It’s NOT just Halloween today, it’s Reformation Day.  In honor of Martin Luther’s actions in 1517 I’d like to share one of my all time favorite historical videos – The 95 Theses Rap.

When I wrote the ninety-five haters straight up assailed them, now they only care whether or not I nailed em or mailed em.

They just DON’T write lyrics like that anymore :)   Except perhaps at Yale, whose students created this marvel.

 

Instead of something funny this Friday, I offer you something FABULOUS!

I don’t know where I was when this piece originally aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes (oh yes, now I remember, doing final editorial revisions on my novel) but I am thrilled to have discovered it and to share it with you.  The video segment offers a marvelous glimpse into the Vatican Library, a storehouse of innumerable treasures of Western Civilization (and I DO mean innumerable –turns out no one can definitively list every book, map etc that is in the library).

I wonder how Henry VIII would feel about the Pope possessing some of his love letters to Anne Boleyn.  My guess—he wouldn’t be thrilled—but I was thrilled to see them, even if it was only on my computers screen.

Enjoy your twelve minute tour of the Pope’s private library.

My approach to life is to charge along being myself (in case you haven’t guessed that is outspoken, slightly eccentric, and rather type A).  But sometimes life presents me with a situation that can’t effectively be handled the “the Sophie way.”

When my strategy for dealing with a particular situation isn’t working, and I face the dilemma of finding an alternate approach I often ask myself, “what would my sister do?”  And while some of you might find my approach less authoritative than asking “what would Jesus do” or less humorous than asking “what would Brian Boitano do” as they do on South Park, I like to go with what I know.  I am more familiar with how my sister thinks (or at least how I THINK she thinks) and how she acts than I am with the actions and reactions of nearly anyone else on the planet.

Considering my predicament as if I were my sister is a great way to stop running in circles on my little problem wheel and gain distance from a situation.

The first step to applying “sister think” is to break an issued down into its facts – as if I was going to relate the problem to my sister with minimal editorial comment (and I am NOT good at eliminating editorial comment).  Sometimes this step alone is enough to trigger a creative new approach because it backs me away from my gut reaction to the problem and lets me see it more dispassionately.

If seeing the issue broken into discreet pieces isn’t enough to spur a solution, I go the next step.  I put myself in my sister’s shoes (metaphorically of course, because sisters do NOT appreciate having their shoes pilfered and worn, particularly before they’ve had a chance to scuff the bottoms).  I imagine that I am Irma (this is NOT my sister’s name and I have selected it because it is likely to make my sister laugh hysterically) dealing with the recalcitrant child, or the uncooperative co-worker and address the situation accordingly.

Of course I can’t really be Irma.  The best I can hope to achieve is a Sophie-channeled approximation.  Still, this temporary personal transformation can work brilliantly—particularly if the problem at hand calls for strengths my sister possesses that I do not (diplomacy and limitless patience come to mind).  And I consider this convenient alternative-perspective on life and its situations one of the great gifts that having a sister has given me.

How about you?  Do you ever put on your sister’s shoes or borrow your sister’s strategies for dealing with life’s problems?

Lovers of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts rejoice (I am certainly celebrating)! The University of Pennsylvania, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, has finished digitizing a significant number of its rare Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts so that researchers and history-junkies alike can peruse them from the comfort of their own homes.

Leaf from a 13th Century Psalter (the era of "The Sister Queens")

While the Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library includes over 2,000 pre-19th century western manuscripts, the on-line collection – called ““Penn in Hand: Selected Manuscripts” – currently offers access to facsimiles of just over 1,400 documents. I’ve checked out the site – in fact I’ve just finished enjoying a 1566 letter from Charles IX of France to his ambassador at the Spanish court of Phillip II – and there are many convenient ways to browse and search the manuscripts, including by year, by language and by author.

So what are you waiting for? You KNOW you want to look.

