Saturday, March 7, 2020

PLEASE NOTE: This blog is currently inactive. It may not stay that way forever, and there's still plenty of good stuff to read here, but for the moment, most of the activity is happening elsewhere.

Specifically, on my Facebook author page, or sign up for my newsletter on my website. Most of the sorts of things I used to post here will now be in that newsletter, which will come to you either once or twice a month, with a variety of news, ramblings on medieval and/or writerly topics, and whatever else pops into my mind.

You can also find me (and my books) on BookBub and on Goodreads, and I have an Amazon author page.

Since this blog went on hiatus, I published my second novel, Lady of the Seven Suns: A Novel of the Woman Saint Francis Called Brother, and I republished my debut novel, A Thing Done, with a new cover. If you are interested in finding either of those books, my website and my Facebook author page both include buy links to various online retailers for ebooks and paperbacks, and you can also order the paperbacks from your local bookstore.

Here are the paperback covers (many thanks to Jennifer Quinlan of Historical Fiction Book Covers for these, which I really love!). Happy reading!

A powerful noblewoman or a humble follower of the holy man from Assisi? All the rules say Giacoma cannot be both.

But rules are made to be broken.

Rome, 1210.
 After tragedy shatters Giacoma’s world, Francesco intervenes to save her sanity, her life, and her soul. She owes him everything. Her gratitude is boundless – but now she must thread her way between duty and faith, always striving to be worthy of Francesco’s affectionate name for her: “Brother Giacoma.”

No longer locked into the power struggle among Rome’s noble families, still she cannot turn her back on her sons, her household, and Rome’s poorest citizens who depend on her charity. As a woman she is not free to share the brothers’ life of sacred poverty, begging for her daily bread. Nor is she destined for Clare’s cloister. A new path, as yet unexplored and unsignposted, lies ahead for Giacoma dei Settesoli. If she finds it, will she be brave enough to follow it?

Based on a true story, this is an absorbing historical novel of one woman’s stubborn quest for grace. If you like strong women in the past who insist on making their own way in a patriarchal society, you’ll love Lady of the Seven Suns.

”To read Lady is to savor that rarest of reading pleasures: you will live another person’s life to the full, vicarious time travel at its empathetic best.” Judith Starkston, Fantasy and Magic in the Bronze Age

Juggling is easy – until you’re juggling two sides of a lethal vendetta.

Florence, 1216: Corrado the Fool’s prank-for-hire began it, but where is it going to end? Florence’s noble families are up in arms, and Corrado is pressed into service by both sides against his will. A peacemaking marriage could still quiet the outraged factions, but that fragile alliance may crumble under pressure from an interfering woman, a scorned bride, and a demand for revenge. And only Corrado, the reluctant messenger, is in a position to see it all taking shape.

He doesn’t care who comes out on top, but he does care a lot about surviving and about protecting those he loves, and he'll do whatever he must to prevent the enraged nobles from destroying his city. Will his famous wit and ingenuity be enough? Will anything?

Inspired by real events, A Thing Done tells of a hapless David caught between warring Goliaths. Corrado's story makes it clear that the rich and powerful aren't the only ones who can make history.

”… a wonderful job of demonstrating how minor, insignificant acts can have far reaching consequences while weaving a great tale grounded in historical events. This is a must read.” -

A Thing done won the 2014 Sharp Writ Book Award for Fiction.

Friday, May 25, 2018

New Release!

Readers, this is an extraordinary book. The author is part of the critique triumvirate I am fortunate enough to belong to, but I'm not calling this work extraordinary because of that. It's been a long time since I could so wholeheartedly endorse a novel, but this one is special. I found it absorbing, deeply moving, and uplifting. I admire the writer's skill and subtlety, and I've come to love her characters. I heartily recommend this book. Do yourselves a favor and buy a copy here.

