Tag Archives: historical fiction

Donna Russo Morin

Portrait of ConspiracyDonna Russo Morin is a talented author of historical fiction, and she’s been a friend of The Copperfield Review’s for several years. Here’s my latest interview with Donna where she fills us in about her newest project, the historical novel Portrait of a Conspiracy.

Meredith Allard: I know you’ve been busy writing new historical novels since our last interview. Tell us about your most recently published historical novel.

Donna Russo Morin: PORTRAIT OF A CONSPIRACY (May 2016) is the first book in a trilogy, Da Vinci’s Disciples, about a secret society of women artists, under the tutelage of the great Leonardo da Vinci, who must navigate the treacherous life of 15th century Florence while trying to bring their artistry to the world.

In the first book, two families–the Medicis and the Pazzis–are changed forever when a rivalry becomes a feud, a feud leads to murder, and murder provokes a deadly vendetta. Giuliano de’Medici is murdered by the Pazzi family, and his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico, launches a path of vengeance through Florence, leaving a trail of death and devastation in his wake. Meanwhile, a secret society of women artists discovers one of their own is missing—and with her, a crucial painting. With the help of Leonardo da Vinci, the women set out on a desperate search for their sister as they begin their own conspiracy, one that could save them, or get them all killed. Battling their own wars—abusive husbands, love affairs, and the pressures and pettiness of rank—the women will ultimately discover there is no greater strength than that of women united.

M.A.: What inspired you to write the novel? What is it about the historical era that caught your fancy?

D.R.M.: 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. Additionally, in the interim, I found out that my last name (of my birth, Russo) originated in Florence some time in the 10th century.

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

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know about your newest novel?

D.R.M.: 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, greatest, and acknowledged women artists of the time; it’s where the story was always meant to go. And, I’m so pleased to report, that as of this writing, the book has surpassed the top 50 ranking of Italian Historical Fiction on Amazon.

M.A.: As many of Copperfield’s readers know, writing historical fiction can be more time consuming and sometimes more difficult than writing in other genres. What prompts you to continue writing historical fiction?

D.R.M.: Besides the fact that I am a card-carrying history geek, it really is a combination of my love of conducting research as well as the fact that my ‘voice,’ my writer’s voice, is a bit formal, very suited to historical periods. I’m not sure it would flow as well with something completely modern. Though I am of the ‘never say never’ mindset, so who knows what the future may bring.

M.A.: Where can readers connect with you online?

D.R.M.: Hah! Just about everywhere. On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Donna.Russo.Morin and https://www.facebook.com/DaVincisDisciples/. On Twitter: @DonnaRussoMorin. On Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2729597.Donna_Russo_Morin. At my blog: donnarussomorin.blogspot.com. And, of course, my website: donnarussomorin.com, where people can read excerpts from all my books.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Jennifer Falkner

By Meredith Allard

Jennifer Falkner is the creator and editor of the online literary journal Circa, which is devoted to historical fiction, which happens to be my favorite genre (for those of you who haven’t already guessed that about me). What makes Circa unique is the fact that Jennifer is from Canada, and she loves to publish stories about Canadian history. You can visit Jennifer online at her website.

I had known of Circa since it’s one of the few journals devoted to historical fiction (the other, of course, being some little journal called Copperfield something or other…). Copperfield has published a few pieces of Jennifer’s short historical fiction, so I knew she was a great writer as well as a great lover of historical fiction. Jennifer was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about historical fiction and Circa. Here are her responses. If you write short historical fiction, take note!

Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

Jennifer Falkner: Writing stories is something I’ve just always done. I remember being nine or ten years old and writing westerns. I was going through a Louis L’Amour phase, I guess. But I only got serious about doing it well and for an audience besides myself after I turned thirty. I don’t always write historical fiction. If anything, I’d say half of what I write is contemporary. But the past has a fascination that I cannot ignore for long.

M.A.: What is your writing process like? When and where do you find time to write?

J.F.: Whenever I can. Sometimes that’s first thing in the morning before the rest of house is awake, sometimes squeezed in over lunch. Most often though I barricade myself in the study for three or four hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

M.A.: How would you describe your writing to potential readers?

J.F.: Improving, slowly.

M.A.: How did you come to start Circa, your online literary journal for historical fiction? Why did you choose to focus on historical fiction?

