Elizabeth Loupas, Author of THE SECOND DUCHESS – Part I of Interview and Giveaway

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.

Moleskine Passions Book Journal

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.

29 thoughts on “Elizabeth Loupas, Author of THE SECOND DUCHESS – Part I of Interview and Giveaway

  1. Jan, I’m buying this novel immediately and telling all of my friends. The premise gives me butterflies, and its basis in Browning’s lovely poem is just icing on the cake for me, an extreme poetry devotee. What a great idea Loupas has here; she’s such a talent. I die for novels with such integrity and fascinating characters. Thanks so much, and I’m adding Loupas to my list of authors to pay attention to.

  2. Jan, your interviews are so fabulous and thorough — I always learn something new. I just finished this book and cannot believe how good it is — I stayed up way past bedtime to finish it!

  3. Jan and Elizabeth, wonderful interview! Love hearing about the work that went into creating the period and the voices. But this just confirms for me that while I enjoy reading historical fiction, I could never write it. I do too much research already for my day job – my head would explode. 😉

    I can’t wait to read this!

  4. Great interview! The book sounds wonderful and I’m fascinated about the amount of research that went into it. I’m also in love with that gorgeous cover.

  5. Dang, that’s another book to add to the ‘To be bought’ list. It sounds terrific. The cover is gorgeous.
    Another excellent interview. Thank you!

  6. I love the idea of utilzing Lucrezia as a halfway-between ghost. I love good first person writing, but I often find myself smiling over how many overheard conversations there are, even in the best of them. Elizabeth has come up with a very clever and interesting solution to the limitation. I already had Second Dutchess on my to-read list, but it’s moving up fast.

    This zestie (if I may call myself one) proclaims this interview the zestiest, Jan! Can’t wait for part two. Oh, and I really appreciate Elizabeth’s gesture on the part of Japan, but I would’ve commented anyway.

  7. There’s lots of free calendar software and every story needs a calendar.

    I need to use it more often. Losing track of days is always a problem for me–and my characters.

    Your book sounds phenomenal, and it’s on my TBR list. Thanks for the great interview, ladies–and for your generous offer, Elizabeth.

    (Oh, and I tweeted.)

  8. Elizabeth, thanks for sharing your insights on research – the calendar idea, incorporating even the phases of the moon, is phenomenal. And Jan, thanks for another great interview.

  9. I have so much respect for writers of historical fiction–I could never do it. It sounds like a gorgeous, gorgeous book, and I can’t wait to read it.

    Great interview, ladies.

  10. I remember when I was a kid at San Simeon seeing a painting of a court lady from the 17th Century holding a ferret and hearing the gallery guide explain that many court ladies allowed ferrets to roam among their capacious gowns in order to rid them of the mice and other vermin that wanted to nest there.
    It sparked a lifelong love of court intrigue for me! 🙂

  11. I always love your interviews, Jan, and to have this insight into Elizabeth’s writing process is such an awesome thing – thank you both for the time you put into this 🙂

  12. This was fascinating! I love reading historical fiction (and already ordered this book…can’t wait!), but have only just begun to try my hand at writing it. Unlike Elizabeth, there are MANY things that I love waaaaay more than research, but I do love telling a good story, so there it is. Reading about the experience and thought-process behind the book and its characters has given me a little kick to get moving.

    Great interview! Thank you Jan and Elizabeth.

  13. Elizabeth – I admire your ability to research – and in other languages no less.
    Glad to hear you keep track of moon phases because I do that too. I also have charts for sunrise and sunset and twilight. The software you use for keeping track of research looks like WriteWay? I have just started using that and have found it to be an amazing help. Good luck with this book. I will look for it!

  14. Hi, everyone–thank you so much for all your wonderful comments.

    Tim, that is a new one on me! Ferrets and ermines were popular pets (as were lapdogs, as Barbara has) in the sixteenth century, but to rid their mistresses of mice and fleas? *Shudder!* I hope the guide meant that the ferrets roamed through the wardrobe rooms to keep the vermin down, and not through the gowns while their mistresses were wearing them!

    Suzanne, I had to have my German and Italian sources translated for me but there just isn’t that much on the Este in English. I only wish I could read many different languages myself!

    The software in the notebook picture is called Winorganizer. I will look up WriteWay–I love new writing-related software.

    Thank you all again for your comments and good wishes.

  15. Elizabeth, I wondered what you’d say about the ferrets. Thanks for clearing that up.

    I bought WriteWay on the weekend, on Suzanne’s recommendation, as a matter of fact. Thus far I love it. This will sound very odd, but when I’m writing, it’s almost like I have the weight of the preceding pages on the scene I’m working on. I do much better to take out a scene at a time, which then leads to documents not affixed to the main manuscript, incomplete backups, etc. WriteWay is helping me with organization and I breath better.

  16. My mom lives for books like this! I might have to get her a copy (after I read it myself, of course)!

    Amy // artsyrockerchick at aim dot com

  17. What a wonderful interview, ladies! I especially love hearing about the distinction of voice through speech patterns — stuff like this always fascinates me.

    I have nothing but admiration for writers of historical fiction– I just don’t think I could do it.

    This book sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to read it. 🙂

  18. I was fortunate to have read an earlier version of THE SECOND DUCHESS. I knew as soon as I read it that it would be published. I honestly was absolutely certain. It’s a wonderful book, and those of you who haven’t read it are in for a treat!

    As for me, I’m looking forward to reading the book in its final form.

    Typically excellent interview, Jan. Elizabeth, I really enjoyed this look at your process and at some of the history behind the mystery.

  19. Thanks for your comments, everyone. It sounds like we’re all amazed and baffled by people who have an eye for historical detail and the kind of research this book would require.

    Lisa, I can imagine your sense of certainty. I read the first paragraph and there went a chunk of my day.

  20. This insightful interview chock full of great advice inspired me to leave my lurker status behind and proclaim my nascent zestie-ness. Many thanks to you both. I’m looking forward to reading The Second Duchess.

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