Announcing My Third Novel: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel!

I am BEYOND excited and thrilled to finally be sharing with the world the news of my third novel, The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel. It’s a retelling of Washington Irving’s classic short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but told from Katrina’s point of view. In addition to being a retelling, it’s also something of a sequel – it continues on past the point where the original short story ended.

 

This is, as the saying goes, a book of my heart, and for many reasons. The first is that I love all things creepy and spooky; Halloween is by far my favorite holiday, and I’ve always been interested in ghosts and the paranormal and so on. This novel has allowed me to play with those things, as well as with elements of magic and witchcraft, and what was defined as witchcraft in that time and place (as you’ve maybe already guessed by the title!). I’ve been obsessed with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in particular since I was a kid; I used to watch the cartoon version all the time, and to this day Tim Burton’s movie version, Sleepy Hollow, is one of my all-time favorite films (with my all-time favorite film score). I also love the Sleepy Hollow TV show on Fox, and thus far my editor and I have mostly communicated about this book in GIFs of Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane 🙂

This book is just SO ME in its spookiness that when I first told my mom I was writing it, she just looked at me and asked, “How was this not your first book?”

There are lots of other reasons this book is very close to my heart, though. Like my first two books, it has a strong female friendship, though in Spellbook that friendship, between Katrina and a character I’ve invented named Charlotte Jansen, really takes center stage. I have such wonderful, close, supportive female friends in my life who really inspired me to try to render the full truth of that relationship on the page, and show how our friendships can really anchor and support women through our most difficult times. I’ve seen this play out in my own life so much that I knew it was something I wanted to explore more deeply in my writing.

In addition, Katrina is also the first character I’ve written who is a writer herself. Through much of the book, she tells stories; she tells the local ghost stories and legends of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson River Valley, and eventually she starts writing them down. This, plus the fact that this novel is based on one of America’s most famous short stories, really makes this a story about stories.

And that’s another thing: this will be my first published novel set in the United States, in my own country. I learned so much about the history of my country that I never knew while researching this book, and while I’m certainly not done writing about Europe and Italy in particular, it was a wonderful and meaningful change of pace for me to write an American story. It won’t be the last!

Music also plays a part in this book (though not so heavily as it did in Violinist), and Katrina is also my first heroine who has a dog! As a dog lover myself, I just couldn’t resist giving her a handsome, ferocious, but sweet canine companion. And for my fellow dog lovers, please note: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING BAD happens to the dog over the course of the book, I promise!!

You can check out my Pinterest inspiration board for the novel here.

I love this book so much and it is so meaningful to me in so many ways that I’m thrilled to be able to share it with the world at last! I can’t wait until it is on shelves for others to read, but in the meantime stay tuned for more updates on the book – such as the official release date, synopsis, and cover – as I have them. I am so excited for you all to meet my Katrina!

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In Which a Pantser Makes and Writes from an Outline

As I mentioned a few posts back, my current work-in-progress is my most ambitious undertaking yet (and if you read my most recent post then you know that I’m actually almost done!). In order to get started with it, I was forced to make an outline, which is something I had never done before (I had never outlined an entire book, at least). For someone who usually falls into the “pantser” category of writers, this was a new challenge in and of itself.

I found the actual writing of the outline itself to be somewhat tedious – necessary though I knew it was, I just wanted to be writing the actual story and digging into the characters and relationships and dialogue. It didn’t help that the outline took much longer to finish than I’d anticipated (though given what the overall length of the book will end up as, that shouldn’t have surprised me). But then once it was done, I was ready to get writing, and embark on this strange new journey of writing from an outline.

I wondered whether writing from an outline would help me to draft faster. I’m told I write pretty quickly, but I would always like to be faster (well, as fast as is reasonable without writing a draft that is a complete and utter mess). This has most definitely been the case; I’m at about 104,000 words right now in something that I started back in March (though, full disclosure: I did have the prologue and a few chapters already written, since I originally started playing with this idea some years ago, so I probably had around 5000ish words to start). That is the fastest I have ever written a draft of this length to this point in my writing career, and I can only conclude that it is because of the outline.

Because, of course, making an outline has removed that element of pantsing wherein I sit down in front of my computer and say “Okay, what next?”. No need to try to figure it out as I sit down to write; I can just refer to the outline. It has prevented me from getting really stuck or hung up on plot elements, since I’d already mapped all that out in advance.

