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Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Scholar with textsWe authors—especially of historical fiction—cannot get along without our research books. (We also like to visit the places we write about, explore museum exhibits, and participate in archaeology and reenactments, but this post will talk about research of the armchair variety.) We prefer primary sources: journals, diaries, letters, histories, account lists, and literature written in the period, describing the people and events we want to write about; but that’s not always possible. For cultures that didn’t have a written language (the Iron Age Celts), or it was indecipherable (Egyptian hieroglyphs until the discovery of the Rosetta stone), or it was destroyed (Mayan books burned by conquering Spaniards); we have to rely on secondary sources. Books, essays, and articles by academics and other professionals in their fields are the best we can do for written research in such cases. But we have to be careful even with those. Just as in evaluating primary sources we have to keep in mind the biases and knowledge of the writer, we have to do the same with secondary sources. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of dreck out there—particularly on the internet—and historical fiction authors usually like to get as close to the truth as possible.

In researching Sword of the Gladiatix (soon to be available), I collected several books, articles, and pamphlets on Boudica and Roman Britain, most of an academic nature, a few of the more “popular” variety. The two biographies of Boudica I review below are the best by far of both types. You can read either or both and get a well-researched, readable history of the Iceni Queen, her times, and her legacy in popular culture. Which to read depends on your needs and nature. (more…)

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Princesses Behaving Badly book coverOnce upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess who wasn’t afraid to cheat, deceive, seduce or murder anyone who got in her way.

I like these kinds of books—collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. I have one on women at sea; several on women warriors; others on women explorers, mathematicians, and scientists. They generally follow a pattern of one to two page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration.

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Cover ImageI love a good story about women pushing the boundaries in times past, especially when they are based on real people. The Kings’ Mistresses is the true tale of two sisters: Marie Mancini and her younger sister Hortense, the nieces of one of the most powerful men in seventeenth century France, Cardinal Mazarin (a protégé of Richelieu.) Mazarin, rose from obscure roots in Rome to become Prime Minister to the Queen Regent of France, Anne of Austria and her son Louis XIV. Along the way he acquired great wealth as well as influence and enemies. He hoped to consolidate his influence by the well-known ploy of strategic marriage, so he summoned his Italian nieces and nephews to the French court. In 1653 Marie, “a dark-haired and intelligent-looking adolescent of thirteen” and Hortense, “a mere child of six, with curly black hair and striking in her delicate beauty” left their home in Rome to travel to Paris. It was the first of many journeys in their fascinating lives. (more…)

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Cover for The Discovery of Jeanne BaretI’ve been in rewrite mode lately and ignoring my blog. But just in time for Women’s History Month, Glynis Ridley has kindly stepped in with a guest post talking about her non-fiction adventure story The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnaviagate the Globe.  I first ran across Jeanne Baret’s remarkable story in another book She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea by Joan Druett; and, yes, women have commanded navies, captained ships and served as crew long before modern times. I was delighted to have the opportunity to read Ms. Ridley’s riveting account of one these remarkable and neglected woman. Thanks to her publisher Broadway Paperbacks for providing two copies for a giveaway. (See the end of the article for details.)

Guest Post

Hello Faith. Thank you so much for inviting me to be your guest today. You asked me if I could talk about the writer’s process and my book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. While the book was first published in US hardback in 2010, and in paperback in 2011, I actually started thinking about it back in 2001. My husband and I had both been lucky enough to be invited to speak at a conference at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, on the subject of ideas of the exotic in the 18th century. My husband was giving a paper on two different French explorers of the Pacific: Bougainville and Laperouse, and as we were on the second leg of our journey, flying from Singapore to Sydney, he asked me if I knew that there had been a woman on Bougainville’s first French circumnavigation of the globe in 1766-69. (more…)

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Catherine the Great coverFrom the book jacket:

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Peter the GreatNicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.


Massie delivers a wonderfully researched and readable book. My knowledge of Catherine the Great was vague to the point of mythical. I had hazy memories of multiple lovers, a (possible) scandal about her and a horse, and a movie starring Greta Garbo. The lovers were real, but few; there was no mention of the horse; and the Garbo movie turned out to be about Queen Christina of Sweden who lived a century earlier. So much for memory.

To say Catherine is a fascinating character is to do her a disservice. Massie shows her towering intellect, force of personality, and steely resolve from an early age. He also shows her craving for love and approval; denied in childhood and in her marriage. But her story is not a simplistic psycho-drama, it’s populated with complicated characters, shifting political agendas (both domestic and foreign), and colored with the burgeoning philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment. (more…)

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cover

Cover courtesy of Harper Collins

Long, long ago in a youth far, far away, I read a biography of Catherine de Medici; so I was already familiar with her story. I have to admit, the details were hazy: I remembered something about poison, religious wars and that she was Mary, Queen of Scots’ mother-in-law. Then a couple of years ago, my husband and I took a biking vacation  in the Loire valley and visited numerous castles and gardens along way, several associated with Catherine and her rival Diane de Poitiers; so I was reacquainted with the general outlines of her story. Which brings me to: Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda.

From the Introduction:

“Catherine de Medici has variously been called ‘The Maggot from Italy’s Tomb’, ‘The Black Queen’ and ‘Madame La Serpente’. To many she is the very incarnation of evil. It is, I believe, as mistaken a judgment as it is bigoted. Yet it is not far removed from the overall verdict of history on one of the most remarkable women of the sixteenth century.” (more…)

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The Last MadamSex, bootlegged booze, beautiful women, and powerful men set against the steamy backdrop of corruption in New Orleans in the roaring twenties.  This is the stuff of which exciting novels are made.  But, as in many cases, truth is more compelling than fiction.  Christine Wiltz is a mystery writer with four novels under her belt set in her native New Orleans.  When asked to write the biography of Norma Wallace, a powerful ambitious woman who ran one of the most notorious houses of prostitution in the French Quarter for over forty years, Wiltz decided to give non-fiction a try.  She combined her mystery writing skills and deep affection for her native city in a real-life thriller, The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld. Wiltz deftly unravels the mystery of the woman behind the glamour of the madam; setting us up with Norma’s violent death in Chapter One, then spending the rest of the book answering the proverbial questions of “Whodunit?” and, more importantly, “Why?” (more…)

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