Saturday, April 4, 2009

Marshal Ney: The Romance and the Real

Pretty soon after I started the alternative history WIP, I realized I'd need to have real people as major characters. Because of this, my research involves a lot more time with biographies, memoirs, collections of letters, etc. than in the past. And then I take these people, men and women born 200 years or so before I was, and try to climb into their heads so I can imagine what they'd do in the alternate reality of my novel.

This kind of research leads to a strange sort of intimacy. I don't really think I'm communing with their departed souls--most of the time--but they feel independent and opinionated in a way my purely invented characters rarely do. And sometimes, frankly, I crush on the more appealing ones a little bit. Which I was not expecting to happen when I picked up Marshal Ney: The Romance and the Real (Raymond Horricks, 1982). I'm researching Ney because I decided I needed to add an additional real French bigshot on my next rewrite (which will be the third draft, and I hope the last major one). I didn't know much about him beyond his role at Waterloo. And based on that I didn't expect too much--I mean, repeated unsupported cavalry charges against infantry, especially British infantry? Who DOES that? (Trust me, oh reader who isn't a Napoleonic-era military history geek--that's not smart tactics.)

I realized less than a chapter in that I was selling Ney short by judging him on that single day's performance. No, he wasn't the smartest general in the world. He wasn't even close to the smartest general born in 1769--though it'd be a bit unfair to hold that against him, given that it was also Napoleon and Wellington's birth year! But he was an able and occasionally brilliant commander, Waterloo notwithstanding. He was straightforward, he fiercely loved his country, and he had an old-school sort of honor and chivalry. He loved his wife and had a happy and romantic marriage. As the son of a barrel-cooper who enlisted as a common cavalry trooper, he rose to the highest possible rank on merit. And, when Napoleon called him the bravest of the brave, it was only fitting--I got all weepy reading about Ney's leadership on the retreat from Moscow in 1812.

I...kinda love him. This after assigning him an antagonist's role in my WIP! Oh well. I think my book will be more interesting this way than if he'd been what I expected before I did any research. I never wanted it to be a pure Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story anyway...

1 comment:

Bob said...

To me, Marshal Ney is one of the most interesting characters in that whole era, right next to Napoleon himself.