This is the last stop on the WordCrafter Will Write For Wine & Stories I Stole From Lord Byron’s Bastard Book Blog Tour with a guest post by author Sara W. McBride about the inspiration behind the Will Write For Wine, and my review of her debut novel. I want to thank you all for joining us, and if you missed any of the stops along the way, you can catch them at the links below.
Writing to be Read – Opening day post: Guest post by Sara W. McBride – The Inspiration for “The Devil’s Bridge”, and review of Stories I Stole From Lord Byron’s Bastard
My love affair with Venice began in 2005 on my very first trip to Italy. I had planned a two-week research trip, by myself, that started in Venice and ended in Rome. My husband had shown me an article about an art historian who believed a sketch by Michelangelo, dated 1504, was of the torso of Laocoön, the statue that Pope Julius II paraded through the streets of Rome and subsequently launched the Vatican Museum. But Laocoön wasn’t discovered until 1506, and it’s discovery changed the world of Renaissance art.
How did Michelangelo sketch a statue that was still buried in the earth? The hypothesis was simple: Michelangelo forged the statue and buried it.
I spent 6 months researching Michelangelo’s life, his art commissions, and his war with Pope Julius II—Which is epic!—and came to the conclusion that the hypothesis might be true. I built a 76-page itinerary—fully color-coded, because I’m that anal—and set out across Italy to walk the steps of Michelangelo and those I believed assisted with his subterfuge.
I hunted for evidence in the art world itself. Since I wanted to write a novel, I also sought ambiance from historical locations and wrote down the smells of restoration sites with turpentine and plaster dust hanging in the air, the sounds of echoing footfalls in an empty cavernous church or of a single woman weeping in a side chapel, the taste of rustic breads, the sight of sunset over St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the smoothness of Istrian stone supporting Venetian palazzos.
After that first trip, I could walk into any museum room and at a glance, tell you which paintings were completed before or after 1506, the year of Laocoön’s discovery. That’s how influential the discovery of Laocoon was on the Italian Renaissance art scene. But on the flip side, I couldn’t tell you how the artist felt when he painted or sculpted an art piece.
I wrote a novel. It read like an 800-page art history dissertation. Snore-ville! Even though the entire novel is centered around Michelangelo, Bramante, Rafael, Sansovino, and Pope Julius II, the reader never becomes invested in the characters. I understood the history, the places, the art, but not the men or what motivated them.
Anyone can sing a song, but for it to resonate and draw in a listener, it must be sung with emotion. It is the emotion of the song that tells a story. My novel was missing the emotion.
But seventeen years later, I’m still drawn to the story of Laocoön, which I believe to be Michelangelo’s greatest forgery—Some forgeries were documented—and with every art museum exhibit, every church, every trip to Europe, I see more evidence for the pieces of the story. But now I seek to understand why Michelangelo and Pope Julius II were at such odds with each other. For that, I needed to understand people.
Venice is an amazing city to study not just history, ambiance, food, beauty, and smells, oh so many smells, but to study people. And out of that study, came the novel, Will Write for Wine.
The mind of Alexis Lynn is as delightful and convoluted as the labyrinth of canals and streets of Venice. Tagging along on the ride with this endearingly flawed character is sometimes rooting for her, sometimes laughing with her, sometimes crying with her, sometimes wanting to smack her, and sometimes wanting to smack the men she entangles herself with. Will Write for Wine is a quick and light beach read – no, scratch that – it’s a quick and light European vacation read. Alexis Lynn puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional” and the “Veni” in “Venice”!
Alexis Lynn is at a crossroads, starting a new life in Venice and leaving the old one in the America behind, making the choices which will affect her future. At times like this, lots of wine may be required, and there’s no end to what Alexis Lynn will do for good wine- the writing of stories, the breaking of hearts, the solving of age-old mysteries. In Will Write for Wine, by Sara McBride, it’s a fun ride with Alexis, her new found friends and the ghosts of Venice as she writes stories, falls in and out of love, and delves into Venetian history to create a new life for herself with the best from the old, as well as the new.
Pour yourself a glass of wine and settle in for a good read with Will Write for Wine. You don’t need a good wine to enjoy this novel, but I’d highly recommend it. I give it five quills.
Stories I Stole from Lord Byron’s Bastard is a collection inspired by Venetian history. The fictional character, Alexis Lynn, wrote these stories in the novel Will Write for Wine by Sara W. McBride, but they are fun stand-alone adventures to be enjoyed with an excellent glass of Italian wine.
Today’s tour stop comes with a fun interview with author Sara W. McBride in addition to her guest post. So kick back a while and enjoy the tidbits offered here as you learn more about Sara and her wonderful books.
