25 November, 2010

Fourriers, Grognards, and Dolmans -- Alors!

My current novel-in-progress begins in 1799 and follows Napoleon's Grande Armeé from Egypt to Austria, Russia and beyond. I've put together a plot and characters, that was the easy part. So was writing the first thirty thousand words or so. Now I'm catching up on my period research, especially making sure I have military formations, uniforms, and tactics correct for the battle scenes that come later.

What did I get myself into?

 Fig. 1: Yes, he fought in that getup.

It's bewildering. First off there's the ranks. In the French army a brigadier did not command a brigade--he was a corporal in a cavalry troop. Similarly one must not confuse a maréchal des logis -- supply sergeant -- with a Marshal of the Empire.

And speaking of marshals, mon général Grouchy would appreciate it if everyone would pronounce his name correctly and stop intimating that he wears green fur and lives in a garbage can.

But I wouldn't doubt that somewhere, somewhen, there was a regiment of hussars, or chasseurs-à-pied, or mameluke lancers clad in green fur of exactly Oscar's hue. 

These guys wore anything -- especially the cavalry. No two hussar regiments had the same uniform. And the hats!  You've got shakos, busbies, cocked hats, square-topped Polish headgear I can't remember the name of right now... Napoleon's big bicorne seems rather staid when you line him up against a regiment of grenadiers with two foot of bearskin bonnet per man.

How did they fight in all that kit? I've been reading personal accounts of Napoleon's soldiers and not one has mentioned a man being killed because of the ridiculous outfit he had to fight in. But there are several accounts of men being shot through the hat and being unharmed. One tells of a man who lost his hat in a cavalry action but was able to get it back from the enemy for a small 'ransom' the next day.

An excellent and comprehensive reference is Swords Around a Throne by American officer John R. Elting. He provides uniform guides and in-depth looks at each branch of service. I'm also reading diaries of a couple of Imperial Guard infantrymen and a cavalryman named Marbot who rose from the ranks to command a regiment of chasseurs at Waterloo.

My biggest surprise so far? The number of horses involved. The poor animals are much less durable than men, and it was easy to wear them out. Officers had several and used them in rotation... or ride each into the ground in turn. Many regiments had no idea how to care for their horses, and got them killed by letting them graze too freely (or not enough). Some soldiers knew what they were doing, but not the French... a Polish lancer regiment came back from Russia with two hundred horses out of a thousand while many French cavalry managed only to save a few mounts for their officers.

Next up, I need to get a better idea about contemporary life in civilian France at that time. Unfortunately the bulk of novels in English from that time are set in, well, England. And I will do a lot of things for my craft but I'm not reading a raft of crappy Regency romances. So next on my plate is to learn enough French to read Balzac (although his novels are set after the wars), Paul Adam and Emile Zola... I've already been plowing through the daily Paris newspapers of the period, helpfully scanned and available online at gallica.fr.

Next, I think I'll write something set in the modern era. In Schenectady. It worked for Vonnegut!

12 November, 2010

The Most Important Thing to Teach A Kid About Chess

I went to my son's first chess tournament last weekend. Some of the kids barely knew how to move the pieces, and the ones that did very quickly cleaned up the board. And yet, almost all the games were draws. Why?

No one knew how to checkmate.

 Fig. 1 : Know how to get here, from anywhere on the board.

I saw a trash talking kid with two queens fail to win against a nice little girl reduced to only her king. He just kept giving check, over and over again, until he blundered into a stalemate. It happened over and over again. It was excruciating, especially since it was a competition and I couldn't give any hints.

I suppose it's as true of chess as it is for anything else: turning a winning position into an actual win is an art in itself.

It's not enough to write a book that should be published: there's a long road from there to getting published. It's not enough to deserve a job: you have to actually go and get it. How many armies (and, more importantly, sports teams) have all the advantages, but lose because they don't know how to use them?

And so I spent the rest of that weekend teaching my son to win. First, with a queen and king against my king. Next with two rooks. Then a simulated game, me with a king and eight pawns versus his whole side.

OK, I might have been a little harsh. I might have even, once or twice, said "Wrong! Again!" in a credible imitation of Leopold Mozart at his worst. But he started to get it. He learned how to cut off the board, drive the king into the corner, and win.

The best part was his sister's chanting: "Checkmate Daddy! Checkmate Daddy!"

And despite my channeling a Prussian drillmaster, he kept wanting to try. All last week, he's been as likely to want to play chess as Lego Batman Wii when I come home from work. It's the taste of victory. Who wants to move pieces around a board once you know you can win?

I can't wait for the next tournament. He's going to murder those little punks... and, uh, learn very important lessons about perseverance and sportsmanship. Or something.