Here's what S.K. Keogh has to say about The Driver's Wife:
A story of redemption and unconventional love. 
Leighlin Plantation offers Edward Ketch a new life, an opportunity to forsake his violent, troubled past and become a man worthy of respect and trust. But when a slave named Isabelle arrives, Ketch is drawn into a turbulent relationship that threatens the very peace he has struggled to attain.
Isabelle has her own desires for a fresh start, but scurrilous gossip about her past undermines those hopes. She struggles to be accepted by Leighlin’s other slaves and hopes marriage to a popular man will aid her cause. But her situation worsens when her husband becomes abusive. She discovers, however, one unlikely ally—Ketch, who is as much an outcast among Leighlin’s white population as she is among her people.
A stranger to love, Ketch cannot recognize the true feelings that draw him to Isabelle. To rescue her from the dangers of her marriage, he risks losing not only his position at Leighlin but the affections of the woman he strives to save.
Set against the backdrop of 17th century Carolina, The Driver’s Wife explores the lives and relationships, from Big House to slave settlement, of those who labored upon the wilderness plantations near Charles Town. Rice cultivation and the task system of slavery provide a much different landscape from the aristocratic Old South of cotton plantations and gang labor familiar to most modern-day readers. The Driver’s Wife is a tale of the transcendent power of love.

And here's the review I've put up on Amazon:
The author pulls off quite a feat. She gives us a main character who is about as far from lovable as it’s possible to get: Ketch has a violent past, a truculent, antagonistic attitude, and many secrets. He is damaged on more than one level. And yet… even from the beginning we see his intelligence at work, his sense of justice, his compassion (even though he doesn’t recognize that quality in himself). One step at a time, incrementally, we begin to root for Ketch, until before we know it we’re a hundred percent on his side – and he is becoming a different man.
This book is a gem. Its descriptions of the colonial south are lush and vivid, which enhances the whole, but the extraordinary depth of characterization is what makes this story something special. The two main characters are fully realized. Separately and together, they hold the reader’s interest and we can’t help but care about them and their budding relationship, which is as singular as it is inevitable. Secondary characters, too, are three-dimensional, especially Helen, the precocious and warm-hearted child who Ketch protects and loves. I would love to see a follow-up book someday about Helen as a grown woman. 
A lot happens to Ketch and Isabelle externally, but even more happens – and deeper changes occur – internally, which gives the characters and the book as a whole a rare depth and richness. This reader will not soon forget these people and their story.  

The author:

When Susan Keogh won an elementary school writing contest and a trip to a regional young writers conference, she hadn’t realized that experience was the beginning of a love affair with words. Keogh was raised in a large family where reading was encouraged. Through her mother’s interest in history, Keogh grew to admire such authors as Michael Shaara and Bruce Catton, a fellow Michigan writer who focused on the American Civil War. So it was no wonder that her first writing credit was a featured article in the magazine America’s Civil War. 
Keogh’s particular interest in the Civil War led her into re-enacting for several years as a field musician. Keogh’s most recent time period of historical interest is early colonial America. She has crafted a series of novels that center around the adventures of Jack Mallory, a young Englishmen who is both pirate and eventually the patriarch of a large rice plantation in the colonial province of Carolina.
Outside of her writing life, Keogh works in the health care field and enjoys travel (preferably to warm places outside of her native Michigan!), the arts, pickleball, and equestrian activities.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Website Outtakes

Recently I've been working on re-doing my website. It is a tedious task, and when faced with a tedious task, my every instinct is to entertain myself by keeping it light. However, one cannot get too silly in a website if one wants to be taken seriously. (Do I want to be taken seriously? I'm not sure, actually.) 

So I toned it down, but I thought I might as well use this version here in my blog, where I am not exactly known for being overly serious. By the way, don't bother checking out the site yet; I have a new host, and I'm still trying to figure out how the graphics work, so there isn't much there yet. But if you're at all curious about who I am or what I write, this outtake should help:

Tinney Sue Heath writes fiction set in medieval Italy. She didn’t originally intend to choose a bit of history that is obscure, often misunderstood, and has never been featured on a television miniseries, but that’s how it worked out.

