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"Roundheads and Ramblings"


Don't Believe Everything You Read. (author edition)

Turning from my academic work about medieval Europe and focusing on America's Civil War was a challenge. The research involved took me to new places and required new skills in interpretation. One such research trip taught me something important about the nature of evidence.  It also set my writing goals off on a new direction.

I was in the public library in New Castle, PA, this time looking for newspaper articles that would reveal how much the people back home knew of the war and how they felt about it. At one point the librarian came back into the archives to chat. She casually
mentioned an elderly gentleman who had been there several years before. He had been looking for evidence that the regimental commander had been having an affair with the regimental nurse. He had insisted that the chaplain had been upset about the affair. Had I seen anything about that, she asked. I dismissed it out of hand. After all, I had just finished reading a typescript of Rev. Browne’s letters, and I had not seen a single mention of such a thing. I dismissed it as utter nonsense. The librarian was relieved; Col. Leasure was a New Castle native and a local hero. She wanted nothing to sully his name.

I, too, put it out of my head for the time being, but I became a bit intrigued by the possibility. Col. Leasure was a dapper little fellow. Nurse Nellie was young and attractive. Rev. Browne was a straight-laced Calvinist. When I went to the Military History Institute in Carlyle to investigate their holdings, I was pleased to learn that they had the original letters from Rev. Browne—some three hundred of them, many more than I knew about. I asked for the collection and put my husband to work on one stack while I plowed through the other. “Look for any mention of Nellie,” I told him.

It didn’t take long! These original letters were full of innuendo, snarling attacks on Nellie’s character, and semi-veiled accusations of improper relationships. It was clear that the good chaplain had hated the nurse with a finely-honed passion and that he resented the fact that the colonel seemed to favor her. But why the difference? When I talked to the archivist there, he shrugged and said, “Well, Browne’s granddaughter was the one who prepared the typescript before we received the letters.”

And there was the answer to at least part of the puzzle. The granddaughter had sanitized the collection, systematically removing anything that might have reflected badly on her beloved ancestor. It didn’t prove, of course, whether or not there had been an affair. It simply explained why I had not reached the same conclusion as the elderly gentleman who believed what Browne had believed.

I remain grateful for the discovery. It gave rise to my next book, Beyond All Price, and in that novel I had to deal with the question of the affair. I won’t give away my final conclusion, but I can tell you that I would have written a much different book if I had not read the original letters for myself.

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.

Fact or Fiction?

One of the questions I struggle with has to do with the boundary lines between fiction and non-fiction.  Perhaps because of my academic background, I can argue that no such line exists.  "Facts" are elusive and hard to pin down.  Many of the things we thought we knew for certain prove to be false. New information emerges to change our views on all sorts of topics.  And history? It's only what we think we know about something at any given moment.  History changes.

So when does a historical account of a particular event become historical fiction? That's just one of the issues that will be addressed by the Institute for Historical Research when they open their online conference, Novel Approaches, in a couple of weeks. I'll be interested to hear the views of other writers, but before we get into the discussion, I want to get my own position written down. That doesn't mean I think I'm right.  I just want a stance from which to begin. So here's an outline of the distinctions i make when I try to label a particular book as fiction or non-fiction. Roughly, it follows the position I established in a panel on this topic at the Military Writers Society of America conference in September.

A history of a particular event, or a biography of a person, must be based on documented evidence. If you tell me that someone said X, I want to see the proof--a letter, an official report, a diary.  If you are quoting someone, I want to know where the quote appeared. Just as a scientist might approach new research, I want to be able to duplicate your findings. Now, at this point, most historians are cringing and shaking their heads because they know how very difficult it can be to find such evidence. Still, if you tell me that your story is true, I expect you to be able to prove it. And what you cannot prove, you must omit.

Much of what we casually label as non-fiction or biography should actually be labeled "creative non-fiction."  This is a category in which the author relies on fact, insofar as the facts are known.  But if there are gaps in the records, if events cannot be determined, then the author is free to speculate or fill in those gaps with the most plausible solution.  If I read such a book, I expect to find the author admitting which parts come from his or her creative imagination and which ones are factual in nature. If  you check my book, Beyond All Price, you will find at the end a section called "Author's Note," in which I carefully lay out which few characters are products of my imagination. I also discuss how I filled in the gaps in Nellie Chase's life story.

