Stephen Leigh on Research: The Story Behind IMMORTAL MUSE

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Steve Leigh headshotStephen Leigh, who also writes under the name S.L. Farrell, is a Cincinnati author who has published twenty-seven novels and many short stories, including several for the WILD CARDS series, edited by George RR Martin. [Administrator’s note:  He is also one of David’s most very favorite people, and the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet.] His newest novel is IMMORTAL MUSE (by Stephen Leigh), DAW Books, March 2014.  PW Weekly gave it a starred review, saying “Leigh seamlessly inserts his two immortals into history, playing with actual people and events to deliver beautifully-rendered glimpses of different eras. Leigh strikes the perfect balance between past and present, real and imagined.”  Stephen’s web site is www.farrellworlds.com.

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For the first time this week, I had a chance to hold my latest novel, IMMORTAL MUSE, in my hand.  It’s a fine feeling — one that I suspect every writer relishes, no matter how many novels one has published.  Ah, that new book smell….

I’ll be putting up a post here every Friday in March, and those will focus on the writing craft.  But for this first one, given that this is “release week” for the new novel, it was suggested that I might use this one to push the book.  

But I don’t want to just stand here jumping up and down, shouting “BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK!” — though, let’s be honest, I might do that if I thought the tactic might work.  The truth is that in my ideal world, my publisher would assign someone to do all the publicity for me and promotion for me. I don’t like doing publicity and promotion; all I really want to do is write the books.

IM CoverInstead, why not talk about a bit of the craft that went into writing IMMORTAL MUSE, with the idea that it might spark your interest in the novel and you’d consider picking up your own copy?

Why not talk about research?

IMMORTAL MUSE, as you might suspect from the title, concerns a genuine muse and covers a huge span of time from the late 1300s to contemporary New York City, as that muse — like a metaphorical butterfly, touches down to merge with several of the creative minds of history.  Lots of historical eras = lots of required research… and I don’t mean Wikipedia.  Oh, okay, I confess I hit Wikipedia now and then (just like my students), but only as a starting point for further research or for a quick fact.

I love research.  For one, I love reading nonfiction: history, anthropology, sociology, all sorts of stuff about other cultures, places, and times.  Most of my reading material anymore is exactly that, because it’s in nonfiction that ideas for fiction are sparked — for me, at least.  And when you’re in the midst of putting together a world, reading nonfiction will spark dozens of ideas to inform, change, and deepen the characters, the setting, and the plot.   I guarantee it.

You want to know where writers get those crazy ideas?  Research.  (Well, at least that’s where this writer gets them.)

Mind you, in my case I was writing an historical fantasy.  There are a couple issues with doing fiction based on history.  One is that you have to get the facts mostly right (or you lose the reader); the second is that you can’t get all the facts right (because you’re not an expert in the era usually), and (three) sometimes you just need to bend the facts a bit (to make it work for the novel).  For instance, look at Gianlorenzo Bernini and Costanza Bonarelli.  

I spent lots of time researching potential artists and their muses.  The story of Constanza and Bernini caught my attention as soon as I read it.  In fact, if you want to check out Bernini’s famous portrait bust of Costanza (generally considered to be one of Bernini’s masterworks), you can look it up here: http://www.getty.edu/visit/events/mcphee_lecture.html — or just google “Costanza Bernini bust” and see what you get — or, if you have some extra cash around, go to the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, Italy, where it’s on display.  

Here’s the basic story: Costanza was Bernini’s mistress, even though she was married to one of Bernini’s assistants.  When Bernini began to suspect that his brother was also having an affair with Costanza—Bernini supposedly saw him leaving Costanza’s house and kissing her when she was dressed only in her night shift—Bernini hired someone to slash poor Costanza’s face, then tried to kill his brother.  For that, his brother was exiled and Costanza was arrested and imprisoned for adultry, while Bernini was merely ordered to pay a fine.  He wouldn’t ever pay that fine, since Pope Urban VIII stepped in to save his favorite artist and forgave the fine provided that Bernini married Caterina Tezio, the daughter of a prominent lawyer who was also friendly with the pope.  Bernini agreed to this arrangement; he and Caterina would remain married for 34 years and produce eleven children.

