A Place in History – Fiesole, Italy

Fiesole as Setting for The Contessa’s Easel

by Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

The late novelist Henry James once wrote, “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” How insightful his words have been and are for writers who bring their imagined characters to life in geographical settings replete with recorded histories, both societal and individual.

Fiesole, Italy, a picturesque, much-visited, and perpetually-storied Tuscan hill town five kilometers northeast of Florence, offers authors records, artifacts, ruins, architecture, gardens, and artworks prolific enough to ensure careers-long historical contexts. Giovanni Boccaccio set The Decameron here, E. M. Forster A Room with a View. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Hermann Hesse’s Peter Camenzind, and James’ own Italian Hours feature the evocative location in their pages.

When I first visited Fiesole with my husband during the summer of 2002, I was smitten. With its ancient Etruscan walls, Roman baths and amphitheater, fourteenth-century town hall, the Monastery of San Francesco, several churches, the novice home of Fra Angelico in San Domenico, the town offered historical narratives at every turn. Villa Le Balze (Georgetown University’s study-abroad campus), Villa Sparta (former residence of the Greek royal family), and numerous other distinguished domiciles each offered detailed accounts about their inhabitants, visitors, interlopers, intimates, and detractors. Living in and near the town for periods of time over the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries have been: French writer Marcel Proust, American art historian Bernard Berenson, German painter Paul Klee, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The town is known as the most affluent suburb of Florence.

Since our initial visit, my husband and I have returned to Fiesole often, sometimes as a couple, other times with student groups we have sponsored. Our most recent trip, in July of 2018, was to conduct research for my fifth novel, its working title The Contessa’s Easel, the anticipated third in a quartet of the Orla Paints Series. While Orla’s Canvas (Penmore Press, 2015), the first novel in the series, and Painting Mercy (Penmore Press, 2018), the second, make frequent and direct references to Fiesole and the fictional Contessa Beatrice D’Annunzio’s villa-turned-orphanage during World War II, The Contessa’s Easel will call Fiesole home, with the main action of the novel taking place there.

Plenty of history contextualizes and informs the narrative, as the action alternates between the novel’s present, the summer of 1989, and its past, the summer of 1944. The raison d’etre for the conflation of the two historical periods is Fiesole’s forty-fifth-anniversary celebration of its liberation from the Nazis (who had seized and occupied Villa Le Balze because of its comprehensive view of Florence below). Among the celebratory events is protagonist and recognized American painter Orla Castleberry’s art exhibition, featuring portraits of Fiesolani in the novel’s present. The same locals had been photographed during the Nazi occupation of the town. The photographs, made available by the Contessa to Orla’s lifelong confidant, attorney and history aficionado Tad Charbonneau, become the primary sources for Tad’s debut history book, The Orphans of Fiesole. In turn, the photographs inspire Orla to seek out Fiesolani who, almost a half-century since World War II interrupted and altered their lives, still live locally. While the 1944 photographs tell their subjects’ stories in medias res, as it were, Orla’s paintings render their personal histories via their faces and bodies interpreted by a painter’s brush. My research in Fiesole revealed a number of actual archived photographs that afforded me the opportunity to inform my own fiction.

In the layering of one historical period over another that occurs through time, 1989 Fiesole found itself responding to the global AIDS crisis. Although AIDS arrived in Italy during the early 1980s, the Ministry of Health, led by Carlo Donat-Cattin, had refused to initiate public education programs even as late as 1988. Not until mid-1989, with the arrival of Donat-Cattin’s successor, Francesco DeLorenzo, did informative television commercials and public education initiatives take hold. Just as Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century pilgrims had fled Florence and the plague for the hills and fresh air of Fiesole, some afflicted and dying of the more recent “plague” also find their way to the Contessa’s villa. Orphanage transforms to hospice. Past function is re-purposed by present need. Several German and Italian and American characters meet, brought together by an epidemic threatening all. Former alliances and misalliances are re-introduced and re-construed in yet another historical context fraught with fear, uncertainty, and imminent mortality.

Also illustrative of historical layering is the Hotel Villa Aurora, just steps from the bus stop in Piazza Mino. Recently closed, the hotel was still in 2018 housing visitors to Fiesole.

Its garden terrace, its contemporary basement bar, and its convenience to Fiesole’s sites made it a stopping place for many. Even as I researched at the hotel last July, I was hard-pressed to imagine the barroom as the prison it had once been for the ragazzi, young men rounded up by the Nazis and doomed to die unless and until the three police officers, the carabinieri, who came to be known and honored as “the martyrs of Fiesole”, came out of hiding in the ruins. The three, a trio of partisans amidst a region of fellow partisans, had carried out acts of resistance for months. Hearing of their fellow Fiesolani’s peril, they did emerge from the shadows. They were shot on the terrace the evening of August 12, 1944 (ironically, after the Allied Forces had already liberated Florence on August 11). Today visitors can honor them on a self-guided walking tour in Fiesole. They are: Vittorio Marandola, Alberto LaRocca, and Fulvio Sbarretti. All were in their twenties.

Just as past merges into present with the historical martyrs’ lives and the monument to those lives, several past relationships in The Contessa’s Easel also develop into present ones. Those relationships, too, are altered by the unrelenting passage of time, vast political changes, as well as town, family, and individual secrets exposed and contradicted. No character is exempt from surprises–some painful, some joyous, all revelatory.  Every character must re-assess and re-consider what they knew or thought they knew in 1944, what they know or think they know in 1989. The inevitable and irrefutable corollary, of course, follows as a question: What is the relationship between the historical record and a human being’s experienced life? This is the question The Contessa’s Easel explores.

The late American novelist, E. L. Doctorow once wrote, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”

My goal in The Contessa’s Easel is to invite readers to feel vicariously in a brick and mortar context, a context verifiable by the historical record; to explore the “blur,” the moment when a character’s particular life intersects with social history; and to vivify and render kinetic an imagined place that becomes—at least for the time readers visit it—as real as any historical one. In this case, as real as Fiesole.

About the author

Mary Donnarumma Sharnick is the author of the National Federation of Press women prize-winning novels, Orla’s Canvas and Painting Mercy, both published by Penmore Press. Her previous two novels, Thirst and Plagued, both set in Renaissance Venice, were published by Fireship Press. Thirst is being adapted for the operatic stage by composer Gerard Chiusano and librettists Robert Cutrofello and Mary Chiusano. Mary teaches at FlexSchool, New Haven, Connecticut, and offers a range of writing services to individuals, groups, and schools. She and her husband lead custom-designed tours to Italy, the country Mary considers her second home.

You can find out more about Mary on:

www.marysharnick.com

www.penmorepress.com

Twitter: @marysharnick

Facebook:@authormarydonnarummasharnick

A Place in History – Scotland

A Sense of Place

Scottish author Marie Macpherson explains how her native county of East Lothian provided the foundations for a trilogy.

 

 

 

Hailes Castle

 

The mist-covered mountains of the Scottish Highlands may have cast a spell over many romantic novelists, but my heart lies in the Central Lowlands where most of Scotland’s political struggles and bloody conflicts took place. The early 16th century during the turbulent period of the Reformation and the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, has inspired my trilogy based on the life of the Reformer, John Knox.

The rich history of my birthplace has fascinated me, not surprising perhaps, since I was brought up on a battlefield – the Battle of Pinkie fought in 1547 (we lost) – and within sight of Fa’side Castle from where Mary Stewart set off for her last confrontation as Queen of Scots at Carberry Hill (she lost). Digging in the back garden became an archaeological excavation to find buried treasure or the bones of slain soldiers. Other blood-soaked battlefields were within easy reach; Prestonpans (we won), Dunbar (we lost, twice), Athelstaneford, birthplace of the Scottish flag, the Saltire (we won). There’s hardly an inch of turf in the Lothians untrodden by a marauding army and hardly a castle or stately home that is not haunted by a ghost. This instilled in me a strong sense of the past and urged me to explore more deeply the stirring history of my native county. Writing fiction gives my imagination free rein as I attempt to conjure up what life was like for the inhabitants of those now ruined castles and deserted abbeys. Exploring the personal relationships and often hidden motivations of historical characters drive my curiosity.