Authors who have used creative non-fiction well include Colleen McCullough, in her series of books on the age of the Caesars, and Sharon Kay Penman in her wonderful books on medieval English rulers and their families. In both cases, I know the authors have done their homework,  have read all the pertinent documents, have walked the streets they describe, and consulted the best historical accounts. These authors are writing history, not fiction. Their talent lies in their creative ability to make their historical figures come alive for modern readers.

But what about historical fiction? How does that differ from creative non-fiction?  Here's where I draw the line. Historical fiction takes imaginary characters and places them in an accurate historical setting. Le's take just one example. Sharan Newman has extensive academic credentials in medieval history and does her research in some of the world's  best-known medieval archives,  but her series of historical novels, set in 12th-century France, features a wholly imaginary Jewish girl named Catherine Levendeur. Catherine lives in a historically-accurate world and encounters some real medieval persons. She struggles with the real challenges of her time, but her life and experiences are fictional. That's historical fiction at its best.

What sets  historical fiction apart from general fiction or historical fantasy?  Consider Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series. The author paints what seems to be a wonderfully realistic picture of 18th-century American life, but her characters are time-travelers who pass "through the stones" to arrive on the scene of critical moments in the American colonies.  They have completely fictional encounters with people whose names we recognize, which makes them seem believable.  These time-travelers comment on the historical events happening before their eyes, but their reactions are anything but historical.  Jamie, the 16th-century Highlander,  is sometimes  overcome with admiration for the wonderful accomplishments of the 18th-century, while Claire, a 20th-century woman, must struggle with the temptation to introduce modern knowledge into a world not yet ready to accept it. The novels make great escape reading, but their history is unreliable, if not misleading.

Questions remain about the popularity of these various categories.  How do you react? When you read a novel set in a particular time and place, do you want your history to be accurate? Or are you more interested in the story than the setting?

Never Too Old, Part 2

On Monday, I posted a long article about a new historical discovery.  I was excited to have found out that at least a few contemporaries of the Battle of Secessionville (June 16, 1862) had referred to it as the Battle of Stono.  That was the historian in me, showing up to demand that my novelist persona pay attention to the facts. Now, I admit that those two facets of my writing career are often in conflict.  When I'm writing history, I want to know (or make up) the story beneath the cold hard facts.  I can't indulge that temptation, of course, except when I put on my novelist hat.  And then, right in the middle of imagining a great scene, I find myself shuffling off to verify the facts. A historical novelist must be both, and it is not an easy chore.

In this instance I was so excited that I pasted a copy of my article onto a Facebook page, one followed by a small group of descendants and enthusiasts from one of the Union regiments involved in the Battle of Secessionville. I thought they would be "interested" and they were.  But at least one of them became defensive and somewhat argumentative about it. As a result, I received both public and private messages about our ensuing discussion.

The person in question used a pseudonym in his comments, but I was aware of who he really was and that he had written a book about our mutual topic.  His book was straight history; mine was a historical novel.  Therefore, he pulled his historical persona on me -- reminding me that the "official" records showed no instance of anyone EVER using the term "Battle of Stono." I felt like a small child being called to the principal's office to have my fingers slapped. The quirk in our argument is this: he is not a historian by training or occupation, while I am. The question raised becomes one of methodology. What constitutes "evidence' for a historian? And do incontrovertible facts ever exist? I would argue that everything can be material for a historian, and that any fact labelled " the official version " is likely to be full of distortions, if not downright lies.

I was ready to let the discussion die, but I can't let it go without one more revelation.  This morning I found ANOTHER term for this relatively unknown battle. I've written before about the various editions of the Laura Towne diary and my own evaluations of their relative worth.  My Monday discovery of the Battle of Stono came from the xeroxed copy of her handwritten diary -- the one I decided was most authentic.  The reference staring up at me on my desk this morning is the printed 1912 (expurgated and propagandized) edition.  It reads: "the steamer being crowded with the wounded and sick from the battle of EDISTO."

