This is a difficult question to answer. I usually ask: “For example?” Specifically, I can say yes, Josephine owned a disagreeable dog named Fortunè, or that yes, she escaped Martinique under cannon fire, but in general?
In general, the facts are the bones of the story, the fiction flesh. I tend to be obsessive about accuracy—so my novels are based on fact as much as is possible. Aside from the details of daily life, the specific dialogue, much of what happens in the novels has a basis in some historical text. I comb journals, memoirs and letters collecting nuggets of information much in the same way some people collect stamps.
When Josephine and Alexandre marry, for example, and one of the men in Alexandre’s regiment is unable to attend because of “an indisposition” going around Versailles, there is, in fact, “an indisposition” going around Versailles at that time.
Facts can be misleading, however. Many accounts are contradictory, suspect, or difficult to judge. When Josephine was in prison, for example, did she in fact tell her cellmate that she would not die, that she would become Queen? Did a woman outside the prison window signal that Robespierre was dead? This is a story Josephine liked to tell, so I’m inclined to believe it, but to what extent might she (and others) have created fictions of their own?
Robespierre said, “History is fiction,” and I have to agree. The line between fact and fiction is a very difficult one to define. The more one delves into the past, the more fact sometimes resembles fiction and fiction fact. My intent has been to use fiction as a tool, as a means of knowing Josephine and experiencing her world. It is important for me to feel that my fictional history could, in fact, have happened. While writing, I think of my evolving novel as one might view an archaeological dig: with each draft I want to dig down closer to “the truth.” To that end I have respected facts as welcome signposts in a wilderness. In the process I have also come to regard certain “facts” as fiction. In the realm of scholarship on the subject of Josephine, many questions remain.