The paperback of The Stars of Heaven has finally made past production delays (thanks, 2020…) and is available for purchase! To celebrate, today’s blog is an excerpt from Chapter One. I hope you enjoy!
Glancing at the parishioners spilling out the door of Nossa Senhora dos Mártires into the square in front of the basilica, Cecília was left with the sinking feeling that it was getting far closer to ten than she’d originally estimated. Even if she had convinced Tio Aloisio to come to the Baixa with her, they would have had no chance to make it to São Vincente in time for High Mass. All she could hope was that no one had noticed she’d gone, and the entire morning would be one more thing she would have to privately confess at the Palmeiro’s.
She slowed them to a stop just outside the square by another niche—one holding a thick wooden crucifix—and pointed east. “Rua Nova dos Mercadores is that way, if you’d like to part ways here.”
“I’m more than happy to walk you the rest of the way home, Senhorita Durante.”
Because after everything, she needed someone from her bairro seeing her wandering about alone with an Englishman. “With the crowds, I imagine that would make you late for your meeting.”
A conflicted expression moved over Mr. Bates’s face as he scanned the crowd for himself, no doubt seeing she was right.
She saved him the trouble of having to weigh whatever duty he felt to her and however important he considered his meeting. “I’ve lived in Lisbon my entire life, Mr. Bates. I’m certain I’ll be able to make it home without your assistance.”
Mr. Bates began to give one more halfhearted objection before a low rumble moving through the ground made him trail off. Cecília frowned, looking for an approaching coach, though from the way the sound was growing, it would have had to have been a line of coaches barreling toward them.
“What’s that?” Mr. Bates followed Cecília’s gaze.
Cecília shook her head, not having any better idea than Mr. Bates. The rumbling grew stronger, making loose pebbles rattle around her feet as the sound neared a roar.
Earthquake. The thought registered a second too late as the street under her rolled. Cecília tipped forward as shouts went up, mixing with discordant clanging church bells. She put her hand out to brace herself, but the ground lurched again. Her shoulder slammed into the curve of the niche then bucked the other way. She hit cobblestone hard.
The wall of the building across from her split, chunks of white plaster raining down across the street. Rough brick showed through as the ground continued its assault. Then the brick started to tilt. Eyes widening, Cecília curled into herself, everything happening too quickly to make sense. The wall fell. Hard chunks pelted her as it kicked up a cloud of dust so thick that she had no choice but to close her eyes.
Slowly, the shaking slowed, and the roar was replaced by a cacophony of the most horrible sounds Cecília had ever heard—screaming, crying, panicked whinnies of horses. Cecília’s body seized. She tried to unfurl, but her muscles wouldn’t release. Shock kept her curled, eyes squeezed shut as though everything would stop if she didn’t look, as though she would wake up in her bed, the morning a dream. A new roar rose over the screams a second before the rumbling returned. Crying, she dropped her forehead to the ground, mumbling some prayer for mercy as Hell rose up around her. “Misericorda. Misericorda de Deus.”
There was more screaming, more crashing, a loud snap, and pain shooting across her back. Somewhere, her mind registered that something hard had landed on top of her. She choked on dust as she gasped, trying to suck in what air she could under the crushing weight. Time began to blur. Nothing existed beyond the roar and rocking and pain.
The ground slowly stilled once again—after how long, Cecília couldn’t begin to imagine—but she still couldn’t breathe. She struggled to reach whatever had pinned her. One hand touched smooth wood—the crucifix from the niche. She pushed, but it wouldn’t shift. Something had to have been on top of it, pressing into the cross as it pressed into her. Her sight began to blur, her chest not able to expand enough to take in air. As hard as she fought to remain conscious, her mind turned fuzzy.
