Category: History (Page 1 of 2)

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

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!


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.”

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.”

Book Review: Isaac’s Storm

Reminder – Schedule Change

A friendly reminder (that I think I failed to add to the last post here!) that I’ve recently changed to one blog post a week instead of two – so a new post should appear on this blog every other Monday, and a new one should appear on my other website, www.CreativeLearningConnection, on the alternate Mondays.

Last Post – Audibles and History

Two weeks ago I did a post on Audibles and history (a topic that combines two of my favorite interests!). And I really thought I would be going a totally different direction with today’s post. But as so often happens, my plans got modified along the way. (One of the many reasons I very seldom taught from any sort of pre-done syllabus, and even when I did, it always got changed before the semester was out.)

Hurricanes – Recent and Past

This week’s change is for a variety of reasons. First the quick background. I just returned from my latest cruise (this was my 10th, maybe I’ll do an entire post on why I love cruising so much, but, clearly, no promises on when!). We sailed out of Galveston, Texas, just a couple of weeks after Hurricane Harvey came through that general area and did some significant damage (more in the area of Rockport and Houston than Galveston itself).

Isaac’s Storm

I mentioned my then upcoming trip to a woman at the pool just before we left.  She asked if I had ever read the book, Isaac’s Storm. I had not and she strongly encouraged me to do so. As I so often do when people recommend books to me, I went looking for it on Audible. It was there, I immediately purchased it, and downloaded it to my phone just before the trip. I thought maybe I could convince my daughters to listen to it as we traveled to or from Texas. Sadly, they weren’t as interested in it as I was and I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until we returned home last week.

But, since I managed to come home fighting a losing battle against a cold, I actually had plenty of time to listen to the book while I was spending lots of time in my room (trying not to share my germs) and without much energy to do much else.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria

Hurricane Irma

In the midst of all the recent damage done by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, it was fascinating to listen to the story of the 1900 hurricane that almost destroyed Galveston, Texas. The story gave me much more insight into to what those in the path of the recent storms would have suffered though during the hurricane itself and what many of them are continuing to suffer through in its aftermath.

The author, Erik Larson, does a good job bringing to life the days leading up to the hurricane, as well as making a reader feel the pain of those who were in Galveston on that fateful day. The subtitle of the book, A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, gives a good idea of what the book is about.  As Mr. Larson explains so well in the book, in the year 1900 Americans thought they were on the top of the world in almost every imaginable category – including weather predictions (even though the Weather Bureau was a brand new entity at the time, with very little practice at accurately predicting storms such as this one).

A Historic Narrative of Galveston’s Big Storm

After the 1900 Hurricane in Galveston

If you read or listen to the book, give it a little bit of time to get going. Mr. Larson describes his book as “a historic narrative” (and I honestly never determined whether it was classified as historic fiction or non-fiction), and he does spend some serious time in the beginning setting the stage for what occurred. My biggest complaint was not actually that, but the going back and forth between the time period just before the storm and much further back, when he gives us some of Isaac’s background including his time in the Signal Corps (the original weather folks). As an author, I can understand Mr. Larson’s desire to get readers hooked right away with the storm itself, but as a reader I prefer things laid out in a more straightforward manner. (But, really a small complaint about a very informative and interesting book.)

Isaac Cline was a late 19th/ early 20th century scientist and meteorologist who thought he had a true grasp of the limitations of nature. Living and working in Galveston before the hurricane struck, Isaac was one of many who that it impossible that a hurricane could do any significant damage to his city. His attitude before and even as the storm began reminded me a lot of the attitudes about the Titanic that would contribute to that disaster a mere twelve years later. But to put those two disasters into perspective, less than 2,000 people died when the Titanic hit the iceberg and more than 10,000 people died when the hurricane hit Galveston. (And it can be argued in both cases, the foolishness of men to take the true dangers into account made those numbers much worse than they should have been.)

Recommendation for Isaac’s Storm

If you like history, have an interest in storms, and/or want to better understand the physical and economic effects of the hurricanes that just roared across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, I can strongly recommend Isaac’s Storm.

Happy learning, reading, and listening!


Audibles and History

I’ve written many times about my love of history and also about how much I enjoy Audible books. Recently a friend with a new Audible account asked me for recommendations. After confirming that she liked history-related books, it was fun to go through my massive Audible library (400 books and counting) to find recommendations that met three conditions:

  1. They were history-related.
  2. I had finished them.
  3. I enjoyed them. (Generally if I finish a book, it’s because I enjoyed it, but there have been a few exceptions!)

