In Canada, I have a tall narrow bookcase of books—one of many I have in our house. This one includes poetry, novels I’m either reading or would like to read, and an embarrassing number of books on writing. I am a collector, apparently, a collector of books on writing.
This morning, as I was drinking my delicious mug of decaf, I took three black binders down from the top shelf. I was curious: what were they?
One was a collection of printouts of writing exercises by the New York agent Donald Maass. Another, a thick, heavy binder, was labelled Truby. In it were printouts from master story guru John Truby. I have a lot of Truby—including a series of tapes and his book The Anatomy of Story (which overwhelms me at the first chapter every time I open it). I recalled that at one time Truby offered interactive story analysis on his website; I think it was free, an amazing offering. All the printouts were from his website.
The third binder, labelled Story Tools, was of a middling size. The first page was a list of Sarah Waters’ instructions on how to write a historical novel. Her wise words are no longer online—at least not that I can find—so here it is, my gift to you. (Click here to see the full pdf.)
In the corner I had written: 6 mos min to write 180,000 words.
I wondered when I had written that note. The second page in the binder gave a clue.
Notes before putting away.
I must have written this after I’d been offered a contract to write the Josephine B. Trilogy. Several months before I had finally completed an acceptable draft of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first novel in the Trilogy. While my agent was looking for a publisher, I had started work on what was to become, nearly two decades later, Mistress of the Sun. On signing a contract for a trilogy, I reluctantly put the project away.
So: all this was Very Long Ago, as I was setting out on this 32-years-and-counting writing adventure.
Sarah Waters’ advice on how to write a historical novel is a treasure. I’ll be returning to it.
The photo at top is of Sarah Waters, 2010, by Sam Jones, as seen in the article in the Guardian on Sarah Waters’ 10 rules for writers (rules which are, of course, spot on).
JFK was murdered on November 22, 1963, fifty-five years ago today. I was nineteen and in university. I don’t remember the moment I learned — How is that possible? — but the images and the shock of it are indelible in my memory.
I have since read a moving biographical historical novel, titled, simply, Nov 22, 1963, by Adam Braver.
The assassination was made all the more horrifying in learning in this novel that JFK and Jackie had recently suffered the death of a baby. This tragic trip to Texas with her husband was Jackie’s brave first public event.
A Berkeley childhood
I grew up in Berkeley, California. Air raid siren drills were common; there was always the fear of annihilation. At Girl Scout camp, I remember a cloudy day being attributed to the test of a nuclear bomb in near-by Nevada. I was assigned to write stories about our last day alive in Grade School.
My high school years in Berkeley were vivid with protest. I was a proud member of Students for a Democratic Society. In English, I sat next to Tracy Simms, who led the very first sit-in against a hotel in San Francisco that did not hire Blacks.
These were intense years, rich with both excitement and fear. The Whole Earth Catalogue was Google in print. It’s message was: “You can do anything, go anywhere. Here are the tools.” It was a powerful concept, and an entire generation took it to heart.
Although I don’t remember the moment I learned of Kennedy’s assassination, I remember, vividly, the night of the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, two-a-half years before. I was seventeen, living in San Francisco with roommates in the Castro district, going to San Francisco State. We believed that it could be the end of the world, our last night alive. (In fact, recent scholarship shows how very close it came to being just that, by an accident of communication.) I imagine that there was a surge in births nine months later, for many young couples succumbed. Why wait?
The three assassinations
On April 4, 1968, four-and-a-half years after Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was twenty-one, married and working in a factory in Belmont, California — a factory that provided micro-chips for fighter jets. I had to sign a Loyalty Oath to work there. I remember the Ohio Flute Society (or something similar) being listed as one of the suspicious organizations.
I couldn’t sleep the night of April 4. I got up and went downstairs. It was very late. I turned on the TV: screams, a newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images. King had been shot.
The next morning, at the factory, a white guy riding a trolley yelled, fist raised, “We got another one!”
And then, only two months later, on June 6, the same thing. I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and turned on the TV. A newscaster’s urgent voice, flickering images, screams. Bobby Kennedy had been shot.
I’d been canvassing for him, handing out leaflets — it was my first involvement in a political campaign. Belmont was a conservative town, yet the day after Bobby Kennedy’s death there was, I was told, a rash of suicides.
