It began small, as things often do. A line in a dinner conversation which could easily have been swept away in the sometimes lively swirl. My teenage daughter, Helen, the writer in our family, said, “NaNoWriMo is almost here.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“National Novel Writing Month. You have to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.”
I’d never aspired to be a writer although lots of people have assumed I have. I do like to read. Maybe that has something to do with it. Anyway, finding out that there was such a thing as NaNoWriMo got me thinking. I remember someone telling about a motivational speaker who asks a room full of people, “Who wants to write a book?” Everyone’s hand goes up. Then he asks, “Who has written the first chapter?” The hands go back down.
I figured if we both undertook the challenge, we could spur each other on, like running a marathon with a friend. I also liked the idea of the set time period. There’s nothing like a deadline to make things happen. I announced my intention to participate and now there was no turning back. The only thing missing was a topic.
Back in college, I had taken a course on Napoleon and the French Revolution. I ended up doing a report on Napoleon’s retreat from Russia after his failed invasion in 1812. The disaster stuck with me as something about which many had heard, but the details were obscure.
My wife and I had become hooked on the humorous Bloody Jack series of books about an orphan girl in London who ends up in the Royal Navy. While the series is full of outlandish adventures, it got me to thinking that putting a youngster into the grown-up world of the military and war would make for an interesting story. And so, standing at the clothesline in mid-October, 2010, I pulled these two ideas together and came up with the premise for Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army. My story would be about a boy who accompanies the Grande Armée on the great invasion.
There is another element I need to work into my tale at this point. For most of my life, I’ve done Revolutionary War re-enacting. In fact, my wife and I met because our fathers had joined the same regiment when we were in our teens. All of these years of experiencing firsthand the “hurry up and wait,” confusion, contradiction and plans gone awry, albeit as a re-enactor, gave me some feel for what a lowly soldier in the ranks must experience on a campaign. This is why I wanted my main character to tell the story through his eyes about what he saw. As such, he wouldn’t have known what the generals were planning, he would only know what he experienced himself or heard from someone else.
It had been many years since that college report on the retreat from Russia so, in mid-October, I threw myself into a frenzy of studying the campaign, the soldiers’ life and outlining the story. Meanwhile, something else was giving me cause for concern. I’d never written fiction before and was worried that I wouldn’t be able to write enough to get to the 50,000 word goal. So I paid particular attention to developing a good outline and thinking through what my character would experience. I decided if I could outline 30 chapters, one for each day of the November writing period, I would be all right.
Then November started. I set my alarm an hour earlier in my daily quest for 1,667 words (50,000/30 days). The words flowed. I wrote thousands of words in chapters that theoretically would have only 1,667. Helen, my number one writing buddy, and I kept track of our growing word count on the refrigerator white board. I put my character, 13-year-old Henri Carle, into 1811/12 France and let him go, documenting the trials, tribulations and adventures along the way. The word count grew and grew. By Thanksgiving, my daughter and I were both NaNoWriMo winners and with days to spare.
But, there was a problem. I had written my 50,000 words and November was over, but my story had only been half told. The epic part of the story, the part where my hero endures the Russian campaign, was yet to come. Now I had to write without the daily 1,667 word goal to drive me. Fortunately, a new goal soon appeared. The nice folks who run NaNoWriMo, sent an email telling about the Amazon Breakthrough Novelist Award contest which had an entry deadline at the beginning of February. Thank goodness, a new deadline!
Back at the keyboard, I wrote until the end of January while my wife (and number one editor) worked on editing. Then it was time to write the pitch, give the manuscript one last look and submit it to the contest (all 115,000 words). The waiting for the judges’ decision began.
In the meantime, The Book Doctors had teamed up with the NaNoWriMo people to offer a special, online Pitchapalooza for NaNoWriMo winners. Twenty-five pitches would be selected at random to be critiqued and the pitch for Russian Snows was one of them. Because the 200th anniversary of the events depicted in Russian Snows was fast approaching, The Book Doctors suggested I self-publish if I wanted my book in print by the time the anniversary rolled around.
Russian Snows made it into the final 250 out of a potential 5,000 entries in the young adult category in the ABNA contest. The Publishers Weekly review was positive but advised, just as some writer friends had, that I trim down the manuscript. My target readership was 12 – 16 year olds so ideally, I had to cut my manuscript by over half. A summer of cutting, editing and re-writing had the manuscript down to 51,000 words and I was ready to self-publish.
October 19, 2011, the 199th anniversary of Napoleon’s departure from Moscow to begin the retreat, was the date of my book launch. With a stack of books from CreateSpace at my side and a cake depicting the book’s cover, I signed books like a pro.
This June will mark the 200th Anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. I have developed a presentation on the plight of the soldiers on that campaign and am available to give it to local groups (southeast Pennsylvania). As a side project to the book, I began a blog about the experience of the soldier on the campaign that features eyewitness accounts of those who were actually there. The blog can be seen at www.Napoleon1812.wordpress.com.
The (updated) pitch for Russian Snows:
Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army is the fictional account of 14-year-old Henri Carle as he accompanies France’s Grande Armée from Paris to Moscow during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.
When his older brother Luc enlists in the army, young Henri follows and finds work in the camp bakery. He later joins the supply train to stay close to Luc on the long march through Europe. Shy and unprepared for life on his own, Henri is shaped by the people he meets. As the French army crosses the vast plains of Russia in search of a decisive battle, he develops skills and confidence. When the battle finally comes at Borodino, Henri is caught in the thick of the action and proves his bravery. The victorious, but battered French army is now caught deep in enemy territory. Henri and the devastated army begin the retreat in a desperate attempt to escape the Russian army and the Russian winter.
Henri is forced to use his wits, skills and quick thinking to survive. He experiences the horrors of battle, the heartbreaking agony of the wounded left behind and the death of his friends. As he is maturing and becoming a man, the army is disintegrating around him. With a quiet determination, Henri triumphs as he becomes both the first Frenchman on enemy soil and the second to last Frenchman out of Russia.
A cross between Stowaway and The Hunger Games, Russian Snows follows actual events and incidents from the campaign as Napoleon’s invading army was reduced from 500,000 to barely 20,000. The story brings the disaster to life through the eyes of Henri in this sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching, but ultimately uplifting adventure that paints a picture of what life was like for the common soldier.