Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Interview with Alana White, author of The Hearts of All On Fire, a mystery of 15th-century Florence

Today is publication day for my friend Alana White's The Hearts of All On Fire, an intricate historical mystery set amid the political turmoil and artistic achievements of 15th-century Florence.  It's officially the second in her series featuring lawyer Guid'Antonio Vespucci (a historical figure), but it works as a prequel to the first book (The Sign of the Weeping Virgin), and both books easily stand alone. This entry sees Guid'Antonio looking into two equally perplexing crimes: one involving a merchant who died from poisonous mushrooms at Guid'Antonio's own Saint John's Day table, and another dealing with a girl's terrible murder.  Thanks to Alana for answering my interview questions!

What initially spurred your interest in Florentine history during the Renaissance?

One day while reading National Geographic Magazine, I happened upon an article about the assassination plot to murder Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici on a Sunday morning during Mass in Florence Cathedral in 1478. At the time, the Medici family were the leaders of the most powerful political faction in Florence. One brother was killed, one escaped in a most dramatic way. Since I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, I looked for the book with this amazing event at the heart of the story. I couldn’t find one—so, I determined to write it myself.

The more research I did into the time and these fascinating people, the more hooked I became. Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and my protagonist, Guid’Antonio Vespucci, a lawyer at the time and a bone deep Medici family supporter, were exact contemporaries. Threading together their stories has been equally challenging and enlightening.

Your first mystery with Guid’Antonio Vespucci featured the esteemed lawyer in his middle years. What inspired you to set this next volume further back in his past?

At the end of the first book, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, Guid’Antonio is appointed ambassador to Rome. Since this is, in fact, what happened, the story resolves with him going there. I did not want to take the series to Rome—I wanted us to remain in Florence. I feared I had painted myself into a corner, but then realized I could go back five years to 1473 and stay in the City of Flowers. This offered all kinds of wonderful possibilities. For one thing, I could bring back to life the characters I had fallen in love with while writing Weeping Virgin, people who, unfortunately, fell victim to the assassins in the Cathedral. Speaking of the assassination, by retreating a few years, I could show that infamous plot as it begins to swirl around Guid’Antonio while he goes about his daily life and his investigations.

As in The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, in the new title, The Hearts of All on Fire, Guid’Antonio finds himself looking into solving two different crimes – which lead him into many corners of the city and into dark territory. I enjoyed all the details of the setting and the gradual disentangling of both mysteries, but it couldn’t have been simple to plot out. Why do you find yourself gravitating towards writing novels of such scope and complexity?

This is an absolutely wonderful question. I think it comes from the many connections pulling at Guid’Antonio. As I say, these are real people; a lot of research has been done about them all. Renaissance Florence is a rich tapestry, and it is also a minefield. I can’t write about Guid’Antonio without writing about his friends; Lorenzo de’ Medici, for one, strides across a huge stage. These are mysteries, so there must be a crime, one that hits Guid’Antonio close to home, so that we care about him as he untangles the who, how, and why, while protecting those he loves and moving up the ladder of power in Florence.

Then, too, since he is a lawyer, he has court cases—this is his job, his employment. Though I managed to avoid having a court scene in Weeping Virgin, in Heart he does have a big day in court, one I wanted to reflect the tragedy of betrayal by those who should love us against the theme of hope in the end. I wanted the primary mystery and the court case to dovetail and eventually come together. This also provides my “hero’s moment,” when Guid’Antonio fights for truth and justice, digging into and baring his soul to take a personal stand in court for someone who has absolutely no power.

And no, this was not simple to plot out. Many days I wanted to tear my hair, trying to figure out how I would poison one person at a table of five men and manage to kill my intended victim in the midst of the most popular festival day of the Florentine year. I drew that trestle table with five plates on it many times over, working out the logistics. It is really a matter of making connections along with Guid’Antonio as he enters the arena of piecing things together; as he says at one point, “an untended glance here, a slip of the tongue there.” Guid’Antonio is always paying attention—something the reader may not realize until the story’s end. I enjoy working with this time in history. Guid’Antonio has no DNA samples to consult, no firearms residue. He has himself and his wit. (And he can be a little sneaky.)

