Catherine McGrew Jaime

Author, Historian, Lifelong Learner, Teacher, World Traveler

Category: History

Thoughts on what makes history fun, exciting, and important!

The Joys of Researching

Enjoying Research

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, Writing Historical Fiction, it’s a good thing I like to write historical fiction as much as I do. Otherwise, I’m fairly sure I could spend all my “writing” time doing research. I get the impression that researching comes more out of a need than a sense of joy for some authors. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I get very excited being able to dig up the facts I need in order to fill in the holes of my novel. In fact, I have to make sure that the time I spend researching doesn’t get away from me, so I generally only allow myself to do research after I’ve done my writing for the day. That way, if (or better said, when) I get carried away with the research, it hasn’t interfered with the day’s word count goal.

Simple Searches

Oftentimes a simple search will uncover the facts I’m needing. How old was Salai when he became Leonardo’s apprentice? And how old was Francesco Melzi when he joined Leonardo’s entourage? Facts like those were fairly simple to track down.

Complicated Digging

But at other times it seems to get a little more complicated. How would Leonardo have traveled from Florence to Milan and back? (And what routes would he have taken and where would he have stayed along the way?) Where was he staying each time he was in Milan or to Florence? (And were those the same places each time he was in those cities, or different places at different times?) Needless to say, the questions like that can go on for quite a while.

Historical Facts

As a historian, I want to get my facts straight. And while I realize it’s a balancing act, I’m very troubled by historical fiction that puts so much more emphasis on the fiction than the historical. I work hard to keep the balance in my writing, and my love of research certainly makes that easier to accomplish.

Machiavelli and the Militia

For my current da Vinci novel I needed to fill in some blanks about Machiavelli and his role with the Florentine militia. Going into this novel Machiavelli and Leonardo had interacted numerous times – though never at Leonardo’s initiation from what I’ve been able to tell.  They worked together for months for the ruthless Cesare Borgia (in my novels that happens in Leonardo: A Return to Florence); Machiavelli talked Leonardo into accepting the assignment for an extremely large battle mural and together they attempted to divert the Arno River. (I include those latter two in my most recent novel, Leonardo: A Return to Painting.)

Current Work in Progress

This novel that I’m currently working on, number six in the Life and Travel of Da Vinci series, starts with Leonardo having to figure out how to go forward from his failed battle painting. Where does he go from here and what will he be doing? Those decisions will be complicated by the lawsuits that he is suddenly dealing with: First the city of Florence threatens to sue him, then there’s a monastery in Milan that apparently wasn’t happy with an altarpiece he had painted almost two decades earlier, and then, not much further down the road, he finds himself in court with family members (half siblings) who are angry that he is named as the sole heir to their uncle’s estate.  A complicated legal time in Leonardo’s life, to be sure.

Leonardo and Lawsuits

But, what does any of this have to do with Machiavelli and a militia, you might be asking. Well, at this time in Leonardo’s story, Machiavelli is secretary to the Florentine city council. As such, he will likely interact often with Leonardo yet again. And while I don’t really want to make Machiavelli my antagonist, because I do think he and Leonardo at least had mutual respect for each other, I think it will work well in this story to have him working for the main antagonist. The head city councilman at this time is Pier Soderini and he is likely the one who either threatens or initiates the lawsuit against Leonardo for the uncompleted battle painting. But I don’t think Soderini would have had many direct dealings with Leonardo; I think he would have left the dirty work to his secretary, Machiavelli.

More Machiavelli and the Militia

Ah, so now we can at least see the importance of Machiavelli in this next story. But maybe not the connection to the militia. This story starts in May 1506. I had read somewhere that Machiavelli was busy trying to set up a militia for Florence until sometime that year and I wanted to have an idea when in 1506 that was. If Leonardo and Machiavelli are interacting several times while Machiavelli is focused on setting up the militia, surely the topic would come up between them, especially after they worked together for so long with Borgia.  But if the militia was already a thing of the past for Machiavelli, any conversations about it would certainly have a different feel to them.

But, it turns out, when I finally found what I was looking for, that Machiavelli was just getting the militia going in 1506, and actually continued to work with it for some time after this. So how to use the militia in defending the city, and the advantages of militia over mercenaries will definitely be an important part of conversations Machiavelli and Leonardo have during the early chapters of the story. (And, likely, any future conversations, as well.)

Digging for Details

I spent several hours tracking down the information about Machiavelli and his role with the Florentine militia. And in this case, I can see it coming up numerous times in this upcoming book. But I have to admit that I’ve also spent hours trying to track down details of much less consequence, including where the gates in the city walls around Florence were located and which one he would likely have returned through, or where in Rome his good friend Donato Bramante would have been living when Leonardo first visited the city. Those are often hours of research that turn into a few paragraphs (or less) of actual writing.

