Category Archives: Writing Historical Fiction

Thinking About Act Two

Thinker Philadelphia

When I think about starting my next book, I find myself torn between two different ideas. I may do both eventually; the problem is in deciding the order.

The first idea–which I’ll call Cécile’s story—builds off some of the research I did for The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte (AMB). The time period and the locations are similar. The plot would be quite different. Unlike AMB, it wouldn’t be based on real people. The story I have in mind was inspired by the life of a couple of women I read about, but it diverges significantly from real events.

The second idea—which I’ll call Sarah’s story—is based on the memoir of a real woman caught in a real conflict. It is set in a different place and a later time period. I have a stack of books in my office that I purchased to research this particular event.

Pros and cons?

Both books would focus on women in time of war / conflict. Both deal with issues that intrigue me.

I suspect that Cécile’s story may be less commercial than Sarah’s, which has more action and more external conflict. If I wrote Cécile’s story next, I will likely get “branded” as someone who writes about  one particular period and one particular set of locations. Since I don’t want that to happen, it might make more sense to do this as my third book.

I was actually intending to start Sarah’s story this fall. However, I need to take a research trip that, for reasons related to the plot, has to take place in summer. We intended to go in August but weren’t able to swing it because of our work schedules. That setback seems to have deflated whatever mojo I had for the project. I keep telling myself if I start the book research, the drive will come back, and then I can do the research trip (which mostly relates to setting details) next year. My inner muse remains stubbornly unconvinced.

For whatever reason, Cécile’s story is the one tugging at my imagination. It will require just as much research, but at this point, I’m not planning a trip to do any of it. Yet, I remain troubled by the suspicion that it doesn’t have the same marketable hook of Sarah’s story or AMB, for that matter. (I’m not totally sure of that though. I have thought of one idea that could ramp up interest in it.)

And so I dither and tell myself I’m just too busy  with the last details of AMB and a too-full freelance schedule to start anything new.

One of these days soon, however, I’m going to have to make a decision and commit to it. Otherwise, I run the risk of AMB being an only child.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Hanging the Swags

Niagara Falls Storm

Photograph of Niagara Falls by Saffron Blaze, via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite analogies for writing historical fiction is “hanging the swags.” My novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is about a real woman whose life is well documented. The Maryland Historical Society alone has something like eighteen boxes of letters, account books, and newspaper clippings relating to Betsy Bonaparte, and numerous biographies have been written about her. So I was working from a fairly clear outline consisting of the main events of her life. I think of those events as brackets extending at irregular intervals along a wall.

Even with as much as is known about Betsy, however, there are still gaps that required me to add material to connect the brackets. For me, one of the biggest holes was the lack of explanation for why Betsy and Jerome did some of the things they did.

Here’s a perfect example. After they had been married about a year, they decided to sail to France to try to obtain Napoleon’s approval of their marriage. The problem was that Jerome and Betsy were a celebrity couple, and much was written in the newspapers about them and their plans. The British, who were at war with France, were well aware that “Boney’s” baby brother wanted to get back home. The British decided that a great strategy would be to try to capture Jerome to hold him hostage. At one point, when Betsy and Jerome were planning to sail from New York on a French frigate, they learned that several British warships were hovering just beyond the narrow strait they would have to take to reach the Atlantic. Understandably, they decided not to risk it.

Here’s where the story gets weird. What did Jerome decide to do at this point when the very future of his marriage is on the line? He decided to take Betsy on a six-week excursion to visit the great falls at Niagara. At the time, 1804, Niagara was still an unsettled wilderness, not a kitschy honeymoon destination. As a general rule, only scientists and explorers went there. One thing that’s known about Jerome is that he believed it was important to see the major sites whenever he visited a country so he wouldn’t appear “stupid” later when people asked him about his trip. A reason like that is sufficient in a biography. In a novel, not so much. I didn’t want my readers to stop and think, “What a dope. I’d never have done that.”

So what did I do? I made up a fictitious event that would give Jerome a plausible reason for thinking that Betsy’s nerves have been overtaxed by the strain in which they were living. The trip becomes much more sympathetic if it is undertaken in an effort to reduce Betsy’s stress and improve her health.

And that’s what I mean by hanging the swags. I started with two historical events that were my “brackets”: the decision not to try to break the British blockade and the subsequent, unexplained decision to travel to Niagara. As a novelist, I connected the two with a “swag”—a linking episode of my own creation. Coming up with that filler material was one of my favorite parts of writing the novel

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Deleted Scenes

Today I’m going to post something a little bit different, just because I can.

One of my favorite features on DVDs of hit movies is to watch the deleted scenes and debate with my husband whether the director made the right decision. Almost always, we agree.

Well, today, I’m going to post a scene from The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte that was deleted from the final version. It’s based on a real incident in Betsy and Jerome’s life, but it distracted too much from the big picture of what was happening at that moment. Its purpose was to show Betsy’s courage, but that’s demonstrated far more effectively later through more dramatic events (such as a shipwreck). The main point of the chapter in which this appeared was something quite different, and this scene didn’t contribute to that, so I cut it. It was not an easy decision because I liked the scene, but writers have to make these choices sometimes. Now that I have a blog, I can get some use out of the scene after all.

