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Writing History -- the process

A reader asked how I write history -- how much is real, how much is made up, and how I blend the two. That's a really complicated question! I think the most useful thing is to give an example. This is a scene from The General's Mistress, and it's one of the hardest and most complicated to write because I'm doing about six things at once.

First, this scene is a turning point in Elza's life. In her memoirs it's clear that whatever was said after she drew a veil across the scene changed not only how she viewed Bonaparte, but how she saw herself. It was that important. And yet she doesn't say exactly what was said! So I had to write the scene knowing it's pivotal for the character.

Second, this scene is hard for the reader because many readers have a very skewed picture of Bonaparte. If you're expecting the Short Ranting Man of vaudeville humor, this will completely throw you. So I have to sell an entirely different picture.

Third, it has to work as it stands for readers who are reading The General's Mistress without any of the other Numinous World books.

Fourth, it has to work for readers who are coming to it as the fourth Numinous World book.

Fifth, it has to work as a sex scene.

Sixth, it has to move the action for the rest of the book, because it changes Elza's trajectory.

So! Terribly complicated scene. Here's my "director's commentary" below. Think of it as one of those DVD extras where the director tells you what they were doing in the shot.

He lifted a tapestry aside that half-covered a door, motioned me through. It was a small enough bedchamber, obviously recently redone, with a draped ceiling styled to resemble a tent, scarlet and gold striped, with a massive bed decorated with gilded laurel wreaths. It looked like a schoolboy’s fantasy of a Roman conqueror, lacking nothing but a couple of recumbent Gauls.

This description is a perfect example of the multilevels. No description remains of his bedroom in Milan, so I have based this on his room at Malmaison from the following year. Yes, it was that over the top! So this works as establishing character, that he's a young general living a schoolboy's fantasy, the bling of someone who has suddenly gotten a great deal they never expected. This is bling.

And it's Caesar. For those who read Hand of Isis, this reminds you of Caesar's room. However, this was actually written before Hand of Isis -- the room in Hand of Isis was written to foreshadow this, not the other way around.

Instead, there were windows opening into the branches of an almond tree and the warm Italian night. Outside, I heard the distant sound of thunder. Storms had rolled across regularly every night in the heat, light playing over the city.

I went round and round about whether you can see the mountains from there. Finally dear selenak, who has been to Milan, swore up and down to me there should be no mountains visible unless this building were much taller.

He came and stood behind me, bent and kissed my neck, lifting the tendrils of curl with careful hands. I leaned back against him.

I remembered this. What it felt like to be worshipped, to be all that was beautiful for a moment, to fill the senses like Venus.

He slipped his arms around me, and I turned in his arms, kissing him again. There was no hurry.

“The night is long enough,” he said.

I bent my lips to his throat, feeling with a sense of triumph the racing of his pulse just there, where his life lay beneath my lips. I laughed, and undid his neckcloth and the top of his shirt. He shrugged out of his coat, which fell to the floor in a heavy pile, weighted by the gold bullion. His hands slid around me, reaching for the buttons at my back.

"life lay beneath my lips" is foreshadowing. More than once in the years to come, she will hold his life in her hands. Also costume detail -- real gold bullion braid weighs a ton. It's not like the gold thread fringe you can buy now. It's heavy.

“Did you know,” he said, “That your dress doesn’t fit right in the back?”

I leaned my forehead against his. “I had it made today. There wasn’t time to make it perfect.”

This blocking is playing with the reader's assumptions about height. Bonaparte and Elza are the same height -- 5'7" -- which is taller then than now. Today this would be like being 5'10". She's a very tall woman, rather than he's freakishly short. You wouldn't call a guy who was 5'10" tall, but you wouldn't think he was bizarrely tiny either.

"Then you should take it off," he said. "Nothing should be imperfect."

I reached back and undid the buttons with one hand. "Nothing is perfect." I lifted the dress up and over my head, let it fall in sursurrant folds to the floor between us. I wore nothing beneath it.

"You are," he said, watching me. I saw his breathing quicken.

I shook my head, smiling, and walked forward into his arms.

It was long and slow and quiet. There was nothing we needed to say, just the movement of bodies in the darkness, darkness in darkness. Only a moment of fumbling over shoes and stockings, but I knew well enough how to get around that. When he laid me back on the bed my hair spread out in a glory of gold beneath him, escaping from pins he removed one at a time, carefully.

"You wouldn't want to get stuck," he said.

