Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Confessions of Catherine De Medici – A Review

I like reading new-to-me authors.  Part of this experience lies in the thrill of the unexpected, the possibility of finding that fresh turn of phrase, that je ne sais quoi of writing: voice.  But voice is tricky and in many novels, especially first person historical novels, it falls flat.  Le’ts just say Gortner very much surprised me.

The Review:

So, first on the bigot disclosure (my own, of course):  I was reticent about reading this book because 1) given Catherine’s bad rep, portraying her as sympathetic is a Mount Everest worthy endeavor and 2) a fictionalized account of this raging she-serpent  was written by a man. 

This hesitation, however, was not uncommon for I soon discovered my female friends reacted in a similar vein.  In memory there is one male writer whom I thought has inhabited the female mind flawlessly and that’s Wally Lamb.  Well, C.W. Gortner, you now belong in that exclusive club because I believed every word you wrote as if it came out of Catherine’s mouth directly!  I am ashamed of my prejudice.  I not only sympathized with Catherine, I liked her.  I felt her hate for Diane, her frustration over her children’s ineptitudes and the equal force of her love for them.  Her connection with her son, Henri, sparkled off the pages. 

From the beginning she came across as a multi-textured woman—shrewd and ruthless, but also passionate and resilient, at odds with her time.  This revision of Catherine is one I can live with, not the Medusa, the deadly queen mother, but instead a powerful Medici through and through. 

The account below of Catherine by Henry IV (formerly Henri of Navarre) as reported by Brantôme, a French historian of her time, seems to ring true:

 “I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown—our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse.”

 I felt this when reading Gortner’s version of the tale.  Who could blame Catherine?  Who, to save her children, herself, might not do the same?


The book was so well executed I’m having trouble recalling Gortner’s writing style—it was transparent in the way that all first person narratives should be.   I never detected the writer within and I think that’s the greatest compliment when it comes to this genre (or perhaps any).   Historical fiction can be laden with superfluous details thereby forcing the characters to take a back seat.  Not so here.

My only complaint regarding Confessions of Catherine De Medici was I wished the book were longer.  Since Catherine lived to 69, outliving her husband and two of her reigning sons, as well as surviving the Catholic-Huguenot wars and several other ordeals, her life was rich with anecdotes and adventure.  I would have liked to further entrench myself in her experiences, but then again, publishing demands brevity nowadays and I would not blame this minor fault on Gortner. 

The Bottom Line: 

The book was a delight.  I highly recommend it and based on reviews I will definitely be checking out Gortner’s other historicals, The Last Queen and The Secret Lion.

Confesssion Book Trailer

Reviewed as part of the Oh-La-La French Historical Challenge.

18th Century Wig-Curlers

Periwigs or perukes were worn until the middle 1770’s, their popularity waning in the private sphere during the reign of George III.  Public figures, however, including men of the judicial bench, clergy, and the Speaker of the House of Commons persisted in wearing wigs for decades thereafter.  In fact, one record establishes a episcopalian bishop donning faux hair until his death in 1860. 


As you can see from the above caricature, wigs were part of the cumbrous fashion ensemble, often towering and expansive, and as such, required judicious upkeep.  Enter the odd object below, the wig-curler.  Made of clay, it was heated as one would curling tongs, tapered toward the center to retain the best possible curl. 

The following is a wig description from George Clinch’s English Costume from Prehistoric Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century:

Also, here’s a sampling of wigs from a French Perruquier (wigmaker) if you’re curious. 

For more information regarding wigs of the period, American Revolution, despite its misleading name, is a font of knowledge on 18th Century French and British costume.

Write Romance? You Must Visit This Blog!

Not only is Gracie O’Neil’s advice at Romance She Wrote spot on for the toiling writer, she somehow makes writing synopses and queries seem, well, easy. I’m baffled by how she does this, but I think it breaks down to one essential thing: writing in baby steps.

Her workshop series is broken down into amazingly manageable parts, therefore blinding the big picture in the short term, and making a writer believe the dreaded business aspects of writing are not so terrifying after all. Her authorial tone is conversational and uber-friendly, and oddly, made me want to whip out my work lickety-split.  Describing my book in 50 words or less took me fewer than ten minutes to write and polish.  Beats staring at the screen with cow eyes, doesn’t it?

Now, since there’s tons to explore, I suggest you dive into the following:

Or, if you prefer, Gracie also has the condensed version of How to Write a Synopsis (without turning homicidal).  It located on her site, right side bar, under “Special Give-Away.”


