I really enjoy historical fiction. I like when an author creates a character and puts him/her in a real-life historical setting, interacting with real historical figures in a way that fits into history. I also enjoy when real historical figures are the main characters, especially when there is enough known about them to create an "it could have happened this way" scenario. But what I'm not such a fan of is what you've done in this book: created a character based on (from what I can tell) the very few details known about a real life person. So much of the book is complete speculation. I'm partial to "truth" in historical fiction - I go for a bit more *historical* and a bit less *fiction.* So what I want to know is, why did you write this story in this way? What is the draw for you as a writer? What is the appeal for the reader?
Impertinent, much? After I sent it I worried that I might have offended her but luckily I did not. Ms. Maxwell was gracious enough to respond that "it was a good question" and to give me a thorough answer/explanation. Her response is lengthy but interesting and I do hope you'll take the time to read it.
Response by Robin Maxwell:
In all my seven novels, I've never chosen to use an entirely fictionalized character for my protagonist, mainly because I feel there are so many real historical figures with mesmerizing stories that it wasn't necessary to make one up. That said, I have had as my protagonists, figures about whom there are mountains of biographies and histories written -- Elizabeth I, as an example. I tackled different parts of her life in four of my books (Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, ages 25-26; The Queen's Bastard, 27-54; Virgin, 13-15; and The Wild Irish, 60-67). I was meticulous about sticking to the facts, but that was easy, as there were so many of them at my fingertips.
However, in The Queen's Bastard, one of the three main voices in the story is Arthur Dudley, the young man who claimed to have been the illegitimate son of Elizabeth and Robin Dudley. Out of all the history books I scoured looking for references to him, I found perhaps five pages of documentation. He was an English spy in the years before the invasion of the Spanish Armada, and he was arrested in Spain, brought before King Phillip II, and deposed by Phillip's English secretary for five days (that written deposition still exists in the Spanish State Papers with the King's comments written in the margins). What I read convinced me that there was a better-than-even chance that Arthur Dudley was who he claimed to be. Whether he was or wasn't, I figured this person had a fascinating life and needed his story told. Cloaked as he is in shadows, he remains one of my favorite characters in history.
In To the Tower Born I took two young women -- one the 18 year old Princess Bessie (Elizabeth of York, who was said to have been Richard III's lover before she became the mother of the entire Tudor Dynasty -- Henry VIII's mom); and Elizabeth ("Nell") Caxton, daughter of the first English printer/publisher, William Caxton, and plopped them down at the center of the mystery of the lost princes in the Tower of London. Strangely, very little has been written about Elizabeth of York, but I as least had skeleton of her whereabouts during the time in question. Of Nell Caxton, I had exactly one sentence of history. That she (daughter of the most celebrated non-royal of the period) obtained a divorce from her husband in London on a certain date.
From that simple fact, and from what I learned about William Caxton (three good biographies) I was able to envision a fascinating life for Nell. That she grew up within the walls of Westminster, where her father's printing press and bookstore were located and where the royal family (including Princess Bessie) held court. William was deeply respected, patronized and much beloved by every person in the royal family, and I thought that the two girls, of a similar age, might have been thrown together and even allowed a friendship. I deduced that Nell and Bessie were two of the best educated young women in England at the time, and I knew for certain that Bessie was smack in the middle of the high drama that led to Richard III's becoming king, and the disappearance of her little brothers. From this starting point, I did a great deal of detective work and research to formulate a unique solution to one of England's greatest mysteries -- one that I am proud to say has been lauded by the Richard III Society.
With regard to Signora da Vinci, the truth is that I really wanted to write a novel about Leonardo, as I believe him to possess the greatest and most creative mind in all of history. But for some years now, publishers of historical fiction have been fixated on novels told exclusively from a woman's point of view. My proposal to do a Leonardo book was very coolly received. But I was not going to be deterred. The more I read about him and the fabulous figures of the period, like Lorenzo "The Magnificent" de' Medici, Sandro Botticelli, the groundbreaking and courageous philosophers that defied the Catholic church with their Platonic Academy of Florence (see the bonus page on my website), the more determined I was to write about the period -- and not from an outsiders point of view. I wanted to be smack in the middle of all the hoo-ha. And right inside Leonardo's head.
That left his mother. I had only a couple of clusters of facts to go on -- that her name was Caterina, and that the day after her son was born out of wedlock, his biological father and grandfather came and took the infant from his mother and brought him up in their loveless home. Much later in life, a woman named Caterina came to live with Leonardo (the only female ever to do so), and two years later he paid for her funeral. That left me with either a gaping chasm, or a delightful "hole in history" to fill. I chose to see it as the latter.
Using the voluminous materials I had about Leonardo (1,080 pages of his writings alone!) I was able to extrapolate the character of his mother, the one person who would know the man best, from the inside out. That still left me with the problem of how she would insinuate herself into the all-male society of Renaissance movers and shakers, to get the inside scoop on "The Shadow Renaissance". So I disguised her as a man. Women did cross-dress all through the middle ages and the Renaissance (see the link to my bonus page).
So while you might see the whole story as far-fetched, it is all within the realm of possibility. Clearly, a reader must be able to suspend disbelief to enjoy Signora da Vinci, but if I had not expanded Caterina's character the way I did, I would never have been able to tell the story I wished to tell. I figure that readers get a unique and richly imagined perspective on history, one that is intimate and emotional while still planted firmly in deep research.
Please visit me at my gorgeous new website RobinMaxwell.com ... it looks just like Renaissance jewel box.
If you'd like a chance to win a copy of SIGNORA DI VINCI please post a comment on this website answering any one of the following questions raised by Ms. Maxwell's post:
- Is a historical fiction novel told from a woman's point of view more or less likely to grab your attention?
- Were you aware of the compromises author must sometimes make in order to get their books published (like having to tell Leonardo's story through his mother rather than on its own)?
- Did this post change your opinion on "fictional" historical fiction? In what way?
- Or you can visit Ms. Maxwell's website and tell me one thing you liked about it.
* I'm shipping from Maryland in the United States, in case you're wondering.