Friday, March 4, 2011

Play Acting On Paper

My guest is historical author, Elizabeth Loupas.

I've been looking forward to this story for forever. Well, it feels that way. Elizabeth is very good at giving out dribbles and dabbles of what she's working on and usually just enough to make your mouth water for the finished product. And then you wait. Sigh, and count another gray hair. "Is it done yet?" 

My thoughts:

Finally, I got to read it from beginning to end and not little bits and pieces. Let me tell you, this book was well worth the wait. It's a rare thing today to read an historical which can whisk me through a time portal and give me the feel I'm actually there. This one did and I was in the court of Ferrara and I didn't want to return home. I was having too much fun figuring out the mystery with Barbara of Austria. :-)

It's a sumptuous feast of colors, foods, dress, and political intrigues of Renaissance Italy and the court of the Duke of Ferrara. This was not a story in which you barely recognized the time period and have a modern love story between characters dressed in costume. This story gives you a glimpse of the pomp and pageantry of the court as well as being true to the mores of the time--ie the attitudes and formality between a power couple such as the sister of an emperor, Barbara of Hapsburg, and the ruling duke of the city state, Alfonso d'Este. The state of the church during this time with the rather loose morals when it came to fulfilling their vows. Even the pope had a mistress and some had children during this time period so it was no surprise to see worldly bishops or mother superiors acting the same. I appreciated how Elizabeth portrayed how servants really acted, and how aristocratic ladies in waiting really behaved towards each other and to the one they served. The power the man had over the women in his life. How an arranged marriage between virtual strangers could become a love story. 

This is a wonderful Gothic styled mystery fraught with passion, intrigued and danger. Who killed Lucrezia de Medici? Did the Duke kill her as the gossips of the European and Ferrara royal courts whisper?

I love the way Elizabeth intertwines the Two Duchess' stories with both having a say as the story progressed; one tells the story from her point of view as a ghost (immobili) and the other is the main narrator and a wife in fear of her life. I'll tell you, it wasn't easy to figure out who was actually guilty of the murder. Facts were presented and the reader was on the hunt for the truth as much as Barbara was. Well paced with plenty of tension. And of course the "Pocket Beagles", Tristo and Isa, the darling little heroes of the day.

If you like a rich in culture historical served with a dollop of romance and an extra serving of a spicy mystery, you're going to love The Second Duchess. I know I did and I didn’t want it to end. This is an outstanding story, well researched with realistic pageants and festivities, the dialog is distinctive to each character and moves the story along, the mystery and suspense is well done.

### I give this story five stars.###

Elizabeth shares a bit of how she writes her stories: 

Thank you, Sia, for inviting me to come chat over a cup of cyber-coffee. I’d like to offer my personal take on the ever-contentious issue of outlining versus writing by the seat of one’s pants.

I’ve always been an outliner of sorts, although my outlines tended to be terse (“something bad has to happen here”) flexible, and capable of growing whole new subplots in the blink of an eye like some sort of literary kudzu. When I started planning my second book, I found out I was expected to produce a proposal. This consisted of 10,000 words or so, plus a detailed outline. One could actually sell a book, I learned, on the basis of this proposal. Yay! I dived in, and after two or three weeks surfaced with a detailed twenty-four-page outline. Holy cats. This outline actually told the story down to the last scene and sequel. The riotous kudzu had been ruthlessly pruned back and replaced by perfect, detailed topiary.

Most of the “pantsers” I’ve talked to say the biggest problem with outlining is that writing an outline tells the story, and so there’s no sense of excitement or discovery left to drive the actual writing of the book. Well, writing a detailed twenty-four page outline really tells the story. I needed some sort of fresh way of looking at the whole process, to make the story come alive for me when I already knew what was going to happen.

That’s when I came up with the concept of playacting on paper.

An actress, you see, is given a script. She reads the script and she knows what’s going to happen at the end of the movie. The story already exists. And yet the actress makes art by creating stories within the story, what happened before, what happens afterward, what happens when she’s offstage. She uses her own experiences and the experiences of others to infuse her performance with depth and nuance and emotional complexity. That is the actress’s business, her work. She always has a script. And yet a good actress creates art that transcends the scripted words.

Suddenly that detailed outline wasn’t so intimidating anymore. The story wasn’t just linear, going from chapter one to chapter thirty-one, the end. It went up and down, high and low. It went around and around within each scene. There were depths to plumb, gestures and inflections to choose, motivations to work out, all the work of acting. It was just on paper, not on a movie set.