Some of my Favorites

Several of these books, like the first two, are ones that I went looking for intentionally, either for research or because I had recently heard about them somewhere. Many others were ones I discovered through one of Audible’s many sales. As you can see, while there are several topics I come back to again and again, I read and listen to a wide variety of history-related books.

These are the titles that rose to the top of my history list, in the order that I listened to them:

This book on the history of the Biltmore was actually the first Audible book I ever bought! I’ve listened to it at least twice.

I listened to this book after reading the original book on The Monuments Men; both are great looks at what happened to many pieces of important art work during WWII.

The subtitle says it all: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps. 

Again, the subtitle explains it well: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It 

A different type of WWII story – The Incredible True Story of a WWII Airman and the Four-Legged Hero Who Flew at His Side”

An excellent Civil Rights book – How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed”

Another good Civil Rights book – this one primarily about a black doctor who “dared” to buy a house in a “white section” of Detroit – and the events that surrounded that basic decision.

I had mixed feelings about this book. It’s a story of the Titanic – told from LOTS of different perspectives. Overall it was good; I liked seeing what was happening from the viewpoint of such a variety of people. But there were two “characters” we could have done without – the rat and the iceberg. Listening to both of those “speak” throughout the story took away from the overall book for both my daughter and I when we listened to it. (I think if I had been reading it instead of listening, I would have started skipping those parts – but that doesn’t work so well with an audio book!)

This Civil Rights book covers The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation” – and includes a side of the Civil Rights (the press) that I had never thought about.

A great story of a special dog serving alongside the Marines – a great story for those who enjoy stories about the military or about dogs!

I vaguely remember reading this biographical story when I was in high school, but I know I got much more of it listening to it as an adult. Mr. Griffin recounts the months he spent in the segregated South of the 1960’s as “a black man.” It is really powerful (and sad) to see, feel, and hear his experiences throughout his work and travels across the South.  I noticed that a recent reviewer had said of the book that “it didn’t age well” – and was no longer relevant. I have to humbly disagree!

A fascinating story of George Washington’s spy ring during the American Revolution

Another wonderful Civil Rights book that I only discovered because it was a daily deal – “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

From what I could tell this book is not technically historical fiction – but it’s a very good story that’s been placed in a historical setting – late 17th century New England. For a feel of the time and the location, while enjoying a compelling story, I can strongly recommend this book.

This nonfiction book has another great subtitle to give you an idea what it’s about:  A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.”

Okay, so this one is probably pushing it to be on a list of recommended history books. Like Crow Hollow it is really just historically set – only this one is set in 1950’s England. But I did enjoy the story and it still felt historical, so I’ve included it anyway.

  • Basilica by R.A. Scotti – Subtitle: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s”

Maybe just a tad too much emphasis on Michelangelo (what can I say, I’m not a Michelangelo fan!). But, I’ve listened to it all the way through twice so I obviously didn’t hate it. If you are interested in the history of St. Peter’s in Rome, this is a great place to start!

A powerful biographical story of a professor that brings Shakespeare to a maximum security prison. As someone who loves Shakespeare as much as history, it is encouraging to see prisoners relating to Shakespeare.

Again, the subtitle pretty much tells it all – “The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo.” Another great book for anyone who likes stories of animals AND military.

The three different books in this trilogy are amazing. They follow three slaves (related by blood or circumstances) during the American Revolution – and give us a completely different perspective on the war than what we normally see. (I got Chains as a special deal at some point, and couldn’t wait to buy the second and third books as soon as I had finished each of the previous ones!)

Okay, so maybe this is another one on my list that isn’t strictly history. But it has history in it, as Olsen does an amazing job unpacking Tolkien’s work, how he came up with his characters, and much of what he was doing in his well loved story.  If you like The Hobbit at all, you should really consider listening to this book!

This book gives an international perspective of history and economics. I enjoyed listening to it very much!

Such a good book! Describing the work done by the speech therapist that helped King George VI overcome the speech defect that had threatened to ruin his ability to lead his country before and during WWII.

  • Anything by Jeff Shaara if you like war related books

I have read at least a dozen of Shaara’s book, on everything from the Mexican War to the American Revolution, World War I and World War II. All were exceptional! The first one I listened to was A Blaze of Glory . It was at least as good as all of the ones I had read.

This series takes place throughout Europe, but it is mainly set in England, in the years between WWI and WWII. (Again, I don’t think it  is technically historical fiction, though it has quite a bit of history throughout.) The series starts with Her Royal Spyness (I have listened to them all, usually as soon as they are released!)

