Thursday, December 29, 2011

Auld Lang Syne: History and Meaning

We’ve all heard it, that bittersweet song sung at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. I must confess that I could never reconcile the hope of new and wonderful beginnings with this woeful tune, so I did a little research on a tradition I found so dichotomous.

The song was first published by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1796, but its true genesis is not definitively known. Burns published the song after hearing an old man singing it in a tavern in the Ayrshire area of Scotland. And like so many folk tunes, it could have been born hundreds of years before that. Burns himself wrote to a friend, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” There is, however evidence of Burns using not only what he heard the elderly gentleman sing, but utilizing bits from other old songs, inserting some of his own talent in the places in between.

For Americans, it was Guy Lombardo who popularized the song; it became a standard offering from Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, but was first played by the band in the states at a New Year’s Eve party, at the stroke of midnight, at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

But the magic of the song, the ability to touch even the coldest heart, has traversed the globe. Songs based upon the melody, and the underlying meaning of the song, appear in France as “This is just a goodbye, my brothers (Ce n'est qu'un au revoir mes frères) and is sung at moments of great farewell, as it is in Peru, Germany, Greece, and Chile. In Hungary and Japan, it is a popular graduation song. And in Taiwan, it is used as a funeral song.

The genesis revealed, the song itself remains, still, an enigma for most people. The title can be translated in a variety of ways to bring the singer to a heartfelt meaning. The literal translation is, “old long since.” But that doesn’t help much. If more idiomatic translations are used, it flows through to, “long, long ago,” “days gone by” or “old times.” Singing the first line of the chorus, “For Auld Lang Syne” is, in essence, singing, “for the sake of old times.” Ah, finally, a sentiment in keeping with the moment. As we raise our cup “for the sake of old times,” we are promising to remember those who have passed with kindness. But if we look a little more deeply at the translation, we find a stronger sentiment, one of hope, one of dedication to those who are with us in this moment.

Scottish Verse (Translation)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, (Should old acquaintance be forgot,)
And never brought to mind? (And never brought to mind?)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot (Should old acquaintance be forgot,)
And auld lang syne. (And long, long ago.)

For auld lang syne, my jo, (And for long, long ago, my dear)
For auld lang syne, (For long, long ago,)
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, (We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp! (And surely you’ll buy your pint-jug!)
And surely I'll buy mine! (And surely I’ll buy mine!)
And we'll take a cup of kindness yet, (And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)


We twa hae run about the braes (We two have run about the hills)
And pu'd the gowans fine; (And pulled the daisies fine;)
But we've wander'd mony a weary foot (But we’ve wandered many the weary foot)
Sin auld lang syne. (Since long, long ago.)


We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn, (We two have paddled in the stream,)
Frae mornin' sun till dine; (From morning sun till dine;)
But seas between us braid hae roar'd (But seas between us broad have roared)
Sin auld lang syne. (Since long, long ago.)


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere! (And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!)
And gie's a hand o' thine! (And give us a hand of yours!)
And we'll tak a right guid willy waught, (And we’ll take a draught of good-will)
For auld lang syne. (For long, long ago.)

So what has my research into this tradition truly revealed? For this humble author, who has learned more than her fair share of life’s lessons, it is this, and to you all I wish…

That the calluses of your life be rubbed away;
That the beauty of your life find a place in your heart,
and are remembered from day to day.
And may the road that stretches out ahead,
be filled with nothing but kindness instead.

Happy New Year to one and all

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas: Of Days Gone By

As we surround ourselves with the good cheer of the season, its difficult as a writer of historical fiction not to ponder on Christmases of years past. As I have a knack for picking events that seem to occur during warm weather months (most definitely a Freudian coincidence), it seems fitting to delve into the winter months and the crowning glory of the season.

As any devotee of history knows, it is more than likely that Jesus was born sometime in May, not December, but this is knowledge gathered in modern times with devices and techniques unavailable until a few decades ago. It leaves one to wonder, then, how did December 25th come to be the celebration date of that momentous birth. The most logical explanation brings one to the Mithric Mysteries.

An enigmatic religion practiced most popularly from the 1st to the 4th Centuries in the Roman Empire, the name of Mithras appears to represent that given to their one god. The religion itself, while highly complex and distinctly popular with the Roman Military, shares a great many coincidences with Christianity. Baptism, communion, guardian angels are just a few of the similarities. But their celebration on December 25, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, is almost a mirror image of traditions still in practice today. Believed to be born of a virgin woman, the myth of Mithras includes resurrection after death and the ascension to heaven in human form. It is all this, and more, which no doubt induced Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea to choose this date in 325 AD to commemorate the birth of Jesus.

While it’s probably a good bet that fine spirits of the liquid variety have always been a part of these celebrations for times untold, the activities themselves have evolved in a number of ways. The early celebrations of Christmas, in Italy and all through Europe, more readily resembled Twelfth Night and the luxuries discussed in the Twelve Days of Christmas, a festival lasting from December to the Epiphany, on January 6. As these days were also fraught with the constant battle and persecutions between the Protestants and the Catholics, it’s safe to assume that there were many years and many families who kept such celebrations on a quiet, more intimate tone, though even the Medicis themselves were known to take part in the festivities at various times, playing the parts of the Magi in the Mystery Plays.

The one constant from the Renaissance era and the celebrations of Twelfth Night that remain today (dare I say almost to our detriment) is the custom of gift giving, a tradition instituted to mirror the gifts of the Magi given to the baby Jesus. Christmas Carols began in the 15th Century by Saint Francis of Assisi, who also introduced the tradition of a Manger when he created his own with the use of living livestock.

