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10 Mar Talbot Hounds

Talbot Dog

Sometimes perfect bits of history just fall into one’s lap. You all know, of course, how I always like to have a beagle or two (or three or four) in my books. Well, while looking through images from Sheffield Cathedral this morning (more about that later), I came across a connection between the Earls of Shrewsbury and an extinct breed of hunting dog called the talbot.


The Talbot in Wikipedia


As the family name of the Earls of Shrewsbury was Talbot, it was, of course, a perfect match. The first Earl of Shrewsbury was pictured presenting a book to Queen Margaret of Anjou, accompanied by a talbot.


The Talbot Goes to Court


And the coat of arms of the House of Talbot features two talbots as supporters. The effigy of George Talbot, the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury (more about him later, too), shows him with a wife on either side (obviously he was married to them sequentially and not in the cozy simultaneity of the effigy) and a faithful talbot at his feet.


The Talbot, Faithful unto Death


The talbot was a white scent hound with long soft ears, quite beagle-like in appearance (although if I let our beagles’ claws grow as long as the claws in the drawing above, our vet would have my hide), and may very well be an ancestor of our modern beagles. There are beagles described as “lemon and white,” which are white with very pale russet markings, and sometimes, particularly as puppies, can appear almost pure white.


I think you’ll be able to count on meeting some talbots (and a modern beagle as well) in The Taste of Cloves….

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04 Mar …And What the Inspiration Hath Wrought

© The British Library Board

Image © The British Library Board

Last week I posted about the Felbrigge Psalter, and how it inspired part of my new book in progress. Here’s a tiny snippet incorporating part of what that inspiration produced:



What will become of the book when I am gone? I have no daughter to leave it to. Ah, well, the direct line of mother-to-daughter has been broken before, and will be broken again, and the book will go on. It is not the blood that counts, but the fact that we have all been women, from the first of us to the last. We have all added something, words from those of us who could write, drawings from those unlettered, pressed herbs and flowers, stains and spatters from long-ago batters and sauces, ground grains of spices sifted into the paper itself. The book was a psalter at first, the Little Hours of the Virgin bound in embroidered linen three hundred years ago and more. Now the original pages have been mostly scraped and overwritten and new pages sewn and pasted in and interleaved. It has become a book about tasting, about cookery and herbalism and women’s magic. What are the Little Hours of the Virgin, after all, but ancient women’s magic?



I’m fretting about the rhyming “spatters” and “batters,” but so far I haven’t been able to come up with a suitable word to replace one or the other. The speaker here, by the way, is on her deathbed in 1572, which is why she describes the book as being three hundred years old.


There’s much more, of course. The working title for this book is The Taste of Cloves, and it has a contemporary storyline woven in with the historical storyline, which is a first for me. But somehow it just happened. Inspiration is funny that way…


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21 Feb Inspiration

Felbrigge Psalter


You just never know when something is going to drop a seed into your subconscious, and then when you least expect it, burst forth with an idea. For example, a while ago I came across some articles on a 13th-century psalter with an embroidered cover, which is in fact the oldest known English embroidery on a book. The book still exists, in the British Library. Here are some more details:


The Felbrigge Psalter


What if, though, such a book had not found its way into a museum, but had instead been passed down secretly from woman to woman. lovingly preserved, added to and un-written and re-written through the centuries? What if…


Well, there are more what-ifs. Lots of them. Next week sometime I’ll post an actual snippet from my work-in-progress, describing my fictional version of the Felbrigge Psalter.

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31 Jan Does Tempus Really Fugit?



Fascinating article about a new book by philosopher Brad Skow of MIT, describing something called the “Block Theory” of time. Muchly simplified, the idea is that we (and everyone and everything else) exist scattered in time, with the “spotlight” of our concept of “present” moving from one moment to the next but with all moments, past, present, and future, existing all at once in the fabric of spacetime.


Does Time Pass?


The fact that I’m interested in theories of time that allow the past and present to co-exist is a big hint that what I’m working on combines the past and the present!

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06 Jan Happy Epiphany!


I’ve just finished writing a chapter set in the midst of sixteenth-century Florentine court revels for the Epiphany, also called Twelfth Night. In medieval and Renaissance times, gift-giving was associated with the Epiphany and not with Christmas day. And in Italy, children received gifts (if they were good—they got lumps of coal if they were bad) from la Befana, pictured at right.