She was poking around in the Italian Renaissance when she got to wondering “Why then? Why there?” She took a tentative step back in time and promptly discovered a whole raft of fascinating stuff that happened before the Medici, before Michelangelo, before the Borgia pope. She picked up speed as she moved backwards beyond the Black Death, because, trust me on this, nobody wants to hang around in 1348. The Black Death is seriously depressing, hitting depths of yuckiness not even a dedicated historical fictionista can endure for long. 

Onward, ever backward, until she came to a screeching halt at Dante (1265-1321). If you're looking for the source of the Italian Renaissance, this is not a bad place to hover for a while. So Heath learned about those Guelfs and Ghibellines, about medieval urban warfare, about mighty defensive towers and magnificent frescoed churches, about an explosion of glorious poetry and a sea change in the visual arts, about Florentine magnates and the audacious experiment of rule by the popolo.

And then she wrote her debut novel, and it turned out to be set in 1216.

1216? WTF? (Naturally, this stands for War-Torn Florence.) Does this mean she went further back in time and settled on a pre-Dante period? Not necessarily. Dante was still compelling, but even in early 14th century Florence she found herself asking "Why him? Why then and there?" So backwards she went, yet again, until she hit that speed bump in 1216.

She discovered a period rich in surprises, with all the vices and virtues of humanity prominently on display.

Plus, you get saints, not to mention all that complicated Guelf-Ghibelline, pope-emperor conflict. Her first book, A Thing Done, is based on an incident that triggered the Guelf-Ghibelline split in Florence. Her second (not yet published) novel, which begins in that same decade, involves the early Franciscans, with Saint Francis himself as a prominent - though not the main - character. Saints are a challenge to write about, and Heath claims absolutely no special qualifications in this area, but it's a wonderful exercise for the imagination.

She finds in the ever-squabbling Guelfs and Ghibellines a parallel to the polarized politics of our own times, and it pleases her to think that if civilization made it through that mess, maybe we 21st century folk will also manage to muddle through.
Guelfs and Ghibellines, squabbling?

 So if you want Tudors, or World War II love stories, or Roman soldiers, or guys in kilts, you'll have to look elsewhere. But be of good cheer, because you won't have any trouble at all finding those things in quantity.

All you'll find here are those Guelfs and Ghibellines (occasionally trading places), saints and sinners (ditto), knights and ladies, jesters and cardinals, crusaders and monks. (There's less place-changing in those last three pairings, though anything's possible, and you just never know...) We're back in the days before glass windows, before wall fireplaces with chimneys, before the great upsurge of religious confraternities. We're not done with the Crusades yet, the Uberti family would really love to take over the government of Florence, and just last year the pope ordered the bishops to stop including hunting dogs and falcons in their retinues. It's 1216. Fasten your seatbelts, and enjoy the ride!

And for those of you who enjoy interactive blogging, here's a little pop quiz. This list contains six things that can be found either in Heath's published book or in her work in progress. One of them is her own invention, and the other five are historical, no matter how odd they sound. Can you identify the one that is fictional?

1) A certain saint used to sleep with his head on a stone. His aversion to pillows might have had something to do with his belief that one he had once used, as a guest in a nobleman's home, was possessed by demons.

2) A jester played a joke on a knight during a banquet, and by doing so managed to start a civil war.

3) A certain pope with a notorious temper used to wear the finger bone of a holy woman in a portable reliquary to prevent him from blaspheming.

Reliquary with the finger of Marie d'Oignes

4) The women of this town used to communicate information with one another over distances by the way they hung their laundry on the clotheslines - the sequence of items and colors.

5) A wealthy noblewoman used to prepare her special almond cakes for Saint Francis, and he was so fond of them that on his deathbed he asked for some.