This short film is a fascinating historical find in two senses. Made in 1932 it is itself a piece of history. And it portrays a range of hairstyles from earlier historical periods– all filtered through the lens of the era of the marcel wave I am sure.

My favorite look? Without a doubt “The Gibson Girl of the naughty nineties.”

CROWNING GLORIES!

Tomb of Isabella of Angouleme

In October of 1254 Henry III and Eleanor of Provence receive permission from Louis IX of France to travel through his kingdom while making their way back to England from Gascony.

King Henry is eager to visit the grave of his mother, Isabella of Angoulême,  at Fontevrault Abbey.  Eleanor is excited by the prospect of seeing her sister Marguerite (Queen of France) after nearly two decades of separation.  The stage is set for a family reunion between Provencal sisters and a meeting of their royal husbands during the Christmas season.

Oct 092011

I have a certain weakness for cats – well, I don’t consider it a “weakness,” but my husband most definitely does.  Having lost my beloved Siamese nearly a year ago, I currently live with two senior-felines, both of whom believe that I “live to serve” (them, of course).  Perhaps that is why this cartoon resonated with me.

Have you ever walked into a bookstore, picked up a historical novel set in renaissance Italy and thought “my goodness WHAT is this headless woman on the cover wearing?  Her gown is SO obviously Tudor!”  Yeah, me too.  And here’s the thing, before I started writing historical fiction I might have drawn some erroneous conclusions based on such a book cover.

First, I might have concluded that “author X” hadn’t done her research or just didn’t care that her cover model was wearing a gown from the wrong period.  Since becoming an author I’ve learned that this is probably not the case.  Shall I tell you a secret?  Authors have VERY limited influence on the covers of their books.

I am NOT saying that good publishers don’t seek author input before holding a cover conference.  My editor asked me for examples of existing covers that I loved as well as examples of covers I didn’t like.  She encouraged me to explain why I felt as I did.  She also asked me to collect images from fine art imbued with the feeling I wanted my cover to have, and to submit descriptions and pictures of what my 13th century sisters might have worn.

What I AM saying is my cover was still a big surprise when I saw it.  So if you LOVE the cover of The Sister Queens, I am glad but, please, give credit where it is due.  I did not create the cover painting (you should be thankful for this – profoundly thankful), the cover artist did.  And folks in the design department picked that gorgeous lettering.  So send your warm and fuzzy thoughts (or compliments) their way.  And if you HATE the cover of my book (or any author’s book) please spare me a note upbraiding me.

This leads me to the second flawed conclusion I might have drawn back in my “fan-but-not-a-writer” days: covers exist to accurately portray a period of history, or a scene from a book.  Nope.  Sorry.  Some covers may do those things, but covers in general are designed for one reason and one reason alone – to sell books. This is precisely why authors don’t (and probably shouldn’t) design them.

I never viewed covers as sales tools until I signed my book contract.  But believe me once you have a book coming out selling books is foremost in your mind.  I want to sell books, and more than that, I want to sell books to people who are not ME.   Therefore, what I would personally like to see on the cover of my book runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will find attractive.  And the truth is I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer.  I am not trained to do that, nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things. The folks in my publisher’s art and design departments, on the other hand, ARE in a position to predict what will make a reader reach out and lift The Sister Queens off a table full of books all looking for a home.  They have been designing covers for years.  That’s why design departments and not authors get the final say over what book covers looks like.

Perhaps the folks designing the cover for a historical novel know that a certain color gown makes books jump off the shelf and into readers’ hands, so they use that color even if it may not be precisely “period.”  They might even (gasp) put Tudor gowns on non-Tudor-era women because books about Tudors sell like hotcakes and they are hoping to entice readers of Tudor historical fiction to pick up, and ultimately try, something new.  Who can say?  As an author I certainly can’t.  And as a reader I am now careful to examine covers with a different eye than I did in my pre-writing days—I may still judge the book by its cover, but I no longer judge that book’s author.

Authors are in the business of writing books, design and art departments are in the business of covering them.