The third roar barely registered until the crucifix shook loose. Cecília gasped. She ended up coughing, thick dust coating her throat. No longer completely pinned, she still had to fight to free herself. Rough bricks scraped her palms, but they shifted as the shaking stopped, letting Cecília inch her way forward. She could find her way out, if she just kept moving…
Reaching out once more, her hand hit nothing. She froze, the sensation not making sense until she realized she had reached open air. The day had simply turned pitch black.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward Heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt. The words floated through Cecília’s mind, and she crossed herself before she realized how much pain the movement caused. She couldn’t bring herself to rise from her knees. God had thrown her and the whole city down into the earth. There was no other explanation.
Slowly, some light began to filter through the haze in the air, and Cecília’s eyes struggled to adjust. The sight was worse than the darkness. Bodies poked through piles of stone—men with their heads dashed open, mangled limbs reaching out as if trying to free themselves even without the bodies to which they had once been attached. Others were still alive, and some cried for help, some already fleeing over the rubble. They weren’t in Hell. But Lisbon seemed worse.
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After six years of work researching, writing, and editing, my first purely historical fiction novel, The Stars of Heaven, has finally reached release day! One thing that had long kept me in the “historical fantasy” sphere (beyond the fact that magic is fun!) was I was always a bit intimidated by the amount of research that goes into true historical fiction novels. And The Stars of Heaven was its own level of research hell since, like the bulk of Americans I’ve met, I had never even heard of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake before learning of its existence in a rather unlikely source–an Assassin’s Creed game. After falling down a research hole trying to find out what this disaster was, I found what might be one of the most important events of the Western world that no one outside of Portugal (who hasn’t read Voltaire’s Candide) seems to know about.
So, for those of you out there who, like me, had never heard of this disaster. Here are seven of the most interesting fact I learned while in that research quagmire:
1. It was more than “just” an earthquake.
While the earthquake was the primary disaster (with an epicenter likely somewhere off the Portuguese coast under the Atlantic and large enough to have reports of feeling it in New England papers–estimated to be an 8.4 on the modern Richter scale) Lisbon really couldn’t catch a break. Rather than a quick rumble passing through, there were three distinct waves of shaking, each reportedly lasting for several minutes. Contemporary accounts disagree on exact timing (I imagine you aren’t busy looking at your pocket watch in the middle of trying not to die) but it is generally agreed that the shaking alone lasted at least ten minutes. As the quake also happened on a holiday (All Saints’ Day) in very Catholic Portugal, it also managed to knock over a ton of votive candles and start fires all over the city. As Lisbon is built at the center of a number of tall hills, this created a fire bowl that ripped through what buildings weren’t destroyed.
Since that obviously wasn’t enough though, as often happens with earthquakes under water, the quake then sparked off tsunamis–three of them, one for each wave of the quake–that hit the city and washed out most of the Lisbon waterfront (including the king’s Riverside Palace and Naval Shipyard). When all was said and done, there was practically nothing left of downtown Lisbon (known as the Baixa).
2. An estimated 50,000 died and 100,000 were left homeless.
With the success of Portugal’s overseas colonies (most notably Brazil) in the eighteenth century, Lisbon was a thriving trading port, housing an estimated 10% of Portugal’s total population (approx. 250,000 people). As it was a holiday, many from the surrounding countryside had come to the city to attend High Mass and other festivities, making the already crowded city packed. This led to an estimated 50,000 deaths over the course of the quakes, fires, and tsunamis, and another 100,000 people left homeless.
3. It was the first “modern” disaster with major international aid.
While the Great Lisbon Earthquake was far from the first major natural disaster, it was the first in a major European city after trade had interwoven the major powers so closely (as a port city, Lisbon had a sizable expat community, including traders from across the globe). News of the destruction shocked the world, and many countries immediately sent aid to help the struggling lisboetas (and evacuate any of their own citizens who wished to leave). As this was the eighteenth century, “immediately” often did mean several months between the news reaching somewhere and then ships making it back, but it still was perhaps the first example of the outpouring of international aid we still see following major disasters.
