For authors, a new book is such a daunting process that the earliest stages, long before the first words of chapter one are put down, is a time of wary circling. You know the feeling–something interesting and unfamiliar catches your eye, and you move in, maybe just a little, to check it out more closely, maybe poke it with a stick to see if it moves.

You don’t know–you really just don’t know–what’s going to happen. Every year I must go through several dozen ideas for historical novels, some I think of on my own, but probably the majority suggested by fans and friends. Some ideas get abandoned quickly–not enough information for a historical novelist to go on, not enough interesting or appealing in the lives of the real-life characters, not enough of something else. Other ideas get put aside for another time. The circling begins with the third group, the ideas that won’t go away, the voices that say, “write about me!”

My bookshelves are full of biographies of women I haven’t written novels about and probably won’t: Cosima Liszt Von Bulow Wagner, Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel, Hypatia, Clara Schumann, Hadley Hemingway, Gertrude Caton Thompson, to name a few. Several are still possibilities: Ada Lovelace, Pauline Viardot, and Marie Curie spring to mind.

Marie Curie is the latest casualty of my circling. I read every biography of her (four, if I recall) and even wrote fifty pages of a first draft before I ran into an obstacle I didn’t know how to handle. In my four novels to date the protagonists have always been characters of my invention through whose lives fascinating real-life characters come and go. I had some doubts about having a biographical character as the protagonist, but Curie’s life is just so amazing that I set my concerns aside.

Turns out that little muse fretting on my shoulder was right to be nervous. I have had to admit in the last week that a novel about Marie Curie just isn’t working.

In my first draft, I told the story from Marie’s point of view, as a third person narration. Here are the opening few sentences:

“Don’t look,” Manya Sklodowska whispered to herself as the first snow of the season thickened the air and stuck to the lawns of the Saxony Garden outside her classroom. She knew it was snowing even without looking, because the world sounded different, as if someone had picked up the edges of Warsaw in white paper and wrapped up a gift of silence.

At neat rows of desks, twelve-year-old girls in white-collared, blue serge uniforms squirmed. They’d been waiting for snow for all day, ever since the gray sky began to lower and the air took on the faint astringency of winter….

Okay, not bad for a first draft, but here’s the problem: I am describing something that happened that day to a real person. I had the biographies open in front of me and worked from them. I did a good job, in my estimation, in dramatizing a quite traumatic event involving a surprise visit by the superintendent of schools, but the problem was that the entire book would be no more than that. I would move on to the next few pages of her biography and dramatize that, and then the next, and in the end I would have told the story of her life, but not much more.

I learned something valuable from this–that I need to be able to make up the story. I get excited about inventing characters and putting them in situations where I don’t know what’s going to happen. That gets me up at six every morning ready to put fingers to the keys and continue the adventure. That wasn’t going to happen with Marie Curie, because there wasn’t a plausible fictional character I could create who would be alongside her, observing her but having her own life story too.

I decided to try a new approach, having multiple narrators from various stages of Marie’s life–her sister, her father, her first love, her husband, her fellow physicists, her students, her lover. Here is the same scene told from the point of view of Hela, who was in the same class as Marie:

“Don’t look!” My mouth forms words I don’t dare say aloud. The first snow of the year is falling. Nothing else thickens the air indoors this way, or makes the world outside go quite so silent.

I stare straight ahead at Mademoiselle Tupalska. Over her old-fashioned whalebone collar, old Tupsia has one of the meanest and ugliest faces I’ve ever seen. Her thick brows knit into one line, and her mouth turns down in furrows that make her chin look cut through like a marionette’s. She’s taking out her ruler now and laying it on the desk. After a few months of school, there’s no need to slap it in her palm to frighten us into obedience. Most of us know from experience the damage she can do with it.

Tupsia knows what I want–what every one of the girls in our white-collared blue serge uniforms wants–as we sit in our neat rows of desks reciting Russian verbs. We’ve been waiting for snow for all day. Now the tickle in my nostrils from a draft through a cracked window has a faint astringency like the witch hazel we put on our scrapes and scratches at home. I see the other girls trying not to squirm or let their eyes drift to the windows, where we could be making halos of our breath, or punctuating the condensation on the window with the tips of our noses. Old Tupsia will have none of that. She doesn’t care if it’s snowing. She only cares about these dusty old books. I bet she eats cardboard for breakfast.

