Monday, April 28, 2014

Meet My Main Character (Guest post by Alana White)

Today I'd like to welcome Alana White, author of the historical mystery The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, who is here today to participate in the "Meet My Main Character" blog hop.  (To see my contribution to the hop, scroll down to the previous post.)

The Sign of the Weeping Virgin has won praise for Alana's "elegant prose and skillfully integrated research," her "sure-handed storytelling," and her "richly evocative descriptions of Renaissance-era Florence."

Alana and I share a love for all things Florentine, though we write about different time periods.  I am delighted to welcome her to this blog to tell us something about her main character.

Alana White

What is the name of your character?  Is he/she fictional or a historical person?

Guid'Antonio Vespucci.  He is an actual person, a prominent lawyer as well as a public and private investigator.  And he is Amerigo Vespucci's uncle.

When and where is the story set?

It is in Florence, Italy at the height of the Italian Renaissance, when Lorenzo de' Medici was the unofficial "Prince of the City."  Much of the action occurs on Borg'Ognissanti (All Saints Street) in Florence, where Guid'Antonio's palazzo sat right around the corner from the workshop of his neighbor, Sandro Botticelli.

What should we know about him/her?

He is Lorenzo's close personal friend and political ally—even to the point of backing Lorenzo against Pope Sixtus IV, who plotted to have Lorenzo assassinated during Easter Sunday Mass in Florence Cathedral on 26 April 1478.  It is this historical incident (called "The Pazzi Conspiracy") that is the centerpiece for my story.  Lorenzo did not die, but his brother did.  When the Florentine government learned of the Pope's part in the assassination plot, it declared war on Rome in Lorenzo's name.

What is the main conflict?  What messes up his/her life?

After the war—during which Guid'Antonio and Amerigo served as ambassadors at the French court—Guid'Antonio returns home to Florence believing the terrible conflict is over and that now he will be able to devote himself to his wife and family, whom he has not seen in two years.  Instead, he learns a  painting of the Virgin Mary has begun weeping in the Vespucci family church.  People are interpreting the tears as a sign of God's displeasure with Florence for fighting with the Church.  And they believe God means to punish them in some terrible way.

What is the personal goal of the character?

To investigate the painting's tears and set the town at ease while making peace with his wife, who accuses him of caring more about his political career than he does her.

What is the title of the book?

The title is The Sign of the Weeping Virgin (Five Star).  It is available in print or Kindle editions.


Thank you, Alana, for this fascinating introduction to Guid'Antonio.  Readers interested in learning more about Alana and her work (which includes two earlier books as well as this one) can go to her website, and anyone wishing to buy The Sign of the Weeping Virgin can find it on Amazon.

Her book has been translated into Portuguese, and while that may not be of immediate use to people reading this blog, the cover is so lovely that I couldn't resist including it here:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Meet My Main Character: A(nother) Blog Hop

Doing the Blog Hop

I've been tagged in this blog hop by Louise Rule, author of the book Future Confronted, a moving memoir about her late son's illness and death.  Louise is now working on a historical novel set in Edinburgh and Florence (Florence!  Yes!) during the Renaissance, and you can learn more about it on her blog.  Many thanks to Louise for giving me this chance to introduce you to the main character of my work in progress.

This seems to be a hop where one answers anywhere from five to seven questions about a character and tags anywhere from one to five people to do the same (let's face it, organizing writers is a lot like herding cats, so we make it up as we go along).  I've gone for five and five, so here we go.

First, just a bit of context.

When San Francesco d'Assisi died in the year 1226, he spent his last days and hours surrounded by the men who had been his earliest followers -- those who joined him early in his radical quest to live a gospel life, long before there was any official acceptance or general understanding of what he was trying to do.

Those men included Brother Bernardo, a friend from Francesco's youth and the first to join him; Brother Leo, Francesco's traveling companion and confessor; Brother Angelo, the son of a knight from Assisi; Brother Rufino, a shy and self-effacing nobleman who was a kinsman of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare); Brother Egidio (Brother Giles), who would also be present at the death of Santa Chiara 27 years later, and who was beatified; Brother Masseo, who nursed the ailing Francesco with great devotion; and Brother Elias, the brilliant but controversial brother whose turbulent tenure as Minister General of the Franciscan Order exacerbated a painful rift between two factions of friars, and who ended his life estranged from the Order and just barely reconciled with the church.

