I’ll admit to a wee bit of trepidation when I decided to interview Elizabeth Loupas for her debut novel, The Second Duchess, released March 1, 2011 by Penguin/NAL and soon available in Germany, through Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek. Despite a tag line which makes it sound intriguing and accessible — that it’s The Other Boleyn Girl meets Rebecca — it’s historical fiction. My pointy brain never embraced high school social studies.
Then there are the reviews. The blurb page alone is already more than a page long, beginning with Deanna Raybourn who said: “Utterly mesmerizing, captivating from the first page. Thick with shadowy court intrigues and lush period detail, The Second Duchess is a Renaissance masterpiece come to life.”
Monica E. Spence of the Historical Novel Society gives it her blessing thusly: “Have you ever read a book that you wish you had written? Have you ever read a book that you wish did not end? For me, The Second Duchess is that book.”
I could go on, but let’s finish with Publisher’s Weekly who called it a “winning debut” and said of Elizabeth’s heroine and hero: “…Readers will warm immediately to the clever, intelligent Barbara, while the demanding, sometimes brutal, Alfonso makes an intriguing man of mystery.”
Jan: Elizabeth, on what promises to be a triumphant beginning to your career as a historical novelist, welcome to Tartitude! I’m looking forward to plumbing the depths of your mind.
Set the stage for us, will you? What is the premise for The Second Duchess?
We find ourselves in sixteenth-century Ferrara, a walled river city already ancient, renowned for music and art, architecture and learning, chivalric festivals and royal ambitions. Alfonso II d’Este, the fifth duke of Ferrara, is taking a new wife with enormous pomp and splendor. No one dares accuse him in the mysterious death of his first wife — and his new bride, Barbara of Austria, daughter and sister of Holy Roman Emperors, has vowed she will ask no questions.
But what second wife can ever resist asking questions about the first?
The inspiration for your novel came from Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess, conveniently included at the back of your novel for your readers. How did the book blossom from the poem?
I had to have read that poem a thousand times — it’s been one of my favorites since junior high. But one day when I was tutoring a rather bored high school senior through an essay about the poem it struck me — just what did the duke’s second wife have to say about all that? At that point I had not done much research into the historical background of the poem, and I thought the characters Browning had created were entirely fictional.
Once I realized I had real historical personages on my hands, I was off and running. There’s nothing I love as much as research. And the three main characters — Alfonso II d’Este, Barbara of Austria, and Lucrezia de’ Medici — were connected in one way or another to every well-known historical personage of the sixteenth century. King Henri II of France was Alfonso’s cousin. Lucrezia Borgia was his grandmother. Juana of Castile, known as Juana la Loca, sister of Katherine of Aragon, was Barbara’s grandmother. And I won’t even start on the Medici.
Where does your story diverge from known fact?
Well, everywhere and nowhere!
I read original and secondary sources in English, Italian and German (I had to have the Italian and German ones translated), and did my very best to create an authentic sense of time and place, and also to get a sense of the personalities of the main characters, so even when I was speculating about their private lives, I could give them words and actions that might have been. Alfonso and Barbara and Lucrezia are the best sort of historical personages to write fiction about — they’re not extremely well-known, like, say, an Anne Boleyn. So although there are the parameters of what information does exist, there is also a lot of room to play.
Some of the characters are entirely fictional — Frà Pandolf, whom I borrowed from dear Mr. Browning, Maria Granmammelli, Sandro and Elisabetta Bellinceno. Even so, they are modeled on what such characters might have been like in that time and place.
Some of the characters are a combination of fact and fiction. Alfonso did have an aunt named Eleonora who was a nun at the Monastery of Corpus Domini. The character of Mother Eleonora is fictional, although again I tried to imagine what it might have been like for a daughter of Lucrezia Borgia to be a nun at that particular time.
As for the fate of Duchess Lucrezia — well, officially historians seem to agree that she died of tuberculosis or some other “wasting disease.” But there were rumors at the time that Duke Alfonso had poisoned or strangled her. Who knows what the truth was? Browning almost certainly came across the old rumors during first his trip to Italy in 1838, and published “My Last Duchess” in 1842. I found the same rumors and worked out my own version, using not only the historical record but Browning’s poem as starting points.
Have you settled on a method of organizing your research data? Care to detail it?
I keep a planning notebook with hundreds of nested folders in a tabbed-notebook piece of software. This is mostly for my notes to myself. (Readers: see this Q & A on Writer Unboxed for a screenshot.)
I also kept a huge collection of bookmarks in my browser, again organized in nested folders. The most important thing I learned about online research is to save or print out anything really important! The web is constantly changing and links die every day. I lost the best, most detailed biography of Alfonso’s mother Renée of France that way. I found other sources for the information I needed but I still regretted I hadn’t printed out the original.
