The Second Duchess

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29 May Skype and Daphne du Maurier


Last night I had a terrific Skype session with the book group at Murder by the Book in Houston, one of my all-time-most-favorite independent bookstores. The group had read The Second Duchess and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca together, so they could compare and contrast. I was dazzled by this idea—me in the same breath as Daphne du Maurier!—and really enjoyed the Skyping and the questions.


I love Rebecca. I sneaked it from my parents’ bookshelf and read it for the first time when I was twelve or thirteen, and it embedded itself in my romantic little heart. The innocent unnamed heroine! The magnificent mansion, with all the luscious details of housekeeping and etiquette! I wanted to be the second Mrs. DeWinter so badly, not so much because of Maxim (although I do love dark-and-brooding), but because I wanted that house and that world and that way of life. It was reading Rebecca that started me off on one of my odder avocations, reading and collecting etiquette books and housekeeping books from the turn of the century. (That’s the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth—heh.)


I’ve never quite recovered. The Second Duchess was partly written as an homage to Rebecca, and I’ve always treasured C.S. Harris’s comment about it—”Rich in historical detail and all the dangerous grandeur of court life in Renaissance Italy. Think The Other Boleyn Girl meets Rebecca.”


Many many thanks to John Kwiatkowski at Murder by the Book for arranging this delightful Skype meeting!

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18 Aug A Delivery by the Royal Mail!

I received a package today via the Royal Mail, which was exciting enough in itself! But inside was a copy of last week’s issue of My Weekly Magazine, with “The Chimera Jewel” inside:




My Weekly does such a beautiful job of laying out stories with luscious, evocative artwork. I am thrilled that my story featuring Barbara and Alfonso from The Second Duchess found such a wonderful home.


Remember, sign up for my newsletter to get the first information on where you will eventually be able to read “The Chimera Jewel” online!




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25 Apr The Second Duchess!

The Second Duchess, UK Edition

Today is The Second Duchess‘s publication day in the UK—congratulations to Barbara, Alfonso, Lucrezia, Maria Granmammelli (yes, it means what you think it means), the beagle puppies and the whole cast of characters I love so much. I’m very excited, and I also love this version of the cover.

Many, many thanks to everyone who has helped The Second Duchess on her journey around the world!

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24 Oct A Trip to Ferrara

My Goodreads friend Lynne and her mom vacationed in Italy a couple of weeks ago, and she went to Ferrara! She visited many of the places where Barbara and Lucrezia and Duke Alfonso of The Second Duchess lived and celebrated and suffered and died. As she wrote to me, “There are no words for actually standing in these places.”

Here are some of her photographs, with brief quotes from to book illustrating how they were part of the story.


“The Monastero del Corpus Domini was in the old part of the city, occupying almost an entire city block in a section of narrow cobblestoned streets with names like Via Campofranco, Via Praisolo, and Via Pergolato. There were, however, no fields in sight, no meadows, and certainly no trellised arbors; the rose-colored brick walls of the church were almost flush with the pavement, with only the narrowest of paved walks to keep one’s feet out of the gutters… The bell for terce was just ringing as I directed my Austrian gentleman-at-arms to go up and knock. Nothing happened at first, and he knocked more vigorously. At last, a wicket inset into the wall beside the door was drawn back and a face appeared, framed in a wimple and veil.”

Lynne stood at the door just as Barbara did, and rang the bell. She wrote to me, “There was a doorbell, so I rang it.” I think that gave us both chills.


“For my prayers I was allowed to enter one of the stalls of the choir, a concession to my rank most visitors to the church would not enjoy. Not far from where I knelt were the tombs of the Este: the first Alfonso and the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, Ercole II the present duke’s father, and a number of others. With them lay Lucrezia de’ Medici, entombed not quite four years previously.”

The tomb in the center is that of Alfonso I and his wife Lucrezia Borgia, with two of their children. On the left is the tomb of Ercole I, and on the right the tomb of Lucrezia de’ Medici.


“The orange garden was not, as one might think, in a courtyard on the ground level with the other gardens and orchards of the Castello; it was a hanging garden, a square rooftop terrace jutting out from the great Lions’ Tower, landscaped with small paths and flower-beds with soil in boxes. The orange and lemon and citron trees in their wooden tubs were carried upstairs and downstairs as needed, and in cold weather such as this they were tended indoors like the petted aristocrats from the south they were. Surrounding the garden were parapets over which one could gaze out upon the city with its ancient walls, its marshes, its fields, and the silver branches of the Po, as if floating above it all.”


