Today’s Author Chat takes us into the fascinating and often confusing world of medieval England. So many names the same, so many battles, so many power grabs and coups. I’ve enjoyed chatting with the very knowledgeable Mercedes Rochelle, who explains the ins and outs of this distant time, why she makes stuff up as a last resort, and how a good argument can solve a lot of things. Welcome, Mercedes, it’s wonderful to talk to you and hear about your latest novel, The Usurper King.
Congratulations on a brilliant new historical fiction novel, Deborah! Friends, enjoy this wonderful excerpt… and my review on Goodreads.
Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.
Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.
Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.
The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.
Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.
‘Her characters are so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society
Enjoy the following extract:
A splash of noonday sun danced against the latticed window. Giulia paused, plate in hand, as a spider, escaping the sudden light, spooled slowly downwards on a silvery thread. If it put so much as a leg into the downstairs chamber, Mamma would kill it. Any stray crumb could pollute her work, she said. Any creature that fell into her carefully measured remedies could change the balance. Turn good to ill. Things were apt to turn into their opposite without careful attention, Mamma said, and Mamma was always right.
Fortune smiles on you today, little one, Giulia thought, Mamma is busy in the still-room.
The spider completed its acrobatic descent and was gone; spindly legs scuttling away across the windowsill, and into the blue-black shadow behind the cheese press. Giulia finished laying out the meal; yesterday’s bread, wedges from a round of hard salty cheese, pickled olives and figs from Tuscolo.
She called down the staircase, ‘It’s ready, Mamma.’
It was their servant Maria’s day off, so it was left to Giulia today to make Mamma eat. And today she was determined to make her listen.
She cocked her head. No answer.
Mamma often didn’t hear, or pretended not to, when she was involved in her work. Giulia tucked the stray wisps of hair back into her dark coiled braids, lifted her heavy skirts and went downstairs, heels clacking on the stone treads. The door was shut as usual. It seemed to her she’d been locked outside this door her entire life. Only when Mamma was ready, would she open it.
She remembered the time when she was eight years old straying into the still-room and lifting the end of a stopper to her nose to smell it. A stinging slap to the cheek. ‘Never, never do that,’ Mamma had shouted, whipping the stopper away with a gloved hand, ‘You could die.’
Since then the door was locked, until Mamma deigned to open it.
Jerking her attention back to the present, Giulia gave a double knock, louder than necessary. She’d make Mamma listen, this time.
The door swung open, and Mamma was there, angry as a wasp, a pair of red-hot tongs in her hand and a lump of something black smoking in their jaws. She hated being disturbed. ‘What?’
Giulia put a hand to her nose. The heat and noxious smell of the still room had stopped her at the threshold. There was always something on the boil down here.
‘Well, what is it, that you must knock fit to wake the dead?’ Mamma pulled down the gauze so only her sloe-black eyes were showing. The lower part of her face was covered so she did not breathe in the gases as she worked.
‘It’s ready,’ Giulia said again.
‘Food, Mamma. You put it in your mouth and swallow it, and it stops you from dying.’
‘Ha, ha. Less of that. I’m coming. What’s the hurry? Nothing will spoil. I must wait until this dissolves.’ She pointed with the tongs to a small charred pan bubbling over the fire.
‘I’m hungry,’ Giulia said, ‘even if you’re not.’ She blew onto her upper lip. ‘It’s airless again down here. How can you can bear it?’
‘Because if I don’t finish this, neither of us can afford to eat, my dove, that’s why.’
‘You should let me help more.’
Mamma dropped the smoking lump of matter into the pot. ‘This is delicate and needs a slow and steady hand. Better I do it. And never fear, there’ll be time enough for learning this when you’ve mastered the kitchen simples.’
‘They’re mastered, Mamma. I can make them blindfold, every single one. You promised you’d train me in the secret arts when I was sixteen. Then you changed your mind, and said when I was eighteen. And still, even now I’m waiting.’
Mamma threw her look that said, ‘not that old argument’. Giulia watched her mother hang up the tongs, wash in the stone basin, wipe her hands, wash and dry them again, examine them minutely, put her gloves back on, and then return to ministering to the fire.