Maybe it’s because I started out wanting to be an actress, and have done plays in high school, college and community theatre productions. But I found I loved the idea of having my “script,” then blocking, running dialogue, discerning motivation. I actually do physically “block” scenes, work out the movement of the actors within the given space, so no one ends up with three hands or looking out an east window at the sunset. For me, it’s become the perfect way to work from an outline and still keep my story and my characters endlessly fresh.

Bonus fun: I get to be the art director and set decorator as well. The costume designer and chief make-up artist. The cinematographer and film editor. The music director and choreographer. The banquet designer (I just made that one up), because I do love lavish Renaissance food and how it was cooked and presented. When I’ve roughed out a scene as the actress (or actor, although my viewpoint characters tend to be female), I go back and add touches from each of these other disciplines. Each of these people also works from the script, but adds unique creative touches.

Next time you’re looking for a book on the craft of writing, find a book on the art and technique of acting as well. A couple of good ones are The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential as an Actor by Larry Moss, and Actions: The Actors' Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams. The second one is an incredible secret find for writers—a “thesaurus of action words... indispensable in developing mood, line readings, and acting choices for each and every line.” See the connection between acting and writing?

I’ve learned to love my detailed outline. It’s my script—and my writing has become playacting on paper.

ELIZABETH WILL BE AT HER FIRST BOOKSIGNGING AT: Murder By The Book in Houston, Texas, later today. She will be stopping in with reports and if we can, some pictures! Stay tuned Friday afternoon and Saturday.

The Second Duchess

A rich, compelling historical novel-and a mystery of royal intrigue.

In a city-state known for magnificence, where love affairs and conspiracies play out amidst brilliant painters, poets and musicians, the powerful and ambitious Alfonso d'Este, duke of Ferrara, takes a new bride. Half of Europe is certain he murdered his first wife, Lucrezia, the luminous child of the Medici. But no one dares accuse him, and no one has proof-least of all his second duchess, the far less beautiful but delightfully clever Barbara of Austria.

At first determined to ignore the rumors about her new husband, Barbara embraces the pleasures of the Ferrarese court. Yet wherever she turns she hears whispers of the first duchess's wayward life and mysterious death. Barbara asks questions-a dangerous mistake for a duchess of Ferrara. Suddenly, to save her own life, Barbara has no choice but to risk the duke's terrifying displeasure and discover the truth of Lucrezia's death-or she will share her fate. Excerpt

ELIZABETH LOUPAS grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and presently lives in a small town outside Dallas. Her debut historical novel The Second Duchess was published March 1, 2011 by Penguin/NAL, with the German edition Die Zweite Herzogin to follow in April from Rowohlt. She’s worked in radio and television, as a magazine editor, as a literature tutor, and ultimately as a freelance writer and marketing consultant. She holds degrees in literary studies and library/information science. Elizabeth is presently at work on a new novel called The Flower Reader, touching upon the notorious silver letter-casket of Mary Queen of Scots, some lost quatrains of Nostradamus, and a girl who can read the future in flowers.

Please visit her at

Sharing the Stage with Beagles and their fans

Dolcie and Elizabeth

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Finding a Substitue Me

It seems working women have way too much on their plates today. Having a career, having a successful marriage, raising a family, and doing it all well is the dream of many women in the workforce. What we end up with is exhaustion and guilt. How can you possibly do it all and do it well? If you’re lucky, you can afford domestic help.

I always managed to have someone to come in and clean my house a couple of times a week and someone who took care of the yard. I could afford it and it made life easier for me. At the peak of my career, as Vocational Rehab Counselor, I didn’t have any children so the hard choice of nannies and housekeepers wasn’t an issue.

When I did have a child, having seen plenty of my contemporaries going through the worry of hiring au pairs or housekeepers/nannies, I decided it wasn’t for me. I managed to work as an independent consultant for a few years but the workload was heavy and although I was ‘at home’ I felt the rush to get my work done with my usual competency and have quality time with my child. Talk about a juggling act, and subsequent exhaustion. So I chose to retire from being a counselor and be a full time mom using my areas of expertise to do contract niche jobs and it worked out much better for our family. Not everyone can make that choice.

My guest is Lori Tharps. She has a career teaching journalism on the university level and is married and raising two children. Now, she adds another job of author. Author, Journalist, Speaker, Mom--juggling at it's finest.