“The chapel was beautiful, small but with elegant geometric lines and a vaulted ceiling frescoed with images of the four Evangelists attended by their traditional symbols—Saint Matthew’s angel, Saint Mark’s lion, Saint Luke’s eagle, and Saint John’s bull—as well as by the proud white eagles of the Este. There were two or three niches along the walls, with statuary in the classical style.”

And of course there are extensive renovations to the ducal chapel in the course of the story. (!) The chapel was indeed greatly redecorated and renovated during the reign of Alfonso II.


As I wrote to Lynne when she was in Ferrara: “I am literally choking up with tears to think that you are there, in the monastery, where so many of the Este are buried. Standing there at Lucrezia’s tomb! It gives me chills, even though it is you and not me.”

It was such a delight to “travel” to Ferrara with Lynne and her mom, and I hope you all are as fascinated by these photographs as I am.

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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 Aug A Second Wife Named Camilla

One meets the most interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) people around the fringes of history. Here, for example, is Camilla Martelli, the second wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first grand duke of Tuscany. But was she the grand duchess? No. Cosimo married her morganatically (meaning she didn’t get to share his title) and reluctantly, only because the Pope insisted he confess all his sins and regularize his life (Camilla had been his mistress for several years and borne him a daughter) before being elevated to the title of grand duke.

Poor Camilla. Cosimo’s grown children loathed her (she was younger than both Francesco and Isabella), considering her vulgar and grasping. If the dress she’s wearing in this portrait is any indication, she did have a rather gaudy taste in clothes and jewels. But to me she looks sad.

When Cosimo died in April 1574, the new grand duke Francesco immediately (the very same night!) sent Camilla to a convent called “Le Murate,” which means “the walled-in ones.” Needless to say, it was a prison for Camilla. Supposedly she made life for the actual nuns such a living hell with her hysterics that a few months later she was moved to a different convent with a somewhat less severe way of life—but imprisoned she remained, pretty much for the rest of her life. She was allowed out to attend the wedding of her daughter Virginia de’ Medici to Cesare d’Este (remember the “weedy little boys,” Duke Alfonso’s nephews, in The Second Duchess? Well, Cesare was one of them), and once again, briefly, toward the end of her life; she apparently could not help attempting to meddle in politics and was soon forced back into the convent, where she died in 1590.

One is left to wonder why Francesco treated his stepmother so harshly. There is a hint in a letter in the Medici Archive in Florence, which comments that in January 1576 Camilla gave up her property, including her jewels and the villa were she and Cosimo had been living, the Villa di Castello, to her eight-year-old daughter Virginia. For all practical purposes this gave the property back to the Medici, and this property, particularly the Villa di Castello, may have been at the bottom of it all. There must have been more hysterics when Camilla learned that even after giving up her property, she was to remain behind convent walls—forever.

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25 May Daphne du Maurier Awards

I’m delighted to announce that The Second Duchess is a finalist in the historical division of this year’s Daphne du Maurier Awards for excellence in mystery and suspense, presented by the Kiss of Death chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

The “Daphnes” will be presented at the “Death by Chocolate” Reception and Awards Ceremony, on the Thursday of the RWA Conference in July. Could there be a better way to die?

Congratulations and best of luck to all the finalists, published and unpublished!

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12 Apr Always a Hound

I’m guest posting today on the Owl Bookmark Blog, about dogs in sixteenth-century courts, Renaissance art, and of course historical fiction.

The Owl Bookmark Blog

Being a beagle lover (how would you ever have guessed?), my fictional doggies tend to be hounds—the pocket beagle puppies Tristo and Isa in The Second Duchess, and the loyal hunting hound Seilie with his melting eyes and freckled paws in The Flower Reader. Stop by and join the discussion about you favorite animals in fiction!

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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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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.


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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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.


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!


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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28 Apr Book Club Delight

Had my first by-telephone meeting with a book club last night. May I just say that the Booklovers’ Gourmet group in Massachusetts is smart, charming, and a lot of fun? I was nervous because I had never been a book club’s guest before, but it was perfectly delightful. Thanks to Debra for arranging our call!