Sara W. McBride, like many modern-day biological researchers, invents new swear words to sling at million-dollar machines while locked in a dark hole of a decaying academic hall. This has caused her to witness ghosts and create a romantic fantasy life within her head, which she now puts down on very non-technological paper with her favorite Jane Austen style quill pen.
Her first novel in the Alexis Lynn series, Will Write for Wine, and the companion short story collection, Stories I Stole from Lord Byron’s Bastard, both set in Venice, Italy, were recently released by Puck Publishing. She’s hard at work on the second Alexis Lynn novel, a Regency mystery series, and a haunted play. She strongly feels the world needs more haunted plays.
Sara: To be immortal! Just kidding. It’s my fabulous mental escape into worlds and lives that I wish I could live.
Please tell us a bit about your publishing journey?
Sara: In 2014, I organized, edited, and published the first two NaNoWriMo Los Angeles anthologies. Then I helped with the next three. The group is still producing an annual anthology. It was a great way to learn the logistics of self-publishing and how to shape short stories. This year, my husband and I launched Puck Publishing, and we’re hoping to publish something every month.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve written fourteen bad novels that I’m glad I never published. LOL!
What made you decide to self-publish?
Sara: In the late 1990s, I was an assistant to a Hollywood book agent and I learned the ins and outs of traditional publishing and movie book deals. The agents and publishers were so parasitic on the author, it gave me the willies. In those days, traditional publishing paid high advances, but the treatment of the authors still put a bad taste in my mouth.
Today, they rarely pay above a $10,000 advance to a new author, they expect the author to do all the marketing, and then the publisher keeps the copyright and sells it off whenever they like, to whomever they like, and the book goes out of print.
I’ve seen too many friends get screwed by traditional publishing.
Will Write for Wine takes place in the artistic and romantic setting of Venice. Have you explored the physical locations for your books in the flesh, in order to get the details right when writing about these locations? Have you been there? Have you lived there? Why did you choose this setting?
Sara: I’ve had five research trips to Venice, totaling about five weeks. I’ve been in almost every church and museum of Venice, and a few places I probably wasn’t supposed to enter. I apparently don’t understand the meaning of yellow caution tape or closed doors.
Most of the Venice locations in the book are real places, but Manu’s osteria is fictional. However, I stole menu items from many of my favorite osterias in Venice.
I think Venice is one of the most magical and haunted cities in the world. Many people describe it as a floating museum; the entire city is trapped in the Renaissance. But if you simply sit still, sip a glass of wine in a campo or piazza, listen to the opera singers, and watch the people and pigeons, there’s a vibe that sinks into you. Every part of the city is simultaneously dead and alive. It is that barrier, that thin line between life and death that pervades every stone, stench, and serenade of Venice. Delicious!
Stories I Stole From Lord Byron’s Bastard involves Venetian history. What is the fasciation of this area for you?
Sara: I’m a history nerd! Venice is one of those cities that drips with history, but not just through architecture and museums, through the people, the food, the many generations that still live in the same house, the ghosts that are accepted as common place, and the street signs. Ponte del Diavolo, the Devil’s Bridge is bound to inspire a story in anyone. Gheto Novo, or the New Ghetto, caused me to question the history of the Jewish community within Venice.
It’s difficult for me to walk from one piazza to another in Venice without my mind percolating a story based purely on the sights, sounds, and smells. And I love the smells of Venice. Both the good and the bad. Only Venice can induce an entire story purely through its smells. I’ve learned to navigate the labyrinth of Venice by sniffing the air. How is that not a story!
Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?
Sara: I don’t know the end until I get there. I just write into a dark void and somehow it all works out. It keeps the process magical and fun. I used to outline, but I always got bored with the book before I finished it. Outlining turned writing into work. Ick! Writing needs to be fun for both the writer and the reader.
Is your writing process plot driven or character driven?
Sara: Character driven! Definitely.
Do you write with music, or do you prefer quiet?
Sara: Quiet! Or the hubbub of a coffee house crowd, hotel lobby, airplane terminal.
Atmosphere is important. What do you do to get into the writing zone?
Sara: There’s a zone? How do I find that? I want a writing zone. I just go about my day and jot down paragraphs, dialogue, and then type them in when I’m next at my computer.
How much of the story do you know before the actual writing begins?
Sara: NONE! Okay, maybe the opening scene. But usually not even that. Just a character in a place, who is feeling something.
Wine plays a big role in your character, Alexis Lynn’s life. What is the attraction?
Sara: I love wine! I also love beer, whisky (Scottish spelling), Compari cocktails, and most dishes cooked with truffles. However, to preserve my liver, I typically only drink once-a-week, so it’s a big event for me. I cherish my weekly glass of wine and how it complements my meal. Alexis drinks way more than I do. Fictional wine can’t damage a fictional liver.
Are you a wine connoisseur? What is your favorite wine?
