Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Interview with Donna Russo Morin, author of Portrait of a Conspiracy

In Florence, Italy, on 26 April 1478, members of the Pazzi family and their allies plotted to assassinate the powerful Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother, Giuliano, in full public view within the city's magnificent Duomo (cathedral).  In the case of Giuliano, they succeeded.  First in a new series, Donna Russo Morin's Portrait of a Conspiracy (Diversion Books, May) uses this historical event and its deadly aftermath as a springboard for a multifaceted thriller about a dangerous painting, a secret sisterhood of women artists, their plan to help a missing friend, and the resounding power of art.  I enjoyed the book very much and hope you'll enjoy the following author interview.


How did you come up with the novel’s premise?

It really was a convergence of events and ideas. I was finishing work on my 2012 release, The King’s Agent, which features a true to life Indiana Jones of 15th-century Italy that included one of his actual dear friends, Michelangelo. I found myself longing to write more about art and artists.

At the same time, I was going through one of the most personally traumatic periods of my life. If not for a group of truly dedicated, loyal, and supportive women, I’m not sure if I would have had the strength to continue. It gave me a clarity of vision into the power of women united. Female relationships can be so much more intimate than those of men. But they can also be hard on each other. This book, the whole trilogy in truth, is nothing if not an homage to that power and the complexities of female relationships.

The two thoughts connected, and Da Vinci’s Disciples were born.

The scene of Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination is full of cinematic action and a high level of tension. What was the experience like for you as an author, choreographing such a terrible, iconic moment on the page?

That assassination, the true attempt of the Pazzi family to eliminate the Medici family, is an historical event, one of the greatest conspiracies of the 15th century. I found two non-fiction books that detailed the event in great, if clinical, detail (Martines, Lauro. 2003. April Blood. London: Random House; and, Simonetta, Marcello. 2008. The Montefeltro Conspiracy. New York, NY: Doubleday).

Our job, as historical fiction writers, is always to breathe life into these clinical dissertations.

I’m very fortunate to have a very sharp, vivid mind’s eye. Once all the events are in there, my mind allows me to "see" it, almost in movie form. And, perhaps because I have an acting background, as I watch the movie I "feel" what the point-of-view character would feel. It was disturbing and possibly the hardest part to convey.

But the difficulty comes when the writer must depict all the details without the assistance of a single screen shot. Yet it needs to be fast-paced and tightly written while still conveying the enormous emotion of the event. Tight and fast-paced being critical. The moment of verbal choreography is the most challenging. IT MUST BE BIG…but with the sparsest of words. Deciding what to leave in and what to take out was the most demanding task. The event went through more than a few versions. One of the more difficult revisions my agent and I decided to make was to cut one of my favorite portions of that event. How Lorenzo de’ Medici really escaped the attack. While it is a story in itself (a scene I will probably put up on my blog at some point) it didn’t further this story, and so to serve immediacy and the aura of impending danger, it was taken out.

What were your concerns or challenges in writing about a historical figure as famous as Leonardo da Vinci?

In truth, the da Vinci depicted in Portrait of a Conspiracy is a da Vinci most people are unfamiliar with. His genius and greatness are widely known. But he was not, by any means, an "overnight sensation." He is not that old, wizened man in a portrait that is, most likely, not him. My da Vinci, is the young, questioning, experimenting, struggling, youthful da Vinci poised on the precipice of his greatness.

There were fewer restraints when writing this lesser known man; there were more places where I could theorize from my prolonged research on da Vinci, especially in terms of attitudes and opinions, personality traits and quirks. The greatest challenge was in terms of time (this is especially true in the second book). Da Vinci moved around a great deal (hence, his death in France). I needed him to be in the right places at the right times, but I squirm with playing fast and loose with such details of truth.

For the women, Leonardo’s mentorship is welcomed and important to their ongoing development as artists. Did any special mentor have a role in your writing career? 

There have actually been two prominent people in the development of my craft.

