I've seen several on-line discussions lately about the nature of historical fiction. It's not something I worry about a lot, but once in a while I have to stop and contemplate what I mean when I say I write historical fiction. Usually, my biographical novels are based on real people, and I use their real names, so that anyone interested can go back to the historical records and check on what I say. Only rarely do I add fictional characters to that kind of story, but once in a while it is necessary. For example, in "Beyond All Price" I added a couple of fictional passengers to a scene in which a very real Presbyterian minister was traveling by train. Their statements and actions helped clarify the nature of the minister's prejudices. In the same book, there were some fictional nuns in a hospital scene, because the real women who worked in that convent hospital would never have left a record of their real names.
Now, however, I've started a series of historical novels in which the reverse is true. The main characters are fictional, but the people with whom they come in contact are real historical persons. A couple of months ago, I revealed the character sketches of the people in my upcoming "Yankee Reconstructed." Even for my fictional characters, I sought out pictures of real people who looked as I imagined my characters would have looked. And I included in those sketches some of the real people who appear in the pages of the new book. Laura Towne, Robert Smalls, Arthur Middleton, Rufus Saxton -- all of them can be found in any general record of South Carolina in the 1860s.
This week, as I worked on a new section of the book, I realized that I needed a black educator to play a major role in what happens in 1868. Yes, I could have created one -- made him up out of whole cloth. But my normal practice is to take the opposite approach and find a real person who could step into the story and make it seem more real. And once I laid out in my own mind, just exactly what this character need to be and do, I discovered that he really existed.
The new character is Benjamin F. Randolph. He was born into a free African family in Ohio. His parents were wealthy and well educated. He graduated from Oberlin College, a pretty liberal place even in the 19th century, in a class that was predominantly white. He thought first that he would become a minister. When the Civil War began, he avoided military service. But when the U.S. began recruiting black soldiers, he volunteered and became the chaplain of the 26th U.S. Regiment of Colored Troops (their official name).
His regiment was sent to fight in South Carolina in 1864, and he witnessed at first hand the condition of thousands of abandoned or reluctantly freed slaves -- uneducated, poverty-stricken, lacking all healthcare or opportunities for employment. When the war ended he stayed on in South Carolina, realizing a calling to do something to help his people. He went to Charleston and volunteered for a posting in the Freedman's Bureau, where he was put in charge of organizing black schools. He was, in fact, actually doing what my fictional character wanted to do -- turning abandoned plantations and their resources into black schools. He was a natural for my story, and his untimely death serves in the book as an important catalyst for future action.