The line about the pins is real and from her memoirs -- that he carefully removed her hairpins and said she wouldn't want to get stuck. It's one of the few lines from this scene she gives us, along with her -- ahem -- general description of how pretty his hands are and how she liked his shoulders.

"No," I replied, running my hands along his back, the shape of his lean shoulders. Affection is harder to pretend than passion, but fascination and desire required no pretense. When he thrust into me I was ready, slick and waiting, and the pleasure caught me by surprise. My hips rose, and I grasped at him.

"Did I hurt you?" he held still, joined, both of us held perfectly in check.

Control. His key is self-control, not dominance. Which is a contrast to Victor and to Michel.

"No," I said, "It's been a long time."

That pleased him. I could tell from the smile, and the tremor that ran along his body. He murmured some wordless Italian endearment, and bent his face to mine.

The Italian endearments are real and documented. Again, bless selenak for reminding me!

When he finished I was so close that I nearly shrieked in frustration, so close and yet not quite there. He slid off me and to the side, and forgetting everything else I seized his hand and brought it where I needed it, pressing against the side of his hand, rocking against him.

"There, cara, there," he said, and I felt the rolling change, not deep as it had been, but enough.

And then I clung to him as though he were my friend, as though I claimed him, as a wounded man clings to the hand that offers him water, with no thought of who he was, a head of state, an important man, a patron. I held on as though I were drowning. I closed my eyes and turned my face to his neck.

This is both important characterization of Elza, and a deliberate parallel to a scene between Alexander and Bagoas in Mary Renault's The Persian Boy. Here's the Mary Renault paragraph:

"And now it was time to serve him the royal Persian banquet he must be expecting from Darius' boy. I had it ready with all the seasonings. But though in my calling I felt as old as time, my heart, which no one had trained, was young and suddenly it mastered me. Instead of offering spices, I simply clutched him like the soldier with the arrow wound; uttering such follies as I blush even now to think of, and, when I remembered I was speaking Persian, repeating them in Greek. I said I had thought he would never love me. I did not beg him to take me with him wherever he was going; I did not think so far. I was like a traveler in the desert who comes to water."

Now, probably not even the most ardent Mary Renault fan in the world is going to notice that! But if you've read The Persian Boy this will touch a cord, like the return of a theme in the background music where you don't quite recognize where it came from before but it effects you all the same. Elza has not yet thought to even ask herself if he is Alexander. But here is the question answered. He is Alexander. And she is Lydias. From here on through to the end of the scene Lydias is to the fore. He's on the top of her mind, invoked as it were.

He said nothing. He stroked my long hair spread across the pillows and waited until I lifted my head.

"You know," Bonaparte said smiling, "I wondered at first if your hair owed more to art than nature, but I see now that it doesn't."

"No," I said. "It's really that color."

Another piece of the actual dialogue from the memoirs.

He pulled his arm out from under me, and for a moment I wondered if he meant for me to leave so abruptly. Instead, he crossed the room to the little table beside the window and poured a glass of cool water out of an earthen carafe that waited there. He took a long drink, half turned to the window. The lightning was playing in the sky far away, and the freshening breeze stirred the leaves outside. It felt good.

"Do you want some water?" he asked.

"Yes, please." I sat up and he brought it to me, sitting down on the side of the bed. I took the glass between my hands and drained it.

"Are you always that intense?"

"No. Yes." I stretched to put the glass down. "But I told you it had been a long time. Since things were like that, at any rate." I did not look at him, but stretched out on the red sheets on my stomach, pulling one of the pillows under my chin.

He slipped under the sheet, propping on his elbow. There was nothing but curiosity in his voice. "Did you love Moreau so much, then?"

"No," I said. "But I respected him. And he was very good to me. I can speak no ill of him."

"He never knows what to do with loyalty," Bonaparte said, running one hand down the curve of my back, admiring white skin against the scarlet sheets. "He spends it like coin, and never thinks where more will come from."

Characterization of Victor. And of him.

"And you?" I asked, turning my head.

"Loyalty is a treasure beyond price," he said, twining one lock of my hair around his finger, all his attention focused upon it. "You can buy sex. You can even buy men who will die at your word. You can buy gratitude or cooperation or peace. But you can't buy loyalty. If I had the loyalty of one such as you," he paused, and his eyes met mine. "I would not squander it."

"Sir, what would you do with a whore's loyalty?" I asked, pressing my cheek against the pillow.

