About six months ago, I joined a local writing group (Bosque Valley Writers). I love our once a month meetups, and I enjoy the challenges that our small group leader, Catherine, bestows upon us.
One such challenge (for the month of June) was to write a historical fiction short story of no more than 1500 words that takes place before the 1800s. (I decided to double-up and count this particular story toward my #52Weeks52Stories project.)
Wait! I’ve never written historical fiction before! I’m used to making things up with flash fiction. I don’t know enough about before the 1800s! Where do I even start?
My process in a nutshell…
I decided to start with a quick Google search of “significant time periods before 1800” where I came across the Renaissance. Here is your pistachio-sized nutshell of my train of thought:
- He painted the Sistine Chapel.
- Maybe someone can walk in on that?
- Oh, he painted it during the early 1500s.
- Cool! A tiny part fell and shattered following an explosion in the late 1700s.
- Where was that explosion?
- Castel Sant’Angelo.
- Wow! Look at the history of that building!
- Where are the facts surrounding the explosion?
- Wait… There was a war during this time?
- I should have paid more attention in history class…
- Let me read a bit about this French Revolution.
- When did the French reach Rome?
- Who was the Pope at that time?
- What was Pope Pius VI’s role with the prisons of Castel Sant’Angelo?
- What about with the Inquisition?
- What other prisoners had been held captive there or died there?
Questions. Research simply leads to question after question after question. I have a newfound respect for all the historians and historical fiction writers, because you guys have your work cut out for you.
That little nutshell led me to choose a story that would take place in Italy around June 27, 1797 (p. 135, Story). Now all I needed was a main character who could interact with the events and time period.
Easier said than done. I decided to start a letter from this character’s point of view to get an idea who he or she was.
My character decided to be an Italian woman. What follows is her story, which incorporates the time period and events to the best of my ability. Please bear with me since it is my first time writing historical fiction. Enjoy!
Unknown Sins (~1470 words)
Darkness. I was surrounded in darkness again. The small, narrow room disappeared with the sun, leaving me as cold and lonely as these prison walls. Why did they arrest me last night? Why did they lock me in this tiny cell, devoid of windows and filled with spiders?
Those questions and so many more kept me from sleeping. Every time I laid down on the cold, hard slab, I was roused by a pounding in my head that mimicked the pounding on the door that had separated me from my family.
“Hurry, Faustina.” Mammina had roused me from my dreams and told me to dress quickly. “I’ll help you,” she had crooned as tears slowly streamed down her cheek.
“Mammina?” I had pulled on the long blue dress she laid in my hands: the dress she had made for my nineteenth birthday last month. “You need your—” her lyrical Italian words had cracked and trembled. She had cleared her throat and pushed up her chin. “You need your cloak.”
I wrapped my cloak around me, trying to stay warm in the drafty little room. A corner of the well-worn fabric held most of the tears I had cried since leaving my home.
A spider eased down in front of me; its web eerily illuminated in the darkness. I hurled it away with the back of my hand and ran toward the door. I did not scream this time, for no one would care. Pulling my cloak tighter, I closed my eyes and thought of Mammina’s last words to me.
She had wrapped me in one last embrace before they entered my room. “Do as he says, my sweet Faustina…”
I had held on tightly, which muffled her next whispered words. “Mammina!” I had tried to hang onto her, but the men in the long red robes dragged me out the front door as soon as I was dressed.
“Where are you taking me?” I had asked the men as they pulled me toward the awaiting carriage. They remained mute. Instead, I had only heard my own sobs and the clomp clomp of the horses’ hooves as we made our way through town.
The sobbing startled me out of my memory. I thought it was my own again, but the feminine echo was distant. “Hello?” I called out through the slot in the pale iron door. “Who’s there?”
I backed away in case the guard from earlier heard me. I did not need another jab at the door to make the spiders fall. They remained silent in their web-making above, undisturbed by my yelling.
“Is someone there?” I wrapped myself tighter as I soaked in the lavender scent of my cloak.
“Don’t waste your breath,” answered a muffled voice from across the hall. “Beatrice won’t answer you.”
“Beatrice?” I asked. The crying intensified as if hearing her name was painful.
“Beatrice Cenci,” he responded, his Italian accent mixed with the lilts of foreign countries. “She cries for her family.”
A shiver snuck up my spine and came out in a gasp. Beatrice Cenci. Mammina used to tell us the story of the young, mistreated and abused girl who killed her father when she was unable to escape him. Imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo for murder. Tortured. Then finally beheaded on the Ponte Sant’Angelo after she confessed.
No, that could not possibly be her. “Why—” My voice caught in my throat thinking about her heartache. “Why is she here?” I almost whispered. “In here?”
“She was imprisoned here same as us,” the man answered. “She stays long enough to welcome any new women into the prison.”
I cried with her, silently thanking her for her presence, until she faded into the night. Wiping away my tears, I called out to the man. “When can I go home?”
After a loud sigh, he answered. “That depends on how long it takes you to confess.”