However you may celebrate, from wherever your traditions may come, may we all remember the true message of the season…Peace on Earth, Good Will toward All Beings.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Palace for the Ages: Le Louvre

In To Serve a King and next year’s The King’s Agent, much is mentioned about Francois I’s obsession with acquiring the eras greatest works of art, as well the artists. In each case, I credit Francois and the lead factual character in The King’s Agent, Battista della Palla, with launching the collection that would become the superior compilation of masterpieces now housed in the magnificent Louvre. But what of the palace itself?

In the late 12th century, Paris was Europe’s biggest city, blossoming under the forty-three year reign of King Philippe Auguste, as did the monarchy’s own power and influence. But such greatness is often accompanied by jealousy and other rulers of the day coveted the city as they would the world’s most beautiful woman. Before leaving for the Crusades, King Philippe had a rampart built around Paris. To reinforce its defenses, the king erected a fortress as well; the high walls and imposing edifice constructed along the right bank of the River Seine formed an imposing edifice and protection for the city’s populace. That fortress came to be known as the Louvre, the name most credibly noted as deriving from the Latin Rubras, meaning ‘red soil.’

In those early days the single building structure was used as a prison, armory, and a royal treasure stronghold. Round bastions stood at each corner and at the center of the north and west walls of the mounted quadrilateral measuring seventy-eight by seventy-two meters. In the south and east walls, defensive towers flanked narrow gates.

By the 14th century and the inception of the Hundred Years War, even greater defenses were called for and construction of an earth rampart was prompted by Etienne Marcel, provost of the merchants of Paris. The work was completed under Charles V. With the addition of this rampart to the city’s defenses, the fortress became superfluous and it began its transformation into a royal palace. With much of the design work by architect Raymond du Temple, the fortress became resplendent with ornately decorated rooftops, elaborately-carved windows designed to bring more light into the structure, and interiors sumptuous with paneling, tapestries, sculptures and other works of art. The grandest addition, the grande vis, was a breathtaking staircase adorned with sculptures of the royal family.

After the death of Charles V in 1380, the renovation of the Louvre slowly ceased, the country’s coffers diminished by the strain of war and the plethora of other royal residences requiring upkeep…la Bastille, Vincennes, Fontainebleau. The work honoring the magnificent structure known as the Louvre would not again be honored until the reign of François I.

What came first…François’ love of art and his need for a fitting palace in which to flout it, or a magnificent palace longing to be festooned by resplendent art? When the king, returned from years of imprisonment in Spain, scarred—physically and mentally—by resounding defeats on the battlefield and in the political arena, he decided to make the Louvre the official royal residence and the true renovation of the medieval fortress began. François found the castle dark and airless, much like the rooms of his prison, which no doubt instilled an even greater need for restructuring of the mansion he would call home. The great tower was destroyed and the medieval fortress gave way to the Renaissance palace.

This demolition marks the true turning point of the essence of the palace, as the old gives way to the new, as the king eradicates the west wing and replaces it with distinctly Renaissance style structures designed by Pierre Lescot and decorated by Jean Goujoun. The encompassing renovation began in 1546, but Francois’ death a year later would find the work continued by his progeny.
And continue it they did, with great relish. Under Henri II and his son, born Charles IX, ruling as Henri III, the palace was transformed. A new façade, the King’s Pavilion, and a new dungeon overlooking the Seine are but a few of the major points of the renewal

As regent to her son Charles IX, Catherine de’ Medici had the Tuileries Palace constructed, a pleasure palace which remained unfinished as her relish for luxury emptied the kingdom’s coffers. Henri III directed work on the Little Gallery, a jumping off structure for the connection between the two buildings. Under his son, Henri IV, The Grand Hall, built between 1595 and 1610 was constructed along the water that directly connects the royal apartments at the Louvre and ending at the Pavilion de Flore of the Tuileries. Stretching 450 meters, the Grand Hall is crowned by the Hall of Kings on the floor above.

The assassination of Henri IV by Ravaillac, a religious fanatic, put the expansion on hold for many years, until his son came to reign. Under the ‘modern’ Louis kings, more demolition of old buildings would take place and the Louvre compound would expand four fold. But the trauma Louis XIV endured while within the walls of the Louvre—a cold and ignored childhood, an attempted coup by the ranking nobility—turned him against the palace and toward Versailles, where the French royalty would live out the remainder of their usefulness.

For more than a hundred years, from 1670 until the French Revolution, the Louvre served not only as the state cultural and learning center, but as a city for artists and their families. It is during these years that the palace makes its most important transformation, into the artistic mecca that it is today, officially becoming Le Museau Central des Arts in 1793.

Today the Louvre is the largest art museum in the world, housing approximately 35,000 pieces of every medium, art of such a precious nature that, during both World Wars, the French government removed all its masterpieces and hid them. To this day, the hiding place is unknown to all but a few chosen members of the French government...should the need for its secrecy ever arise again.

And in the walls of this royal bastion, in between the stones and the bricks and the marble and the splendor that is the Louvre, resides the history of a nation and the passion of its kings.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

To Galileo with Love: Excerpts: The Effortless and The Arduous Vol. 2

I recently learned that my 2010 release, The Secret of the Glass, finished as a finalist in the USA Book News Best Books of the Year contest. It is, of course, always an honor to receive such an accolade. But it was especially true to receive it for this book. It was a story I connected to on a very personal level, due, in large part, to the presence of Galileo. To consummate the celebration, I offer an excerpt from The Secret of the Glass, one which celebrates Galileo's triumphant moment:

The diverse group of men gathered at the base of the campanile. They turned toward Pasquale and nodded or waved in greeting. Many of the faces looked familiar though their names remained elusive; she had seen them before, dressed in council robes at the Ducal Palace.

One face leapt out at her, one whose name jumped readily to her tongue. She knew every detail of the countenance; the chiseled contour of the high cheekbones, the long slim nose, and the full lips. It was the face that haunted her dreams. Teodoro Gradenigo stood head and shoulders above the others, his long, lithe shadow stretching out across the herringbone patterned pavement stones, reaching out to her. What was he doing here? Was he a friend to da Fuligna? The questions exploded in her mind, making her dizzy with possibilities. She shimmied back further into the shadows, her harsh breathing echoing back to her in the arched tunnel.