Several dogs are part of the plot of the novel, including Orsetto, Guid’Antonio’s adorable puppy. What interested you in this theme?

As a pet-lover myself, to me, it seems natural that Guid’Antonio would have a dog. As I designed the plot, I realized Orsetto, or Little Bear, could serve a real purpose in the story. In this instance, it is two-fold: Guid’Antonio is in his late thirties and not yet a father. He has no heir. In Florence at this time, this would have been a real concern for him. He has a lot of love to give and he gives a lot of love to Orsetto. At the same time, Guid’Antonio must experience a tremendous loss—or at least, temporarily. Orsetto provides that vehicle (but never fear. I don’t mind offering the spoiler that his puppy boy is fine in the end.) I also hope Guid’Antonio’s love for his dog reflects the kind of man he is without me pointedly saying that in the story.

What aspects of this novel did you enjoy researching the most? Did any subjects turn out to be especially difficult to dig into?

First, one of my supporting characters is a woman physician. I am so delighted I could create a woman doctor and stay true to the 1400s. This was possible thanks to two excellent works of nonfiction, The Renaissance Hospital, by John Henderson, and Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence, by Katherine Park. Their work enabled me to bring Dottoressa Francesca Vernacci and the world of 15th-century medicine in Florence to life. From them I learned there were at least two women doctors in Florence.

Guid'Antonio Vespucci
How did this come about? Although women could not attend medical school (no women, Jews, or men who were not “legitimate” allowed), women could study outside the system and take an exam. If they passed it they could practice medicine. In my books, Francesca’s path is eased by the fact her father is a doctor—she studied independently with him and brilliantly passed her exam. Together, they manage the Vespucci family hospital, and that brings Francesca into close proximity with Guid’Antonio. I was especially happy that in The Hearts of All On Fire, I could dive into their past love affair (he’s now a married man, so no more of that). However, Francesca works with Guid’Antonio on cases he is investigating; in Hearts, she performs the autopsy that leads him to the perpetrator. At story’s end, there is a wonderful surprise in store for Francesca, one I think readers will enjoy.

As for especially difficult—I don’t know what I would do without Renaissance Italy scholars. I simply could not ignore the fact that Guid’Antonio is an esteemed lawyer. But what kind of cases would he handle? What punishments were deemed appropriate for various crimes? Again, several books paved the way (for example, Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence by John Brackett). I’m currently writing Book III, which involves a tricky inheritance case—one that leads directly to the animosity fueling that Cathedral assassination. In my scenario, Guid’Antonio handles the court decision favoring the Medici family. I have found one excellent article written about that decision—and it is so complicated, I plan to contact the fellow who wrote it to request his help in slicing through it for the reader. I have found that these scholars love to engage.

What attracts you to the historical mystery genre?

Historical fiction has always been my favorite genre. As a youngster, I devoured books like The Man in the Iron Mask and Ivanhoe. Later, I was drawn to the Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries set in medieval England. They have been an inspiration to me. I also especially like the more recent C. J. Sansom Matthew Shardlake series, along with S. G. MacLean’s Damian Seeker. The Shardlake novels are especially textured, and The Seeker is my kind of guy.

What has your experience with publishing with Atmosphere Press been like?

Working with this hybrid press has been wonderful in every way. The staff are friendly and immediately responsive to my every question, no matter how small. I find the fact they usually get back to me within the day amazing. And their covers are lovely. Florence Cathedral is in the background on the Weeping Virgin cover; their designer researched how the Cathedral actually looked in the 1400s to be certain his rendering was correct. At my suggestion, they added Guid’Antonio’s mastiff to that cover. And then for Hearts, at my request they included his little dog, Orsetto, who is a curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo. In every instance, Atmosphere Press goes above and beyond for their writers. Finding them has been a blessing.

Thank you, Alana!

Find more about the author and her novels at her website, www.alanawhite.com.


  1. Gotta say, both these books sound lovely and right up my pleasure paths of reading. So pleased to know about them.

    1. Great - I especially enjoyed the historical atmosphere in them both.

  2. Both books are well written and influence me to read more books

  3. Thank you so much! I appreciate it immensely....

  4. Thanks for your comments!