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History Buff is a site for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Q&A With Historical Thriller Author Tess Gerritsen

* Your thrillers have become NYT Bestsellers, but THE BONE GARDEN is your first historical thriller. The novel is set in both the present day and 19th century Boston where a seventeen year old seamstress named Rose Connolly must try and stop a killer. What was it about the 1800s that fascinated you?
It was medical history that first attracted me to this time period. I was fascinated by an illness called childbed fever, which was rampant in that era. Up to a quarter of women admitted to hospitals for childbirth died from the disease, and it was truly an excruciating death. Soon after giving birth, a woman would develop shaking chills, her abdomen would swell with bacterial gases, and pus would flow from her uterus. Often there’d be intractable vomiting, and the pain was described as so horrible that just to stroke the skin of the abdomen would cause the victim to shriek. Almost inevitably, she would die. And here’s the most horrifying detail: The illness was spread by doctors, who did not know enough to wash their hands. They would walk straight from the autopsy room to the lying-in wards, and with filthy hands would examine women in labor, spreading death straight down the rows of beds.

The first American doctor to realize that the contagion was being spread by physicians was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who in 1843 presented a scientific paper advising his colleagues to wash their hands. I wondered how he’d come to his conclusions. Was there a particular case or incident that opened his eyes to the doctors’ role in disease? I wanted to explore the circumstances of his revelation, and I wanted to see Holmes as a brilliant young man. In 1830 he was a medical student, and it was an era of real medical horrors, when doctors in training sometimes had to dig up cadavers for anatomical training. It was an era before anesthesia, before antibiotics, even before microbial theory. There was so much about medicine then that was truly grotesque, and I was fascinated by the challenges that doctors faced. It seemed like the perfect era in which to set a serial killer story.

* How much of THE BONE GARDEN is based on fact and how much is fiction?
I tried to stick to the facts when it came to details of Holmes’s life. His penchant for reciting poetry, for instance, and his longing to study medicine in Paris. I also tried to be as realistic as possible about 1830’s medicine and the gruesome realities faced by student doctors. I read 1830’s medical treatises and published speeches given by medical faculty. When I wrote the amputation scene in the story, I used instructions from an 1809 surgical textbook by Dr. Samuel Cooper (a textbook that was still in use during the Civil War.) I also used maps and newspapers of the time, and read both the works of Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to absorb as much of the rhythm and floweriness of the language.

* Tell us something surprising about women in 19th century America.
It was the era of the Transcendentalists in Boston, and I was surprised by how women were such a vibrant part of the intellectual scene at the time. I had assumed that their accomplishments were discounted and ignored, but in fact, there were a number of well-respected women contributing to the arts and to education. Already, there was pressure to admit women into the ranks of physicians, and that would soon follow with the establishment of a women’s medical college in Boston. Of course, things were different for the lower classes. Poor Irish girls (such as Rose Connolly, my heroine) were still invisible for the most part, except for their back-breaking contributions to the labor force.

* One of your characters, Norris Marshall, is a “resurrectionist.” Can you explain what a “resurrectionist” is to our readers, and why being one would have been profitable at that time?
Because of a shortage of anatomical specimens, medical schools of that era were forced to scrounge up cadavers from wherever they could find them. Executed criminals were automatically relegated to the anatomist’s knife, but there weren’t nearly enough of those to fulfill the needs of the schools. So a ghoulish trade sprang up involving body snatchers, otherwise known as “resurrectionists,” who’d sneak into cemeteries after dark and dig up newly interred bodies. The going rate for a body at the time was around $20 – a large enough sum to keep the trade thriving. Students themselves would often do the snatching themselves, and in fact it became something of a rite of passage for doctors-in-training, to sneak into cemeteries and dig up their prizes. So many medical schools were springing up in New York and Pennsylvania that the schools began to import bodies from the south, many of them no doubt deceased slaves. As the trade of snatching grew, naturally the parallel trade of grave protection also grew, paid for by families anxious to protect their deceased loved ones. Wealthy families could pay for armed guards and iron cages or locked tombs to protect the dead. It was the poor – isn’t it always the poor? – who suffered the worst indignities.

* Is THE BONE GARDEN the beginning of a series, and if not, what are you working on next?
No, it’s a stand-alone. My next book will be back to the Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles crime series. But I’ll be bringing in a bit of history into the new story, in the form of archaeology!

Thank you Tess! And feel free to visit Tess Gerritsen online for more information about her novel The Bone Garden.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author David Blixt

* Your debut novel, THE MASTER OF VERONA, can be considered a prelude to Romeo and Juliet. As a Shakespearean actor, you must be quite familiar with most of Shakespeare's plays, so what made you choose to write a book exploring the reason behind the feud between the Montagues and Capulets?
R&J was my first Shakespeare show, way back in high school, and the one I’ve done most often since (at present I think it stands fourteen or fifteen productions, in almost every male role). But when I first sat down to direct it and started studying the script, I came across a line I’d never paid attention to. At the end of the show, after everybody has died, Lord Montague has this out-of-the-blue line relating how his wife is dead as well. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it – Lady Montague has three lines in the play, all in Act I Scene i. Here we are, we’ve just seen Romeo drink poison and Juliet stab herself – why do we care if some lady we don’t even remember has died?