“Confess what?” A spider slowly made his way down the stone wall. “I have not done anything wrong.” The little eight-legged creature inched closer to my hand that was propping me up near the door. I moved my hand.
“Then you will be here for quite some time.”
“How long?” The spider no longer mattered. “I cannot stay here forever. I have committed no transgression.” I beat the door with my fist, but it did not injure the solid door.
“Breathe deeply, child, and rest,” he said in a muffled whisper. “All will be as it should be soon.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, no longer hold my head up or keep my eyes open.
“What do you mean?” I had asked the man who grasped my arm and led me up the winding stone ramp. “What trial?”
Instead of answering my questions, he gently pushed me into the small, dark cell and slammed the door. I cringed when the spiders fell from the ceiling.
A blast tore through my brain and shook the ground beneath me. “What?” I whispered to myself, wondering if the door slamming shut in my dream had entered reality. I shook my head at the thought and instantly regretted the motion. “Oh.” I shut my eyes and covered my ears to block out the pain.
The door opened, and the silhouette of a man stared down at me. “Time to go,” said the familiar masculine voice. He held out his hand.
I took it without hesitation, but I swayed and nearly fainted as soon as I stood.
“Steady,” he said, his other hand against my back. “We must leave now.”
“Leave?” I asked. Did I hear correctly? I must have since we started down the hallway as soon as I could stand without swaying.
We escaped in silence as the world around us plunged into chaos. Some of the lanterns that were lit on the way in lay shattered on the stone floor. None of them were burning in the prison. A guard watched us leave, but I do not think he truly saw us with all the dust in the air.
On our way out of the Castel, we heard yelling and saw a fire, but we kept running.
“The French are bombing!” someone yelled as we passed.
“The French? Here?” I asked, heart already pounding.
“It is not the French,” the balding man responded with a laugh. “Keep going,” he ushered.
Was he certain? I had heard that the French would be in Rome soon. It was simply a matter of time before Napoleon invaded our home according to everyone in town. The thought of the French bombing us was too much, so I dismissed it and focused on our escape instead.
I picked up the skirts of my dress and ran, looking back long enough to see flames near the Castel. We passed crowded streets of onlookers trying to learn who had bombed us. We passed a woman crying in her doorway, her roof collapsed. We passed a carriage on its side and missing a wheel. Was someone under it?
I slowed down and tried to pull the man toward the carriage. “There—”
“No time,” he said, tightening his grip on my hand. “We must hurry.”
After one last look, I convinced myself that I was imagining the person under the carriage. What could I have done to help after all?
“Almost there,” the man said as we approached the Sistine Chapel.
“We cannot go in there!” I shouted, stopping in front of the magnificent building. How could he take us to the place that had condemned us?
“Hush now, child.” He smiled. “Someone is meeting me here.”
“What?” Had he truly planned this? “Who are you?”
He smiled again, this time taking a deep breath and standing as tall as he could. “I am Count Alessandro di Cagliostro.”
I stared. “But they said you were dead,” I managed to whisper.
“In some far-off prison where they sent me to live out my sentence, perhaps?” He laughed. “They said I would die in Castel Sant’Angelo.” He pointed back toward the fiery chaos before ushering me toward the Chapel’s entrance. “I cannot die if I am already dead, so I will live forever.”
With that, we entered the empty Chapel and started walking toward the alter. I stepped over pieces of shattered painted fresco and looked up to see from where it had fallen. “Noah’s Escape,” I whispered, remembering the many times Mammina had told the story of the Great Flood while I had admired Michelangelo’s inspiring art.
When I brought my mind back to the present, I was standing in an empty room. “Count Alessandro?” I slowly made my way down the aisle. “Alessandro?” I whispered. With nowhere left to go, I knelt near the alter and cried.
“Do as he says, my sweet Faustina…” she had whispered, “and I will see you soon.”
Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Here is the list of sources I encountered on my researching journey. I learned so much about this brief moment in history, so feel free to jump in with me!
- “Renaissance: European History” via The Encyclopaedia Britannica
- “Michelangelo” via Biography.com
- “7 Things You May Not Know About the Sistine Chapel” via History.com
- “Michelangelo’s Painting of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling” via Italianrenaissance.org
- “Castel Sant’Angelo” via Castles.org
- “Secrets of the Castel Sant’Angelo” via romeonrome.com
- “Castle St. Angelo: And the Evil Eye” by William Wetmore Story
- “French Revolution” via History.com
- “Revolution, restoration, and unification The French Revolutionary period” via The Encyclopaedia Britannica
- “The Magical Powers of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro” by Peter Tafuri
- “Beatrice Cenci” via The Encyclopaedia Britannica
- “Beatrice Cenci” via Ancient-origins.net
- “Castel Sant Angelo Visitor Guide | Rome” by James Martin
- “Castel Sant’Angelo: A Turbulent Tale of Angels and Demons” via Timelessitalytravels.com
- “Pius VI” via The Encyclopaedia Britannica