La Befana, so the story goes, was an old woman whose greatest joy in life was keeping her cottage spic-and-span. She was in the midst of her sweeping when the Magi knocked on her door and invited her to join them as they searched for the Christ Child. She refused, being determined to finish her housework.

Later she regretted her decision, and with her broom she set out to catch up with the Magi and offer her own gifts to the Christ Child. To this day she is still looking for them, riding on her broom, and on the eve of Epiphany (in Italian “la Epifania” and “la Befana” are related words, and often used interchangeably) she gives her gifts to good children.

And of course since any hint of a cookie recipe always gets my attention, her traditional gifts are cookies called befanini. There are hundreds of different recipes out there, most of which seem to be pretty basic sugar-and-butter cookies spiced with anise and orange peel, occasionally spiked with rum or sambuca, and decorated with colored sprinkles. Here’s an easy one, and here’s a traditional one.

Buona Befana!

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31 Aug Crocodile Tears

I do love research. And language.

This morning I was writing along and I came to a moment when someone (the Ferrarese ambassador at Cosimo de’ Medici’s funeral, which will make perfect sense to readers of The Second Duchess) is weeping large crocodile tears. I assumed this was some kind of modern figure of speech and went to my beloved Online Etymology Dictionary to check on it. Imagine my surprise to learn that the concept of crocodiles crying false tears goes back to at least the ninth century, figured prominently in medieval bestiaries, was spread widely in English by the mysterious and possibly fictional explorer/adventurer “Sir John Mandeville” in the fourteenth century, and turns up in two Shakespearean plays (Othello and Henry VI, Part 2). So crocodile tears it is.

One of the great joys of writing is that there’s always something new and intriguing to learn.

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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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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:

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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27 Apr The Delights of Research

One does find the most peculiar things while doing research into historical periods:

Medieval Scottish Ecclesiastical Toilets

It’s good to know the monks at St. Andrews and the Isle of Iona had such, er, comforts.

Naturally I couldn’t help clicking around through the rest of the site (a Shakespearean chamber pot! the Ottoman Sultan’s toilet!).

Stop by Toilets of the World and you too can be privy to all the details.

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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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30 Jun Waiting

Waiting and hoping... for bunnies!I’ve been doing lots of waiting lately. In the meantime, I’ve been:

Writing: The first chapter of my new book. Actually I’ve been doing so much research and planning that I’m only doodling with actual narrative, a line here, a snatch of dialogue there. I’m definitely an outliner and I need a detailed plan with a lot of associated research and background before my stories form themselves into write-down-able words. The upside of this is that once the characters and setting and shape of the story are firmly fixed in what passes for my mind, the words themselves pour out.

Reading: actually re-reading. The World is Not Enough by Zoë Oldenbourg. Originally published in French as Argile et Cendres, translated into English by Willard R. Trask. One of my favorite historical novels of all time.

Also reading: Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548-1560: A Political Career, by Pamela E. Ritchie. One of those satisfying combinations of reading for research and reading for pleasure.

Cooking: sautéed chicken breasts to be sliced over salads. I think I’ve discovered the secret to perfect tender sautéed chicken breasts: marinate or season to taste, then sauté the presentation side on high heat for three to four minutes, depending on the thickness of the breast. Creates beautiful color. Then reduce heat to low, turn the breast over, cover, and cook the second side twice as long as you did on the first side. Remove from pan and let rest for five minutes or so before slicing.

Eating: well, drinking, actually. A delicious wine sent to me by my friend, mystery writer Dana Fredsti. It’s Chariot’s Gypsy 2007, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Sangiovese from California vineyards. Unfortunately we don’t have Trader Joe’s in Texas, or this would become my co-favorite red wine with Roditis.

Walking: early mornings and late evenings because of the 100° heat. There’s nothing like walking with a beagle or two to take one’s mind off… well… waiting.

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13 Jun There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding

Happy trails to me...A Google trail, that is. I’m stealing an idea from my friend and fellow Shrinking Violet P.J. Hoover, and tracking my “Google Trail.” What have I been Googling this past week in the name of research?

  • Wildflowers of sixteenth-century Scotland
  • Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard
  • Quatrains of Nostradamus
  • Lennoxlove House
  • Antoinette de Bourbon, Duchess of Guise
  • Battle of Corrichie
  • Clan Leslie

One of the great delights of writing historical fiction with sprinkles is that one can spend hours reading about the most fascinating bits and pieces of history and actually be working. Could there be any better job?