History to Story: touring the blog

Thank-you to Tiffani Burnett-Velez, whose awesome book A Berlin Story is taking the historical fiction world by storm, for including me in this blog. Her blog can be found at: http://tiffaniburnettvelez.wordpress.com

So, who am I?

If you’re new to my blog, let me introduce myself. I’m a very energetic writer living in Northern California. I spent my childhood in Mexico City, and I write about Colonial Mexico in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and San Francisco in the 1920s. Pretty broad range, you might say, but there are strong connections between the two times. My major books are Josefina’s Sin (Atria/Simon & Schuster 2011), The Harlot’s Pen (Devine Destinies 2014) and The Duel for Consuelo (Booktrope 2014.)

Duel for Consuelo cover

What else do I do in my spare time? I practice law as a mediator; I raised two kids, and now have the pleasures of having young adults in my life; we have between two and four dogs (long story, that one!) and a cat; I cook anything that calls itself food; I belly-dance (badly) now that I can no longer do Tae Kwon Do; and I have taken up the ukulele after my neighbors signed a petition to stop me from playing the violin. I drink a lot of coffee!

Ukulele sideways!

Ukulele sideways!

What is The Duel for Consuelo about?

You may remember that in 1492 the Spanish monarchs expelled all of the Jews from Spain, after confiscating their worldly goods. Those who stayed were forced to convert to Christianity, “at the point of a sword.” Unfortunately for those Conversos, for the next 250 years they were hounded and mistrusted, and they and their children’s children were constantly forced to prove their faith, or be tortured or executed by the Inquisition.

Some Conversos continued to practice their old religion in secret, in mortal danger, but as the generations went on, they knew less and less of the old ways. Many emigrated to the New World where they were even less likely to have Rabbis to teach them. Consuelo is the descendant of a Converso, and it is her secret to keep. Juan Carlos Castillo, a white-blond landed hacendero, the youngest son of Josefina and Manuel Castillo (remember them from Josefina’s Sin?) has a few secrets of his own about his parentage. Consuelo must fight to keep her family’s secrets, while being courted by a very dangerous suitor and making some hard decisions about how she will live her life, in an era that didn’t give women much say over their destiny.

Why did you choose to write it?

I started with Josefina’s Sin, the story of Josefina, a young landowner’s wife, who goes to the Vice-Royal Court and meets the famous poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. I was fascinated by Sor Juana, and had been since I was an undergraduate. Josefina marries Manuel Castillo, and bears three sons. The youngest, Juan Carlos, turns out white-blond with pale skin. “Because he was born in a lightening-storm” is the official explanation.

Twenty-one years later, Juan Carlos and Consuelo, the mayor’s daughter, encounter threats to the secrets of their parentage. I grew up in Mexico City, of Jewish parentage, and the life of Conversos intrigued me. As the daughter of a survivor of the Holocaust, I was raised with a consciousness that this fear was definitely not in the past. The combination made me write Consuelo’s story.

Are your characters real or fictional? If they’re real, how did you fictionalize them?

In Josefina’s Sin, Sor Juana, of course, is real, as is the Bishop of Puebla. Many “facts” are known about Sor Juana, but there are great gaps between those facts, and I took her poetry as inspiration to fill in those holes.

In The Duel for Consuelo, historical events are factual: the Inquisition’s waning power, the beginning of the Enlightenment, the Casta Paintings, the snow. My characters grow up around the historical facts, and their stories are shaped by them.

casta_ARTSTOR_103_41822003788849(Casta paintings showed the supposed results of different racial pairings as the Enlightenment and science crept into New Spain)

What kind of research is involved in writing your novel?

I read the poetry and plays of the era, in depth and in the original. History is written by the victors, and by men. So the arts of the time more often express the truth of life in that moment, and sometimes actually show what home life was like. I do regular historical research, of course, but for me the arts of the times really tell the story.

How do you feel about writers taking creative license with historical facts? Or, does it bother you when facts area changed to fit the story in a movie or a book?

Ah, such a thorny question! What do we actually “know” about the past? Historians are diligent in their research, and even they are always discovering new things that change the way we look at the “facts.” And since the winners write the history books, we know little about the losers and those trampled along the way.

Professional historians dig deep into the past to learn what happened. To me, the novelist takes the known facts and creates story between the facts. For example, there’s a line in Deutoronomy in the Bible that states that as Moses led his people through the desert, a city along the way fell to the Jews.  So I ask, Why? And what did the woman on the way to the well, pregnant again, and worried about rain, what did she think about the city falling to the advancing Jews? And how was her life different after that day? Did she try to warn her husband? Protect her children? Offer herself to the enemy to save her daughter? Lay a trap for a soldier? Fall in love with one? Of course we hear nothing about her.

Is that “changing the facts?” No, it isn’t. It’s working within the spaces between the facts. The one thing that drives me crazy is when people look something up in Wikipedia, and then say to an author, “You see, that’s how it happened!”

I don’t mind if something needs to be changed to accommodate the time of a novel. After all, novels take place in compressed time, and we can’t wait three months to have the guy arrive on horseback, so if you need to speed him up a bit that’s fine. Anything bigger needs an Historical Note at the end to explain the change. But what’s critical is staying true to the times. I will go far out of my way to make sure that papayas grew in Mexico in 1690, especially since mangoes didn’t come until about 1720!

What’s next for you after this present work?

Here’s a secret, just for my readers! I have finished the first draft of the third, and possibly final book in the Castillo family saga, tentatively called Marcela Unchained. It takes place from 1720 to 1753, and moves from the plains of central Mexico to the mountains and mines of Zacatecas. I hope to have it ready for publication by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, pick up your copy of The Duel for Consuelo, and drop me a note telling me what you thought. If you have the time, leave a review, of course! Thanks for stopping by!

Our next stop on the blog tour brings us Greg Michaels. He will be guest-posting at TIffani Burnett-Velez’s blog, http://tiffaniburnettvelez.wordpress.com .Let him introduce himself!

Many years ago The University of Texas at Austin granted me a degree in anthropology which, naturally, lead me to a career as a professional actor! I’ve acted in over fifty theater productions, forty television shows, and choreographed dozens of swordfights for stage and screen.

Now, writing historical fiction captivates me. It’s true, Life’s a twisty-turny trail.

There’s a psychological study that says that of all occupations, actors rate highest on the scale of “shyness.” That’s true of me. . .except when I wrestle my fifteen and eighteen-year old sons! Meanwhile, my wife provides encouragement, excitement, and common sense. I also wrestle our pet hamster on a regular basis. I usually win.”