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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Historical Fiction

Mixed Emotions

A new review of "Yankee Reconstructed" appeared today. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, but I think I like the description of "disturbingly accurate." If I catch the reader's meaning, he's admitting that the story is accurate but wishes it weren't. Here's what he wrote:

"Having grown up in another state, I was concerned about some references to historic events during Reconstruction in South Carolina. After reading sections, I researched the real events (i.e., in Abbeville and Camden) and found the book disturbingly accurate in historic detail. I enjoyed the symbolism of the Sheldon Church ruins, having been there many times. This book explored some complex issues with characters of that time, including the acknowledgment of families of mixed slave and plantation owner roots and the conflict for transplanted Northerners."

That's one of the problems of writing historical fiction, of course. We tend to want to romanticize the past. The past itself, however, can be really nasty. How much of the nastiness to include is the question with which every author must struggle to some extent. For a historian turned novelist, there's just no way to ignore the follies of our ancestors.

I'm curious to hear from other readers. Do you enjoy learning about the past even if the story contradicts your long-cherished beliefs? Do you want your writer to tell you the truth even when it hurts? Or do you prefer a pleasant, sanitized version of history -- one that offers nothing more than entertainment and an escape on a rainy afternoon?

The Research Behind Historical Fiction


Every so often I feel a need to defend myself against the charge that I somehow betrayed my training as a professional historian by switching my emphasis after retirement to write historical fiction. I admit that there's a lot of dreck out there -- "historical" fiction that bears little resemblance to what actually happened. When I first went back to graduate school to study medieval history, I had to unlearn a lot of silliness i had picked up from a steady childhood diet of medieval story-telling. I now loathe the kind of novel that mixes fact with fantasy, or that takes a "what if" approach to explore alternative universes. 

But it is also true that historical fiction, when written by a true professional, can cast much light upon confusing historical events. Many important historical figures have fascinating background stories that clarify their actions. Sometimes obscure individuals stepped forward at a crucial moment, did something that changed the course of history, and then fell back into the shadows -- their stories lost. And every writer of historical fiction that I know spends countless hours getting such details right.

My own failing is that I tend to get so involved in the historical trivia that my writing time turns into research hours. Just recently I needed to write about a character who experienced the great Charleston earthquake of 1886. I started by looking at internet pictures, then turned to newspaper accounts, and then ordered two books devoted to the event, both of which I read in depth. When it came time to write the actual description, it took only 420 words. But I had spend three weeks reading and distilling those details. Can the history in my novels be relied upon? I certainly believe so!

Today on Facebook I ran across another example of how hard historical novelists work to get things right. Elizabeth Chadwick writes medieval historical fiction, most often centered on figures from the 12th and 13th century, among them, Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall. Even the Royal Historical Society recognizes her excellence as a writer.And today she demonstrated her historical precision on Facebook with an extensive article on the effigies of medieval knights.

Sound dull? It's not. These effigies, found all over England in medieval cathedrals, have an amazing variety of poses, and she explores the validity of some of the interpretations historians have imposed upon them. Her article recalled for me a discussion I had with my own 12-year-old many years ago, when he asked me why a certain reclining effigy had his legs crossed. When I admitted that I didn't know, he suggested that maybe the knight had to go to the bathroom.  Of course I knew where that answer came from -- the kid had been traveling with us by car across France and had been told more than once to "cross your legs and hold it" until the next town.

Elizabeth does not include that  particular explanation, but her article is well worth reading, both for its historical approach and her own reasoned conclusions. You can find it here: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/cross-your-legs-and-hope-to-die-what.html

Keeping the Characters Real

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. 

Defining Creative Non-Fiction

If calling myself a historical novelist leads readers to expect something I don't deliver, then I need a new description.  But is "creative non-fiction" a better term?  Here's a working definition:

Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry — in her book The Art of Fact — suggests four constitutive characteristics of the genre, the first of which is “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.” By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world. The second characteristic is “Exhaustive research,” which she claims allows writers “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.” The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining the genre is “The scene”. She stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage. The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.”