All of these men and more -- and one woman, a wealthy Roman noblewoman:  Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli,  who Francesco called "Brother Giacoma."  

1.  What is the name of your character?  Is she  fictional or a historical person?

Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli (also sometimes called Jacopa or Jacoba) is a historical person, though relatively little is known about her life.  Most of what we know comes from biographical works about San Francesco, but she was a wealthy noblewoman, married into the powerful Frangipani family, so it has also been possible to learn something about her family and its position in Rome through historical sources that don't pertain primarily to the saint.

Giacoma, fresco from the Lower Basilica, Assisi

2.  When and where is the story set?

It begins in Rome in the year 1210, just before Francesco found his religious calling, and covers nearly three decades of Giacoma's life.  While some of the book takes place in Rome, other sections are set in and around Assisi.

3.  What should we know about her?

Francesco once told a companion that there were only two women in the world whose faces he would recognize, as he otherwise kept his eyes averted from women.  Those two women were Chiara (Clare) and Giacoma.  Descriptions of Giacoma in the early works about Francesco stress her energy, her strength of character, her devotion to Francesco, her tirelessness in performing good works.  In the Italian sources the words "virile" and "forza" appear with almost alarming frequency, and they mean exactly what you'd expect them to mean.  Francesco's biographers say that she "knew how to surmount every obstacle."  They stress her generosity, her sense of justice, and that Francesco was "astonished by her outspoken manner, her sense of humor and her leadership qualities (traits then thought more suitable for a man)."  One summary that struck me was that Chiara was the "dolcezza" (sweetness) in Francesco's life, and Giacoma the "forza" (strength).  She was able to provide Francesco and his brothers with considerable material support, but to my mind, the one thing that overrides all others is that in this period where platonic friendships between men and women were always suspect, these two great souls were firm friends, first, last, and always.  He specifically requested her presence at his death.  She has been described as the first Franciscan tertiary; one historian calls her the "friend, mamma, and sister to Francesco and to his brothers."  The combination of wealth and widowhood gave her a lot of power and independence, but the way she used that power was all her own.

This image is usually associated with St. Clare, but some scholars believe it may be Giacoma.

4.  What is the main conflict?  What messes up her life?

Two disasters changed the direction of her life.  First, the death of her husband Graziano when she was a young woman left her with the sole responsibility for her two small sons, a huge fortune, and a long-running lawsuit against the papacy.  Graziano must have realized what an extraordinary woman he had married, because it would have been more usual to involve some of his male relatives in these matters, but he left everything up to Giacoma.  And second, the rancorous rift that developed in the Franciscan order even before Francesco's death was extremely painful for her, as she had deep friendships with brothers on both sides of the divide.

But more than that, I see Giacoma's story as that of a woman who would have liked to leave the world behind and enter a contemplative life, but who could not do so because of her substantial responsibilities (and possibly also because of her nature).  So she spent her life searching for a  balance -- she was utterly devoted to "Il Poverello," the little poor man who considered himself wed to Lady Poverty and who burned to live a Christlike life free of all possessions, yet at the same time she was one of the wealthiest and most influential women in Rome, and part of a family that aspired to be the pope's bankers.  If ever anyone had doubts about being part of the one percent, it was Giacoma.

Some scholars believe the person in red, at the head of Francesco's bier, is Giacoma.

5.  What is the personal goal of the character?

She yearns to follow Francesco's example, but a deep sense of duty makes her stay in the world, fiercely protective of her sons, the members of her household, and the beggars and supplicants she supports, but also of her chosen family -- Francesco and his brothers.  She will place herself between these people and disaster, over and over again, no matter the cost.

Giacoma at San Francesco's deathbed (Josep Benlliure y Gil, 1855-1937)


And now that you've met Giacoma, I urge you to read about the main characters created by my five "taggees" as they come up over the next couple of weeks.  Here they are, in order of appearance:

Judith Schara, author of Spiral, a historical time travel novel set in modern England and in the world of a Druid from the 5th century BC, the first book in her Spiral in Time series.  Judith will be posting on April 26 here on her blog.

Alana White, author of The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, a historical mystery set in Florence (Florence!  Yes!) in 1480.  Alana will be posting as a guest here on my blog on April 28, but you can learn more about her work in the meantime by going to her website.

