If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, chances are you’ve noticed Donna Russo Morin‘s historical The Courtier’s Secret. With such a gorgeous cover it’s hard to miss. And when you read the blurb on the back, its hard to put down!
I started writing when I was very young, as early as grade school. My mother still has the stories that I wrote back then. I wrote heart wrenching poetry in high school, including anti-war poetry. I don’t think I took myself seriously until much later. I worked in public relations and marketing, having obtained a degree in Communications, so I wrote a great deal…press releases, brochures, and the like. I’ve been a published book reviewer since the 1980s, with my reviews appearing in major newspapers and magazines nationwide, but I don’t think I gave myself the belief that I was a ‘real writer’. There is a leap of faith in oneself and one’s talent that must be hurdled before the hobby can become a true profession.
What do you write?
I write historical fiction. I’ve also written an adult fantasy novel, but it’s never sold. The genre (fantasy not paranormal) is a little flat right now. I’m keeping it in my hope drawer along with some good thoughts.
How long were you writing before you sold?
That first novel took me seven years to write but I had my two sons during that time while working a day job as well. I really became serious about perfecting my craft and learning the business of writing in early 2004, when I sold two of my short fiction pieces to two anthologies. I sold in the spring of 2007.
Tell us about your first sale, “the call” and the first book you sold?
I wrote THE COURTIER’S SECRET (Kensington Books, on sale since Feb. 1 of this year) while I was recovering from a bad case of Lyme disease. I took nine months to do the research and nine weeks to write the first draft. I felt incredible about the work I had produced and started sending out query after query, mostly to agents. It took me six months to land an agent (Irene Kraas, Kraas Literary Agency) and it took her four months to make the sale. My cell phone was off that morning, but I checked it for messages around noon. When I heard Irene saying, “we made the sale,” my head just started humming. I remembering running around my house, not knowing what to do with myself, the joy was so consuming. Needless to say, I called her back as soon as I felt able to talk again.
Do you have a favorite book you’ve written, or a favorite hero/heroine?
I love my main character in THE COURTIER’S SECRET. A lot of her attitude is mine and she allowed me to vent on my frustrations as a woman. She’s not perfect, she’s stubborn and unrealistic, but she tries very hard. In the year 1682, she’s ejected from the convent and sent to Versailles to live with her family. She fights against an arranged marriage to a weak, ineffectual, effeminate man of her father’s choosing; when disguised as a man, she fights with a small, dedicated group of Musketeers to save the life of the Queen; and she fights for the true love of her life.
My second book, THE SECRET OF THE GLASS (also from Kensington, scheduled for an early 2010 release) is quickly becoming my favorite. In the early 17th century, the glassmakers of Murano, Venice, are revered as master artisans, enjoying privileges far beyond their station. But they are forced to live in virtual imprisonment, contained by a greedy government who hordes their talents at all costs. Amidst political and religious intrigue, the scientific furor ignited by Galileo, and even murder, Sophia Fiolario must do anything to protect herself, her family…and the secret of the glass. It’s full of complexities that parallel modern day questions, both political and religious.
What’s your writing schedule like?
As I often tell people, I’m allergic to mornings (it’s a real condition, I swear), so most days I’m at the computer by 9, 9:30. If I’m in the research stage, I start reading much earlier, usually around 8, 8:30. I often begin with the business of writing, i.e., correspondence and promotion. That gets my fingers warmed up and the brain sparkplugs firing, and then I get to work. I work ten hour days (cleaning house and cooking—badly—in between). I work twelve hour days if necessary when rushing toward a deadline.
Where do you get your ideas?
When I was a teenager, I saw the 1973 version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS starring Michael York and Rachel Welch. In my fantasies, I looked like Rachel Welch, but I had the adventures of Michael York. That was the first seed for THE COURTIER’S SECRET.
THE SECRET OF THE GLASS was inspired by a two minute news item I saw about the glassmakers of Murano and the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. I had the basic plot arc written out within a half hour of seeing the newscast.
The next book I’m planning, takes us back to France, 1500s this time. It’s more of a thriller with a lot of espionage, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
I can come up with ideas for stories easily; finding a passion for a story is where I sometimes have trouble, and I must feel a passion before I can get to work.
Do you plan out your books? Do you plot ahead of time?
Historical fiction by virtue requires a great deal of planning. There’s a duty to the factual history that requires a writer to work within a framework. I do an incredible amount of research, take copious amounts of notes, and arrange them by topic. I then do a scene by scene basic guide of the entire story. Of course, I allow the fictional plot and my characters to diverge organically wherever they see fit.
Who are you favorite authors/favorite books?
