The Silver Casket

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01 Jan Kalo Podariko!

Happy First-Foot, as the Greeks say, for 2011! The beautiful sixteenth-century chopines above are Venetian, made of leather, silk and wood, and are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For an intriguing short essay on chopines, visit the Met here.

I am not making resolutions as such this year. Instead, I’ve been inspired by this wonderful post on one of my favorite websites, She Writes, about simply deciding what to take with one on the journey into the new year, and what to leave behind:

You CAN Take It With You by Tayari Jones

Cressie is continuing to heal. The Silver Casket is continuing to flourish, day by day. Time is continuing to count itself down to the debut of The Second Duchess on March 1st. All I can do is be thankful for all the good things in my life.

Happy happy 2011 to everyone!

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27 Nov Saturday I-8

Saturday almost got away from me again. (I know, it makes it sound rather like a restive filly.) Anyway, there’s not much to report for this past week—the Broadcasting Legend™ and I had a quiet Thanksgiving at home, just the two of us. Both our families are so far-flung—from Washington state to Nashville to Illinois and Indiana. And it was a little difficult for me to face the first Thanksgiving without my dear mother—so many of the traditions and recipes I’ve always cherished were hers. Next year I will pick up the threads again.

I worked on The Silver Casket through the week. I have a wonderful, detailed outline (I am an outliner down to the ground), but in one scene the story just took the bit in its teeth (to continue my equine references) and surprised me with a scene utterly unlike anything in the outline. It accomplished the same thing in the end, but the process was not at all what I had expected. I do love those moments.

Good news this week—I’ve been invited to speak at the Historical Novel Society’s 2011 conference next summer, on the “Debut Novelists” panel. I’m thrilled. The conference is going to be in San Diego, June 17-19, 2011, and I can’t wait. It will be my first conference! One of the author guests of honor is Cecelia Holland, one of my own favorite historical novelists of all time, and who read the manuscript of The Second Duchess and gave it a terrific endorsement. I am only afraid I’ll be reduced to fan-girl babbling.

A cold front has come through and our seventy-degree weather is a thing of the past—it’s even getting down below freezing overnight. The beagles follow the patches of sunlight around the house. Here is Boo, all warm and comfy on our guest-room bed. You can see how he rumpled up the pillow and coverlet to make himself a perfect sunshiny nest:

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20 Nov Saturday I-7

I don’t want to miss my Saturday update (I am so like the beagles, in that I get into a routine and then feel anxious if the routine is changed), but I don’t have much to say—I’ve spent the week lost in sixteenth-century Scotland and haven’t come up for much twenty-first-century air.

I bought a new handbag. For the first time in my life it is not a neutral color. It’s teal. My favorite color. (As if you couldn’t guess that from looking at my website.) Why have I never bought a teal-colored handbag before? For me switching to a new bag is a life-changing event, and this is one I really like—nice and roomy, with handles that are just the right length to hook comfortably over my shoulder and tuck the bag safely under my arm.

Reading: I really liked Erin Blakemore’s The Heroine’s Bookshelf. It struck a deep chord with me—the idea that the books we read—the fiction we read—can affect how we feel. I loved her references to re-reading her childhood favorites as an adult. I do that, too. It can be astonishing sometimes, both for the things I missed and the things I internalized to the point that I forgot they came from a book.

Finally, here is a link to a free ebook version of focus : a simplicity manifesto in the age of distraction by Leo Babauta of Write to Done. It is excellent. You can buy an enhanced version if you like. However you do it, I sincerely recommend it. Simplicity and focus are good things for writers.

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06 Nov Saturday Round Robin I-5

The biggest news of the week is that The Second Duchess got a fantastic review in Publishers Weekly!

The Second Duchess
Elizabeth Loupas, NAL, $15 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-451-23215-1
Robert Browning’s classic poem “My Last Duchess” provides the starting point for Loupas’s winning debut set in Renaissance Italy. Barbara of Austria, the virgin bride of Alfonso d’Este, the fifth and last Borgia duke of Ferrara, has heard rumors that Alfonso murdered his first wife, but by marrying the duke she has escaped the convent as well as her controlling brother, Maximilian II. “Banquets and music, dancing and fashion, loving and loathing–everything is an art in Ferrara,” one of the duke’s sisters tells Barbara, who must carefully maneuver around the gossip about her predecessor, gossip that the duke has forbidden, as she seeks to establish herself at court. Meanwhile, spies lurk around every corner, ready to besmirch her reputation and standing. Readers will warm immediately to the clever, intelligent Barbara, while the demanding, sometimes brutal, Alfonso makes an intriguing man of mystery.