That morning, the morning after, my then husband and I went to Half Moon Bay. Sitting on a sand dune overlooking the Pacific, stunned by the news, I said I wanted to move. Away. To another country. Bobby Kennedy’s death was the straw that broke my back.
And thus the decision was made to leave my country of birth for a more peaceful realm. Move to Canada — a “healing” country in the words of the wonderful Carol Shields, who had herself immigrated to Canada from the US. I found it to be just that.
A Canadian citizen now, I have never regretted that move. Even so, a part of me will always be American. A part of me will always love that country — love it, and fear for it. Which is one reason I, like so many others, am addicted to the horrifying daily news.
Are things worse now than they were during those violent and tumultuous years? I would say yes, although in a more institutional way. I believe in democracy, and greatly fear for it.
A master of the sound bite, Napoleon would have been in his element in this Age of Twitter. Here is a sampling of some pithy Napoleon quotes, some of which his stepdaughter Hortense views ironically in The Game of Hope.
“What a novel my life has been!”
“Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.”
“If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing.”
“All celebrated people lose dignity on a close view.”
“Courage is like love; it must have hope for nourishment.”
“Victory belongs to the most persevering.”
“History is the lies we all agree upon.”
“What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.”
“A throne is only a bench covered in velvet.”
“Our hour is marked, and no one can claim a moment of life beyond what fate has predestined.”
“A leader is a dealer in hope.”
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
What are some of your favorites? SaveSave
Tracking down facts can be a time-crunching task … but a very enjoyable one when the goal is in sight.
I began with a simple question: Where was Hortense’s father executed and buried? I think these were things she might have wanted to know.
Portrait of Josephine and her two children, Hortense and Eugène, visiting their father in prison.
In the process, I found many wrong answers … which reinforces the common knowledge that the Net can’t be trusted. However, I knew enough to know when the answer was wrong, and kept looking.
In the process I ended up making a correction to a Wikipedia page … which rather thrilled me. Alexandre was defined, simply, as the lover of Princess Amalie of Salm-Kyrburg, a friend of Josephine’s who secretly acquired the land after the Revolution because her brother is buried there. Not only was it curious that Josephine and their children were not mentioned, but I very much doubt that Alexandre was Amalie’s lover. Other women, certainly, but not Amalie.
Place du Trône-Renversé—now Place de la Nation—where Hortense’s father was guillotined.
Alexandre was guillotined not in the Place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde now) or Place de Grève (in front of the l’Hôtel-de-Ville), as if often claimed, but in Place du Trône-Renversé (now Place de la Nation), on the western edge of Paris. Apparently the other execution sites had become so bloody they had to find a new spot.
Mass executions at the height of the Terror
In a matter of about 6 weeks (from June 13 to July 27, 1794) 1306 men and women were guillotined, as many as 55 people a day. I imagine that it was hard work keeping the blade sufficiently sharp.
How to dispose of all the bodies?
It was also hard work disposing of the bodies. What is now the Picpus Cemetery was then land seized from a convent during the Revolution, conveniently close to Place du Trône-Renversé. A pit was dug at the end of the garden, and when that filled up, a second was dug. The bodies of all 1306 of the men and women executed in Place du Trône-Renversé were thrown into the common pits including 108 nobles, 136 monastics, and 579 commoners … .
The mass graves are simply marked.
One of two wall listing the names and ages of the dead.
Le Cimetière de Picpus today.
Of those executed, 197 were women, including 16 Carmelite nuns, who went to the scaffold singing hymns.
In all the research I’ve done in Paris over the decades, I’ve yet to go to either the Place du Trône-Renversé (Place de la Nation) or the Picpus Cemetery. I believe I’m due.
I’ve been on-line quite a bit selecting illustrations for my e-book publications (coming up!).
It’s wonderfully easy to get lost in this process. Side-tracked, in fact. Here are some rather surprising discoveries, specifically having to do with the people in the life of Josephine’s daughter Hortense (the subject of my next novel).
I’ve always been fond of this portrait of Alexandre de Beauharnais, Josephine’s first husband, because he’s posed with his hand in his vest — exactly as her second husband Napoleon will be portrayed.
And her son Eugène, for that matter:
Coincidental? (I think not!)
The portrait that took me aback was this grim one of Alexandre, which I’d never seen before:
My suspicion has always been that Alexandre might have been bi-polar — something he might have passed onto Hortense, in fact. It’s only a hunch, but this portrait would certainly confirm that he was not a happy man.