18th Century Book – The Experienced English Housekeeper

Wonder how to make a portable soup for travellers?  Set an 18th century table?  Make soup a la reine

The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald is an essential book to discover not only what people ate in the 18th century, but also how their meals were cooked.  There’s a wonderful section on preserves and confections, extensive chapters on meats (ox cheek anyone?).  And, of course, you’ll want to learn how to make an edible “amulet.” Many of the recipes are easy to whip up today, provided you translate the odd spelling.  It’d be rather funny if you didn’t. 

“Eels or Lamprey with pudding in the belly” aside, here are a few I’m planning on for a future 18th century test kitchen:

Note:  If you decide to delve into the book, remember it was published in 1782.  The spelling is surprisingly uniform but what looks like “f” is typically “s” in older english books. 


Dracula in Season

God, Mr. Darcy is so passé.  And  Jane Austen rewrites?  Please, we’ve already experienced the zombie/sea monster phenomenon.   It’s so over.

But Dracula? 

Huh, I thought vamps were dead.  Apparently not.  Mina Harker’s got a lot to say about her sizzling courtship with old Draco and who can blame her?  Dracula did have several brides, he’s been around the block, and of course, the Twilight phenom has reawakened obsessive love, convincing us that stalking is positively not creepy. 

So what to read next, you ask?  Dracula, My Love and Dracula in Love  have my attention.  They tap a similar vein–Mina’s story, shadowy and gothic and sexy as all get out.  Instead of re-reading Dracula this October (a worthy tradtion), I’m planning on indulging with these delightful possibilities.

Goodreads Blurb:  Many have read and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But questions remain. What is the true story of Dracula’s origin? What if Mina could not bring herself to record the true story of their scandalous affair—until now?

In Dracula, My Love: The Secret Journals of Mina Harker, Syrie James explores these questions and more. A vibrant dramatization, told from Mina’s point of view, brings to life the crucial parts of Stoker’s story while showcasing Mina’s sexual awakening and evolution as a woman, and revealing a secret that could destroy her life. Torn between two men—a loving husband and a dangerous lover—Mina struggles to hang on to the deep love she’s found within her marriage, even as she is inexorably drawn to Dracula himself—the vampire that everyone she knows is determined to destroy.

Goodreads Blurb:  From the shadowy banks of the River Thames to the wild and windswept coast of Yorkshire, the quintessential Victorian virgin Mina Murray vividly recounts in the pages of her private diary the intimate details of what transpired between her and Count Dracula—the joys and terrors of a pas­sionate affair and her rebellion against a force of evil that has pursued her through time.

Mina’s version of this timeless gothic vampire tale is a visceral journey into the dimly lit bedrooms, mist-filled cemeteries, and locked asylum chambers where she led a secret life, far from the chaste and polite lifestyle the defenders of her purity, and even her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, expected of her.

Bram Stoker’s classic novel was only one side of the story. Now, for the first time, Dracula’s eternal muse reveals all. What she has to say is more sensual, more devious, and more enthralling than ever imagined. The result is a scintillating gothic novel that reinvents the tragic heroine Mina as a modern woman tor­tured by desire.

Fragonard’s Progress of Love

Historical evidence suggests Du Barry paid for her paintings and upon their return to Fragonard, allowed him to keep both the works and the money.  After all, it wasn’t his fault her love with Louis XV floundered with his death or that she could no longer bear to look at the paintings.  This account of her refusal is conjecture, of course.  No one truly knows why Du Barry opted to use another artist.  Some claim Fragonard’s paintings reminded her of her lover, gone, and others say she simply changed her mind, choosing Joseph-Marie Vien, the classical painter, over Fragonard, who embodied the Rococco, a style that fell out of favor with the resurgence of classicism.  Out with old, in with the new!

I like the tragic romance story better.  Du Barry seems capricious to have rejected the work based on trends, but she was a hated royal mistress and therefore reasonably considered an opportunist.  

But let’s get on to Fragonard’s Progress of Love:

Painting #1, The Pursuit

The young lady in pursuit is leaping over a wall, her ladies around her.  The lover is beseeching, a rose in hand, while the young lady has a curiously vacant look in her eyes.  Her skirts are in wild disarray, her hands outstreched suggesting a flight in earnest.   Does she wanted to be courted?  Is she coyly interested in this young man?  Notice the dark cupids on the upper right corner.  They are in half shadow.  The dolphin beneath them looks almost serpentine as his mouth pours water into the fountain below. 

Painting #2, The Meeting

The young lady appears alarmed, her left arm extended toward her lover–is she about to get caught in the middle of her assignation?  The lover is crouched, his hand perched upon a ladder, his knee resting on the balcony.  He looks wary, yet less concerned, definitely not enough to leave.  The statuary in this piece is a woman and child rather than two cupids in the first painting.  Curiously, the child looks as though he’s falling away from his mother, his arms outstretched, his little mouth rounded in panic, while the mother fists the cloth draped around her. 