How it Might Have Been

Leonardo’s Original Madonna of the Rocks

When I can find the information, I’m willing to invest those hours in order to do a better job with the historical part of my historical fiction. When I can’t find the information, that becomes much more frustrating. I’m still trying to track down more details on the Milanese monastery that hired Leonardo to paint the first Madonna and the Rocks altarpiece. These are the folks I mentioned above that threaten to sue Leonardo twenty years after the fact. But I’m currently having a great deal of difficulty tracking down even basic information on where the church was located, where the altarpiece hung within the church, etc. I will likely spend some more time this week trying to nail down some of those facts, but it may turn into another one of those times that I have to write a fictional version of that part of the story. (And then explain that clearly in the Author’s Note at the end of the book!)

Random Tidbits

Needless to say, I can’t really relate to authors who write historical fiction but who don’t enjoy doing historical research as much as I do. (I think the ones who can afford it, hire research assistants to help with that.) But for me, learning these random tidbits as I work on my writing is part of the fun! I consider myself both an author and a historian and the ongoing research for my historical novels is such a great way to combine those two interests.

Happy reading!

Cathy

Working on My Da Vinci Series

I’ve been hard at work this summer on the next novel in my “Life and Travels of da Vinci” series. With the 500-year anniversary of Leonardo’s death looming in the relatively near future (May 2019), I’m doubling up my efforts to complete my da Vinci series by then.

My First da Vinci Novels


In my earliest years of novel writing I was able to complete an average of one novel per year. (These are relatively short novels, technically more “novella” size, so one per year with everything else I was doing was generally attainable.) I kept that pace fairly consistently for the first four novels: Leonardo the Florentine, Leonardo: Masterpieces in Milan, Leonardo: To Mantua and Beyond, and Leonardo: A Return to Florence. But I slipped a little between the fourth and the fifth, not completing Leonardo: A Return to Painting until this past spring, more than two years after the previous one had been finished.

At Least Nine Books

By my current calculations, there should end up being at least nine books in the series by the time I’ve completed it. Which means starting this year I will need to write more like two books per year to finish in time. Again, considering the lengths of these books, and the fact that as of January 2017 I am now semi-retired, this should be completely doable.

Setting Goals

One of the things I love about self-publishing my books is that I get to set my own goals. (Of course, as the two-year gap shows, sometimes goals where you only answer to yourself can get away from you!) But typically, I’m better at setting goals that I can attain, and actually meeting them.

Daily Writing

I can easily write 1,000 words or more each writing day. (On good, productive days I often hit more than 2,000 words, and when the story is clicking I’ve done as many as 3,000 – 4,000 words.) Considering my last da Vinci novel was the longest, and it came in at only 42,000 words, you can see how writing the first draft isn’t a long process when I’m working on it daily. (Six days a week is my goal during the peak of a “writing season” for me.)

The Rough Draft

I’m almost half way through the rough draft of this next story, hitting 21,000 words in just over three weeks. I’m allowing myself the next two weeks as a break from writing for two reasons – to do some more research for a few parts of the story and to spend more time with the children and grandchildren who are visiting.

Where to Begin

One of many sketches Leonardo made for the battle mural.

It’s exciting to see the story develop before my eyes. I knew where the story would begin – basically where the last one ended: Leonardo had just walked away from a large mural he had been painting for the Florentine city fathers. There was a large disaster involving the paint he had used, and the painting was effectively destroyed. What Leonardo (and the city fathers) would do next was a huge concern. (And became a bigger concern when they threatened to sue him for breach of contract.)

Other Interesting Events

All of that was a known part of this next story that I’m writing. Along the way to researching and writing those portions I have found several other interesting events during that time period in Leonardo’s life: He built a model for a flying machine that he tested with one of his apprentices; he was threatened with a lawsuit for an altarpiece he had painted in Milan twenty years earlier; and he was asked to assist a good friend in Florence with a set of life-size sculptures for the Florence Baptistery.

Learning enough about each of those events to weave them into this story is my current project. As with all my historical fiction, I want to have as many of the facts as possible, while still trying to make an interesting story.

Until next time,

Cathy

History Along the Road

Even in the early 1500s the Colosseum was in ruins.

