writing

Writing Political-Historical Fiction

I recently watched an interview featuring best-selling author Thomas Mallon on C-Span Book TV. The prolific writer of several highly-regarded works of historical fiction, his latest book is, Landfall: A Novel. It’s the final work in a trilogy, one that chronicles the presidencies of Richard Nixon (Watergate: A Novel), Ronald Reagan, (Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years), and now the administration of George W. Bush.

Mallon’s writing has done much to reinvigorate and further define political/historical fiction. And as I have been revisiting the genre lately, his work has been a confirmation of sorts that I am on a credible path.

Larissa MacFarquhar, writing in the New Yorker a few years ago, called historical fiction, “a hyrid 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 writer’s taste—in writing and for research.

One of the projects I am currently developing is in the political and 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 current book is a work in progress, so is its author.

Bob Schieffer (CBS News), who wrote the forward to my book, The Shooting Salvationist (revised and released last year as Menace in the Megachurch: Politics, Arson, Perjury, the KKK, and Murder), was drawn to the original manuscript because of my attention to detail about his home town—Fort Worth, Texas.

That was pretty cool.

But, does this ultimately matter? Does being a stickler for historical precision actually help move the story forward? Not always. 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 restaurant had the best blueberry pie in town.” But we are what we are. I will always be a sucker for that next pesky 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 computer 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 writer of historical fiction can provide for readers. Sometimes the only “story” we have is hidden 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 the foundation of those fragile fragments, but always with an eye on all relevant facts and materials extant.

This was certainly the case with two of my books. Both were based on true stories, but there was insufficient material available to write the stories completely from sources. So, I followed the facts where they led me, then I used my imagination—largely for dialogue.  When it came to Jack & Dick: When Kennedy Met Nixon, I started with a well-documented but long overlooked story from when both future presidents came to Congress in the first election after World War II, where they both served in the Navy. They actually debated for the first time in 1947, before a few hundred people in a small Pennsylvania steel town. Then they shared a Pullman berth for the overnight journey back to Washington. In their respective biographies this incident is mentioned, but all we are told is that they stayed up all night talking.

So I imagined how that intriguing conversation developed between two future rivals and presidents. Voila.

In Jake & Clara: Scandal, Politics, Hollywood, & Murder, I found a true story hiding in plain sight (one that I discovered while researching the Fort Worth book), but opted to “dramatize” it, rather than just write a chronological/academic account. I wanted to make it a living story, not just dead history.

Think of it this way—you know how you see movies and “docudramas” based on true stories? They clearly begin with a cluster of facts and then add color. Dramatized history. Well, I look at writing political & historical fiction as eliminating the “middleman.” In other words, I attempt to write the stories the way a screenwriter might. I opt to “show” instead of merely telling the story.

A while back, there was a wonderful film aired here in the States on PBS Masterpiece Theater called Churchill’s Secret. It was about a stroke the great man had toward the end of his second tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain. It was a true story—but it was dramatized, not just in film, but in the book on which the movie was based. The Churchill Secret KBO, and is classified as fiction largely because of “invented” dialogue and the creation of one composite character. It was a great example of the power and potential of political/historical fiction.

You remember the great movie, The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth? I did pretty well. That, too, was a true story with fictional elements added in to enhance the story. This, to me, is the key. Any fictional parts inserted into a true story must serve to enhance the established facts, not merely to add drama or manipulate the emotions.

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.”

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. It’s one that I hope to observe with exacting care as I tackle my next five or six writing projects. Historical fiction based on real political events—from the recent or distant past—has a bright future.

At least, I hope so. — DRS

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