Of poor disfigured Costanza, she vanishes from history after that horrible incident.

So in IMMORTAL MUSE, Costanza is one iteration of my muse.  I won’t say much more to avoid spoilers for the book, but the basic story remains the same… except where it doesn’t.  For instance, in the book, Bernini is wrong about his brother.  And Costanza doesn’t vanish…

Of course, in that section of the book, there are also conversations and seductions and interactions which are made up entirely of whole cloth.  That’s the way it is with research: it leads to its own new and unique reality.  An alternate world. That’s the beauty of research:  it’s not just the real details that we writers pull from it, but also the wholly invented ones that ripple out from what we learn — and those are the most fun of all.

So if you want to see how I’ve tugged and and pulled and twisted history in several decades, you can check out IMMORTAL MUSE.  And if you do, let me know how you like it!

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Steve Leigh can be found on the web at the following places:

Website: http://www.farrellworlds.com
Twitter: @sleighwriter
FB (Stephen Leigh): https://www.facebook.com/stephen.leigh
FB (S.L. Farrell/Stephen Leigh author page): https://www.facebook.com/pages/SL-Farrell/54301773336

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9 comments to Stephen Leigh on Research: The Story Behind IMMORTAL MUSE

  • Great to see you here, Steve, and congratulations on the terrific critical response to your book. I can’t wait to read it. My own recent forays into historical fantasy have presented challenges that I never really faced in writing epic fantasy: Namely, blending my narrative timelines and themes with the exigencies of existing history. How did you handle those challenges in your work (or did you find that this wasn’t so challenging)?

  • Well, there’s another whole post, David! 🙂 For me, the trick is knowing enough to create verisimilitude so that the readers feel as if they’ve been placed directly in the place and time, then finding some “alternate” explanations that align with the historical facts. It’s one of those “Goldilocks” things… If you adhere exactly to history, you’ll generally lose the “story” component, since real history doesn’t always make for great story. If you go too far from real history, any halfway knowledgeable reader will notice it and feel like you’re just making stuff up, and *boom* they’re out of the story.

    But if you can hit things just right,, if you can bend and twist and slightly distort the actual facts and shape them into the fiction you’re trying to write, well, then everything is just fine.

    And yes, that’s a very challenging feat — especially since everyone’s definition of “just right” tends to be a little different.

  • Right. I gave a talk last year in which I compared it to making lasagna. You want to layer the fictional with the historical, and you want to get the proportions right so that you get that balance of textures and flavors. Glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles with this!

  • Your ruse worked. You have me hooked and wanting to read more.

    I’ve shared your same glories and frustrations with research. I’m creating an alternate magical world apart from what was happening in England at the time of my novel, and yet all that world building comes from other historical roots and sources. I love it, and I look forward to reading your book. Also, for the record, I saw your cover a couple of days ago and had been looking for a nice image to pin to my ‘Awesome Book Covers’ board on pinterest. Just nabbed this image. Gorgeous.

  • @pooks — Aha! You fell for my nefarious plan. However, I’m glad you like the cover; I do too! Good luck with your own novel; I promise you that your research will feed your creativity and give you all sorts of ideas.

  • khernandez

    Steve – I remember reading The Cloud Mage books several years ago and really enjoying it. Will be sure to pick up your other work as well. Thanks for this post about research, and I am looking forward to your future posts. (I am currently reading What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, as well as Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders.)

  • @khernandez — “Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders”: what a wonderful title! I’ll have to look that up. Glad you liked the Cloudmages series; that was a sequence I really enjoyed writing (and am half-tempted to return to at some point).

  • Thank you. Since I”m going to be in Florence in October (my first visit), I now have something extra to look forward to. I’ll have to download Immortal Muse onto my IPad to read on the flight over.

  • @xmanpub — I am SO jealous! You sure I wouldn’t fit in your luggage? Enjoy the trip; I’d love to see Florence.