Monthly Archives: October 2013

Writing Historical Fiction: Using Figurative Language that Adds to the Historic Setting

One of the things I tried to do while writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte was to choose metaphors and similes that were appropriate for the time period and the background of my characters. It became an interesting challenge.

For example, Betsy’s father, William Patterson, was a wealthy merchant who was active in the shipping business. During one scene in which Betsy and her father were arguing about her relationship with Jerome Bonaparte, I had Betsy exclaim, “Jerome is not shipment of spoiled cargo to be deducted from my ledger!” The metaphor fits because she is talking to her father in language he will understand.

Similarly, I used figurative language that drew upon the domestic lives of the female characters. Early in the book, Betsy’s Aunt Margaret says to her mother, “Dorcas, you look unwell. You are as white as my linen shift.”

And in one of my favorite passages, I combined domestic imagery with Betsy’s infamous sharp tongue:

Despite her plain looks, Mrs. Merry was dressed as a beauty with rouge on her cheeks and a chandelier necklace of sapphires around her throat. Her blue velvet gown was cut so low that her enormous bosom, restrained only by a film of lace, threatened to pop free. As soon as they were out of earshot of the Merrys, Betsy whispered to Jerome, “Law, she displays those melons as though she were a market.”

Sometimes, I used comparisons that were drawn upon the characters’ past lives. For instance, I had to come up with a simile to describe Betsy’s impatience. She and Jerome have been waiting to hear whether the Bonapartes approve of their marriage. As they’re visiting friends in New York,  they receive a letter from Betsy’s father telling them to come home. Word has just arrived from France. This is how I described Betsy’s reaction to the four days it took them to return to Baltimore:

Even so, Betsy chafed at the length of the trip. While she appreciated her father’s discretion, given how frequently mail was opened and read in transit, she was desperate to know how the Bonapartes had reacted to her marriage. For the entirety of the journey, her curiosity was an itch akin to the torment she had suffered as a child whenever she got chigger bites from walking in wet summer grass on her family’s country estates.

Even when making quick comparisons, I tried to use period-appropriate details, as in the following sentence: “Betsy narrowed her eyes but kept her tone as sweet as marzipan.”

Of course, not every instance of figurative language is quite that period specific. Sometimes I just had fun using comparisons that work in any time period:

Uncle Smith shook his head. “Do not be so quick to applaud Bonaparte. Rumor is that he plans to create an American empire out of the Caribbean islands and the lands west of the Mississippi. And once he accomplishes that grand design, what will stop him from swallowing the United States as little more than a tasty sweet at the end of an enormous meal?”


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Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian tells the story of the Armenian genocide through the vehicle of one family’s history. Bohjalian is himself the grandson of Armenian survivors, so this story was a way for him to explore a topic of personal significance. However, the book is a work of fiction rather than thinly disguised family history.

The novel is narrated by contemporary Armenian-American novelist Laura Petrosian, who starts to dig into her grandparents’ past after discovering a photograph of a female genocide survivor who had the same last name as hers but who was not, as far as she knows, a relative. Laura learns that a museum has an archive of her grandmother’s papers, and through them, she uncovers a long-buried past with elements of horror, brutality, tragedy, and love.

Switch to 1915. A group of well-intentioned Americans from the group Friends of Armenia travel to Aleppo, Syria, to take food and medical help to Armenian refugees whom the Turks have forced from their homes. Among the American group are Silas Endicott, a wealthy Bostonian, and his headstrong, compassionate daughter Elizabeth. They are shocked by the cruel reality that confronts them on their arrival. Women and children have been marched hundred of miles through a searing desert. Most of them died long before reaching Syria. Those few who make it to Aleppo are subjected to further barbarities there. The book doesn’t shy away from letting the reader know how terrible a crime was inflicted upon the Armenian people, but it doesn’t wallow in gory details just for the sake of sensationalism.

While the Americans are preparing to take humanitarian supplies to a refugee camp out in the desert, Elizabeth meets Armen Petrosian, a young Armenian engineer who was away from home working on  the railroad when the deportations from Armenia began. He has heard that his wife and infant daughter are among the dead, but he has been unable to learn the exact circumstances of how they died. He and Elizabeth are drawn to each other immediately, but he cannot remain in Aleppo. He joins the British army, so he can fight the Turks that are trying to wipe out his entire culture. Yet, he and Elizabeth cannot forget their brief relationship, and they write to each other, hoping against all reason that they will see each other again.

In Armen’s absence, Elizabeth deepens her relationship with two other Armenian survivors—a widow and an orphan child who is a voluntary mute because she has seen unspeakable horrors. And as Armen experiences battle, he realizes that the internal forces driving him have changed forever.