6) Someone once thought it would be a good idea to make peace between warring factions by arranging a marriage between one of the combatants and a woman from the other side. (Spoiler alert: It wasn't.) Someone else once thought he would just ignore the marriage contract and dump his betrothed in favor of another woman from his own political side of the fence. (Spoiler alert: Neither was that.)

About the author:

Tinney Sue Heath realized at an early age that she had no domestic talents whatsoever and did not do well with repetitive work of any sort. An aptitude test revealed that she should absolutely not even think about working as a banker or a police officer, but she might have a chance as a musician or a writer. So she went for music and writing, and those have worked out fairly well. She is a fan of medieval music, Leonard Cohen, Italian opera, men's figure skating, logic problems, live theater, and a whole slew of writers, including her inspiration for going into historical fiction, Dorothy Dunnett. She plays several Renaissance and medieval wind instruments and a portative organ, but she can't cope with stringed instruments. If there's no way to blow into it, it's somebody else's problem. She has a husband and son who are totally amazing, and if she never accomplishes anything else beyond having them in her world, it will still have been a rousing success of a lifetime. She never writes about politics online, but sometimes she is very tempted.


Monday, May 29, 2017

The Historical World of Jack Mallory and The Prodigal (guest post by Susan Keogh)

Today I'd like to introduce guest blogger Susan Keogh, author of the newly re-released historical novel The Prodigal and the two novels that follow it (The Fortune and The Alliance). I enjoyed these books tremendously. I've also had the privilege of reading some of Susan's work that has not yet been published, and I can assure you, there's plenty there to look forward to! If you're not yet familiar with this author, you have a treat in store. Here's Susan, followed by her book blurb and her guest post.

The Historical World of Jack Mallory and The Prodigal (guest post by Susan Keogh)

A story of relentless pursuit, betrayal, and revenge:

As a young boy Jack Mallory knows horror and desolation when James Logan and his pirates murder his father and abduct his mother. Falsely accused of piracy himself, Jack is thrown into jail. He survives seven years in London’s notorious Newgate prison and emerges a hardened man seeking revenge.

His obsession with finding his mother’s kidnapper drives him to the West Indies where he becomes entangled with a fiery young woman named Maria Cordero. With a score of her own to settle with James Logan, she disguises her gender and blackmails Jack into taking her aboard his pirate brig, Prodigal, in his desperate search for Logan. Their tumultuous relationship simmers while Jack formulates a daring plan to rescue his mother and exact revenge upon Logan for destroying his family. But Logan has no intentions of losing what he now treasures more than life itself—Jack’s mother, Ella.

What is the single most important aspect of writing historical fiction? Setting. Setting is the “world-building” that agents and editors talk about when discussing the genre. You can have great characters, but if the reader can’t see, smell, and feel the place where your characters live, the story will fall flat.

The setting for my 17th century novel, The Prodigal, is split between three places: first and foremost, aboard the Prodigal as she sails the Atlantic Ocean (most of the novel takes place at sea); second, the West Indies; and third, the Colonial province of Carolina (modern day South Carolina). This article will discuss the first and the third.

The brig Prodigal was formerly used as a merchant vessel but commandeered for Jack’s purpose: hunting down the notorious pirate who kidnapped his mother. I chose a brig (two masts, compared to the three masts of a true “ship”) because, historically, pirates did not sail the large vessels portrayed in most Hollywood films. Pirates preferred small craft for their speed and maneuverability. They had no need for dozens of heavy guns to overpower their victims because most merchant vessels pirates preyed upon were lightly armed (guns took up valuable cargo space) with small crews (a money-saving measure). My search to find a replica of a brig for research resulted in my discovery of the Niagara, whose home port is Erie, Pennsylvania. I had the pleasure and privilege of sailing upon her three times, one of those times as a member of the crew. Though the Niagara existed over a hundred years after the era of my story, I was still able to apply much of what I learned about sailing to my 17th century story. If you’d like more information about the Niagara, please visit their website. They offer day sails to the public.

Me after my first sail aboard the Niagara.