Pasquale quickened his pace. He returned the group’s greetings, rubbing his hands together as if relishing the moment. After a few short snippets of conversation, their heads spun in unison toward the palazzo.

Sophia sucked in a gasp of air as she found the object of their attention. Heading toward the assembled group strode Il Serenissimo himself, dressed in civilian clothing, accompanied by three other men—a friar in a roughly hewn cassock, Signore Sagredo, dressed to the hilt, as always, and Professore Galileo, carrying a long, slim leather satchel.

Fear thrummed in her veins, not for herself, but for the endearing scientist. What business would da Fuligna have with him? Was he a threat to the man and his important work? She found only more questions where she craved answers. Her hands pushed against the still cool stones at her back, as if she could push the professore away from any impending danger, real or imagined.

The base of the square brick monolith was less than a hundred yards away and the men’s voices carried in the constant breeze blowing inward off the ocean, toward Sophia and her hiding place.

“We are ready, signore,” Doge Donato said to Galileo after acknowledging the obeisance of the group. “Show us.”

“No, no, Your Honor.” Galileo pointed to the green and white rooftop and the pyramidal spire topped by the golden archangel Gabriel over nine hundred meters above. “When you can see clearly, it is best to find a place where there is much to see.”

A few of the men appeared skeptical, the older ones in particular, but all of them followed the Doge through the narrow door leading to the interior and the hundreds of stairs within.

The men disappeared into the bell tower and Sophia set off at a run, lifting her skirts off the ground, heedless of the surprised smattering of shoppers milling about the mostly empty piazza, scattering the hundreds of pigeons who lived within the square into the sky, the abrupt flapping wings loud in the peaceful quiet. She threw herself up against the brick wall next to the door and listened as the voices drew away from the entrance, echoing up the confining staircase of the campanile.

For the love of God, what are you doing?

The frantic thought flashed through her mind, but she gave it little consideration, she couldn’t. If she did, the fear would paralyze her completely.
Waiting impatiently for a scant few seconds, she stole a furtive glance inside and saw only a narrow brick-walled opening—barely wide enough for two averaged-sized men to walk abreast—and light gray, uneven stone stairs leading to a narrow landing. The first flight of stairs was empty; the group had ascended the landing and turned the corner.

With a deep, fortifying inhalation, Sophia entered the small foyer and began the almost inconceivable climb to the top. She paced herself, not moving too quickly, making sure never to catch up with the men ahead of her. Their grunts of exertion echoed down to Sophia, their intensifying body odors lingered behind and mingled with the stone dust released into the air, disturbed by their footsteps. So many in the group were slow with age, trudging up step after step, stopping often to inhale deep draughts of air with rattling breaths and to wipe the perspiration off their brows and hairless heads.

Higher and higher they climbed, slower and slower they moved.The sun rose in the morning sky and the meager light from the small rounded windows at each landing filtered into the staircase, the dust dancing in its glow. Sophia crested another flight, turned another corner, her own young and healthy heart thudding against her chest. An unobstructed beam of sunlight found her, and she crouched low, back into the shaded pit.

The group arrived at the top. Sophia slunk up the last flight of stairs on her hands and knees, keeping close against the cold stone, covering the front of her gown with the gray, sooty dirt.

Peeking above the uppermost step, she peered furtively into the square landing above. The last of the men to reach the pinnacle clustered together, leaning upon one another in an exhausted group, holding each other up as they caught their breath.

Sophia lunged, using their huddling, groaning mass as a cover, sneaking past them to hide behind the farthest and largest bell. Within the safety of its unlit silhouette, as her own ragged breath slowed through quivering nostrils, Sophia looked around. Her full bottom lip lowered in unfettered astonishment. Though she had lived in this land, passed by the tall base of this obelisk all her life,
she had never hurdled its stairs, had never seen this magnificent architecture waiting upon its zenith.

The rounded peaks of the belfry’s white stone arches created symmetrical shaped shadows upon the large dado supporting the spire and the five intricately wrought bells of varying sizes. Sophia had heard their mellifluous tones all her life—they were the music of the passing years. She hid behind La Marangona in the northwest corner, the largest bell of them all. Named for the carpenters of the land, the marangoni, its deep clang began and ended the workday. La Trottiera called magistrates to meetings and the Pregadi the senators to their chamber, while La Nona announced mid-day. The smallest—called Renghiera by some, Maleficio by others—whose high haunting tones made the cittadini cringe, announced executions.

“Over here, if you please, Your Honor.”

Sophia heard Galileo’s call and stole a stealthy peep around the curved edge of the bell. Diagonally opposite from Sophia’s position, he stood in the southeast corner of the tower, beckoning the Doge to join him, and extracting a strangely shaped device—long and circular—from his bag.

The other men swarmed around them against the parapet, their hair dancing in the buffeting, powerful wind of the lofty altitude, their low murmurs and questions tripping over one another.

Galileo held one end of the lengthy, round cylinder up to his left eye and pointed the other end out toward the lagoon.

“My God!” His cutting whisper, like a fervent prayer, silenced the quizzical, conjecturing voices around him. Without another word, he offered the instrument to the Doge.

Galileo sparkled as a dumbstruck, enraptured smile spread upon his face, like a man who had seen his newly-born child for the first time.

Donato took the device and held it up to his eye, mimicking Galileo’s posture, pointing it out to the glittering ocean. The large man jerked back his head as if struck, and thrust the tube away from his face. The attentive men gathered around him came onguard, heads spinning about searching for the threat, hands drawn to hilts. The Doge’s large, horse-like face turned to Galileo, probing the scientist with his questioning glare.

