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.