The Joys of “Being There”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been a history buff for decades now. And while I love reading (and then writing) about history, particularly historical fiction, nothing beats being where history took place. And for any that know us, it should come as no surprise that my family tends to take that concept to extremes. I’ve crossed the Old North Bridge in Lexington where the British and Colonials fought in the early days of the American Revolution more than 200 years ago; I’ve stood in Jamestown where John Smith and the other settlers had been 400 years before; and I’ve walked the streets of Rome pondering both Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther having walked those streets almost 500 years before me. (The title photo is from a visit to the underground cities near Cappadocia, Turkey – cities that date back more than 1,000 years. That visit started me off on my first historical short stories.)

Historical Journeys with the Family

Several years ago, seven members of our family followed the Lewis and Clark trail for almost two weeks. It was amazing to be in various places along the route where those men (and the one woman) had stood almost exactly two hundred years before us.

The castle near where we lived in Wuerzburg, Germany.

When my family was in Germany many years before that, my children were quite confident that they had been to every castle in the country, though of course, they had not. But we had certainly seen lots – and every one of my kids had a pretty good idea of what life was like in the Middle Ages in Europe as a result.

Once we returned to the states, we took a family trip along the east coast that involved stops at numerous civil war and revolutionary war sites. Again, the common thought among the kids was that we had stopped at them all, but sadly it was merely as many as we could work into our several week trip. I could certainly have found more, had time not been an issue.

An Unscheduled Stop at Gettysburg

So it should come as no surprise that when we have time to kill on a road trip we often fill it with historic stops. On a recent trip to the northeast my oldest daughter and I had some extra time as we drove from Virginia to New York City. Plotting our route for the day we discovered that Gettysburg was on our way. What a wonderful way to fill a “few” extra hours!

We decided it would be fun to have an audio tour as we drove around the battlefield this time, so we started at the Gettysburg National Park Visitor Center. There were too many choices! We finally asked a National Park employee for a recommendation. After he narrowed it down to his favorite two, we plopped down $30 for the Gettysburg Field Guide (narrated by Wayne Motts) – 2 CDs and a book.  And off we went.

Enjoying the Audio Tour

One of the countless monuments at the Gettysburg Battlefield

We spent an enjoyable two hours driving through just over half of the battlefield (that got us to Stop 9 of the 15 on that audio tour). Even knowing as much as I already did about the battle of Gettysburg, I learned more as we did the drive. I liked the CD because the narrator had a very conversational tone and shared a lot of stories as he spelled out what had happened there over 150 years before. (A note about this particular CD set – we don’t recommend it for a drive through the battlefield with younger children or others who don’t want to hear graphic details of the battle – this narrator very much “told it like it was.” For the two adults listening to it, it was fine.)

Touring Gettysburg Again

Fortunately for our newly revived interest in Gettysburg, we were crossing back across that section of Pennsylvania a mere five days later. When we got back to the area, we made our way across the park to Stop 9 and spent the next hour or so finishing up the remainder of the CD. And we pondered what life must have been like that July for those in the sleepy town of Gettysburg who suddenly found themselves caught in the crossfire of these two large armies.

A depiction of Pickett’s Charge

As we drove, and listened to the stories, I found myself wanting to re-watch the movie Gettysburg. And I found myself reaching for my phone and Wikipedia on several occasions to fill in even more of the details.

Trying to Imagine Pickett’s Charge

No matter how often I watch the movie, make that drive, or stand on the edge of the field where Pickett’s Charge started (or ended), I never tire of thinking about the countless men who gave so much in that bloody conflict.

There are many things we can learn from a study of history, but remembering the sacrifices of those who fought for our freedom should certainly be high on that list!

Please remember, history must be learned in order not to be forgotten.

Happy learning.

Cathy

Writing Historical Fiction

Researching the Facts

I love to do research on almost all things historical. For some topics that means sifting through a seemingly endless amount of information to find what is the most important/most interesting. Of course, for many other topics, it’s the opposite problem, and available information is scanty at best. But that’s also one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying writing historical fiction for the last seven years – it gives me an excuse to research AND an excuse to creatively fill in the blanks when I just can’t find the answers I’m looking for. At those times, it becomes important for me to write in such a way that “it could have happened this way.”

Finding Topics

In my journey as an author of historical fiction I’ve written on a variety of topics from both U.S and world history – always about something I was already interested in, and almost always about something I’ve been teaching. Along the way, I’ve done several single title historical fiction books – about the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Constitutional Convention, for example. And those were certainly fun to research and write.

But one of the advantages to the da Vinci series that I’m currently writing is that I get to keep building on the information that I have learned. And, when I discover something that could have fit into a previous book, it’s fairly easy to work it into another book, often in the way of a conversation – “remember when…”

Working in New Facts

That is happening some with the current book I’m writing. The previous book in the series, Leonardo: A Return to Painting, covered Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa and working on his extensive battle painting. I had quite a bit of information on both of those from my years of research on da Vinci, but I’ve still managed to uncover more fun facts in the few months since that one was completed. So guess what I’ll be working into this next novel I’m writing? Of course.

