Monthly Archives: January 2014

Ruth Hull Chatlien – Writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

Many thanks to Mary Todd, author of UNRAVELLED, for interviewing me on her blog today.

All about historical fiction

The Ambitious Madame BonaparteRuth Hull Chatlien started following A Writer of History a few months ago. She’s been an encouraging voice as I blog about historical fiction, my latest survey and aspects of my own writing. Today she talks about her writing and a novel with an enticing title The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, about the wife of Napoleon’s younger brother, Jerome.

Why did you choose to write historical fiction?    For the last 25 years, I have worked as an editor and writer in educational publishing, concentrating on social studies—particularly U.S. history, world history, and world geography. I also wrote literary fiction and had several short stories and poems published in literary journals. In addition, I have three unpublished novels tucked away in my filing cabinet; generally, I received good feedback on the writing, but they were very personal books without a clear marketing niche, so I wasn’t able to place…

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Fetching Reviews: The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

Fetching Figment

“You are rather a force of nature when you set your heart upon something, [Betsy.]”

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.

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Blue Freckles

Not sure if I’m going to be doing a whole series of cancer poems or if these are just a temporary product of adjusting to my new state. At any rate, I found myself writing this in my head in the middle of the night as I lay unable to sleep. I’m still too close to it to judge whether it’s any good, but I decided to post it anyway.


Lying upon unyielding plastic,
I stretch out my arms,
not to the side like
crucifix Jesus,
but above my head
in the age-old sign of surrender.
In the next room,
a technician flips a switch,
sliding me into
a whirring, clicking tunnel,
so a machine can scan my contours
and locate the exact spot
from which a surgeon excavated—
not buried treasure—
but life-threatening malignancy.
That task done,
the tech tattoos three indigo dots,
on my sternum and
each side of my ribcage,
a trinity of blue freckles
to serve as a map for future treatment
and the guiding stars
of my voyage to survival.


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Book Review: The Wreck of the Columbia


Imagine looking forward to a midnight steamboat excursion on the river, only to have your plans disrupted because your employer is late coming back from an errand and you don’t get off work in time. You go to bed bitterly disappointed . . . and later wake up to the terrible news that the boat sank in the river and several of your friends and acquaintances have drowned.

The tale of a young woman who experienced such a shock is the dramatic opening to the book The Wreck of the Columbia by Ken Zurski. The Columbia was a steam-powered, paddlewheel, riverboat. At its last inspection, it had been called the safest boat in western waters, but on July 5, 1918, it suddenly sank in the Illinois River and broke apart. Of some 500 passengers aboard the vessel that night, 87 died.

Zurski has resurrected this story from the forgotten pages of history. His well-researched account includes profiles of many of the passengers aboard the steamer that fateful July night as well as a brief history of steamboats and the towns of Pekin and Peoria, which were most affected by the disaster. He recounts the heroic attempts to rescue the people who were trapped in the wreckage and later to salvage the bodies so they could be returned to their families for burial. Zurski goes on to explain the investigation into the causes of the sinking and the legal proceedings that followed. The account also contains several brief tangents to help people better understand the time period in which the accident happened.

One nice touch to the book is that each chapter opens with a photograph of a person or object of interest to the story. The images help put a human face of the disaster.

I think this book has a wide appeal. People interested in the history of the early 20th century, the Midwest (especially Illinois), and transportation should find it fascinating. And, of course, the book is a natural for anyone who’s been fascinated by the history of the Titanic or Lusitania. While the death toll from the sinking of the Columbia was much smaller than either of those two tragedies, it still made national headlines, and it had a devastating effect on the town of Pekin.

My major complaint with the book is that it doesn’t have an index. The stories of some of the passengers are told in installments in different chapters, and when I hit the later parts of those stories, sometimes I wished I could easily find the earlier mentions. Still, it was an engrossing history, and I highly recommend it.


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Time Shift

Wrote my first poem of 2014 this morning:

Time Shift

Since the moment I learned that
an enemy agent had infiltrated my breast
and would need to be dislodged
with an assassin’s knife,
my life has been filled with
strategy sessions and
commando campaigns
controlled by specialized generals,
rather than myself.
Accustomed as I am
to storing my hours in a measuring cup
and doling them out meticulously
according to the red lines on the side,
I now see my days run away from me
like carelessly spilled water
escaping through the nearest crack.


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Of Biopsy Results, Part 2

The other day I mentioned that I recently had another biopsy. The results came in yesterday. My lymph nodes are clear, so we caught the cancer at the earliest stage before it has spread at all. I still need preventive treatment to reduce the risk of its coming back, but it shouldn’t be too bad. This was the best possible news at this stage, and I’m very grateful.


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Frostbite (A Story): Part II

(In yesterday’s installment, the narrator and her small dog Tuffy got locked out of the house at 5:00 AM on a morning when the windchill is 38 below zero.)

