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