What I do is not Historical Fiction because it is not fictional enough. My stories are about real people, and they sometimes don't provide all the excitement and passion that readers prefer. Real lives are like that, of course -- quiet, sometimes dull, never quite making sense. If a reader is looking for a great story to take them away from all the sameness of everyday life, my books are perhaps not for them.
But what I write is not Creative Nonfiction, either. They are not 100% verifiable; they are not journalistic; they are not nonfiction. Sometimes facts simply aren't available. In Beyond All Price, the main character, Nellie Chas, disappeared from all military records for several months in 1862. She was fatally ill, the official records tell us, and was carted away to die in late July. Her regiment moved on without her, and so did any trace of her. Then in November of that year she reappeared in the records of another regiment, now healthy and working again as a nurse. Where had she been? How did she recover?
When I was writing Beyond All Price, I needed to answer those questions without a shred of evidence. My solution was to make my "best guess." I searched for a hospital that might have taken in a desperately ill civilian woman, and I found a likely convent, located close to where Nellie was abandoned. True to their self-effacing calling, the nuns left a sketchy record of their merciful care but not a single trace of their own personalities. I chose to create a handful of fictional characters -- an abbess, a nursing sister, a novice -- who needed to exist. She was not cared for by wolves, after all. Only some one like these women could reasonably have saved Nellie's life.
But for the purist, that insertion of a character who needed to exist was a fatal blow to any pretension that my book was creative nonfiction.
I've settled on a label of Biographical Fiction for my style of writing. Here's how one Writer's Digest article defined a Biographical Novel:
A life story documented in history and transformed into fiction through the insight and imagination of the writer. This type of novel melds the elements of biographical research and historical truth into the framework of a novel, complete with dialogue, drama and mood. A biographical novel resembles historical fiction, save for one aspect: Characters in a historical novel may be fabricated and then placed into an authentic setting; characters in a biographical novel have actually lived.
My latest book, The Road to Frogmore, is a good example of this genre, I believe. Laura Towne was a real person. She wrote letters and kept a diary, both of which have allowed me to follow her experiences in South Carolina and to penetrate the feelings she only shared in private. My knowledge of the region and the period (1862-1865) guaranteed that I was placing her in an authentic setting. I had multiple sources of information against which to check details of the events she described.
But as in any piece of fabric that is 150 years old, there were a few holes. By calling this book a novel, I gave myself permission to fill in those holes with plausible imaginings. Illiterate slaves left few records of their existence or their feelings, so I created several characters to play necessary roles in Laura's story. Someone had to scold Laura, for example, when she tried to impose her culture's attitudes toward death upon a woman who had just lost her child in a fire. I had evidence that Laura learned an important lesson that changed they way she looked at slave culture; I just didn't know who had provided it. So I created Beulah -- an old black woman who was kind but not afraid to speak her mind to a white woman. At that point in the story, I needed a Beulah. It didn't matter to me whether that was her real name, nor should it really matter to the reader. The important thing is the role she played, and biographical fiction allowed me to provide that.
Another writer explained it this way: "the writer imposes a novelistic structure on the actual events, keying sections of narrative around moments that are seen (in retrospect) as symbolic. In this way, he creates a coherence that the actual story might not have had. The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer, and In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, are notable examples of the nonfiction novel."
And now that I've finally figured out what it is that I do, it's high time get around to doing it! So stayed tuned for early hints about my next Biographical Novel, The Melodeon.