4. It included one of the first scientific seismic studies.
While many did believe the earthquake had been sent by God to punish, those interested in the “modern” methods brought by the European Age of Enlightenment wanted to find a scientific explanation for what happened. This included interviewing those willing to give first-person accounts and sending out surveys asking questions such as “When did you first feel the shaking” (trying to track how the quake moved) and “Did you notice any signs before the shaking started” (such as animals acting strangely or wells running low). It was hoped that being able to understand any patterns would allow them to predict future quakes, or at least “earthquake proof” new buildings.
5. Soldiers marching was used to test earthquake-proof designs.
Paired with the survey, following the quake, architects worked for years to try to build structures that were “earthquake proof” including using different types of latticework to support stone buildings and have the masonry fall out to the street rather than on anyone in the building. To test the different models created (as they couldn’t call up another small quake or use a modern earthquake simulator) they came up with the ingenious solution of having soldiers march in circles around the models to make the ground shake. This allowed them to pick the strongest framing designs.
6. It (more or less) ended the Portuguese Inquisition.
Perhaps less well known than its Spanish cousin, there was also a Holy Office of the Inquisition in Portugal that ran well into the eighteenth century.
While the quake did lead many to double down on their faith, it also put the Church in direct conflict with the scientific methods being used to study the quake (hey, look, that’s what my book’s about… fancy that…) While it was a slow process, the quake more or less was the beginning of the end of the Portuguese Inquisition. Other progressive legislation tied (either directly or indirectly) to the earthquake includes the founding of public schools in Portugal, “modernization” of college curricula (moving away from classic Latin studies), abolition of slavery in Portugal (though unfortunately not its colonies–sorry, Brazil), and opening positions once only allowed to be held by nobility to anyone qualified.
7. It permanently scarred the king(mentally).
While the reigning king, Dom José (Joseph I of Portugal), and his family escaped the quake physically intact (they were spending the holiday in Belém–now a part of Lisbon–which was located on stronger bedrock to the west and not as hard hit as the Baixa) mentally, the king never recovered. Suffering from what most likely would now be called PTSD, he refused to step foot inside masonry again for the rest of his life, going so far as to commission what came to be known as the Real Barraca (literally the “royal shack” or “royal tent”) a grand single-story palace built entirely of wood.
By all accounts, it was an impressive structure filled with tapestries and other luxuries to make it more “royal” than “shack” located on the site of modern-day Ajuda National Palace. Unfortunately, as wooden structures are wont to do, it caught fire and burned down in 1794.
Like what seems to be the bulk of the internet this past weekend, I watched Hamilton on Disney+. And, as will come as a surprise to precisely no one who has ever met me in real life, my husband and I then spent much longer than is healthy picking apart the history behind the play. Now, first things first, I am a fan of the musical. I bought the soundtrack back in 2015 and memorized it all. I spent way too much to go see the performance at the Kennedy Center when it was in D.C. Nitpicking the history wasn’t at all about trying to tear the play down, it was about analyzing the creative choices. There is no doubt that Lin Manuel Miranda is familiar with his topic. Like most (if not all) historical fiction writers, he fully immersed himself in his era (even getting to write at one of Hamilton’s desks at a historical site in New York—proving that there are perks to being a famous writer over the rest of us doing the bulk of our research through commercially published works and whatever we can Google/find online).
Since history does not often conform itself to a perfect narrative, however, the fiction part of historical fiction sometimes does take necessity and leads to little (or sometimes big) cheats to tell the story you’re trying to tell. And so, Hamilton becomes a great example of how things sometimes have to give when you’re digging a great historical fiction out actual history.
Timelines get compressed (or changed entirely):
One of the cardinal pieces of writing advice often given in writing classes is “if it doesn’t serve a purpose, cut it.” When it comes to telling a story, every scene should be propelling your narrative and characters, be that providing new information, taking the characters closer to (or farther from) their goal, or building characterization. Unfortunately, history generally isn’t kind enough to do the same. Especially in the past, things took time to happen. There were weeks between letters being sent and delivered, people would go home to plant their fields before eventually returning to finish whatever “more important” action they started months ago… all in all, a bunch of “actual life” stuff gets in the way of a narrative arc. For that reason, historical fiction often trims the time it takes between events or sometimes even rearranges when specific events happen. The play Hamilton has a bit of a leg up in messing with the timeline in that it can paint with a very broad brush with time passing (when exactly did Hamilton get this letter? Well, it’s sometime between the Battle of Yorktown (1781) and the Constitutional Convention (1787)… pick a time) but even with that, it is still possible to pick out places where the timeline has been rearranged for storytelling.
