If you’ve been following our summer promotion,
you may have noticed that the books have changed in focus. I started out with a
straight historical account of a Civil War battle, complete with footnotes and
acadamic bibliography. The next two, Beyond
All Price and The Road to Frogmore,
were creative biographies—the lives of real people participating in real
historical events. That’s the biography half. The creative half of each book
came because I used imaginary scenes and conversations to explain events and
time periods for which no historical evidence existed.
After that came
a group of short stories, also classifiable as creative non-fiction. And last,
the “how-to” book about self-publishing, based on what I had learned about this
relatively new method of publication. What would come next? I thought I had
pretty well established a niche for myself in creative non-fiction, but what
happened next surprised me.
research for the other books, I had come across a real family of Southerners
who, while they supported the idea of the Confederacy, did not participate in
the war because the head of the family was a Protestant minister. Their lives
were heavily impacted, however. They were driven from several locations by
military actions around them, and they suffered greatly because they had lost
all ways of supporting themselves. Much of what I learned about them came from
a massive letter collection—letters written by family members during the wars
and published by their descendants almost 150 years later.
I saw the family as
perfect candidates for another creative biography and set about researching them and their experiences. One of my investigations led me to a university
archival collection. They had no additional records, but the librarian gave me
the address of a distant member of the family who happened to be employed at
that university. I thought I had struck
gold, and I immediately contacted the woman, asking if there were other family
papers available anywhere.
The answer came
back immediately—short, hostile, and threatening. What happened to that family,
she said, was their private business, and their descendants would continue to control what
was published and what was not. Any attempt on my part to write about the
family would be met with legal action.
Wow! I wasn’t
looking for trouble, so I backed off. I resisted asking why they had published
the letters if they did not want anyone to read them. I was at a dead end—at
least for a while. And then I realized that I could still address the theme of
a civilian family almost destroyed by a war they were not fighting. I just had
to make it historical fiction. I changed the cities, the family structure, the
father’s occupation, the names, and the crucial events.
By the time I
finished writing Damned Yankee, there
was nothing recognizable left from the original family. But in the process, I
had learned to write historical fiction, and I’ve stayed with that genre ever
since. For the record, here’s my guiding definition of a work of historical
The time period and events are as accurate as a historian can make them.
The leading characters are fictional creations, but they think, speak, and act
as real people of their time period would have done.
Where necessary, real people appear, but when they do, they are only doing what
they did in real life. In a battle scene, for example, the commanding generals
will be actual people; the foot soldiers are usually fictional characters.
The novel serves to help the reader understand the historical events through
the eyes of fictional characters who can recreate the emotions, pains, and grief
of terrible events, as well as the joys and delights of successful endeavors.
5. A history book about an event tells us what we know to have happened. A historical novel
tells us the stories behind the history.
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