The Challenges of Historical Fiction
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The Challenges of Historical Fiction

A couple of days ago, Margaret Frazer, one of my favorite writers of historical fiction, posted an article on how to judge historical fiction.  She makes such a good point that I think it's worth repeating here.  If you write a novel about a historical event by taking all the known facts into account, that's historical fiction.  If you change an inconvenient historical fact to make a better story, you're writing historical fantasy. (You can read her whole article here on Patricia Stoltey's blog.)

Now there's nothing wrong with fantasy.  We all enjoy it occasionally.  Along with millions of other viewers, i am looking forward to a new season of "True Blood." I'm willing to believe that Sookie is a fairy, Bill is a vampire, Sam is a werewolf, and Eric is 4000 years old.  It's pure fantasy and good entertainment for an hour or so.  But no one will ever confuse it with fact.  The very principle that governs theatrical performances  -- the suspension of disbelief -- goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and who are we to argue with them?

Nevertheless, the writer of historical fiction  carries an additional burden. A historical novel must never give its readers reason to believe something that is not true, and it must never destroy a dead person's reputation for the sake of a good plot line. Those requirements are the motivations that send writers like me back to the libraries, archives, and piles of crumbly newspapers. The challenge becomes even more difficult when those resources do not agree on the facts.

I am struggling at the moment with a particularly knotty historical problem.  I haven't talked about the work-in-progress for a while, so I'll remind  you that I'm writing about one of the abolitionist women who went to South Carolina in 1862 to work with newly-freed slaves. Laura Towne spent the next forty years of her life in the Low Country.  She established the Penn School, which became a model of educational excellence and one that has developed into a major center for the preservation of Gullah culture. I look on her accomplishments with awe.

And yet . . . . And yet . . . .  Trying to write about her has become a difficult and frustrating effort.  The problem?  She kept a diary.  Now, under most circumstances, that would be exciting news.  A diary provides a way into her innermost thoughts, a way to understand her motives, her doubts, her worries, and her triumphs.  In this case, however, there are just too many competing copies of that diary, and worst of all, the original little composition books she used have disappeared.  

Laura died in 1901. Her best friend and partner in all her efforts, Ellen Murray, died in 1908.  Shortly after Ellen's death, Laura's diary became public knowledge. Laura's grand-nephew authorized a typescript copy of the diary and circulated it among the trustees of the Penn School.  In 1912, a friend of the nephew published an edition of her diary and letters.  The book is still available; I just bought my copy on Amazon. Sometime later, it was re-issued by a Negro publishing house.  In the microfilm collection of Penn School Papers, housed at the University of North Carolina Library in Chapel Hill, are two different typescript copies of that book, one typed on an old manual typewriter, and the other on a slightly more modern electric machine.  Both have been extensively marked up, scratched out, and edited. And they do not match -- either each other or the print editions.

The real purpose of my trip to Beaufort last month was to track down the original diary.  Everyone I talked to said, "Oh yes, we have a copy" or "Oh yes, I've seen a copy."  A copy.  Not the original. But while there, I learned of another copy.  This one was purported to be in Laura's own handwriting.  It had  passed through Ellen's estate to her grand-niece, and then to a woman who wrote a history of the school in the early 1980's.  She returned the handwritten original to the grand-niece after making a xerox copy.  The University of South Carolina now holds the xerox copy and agreed to make a copy for me.

It just arrived -- all 212 pages of it -- written in a lovely and legible 19th-century hand.  Now I can compare it to the print edition to see what changes were made by that editor.  Problem solved?  No way! The two are entirely different in tone and in vocabulary.  The attitudes and beliefs stated are sometimes diametrically opposed to one another.  In places the handwritten copy is more detailed than the print edition.  In others, the print edition contains long passages that are not contained in the handwritten copy. There is no way to determine which one is an abridged version of the other.

 Which details are fact and which are fantasy? Somewhere beneath all these various copies lies the real Laura.  But can I find her?  At this point, I'm not sure.