The Inspiration Behind The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence

Perhaps the question that authors get asked the most is, “How did you come up with the idea for this book?” Inspiration comes in all kinds of ways – for instance, the idea for The Violinist of Venice came to me in a dream, out of the blue. With The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, though, the process was rather different and more gradual.

I can’t remember for certain, but I believe it was when I went to Italy the first time – when I was researching The Violinist of Venice – that I first heard of Simonetta Vespucci, as I also went to Florence on that same trip as well. All I had, initially, were scraps of information (and as I would find when researching the novel, there wasn’t much more than scraps to be had): that she was supposed to be the woman in Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, and that she had also supposedly been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. I filed this away as a potential novel idea – something about her relationship with both Botticelli and Giuliano. When I got back from Italy, I found the idea had stuck with me, and so I poked around online and in the library to try to find out more about her.

One of the first things I found in my preliminary Google searching was that Botticelli had been so in love with Simonetta that he had asked to be buried at her feet when he died – AND HE ACTUALLY WAS. This COMPLETELY changed the novel idea that I thought I had. I no longer really cared about exploring whatever relationship Simonetta may have had with Giuliano (and the historical record is not certain on that score) and was instead interested in exploring the possible relationship that may have existed between her and Botticelli. Did not the fact that he was buried at her feet suggest more than a simple-artist muse relationship?

I certainly thought so, and still do think so, though we will never know the truth of their relationship for sure. What I did know was that this would make a stellar story, and was the perfect premise for a historical novel that I wanted to write. Yet with all that said, at this time I was working on my final revision for The Violinist of Venice before I was ready to start querying, and so I was in no position to start a new novel just yet. Even after Violinist was being queried and was later on submission with publishing houses I didn’t start writing my Renaissance Florence story, though I was playing around with some other ideas. For whatever reason, it just didn’t feel like the time was right. I also knew that I would want to go back to Florence to do some further research for it, so the timing would need to be right for that too, both personally and financially.

What I did do almost immediately, though, was write the last two lines of the book. I typed them out in a note on my phone, which I still have. They’re maybe my favorite lines in the book, and they have not changed through all the rounds of revisions since. I would share them here with you, but that would give away the ending 🙂 So you’ll just have to read the book when it comes out to see them!

Then Violinist sold, and not only that, but I was offered a two-book deal with St. Martin’s, which I obviously accepted. As I talked about at the time in my post on second-book syndrome, this sent me into a bit of a panic. What to write next? What could I write next that my publisher would love as much as Violinist? And hey, what about the fact that I had been (partially) paid for a book I hadn’t written yet?

At first, I had no idea what I wanted to do for my second book. None of the ideas I’d been playing around with while Violinist were on submission were really grabbing me; they just didn’t feel developed enough yet to be my next published book. So I dug out my idea about Simonetta and Sandro and thought, hmmm, maybe this is the time for this idea. I wrote some initial pages that seemed to go well and shared them with my agent, who liked what I had done. I had a phone call with my editor, where I described a basic outline of the idea, and she gave her blessing.

There was lots of struggle in writing The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, which you can read about here and here and also here. But I pushed through it, and as a result have a book that I’m perhaps even more proud of. As I mentioned above, researching the book was rather frustrating at times because we have only the barest facts about Simonetta’s life, and even a few of those are in dispute or uncertain. Yet this also gave me a lot of freedom as a fiction writer: I took those few facts and built a framework on which I could speculate and write scenes of my own invention. And I did get to go back to Florence for research, and saw a lot of the locations where the story takes place, and also the artwork that figures into it (I actually added even MORE artwork into it after visiting Florence again).

Aside from all the second-book syndrome stuff, in hindsight, what I now realize is that when I initially started drafting The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, I had a good story, but I wasn’t hearing Simonetta’s voice yet. I realized the exact moment when her voice finally broke through, when I finally began to hear it and felt like I really knew her as a character, and then it became much easier.


