03 February 2013

Guest Blog: Tinney Sue Heath

This week, we're welcoming author Tinney Sue Heath, whose latest title is A Thing Done. Tinney is offering a free paperback copy of the book to a lucky blog visitor in the USA. Here's the blurb: 

In 1216 the noble families of Florence hold great power, but they do not share it easily. Tensions simmer just below the surface. When a Jester's prank-for-hire sets off a brawl, those tensions erupt violently, dividing Florence into hostile factions. A marriage is brokered to make peace, but that fragile alliance crumbles under the pressure of a woman's interference, a scorned bride, and an outraged cry for revenge.

At the center of the conflict is Corrado, the Jester, whose prank began it and who is now pressed into unwilling service by both sides. It will take all his wit and ingenuity to keep himself alive and to prevent the unbridled ambitions of the nobles from destroying the city in a brutal civil war.

**Q&A with Tinney Sue Heath**

In a genre dominated by Tudors, you've chosen to write about 13th century Florence – a true story, probably known to most Italians, but not likely to be familiar to an English-speaking readership.  Who do you see as your audience?

Fiction set in Renaissance Florence has its passionate fans.  Stories from the middle ages in England are always popular.  I'm guessing that there's an overlap between those groups, including people who are (1) fascinated by Florence and interested in probing her earlier history to see how she became the jewel of the Renaissance, and (2) people who enjoy reading about the middle ages, and who might be curious about how that time period differed in a Mediterranean country from what they're used to seeing in England-based historical fiction.  I also hope it will appeal to anyone who realizes what a polarized and increasingly stratified society we live in, and who might be interested in finding out how these same societal characteristics affected the lives of people not so different from us, who just happened to live eight centuries earlier.  And even the Tudor fans may find something here, as the medieval Florentines were not lacking in intrigue, ambition, bellicosity, and dangerous sexual liaisons.

You mention differences between Mediterranean countries and England in the middle ages.  Such as?

Besides the climate, weather, resources, and topography, and the differences these things make in virtually every detail of a story's setting (different architecture, different foods on the table, and so on), you see substantial political and social differences.  There was no royal hierarchy in medieval Italy.  In fact, there wasn't even Italy – it didn't unite until 1860.  What Italy did have, in the 13th and 14th centuries, was cities.  City-states, if you will, though that term is more at home a little later.  Some cities were run by a lord or by a family dynasty (the Este in Ferrara, the Visconti in Milan), but the ones that most interest me, like Florence, were communes, run by a rotation of elected and appointed leaders in a continually-evolving system of governance.  True, Florence was eventually ruled by the Medici, but in the time period I'm writing about it was controlled by an ever-shifting collection of nobles, to be joined, over the course of those two centuries, by wealthy merchants and guild members.  This is not to say that Florence had anything like democracy as we know it today, or an egalitarian society.  It did not.  But those constants shifts, stresses and strains in the fabric of communal leadership yield rich story possibilities, with layers and depths and nuances lurking in all the interactions.  Quite a bit different from a society headed by one all-powerful monarch, although tug-of-war for the British monarchy certainly provided its own share of drama. 

What comes to you first when you begin to think about a story?  A plot idea, an image, a character?

A character – usually a character with a problem.  The point where I know I have the right character, one that's mine to write about, is when suddenly I hear a snatch of dialogue in my head.  It may not be anything important or particularly brilliant, but it comes to me in the character's voice, and that's when I know I have it.  The story unfolds from there, in both directions, if necessary.

Speaking of dialogue, yours doesn't sound particularly formal or archaic.  It's not sprinkled with terms that suggest “a long time ago,” and it contains contractions, which many writers don't use when writing dialogue in historical fiction.

Speaking forsoothly,” as my historical reenactment group would call it, isn't how my characters would have sounded to each other.  If they are close friends in a casual situation, they will speak to each other in very much the same way I would talk with a friend today (minus the anachronistic references and slang).  If a character is speaking to someone of higher social rank, or addressing a group, the tone will be more formal, just as it would be today.  After all, they were speaking in 13th century Italian and I'm translating for them, so why make it sound Shakespearean?  As for the contractions, if you've ever studied medieval song texts, you'll find them full of elisions.  Our forebears were as verbally lazy as we are!

Is there a particular author, or a particular book, that for you exemplifies historical fiction at its best?

For me, that author would be Dorothy Dunnett.  And as difficult as it is to choose among her books, if I had to pick just one it would be King Hereafter, her amazing novel about Macbeth.  I went to the Orkney Islands on the strength of that book.  I've reread it probably more often than any other.

Why did you choose to write about a jester?

Two reasons.  Well, three, actually – it really was his prank that started the whole mess, so I could hardly ignore him.  Also, I wanted to write about someone who was just one of the people.  Not a famous name, not a man with power over others – as Douglas Adams might have said, “He's just this guy, you know?”  The other thing is, I love performers.   I've played Renaissance and medieval music at feasts and tournaments, and I know a bit about how it feels to be invisible a crowd scene, seeing and hearing everything but not being noticed.  I like the jester's wit and ingenuity, his ability to think on his feet and make it up as he goes along.  He's somebody I'd like to know.

Tinney Sue Heath is the author of A Thing Done, a novel set in 13th century Florence.  Her historical interests are mostly Dantecentric, with occasional forays into Etruscans and the Renaissance.  Learn more at her website, or check out her blog on historical fiction research, or see her author page at Fireship Press.
One reader who comments on today's blog will be randomly selected to win a signed copy of A THING DONE.  Good luck!