Monthly Archives: November 2013

Finding Creative Balance

I mentioned the other day that art was what kept me going doing a period when I almost gave up my writing. I’m grateful to my art teacher Richard Halstead for helping me keep that creative spark alive and also for one other thing. The portrait of Betsy on the cover of my novel is my own work. I created it by working from a couple of the existing portraits painted during her lifetime.

There is also a third reason that my art is important to me. Because I’m a freelance educational writer as well as a novelist, I used my verbal skills all the time. Sometimes that part of my brain just needs a rest. A couple of weeks ago, I deliberately took a couple of hours to work on a drawing just to find a little balance. It’s not much more than a sketch, but here it is:

tree

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: At the President’s Mansion

This is the second of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. While on their honeymoon, Betsy and Jerome Bonaparte traveled to Washington to visit her uncle, Senator Samuel Smith, and mingle with high society:

     They were also invited to dinner at the President’s Mansion. Beforehand, Uncle Smith told Betsy that in a perverse display of neutrality, President Jefferson had invited both the French minister and the new British ambassador, despite the war between their two countries.
     For the occasion, which would begin at 3:00 in the afternoon and last until late evening, Betsy wore a sheer gown bedecked with gold embroidery that would sparkle in the candlelight. This would be her first visit to the home of a head of state, and she wanted to demonstrate to Jerome that she knew how to dress for such occasions.
     As the Smith carriage drove up to the north entrance, Betsy stared avidly at the details of the building and wondered how it compared to the palaces she would someday live in with Jerome. The President’s Mansion was an imposing light-grey stone structure, wide enough that eleven windows stretched across its upper story. The center block of the mansion was decorated with four Doric columns crowned by a triangular pediment. A small pediment also topped each window, but Betsy was surprised to see that they were not all the same. Rather, triangles alternated with rounded arches.
     Following the Smiths, Betsy and Jerome climbed the stone steps and walked through the front door into the entrance hall, a marble-floored space that was wider than it was long. On the far side of the room, four Doric columns marked the boundary between the entryway and the central cross hall.
     Servants came to take their outer garments, and after Betsy handed over her cloak, she noticed that the entrance hall was cold despite having facing fireplaces on the east and west walls. She hoped that she would not be covered in goose skin by the time she made it through the receiving line into the oval drawing room where the president stood greeting his guests. As they stepped through the central columns into the cross hall, she glanced left to see if she could catch a glimpse of the East Room—infamous as the vast unfinished space where Abigail Adams had once dried laundry. Betsy had heard that, even though it was intended to be a public reception room, the East Room was still unplastered. Just last year, Aunt Margaret had written that the first attempt at installing a ceiling in the room had collapsed. Now a piece of canvas stretched across the doorway, so Betsy could not see a thing.
     When she and Jerome were presented to President Jefferson, Betsy was amused to see him in the characteristically plain dress he wore on republican principle: an old blue coat, dark corduroy breeches, dingy white hose, and run-down backless slippers. “Madame Bonaparte, allow me to welcome you to Washington. I hope your father was well when you left him.”
     “He was, Mr. President, and he particularly charged me with thanking you for the very kind letter of reference that you wrote.”
     “It gave me great pleasure to do whatever I could to further an alliance that will cement relations between the United States and France. As you know, I spent several years as ambassador to France and I retain great fondness for our sister republic.”
     From the corner of her eye, Betsy saw a distinguished-looking man in formal diplomatic dress shoot the president a frosty glare. After Mr. Jefferson moved to another guest, Uncle Smith introduced Jerome and Betsy to the irate gentleman, who was the British ambassador Mr. Anthony Merry.
     “Citizen Bonaparte.” Mr. Merry gave a curt nod. “I greet you as a fellow guest of Mr. Jefferson and not as the enemy of my country.”
     Betsy answered before Jerome could, “Sir, how wise you are to know that for tonight, we must draw blades against the roast and not the person opposite.”
     Merry smiled grudgingly. He then introduced them to his wife, Elizabeth Death Merry, a fiftyish woman with heavy eyebrows and a long nose in a horsy face. 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.”
     When it came time for the meal, President Jefferson further offended his English guests by leading Betsy from the drawing room into the dining room instead of following protocol and honoring Mrs. Merry. Betsy could not resist glancing back over her shoulder to grin triumphantly at Jerome.

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Eternal Flame

I wrote this poem four years ago, when I was struggling with the temptation to give up writing. I nearly did give it up. I began to study painting intead, and I barely wrote for at least a year. The artwork, however, was enough to keep the flame flickering, and two and a half years ago, I started writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Now, in two weeks, I will have achieved my lifelong dream of having a novel published.