My journey started off with a very small step, almost a footnote in history, The Treaty of Haddington signed in 1548 which betrothed Mary, Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin and this intrigued me. Several sources mention that this significant event took place at the abbey and for years this was assumed t to be St Mary’s Collegiate Church as there was no abbey in Haddington – except there was – or had been. Sadly, St Mary’s Cistercian Priory, a victim of the Reformation, had been erased from history and memory for centuries. Only a few stones and place names – Abbey Mill, the Abbey Bridge – recorded its existence. Yet, as I discovered, this long-lost priory had been one of the wealthiest religious houses in Britain, presided over by some very unorthodox prioresses, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the reluctant nun, who became my heroine.

Another nugget I unearthed concerned the playwright and makar, Sir David Lindsay, who wrote a scathing satire on the corrupt Roman Catholic clergy. He had been exiled to his estate at Garleton Castle, near Haddington, now a forgotten ruin set amidst farm buildings. Speculating that the fates of the poet and the prioress might be intertwined became the starting point of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

Digital StillCamera

The historic town of Haddington was also the birthplace of another religious figure, the fiery Reformer, John Knox. Because he called himself Giffordiensis, it was assumed he was born in Gifford, a village that did not exist at the time: he was more likely to have been born in Gifford Gate, Haddington.

 

 

There was also confusion about his birthdate. 1505 is inscribed on the commemorative plaque beside the oak tree planted by the great Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, whereas Knox was probably born around 1513/14. After studying at St Andrews, he returned to Haddington to serve as a Roman Catholic priest and notary. He was ‘pulled from the puddle of papistry’ by the charismatic preacher, George Wishart, who was arrested in St Mary’s Church, despite Knox standing at the foot of the pulpit bearing a two-handed sword to defend him. While Wishart was taken to St Andrews and burnt at the stake, Knox was arrested as a heretic and sentenced to toil for 19 months in the French galleys. Which fate was worse? Knox’s survival from certain death convinced him that God had intervened to save him to become His divine messenger. The First Blast of the Trumpet ends after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington when Queen Mary sails off to France in a galley, possibly rowed by the slave John Knox.

Hailes Castle sets the scene for opening of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

At midnight on a doom-laden Hallowe’en three young lasses sit round the hearth in the West Tower, gazing into the flames trying to divine their future. From this fortress perched high on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the River Tyne, accessible only by a narrow farm track, the powerful Hepburn family, the Earls of Bothwell, controlled the lands of East Lothian. Though now a ruin, this hidden gem retains many features still recognisable enough to fire the novelist’s imagination. In the Great Hall, the earls would host grand banquets prepared in the vaulted kitchen underneath where scullions would turn spits over huge fires; children would scamper up and down the turnpike staircases of the three towers, and prisoners would languish in the two pit prisons or oubliettes – one of which is said to have contained George Wishart after his arrest. What must it have been like to have been lowered down into a pit and left in complete darkness on a freezing winter’s night?

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, brought Mary, Queen of Scots to Hailes at least twice – if not three times. Firstly, when he abducted her after the murder of her husband Darnley, secondly on their way to Edinburgh to be married and possibly a third time before the stand-off at Carberry Hill where she surrendered to the Confederate lords and he fled into exile.

No self-respecting Scottish castle is without a ghost and Hailes is said to have at least two. The spirit of a man who starved to death in the pit prison because he had fallen in love with the laird’s wife, and a White Lady, said to be Mary, Queen of Scots, reputedly haunt the castle. Although local people claim to have sighted these spirits, I’ve still to experience any ghostly presence. However, wandering about the jagged ruins does send shivers up my spine. If only those stone walls could talk.

The Second Blast of the Trumpet follows the release of Knox into exile, firstly in England and then to Calvin’s Geneva, Frankfurt and Dieppe. Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Prioress Elisabeth Hepburn stands by the Regent, Queen Marie de Guise, in her struggle to hold the throne for her daughter against the oncoming tide of Reformation, led by the Protestant Lords of the Congregation. As they travel round the various royal residences, I try to give a flavour of what life was like in a Renaissance palace such as Falkland or Holyrood, or a fortified castle like Stirling or Edinburgh (none of which were a rocky grotto or bat cave as portrayed in the recent film!).

I’m working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet, which takes place mainly in Edinburgh where I lived for a time as a student and which has a special place in my heart. The medieval Old Town of Auld Reekie, a labyrinth of cobbled streets, narrow wynds and hidden courtyards, is amazingly well preserved and positively reeks of history, although the steaming midden heaps have long gone. John Knox House, where the reformer lived for a short time before his death, retains many medieval features. The dark oak panelling and painted ceilings make it particularly atmospheric, transporting me back in time to see Knox at his desk writing his fire-breathing sermons to be thundered from the pulpit in St Giles’ Kirk. Every stone and cobble from Edinburgh Castle down the spine of the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace has witnessed conflict and chaos, corruption and cruelty through the centuries. I consider myself very fortunate to have all this history on my doorstep to inspire me as I strive to breathe life into Scotland’s rich past.

About Marie Macpherson

Marie Macpherson hails from from the historic town of Musselburgh, six miles from the Scottish capital Edinburgh, but left the Honest Toun to study Russian at Strathclyde University. She spent a year in the former Soviet Union to research her PhD thesis on the 19th century Russian writer, Mikhail Lermontov, said to be descended from the poet and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.

 

After a career teaching languages and literature from Moscow to Madrid, she has found her niche in writing historical fiction which combines her academic’s love of research with a passion for storytelling.

The First Blast of the Trumpet and The Second Blast of the Trumpet are published by Penmore Press. She’s currently working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet.

Connect with Marie on:

Penmore Press Page: https://www.penmorepress.com/penmore_authors_/marie-macpherson.html

https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B007WAY5NE?_encoding=UTF8&redirectedFromKindleDbs=true&ref_=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1&rfkd=1&shoppingPortalEnabled=true

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5404227.Marie_Macpherson

WordPress: https://mariemacpherson.wordpress.com/about/

Twitter: @MGMacpherson

Facebook author page: Marie Macpherson

https://www.facebook.com/marie.macpherson.96

Watch the mini-documentary on YouTube:
John Knox and the Birth of the Scottish Reformation:  http://youtu.be/40PV0rll6dw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing fiction using historical fact

Secret Agents, Tulips, and the English Crown Jewels

The real history behind The Chosen Man Trilogy

Some authors are irritated by the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ but I see it as perfectly valid. Knowing the genesis of a good story can deepen its enjoyment or appreciation. In my case, however, it’s rather chicken and egg. Which came first, the idea for The Chosen Man and what became a trilogy, or the ideas generated out of the research? Historical fiction authors can probably relate to this; they may also agree that while research can take you down fascinating rabbit holes, some of the best bits have to be left out because readers almost certainly won’t believe it. This is what happened when I started gathering material about the first financial bubble known as tulipmania or tulip fever and Vatican secret agents for The Chosen Man. All of which was fascinating, but in many respects almost beggared belief.

