Thursday, July 5, 2012


That’s the answer I give whenever asked the timeless question, “which is more important, character or plot?” And invariably I get a look of skeptical confusion. But to be truthful, we must recognize that not only can one not exist without the other, but that one cannot be successful without the other…a good character can not carry a book without a stirring story to breathe in.

When we fall in love with a character, it is not only his or her instinctive traits that endear them to us, but their responses to the situations in which they find themselves. Quite frankly, Scarlett O’Hara (one of my favorite heroines of all time) would simply have been deemed a demanding diva if she acted the way she did under normal circumstances. If the war hadn’t broken out and if her struggle did not become one of survival for herself and her family, she would have become a character worthy of reality show depiction and abhorrence.

La Madonna Aurelia, the protagonist of my recent release, The King's Agent, is a woman 'larger than life' and, without proper development and well-deserved empathy, would not have been believed at all. And yet she is fast becoming one of the most popular characters I've ever created.

Like Scarlett, Aurelia is flawed but for all those flaws, revered for her honor and her motivation. Yet it is despite these flaws, and because of them, that she is able to serve both herself and her duty.

During the research process for my historical novels, I know I’ve hit upon a noteworthy time in history when life altering events occur one after the other. At the end of the writing process, I realize I’ve created a character worthy of readers’ attention when I begin to miss her as soon as I’ve typed ‘the end.’

To the great characters that have been drawn by the mighty pen of writers throughout time, I raise my glass. And to the vagaries of life, both harsh and harmonious, in which they reside, I take a giant swig.

And as we toast, here's a glimpse of The Lady Aurelia:

“I am in your debt, Signora…?”

“Aurelia,” she responded, prying her gaze from its study of the palazzo, scanning the space between for any guards who may have picked up their trail. But the small expanse of farmland was empty of all save the budding shoots of spring growth and the packs of scavenging guards headed out along the roads, not into this forest that would lead a stranger to naught but a cliff and a fatal drop to the river below.

His thick brows rose on his smooth forehead. “Aurelia? It is just…Aurelia?”

“The Lady Aurelia.” She sat down beside him, offering as skeptical a glance as she received. “It is enough.”

He laughed then, a low, sultry purring. “Very well then, Madonna Aurelia. I am Battista della Palla, and I owe you my life.”

Battista lifted her hand off her lap and brushed his lips across it. She smiled at him as she would at a mischievous yet indulged child.

“Yes, you do.” Aurelia longed to laugh as well, at him and his devilish charm, at what she had done, at the thrill of the unknown stretching before her. Her wishes had come true and she would suffuse herself in every serving of it like a fat man at a feast.

With keen observation, she took in their position, the activity visible at the palazzo, and the condition of the man beside her.

“Where is your horse? Where are your men? You have not come to this errand alone?” She frowned at him, at such a ridiculous notion.

Battista stared up at the sky above and smacked his lips. “No, I did not come on this journey alone. But my companion, with my horse, is long gone by now I presume. Or he had better be.”

It was her turn to raise a skeptical brow and he capitulated beneath it.

“I’m not sure if the agreed-to time has passed, or if he heard the alarm.” He shrugged as if his situation were of no great consequence. “In either case, he would have taken himself away, saved himself as it were. It has been our agreement for the whole of our lives.”

“Oh, I see,” Aurelia stated with biting succinctness. “Then you are a habitual thief?”

“How dare you, woman!” Battista blustered with outrage, but one only slightly sincere. She saw his amusement in the smile that narrowed his eyes. He tipped his body closer to hers, slipping sideways along the trunk holding their backs. “I am an art dealer, and a highly res…ected one at that.”

She smiled at his slurred protest. His handsome face, now no more than inches from hers, revealed his fatigue and weakness and her amusement faded.

“If I am forced…into thievery…” –his head slumped farther still, until it came to rest upon her shoulder, his words slithering through lips no longer moving— “…then I do…whatever…God will forgive me.”

His last argument—prayer—uttered, Battista lost consciousness, full weight once more falling upon her.

