Today, after three and a half years of research, writing and rewriting, I’ve finally typed “la fin” on my historical YA fantasy based on the real-life 17th-century French duelist (and later opera star) known as Julie d’Aubigny aka La Maupin. The story starts when she’s 16 years old in 1689, just when she’s about to discover that she’s both bisexual and badass as she becomes entangled in a necromantic plot to bring the world to its knees.
This has been the writing challenge of my life.
How the Love Affair Began
As many of you know, I’ve been studying swordplay of one form or another since 2001. I truly fell in love with the European smallsword when I was taking private smallsword lessons from sword master and stuntman TJ Rotolo. The European smallsword is the weapon that La Maupin and other duelists used in her day. I loved how it fit my hand, its small movements almost came instinctively to me.
But I didn’t fall in love with La Maupin — maiden name Julie d’Aubigny — until 2006 when I was living in France. I found a website dedicated to her that completely captured my imagination. I considered writing a book about her, but I wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be so for years. I couldn’t believe how much I related to her with my historical crossdressing, my love of swordplay, my singing, and passion for life.
A More Troubled Me
She seemed like a lost me from the past, albeit far more emotionally troubled: she was well known for her excessive promiscuity and threats of self-violence when her romantic affairs soured. Then again, she was a bisexual, gender-queer person living in an age when that was condemned. Her mental health was probably always at risk, as are youths today who are rejected by their families for being LGBTQ+.
As it turns out, there’s an even stronger reason for the promiscuity and threats of self-harm.
The Comte d’Armagnac
You see, one of the things I’ve wanted to reframe is the narrative around her childhood relationship to the Louis de Lorraine aka the Comte d’Armagnac, the Grand Écuyer or Master of the Horse. The patriarchal story around her has always been that at the age of 14 years, she became the Comte’s “mistress.” The Comte was more than 30 years her senior. He was also Monsieur d’Aubigny’s boss, who taught the king’s pages to fence; that fell squarely under the Master of the Horse’s purview. So, the Comte had total control over her father’s position and fortunes both at Versailles and beyond. Using a modern American lens, the Comte’s relationship with Julie would look a lot more like rape, wouldn’t it?
That’s because it was rape.
For starters, I don’t for a minute believe his interest in her started at 14. I think it was earlier. Without laboring through a long discussion of the oft misunderstood statistics of life expectancy and marriage practices throughout the UK and Europe — not to mention the obvious power dynamics at play — I think the proof of the nature of the relationship is in how Julie reacted. Soon after she became the Comte’s “mistress,” he married her off to a gentleman named Sieur de Maupin who was in turn shipped off to a position in the south of France. The Comte arranged all of this to cover and legitimize any pregnancies because the Comte kept Julie with himself in Versailles.
But not for long. Julie then immediately ran away with a hot young fencing master. “Ran away” being the operative phrase.
Had the Comte been a young man a lot closer to her age, the voluntary nature of the relationship suggested by male historians would have been a tad more believable. It’s my personal belief that she was sexually abused by this much older man of authority until she found an opportunity — and help — to get as far away as possible.
Anyway, Ashes of Angels has helped me reframe this story from a female perspective. And it’s powerful.
I read a lot of books. On France. French history. Dueling. Magic. Swords. Fencing. Louis XIV. France in the 17th century. Teens discovering their sexuality. Teens coming out as bisexual. And much more. Fiction such as The Three Muskateers (which I loved) and Scaramouche (which was meh).
In the middle of writing the book, I started suffering severe insomnia. The sleep doctor told me I had to get out of bed at night if I woke and couldn’t go back to sleep. She recommended reading in another room in dim light. That’s how I read a few books, during stolen minutes and hours when my body refused to cooperate.
But that’s only half of the research. So much of it was scrutinizing old maps. Researching villages. Old prisons. Torture methods. Transportation. (My equestrian-TV writer friend Erin Maher got asked a lot of questions about horses.) Food. Cooking. Clothing. Theatre. Music. (Loads of music.) Scouring blogs of other historical fiction writers to learn tips and tricks. Merci bien to Susanna Calkins, especially.
And then I chose bits and pieces of everything as I weaved it all together.
The Diva’s Voice
While that was a lot to mentally coordinate, the absolute hardest part of all this was creating Julie’s voice. In fact, I shied away from it so much that when my husband read the first draft (he’s often my first reader, especially for my YA fiction), he gave me a big note that made me realize voice was a huge problem.
I’d obviously focused so much on everything else that I hadn’t addressed my fears about giving an authentic voice to this very real teenager. You’d think that, since she was someone I’d vibed with, it would be easy, but it was the opposite. I’d never done anything like this before. My characters are 100% fictional (except for in one story). I went back to the basics of character development. Experiences. Beliefs. Wants. Dreams. Needs.
And then I pulled the ripcord on a page-one rewrite. It was painful but worth it.
Magic in France? Mais Non!
As many people would agree, historical YA is a tough sell without magic. But here’s the thing: France is culturally very anti-magic. At the time that Julie was alive, magic was illegal. While some may argue, “Hey, it’s fiction! Do what you want!” I don’t want to violate both historical AND cultural fact, especially not about a country that took me in and embraced me for a year. We talk a good game about diversity and sensitivity, but we don’t even bother half the time. We should practice sensitivity in our writing with all foreign cultures.
(Incidentally, one of my readers is a good friend of mine in France who also used to be a competitive fencer for many years. Her feedback was amazing.)
Anyway, when I was living there in 2006-2007, I tried to meet fellow pagans. It was really difficult. I eventually earned the trust of a young woman working at a goth bar called L’Elfike, who in turn then reached out to a couple of pagans she knew. Only one was willing to speak to me. The occult and witchcraft are frowned upon so much even to this day that these young people were afraid of being outed and suffering the consequences. From an American perspective, even though the French are 30% atheist, they’re still culturally 100% Catholic.
What about the popularity of Harry Potter? The French love those books, right? The French are fine with Englishmen casting spells and doing other silly Anglo-Saxon things. For example, they believe Halloween (a pagan holiday) is strictly an Anglo-Saxon holiday celebrated in the UK. The French shun it in favor of All Souls Day, the Catholic holiday. I don’t know how French readers felt when they read about the Beauxbatons, but I suspect they didn’t care because HP isn’t set in France.
Welcome to the Real Beauxbatons
Ashes of Angels, however, is set in France. Completely and utterly. So, as a savvy YA author, how did I deal with this dilemma? Extra difficulty level: as a writer, I don’t do Judeo-Christian mythology.
I can’t give anything away, but I found a way to be true to French culture, even though I had to bend my own writing rules. Because that’s the thing about becoming bicultural: it’s not that you give up who you are. Instead, you develop an empathy for the other culture and let it open you up to other ways of thinking.
Please wish me and Julie luck as we move to the next phase.