. She seemed subdued, and she made it a point to avoid me; I wondered if she regretted her visit to me. I did not see her exchange so much as a word with Tasso. Had they quarreled? Tasso was the center of attention, his fine long-legged figure clad in amethyst satin, the color of poets; once again I was struck by the almost visible aura of brilliance and magnetism that surrounded him…

The Second Duchess makes a delicious and atmospheric last-minute Christmas gift to the readers on your list. Check Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Books-a-Million, and of course your favorite indie bookstore. Go here for The Second Duchess on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iBooks, or on your computer with iTunes.

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22 Nov Fascination

 

Haven’t posted a beagle picture for a while! Here are Cressie (left–note the white crescent on her rear end that gives her her name) and Boudin, intent on some adventure happening in the front yard. We’ve had enormous geckos this year–not sure if it’s the hot dry summer or what, but I’ve seen lizards the size of squirrels running up the trees. (Well, maybe that’s a teensy exaggeration. But really big lizards.) That may have been what fascinated them so.

In other fascinating news–The Second Duchess is in the finals for the 2011 Goodreads Choice Award for historical fiction! I am amazed and excited and thrilled and so happy. If you feel moved to vote, go here.

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Vote now for your favorite books!

Cressie and Boo thank you!

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06 Nov The Goodreads Choice Awards

As authors we know, or we learn quickly, that readers’ reviews are not about us–they’re about our books, and by publishing our books we’ve set them free into the wild to find their own ways, take their own knocks, and make their own friends. Sometimes it’s fabulous and sometimes it hurts, but you know, that’s what a community like Goodreads is about. It’s about readers, not writers.

That’s why it’s so incredible and fantastic to me that The Second Duchess is a nominee in the opening round in the Historical Fiction category of the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2011. I have to say, it is in some pretty elevated company. Please vote for your favorite in all the categories!

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Vote now for your favorite books!

Huge thanks to everyone–yes, everyone–who’s read and rated The Second Duchess on Goodreads.

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25 Oct Vojvotkinja

The Serbian edition of The Second Duchess has been released–it’s called Vojvotkinja, which is Duchess in Serbian. A very striking cover, don’t you think? Barbara is far too beautiful, of course (cover models always are) and is showing rather too much bare skin as well (cover models often do that as well), but it really does capture the moment in the story when, wearing her scarlet wedding dress after a session with a portrait painter, she manages to send her ladies away and runs up some stairs to find the mysteriously hidden portrait of the first duchess. I do love the way she is looking over her shoulder–she even says, in the text, that she feels she is being watched.

(Which she is, of course…)

The translator, Branislav Ivkovic (Hi, Bran!) tells me that the line of copy under the title reads, “Love, intrigue and secrets in the city of art and beauty.” Really a perfect description of the story.

For more information, check out the website of publisher Mono I Manjana.

 

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03 Oct Astrology as Science

In the sixteenth century, which is where my heart seems to be drawn over and over again, astrology was a serious science. Perfectly orthodox Christians had horoscopes cast, as earnestly as you and I might have an MRI. Astrologers (and alchemists, but we’ll be getting to that in my next book) were taken very seriously, and often had considerably influence over the affairs of nations and princes.

I used astrological signs liberally in The Second Duchess, and they’re all quite real, in the sense that they’re based on the historical birth dates of the characters. Yes, Alfonso II d’Este really was a Scorpio (born November 22, 1533). Barbara of Austria really was a Taurus (born April 30, 1539). Lucrezia de’ Medici is a tiny bit more problematic, in that there is some confusion as to her actual birth date—some sources say June 7, 1545, and other sources say February 14, 1545. I chose the June date and made her a Gemini in the course of writing the book, although now, after the fact and after more research, I am leaning toward the February date—Lucrezia would fit just as well as an Aquarius.

That’s the thing. The signs just fit the personalities so well. Alfonso is a Scorpio down to the bone. Barbara is so perfectly a Taurus. It’s enough to make one believe.

A week or two ago I received an email from a reader, Victoria Jadick, who is herself a Taurus and who kindly gave me permission to quote from her reflections on how similar her own personality was to Barbara’s personality:

I recently finished your book about Barbara of Austria, The Second Duchess. I normally don’t like historical fiction placed in Italy. But this book was so beautiful. The detail of the decadence and luxury of the court  of Ferrara was so entrancing. I also could not help but notice how similar Barbara and I are, not only because I am a Taurus, because of how proud, defiant, and so composed in stressful situations.

I love the fact that Victoria identified with Barbara so closely, and that it was partly because she and Barbara were actually Taurus sisters!

 

 

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14 Sep The Dark Enquiry

Well, Boudin does have cherry eye in his right eye, unfortunately–but it’s a mild case and the vet showed me how to massage his eye (through the lids, of course, with the eye closed) to coax the third eyelid back into place. We also have some eyedrops that are supposed to help. As you can see, Boo is not letting a little thing like cherry eye interfere with his reading.

 

 

I loved The Dark Enquiry, the fifth adventure of Lady Julia Grey (now Lady Julia Brisbane, of course), by Deanna Raybourn. Not only do we get to spend more time with Lady Julia herself, her deliciously enigmatic husband Nicholas Brisbane, and her eccentric family–we get to delve into the Victorian craze for spiritualism, with side trips to a gypsy camp (and what you will learn there will astound you!)  and the intricacies of Her Majesty’s secret intelligence offices. Muchly recommended!

 

 

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10 Sep Choosing a Winner

Sadly, Boudin is on injured reserve this morning, with an inflamed nictitating membrane (the third eyelid) in his right eye. He has an appointment with the aptly-named Dr. Clawson at ten, and we’re hoping it’s just a passing thing. Beagles are prone to something called cherry eye, which is more serious. So fingers crossed for our Boo!

Cressie, however, happily took up the slack as a lone honorary wolf. Here’s how it worked: since we had five commenters, I laid out five kibbles in a row.

 

 

I then manned (womaned?) the camera as the Broadcasting Legend™ carefully positioned Cressie in the exact center of the row, about five feet away. He then released the wolf beagle and I snapped the picture.

 

 

She made a beeline for Kibble Number Two, so Liz Michalski, as the second commenter, you are our winner! You will be hearing from Dee.

Thanks to everyone who visited and commented, and all our best to Dee Garretson and Wolf Storm.

 

 

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05 Sep Please Welcome Dee Garretson

…author of Wolf Storm, a brand new middle-grade/young teen book from HarperCollins, who is just as obsessed with research as any historical fiction writer. Take it away, Dee! (And readers, don’t miss the chance to win a copy of Wolf Storm–info at bottom of post!)

“Castles in Slovakia, plum dumplings, Peter O’Toole, Gregory Peck. These were some of my research topics while I was writing my second middle-grade adventure novel Wolf Storm. To me, research is the most fun part of writing. In fact, I can get obsessive about it, to the point where I have to force myself to stop researching and start writing.

I’m a very visual person, so I spend quite a bit of time searching out pictures of my settings. I love coffee table travel books and check out as many as I can from the library, to surround myself with while I write. It can be tough to walk around in my writing space because open books end up everywhere. I’ve found it’s useful to visit the children’s section of the library for materials, because it’s much easier to find books full of pictures.

Since Wolf Storm is set in the remote mountains of Slovakia, I knew there wouldn’t be houses around, except for the old mountain lodge where most of the story takes place. I love castles though, and really wanted to work a castle into the story, so I searched out real estate sites listing castles and mansions for sale. I found Slovakia did have a number of small castles, so I was excited  I could fit one in. When I came to write the story, the castle ended up as a ruin for plot purposes, but at least I knew it could have been there.

I write in third person close point of view, so I want everything I describe to be what the character sees and observes. That means before I even start writing, I have to decide what my character is interested in, what he or she thinks about, and much knowledge he or she has of the world.  Writing from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy means I had to decide what he would care about, besides girls.  Food!  When boys are going through that locust phase of growth and food consumption, hunger weighs on their minds, so my character, Stefan, thinks about food a lot, particularly when it isn’t readily available.

That’s where the plum dumplings came into story. If I haven’t tasted a food, I don’t want to use it in a story, so I experiment with recipes. While I was searching I out recipes, I learned one interesting fact—it is not correct to say “Slovakian” food; instead it’s referred to as Slovak food. I made a batch of dumplings, and while they didn’t turn out pretty, they were delicious. The main problem is that the plums we can get in the U.S. are apparently plums on steroids, much bigger than the plums used in Eastern Europe, so it was hard to get the dough wrapping to stick. The dumplings I made were baseball-sized, when they should have been much smaller.  Here’s the site where I got the recipe:

http://www.slovakcooking.com/2009/recipes/pasta/plum-dumplings/

I’m planning a fun book release party and all the food will be Eastern European-influenced, so I’m busy searching out additional recipes.

I know you all might be wondering how Gregory Peck and Peter O’Toole worked into the research.  One of the important characters in the story is an elderly British actor. I’ve never met an elderly British actor, so I based the character on Peter O’Toole in his later years. It helped me get the dialogue right by imagining what Peter O’Toole would say in each situation. A Gregory Peck reference didn’t have to be in the book, but I needed an excuse to gaze upon Gregory’s image. In the story, Stefan’s mother is an old movie fan, and the boy himself is very good at imitating characters from movies. The movie director knows this and uses a reference to a Gregory Peck movie called The Keys of the Kingdom to get the performance he wants from Stefan. For me to use that reference, I had to watch several different Gregory Peck movies to pick the right one.

Much of the research I do leads me off into finding things I don’t end up using in a particular book. It’s all good though. Knowledge is never bad, and you never know when a particular bit of information will come in useful in another book!”

Wolf Storm by Dee Garretson was released August 30, 2011 by HarperCollins:

This is teen actor Stefan’s big break. He’s on location in the mountains far from home for his first movie role, filming a blockbuster sci fi adventure. The props, the spaceships, and the trained wolves on set should add up to a dream job, but acting turns out to be much tougher than he ever imagined. When a blizzard strikes, isolating him with his  young co-stars and bringing hungry feral wolves into the open, Stefan must take on his biggest role yet—working together with his co-stars to survive. With no second takes, they only have one chance to get it right…

If you buy books for middle-grade and young-teen kids (if you add up all my step-grandkids and great-nephews in that age group, I have five on my personal list), this is a great choice! Buy it now at bookstores everywhere or from your favorite online bookseller.

Or… and this is the exciting part… WIN a copy for your favorite tweener! Leave a comment (click on “(Number) Comments” under the title above) by Friday, September 9th, and the beagles–acting as honorary wolves, of course–will choose a winner on Saturday, September 10th.

 

 

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12 Aug Dumbarton

One does come across the most interesting stories in the course of research.

At one point in The Flower Reader, Queen Mary and her household go off on a summer progress which includes a stop at Dumbarton Castle. My friend and long-suffering Scots beta reader Leslie Thomson pointed out to me that in the sixteenth century both the castle and the town would have properly been called Dunbarton, from the Scots Gaelic Dùn Breatainn, Fortress of the Britons. It turns out that only in the last hundred and fifty years or so has Dunbarton become Dumbarton, all due to a misprint on a nineteenth-century map. There are even old street signs still in existence—see image at right.

I’m going to leave it as Dumbarton in the story, because modern-day readers would probably pounce on “Dunbarton” as a mistake. But “Dumbarton” itself sprang from a mistake. The lesson has to be: watch out for those darn typos, because you never know how long they’ll last!

 

 

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