These stories from the past are interwoven with chapters recounting Laura’s investigation. And that’s perhaps my biggest issue with the book. I think there are more present episodes than are necessary for the telling of this story. I think Chris Bohjalian, the author, spent too much time on the narrator’s search and discovery of the past because it in some way mirrored his own emotional process. But he may have lost sight of his readers. I began to get impatient with the interruptions. The compelling story is the one in the past. And it’s engrossing enough that I ultimately forgave the times I felt impatient to get back to it.

The other major criticism I had with the story was the use of a flagrantly improbable coincidence in the climax of the past history. Despite that, I still recommend the book strongly. It tells an important story and does so dramatically, not polemically or didactically, but through characters that we truly care about. That’s worth forgiving a few flaws.

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Betsy’s Circle: Sydney, Lady Morgan

Lady Morgan

Lady Morgan, line engraving by Robert Cooper, after Samuel Lover, via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of Betsy’s friends was Sydney, Lady Morgan, a prolific novelist and hotly discussed personality. If Betsy’s letters to her friend are to be believed, literary society positively fawned over the woman. (I’m allowing for the fact that there might be a bit of exaggeration in the way that we do with our friends.)

She was the daughter of Robert Owenson, a Irish comedic actor, and Jane Hill, the daughter of an English trader. Sometime in Sydney’s late adolescence (no one knows her exact age because she was too vain ever to reveal how old she was), the family had financial difficulties, and Sydney went to work as a governess. She also began her literary career by publishing a collection of poems. Her pen name was Glorvina.

Sydney Owenson then turned to writing novels: St. Clair (1804) and The Novice of St. Dominick (1806), both of which were highly romantic works. Some of her influences were Goethe and Rousseau. Then came the book that won her fame, The Wild Irish Girl (1806), a novelistic love song to her native land.

In 1812, she married a physician, Sir Thomas Charles Morgan. Two years later, she wrote what is regarded as her best book, O’Donnel, a realistic portrayal of Irish peasant life. It was not long after this that she met Betsy Bonaparte in Paris. They became close friends and conducted a lively correspondence that lasted for years. Many of Betsy’s letters to Lady Morgan have an astonishing candor. I think the two women saw each other as kindred spirits. They shared the qualities of worldliness, vanity, and ambition, as well as a love of culture and travel. Of herself, Lady Morgan wrote, “I am ambitious, far, far beyond the line of laudable emulations, perhaps beyond the power of being happy. Yet the strongest point of my ambition is to be every inch a woman.”

One interesting tidbit about her is that she was less than four feet tall (according to a plaque in the Victoria and Albert Museum). In addition to her novels, Lady Morgan also wrote surveys of France and Italy (which met with mixed reviews), and an autobiography that contains much of her correspondence.

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The Manuscript Is Done

Essentially, that was the message I heard from my editor yesterday.

I’ve input all the changes I want to make in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte based on the copy editing. I read it through. I sent my editor a long email discussing my evaluation of the book and the fact that it fulfills the goals I had for this particular project.

He wrote back expressing his opinion, which corroborated mine. The one thing that surprised me is that he suggested that I let it sit a couple of days and read it through one more time to make sure that nothing “clanks” in my ear. I was eager to send it on to the designer, but I think his counsel is wise.

I have such ambivalent feelings about letting the manuscript go. The last two years plus of living with these people has been very intense, and now I’m going to be done tinkering with their lives. I hope that Betsy, wherever she is, feels that I’ve told her story well. That was my goal when I started this project, to portray her tumultuous life in all its complexity, not to let her be a caricature or a symbol of any kind.

I don’t have children, so I’ve never had the experience of sending one of my babies out into the world . . . until now. As my editor said in an email the other day, the manuscript is about to go beyond the reach of my protection. If I’ve done my job right, I’ve imbued it with enough strength so that it can stand on its own.

This is the most famous portrait of the real Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Look at the bust on the left. Can’t you just see her saucy personality? That was one thing I’ve tried to capture in my book. It will be up to my future readers to determine if I succeeded.

Elizabeth-Patterson-Bonaparte_Gilbert-Stuart_1804Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart, 1804


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Assassinations Attempts and Their Aftermath

Saturday, I described one of the assassination attempts on Napoleon Bonaparte. There were two others that I know of. On Christmas Eve 1800, royalist plotters planted a wagon with a bomb, known as an “infernal machine,” along the route that Napoleon was going to take to the opera. Napoleon was running late that evening and ordered his coachman to drive more quickly than expected, so he passed by before the explosion occurred. Reportedly, more than 50 people were killed or wounded by the device.

