Catherine McGrew Jaime

Author, Historian, Lifelong Learner, Teacher, World Traveler

Category: Writing (page 1 of 2)

Writing hints from an independently published author of many years.

Dealing with the Winter Blues

Explanations or Excuses?

(And does it really matter?)

I hadn’t meant to go almost two months between blog posts. But much of the last two months have not gone the way I thought they would. (Testimony to the idea that we can make our plans, but ultimately God is in control.)  I started the year thinking I would be having knee surgery on the 8th of January. Instead, in having lab work done for the surgery, I discovered that I had Diabetes. The past two months have included seven doctors’ visits, three trips to labs for blood work, and a surgery for a brand new issue that crept up in the midst of all this. So the past two months have primarily been about making the adjustments needed as a Diabetic, and recovery from all the various-related health issues. Which, needless to say, hasn’t meant much writing or traveling.

Improvements – Finally!

By the end of February my blood sugars were more or less stabilized where they needed to be, and my energy was slowly returning. During the difficult winter months of health-focused days, I did manage to finish the rough draft for novel #6 in the da Vinci series (hopefully it will be available to readers later this spring) and I took one small trip – returning to Montgomery with students for my last official event as a Youth in Government adviser. (For more on that trip, see last week’s Creative Learning Connection post here.)

Moving Forward

I also spent as much of February as I could manage doing research for my next book. I really need to get started on book 7 in the da Vinci series, but I’m taking a slight detour first – and writing one on Michelangelo next. A dear friend of mine from church has been waiting for me to write this book for some time. So here I go, at last. It’s not a completely different direction from da Vinci – Michelangelo even had bit parts in my last several da Vinci novels. But I have had to learn quite a bit more to write an entire book from his perspective. I still can’t say that Michelangelo has surpassed Leonardo as my favorite artist, but I have certainly come to appreciate more of his work through all this research. I think writing this book should actually be fun. Starting March 1 my goal is to write at least 1,000 words/ day towards that book – as of day 5 I’ve written more than 5,000 words. I’m still working out what directions parts of the story are going, but it’s definitely moving along!

March Goals

If March goes more like I’ve planned than January and February did, I might accomplish the following goals:

*Get back into my swimming class and start swimming laps again (after a two month absence)

*Write at least 31,000 words on the Michelangelo book (about ¾ of the goal total – what can I say, I write short novels)

*Start using Scrivener and get past at least the first part of the learning curve for it. (The new laptop arrived today, and Scrivener was the second program I downloaded onto it. So far so good.)

*Make some plans for several of the trips I’ve got scheduled for later this year.

But whether those goals are met are not, I’m sure it will be an exciting month!

Keeping on!


Do Books Ever Go Out of Style?

As an avid reader and writer of non-fiction and historical fiction I do LOTS of research. Of course, these days I do much of that research on the internet, but I have found again and again that books are still the best way to go so many times. While  I am a big fan of ebooks and audio books for their convenience and portability, I find them of only limited use for my research. (It’s not uncommon for me to listen to a book, decide it’s going to be useful to me, and then order a paperback copy of it, so that I can underline and highlight it.)

Trying to Shrink the Library

As a result, my personal library contains thousands of titles. Before I retired from homeschooling our family library actually contained as many as 7,000 books. As my homeschooling was coming to an end, I tried to reduce the collection to just the books that I wanted to have around for my own enjoyment and education. Consequently, I think I’ve reduced it to somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 books.

A Monumental Task

Almost a month ago my oldest daughter, my youngest son, and I took on the project of changing out the shelves in the library from the built-in ones to matching bookcases. Today, after way too many hours of work, the final shelves went onto the new bookcases, and the process of re-shelving my book collection came closer to completion. (I would love to say that all of the 100+ boxes of books have been emptied, but we’re not quite that far along!)

Don’t worry – the empty spaces will be filled before we’re done!

How Would You Use Seven Bookcases?

