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Of History and Historical Fiction

logo  [I wrote this blog post for VENTURE GALLERIES — DRS]

Larissa MacFarquhar, writing in the New Yorker last year called historical fiction, “a hybrid form, half-way between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws.”  My observation is that sometimes historical fiction leans more to the latter, other times to the former. It depends, I suppose, on the writers taste—in writing and for research.

One of the projects I am currently developing is in the historical fiction genre, but I am trying my best to be accurate and precise. You might think this to be oxymoronic, but I find myself seeking the same level of exactitude when it comes to details that I have in all of my nonfiction writing. And just as my developing book is a work in progress, so is its author.

The story I am writing is set in a Pennsylvania steel town shortly after the end of World War II. So I have immersed myself in material about the era and region. I find myself wanting to get every detail right so that in the quite unlikely chance that a retired local historian from the town I am writing about should read the book, I’d get a nice note complimenting on my accuracy. Bob Schieffer (CBS News), who wrote the forward to my book, The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America, was drawn to the manuscript because of my attention to detail in telling some of the history about Fort Worth, Texas—his home town. And that was pretty cool.

wpid-1109_J_Frank_Norris_headline

Now, does this ultimately matter? Does being such a stickler for historical precision help move the story forward? Not really. In fact, I’m pretty sure some of it might actually get in the way. I can almost feel the biting cynicism of a customer review on Amazon: “Stokes spends too much time on trivia that means nothing to us, unless we grew up in that town. Who cares what diner had the best blueberry pie in town.”

But we are what we are. I will always be a sucker for that next pesky morsel of factoid.

So why write historical fiction—why not just stick with history itself and write a nonfiction account of something? I mean, David McCullough’s books aren’t so bad, and some say they read like novels. I agree, and I am a big McCullough fan. In fact, when I read one of his books, it makes me want to sell my Mac Air and buy a set of bongo drums, knowing I’ll never be able to write like him. But here’s the thing—what about great stories, real ones, from history, where there is not enough material in the records to fill in all the blanks?

This is, I think, the greatest service the historical fiction writer can provide for readers. Sometimes the only “story” we have exists in fragments. The DNA of the narrative is there, but not easily seen. Enter the practitioner of the craft of historical fiction. The writer builds a superstructure on those fragile fragments, but always with an eye on all relevant facts and materials extant.

The late Irving Stone was a genius at this. Writing in the preface to The President’s Lady: A Novel About Rachel and Andrew Jackson, he said of the historical elements of the book that it was, “as authentic and documented as several years of intensive research, the generous assistance of the historians and librarians in the field, and literally thousands of books, magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, diaries, public records, correspondence and collections of unpublished memoirs and doctoral theses can make it.”

Irving Stone 1903-1989

Irving Stone
1903-1989

Nuff said.

Then Stone dropped the other shoe: “The interpretations of character are of course my own; this is not only the novelist’s prerogative, but his obligation. Much of the dialogue had to be recreated, but every effort has been made to create it on the basis of individual character, personality, temperament, education, idiosyncrasy, as well as recorded conversations and dialogue, memoirs, diaries, letters and published accounts by relatives, friends, associates, even of detractors and enemies.”

To my mind, the late and lamented Mr. Stone struck the right balance and set a standard for all who dare to recreate the past.

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