The first is my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Alfonso. She was a lovely young woman (I think we were her first class after graduating college). I was constantly writing then, silly stories about a pink pussycat who wanted to run for president and how the numbers 2 and 4 were in love, but 3 kept getting in the way. She started Story Time with Donna on Friday afternoons. When I heard the other kids laughing at my story, or saw them looking at me wide-eyed, waiting eagerly for my next word, I came to know I was meant to be a storyteller.

In the last decade, there has been one man who stands out above the rest. Writers are incredibly supportive of each other; there’s a bit of a shared survival in this crazy industry. But this man, Christopher Gortner (known as the bestselling author C. W. Gortner), has astounded me with his generosity of advice, technical tutoring, and so much more (including being there just to listen when I rage and cry about this business—and my personal life as well). He has taken me under his wing, unfurling it without hesitation; there is never-ending learning there. It is a warm and safe haven I am truly grateful for. He is my da Vinci.

author Donna Russo Morin
Portrait of a Conspiracy showcases women’s experiences, supportive friendships, and their clandestine pursuit of artistic creation, and I especially liked that the women came from a variety of social backgrounds. Did you come across any intriguing or surprising facts while you were researching women of the Italian Renaissance?

There were some surprises…the equal propensity for noblewomen to be as promiscuous as their husbands (it was true in other countries, I knew, but I didn’t expect it in Roman Catholic-dominated Florence). The line of demarcation between the classes is more sharply drawn in these women’s lives, but it did not always seem to be what they wanted, but what they had to do. And there was great prejudice within the classes as well, even those on the lowest rung.

What never ceases to surprise me as I research the periods of my books, are the common ground women of today share with women of the past. We are still struggling to achieve what we want to achieve without greater obstacles than men. We still totter with putting ourselves and our professional dreams and goals before the care and dreams and goals of our loved ones.

This backward, reflective mirror is a priceless recompense in being an historical novelist.

Were any of the women based on real-life artists?

No; in fact they are based loosely on actual women in my life, including myself. Granted, there is some blurring of characteristics—what one real woman demonstrates may be a trait of one of the other fictional women. Portrait of a Conspiracy is a study of female relationships and their ambition, the explosive and artistic Renaissance, a mystery, a thriller, and at times, a violent depiction of life in 15th-century Florence, but it is also one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written.

Ultimately, the trilogy will lead us to one of the earliest and greatest women artists of the time; it’s where the story was always meant to go.

Your admiration for Florentine history, culture, and architecture comes through vividly. What were some of your favorite locales to visit, or to write about?

Architecture is an art form in my mind, and in many others, I think. Architecture in the Renaissance was evolving at a break-neck pace, as were the other art forms. As Florence is the cradle of the Renaissance, it is filled with architectural wonders.

Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the basilica of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, is a highlight. Not only is it the factual scene of the assassination, it is a first of its kind construction, the first freestanding dome built at the time.

The Palazzo della Signoria (known now as the Palazzo Vecchio, the Old Palace) is also a favorite. As the government center, it is filled with all the secret passages and odd additions that prevailed at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed mapping out covert invasions and escapes in this building.

Although my birth name, Russo, can be traced to 9th-century Florence, I have not had the privilege of traveling there. It will remain, for now, the obsession of my pen. But the day is coming; oh, yes it is.


Donna Russo Morin is an award-winning of author of historical fiction. A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, she lives near the shore with her two sons, Devon and Dylan, her greatest works in progress. Donna enjoys meeting with book groups in person and via Skype chat. Visit her website at www.donnarussomorin.com, friend her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @DonnaRussoMorin.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Grace by Natashia Deón, an affecting novel of freedom and motherhood in the antebellum South

Given the chance, Naomi, a 17-year-old slave in rural Alabama in 1848, would have named her daughter Grace, but she is shot and killed moments after giving birth. In her gripping debut novel, Deón, awarded a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship, among other honors, dramatizes alliances formed by women in a violent place and time with adroit characterizations, a powerful narrative voice, and the propulsive plotting of a suspense novel.