Aurelia shook her head in a wonder. A penitent thief, a religious rogue…of all the men to encounter, of all the creatures on the earth to indulge her capricious desire, she had to choose such an irresoluble person.

With a gentle touch, she lifted his head, shimmied out from under him, and laid him down upon the soft pine needles, bunching his cape beneath his head. She scurried on her knees to his legs, squinting in the dimness at his wound. The dark stain of the makeshift bandage had become moist; the wound still bled and required another wrapping. Her appraising gaze latched onto his satchel, and she snatched at it, sitting back off her knees as she pulled it onto her lap.

Aurelia’s groping hand found smooth metal first, and she pulled out an engraved, finely wrought flask. She shook it and received the heavy gurgle of a full flagon. She pulled out the cork with a pop and touched the opening to her lips, nose curling, shivering at the strength of the libations dripping down her throat. She put the stopper back in the container, but kept it out of the sack; she would use more to clean his wound.

A bundle of rope, a pouch of metal rods—tools of some sort—and two pieces of well-worn flint; the man was indeed prepared for anything. His vigilance served him well. In the meager light, Aurelia unwrapped Battista’s wounded leg and dribbled some of the powerful liquid onto the raw, bloody slash about two inches in length. The man flinched and thrashed a bit, but didn’t regain consciousness and Aurelia rewrapped the leg with a linen also found in the sack, its unknown dried meat removed and set aside. The ministrations had an instant effect; Battista calmed, breath growing deeper as he lapsed into a heavier rest.

Aurelia sat back down, resting once more against the curved trunk. In the distance, she heard the refrains of orchestral music; the party carried on, as she knew it would. The marquess’s guards would have done their jobs well, containing the alarm, dousing the fire, secreting the search so as not to disturb or inform his guests. Only the nobleman would know of the intrusion. The pine needles beneath her pricked her skin as did her guilt for the worry she caused.

The man beside her snuffled in his sleep and Aurelia smiled at the silliness of it, the expression feeling peculiar but pleasing.

They dare not dally too much longer, for night would soon make its way to day. But if he didn’t rest a bit, he might not make the journey to…wherever they might be bound. The thought of sleep impossible, every nerve in her body tingled with heightened alert; she hummed with the adventure in her grasp, unable to temper the mix of joy and fear thrumming through her.

Reaching out, Aurelia pulled his satchel close once more. True, she had found all she needed, but perhaps there were other items of value, or so she told herself, arguing against her own chiding conscience.

Her fingers curled around a parchment and she pulled it out. Aurelia could see the slanted lines and twirls inscribed on it, but not the words themselves. Her head tilted as she studied it, at the oddly familiar curve of the letters. She had seen this hand before.

Aurelia held the parchment out, then up, searching for a patch of unfiltered moonlight. She stood, saw the beam of illumination wafting upon the patch of forest a few steps to the left, and with another tinge of guilt untied the bow as she made quickly for it.

In the pale gray light, the unfurled parchment revealed its secrets.

Aurelia wanted nothing as much as to deny them with a scream. She read the words, now convinced of which hand had wrought them, and read them again. Not one to welter in anger for all she may be constantly piqued at the marquess, but in this she found a wealth of the disturbing emotion. How could he not have told her that this revelation, and what it led to, still existed? How could no one have told her? How could nothing have been done?

Aurelia’s hand, and the parchment in it, fell to her side.

Battista groaned in his sleep, her head snapped toward the forgotten man. Who was he and what was he doing with this? She wavered between the thought that the parchment changed everything and her much-believed conviction that nothing happened without a reason. She could destroy the parchment, but it would only be an impermanent repair.

No, she shook her head, vehemence tossing her now-scattered chestnut curls further asunder. No, she had arrived at this moment for a purpose; the fates had brought her exactly where she needed to be. How many wars were won by those who kept their enemies close?

Aurelia returned to the man’s side, rewound the scroll, tucked it into her palm, and sat down to wait.

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