Here is my interview with Donna Russo Morin for The Copperfield Review. Donna is an award-winning author of historical novels, including The King’s Agent, To Serve a King, and The Secret of the Glass (Kensington Books), and she’s also a good friend of Copperfield‘s. Here she shares information about her exciting and lush-with-detail historical novels, as well as some advice for those who want to write historical fiction.
Meredith Allard: On your website, you mention how growing up during the turbulent 60s gave you grist for your writing. When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?
Donna Russo Morin: My first stories were written as soon as I learned how to write; my mother still has them, the paper yellowing, the creases growing weak with age. I wrote a great deal of poetry during those turbulent days of the 60s while I was living the turbulence of my own puberty. Then the influence of the King took over (Stephen, that is) and I did find my first fiction published in the form of short horror. But all the while I was reading, voraciously, historical fiction, from Gone with the Wind to Leon Uris’s Trinity. When I discovered Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, when I heard the perfect merging of fictional characters within a detailed historical construct, I knew I had heard the sound of my own writer’s ‘voice.’
M.A.: How did you decide which era(s) to focus on for your historical novels? Did you have a previous fascination with that time?
D.R.M.: My first book, The Courtier’s Secret, was a self-fulfilled wish…to be a Musketeer, something I wanted to be ever since the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers with Michael York and Rachel Welch. The second book came from a two minute news story on the glassmakers of Murano, about their continuing efforts to keep their process secret, The Secret of the Glass. The third actually came from the glut of Tudor books on the market and the question I asked myself…how awful I felt for all the royals who ruled simultaneously with Henry VIII; they were so very ignored (for the most part). That’s when I found Francois I and the French court. It was a world filled with intrigue with much more powerful women. Where better to put a young female spy who must make a decision…To Serve a King.
My research on Francois I led me to his real life art agent, The King’s Agent, who procured pieces by the great Italian Renaissance masters by any means. Battista della Palla truly was the Indiana Jones of his age; I knew he deserved his own book. That book led to a fascination with the Renaissance, a period I am now fully ensconced in, completely obsessed with, and am writing a trilogy set within the height of the time and in its birthplace, Florence. Having full Italian heritage and in the process of getting my Italian citizenship, I think it has all led me to where I belong, my home…Renaissance Italy!
M.A.: Your novels are so lush with the history you’re writing about. How do you go about researching the history for your novels? Do you travel to the places you write about?
D.R.M.: My research is a combination of the academic to the practical. For most books, I spend eight to ten months in the research phase. That includes reading as many primary source materials (letters, diaries, journals, manifests) as I can get my hands on as well as the books that specialize either in the era or the people who inhabited it. But I also include some form of practical research. For my first book, I learned how to fence. I attempted to blow glass for my second book. For my third I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow (archery has now become a full blown hobby for me and I own my own compound bow). For my latest release, I learned how to dagger fight. Right now I am immersed in the techniques of painting that were used in the Renaissance period with many visits to many museums and many sketches and antique paint mixing techniques attempted.
Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to travel to the location of my first novel, The Courtier’s Secret, which was set almost entirely at the Chateau Versailles. Spending hours there truly helped me infuse realism into the work. But thanks to the ever evolving internet, there are so many virtual tours available, it is much like traveling there. As I do feel strongly that my work going forward will be anchored in Italy, I do hope to live there a few months out of each year.
M.A.: How would you describe your novels to potential readers? What makes your novels different from others about similar eras?
D.R.M.: They are a vibrant and fast-paced merging of the factual and the fictional to take the reader on an adventure impossible in modern day, where I reveal not only what happened in the past, but how it truly felt. I don’t write bio-fic, which is a prevalent form of historical fiction, but I set my characters next to multiple historical people, allowing the reader to meet and interact with many of the great personages of the past through the experiences of my main characters. I also tend to stray from ‘trend’ topics. My Italy books were released long before Showtime’s Borgias. Renaissance Italy was the birth of new thought and innovation, new ways of life—both grand and lascivious. I endeavor to bring the rare gems of history to light.
M.A.: I always thought if I were a little braver I’d have become an actor. Maybe in my next life… What drew you to acting? Do you see any similarities between acting and writing fiction?
D.R.M.: Acting came to me actually. Though I had done a great deal of school acting (a shy extrovert finds a great outlet there), it wasn’t until I was walking through the local Sears store where I was ‘discovered’ and put in my first television commercial. Modeling and acting became a wonderful resource for income, especially while paying my way through college. Though I tried to ‘make it’ as a rather short woman (for modeling at 5’5) I never made it to ‘the big time.’ It has, however, been a lucrative if sporadic part-time profession. The greatest rewards have been working with (with being relative as I was an extra in The Departed and a Showtime series The Brotherhood) the likes of Martin Scorsese, Martin Sheen, and Jason Isaacs (Lucias Malfoy of Harry Potter).
I do think the ability to completely immerse myself into a character, whether it is as an actor or writer, is invaluable. For that is what I do whenever I write…putting myself ‘into’ the character, imagining what they would be feeling and doing in the circumstances my writing has put them in. It is an empathy that comes across on the page I think…I hope.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?