Kept lingering in the afterlife through her love for her daughter, Josey, Naomi tells the story in two intertwined strands. One traces her earlier life via flashbacks, covering her flight to Georgia after a deadly confrontation, her rescue by a female brothel owner with her own secretive past, and her falling in love with a white gambler. In the other, Naomi follows blonde, light-skinned Josey as she grows up before, during, and after emancipation, which hardly brings the liberty the former slaves hope for.

Naomi’s unique situation is movingly evoked: she offers Josey tender maternal advice, which goes unheard, and is unable to protect her from painful realities. Deón stays in control of her complex material, from its clever parallel structure to the women’s psychological reactions to relentless tension. Readers will ache for these strong characters and yearn for them to find freedom and peace.

Grace is officially published by Counterpoint in June (hardcover, $25, 400pp), but Amazon has copies in stock now.  This starred review first appeared in Booklist's April 15th issue.  I was pleased to see, later on, that Kirkus and Publishers Weekly had also published starred reviews.  This is a book that has important things to say about the American past, and it deserves widespread attention.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Accuracy in historical fiction: a guest post by Ashley Sweeney, author of Eliza Waite

In today's guest post, author Ashley Sweeney expands upon a topic familiar to historical fiction writers and readers: getting the facts right.  I'll be posting a review of her debut novel, Eliza Waite, in the near future.


Accuracy in Historical Fiction
Ashley Sweeney

In children’s literature, if a frog and a monkey wear striped pajamas and go on vacation to the moon, we think nothing of it. But give Jean Valjean a cellphone or Jane Eyre a Corvette and poof! Our credibility’s shot.

author Ashley Sweeney
(credit: Karen Mullen Photography)
Back when I was a newbie reporter at a rural weekly newspaper, the Five W’s: Who/What/When/Where/Why ruled first paragraphs. The thinking behind a formulaic style of writing is that if stories must be shortened due to space limitations, all the facts still appear in the story.

And our editor drilled into our heads: Check your facts. And you better get them right. Period.

In literature, authors have the luxury of spreading out details, at times feeding them crumb-by-crumb to readers. All elements are not weighed equally. In character-driven plots, Who or What is vital. In murder mysteries, Why, and its partner How, reigns. Historical fiction draws heavily on Where and When; setting identifies time, place, and mood of the narrative.

And what’s paramount for authors of historical fiction: we can’t make mistakes. We have to check our facts and get them right. Period.

In writing Eliza Waite, I was constantly fact-checking myself. Did matchsticks exist in the late 19th century? Who was president of the U.S. in 1890s? What was the major source of news in the San Juan Islands and Skagway, Alaska at the turn of the last century?

Where did women go for female hysteria treatments? When was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde published? Why did tens of thousands of men and women drop out of their lives to search for elusive gold in the Klondike?

And how did women cook and bake without any modern conveniences?

I amassed more than 100 books on various subjects pertinent to the era and turned to librarians, historians, museum curators, authors, and storytellers to fill in holes. Of course the Internet was a constant companion.

I encountered surprises while researching, including the fact that Skagway was electrified before most of the United States. A.F. Eastman founded Skagway Electric Light Company in the fall of 1897. Within months, Alaska Electric Light and Power Company, which traced its roots to 1893 Juneau, appeared in Skagway in competition. By the summer of 1898 at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, the companies dueled for customers and Skagway’s streetlights, hotels, and businesses were illuminated.

The fact that Skagway was electrified allowed my protagonist—a baker at Skagway’s The Moonstone Café—to marvel over the new-fangled invention.

What wonders will this new electric invention open up? It won’t be long before kitchens are electrified! Electric lights! Electric mixers! Maybe even electric ovens!

But imagine if I had my protagonist driving a Jeep or arriving in Alaska by air in 1898 rather than by steamship from Seattle. I’d certainly get bad reviews or be booted out of historical novel associations. Or worse. I might be tarred and feathered. Or—heaven forbid!—put in the stocks.