Kim Rendfeld, author of The Cross and the Dragon, a historical novel and love story set in the time of Charlemagne's reign, and the upcoming The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a companion book to her first.  She will be posting on April 28 or 29 here on her blog.

Jess Wells, author of historical fiction including A Slender Tether (three tales, one of them featuring Christine de Pizan, all set in Europe's Little Ice Age during the middle ages) and The Mandrake Broom, as well as ten other books.  Jess will be posting on April 29 here on her Red Room blog.

Prue Batten,  author of the historical novels Book of Pawns and Book of Knights, the first two books in her Gisborne Saga, set in Europe on the cusp of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and also of The Eirie Chronicles, a historical fantasy series.  Prue has posted here on her blog.

Thanks to all of them for agreeing to be tagged in this blog hop, and I'll be looking forward to reading their posts.

 Images in this post are all in the public domain by virtue of being well past the date of copyright expiration, except the first photo of the fresco of Giacoma from the Lower Basilica, which is my husband's work.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Understanding a rebel's psyche (Guest post by Marina Julia Neary)

Never Be at Peace

A pugnacious orphan from a bleak Dublin suburb, Helena Molony dreams of liberating Ireland. Her fantasies take shape when Maud Gonne adopts her and sets her on a path to theatrical stardom - and political martyrdom. Swept up in the Gaelic Revival, Helena succumbs to the romantic advances of Bulmer Hobson, a Fenian leader with a talent for turning friends into enemies. After their affair ends in a bitter ideological rift, she turns to Sean Connolly, a married fellow-actor from the Abbey Theatre. As Ireland prepares to strike against the British rule on Easter Monday, Helena and her comrades find themselves caught in a whirlwind of deceit, violence, broken alliances and questionable sacrifices. In the words of Patrick Pearse, “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. For the survivors of the Rising, the battle will continue for decades after the last shot had been fired. 


This week I'd like to welcome M.J. Neary (Marina Julia Neary), whose novel Never Be at Peace was recently published by Fireship Press.  Her book has been hailed as "a gripping and intense tale of Ireland in the thick of revolution" and "meticulously researched and boldly-written."  (See my own review here.)  In today's guest post, Neary talks about what goes into the making of a rebel - not the external and political causes of rebellion, but the psychology that underlies a rebel's predilections. 

The remarkable drawings shown here are by Alissa Mendenhall,  illustrating some of the most dramatic moments in Never Be at Peace, and Neary is using them with the artist's permission. 

A few words about the author:

A Chernobyl survivor adopted into the world of Anglo-Irish politics, Marina Julia Neary has dedicated her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Easter Rising in Dublin. Her mission is to tell untold stories, find hidden gems and illuminate the prematurely extinguished stars in history. She explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.  Her debut novel Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of London Slums appeared on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. With the centennial of the Easter Rising approaching, she has written a series of novels exploring the hidden conflicts within the revolutionary ranks.  Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels is a companion piece to Martyrs & Traitors: a Tale of 1916. 

M.J. Neary

Understanding a rebel's psyche

"To free his country, he enslaved his family". That is a tag line for my novel "Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian", the first one in my Irish nationalism series. My ongoing mission is not merely to depict certain tragic events that took place in the early 20th century Ireland but also to provide insight into the psyche of a revolutionary, regardless of his or her nationality. With the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising approaching, there is a surge of interest in the subject among historians, politicians, novelists and general lovers of Irish history.  I position my work as an antidote for those whose vision was blurred by the one-sided romanticism of "Braveheart" or "Michael Collins".  The image of a pan-Celtic hero against the evil English oppressor. 

The most liberally dispensed advice is "Write what you know".  And I just happen to know rebel psychology.  I grew up with ethnic tension in my house.  It doesn't matter that the conflict I witnessed as a child was Russian-Polish instead of Anglo-Irish.  There are many parallels involving linguistic, territorial, religious and socioeconomic components.  My mother is Russian and unabashedly pro-imperialism.  It is her philosophy that big fish eats small fish, and large objects attract smaller objects.  In her mind, there is nothing wrong with one nation dominating its smaller neighbors.  In fact, she believes that some nations just cannot handle independence.  They actually benefit from being dominated. Her first husband and my biological father, on another hand, held a diametrically opposite view.  He was outraged by Russia's oppression of her smaller neighbors and actively championed de-russification of the Baltic states, Ukraine and Belarus in favor of restoring the native culture.  A prominent operatic coach who had produced several world-class singers, he was somewhat of a public figure, so his voice was definitely heard, at least on a local level. Both my parents are very intense and opinionated people, so you can imagine our dinner conversations.  Strange as it sounds, but those ideological conflicts, were not all that uncommon within families.  Yes, you can sleep in the same bed and still be on the opposite sides of the barricade.

