Quill and Ink: Writing the world

As I prepared to commit the act of madness that is called “writing fiction” I poked around to see what others were saying about it. I found that in a lot of genres there was much discussion about something called “creating your world.” It was generally agreed that this was important, and that the author had to walk a fine line in the early chapters of her/his book: the reader had to understand what the world was like, but not be bored by the details. I thought, “That sounds hard. I’m glad I don’t have to do that in Historical fiction.” I was wrong. I have learned that a historical fiction story DOES exist in its own world. There are, however, significant differences between the historical fiction world and the world of other genres.

First and foremost, historical fiction is supposed to be tied into “stuff that happened.” Whether set in Ancient Egypt, Tudor England, the American Colonies, The Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, Nazi-occupied Europe, or what have you, there is a historical foundation on which the author builds the “world.” This is harder than it sounds, because history is often a moving target, even though not everyone sees it that way.

Take the Battle of Gettysburg, for example. There is a very solid historical record of the events of that battle; on top of that foundation are layers of storytelling, which sometimes sharpens, and sometimes obscures, the actual events. Many of the critical events in the battle were fairly well known before Michael Shaara released his novel, The Killer Angels. [lest anyone think I am a Shaara critic, I love that book—it has inspired my own writing] Michael Shaara had to make decisions about what to include, and what to leave out or gloss over. The incidents he highlighted he did so dramatically: “Chamberlain’s Charge” and “Pickett’s Charge” for example. When the movie Gettysburg was made, based on Shaara’s book, those incidents lent themselves wonderfully to Hollywood dramatization. As a result, in the common consciousness, our perception of these incidents is colored by several layers of storytelling. A visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park, however, with a knowledgeable guide, might reveal that, well, those things probably didn’t really happen quite that way. Chamberlain’s Charge may not have looked quite so dramatic. Pickett’s Division was probably masked from Union fire until the last 100 yards; that’s how they got as far as they did.

Here’s the real problem: right now someone is taking violent exception to one or both of those last two sentences. History buffs tend to be passionate about their history, and oftentimes once they settle on an interpretation of events, they will defend their position against overwhelming odds…and against overwhelming facts and logic. [Incidentally, I am guilty of this as well] The historical fiction author can expect that any interpretation of events is going to upset at least someone.

Which brings us more to the point: in general, no one can know all of the events and relationships that affected a particular historical incident. The Duke of Wellington famously dismissed efforts to write a history of Waterloo as an impossible task. Even if a person was physically THERE, he/she could have only one, very limited perspective. And when one is talking about events that happened 100, 200, or 2000 years ago, there is an excellent chance that neither the author nor the reader was there.

The bottom line is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to perfectly replicate history. But that’s OK: I would argue that all history is, in fact, the interpretation of past events through the lens of the present. In order for an author to make the past understandable for a contemporary reader, the reader must bridge the gap between past and present; and the author must interpret those events. For me it often involves looking at conflicting sources, or piecing together a picture from incomplete sources, and asking myself, “What really happened? or “Could it really have happened that way?” A good example of this: my portrayal of the Battle of Princeton. Having had a chance to visit the site and walk the field, none of my sources made complete sense. I had to build my own version of the climax of the battle, based on my own knowledge and observations. Did I get it 100% right? Probably not. But I suspect I came pretty close, probably a lot closer than others, and I am happy with the result. Most importantly, I think I conveyed the ideas that Washington made an audacious move, that it was a near run thing, and that it was ultimately a dramatic victory.

That covers major plot points; but what about the overall look and feel of the world? I think most readers picking up a historical fiction book will appreciate that things will be different, so we authors have that going for us. In fact, I think they key is to highlight the critical similarities and differences between THAT world and THIS one. How do people communicate? What do they eat? How does it taste and smell? How do they dress? How do people stay warm/cool? How do they stay clean? Do they even bother? As the reader picks up these tidbits, he or she will subconsciously fit these into his or her existing mental picture of the time period. When done well, the reader consciously or subconsciously finds herself transported to a different time and place. And that is definitely worth the ride!

Times That Try Men’s Souls is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Times-That-Try-Mens-Souls/dp/1635030420/ or the iTunes Store at https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1094687106.

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