Interview with Tinney Sue Heath of A Thing Done: Florence, Medieval Music, and the Fool

Today we have a wonderful interview with Tinney Sue Heath, author of the amazing A Thing Done, set in 13 Century Florence!  You can see my review of her book by clicking HERE! Make sure you enter the giveaway following the interview! Enjoy!

9781611792454-AThingDone-lrg200x300Hi Tinney! So happy you could join us today at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!  I am looking forward to talking to you about writing, historical societies, books, and more. I really enjoyed your book, A Thing Done.  Not having much knowledge about medieval Florence, you really drew me in and made me want to discover more. How has your summer been for you?

Tinney: Hi, Erin!  Thanks so much for hosting me here.  I loved your review – I felt you really “got” what I was trying to do with the book.  So far, this summer’s been just flying by.  How about yours?

Erin: I concur on the summer fly-by, I wish it would have landed for a little as I am not ready for the back-to-school schedule! For now, let’s transport ourselves to a beautiful sunny spot under a shade tree, with a cold drink, and get started!

Q:  How did your inspiration ignite to write A Thing Done? Is it your first novel?

A:  It is my first.  When I was researching Dante’s time, the story that A Thing Done is based on was always there in the footnotes.  Modern historians and the early chroniclers all seemed to agree on its importance.  Yet it raised so many more questions than it answered, and that intrigued me.  I wanted to understand the society where such things could happen, and could become so significant. 

Q:  Have you always been interested in medieval Florence particularly? If so, why?

A:  I’ve always been interested in Florence, but I started off focused on the Renaissance.  I was attracted to the art and the music, and interested in the rise of humanism out of what had been a chuch-dominated society.  But when I began to read Dante, I found I wanted to go back in time and understand what preceded all of that.  Dante’s work opened my eyes to the rich and turbulent times that fed into the Renaissance. 

Erin Comments: I love the Renaissance period too, so much creative art, architecture, fashion, and music.

Q:  In A Thing Done, I enjoyed how your protagonist was a fool, a self-employed entertainer that was considered low-class and meaningless, yet he was perfect for the role as he had a view from every angle.  Can you explain further how he became the perfect messenger for your story?

A:  For one thing, there really was a jester, and he really did pull the ill-fated prank that starts everything off.  He’s mentioned in one of the early chronicles, and then he promptly disappears from the story.  But I kept wondering what it would be like to have played a role in something that snowballed into a civil war, so I kept him involved, and tried to see it all unfold with his eyes.  When a person is considered so insignificant that others come to forget he’s even there, he’s in a wonderful position to see and hear everything.  And a jester must be quick-witted and think on his feet.

Q: Struggles between social classes certainly still seems to be an issue today all over the world, yet at least we don’t have noble families vying for political power and scheming with one another. This theme was prominent in your book. How do you teach others to learn appreciation for all, each in their own realm of world balance?

A:  Erin, I wish I – or anyone – had the answer to that.  Changing society’s attitudes is a long slog, and we still have so far to go.  If the warring parties are tribes or factions or political parties rather than noble families, I don’t know that it’s much of an improvement.  I hope that studying history – formally, or through fiction or movies – might in some small way contribute to teaching people appreciation for others.  Whatever helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes is a good thing. 

Erin Comments: I know that was a hard question! I am always thinking about that myself. You hit the key though, that seems to simple to me. People should put themselves in each other’s shoes and think how they might feel, plus they must have empathy and respect for each other. We’re all needed to make the world go round.

Q:  How was old-world Florence different from other countries of the medieval ages and how was it similar?

A:  Florence in those days was a commune, a city-state run by an elected government which turned over frequently.  This is not to say that it was a true democracy; the rich and powerful ran things and chose the leaders, and the little guy had little say.  But it was not a feudal system with a king at the top, and the populace did manage to put in a word every now and then, and get itself represented from time to time in the governing councils.  The city acted as an independent power, waging war, conquering neighbor cities, defying the pope or the emperor or both as the situation demanded, building alliances with European monarchs.  Even the heraldry reflects its non-feudal nature:  while most heraldic symbols in other European nations at this time belong to royalty and nobility, in Florence other groups could have coats of arms:  confraternities, guilds, and political parties, for example.  It was similar to other European nations in that it was caught up in the long-lasting tug-of-war between pope and emperor; that the church was very much a major player in everything; and that its level of technological advancement was comparable. 