Hazy Timelines

In addition to discovering new information that went with previous books, another issue I sometimes encounter during my research are the historical facts that have to fit in somewhere, but for some reason the timeline seems a bit (or a lot) hazy. Years ago I ran into some tidbits about Leonardo helping a Florentine sculptor with his designs for a particular project. I almost worked those into a much earlier book, but discovered that the timing of that book was clearly too early compared to the event. As I’ve continued my research I’m not 100% sure whether the event happened before, during, or after 1506. Before would have put it (chronologically) in my previous book, and I didn’t get it in there, so either way it goes into the current one. (Authors Notes are great places to explain such problems, so I try to make good use of them with all my historical fiction.)

Historical Accuracy

As a reader and a writer of historical fiction, I am of the mind that it is a great way to both teach and learn history, so I strive to make my historical fiction as accurate as possible. One of my pet peeves with other historical fiction is when the author plays footloose and fancy free with the facts. And children’s books seem to be the worst in that regards. So, I take my role as an author of historical fiction very seriously.

Too Historical?

As a result, I’ve had some interesting reviews, everything from “It reads more like a biography” to “Learned more than from my old arts teacher.” But I would rather get the occasional complaint about it being “too historical” than take away from the historical accuracy. And yes, I do realize there is an expectation of a good story when someone reads a novel, even if it is historical fiction. And I do work to deliver that as well. When I write about someone like Leonardo da Vinci it isn’t that difficult to accomplish!

Favorite Authors?

Are you as big a fan of historical fiction? If so, do you have a favorite author of the genre? My favorite has long been Jeff Shaara – his American history novels are clearly well researched and he does spin a compelling story – whether he is writing about the Mexican American War, the American Revolution or World War I. (And numerous other wars as well.)

Until next time, happy reading (and listening)!

Cathy

Creativity Comes in Many Forms

No Kidding Camp

I had the pleasure of attending American Shakespeare Center’s No Kidding Shakespeare Camp this past week. I came to the camp primarily because I love teaching Shakespeare. And in this week’s post on Creative Learning Connection’s blog I will share some of the fun things I learned to help me with that.

But in this post I want to share the unexpected insights I gained that will help me as an author.  As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m just now starting novel #6 in the Da Vinci Life and Travels series. (And yes, I did manage to write 2,000 words this past weekend, after our Shakespeare camp finished.) I have been doing research on da Vinci for almost two decades, but I’m always learning new things (often in the most unexpected places).

Shakespeare and Art

For instance, in this week’s camp our focus was Shakespeare and Art. Consequently, we had a lot of art themed segments – including numerous art lessons and several art history lectures. Naturally, I really liked the art history portions, but the art lessons themselves were my least favorite part of the week. Not the fault of the teacher, mind you, he did a great job. I’m just not particularly creative in those areas – tell me to draw something using perspective and my brain cramps. Instruct me in how to draw a portrait, and it practically seizes. But, I not only survived the experience, I bought myself two “learn to draw” books on the very day our camp ended – books that I’ve actually been since. So, it would be safe to say, that a small seed was planted!

                

Da Vinci and Paint

But back to the connection to da Vinci. Our first hands-on art class dealt with making different kinds of paint – grinding chalk for the color and then using eggs, linseed oil, or glue for the bases. We were encouraged to experiment with   colors and mediums. But I went a different direction, spending much of that class experimenting with the bases. I ground a large portion of green and then made a sample with each base. Then I painted a small stripe of each type on my small piece of wood, so I could compare them to each other.

It was an interesting experience – I wasn’t surprised that the egg-based paint dried the quickest. (After all, that was why Leonardo generally stayed away from the use of egg tempera paints.) What did surprise me was the smell of the linseed oil – yuck! I will definitely have to mention the smell in my next da Vinci novel (since Leonardo liked to use linseed oil in his paints). The other surprise was how smooth the glue based paint was, and how gritty the other two were. (Even though the chalk had all been ground together.) Again, the difficulty in grinding the pigments sufficiently is something I will have to work into the next novel. This entire experience gave me a much greater appreciation for the work artists and their apprentices must do before they are even ready to paint!

Viewing Shakespeare

The staging of our performance of Much Ado wasn’t this elaborate but it was just as good!

In addition to all of our various classes and lectures, we had the privilege of watching several of the ASC actors from their traveling troupe rehearsing for Macbeth (a play I should have the privilege of watching them perform when they come to Huntsville next winter!). We also attended three plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse – with the local ASC troupe. As we had expected, they did an amazing job with all three – though I have to admit, Much Ado About Nothing was my favorite, with Love’s Labour’s Lost being a close second. What can I say, I like Shakespeare more than Peter Pan – so Peter and the Starcatcher didn’t stand much of a chance against two Shakespeare plays.