Also on the Second Duchess front, a terrific bookseller blurb from Joseph-Beth Booksellers:

The Second Duchess, by Elizabeth Loupas (9780451232151, 3/1/2011.)

Barbara of Austria comes to the Duke d’Este as his second wife and is immediately confronted by whispers and insinuations about her predecessor. Did her new husband really murder his first wife? The proud Hapsburg wife attempts to solve the mystery, while the ghost of the previous duchess observes and comments on her efforts. A charming riff on Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.”
Jennie Turner-Collins
Joseph Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati



The most fascinating thing I ran across this week while working on The Silver Casket is this picture of the façade around the north face of the courtyard of Crichton Castle in Midlothian. Crichton was the home (one of them, anyway) of James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell (yes, that Bothwell), who plays a part in my story—and can you imagine how amazed I was to see this picture, a dead ringer for the façade of the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara? Sadly I can’t use it in The Silver Casket, because the diamond façade at Crichton wasn’t completed until the early 1580s, when Bothwell’s nephew Francis Stewart, also Earl of Bothwell (notoriously called the “Wizard Earl” and so worthy of a story of his own) toured Italy, visited Ferrara, and came home to re-create the beauty of the Palazzo dei Diamanti at Crichton. It’s astonishing how stories entwine around each other.




Thanks to all my readers who’ve written to ask for Dark Road to Darjeeling bookmarks! They are in the mail.

Thumbs down (if I could turn my hand that way) to my stupid left wrist, which still hurts like the devil and remains undiagnosed.

Congratulations to my friend and crit partner Lisa Brackmann, on her debut novel Rock Paper Tiger being named to the Amazon Top Ten Mystery &Thrillers list for 2010.

Don’t forget to set your clocks back tonight. Another hour of sleep is always a good thing!

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30 Oct Saturday Round Robin I-4

The contest is over! Thank you so much, everyone who commented… I’m delighted that there were many new visitors to the blog, all with such terrific comments about Deanna Raybourn’s wonderful new Dark Road to Darjeeling. The winner will be announced on Monday.

The cover of The Second Duchess is now up on Amazon. Yay! Hope the rest of the bookstore sites will follow soon.

And speaking of covers—here’s the gorgeous cover of the German edition, titled Die Zweite Herzogin and scheduled for next spring. The piece of fine art that Rowohlt used is actually a portrait of an Italian lady, said to be Barbara’s mother-in-law Renée of France, by a Flemish painter named Pieter de Kempeneer, also known as Pedro Campaña. I love her earrings and wish I had a pair just like them! I am very fortunate in both my covers, and have my fingers crossed that someday there will be more.

Portraits are surprising sometimes. I’ve been collecting portraits of the historical characters who will appear in The Silver Casket, and was truly amazed when I found this one. It’s of Andrew Leslie, the fifth Earl of Rothes, who is the head of my heroine Rinette’s branch of the Leslies. Now if I just started describing a sixteen-century gentleman like this—light brown hair cut very short on the sides of his head and apparently moussed into a sort of pouf on top, clean-shaven with only a thin Douglas-Fairbanks-y moustache—no one would believe me. Yet here is the portrait, leaping to life off the page. History is pretty amazing sometimes.

What I’m reading: A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. I’m kind of struggling with it. Also The Passage by Justin Cronin, which I’ve also had my issues with. I’ve just been kind of stressed and cranky lately, although I’m much better now. More about that later. Heh. Next up, at last (because I’ve really been looking forward to it), The White Garden by Stephanie Barron.

Our little town is having our trick-or-treating tonight, so am looking forward to hordes of darling little trick-or-treaters. We live within walking distance of a very fine elementary school, and so our neighborhood teems with adorable tykes. The doggies always go crazy on trick-or-treat night, and may have to be shut in the laundry room to keep them from slipping out or jumping up to play and scaring the tiniest ghaisties and bogles.

Ran across this quote recently: “What we become depends on what we read after all the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is the collection of books. –Thomas Carlyle.

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25 Sep Catching Up

I am working away on The Silver Casket. One of the most fascinating things is the way Rinette, the heroine, uses her idiosyncratic system of floromancy to characterize the other people in the story. By the time I’m done the “Floromancy” part of my notes will be a book in itself!

Sincere thanks to everyone who has voted for The Second Duchess on Goodread’s “Historical Fiction 2011” Listopia list—“Books we are excited about coming out in 2011.” Are you excited about Duchess? Yay! Please add your vote.

Delicious things I have cooked/baked this week: well, it’s not really cooking, but I made the best carrot and broccoli slaw. Healthy and easy. One bag of shredded carrots and one bag of broccoli slaw—take a handful of each and throw in a bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, add a pinch of salt, and toss. (You could shred the carrots and broccoli stalks yourself, of course, but think how much more trouble that would be!)