As we were coming close to the end I had one of those “wow” moments. Early on in this process I had spent a couple of hours deciding the best way to utilize my seven new bookcases. I came up with the categories for each bookcase – Science/Bible, Government/Economics, Shakespeare/Writing/Education, Leonardo da Vinci/Art, World History, and last, but certainly not least, two bookcases for American History. (It’s not that American History is more important than World – I just happen to have more topics that I’ve studied within American History: the American Revolution, Presidents, Lewis and Clark, the Civil War, and Civil Rights, just to name some of them.)

My Favorite Topics – For Reading and Writing

Obviously, the fact that I could fill almost twenty linear feet with books on each of these main subjects gives an indication of where my interests lie. But it wasn’t until this weekend, when we were working on the American History shelves that it dawned on me – I have written one or more books on every one of those major subjects, as well as on the majority of the American History topics I’ve collected.

I guess that shouldn’t be a real surprise – I own books on these topics because they fascinate me. And that’s typically how I chose the topics for my writing projects. If I ever run out of book ideas on my “to do list” all I have to do is walk into my library and soak in some of the ideas that fill these shelves. It shouldn’t take long to find another interesting spark.

Happy reading, writing, and learning!


A Christmas Carol: 19th Century Writing and Publishing

Enjoying “A Christmas Carol” with Family

Christmas at our house just isn’t complete without a fairly large dose of Scrooge, the Cratchits, and the various ghosts that accompany them. In fact, we consider it necessary to watch/listen to several versions of A Christmas Carol throughout the month of December. Some our favorites include: the version with George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart’s version, the Muppets Christmas Carol, Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol, and the Focus on the Family audio version.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas”

So, it should come as no surprise that I find the story behind Dickens writing his 28,000 word novella to be fascinating. For those of you who haven’t seen it (and you really should), The Man Who Invented Christmas depicts Charles Dickens as he struggles to write A Christmas Carol. (And while we really can’t credit Dickens with “inventing” Christmas, he was instrumental in solidifying many Christmas traditions.)

Dickens’ Process for Writing his Novella

The movie fascinated me from another perspective – watching the process (albeit a fictionalized version of it) of Dickens writing his famous story. Much of the movie involves him having conversations with his characters as he works through the story he is trying to write. I have only written historical fiction at this point, so I don’t have the same opportunity to make up an entire cast of fictional characters – but it was fun to watch the process he was going through, deciding who would be in his story, what their character traits would be, and even what he would call them.

And in other scenes he sits at his desk with multiple pages of his handwritten story laid out in front of him, scratching things out, adding things in. Even though much of my writing is done on a laptop these days, I do follow some of Dickens’ process. I often use a notebook or a legal pad to sketch out ideas when I’m away from my computer. And I often have pages spread out in front of me as I try to figure out where I’m going with certain aspects of my story. And while my pages are usually printed on a laser printer before I get to the editing stage we saw Charles performing, I make the same kind of additions and deletions that he was doing.

Dickens and Self-Publishing

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that Charles Dickens, a well-known popular author of his day on both sides of the Atlantic – basically had to self-publish this Christmas story when he first wrote it. And not the inexpensive, print on demand self-publishing that I’ve been doing for the last seven years, but a much more expensive, almost “vanity-style” publishing that predated print on demand, where the author picks up the tab for getting his story in print.

Now Dickens did have an advantage over most of us, with one or more bookstores that were willing to take pre-orders on his new book, and to sell it in the store once it was printed. So, he wasn’t spending all that out of pocket money so that he could have a garage full of books that he was then trying to sell, a book or two at a time, as he found the buyers.

Our Process versus His Process

Sadly, that’s not quite the situation most self-published authors find themselves in today. I just finished the rough draft of my most recent novel (#6 in the da Vinci series). Now I send it off to beta readers who will give me feedback on everything from what doesn’t work in the story, to typos or grammatical mistakes.