I ring the doorbell and pound on the door, and then I wait. After about 20 seconds, I ring and pound again. As Tuffy prances from foot to foot, he senses my frustration and starts barking. We ring, pound, and bark, ring, pound, and bark for at least five minutes. Slowly, I understand that because our bedroom is the room furthest from the door, Jay cannot hear me.

Turning around, I glance down our street, but every house is dark. A sharp gust of wind flings icy snow into my face as though the neighborhood itself has turned hostile. Only one plan occurs to me. I pick up Tuffy, cross the driveway close to the garage door, and wade into the side yard. The houses are about 20 feet apart here, and the pattern of drifting has left an area where the snow cover is only ankle deep. Maybe this won’t be so bad, I think and try to ignore the way the cold is making the bones of my feet ache.

Prospects turn ominous as soon as I round the corner of the house and enter the back yard. Because my neighbors haven’t planted many trees or shrubs, the raging prairie winds have created huge drifts here that look like a white Sahara. Some of the snow is piled four feet high. I plow into the yard, heading for our dark bedroom window at the opposite end of the house. Even though I choose the places where the snow is lowest, I still have to trudge through knee-high drifts. Walking this direction, I’m heading straight into the fierce wind that scoops up the top layer of snow and bombards me with it. Within seconds, my face feels sandpapered.

By the time I reach the back of the house, I’m out of breath from carrying 18 pounds of wriggling canine while acting as a human snowplow. A vise of cold is tightening around my asthmatic lungs. I pound on the window, pause to take several shallow breaths, which are all I can manage, and pound once more. Then feeling dazed, I continue my circuit of the house.

Rounding the corner, I find myself in a more sheltered area. The neighbor on this side has a two-story home, which blocks the wind more than our one-story model. I make good progress until I reach the front yard, where the sight of massive drifts halts me and fills my eyes with tears. As much trouble as I’m having breathing, I’ll never make it across that wilderness.

Instead, I take the long way around, across the comparatively flat snow of my neighbor’s front yard to the curb, down the street to our driveway, and then up the drive to the house.

The living room is still dark, and I cannot open the door.

My skin burns where my legs were immersed in the snow with only flimsy pajamas as protection. My lungs ache more than ever before in my life. Holding the dog close to my chest, I lean my head against the narrow window that runs vertically alongside the door and wonder what to do. My thoughts move as slowly as a ship in ice-choked waters. I know I cannot make another trip through the snowdrifts to the back window. I can’t think where to go. The ranch house to the east is empty, the result of an autumn foreclosure. The house to the west and the one directly across the street are two-story houses with the bedrooms upstairs, so I doubt my neighbors will hear the doorbell any better than Jay does.

I’ve just decided to unzip my coat, bundle the dog inside, and huddle on the front stoop praying that we’ll keep each other warm when I hear my husband’s voice ask, “What are you doing?”

Lifting my head from the window, I turn stupidly toward the doorway. Jay is standing there looking worried by my lack of response to the door opening.

He takes the dog from my arms and leads me inside. While I strip off my coat and boots, I tearfully tell him to get my inhaler. Only after I take two puffs of albuterol do I explain what happened. Then I go to the bedroom to strip off my snow-encrusted pajamas. My lower legs are the color of an almost-ripe tomato, and my toes feel as though a falling block of ice has crushed them. My lungs still ache, and for a few moments I lean against the bathroom vanity and work at deepening my breaths. Then I take several minutes to rub lotion into my chapped skin. As I pull on heavy sweatpants and two pairs of wool socks, Jay brings me a cup of green tea liberally laced with honey and lemon.

I drink it and then climb back into bed, where Jay and Tuffy join me. The dog lies on his back between us, snuffling and grunting as if to tell us his version of the adventure while we rub his chest. Down in the depths of the bedclothes, my feet are prickling and my calves throb. I wonder if the skin is still bright red. At least the tightness in my lungs has started to ease.

After several minutes, Jay moves the dog to the end of the bed. Then he takes me in his arms. “I feel awful,” he whispers. “I thought I heard something, but I was too asleep to figure out what it was. What if I’d lost you?”

The thought flits through my mind that for once he’s the one who is catastrophizing . . . except that I know he isn’t. If I’d had a more serious asthma attack or if hypothermia had set in, my husband could have awakened later that morning to find that he’d lost both of us.

“Well, that didn’t happen,” I say and snuggle closer to him. For a moment, I flash back to my struggle out there in the snow. As I plodded through the drifts, I couldn’t allow myself to think about whether I was going to survive the situation. All I could do was to take one step and then another, each on the assumption that I would live. I remember the hiking trip Jay and I took the first summer we were married, during which my feet developed blisters the size of walnuts. At the time I was convinced we would have to camp somewhere until I healed, but the next day, Jay bandaged my feet and transferred half the items from my backpack to his and never once complained that he was carrying more than his share of the weight.