In 1804, the French police received word that royalists were plotting once again to overthrow Napoleon. The report implicated the Duc d’Enghien, a young prince of the house of Bourbon, which had ruled France before the Revolution. Most historians today believe that, although there was a plot, the report about Enghien was false. But at the time, Napoleon acted on it immediately. He sent French dragoons secretly across the Rhine into Baden, arrested the duc, and brought him to France for a trial. Enghien was found guilty and executed by firing squad within a week. The affair of the duc d’Enghien incensed the rest of Europe. Napoleon had violated the sovereignty of another state to take Enghien prisoner, and the trial and execution were conducted with unseemly haste. The affair gave Napoleon’s enemies damning evidence to support their claims that he was an upstart tyrant.

The discovery of the plot had an equally dramatic effect on Napoleon. He became paranoid that he would be killed and all that he had accomplished would be undone. So he agreed with minister of police Joseph Fouché that the only way to prevent future such attempts was to change the consulate into a hereditary empire, with Napoleon as the emperor. That way, even if Napoleon should die, his heirs would continue to rule.

Five years later, the assassination plot of Friedrich Staps caused Napoleon to reach an equally momentous decision. He loved his wife Josephine, but she was already in her mid-forties and had proven unable to give him a son. Still worried about the stability of his empire should he be killed, Napoleon decided to divorce Josephine. He formed an alliance with Austria, which until then had been one of France’s bitterest enemies, and married the Archduchess Marie Louise. She was a member of one of the great royal houses of Europe and trained to do her duty. She was also, apparently, sensual. The only thing reported about their wedding night is that after the relationship was consummated, she turned to Napoleon and said, “Do it again.” (At least, that’s what Nappy claimed later.) Whether that story is true or not, she did accomplish her purpose and in a year, gave Napoleon a son.

Marie Louise Empress

Empress Marie Louise by François Gérard, via Wikimedia Commons


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This Date in History: October 12, 1809

At the beginning of the French Revolution, most European nations were shocked by the the events in France and considered it appropriate to try to restore the French king to his throne. It goes without saying that all those other countries had monarchy in some form or another. However, by January 1793, Louis XVI was dead. The execution of the Bourbon king only intensified international opposition to the idea of a republican France. In 1793, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, Spain, and the United Provinces of the Netherlands formed a coalition to oppose both the French government and the spread of revolutionary ideas to their own lands.

Over the course of the next 23 years, France was almost continuously at war, and in all probability, the only thing that kept it from being defeated at an earlier date was the military genius of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s leadership was a double-edged sword, if you’ll forgive the pun. His brilliant victories defeated Austria and kept Britain at bay time and time again. However, after he became First Consul in 1799 and  emperor in 1804, the other rulers of Europe viewed him as an upstart and a usurper, and they adopted the goal of defeating him at any cost. It became a vicious no-win situation for Napoleon. He felt that he had to use his leadership and military skills to keep his country safe, yet he became one of the primary reasons his country was being attacked.

Which brings me to October 12, 1809. By this time, the Allies had formed not one, not two, but five coalitions to defeat France. The Fifth Coalition essentially fell apart when Napoleon trounced the Austrians. France and Austria negotiated a treaty to end the war at the palace of Schönnbrunn in Vienna. While this was going on, a seventeen-year-old German named Friedrich Staps decided to assassinate Napoleon to bring an end to his rule. Staps entered the palace grounds on October 12 while Napoleon was viewing a military parade and tried to approach the emperor. One of Napoleon’s aides found the young man suspicious and had him arrested, and a knife was found to be hidden on his body. Under questioning, Staps admitted his plans. When Napoleon asked if he would be grateful for a pardon, Staps declared that he would still try to assassinate Napoleon anyway. A firing squad executed Staps on the 17th.

It was not the first attempt to assassinate Napoleon, and such attempts on his life only made him more obdurate in pursuing his goal to build a French empire. He greatly feared what would happen to France if he should die without a clear succession plan in place. After this attempt, he took decisive action that I will discuss in my next blog post.

Schloss Schoenbrunn Gloriette

Schönnbrunn Palace, via Wikimedia Commons


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Betsy’s Circle: Germaine de Staël

Laugier de Stael

Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël by Jean Nicolas Laugier, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Betsy’s literary friends was Germaine de Staël, who was a colorful and controversial figure on the European scene.

She was born Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker to Swiss parents in Paris in 1766. Her father was a Genevan banker who became Louis XVI’s finance minister. Like Betsy, she exhibited the qualities of wit, intellectual curiosity, and lively conversation as a child. She was married at the age of twenty to Baron Erik de Staël-Holstein, the Swedish ambassador to France. It was not an affectionate marriage but gave her status as the wife of a diplomat.

Madame de Staël first gained literary fame by publishing Letters on the Works and Character of J.-J. Rousseau in 1788. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, her work exhibited a “mixture of Rousseau’s enthusiasm and Montesquieu’s rationalism.” Despite the Revolution, she remained in France until 1793, and then she moved to England to be with her lover, Louis de Narbonne, who had been one of Louis XVI’s ministers.