That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t had difficulties and roadblocks in writing this draft. Oh, have I ever. It’s just that those difficulties have been more along the lines of character arc and development and the subtleties of the characters’ relationships with one another – which run the gamut from loving to tricky to downright dysfunctional. Getting those sorts of things right, of course, is no easy task in writing any novel, whether you’ve got an outline or not. On the flip side, though, one of my two POV characters was being a bit more elusive, and what I found as I wrote the outline is that some of her motivations and the way she thinks became clearer to me. She’s been a bit of a tough nut to crack overall, and only recently do I feel like I finally have all the keys to her as a character. And that is something else that often comes with the drafting process.

And certainly not all of the spontaneity of my pantser’s soul has been eliminated. There were a few events that I originally included in the outline that I decided to cut, both to keep the length of the book manageable and also for the overall flow/arc of the story. Then there have also been events and scenes that I added in that were not in the outline, or scenes that ended up becoming bigger and more fleshed out than I had originally anticipated while outlining. Parts of the story and characters are still revealing themselves to me as I write, which is one of the things I love about pantsing. I like to be surprised (at least a little bit) when I’m writing, and that has still happened in this book.

Along those lines, another of my concerns was that, since I already knew everything that was going to happen and had already sketched it out, would I get bored with the actual writing of the book? The answer, thankfully, has been a resounding no. Quite the contrary, actually: since mapping everything out in brief I’ve been itching to get at many of the scenes and really dig into them. I was very glad to find that!

So, overall, much as it may pain me to admit it, writing from an outline has actually been a really good experience, and I think it has helped me draft this book more successfully in many ways. Do I see myself making an outline again in the future if I don’t absolutely have to (as I did with this book)? Hmmmm…maybe, maybe not. I don’t know that I could make myself sit down and write a whole outline again if the story did not absolutely require it, as in this case. I do still like discovering and unearthing the story as I go along. So while I wouldn’t say I’ve been converted from pantser to plotter altogether, writing from an outline has been a much better experience than I thought it would be.

 


The Howling

I have that buzz in my veins. That excited, almost anxious fizzing in my blood that comes when I am closing in on the end of a draft. The howling of words that are scratching and clawing and trying to get out and onto the page. It makes it hard to focus on other things (like work, conversations with actual people, etc.) because everything in me just wants to be writing and writing and writing until I’ve finished. I start to resent anything and everything that takes me away from writing.

It’s a good feeling. A frustrating, exciting, energizing feeling. A good one.

I’m forgetful. I leave things behind. I walk into rooms and can’t remember what I went into them for. I can’t always hear the daily thoughts I need to function over the howling of the words in my ear. It’s a miracle I show up anywhere on time, given that while my body might be here, now, in the present, my head is in Rome circa the late 1490s.

Once the draft is finished, once I get all the words out of me and onto the page, the howling will quiet. It will fade away for a time as I finish my research and start to make revision notes and get feedback from my agent and critique partners. Then it will start up again: the sound of the words, now they are on the page, clamoring to be polished, to be gilded, to be made to sing where before they only howled.

All of us writers must hear this, the calling of the words to be put down and placed in a certain order and made to shine. That must be why we write, in answer to this siren song. The urge to tell a story, even when it’s not perfect, because it’s bubbled up within us to the point where we can’t not tell it anymore. And then the clamor continues, urging us to, now that we’ve told the story, to tell it well. Because if we don’t, then haven’t we wasted our chance to tell this story? Because if we don’t, who will?

As I write this, I’m about 96,000 words into my current work-in-progress. If I had to make an estimate, I would say that this one will end up at around 120,000 at this point. (It will probably get longer in revision). That’s still a bit of a ways to go, but I’ve got that downhill momentum going. I’m in the last third, and I’ve started rolling.

It doesn’t feel like this book has gone as fast as it has. It’s been a difficult one for many reasons. And while the buzzing, the fizzing, the howling is always the same, it always happens for me at this point in every first draft of everything, this time I think it does feel a little different, because of the challenges I’ve faced. The ones I am still facing. Because of the desire to just be able to say that “It’s done”, so I can go about fixing it. So that I can begin to imagine what it may finally look like. So that I can begin to imagine what it would be like to achieve what I meant to with this book.

I can’t quite imagine it yet. But soon. Because beneath the howling is a whisper that maybe I can do what I set out to do after all. The first draft is only the first step, but perhaps the biggest one. And so the howls and whispers alike prod me on.

 


Historical Novel Society Conference 2017 – Recap

I spent Thursday, June 22nd through Saturday, June 24th in Portland, Oregon, at the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference – or, as you may have seen it on Twitter and Instagram, #HNS2017. I had the most awesome time and learned so much! It was my first conference, and I’m incredibly glad that I went.

Since it was my first conference, I wasn’t presenting or speaking on any of the panels, just attending to learn (though I did participate in the author signing on Saturday, and both of my novels were for sale in the conference bookstore). I attended lots of panels and took pages and pages of notes – they were all excellent, and during certain time slots there were two or even three panels that I wanted to attend. Hard choices had to be made! I made my decisions based on which sessions would be the most helpful to my career at this point or to my current work-in-progress.

Some of the ones that really stood out to me were the session on historical clothing with Isobel Carr; a panel on hopping among different eras as a historical fiction writer and planning your research and marketing accordingly (this panel was with some of my favorite authors: C.W. Gortner, Heather Webb, Kate Quinn, and Stephanie Thornton); a panel on writing the male perspective with Margaret George, Stephanie Cowell, Stephanie Thornton, and C.W. Gortner; a panel with agents and editors called The State of the State of Historical Fiction, about current, past, and possible future trends in the genre; and a workshop on writing twin-stranded stories with Susanna Kearsley. All of these (and many others I didn’t list!) provided me with super interesting and useful information that I can immediately apply to my career overall or to my current works-in-progress, or indeed to future works-in-progress.

A few industry updates/facts I learned or had reinforced for me during the conference:

-Fiction set in the ancient world (Egypt, Rome, Greece) is largely out – editors and agents are finding it doesn’t sell as well in the North American market compared to Europe and the UK. This was surprising to me as I’m aware of several new releases set in these eras, but it seems like perhaps publishers are starting to shy away from the ancient world at large – I heard this mentioned at a couple of different panels I went to.

-Fiction set in the Tudor era is a tougher sell these days as well, given that the market is so oversaturated with that time period. If you are writing in that period, you’ll want to have a twist or a new character that hasn’t been done before to make it stand out.

-Fiction set in the earlier part of the 20th century seems to be hot right now; I noticed authors who previously wrote in earlier eras have made the jump to more recent time periods (turn of the century, WWI, WWII, etc.).

-Readers of historical fiction in the US are 95% women, so this has given rise to the perception in the publishing industry that women do not want to read the male perspective. At the panel I went to on this the panelists and audience (myself included) felt that this is not necessarily true (while as a woman myself I do tend to relate more to female narrators, I will read and have read historical fiction from the male POV; like with any novel, if it’s a character/figure that interests me and is a good story, I’ll pick it up no matter the gender of the narrator. Excellent examples of recent historical fiction I’ve read with male narrators would be The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George and Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King – both of which I highly recommend, and both of which are set in ancient Rome, despite that time period being allegedly “out”!) In any case, if you are writing a historical with a male narrator, know that this will make for a harder sell to an agent and publisher and do your research accordingly: have comp titles ready to go (the two I referenced above would be good places to start) and, as always, make sure the story is so compelling and well done that it’ll be hard to resist, no matter who the narrator is. This was all valuable information for me as my current work-in-progress has a male narrator, though it is dual POV and alternates with a female narrator, so it seems that will help me out in the marketability of the work.

-The historical YA market seems to be growing, which I think is wonderful – the more historical stories for people of all ages, the better!

Of course, different editors, agents, and authors all have different opinions and views on topics such as those above, but I wanted to include some of the information that I heard and found interesting, helpful, and eye-opening.

 

Then there was the Hooch Through History session. This was one for which attendees had to register separately and pay an extra fee, but boy, was it worth it. Also presented by Isobel Carr, we sampled six alcoholic beverages from six different centuries, accompanied by an entertaining and informative PowerPoint about what other beverages were produced and consumed in those eras. The crowd was a bit rowdy by the end, as you might imagine, but I learned a lot in spite of all the alcohol coursing through my bloodstream.

One of the things I learned is that absinthe is NOT GOOD. I do not recommend.

Then, of course, the social aspect of such a conference is always great fun and always worthwhile. I got to meet authors in person with whom I had been chatting on social media for some time; authors whose works I greatly admire (I fangirled a bit over Margaret George, I will admit), AND two authors who were kind enough to blurb The Violinist of Venice for me but whom I had never met in person: Kate Forsyth and Stephanie Cowell. Both are absolutely lovely ladies, and I was thrilled to be able to thank them for their support in person.

The end-of-conference banquet was followed by a Regency masquerade ball afterparty, with free domino masks and instruction in English country dancing and whist. I think I got the hang of whist for sure and will be teaching it to friends and family. Sadly, I had to leave earlier than I would have liked due to an early flight out the next morning.

Now that I’m home and have been digesting all the information I’ve learned, I feel like I need a year to just shut myself away and write with all my new inspiration and motivation (and to read all the great books I brought home!). I’m super excited to continue working on my work-in-progress, and I have a lot of ideas for how to improve both my writing and my research, as well as some promotional ideas for my next book. And I’m already working on brainstorming panels/sessions to submit for the 2019 conference!

The Historical Novel Society Conference is one I highly recommend if you are an author or aspiring author of historical fiction, or a book blogger. The information is top notch, the people are lovely, and the experience is a great one.

As one of my closest friends lives in Portland, I actually spent a whole week out there visiting with her, catching up, and sightseeing. We went to Powell’s Books, of course, and in between that trip and my conference book haul packing all my purchases into my suitcases was NOT EASY. I also visited Cannon Beach on the Pacific Coast (one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been), the Portland Rose Garden, and took a tour of the Portland Underground Tunnels. I also had some great local food, wine, and beer. I’m really into wine, and I was excited to find that Oregon Pinot Noirs, which I hadn’t tried much in the past, definitely live up to the hype. I also had some of the best rose wine I’ve ever tried!

Voodoo Doughnuts is definitely worth the trip, but I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Blue Star Donuts. Personal favorite.

All in all, it was an absolutely great week away. Hope everyone else is enjoying their summer so far!


The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence – Bulgarian edition!

I’m excited to announce that The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is being published in Bulgaria by Soft Press! They published The Violinist of Venice as well, so I’m thrilled that they’ve signed on for book 2. Below is the gorgeous Bulgarian cover!


An Ode to Florence: The Church of the Ognissanti

In my An Ode to Florence series I’ll be posting pictures and information about my favorite places in Florence, including those that figure into The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence.

 

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The Church of the Ognissanti – or Church of All Saints – sits facing the river Arno in Florence, right across from the riverbank. The Franciscan church was originally built in the 13th century but has since been remodeled. It was the parish church of the Vespucci family, the family into which Simonetta Cattaneo married.

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In The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, Simonetta mentions attending Mass in this church with her husband and his family; they lived not far. Also in the neighborhood was Sandro Botticelli’s workshop.

Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci and Sandro Botticelli are both buried in this church. Botticelli asked to be buried at Simonetta’s feet when he died, and his wish was granted. This was the detail that truly inspired me to write The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence.

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The above shows the area where Simonetta Vespucci is interred.

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Just a few feet away is the grave of Sandro Botticelli, pictured above. People regularly leave flowers, letters, and notes on his grave. It was a very moving experience for me to visit the burial sites of my two main characters. I asked for their blessing, and can only hope that my novel did them justice.

This concludes my An Ode to Florence series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along and that you’ve learned some things you didn’t know before! I highly recommend visiting Florence in person if you are able at any point in your life.


Story and Song: Visual Art Edition, Part 5

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of my blog series that I’m calling Story and Song: Visual Art Edition. Each post will feature a modern/contemporary song from the playlist of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, and a piece of artwork that features in the novel. I’ll describe how both fit into the story with a minimum of spoilers!

 

Epica – “Canvas of Life”

This is the song for a very important scene in chapter 24: when Simonetta goes to pose for The Birth of Venus for the first time. This song – both its sound and its lyrics – go perfectly with her initially posing for Botticelli, embracing the decision she made that she had hesitated about and agonized over before ultimately deciding to do what she wanted, no matter what anyone else might think. I listened to this song A TON while writing the book as a whole, and always while working on this scene both in drafting and in edits and revisions.

 

The Birth of Venus – Botticelli

Here it is, the painting which inspired The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence and around which the novel largely resolves. It is my favorite painting ever; I loved it long before I wrote the book and it was because it’s one of my favorites that I was so inspired to write about the woman behind it. What always astonishes me the most about this painting is how Botticelli managed to capture movement, motion, so perfectly – it’s hard to believe that the painting is standing still, as it were. The story is, of course, that Venus (or Aphrodite to the Greeks) was born fully formed out of the waves of the ocean and carried to shore in a giant shell, so that is what Botticelli is depicting here. As the Renaissance was very much inspired by the revival of Greek ideas, philosophies, and legends, we begin seeing many such themes in the artwork of the period.

As I describe in the novel’s prologue, this painting was known to have been finished around 1484 – well after Simonetta’s death. And, as I mention in the author’s note, we cannot know if Simonetta ever posed for it while she was alive, though I like to think that she did. There’s no record of the original commission of the painting, though it seems likely that it was commissioned by a minor branch of the Medici family and was for a time in the Villa di Castello, one of the Medici country houses. I changed this a bit in the novel, of course – such is the privilege of the fiction writer! Today the famous painting can be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence along with many other of Botticelli’s works, including what is perhaps his other most famous painting, the Primavera.

This is the last post in my Story and Song series for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! I’ll likely be doing similar posts for future books related to my writing soundtrack/playlists. Thanks for reading!