First let me provide a little background. They’ve been married only a month. It’s winter, 1804. Jerome decides they should travel to Washington, D.C., to visit some of Betsy’s relatives, dine with President Jefferson, and generally have a good time. (Jerome was big on having a good time.) Note that when Jerome uses the name Elisa, he means Betsy. It was his pet name for her.

The forty-five-mile trip from Baltimore to Washington was an all-day journey through much undeveloped country. Because it was winter, darkness fell long before they reached the city. As they approached the outskirts of the capital, Betsy dozed off with her head against Jerome’s shoulder. Suddenly, the carriage jolted over a bump and, as Betsy jerked awake, she heard a man’s cry outside. Jerome pulled up the curtain on the nearest window and called to the coachman, “What is wrong?”

No answer came, so Jerome put his head out the window and then quickly pulled it in again. “Mon dieu, we have no driver. I must leap out and try to stop the horses.”

“No, you might be hurt!” Betsy grasped his arm.

“Elisa, we have no choice. If the horses are not stopped, the carriage could overturn.”

Jerome shed his cape to avoid the risk of its being caught in the wheels and then opened the door and leaped from the vehicle. Moving to the opening, Betsy saw him spring up and run after the carriage, which was starting to slow down. Putting on a burst of speed, Jerome passed the carriage and came alongside the team.

Holding the doorframe, Betsy leaned out enough to see him reach for the bridle of one of the lead horses. To her horror, Jerome slipped on the snowy road but managed to throw himself away from the pounding hooves as he fell. As the carriage drove by his prostrate figure, Betsy heard him call her name.

The carriage was about to pass a large snowdrift beside the road. On impulse, Betsy sprang through the door, landing on her hands and knees in the snow.

For an instant, she could not breathe, and Betsy feared that she had injured herself. Then, pushing herself over onto her back, she inhaled with a great gasp. As nearly as she could tell, her bones were unbroken and she began to laugh with giddy relief.

A moment later, Jerome ran up, speaking so rapidly in French that Betsy could not understand him. He knelt and took her in his arms, and she saw by the light of the moon that he was crying. “My God, I thought I had lost you.”

The coachman ran past them, shouting at the horses, which were a long way down the road but heading toward a lighted building.

“That fool of a driver must have fallen asleep. I will beat him for his negligence.”

“No, darling.” Betsy took off her glove and laid a hand on his cheek. “We are both safe. Providence looked after us, and that is all that matters.”

“When I consider that you might have been killed, I feel wild with rage.”

“Think of it as an adventure. I am quite exhilarated,” she said and laughed again.

Jerome shook his head. “My God, you are a remarkable woman.”

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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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Writing Historical Fiction: Period-Appropriate Language

Today, I simply want to share a tool that I found very helpful while I was writing my novel—a website called the Online Etymology Dictionary. It’s a great resource for writing historical fiction. Every time I wondered if a certain word was appropriate for my 19th century characters to use, all I had to do was look it up on that website, and I’d learn when the word came into use and how its meaning evolved over time.

The site contains some fascinating information. For example, I knew from Betsy’s letters that she used the exclamation Fudge! What I didn’t know until I looked it up was that the expression didn’t originally come from the candy. It came from a man’s name—Captain Fudge, who was known for telling lies. That reputation gave rise to sailors using the term fudge whenever they thought they were being told lies or nonsense.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Description with Purpose

White-HousePublic domain engraving, via Wikimedia Commons

A question that arises when writing historical fiction is how much description to use. One of the joys of reading historical fiction is to gain a glimpse into the past, and choosing the right descriptive details can make a distant time period come alive. However, a lot of contemporary readers are accustomed to a cleaner, more pared-down style of narrative than was typical in the past. Gone are the days when a writer can wax poetic about scenery for two pages and expect the reader to enjoy it.

I was so worried about going on too long that I actually made the mistake of using too little description in my original version of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. So I had to do a big revision over the summer because my editor wanted me to flesh out Betsy’s world a bit more.

Even so, I wanted to make sure that the descriptions I added carried their weight. Whenever I could, I used descriptions that added an extra layer of meaning to the novel. For example, this description not only describes the building where Betsy goes to school, it helps the reader understand the history of Baltimore and of Betsy’s teacher:

To Betsy’s delight, her father did enroll her in school. Madame Lacomb and her husband had been low-ranking nobles who had fled to Saint-Domingue during the French Revolution. Monsieur Lacomb died not long afterward, and Madame Lacomb came to Baltimore with other refugees from the slave revolt of 1793. She moved into a small, blue wooden house that was as much a survivor of a different era as she was—it had been built in the 1750s and remained standing as more imposing brick townhomes replaced the wooden houses around it.

