16 February 2007

Why the French Revolution?

When I first started writing full-length historical mss, well over 10 years ago, I started out in the medieval period -- my favourite at that time. I completed a story set in 1215, then wrote a time travel in which the heroine lands in 1483 England. In my file labelled Future Story Ideas I have several more medievals in various stages.

But then something happened. I had a dream about a young woman in a prison who, when a man comes to rescue her, refuses to go. That was it, but the image stuck with me. And my mind started working on it. Then a friend of mine suggested I write a story set during the French Revolution as I have an MA in History, specializing in the period.

I have to admit, I wasn't certain at first. Not only was a so used to writing in the medieval period, but I was aware even then of the difficulty selling something set during a not so popular period. But my friend pointed out that my MA would be a point in my favour and could be used by a publisher for marketing purposes.

So I started playing around with it even more and before I knew it, I had a story. The French Revolution usually brings to mind the guillotine and Robespierre evilly rubbing his hands together and plotting the downfall of the aristocracy. The reality is quite different. The initial years of revolution were quieter, not completely without violence, but more focussed on changing society and trying to balance the rights of the people against the right of the king to rule.

What I find so fascinating is that it was also a period that saw the beginnings of the feminist movement with two major documents -- one written by a man, the Marquis de Condorcet, who penned "On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship" in 1790 and Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women". Women formed their own revolutionary societies, and simplified their mode of dress -- a fashion that caught on across the Channel. English women didn't want to be left out. Some travelled to France to take part in history -- Helena Maria Williams lived in Paris, wrote about the Revolution and was imprisoned during the Terror, while Mary Wollstonecraft travelled to Paris with her lover after penning her most famous work. Others wrote about the changes there from their homeland.

The more I dig into the social history of the revolution, the more I find myself drawn into the period itself. My thesis focussed on the painter David and his role as an artist-politician - exploring a different side of the Revolution is lots of fun. Also, I've always been drawn to women's history. Writing about my heroines, placing them in the midst of momentous periods of history has always been one of the appeals of writing historical romance. Granted, in reality, most women didn't find their happy endings, but I like to hope at least some did. There were few eras more pivotal and tumultuous than the French Revolution - setting stories here is both a challenge and a joy.



Marjorie Jones said...

I love this timeframe, and what great fodder for a romance full of intrigue and excitement.

A rather popular and successful author once told me (she's a PhD in history) that if she wrote a truly historically accurate medeival novel, nobody would believe her.

That's always made me wonder about things like feminists in history. If one writes a character fighting for the rights of women at the time of the revolution, would the readers buy it? Not buy the book, I mean, but believe that such things happened? We often hear of "Oh, your heroine would never do (insert complaint here)," but I tend to suspend all disbelief whenever I read romance anyway.

I'm the type who believes it if its in the book, even if it's NOT true, so I wouldn't have any trouble believing something that is true.

So my question is, would you lean toward writing a forward or an Author's note that cited the facts, or just let the work ride on its merits?

Really fascinating stuff... Great post!


carrie_lofty said...

Marjorie, you'll find an "Historical Postscript" at the end of Serenade. Whether an eventual publisher will want to include it is up in the air, but I intend to use it on my website if nowhere else. I LOVE learning the fact-from-fiction bits!!

DDB said...

One of the best romance books set during the French Revolution is **The Devil's Laughter 1953: Down the street came a parade of children; they were beating a small keg for a drum and playing homemade flutes. And on the ends of improvised pikes, they bore the heads of three cats, still dripping blood. French children witnessed the spectacle of human heads paraded daily through Parisian streets before howling mobs with an insatiable lust for blood. Paris had become so paralyzed with a hatred of everyone and everything associated with the noble class that reason, itself, stood decapitated. Thus during the French Revolution, in this manner, French society sank to the depths of depravity. Such was the society that was brought about by Jean Paul Marin, who at the age of twenty, was beaten and imprisoned. And when he was released, he would have his revenge.** www.frankyerby.com

If you've never read Yerby, you've missed a great story teller. The books are a little dated now, but the stories stand the test of time.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

My favourite Freench revolution story is Under The Tricolour by Mary Medawar. I read it about 10 years ago and I still remember it.

An Aussie author I know, Isolde Martyn, who has published medieval novels has also written a novel set in the French Revolution - Fleur De Lis. I must read it.

Good luck!

Bonnie Vanak said...

That's really cool you wrote a book triggered by a dream! The French Revolution was a huge period of social change. Thanks for the info!