But where did the idea come from? Well, the story began with a combination of events, one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele, a British National Trust property on the River Tamar in Cornwall and the model for the fictional house ‘Crimphele’ in my first novel. Wandering around the house mentally preparing the sequel to The Empress Emerald (set early 20th Century), I was beset by characters living in the 17th Century. To start with, the evil-minded McNab walked out of a wall, crossed the Great Hall and disappeared, then re-appeared later crossing the courtyard. He made my skin crawl, but he was not to be ignored. The portrait of a Stuart harridan gave me the unpleasant mother-in-law, and then to top it all, while I was gazing down at the Tamar Estuary from the roof of the Tudor tower I ‘saw’ Ludo da Portovenere arrive on a boat – much as he does at the end of the first book in the trilogy. So, I went home, set aside my original notes and started a new book entirely.

The story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA and I was reminded of the Dutch tulip bubble. During the 1630s in the Netherlands, or the United Provinces as the country was known then, tulip bulbs were worth more than their weight in gold. A virus which attacked the bulbs resulted in exotic stripes or ‘flames’ on petals, and a single rare bulb could cost three times the annual wage of a skilled artisan or even the price of an elegant house in Amsterdam. This was a period of intense political and religious intrigue in Europe. Spain was heavily involved in the Thirty Years War to regain Flanders; Pope Urban VIII was outwardly supporting Spain while conspiring to limit the size and power of the Holy Roman Empire, to which Habsburg Spain belonged; and France was playing both sides against the middle, harrying Spanish ships and playing double games with Rome. Having lived in the Netherlands I was well acquainted with the tulipmania, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo might be employed as an agent provocateur in a conspiracy to undermine the burgeoning Protestant Dutch economy. Charismatic, wily Ludo is fictional, but he serves to show how just one man can create financial mayhem and ruin the lives of humble men and women in the process. Acting on behalf of the Spanish monarch and a Vatican cardinal, Ludo encourages and facilitates speculation on tulip bulbs.

The conspiracy theory behind Ludo’s actions is unproven, but the tulip bubble was very well documented at the time. Contemporary reports and records of sales transactions demonstrate the outrageous escalating prices paid up to 1637, when the bubble burst.

The question is why did otherwise sober, thrifty Dutch men and women engage in what was basically gambling with flowers that for most of the year could not even be seen? The answer lies in a combination of factors overshadowed by the knowledge that Death was quite literally on their doorstep.

Amsterdam in 1635 was a thriving city driven by what we call the ‘work ethic’. Frippery and ostentation were frowned upon, so what could people who by their very thrift have acquired surplus income spend their money on? It had to be something that was not a visible luxury. Some people became patrons to up and coming artists, some became tulip connoisseurs. These exotic flowers, introduced into Holland from the land of the infidel, were defined as a ‘connoisseur item’ and were named after famous admirals and towns, and coveted. Within no time, otherwise sensible men and women began gambling on bulbs doubling or tripling their value in the space of a year, a month, a week – by 1636 prices were going up by the day. Men of both the professional and artisan classes, and many women, were spending their entire savings on bulbs, because money must not lie idle, and plague could kill an entire family in the space of one day.

One pamphlet of the time recorded the items and their value which were traded for a single Viceroy bulb. As you read, bear in mind the family of a shoemaker or baker lived on between 250 and 350 guilders* a year.

Item Value
(florins*)
Two lasts of wheat 448
Four lasts of rye 558
Four fat oxen 480
Eight fat swine 240
Twelve fat sheep 120
Two hogsheads of wine 70
Four casks of beer 32
Two tons of butter 192
A complete bed 100
A suit of clothes 80
A silver drinking cup 60
Total 2,500

(Guilders and florins* – the name of the currency used at this time varied from province to province. I opted to use guilders because it is the modern word for the currency.)

At its height, in the early spring of 1637, a Dutch merchant paid 6,650 guilders for a dozen tulip bulbs. Artisans pawned or sold their tools to ‘invest’ – largely thanks to Ludo da Portovenere, who brings bulbs from Constantinople then facilitates a futures market so humble men and women can participate in the fun. Ludo had access to the forbidden city because he was once a Barbary corsair and speaks the language.

As the trilogy progresses, Ludo gradually reveals his identity, or lack of it. His mother, a Doria, daughter of the Doge of Genoa, was captured by corsairs. Ludo was born in the Berber stronghold of Salé and raised by Murat Reïs, a renegade Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who went into history as the infamous Murat Reïs the Younger, illustrious ancestor of the American Vanderbilt family, Jackie Onassis and Sir Winston Churchill.

In Book 2, A Turning Wind, Ludo moves into the Portuguese Goan spice trade, but he is still pursued by the Vatican agent, Rogelio, who must destroy any evidence of the tulip conspiracy. Rogelio is part of the Vatican Black Order, sinister operatives and secret agents tasked with eliminating those who oppose or threaten the power of Rome. Here again, my background reading supplied much of the story – although this is where I also chose to leave out quite lot. The real history behind the Holy Alliance and the Black Order is hair-raising.

To write this second book I had to read about taxes and tariffs on cargoes from the East, about gems and silks, and secret treaties between England and Spain. Ludo becomes involved in delicate personal missions for two monarchs and sets in motion his vendetta on the Doria clan, who rejected his mother on her return to Liguria and exiled her to the castle in Porto Venere.

Agostino Doria was Doge of Genoa from 1600-1603. His family tree names each of his sons, but there is also an un-named daughter (who became Ludo’s mother). Having lived across the Gulf of La Spezia in Lerici, I knew a fair amount about Porto Venere. Each of the scenes there is written with the place very clearly in mind. Ludo, we learn is illegitimate, he is also ambitious and determined to get recompense for the way his mother was treated by her brothers, which is exactly what would have happened to any woman of ‘gentle birth’ who had been captured by corsairs: she could never hope to make a good marriage after that, her name was sullied.

As the story progresses, Ludo is sent to the Spanish court, which is passing the summer in El Escorial. He has been engaged by Charles Stuart to seek support from Catholic Spain for the coming Civil War in England. He is also charged by King Charles’ wife, the French Henrietta Maria, to help her sister Isabel, Queen of Spain. Both these commissions are based on real, albeit perhaps little-known affairs. During the early 1640s Spanish and English Ambassadors were drawing up a treaty that would enable Spanish troops to cross southern England as a land bridge to Flanders to avoid being attacked by the French. It was a tricky issue, the Protestant English celebrated the failure of Catholic Spain to invade Britain in 1588, the Spanish would not have been welcome, despite the fact that the West Country mainly favoured the Royalists during the subsequent war. Ludo becomes involved in these negotiations, and also in the Spanish queen’s private battle for control over her husband Felipe IV with his valido (First Minister and favourite) the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares, and his Gorgon of a wife, Inez.

This became another moment where researching documented history uncovered details begging to be turned into fiction. The Conde-Duque was difficult, dangerous and spectacularly ugly. And in each respect, he and his wife were well-matched. Writing scenes involving these two real characters was as entertaining as it was challenging. A lot has been written (in Spanish) about both, so I had to choose my words carefully.

While researching Goa and the uncut-gem trade, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) while preparing for A Turning Wind. In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza. This is where having lived in different countries and travelled pretty widely came in useful too. We had lived near El Escorial in the province of Madrid for a number of years, and I had visited Lisbon, Portugal, on various occasions.

Imagining these places in the past was not difficult, although Lisbon was effectively destroyed during a major earthquake in the 18th century, which made describing the old city rather more creative than factual.

 

Book 3, By Force of Circumstance, was helped along by a visit to a gin distillery in Plymouth (important research here!) and some astonishing facts relating to how Queen Henrietta Maria tried to raise money for Charles Stuart during the English Civil War. On a more serious level, one of the main themes in the trilogy shows how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. What happens to the main characters, Ludo, Alina and Marcos, is determined by a conflict not of their making, in a country not their own. Their efforts to safeguard their families was probably little different to what real people in their social circumstances experienced.

To write this part of the story I needed to find out what happened to certain gems, brooches, necklaces and pearl-studded hatbands belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn these royal heirlooms was well documented at the time, although a few, including the spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the jewels is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. It became a matter of ‘what if . . .’ combined with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.

This final story takes Ludo back Porto Venere. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. I’d had the final scene of the trilogy in mind for a very long time, but writing it brought tears to my eyes. Ludo and Alina had become real people for me.

You can read more about the origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, Tavernier’s description of how men used eagles to acquire diamonds from pythons, and about the missing items belonging to the English Crown Jewels here in this blog.

Each of the books in The Chosen Man Trilogy is a Readers’ Favorite 5*. If you have enjoyed the stories, please leave a review on your retailer’s site.

 

 

 

 

The Chosen Man Trilogy completed!

Mission accomplished! The trilogy I promised Penmore Press is now complete. It’s exciting, and I will admit to a considerable sense of satisfaction, but there’s also to a sense of loss: I shall miss my voyages with Ludo. I shall also miss doing the research behind each story; it was both enjoyable and enlightening. Each of the books involved a good deal of background reading and investigation despite being based on topics familiar to me and set in places I know.
To give you an idea of what I have learned while writing the trilogy here are a few details on how each story began and what I needed to know about before I could actually start.

The Chosen Man – Tulips, Vatican intrigue and a financial scandal

The first Ludo story was inspired by a combination of two events; one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, other-worldly, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele in Cornwall (while preparing for another book altogether). Cotehele, a National Trust property on the River Tamar, became the fictional house Crimphele, then the story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA. I had lived in the Netherlands, was acquainted with the tulip bubble, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo (the infamous ancestor of Leo Kazan in The Empress Emerald) might be employed as an agent provocateur acting for Habsburg Spain and, supposedly, for Rome. After fitting these elements together, I then had to learn some hard facts behind ‘tulip mania’ and some of the vaguer, barely credible history behind Vatican espionage and secret agents. It took a good two years to write The Chosen Man, fortunately reviews show it was all worthwhile.

A Turning Wind – Gems, Snakes and Ladders and the Queen of Spain

A long, long time ago I had a gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I learnt a lot and it helped greatly while preparing notes for A Turning Wind. During my research, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689). In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza, and a little known, unrealized treaty between Charles 1st and Felipe IV of Spain. Having spent many years living near El Escorial, the scenes set there with the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares and Velazquez were easy to write.

By Force of Circumstance (2019).- The English Civil War, Barbary corsairs, Doria family secrets and Portovenere

One of my aims while writing this trilogy was to show how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. This story in particular shows how one’s personal destiny can be determined by events far beyond one’s control. The over-riding circumstance here is a civil war. What happens to Ludo, Alina and Marcos is determined by a conflict not of their making in a country not their own and their efforts to safeguard their families. Regrettably, it is something many readers can relate to nowadays.
What I specifically needed to learn about for this book, though, was what happened to certain gems belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn exquisite necklaces, hatbands and brooches – royal heirlooms – was well documented at the time, although a few, including the famous spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the gems is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. All I really had to do was say, ‘What if . . .’ and combine it with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.
This final story takes Ludo back to Portovenere in Liguria, Italy – a place I have visited many times. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus; and there’s a Doria castle there too. Agustin, the Doria Doge of Genoa of the epoch, had a daughter, she is un-named in the Doria family tree but she may have lived there. Barbary corsairs constantly raided the Ligurian coast – so again, what if . . .?
And that brings Ludo’s adventures to an end, although he does have two impish daughters who might well set to sea in a galleon named ‘Tulip’ in the not too distant future.

If you would like to know more about some of the history mentioned here you will find it here in my blog.

A Tribute to Daphne du Maurier

It is 80 years now since Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was first released. Back in 1938, du Maurier’s publishers were nervous about the novel’s future, but the story has become a classic: a world-wide favourite, a play, a television series, even an iconic black and white movie. For a while, back in the 90s, new editions of du Maurier’s novels were hard to obtain, but with the recent film version of My Cousin Rachel she is very much back in the public eye.

Which is as it should be, because Daphne du Maurier was a very accomplished novelist.

Despite her success, du Maurier would probably make a modern publisher nervous, too. She did not, or would not, stick to one genre. Worse: she wrote books that were the antithesis of best sellers. The Glass-blowers (a fictionalised version of her French family history) was written in direct opposition to the hugely popular Scarlet Pimpernel and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In this novel it is the skilled artisan not the aristocrat who takes centre stage: the novel tells not of heroes but of ordinary people striving to survive and make a future for their children during the French Revolution. And this, I think, is why many new readers are being drawn to du Maurier’s fiction. Despite Hollywood casting’s best efforts to the contrary, her protagonists are real people. They are ordinary men and women confused by events, over-awed by more glamourous or charismatic people around them, caught up in situations beyond their control. They may triumph in the end, but it is never a certain or perfect ending.

We may not be like the timid heroine of Rebecca or Rachel’s doubting, bewitched young man, we aren’t the frightened girl in Jamaica Inn or the bored wife in Frenchman’s Creek, but we understand their worries and motivations. Hungry Hill includes extra-ordinary events, but what happens is grounded in normal family life.

Reading the Glass-blowers recently, I was struck by this, and the simple wisdom in the story. Du Maurier understands the difficulties her characters face. Like real people (like us) they may present one facet of their personality to the world, but underneath, inside, they are much more complex. As was du Maurier herself.

There is also a sense that no matter how fantastical or exciting the plot, and most stories are page-turners, there is something very ‘lived’ in each book. Du Maurier was classified as a Romantic Novelist, and I’m not belittling romantic fiction, far from it, but the sum of her writing goes well beyond that genre description. In an article on the anniversary of Rebecca in the Guardian (23rd February, 2018) the writer Olivia Laing says:

‘What really startled (du Maurier) was that everyone seemed to think she’d written a romantic novel. She believed Rebecca was about jealousy, and that all the relationships in it – including the marriage between De Winter and his shy second wife – were dark and unsettling. (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” hardly betokened love between equals.) The idea had emerged out of her own jealousy about the woman to whom her husband, Tommy “Boy” Browning, had briefly been engaged. She had looked at their love letters, and the big elegant “R” with which Jan Ricardo signed her name had made her painfully aware of her own shortcomings as a woman and a wife.’

Many of du Maurier’s books address the past like this, they take on our concerns and confusions related to ‘what happened when’. Her writing examines what Laing calls the ‘oddities of time’. Regarding these ‘oddities of time’, I remember with absolute clarity reading the time-slip novel The House on the Strand during the course of a family Christmas day. The paperback transported me out of a modern household into an ancient house on a tidal reach, out of the 20th century into the 14th century. Listening to the story on the radio some months ago, I was taken back to those three time periods: that Christmas day and the two epochs in the novel. Some weeks later I picked up a battered hardback of My Cousin Rachel and remembered worrying about the laburnum seeds in our garden. I have now re-read most of du Maurier’s novels. On each occasion, opening the first page I have a clear vision of a place and/or moment in the story, and how it affected me the first time I read it. I remember reading the end of Frenchman’s Creek during the last lesson of a rainy Friday afternoon when I was about 16 – I remember feeling the tears on my cheeks. The teacher confiscated the book, naturally. I’ve read that story twice since then, and each time I’ve seen something new in it; I relate to something I hadn’t recognized before, but each time I have been taken back to that classroom. It is a curious experience. A good historical fiction author can take a reader back in time in the space of a paragraph, but I wonder how many can mark their readers for life like this.

Was du Maurier aware that she had this skill, this gift to transport readers through time and into other lives? I don’t know. Accounts of her own life tell of a troubled woman at odds with her gender and circumstances; a woman trapped in a troubled marriage with a man who had a breakdown because he was having two extra-marital affairs simultaneously. She is often linked to the house named Menabilly on the Cornish coast, where she apparently went to escape the real world.

Big houses, full of private tragedies and secret histories, feature in many of her novels. Looking at photographs of Menabilly I wonder if that house stands as a metaphor for her fiction – as full of conflicting emotions, versions of the past and fantasies as the house on the strand. Such thoughts and ideas are only suggested, it is up to each reader to interpret them of course, and as in real life we interpret them according to our own way of thinking and personal experiences. Readers bring their own baggage to any book.

Not all is what it seems in du Maurier’s novels, though, and they can’t be limited by a genre label. “Don’t look now,” we are told in that famous story about grieving parents in Venice, but if and when you do, you will find something disturbing, a theme that is both honest yet fantastical. For me, du Maurier’s novels are like a haunted room full not of ghosts but of real lives from the past – and the present.

This post first appeared in the Discovering Diamonds blog: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Tribute+to+Daphne+Du+Maurier

© J.G. Harlond

 

 

A Cornish backwater near Jamaica Inn.

 

Golconda diamonds – long ago, far away

Writing about real diamonds in historical fiction

Once upon a time, I had gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop. I was taken to their workshop to see how jewels were cut and set, and gradually learned what sort of antiques sold to what sort of customer. It was a pleasant job, but not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Looking back, however, much of what I learned then has come in very handy for my historical fiction.

Budding authors are advised to write what they know: my first novel, The Magpie, subsequently re-written as The Empress Emerald, is about Leo Kazan, a young man in colonial Bombay who has a fascination for all things shiny. I had a basic knowledge of the gems, and what I knew about India during the Raj came from tales of a great uncle who loved his time in India. In writing this novel – and without giving it any thought – I was combining the far away and long ago with personal experience. A technique I extended for The Chosen Man trilogy, drawing on my time living in Italy, the Netherlands and Spain with events that happened centuries ago.

While preparing for my new release, A Turning Wind, (Book 2 in The Chosen Man trilogy), I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689). In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India he quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene of A Turning Wind, it also sets the scene for what is to come later perfectly.

Goa, India, September 1639

It was a ramshackle affair for such valuable goods. A makeshift marketplace created out of crimson and brightly striped awnings. Lengths of scarlet, orange, turquoise, purple and blue formed curtains between trees; sheltering the splendid commodities from the late summer sun. Vendors were still laying out their wares when Ludo arrived: gems and trinkets in copper and gold, ivory combs and bangles, shimmering sari silk and embroidered fringed shawls, all transported from one coast of India to the other on heads and shoulders. The costly cargo had passed through the famous alluvial diamond valleys of Golconda, the human caravan collecting ever more precious gems along the way – a cargo now watched over by guards with arm muscles that rippled ‘beware’ and vicious knives tucked in wide belts.

Curious, colourful, magnificent . . . everything Ludo had hoped for. He was delighted. Yet, wandering among the displays, he began to wonder why he had come – what, apart from uncut diamonds, he was actually seeking.

As he finished his first circuit, a white bullock ambled in pulling a cart laden with clay flagons. Happily over-paying an urchin for a drink of water then returning the cup, Ludo strolled back among the folding tables, trestles and floor mats, this time stopping to examine a miniature chest of drawers decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl for women’s trinkets. It was pretty, but no, not special enough to add to his ship’s cargo. Moving on, he encountered an awkward Englishman dabbing at his forehead with a sodden handkerchief. The pink-faced sahib was struggling to keep up with an Indian agent’s heavily accented sales patter without losing his cherished dignity.

“Let me tell you how they are found,” the Goan agent was saying as he ran a hand seductively through a wide lacquered bowl of uncut diamonds. “When it rains, water rushes down the mountains, taking these precious stones with it and leaving them trapped at the bottom of gorges and in caverns. When the dry season comes and there is not one drop of water to be had, when the heat is enough to kill an Englishman as he walks from his door, brave men risk their lives to collect the stones. But they must go where wild serpents thrive. Venomous serpents and vast – serpents that crush and swallow men whole . . .”

Ludo shuddered along with the Englishman: snakes were another of the reasons he had made no attempt to travel inland during his stay in Goa.

“. . . but these diamonds are precious not only for the means by which they are obtained, not only for their special rarity, but for their quality. Look, sahib, see how fine they are, how they bring light into our lives. Each one is perfect, flawless . . .”

The Englishman put a forefinger in the bowl and peered at a stone the size of a sparrow’s egg, then at another the shape and form of a woman’s fingernail. The Goan agent took his hand and placed an uncut stone in the sweating palm then exchanged it for a cushion-cut diamond ring magicked from among his robes saying quietly, “This is not for everyone to know, sahib, but I should tell you, there may not be many more of these diamonds. Each year there are fewer. It is said the serpents now eat them to preserve their heritage.”

Ludo swallowed a grin and gestured with a hand to attract the agent’s attention. Half-convinced, half-enthralled, and knowingly walking into an enticement worthy of his own invention, Ludo stepped forward and cocked his head to one side enquiringly. The agent retrieved the ring from the Englishman and put it in Ludo’s open palm then whisked a heart-shaped ruby from thin air and put it next to the ring.

Ludo’s hand was broad but there was barely room for the two wonderful gemstones. The agent picked the ring from Ludo’s hand, leaving only the ruby to burn through his palm in the warm light of the coloured awnings.

“A gem worthy of a queen, sahib,” the agent murmured.

“Worthy of a queen . . . it is indeed,” Ludo murmured. This was what he wanted: this ruby. “But it is too much for a humble merchant such as me.”

“No, sahib, this ruby is for you. This is what you seek.”

Ludo shot him a surprised glance. The agent’s expression was open, generous, but two black-bead eyes under a startlingly white turban bore into him, hypnotising him, holding his gaze.

“You must know, sahib, a ruby of this quality has such virtues from the Sun that a man living in ignorance or consumed by sin, or pursued by mortal enemies, is saved by its wearing. When stones such as this are found they are named: this is Rani Saahasi’. There is no perfect translation that I know in Portuguese: in English you could call it ‘Queen of Courage’.

Ludo forced himself to look away, shook his head to clear his vision and pulled himself back to the multi-coloured market place. But his fingers clenched the ruby of their own accord: the stone, as red as pomegranate seeds, as cool as the waters of Kashmir, sang in his palm. He had to have it.

“No,” he said. “No, I cannot risk my small income on a bauble such as this.”

The Englishman’s jaw dropped. Ludo willed him to move away, not wanting to risk haggling against the flushed-faced mister as well. The Englishman stayed exactly where he was.

Reluctantly, Ludo held out the ruby saying, “I seek smaller, uncut gems . . .” As he spoke a set of long-nailed, hairy fingers plucked the stone from his palm and the thief escaped round the trunk of the nearest tree.

A troop of other practised thieves appeared above, peering with the faces of buffoons between the different coloured awnings then scrambling helter-skelter from branches or shimmying like circus performers down supporting wooden props. The Goan agent screeched not unlike the unwanted visitors and grabbed the corners of his open cloth on the low table behind him, hugging the rapid sack to his bony chest so no more of his valuable goods could be taken. Suddenly there was a commotion around the bullock cart carrying water; a thief had upturned the clay cups and made off with a jug, carrying it awkwardly on three legs for she had a baby on her back. Her sister, meanwhile, discovered a display of brass incense holders and bells. Seizing as many as she could, she began to juggle; the bells ringing into the air then clanging to the soft mud beneath her feet. Then up went a candlestick, and then another and another, caught by one cousin and tossed to an uncle who, brandishing it as trophy, bared his teeth at the buyers and headed for home.

But as he went, more of his clan arrived, targeting push-carts, floor mats and head-rolls; some stealing arm bangles and pushing them up their thin, hairy arms before running back up the tree trunks into the branches and awnings, or jumping on tables, scattering wares that had crossed perilous oceans and scorching plains to be brought undamaged, intact across mountains and marshes down to Goa.

Ludo started to laugh at the shock and surprise of the invasion, then stopped as if the scene were frozen in time when the ruby he so coveted dropped to his feet from above.

“Choke on it, choke on it!” the monkey cursed, for it was inedible and he did not want it.

Slowly, slowly, hardly believing his luck, Ludo bent to pick up the gem. His right hand closed over it and it was his.

But it was not.

He started to walk out of the covered square, but his legs would not move. The ruby held him to the spot, telling him perhaps that a man living in ignorance or consumed by sin, or worse – pursued by a mortal enemy – is saved by its wearing. Ludo did not believe he was consumed by sin or that he lived in a state of ignorance, but he was pursued by enemies, one, possibly two, or even three if you counted the ridiculous Count Hawk – but he was no thief. No common thief, anyway.

***

‘Write about what you know’ and what you pick up along the way . . . My research has taken me down all manner of exotic rabbit holes, and (reported) truth can be much stranger than fiction. Quoting Marco Polo again, Tavernier explains how diamond gatherers supposedly avoided serpents to harvest precious stones:

“Now it is so happens that these mountains are inhabited by a great many white eagles, which prey on the serpents. When these eagles spy the flesh (raw meat men have flung into the valley) lying at the bottom of the valley, down they swoop and seize the lumps and carry them off. The men observe attentively where the eagles go, and as soon as they see that a bird has alighted and has swallowed the flesh, they rush to the spot as fast as they can. (…) When eagles eat the flesh, they also eat − that is, they swallow − the diamonds. Then at night, when the eagle comes back, it deposits the diamonds it has swallowed with its droppings. So men come and collect these droppings, and there they find diamonds in plenty.”

‘Diamonds in plenty’ – at seventeen I couldn’t see a future in them; now I cannot imagine how at least two of my novels could have been written without them.

©J.G. Harlond

This post was written for Helen Hollick’s Discovering Diamonds blog. You can read a review of ‘A Turning Wind’ on: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Turning+Wind

Snakes and Ladders

Themes in fiction can be subtle or more evident, sometimes, I find, they creep in while the book is a work-in-progress. This happened with the ‘snakes and ladders’ motif in the third story in The Chosen Man Trilogy. I came across the origins of the game while researching the background to By Force of Circumstance and it fitted what was happening to the wily, unreliable Ludo da Portovenere so perfectly I knew I had to include it in the narrative.

There are various theories and dates for how the game ‘snakes and ladders’ came about, but its origins are ancient and almost certainly ancient Asian. Originally called Mokshapat it was played with cowrie shells and dices. The ladders represented virtues, the snakes indicated vices, and the game demonstrated how good deeds take people to heaven and evil to the cycle of re-birth. An early version was devised or described by the 13th century poet Gyandev, but apart from its original intrinsic meaning, which has been lost, the game has undergone few modifications. The underlying meaning remained the same until it reached the west, where the more philosophical and didactic meaning was condensed to the chance and risk element of landing on a snake and slithering down to start all over again.

Snakes and ladders was played in India as one of many board and dice games, including pachisi (modern day Ludo), where it was known as moksha patam or vaikunthapaali or paramapada sopaanam, meaning the ‘ladder to salvation’ and emphasizing the role of fate or karma. A Jain version, Gyanbazi, has been dated back to the 16th century: a version called Leela reflects the Hindu concept of ‘consciousness’ in everyday life.

I came upon all this as I was reading and researching the historical background for my second story in The Chosen Man trilogy, which opens in 17th century Portuguese Goa. The original, ancient game fitted so perfectly with the story it became one of the main themes – the wily, unreliable Ludo is trying to make his fortune as a merchant, but he is also trying to find a meaning and focus for his life in general – so I knew I had to include it.

In the scene that follows, Ludo is on a trading voyage from Goa to Plymouth, his ship has anchored off an Omani beach and he has gone ashore to purchase pearls. Ludo sees two exquisite Arabian mares with their foals and finds his way to the local sheik intending to purchase them. Instead of the horse trading he’s expecting, however, he gets a lesson in destiny and desire.

*

1*

The sheik was seated on cushions in a high-ceilinged room. There were no intricate tiles such as those of the Arab homes Ludo knew in North Africa, only brightly coloured wall-hangings and mats, and on a low oblong table a large patchwork cloth.

Ludo was led up to the sheik, who peered at him through unsmiling eyes then said, “You wish to take my joy from me and transport it across the world.”

“That is so, Excellency,” Ludo replied, wondering how he had divined where he wanted to take the mares having not thought it through himself.

The sheik stared at him until Ludo was forced to look away. Across the unfurnished room an eagle owl blinked, surprised perhaps to see a stranger. A small hawk chained to another perch shook its jesses. The owl had the same amber eyes as its master. Ludo shifted from one foot to the other, not unlike the smaller bird then, aware of what he had done and how it might be interpreted, stood straight, folding his arms across his chest.

The sheik, an elderly man similar in appearance to the pearl trader in a flowing white robe and square-set head cloth, tapped his beak-like nose. It was flattened at the tip. As Ludo’s vision became more accustomed to the low indoor light, he tried to decide if the flattening were natural or the result of an accident or fight, then chastised himself for becoming distracted and wondered how the sheik might be reading his features: the newly-grown beard that still itched, his Indian cotton pyjamas, his swollen, reddened hands from helping on deck after a long period of living in comfort.

Breaking the tension, the sheik snapped his fingers and a servant brought in a tray of sherbet and sugary date and almond morsels. He then indicated a cushion and invited Ludo to sit at the low table covered in a cloth with yellow and gold, white and red squares. Appliquéd onto the squares were fat, winding snakes and unstable ladders that tilted up and across the cloth. Words and phrases had been embroidered into certain squares in black but Ludo couldn’t read them.

“It was brought to my father’s father or perhaps his father’s father, many years ago from India,” the sheik said. “It is called moksha patam.” He placed two ebony white-spotted dice on the middle of the cloth.

“Ah, it is a game, like parchis.”

“Yes and no. Parchis requires a certain skill; moksha patam depends to a greater degree on the fall of the dice – and an individual’s luck.”

“A game of chance.”

“More than mere chance, my friend: truly it is a study in karma and kama; destiny and desire. We shall play together.”

“For the horses? If I win, I may take them?”

“No.”

“Then forgive my bad manners, Excellency, but I have no time for games.”

The sheik handed Ludo the dice. “As a guest you may throw first.”

Ludo delayed his response, taking a sip of sherbet to hide his annoyance; he was not in the mood for mystical games of chance, time wasted here could put his ship in jeopardy. If Tulip’s pursuers found their hiding place and he was not aboard . . . Ludo closed his eyes, not wanting to complete the thought, and rattled the dice in his accommodating palm out of sheer habit.

The sheik pointed to a ladder. “The ladders take you up to the end of the cloth and finally, if you win, bring you to ‘salvation’. The snakes take you down through your earthly vices. Look,” he pointed at the words stitched into the cloth, “your first chance to rise is through ‘faith’, then ‘reliability’, ‘generosity’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘asceticism’. But you can be brought back down again by ‘disobedience’, ‘vanity’, ‘vulgarity’, ‘drunkenness’ and ‘debt’. The longest and therefore the worst of these snakes are these which bring you back or near to the beginning, meaning you must start your climb all over again: watch out for ‘rage’ and ‘greed’, ‘pride’, ‘murder’ and ‘lust’. This one fat serpent here crossing the entire cloth is ‘lying’ – telling that which is not true.”

“There are fewer ladders than snakes,” Ludo said.

“Such is life.”

Ludo jiggled the dice. “And there is no one ladder that can take you straight to the top; but this snake up here can take me right back to the beginning.”

“No one single virtue is sufficient for salvation. What good is generosity if you are unreliable and guilty of greed and self-love?”

Trapped, Ludo tried to relax and indicated he was ready to begin. It was after all, only a game, although as the sheik had pointed out, not exactly a game for once he had begun he couldn’t help but wish for more virtues and lament his vices. In parchis, with a bit of cunning and friendly dice you could win within an hour. Not so here.

Ludo lost, devoured by the serpent of ‘disobedience’ twice, then ‘greed’ when he was close to finishing. He wanted to blame the sheik, who had maintained his scrutiny of his guest throughout, unnerving Ludo each time he threw.

Glad that it was over, Ludo tried to pull on his old mask of bonhomie and said cheerily, “Is there a prize for you, Excellency?”

“Is salvation not a prize?”

“I doubt I will ever find out, Excellency. Where I come from there’s no point even trying. And as I am no Hindustani I do not have to worry about the Wheel of Re-incarnation.” Across the room, the eagle owl glowered.

“Neither am I of Hind my friend, but I do believe a better life is attainable while we are on God’s earth. Only a complete fool dismisses the possibility of returning – being condemned on the Wheel.” The sheik drank from his cup of sherbet and ate a sweetmeat, taking his time.

Ludo forced himself not to squirm, pondering whether the actions related to ‘whim’ should be classified as a vice. Then his blood ran cold: on a whim he had walked into a trap. He had made himself a prisoner while the sheik’s men were unloading his ship. Rapidly he cast about for a guard but saw only the owl and the hawk; wisdom and aggression.

“You are nervous my friend. You fear I shall not let you go. You fear we shall take your cargo. It is within our power, but I would have hoped this past hour had shown you we are aware of the penalty of greed. Not that we have no need of your cargo. Spices from India, silks and tea from Cathay? You have tasted our sweetmeats: cinnamon from Ceylon would be most welcome here. Perhaps on your next voyage you will allow me to purchase from you?”

“Gladly, Excellency.” Ludo endeavoured to keep relief from his voice.

*

The game Ludo is playing here (and his name, shortened from Ludovico, is no accident) is far more complex than our children’s ‘Ludo’ or parchis, but the combination of skill and luck remain the same. The original game was a tool or means for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad. As in this scene, the ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, while the snakes represented vices of lust, anger, murder, and theft. The moral to be learned was that a person can attain salvation (moksha) through doing good: doing evil one will lead to re-birth. The number of ladders was less than the number of snakes as a reminder that the path to salvation is full of obstacles and should be trod with caution. There were fewer ladders than snakes; as the sheik here says, such is life. In the game he and Ludo are playing, the squares of virtue are faith (12), reliability (51), generosity (57), knowledge (76), and asceticism (78). The squares of vice or evil are disobedience (41), vanity (44), vulgarity (49), theft (52), lying (58), drunkenness (62), debt (69), rage (84), greed (92), pride (95), murder (73), and lust (99); number 100 was salvation.

Ludo leaves the sheik a somewhat confused man without the mares he wished to buy. In the rest of the story we see him climb numerous ladders both physical and metaphorical, only to slip back down the fat snakes of ‘disobedience’, ‘greed’ and even ‘theft’ until chance, skill and luck redeem him and take him where he had not planned to be: a place offering the peace and contentment he didn’t know he was seeking.

*(1)The image above and some information on the of snakes and ladders comes from: http://iseeindia.com/2011/09/11/the-origin-of-snakes-and-ladders (accessed 23rd April, 2018 @ 11:21)

The Chosen Man and A Turning Wind are available from book stores and on-line retailers. The Amazon UK link for books by J.G. Harlond is: https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=+j.g.+harlond&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3A+j.g.+harlond&ajr=0

This post was originally written for Antoine Vanner’s Dawlish Chronicles Blog: https://dawlishchronicles.com

A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett

‘The historical novelists’ historical novelist’ . . .

A Tribute to Dorothy Dunnett (1923–2001)

There are two sets of Dorothy Dunnett’s two historical novel series on my bookshelves, plus two copies of King Hereafter: a few are hardbacks the rest are now dry, cracked-spine paperbacks, whose pages are so yellow and print so small that I struggle to read them – but I still do. I’ve bought a few replacements over the past forty years, but somehow can’t bring myself to throw or even give away the originals. The other curious thing about these old books is something very modern. Without strapping any box to my head or standing in any man-made cubicle wearing black goggles they produce a form of virtual reality. Just by looking at a title I can see scenes. Stills and moving images hang in the air: a joyous youth riding an ostrich, the same man now older rides a silken-hide camel; a little boy with sturdy legs runs through apricots drying on a rooftop; a vast eagle swoops across a snowy waste onto an arm; a mad, brave youth runs across moving oars and marries a woman with ‘spawn-like’ eyes . . .

If you recognise any of these scenes you probably qualify as a Dorothy Dunnett fan, and are very likely a ‘historical fiction junkie’. That’s what I was told Dunnett fans were a few years ago. There are currently three Facebook groups for Dunnett fans that I know of. I dip in now and again and am always rewarded by some insight into a bit of history or details on one of the many locations. The news on one today is from a student in Australia who is writing her MA dissertation on Dunnett.

Dame Hilary Mantel’s recent Reith Lectures on creating fiction out of past events makes this tribute particularly timely for Dunnett did not have access to the Internet to check details as we do. She conjured the past from hours of very serious reading then wove fact through her fiction, writing long into the night. By her own admission her investigations were time consuming. Speaking with Isolde Martyn in March 2,000, Dunnett said,

My notes for my early novels are in ledgers. My studio is lined with bookcases. I buy a huge number of reference books and I subscribe to about twenty periodicals so I can keep myself informed about what is available.

If Dunnett’s background reading into real events, people and facts was rigorous, her readers are also expected to keep up. Writing in the New York Times in December, 2000, Anne Malcolm said: ‘(Her) novels are unusual in their erudition; Dunnett’s characters are apt to address one another in quotations from Renaissance verse (in several languages, generally untranslated), and the ground is thick with classical allusions. Using a vocabulary that sometimes outstrips the resources of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the books lavishly evoke the intellectual furnishings of the 16th century.’

In this regard Dunnett ignored the rules would-be authors are advised to follow nowadays because they also have hundreds of characters, both fictional and those ‘mentioned in history’. And the books are difficult. Readers have to think. We witness what Lymond, Thorfinn and Niccolò are up to from multiple and often conflicting viewpoints. There are no revealing internal monologues from these flawed heroes to help predict what is to come or confirm what has just happened. Plots are intricate, onion-skinned intrigues – one layer reveals another then another then another. As Alaya Johnson said in 2014, ‘If a writer wants to depict political intrigue and misdirection, Lymond is the template of hidden agendas and the benchmark of single-minded ruthlessness’.

There are a few so-called rules for modern writing Dunnett does observe, however: the opening ‘hook’; the flawed hero, and ‘show, don’t tell’. The Ringed Castle opens with: ‘Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.’ Try putting that one back on the library shelf! Regarding her charismatic, flawed hero Lymond, Dunnett is quoted as saying:

Ian Fleming was a friend of ours and he told me he was going to write a novel about ‘a spy to end all spies’ and he went ahead and created James Bond, and I decided, ‘Right, then, if he can do it, so can I! I am going to create the hero to end all heroes.’

Before becoming an author, Dunnett was a successful portrait artist, which may explain how and why she shows us personalities through significant details or scenes. Take this as an example:

‘Each in its nest of gauze and gilt thread, of tissue and taffeta, swathed in silver and satin, in velvet and white fur sugared with diamonds, each face painted, each brow plucked, hair hidden by sparkling hair of raw silk, the well-born of France sat in waxlight and flowers like half a hundred candied sweets in a basket. Last at the last table, soggy gristle next the sugar plums, sat Thady Boy Ballagh.’