In a few weeks, maybe I’ll have received all that feedback and have made the changes and corrections that need to be made. Meanwhile I’ll hire someone to design the cover. Dickens hired an illustrator who took care of the inside pictures, but at least from the movie, it looks like Dickens himself planned out his cover – much simpler than covers of today – but he wasn’t in need of the same type of “grab the readers” type of cover that authors generally need today to be noticed by potential readers in an increasingly crowded market.

The Dickens’ Masterpiece

But, regardless, Charles Dickens went from story idea to printed book in six weeks, spent the money along the way to hire an illustrator and the first printing of his book – which proceeded to sell out in the first five days. The book would continue through countless printings, later be translated into numerous languages, and has not been out of print since its original 1843 printing. And more than 150 years later, we are still watching, reading, or listening to Dicken’s little Christmas tale.

“God bless us everyone.”


My Da Vinci Deadline Looms

The writing continues as I press ahead to finish the rough draft of my next da Vinci novel. As I mentioned in a post in mid-October,  my new goal for finishing this rough draft is the end of November. I’m not quite at the end of the story, or at the end of the month, so the race is on.

Enjoying the Research

As always, it is easy to get caught up in the research. Learning new things about Leonardo and the era and areas in which he lived is always fascinating to me.

This particular novel covers the period in time when he is back and forth between Florence and Milan several times. Those are both cities that I have entire books set in, since in earlier periods of his life, he spent many years at a time in each of them.

Needless to say, I’ve already studied Renaissance Florence and Renaissance Milan quite a bit.  But that never stops me from further studying.

Renaissance Milan

Map of 16th Century Milan

Some of the things I learned recently about Milan:

  • It was larger and richer than Florence during the Reniassance.
  • It was the gateway between the Italian peninsula and Northern Europe, particularly France and Germany.
  • Milanese armorers were so important to Milan that they had special privileges, much like the glassmakers of Venice.
  • It was the first region in western Europe to build navigable canals

Renaissance Florence

Map of 15th Century Florence

Florence on the other hand had these qualities at that time:

  • A large industrial city with much trade and manufacturing
  • The guilds there were particularly important, and each had their own officers and their own churches.
  • The top 7 guilds there were: bankers, druggists, furriers, notaries, silk weavers, and wool merchants.
  • In fact, the quality of wool in Florence was the highest in Europe.
  • Other important guilds in Florence included: bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, innkeepers, grocers, and shoemakers (and 8 others).
  • Florence spent much of this time period (actually from 1498 – 1509) fighting their neighbors, the Pisans.
  • The oldest bridge across the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, was crowded with shops, including butchers and tanners.

Leonardo, our Renaissance Man

And, of course, I’ve continued learning about Leonardo’s life during this time period. Some of the following may or may not make it into this novel, but they were interesting tidbits, nonetheless.

  • When Leonardo left Florence in the summer of 1506 with his battle painting incomplete, the Signoria (City Fathers) required him to leave 150 florins – money he would lose if he didn’t return from Milan by the end of the three months they were giving him.
  • In July 1507 King Louis referred to Leonardo as “our dear and good friend, our painter and engineer.”
  • Sometime in 1507 Leonardo started his painting, the St. Anne Madonna, and he completed it sometime in 1508.

Preview from the Draft Below

For any who are interested, I’ve included a preview from the current version of my story, where Leonardo gets the message that he needs to leave Florence and head to Milan.

Happy writing and reading!


As Leonardo took the message the servant stood straight again. “I have been instructed to wait for a response. I actually bring you two messages that are somewhat connected to each other. The first is that the friars at the Chapel of the Franciscan Brotherhood are unhappy about an altarpiece that you did for them with the de Predis brothers. They are requesting that Governor d’Amboise require you to come back to Milan and complete the altarpiece to their satisfaction.”

The servant stopped, looking for a response from Leonardo. But Leonardo merely stood there, considering the implications of this message. The altarpiece in question had been his first commission in Milan. A commission that went back more than twenty years. He had not thought about the Madonna of the Rocks in years. But he had completed that painting. Why were the friars bringing up it after so long?

