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The New, Great, Challenging Work-in-Progress

As those of you who have read my posts in the last few months will know, I’ve been struggling to decide what idea to choose for my next novel – I had a few that I really liked (and still do like them all). But I have since decided on one – it’s the one both my agent and I were leaning towards – and have been hard at work on it. All I’ll say about it at this point is that it is set in Renaissance Italy, but it’s very different from The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. It’s very dark and political, and it sticks very closely to actual historical events for the most part.

It is also, without a doubt, going to be the most difficult and challenging book I’ve written to date.

I thought that this book was going to be the second book of my two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, but it just wasn’t ready yet (and so, of course, I wrote The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence). Once I turned in Most Beautiful, I thought it was going to be my third book, but it still wasn’t ready: my agent liked what I had so far, but felt like it was maybe missing something. So I wrote a different book (which I hope to be able to tell you all more about soon) instead.

I have always intended to write this book, and now, finally, its time has come. I found the missing piece of it in, as it happened, a short story I’d written in college. Then everything clicked and I was on my way. I couldn’t not write it. It’s time.

I wrote about 10,000 words (some of which I had originally written years ago, when I first started playing with this idea) before I realized I needed to face that thing that I’d been avoiding: an outline.

I’m a pantser at heart, which isn’t always conducive to historical fiction. With The Violinist of Venice, my narrator and heroine was a fictional character, so I was able to do plenty of pantsing in having her life take whatever course it wanted and that seemed natural. With The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, I had just a few facts about Simonetta Vespucci to use as a framework for my story, but I did end up outlining the last third of the book as I approached it, as there were some actual historical events that I was planning to intersperse with scenes of my own invention, and I found I really needed to plot out how all that would happen. But, to this point, that was the extent of my outlining.

For this project, though, I knew right away that I would not be able to write it WITHOUT an outline. As I mentioned above, the plot is largely comprised of actual historical events, and while I know a very great deal about this time and these particular historical figures, I did not know exact dates and chronology off the top of my head. No, that would have to all be written down and mapped out beforehand in a way that I could easily reference as I wrote. Add to that the fact that one of my two point-of-view (POV) characters is a fictional character and that I needed to decide what she was doing and how she fit in with the history, and it was obvious that an outline was necessary.

So I’ve spent the last few weeks – when I’ve had time and wasn’t busy with promotional pre-release things for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence – pouring over history books and biographies for the chronology of events I was including in the novel, and writing an outline that incorporated all this with my fictional character’s actions. I’m planning to write a separate post about my thoughts on the outlining process a bit later, once I’ve had a chance to actually start writing from said outline, but suffice it to say that this process was both less terrible and more tiring than I thought it would be.

So now the outline is done, and in looking at its sheer length and complexity I find myself more aware than ever of the herculean task I’ve set myself, and the laundry list of challenges I’ve created for myself. I have more history to grapple with and get right than ever before. The events my characters cause and experience are incredibly varied and tumultuous (as anyone familiar with the political history of Italy in the Renaissance will know) and I must capture all that on the page in a way that is compelling and makes for a good story, as well as what seems now like dozens of plot threads and relationships to juggle. I have to make sure my characters develop in the arc that I want across all of this. This is the first time I have attempted to write two POV characters; one is fictional and one is historical, one is a woman and one is a man. It will absolutely be the longest book I have written to date. Oh, and did I mention that this is book 1 in what I am planning as a duology? Something else I have never attempted before.

It is something of a comfort to know that many, many authors other than myself have conquered these challenges in the past. What I am attempting is certainly nothing new in the world of historical fiction, but it is a new challenge for me. I have, since starting, certainly been intimidated at the size of the challenge ahead – I still am. But at the end of the day, that is what makes this project worth pursuing. I don’t want to write the same book, the same arc, the same type of story over and over again. I WANT to challenge myself, because it’s only when I do that I will truly grow as a writer. Each book that I’ve written thus far has been a new challenge for me in some way, and this is just the next one. It is the biggest challenge I’ve set myself to this point, and because of that I know that, if I can get this book right, it will be the best one I’ve written yet.


Story and Song: Visual Art Edition, Part 1

Welcome to my new edition of Story and Song! As some of you may recall, I did something similar for The Violinist of Venice, where I put a song from my playlist for the novel next to one of Vivaldi’s pieces that appeared in the book. For The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, I thought I’d do the same thing with one difference: since we have no classical music in this novel, each post will pair a song from the book’s playlist with one of the works of art described in the novel. I hope you enjoy!

 

Anette Olzon – “Shine”

This song fits perfectly with what is perhaps the first “big” scene in The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: when Simonetta, having come to Florence to marry Marco Vespucci, goes with him to dinner at the Medici palace in chapter 7. There she meets the rest of the novel’s major players: the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano; Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice, and his mother, Lucrezia; and, of course, Sandro Botticelli. This sets the stage for how the relationships between Simonetta and all these characters will progress for the rest of the novel. Before the event, she is quite nervous, knowing that she’s going to meet a lot of important people, both in her soon-to-be-husband’s life and in Florence as a whole. So this song felt perfect because it seems to me to be the little voice in Simonetta’s head telling her “Shine, and lift your head high”.

Judith and Holofernes – Donatello

This statue, of the biblical hero Judith slaying Holofernes, is sculpted in bronze by Donatello. It was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici for the courtyard of the Medici palace in Florence, and this is where Simonetta encounters it in the novel, when Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo, shows it to her. This scene occurs in the same chapter noted above, chapter 7. It is the first conversation that Simonetta has with Lorenzo about art, something that continues throughout the novel. Simonetta is very struck by the power and beauty of the statue, and it is indeed striking. The above picture is one I took myself of the statue when I saw it in its current location: the museum of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The statue didn’t make an appearance in the first draft of the novel; I was inspired to include it after having been to Florence doing research and seeing it myself.


The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence Playlist!

Below is the official playlist for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. Enjoy and happy listening!


Spring in Italia Giveaway!

I’ve teamed up with authors Crystal King, Sarah Dunant, and Margaret George to give away a copy of each of our new books of Italian historical fiction. See the link below to enter!

Spring in Italia Giveaway


Bloody Mary by Alyssa Palombo

My flash fiction story, “Bloody Mary”, is live today on Skewed Lit! And there’s a custom illustration with it – super cool!! ❤

Skewed Lit

Bloody Mary photoshop

It got quite boring after a while, hanging around all these mirrors, waiting for someone to call. This afterlife business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, that was for sure. She sometimes wondered if death—the other side, Elysium, beyond the veil, heaven, hell, purgatory, the underworld, whatever—was like this for everyone. But that couldn’t be—after all, in all these years she’d spent running from mirror to mirror whenever she was summoned, she’d never run into anyone else.

The first time she heard her name, she’d thought it was him, the last voice she’d ever heard. She went running, hoping that it was, so that she could have her revenge. It wasn’t him, though—it was some total strangers, people she didn’t know and had never seen before.

So she waited.

In those early days after her death, whenever she heard her name, she thought that, if it wasn’t him…

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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.


Publisher’s Weekly review of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence

Publisher’s Weekly has reviewed The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, and it’s a great review! Link is below if you’d like to check it out.

Publisher’s Weekly Review