While most of us don’t even dream of writing as well as William Shakespeare did – we can still learn from his character development and magnificent story lines, and watching his plays, especially performed by such amazing actors, is always a treat.

Performing Shakespeare

In the midst of our art work, and our viewings of plays, we also got to do our own small performance-based stage work. I don’t generally care for the thought of performing any more than the thought of drawing or painting. So, I wasn’t particularly anxious to do those either. We usually broke into small groups of anywhere from two to four campers, to work through some small portion of a Shakespeare scene. The directions were very good, the other campers were all fun to work with. Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed those activities. In fact, with one of the assignments we only had time to prepare our scene work, but not to perform them for each other, and I was surprised to find myself disappointed by that.

Writing Assignment

But of all the assignments we had throughout the week, I do have to say that the one I enjoyed the most  involved writing. (Surprise!) We broke up into groups of 4 or 5, each with a picture of a painting from a Shakespeare play. My group had the above painting – what looked to me like a dying King Lear. (More on the painting at the end of the blog – I don’t want to give away anything else here, in case you want to try the assignment first. You could try writing your sentences and then comparing what you wrote to what we did.)

We were each given three strips of paper. We received the following instructions one at a time: Write one sentence or less about what you see in the painting. Then one sentence on what you feel from it. And lastly, what do you think about it?

I dutifully wrote out each of my three strips, as did the other ladies in my group. I fully expected that everyone’s sentences would be very similar – we were looking at the same picture, after all. Then we were instructed to take turns reading them aloud – all of the first sentences first, then the second, and finally, the third. I was actually surprised how different each of our sentences were from each other. And I was pleasantly surprised how well my group liked mine. Hey, remember, I had spent much of the week being surrounded by people who could have outdrawn me with their eyes closed.

After days of working on things outside my comfort zone, I had finally come to an assignment that was right up my alley. From there we had to combine the strips any way we wanted as a poem on our small poster board (doing any type of editing along the way that the group approved of).

My Contribution

My three sentences started out as:

  • A sense of sadness at the end of life.
  • All gather around, comforting the dying old man.
  • Time to say goodbye; has it been a life well lived?

Our Group Poem

When we were done combining and editing, our group poem read like this:

Staging Our Poem

Then we had some time to try to figure out how to stage our poem/picture. Needless to say, the entire task was a very creative process – but this time, it was one that I felt particularly comfortable in. It was a fun way to help bring to closure a week of creative endeavors.

I always leave these types of events with a combination of brain-overload and excitement. Much gets thrown at us from many different directions and in many different ways. But as I expected, I left the camp even more excited about teaching Shakespeare and continuing my writing.

Happy writing and learning!

Cathy

*Full disclosure on the Lear painting. I was confused when I saw it, since Lear’s daughter Cordelia actually dies before he does, but apparently Benjamin West was representing the two of them being reunited towards the end of Act 4; and they don’t each die until different portions of Act 5.

Writing Timeline Games

My Writing – All Over the Place!

I know a lot of authors seem to focus on one type of writing. But like I’ve mentioned before, my writing is all over the place. While I write primarily on history topics, I often get going in a different direction – into the world of Shakespeare, science, or art, to name a few.

And even when I’m in the realm of history, my writing doesn’t fit as easily into one category as some authors. I write on different time periods (from Leonardo da Vinci to the American Revolution and beyond). And I write both fiction and non-fiction, both in fairly large quantities.

Writing Timeline Games

Because of my combined love of history and using games to make learning more fun, I also like to write timeline games. While that’s not the type of writing most people think about, I think it qualifies. Like with other types of non-fiction history writing, timeline games require a lot of research.

Our First Encounter with a Timeline Game

We first encountered timeline games in the form of Chronology, a game I found on a shopping trip to Walmart one day many, many years ago. The price was right, and the premise sounded cool – history and timelines. For the budding historians in the family (myself included) it was a great way to learn and review world history. Another thing I immediately liked about the game was that while they introduce the dates of important events, it isn’t necessary to have the dates memorized in order to play the game. (I’ll explain the basic game play below, but for now, suffice it to say that timeline games are about the flow of history, which this historian things is much more important than the memorization of dates and names.)

Years passed after we discovered that initial timeline game and we wondered if the Chronology folks would come up with any other cool games covering subsets of history, but we waited in vain. (They did come up with some topical versions – but they were things like Sports and Entertainment, so not quite what we were looking for.)

