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Bonaparte and real dialogue

One of the things that surprised my editor for The General's Mistress when she first read it was how much of the book is real! Sometimes I've even been able to use actual dialogue.

With the ancient world books only rarely did I have any actual dialogue that came from original sources, and then usually only a line or two that I could place in context like a gem in a setting -- "He, too, is Alexander," "Caesar is every woman's man and every man's woman." I certainly didn't have full scenes -- the closest thing was the scene with Alexander and Sisygambis when the Persian royal women have been captured, but Lydias was only an observer and I could stick to Arrian like a burr.

But, working from Memoires d'une Contemporaine, I have entire pages of dialogue and description that have to be worked in and that most challengingly have to connect with modern sections around them so seamlessly that it doesn't seem that two different writers in two different eras have written it! I have to flesh out the contemporary dialogue into full conversations and at the same time make certain that I don't lose the feel of the original while updating La Contemporaine for modern ears! Fortunately, Elza and I have very similar styles, so that's not always as hard as it sounds. Sometimes it's more like rewriting and doing an intensive edit. (Of course sometimes the scenes are brand new and out of whole cloth!)

But to give you an example of the first, here's the scene where she has supper with Napoleon in Milan from The General's Mistress -- this is the original from Ida St. Elme's Memoirs.

He gave me no greeting and no compliments, but as he came to me he said, "Do you know you look six years younger here than in the theater?"

"I am happy to hear it."

"You were very intimate with Moreau."

"Very intimate."

"He did some foolish things for you."

I said nothing. The Emperor came close to me and we spoke with more freedom. He made himself very amiable, and I entirely forgot about Moreau for the emperor, the king. All he said was blunt rather than tender. It was easy to see that a woman should never consider Napoleon her empire. He was capable of folly, but the deafening attachments that render a ruler funeral to his people....

He knew all about my singular existence and asked if I were attached to the theater in Milan and if I intended to stay. I replied that I had thought I might, after the festivals, journey in the Tyrol.

He regarded me with a glance that was singularly penetrating and asked, "Are you German then?"

"No, sire. I was born in Italy but my heart is French."

And here is my expanded version.

He walked around the desk and stood before me, a somewhat quizzical expression on his face. “Do you know that you look several years younger here than on the stage?”

“I am happy to hear it,” I said evenly.

“You used to be intimate with Moreau,” he said. His eyes were very dark and betrayed nothing.

“Very intimate,” I said.

“He did some foolish things for your sake.” He clasped his hands behind his back, and I thought for a moment that he would cross behind me while I stood still, the oldest trick in the book for establishing dominance. Instead, he walked over to the desk and leaned on the edge of it.

“I suppose he did,” I said.

“And yet you are here,” he said. “Why?”

“Passions change,” I said, and was surprised at the bitterness I heard in my voice. “And we women are pawns on your chessboard. I have no choice.”

Bonaparte did not look away from me. It was my eyes that avoided his. “Do you want to leave?” he asked. “If you do, I will call Duroc and have him return you to your lodgings. If your heart is given to Moreau, I will not try your loyalty.”

I looked at him suddenly.

He shrugged. “I don’t need to best him that way.” Bonaparte smiled, and the smile was like sunshine, like an invitation to a wonderful conspiracy, a joke only the two of us shared.

“I can see that you don’t, Sir,” I said.

“Share my supper,” he said. “What is half an hour of your life? And perhaps I can convince you I am not the ogre that Moreau believes me to be.”

I stepped forward. There was a cold supper laid on a little table between the library shelves, a chicken and a salad, some cold potatoes dressed with mayonnaise. A bottle of wine stood sweating in the warmth of the room.

“I do not believe you an ogre,” I said. “But why should you care what I think? I am no one of importance.”

He held one of the chairs out for me. Standing beside me, we were the same height. Not a tall man, but he did not need tricks to impose. “How should I know who is important?” He seemed genuinely surprised by my question. “No one who is of any rank now was important ten years ago, saving Talleyrand perhaps. None of my generals, none of my companions, were born to it. Who’s to say what you’ll become?” Bonaparte sat down opposite me and began to help himself to the chicken, using his fingers to separate the wing and leg.

“I do not think I am likely to become a general, Sir,” I said. “You know what I am. An actress.”

“Yes, the troupe,” he said. He gestured for me to help myself, and I tentatively did so. “I understand you’re following Lannes’ corps. Then where do you plan to go?”

“Perhaps the Tyrol,” I said, thinking of Isabella’s vague plans. “Or possibly to Munich.”

“Are you German then?” he asked, taking a quick gulp of wine and refilling his glass.

“I was born in Italy, but my heart is French,” I said.

You see the trick? She says they spoke with more freedom and he made himself amiable, so amiable that she forgot all about Moreau. And that's the dialogue that's missing. That's the part I have to write. It's incredibly important, since the plot of the next five books is resting on it! Somehow it's enough to make her change her allegiance. In fifteen minutes. And the dialogue she gives us doesn't cut it. Or rather, it's not the important parts. That's a thing Elza does over and over. She doesn't tell us the moment of crisis. She keeps that to herself while she writes around it in big, big circles, telling anecdotes and betraying nothing of her feelings. And so that's what I have to put in. That's what I have to figure out. It has to be enough to change the trajectory of the character, and it has to fit into the tiny box she's left for it.

What do you guys think?


Dec. 13th, 2012 12:55 am (UTC)
I think that filling in the gaps is a tricky business but that you do it very well!
Dec. 13th, 2012 01:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It's also fun!