Painting #3, The Love Letters

By far the most idyllic of the four, The Love Letters is sweet, adoring.  The lover rests his head on his lady’s shoulder, his posture relaxed.  The young lady is still prim, her ankles crossed, but she seems more serene in the glow of his adoration.  Again, the statuary is ironic.  The cupid is in a panic, reaching for the mother/woman.   The woman casts her gaze down at him, disdainful.  She’s not going to pick him up. As the encroaching darkness of the trees suggests, their window of love is closing.

Notice the lover’s hand curving around the young lady’s bosom.  Her left hand is slung over his shoulder–not exactly amorous in kind.  The lover’s expression is ardent, obsessive.  The young lady’s is contemplative and yet detached. 


Painting #4, The Lover Crowned

Again with the moody statuary here.  The statue looks like a fallen angel and is distinctly a man versus a cupid, child, or woman.  The young lady is aloof, playful perhaps, but putting on more of a show crowning the lover than basking in his adoration.  The lover is arching toward his crown while an artist looks on–hardly an intimate scene.  One gets a sense of whimsy.  What has she given her lover already?  Why is she so aloof?  Are her intentions sincere?  Are his?

Guess we’ll never know what Fragonard had in mind.  He painted the Luviciennes panels at the Chateau, though few were permitted to witness their progress.  You can see them today at the Chateau (and online here) in the Salon Fragonard.

Hope you enjoyed!

Du Barry and the Louveciennes Panels

In 1769 Louis XV gifts Madame du Barry with the Louveciennes, a chateau on the Seine northwest of Paris. Under the direction of the architect, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, she builds a pavillion where she will entertain her beloved king.

Conceived as a set of wall-sized oil paintings, the Louveciennes Panels were originally commissioned from Jean-Honore Fragonard to illustrate the Progress of Love, i.e. the friendship and love Du Barry shares with the king. Unfortunately for Du Barry and Fragonard, death claims Louis XV in 1774 before final completion of the project.  The paintings now serve as a painful reminder of the affair.  Du Barry rejects them and replaces the panels with works on the same theme by Joseph-Marie Vien.

Louveciennes Blueprint

Fragonard’s Progress of Love was considered contemporar and vivacious, imbued with love’s greatest impulses.  On the contrary, Vien’s  similarly titled work Progress of Love in the Hearts of Young Girls features classical temples as the backdrop and creatures of sentimental love in antiquated costumes.   Compared to Fragonard’s lush conception of courtship, this was a sedate love, a deadened love without meaning or passion.  Du Barry, suffering the pains of her recent loss, must have felt so.

The Greek Maidens Adorning a Sleeping Cupid, Joseph-Marie Vien

The Lover Crowning His Mistress, Joseph-Marie Vien

Interesting fact:  Madame du Barry was arrested at Louveciennes in 1793 before the Revolution took her to the guillotine.

Come back tomorrow for the story of Fragonard’s Progress of Love, including their current location in Chateau Louveciennes!

The Love Letter – Jean-Honore Fragonard

1769-1770, Metropolitan Museum of Art

A young woman, unmistakably coy and a touch knowing, holds a love letter drawn from a posy.  She leans forward–in the midst of a secretive act?  A stack of white paper sits on the secretaire before her, disorganized, mussed, which leaves the viewer to wonder: has she just received the letter or written it, the clutch of pink flowers a declaration of her amour?

Golden light drenches the scene, spilling from the window to cascade down the ripples of her dress.  Her shaggy dog looks none too friendly.  His head is cowered, the line from his neck to body straight, his expression wary.  Does he see someone on the periphery?  Is he protecting his mistress from naive disaster?  Or perhaps the intentions of her suitor? 

If one asked the dog, I would imagine he’d say something here positvely stinks of impropriety.

11 Ways to Increase Writing Productivity

1.  Make your computer smarter than you

Step 1: Work on a computer that does not connect to the internet.  What????  Yes, tweety, delete your network setup so you won’t be tempted.  Also, ensure that your internet capable computer is a) on a shelf taller than you AND requires either a ladder or a chair to reach, or b) located on the other side of the house.  If you have seperate wings in your house, all the better.  Laziness will triumph.

2.  Deal with distractions and delegate

Dirty dishes in the sink?  Barter with your partner.  I’m sure you have something he/she wants more than not wanting to do the dishes.  At least you better hope so.

Dog barking at the door?  Install a doggie door and don’t cry when Bubbles goes missing. She’ll come back eventually.  Or not.  It’s okay.  Really.