Leonardo thought about the money the three artists had been promised for completing the altarpiece. Now that he stopped to think about it, he wasn’t sure whether they had ever been paid in full. He had started working for the Duke of Milan soon after they had completed the altarpiece and he had left the final financial details with the brothers. Suddenly Leonardo realized that the French servant was standing silently in front of him, as if waiting for Leonardo’s full attention to deliver the rest of his message.

“I’m sorry,” Leonardo mumbled. “I was thinking about the altarpiece. Did you say there was a second part to your message?”

The servant smiled and continued, “Governor d’Amboise requests your presence at his Milanese court.”

35 Great Writing Quotes

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post with quotes about traveling and warned that more  might follow. And sure enough, here I am today with more quotes. This week they are all about writing. And you may notice that almost every one of these is from authors. I think you will admit that there are some great writing quotes here, for both writers and readers. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:

  • “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”   Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)
  • “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”  Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)
  • “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”  Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
  • “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”  Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
  • “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
  • “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.”  Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924)
  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904)
  •  “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.”  Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)
  •  “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.  G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)
  • “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
  • “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”  Frank Kafka (1883 – 1924)
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”  Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976)
  •  “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940)
  • “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”  William Faulkner (1897 – 1962)
  •  “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”  Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
  • “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”  E. B. White (1899 – 1985)
  • “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”  John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)
  • “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”  Graham Greene (1904 – 1991)
  • “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”  Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990)
  • “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”  Madeleine L’Engle (1918 – 2007)
  •  “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”  Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986)
  •  “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”  Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)
  •  “You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”  Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)
  • “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.” William H. Gass (1924 – )
  •  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
  • “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  Toni Morrison (1931 – )
  • “Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.”  Margaret Atwood (1939 – )
  • “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Louis L’Amour (1942 – )
  • “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Stephen King (1947 – )
  •  “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001)

Again, I hope some of these quotes got you thinking!

Happy writing and reading!


Back to My Writing

In mid-August I wrote two blog posts on my ongoing work on the next da Vinci novel – Working on my Da Vinci Series and The Joys of Researching. At that point I was about 20,000 words into my current novel (or almost half way through the rough draft, since my novels are more “novella” length – in the 40,000 word range).

My Progress Since August

Since I can generally write 1,000 words/day or more, at that time I fully expected to have the rough draft done by sometime in September – maybe the beginning of October if I really got bogged down. Alas, plans are great, but as is so often the case – life intervenes. So here I am in mid-October, a full 60 days since I wrote those posts. Any guesses as to how far along I am on Leonardo da Vinci book #6? If you guessed still at 20,000 words you would be correct.

What Excuses Do I Have?

Sadly, until a few days ago I hadn’t touched my novel since mid-August. There are all kinds of reasons/explanations/excuses I could give for the lack of progress. But ultimately, it doesn’t much matter. Here I am in mid-October with half a book left to write.

I could get mad at myself, tell myself it will never get finished, and I should just give up. Or I could dust off my computer and my notes and just get back to work. Which, of course, is what I’m doing (otherwise, I wouldn’t bother to tell you!).

Time For a New Deadline

Since I missed my original deadline, I need to set another one. I would love to say I’m going to knock out the second half in the next three weeks, but at this point, I doubt that’s a reasonable goal. I’ll give myself some extra time for research (part of what had stopped by my forward progress this summer) as well as the other responsibilities I have right now (primarily coaching Mock Trial and helping my students prepare for the Mock Trial competition in early November).

So now, let’s make the new goal the end of November, more like six weeks away. If all goes well, I’ll have a rough draft by then. (Of course, that will still leave the editing stage, so the book still won’t be done – but again, if all goes well, it will finally be well on its way.)

Progress Reports to Come

I’ll keep you posted on whether I succeed with this deadline. In the meantime, it’s back to trying to continue figuring out how many trips Leonardo actually made between Florence and Milan during this time frame. How much interaction did he have with Raphael and/or Machiavelli when he was back in Florence? How much detail do I want to include about the autopsy he did on the 100-year-old man, on the gala he organized in Milan, or on his newest painting commissions? And of course, the list goes on.