“Yes, yes, it is real.” Galileo’s long beard quivered from his chin. He smiled with childish joy at Sagredo and the priest who stoodclose beside him.

The Doge shook his head as if to deny the man’s words, but put the instrument back to his eye.

“Holy Mother of God.” Donato’s breathy whisper ripped the expectant silence to shreds. “It is a miracolo!”

Sophia forced herself not to crow aloud, forced back the joyous laughter that bubbled within before it could forsake her hiding place behind the large bell. She knew what this device was, why this group had gathered upon this tall summit. Galileo had finished his creation, and from the shock upon his face and that of the Doge, it worked stupendously.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Excerpts: The Effortless and The Arduous Vol. I

Lately I’ve been very fortunate to meet/Skype with many book clubs, one of the loveliest benefits of my chosen profession. As this question—what was the hardest/easiest passage to write—seems to almost always crop up during the discussions, I thought I would make it a recurring post on my blog.

This passage from my latest release, To Serve a King (recently named as a Finalist in the USA Book News Best Books Awards), was one of the easiest for me to write. I love to write action scenes; the words flow fluidly from my mind. What more, this particular scene allowed me to achieve many things in a short amount of words: it revealed a dark side to my main character and added an additional threat to her already tenuous existence.


The tapers were nothing more than nubs in their pewter and bronze candlesticks, and yet the release of sleep had not blessed her. Geneviève thrashed in her bed as she had all night, the linens no more than a tangled, knotted mess. She sat up and threw them off in frustration. She quit the bed and its dissatisfaction with a huff. The generous chamber she had been so grateful for when she had arrived at the château had become a confining prison cell, and she needed to escape it. She threw a laced silk cloak about her shoulders, pulling its concealing hood over her jumbled blond hair,and flung open her door.

Out in the dark corridor, Geneviève pulled up, hovering by her door, looking down the long, abandoned passageway, thinking twice about wandering the castle in the middle of the night. The silently plodding pages had extinguished most of the wall sconces, as they did most nights, but here and there a few lone flames cast weak and wavering light. She could fell great beasts with a single arrow shot, gut and clean them, cipher and decipher the secrets of a nation, and yet fear of darkness remained hidden in her depths, as if she were that small child, abandoned by parents so cruel as to die, unloved by an aunt who claimed filial connection but offered no affection.

Geneviève pushed herself away from her door and crept along the hall in her thin slippers. She needed a drink, a powerful draught of heavy wine or brandy to slay the beast of her thoughts, to quiet it long enough to allow her some peace and somnolence. Perhaps she would find a poultice left on the stove to steep, to ease the pain splitting her head in two.

She found no one in the kitchen save two scullions, asleep in the ashes of the hearth, but gratefully located a full bottle of eau de vie and, though fruitier than her tastes preferred, she threw back a large gulp, satisfied by the immediate trail of warmth burning from throat to gullet. Geneviève made to steal away, thought again, turned and grabbed the whole bottle off the stained sideboard, and slipped out of the quiet room, the low crackling fire the lone witness to her thievery.

As she crested the landing of the second flight of stairs, the effects of the powerful beverage struck her; the tingle of relaxation nipped at her fingertips. She longed for her chamber now, and the small goblet that would bring her another portion of the fluid. Geneviève turned to the right—and froze.

The scuffling step came from back around the bend. All her senses were alert. She dare not turn, dare not stay, and she began to move forward once more. But the shuffling continued, inching closer. If the footsteps belonged to another insomniac, Geneviève mused, he or she would make no great pains to keep their presence concealed—might, in fact, look for company when a night’s somnolent embrace refused them.

Geneviève drew closer to the next corridor, the one leading to her chamber. She could not allow her pursuer to follow her there. Geneviève slowed her pace, as if she strolled without a care, humming a lulling tune low in her throat. She put her hand in her pocket and withdrew it, opening her clasped fingers.

“Oh dear,” she murmured idly, looking down at the tile floor in front of her as if she had dropped something. She bent her knees and squatted down, her nightgown and cloak ballooning around her. In their concealment, she reached beneath the fabric and pulled her dagger from the sheath strapped to her leg. With the small weapon hidden in the palm of her hand, she rose again and continued on, turning the corner that would take her to her room.

Once beyond the edge of the wall, Geneviève threw herself flat against the stone and waited, allowing herself no more than a shallow breath, fearing to give her presence away. The furtive footsteps grew closer. She braced her left hand on the wall, raised the right with its drawn dagger.

Like a hunter intent upon its prey, Geneviève caught the scent of the body, one of muskiness and herbs, before she saw it. Every muscle clenched in readiness. The form crept round the bend. Geneviève stepped out and grabbed. A half second of fumbling, a squelch of surprise, and she grabbed a throat, squeezed and pushed, forcing the hooded form back against the wall. With her left forearm against the interloper’s neck, Geneviève pinned the intruder to the stone with the tip of her dagger.

Two cold, bony hands fought against her, but they struggled ineffectually.

“Who are you?” Geneviève hissed and, with the dagger still in hand, used her palm to push back the concealing hood.

She gasped at the pale face, the white eyes gleaming out at her, releasing the tension of her hold in shock. Madame Arceneau lunged forward, trying to take advantage of the opportunity.

Geneviève recoiled and pushed back again, thudding the mystic’s head against the wall, holding the tip of her weapon to the woman’s vein-threaded throat. The sharpness of the misericorde—a battlefield weapon used to end the life of a mortally wounded enemy with merciful swiftness—nipped at the thin skin.

“What do you want of me, woman?” Geneviève felt the creatureof hate and anger that lived in her raise its head, so quiet it had been of late. This woman and her strange eyes brought it out like a randy chevalier in a roomful of virgins.

“I’ve come to tell you the truth.” The childish voice struggled through the hold upon her throat.