A good example of this is the song Farmer Refuted. For this song, Miranda uses a common historical fiction “trick” where he takes writing from the actual historical record and then translates it into action on the stage/page. Unsurprisingly, Samuel Seabury did write an actual “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress”, from which his lines in the song are taken. Hamilton then wrote a response (two, in fact, since the play is correct in that he was never one for moderation in his writing) which he titled (any guesses?) “The Farmer Refuted”. I particularly like this example as it encapsulates both compressing the timeline and rearranging it. As these were pamphlets and responses written back and forth, obviously there was a lot more time necessary for this exchange than the few minutes shown on the stage where Hamilton literally steps onto Seabury’s soapbox and talks over him. These pamphlets were also written in 1774 and 1775 respectively, placing them solidly before the “1776, New York City” time and place setting given in Aaron Burr, Sir, which is five songs ahead of Farmer Refuted in the play. Since the entire narrative point of Farmer Refuted, though, is to show Hamliton’s bombastic approach to speaking his beliefs (setting up the dichotomy between him and his foil, Burr) and progress the story toward the actual fighting of the revolution, Miranda took these earlier works and transposed them into a single exchange that makes his intended point in a narratively interesting way that the actual timing would not have allowed for.
Similarly, events are rearranged to fit in (spoilers for actual history?) Philip Hamilton’s death. In actual history, Philip Hamilton died in 1801. Fans of the musical will recognize this date as decidedly after the Election of 1800, which in the play happens in its eponymous song two tracks after Philip’s death in Stay Alive (reprise). This change was narratively necessary, however, as Miranda further compressed the narrative toward the end to remove a lot of the other events that led up to the Hamliton/Burr duel. In actual history, this duel is more closely connected to Burr’s New York gubernatorial campaign than his presidential campaign (which is also the reason Hamliton’s death is in 1804, rather than closer to 1800). Since the condensed narrative for the play would not support dealing with the conflict between Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson in The Election of 1800 only to then have Philip die and then there be another conflict around an election, Miranda made the decision to move Philip’s death forward to then allow the Election of 1800 to serve the narrative function of both conflicts between our protagonist and antagonist. While in longer works of fiction, such as novels, readers perhaps might not allow quite as broad of changes to be made unremarked, as there is more time to get into nuances, in a time-compressed play or movie especially, joining these events to serve one singular narrative beat that leads to the historically accurate outcome is understandable.
Characters become symbolic:
While watching the Disney+ broadcast, one of the topics that we kept circling back to was Daveed Diggs’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson. While Diggs does an amazing job with his physicality and character choices (he’s actually one of my favorite performances in the show) the person he is portraying is decidedly not the reserved, almost comically introverted, by many accounts, Thomas Jefferson. Rather than attempting to write an accurate Thomas Jefferson, Miranda wrote a character meant to be the embodiment of Jeffersonian ideas. He needed a quick, engaging way to show the conflicts between the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists in the early Federalist Period, and an accurate, reserved Jefferson would not have been able to match the bombastic energy of Hamilton’s character. Realism was thus once again sacrificed so that the narratively necessary points could be made. While in fiction it is always necessary to have characters feel realistic enough to be engaging as people, when telling a greater historical narrative, characters do often also fall into a symbolic role as well. One character may be a down-on-his-luck tailor but he is also the symbolic “put-upon proletariat” character the reader needs to connect to to get the full impact of the coming revolution or another character may be a charming poet, but she is also the mouthpiece for Romantic Era ideals to be able to show how the world is changing. In this way, Miranda has turned Diggs’s Jefferson into a charismatic symbol of conflicting political ideals rather than gone for anything close to a realistic portrayal of historic Thomas Jefferson.