She was used to her excessive cleanliness, though today it made her want to scream. Mamma dealt in grains and specks – granules of matter so small they could barely be seen. Not a single ant was allowed to tiptoe into her workroom; every table was scrubbed with lye and bleached white, and she made Maria burnish the tiled floor with beeswax to a high gloss.
Giulia hovered by the dispensing table, picked up a small lead weight from the scales then put it down again. It was fruitless to discuss this again. But the words still came out of her mouth; ‘When will you train me in alchemy, Mamma? Who will make the remedies when you’re too old and sick?’
‘Tush. I’m hale as ever I was. Can’t get rid of me yet. Anyway, I’m far too occupied at the moment to spare the time.’ Mamma shrugged and turned away again to stir the pot. ‘Pass me that flask, will you.’
The sight of Mamma’s bent back, with the neat grey curls poking from under her starched cap, and the hunch of her shoulders, suddenly made Giulia furious. By God, she’d make her listen this time. Deliberately, she picked up the slender glass flask from the table, opened her fingers and let it crash to the ground.
At the sound of splintering glass, Mamma whirled round.
Today I’m chatting with Keith Stuart, whose beautifully written debut novel details the children of Pied Piper — the British Government’s WWII operation to evacuate millions of children from England’s cities to protect them from bombing raids. Join us as Keith talks about his writing process, and how the writing community helped him achieve his dream of publishing.
I’m thrilled to welcome Cathie Dunn to Author Chats today, for her historical fiction novel “Love Lost in Time” was one of my favourite lock-down reads last year. I was eager to hear more about the inspiration for her novels, where she loves to travel to, and what her delicious new series, Affair of the Poisons, is all about. Come and join us!
I always admire it when favourite authors write in new genres, and it seems that recently, quite a few historical fiction novelists are trying their hands — very successfully — at mysteries. On today’s Author Chat, join MJ Porter as she discusses her newest novel, The Custard Corpses. It’s mouth-watering!
Author Chat | The Custard Corpses
I’m delighted to welcome Anne O’Brien to Author Chats today. I love the way she combines superb research with lyrical prose, and I’m intrigued with the way she has created her latest novel, The Queen’s Rival, described as “The forgotten story of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. A strong woman who claimed the throne for her family in a time of war…”
Join us for a great chat about her writing craft, and how it took a while to settle in on the creative way she’s captured Cecily Neville’s life.
I love the opening blurb to my Author Chat novel today, Discerning Grace. Here goes: As the first full-length novel in The White Sails Series, Discerning Grace captures the spirit of an independent woman whose feminine lens blows the ordered patriarchal decks of a 19th-century tall ship to smithereens.
Discerning Grace Author Chat
Join me to find out more about the indomitable Grace, and why Emma Lombard, who gets seasick on a duckpond, chose to write a naval historical fiction adventure novel!
Today’s Author Chat takes us into the world of 17th Century New England, through Jean M. Roberts’ beautifully crafted timeslip novel The Heron. Join Jean as she chats about her favourite scenes in the novel, how she chooses her characters’ names, and how important total immersion is to historical fiction readers — and writers.
Today’s Author Chat takes us to the world of pre-WWII Austria and the incredible story of families forced to choose between being enfolded into Hitler’s Nazi horror, or resisting and trying to preserve Tyrol and all they hold dear. I’m delighted to welcome Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger and the final novel in her fantastic Reschen Valley series. Join us to learn about Chrystyna’s inspiration, writing techniques, and how much she appreciates beta readers and reviewers.
I’m loving the Tudor theme this week – today’s Author Chat is with the incomparable Judith Arnopp, whose historical fiction novels are incredibly entertaining, steeped in authenticity and founded in great research. I’m always intrigued to see what Judith is creating next in her beautiful Tudor costume-making, and at the same time, what stories from the Tudor court she is weaving for us. Today, we’re celebrating the release of her newest novel, A Matter of Conscience. Somehow she’s managed to port herself into Henry VIII’s head, and it’s a fascinating read! Author Chat | A Matter of Conscience