I try not to giggle at the thought as I look sidelong at my sister Maria. She’s ten, a year younger than I am. Before she was advanced into my class, I was the youngest and the smartest, but Manya knows everything I do and a lot more besides. Math, history, literature, German, French, and catechism–she’s the best at all of them, even though she is a bit too chubby around the middle and has hair that never looks nice for more than a minute…

I kind of like this approach, but deep down I still don’t think I have solved the problem. I am still stuck with too little to create except phrasings. I love to write, and I find point of view one of the most fascinating aspects of fiction, and if someone said “we’ve just got to have a book about Marie Curie and we need it soon,” I would probably go forward. But no one is saying that, and I am very glad of it, because I have decided to put this project aside until I find a way around this problem, if there is one.

This is the first time this has happened to me. Usually I get inspired and plough through to successful completion of a novel. This was a really valuable lesson, to see that there is more to a historical novel than a great real-life story. Marie Curie supplied the plot and the characters, but she couldn’t supply the inspiration. But I can wait. If she wants her story told, she’ll find a way to get in touch.

Finding Emilie, Uncategorized

Liking Emilie

Wow! FINDING EMILIE has been out only three days and already more than ten reviews–all of them extremely positive!–have gone up on historical fiction websites and elsewhere. Everyone seems to love Lili (my fictional daughter) and her mother Emilie, as well as Lili’s own fictional creation, Meadowlark. Eventually I’ll post these as live links on a reviews page, but if you are interested in taking a peek now, just paste the link. Very very rewarding. I guess I can relax now!


Finding women’s voices in 18th-century France


Finding Emilie-Laurel Corona








Finding Emilie, Uncategorized

FInding Emilie Launches Tomorrow!

The official publication date for FINDING EMILIE is tomorrow, although the book has already been released by Amazon and people are starting to receive their copies. This morning I got my first review from one of the big historical fiction blogs, The Burton Review. “Finding Emilie goes easily on my favorites of 2011 list,” the review says. Here it is in its entirety:

I’ve been busy preparing guest posts for some of the many historical fiction blogs, and the first two are already posted:

“Emilie and Voltaire” on Passages to the Past (this one has a book giveaway, so sign up soon!


“Why I Love Emilie du Châtelet” in Historical Tapestry


Thanks, as always, for your support!


Let the Nail Biting Begin!

In my last post I told you what I was doing, and in this one I’ll try to tell you how I’m feeling as the publication date for FINDING EMILIE approaches.

It’s scary.

The process of writing a novel is so involved and lengthy that I swing through the spectrum of emotions over and over. Then, in the many months between finishing the final round of revisions and waiting for publication, I put FINDING EMILIE out of mind. I was making many appearances for PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, finishing up novel number four (THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD), and doing some preliminary work on novel number five–plus teaching full time and doing some other projects, including serving as managing co-editor of two anthologies. FINDING EMILIE was, bluntly, the last thing on my mind.

About a month before a book comes out authors receive a box of finished copies, and when that carton arrived a few weeks back, the emotional roller coaster began for me again. I can’t describe the feeling of pulling back the flaps and seeing rows of one’s own book staring back. The cover is not a surprise–by then I’ve seen it often–but the bulk of the whole thing (I don’t know how else to say it) is a most pleasant reality check. I took a few out of the box and photographed them for–what else?–Facebook before curling up on the couch to leaf through a copy. Here it is, I said to myself. It’s finally, well, alive.

Then you wait. The time a book sits in warehouses and storerooms waiting for the publication date is pretty tough. I want the book out in the world now, but I’m also worried about what will happen when it is. What if people don’t like it? What if they write mean spirited or silly reviews on Amazon? What if they secretly (or not so secretly) decide that it’s okay, but not as good as my other novels? What if this? What if that?

I’m not sure what this worry is about, really. A number of people read the book in galley–a few reviewers, a few friends, a few fellow authors. Everyone has been very positive, talking about how reluctant they were to say goodbye to my characters and how vividly I’ve portrayed the world of Enlightenment France. “You like it?” I say, doing a Sally Field second Oscar speech imitation. “You really like it?” They smile, nod, or if they are at a distance, write reassuring e-mails that I read again and again.

Just today I found out that FINDING EMILIE is an Editor’s Pick in the next issue of Historical Novels Review–the biggie in my field. They like it–they really like it! I feel the weight coming off my shoulders. Maybe I can stop worrying now, since ALL the feedback is good–very very good.

This particular wait came to a strange, truncated end when I discovered the book went on sale on Amazon a few days ago–a week ahead of the pub date. All the countdown, all the talk of going out next Tuesday to celebrate seems suddenly moot. I’ve survived again, and now, the wait for blogger reviews begins. It’s like the time between leaping off the high dive and hitting the water, but I’m at this point more curious than scared.

I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a note when you’ve read the book, and better still, post a review on Amazon, B&N or someplace else. Writers are nothing without readers, and if you were here right now I’d thank you sincerely and deeply for all your support, except I’m chewing my nails and can’t talk at the moment.