Ashley Sweeney is the author of Eliza Waite, published in May 2016 by She Writes Press.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Reporting back on the historical fiction at #BEA2016 in Chicago

I'm just back from BEA in Chicago, which was convenient for me; it's a 3-hour drive, so it didn't involve the usual flight and mailing of books back home.  I had a good time and met up with many friends, librarian colleagues, publisher contacts, and my editor at Booklist.  However, the show was noticeably smaller.  Many publishers, both large and small, decided not to exhibit this year, and the level of energy didn't seem as high.  Some of the booths felt cramped, with little room to move around if someone else was there browsing. These days, having a BEA outside of NYC has its consequences.

I went representing the Historical Novels Review and picked up a number of galleys (and some finished books) that will end up in reviewers' hands.  Others, the signed copies in particular, I got just for me!  Because I had a plan of which historical novels would be available when, I did my best to stick to it and mostly succeeded, although I didn't make it to events late in the day.  Standing on carpeted concrete for an entire day doesn't agree with my back, and by mid-afternoon, I was exhausted.

Here are some piles that I brought back with me.  Rather than repeat myself, I'll link back to the guide to historical novels at BEA 2016 because blurbs for the majority can be found there.  There were some nice surprises, too, books I didn't expect would be there.  Details below on those.

Beth Powning's A Measure of Light (Penguin Canada, March) is biographical fiction about 17th-century Quaker Mary Dyer, who repeatedly defied Puritan authorities.
Kerri Maniscalco's Stalking Jack the Ripper is YA gothic horror, about a lord's daughter with an interest in forensic medicine.  It's out in Sept. from Jimmy Patterson, James Patterson's new children's imprint with Hachette.
These aren't historical fiction but looked interesting:  The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor is a crime novel set in modern-day Paris, and Robert Olen Butler's Perfume River deals with the aftermath of Vietnam. Daryl W. Bullock's Florence Foster-Jenkins (Overlook) is nonfiction about the world's worst singer, soon to be portrayed in film by Meryl Streep.  Mad Enchantment by Ross King is nonfiction about Monet's painting of the water lilies toward the end of his life.

In this pile, Louis Carmain's Guano (Coach House, Oct. 2015) is a novel about Peruvian independence and lustful adventures in the year 1862.
Taylor Brown's The River of Kings (St. Martin's, March 2017), which was a nice find since it isn't on Amazon yet, is set around the area of Fort Caroline, an early French settlement in 16th century Florida, both centuries ago and in modern periods.
Terry Roberts' That Bright Land (Turner, June) is described as a "southern Gothic thriller" set during the Civil War.
In the Mouth of the Tiger by Derek Emerson-Elliott and Lynette Silver (Sally Milner Publishing, Feb 2015) isn't one I'd come across before.  It's about a young Russian woman's adventures in Singapore and Malaya around the WWII years.  The publisher is Australian.
And Dinitia Smith's The Honeymoon delves into George Eliot's surprising later-in-life marriage and subsequent honeymoon in 1880 Venice.

I picked up some of these at the Friday afternoon speed dating session for librarians, booksellers, and book group leaders, and it was my 3rd year attending this session.  It's one of my favorite events of the show, so I'm kind of upset that I mistakenly left the handout on the table.  Hopefully it will be posted later.

Seeing all these piles, and having some deadlines looming, I'd better get back to reading.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Ambition and deception: Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro, set in Depression-era Boston

Maeve Fanning, an educated young Irish American in Depression-era Boston, wants to move forward in life, and aims high. When she gets wind of a sales job at an exclusive antique shop, she bleaches her red tresses to disguise her heritage, calls herself May (“with a y”), and finagles her way into the position. There, under the guidance of the store’s English co-owner, who appreciates her ingenuity, she learns how to gear her pitch to its eccentric, wealthy customers.

However, there’s a problem. Maeve has a scandalous past, one that her mother, a respectable widow, doesn’t know about. During a recent stint in New York City, Maeve worked as a dancer-for-hire, drank too much bootleg gin, and ended up somewhere she can’t ever mention. Just when she’s getting used to her reinvented self, her past surfaces unexpectedly in the form of Diana Van der Laar.

A socialite whose family fortune comes from South African diamonds, Diana may seem like Maeve’s polar opposite, but they become friends, both women concealing the socially unacceptable parts of their lives out of necessity. But Diana is more complex and damaged than Maeve knows, and the deeper Maeve gets into her world, the more she risks losing sight of her goals.