In my genre, I am a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon, Jean Plaidy and Rosalind Laker. Stephen King had a huge impact on me as a writer, as he has for so many others. I’m a Jane Austen lover and also a huge fan of James Michener.
As for favorite books, these aren’t in order but in a class by themselves.1. The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas2. The Shining, Stephen King3. The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon4. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (with no shame what so ever!)5. Angels and Demons, Dan Brown6. Absolute Power, David Baldacci7. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen8. Harry Potter (again, no shame)9. To Dance with Kings, Rosalind Laker10. Trinity, Leon Uris11. The Once and Future King, T. H. Whiteit’s really hard to stop…
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Let me take a look into my hat closet and tell you all about the pile that I often have to choose from. I am the mother of two teenaged boys, one just began college, the other is a sophomore in high school. They’re both performers, one a singer, the other a percussionist. Taking care of them, attending their performances is amazingly time consuming. I still write for magazines including Foreword Magazine, the literary review magazine. I work part time as a copy editor and usually always have a client in progress and one waiting in the wings. And I also work as a model/actor. I do local commercials and print work (car dealers, CVS, restaurants) as well as extra work in movies and television shows (The Departed was a highlight for me, as well as my work in the Showtime series Brotherhood).
What advice can you give aspiring writers?
Give your craft the respect it deserves. Not only must you believe in yourself, you must support it. Always strive to improve, attend classes, workshops, and conferences whenever you can afford. Give your writing time; make it a part of your day to day life and give it the time to succeed. Be prepared to take any constructive criticism that comes your way, ESPECIALLY from agent/publisher rejections, and learn from it. Give up the ego and do what needs to get done to make the sale. The ego can come when you’ve made the bestseller’s list.
Can you give us your first line (or a favorite line) from your current work in progress and a blurb?
From THE SECRET OF THE GLASS,
She had no wish to disturb them or insinuate her presence unduly. She had learned the secrets of the glass in just this way, blending in with the surroundings of the factory, becoming a seamless part of its scenery.
Her delivery made, Sophia made as if to leave; sidling a few steps away, her movements no more than a ruse. She leaned up against the back of an unused scagno, idly rubbing an oil-stained rag against its already clean surface. Her presence forgotten with the unintention breed by familiarity, the men took a few quick gulps of refreshment, then set back to their work. Enrnesto concentrated on shaping the clear rods, Salvatore the painting, and Paolo the cooling. They labored in perfect unison, anticipating each other’s thoughts, akin to one another’s ways through years of working in close proximity, words of instruction mingling with random conversation.
“Do you need the stringer, Sal?” Paolo asked the man beside him.
With a small shake of his head, Salvatore refused the offered device, keeping his head bent to his work.
“Did you see her, Catarina, I mean?” Paolo put the tool aside, and picked up another. “Were her breasts not the most beautiful you had ever seen? The skin, like silk, and the mounds, so firm and high.”
Salvatore gazed out at nothing in wonder for a moment, recalling the wondrous sight in his mind. “They were like something from my dreams.”
Sophia lowered her head and bit her smiling lips together, imprisoning her laughter. The men had forgotten her; their talk had turned to women as it so often did, especially among the young ones.
“Like juicy melons.” Paolo’s rapture transformed his plain face into euphoric beauty. “I longed for nothing more than to lap at their sweetness.”
“I have already tasted their nectar, many a time.”
The gloating call came from across the aisle. Salvatore and Paolo stared at the boastful Monte with bulging eyes and falling jaws.
“No? It cannot be?” They brayed together in protest.
“Certamente.” The blonde and wiry young man set his pontello down and swaggered across the passageway. “It was a night of consuming bliss. For me, it was her ass, so tight, so…so…” Monte struggled for succinct words. He formed his hands into arcs and held them out in front of his pelvis, gesturing crudely with hands and hips. The calls and jeers rang out all around as the men unerringly pictured what had taken place.
Embarrassed warmth rose on Sophia’s cheeks and though the men became almost comical with their exaggerated gestures and gibes, she no longer felt like laughing. Pangs of longing and curiosity plagued her, a desperation with no name. There had been men in Sophia’s life, boys really, and with them she had discovered lips and hands. Never had the fire these men now spoke of scorched her, and yet she knew a craving for it.
“When I had her, we were not alone.”
Stunned into silence by the unfathomable utterance of a scrawny youth, every man within hearing ceased their work.
“She and her friend left my skin so raw I couldn’t walk straight for a week.”
For a taut moment the bevy of men studied Octavio, young and skinny, still with pimples maligning his sweaty face, he appeared too immature, too inexperienced to speak with a single woman, let alone lain with two.