Geneviève felt her upper lip curl in revulsion. “Truth. What truth?”

“Your truth.”

Geneviève pushed the small woman harder against the wall. “Then tell me if you dare.”

The mystic bared her teeth at Geneviève. “You are the beast I saw. I know you are up to no good.”

A flash of fear and revelation squeezed at Geneviève’s gut, but she swallowed it back. This woman was nothing if not clever; those eyes may not see the future, but they saw everything else,and the rest she inferred. But inferences were not enough to be hung upon.

“Tell me, old woman, what will I do?”

Madame Arceneau lowered her inhuman gaze to stare down at the dagger point sticking into her ribs. “You will kill.”

Geneviève sniggered from between clenched teeth. “That is not a particularly intuitive assumption at this juncture. Now is it, madame?”

“Not me,” the soothsayer sneered with impatience. “Another. One of high importance.” She leaned into the dagger, taunting, her face closing toward Geneviève’s. “A royal.”

Geneviève felt her teeth gnash and the ache in her jaw as the muscles hardened. “And what’s to stop me from killing you now …from silencing you and your nonsense forever?”

“It is all written down and entrusted to my greatest ally.” The fin of flesh hanging from the center of the fortune-teller’s throat wobbled as she spoke. “It will be delivered to the duchesse should I meet with an untimely demise.”

Geneviève’s hand squeezed the handle of the dagger until it shook. Visions of the woman’s slit throat oozing her life’s blood were brilliant in her mind’s eye. She lowered the weapon.

“What do you want?”

“Money,” the mystic said with a sickening smile, “and a home of my own, one on the rue de Turenne.”

Geneviève raised her eyes to the coffered ceiling. “You’re mad. I have no such funds, no such influence at court to get you such things.”

Madame Arceneau would tempt fate and Geneviève’s hesitation no longer. She stepped away from the wall, sliding off down the dim, empty corridor like a ghostly specter wafting along on its nightly haunting.

“Then you had better find a way.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chivalry: Dead or Alive...Where did it come from?

When the word “Chivalry” crops up two things quickly come to mind. For many women in the modern era, it is considered a form of respect and courtesy that is a rarity to be found in society. That issue aside (for it is one that I am neither knowledgeable enough or familiar enough with to discuss without anything but snide acrimony, at which I am highly adept), I consider it a privilege to write of eras where the word had true and abiding meaning.

The second thought…the most profound image…to jut into the mind is that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In actuality, the genesis of chivalry can most readily be traced back to France, Spain, and Italy. The word itself derives its etymology from the Old French chevalerie or knighthood, based on the eleventh century chevalier, ‘knight’. Continuing backward, both words find their root in the Italian cavaliere, and the Spanish caballero; all designating a warrior on horseback. There was little of the modern definition of chivalry in these men, save their honor. Dedicated to their military goals these men were, no doubt, a rough bunch, highly adept with sword, lance, and shield. In these inception days, the military ethos was mostly profoundly religious and soon the concept of a ‘knight of Christ’ swept through their ranks. This ‘religious chivalry’ gained both popularity and momentum during the Crusades. It was during these religious wars, when men killed men in the name of God, did a code of behavior—a moral, religious, and social code—come to be associated with knightly conduct.

As the twelfth century became the thirteenth, these rank of soldiers—confined to the noble classes for mostly economic reasons—followed chivalric conventions dictating that they should honor, serve and ‘do nothing to displease ladies and maidens.’ It was during this age, the Middle Ages, that the mythology of chivalry grew and swelled and became the legends we revere today through popular literature.

La Chanson de Roland, The Song of Roland, follows the exploits of Roland, a courageous knight in the age of Charlemagne. But the most famous work and legend of all is, of course, Le Morte D’Arthur. There are few lasting stories of knights and chivalry as that of King Arthur, whether it be those of the true compilation of tales as told by Sir Thomas Malory, the equally as popular T. H White’s The Once and Future King or the completely commercialized Camelot as made dashingly famous with Richard Harris as King Arthur. Arthur, his knights, and his round table have become the iconic symbol of chivalry.

As wars became far less honorable and far more gritty, the elegance of knighthood found its place on the tournament grounds. One can’t help but wonder when perusing the profusion of material on the subject, if the men who fought in these horrific battles, did not need the grace of chivalry to erase their own torturous memories or if society itself wanted to believe in the watered down concept of what war truly was. As an ‘imitation of a past ideal illusory’, Johan Huizinga wrote in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), that he found chivalry ‘to be representative of true culture means to produce by conduct, by customs, by manners, by costume, by deportment, the illusion of heroic being, full of dignity and honour, of wisdom, and, at all events, of courtesy.’

‘And, at all events, of courtesy.’ If this is the ideal of chivalry, perhaps it is indeed one worth aspiring to, for us all, especially in these most trying of times.

Friday, November 11, 2011

'90210' Real Estate--Historical France Style

“Progressing” through France in the 16th century with François I was unquestionably one of the most rewarding aspects of writing my third book. These were the places of fairy tales and though I was unable to visit them all in person, the ingenuity of virtual travel allowed me unparalleled home access.

When one speaks of the palaces of France, the first to rush to mind for both opulence and magnificence must be the Chateau Versailles. But in 1515, when François took the throne, Versailles was no more than a small castle surrounded by an even smaller town, known mostly for its church and abbey, a hamlet that suffered greatly from both the plague and the Hundred Years War.

The kings of the Renaissance were enamored of Progresses: the movement of the court through the kingdom during times of good weather. These journeys were mammoth undertakings, requiring more than a hundred men to coordinate the move, to arrange the transport of what was tantamount to a small-sized village, and close to twenty thousand horses to pull or carry. But a Progress in France led these impressive caravans to what are still considered today to be some of the most magnificent palaces in the world.