This gutsy, absorbing story about self-deception and belonging is remarkable in its honesty. The settings exude authenticity, both the scenes of immigrant family life in Boston’s North End and upper-crust society parties, which never go as perfectly as its organizers hope.

The story bounces around time-wise in the beginning, and more details on Maeve’s future plans would have been nice. The wanting more of a novel, though, that’s a good sign. Tessaro is a natural storyteller, and her story goes where it needs to without being predictable. The result is a compelling tale that reads like real life.

Rare Objects was published by Harper in hardcover in April ($25.99, 400pp).   The British publisher is Harper UK.  This review appeared in May's Historical Novels Review; I had downloaded an e-galley via Edelweiss over the holidays last year, read the first few pages, and got quickly drawn into the story.

Monday, May 09, 2016

California’s Golden Age of Winemaking, an essay by Kristen Harnisch

In my review of The California Wife, I mentioned being intrigued by Kristen Harnisch's depiction of the characters' winemaking business; you don't often get to see the inner workings of the wine trade depicted in historical fiction.  In today's guest post, she takes us to northern California in the late 19th century, introducing us to the industry pioneers, the techniques they used to make their businesses thrive, and the hardships they endured along the way.


California’s Golden Age of Winemaking
By Kristen Harnisch, 
author of The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife

Most wine lovers are familiar with the Judgment of Paris, the competition arranged forty years ago by wine expert Steven Spurrier between the best French and California wines. In a blind tasting in 1976, France’s foremost wine experts declared two upstart California wines superior to renowned French bottlings from Bordeaux and Burgundy. This event—so colorfully portrayed in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock—established Napa Valley as one of the world’s greatest winemaking regions. What is not commonly known is that the golden age of winemaking in northern California started during the nineteenth century on the heels of the Gold Rush and was in full swing before the dawn of Prohibition.

Regusci historic Occidental winery (est. 1878)

While living in the San Francisco Bay Area and traveling in the Loire Valley of France, I was struck by the beauty of the vineyards and intrigued by how generations of families had battled blight, mildew, rot, and pests to produce fine wines. These vintners approach their work with a centuries-old blend of passion, persistence, art and science. Their dedication sparked the idea for my series about the ambitions of two French-born vintners to establish an American winemaking dynasty at the turn of the twentieth century and set me on a new path of discovery.

The author, biking in Napa
Researching vineyard life in the late 1800s was exciting. Visiting a Loire Valley vineyard and touring historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot were delightful. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, sampled the wines! I also delved into French and California history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society. Although I had a vague outline for the novels, my research fueled the stories for The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife.

The pioneers and economics of the wine trade in the late 1800s provided a treasure-trove of historical drama for the backdrop of the series. Many who came to California for the gold stayed for the rich soil and climate, so perfect for farming sheep, cows, fruit and vegetables. The first northern California winemakers—notables such as Jacob Schram, Charles Krug, Gustave Niebaum, Georges De Latour, Jacob and Frederick Beringer, the Nichelini family and the founders of the Italian-Swiss Colony in Asti—cultivated the first vineyards and the goal that one day their wines would compete with the finest French and European vintages. Chinese laborers, featured in my first novel, formed the backbone of the viticultural industry of California. After they helped build the railways, they found new work picking, pruning and digging cellars out of limestone with their pickaxes.

Caves dug by the Chinese in the 1870s

Late in the century, as suspicion and racial hatred toward the Chinese grew, Italian and other European immigrant day laborers replaced them in the fields.

As the century progressed, California women traded their kitchen chores for important roles in family-owned winemaking businesses. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) and opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. She cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. Her neighbor, Hannah Weinberger, also took over her family’s winery, with a capacity of 90,000 gallons, after her husband’s death. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this prestigious award that year. The strength and determination of Sara Thibault, the heroine of my novels, was drawn from these pioneering women.