If you have a calling, think long and hard before you ever decide to give it up.

ETERNAL FLAME

In a rocky cleft
beneath the willows,
burns a quavering blue flame
that I alone must tend,
arcing my body into a canopy
when the rain pelts
or smothering snow falls.
In all weathers I must feed the fire
scraps of paper, broken pencils,
and fingernails torn as I scratch and claw
through the bricklike clay of my spirit,
hardened by years of rejection,
yet fertile still when gently watered.
Dig through unyielding earth for
wood chips, abandoned cardboard,
any and all refuse
that might feed this insatiable muse,
my burden,
my calling,
my obedience.

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: Their First Dance

Over the next two weeks, between now and my publication date, I’m going to publish a few excerpts from The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. In the following scene, Betsy Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte—who previously met at a dinner party—have their first dance together.

   As they entered the ballroom, Betsy was pleased to see that many people broke off their conversations to watch them. The first dance of the evening was to be a contradanse, which would have the advantage of pairing them for at least ten minutes and of having periods when they could converse because they were not required to take part in the moves. The first time they were an inactive couple, Betsy said, “Lieutenant Bonaparte, I have never seen a uniform like yours. Is it a naval dress uniform?”
     Jerome laughed. “No, it is a hussar’s uniform.”
     “But, hussars are cavalry. I thought you were in the navy.”
     “I am.” He shrugged. “But I like the way this one looks. It is debonair, is it not?”
     Before Betsy could answer, it was their turn to take part in the next movement, and by the time they could speak again, she decided not to pursue the subject. She suspected that it was a tremendous breach of protocol for a military officer to wear the uniform of a different branch of service. Clearly, being Napoleon’s brother came with unusual privileges, liberties that the youngest Bonaparte did not hesitate to enjoy.
     As she pondered these things, Jerome complimented her on her elegant gown. “It is—très à la mode,” he said after a moment of searching for an equivalent English phrase.
     “Merci, monsieur,” Betsy answered, gratified that he considered her stylish.
     “Ah, parlez-vous français?” he exclaimed, sounding like a boy in his excitement that she spoke his language.
     Betsy nodded, and he gave her gloved hand a quick squeeze of approval. Then returning to the previous subject, he said, “Your taste in clothing reminds me of ma belle-soeur Josephine. She truly knows how to set Paris on its ear.”
     “Oh, please tell me about her.”
     He chuckled and said in French, “A while back, she started a new fashion of wearing sheer gowns such as yours but with nothing underneath.”
     Betsy’s cheeks burned as Jerome continued, “Napoleon considered the style too immodest. One day, finding Josephine and her ladies sitting in the drawing room in such flimsy attire, he gave orders for the servants to pile wood on the fire. When Josephine complained that she was roasting alive, he said, ‘My dear, I was afraid you might catch cold sitting here naked.’”
     In spite of her discomfort with the indiscreet topic, Betsy found herself joining in Jerome’s laughter. Then, after her first wave of self-consciousness passed, she felt a delicious sense of freedom in being able to talk so openly of things forbidden in Baltimore society.
     The last move of the dance required Jerome to grasp her hands and swing her through several revolutions. After the last twirl, he flirtatiously pulled her closer to his body than was proper before releasing her. As they pulled apart, Betsy found herself halted. Her gold chain had caught on one of his buttons.
     She dared not look up at him. With the rapidity of lightning, she felt as embarrassed as if she had found herself publicly wearing one of Josephine’s revealing gowns.
     “Permit me.” Jerome used his index finger to unhook her necklace. Instead of releasing the chain, however, he kept it on the crook of his finger and whispered, “Do you see, chére mademoiselle? Fate has brought us together, and we are destined never to part.”
     Betsy caught her breath at the romantic perfection of the moment, but then her natural skepticism reasserted itself. She perceived that this man to whom she was temporarily joined—handsome, warm-hearted, and fun loving though he might be—lacked the steely resolve of his famous older brother. He seemed content to glide through life feasting on whatever privileges fell to him in Napoleon’s wake.
     “Fate seems to have forgotten that I promised my next dance to someone else.”
     Jerome released her gold chain. “If that is your wish.”
     “My wish, sir, is for a partner who understands that I am a kingdom that must be won rather than claimed as a birthright.”
     For a moment, he seemed perplexed and she feared the sentiment was too complex for him to understand it in English, but then laughter returned to his eyes. “Truly, Mademoiselle, that is a challenge worthy of a Bonaparte.” He bowed and watched her walk away.

