Seven Tips from Napoleon for Historical Fiction Authors

Friend and fellow author Margaret Rodenberg (Secretary of the Napoleonic Historical Society, avid reader of historical fiction, and author of Finding Napoleon: A Novel) shares advice from the master strategist Napoleon Bonaparte. According to Margaret, this intriguing character, who’s known for his pithy sayings, remains one of the most revered and reviled rulers in history. Over to you, Margaret.

If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.

Attributed to Napoleon

In other words, write the book you want to read. Choose your subject as carefully as if you were buying a house, because you’ll spend years dwelling in that environment. If you don’t find it fascinating, neither will your readers.

BAD ADVICE: “Write for the hottest market.” BETTER ADVICE: By the time you finish your vampire manuscript, the publishing world will have moved on to zombies. Write the best book you can on a theme that you’re passionate about (even if it is vampires). Afterward, if necessary, tweak that manuscript (add a minor character? a change of voice? a subplot? a dual timeline?) to address market demands.

Plans of campaign may be modified ad infinitum according to circumstances, the character of the troops, and the topography of the theatre of action.”

Napoleon’s Maxim II from The Officer’s Manual

Smart generals don’t rush into battle without a plan. Decide which of these three microgenres best suits your story. Each has its own topography, er, conventions. 

  • A fictional story of fictional characters, set during real historical events, possibly with real historical figures as minor characters. Think Bernard Cornwall’s Richard Sharpe series about a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. In this type of historical fiction, you have free rein to develop your plot and characters if they match the setting and don’t change established history.
  • Historical biographical fiction about real historical characters that imagines details and dialogue, interprets motivation, and may invent scenes and scenarios, all of which support actual events. Stephanie Dray’s and Laura Kamoie’s America’s First Daughter, a novel about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, cleaves closely to the historical record. Louis Bayard’s Courting Mr. Lincoln proposes a relationship that might have been, but which doesn’t change Lincoln’s trajectory.
  • Alternative history novels in which major historical events turn out differently than they did. A good example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, where Germany and Japan won World War II. 

BAD ADVICE: “Never stray from the known facts or the History Police will come after you.” GOOD ADVICE: “Unless you’re writing alternative history, the further you keep from major historical figures or well-known events, the more leeway to create characters and scenes. Be prepared to “modify ad infinitum . . . your plan of campaign” when your imagination leads you unexpected places. 

What then, generally speaking, is the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.”

Napoleon in exile to his secretary Las Cases

Napoleon—a superb propagandist who brought printing presses on military campaigns—understood the historical record is a malleable thing, open to interpretation. For a historical novelist that presents both opportunity and responsibility.

  • Opportunity: Find some new truth to convey, some new way to say it, or some forgotten character or unique perspective to show it. Make your reader experience history.
  • Responsibility: Unless you’re writing alternative history, the broad strokes of your story should conform to the historical record, while you fill in the meaty details. (George Washington can’t divorce Martha, but he can smack his head on Mt. Vernon’s low bedroom doorway after an argument.) 
  • What facts can you safely change? Consider these: compressing time or moving events in time to accommodate plot; assuming motivations; supplying appropriate dialogue where none exists; creating observer characters to provide insight; omitting events and characters that don’t advance your story; filling holes in the historical record to tell what might have been; and, best of all, leaving out the boring parts.

BAD ADVICE: “Story always trumps historical fact.” BEST ADVICE: “Unless you’re writing alternative history, confine your plot to the possible, and include an Author’s Note at the end to explain how you bent documented history to serve your story.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.

Napoleon on return from his disastrous invasion of Russia

Make every detail count, but don’t overdo it. 

  • Avoid the dreaded “information dump” of historical detail. In general, turn passive information into active scenes or brief summaries. As the great suspense writer Elmore Leonard said, “Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
  • Know your era in both a broad historical way (Did Vikings travel into the Mediterranean?) and in the minutia of daily life (Did Vikings use forks?).
  • Scrub your manuscript of anachronisms (The Waterloo battlefield wasn’t “socked in with fog,” because “socked in” is an aviation term). For specific words, use etymonline.com. Or ask Google to define a word, then click on “Translations and more definitions” to get a chart of usage since 1800. 

BAD ADVICE: “Write what you know.” BETTER ADVICE: “Learn what you need to know but share that knowledge sparingly with the reader.”

It is easy to pronounce judgment on what is past.

Attributed to Napoleon in exile

Napoleon had that right. We historical fiction writers tread a tightrope. Since our characters are steeped in the cultural norms of their eras, we can’t superimpose our modern thoughts them. How do we avoid offending the sensibilities of today’s readers?

Characters may hold racist or offensive views, but the author shouldn’t so:

  • Replace stereotypes with individual characteristics that recognize humanity beyond race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, or class.
  • Offensive actions, thoughts, and speech should be necessary and appropriate to the character, never attributable to the author or simply for shock value. Salacious or offensive material written in third person omniscient (rather than a close character POV) may be attributed to you, the author.
  • Listen to your Beta readers. If someone says they are offended, other readers will be, too. If your manuscript warrants it, find a qualified sensitivity reader. 

On the other hand, if you impose current societal norms on characters from an earlier era, they should standout as exceptional in their time. For example, women physicians weren’t the norm in Revolutionary Paris, and 17th century whalers didn’t worry about conservation of the species. If your character acts inconsistently with her era, the story must substantiate her motivation. 

BAD ADVICE: “If you didn’t mean to offend anyone, argue against criticism.” BETTER ADVICE: “Be aware of the traps and do your best to avoid them. When you fail, never argue that someone shouldn’t be offended.”

There is no authority in war without exception.

Napoleon’s Maxim XLII from The Officer’s Manual

In the end, there are no hard-and-fast rules to writing. Certainly, ignore every “Napoleonic rule” here, but have a well-thought-out reason.

Press on!

Napoleon’s Maxim IX

Many thanks, Margaret. How clever to adapt Napoleon’s words to the art of writing. Margaret’s novel Finding Napoleon: A Novel adapts Napoleon’s own attempt at novel-writing to bring a compelling story of this famous man. It offers a fresh take on Europe’s most powerful man after he’s lost everything. A forgotten woman of history—the audacious Albine de Montholon—helps narrate their tale of intrigue, love, and betrayal.

Finding Napoleon: A Novel by Margaret Rodenberg ~~ After the defeated Emperor Napoleon goes into exile on tiny St. Helena Island in the remote South Atlantic, he and his lover, Albine de Montholon, plot to escape and rescue his young son. Banding together African slaves, British sympathizers, a Jewish merchant, a Corsican rogue, and French followers, they confront British opposition—as well as treachery within their own ranks—with sometimes subtle, sometimes bold, but always desperate action.

When Napoleon and Albine break faith with one another, ambition and Albine’s husband threaten their reconciliation. To succeed, Napoleon must learn whom to trust. To survive, Albine must decide whom to betray.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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