Descriptions can also reveal a lot about your main character. People naturally relate the things they notice to their own desires and goals, as in the following scene:

Jerome and Betsy were invited to dinner at the President’s Mansion.  .  .  .  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.

And sometimes, descriptions can be used to convey the humorous or unexpected:

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.

Those were a few of the techniques I used to add extra layers of meaning to description.

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Characters Who Speak a Foreign Language, Part Two

My post on foreign language dialogue Tuesday sparked a conversation in the comments with another writer about the subject—a conversation that reminded me of another technique I used in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. This technique doesn’t indicate that someone is speaking in another language; rather, it shows that a speaker has an accent. Rather than alter the spelling of English words to indicate that, I played with word order based on what I knew of the character’s first language. Here’s an example of what I mean:

I have a scene where a ship is being refused admittance to the port at Amsterdam:

As the boat turned back, the old Dutch pilot slapped his forehead. “Verdomme! Idioot!” He snatched the salt-stained cap from his head and wrung it between his hands.

“What is wrong?” Captain Stephenson demanded.

“Three weeks ago, a notice I read describing this ship and forbidding us from guiding her. Now, Jezus Christus, I will be hanged unless my age and bad memory they excuse.”

Just a hint of this can go a long way toward making a speaker sound foreign, and it’s much less phony than writing something like “Tree weeks ago, a notice I ret tescribing dis ship,” etc.

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Writing Historical Fiction: 19th c. Information Lag

While I was planning the plot of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I had to deal with what I call information lag. In the current age of instant communication, it’s hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometimes amused themselves by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious that you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice? Especially knowing that the letter might be lost and you’ll have to start all over again six months from now?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure it was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for the information lag because it helped to add considerable tension to the plot. The specifics of how that tension plays out will not be revealed until the book is published. (That’s my contemporary version of information lag.)

vigilante

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Writing Historical Fiction: Foreign-Language Dialogue

Although the first part of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is set in the United States, one of my main characters is European. Jerome Bonaparte’s first language was Italian, and his second was French. Betsy had studied French from an emigré when she was a schoolgirl, and her lifelong dream was to live in France, so it only made sense to assume that the two of them spoke French to each other quite often.

The problem is that many of my readers won’t know that language. So how does a writer tackle this issue? I took a variety of approaches.

One tactic is to write the dialogue in English but to say that it was said in French, as in the following example:

The two young men were speaking in French and, apparently assuming that Americans could not understand the language, spoke at full volume even though their comments were far from discreet. Betsy, who had learned French from Madame Lacomb, heard one of them say, “Bonaparte, I think the young lady before us is the one whom Mlle. Pascault described, the girl called the Belle of Baltimore. Certainly, I have not seen anyone else who fits the description.”

A second tactic is to sprinkle the text with small phrases that are either well known or similar enough to English that they are easy to figure out:

Pardonnez moi.” Jerome bowed, sweeping his arm elegantly to one side.

A third tactic—and this one is my favorite—is to plant context clues in the surrounding text, so the reader won’t feel lost even if they don’t understand exactly what the characters are saying:

Jerome lowered his voice. “Je rêve du jour quand je te présenterai à Napoléon. Il verra que j’ai choisi un femme aussi élégante que Josephine.

Although Betsy felt gratified that Jerome would compare her favorably to Josephine, she could not allow him to assume their marriage was a certain thing.

Because a large part of Betsy and Jerome’s story concerned the interaction between and comparisons of two different cultures, I wanted their dialogue to show that. These three techniques allowed me to accomplish that goal.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Back Story

Jérôme Bonaparte - Sophie Lienard
Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard, on Wikimedia Commons

What brought Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome to Baltimore of all places? Well, for one thing, Baltimore was the third largest U.S. city in the early 1800s, behind New York and Philadelphia. It was one of the country’s most important ports.

Second, a year or so earlier, Napoleon had decided that his baby brother was going to become the naval expert of the family. Accordingly, Jerome was made a lieutenant (even though he was technically too young) and sent to the West Indies. While there, he made a colossal error of judgment that might have had serious international repercussions, so his commanding officer ordered him to return home to report to his brother, who at the time was First Consul of the French Republic.

Britain and France were technically at peace during 1803, but relations between the two countries remained uneasy. French officials were understandably nervous about exposing a member of Napoleon’s family to possible danger should war break out again while he was en route. They decided Jerome should go to a U.S. port and sail on a neutral ship—and thus, hopefully, escape the notice of the British navy.

So Jerome went to Baltimore, where his friend Joshua Barney lived. Being a young man who loved amusement and pretty girls, Jerome decided to enjoy himself while he was there. He soon began to hear about a beautiful young woman named Betsy Patterson, known as the Belle of Baltimore, and grew eager to meet her. From all accounts, Jerome had a way with young women, but he never took any of his amours seriously. I’m guessing he thought he could have a fling and then be on his way with little consequence to himself. However, Betsy proved to be more than a match for the charming young Corsican. When they met, he was instantly smitten. As the saying goes, the thunderbolt struck, and any interest Jerome had in returning home disappeared.

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