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Happy (Belated) Birthday, Jerome Bonaparte

Jérôme Bonaparte - Sophie Lienard

Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard, via Wikimedia Commons

So, there’s a problem with the title of this post that I’m guessing a lot of people don’t even know about because it’s usage that has become quite common. Allow me to digress from Jerome for a moment. When I was a young child, I received a lot of praise for my ability to draw recognizable faces. So in third grade, when we were given the art assignment of creating a drawing to represent February, I proudly drew two side-by-side ovals and then put Washington’s portrait in one and Lincoln’s portrait in the other. I put in a lot of effort to make the faces look as much like the presidents as I could. I wrote “Happy Birthday George Washington and Abraham Lincoln” across the top like a banner. (This was in the days when we honored each of their birthdays separately instead of lumping them into President’s Day.)

My teacher refused to hang the picture because they were dead, and it’s not proper to wish happy birthday to a dead person. I was crushed that she would be so picky about a technicality of usage instead of noticing how hard I’d worked on the art.

Here we are, decades years later, and I still remember that rule, but as you can see, I decided to break it. Yesterday was the 229th anniversary of Jerome Bonaparte’s birth, and I’m saying happy birthday to him. Take that, Mrs. Brown.

I can’t give you the usual biography here, because that would give away way too much of the plot of my novel. So instead, I’ll share one humorous story about Jerome that I included in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.

[Betsy] sat up in bed, wrapped her arms around her knees, and smiled at the memory of a story he told during their last dance. When Jerome was fifteen, Napoleon had taken him to live in the Tuileries in the hope of imparting discipline to the baby of the Bonaparte clan. Napoleon, however, was often away on government business, and during his absences, Jerome discovered the delights of shopping in Paris. After one such trip, the First Consul found that his youngest brother had purchased an elaborate shaving set whose articles were made of gold, silver, mother of pearl, and ivory—and ordered that the bill of 10,000 francs be sent to the palace. “This is ridiculous! You do not even have a beard!”

The boy looked longingly at the objects his brother had confiscated. “I know. But I just love beautiful things.”

Happy birthday, Jerome. I hope wherever you are, you’re surrounded by beautiful things.

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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte: cover reveal!

I am proud and pleased to reveal the cover for my novel:

amb-front

Here is the synopsis:

As a clever girl in stodgy, mercantile Baltimore, Betsy Patterson dreams of a marriage that will transport her to cultured Europe. When she falls in love with and marries Jerome Bonaparte, she believes her dream has come true—until Jerome’s older brother Napoleon becomes an implacable enemy.

Based on a true story, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is a historical novel that portrays this woman’s tumultuous life. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, known to history as Betsy Bonaparte, scandalized Washington with her daring French fashions; visited Niagara Falls when it was an unsettled wilderness; survived a shipwreck and run-ins with British and French warships; dined with presidents and danced with dukes; and lived through the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Yet through it all, Betsy never lost sight of her primary goal—to win recognition of her marriage.

Our publication date is December 2. The book can be preordered here.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Mimicking Old Books

As I was waiting for the copy edit review of my novel, one of the people at my publishing house had an unusual suggestion for my book. She e-mailed me and said that she had been thinking about my story and wondering if I’d want to consider doing one of those old-fashioned, annotated TOCs (tables of contents) that used to be so popular in the 1800s. Her reasoning was that she thought all the chapters are so meaty (an evaluation I loved hearing!) that it might be fun to give the readers teasers about what’s coming.

My first thought was, What are you, psychic? You see, two of the 19th-century biographies of Betsy Bonaparte that I used for sources had just that kind of TOC.

My second thought was, No way. I don’t want to give away too much of the story.

But I reconsidered and decided to see if I could do it without including spoilers. It became like a word puzzle, . . . and I love word puzzles.

After I finished a version that I was happy with, I sent it to my editor to see what he thought. He agreed that it worked, so we decided to use it.

Here are the first few chapters:

Prologue

Visiting a dying son — The seductive whirlpool of memory

Chapter I

Refugees from a revolution — An early loss — Snowball fights and arithmetic tests — Teasing Uncle Smith — Madame Lacomb’s school — Intriguing prophecy

Chapter II

The Belle of Baltimore — Dreaming of a brilliant match — Rumors about Napoleon — A Bonaparte in Baltimore — Their first encounter

Chapter III

A consummate flatterer — Quick wit and a sharp tongue — Aunt Nancy’s advice — The coquette and the guest of honor — “Destined never to part”

Chapter IV

A shocking discovery — The wedding of friends — Passion awakes — Seeking a brother’s advice — A father’s worry and a daughter’s plea

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