Where in the world does that come from?  There are three battles associated with the island of Edisto, SC -- The Battle of the Tory Camp in 1781; the Battle of Rivers Bridge in February, 1865; and the Battle of the Little Edisto on March 28, 1862. All three of them have been called the Battle of Edisto.  But this description of the wounded and sick was written on June 23, 1862. The wounded cannot have been lying around in the swamps of South Carolina for three months waiting to be taken to a northern hospital. And there is independent evidence of 47 wounded soldiers from Secessionville being loaded onto a steamer to be taken to New York for treatment within days of the June 16th battle.

No, I don't believe for a moment that the Battle of Secessionville was ever called the Battle of Edisto. Both date and location are all wrong. Where did this idea come from? Well, the editor of the Towne letters  was not a historian, either.  He was a lawyer by training and a writer of children's edifying literature by occupation. I suspect he, too, looked at the handwritten manuscript, saw the term Battle of Stono, and shook his head.  He had never heard of it, so he looked for another possibility. Since the Battle of Secessionville is not exactly a household word, he simply found another battle that took place in that part of South Carolina  and "corrected" the silly woman's error.

That's how "historical facts" come out wrong, folks.

What a Difference a Date Makes

A day or two ago, after posting my evaluations of the last two diary sources, I made a small, but amazingly significant, discovery.  I was leafing through the handwritten copy of Laura Towne's diary. looking for a particular comment, when a date discrepancy caught my eye. One entry was dated "July 19th 1862." The next one was "July 20th 1901" Then came "July 21st 1901" and then "July 22d 1862".

I recognize an obvious explanation here.  The person making the copy simply wrote down the current year instead of 1862.  I've made the same mistake myself.  When you are writing dates, it is all too easy to write down the current year instead of the appropriate one.  History students do it on exams all the time, and their professors get a chuckle out of reading that Attila the Hun died in 1998. We've all misdated checks, particularly at the beginning of a new year.  I've seen a Jeopardy contestant or two make the same mistake -- one that cost them hundreds of dollars.

Now a history student may simply not know the right answer. And a Jeopardy contestant may be guessing. But this is not the same sort of wrong answer.  When the wrong date slips out for something you know very well, it almost always is a date that has some other significance.  In this case, I think it is pretty conclusive evidence that the diary was being copied in 1901. That makes this version the earliest copy of the four, the only one of the four known to the two people who were most involved with it -- Laura and Ellen.

But 1901!  That's the year that Laura died -- on February 20th, if I remember correctly.  And that makes it even more important.  Here's what I think happened.  When the new 20th century dawned, Laura Towne was 75 years old.  She was undoubtedly already ill, and, because of her extensive medical training, I am equally sure that she knew she was suffering from a potentially fatal illness.  She would have begun putting her affairs in order, and one of the things she wanted to do was make a copy of the diary for her dear friend, Ellen Murray, to keep.

She shortened some of the entries and omitted others.  She corrected her intemperate judgments as she went along.  She was, in fact, composing her own obituary -- writing out the story of her life as she wanted it to be known.  And she may not have been able to finish the task.  The handwritten copy ends on May 28, 1864.  The original diary could have continued much longer.

Does this simple mistaken date prove that Laura herself wrote the copy?  No, probably not.  Ellen could have done it in the months after Laura died.  But it increases the probability that the handwriting is, indeed, Laura's. Once again, I am brought back to Paul Hyams' bit of advice: "Saying 'There is no evidence' is a historian's excuse, not a defense for a novelist. A novelist must bring imagination to the mix, hoping to come up with the hidden solution."

A good friend suggested to me last night that this whole problem might make a good presentation at a history conference.  It would not.  Historians do not accept what they can not prove.  But a novelist?  A novelist must listen to all those little voices that suggest 'what might have been.'  To my own surprise, I am now hearing the voice of Laura Towne in a way I have not heard her in all the months I have been reading about her.  This handwritten copy of her diary will sit on my desk as a personal message, and her words will guide and color the story I am trying to tell.