Q:  Entertainers were common and poor individuals with talents and creativity.  Can you share some of their types of entertainment?  Were residents of Florence generally creative, musical, and artsy as well or only this certain sect of people?

A:  I think in this day of MP3 players it’s easy to forget how important live music – the only kind they had – was to people in earlier times.  The churches were filled with song.  Religious confraternities brought people together to sing songs of praise.  The city employed trumpeters and shawm players (see next question if you don’t know what a shawm is) to herald announcements, liven up tourneys, and draw a crowd.  Instrumentalists, both publicly and privately hired, played for dancing, feast entertainment, and public celebrations.

Poetry was recited in public places.  It was often sung, possibly to an improvised tune and accompanied by a plucked string instrument.  Poets could be found among all the educated classes – notaries and businessmen, clergy and knights.  Sometimes it seems that anyone who could write at all wrote poetry.  And anyone could sing.  (Well, not me, maybe.  But most people.)   In the absence of Netflix, the people watched mystery plays, puppet shows, jesters, and other kinds of performances.   As for the visual arts, a largely illiterate population “read” its Bible stories in the frescoes on the walls of the churches.  Heraldic devices, often ornate and fanciful, told their own kind of story.

Improvisation and memory played a major role in entertainment.  Polyphonic music was created by taking a well-known tune, slooooowing it down until a modern listener would lose track of it, and then shaping a multi-part piece around it.  And audiences got it.  In that sense, I believe their attention span was superior to ours.  A nonliterate culture relies much more heavily on memory than we do.  We can always just Google something if we forget it; they couldn’t.  They had to remember.  

Everyone who wove a piece of cloth, painted a decorative design on a wall, laid colorful tiles in a pattern on a floor, or created a perfect meat pie for dinner was contributing to a society that valued, even treasured, beauty.  I believe that people at all levels participated in this process, because people everywhere hunger for beauty, and if they wanted it in their lives, they had to find ways to provide it. 

Erin Comments: That was such an interesting answer!  I like technology, but I also think we are missing out on so much because of it.

Q:  What kind of instruments might they have played during that time period?  Do you have any favorites?

A:  Loud instruments for outdoor use would have included trumpets, bagpipes, and shawms, as well as percussion.  (The shawm is a louder, more piercing, much more aggressive ancestor of the oboe.)  Plucked strings (harps, lyres, psalteries, various proto-guitar-type instruments) and bowed (vielles, rebecs) were in use; recorders and transverse flutes; keyboard instruments such as the portative organ, which could be small enough to wear on a strap around the neck, and which the player filled with air by pumping the bellows with one hand while playing the keys with the other hand.  My favorites?  Those I play, of course!  That would be the portative organ (though mine is based on a 15th century instrument and is a little larger), and recorders, and shawms.  I have a soft spot for the shawm, because it is the perfect alter ego for quiet people, which both my husband and I are. 


Tinney playing her portative organ!

Erin Comments: You should write a book featuring those who play these instruments! That would be interesting and something not often done. You’ve certainly enlightened me on some things I didn’t know.

Q:  What is it about history that makes you love it so much?  How, as a society, can we continue to encourage and appreciate the study of history?

A:  Besides the sheer panorama of it, the richness and color and exotic aspects, I do think that looking at history gives us a vital perspective on our own times.  Some days I put down the morning paper and think, “Well, it’s a mess, but somehow people got through the plague, and wars, and horrible cataclysms, and society still exists.  We’re still here.”  And that can be comforting – it gives you the long view. 

Q:  What other historical time periods do you enjoy?  Do you have another time and place you’d like to write about?

A:  I often pick up books about Vikings, or Roman Britain, or the period around the Norman Conquest.  And I’d love to write about the Etruscans.

Q:  Do you have any favorite women in history? And why are they your favorites?  Are there any women in history that deserve more “page time?”

A:  I’m fascinated by a woman with a ferocious intellect, someone whose intelligence crackles, even as we observe her across a gulf of centuries:  Elizabeth I, Emma of Normandy, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  (And they don’t all have to begin with an E; there’s also Cleopatra.)   In my beloved Italy, the sisters Isabella and Beatrice d’Este are intriguing, as is Caterina Sforza (though I doubt I would have liked her in person).  I think Matilda of Canossa, the Great Countess, deserves much more page time.  Her life is amazing, and she wielded real power.  Enough so that even now she’s creating problems for me – in an upcoming book, I have four different historical characters all named Tessa after Matilda, who was THE Contessa.  They’re real people, so it will be hard to change that!