I broke it down. Okay, dramatic structure says that an off-stage death is symbolic – death symbolizes an ending – the only thing that has closure is the feud, when Capulet and Montague shake hands. Stringing those thoughts together, it meant that Lady Montague’s death was symbolic of the end of the feud. Well, that didn’t make any sense. Unless – unless she were the cause of the feud in the first place! Betrothed to Capulet, she ran off with Montague instead. A feud that ends in love began in love! That was the initial inspiration for the novel. A single line from Shakespeare.

* How much of THE MASTER OF VERONA is based on fact and how much is fiction? I used as much fact as I could find – the battles, the politics, the poetry, the people – then interwove Shakespeare’s Italian characters, making them featured players as well. Once or twice I was able to merge real people with the Shakespeare characters – the Prince in the R&J is named Escalus, a Latinized version of Scala, the ruling family of Verona. So in essence I’ve set Shakespeare and his sources dancing between the raindrops of history.

In picking a time and place for the origin of the feud, I’m in good company. Dante himself mentions the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues in his Divine Comedy – he even calls them to task for it by name! Still, the one aspect of the book I’ll take the most heat for is Dante’s son, Pietro Alaghieri. He was a real person – his descendants still live on the vineyard he bought just outside Verona – but not much is known about his early life. I made him my hero, and made him take a fictional part in historic events. My only defense is that Shakespeare and Dante both would have done it, as they loved a good story.

* Tell us something surprising about women in 14th century Italy.

In another strangely Shakespeare twist, it’s amazing just how often women donned armor and led their husbands’ troops into the field. Most often it was when their spouses were held for ransom, or else had been killed without an heir of age. The local lord would demand soldiers, and in response the more daring women led those soldiers themselves. It reminds me of all the cross-dressing women of Shakespeare – Viola, Rosalind, Portia. So I have a nod to that, too, in the novel.

* Romeo's mother, Lady Montague, plays a major role in your book. In what way, if any, does she reflect the typical Italian woman of her class in 1300s Verona?

“Of her class” is a very important caveat. Because, raised to the nobility, she has fallen for the upper-class fad of “courtly love” that swept the 13th and 14th centuries. Poetry and music extolled the virtues of the noble love-from-afar. The French stories of King Arthur were all the rage, with Guenivere and Lancelot being the ideal of True Love. Romeo’s mother is completely convinced that Love cannot exist without suffering – something she, of course, passes to her son.

* Is THE MASTER OF VERONA the beginning of a series, and when can we expect a second book?
The sequel is complete and on my editor’s desk at this moment, while I begin work on the third. That second book will be out sometime in Summer, 2008, I imagine. I’d love to give you the title, but it’s in flux at the moment (either THE FALCON’S LURE or THE VOICE OF THE FALCONER. I’ll happily take votes for either on my blog – However, I can tell you with complete certainty the title to the third – FORTUNE’S FOOL. Both of these books follow Pietro and his ward, young Cesco della Scala through their return to Verona and beyond. Cesco is in for some very rough treatment at my hands, because at some point he’s going to change his name and become one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters – Mercutio.
For more about the books, Shakespeare, Dante, and everything else that went into the making of THE MASTER OF VERONA, please stop by

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Dora Levy Mossanen

* What was it about Persia that made you want to set both HAREM and
COURTESAN: A NOVEL there, albeit in different times?

Since I spent twenty formative years of my life in Iran, and my family’s Persian roots go back more than 2500 years to the time of Darius the Great, it felt most natural to set my novels, HAREM and COURTESAN in Persia. My own background is somewhat unusual, since I was born in Israel, settled in Iran at the age of nine, then fled to California with my family at the onset of the Islamic Revolution. What is apparent, though, is that I will always treasure the wealth of factual stories my historian grandfather recounted to me during his lifetime and will forever draw from them for my future books.

* In your most recent novel, COURTESAN, you follow three generations of
Jewish women who live in France. Simone, however, travels from France to
Persia to be with the man she loves. How much of these women's lives are
based on fact and how much is fiction?
The three generations of Jewish woman in COURTESAN are fictional characters born of my imagination. But, each one, the grandmother, Madame Gabrielle, the daughter, Françoise, and the granddaughter, Simone, carries a combination of traits and habits that throughout the years, I carefully observed in a number of influential women in my life, my mother, grandmothers, aunts from another fascinating generation. In the end, all writers are voyeurs, don’t you think?

* In researching COURTESAN: A NOVEL, was there anything you were shocked to learn about courtesans in 19th century France?
The most shocking fact I learned about courtesans in 19th century France was tremendous their influence on powerful men of the time, even kings, and how they sometimes succeeded to change the political course of a country. A number of courtesans were highly educated, articulate, and invested shrewdly at a time when women were expected to remain far from the financial arena. I find it ironic that the same men who expected their wives to stay home and raise kids admired courtesans who were the exact opposite.

* Tell us something surprising about women in 17th century Persia, where
your novel HAREM is set.
Women in ancient Persia, and specifically women in the Shah’s harem, were surprisingly resourceful, able to overcome insurmountable hurdles, ruthless and ambition. During my research for HAREM, I was constantly shocked to learn how very rife with danger harems of the time were.Murders, poisoning, and plotting were prevalent, not to mention sexual favors to advance one’s position. But by far the most surprising fact I learned was that a number of these women had sex with eunuchs and even fell in love with them. Unbelievable!

* Are you working on another book, and if so, will it be set in Persia?
I am currently working on another historical novel, this one set in Russia, of all places, and during the last Romanovs, another decadent, tumultuous, and tragic era.

Thank you Dora! And feel free to visit Dora Levy Mossanen online for more information
about her novel Courtesan.