J.F.: There were so few venues dedicated solely to historical short stories when I started Circa a few years ago. There was The Copperfield Review, of course, and Alt HistVintage Script, and Snapshots of History. Now, sadly, the latter two are no longer publishing. And none of them was in Canada. So it was partly out of self-interest; I wanted to read more historical fiction, especially stories to do with the Canadian past. And once I landed on the name, I couldn’t not do it.

M.A.: What would you like to tell those who love historical fiction and readers of Copperfieldabout Circa? How can they submit their historical fiction? How do you decide which pieces you’ll publish?

J.F.: To me, history is never bland. It’s lively, preposterous, funny, sad, bizarre, everything. I want Circa to reflect all of that.

With each issue, I feel Circa is getting stronger and more diverse. Pieces have to be well-written, obviously. The writer has to have done her work, researching, drafting, editing. I try to choose pieces from as many different periods as possible. This can be tricky because I receive a lot of submissions set during either the American Civil War or World War Two. And many submissions are not stories, but vignettes, a day in the life, which can be well done, but often read more like a history lesson. I want to be interested in the characters, I want to see them challenged and changed over the course of the story. And I love to be surprised.

Writers interested in submitting should check out Circa’s Submission page for instructions on how to submit.

M.A.: Which are your favorite historical novels? That’s often a tough call, I know.

J.F.: Oh, too many to list! But I’ll have a go. These are the books I read over and over. Orlandoby Virginia Woolf; The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning; Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne; anything by Hilary Mantel, of course, but especially her book The Giant, O’Brien, which will break your heart, it’s written so beautifully; The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. And I’m a sucker for whodunits set in Ancient Rome, especially the Falco series by Lindsay Davis and the Ruso series by Ruth Downie.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

J.F.: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, George Eliot, Fay Weldon, especially her Letters to Alice On First Reading Jane Austen – a must-read for any aspiring novelist and any Jane Austen fans, Jeanette Winterson, Elizabeth Gaskell. And probably a dozen others.

Hmm, I just noticed how many women are in my list.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?

J.F.: Read, read, read. Read in, around, and over the period in which your story is set. Then pick out the one or two details that make the period unique and bring it to life. The reader doesn’t want a history lesson.

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

J.F.: The next issue of Circa was released on October 15 and it’s bursting with great stories!

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

The Ambitious Madame BonaparteWritten by Ruth Hull Chatlien

Published by Amika Press

Review by Tracey Skeine

5 quills

 

I love novels about strong women characters who have the courage to be themselves despite what everyone else tells them. I also love reading historical novels about times or events I’m not familiar with. With her first novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, author Ruth Hull Chatlien delivers on each of those points.

Betsy Patterson wants to rise above her station, and she is ambitious indeed. Her severe father is a merchant in Baltimore, and that life isn’t enough for Betsy. These are the years of the early 19th century, and women were supposed to get married and have children and otherwise get out of the way of the menfolk. But Betsy has other intentions, and she is determined enough to see those intentions through, even when they cloud her judgement. She is not impressed by the young country, the young men, or the fashions of America.

When Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, comes to town, Betsy seizes the opportunity and marries him. But big brother Napoleon isn’t playing, and Betsy, now Madame Bonaparte, isn’t accepted into society.

The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte has all the historical details I love in historical novels, the kind of details that make you feel like you’re there in the early 19th century alongside Betsy. Betsy is a strong woman at a time when it wasn’t acceptable to be a strong woman, and she has to fight many battles to follow her dreams. It was an engrossing story about something I didn’t know about (Napoleon’s brother marrying an American), and it held my attention the whole time. I’d recommend it for people who love strong women characters in historical fiction. And also for readers who are interested in historical fiction about Napoleon, the War of 1812, and early 19th century America.

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Tracey Skeine received her B.A. degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is still working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

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Bellman and Black

Written by Diane Setterfield

Published by Simon and Schuster

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

Review by Meredith Allard

4quills

 

I should begin by saying that I haven’t read author Diane Setterfield’s New York Times bestselling novel The Thirteenth Tale so I had no expectations about reading Bellman & Black based on the success of her previous novel. Bellman & Black is a book about death, the whole death, and nothing but death, so help you God. It starts with the death of a rook, which a young William Bellman kills to show off in front of his friends. Let’s just say rooks hold grudges.