The laughter and caterwauling burst out as the men dismissed the incredulous story and its teller with their raucous cries, throwing their hands dramatically up in the air. Despite her best efforts Sophia laughed aloud at such outrageousness, caught up in the swell of hilarity and comradery.
Ernesto spun in her direction, vigilant once more to her forgotten presence by the tinkling of her feminine laughter, and chastised her with an indulgent smile.
“You shouldn’t be listening to this.”
“And you are all obsessed with sex,” she teased.
“You wound us, Sophia.” Paolo added his to the other loud protests and guffaws, one hand to each cheek with feigned indignation. “It is not true.”
Incredulous, Sophia raised an accusing finger in the men’s direction, stalked over to the annealer—the large cooling chamber—and threw open its doors. Inside stood three beautiful, brilliantly finished pieces…two perfect round globe vases beside one tall powerful shaft.
The stunned men gapped in silence, their objections stifled in the face of such obvious sexual symbols.
“Dio mio,” Salvatore hissed with incredulous urgency, “we are perverts!”
Sophia’s giggles joined the lusty male laughter. She closed the door upon the salacious items with a shake of her head as the men returned to their work.
Where can we find you on the web (website, blog, facebook)?
I have a website, http://www.donnarussomorin.com/
Jeanne knocked softly on the closed door.
In the desolate silence left behind by her father and brother, she and her Maman had embraced in their shared survival, two soldiers rising from a desecrated battlefield. Jeanne began to apologize, but the ravaged and bruised appearance of her mother’s face had stolen all words from her tongue. Her mother had kissed her lips, left the room and closed her bedchamber door. Jeanne had waited anxiously for her mother, but she could wait no longer, the words of regret stuck in her throat like a half chewed piece of food and she longed to spew, ridding herself of the choking guilt.
“Maman?” She called softly, knocking once more, opening it a crack this time, without waiting for words of encouragement.
Her mother lay on her back on her bed, no movement save the slight rise and fall of her chest, her eyes shut tight. Jeanne tiptoed to the bedside, peering down at her mother. Fresh tears sprang to Jeanne’s eyes as she saw the large bruise spreading like a dark purple stain on the side of her mother’s face. Jeanne turned and took the few small steps to the pedestal in the room’s corner holding water pitcher and basin. Gathering a cloth from the shelf beneath, she poured cool water into the ewer, soaking the cloth. Turning back to the bed, Jeanne gasped, dropping the cloth to the hard wood floor. Her mother stared at her with lifeless intensity.
“Ah, dear Maman, you are awake.” Jeanne rinsed the cloth out in the basin, ridding it of the clinging dirt from the floor. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she gently placed the cloth on her mother’s marred skin.
“Why do you antagonize him so?” Adelaide’s voice sounded meager and strained, uttered without gesture or expression.
“I do not mean to, Maman, truly I do n…not.” Jeanne’s voice caught in her throat, her dark eye’s avoiding her mother’s golden ones. She held the cloth to her mother’s face until the heat of their bodies stole the coolness from it. Jeanne dunk it in the chilly water, bringing it back to her mother.
“Can you ever forgive me?” Jeanne’s swelling tears of attrition spilled over and ran a course of repentance down her checks.
The corners of her mother’s mouth rose in the slightest of smiles. Adelaide brought a hand up, cupping her daughter’s face. “Do I not always?” Lowering her hand, Adelaide braced herself, pushing against the silk coverlet to sit up straight. She leaned against the carved wood of the headboard, gripping her head as if it were about to fly from her shoulders.
“Do you want me to call for the physician?” Jeanne rose from the bed, deeply alarmed at the whiteness of her mother’s usually golden skin, especially pale against the blackness of the darkening bruise.
“No, no. I am fine. We must not let anyone see me.” Adelaide almost shook her head, but the pain stopped her at the first movement. She reached up and captured her head with her hands, as if to keep it from falling off.
“I will always forgive you, ma petit. But I do not know how much longer I can protect you.” Adelaide raised a shaky hand to her daughter. Jeanne took it, sitting once more by her mother’s side. “Things are not as when you left for the convent. Your father’s situation is more precarious than ever.”
Adelaide spoke freely with no fear of interruption from her husband. As a member of the state council and a fairly well placed courtier, he would be wherever the King was. Gaston rarely returned to their rooms except to sleep, too afraid not to “be seen”.
“The King has wrenched all power from the noblemen,” Adelaide spoke through tight, white lips, “it is but a masquerade he acts, letting them believe they advise him. The Fronde has left our King paranoid and controlling.”