When discussing the setting of Charles Town, Carolina (modern-day Charleston), I don’t want to give away anything about the plot of The Prodigal (I hate spoilers, don’t you?), so I will keep this a bit broad.

I traveled to Charleston a couple of times during the process of writing my novel. My focus was upon rice plantations and the rice culture, which made the region wealthy in the 1700s. My story takes place in the 1690’s, so in my story I had to portray Leighlin Plantation as a bit ahead of the times in discovering rice cultivation.

Two invaluable stops during my research were Drayton Hall and Middleton Place Plantation. Drayton Hall was such a magnificent house (and so very well preserved) that I decided to use its design for Leighlin House.

Leighlin’s land was partially inspired by Middleton Place, situated on a bluff (a rare topographical feature in the “lowcountry” of Charleston) with its beautiful view of the Ashley River.

I used Middleton’s bluff, terraces, butterfly ponds and some other aspects for Leighlin, but its immense gardens I used for another plantation featured briefly in The Prodigal, Wildwood Plantation. Beauty and symmetry greet the eye in every direction at Middleton’s gardens. (They also have a fabulous restaurant and Inn on the property, where I stayed during both of my visits.)

Both Leighlin and Wildwood feature more prominently in the second and third books in the series. But don’t feel it necessary to read The Alliance or The Fortune in order to enjoy The Prodigal. The Prodigal was originally written as a stand-alone novel, but once I reached the rather surprising ending, I found that the characters had much more to tell me, and I couldn’t wait to find out what that entailed. I hope you will feel the same way, too.

To purchase The Prodigal or read a free sample, click here.

You can connect with S.K. Keogh on the web through these links:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Palazzo that Wasn't There

This is a picture of an author in Rome on a research trip, gazing wistfully through a fence at where her main character's home used to be.

Lots of stuff lasts a long, long time in Rome. Why couldn't this place?

In 1899, William Hughes Mearns wrote a charming little poem that began like this:
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there!
He wasn't there again today,
Oh how I wish he'd go away!
My version would be more like this:
As I wandered all o'er Rome,
Searching for my subject's home,
I zoomed in on her neighborhood,
But not a single stone still stood.

It was by Sixtus V destroyed,
Which makes this writer quite annoyed.
He used her palace as a quarry,
For which he really should be sorry.

But all is gone, alas, alack -
I wish, I wish it would come back!
(I would be even more annoyed, actually, if I didn't find the name Sixtus the Fifth rather delightful.)

Sixtus V

Of course, this desecration happened in 1588, so at least it's not a recent loss, like the closure of the crypt in Santa Prassede. "For security reasons," like somehow Rome's safety depends on closing off a crypt in an ancient church. Rome is hugely security conscious at the moment; there are lots of guys in military fatigues standing around monuments carrying really large guns and trying to look scary.

Do you have any idea how thoroughly camouflage does NOT blend in with Rome? Maybe if they wore clothes with mosaics on them, or marble, it would work. (Or, if I may allow myself a snarky moment, with piles of uncollected garbage. It's not quite Naples yet, but it's getting there.)

But I digress. 

Anyway, I was in Rome to look up sites associated with the main character of my work in progress. She was a wealthy Roman noblewoman, born into the Normanni family and married into the even more powerful Frangipane family.

Definitely the right neighborhood. Though they were actually from the Trastevere district.

She was born toward the end of the 12th century and died around the middle of the 13th. She was an early friend and follower of Saint Francis of Assisi, and she is buried in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. Her name is Giacoma (or Jacoba) dei Settesoli, and here is a fresco of her from the Basilica:

The "dei Settesoli" part of her name indicates that her husband's branch of the family was the one that owned the ancient monument known as the Septizonium (aka Septizodium).

In the middle ages, the Septizonium was fortified and in use by its noble owners, as were the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, and many other survivors of the classical era. And in Giacoma's day, her husband's family controlled all three of those I've just mentioned, plus a triumphal arch or two. A lot of status was involved in controlling ancient monuments, and the Frangipani were no slouches when it came to public relations.