Many others die in the story too. William’s family dies. Those around William die. William grows into an intense man who works, works, works, and has time or care for little else. After his wife’s death, with his only remaining child close to death, William cuts a deal with a mysterious “man” he calls Black. Afterwards, William feels compelled to create an emporium for mourning—a Wal-Mart for Funeral Necessities, you might call it. Known as Bellman and Black, the mourning emporium becomes successful (since we’re all going to die after all). William thinks he has cut a deal to preserve his daughter’s life. In the end, William learns that it wasn’t a deal for his daughter’s life after all.

I love Diane Setterfield’s exquisite writing style. She has a fluidity and dexterity with the language that I feel is missing from many present day authors. She is both straightforward and poetic, and it’s from the sheer power of her writing alone that I give the book four stars. The character of William Bellman, on which the success or failure of this novel depends, begins in an interesting way but grows stagnant somewhere along the line. He watches people die and throws himself into his work, work, work with minimal emotion, which leaves minimal emotion for the reader to connect to. I kept waiting for something to happen in the story that didn’t depend on someone’s death, but when death is the theme of the novel such waiting is useless. The “ghost” in this story is Black, who isn’t a man after all. Like I said, rooks hold grudges. In the world Setterfield creates in Bellman & Black, I wonder how murderers of people would be haunted throughout their lives if this is how William is haunted after his childhood mistake? I’m not advocating killing birds by any stretch. I love God’s creatures great and small. I’m simply saying that in the scheme of things, I wonder how much of a crime the young William Bellman committed.

And yet, I finished the book, which must say something for the power of Setterman’s prose. I kept reading, pulled steadily through by Setterman, hoping for a change in William Bellman, hoping he would finally learn to connect with his daughter, hoping he would finally have the courage to live, though none of those things came to pass.  I realized I had to take the story as it was instead of what I wanted it to be, and as it was I loved Setterman’s writing.

If you’re looking for a story with a distinct plot and characters you feel emotion for and connect to, Bellman & Black may not be the story for you. If you want to read a beautifully written, lyrical, haunting novel and you’re interested in simply going along for the ride wherever the story takes you, then you may enjoy Bellman & Black. I am taken enough with Setterman’s prose that I will go back and read her previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore to research my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, my husband and I visited the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and the Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my particular interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so running unexpectedly across her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than a shadowy historical figure who existed only in the yellowed pages of old letters and biographies.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun(Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article, the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome Bonaparte gave Betsy that particular item after they married.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp wit, I feel certain that she would have had something saucy to say about that.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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Using Information Lag in Historical Fiction

By Ruth Hull Chatlien

My forthcoming historical novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, is based on the true story of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte, the American beauty who married Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, while he was visiting the United States in 1803. As I was planning the plot, one of the things I had to deal with was something I call information lag. In our current age of instantaneous communication, it can be hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Betsy’s hometown of Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometime amused themselves during long journeys by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

Sometimes I had documentary evidence in the form of letters and news articles that told just exactly how long it took for specific pieces of news from Europe to reach the United States and vice versa. At other times, I had to dig around to find out what typical travel times might have been. Another complicating factor was that stormy weather made sailing the Atlantic in winter very difficult. Mail from overseas tended to slow down in the rough-sailing months.

As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel. Once Jerome and Betsy realized they wanted to marry, they had to decide whether to seek the blessing of the Bonapartes before they proceeded. At the time, Napoleon had not yet become emperor, but he was the First Consul, the chief executive of France, and he believed he had the right to direct his sibling’s lives. Betsy’s father wanted the marriage delayed while they waited for Jerome’s aide to travel to France to find out Napoleon’s reaction—or at least, gain the blessing of Jerome’s mother. Jerome vehemently opposed the idea.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure the information lag was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for it because it added considerable tension to the plot. The delay in learning the Bonaparte reaction to the marriage, the months it took to learn the astonishing news that Napoleon had become emperor, and the lag in communication between the lovers once Jerome returned to naval service—all these played a significant role in my characters’ ability to make good decisions and chart the course of their lives. If Betsy and Jerome had better means of communication, their lives might have turned out quite differently than they did. But then again, if that had been the case, I probably wouldn’t have written my novel.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her speciality is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, coming out in December 2013, will be her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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