Making Our First Timeline Games

So in time my sister and I started developing our own line of timeline games. We started with the Civil War and the American Revolution, since they were history topics I had just spent significant amounts of time researching and teaching. For each of those historical topics I had already made pretty extensive timelines as we studied, so converting my timelines into games didn’t require much additional effort.

A sample page from the Astronomy timeline I made later.

The neat thing about timeline games is that they can be used with just about any history study. All you need is a list of important dates and events to put on cards. We generally put our information into the forms on our computer, but you could even hand-write them on index cards if you wanted.

Sample page of cards from our Presidents Game.

Our Current Timeline Games

Over time we’ve made timeline games on a whole host of topics. They’re currently available individually or in a bundle as downloads on CurrClick.com and my hope is to have them all collected soon in a paperback version on Amazon (currently they are only available on Amazon as part of topical studies on the various topics),

  • American Revolution
  • Astronomy
  • Civil War
  • Civil Rights
  • Leonardo da Vinci (if you know my writing at all, that doesn’t surprise you!)
  • Lewis and Clark
  • Presidents
  • Space Exploration
  • Statehood

Once again, you can see some of the variety of topics I have written about. And you can make your own timeline game on pretty much any other history topic of your choice.

Playing the Game – the Rules

It’s also a game that lends itself to small or large groups. We’ve played it with up to ten players, and anywhere between three and eight players works especially well. You can even play the game with non-readers by modifying the rules only slightly.

And explaining the rules to new players is quite simple:

Everyone starts with one card in front of them, face up – the start of their personal timeline.  The remaining cards are face down in a draw pile in the middle of the table.

One person turns over the top card and reads the event on it to the person to their immediate left. That player doesn’t need to know the exact date on the card, they just need to point out whether the card would go before or after the card currently in their timeline. If they are right, they add the card. If they are wrong, the next person gets to guess.

Play then moves around the table. Of course, once a player has multiple cards, picking the right location becomes progressively more difficult (since each card could potentially go at the beginning of the timeline, at the end of the timeline, or between two particular cards).

Play continues until one player has built their timeline of the predetermined length (eight is a nice number, but you can decide in advance on a lower or higher number if you prefer).

Modification for younger players: Have one person read all the cards aloud, rather than having the players read to each other.

Modification when playing with an expert player: You can always handicap someone who knows the topic too well by requiring them to place more cards and/or by requiring them to actually give the date, instead of just the location.

And that’s all there is to playing a timeline game.

Happy learning! (And writing!)

Cathy

Seeing Stories Everywhere

The Stories Waiting to be Written

Do you see the stories around you waiting to be discovered? Waiting to be told? Does every location, event, or person bring questions to your mind? Questions that you want to find answers to, or in lieu of that, to write answers for?

That’s how I tend to look at things. It’s one of the reasons I can’t imagine that if I lived and wrote for another 40 years (fairly unlikely since I just turned 60, but one can dream!) that I would run out of stories I want to tell.

Fiction vs. Historical Fiction

Dred Scott

Occasionally I read or listen to a completely fictionalized story and think, “I would like to try my hand at writing “plain fiction” someday. But then I shake my head and remind myself that for every historical fiction story I write, three more seem to join the “want to write about” list. (Which currently includes specific people or events like Dred Scott, the Scopes Trial, the Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, to name just a few!) So it’s highly unlikely that I will slow down from writing historical fiction to write any other kind of fiction anytime soon. (Though I try to never say never.)

Starting the Life of a Writer

I wrote my first travel journal when I was a youngster, traveling through Central America with my family. But I didn’t really consider myself a historian or an author for decades after that.  The reality of both of those descriptive titles came to me when we lived in Wuerzburg, Germany for more than five years. It was there that, thanks to Helga, a wonderful German storyteller and historian, that history stories first came alive to me. And there I caught the desire to capture as many of those stories as possible.  (I wrote more about this in an earlier blog post, “My Growing Love of History.”)

As a homeschooling mom of many children (eight at that time), I didn’t do much writing for many years after completing my non-fiction book on the history of Wuerzburg, but the seeds had been planted. Even with little watering, they were there, and after many years and many more children (four more joined the family before we were done), the seeds finally blossomed.

More Non-fiction Writing

As with so many of my books, the next non-fiction books came from my teaching: Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. (Another previous post, “Falling in love with Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance Man,” covers much of my fascination with one of the greatest artists of all times.)

Historical Fiction at Last

From my love of all things da Vinci came my first attempts at writing historical fiction. As someone who has always been a fan of reading historical fiction (Jeff Shaara will likely always be my favorite author), and my love of stories, writing historical fiction should have seemed like a natural leap for me. But I had held back for many years, focusing my writing on the student books and non-fiction books that seemed to leap from my never-ending study of the various topics I seemed to always be researching for my teaching. An earlier blog post on my homeschool site, “Homeschooling with Topical Studies,” describes our journey away from textbooks and into topical studies and unit studies. One of the many joys for this author/historian of doing so many topical studies was the constant “excuse” for doing more research (one of my favorite things to do) and then finding ways to share that first with my family and later with a growing number of students in the increasingly large number of homeschool classes I found myself teaching.

When I finally sat down and tried my hand at writing historical fiction, I was quickly hooked. (It took me less time, one month, to write that first historic novel, Leonardo the Florentine, than it did to find someone to edit it for me, another two months.)

The series of historical novels on Leonardo da Vinci has grown to five finished books, with the sixth one on my writing schedule for later this summer, and at least several more to follow that one over the next couple of years. In between writing the da Vinci novels, I found time to tell other stories as well: the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition told from the perspective of Captain Clark’s slave, York; the story of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, told from the perspective of a fictional British spy; and the story of George, Edith, and Cornelia Vanderbilt and their amazing home, the Biltmore, told from the perspective of a young, fictional childhood friend of Cornelia.

Historical Short Stories

Several years back I also tried my hand at my first historical short stories. While visiting Cappadocia, Turkey and the surrounding area that included some amazing underground cities, I felt like the story just had to be told. Days of research and writing quickly became the first short story in what would become my Attack Trilogy: The Attack in Cappadocia. Soon after completing that book, I was turning my attention back to one of the stories of Wuerzburg – the allied attack of the city towards the end of World War II. I had known some basic facts of that event, but writing the short story of that attack required many more hours of research. For Christmas that year by son and daughter-in-law had already bought me a wonderful book, The Siege of Shkodra. Needless to say, reading that book on the plane heading home led to the third book in the trilogy, The Attack at Shkodra.

As I researched and wrote each of those books, I tried to do two important things – accurately portray as much of the history of the time and location of each event or person, and to tell a good story.   And I have found, as I write each book, the desire within me is to write more.

So, if the world around you seems filled with stories just begging to be told, don’t hold back! Someone somewhere may be waiting for just that story!

Happy writing! And researching!

Cathy

Falling in Love with Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance Man

Leonardo da Vinci Renaissance Man

I have enjoyed studying and teaching Leonardo da Vinci for almost twenty years now. But I had actually been buying books about him for a number of years before that. Even before I knew why, I was fascinated by Leonardo, the ultimate Renaissance man. And of course, the more I learned about him, the more fascinated I became.

Not only was Leonardo an amazing artist, he studied so many other topics, it almost boggles the mind to consider the things he was interested in, including, but not limited to: anatomy, astronomy, botany, cartography, geology, and zoology. The list seems endless, as do the pages in his notebooks on these and so many other subjects. It seems that very little was outside of Leonardo’s interests.

Drawings of various inventions by Leonardo da Vinci

Teaching Leonardo da Vinci

The first time I had the privilege of teaching a series of classes on Leonardo da Vinci, we delved into a different interest of his each week for eight of our ten weeks. After our introductory session we spent another class learning about Leonardo and his interest in the human body, another one on his interest in horses and his work on the equestrian monument in Milan, and yes, we even did a week on his amazing art. (You can see many of his paintings on this page – but please note, that page is still a work in progress!)

Not surprisingly Leonardo considered his art and his science to be mutually dependent, once saying:

“Study the science of art and the art of science.”

Sketch of a Deluge Witnessed by Leonardo da VinciAnd it is clear from looking at his work in both areas that he excelled in each of them! Had his notebook pages been published earlier, and his work in science shared with scientists that came soon after the Renaissance rather than centuries later, there is no telling what scientific advances might have been made sooner. But, alas, that was not the case, and his notebook pages were lost to many who might have benefited from his scientific work.

Leonardo’s Distractions

Botany Sketch by Leonardo da VinciIn the realm of art, Leonardo stood as one of the greatest artists of his day, in spite of actually completing only a fairly small number of paintings. It is likely that his perfectionist tendencies contributed to that low number, as well as his frequent “distractions” by work on math or science.

Non-Fiction Writing about Leonardo

As I learned more and more in my early studies of da Vinci, it was exciting to be sharing that enthusiasm with students of a wide variety of ages.  Even as I taught those first classes, I worked on my first non-fiction work about him. After six months of research and three months of teaching, I had written a short, but comprehensive, family-friendly biography of Leonardo da Vinci – Da Vinci: His Life and His Legacy. But that, as they say, was just the beginning. I was hooked!

The more I knew about Leonardo’s life and his work, the more I wanted to learn. Even after completing those first classes, I continued to read dozens of books about da Vinci, visited exhibits in various parts of the country about him and his work, and eventually made two trips to Italy to visit many of the places he had lived.

Two of Leonardo's Sketches of ChurchesAnd, as always seems to happen when I am engrossed in a topic, I wrote. The next book I wrote him was another non-fiction book – Doing Da Vinci for Kids. And then I kept learning and kept writing. (For more information on books I’ve written on Leonardo da Vinci, you can go to this page.)

Fiction Writing about Leonardo

But it would be many years and many classes later before I tried my hand at writing fiction. One summer I was at the Creative Learning Connection booth at a curriculum fair conversing with another author who had just completed his first novel. I mentioned, more in conversation than anything else, that I had considered writing a novel someday. He looked around my booth and stated matter-of-factly, “You should write about something you know. I think Leonardo da Vinci would fit that description.”

Several of Leonardo's Horse SketchesGoing home from the curriculum fair I casually mentioned the idea of writing historical fiction about Leonardo da Vinci “some day.” But my children wouldn’t hear of it. Several of them quickly insisted that I start right then, not later. And with some prodding, that’s exactly what I did.  Within a month I had written my first historical novel – Leonardo the Florentine. It would be several more months before I had found an editor for the novel and gotten it published. I’m not sure what was more exciting, holding that first paperback in my hand, or the recent release of Leonardo the Florentine as an Audible book. Both were pretty amazing!

As the years went by, my series grew, and I eventually wrote four more historical fiction books about him – Leonardo: Masterpieces in Milan; Leonardo: To Mantua and Beyond; Leonardo: A Return to Florence; and just recently, Leonardo: A Return to Painting.

500 Year Anniversary – May 2019

One of Leonardo's Designs for FlighIn May 2019 the world will celebrate the 500 year anniversary of the death of this great Renaissance man. My goal is to have my historical fiction series completed by then, meaning at least three more novels. In the meantime, I will continue to research him, continue to write about him, and continue to fall in love with Leonardo da Vinci.

And I hope I have managed to share just a little of that passion with you!

My Growing Love of History

When I was young, I think I approached history the way many people do – it was a subject I had to take in school, and not much more. I was a good test taker – so I could memorize the names and dates, at least long enough to get an A on the test. But history held no more significance to me than that.

It wasn’t until our family moved to Wuerzburg, Germany for more than five years, and I found myself surrounded by history that I could reach out and touch, that I figured out that history was more than just the names and dates in my history textbooks.

All of a sudden I was surrounded by what makes history real – the stories! And then I realized that it’s the stories behind those names and faces that make history important, that make history come alive.

Now, I find myself asking often: What happened in this place? Why did it happen? What was the context in which it happened? Maybe it’s the storyteller in me that wants to find the answers to these and many other questions. Or maybe the seeds of a historian had been planted when I was younger, traveling through Central America with my family, and I just didn’t realize it.

But whatever the reason, being there in Wuerzburg, I suddenly found the desire to learn more. In fact the more I learned about this amazing place that we had been transplanted to, the more I wanted to know. I found myself taking every tour I could find in English, tours that took me through the palace, in and around the castle, or through the historic old portions of town.

After awhile I became frustrated at the lack of English materials that existed to tell me more about this city and its fascinating history. When I complained to a friend of mine that I couldn’t find a book in English about the history of our town, she replied very matter-of-factly, “Because you haven’t written it yet.”

When I was done laughing at her (at that point I had never considered writing anything for readership beyond myself, my teacher, or my family), I looked at the pages of notes I had already compiled from the countless tours I had taken, looked at the stack of books I had been pouring over just for the fun of it, and finally admitted that it could be fun to write a short history book.

And that, as they say, was just the beginning. Over the next two plus decades I was generally busy homeschooling my twelve children, but along the way it seemed that I just kept stumbling across the wonderful stories we call history: The history of those who made up the Lewis and Clark Expedition; the history of George Vanderbilt and the amazing house he built and called Biltmore; and of course, the never ending stories I read about Leonardo da Vinci and his amazing life and work.

It seems that the stories are everywhere I go. Whether I am taking a vacation in Panama or visiting family in Turkey or Albania, the stories seem to reach out to me. They beg me to listen to them, to hear them, and then to retell them. It is actually one of the things I love the most about being an author – it gives me an excuse to do more digging, another reason (besides just for the fun of it) to travel across the country and around the world, and an audience with which to share it.

My hope is that is long as I am on this earth, I will be able to enjoy the stories of history that are all around me – and to share them with others, both young and not so young.

Happy reading!

Cathy

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