Sean Connolly's Death (Alissa Mendenhall)

Some individuals find the glamor of martyrdom more enticing than the very Idea they defend.  My birth father fell into that category.  He would experiment with his own psyche, work himself up into a fanatical frenzy, until his blood pressure would reach 180/130, his pupils would dilate and his ears would start ringing.  He had this peculiar talent for repressing his self-preservation instinct. 

Years later, working as a research assistant at La Salle University, I learned that many of the key figures of the Easter Rising also came from mixed families.  Many of them had one English parent and were afflicted to some extent with an ethnic identity crisis.  I remember asking myself this question: "Whose side am I on? Am I Russian or Polish? If I agree with Mom, will Dad disown me?" Now that I am an American citizen, and my parents are no longer together, those questions seem irrelevant.  But when I was a child growing up in the former USSR during the late 1980s in a politically divided family I had a dilemma on my hands. This dilemma was by no means unique to me. There were other children in the same situation. So when I started reading the works of Patrick Pearse, who grew up with an aloof domineering English father and a submissive Irish mother, his experiences spoke to me.  Even though Pearse and I are separated chronologically and geographically, his sentiments resonated with mine. Patrick Pearse went on to embrace his Irish side, became an ardent Gaelic revivalist and ultimately gave his life for his cause.  Historians and psychologists have shared their theories regarding the cause behind that switch. The consensus seems to be that Pearse, being an awkward, shy, clumsy child, frequently ridiculed and excluded by his peers, was inclined to side with the outcasts.  I would not go as far as suggesting that Pearse's awkward adolescence was the only reason for his conversion to Irish nationalism, but it certainly did play a part.

Execution of  James Connolly (Alissa Mendenhall)

Interestingly enough, the man who had sworn Patrick Pearse into the Irish Republican Brotherhood came from a totally different walk of life.  Born into a prosperous Quaker family, Bulmer Hobson was handsome, well-spoken, athletic and confident.  His father was an Ulsterman of predominantly English stock, and his mother was from Yorkshire.  In short, he did not have blood links to the Irish culture.  Nevertheless, he became one of the most notorious advocates for Irish independence in Ulster.  To him it was a question of morality and human rights.  He sided with the underdog, even though he came from privilege himself.  Eventually, Hobson and Pearse went their opposite ways.  It's interesting how they came from different walks of life, walked side by side for a brief period of time, and then went in the opposite directions.  Pearse loved the idea of an armed rebellion, even if it had no chance of success, and Hobson was disgusted by the idea of vain bloodshed.  "No man has the right to risk the lives of others to carve for himself a niche in history", Hobson stated in a public speech just a few days before the Easter Rising.  That bold phrase got him kidnapped by his own former comrades and held captive until the rising was well underway.  (See illustration)

Guarding Bulmer (Alissa Mendenhall)

In many circles it's still blasphemous to question the sainthood of certain "martyrs".  Incidentally, "Martyrs & Traitors" is the title of my second book in the series.  There is a combination of pathos and sarcasm in that title.  These two seemingly polarized concepts that represent black and white in reality jumble into one grey mass. 

Shortly after announcing my novel "Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian" on Facebook, I started getting many friend requests from various Sinn Fein groups.  Before long, I started getting requests from individuals with masked IRA members as their profile pictures.  I won't get into the difference between the original IRA in the 1920s and what the organization has become. That subject deserves a separate blog entry. To make a long story short, I became awfully popular with the IRA online.  Apparently, none of my new friends had read my books, or if they had, clearly they hadn't picked up on the ambivalent tone in which I described the actions of the Irish republican leaders.  One time I asked a gentleman from Belfast why he endorsed that particular cause, and his reply was: "Because so much Irish blood was already shed in the previous generations."  No further questions.  Can't argue with a rebel's logic.