Adelaide, the daughter of the Comte de Clemont, a distant cousin to the King, was a part of a prestigious bluestocking society of women and privy to the very inner circles of the Royal family, a fact that only served to alienate the married couple more.
Adelaide leaned toward her daughter, grasping the young hands. Jeanne started slightly at the feel of the cold, bloodless skin. She recovered, putting her mother’s hands in her own, capturing them in her younger, warmer ones, wishing she could give back to her mother all she had received.
“They are powerless men, these nobles, reduced to petty games and intrigues to give their life any meaning. They are humiliated and frustrated by the machinations the King forces them into. It is no wonder they lash out at any around them less powerful than they.”
“But we are his family.” Jeanne burst out, her words flying from her mouth like wayward birds and she unable to catch or contain them.
“Who is more powerless than their wives and daughters? Your father is one of the few noblemen still to serve in Louis’s government and it is only because he possessed financial education. His position is tenuous at best. Why do you antagonize him so, by speaking thus?”
“It is not my intent, Maman,” Jeanne turned from her mother, walking to the open doorway, poised in the egress as if to take flight. “And it is not my fault.”
Indeed, it was not her fault that her father suffered at the hands of the King. Louis XIV ruled by absolute monarchy, proclaiming forthrightly, ‘l’etat, c’est moi,’ I am the state. It was his complex set of unwritten laws and codes of behavior, who may enter the room when, who may sit, who must stand, who may eat and when. Noblemen now held only honorary positions and pensions. Life was a struggle for trivial distinction and privileges.
Louis would do anything to keep the nobility from uniting against him, as they had during the Fronde almost thirty years ago. The memories of the ten-year-old King, of the deprivation and despair during those years colored all his decisions; he ruled by them. He had dedicated his life to punishing them for it.
He filled his high council, the Conseil d’en Haut, with promoted commoners, usurping the nobles, finding it easier to dismiss an elevated commoner than to strip a comte, and all his descendants, of the title. It was the reign of the lowborn bourgeoisie, as the Duc de Saint-Simon had so aptly named it. The rest were the King’s puppets, dancing to the threat of court banishment or a life in the Bastille.
Jeanne turned back to Maman, hands pressed against her stomach, as if under the yellow embroidered bodice, her intestines fought to gain their freedom. Her long shadow shook upon the wall behind her, cast by the guttering candles. With small, rapid movements, she shook her head back and forth, long brown curls flowing like waves about her head.
“I am not like the other girls. There is…something…wrong with me.” Her deep brown eyes pleaded for understanding.
Adelaide’s mouth formed a ghost of a smile, a benevolent acceptance of a mother to her wayward child.
“I know, mon cher, I know. But you can try. Why did you not try harder at the convent?”
“Ak, morbleau!” Jeanne hands flew dramatically in the air. “I could not stand it, Maman. The girls, they are beyond stupid; they are ludicrous, puerile. They fainted in horror at the least little thing, or worse, giggled incessantly for hours and hours.”
Jeanne ran the few steps back to the bed, falling upon it with such force, her mother bounced upon the feathers.
“I can not bear a life where the most momentous decisions I have to make are what to wear and what to serve. It is too meaningless and trivial. I want to learn things, study, be a part of the world. I can n–“
Adelaide raised a hand, silencing her daughter.
“Do you think you are the first woman to wish to break the shackles imposed upon us by the virtue of possessing a womb?” Her mother’s words hissed out from between closed teeth. “If so, you are greatly deceived.”
Jeanne saw her mother’s frustrated tears, the vein popping on her forehead and her red splotchy skin and, for the first time, saw the true anguish in her Maman, anguish of her own wasted life.
The young, suddenly frightened girl did not know what to do to relieve the pain of this woman, this angel who had given her life and so much more. She did the only thing that came to mind.
Jeanne stuck out her tongue and rolled her eyes as she’d seen the King’s jesters do.
Maman’s face went blank–then split wide as she barked a laugh of pure delight. Her eyes popped open and one long, slim hand flew to her chest as if to contain the swift skip of her heart. The shroud of despair lifted. Still laughing softly, she gazed upon her daughter with soulful eyes, bright with the turmoil of her emotions. Adelaide reached out for her daughter and pulled her into a tight embrace.
“Oh, ma petite, you are and always will be the breath and death of me.”
Jeanne smiled from the safety of her mother’s bosom, memories of such sanctuary taken there over the years flitting through her mind like passing scenery. She inhaled the musky, flowery scent of her mother and squeezed back with all the force of her overwhelming love.
“I will try harder, Maman. I really will.”
Adelaide clucked her tongue, reveling in the healing force of her daughter’s touch.
“Non, mon cher Jeanne, you most probably will not.”