Sara: I love wine! I once dreamed of becoming a wine sommelier. Isn’t my favorite wine obvious? Soave! Like Alexis Lynn, I also discovered Soave on my first trip to Venice. It’s been a favorite ever since, but difficult to find in America. Hence, more motivation to travel!
What’s something most readers would never guess about you?
Sara: My husband and I got engaged four days after we met. Unlike Alexis Lynn and her marital troubles, my husband and I have had a relatively easy, adventurous, crazy, happy and supportive marriage. This summer, we’re celebrating out twenty-five year anniversary. But I don’t know how we’re celebrating. Any suggestions?
You’ve got a scientific background, like your character. How much of Alexis Lynn is you?
Sara: Um … She’s totally me! Are authors allowed to confess that?
What time of day do you prefer to do your writing? Why?
Sara: Morning, if given a choice. But it happens all day.
What’s the hardest part of the story for you to write: beginning, middle or end?
Sara: I write chapters as if they are short stories, and then I arrange them into a book when I think I’ve developed something that has a beginning, middle or end. Is that weird? I don’t write chronologically. And I have chapters/stories that didn’t make it into this book that will be in the next one.
Alexis Lynn has a conversation and wine tasting with Casanova. Would you like to talk a bit about the inspiration for that scene?
Sara: I was enjoying my weekly glass of wine while reading the memoirs of Casanova and thought, “Man, this guy would give horrible marriage advice!” Then I grabbed my computer.
Besides Casanova, which author, poet or artist, dead or alive, would you love to have lunch with?
Sara: Lord Byron, or course! He’s bloomin’ brilliant, but people only remember him as a seducer. Sure, he seduced a few women, usually married ones, and has some famous bastards; the famous mathematician, Lady Lovelace, is one of his illegitimate children. But he also wrote the first English-Armenian dictionary, and was a very, charming, intelligent debater. His letters are filled with wisdom and humor. In an incredibly elegant manner, almost complimentary, he was able to inform someone of their idiocy. I would love to have lunch with Lord Byron, even if he spent an hour politely insulting me.
Besides writing, what are your favorite things to do?
Sara: Travel! I also love hiking, playing board games, reading every genre, watching cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies in the middle of summer, and learning Italian so I can one day move to Venice.
What is the biggest challenge of being a writer?
Sara: Pulling together a bunch of short stories into a cohesive novel and then figuring out what scenes are missing.
It was funny with Will Write for Wine, my husband included a little gondola and gondolier on the cover, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t have any gondola scenes in the book. Both the gondola scenes were the last scenes I wrote.
If writing suddenly made you rich and famous, what would you do?
Sara: Move to Venice and write more!
What’s the most fun part of writing a novel or short story/screenplay? What’s the least fun part?
Sara: Most fun? Dialogue! I’m originally a playwright, so I love dialogue.
Least fun? Killing a character I like. Killing a nasty character is delightful, but killing a kind character, or a character I’ve spent years with, is heart-wrenching.
How much non-writing work, (research, marketing & promotion, illustrations & book covers, etc…), do you do yourself for your books?
Sara: I do everything myself, but my husband does the cover art and most of the website maintenance. We have fun working together.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play Alexis Lynn?
Sara: Oh! Juicy question. Reese Witherspoon. Yep, definitely Reese Witherspoon. Mid-40s, cute, and like Alexis, she exudes positivity even when her world is falling apart.
What goals do you set for yourself in your writing?
Sara: Don’t plan ahead. If I don’t know what’s going to happen, neither does the reader. This is really funny because I’m writing a murder-mystery right now and halfway through the book, my murderer, who I didn’t know was the murderer, just totally confessed to the murder. So, um, geez, I guess that book is going to be a different style of murder mystery. LOL! So, I guess my goal in writing is to always be surprised.
As you can see, Sara is an author who loves what she does ad is pretty comfortable in her own skin. Now, let’s hear about her inspiration for the fourth story in Stories I Stole From Lord Byron’s Bastard, “Lazzaretto Vecchio: A Dowry for Saffron”.
Guest Postby Author Sara W. McBride
Inspiration for “A Dowry for Saffron”
What inspired the story, “Lazzaretto Veccchio: A Dowry for Saffron?”
“Sia laudato il signor Iddio non ci sono stati morti.”
Bless the Lord, there have been no deaths [today].
December 24, 1630, in Sant’Eufemia, Venice.
* * *
This quote is from the opening of a Nature paper, “A digital reconstruction of the 1630-1631 large plague outbreak in Venice,” by Gianrocco Lazzari, et al. Published Oct. 20, 2020.
* * *
I’ve always been fascinated by the European plagues, but when I read the above Nature paper, the effects of the 1630-31 plague on Venice consumed my mornings for several weeks. This especially seemed relevant while living through a new global pandemic, thankfully with much lower mortality rates.
