A Material World

Too many times we overlook the obvious and assume that what lies on the surface is all there is. But there may be stories lurking in plain sight right below your feet.

Enter the humble carpet, a common object which humanity has been trampling over for hundreds, arguably thousands, of years. Though it acts as a barrier to cold floors, even hangs on the walls of many homes, the carpet is often a repository of ancient and arcane iconology. Thus, without knowing it, we often tread over centuries of stories told and retold in a kind of woven visual book.

Our ancestors were far more visual than we were. They learned to read in pictures first since literacy wouldn’t spread widely until much later. That meant that the rug weavers of old worked in symbols and pictures, often using carpets as a means to tell a story or hint at at secrets and beliefs.

One such carpet features in my new Phoebe McCabe thriller, The Carpet Cipher, and thought it profiles a carpet painted into a commemorative wedding scene, the Renaissance master was tasked with a mission not uncommon in Renaissance art: to hide something of great value in plain sight. Welcome to The Agency of the Ancient Lost and Found, a new thriller series featuring an art historian with a penchant for textiles. And trouble.

 

Give me History and I’ll Give you Life

Research, some writers love it and some find it a chore. I fall into the the first category. Give me an excuse to imagine life in another time, in another place, and I’ll take it on completely. Writers of historical fiction obviously need a sound background in the century of  their book, not just in terms of history but also social mores, clothing, food, and every single detail between. Some writers go so far as to research old cookbooks and make whatever dish that is to be served to a character so the reader may share the experience. That’s dedication. Pass the pig trotters and mead, boys. I can only imagine what Diana Gabaldon had with Outlander.

Every story is a human story. It’s all about plunging a reader into a place and time so real they can experience being human in another century, under a different set of challenges.  When society in the fictive world differs from the way you’ve grown up, the way you think is challenged, too.

What if you were an French-speaking Acadian girl banished from your colony up the Atlantic coast (now known as Nova Scotia) by the British in 1755 and shipped off to boggy Louisiana, just saying? What if you manage to find your way into the Ursuline convent, a convent sheltering young women from good French homes, with the view to marrying them off to the French settlers? The French King at the time, Louis XIV, fretted that New Orleans would grow into a cesspool of rowdies if they continued to breed with unsuitable women. His royal self decreed that the Order of St. Ursuline might properly harbor these French ‘Casket Girls’ shipped over from good French families as a way to improve the gene pool. Presumably, the irony of nuns training girls to be wives didn’t occur to him.

And then, circumstances change, as circumstances are wont to do. France gives Louisiana away in treaty to Spain in 1763 and a Spanish governor arrives to rule the French.  Now you have a French convent housing French girls for the marriage market and the Spaniards are coming. Oh, just imagine the fun!

Back to the Acadian girl, for a moment. Her status as an orphaned peasant farmer’s daughter thrust her to the bottom of the French social heap from the beginning. Hierarchies existed even in convents. She would never be a mate for a proper French gentleman, not that there were many of those in New Orleans at the time. However, it turns out she’s clever, can speak both French and Spanish, and burns with rage. What a perfect pawn, what a perfect spy…

This is how a human story is born, this one playing out in two centuries inside the pages of   Frozen Angel. Yes, I researched it to bits but the story drove me. The heart and mind of someone struggling to decide what is wrong and right in competing ideologies has always fascinated me. History provides such rich fodder.  Stir in a lot of fact and even more imagination, and the writer creates a heady brew. Continue reading