Another organization tool is a piece of calendar software. I found years that matched 1565/1566 for which dates fell on which days (2001/2002) and entered things like moon phases (from a lovely site called timeanddate.com) and saint’s days, entered general weather data for Ferrara and any specific weather references I could find for the actual time. Then I entered each event of the story as it happened, where different people were when even when they weren’t onstage, everything that affected the storyline. This helped me enormously in keeping all the plot threads straight! There’s lots of free calendar software and every story needs a calendar.
Where does research come for you in the writing process?
I sketched out the bare bones of the story first. I knew, for example, that it was going to incorporate a mystery thread — that the duke’s second wife was going to search for the truth about the death of his first wife. I knew how it would start and how it would end. From that point on I pretty much alternated research and story. They feed each other — every bit of research suggests a story point and every step of the story (who am I kidding — virtually every sentence) creates subjects and words that require research.
The story mostly belongs to the first-person story of Barbara of Austria, daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. Yet the voice of the deceased Lucrezia Medici, First Duchess of Ferrara, makes an appearance at each chapter’s end. Was that a decision you made out of fondness for the first duchess or a writing decision? What were the pros and cons of that choice
I didn’t plan to have the first duchess speak. The very first drafts were in the third person, although very closely from Barbara’s point of view. I had never written in the first person. It was an experiment, an attempt to get closer to Barbara, more inside her head. I found I liked it.
Lucrezia forced her way into the story. She wanted to tell her side, and I thought it would be interesting in a mystery to have the murder victim observing and commenting on the efforts of the person attempting to solve her murder. Lucrezia thinks she knows who killed her. It turns out that there’s a great deal she doesn’t know.
One unexpected benefit of having Lucrezia as a voice character — and having her an immobila, a sort of halfway-between ghost — was that she could see things Barbara couldn’t. That’s one of the difficulties of writing in the first person — you can only write the things your viewpoint character can see and hear and experience. Lucrezia tells us parts of the story that Barbara can’t.
Further to the discussion of voice, I thought this was an area where your characterization was phenomenal. Each character had different speech patterns, such that I heard their accents without trying. I could detect the social strata they occupied through word choice, including slang or racist terms, if used. You even varied their voices according to emotional state, most noticeably Barbara’s internal dialogue in the climactic scene. Where did you learn to do this so skilfully? Are there resources you could recommend to a writer who’d like to improve on differentiating their characters’ voices?
One of my favorite ways to differentiate voices is to act out the parts — “playacting on paper.” (Which is of course the name of my blog.) When I got into character as, say, Maria Granmammelli, her speech pattern came naturally. Reading aloud and acting out the parts is a great way to find voices.
I was very conscious of my use (or non-use) of contractions. Contractions were perfectly common at the time of the story — Shakespeare is full of them. But Barbara almost never uses a contraction. She has, after all, been brought up in the strict, ceremonial Austrian court and spoke German, Italian and French. Her speech pattern is formal and precise, and as you say, only under the greatest of stress does she depart from that.
Lucrezia, on the other hand, spoke only Italian and was brought up in a much less structured household. She would have learned her speech as much from servants as from tutors. She uses contractions liberally, as well as much less formal language in general. She is also much younger than Barbara, and I wanted her speech to show that.
Maria Granmammelli’s speech is different again — it’s coarse and slangy. To some extent, so is Sister Orsola’s. They are peasants and I wanted their speech to reflect that.
I would certainly recommend reading Shakespeare, or the great dramatists of whatever period you’re writing in, to see good examples of characters delineated by voice.
Jan here: This concludes Part I of the interview. I hope you’ll return for Part II, in which we’ll discuss how to create distinctive character voices, and how to recognize a budding historical novelist in your home.
Before you disappear, Elizabeth has a few giveaways.
1.To be entered for a draw for the Moleskine Passions Book Journal, illustrated to the left, you will:
- Reside within North America — Alaska and Hawaii included!
- Leave a comment in the space below by MN EST, March 27, 2011.
- To be entered twice, the standard requirement to blog/tweet or post a link to Facebook about this interview, with a note in the comments below that you did so.
2. If you wish to receive a signed postcard from Elizabeth — gorgeous, because they’re a reproduction of the cover art — contact her through her e-mail at eloupas @ gmail.com, minus the spaces. Once she receives your mailing address, she’ll ship that off to you.
Elizabeth welcomes visitors to her website, but if you have any questions for her, take it away in the comment section below, me Zesties!
ETA: This interview was planned, of course, long before the terrible natural disasters in Japan. In addition to her other giveaways, Elizabeth will donate $5.00 per comment, up to one hundred unique comments, to the Red Cross’s special fund for Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami Relief.