The Alchemy of Writing Historical Fiction By Mary Osborne

Before I started the Alchemy Series, the idea of writing young adult historical fiction hadn’t occurred to me.  Two manuscripts—semiautobiographical tales that no publisher wanted—were collecting dust on the floor of my closet.  While struggling to find my “voice,” I began reading Carl Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy.  The Swiss psychiatrist wrote about the symbolism and philosophy hidden within the language of the medieval scientists who were trying to turn lead into gold in secret laboratories.  Before long, allusions to alchemy started showing up in my writing.  An astute mentor suggested that the bits about alchemy might be a good fit for a historical novel.  Though I had serious doubts about my ability to write this genre, the Alchemy Series took root in my imagination.


A springtime trip to Italy in 2001 brought the pieces of the series together.  Surrounded by masterpieces of art, Renaissance Florence came alive for me.  Much of the city remains unchanged after five hundred years, so it was easy to envision life at that time.  A daytrip to the nearby walled village of Certaldo brought me to the home of Giovanni Boccaccio, the medieval author of The Decameron.  As I stood in the room where Boccaccio once wrote, I felt as though I had found my muse.


Back home, I drew from Boccaccio’s tales as I started working on Alchemy’s Daughter, book two of the series. (While Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is the first book of the series, I actually finished a draft of Alchemy’s Daughter first.) Other references included A Distant Mirrorby Barbara Tuchman, Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies, The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, and Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, to name a few.  When writing about historic places, such as churches or town squares, a Michelin guide to Italy, assorted travel books and online sources were helpful.  As I worked, I imagined myself writing from a medieval villa overlooking the Tuscan countryside (though I was actually in Chicago in my third floor office with a glimpse of Wrigley Field in the distance).


My fascination with alchemy and Renaissance Florence came together in Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, book one of the series, which went on to win a 2011 ALA Bloomer nomination and a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award.  The novel is the story of Emilia Serafini, a young woman whose quest to become a painter is guided by her grandmother’s book of alchemy.  The alchemical manual is filled with fascinating knowledge and recipes for turning lead into gold.  As Carl Jung suggested in Psychology and Alchemy, many alchemists were intent on the simple goal of getting rich, but true alchemists saw the undertaking as a spiritual process.  The physical changes that took place within the cauldron as metals were mixed and melted down became metaphors for the transformation that occurred within the practitioner.  As the metal in the cauldron was purified, so was the alchemist’s soul.


The alchemical manual of Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is the common thread between all the books of the Alchemy Series.  After a number of revisions, book two of the series, Alchemy’s Daughter, is finally finished and slated for release in 2013.  Set one hundred years beforeNonna’s,  Alchemy’s Daughter is the story of Santina Pietra, whose ambition to expand her skills as a midwife in 14th century San Gimignano challenges the convention of her day.  Book three of the series, The Last of the Magicians, is set in 17th century Italy and will take several more years to complete.  Though it may seem that I write slowly, creating a historical novel takes time, perseverance and attention to detail.  It is the same for any endeavor.  Though many trials, we become alchemists and discover alchemical gold.






Mary Osborne, author of Nonna’s Book of Mysteries and the forthcoming Alchemy’s Daughter, is a writer, artist, and registered nurse living in Chicago.  An honors graduate of Rush University and Knox College, where she was mentored in the Creative Writing Program, Osborne has degrees in chemistry and nursing.  Her novel, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, has won numerous festival awards, a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year award, and a nomination from the American Library Association.  Osborne is currently a Chicago arts and crafts reporter for the  Learn more about the author’s books at or her alchemy website, http://www.