In truth, I had no choice but to become an author, it was imprinted in my DNA. While I started writing as soon as I learned how to hold a pencil, external forces tried pushing me in other directions, then true destiny took over.
I took my first degree in Communications and mapped out a fairly successful freelance writing career while working a ‘day job’ in public relations and advertising. In addition to inclusion in the two anthologies, I was on staff at a local magazine, and my book review career, which began in 1988, hit a pinnacle of sixty published reviews, including publication in The Milwaukee Journal, The Hartford Courant, and Foreword Magazine.
Novel writing was always the ultimate goal. It took me seven years to write my first novel–giving birth to two boys at the same time–a medieval fantasy liberally laced with horror. It sits in my hope chest still, though I still have ‘hope’ for it.
In the summer of 2002, I came down with what I thought was the flu. After two and a half years and more doctors than I care to remember, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. Six weeks later, my father passed away from cancer. I retreated from the world and into my books and writing. I re-watched The Three Musketeers and remembered how much I loved it and all the Musketeer stories. I remembered how I wanted to look like Rachel Welch/Constance (who doesn’t?) but I wanted to be Michael York/D’Artagnan. The idea for The Courtier’s Secret, my first book, was born. While being treated for the Lyme, I conducted nine months of research and wrote the first draft in nine weeks. I found an agent in two months and she got me my first two book contract in four months. The rest, as they say….
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
D.R.M.: Stephen King taught me how to write, though he doesn’t know it. His talent for telling a complex story in a simple manner, as if he sat next to you and told it to you, was my tutorial. Diana Gabaldon’s amazing talent for merging fact and fiction in a dynamic manner became my ideal. J.K. Rowling’s triumph over a broken marriage and harsh financial situations is my own story. But, in truth, any artist—be it writing, painting, music—who is willing to forgo material wealth for the sake of the craft is worthy of emulation. People who want ‘fame and fortune,’ who think ‘I’ll write a book and make a lot of money and become a celebrity’ I find abhorrent. But those that want to create something magnificent for the sake of its creation, whatever the cost, those are the people who inspire me.
M.A.: I was reading about your latest project on your website and it sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it. What can you tell us about it?
D.R.M.: Ah, speaking of destiny. As I said, my third book, To Serve a King, brought me to Francois. Francois was responsible for sowing the seeds of what would become, for us, the Louvre Museum. He was obsessed with art. He had, in Italy, an art agent, The King’s Agent (title of my latest book), who would procure from the Italian Renaissance greats art for Francois’ collection. These two books, and their emphasis on art, led me deeper and deeper into the Renaissance and the evolution of art that took place there. But, as always, I was frustrated by the ‘men’s club’ that is history. So I started researching women artists. That’s when it came to me.
The trilogy depicts the birth of the female Renaissance artist set against the turbulence and brilliance that is Florence in the late 15th century. But it is, as well, an homage to the bonds between women, their steely strengths and their petty weaknesses. It is full of intrigue, murder, revenge, love, sex, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, the great works of the age and how they were created. It is one of the most magnificent moments in history come to life through the experiences of a myriad group of women.
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?
D.R.M.: Be passionate about the era you write about. Don’t just pick it because it seems to be what’s selling.
Learn ten times more than you need to know or that you’ll include in the book and use only the material that serves the plot of the story. (But save ALL your material…you never know when you may use it elsewhere.)
If you ‘tweak’ history (which you may have to do in order to tell your fictional story) TELL THE READER! That’s what Author’s Notes are for.
Give credit to the hard work of the nonfiction historians from whom we get our glorious material. Include a bibliography even though you write fiction. They deserve it.
M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?
D.R.M.: I include Discussion Questions in the back of every one of my books. Share the stories with friends and family. Sit together and discuss the works, go through the questions, let your minds go where they lead, tell your own stories. If you belong to a book club, contact me and we can have Skype discussions. But most of all, if you learn something of the past from my books, if you feel something you’ve never felt before…I’ve done my work and I thank you for allowing me to do it.
About Donna Russo Morin:
Donna Russo Morin’s passion for the written word began when she was a child, took on a feminist edge as she grew through the sixties, and blossomed into a distinctive style of action-filled historical fiction at a defining moment in her life. With two degrees from the University of Rhode Island, the state in which she was born and raised, Donna’s first book, The Courtier’s Secret (2009) won RWI-RWA’s Best First Book Award and was a finalist in the National Readers’ Choice Award. The Secret of the Glass (2010), her second book, received a Single Titles Reviewers’ Choice Award and was a finalist in the USA Best Books of the Year Contest. Also a recipient of a Single Titles Reviewers’ Choice Award and a finalist in the USA Best Books of the Year Contest, Donna’s third Book, To Serve a King (2011), was a finalist in Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award as well. The King’s Agent (2012), Donna’s latest release, received a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly. Donna is currently at work on a major trilogy about the clandestine birth of the female Renaissance artist set in turbulent Medici ruled Florence. Donna is a proud, single mother of two sons, Devon and Dylan—a future opera singer and a future chef—her greatest works in progress.