Edge of Carneros Vines

Just as California wines started to gain global recognition, catastrophe struck. When the phylloxera—a louse that kills grape vines by sucking them dry of nutrients—hit California in the late 1880s, it laid waste to sixty percent of the Napa vineyards. The less hardy gentleman farmers, who’d purchased vineyards for the prestige of making one’s own wines, abandoned their farms and returned to San Francisco. The natives and more savvy newcomers (like my character Philippe Lemieux) took advantage of the cheap land, replanted with phylloxera-resistant rootstock, and grew bumper crops of grapes within five to seven years.

By the late 1890s, after having suffered through the ravages of the phylloxera, California vintners were determined to protect and bolster their wine industry with scientific innovation and creative ways to brand their wines. Most vintners now preferred gravity-flow wineries, invented in the 1870s, to move the grapes through the winemaking process using gravity instead of hoses. In place of head-trained vines, farmers now planted trellis-trained vines, which allowed for the best balance of sun, shading and air circulation through the vines—and yielded far more grapes.

Veraison (the onset of ripening) of pinot noir grapes in June

As the railway systems improved, vintners shipped their wines to other parts of California and the United States, they opted for the more expensive bottles instead of barrels. Barrels did not offer the advantage of brand identification, and thirsty railway men had been known to drink the wine inside and replace it with water or vinegar. As the supply of wine and eastern demand for it increased, large entities like the California Wine Association refused to pay the grape growers their asking price, and this sparked tensions amid grape growers, who could no longer afford the sky-high labor costs. These price wars drove the price of California wine down, and some of the smaller operations out of business. The largest growers, many who provided sacramental wine to the Catholic Church, also negotiated their own contracts with wine dealers, and found unique ways to thrive during the price wars at the end of the century.

Intertwining this rich era of winemaking with the story of my characters Sara Thibault and Philippe Lemieux was a true joy. Winemaking, I’ve discovered, is very similar to novel writing: it is an exercise in passion, patience and perseverance! Cheers!


The California Wife was published by HarperCollins Canada in February in trade paperback (C$22.99), and the US edition is published by She Writes Press ($17.95) this month. Visit the author's website at www.kristenharnisch.com.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

A return to historic Napa: Kristen Harnisch's The California Wife

Second in a series about a Franco-American winemaking family at the turn of the 20th century, The California Wife presents the next stage in life for its heroine and hero – as well as the next step in the development of their winemaking business. The Vintner’s Daughter (see earlier review) was an enjoyable romantic saga, and this new entry, which spans 1897 to 1906, is even more involving. Harnisch has hit her stride as a writer: the pacing never flags throughout this lengthy novel, and the many trials that Sara and Philippe Lemieux undergo, separately and together, add new layers to their character.

Sara and Philippe, whose families shared a painful history in France’s Loire Valley, get married and settle on their large California vineyard, planning to raise their orphaned nephew as their own. However, Sara’s desires are torn between making Eagle’s Run a success and her obligations toward her beloved vineyard back home. Competition among local winemakers is heating up; so is pressure from prohibitionists.

The story brings readers deeply into the economics of the wine industry – a unique historical fiction subject – as the couple negotiates prices, develops creative sales techniques, and secures buyers in Napa and elsewhere. Philippe’s role as primary supplier of sacramental wine to the local archdiocese causes grumblings, and that’s just one impediment to their financial goals.

Although their love remains strong, their married life is equally turbulent. Operating within a male-dominated field, Sara’s vast wine-growing experience is sometimes downplayed, and Philippe’s former mistress introduces a new complication to their happiness.

Later chapters draw in the viewpoint of Sara’s good friend, Marie Chevreau, an experienced midwife who aspires to become a surgeon – another ambitious woman whose presence complements the growing cast. Readers will enjoy being whisked back in time to Napa’s beginnings as a major wine-producing region, and the stage is set for future adventures with these warm-hearted, ambitious characters.

The California Wife was published by HarperCollins Canada in February in trade paperback (C$22.99), and the US edition is published by She Writes Press ($17.95) this month.  The review copy was sent to me by the Canadian publisher for review in February's Historical Novels Review.

On Monday, I'll have a guest post from the author about California's historic winemaking industry.