Ruth Hull Chatlien is the author of the historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Here’s her take on writing historical fiction.
Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?
Ruth Hull Chatlien: I started my first novel when I was ten years old—so long ago that I don’t remember why I did it beyond a love of stories. That first novel was historical fiction about forbidden romance and patriotic spies during the American Revolution. I finally finished the 120-page manuscript when I was in high school. In college, I majored in literature, and influenced by that experience, I spent the next 30 years writing literary fiction. I managed to get a few poems and short stories published. Finally, a few years ago, I decided to go back to my first love: historical fiction.
M.A.: What inspired you to write The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte?
R.H.C.: My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.
M.A.: Tell us about The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. How would you describe it to potential readers?
R.H.C.: The book combines romance, action adventure, and a tale of family dysfunction. Betsy Bonaparte was a heroine as beautiful and headstrong as Scarlett O’Hara, but unlike Scarlett, she was a real woman. She led a tumultuous life because of her belief that a woman had as much right to exercise her talents as any man.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like? What can you tell us about the joys and the challenges of being an author?
R.H.C.: Originally, I sought traditional publication for the novel. I spent about six months shopping it around to agents without success. The original version of the book had two problems; it was longer than what publishers wanted to see from a first-time author, and because I had tried to keep it short, it wasn’t descriptive enough. Then in February 2013, through a mutual friend I met the man who had founded Amika Press in Chicago. He was excited about the concept of my book, so after taking some time to consider whether I was ready to give up on New York publication, I submitted the manuscript. The publisher and editor at Amika both read it, liked it, and agreed to take it on. My editor was fantastic and really helped me make it the book I dreamed it would be. To my surprise, he wanted me to make it even longer by adding the descriptive details I had left out. We went through one major revision and one copy edit, and then the novel came out in December 2013.
M.A.: For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?
R.H.C.: I researched the novel by reading several biographies of Betsy as well as books about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early excursion to Niagara Falls. I also took a research trip to Baltimore to visit historic homes, Fort McHenry, a 19th century warship, and the Maryland Historical Society.
Even after gathering all those facts, I still had to deal with areas where details have been lost to the historical record. One of my favorite analogies for writing historical fiction is “hanging the swags.” I think of the known factual events as brackets extending at irregular intervals along a wall. As a novelist, I had to make up scenes and bits of dialogue to connect those known events—like draping material to connect the brackets.
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
R.H.C.: I owe a tremendous debt to Graham Greene for showing me that it’s ok to write about deeply flawed characters. I very much admire historical novelists such as Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, and Sarah Dunant for the way they have made the past come alive in their work.
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write and publish historical fiction?
R.H.C.: Tell a good story, but don’t neglect the history. I recently read a historical novel set in the same period as mine and dealing with some of the same people. The plot was fast-paced, and the characterization of the heroine was well conceived, but the book was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies. I had a very hard time remaining in the world of the book because the mistakes kept jarring me out of the story.
M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?
R.H.C.: I love hearing from readers. People can contact me at the following sites:
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.