After the Reign of Terror ended, she returned to Paris and began the most illustrious stage of her career. She alternated between living in Paris and at her chateau in Coppet, Switzerland. Madame de Staël held a noted salon, where intellectuals could converse about important ideas of their day, and she published several essays. She also took a new lover, the politician and writer Benjamin Constant, who introduced her to German romanticism.

Madame de Staël wrote two novels, Delphine and Corinne, that were infamous in their day because they exposed the limits imposed on independent and creative women. Napoleon disapproved of her work—he was a traditionalist in his views of women’s roles. As a liberal, Madame de Staël opposed him politically, so that deepened his dislike. In about 1803, Napoleon exiled her to a distance of at least 40 miles from Paris. During the remainder of his reign, Coppet was her home base.

In 1810, she published her most important work, a study of German culture. She returned to Paris after Napoleon’s downfall, but lived only a few more years, dying in 1817.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Relinquishing Control

This week, I am finishing the copy edit review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte and will soon send it back to my publisher for design and production. I find myself having mixed feelings. I am happy with the book, and I believe that with my editor’s help, I have made it a far better book than it was a few months ago.

Yet, I know that once this pass is over, my ability to make substantial changes to the manuscript will end. During the proof review, I’ll be able to fix any remaining typos and grammatical errors, but it won’t be appropriate to do intensive rewrites. Whatever shape the manuscript is in at the end of this week will be the condition in which it goes out into the world. My baby is moving beyond my control.

This will be the first time I’ve experienced this phenomenon to this extent. I’ve worked in educational publishing for 24 years, and I’ve had short stories, poems, and one non-fiction YA book published before this, but not a novel. Unlike any project that came before, this book has taken two years of my life. Sending it out feels like a deeper level of vulnerability than I have ever experienced. I have waited thirty years for this day to come, but I never really thought about what it would feel like. The important thing to remember is that even with something that means so much to me, I don’t have to be perfect. I only have to do the best I am capable of at the time—and I think I can honestly say that I’ve done that.


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Bonaparte Family Album

This is one of my favorite portraits of Jerome Bonaparte. I could imagine falling in love with this guy—or at least getting a serious crush on him. Usually when I needed to write love scenes between him and Betsy, I’d look at this for a while to get in the mood.

Jérôme Bonaparte - Sophie Lienard

by Sophie Lienard, via Wikimedia Commons

And I love this portrait of Napoleon because he looks so young and intense in it. Actually, he was 34 when it was painted, but to me, he looks like he’s in his early twenties. It has a very different character from the portraits made just a few years later with all the imperial trappings.

Bonaparte premier Consul Gérard Chantilly

A Portrait of Bonaparte, First Consul by François Gérard, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a portrait of their mother.

Robert Lefèvre 001

Portrait of Letizia Bonaparte by Robert Lefévre, via Wikimedia Commons

And I’ll repeat the scandalous portrait of Pauline I showed a few weeks ago.

Pauline Bonaparte 2

Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre, Image from Wikimedia Commons


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19th Century Life: Literature of the early 1800s

One of the many reasons Betsy wanted to live in Europe was to take part in literary society. It’s difficult to imagine this now, but two hundred years ago, there really wasn’t such a thing as American literature.

In contrast, British literature was flourishing.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns had published his poems in 1786. Perhaps the best-known is “To a Mouse,” with this famous stanza:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley.
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

It’s usually translated into English as follows:

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

PG 1063Burns Naysmithcrop

Robert Burns, by Alexander Nasmyth, via Wikimedia Commons

In England in 1798, William Wordsworth had published his Lyrical Ballads, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which has these famous verses:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Gothic novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794) were just beginning to be published. This would become a popular genre in the following decades.

France and Germany, too, had a wealth of literature during that time period.

In contrast, what did the United States have in the way of accomplished writers? Well, during the late 1600s, a couple of Puritans named Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor had published beautiful devotional poems. Here is one of the most well-known of Taylor’s stanzas:

Make me, O Lord, thy spinning wheel complete.
Thy Holy Word my distaff make for me.
Make mine affections thy swift flyers neat
And make my soul thy holy spool to be.
My conversation make to be thy reel
And reel the yarn thereon spun of thy wheel.

Although their poetry is still admired today, I doubt that their works had much appeal for Betsy. She was decidedly worldly in her tastes and interests.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis in 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis (1809), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1802, Washington Irving began to publish the first of his satirical essays. I can easily imagine Betsy reading and enjoying those. However, there really was not much else for an American with literary interests to take pride in. Irving’s fiction would not appear for nearly two decades, and the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau would not be published until mid-century.

And perhaps most astonishing to me of all, in my research I discovered that New York City probably had only one theatre!

Once she arrived in Europe, Betsy was able to attend salons where intellectual ideas were discussed and meet famous writers and artist. She even became close friends with a few well-known women writers. I’ll talk about a couple of these later this week.


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