Frequently Asked Questions
How did the idea for Water Lily Dance originate?
Sophie’s Journey: After the death of my mom, a casualty to a national drug shortage for a chemotherapy drug to extend her life she could not get, I had to follow my heart and write this novel as a dedication to her. I decided to share my experience with loss, the secret side of grief between daughters as caretakers and mothers with end-of-life secrets and wishes. My mom was a 1960s wife who dreamed of becoming an artist, but she set that dream aside to raise her children. Though she never realized her dream, art resided in her soul, art, and creativity she gifted to her children. And so, for a few pages, my mom was a famous artist: Josephine de Lue. Sophie’s journey is one from my heart to my readers and offers a massive dose of hope.
Claude Monet: The tranquility of Claude Monet’s paintings always captivated me. I was astounded when I learned of Monet’s secret struggles, selfish, careless nature, censorship of his art, his unyielding dedication to paint and see like no other, the aim behind his rebellion, and the darkness, including deep self-doubt, this painter of lights endured while he produced serene masterpieces.
Water Lily Dance provides a unique insight into the little-known early life of Claude Monet and his mysterious first wife, Camille Doncieux who Sophie believes she is related to. Water Lily Dance is no ordinary love story between an artist and his model, but a revolution, a woman’s rebellion to find independence, herself, in the midst of her ordered life and the upheaval during the birth of Women’s Rights in France and the Impressionist art movement in 19th-century Paris.
What compelled you to write about Claude Monet? Did the book involve special research?
YES! How do you whittle fourteen years of the most famous artist in the world and his mysterious first wife, eighteen moves spanning three countries in twelve years, and the support of their friends, stars of Paris, the Impressionists, into a few scenes for a novel? When I set out to write Water Lily Dance, I had no idea the monumental task of research required regarding the birth of Impressionism, its many artists, their “new” Paris, and the lives of a trailblazing couple surrounded by famous friends and patrons.
Each thread unraveled a mystery and heartache surrounding Monet’s early life. In the end, I realized Water Lily Dance held many rebellions: Claude Monet, Camille Doncieux, Sophie Noel, Josephine de Lue—every character has a story, a fight. And there was Camille, a mysterious and misunderstood figure in art history. We know little of her background because Claude Monet destroyed all letters, photographs, and diaries relating to her existence, with one exception: the eighty portraits he and his fellow Impressionists painted of Camille, many Monet kept and repurchased from previous buyers in his private possession until his death despite his remarrying. This fact alone began my quest to dig deeper in archives, hundreds of letters and 19th-century French records and publications to find more about Camille Doncieux and her family and I did.
What intrigued you most researching Claude Monet, Camille Doncieux, and the Impressionist art movement?
I fell down several rabbit holes! Studying Claude Monet’s early life, character, and treatment of Camille—I didn’t like him very much. Yet, Camille’s life with Claude Monet was her choice. She was neither victim nor observer, which fascinated me and made for an interesting story. Though the historical account regarding Camille Doncieux is fictional, I was thrilled when I discovered new information regarding her family’s connection to wealth and art, never before discussed. This thread enabled me to paint the layered life of this intriguing woman, an important figure in the Impressionist art movement I believe in more ways than we will ever know.
The details of complex historical events, places, and people I use to write my stories can get overwhelming to write and read, so I seek out those tidbits in history that surprise, move and intrigue me. In my debut novel, Essie’s Roses, one fact drove that story: it was illegal for a slave to learn to read and write. In Water Lily Dance, Claude Monet meant more to art than his drive to paint what he saw not what or how they told him. He defied the “rules” and mandates of the day as an artist and salesman—with little training. Claude Monet wanted freedom. He didn’t wait for it; he created it for himself no matter the consequences. The art establishment hated him for this and purposed to censor him, and the Impressionists, because he broke from tradition.
Another intriguing aspect to my story includes the recent historical finds regarding Claude Monet’s wealthy background and network of celebrity support. I chose to write Monet, not as a poverty-stricken artist, but one well bred and connected within Parisian high-society with several famous, wealthy friends who supported his career. Because Monet spoke little about his upbringing and often exaggerated facts, the only way to truly know young Claude Monet was to study his famous friends and letters as Auguste Renoir, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Courbet, even a wealthy French code breaker in the military, and other celebrities of the day. My creation of Camille is fictional but is based on historical references, including a family secret threatening her very ruse of respectability. How could I resist?
How long did it take you to write Water Lily Dance?
Four years. I wrote the premise to this story years before I started writing it. I wrote a few books in between, suffered some life interruptions and the tragic losses that gave this book wings. I hesitated to share my personal story in Sophie and found it challenging finding the truth about the most famous artist in history: Claude Monet. Experiencing two art museum exhibitions of Claude Monet’s works in St. Louis and New York inspired me further, but it wasn’t until I started my research that I realized the scope of this book and young Claude Monet’s life. Writing multiple timelines gave me fits! I realized not everyone will geek out on art history of the Impressionists as I did, so I strove to write relatable stories. I chose not to focus on Monet but his first wife and model Camille. Monet exaggerated and omitted details about his early life. I had no idea I would end up researching fifteen of his famous friends and the celebrities of Paris of the day.