Ecstatic when the mail person comes?  Install irretractable blinds in your office window.  Not only will this stop you from watching enrapt as a robin hunts worms in your grass, you won’t react like its christmas when the post comes. 

3.  Take a hike.

You can’t always work in the same location.  That would make you a hermit and we all know what happens to hermits, especially ones who own cats. 

4.  Acknowledge that you are a facehooker and that does not make you special.  It makes you easy.  Good writing should be difficult, not easy.

5.  Stop creeping so much

I know it’s important to update yourself on the latest gossip about the 42nd time Brad and Angelina are allegedly breaking up, but who cares?  Do they care about you?  That’s a big no.  They’re beautiful, rich, and successful.   Most of us writer types can’t even touch one of these!

On second thought, indulge.  Anecdotes about rearing 6 children and ho-running (Angelina, duh!  She was married to Billy Bob and once stated she wanted to taste the world) is the best vicarious living you’re gonna get this side of West Virginia.

6.  Get yourself a real live muse.  And no, if you’re a middle-aged male, make that male, the teenage ingenue next door doesn’t work. 

7.  If you must write agents hate mail to re-invigorate your writing (because yes, you are a superstar and they are just stupid to reject you), please do so with an invisible ink pen.  Better yet, don’t do this.  Does the word gatekeeper mean anything to you?

8.  Commit to eating one food all day to avoid unnecessary hunger pains.  Especially baby carrots.  When you turn orange, you will have the perfect excuse to call in sick to your actual job. 

9.  Make like Bella and write longhand in a pristine, mountain meadow.  Hey, don’t knock it.  It worked real good for Stephanie Meyer.

10.  If alcohol motivates you, develop a reward system, kind of like a punch card.  One drink for every 1,000 words.  If that doesn’t cut it, consider the substance abuse-talent paradigm.  Ernest Hemingway? Stephen King?  Why the hell not you?  When you think about it like that, you’re just one alcohol induced coma away from your breakout book.  God, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that earlier!

11.  Stop expecting me to tell you 11 ways in increase your writing productivity.  Don’t you know that top ten lists are the ones with all the answers?

Got a snarky tip of your own? Do share.

Oh, Don’t Be So Factsy About It

Image by ©LWA-Dann Tardif/CORBIS

Facts are important, some might say non-negotiable in your work. Get it right or make a fool out of yourself.   But is getting it right in every single instance really essential? For beginning writers most would probably say, “Absolutely.”  For seasoned authors, “Ehh….”

Facts are bendable, at least those that twitch about in the corner and catch the fancy in our eyes.  However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know your facts.  Madame Du Barry escaping the French Revolution?  Only if it’s speculative fiction.  A gentleman in the 1780s wearing trousers instead of breeches?  If he’s eccentric and fashionably progressive then why the hell not?

Checking, Rechecking, and Rechecking

As far as productivity goes, summer is the worst  for my writerly mindset. It’s muggy, I can’t see my computer screen in broad daylight, and there are extra chores like yardwork. Well, yeah, pretty much yardwork.

Right now I’m knee deep in editing Round Two. It’s more painful than the first draft and by that I mean I’m questioning everything. Was the Marshalsea London’s Southwark debtors’ prison? Would a fashionable lady in the 1780s be caught dead wearing a pouf de sentiment? Can one really have a surfeit of admiration or is surfeit only used to denote negative excesses? And then there’s the real nitpicky: What month did foxglove bloom in the 1790s? Are hazelnuts more brown or gold?

Har-de-har-de-har.  I can tell you already, I’ve looked up these answers several times. Like a scatterbrain, I assured myself they would glue to my memory. They didn’t. Yeah, I’m dumb with a capital D.U.M.  I need to Excel spreadsheet this stuff.

So let me tell you, when I stumbled across this article Hilary Mantel on Getting Facts Right in Historical Fiction, I found the advice spot on for what I needed today.  I especially loved the following:

“I heard Penelope Fitzgerald say that she did her research after a book, not before. Didn’t she get angry letters, asked a shocked member of the audience? Oh yes, she said, smiling. They tell me about the birds in the trees, she said; in no way could the hero, in such a place, in such a year, have seen or heard a collared dove! She had a certain way of smiling, which suggested a mind above ornithology, an imagination licensed for its own flights.”

Research after writing a book?  I recently read about a bestselling author who does this.  Maybe getting the words down first is the pivotal part of the process?

An imagination licensed for its own flights?  Oh, God, I love this.

(p.s. – In case you’re wondering, factsy is not an acknowledged word in the dictionary.  Yet.)