"The same thing I would do with anyone else's," he said. "See what you are made of, and let you do it." He released my hair, watching the lock uncurl in the dim light.

I closed my eyes, hardly knowing what to say. The words that crowded at my lips were ridiculous, words meant to be said over a blade in a chapel, or on some bloodied field. They were not meant to be said by someone like me.

If I were younger perhaps I would have said them, if I had still believed in heroes and the sons of gods. Instead, I lowered my head against the pillow.

Lydias. What Elza wants to say are Companion's oaths. She is ready to say them here and now. But she doesn't. Lydias would have, young and impulsive and less scarred by the world. Lydias believed he was good enough to swear. Elza doesn't. Not yet. That will wait until the next book.

“So tired then?” he asked.

“A bit,” I said. “I hardly slept last night, thinking.”

“If you were a better coquette, you should say ‘thinking of you’”, he said, and there was amusement in his voice.

“You know that part,” I said. “You have the power to throw all into disarray.”

He shrugged, and moved a little closer, one arm stealing around me. “I do. But order is much harder. It’s easy to make a mess of things. Bringing order out of present chaos is much harder.”

“Is that what you are doing?” I looked up at him. “Reordering the world?”

“I put it to you that the world has already changed,” he said. “In the last century we have charted the globe, even to the vastest reaches of the South Seas. We have created machines that do the work of men, and now words may flash across the miles faster by semaphore than any dispatch rider ever rode. Our governments must change along with it. If we do not accept the realities that already are, and change our way of doing things accordingly, we will all be swept away by the tide and engulfed.”

And here we return to one of the main themes of the book. As Michel says in the second book, "We come when the flood comes." The flood is here. The world is already changed and those who don't adapt will die.

“Like the Terror,” I said. “If change is blocked, when it breaks the dam it runs wild. I had not thought of it."

“Most people don’t,” he said. “Most people don’t think far enough, or if they do they see only vast tides and can’t see the waves right before them.”

“You see both,” I said.

And that is what makes him who he is. Not power. Not magic. But to see both the large picture and the small. That's why he's the Emperor.

“The flood is here,” he said. “We will never return to the ancien regime, to the way things were. We can either learn to master the flood and to make deliberate choices about what we do, or just be swept along.” He snorted. “In Austria, they pretend there is no flood. In England, they say that it can be resisted, that their houses will stand against it. It has already washed over our rooftops. It would be purest folly to pretend. We must instead be the masters of our fate.”

And this -- to say that we can master the flood rather than be mastered by it. That's the thing we don't actually believe. We don't truly believe we can change the world unless we have magical powers or we're born superheroes.

That's not true in the Numinous World. What you have to do is say you will. What you have to do is take the oath. The thing that makes you special is this: you choose to be.

I rolled over on my back and stared up at the draped ceiling. “I wish I were the master of my fate. Instead I am a bark that has been thrust here and there by the tide.”

Elza wishes she were. But she doesn't believe she can be.

“Give up, Madame,” he said, but not angrily. “You make choices, some for good and some for ill, and you reap the consequences. No storm has tossed you here.”

And that is his transformative power -- to say "you can." To hold you accountable. To not let you get away with the bullshit that we're taught about how we have no agency and that we're victims of everything. Elza made her choices. Some of them were terrible. Sleeping with random guys while so high on drugs she wasn't sure who they were, getting pregnant and having a backroom abortion -- bad choices! It would be easy for her to say what people want to hear, the things that will make her Fantine rather than Elza. "I was led astray! I was a victim of the patriarchy! I am to be pitied!" But saying those things will strip her of her agency, and owning her own bad choices gives her power. She chose.

And she's made good choices. She chose to come to Italy with the theater troupe. She chose to trust Isabella, a good friend. She can decide her own fate. She's chosen this, and what she makes of it is up to her.

“No,” I said slowly, looking up at the carved wreaths holding the curtains. “I suppose not.” I knew well enough that if I had refused or pleaded illness he would not have forced me to come. For that matter, I was in Italy of my own choosing. I had asked Isabella for a place, taken an opportunity that came. I was not a child bride, given to a man who owned me body and soul, or even a virtuous wife bound by law. If law did not protect me, it did not bind me either. No one owned me.

And for the first time I felt a curious lightness, as though I understood the word for the first time. “Liberty,” I said.

My favorite quote from the real Elza is this: "Freedom is the greatest good." She is growing into the woman who will believe that.