I'd like to thank Marina for sharing these insights with us, and to wish her well with her book launch.  

To learn more about Marina and her books, see her Fireship Press page.

To purchase Never Be at Peace, Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian, or Martyrs and Traitors, click on the cover below:

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Little Free Libraries - a good cause, and possibly good PR

Little Free Library in Madison, WI

Author friends, here's an idea you might want to consider:  donate one (or more) of your books to the Little Free Library nearest you.  Not sure what this is, or whether there is one near you?  Read on.

Little Free Library in Baxter Springs, KS

The Little Free Library organization is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization whose mission is to promote a sense of community, reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world.

A Little Free Library in Lithuania

The Little Free Libraries themselves are small structures, usually handcrafted, that contain a constantly rotating collection of books donated and shared by people.  The idea is, you donate a book, and you choose a book to take for yourself.  The libraries are purchased (or built) by individuals, communities, businesses, and nonprofits, and they can be found in front yards, parks, public gardens, outside businesses, and in many other publicly accessible places.

They need to be weatherproof (Patty Kosley, Traverse City, MI)

The designs can be quite sophisticated:

Melody Moore, Mazomanie, WI

Rick Schroeder, Atlanta, GA

 And if you're wondering how giving one of your books to such a library might be helpful in spreading the word about your work, take a look at the numbers:

According to Rick Brooks, one of the founders of the Little Free Library organization, a conservative estimate of the number of Little Free Libraries in the world as of January 15, 2014, is 15,000, in at least 56 countries.  On average, each library goes through at least 25 books per month, ; if no new libraries were added (not likely, as new ones spring up every day), at the current rate that would mean 4.5 million books exchanged in 2014.  The LFL Facebook pages have more than 46,000 "likes," more than two million people have searched the LFL map (see website, below), and at least 200,000 people have watched YouTube videos about LFLs.

With a solar panel (lights up at night)

My community, Madison, WI, is pretty much where the idea got started, and it has no fewer than 100 Little Free Libraries, located all over town.  My novel, A Thing Done, is tucked happily into the one pictured at the top of this post (unless someone has taken it by now), complete with my signature and a promotional bookmark. And the book I brought home with me was a historical novel I've been wanting to read for a long time, so I'd call that a win-win situation.

This one matches the house behind it (Whitnee LaChappelle, Redmond, WA)

To learn more about the organization, check out their website:

Repurposed refrigerator, Coalmont, British Columbia
It was a microwave in a previous life (Wisconsin Dells, WI)

The Little Free Library organization got started in 2010.  Todd Bol of Hudson, WI created the first one in memory of his mother in 2009, but the idea started to spread when Bol teamed up with Rick Brooks of Madison, WI in 2010.  In an email, Brooks tells me about how authors can contribute to this effort, and what's in it for them:
A growing number of authors and publishers are contributing promotional copies, most of them signed... The best way is for them to put their books in Little Libraries close to them, or to give them to friends who will put them in the Libraries.  If they have five or more copies, they can send them to our studio and office and we'll put the books in Little Free Library Originals we send out. ... The ideal, for us and for authors, is to provide Little Free Library a small number of copies along with promotional information about the book, the author and any details that we might be able to use on our blog or website. ... You'll be seeing mentions of authors and books that are using this approach in our blog and Facebook pages soon.

Emily Hamilton, Fort Dodge, IA

When you donate one of your books, it's a very different thing from having a book giveaway on a review blog, or on Goodreads, where the people who try to win a copy presumably are already interested in the book.  You're putting it out there among strangers - much like tucking a note into a bottle, corking it, and tossing it off the ship into the ocean.  You cannot possibly have any idea of what its fate will be, but you've done your part.  That in itself may result in introducing your book to someone - or several someones -  who might otherwise never come into contact with it. 

Mariah Hess, Davis, CA

So think about it.  Would your publisher send them a batch of books?  Could you spare one or two to drop off at Little Free Libraries somewhere near you?  Can you think of other ways that you could use this organization to share your book with others and perhaps get a bit of publicity at the same time?  I think it's worth a try.

Cindy Schurich, La Mesa, CA

Images in this post (except the picture at the top, which is my own) are used with permission of the Little Free Library organization.  Photographers, when their names are available, are credited in the captions.