The first book I didn’t write was about Jean-Louis Michel.
The son of a French soldier and a Haitian slave, he was born in 1775 in what is now Haiti. In 1795, Toussaint Louverture and the black population of the island defeated the French army. Those of mixed race were no longer welcome in Haiti after independence, but the French National Assembly granted them full citizenship. General Alexandre Dumas (father of the Dumas who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers) was among those evacuated to France. So was Jean-Louis Michel.
Michel was given work in a Parisian military fencing school. Observing the lessons, he drilled himself mercilessly until his skill and form were noticed by a regimental fencing master, who helped and encouraged him. Jean-Louis Michel became not just the best fencer in the regiment, but the best fencer in the world — a three-weapon master who once killed or incapacitated thirteen consecutive opponents in a 40-minute dueling match against an entire Italian regiment.
He served in Napoleon’s army, saw action in every battle in Egypt, Russia and Europe, and was awarded the Legion of Honor. He married a Spanish woman — extraordinary, given Spanish attitudes toward race and the fact that Spain was France’s enemy. He continued to teach fencing until he was 85 and blinded by cataracts. His daughter carried on the family tradition, becoming a formidable fencer in her own right, equal to the best men in the sport.
I had maybe thirty pages about this extraordinary man before realizing that, to tell his story, I would have to write the equivalent of Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe series about the Napoleonic Wars and that most of the research would be in French. Now, I can read French and I like research but not enough to dedicate the rest of my life to this one guy.
I ended up writing The Sparrow instead. Probably just as well.
Since then, there have been a number of books I didn’t write. There was a World War II story about British pilots who were downed in Borneo and led a sort of Lawrence of Arabia campaign against the Japanese, but I don’t know… Too many snakes and bugs, I guess.
I also thought about writing the story of Abe and Mary Lincoln’s early marriage, taking them up to the Dred Scott decision, which galvanized them both and gave them a reason to live after the tragic death of their son Eddie. I was interested in pre-Civil War history, and saw the Lincolns as a sort of Bill and Hillary couple, in that she was as intelligent and political and ambitious as her husband, but…
I just didn’t like the Lincolns.
If I’m going to spend 3-7 years of my life living with my characters, I have crave their company. I have to be in love! Emilio Sandoz, Anne Edwards, Jimmy Quinn, Renzo Leone, Mirella Soncini, Agnes Shanklin, Doc Holliday, Kate Harony, Morgan Earp, Tommy McLaury… They were all characters I wanted to spend years with and I can’t compromise on that element of choosing a subject.
Which is why I’ve dropped the idea of writing about Edgar Allan Poe, despite so much enthusiasm for the idea among my readers.
I wanted to tell the story of Poe’s life through the eyes of Elmira Royster Shelton. She was an aristocratic Virginian who was engaged to marry Poe when the couple was 17, but her father broke the relationship off. In their twenties, she and Poe married others, and both marriages were good ones but when they were both widowed, they reconnected and were engaged again after twenty years. Tragically, Poe died just weeks before their wedding.
(There are a lot of baroque theories about his last weeks, but his fever and the strange behavior at the end of his life are consistent with a form of tuberculosis that attacks the central nervous system, producing disorientation, paranoia, fits, and hallucinations.)
Elmira must have been quite a woman, but I think the reason her story never caught fire for me is that she was essentially passive in her own life. It’s historically accurate to portray women of her era in that way, but it’s also kind of boring. I could hear her voice, but it was bitter and full of resentment and regret for the way things had turned out. Similarly, Poe’s letters were full of complaint, sadness and desperation. The everlasting need for money drove much of his life. I couldn’t find any joie de vivre in either of them.
I kept trying to make a go of the Poe story, but then I stumbled onto the story of Annie Clements, who led the 1913 copper strike in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Talk about not being passive! That young woman was the engine that pulled tens of thousands of men out of the mines and into the streets of Calumet, and I am going to do my damnedest to make you love her as much as I do.
More about that in the next blog.