The Château Saint-Germain-en-laye ( began as a modest castle, built by Louis VI around 1122, but it was not until the reign of François I that the palace achieved its grandeur. An oddly shaped citadel, Saint-Germain boasts fifty-five apartments including seven chapels, a grand ballroom, a prison, and thirty kitchens. Its chief innovation, and most distinctive characteristic, is its terraced roof. Constructed of large, super imposed stone slabs, the supporting edifice needed to be reinforced with large buttresses. These buttresses, held together by long iron-tie bars, gave a crown-like effect to the appearance of the chateau, an almost feminine chapeau to a most imposing structure.

In this stunning palace, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople presented Louis IX with the relic of the crown of thorns in 1238. Here Louis XIV, the great Sun King, was born in 1638. And here, Napoleon I established an officer training camp.

Marrying his second cousin Claude just months before ascending to the throne, François acquired not only a bride, but one of the most splendid palaces in the country, the Royal Chateau of Blois. It was here that Joan of Arc had stopped to have her soldiers take Holy Communion before launching into battle. Indulging in his fascination with architecture, the young king began renovations from the moment of acquisition, construction that continued till the death of the queen in 1524.

Located in the resplendent Loire Valley, François began what would become his very famous library at Blois, beginning with the volumes of great import handed down to him from his parents. The library, which was to grow exponential over the course of the king’s life, became the foundation for France’s famous Bibliothèque Nationale.

Replete with secret passageways, vaulted stone hallways, and marble floors, one of the most distinctive architectural features of the palace is the unique exterior staircase, in itself, a great work of art. At the time of its construction, it became the talk of France. Spiral in shape, each landing included an area that allowed one to stop and look down upon the common below. From here, courtiers and nobles often stood, as if from a balcony, and pay audience to performances and tournaments that took place in the courtyard. The exterior of the staircase was equally as remarkable, festooned with a sculpted garland of crowned salamanders, the king’s symbol.

The official site of chateau (found here: offers 360 degree views and virtual tours.

After his first wife’s death, François rarely returned to her childhood home.

At the beginning of François’ reign, the Louvre was no more than a decrepit medieval fortress without a courtyard. Against much opposition, the king began the renovation of the palace that would become one of the most widely known structures throughout the world by demolishing the medieval keep. The primary construction would span more than twenty years, coming in spurts and starts. The king moved his residence to the Louvre for a time, beginning in 1528, though the earnest renovation work did not begin until 1546. François, a consummate art collector, began his acquisition at an early age, housing the majority at the palace that would become, some contend, the world’s grandest museum.

Though Louis XIV would spend much of his childhood at the Louvre, raised austerely by his mother, Anne of Austria, and her closest advisor, Cardinal Mazarin, Louis left for Versailles not long after reaching his age of majority, never feeling comfortable within its grandiose walls. At the Louvre, the neglected child had endured the trauma of the Fronde, an uprising of nobility that brought them pounding upon the doors with swords and pitchforks and calling for the death of the royal family. In what could only be deemed a turn of utmost augury, Louis’ move allowed the Louvre to become a residence for artists.

The Louvre Museum has a highly interactive website, which can be found here

When King François told his courtiers that he wanted to go home, it was to Fontainebleu they went, for nowhere else, especially in his latter years, did the king feel as comfortable, for indeed there was nowhere else as enchanting. Even the derivation of its name holds the enchantment of a fairy tale. The myth contends that a spring and its presiding goddess were discovered in the forest of Brie by a hunting dog name Bleu and the site, washed by the spring, became known as Fontainebleau, the fountain of Bleu.

The Fontainebleau Castle experienced eight centuries of continuous royal residents; one of the few in the world with such a lengthy distinction; Capetian, Valois, Bourbons, Bonaparte, Orleans…all called the palace home for a time. It was here that François, of the House of Valois, called the greatest artists to his side; it is here that many say the French Renaissance began.

One of the largest royal compounds in the country, the palace and its grounds is a virtuosity of architectural genius, evidenced nowhere more than in the Gallery of François I, the first great gallery built in France. This masterpiece, with its frescos framed in stucco by Rosso Fiorentino, would become the quintessential prototype for the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

The website of the Château de Fontainebleau ( offers yet another highly interactive, virtual experience.

It is said that France cannot be France without its greatness. The country is a lyrical, magical place; its people poetic and passionate. And for centuries untold, the French have learned to capture that lyricism, the poeticism, within the walls of a splendid palace.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


François I, king of France from 1515 to 1547, is a man remembered for extremes, like so many of the rulers of his day. In his early years he was a lecherous hedonist who’s own delusions of grandeur, and dedication to perceived entitlement, embroiled his land in a plethora of wars that bankrupt the country’s coffers and, after initial victories, dealt France defeat after defeat. He was, as well, habitually unfaithful to both his wives, though surprisingly his love affairs were enduring and monogamous. And yet he was, thanks to his mother, one of the most literate, cultured, and spiritual men of his age. His love and devotion to artistic achievement not only lent support to the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Cellini, and Primaticcio, but what began as his personal, lavish collection of artwork, has become what we now refer to as the Louvre.

But all that aside—the good and the bad—the man knew how to party.

François first took part in a Battle of Oranges as a young, victorious king in 1515, infused with the glory of triumph found on the battlefield of Marignano. The frivolity he experienced that festival day in Ivrea, located in northwestern Italy, would make a lasting impression upon the raucous youth, and for years François reproduced the custom at his own court.

The tradition found its genesis, as legend tells it, on the eve of a young girl’s wedding in 1194, when the tyrant Conte Ranieri di Biandrate attempted to exercise his droit de signeur, the right of a nobleman to take the virginity of his serfs’ daughters on the eve of their marriage. As the principal myth contends, this feisty young woman, a miller’s daughter by the name of Violetta, refused to submit, chopping off the lord’s head with a sword she had hidden in her gown in a decisive rebuff. What ensued was nothing less than a revolt of the common man, spurred on by the righteous woman’s courage, as they stormed and fired the palace. Every year since, the citizens celebrate the day, as part of Carnevale di Ivrea, with a Battaglia delle Arance, a Battle of Oranges.

