I answered emails from readers on the week-end. One I got was a first for me: a serious response to my struggles with research (as posted on this blog) and what that means with respect to my plot. He (or she: I don’t know) expressed concern that I was headed in the wrong direction for The Next Novel. With permission, I’m quoting the letter in full:

As a fan of your writing, I should probably have some faith that the Next Novel is going to be great, regardless of how you decide to organize the plot. Here are some of my thoughts on this, given in a constructive, rather than critical, tone, all in the hope of allowing you to consider a fan’s perspective as you start making important decisions about the plot.

Novelists, even ones who are rigorous about the facts, have an obligation, first and foremost, to telling a good story. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that re-imagining the Affair of the Poisons as a petty frame-job executed by Louvois — rather than a dastardly plot against the throne itself, carried out by a royal mistress KNOWN to have been a villain in many regards — kind of lets the air out of a potentially epic story of love and betrayal. After all, what’s more scintillating: Satanism within the gilded halls of Versailles or the 17th Century equivalent of watercooler politics?

Now, maybe you’re resistant to someone urging you to downplay the facts for the sake of telling a good story. But that’s not really what I’m doing. In fact, I question whether the facts are really pointing you in the direction you think.

Lemoine’s argument about Louvois being the driving force behind the Poisons scandal seems to be contradicted by the pleas of many other historians who’ve concluded that Montespan really was guilty of some vile deeds. Sure, few modern scholars believe that she tried to murder the king, as that was against her interests. But why is it so difficult to believe that Montespan was psychologically incapable of poisoning Fontanges, a rival for the king’s affection? Montespan’s contemporaries describe her behavior as increasingly erratic — violence, mood swings, temper tantrums, eating binges, gambling binges — with each passing year in which she was the king’s mistress. The marquise certainly acted like a guilty person after retiring from Versailles, exhibiting a terrible fear of the afterlife.

In an earlier post, you mentioned that you were having trouble with the Next Novel because it was difficult to write from Claude’s point of view if one assumes she was a knowing accomplice to murder. I hope your attraction to the Louvois angle isn’t rooted in the fact that it effectively absolves Claude to some degree and therefore makes her more sympathetic as a lead character. The fact is, you CAN write sympathetically from Claude’s perspective, even if she was an accomplice to murder!

Here’s how I see what happened in Claude’s life: She was a fundamentally good, if slightly too impressionable, girl who got mixed up in something that was wrong. Many books have characters that resist the temptation to do wrong. But many great novels also feature characters who succumb to what is wrong, and live to be haunted by their deeds. I think we can all identify with that, right? It also happens to be more of a morally strong, perhaps even literary approach, than conceiving yet another female character who finds herself entirely the victim of other people’s machinations.

When you think about it, there’s even reason to sympathize, slightly, with La Montespan. Pampered, exalted, steeped in luxury and yet — in a deep, subconscious place the haughty marquise wouldn’t admit to anyone — afraid of losing her treasured lifestyle to a rival, it’s easy to see why she might have gone a little bonkers.

Anyway, as you find your way through the conceptual terrain of this novel, please keep these things in mind! Characters that make terrible decisions aren’t necessarily unsympathetic! It just depends on how you tell their stories! Good luck, Sandra!

I love getting such a well-written letter from a knowledgeable reader, and I very much agree with this reader that story is the most important thing. As a writer, I do “massage” the historical record for the sake of story, but it’s hard to write passionately about something for years and years if I don’t think it’s true … or, at the least, that I think it likely true, at least from my understanding of the research.

Part of my personal motivation for writing about history is to explore that reality. But what is the reality? According to many historians, both Claude and Athénaïs are guilty. According to one significant historian (Petitfils) Athénaïs is innocent, but Claude is guilty. According to Lemoine, both Athénaïs and Claude are likely innocent. As I said on my writing blog, I may not really know what I think about all this until I’m into the bowels of the very last draft, years from now.

I do want the reader not to worry, however: the twists and turns of this story will make for extremely dramatic reading, no mater what kaleidoscope one is looking through!