That's pretty much what I try to do.  My books have:
  • portrayals of the real life stories of real people
  • details based on lots of research (letters, diaries, official records)
  • full descriptions of the era and places about which I write (Civil War South Carolina)
  • at least a bit of literary style; they read like a novel, not a history book

So that settles it, right?  Not so fast.  Once I started reading more articles about this "new" mixture of fiction and nonfiction, I kept finding cautionary warnings. 
  • Dan Poyner writes, "Creative nonfiction is the latest name for fact-based writing that can perhaps be best understood as the union of storytelling and journalism." And leaping onward from that definition, several other critics demand that the same ethics that apply to journalism apply also to creative nonfiction. Everything must be 100% verifiable.
  • Using the term "nonfiction", I was told, requires an author to be accurate.  Articles often point to James Frey as a cautionary example.  His "A Million Little Pieces" was a memoir that turned out to have several fabricated incidents. The minute he adds a character, or creates a conversation that no one heard, or imagines a scene that may never have happened, he has crossed a line -- one that may forever destroy his credibility and reputation as a historian.  Uh-oh!
  • Lee Gutkind says an author can never fabricate a conversation unless someone remembers it. And then he warns, "One way to protect the characters in your book, article, or essay is to allow them to defend themselves--or at least to read what you have written about them."

And there's the problem.  My characters are all real people, but they lived 150 years ago.  They can't defend themselves.  Neither can I interview them, or ask others around them to help me reconstruct what happened or to describe a conversation. I have no videos, or tape recordings, or sworn testimonies.  Sometimes the existing evidence (as happened with the life of Nellie Chase) is completely lacking.  Sometimes (as happened with the Laura Towne diaries) it has been edited beyond recognition. Facts tend to get lost between the cracks of passing time.  My books cannot live up to the standards of journalism; therefore, they are probably not "creative nonfiction, either.

So perhaps I need to coin my own term.  How does "biographical fiction" sound?  We'll look at that tomorrow.

Rules for Writing Historical Fiction #7

Rule#7: Anticipate a Long Process. 
Historical novels usually take several years to write, as they require 
research at every turn. You won't always be able to anticipate what you'll 
need to know for a scene, and will constantly have to be returning to your 
references. This is entirely different from writing contemporary fiction.

Take, for example, in my part of the world, a trip from Austin, Texas to the 
nearby town of San Marcos. If you are going to write a present-day scene in 
which your character makes this trip, you will simply need to put him into a 
vehicle -- a pickup, or a Volvo -- and head him south for forty minutes on 
the flat terrain of interstate 35, passing strip malls and fields and the 
town of Buda. He will then take the exit marked "Wonder World", named for a 
local cave and visitor's center, and arrive in San Marcos. The only research 
needed to write this scene will be to drive the route yourself.

But if your character takes this journey in 1906, you will have to learn a 
few things before starting him out, and learn more things along the way. 
First of all, you need to know where the road is, and what's on either side 
of it, and what kind of conveyance your character is driving. If it's a 
flatbed wagon, what's pulling it -- a horse, a half-lame mule, two mules? 
How often do mules need water? How much traffic will there be? Any cars? 
What kind of food or luggage do you have along? And what if a wheel breaks, 
and you have to fix it, and you cut yourself with a rusty tool -- how do you 
disinfect the cut? Do you even know about disinfection? When did people 
figure out where tetanus came from? And -- assuming that you eventually make 
it to San Marcos, what's in San Marcos, anyway? As for the Wonder World 
exit -- when was the cave called "Wonder Cave" actually discovered?

But here is where the magic comes in: you begin to think, "Wow. The 
discovery of Wonder Cave. Now that would make a scene . . ." And then 
suddenly you have a story, and a book to write. The only problem, of course, 
is that you will soon find out that Wonder Cave was discovered in 1898 
instead of 1906, so you will have to move your story back eight years and 
find out what sort of vehicles they drove in 1898 and along what road, and 
the rest of it, or else joggle the facts and sacrifice credibility in the 
name of literary license. Or ditch Wonder Cave.

Writing historical fiction is like trying to get to San Marcos when you have 
no car, you don't know where the road is, and you have never in your life 
harnessed a half-lame mule to a flatbed wagon.

Assume it is going to be a while before you arrive.