Thousands of townspeople separate into nine combat groups: those in carriages represent the nobles, those on the ground, the usurping townsfolk. The participants courageous enough to epitomize the hated lords are protectively geared in helmet and armor. As they take their places in the bright vehicles, the air fills with chants of denunciation and insurrection, and the pungent aroma of Vin brulé, hot red and spicy wine, a festival staple.

The young girl chosen each year to represent Violetta, as well as the non-participating crowd around her, don Phrygian hats; long and bright red, they were once worn by the emancipated Roman slaves and have since come to represent freedom.

In medieval costume of red, blue and yellow, the attackers line the streets, and station themselves on balconies and in windows serving as modern day battlements.

Horses’ hooves beat upon cobblestones, carriage wheels creak and groan. As the vehicles rush and rumble through the town, the oranges are hurled by the thousands. The splat, squish, and squash of bursting pulp becomes a cacophony, biting citrus odor burns the nose. The ground is littered, then covered in layers of crushed orange. In some of the narrow, confined areas of the battle field, the pulp piles stories high (in modern times snow removal machines are used to remove it). By the time the revolt comes to an end, more than 580,000 pounds of oranges will be reduced to mush and the towns people will reign victorious once more.

Taking place in February, the three day festival ends on Fat Tuesday with a solemn funeral. In France, during the ebullient days of François I, a Battle of Oranges would be called whenever the king was in a feisty mode, when he longed to reminisce upon the exuberant days of his youth, or—perhaps—when he felt an undeniably urge to pelt an annoying nobleman or two.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hands-on Research: Literally

In the world of human intention, what does come first, the chicken or the egg? Do I learn special skills to infuse authenticity into the stories I write, or…do I write women who possess unique abilities so I may indulge in learning those special skills for myself? It would take a Freudian upholstered couch to fathom the truth. For now, I am simply grateful that my work writing historical fiction affords me the excuse/opportunity for unique research.

In my upcoming release, The King’s Agent (Kensington, March 1, 2012) a major aspect of my study centered on the presence and evidence of extraterrestrials during the Renaissance era. (Don’t scratch your head at me yet, I’m far from done.) The greatest evidence of said extraterrestrials can still be found in the paintings of the period, the sheer volume of which is staggering. Not only was I able to ferret out a plethora of books dedicated to the subject, I found more than a few documentaries and television shows covering the topic as well.

It may have all seemed a trifle “National Inquirer-esque” if it wasn’t for the fact that many of the paintings with images of ‘air ships’ and other symbols relatable to modern man’s notion of extraterrestrials, came from some of the great names of Renaissance painting…Carlo Crivelli, Sebastiano Mainardi, and Masolino to name a few.

For this same book, I combined the creative genus that is Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy with the real time adventure game, The Legend of Zelda (you may crook a brow at me now). Some moments were challenging, discerning every nuance of Dante’s allegory. But in the next phase came a drastic shift, one equally as daunting, translating each canto—Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—into video-game-like challenges. The work required authentic world-building if I was to enable smooth suspension of disbelief. I could rightly—and did—play the game yet again, in the name of research.

In all my books, I exorcise a facet of my personality or current life situation. In The King’s Agent, I laid bare my desire for a life of uplifting, trivial fun. My research—replete with aliens, Dante, and Zelda—was thick with it, while giving homage to the burdens of responsibility and duty that imbues every human life, no matter how hard we may try, at times, to outrun them.

In my first book, The Courtier’s Secret, I created a character that merged my reality and my greatest desire…a female Musketeer. But to pit this woman against other Musketeers—the greatest swordsmen the world has ever known—I had to know what that physical challenge might feel like.

My oldest son enrolled in fencing lessons with me and it turned out to be a wonderful shared experience. If only we could have combined our individual prowess, we would have made a most formidable duelist. As one of the oldest in the class, my reflexes weren’t quite as nimble as the other students, and though I possess a certain grace, it did me little good when moving seconds behind my opponent. Fencing is a testimony to the quickness of action and reaction as well as the dexterity of execution. My son, a young teenager at the time, enjoyed such quickness. Unfortunately, he had also recently sprouted size 13 feet, mammoth paws the puppy had not quite grown into yet. He reacted swiftly but with the ungainliness inherent in a gangly youth. Through the laughter, I learned the physical nuances and challenges a swords(wo)men must surely face, if not the true threat to life and limb.

The main character in my second book is not as aggressive, but Sophia does, nevertheless, conduct work meant only for men. It was only natural then that I tried my own hand at glassblowing for The Secret of the Glass. In all honesty, I have to emphasize the word ‘try’; while I took the lessons, I was less than successful in creating a viable piece (it exploded during the annealing, or cooling period…too many air bubbles). I will never forget, however, the enormity of the heat as I stood at the gaping mouth of the furnace, nor the heaviness of the rod as I spun its end in the molten material, then held it to my lips in the climactic attempt at creation. Failure at formation aside, I don’t doubt for a moment that the experience added an authenticity to my work that readers have enjoyed.

In To Serve a King, my current release, I created an almost anachronistic character, purposefully so. Genevieve Gravois, raised to hate the man she believes responsible for the death of her parents, is taught to use that acrimony to hone skills typical of the men of her era. Genevieve’s weapon of choice…the bow and arrow. As with my first two books, I knew I couldn’t give an authentic narrative of a woman—armed and dangerous—unless I knew what it felt like. I set out to learn how to shoot a bow.

