Where does a novel come from? What mysterious amalgamation of reality and whimsy come together to form the nucleus of a tale that creates a world of its own? A place that the reader can enter, like Dorothy opening the door of her Kansas home, to reveal Munchkinland in all its Technicolor brilliance.
For me the process often begins with a stray fact. One little image or concept or sound byte that revs up the “What if…” machine in my brain. I write historicals so let me share some of the stories I've come across that offered fertile fields for my imagination:
Did you hear about the Jacksons?
When General Andrew Jackson, the hero of New Orleans married his wife, Rachel she was still married to her first husband, Lewis Robards. The couple always claimed that Robards told them he had submitted the divorce papers. He, of course, denied it.
Jackson remarried Rachel in 1794, but the scandalous accusations of bigamy scuppered his bid for the presidency when he ran in 1824. By the slimmest of margins, Jackson managed to win the popular vote and even gained the most electoral college votes. But without a clear majority it fell to the House of Representatives to name the new president. After only one round of voting, John Quincy Adams was named the sixth president of the United States.
Four years later, the same ugly stories once more reared their heads. It’s said that throughout his life Andrew Jackson fought thirteen duels. Many of them over his wife’s honor. This time, however, Jackson had the satisfaction of soundly thrashing Adams in the race for the presidency. Unfortunately, just two weeks after the results were known, and before her husband took office, Rachel Jackson died. Andrew Jackson blamed the scandal mongering and never forgave John Quincy Adams or his party.
Did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte had American relations? It’s true.
In 1803 Napoleon’s younger brother, Jerome was a naval officer fighting in the Caribbean. To escape captured by the English he retreated to America. While visiting a friend in Maryland he met Miss Elizabeth Patterson, the daughter of the wealthiest man in the state. After a whirlwind two-month courtship, he asked for her hand in marriage. Neither side of the family was enthusiastic about the arrangement, but Elizabeth, known as Betsy, did manage to obtain her parents’ permission. Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t so accommodating. The wedding went ahead anyway.
The couple were married on Christmas Eve, 1803 by the Archbishop of Baltimore. Betsy’s beauty was legendary and she had no problem with flaunting it by wearing fashions that raised many an eyebrow.
At the news of the wedding, Napoleon immediately ordered his brother home. They ignored the summons for as long as they could, but the time came when they had to respond. A now pregnant Betsy set sail with her husband, hoping to arrive in time for Napoleon’s coronation. When they came within sight of the coast in March of 1805, their ship was boarded and Jerome was taken off. She never saw him again.
Betsy was denied entrance into France, and Napoleon exerted his influence to ensure that other ports were closed to her as well. She finally found safe harbor in England and gave birth to a son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, in July of 1805.
Jerome tried to reason with his brother, but Napoleon would not listen and declared the marriage null. He then demanded that Jerome marry a German princess Catharina of Württemburg. Jerome caved to the pressure and married the German, without having his marriage to Betsy legally dissolved.
Napoleon sent a letter to Betsy requesting that she stop using the Bonaparte name, and offering her a small stipend if she would drop her claims, and those of her son. She promptly replied that she had come by the name honorably and had no intention of dropping it or any other right or honor which she was due. After the Battle of Waterloo she returned to Europe and was feted across the continent for her beauty and wit. She finally secured a divorce from Jerome in 1815 by a special act of the Maryland Legislature.
Queen Elizabeth’s Fantasy
Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was at odds with her Tudor family from the day of her birth. Proclaimed queen of Scotland when she was less than a year old, she also had a strong claim to the English throne. Her mother was Henry VIII’s sister.
When the English throne devolved to Elizabeth Tudor, her mother’s marriage to Henry had already been annulled and her legitimacy denied by the English Parliament. Henry tried to fix the problem by unequivocally stating the line of succession in his will, but that patch was too little too late.
Thus the stage was set for a battle of wills between these first cousins, both of whom were reigning queens. Unfortunately for Mary, Elizabeth had the upper hand. England at the time was more prosperous and more populous. It was strong militarily and had the advantage of a centralized government that made its sovereign less dependent on her conniving Lords.
One of the major sanctions that Elizabeth imposed upon learning that it was Mary’s intention to marry again, was a demand that she have a say in the selection of husband. The last thing she wanted was for Mary to form an alliance with a Catholic prince and thereby gain preeminence. When asked whom she had in mind, she actually suggested that Mary marry Robert Dudley. And this is where Elizabeth’s world began to dissolve into fantasy. He was her favorite courtier, and a man most historians assume to have been her lover. Gossip was as rife then as it is today, and Mary was more than offended at the suggestion, but for political reasons acted as if the match might work.
Elizabeth’s delusions seemed to know no bounds. It seems she regretted her suggestion, but could hardly tell Mary not to marry Dudley when it had been her idea in the first place. Her solution? She sent a letter to Mary, with the proposal that, once married she and Dudley should move to England and live with Elizabeth! Elizabeth would, of course, support them.
Can you imagine such a proposal made to a reigning monarch? Not only was she supposed to leave the governing of her country to others, in order to mooch around Elizabeth’s court, but she was also, apparently supposed to share her husband with her first cousin. Yikes! I guess no one ever accused Elizabeth of not being a gutsy broad.
Needless to say, this bit of fantasy on Elizabeth’s part was not fulfilled. Mary went on to marry an Englishman with a claim to the English succession that nearly matched her own. An alliance that produced an heir, but eventually led to her downfall.
For some reason we often think of history as genteel and the people of previous angels as something different than full-blooded men and women. But human nature hasn’t changed. People were as complicated and conflicted then as they are now.
Writer question: What sort of things spark a story for you?
Reader Question: Have you ever thought you might have found the snippet of idea in a book that sparked the whole story you were reading?
Everyone Question: If you were Mary, would you have wanted to shove that letter down Elizabeth’s throat?