Guest Blog: Researching DA VINCI'S TIGER
November 17, 2015
Hello Readers! My name is Megan Behm, and I am taking over L.M Elliott’s blog today!
I have the great pleasure to work for L.M. Elliott as her research assistant, and have now worked closely with her on three different novels.
I have the even greater pleasure of being her daughter.
Working together on Da Vinci’s Tiger was a truly special experience. Ginevra’s life challenged us both deeply as story-tellers (I am a director in the theatre). So little had been written about her, and yet her influence on Leonardo da Vinci was clearly profound. Her one surviving line of poetry indicated a kick-butt, strong-willed, and yet gentle woman, and both Mom and I found ourselves going back to that one line to gather up inspiration. I believe the story that emerged out of the tiny list of concrete details we had about her is sincere, witty, beautiful, and empowering.
But along the way, there were plenty of bumps in the road as both Mom and I played detective, pouring through books, pieces of art, old journals—anything we could get our hands on.
Here are a few things I learned in the process.
Never trust an Italian family tree.
In Renaissance Italy, people were frequently named after relatives or patron saints of the family. Meaning that two completely different people could have identical names. There were many times I was convinced I had found a family connection between two characters in Da Vinci’s Tiger…only to realize I was swapping a sister for a wife or a father for a father-in-law.
Being a researcher will make you do some very weird math.
Accurately depicting a different historical era means having a good understanding of day-to-day interactions: what people ate, where they shopped, what they wore, etc. Florence in particular was full of merchants and businessmen, meaning Mom and I had to have a comprehensive understanding of the guilds and industries in Florence, and a comparative understanding of price points for different kinds of cloth, art, or property. There’s really no straightforward way to compare a Florin—the currency of Renaissance Florence—to a modern dollar or euro. However, for some reason, many references turned up comparing the cost of something to the cost of a chicken. So, as it turned out, we were able to convert florins to chickens to understand just how costly something like a new formal gown (some included as much as 20 pounds of fabric) would be.
Footnotes are your best friend
While researching this book, I had to develop a sharp attention to small details. Oftentimes, the most fascinating and weird historical tidbits cropped up, not in the body of a book or article, but in footnotes, after words, or brief quotations. Tracing the source of these footnotes often led to hilarious historical anecdotes or bits of trivia. These stories and facts were often deemed historically insignificant, and so are left out of the history books—but are absolute gems for a historical fiction author, because they reveal flavors and characteristics of the day-to-day life of a historical period. From footnotes I learned about: Simonetta Vespucci and Ginevra de Benci’s family connection through marriage; Ginevra’s brothers nickname “the 600” (because he spent the huge sum of 600 florins on his beloved and very fast horse); and a hilarious anecdote featuring Ginevra’s uncle Bartolameo, his platonic love, and a rowdy snowball fight (you’ll have to read the book to learn more about that one.)
Sometimes there are no satisfying answers. Use mystery as a launching pad for imagination.
Ginevra was married off when she was a teenager to Luigi Niccolini, a much older man of inferior wealth and connections. For weeks, Mom and I poured through everything we had about him, trying to figure out why one of Florence’s most desired bachelorettes would be married off to someone so relatively unimportant. After a few days, I was content to make the educated guess that he was probably a friend of Ginevra’s uncle, and that with a house full of unmarried women, Ginevra was probably married off quickly to focus on her sisters and cousins. Mom, however, literally spent weeks repeatedly insisting that it didn’t make any sense to her. (I think Mom’s developing love for Ginevra filled her with indignation that Ginevra would be married to someone so unworthy of her!) Eventually, she had to accept we weren’t going to find a book or historic document—or even a footnote!—that explained the match, and plunged into writing, steering his character based off the few facts we had and Mom’s sharp writer’s intuition. As it turns out, Luigi became one of the most fascinating supporting characters in the novel, and his plot twist near the end is one of my favorite moments in Da Vinci’s Tiger.
Don’t expect anything to be easy or straightforward—but your hard work will always be rewarded by something unexpected.
Da Vinci’s Tiger begins with a joust. Mom asked me to write her a detailed explanation of the customs, armor, and tradition of jousts during the Italian Renaissance. I thought this would be easy—jousts were an incredibly popular form of entertainment across Europe during this period and are a stable of poetry, novels, and movies. However, it proved incredibly difficult to figure out the difference between jousting traditions, preferred horses, and types of armor in Italy, Germany, England, France, and other European countries. It was also incredibly difficult to find a coherent explanation of the rules—since everyone at the time knew them, there didn’t seem to be much point in writing them down. Eventually, I managed to cobble together the needed information for the first chapter—but because I had to read multiple sources for fairly straightforward information, I also gathered an arsenal of funny anecdotes about particular jousts. My favorite included the story of man whose hose were so tight (to show off his finely toned calves, no doubt) that he couldn’t ride properly and literally slid off his horse! I was also delighted to learn, as an unabashed fan of A Knight’s Tale starring Heath Ledger, that there really was a knight (and poet) named Ulrich von Lichtenstein.
Nothing is a substitute for going there.
You can research a period as much as you want, but it is the details of a place that give a story life. I firmly believe Da Vinci’s Tiger is so good because Mom has taken the time to immerse herself in the landscape of her novel (and I got to go too!) She has not only taken the time to research the customs and events of Renaissance Florence, but the way the light shines on the Arno and the peal of the Duomo bells. She can pull from her own experience to describe a nighttime walk from Santa Croce to the Medici Palazzo, and the book is much richer for it.
Researching Da Vinci’s Tiger was a joyous and challenging adventure, and I cannot wait for you all to read it!