So, to myself, and other writers reading this, I say:

Happy writing! And keep going, you can do this!


The First Few Paragraphs

In case you’re interested, here’s a small taste of what the first few paragraphs of the story currently look like.  I hope you enjoy them. (Always subject to change, of course!):

Florence, Italy, May 1506

Leonardo walked into the spacious room without seeming to notice Salai and Tommaso huddled in the far corner. Absentmindedly he picked up a small notebook, flipping quickly through the pages. Without a word, he threw the notebook on a nearby table and stormed out of the room.

Salai and Tommaso heard the outside door slam, but for a long moment they both remained in their places, speechless. In the years they had worked for Master Leonardo they had both seen him angry on a few occasions. But never like this. And certainly never for this long. It had already been more than a week since he had walked away from his battle painting in the City Hall. Machiavelli had stopped by almost every day in an attempt to converse with the Master, but as of yet Leonardo had been unwilling to see or talk to anyone. Maybe Machiavelli’s last visit had pushed Leonardo too far.

Finally breaking the silence, Salai asked quietly, “Do you think one of us should try to talk to him when he returns?”

“Not me. No way.” Tommaso replied, with fear practically dripping from his voice. “You are certainly welcome to try. But I am not going near the Master until he calls for us. There is no telling what he might do.”

Salai pondered their options before speaking again. “We can’t continue trying to avoid him for much longer. There is only so much we can do without instructions.”

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!


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,


Remembering Travels Through Journals

Photo Pages and Photo Books

There are several ways to remember a trip. In these days of smart phones with great digital cameras, photos are certainly one great way. As I mentioned in last week’s post on Creative Learning Connection’s website, it’s easy (and inexpensive) to make photo books and photo pages from some of those wonderful digital pictures that tend to accumulate on our phones and computers. (The Croatia page was made using PowerPoint, but has become my new favorite way to may photo pages.)

Travel Journals

As a writer, I also appreciate the value of the written word. Travel journals are a great way to record the portions of a trip that seem so “unforgettable” at the time, but will certainly be forgotten in time. Travel journals can include anything we want to remember from a trip:

  • Where we stayed
  • What we ate
  • Purchases we made
  • Where we visited
  • History we learned
  • Maps
  • Photos
  • And so much more…

My First Travel Journal

I wrote my first travel journal when I was nine-years-old. My family was driving from Panama, through Central America and Mexico, and up the east coast of the United States to Massachusetts. As the oldest in my family, I was tasked with recording a vast array of information from that six week adventure. Amazingly enough, my father found my hand-written journal more than 40 years later, and typed it up for me.  Being able to go back after so many years and seeing what we did on the trip is beyond amazing!

Lewis & Clark Trail

 Fast forward many decades and I was the parent taking several of my children on a trip – this time to follow the Lewis and Clark Trail. It was time for another travel journal. That travel journal has come in handy numerous times when others have asked us for specifics from our journey.

Returning to Panama

Soon after that I made my next trip to Panama, returning with my siblings, my father, and several of our spouses. From the beginning of that two week trip, I was writing my standard “here’s what we’ve been doing” travel journey.  It is also a great way to go back and look at the fun we had on that vacation.

Horsey and Friends

But then, a fun and different way to write travel journals came to me. My brother was having a great time taking pictures throughout our trip of a small, stuffed horse. “Horsey” quickly became the star of a fun, light-hearted travel journal that soon became the first book in an entire series of travel books starring “Horsey and Friends.”

These are just a few of the fun journals I’ve written on my various adventures across the country and around the world. And in these days of so many print-on-demand options, it is not only easy, but fairly inexpensive to make and print your own travel journal (whether you want one copy or ten!). So the next time you are off to see exciting parts of the world, may I strongly encourage you to make a more permanent record of your vacation. In the future, when looking back at it, you will be glad you’ve taken the time.

Happy traveling (and journaling).


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)!


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