Though there are plenty of shooting ranges close by (I live in Rhode Island; just about everything is close by), they are all ‘members only’ clubs, and I knew no members. Fortunately, however, my sons had been boy scouts, and we had, along that journey, acquired a simple compound bow. Armed with directions found on the internet as well as this simple weapon, I set out to master it. Unfortunately, it was the dead of winter and the only easily accessible, safe target was the inside back wall of my garage. I’ve yet to fix all those damn holes.

My current work in progress is the beginning of a series…one to illustrate the birth of women artists in the moments of the High Renaissance in Florence. Set against the backdrop of political upheaval and deadly family rivalries, not only will these women be learning the creative techniques for painting and sculpture, they’ll be forced to disguise themselves as servants, nuns, and courtesans to save one of their own.

Servants, nuns, and courtesans?!?!?! Oh, my!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Royal Mistresses-Royal Cat Fights

The spark of initial inspiration for my third book, To Serve a King, came from the hedonistic and turbulent life of the king of France, François I; the second, from the mistresses who enflamed his court. Two women of great beauty, elegance, intelligence and charm, yet they hated each other with a breathtaking passion and dedicated most of their considerable conniving talents towards harming the other.

Born in 1508, the daughter of a middling nobleman (until his offspring became the king’s mistress, of course), Anne de Pisseleau d’Heilly first appeared at court as a maid to the king’s mother, Louise of Savoy, in 1522, but it was not until François returned from years of imprisonment in Spain that the woman caught the young king’s eye, his lust, and his heart. Francois’s infatuation with Anne consumed him and it wasn’t long afterward that he dismissed Francoise de Foix, his official mistress for a decade—though it would be another two years before Francoise gave up the fight for his affections and left court. Foix had no chance to outshine the woman who would one day be deemed as “the most beautiful among the learned, the most learned among the beautiful.”

From the moment they met, Anne and François became inseparable; she ruled his court and his heart and helped François give birth to the French Renaissance. From the first time Anne entered court on the arm of the charismatic king, she became its queen, if not in truth, then in spirit. She was forever by his side, even at his wife’s coronation. The meek and dowdy Eleanor of Austria, unlike Princess Diana when it came to Camilla, had no choice but to accept her husband’s lifelong mistress.

In opposition to Anne’s brilliance, Diane de Poitier’s beauty was one of refinement and elegance, an understated and haughty beauty of an athletic disposition. The daughter of the Seigneur de Saint Vallier, she was married—at the age of 15—to Louis de Brézé, a grandson to King Charles VII, a man thirty-nine years her senior, a decrepit and grotesque man with a hump. And yet Diane did her duty by him and bore him two children, both daughters, though her heart never truly followed. Any warmth between them froze and cracked like thin brittle ice when, in 1524, her father was accused of treason as an accomplice in the seditious acts of the Duke de Bourbon, accused by Diane’s own husband. Convicted, his head on the chopping block, Diane’s father’s life was spared in the end. Many at the time believed the king’s clemency was awarded in exchange for a night of shared passion with the man’s daughter. Diane had saved her father but anything between her and her now elderly husband withered, much as he was soon to do. After his death in 1531, Diane would forever wear black, in later years accented with white, as the color of her mourning. But perhaps, one might hypothesize, it could also be envisioned as the color of her freedom.

How truly to the other extreme then, did Diane travel to become the thirty-eight-year-old lover of the nineteen-year-old son of the king? Correspondence between Diane and Henri anchor their affair in 1538, though there was much to his behavior toward her which smacks of infatuation and obsession long before then. Ransomed to the Holy Emperor at a tender age by his father’s defeat upon the battlefield, Henri returned to France a sullen young man. Diane, already returned to court a widow, was put in charge of teaching him the ways of a courtier. She did her job with utmost efficiency. Propriety and decency be damned, their need and love for each other would brook no constraints. Henri’s marriage to Catherine de’ Medici was no deterrent either; the women would share his affections as they shared a grandmother.

As with the ‘celebrities’ of our own time, rumors of these two fierce and passionate women abounded; but in many cases, the genesis of the gossip began with the other. Did Anne have affairs other than that with the king? Probably. Did Diane spread the conjecture of such extra-curricular activities with lip-smacking pleasure? Undoubtedly. Was Diane ever held an arm’s length apart in the court of François because of her inappropriate relationship with a much younger man? One would undoubtedly believe it to be so. Was the ostracism enhanced by the machinations of Anne and her cohorts? Most assuredly.

Their bickering and squabbling knew no bounds, stretching far across the trivial and into the realms of politics and religion, each in turn influencing the kings with whom they shared a bed, pitting father and son against each other in their efforts to be the ‘queen’ of the court. The historical fact of these turbulent women makes any historical fiction almost pale in comparison and yet their skirmishes lend layers of inspired sub-plots.

The lifelong—decades-long—dedication of these mistresses to their ‘kings’, their collusions and thirst for preeminence and power did not, ultimately and unfortunately, allow them to end their lives with the same glory and splendor with which each lived by the side of their lovers. Each died a lonely death far from the elaborate courts they graced. But, if the ties of the heart bind us long after these bodies are cast aside, then perhaps Anne and Diane are with their men still.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Notes on a Novel: To Serve A King

When writing François I, I was not unmindful or blind to his brutish youth, however I was deeply aware of the personal hardships he encountered—the loss of spouse, the loss of beloved children, the slow torture of watching his own power diminish as he aged. In the major biographies read during my research, I found a great dichotomy between his early years and those in his latter days. I was struck by the notion, and the hope, that we have the ability to become truly conscious beings and in the clarity of vision such consciousness affords, we can look back and see the road behind us with all its potholes and wrong turns. It is distasteful to have regrets—the acidity sticks in the craw and repeats offensively—but if conscious of their power as tools, the enlightened can use them to find remorse, and it is in remorse that we are redeemed. Thus was how I found François; it is how I wrote him. I can say with certainty there was a wish in such a rendering.