Suddenly, I want to tell him that I’ve learned a lesson from the near-death experience, that I won’t obsess over trivia anymore and that I’ll try to hold onto the faith that somehow we’ll get through the tough times. But even the euphoria of survival can’t prevent me from seeing that such a pronouncement would be glib. Ultimately, I’d end up disappointing myself if I swore to make such an unrealistic overhaul of my personality.

While I’m struggling to think of an achievable promise, Jay sits up and says that he’s going to make us a hot breakfast—“scrambled eggs and fried potatoes, and to hell with the diet.”

“Wait a minute.” I reach up to stroke his cheek, rough with morning stubble. His cheeks are thinner than those of the baby-faced 30-year-old I married, and his hair is flecked with grey, yet his eyes still shine with the same kindness. After a moment, I say softly, “I love you. I think I’ve lost sight of that lately and of just how rich our life really is. I’m sorry.”

He kisses me on the forehead. “We’re going to get through this, you know.” Settling down beside me again, Jay smiles. Then he hugs me more tightly, and I drift off to sleep in the security of his embrace.


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Frostbite (a story): Part I

The polar vortex last week reminded me of a short story I wrote a few years ago. So I decided to publish it here in two installments, first half today, second half tomorrow. I hope you enjoy it.

Frostbite, Part I

Call me compulsive. Ever since my husband, Jay, lost his job, I’ve been keeping a closer eye on our expenses. I do the usual money-saving things like washing out Ziploc bags so we can reuse them and walking around the house flipping off light switches. Plus, I don’t take things on faith anymore. I count the pills in our prescription bottles before walking away from the pharmacy counter, no matter how many people are fidgeting behind me in line. And a couple of weeks ago, I caught the checkout clerk at the grocery store ringing up four cans of generic frozen orange juice instead of three. It was an honest mistake, I’m sure—an unintended extra flick of the wrist as she ran the bar code over the scanner—but things like that can add up.

I wish I could convince Jay to participate in this cost-cutting patrol and take the pressure off me to be eternally vigilant, but he believes the return on investment for such activities is minimal. That’s his phrase—the return on investment is minimal—as though he were an accountant instead of a production coordinator laid off from the publishing house where we met 15 years ago and where I still work as an editor. My reply is that the longer he goes without bringing in an income, the more valuable every penny becomes, but neither one of us has yet persuaded the other to adopt our point of view. So I continue trimming our budget by a dollar here, a dollar there, and Jay shakes his head over the energy I expend complaining about the milk we let spoil and had to pour down the sink.

Even at my most obsessive, I realize that the milk and the light bill are not really what’s bothering me. What I want is for Jay to find another job, but that outcome is outside my control, so I try to make myself feel better by doing everything I can to push back the day when we run out of money and have to dip into our retirement account. I just wish we shared the effort more evenly. Jay is the one who has been out of work the last seven months, yet I feel like I’m carrying most of the burden.

To bring in extra money, I’ve been taking on freelance copy editing assignments to do in the evenings and on weekends, working so many hours that I wake up in the mornings with a brain that feels as uninspired as leftover oatmeal. I know Jay spends his days pursuing every job lead that he can, but when a person has been job hunting for as many months as he has, there are only a few avenues left to explore. Especially when so many publishers are outsourcing the type of work he does to compositors in India.

Even though I know he’s trying hard, when I walk through the door at 5:30 with at least three hours of copy editing ahead of me, the last thing I want to see is Jay enthroned on the couch trying to win a computer game. I bite my tongue to keep from raging at him, but even so, he can tell I resent his ability to blow off the stress for a while.

I think back to the Christmas we first bought the PlayStation and how we spent a two-week vacation seeing who could earn the better statistics at Tigers Woods golf. I’m angry that, because I have a skill set that is still in demand, I don’t feel like I can spend two hours playing a damn game. Part of the difference between Jay and me is that he’s always been more of an optimist. Even though the unemployment rate hovers at 10 percent, and economists warn that job creation isn’t going to pick up anytime soon, he remains convinced that some God-given opportunity is about to turn up. I, on the other hand, see hard times stretching out indefinitely until both the supplemental unemployment benefits and our retirement funds run out. Jay laughs at my tendency to “catastrophize,” but he didn’t grow up as I did in a family that lost both a home and a business to bankruptcy.

Working a string of 55-hour weeks has only exacerbated my stress levels. My asthma, usually under control, has worsened recently, and I’m convinced that tension is the reason for the increased attacks. And I’ve been sleeping badly. Right now, I’m lying awake staring at the dark ceiling at 5:00 on a Sunday morning. I can hear the wind buffeting the shrubs outside our bedroom window, scraping branches against the glass. Early December in northern Illinois is usually fairly mild, but the forecast called for the temperature to plummet below zero last night. Taking the dog outside this morning is going to be brutal. Rolling over on my side, I try to drop off again, hoping that I can sleep later than Jay so he’ll have to take Tuffy out into the deep freeze.

