Friday, July 5, 2013

Canadian Historical Fiction: Guest Post from Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk

Today I would like to welcome Gina and Janice, the authors of THE WOLVES OF ST. PETER'S to Cozy Up With A Good Read! 

Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirk: Accidental Historical Novelists

We fell into writing historical fiction by accident. Our first novel, The Sidewalk Artist, was to be a contemporary travel story where our heroine met a sidewalk artist in Paris. But what was he drawing? The first things to pop into Janice’s head were Raphael’s iconic cherubs (from The Sistine Madonna). And boom - we had our story, and it was suddenly part historical fiction.

We turned to complete historical fiction for our second book, Ciao Bella, which takes place in Northern Italy in the summer after WWII, and decided for our third novel to return to the Italian Renaissance, which allowed us to both build upon the research we had already started and have Raphael return as a minor character. So we began The Wolves of St. Peter’s, which originally had no wolves but did have a painting.

During our initial research, we had become fascinated with paintings of the Madonna and Child.  Almost everyone in Renaissance Italy lucky enough to have a roof over their head had one under said roof. So artists - both famous and forgotten to history - churned them out, making frequent use of prostitutes and courtesans for their Madonna models. That certainly made us wonder. Did these women’s lives change after they were painted as the Mother of God? Did they think differently? How did they feel about the painting? Did the owner of the Madonna ever think about them? Did they ever meet them - or even fall in love with them? So this idea - a prostitute as a Madonna model - gave us our victim.

Next, we needed our detective. Writing again about Raphael meant not only delving into the papacy of Pope Julius II but also into Michelangelo, who was just getting started on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (and, as we describe in Wolves, having a hell of a time with it.) From known facts, such as conveyed in Ross King’s wonderful Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, we discovered that in Michelangelo’s household was a houseboy whose name was never recorded – that was the basis for our “investigator” Francesco, whom we transformed from a boy of ten to a twenty-year-old humanist lawyer forced to flee Florence in disgrace.   

Steven Pinker’s brilliant book The Better Angels of Our Nature answered a great deal for us on the general
violence at the time as well as the nature of women’s lives, especially when it came to issues of reproduction, the fate of unwanted babies, and the casual approach to infanticide. That helped us shape Francesco’s lover, Susanna.

From reading Benvenuto Cellini – a contemporary and whose version of events should be taken with a grain of salt – we gained another vantage point on the era. For instance, everyone carried a dagger and thought nothing of using it. Cellini even wrote an account of raising the dead with a necromancer (to be taken with a bucket of salt), which inspired the scene where the skeptical Francesco takes Susanna to see a necromancer at the Coliseum. Janice saw this as a perfect opportunity to prove Gina wrong when she offhandly remarked that we would never write about zombies!

Peter Partner’s Renaissance Rome also gave us a good image of Rome at the time, a cobbled-together, ramshackle series of structures that blurred the idea of inside and outside, where one morning a homeowner might wake up and not be able to use his front door because someone had built a cowshed against it (at which point no doubt the daggers would come out).

Sometimes key details were quite serendipitously discovered. The actual starving wolves that descend from the hills and terrify the Romans came from a Google search. While Janice was hoping to learn more about Romulus and Remus, the mythical founding fathers of Rome who had been raised by wolves, she instead came across a New York Times article from the early 1900s that said starving wolves had entered Rome after a harsh winter. Much later, we came across another account of this happening in the 16th century. Finally - our wolves! And from that also came our title, which alludes to wolves both real and metaphorical.

As a rule, we avoided reading other historical novels from our time period and setting, since we didn’t want to unconsciously absorb other people’s stories. Still, other works had their influences, often from unexpected places, and Wolves does owe something to Polanski’s Chinatown – “This is Rome, Francesco.”

From all this research, we then built our story. The key was to fully absorb our findings so that when we sat down to write, we entered and lived in our characters’ world, so that the world was described fully from their point of view rather than ours. We also wanted the story to emerge from the specific setting and period, not just plop a plot into any old historical milieu.

It helped too that we’ve both been to Rome. Unless you’ve stood in the Coliseum, it is hard to fully appreciate its size. The same with the splendor of the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Michelangelo’s ceiling. We could envision the world through our characters’ eyes, from how long it took to walk from here to there to what they would have seen along the way (although it’s true that Rome has changed a lot in 500 years – the square where Michelangelo had his workshop was long ago consumed by St. Peter’s Square). Our next novel takes Francesco to Venice, and having spent time there this past winter will allow us to enrich that story’s setting and backdrop, too.

So, although we started out as accidental historical novelists, we are now quite deliberate about it. We greatly enjoy writing novels set in the past, based upon real events, and supported by intensive research - and that’s what we plan to do for a long time to come.

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