Her topic: if you could have a substitute to stand in for you in the home, what tasks would you have them do?


This past August, my debut novel, Substitute Me (Atria Books) hit store shelves. I’ve authored two other non-fiction books, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love, and Spain, but completing my first novel is like a dream come true for me. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved to make up stories and reading has always been my passion. So, now I have accomplished by greatest dream. Cue the music, curtains close. Not! Becoming a published author has not changed the course of my every day life in any substantial way. I still have to go to work every morning (I teach journalism at a local university), be a great mom to my two sons and keep a smile on my face while doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love my life. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I could use some help every now and again. And I mean help that my wonderful husband isn’t exactly qualified to do.

The irony is not lost on me that my book, Substitute Me is about a woman in a similar position. The same position as most working mothers. Kate Carter, one of the two female protagonists in the book, is an ambitious PR executive about to return to work after her maternity leave. She loves staying home with her newborn son, but she loves her job too. So, she hires a nanny, just like the majority of other working moms in her Brooklyn neighborhood. In the newspaper ad she places, she writes that she’s looking for a “substitute me” to “love her child as if he were her own.” Zora Anderson, an African-American woman who is trying to find her purpose in life, answers Kate’s ad and becomes Kate’s perfect substitute. Almost too perfect.

Even though in my novel the Carter household is forever altered after Zora takes over the domestic duties, sometimes I dream about hiring a ‘substitute me’ for myself. These days, that is my greatest dream.

Here’s what I’d like my ‘substitute’ to do:

  • • Make a delicious breakfast every morning, including fresh-squeezed orange juice.

  • • Make my kids’ lunches for school with a healthy and fun rotation of meals that they’ll actually eat and not trade with the kids whose mothers give them blue Kool-Aid and snacks with neon-orange cheese powder.

  • •Clean my house while I’m at work, paying special attention to the dust on all of the shelves, which I like to pretend I don’t notice.

  • • Make a scrumptious dinner that won’t make me fat, but tastes like it will.

That would be pretty much all I’d ask for, but then again, we’re just dreaming here, so why stop? If I were in the market for a real ‘substitute me,’ I’d probably also ask her to:

  • • Take the boys to karate, baseball and music lessons, so I can work on my writing while they’re gone.

  • • Help the boys with their math homework when I can’t figure out what the heck ‘new math’ really means. Hey, I’m a writer, I don’t speak math fluently.

  • • Do the laundry because I have a tendency to avoid going down in the basement because I’m afraid of the spiders and crickets that sometimes like to jump out and scare me.

  • • Join the PTA so the principal and teachers at the children’s school know how much I value my children’s’ education.

  • • Start a boy-scout troop in our neighborhood because my older son wants to be a Boy Scout and there are no local troop leaders.

  • • Go out salsa dancing with my husband every once in awhile to remind him that the spark is still alive in our marriage.

I think that about sums up what I need help with these days. If there was somebody in my life who could handle all of those chores, I’m sure I’d be far more prolific with my writing. But in the meantime, I’ll just keep up with my frenetic pace and my mind-boggling organizational skills that allow me to write in the in-between times. It’s worked so far…

  • If you could hire a substitute you, to help you find more time to write, what tasks would you assign her? Or him?


Zora Anderson is a 30-year-old African American middle class, college-educated woman, trained as a chef, looking for a job. As fate would have it, Kate and Craig, a married couple, aspiring professionals with a young child are looking for a nanny.

Zora seems perfect. She’s an enthusiastic caretaker, a competent housekeeper, a great cook. And she wants the job, despite the fact that she won’t let her African American parents and brother know anything about this new career move. They expect much more from her than to use all that good education to do what so many Blacks have dreamed of not doing: working for White folks. Working as an au pair in Paris, France no less, was one thing, they could accept that. Being a servant to a couple not much older or more educated, is yet another. Every adult character involved in this tangled web is hiding something: the husband is hiding his desire to turn a passion for comic books into a business from his wife, the wife is hiding her professional ambitions from her husband, the nanny is hiding her job from her family and maybe her motivations for staying on her job from herself.

Memorable characters, real-life tensions and concerns and the charming—in a hip kind of way—modern-day Park Slope, Fort Greene, Brooklyn setting make for an un-put-down-able read. Excerpt


Lori L. Tharps is the author of two critically acclaimed non-fiction books and the new novel, Substitute Me. She is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University.

Please visit her website, And on Facebook