What drew you to writing historical fiction?
Research! I love it. You have to love it. Water Lily Dance tested that passion. Ironically, I didn’t appreciate my history classes in college. But I loved researching periods and characters in history for the roles I played on stage. A true passion and appreciation for historical research came later in my life while writing Essie’s Roses. It’s an interesting process to research a historical period, person, or event in history, with its traditions, slang, customs, and dress, and to retain it all while you’re creating worlds and characters.
What inspired you to write Essie’s Roses?
I developed the story of Essie’s Roses first as a screenplay. Essie’s Roses the novel has taken an usually long journey. An interview I saw with Halle Berry after she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball initially inspired me. During the interview, I heard this statement, "It took seventy-four years for an African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actress." This statement really affected me.
A few minutes later, the first scene for Essie’s Roses popped into my head. I was working on other projects at the time, so I said aloud, "I’m not paying attention to you." The way I am and how I work, I knew if I did, it would be dedicated hours of getting it out on the page…and I had never written a novel!
Next, I heard the first line, "This be the day Evie set me free." It was one of those strange moments where I had no idea where the line had come from. I saw a scene play in my head, hashed it out, and instantly decided to switch gears. The story I wanted to write focused on an intelligent, intriguing African-American woman as the lead set during a period in history where this point of view is often missed.
I put the screenplay in a drawer for several years while I worked on other projects until it was time to pick it up again. The novel was my desire to tell more of the story, introduce unique tidbits of the history of slavery to the reader, and provoke thought toward a different relationship present during such a horrific time: the family relationship between whites and slaves.
How does your acting background help you write?
I love having the experience I do in the arts. I think it gives me a unique perspective on character development, voice, dialogue, and those emotional moments and transitions between characters. I’m also a very visual writer. By the end of my research, I’m not surprised I have a file of almost 2,000 photos of the book’s settings, paintings, costumes, props, historical artifacts, and other inspirations. I think every writer should take an acting class and read plays. It will give you a different approach on how to craft characters and write dialogue, and you’ll have some fun!
Will there be an Essie’s Roses sequel?
YES! I’m thankful for the excitement and interest in this heartwarming story. The women of Westland will reunite. I am hard at work writing the sequel now—and crying buckets—happy tears . . . maybe. Stay tuned!!
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What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve been writing stories, songs, and poetry since I was a kid. I’ve always loved writing, but acting came first. I took creative writing courses in college, and though my major was acting, those courses ignited something in me. I’m a St. Louis suburban girl with parents born and raised in NYC, and I chose to go to a private college in a small town in the middle of Missouri—it was in the middle of nowhere! I fell in love with writing in that small town. The countryside captivated me. I would jog through farmlands and near cornfields, stop, breathe, watch sunsets, and write. I had never been anywhere so serene.
I considered graduate school but wanted to focus on my acting career. I met my husband, and five or so years after college, I was in a car accident and hurt my back. It took me away from acting for a long time. One day, I decided maybe telling stories was a way I could still use my acting experience. After all, instead of playing one character, I could play them all! :D
I want to write a book, how do I start?
First, give yourself a chance and just start writing. Don’t kill your inspiration before it begins by thinking because you don’t have a certain degree or platform, who are you to write a book. Write… whatever it may be. Be open on what you’ll write. Maybe novels aren’t your thing, but you have heart to encourage people or expert advice to share. Ever thought of a blog? Writing a newsletter for your friends and family? Do you write song lyrics? Maybe those lyrics are actually a book of poetry in the making! A play? Explore them all. The only way you’ll know if you’ll like this journey of writing is to start.
If you get an interesting story idea, go with it. Try not to hold back because you’re afraid people might think it’s about you. Sounds silly, but that judgment voice always tries to barge in to derail something unique.
Read books in the genre in which you’re interested. I swallow non-fiction, love the classics, but really have to make time to read fiction. I don’t always have dedicated time especially when I’m writing my own book, but it’s essential. I’m a library advocate! Yes, we can find tons of info online, but there’s something about going to the library. The quiet helps you think. All that’s in front of you at a library is the subject you want to explore.
Take a creative writing class or join a writer’s group. There are resources available to help you get started, but only you can create that unique idea, put it on the page, and see it to the end.
What is your writing process?
Because I love writing historical fiction, I have to be passionate about the subject. It takes a lot of time and dedication researching history for a book I write, so it better be something that interests me!