All of the Ideas

Something that you hear a lot when you’re a writer is, “Hey! I’ve got a book idea for you!” or some variation thereof. Now, I know that when people say this, they are (usually) just trying to be helpful, but it can be a little irritating (and I’m sure that many writers will sympathize) because it’s not as if I can’t come up with my own ideas. In fact, I usually have the opposite problem: I have so many ideas it can be hard to decide what to to write next, or indeed to imagine ever having the time to write them all.

So how do I decide? Well, often I feel like I don’t choose the idea so much as the idea chooses me – sometimes an amazing, exciting idea will hit me out of nowhere (or after a long time of thinking and percolating and playing with different pieces of the idea until it suddenly clicks and comes together) and I just know that I NEED to start writing it, RIGHT AWAY. This is a feeling that my friend Lindsay has described as having your “brain on fire with genius”, and I think that describes it perfectly. When you’re hit with that kind of thrilling idea, you can’t NOT start writing. So when that happens, the decision is easy.

But what happens when you have multiple ideas you’re excited about? How do you decide?

It’s a good question, and one that I’m thinking about a lot right now, since I’m in that exact boat. I have a few ideas that I’m trying to decide between, and lately it seems like I prefer whichever one I worked on last.

There are a few factors I take into consideration. One is, what am I in the mood to write? It’s the same as when deciding what to read – usually I’m in the mood for a certain kind of story. My projects tend to be pretty similar genre-wise, so this is more about the tone or feeling of the story.

Another thing to consider, when thinking about publication, is what kind of book/story makes sense as the potential next book in my career trajectory. I don’t want something too similar to a previous book, and certainly not to the one that immediately preceded it; I also don’t want anything too wildly different. This is a place where my agent’s input can be very helpful, as she is more used to thinking in these terms than I am.

Along those lines, the current market is another thing to think about. Is there a readership for this particular story? Who will it likely appeal to? Is it too similar to one or more books that have already been published? Are books like this selling well right now? Thinking about this point in particular is a tricky balancing act – I try not to be too concerned with it until after I’ve started writing. If I’m excited about something and am enjoying working on it, that’s good enough to get started; when it seems like it might be a project I wanted to stick with and would like to publish, I consider these business aspects more closely. Again, this is another area in which my agent’s expertise is invaluable.

While all these things are important, at the end of the day what it always comes back to for me is: do I love this idea enough to put in the time necessary to make it into a real book? If it doesn’t speak to me on some sort of emotional level, it’s not worth pursuing. You need to spend so much time with an idea, with a story, in order to make it into a book: from the hours and hours spent drafting and revising, talking with your editor about edits, making line edits and copy edits and reading pass pages, and then talking about it in promotion. If you don’t really love it, this can all become a total slog – especially when you consider that even with a “book of your heart”, so much close and hard work on it can at times be very draining anyway. And so, when I’m in the position I’m in now, it’ll take a lot of thinking and playing around with the ideas and maybe talking about them and making notes before I can really decide which one needs to be next.

I have lots of basic ideas about people or events I’d like to write about, but the time for them just hasn’t come yet. I’m not sufficiently excited about them yet to drop everything and start actually writing them. I’m still waiting for that spark, for that last bit of inspiration, the last piece of the puzzle that will take an idea from a basic premise into something that I NEED to write. It’s happened before, where an initial idea that I had long before develops over time into just what it needs to be. That probably won’t happen for every book idea I’ve ever had, and that’s okay. I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied.

I have to be excited. I have to be inspired, and feel that the story has a place and has something to say. Because if I don’t love what I’m writing, why should I expect any readers to?

So if you tell me that you’ve got a great idea for a book for me, I will respond politely; I will maybe even agree with you that yes, that WOULD make a great novel. I am just not the person to write it. (My usual response lately is: “I think YOU should write that book!”) I’ve found that novel ideas can be a bit like dating: many of them are perfectly nice, but unless I feel that spark, unless there’s that certain undefinable chemistry, it’s just not going to work out.