Unfortunately, over the years Rome has sometimes been rather cavalier in the treatment of its past. When it comes to the admonition "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," Rome was particularly big on the second one. Romans used to burn ancient stone monuments to generate lime to make mortar to stick other bits of ancient stone monuments together into newer stone monuments. This happened a lot.

It seems to me that the three main reasons for erasing large bits of Rome's medieval history can be summed up by these attitudes, expressed in reverse chronological order:
  1. It's only the middle ages. Let's get it out of the way to show off all this cool classical stuff.
  2. It's so old-fashioned. Let's baroque it! It needs a bunch of cherubs and vines and glitz.
  3. Ooh, look! Nice rocks. Shiny! Let's use those.
I think Sixtus was probably expressing #3 when he had the Septizonium ruins torn down in 1588 and bits reused here and there and hither and yon.

Septizonium ruins, 16th century

So what, exactly, was this Septizonium thing, anyway? And where was it? The "where" is pretty easy to answer, but the "what," not so much. It was located on the southern corner of the Palatine Hill, just a stone's throw from the Circus Maximus (which was, remember, also owned at that time by the Frangipani).

See that red oval on the map? That's the Circus Maximus, and the Septizonium was slightly north of the rounded end. Frangipani in those two locations could have waved at each other from their windows. (By the way, Frangipani is the plural, but when I say "Frangipane family" I'm using the singular. It's like "the Smiths" versus "the Smith family.")

As for what, there's a fair bit of debate about that. We do know that it was constructed on the orders of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, and what we see pictured, the ruins that survived into the 16th century, appear to be an elaborate facade. As to its original purpose, I've seen it described as a palace facade, a nymphaeum, a temple, a fountain, a place to display statues, or having "no known practical purpose."

Septimius Severus and family

Whatever it was, it was in ruins by the 8th century. It had been incorporated into a fortress long before the Frangipani took possession. But we don't know what form that took - whether it was a tower-house, or strictly a defensive bastion. Did people live there? Did Giacoma? It is widely assumed that she did, but I have my doubts. More on that later.

This picture shows the Septizonium as a romantic ruin. It isn't really that close to the Colosseum, though.

It has had a notorious role in history, but it may not deserve that infamy. There may be a question of mistaken identity involved (there is also a Septasolium, a different structure altogether.)

History tells us of popes imprisoned in the Septizonium, of other popes taking refuge from rampaging crowds of Romans in the streets below, and also of one particularly awful papal conclave supposedly held there in 1241. (I hasten to point out that 1241 was two years after Giacoma's death, and by then she had been living in Assisi for quite a while.)

It is said that the Roman senator Matteo Rosso Orsini housed the cardinals in the Septizonium, a ramshackle ruin, and kept them in a room where the rain leaked in, along with the malodorous results of Orsini's guards relieving themselves up on the roof. It is further said that the cardinals were deprived of proper food, servants, and doctors, and that they suffered mightily. One, from England, died. The rest stuck it out for two months, however, and finally elected Pope Celestine IV, who had been nobody's favorite candidate at the outset.  Celestine may have been the worse for the experience also, for he lasted only 17 days before he died, not even making it to his coronation.

I am personally inclined to think that this didn't happen in Giacoma's Septizonium. For one thing, if it had indeed been her home, or even her property, I find it hard to believe it would have deteriorated that much only two years after her death. For another, we still don't know if there was ever anything more to the Septizonium than an elaborate colonnaded facade, so there may not have even been any place to put the cardinals.

The similarly-named Septisolium (aka Heliogabalum), on the other hand, was a much more commodious place, a monastery which had been used previously for papal elections. It seems likely that this was the location of the conclave, and that the cardinals were perhaps not as ill-used as reports suggest, though certainly some of them were there (wherever "there" was) against their will.