I usually see a scene or two in my head. Characters reveal themselves, their names, quirks, the rhythm of their voice. I flesh out a premise, narrow down themes, and sum up the book in a sentence or two. A title comes. I’m a musically driven person, so often I find inspiration from a song. Listen to music from the period. Because of my entertainment background, I visualize books like movies. Once I’m ready to type, I’m a locomotive. Often I have to make myself stop. Get quiet. I play the piano. Walk my dogs. Something other than writing, especially when I’m stuck on polishing a character or direction for the story. Often, I toss the polishing out and just let it go. The rhythm of the language is important to me. I do what I can to get out of the way. It’s hard, but I try. And to me, when I do, that’s the magic of writing.
Most days I write all day, sometimes into the wee hours. Other times, I may tweak a chapter or two before I move on. I do my best to keep it going, get it out on the page. Then I go back to edit; that’s when fun and unexpected things happen. You have to be open to slashing chapters, putting scenes back in; changing directions; layering characters. It’s wonderful to see where a story might end up…if you let it. I’m surprised every time!
Usually the research is first, and that also happens throughout the writing process. I live at libraries, online, museums, and read many books and articles on the subject I’m writing about. I love visiting other places to write, especially locations from the book. I enjoy chatting with historians and experts for unexpected inspiration.
Two of my favorite places to write in St. Louis are Forest Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden. There’s something about putting a pen to my notebook surrounded by towering trees and flowers that’s different from typing in my office. Scenes and dialogue always pop up no matter what I’m doing, so I like to record things into a recorder or my phone. Napkins work too.
Interestingly enough, it seems climatic or unfinished scenes pop into my head when I’m at the gym. I have to stop my workout, find a receipt, my iPhone notes (kills my thumbs though), something to write on (because I’ve usually forgotten my notebook, recorder, etc.) and write down chapter notes, full scenes, and dialogue. Great moments and scribbles I get mad at as I have to decipher later because I was so excited it came, I wrote manically to get it down. And yes, I think it’s the perfect excuse to avoid my workout.
What is your favorite thing about writing?
I love meeting new people and hearing what readers have to say about the story. Writing is such a solitary process, so at this stage it is exciting when you see people are enjoying your book and connecting with you. I’m always amazed how stories come. How pages get filled. How characters magically appear on the page. How they speak. And the stories they tell. I love being surprised by the direction a story takes. I love when the characters teach me something.
One of my favorite, most memorable, and humbling experiences came about while doing research in Richmond, Virginia for Essie’s Roses. I went to the Richmond Valentine History Center to see authentic antebellum ball gowns in person. I wanted to take some photos and study the details of the fabric and styles. There was a mix-up with my appointment, and the curator wasn’t there to show me the gowns. I was devastated. I had flown in from St. Louis, and though I had plenty to do, I really wanted to see those gowns.
The curator at the time said if I wanted to I could look at some nineteenth-century documents in the document room. I was curious. I remembered seeing a slave receipt in one of the museums, and on a whim asked him if they had any. A few minutes later, he came out wearing a pair of white gloves. He handed me a pair and said, "Please put them on… just a moment."
Meanwhile, sitting across from me, an older African-American gentleman was looking through a box of antique photos. I didn’t really pay attention because I was wondering what the curator was going to bring me that I needed to wear these museum style white gloves for.
The curator came back into the room and handed me a few small thin pieces of papers. I held one gently in my hand. As I read it, I cried. I was reading a slave receipt that read:
"Received of Thomas E. Brown Eleven Hundred Dollars for a Negro boy named Lewis aged about twenty four years for which I warrant to be sound in body and mind and slave for life March the 6th, 1858. C.A. Heilig."
At the same moment the African-American gentleman, the curator was now helping, found a photo and said, "Well, I’ll be. There he is right there. That’s my great (great) granddaddy." I believe he was looking at a photo of former slaves. It was a moment I’ll never forget. Here he was searching for his family history, and here I sat looking at this history in my hand.
As I held this historical document, a receipt for the purchase of a human being, I couldn’t help feeling the weight of that period on my shoulders. I can’t think about it without being touched deeply. It changed me.
This is why I love writing. You hope to have fun, entertain your readers, but to me, it’s always about learning… learning about history, myself, and others. And it’s special when something as this unexpectedly touches your life and changes you forever.
MICHELLE MURIEL is the award-winning, bestselling author of the #1 Amazon historical fiction bestseller ESSIE’S ROSES and her new novel Amazon bestseller, WATER LILY DANCE. Water Lily Dance follows the lives and secrets of three brave women, centuries apart, connected by French Impressionist artist Claude Monet. Michelle holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts, magna cum laude, and worked as a professional actress, a member of Actors’ Equity and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists for twenty years, doing theater, voice-over, and commercial work. Michelle transferred her skills in complex character development and historical research into writing heartbreaking, heart-mending historical, literary fiction. Her novels poetically explore the secret sides of life, stories told from multiple points of view by strong female characters in history harboring secrets and breaking norms fighting for freedom. She is also a songwriter and musician. Michelle lives in Missouri with her husband, Michael. To learn more about Michelle and her books, visit the author’s website: www.MichelleMuriel.com