And I, Barbara of Austria, neither young nor beautiful, would be the duke’s second duchess before the pale December sun set. What did the woman expect me to do, shriek and fall down in a faint?
The above excerpt comes from the opening lines of one of the most lush and conflict-dense books I’ve read in the past year. They are penned by debut author Elizabeth Loupas in her historical novel, The Second Duchess, which will be released March 1 by Penguin/NAL. Initial reviews have been uniformly positive.
Because I know I can always use advice about structuring conflict, and I assume some of you are the same, I’ve asked Elizabeth to join us for a brief Q and A.
To set the stage, here’s a portion of the book’s backcover copy:
In a city-state known for magnificence, where love affairs and conspiracies play out amidst brilliant painters, poets and musicians, the powerful and ambitious Alfonso d’Este, duke of Ferrara, takes a new bride. Half of Europe is certain he murdered his first wife, Lucrezia, luminous child of the Medici. But no one dares accuse him, and no one has proof – least of all his second duchess, the far less beautiful but delightfully clever Barbara of Austria.
At first determined to ignore the rumors about her new husband, Barbara embraces the pleasures of the Ferrarese court. Yet…to save her own life, Barbara has no choice but to risk the duke’s terrifying displeasure and discover the truth of Lucrezia’s death – or she will share her fate.
Jan: Elizabeth, thank you for being here. It strikes me that certain locations and periods have heightened potential for generating external and internal conflicts. Do you agree?
Elizabeth: Thank you for inviting me, Jan! Conflict is a pretty basic human condition and can arise anywhere and anytime, of course, but I agree with you that some places and times can have heightened potential for conflict. Change is the key, I think — when the world is changing rapidly or unexpectedly, conflict results. And external conflicts by their very nature produce internal conflicts in the people who experience them.
Beyond creating external conflict at the macro level, you have plenty of it at the familial and personal levels. Sibling rivalry, husband-wife power dynamics, gossip, ambition… Do you have tips on how to ensure a character’s world remains very uncomfortable?
One trick is to play with the character’s levels of comfort. Lull the poor character into ease, then suddenly make her very uncomfortable. If a character is uncomfortable all the time, the discomfort loses its impact. If you give her moments of comfort, then sock her with discomfort at different levels and in different ways, you will keep her off balance emotionally and physically.
Historical fiction gives one particularly vivid ways of doing this. A noblewoman like Barbara of Austria wore clothing which was unthinkably (to our modern sensibilities) uncomfortable and restraining. I tended to dress Barbara formally to underscore her moments of discomfort and fear, and later allow her to wear a nightgown or dressing gown which gave her physical comfort, to underscore her moments of escape or consolation.
Your book has a good helping of overt violence and intrigue, yet one of the things I most enjoyed were what I’d call the times of “cold” conflict – when threats came through quiet glances or controlled speech. Beyond being consistent with character, it gave a sense of texture. Can you speak to the role and effectiveness of underplayed danger? Any tips on how to do it well?
This is the sort of thing I love to read, and so of course I wanted to write it as well. Point of view has a lot to do with it — whether the viewpoint character is being written in first person or third person, she should not know what the threatening person is thinking. She sees expressions or gestures, perhaps, gestures that may seem innocent, and to her they are full of menace. At one point I have my duke peel an orange. Perfectly ordinary, right? But he peels it in such geometrically perfect sections that Barbara is terrified. She sees his frightening obsession with control in the very way he peels a piece of fruit.
The Second Duchess is rife with internal conflict and characters in the grip of opposing desires. Barbara, for example, yearns to be self-possessed, pious, and confident, while at the same time possesses a measure of jealousy for her predecessor. Do you have recommendations for creating and writing about these warring impulses?
Creating them is easy — for virtually every emotion and impulse we have, we have some measure of an opposing impulse. It’s very rare to be one hundred percent one way or another. In fact, every time I found myself writing about a character feeling strongly about anything, I stopped and thought about how they might also have some element of an opposing feeling, and if so, how I could bring it out.
Objects are excellent vehicles for this. For example, as she enters Ferrara, Barbara is given flowers. Her first, unthinking impulse is delight. Then she remembers what a Ferrarese hairdressing-woman has told her — that flowers can be poisoned — and draws back in fear. At the same time she realizes everyone is watching her, and that by virtue of her name and blood she must show courage and generosity. She breathes deeply of the flowers — genuine courage on her part, under the circumstances — then gives the most perfect rose to a child who has come forward to recite a poem. Finally, she makes a wry, self-deprecating comment to herself. So embodied in those flowers we see Barbara’s whole gamut of conflicting impulses: sensuous pleasure, a regrettable tendency to listen to gossip, a desire to appear noble in front of people, her actual actions to accomplish that desire, and her use of humor in her self-talk to show us she knows she’s presenting an image.
One thing I appreciated in the book was the romantic subplot, given that I’ve read many romance novels where I don’t trust the couple’s ability to “stick” after their onscreen time. What are your thoughts about crafting a credible relationship by book’s end when hero and heroine begin in strong conflict?
Interesting and believable relationships always have conflict, in the beginning, the middle, the end, and forever. Nothing — certainly not sexual attraction or romantic love — is going to make conflict go away entirely. What gives me confidence that a couple is going to “stick” is to see them develop genuine motives and actual methods for working out the conflicts, or waiting them out, one by one, day by day, for the rest of their lives.
Lastly, you juggled many subplots, red herrings, genuine clues, and motifs in The Second Duchess. Can you describe your process for keeping it neat and tidy?
Oh dear, I wouldn’t say it was ever neat and tidy! But I did organize it all in my own scattered fashion. I think that’s the key, actually — find a way that works for you.
First, I am a great believer in plain old nested folders for research. I have hundreds of them, packed with notes and images, and the most important thing I’ve learned is to name the folders in detail so I can find them again.
I also keep a master list in a tabbed notebook application. (There are lots of versions of tabbed notebook software, many of them freeware.) As I work and something occurs to me, I write it down. That’s the key. Ideas flit in and out of my brain and if I don’t catch them and pin them down in writing they’re gone forever. I go over and over the notebook and use highlighting to indicate what I’ve taken care of. This saved me dozens of times from starting a thread and leaving it do dangle unresolved.
To loop this back into our main theme of conflict — one of the sections in my notebook is “Freewriting,” or what I call “Writing about Writing.” This is invaluable to me in developing conflict, intensifying conflict, and resolving conflict. I’ll just start writing about a scene, who’s there, what they want, what they don’t want, how they feel about the other character(s), what elements of the setting might influence them, anything that crosses my mind. It’s amazing how this will untangle plot knots and reveal new possibilities for conflict. Most of this stuff never makes it into the actual scene — but having it clear in my own mind as I write makes the conflict come into focus and stay in focus.
Elizabeth, thank you for being here.
And now, peeps, to celebrate release of The Second Duchess, Elizabeth has two copies of her novel to give away to those of you who live within the US. To be entered in the draw, simply leave a comment or question in the space below by midnight EST Feb. 28, 2011. To be entered in the draw twice, mention this Q & A with a link on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, then let us know in a separate comment. (If you can include the url, that’s extra helpful.)
Elizabeth welcomes your questions! She has been a teacher, a librarian and a radio executive, so communication is in her blood. To that end, she loves visitors at her website where you can find much more about her research and writing.
Lastly, if you now yearn for a more indepth interview of Elizabeth, take heart; I’ll be grilling her at Tartitude on Mar. 16 and 23. Without remorse.
Elizabeth’s Alfonso would be so proud. ;)