On the unhealthy but yummy side, doughnut muffins. Mmmm! All the pleasure of a glazed cake doughnut but baked into a muffin rather than fried. Start here for the recipe. I used all butter instead of butter and oil, and cut way back on the nutmeg—the merest soupçon of nutmeg is fine with me. And I glazed them with Alton Brown’s doughnut glaze instead of rolling them in butter and cinnamon sugar. Incredibly good.

Meanwhile, the medical community is still trying to figure out why my wrist is hurting so much. This week, had a new series of x-rays. Should have results next week.

Have been reading Mary Anna Evans’ Strangers (an advance copy of which I won on the DorothyL mailing list) and Deanna Raybourn’s luscious Dark Road to Darjeeling. I have a lovely new-bought extra copy of Dark Road to Darjeeling and signed bookmarks on the way from Deanna, and I will be giving it all away next week. Watch this space!

Cooler weather seems to be tiptoeing into north Texas, thank goodness. This morning it brought some rain with it, and we’re grateful for every drop.

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05 Jul Lava Caves

A writer does learn the oddest things sometimes, in the course of research. For example, I’ve been reading up on lava caves and lava tubes, as background for an ancient secret chamber I’m creating in the solid basalt volcanic “plug” of Castle Rock in Edinburgh. Any tale can benefit from the presence of an ancient secret chamber, no?

In the course of my digging around (a little geological humor, heh) I found a virtual lava tube. Really. The Internet is a remarkable thing, it is.

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05 Jun Short and Sweet

Am going to try something new here—very short updates more often, instead of longer posts less often. I’m buried in The Silver Casket (no, not really, but you know what I mean) and the very thought of writing extended blog posts with pictures is freaking me out a little. I may post pictures from time to time on the Photos page. And my wrists are hurting a lot. And that is all for now

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02 Jun I Do Love Books

“Lord! when you sell a [reader] a book you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell [the reader] a whole new life. Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night [and intrigue and death and wild adventure and passionate obsession in the Scotland of Mary Stuart]—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.”

—Christopher Morley (with interpolations)

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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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25 Apr Un Gentil Huteaudeau

I just love words.

At one point in The Silver Casket, the heroine Rinette faces off against Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, soon to be Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband. Now Darnley may have been tall, blond and good-looking, but Queen Mary’s own uncle the Cardinal of Lorraine described him scathingly as un gentil huteaudeau, which pretty much means “a pleasant nitwit.” Heh. The male Paris Hilton of the 1560s. Huteaudeau appears to have been an idiom along the lines of what today we might call “a dumb cluck,” because in the sixteenth century it also literally meant “young chicken” or “pullet.”

The word is preserved not only in the Cardinal’s disparagement of Darnley, but in a traditional Scottish dish called “Howtowdie,” a chicken stuffed with skirlie (savory sautéed oats with onions), roasted (or boiled) and served on a bed of spinach with “drappit eggs” (poached eggs). Intrigued? Here’s a link to a lovely authentic recipe:

Ishbel’s Traditional Scottish Howtowdie

I’m not sure about the poached eggs, but the skirlie sounds pretty yummy. I love cooking from the periods I write about and I think I will have to try this!

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12 Apr Arms and the Beagles

To whom do these lovely and mysterious arms belong? (No, not the Venus de Milo, silly.) Who is sitting on our couch playing with Cressie and Boo? Why, it’s Agent Diana, in town for a conference and here to spend some very intense time discussing The Silver Casket.

It was wonderful to meet Agent D. face-to-face for the first time. We devoured incredible prime steaks, exotic chocolates steeped in fruit and liqueurs; saganaki, spanokopita and tzatziki; and lovely cupcakes. Did we do anything but eat? Heh. Well, yes. We spent hours talking about The Silver Casket, books, The Second Duchess, books, the conference, books, promotion and bookstores, and oh yes—books.

Agent D. is now on her way back to New York after waving a sad goodbye to the beagle duo, and I’m on my way back to my hermitage to write up notes on everything we talked about…

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19 Mar The Real Silver Casket

Am deep in sixteenth-century Scotland—want to join me? Here’s a link to photographs and details of the real silver casket which may (or may not, no one knows for sure, and of course the things no one knows for sure make the most delicious historical fiction) have held the “casket letters” which besmirched Queen Mary Stuart’s reputation forever.