So there I was in Rome, with no Septizonium to look at, and not even the certainty that Giacoma did indeed live in the structure that used to be there. But I take a Canadian Mountie approach to my on-site research ("We Get Our Septizonium!"), so we weren't done yet. I happened to know where some of the pieces of the Septizonium had gone, when Pope Sixtus V had it razed, so off we went, looking for the bits.

Some of it - 104 blocks of marble - wound up here, in the restoration of the Antonine Column, specifically in the base of the statue of Saint Peter:

And some of it wound up here, in the northern facade of San Giovanni Laterano:

and here, in the Palazzo della Cancelleria:

and in the restoration of the Baths of Diocletian:

and even in Sixtus's own tomb, in Santa Maria Maggiore:

These weren't the only places, but you get the idea. Giacoma's Septizonium was spread all over Rome. The destruction had cost Sixtus 905 scudi, but he got a lot of marble, travertine, and columns out of the deal.

It was a disappointment, though not a surprise. But since I was becoming increasingly convinced that her actual home was probably located in the Circus Maximus, I still had something to explore, and that exploration turned up a wealth of information.

More about that in my next post, but meanwhile here's a picture of the Frangipani tower that still stands (hurray!) in the Circus Maximus. We'll explore that next time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Say what? (or, Navigating a Foreign Language on its Home Turf)

My husband and I have recently returned from several weeks in Italy, and I find myself thinking about the frustration, fascination, and sheer fun of trying to communicate in a language other than my native English.

My language status: I am not fluent in Italian, but I get by reasonably well. I read the language better than I speak it, because (1) I read it all the time when doing research for my writing, and (2) I am a hopelessly self-conscious speaker, and forgetting one word or being uncertain of a verb tense is enough to silence me, because I want it to be perfect.

Of course, Italian is not a monolithic language. It abounds with dialects, accents, regional peculiarities, and the kind of verbal shorthand that everyone tends to use in casual conversation, all of which add to the challenge of actually managing to communicate in it. Here's an idea of how diverse it can be:

 Depending on where you go in Italy, chances are that many people will speak to you in English. Yes, they'll know you speak English. With me, they take one look at my sensible shoes and my total lack of fashion sense, and the lightbulb goes on over their heads, and the thought balloon says "English! I can practice my English!"

Meanwhile, I am thinking, "This is my chance to speak Italian!" So off we go, with the Italian person speaking imperfect English to me and me speaking imperfect Italian to him. This results in some rollicking conversations, and it really is a lot of fun.
Who's speaking what?

We tend to spend a lot of time in smaller towns, towns with less of a tourist presence than the major cities, and there I find it is genuinely useful to have some grasp of the language. The hostess at our agriturismo this trip, for example, didn't have any English, so communication depended on my skills, which for the most part were there when I needed them.

People in train stations tend to speak train English; people in restaurants speak restaurant English; people in museums speak museum English, and so on. This is fine for a while, but it's pretty easy to veer off course if the conversation goes anywhere even slightly unusual, and then we're all out of our depth.

Tourists in Rome

I had one conversation with a shopkeeper on this trip that resulted in the two of us exclaiming "Brava!" to each other and sharing high fives, all because she remembered some obscure weirdness in English (I don't remember which, we have so many), and I managed to do something fairly sophisticated in Italian ("Woo-hoo! Correct use of the subjunctive AND a reflexive verb, all in one sentence!").

Once in a while I run into a fellow perfectionist. That would include the waiter who was trying to answer my questions about the menu. He was speaking English, and I was speaking some of each language, but I'll render it here in English:

Me (pointing to something on the menu): What is this?
Him: It is a vegetable. I do not know the word in English.
Me: Okay, maybe I'll have the artichokes, then.
Him: It is green, and it looks like grass.
Me: Or how about the eggplant?
Him: It looks like grass, but it is cooked. It is like cooked grass.
Me: Maybe the zucchini.
Him: It is like green grass that is cooked. Yes, it is like grass.
Me (sighing): Okay, I'll have the cooked grass.
 Electronics seem to have a harder time than I do, for the most part. I had occasion to type a couple of emails in Italian while we were there, and I hadn't figured out how to disable Autocorrect on my iPad, so the results were odd, to say the least. My cheery "Buon giorno!" got corrected into "Buon ginormous," and my comment that we were running late ("in ritardo") came out as "in Ricardo." I mentioned that we had a rental car ("macchina"), but the iPad decided it was a "macchiato." And when I wanted to speak of "nostra partenza" (our departure), it absolutely insisted that I must mean "Nostradamus partenza."