Erin Comments: That IS the thing about these historical time periods in writing a book, everyone has the same name and it’s hard to keep it straight! Thank goodness for titles and place of residence!

Q:  Do you have any books or authors that are your favorites? That have inspired you?  Do you feel reading is important for writers, even if time is an issue (as it always is)?

A:  I’m a huge fan of the late Dorothy Dunnett.  I love the complexity and the subtlety of her books, the humor, the ethical underpinnings, the wisdom.  Both the Niccolo Rising series and the Francis Crawford of Lymond series are wonderful, though my all-time favorite is her stand-alone about Macbeth, King Hereafter.  I also love the historical fantasies by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Yes, I feel reading is essential, and not only the genre you’re writing in.  Ideas, insights, and epiphanies can lurk everywhere.  The internet is a great resource, but sometimes I think it does nudge us toward living in a sort of eternal present, where our shared cultural heritage only goes back as far as our Facebook feed. 

Q:  When did you first decide to become a writer? Was it something you acted upon as soon as you realized it or did it take more time to percolate?

A:  I think I’ve always intended to write novels, but it’s amazing how long you can put something off when you’re busy having a life.  I’ve always written, but didn’t get serious about publishing until fairly recently.

Q:  Do you write with an outline and strict goals in mind, or do you more free write as the muse strikes and leads you?

A:  It’s fairly free, though if I didn’t outline at all, I’d never finish anything.  I do sketchy outlines, though – instead of saying “On thus-and-such a date, the Ghibelline army reentered the city by force,” I’m likely to write something like “Blue Meanies!!!” (which really dates me, I know).

Erin Comments: Ha!

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers or those in process? What has been your biggest challenge and your greatest sense of accomplishment?

A:  Actually, I don’t believe in giving advice to other writers, because I believe that each writer is different.  For that matter, each writing project is different.  I just don’t think that what works for one person will necessarily work for another.  It’s too individual for that.  My biggest challenge?  I’m rather thin-skinned and writing is quite personal, so being rejected by agents took a toll.  Finding a publisher who genuinely liked my book, then, was probably the thing that gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment.

Q:  You do a lot of historical research, what is something you came across that surprised, shocked, or thrilled you?  Or just anything you found interesting and would like to share.

A:  One thing I found surprising was how institutionalized the whole idea of vendetta was.  You’d think it would just flat out be against the law, but over and over again, you see that society’s attitude toward this sort of eye-for-an-eye system was so unquestioning that the law simply worked with it and tried to codify the rules.  A Florentine saint who died in 1073, Giovanni Gualberto (John Gualbert), was venerated at least in part because when he encountered his brother’s killer, instead of killing him in turn, he forgave him.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been mad at people plenty of times and managed to refrain from killing them, and it never qualified me for sainthood.  Back then, though…

Erin Comments: Yeah, I’ve never murdered someone, at least not in real life, either…..ha!

Q:  What else do you enjoy other than reading and writing? Do you have any other hobbies?

A:  My husband and I play late medieval and Renaissance music on replicas of period wind instruments:  recorders, shawms, crumhorns, a portative organ.  One of these days he’s going to learn to play harp, and I’m going to tackle the psaltery.  We’ve taught Renaissance music, and done a fair bit of research into musicology and music history.  We can both read the kind of medieval musical notation you find on Christmas cards.  We’re no longer active in medieval reenactment, but we were for a number of years, mostly playing music for feasts and dancing. 

Q:  Do you have any works in progress? Any ideas for new upcoming novels? What does the future hold for you?

A:  I’m working on a book inspired by a Florentine poet of the mid-thirteen century, known to us as La Compiuta Donzella (the Accomplished Maiden).  Only three of her poems survive, and we know nothing at all about her life, not even her real name.  But she lived in dramatic and turbulent times, and I’ve taken her surviving poems as a jumping-off point to explore what her life might have been like.  Once this one’s done, I hope to write a book (or possibly two) based on the life of Gemma Donati, Dante’s wife. 

Erin Comments: Those sound wonderful! Be sure to keep me updated!

Q:  Where can people connect with you?

A:  My website is and I blog about historical fiction research and related topics at

Q:  Where is your book sold?

A:  Amazon and Barnes & Noble have the paperback and the ebook; Sony has the ebook; in the UK, WH Smith carries the paperback.  And any bookstore can order it.

Erin:  Thank you, Tinney, for a wonderful interview and for sharing some of yourself today on my site. I am sure everyone will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed talking to you. Best wishes to you with your writing and come back anytime!

Tinney:  Thank you so much, Erin.  These were thought-provoking questions, and grappling with them clarified my thoughts on several things.  I appreciate the chance to appear on Oh, for the Hook of a Book.  My best wishes to your readership – I guess I should say, to the rest of your readership, since I’m part of it! 

Erin Comments: So glad you are a part of it! Come back anytime!



Enter to win a copy of A Thing Done provided by Tinney Sue Heath! US residents only for mailing purposes. To enter, please leave your comment and email in the comments section, under the link on the Facebook page at, or email me to hookofabook(at)hotmail(dot)com. We’d love to hear what you thought of the interview!

Extra entries: +1 for following this blog and +3 for “liking” the Facebook page mentioned above.


A Thing Done, Synopsis~

9781611792454-AThingDone-lrg200x300Florence, 1216: The noble families of Florence hold great power, but they do not share it easily. Tensions simmer just below the surface. When Corrado the Jester’s prank-for-hire goes wrong, a brawl erupts between two rival factions. Florence reels on the brink of civil war. One side makes the traditional offer of a marriage to restore peace, but that fragile peace crumbles under the pressure of a woman’s interference, an unforgivable insult, and an outraged cry for revenge.

Corrado is pressed into unwilling service as messenger by both sides. Sworn to secrecy, he watches in horror as the headstrong knight Buondelmonte violates every code of honor to possess the woman he wants, while another woman, rejected and enraged, schemes to destroy him.

Corrado already knows too much for his own safety. Will Buondelmonte’s reckless act set off a full-scale vendetta? And if it does, will even the Jester’s famous wit and ingenuity be enough to keep himself alive and protect those dear to him?

This is Corrado’s story, but it is also the story of three fiercely determined women in a society that allows them little initiative: Selvaggia, the spurned bride; Gualdrada, the noblewoman who both tempts Buondelmonte and goads him; and Ghisola, Corrado’s great-hearted friend. From behind the scenes they will do what they must to achieve their goals—to avenge, to prevail, to survive.

Published by Fireship Press. Available in e-book or paperback format from Amazon, USA, Amazon, UK, or Barnes and Noble. Also available in paperback from WHSmith, UK, or may be ordered through local bookstores. Coming soon from other vendors.

If you would like to know more, here are some excerpts. Excerpt 1. Excerpt 2. Excerpt 3. Excerpt 4. Also, take a look at the first three chapters on Amazon USA.

Author Tinney Sue Heath, Biography (in her words)~

authorpicHeath-198x300I’ve loved music and history all of my life. I began studying the flute at age nine, and started college at the New England Conservatory in Boston with the intention of becoming a professional flutist. However, after a sudden lurch in a different direction, I somehow ended up with a journalism degree from Antioch College. I’ve worked as a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and provided editorial assistance for two University of Wisconsin-based editors of professional journals.

I never really outgrew a childhood tendency to inhabit stories. I spent a decade deeply involved in medieval reenactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. During that time I discovered the pleasures of playing late medieval and early Renaissance music on a variety of early wind instruments: recorders, crumhorns, and shawms.

I’ve published some short fiction through Callihoo Publishing and in Fickle Muses, and now my first novel, A Thing Done, from Fireship Press. I’m a member of the Historical Novel Society. I blog on topics related to historical fiction, and especially on the research that supports it, at, where you will find much detail on different aspects of life in medieval Florence, ranging from music to politics (as well as a certain amount of whimsy).

My husband and I love to travel to Italy. My historical interests currently center on Dante’s Florence, so we can often be found in Florence or elsewhere in Tuscany, absorbing all the history we can find (which, believe me, is a lot). We live in Madison, Wisconsin, as does my son, an artist and glassblower. We enjoy playing music and surrounding ourselves with native wild plants.

Join Tinney at for more history, writing, and additional reading.

1 Comment

Filed under Q and A with Authors

One response to “Interview with Tinney Sue Heath of A Thing Done: Florence, Medieval Music, and the Fool

  1. Dante’s world intrigues me with its combination of violence and grace. Thanks for an excellent interview.


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