Hamilton Palace : Treasures of the Palace : Lennoxlove

Where did the casket come from? What was its history before Queen Mary decided to use it to lock up her letters? (If she did.) If it’s fifteenth-century work, could the crossed F’s under a crown (if they were ever actually engraved on the casket, and not simply embroidered on the case) refer to Francois I instead of Francois II? Could its history have brought evil fortune to the queen? Could it even have been cursed? And if so, by whom?

So many questions to answer. Such fun!

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11 Dec Book Shopping, Day Eleven

A Contemplation Upon Flowers by Bobby J. WardBecause I’ve been working out an original system of floromancy for The Silver Casket’s main character Rinette, I’ve been collecting books on the folklore, mythology and literature of flowers. This one is so gorgeous! I could stare at the cover for hours (it’s a detail from a painting called In the Bey’s Garden by John Frederick Lewis) before even opening the book up to savor the pleasures within.

And such pleasures! A Contemplation upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward traces the flowering history of the natural world, from the everyday to the mystical, as expressed in literature, myth and folklore. Quotations from poems, myths, novels, and plays from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century are used illustrate the literary history of eighty garden plants. Ward also incorporates each plant’s mythological and religious contexts, symbolism in the arts, and traditional medicinal uses, and unusual uses of flowers as food.

Gardeners, history-lovers, literature-lovers, will all open this beautiful book with delight.

A Contemplation upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million, Timber Press, and of course your favorite independent bookstore.

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04 Nov Attracting Butterflies

The other day when I was out taking pictures of the flowers, I saw several butterflies fluttering over the ageratum bed. I didn’t have time to set up a shot so I just held the camera out toward the flowers and clicked away a few times. A little cropping, and here’s what I ended up with:

A butterfly in our ageratum bed

As I worked with the picture, I thought, “Isn’t that just what I feel like? I’m the ageratum, partly fresh and richly colored, partly frazzled-y and gone to seed. But you know, the butterflies don’t care. They still flutter and light, like the strands of my new story, intrigue and death and passion, hovering just beyond my reach and then suddenly landing and connecting themselves to me.”

I suppose I’ve been particularly open to flowers-as-symbols lately, with my research into floromancy for The Silver Casket. Who would have thought I’d find it in my own back yard?

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15 Sep Plumbago

The plumbago, or skyflower, growing just outside our back door

Because Rinette, the central character in my new book, is a floromancer deeply connected to flowers and their properties, I find I’m becoming fascinated with everything I can find out about flowers as well.

Take the plumbago bush in our back yard. What a strange name for such a lovely flowering shrub, with its masses of bluish and lilac-colored blossoms, so sweet and irresistible to butterflies. The name comes from the Latin “plumbum,” the metal lead, as dull as dull can be. How on earth did it get connected with such a beautiful flower? (It’s also called skyflower, because of its color, but that’s a modern invention.)

The stories differ. Some say the plant—called for centuries plain “leadwort,” and only given its Latinized name in the eighteenth century—was used to treat lead poisoning, which was recognized as an affliction as early as the second century BC. Others say it was associated with lead because it was used to treat conditions that turned the skin a leaden color. Still others say the plant itself is toxin-loving, and where it grows there is lead to be found. Traditionally it’s also been used to treat warts, wounds and broken bones; made into a powder to be sniffed for headaches; and brewed as a tea to ward off nightmares. Sticks of leadwort were woven into thatched roofs to ward off lightning. In French it was called dentelaire, and the chewed root was said to relieve toothache.

So in the sixteenth century Rinette would have known it as leadwort. How to work it into her unique personal scheme of floromancy? With its association with nightmares, perhaps it could bring on a vision of bad things that might happen if one makes a particular decision. That would certainly fit into the plot. Heh.

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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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10 Jul Viewpoint Adventures

I wrote The Second Duchess in first person—actually, in dual first-person viewpoints. I deliberately chose to write Barbara in the first person because the book started out as a historical mystery, and in mysteries the first-person sleuth is more common than not. The book, of course, went on to become as much romance and “opulent intrigue” (a phrase used to describe Duchess by one of my crit group members, which I love) and character study as it was mystery, but Barbara’s first-person voice remained. Lucrezia, the second viewpoint character, sprang to the page in first person and never looked back.

That said—I am writing The Silver Casket in third person. It’s a bigger, longer, slightly grittier, more complex story and it needs a wider view. Even so, it’s hard to feel my way out of the close, heart-and-mind intimacy of first person and into the slightly more detached third person. Even a very tight, very subjective third person still means I’m looking over my character’s shoulder and not inside her skin. It’s disconcerting. I’ve found her—my lovely farouche floromancer Rinette—and I want to be one with her.

I suspect I will write the first few chapters both ways, and perhaps some strange combination of the two, until I find the right path.