I therefore wish all of you a very buon ginormous, hope that you don't find yourselves in poor old Ricardo, and suggest that if you are in need of a macchiato, you consider buying it instead of renting it. I have no idea what to do about Nostradamus. Lots of people didn't, as I recall.

And then there was our GPS. When we were in Greece a couple of years ago, we named our GPS lady with the British accent Cassandra, on the grounds that nobody ever listened to her, either. This time I wanted to call her La Compiuta Donzella, after a 13th century Tuscan poet, but my husband kept referring to her as the Madonna della Locazione Globale, and that stuck. Her main problem was pronunciation.

GPS: Continue for 7 kilometers to Seena.
Me: It's SiEna, you electronic dingbat.
GPS: Take the exit to Chiuso.
Me: Chiusi, not Chiuso. Who programmed you, anyway?
GPS: Continue through MonTALcheeNO.
Me: MonTALcheeNO?!? Get a grip, lady! It's MONtalCIno.
GPS: Take the next left toward Seena.
Me: SiEna!
And so on.

My husband, by the way, has picked up a smattering of Italian along the way, but once in a while he still comes up with a howler. My favorite was the train ride when we were trying to figure out what stop we were passing, and he saw the sign that said "Vietato attraversare i binari."

"I got it!" he announced. "We're in Vietato."

I almost hated to point out that "Vietato attraversare i binari" means "It is forbidden to cross the tracks," but I couldn't resist observing that a town named "Forbidden" didn't sound like a really great place for our vacation.

Then there are pronunciation issues. The Italians don't do too well with the letter H, a voiced glottal fricative. So, when we're checking in somewhere and I need to give them our name (Heath), I spell it out: "Acca come hotel, E come Empoli, A come Ancona, T come Torino, e un'altra Acca," and they make a heroic effort to say the name, and it comes out as "Signora Heat." This is because even worse than the H, which they work at, is the digraph TH, the voiced or unvoiced dental fricative. That just isn't an option.

Favorite example: in Pienza, a few years ago, a pleasant young woman was showing us through the Palazzo Piccolomini.

Palazzo Piccolomini

We managed to be thoughtful and studious and nod appropriately as she told us the history of various Piccolomini popes and their predecessors, and we were fine with Pius the First, and with Pius the Second. But every time she got around to "Pius the Turd," we had to be sure not to look at each other, lest we lose it, which would have been rude.

I'll close with the charming, if slightly askew, comment by the church sacristan who was showing us around the sanctuary of a church that has a connection to my work in progress. He was quite indifferent to us at first, but he warmed to us when I for once remembered to murmur "Permesso," before walking through the door he had just opened for us. While it may seem strange to Americans to request permission to enter a space you have already been invited into, it is in fact a rather subtle custom, a way of saying, "I acknowledge that this is your space and not mine." An Italian would have done it without thinking. I've had to train myself. But he immediately dropped his guard, and we began one of those dual language conversations that when you try to remember them, you can't recall what was said in which language.

I mentioned my main character - a historical person, but not one many people have heard of - and his eyes widened, and he proceeded to rattle off her history in rapid Italian. He didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but what he said was accurate, and at that moment there was a real sense of connection between us. So when we parted, he shook my hand and smiled at me and, in English, wished me "Merry Christmas!" It was the week before Easter, so he had missed by a bit, but that was fine. We settled on "Buona Pasqua," and parted as friends.