‘Soggy gristle’ Thady Boy Ballagh is Lymond in disguise, but we also see aspects of minor and secondary characters’ personalities and private histories via significant scenes. In the first novel in the Niccolò stories, Katalina van Borselen, a key figure in Niccolò’s life, is shown to be afraid of night-flying insects. In the third story Race of Scorpions set on Cyprus, her cold demeanour is completely undermined when dusk falls and moths gather around a lantern. We are reminded of what happened in Bruges in Book One and what has happened to her since with a few artful brush strokes.

In the same story we learn of the wantonly cruel nature of a Mameluke commander not through his violence towards other men but from what happens to a hundred innocent, many-hued monastery cats. I’m not a cat person but the image of those cats when they are first presented in their warm and subtle, multi-coloured hues stayed with me for years, so much so that when I was in an Italian mountain-top village a long time later and they re-appeared weaving patterns around me I had to go home and write about them.

As a reader I continue to be enthralled by these stories, but as an author I am permanently in awe. Dorothy Dunnett set the bar very high.

© J.G Harlond

This post first appeared as a Discovering Diamonds (@DDRevs) Mid-month Special. See: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/search?q=A+tribute+to+Dorothy+Dunnett

Writing secondary characters

Riddle: How does an author use historical fact to create and describe secondary or minor characters in historical fictional?

 Secondary characters are often used to develop the main character(s) and/or move the plot. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person these characters are frequently fictional constructs, and, like minor characters, in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable; meaning they should develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to.

An example of this is the character Marcos Alonso Almendro in The Chosen Man (Penmore Press, 2015).

Here’s a scene from the novel where the main character, wicked, wily Genovese merchant Ludo da Portovenere is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in Holland during the 1630s. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee.

Amsterdam, early June 1635

‘Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.

“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”

Marcos gulped, the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness: an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.

Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.

“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.

“So people can’t see each other I expect.”

Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”

“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”

“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like …” He was interrupted by the serving girl.

Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?

“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”

“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.

“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”

“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”

“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.

Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.’

***

Without knowing it at the time, this scene follows author Helen Hollick’s tips for writing historical fiction. I tried to put myself into the setting to create the atmosphere and imagined what it must have been like in a Dutch tavern in 1635. I needed the secondary character, Marcos, to start acting on his own, and I needed to show the protagonist, Ludo, was not to be trusted. Fact in historical fiction is vital: accuracy in setting and detail is essential. But when it comes to the plot and fictional characters take Hollick’s advice, “Don’t get so bogged down in research that you never get on with writing your story”.

Avoiding ‘gadzooks vocabulary’ is both easy and difficult: employing diction that is appropriate to the time and setting, while also being in the modern lexicon sometimes means looking up words to find out when they were first used, and making some surprising and disappointing discoveries. In this scene I use the word ‘waitress’. It sounds like a relatively modern term for the setting, but I wasn’t happy about using ‘serving girl’ all the time, it was awkward; and the idea of ‘serving wench’ carries vulgar implications that distracted from what was happening. The term ‘waitress’ slipped in and felt appropriate because it reduces the girl to her function, making her less relevant to the incident and maintaining the focus on what Marcos is doing, and is about to do.

When I did finally check ‘waitress’, I was delighted to find the term waiter goes back to the 14th century and was used for males waiting at tables in taverns in the 17th. Unfortunately, the term waitress wasn’t in common use until the early 19th century – but it might have been . . .

(This was originally written for the Hoydens and Firebrands blog.)

Historical Novel Society Review of The Chosen Man November, 2015

Be prepared to be immersed in this book. The research into the tulip trade in 1636 (the story is based on a true event) and the manor house life of 17th-century England add depth to the storyline.  A well-written period novel that I highly recommend. Jeff Westerhoff for the HNS.
See the review.

Click on this link for Amazon preview

J.G. Harlond

See: www.jgharlond.com

 

“You write what you read . . .”

I recently heard a comment that an author writes what he or she reads. This is possibly true, but herein lies something of a dilemma for modern fiction authors, because these days, to be successful – it is said – one is supposed to choose a genre and stick to it. To become a ‘popular author’ one is advised to write a whole series in a specific genre.

But if we write what we read, how many of us only read one genre? And even if we do, within any category there are all sorts of sub-genres. Up to now my books can all be classified as historical fiction, but they include various types of crime, international espionage, Vatican intrigue and financial skulduggery, swash-buckling pirate scenes and stately royal scandals, and recently, a World War II murder mystery based on the highly secret British Resistance movement set in a Cornish village. And now, to add to this motley list I have to add ‘fantasy’ because it is based on part of the ancient Norse Volsung Saga and includes a shape-shifting, evil-minded dragon. So as you can see, my own reading and research has ranged pretty far and wide. I only wish it had dawned on me to put it all in a series and call it something like a Game of Thrones.

Setting aside the genre dilemma, I will confess to trying to write some of what I have read. This might explain how and why, after ten years as a full-time fiction author, I came to finish (I’d been writing it on and off for years) The Doomsong Sword, which began life as part of a school series on traditional tales – a project that was cancelled during the financial crisis.

I loved, and still enjoy high fantasy with dragons and arch-mages and shape-shifters. As a child, I gobbled up all manner of classic tales and folklore from Narcissus and Theseus to The Little Fool Ivan and the Knights of the Round Table. Later, as a student I dabbled in the academic side of traditional tales and read the Russian folklore analyst, Vladimir Propp. I devoured Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, and then enjoyed it all over again reading it to my own children. Throughout the years of this type of reading, I suppose I have been most influenced by the blurred text where history meets magic: T.E. White’s Once and Future King, Tolkein’s use of Norse tales, and Beowulf, especially Heaney’s translation.

I can’t say all this consciously inspired me to re-write The Doomsong Sword as a novel, but I was motivated in part by the desire to create a meaningful story out of an old tale for a new generation – my newborn grandson in particular. Davor, the reluctant hero in the story, is an ordinary boy in an extra-ordinary situation: he is lazy and dreams up wild stories to get out of doing his chores. But then he begins to live one, and it is a story more fantastical than he has ever concocted. He not only has to survive alone in the cold Dark Age North with only a wolf-cub for company, but confront all manner of dreadful and frankly outrageous situations, such as finding himself in the home of a three-headed troll and evading the vicious Dwarf, Andvari, under a waterfall. The sword in the title is named ‘Anger, Doomsong and Truth-teller’ in the saga and I had huge fun writing this into my story, although the manuscript went through many, many drafts before it felt right. Weaving bits of Norse mythology into the basic Sigurd, the Dragonslayer legend to create something new – a coming-of-age story that has meaning for a 21st century reader – was not easy. Nevertheless, as soon as I’ve finished the third book in my wily Ludo da Portovenere (17th century) trilogy I’ll be back in the old, cold North to write the ‘Doomsong’ sequel.

This brings me back to being accepted as an author writing in different genres. ‘Genre’ is a convenient concept for online retailers and librarians, but many fiction authors bring elements from a whole range of genres into their new works. The joy of creative writing surely stems from the joy of having been taken into other worlds by other authors; living in past epochs, walking in another person’s shoes in numerous, different types of book. Yes – we probably do write what we read. This is also why children need to read all manner of stories – and daydream. They need to imagine other lives, experience, albeit vicariously, other people’s cultures and world views so that they are better prepared for some of the odd, difficult and perhaps even dangerous things that may befall them in the future. All-powerful dragons and three-headed trolls come in many guises, especially nowadays.

This post first appeared on Tony Riches’ blog on 25th April, 2017, The Writing Desk: http://tonyriches.blogspot.com.es

*Image of Odin and the sword named Gram (Anger), Doomsong and Truth-teller from the Volsung Saga is the woodcut ‘Sigmund’s Swert’ by Johannes Gehrts, 1889.