My Recommendations are for Other Adults

Because I only write family-friendly books, and am always on the lookout for other family-friendly books, I do feel the need to include the following caveat – I am NOT recommending these books for students. I haven’t listened to most of them in quite a while, so I just can’t say one way or another about that category of listeners or readers. I don’t have much of a tolerance for violence, bad language, or “bedroom scenes,” so I can guarantee that all of these titles are either lacking completely in those, or they are pretty close to it.  But I generally listen to these on my own or with adult children – so I am not prepared to recommend them for younger folks!

The Great Courses and History

I listen to a fairly eclectic selection of books – a variety of fiction and non-fiction, and have a special place in the reading portion of my heart for the various lecture series that Great Courses produces. So I’ve include a variety of those below that meet the above guidelines:

Helpful Suggestions?

My hope is that one or more of these titles will interest you. (Most of them are available as Kindle and paperback versions, too, in case you don’t consume your books in audio form as much as I tend to do.)

Happy reading and listening!


Remembering 9/11

I had started another blog post for this week. But when I thought about what date it would be published, I changed my mind. The other topic can  wait.

The Assassinations of the 60s

It’s always interesting to recall where we were and what we were doing when certain key events happened.  I’ve talked to people from my generation that remember some of the assassinations from the 60’s that way – JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr, or Robert Kennedy to name a few. I was in the Canal Zone (Panama) when John F. Kennedy was killed and have no recollection of that.  Based on when we moved, I must have been in Massachusetts when King and the younger Kennedy were shot, but I don’t recall either of those.

The Challenger Explosion

But I do remember where I was and what I was doing when the Challenger Shuttle exploded and when 9/11 happened. In fact, both of those times I was home with my children, and my husband called me from work to tell me the news. Before the Challenger explosion my family had actually watched the live broadcasting of several shuttle liftoffs, but “happened” not to be watching that one. I was thankful that I was able to give the kids some information about what had happened before we turned the news on to see what they were discussing. I’m sure we spent most of that day watching the news as they tried to analyze the tragedy that had just occurred.

The 9/11 Attacks

The television was also off when the first airplane struck the tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. After my husband called, we prayed for the people in the tower, and then like so many other people across the country, turned the TV on and tuned into the news. And like so many others, we were watching when the second tower was struck, and we were watching when the towers started to collapse. We spent much of that morning praying for those who had been injured, those who were trying to get out of the towers (as well as those who were rushing in to help), and the families of the increasing number of people who were dying that day.  I think it would be safe to say that 9/11 brought our country to its knees – to the knees of those in prayer.

People Who Were Directly Affected

It would be several years before I would actually speak with people who had been in D.C. and New York City when the attacks happened.  A good friend in D.C. was in the Navy at the time, and working at the Pentagon. She was actually away from her office, and returned right after the plane had struck.  But when I visited her in D.C. a few years later we dined with another Navy friend who was at the Pentagon that morning. In fact her office was very close to where the plane struck. I listened intently as she described their hasty departure from the building, and the massive amounts of damage that had been caused. And, of course, she knew many of those who died in the Pentagon that morning.

Many years later I attended a dinner in New York City connected to my son’s graduation from law school. There were several people at our table that evening that had been in New York City on 9/11. They described the chaos in the streets and the debris in the air as they ran with countless others away from the disaster.  Many lives were lost that day, and many others were forever changed.

The Smoke Could Even Be Seen From Space

When I was looking for some pictures I could use for today’s blog post, I ran across many that I was familiar with, photographs of the towers on fire and of the aftermath. But I also discovered a photo I had never seen before – the one taken from the International Space Station (ISS) showing the smoke from the towers that the astronauts could even see from space. The ISS Commander, Frank L. Culbertson, wrote that day: “The world changed today. What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked.”

Sixteen Years Later

Sixteen years have passed since that tragic day, and it is very easy for those of us who were not directly effected by that day to forget. (My oldest son was unable to fly back overseas that day after flights were cancelled and I had to pick up my niece at school that day when the schools choose to release students early). Other than that we were only impacted as Americans.

And today, sixteen years later, I have students who only know of 9/11 as part of our country’s collective history – but they have no personal memories of that day.  I hope that as a nation we can keep alive the memories of those who perished in those attacks – particularly the first responders who willingly ran towards the disaster rather than away from it.

Praying for those Affected by the Hurricanes and 9/11

Today with much of our country’s focus on the current path and recent damage of Hurricane Irma (and Harvey), may we also remember those who’s lives were forever changed by 9/11.



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,


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.


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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