In 1348-49, bubonic plague killed one-third of the European population, up to 25 million people, and Venice, as a crossroads for international trade, lost half its residents. Imagine living in a bustling city of 100,000 people, and half of them die within 18 months. It would be horrifying and haunting.
In response to the devastating plague of 1348-49, Lazzaretto Vecchio was established in 1423 as the first quarantine island in the Mediterranean region, and was used to separate the healthy from the sick during Venetian plagues. Lazzaretto Nuovo was established shortly afterward as a place where ships suspected to carry sickness among their passengers or crew were anchored for 40 days. English acquired the word “quarantine” from the Italian term for 40 days, quaranta giorni. The lagoon island of Poveglia also became a quarantine outpost sometime in the 15th century. It’s rumored that half the soil of Poveglia is human ash from burned plague corpses. Then it became a mental hospital from 1922-1968. No wonder the place is one of the most haunted locations in Europe.
Considering the 15th century world had no idea how disease was spread, the idea of quarantining the sick or foreigners arriving from plague stricken areas was very innovative.
The story, “Lazzeretto Vecchio: A Dowry for Saffron,” takes place during Venice’s plague of 1630-31, which killed a third of the city’s population. Both plague islands were used to isolate and treat the sick, however, caregivers were needed to work at the island hospitals, mostly because, I assume, workers kept dying of plague.
The Italian city of Ferrara had a long history of successfully avoiding plagues that ravaged other parts of Italy. They closed their city gates and screened all arrivals for any signs of disease. They insisted that Fedi, proofs, identification papers from a plague-free zone must be presented. Ferrara, starting as early as medieval times, engaged in public sanitation campaigns, sweeping away garbage and liberally spreading lime powder on any surface that had come into contact with an infected person.
When an Italian physician, Girolamo Fracastoro, published a text in 1546 describing the “seeds of disease” as something that could stick to clothes and objects, Ferrara increased their sanitation practices during plagues and burned the clothes of any infected people. Removing garbage, spreading lime powder and burning infected clothing probably reduced the flea pestilence that actually carried Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague.
Many natural remedies were prescribed for protection against the plague, but a medicinal oil designed by a Spanish physician, Pedro Castagno, was written into Ferrara’s, “Reggimento contra la peste,” regimen against the plague. The oil, called Composito, was recommended to be applied to the body.
“Before getting up in the morning, after lighting a fire of scented woods (juniper, laurel and vine shoots), warm the clothes and above all the shirt, rub first the heart region, near the fire to ease balm absorption, then the throat. [Afterwards], wash hands and face with acqua chiara (clean water) mixed with wine or vinegar of roses, with which sometimes all the body should be cleaned, using a sponge.”
Ferrara city’s regimen against the plague
The contents of Composito was never fully disclosed, but researchers examined the records of materials ordered by Castagno and determined that the oil contained venom from scorpions and vipers, and myrrh and Crocus sativus, which is a saffron flower from which the filaments produce the golden spice saffron. Both myrrh and saffron are known to have antibacterial properties, as does scorpion venom with the bonus that it’s also a pain reliever. So basically, Composito was an early antibiotic and pain reliever combo. Pretty nifty!
According to census records, Venice’s population was around 140,000 in 1624. By 1633, that number had fallen to 102,000. More than 43,000 deaths were recorded over just three years, with nearly half of them taking place between September and December 1630. The city of Venice began several public works projects, like the grand Baroque church, Santa Maria della Salute, greeting guests at the entrance to the Grand Canal. The church’s construction began in November 1630 with the goal of keeping citizens employed and maintaining art and labor skills.
The city of Venice also purchased food for the quarantined, both in the city and on the plague islands. It is logical to speculate that in the early months of 1631, Venice might have asked Ferrara, a city with success at conquering the plague, if their convents could be paid in order to encourage volunteers to work at the plague islands. My story is fictitious, but the stage was set for the events I describe in the story. I also talked about pirates in the story. Yes, there were pirates at this time: mercenary pirates and government deployed pirates (particularly from England).
My story focuses on a group of nuns who have been “volunteered” by their convents, and how they sacrifice one nun into a marriage in order to secure their much needed ingredient of saffron for Composito, their only hope for survival on the plague islands. The politics and finances of Venice in 1631 created a world where this story could have happened. There’s a lot of history not recorded in text books, and this is a story that no one would want recorded.
Something fun for readers:
In my research of the plague islands, I was surprised by the lack of ghost ship stories haunting the Venetian lagoon. If you know of any, please write me at email@example.com. If you’ve ever visited the eerie lagoon island, Poveglia, the plague island, turned insane asylum, turned old-folks home, which now stands empty—less the chilling screams on foggy nights—I want to hear about it.