Similarly, to serve the romantic subplot of the show, the Angelica Schuyler Miranda has written is a far cry from her historical counterpart. Miranda is on record as saying that he felt Hamilton needed an intellectual equal as a love interest, and thus developed this bittersweet “soulmates who can’t be” relationship between Angelica and Hamilton. Beyond the plainly “factual” errors that building this plot required (Philip Schuyler had eight children, including three sons despite Angelica’s line in Satisfied stating, “My father has no sons so/I’m the one who has to social climb for one”) Miranda also builds a character who is a mental match for his version of Hamilton by giving them a shared dissatisfaction with their lots in life. Unlike other women in the era who were proto-feminists (most notably being perhaps Abigail Adams in her 1776 letter urging her husband to “remember the ladies”) there does not seem to be any real evidence in the historical record that Angelica Schuyler shared the sentiment or would have tried to “compel [Jefferson] to include women in the sequel” of the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal”. Rather than being a historically accurate Angelica who, while definitely witty and period-appropriately flirty in some letters, was already married by the time she met Hamilton and seemingly satisfied enough with her life, she becomes the character necessary to build a love triangle for Miranda’s Hamilton.
With Hamilton being a rap musical, it is hardly surprising that the language used in it is not period accurate (you mean to tell me not only were the Schuyler sisters not a trio of feminists, but they also wouldn’t have said “Work!”?) but this is something that all historical fiction authors come up against. For any book set before the 18th century, it is more or less understood that the piece of fiction the reader or viewer is digesting is a “translation” much in the same way that a fantasy novel is a “translation” from whatever language would be spoken in that fantasy world. Historical fiction readers/viewers don’t expect to pick up a book set in the middle ages and find something written in Old or Middle English. Similarly, there is a certain level of “suspension of disbelief” with any novel that needs to use more modern equivalents of difficult historical phrases to be understood. Obviously, just like with plays getting more ability to compress events in general, Hamilton gets an extra level of suspension of disbelief with its language than “normal” historical fiction due to it form. However, it also treds that line all historical fiction does of providing a “realistic” experience (including actual lines from “The Farmer Refuted” (Farmer Refuted) “Washington’s Farewell Address” (One Last Time) “The Reynolds Pamphlet” (The Reynolds Pamphlet) and Hamilton and Burr’s letters (Your Obedient Servant)) while also remaining accessible to modern audiences. Much like writing that medieval novel in modern English, Miranda manages to translate moments in history using non-accurate language by finding modern “equivalents”, such as a rap battle rather than an early Federalist cabinet debate, much in the same way that a novelist might need to use the slightly less period-appropriate word “science” instead of “natural philosophy” in a throwaway line of dialogue for it to be easily digestible. Obviously, all historical fiction authors need to know where exactly the line is for their own suspension of disbelief and work to keep their “translations” grounded enough to their own internal logic to not lose readers, but as we can see, if the changes are done well, they can do an amazing job of getting people who have never been interested in a period (or perhaps history in general) hungry in finding out more, and that truly is one of the wonderful things Hamilton has managed to do.
For those who are interested in the actual history of these characters and events, I strongly suggest picking up some non-fiction, such as Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, which gave Miranda his idea for the show to start with and seeing for yourself what the musical Hamilton does and doesn’t change. For those who are interested in writing historical fiction, I strongly suggest doing so as well, even if it’s just to be able to fully dissect what Miranda decided to keep and what he decided to change to build a tight, engaging narrative. I will not attempt to argue that every choice was perfect or if he should or shouldn’t have used such broad strokes in places (there are many pieces out there that have done much more justice to those arguments than I could in this short blog post), but if you—like I previously have—are currently caught up trying to balance history with fiction, this musical truly is a great study to at least get your feet wet with what changes may or may not work in your own narratives.