But it’s no good. As soon as I close my eyes, I start wondering whether we’ll be able to buy any Christmas presents for our relatives and worrying about the job I have to finish by the end of the day, no doubt missing the Bears game in the process.

By now our dog, a black schnoodle who was my surprise 40th birthday present three years ago, has sensed that I’m awake, so he inches up from the end of the bed, creeping on his belly until his face is next to mine. Opening his mouth in what looks like a yawn, he makes a noise that sounds like “Owwww”—the result of Jay trying to teach him to say Out when he has to go. Sighing, I rise from the warm bed, grab my heavy terrycloth robe, and shove my feet into fleece-lined slippers.

Tuffy is already prancing before the bedroom door, and when I open it, he races into the hall leading to the great room of the house. I detour to the room I use as a home office, turn on my computer, and check the weather report. The temperature is five below zero, the winds are gusting to 30 mph, and the wind chill is negative 38. Briefly, I consider returning to the bedroom to put on heavy pants over my thin flannel pajamas, but I don’t really want to wake up Jay. I snapped at him repeatedly during dinner last night and now I feel guilty, which is probably another reason for my early wake up.

“We won’t be outside long,” I say to the dog, as I kneel in the front hallway and pull on his dog sweater. He squirms because he hates wearing clothes, but small dogs like Tuffy are more susceptible to the cold. Once he’s dressed, I put on my full-length down coat, my winter boots, a hat, a scarf, and mittens. As we exit, I jiggle the doorknob to make sure it’s unlocked.

More snow has fallen during the night and the wind has piled it into huge drifts in the front yard, so I decide to take Tuffy out to the street. Fortunately the snowplow came by sometime in the last few hours so the roadway is clear of drifts. Tuffy immediately urinates against a snow bank, but even though I walk him about half the length of the block, he refuses to squat. Sometimes, when he can’t smell the ground, he gets fussy about where to poop. The cold and the salt on the road begin to burn his pads, and he starts picking up one paw and then another to get relief from the stinging. My own toes start to tingle as I turn to lead him home.

By the time we reach our driveway, he still hasn’t completed his business, but I decide to go inside anyway. Once he’s eaten breakfast, he’ll need to go more badly and maybe do it in a quick trip.

We walk up the drive with Tuffy tugging at the leash in his eagerness to get inside. I climb onto our front step, turn the doorknob, and discover that we’re locked out of the house. For a minute, I stand there twisting the doorknob again and again, unable to believe this is happening. I wonder if it’s frozen. Then the truth hits me. Fatigue and stress can make a person stupid, and stupid can be dangerous. When I tested the doorknob on my way out of the house, I jiggled the inside knob, which would have turned freely whether it was locked or not. And because I switched from my short down coat to my long one, I don’t have my keys in my pocket.

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Of Biopsy Results and Book Reviews

I’ve been quiet lately because I had another biopsy yesterday. The results, which will come next week, should tell us what stage cancer I have.

Because of those other things going on in my life, I’m afraid I’m dreadfully behind on reading the blogs I follow. I was hoping to catch up, but I think I need to accept that’s not going to happen. I’ll start afresh next week.

In the meantime, I’ve been dealing with a much more pleasant form of evaluation. I’m getting positive book reviews of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte on both Amazon and Goodreads. Click on the links to check them out.


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Writing Historical Fiction: Organizing Research


This past week, I started doing serious research for my next book. For some reason, I’m finding this upcoming project more intimidating than The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which is odd because the new book will cover a much more condensed time period. Maybe I’m nervous because I have a better idea now of what researching a historical novel actually entails. Last time, I went into it with a certain naïveté.

At any rate, I want to organize my research more efficiently than I did last time. One thing I’m doing is to highlight the books I read. You have to understand that I’m someone who NEVER marks up books. This time, however, I’m highlighting important facts and details in yellow highlighter and even writing an occasional comment on the side–so far, mostly connections to other events or questions about the author’s objectivity/interpretation.

I also bought several packages of colored flags, and I plan to use them to indicate the different categories of information. Yellow for plot events, blue for information about my main character, green for details of daily life in the late 1800s, etc. Of course, I’ll do a lot of Internet research and probably set up a system of folders for book marks, maybe using the same categories, maybe others.

I’ve also realized I’m going to have to create a list of minor characters. There will be a lot of people in this book, although most will appear for only a page or so. It can’t be helped because of the nature of the historical conflict I’m portraying. Making a list will help me decide who to include and who to ignore.

That’s as far as my thinking has taken me so far. Do those of you who are writers have any other helpful tips for organizing research?


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