“Liberty is hard, Madame,” Bonaparte said, one hand tracing a pattern down my arm. “As we are all learning.”

“Yes,” I said. I was still filled with this idea, so vast and uncontrollable that it seemed I held it only by the corner. These politics that Jan had played, that Moreau had played, were more than just a dangerous game for money or position, more than the snapping of dogs over spoils. It was a game for life itself, for who we are to be, a game stretching centuries behind and dizzying centuries ahead, a game of deciding what we would believe and how we would live, whether I should be regarded or despised, freed or imprisoned.

The big picture. This is what it's about. Her life has meaning in this enormous thing, centuries behind and centuries ahead. (And so does yours.)

“How much the common good may demand of us….” I said, trying to get my head around it.

“And how much our individual inclinations, how much our natures, may be given free rein,” he said.

“Whether I am an abomination,” I said.

“Or a treasure,” Bonaparte said. “Just so.”

And that's the question we'll come back to over and over -- abomination or treasure? Are those who are different, who are despised, abominations or treasures?

I looked at him. “And you think?”

He put his head to the side. “Everyone has their uses. And I see nothing in you to despise.”

“Not my loose virtue?”

He laughed. “Cara, if every woman of loose virtue were an abomination, I should be Augustine, not Napoleon!”

“And why should there be a different standard for men than women?” I said, thinking of Charles and the liberty I felt in his clothes, in his skin.

Charles. Lydias. If she were Lydias....

“There is,” he said.

“But why should it be so?” I asked. “You have put it to me that we may change civilization as a whole. Why should I not wear trousers and ride into battle, or choose my lovers as a man does? Why should I not face the same dangers and dare the same risks? Why should I not be your paladin, as surely as Lannes or Massena?”

He ran his hand over my golden hair, a strange and rueful expression on his face. “You are running far ahead of me. I think there are not any Amazons. But if there were, I am sure you would be one.”

She is Lydias. Why shouldn't she be a Companion because she's a woman? Once you can make that leap, then anything is possible. Why not change the world completely?

Guess what? They did.

So what do you guys think of the director's cut?


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 18th, 2014 12:13 am (UTC)
Abomination or treasure.

You're right, that's the central question of Elza. People do not have a middle ground on her, they either love or hate her. She is wonderful and terrifying in equal amounts, and she does not play nice with the old sense of order. She's not safe, and she doesn't always make good choices. But she at least accepts the fact that she's choosing, even when it goes badly.

I think I really enjoyed the fact that we did not see much of Napoleon in the first book. You set him up here, and played with everyone's stereotypes, and then you let his change percolate for the next book and a half. So when we finally get a good deal of interaction with him later, we already see him as the man Elza has begun to perceive here, not as the stories that we have from different sources.
Apr. 19th, 2014 09:59 am (UTC)
You know, you just hit the nail on the head. That's exactly where the readers go -- they think Elza is a treasure or an abomination. They give her five stars or one star. And that's not about the book. That's about what they think of someone like her existing, either in fiction or in the flesh.

I'm glad you liked what I did with Napoleon. He's not a central character in this book, though he's pivotal, if that makes sense.
Apr. 20th, 2014 12:20 pm (UTC)
In a way, getting the 1 star reviews about Elza is still a compliment to your writing. You've made her sufficiently real that people react to her so strongly.

I've said often that I am very much not Elza, at a ground level. But people like Elza need to exist and be celebrated for who they are. Because when we start saying that some people aren't good enough or shouldn't exist, inevitably we are diminishing everyone in the process. If someone says that Elza shouldn't exist, when will they turn around and say that Mari shouldn't?
May. 1st, 2014 01:28 pm (UTC)
And that's the issue in a nutshell, isn't it?
Apr. 18th, 2014 12:30 pm (UTC)
Do you think at this level as you're writing the first draft, or even before you write it? Or is it something you go back to when you're editing, and can think about the details instead of the basic flow of the scene?
Apr. 19th, 2014 10:06 am (UTC)
On the first draft. That's where all the pieces have to come together for me. But that's not the first step. The first step for this was to go through the memoirs line by line and see what I could pull and what I needed to add. Then I rehearsed the scene in my mind a few times, playing with the blocking and order of things.

But the pieces are all there when I start writing it. The edits were smaller things -- I had put the line about the mountains in, and then had to check it. That kind of detail I go back to.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )