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03 Sep Guilty Pleasures

…having nothing to do with history. Well, maybe only a little.

  • Top Chef. Jennifer Carroll for the win! That chocolate bread pudding with peanut butter sauce sounded delectable, but people—what’s the point of posting a recipe calling for 120 egg yolks and 5 1/2 gallons of heavy cream, which ends up serving 100 people? Cut it down a little. Top Chef website fail.
  • Homemade Apple Crostata. The Broadcasting Legend™ brought home a bag of Granny Smith apples by mistake, and so I’ve been baking up a storm. Delicious as a dessert with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or as a breakfast pastry with a wedge of cheddar cheese. I don’t really follow a recipe—I make piecrust the old-fashioned way (rubbing the butter into the flour by hand) and just mix up the filling as the spirit moves me—sliced apples (skin left on, please), a little lemon juice, a little white sugar and brown sugar, a pinch of salt, a sprinkling of flour to thicken, and of course lots of cinnamon.
  • Attention Deficit Theatre. I love Mad Men and these are the best recaps ever. J. Kristin Ament is a hoot and a half.
  • And speaking of recaps, History Spork, from Two Historians. This comes with a hat tip to the best agent ever, Diana Fox. Needless to say I love historical movies but I sometimes follow along with commentary much like this. Although I’m nowhere near as funny.
  • The Daily Digital. The adventures of my friend Laurie, her husband Philip, and their wonderful beagles. I’m nowhere near as funny as Laurie is, either.
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28 Aug Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Have finished Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. What a beautiful touch with words Dunant has! This book draws the reader into a leisurely, thoughtful, and ultimately compelling pilgrimage through the labyrinthine world of convent life and convent politics in the late sixteenth century.

Nothing ever happens in a convent, you say? Not true. At the time women were often shunted off into convents for no better reason than to save their families the cost of a dowry, and so it is with Suora Serafina, formerly Isabetta, torn from the musician she loves (a musician! horrors!) and immured behind convent walls. She is befriended by Suora Zuana, the convent’s herbalist and dispensary mistress. What a wonderful character Zuana is—an unwilling nun herself, she has found a hard-won peace in her garden and among her carefully-compounded remedies. That peace is sorely tested when Serafina’s screams of fury—and later her dazzling voice—and still later her equivocal visions—turn the convent on its collective ear.

I was particularly anxious to read Sacred Hearts because it’s set in Ferrara in 1570 (immediately following the ill-fated marriage of Lucrezia d’Este to the young Duke of Urbino, which is a story in itself), which is of course the same place and within a few years of the same time as the setting of my own novel. It turns out, however, there’s very little connection with the Ferrara of the court, other than a few mentions of the bishop and a glance at Duke Alfonso’s younger sister Leonora. The convent of Santa Caterina is a city and a court and a world unto itself, and as the shadow of the Counter-Reformation looms its nuns are a fascinating microcosm of women facing change.

Set aside time to savor Sacred Hearts. It’s not a particularly fast-paced read and certainly not a quick read, but it’s a lovely lovely book and will richly reward your time and patience.

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15 Aug ‘S wonderful! ‘S marvelous!

As the Gershwin brothers would say.

Wonders and Marvels

Anyone interested in history to the slightest degree must check out this site. Want reviews of wonderful new historical novels? Want to know what the Romans used for toilet paper? (You will be surprised.) Want to read about nose jobs in the Renaissance? (I have to work this into a book somehow.)

Wonders and Marvels is more than just a blog. It’s a “community for curious minds who love history, its odd stories, and good reads.” My kind of place.

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11 Aug The Sale of a Wife

This is quite a bit more modern than my beloved sixteenth century, but I ran across it while researching other documents and couldn’t resist sharing it. After all, how often does one come across:

“A full and particular Account of the Sale of a Woman named Mary MacKintosh, which took place on Wednesday Evening, the 16th of July, 1828, in the Grass Market of Edinburgh, accused by her Husband of being a notorious Drunkard; with the particulars of the bloody Battle which took place afterwards.”

You must read the full transcription, if nothing else for its vivid nineteenth-century slang. One of the fighters (and yes, a huge fistfight between women and men broke out, with the women pretty much carrying the day) is described as being “as drunk as 50 cats in a wallet.” I can’t wait to use that one. Heh.

The Scottish broadside, ladies and gentlemen—the TMZ-crossed-with-Craigslist of its day!

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07 Aug The Time Traveler’s Life

I’ve changed the title of my site a bit. Here’s why.

Reading and writing historical fiction is the closest we can ever come to traveling in time. From my earliest days as a reader I loved stories set in “the olden days”—I loved Little Women and Black Beauty, Gone with the Wind and Forever Amber and the Angélique books, ancient Frank Yerby and Thomas B. Costain novels lurking in dusty library bookshelves like pirate treasure, my beloved Crawford of Lymond novels by the peerless Dorothy Dunnett. To this day I gobble up historical fiction with relish. Right now I am reading the mother of all historical novels (no pun intended), Eve by Elissa Elliott. It’s a beautiful and somewhat controversial book and a fascinating piece of time travel.

My life as a writer is a time traveler’s life. When I slip inside my characters and look out through their eyes, I’m away—in a Ferrarese castello, in a garden by the sea in sixteenth-century Scotland. I return almost reluctantly to the twenty-first century. I say “almost” because, for all the delights of the sixteenth century there are still modern necessities like clean hot running water, gleaming conveniences, air conditioning, and—of course—Ghirardelli chocolate.

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27 Jul There is News

And the best kind of news. My book The Second Duchess has been sold to Ellen Edwards at Penguin/NAL, with the publication date to be determined.

If you could see me now (and thank goodness you can’t) you’d see me running up and down the hall laughing and crying and jumping up and down. The dogs, needless to say, are amazed, and hopeful of getting lots of treats. The Broadcasting Legend™ is working, of course, but I’m sure he’ll be amazed and thrilled in his turn.

I’m so grateful to so many people. My nonpareil agent Diana Fox, who has kept me sane and even reasonably productive through the whole process. My many writer friends, and particularly my wonderful and irreplaceable critique group the Lurkers. (Don’t ask me why we’re called that. Because come to think of it, I actually don’t know.) The people all over the world who’ve responded so kindly (and in three languages) to my many research questions. And of course the Broadcasting Legend™ himself, who has encouraged and supported me through many highs and lows.

Now. Virtual champagne for everyone! Or come to think of it, perhaps virtual Roditis. And saganaki. Opa!

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20 Jul Falling in Love

I love my new book, I do, I do!Starting a new book is kind of like meeting an interesting new person. You make small talk. You find out about each other. Maybe you go out for coffee, then to a movie, then to dinner at a special restaurant. You like that person more and more. Then all of a sudden you turn around and KAPOW! You’re in love.

I’m in love with The Silver Casket. It has everything—a wonderful heroine, a compelling cast of good and evil and funny and sad and mysterious and bright and dark characters, fabulous and bleak and beautiful historical settings in sixteenth-century Scotland, heaps of opulent intrigue, murder and courage, and a romance that both breaks my heart and fills me with passionate delight. How will I ever get it all out of my head and onto paper?

One word at a time. One word at a time.

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19 Jul Morning Thoughts

A beautiful dawn this morning. I was up unusually early because Cressie decided to bark and bark and bark—she was bored and wanted someone to play with. So we went out into the back yard together. The sky was just lightening, slate blue shading to gray, with feathery brushstrokes of pink-gold clouds. High over the treetops swam the waning, almost-new moon, the thinnest of silver-gold crescents, with bright Venus glimmering beside it.

Cressie quartered the yard, inspected the fence and garden, sniffed all the delicious early-morning smells and stopped by every few minutes to touch her little muzzle to my leg—“Just checking in, Mama.” I watched the sun come up, and the moon and Venus fade into the light. There is an unsettling combination of delight and sorrow in my life right now, and looking out into the sky helps me keep it all in balance.

That delicate touch of a beagle girl’s muzzle against my leg doesn’t hurt, either.

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14 Jul Gōng xǐ, Lisa Brackmann!

Huge congratulations to my friend and crit-group partner Lisa Brackmann (sometimes known as Other Lisa), who today announced the sale of her first novel, Rock Paper Tiger, to Soho Press, for release spring/summer 2010. Lisa’s agent is Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown.

Rock Paper Tiger is an unique and evocative novel of existential suspense (Lisa admits she just made up that category, but I think it sounds edgy and cool and having read the book, I can vouch for every existential and suspenseful moment) set in modern-day China. And when it comes to China, Lisa knows whereof she speaks. In fact, she just returned from Beijing and learned her book deal was signed, sealed and delivered as she was getting off the plane. How cool is that?