One of the slyer ironies of writing about history is that making up stuff doesn’t always mean it’s not true; and declaring something to be fact doesn’t guarantee that it is. Now and then someone will say he only reads non-fiction, to which I reply, “You think you’re reading non-fiction.”
The most talented and conscientious historians don’t know what really happened before they were born. And even if they were around for the excitement, anyone who’s attended a high school reunion knows what a trickster memory can be. Same class, same teacher, very different recollections.
When writing about the Apaches I consulted John Cremony’s entertaining memoir. Cremony was on the Boundary Commission surveying the new border after the Mexican War of 1846-48. He reported a particular rifle being used to send a bullet across the nether end of the Apache leader, Delgadito. Delgadito thought he was out of range and he was doing what Apaches so often did. He was mooning the soldiers pursuing his raiding party. The fight was called on account of laughter, and historians report that Delgadito didn’t sit down for a while.
When I gave the manuscript to a gunsmith friend to vet he said the rifle in question wasn’t produced until two years after that moon shot. In the fifty years between experiencing the event and writing about it, Mr. Cremony must have forgotten the exact make of the gun. The question then becomes, what other details did he mis-remember?
Historical research is like interviewing witnesses at the scene of an accident, except that the accident happened a hundred years ago. Also, the witnesses don’t speak your language, someone was shooting at them at the time, and they have a vested interest in protecting the good names of the drivers. The best we chroniclers can do is collect as many reference points as possible, then triangulate on the truth.
I’m not claiming that historical novelists should be given the sort of credence accorded academicians. We are professional liars, after all. But I see the relationship between fiction and non-fiction as symbiotic. I depend on the work of historians for facts to weave into my stories. On the other hand, novels often motivate readers to seek out more information on the subject, if only to see if the preposterous events described actually happened.
I wish I could remember who said, “I never let a story get in the way of good facts,” but well-written historical non-fiction can be as compelling as fiction. Generally speaking, though, novels have more potential for connecting with readers on an emotional level. And if history isn’t about emotions, what is?
A well-researched historical novel gives an added dimension to facts. The reader and the novelist make an unspoken pact. The reader says, “I know you’re lying to me, but I’ll suspend disbelief on the chance that together we’ll arrive at some greater truth.”
Historical fiction explores the consequences and motivations of human nature. It allows readers to absorb the sense of another time. Novelists must do more than report events. They have to re-create the world in which those events took place.
Novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” It’s not enough for a novelist to know who the generals were, how their troops were deployed, what they carried, and what they wore.
What technology was available? What were the current medical advances? What did people talk about in the taverns? What slang did they use, what jokes did they tell? What sort of hanky-pank did they engage in? (I’m always amused by people who are horrified at the notion of our ancestors engaging in hanky-pank).
There are times when a generalist such as a novelist uncovers more information than a specialist because she casts a wider net. In a used-book store in San Antonio the owner asked if he could help me find anything. I told him I was writing a novel about the Mexican War. “I have just the book for you,” he said. “It lists all the books that have been written about the Mexican War.”
I thanked him, and said I had quite a few books on the subject and was looking for other sorts of information. He took umbrage.
“How can you write about the Mexican War if you don’t know everything that’s been written about it?”
I told him I needed to know how to cheat at monte, how to fool a sucker into buying a horse with glanders, what the soldiers used to polish their brass buttons, and what the cure for cholera was in 1848. I think I had him at cheating at monte, but he also found me a good book on horse trading.
Now and then I stumble across information that historians have missed. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of a biography of Andrew Jackson mentioned that Will Rogers was related to Sam Houston’s Cherokee wife, Tiana Rogers. Other writers picked up on it and mentioned it in their own books, but it wasn’t true. Two men named John Rogers lived among the eastern Cherokees and both moved west about the same time. One was Hell-Fire Jack (Tiana’s father), and the other was Nolichucky Jack. The award-winning biographer mixed them up, which was understandable since the Cherokees were a sidebar to his main subject.
On occasion imagination has come closer to reality than could be expected. This is when stuff that’s made up turns out to be true. One of Hell-Fire Jack’s descendants telephoned me one day. She introduced herself and said the family wanted to know where I had gotten some of the stories in Walk in My Soul. I told her I had read them or made them up. “No,” she said. “Those are stories only the family knows.”
Another reason I like to write fiction is that I can go where historians can’t, or shouldn’t… into the back alleys of speculation. That’s not as irresponsible as it sounds. A lot of it is common sense and the linking of disparate pieces of information. For instance: male alligators are aroused by B-flat. We know this because someone asked a French horn player to serenade his captive gators. B-flat sent them into courtship mode and they converged on the hapless musician to see if they could score.
So, in writing a novel about the Second Seminole War, I described General Winfield “Fuss and Feathers” Scott’s campaign to surround and surprise the hostiles in the Florida swamps. For a guerrilla war in a quagmire he brought along a military band and to boost his troops’ morale he had the band play a concert after dinner. The Indians attacked and I imagined the poor musicians taking cover behind their tubas and trombones. But I also imagined the band hitting B-flat and the area coming alive with horny saurians.
I noticed that at least one historian wondered why the Mexicans would have called on St. Jerome in the battle that gave Geronimo his name. St. Jerome, the historian said, was a scholar. Because I had written a book about the Catholics of early Maryland I happened to have a few books on saints. One of them mentioned that there were two St. Jeromes, one of whom was a soldier. I don’t know if that had anything to do with Geronimo’s Mexican name, but it’s a possibility.
In recent years, charges of revisionism have been leveled at writers of historical fiction and non-fiction alike. Maybe that’s true in some academic settings, or in history books written to stir up controversy on the talk-show circuit. But let’s face it, people have been revising history, either deliberately or inadvertently, since the first cave man exaggerated the size of the saber tooth tiger that got away.
They say history is written by the victors, but that’s only half true. Much of our past was chronicled by Victorians as well. I call those accounts wishful history or proto-revisionism. A lot of clap-trap has been passed off as history— George Washington and the cherry tree, the line in the sand, Osceola driving his knife into the treaty. My personal favorite is the army report that referred to a Comanche leader as Buffalo Hump. According to one book on the Comanches, he was named after an entirely different part of a male bison’s anatomy.
History is messy and sexy and smelly. It has odd angles and sharp edges. It’s not easy to wrap up in neat packages with pretty paper and ribbon. To try to imbue the past with present-day sensibilities is bone-headed; but correcting myths, errors, and misconceptions is not revisionism.
As for errors of fact that creep into my novels, I can’t take all the credit for them. I either found them in non-fiction sources and was fool enough to believe them, or when triangulating on the truth I didn’t allow enough for windage.
And while we’re waiting for the next story, here’s how Lucia approaches re-writes.
I print out the rough draft as I finish each chapter and I stack them up. Then as I find more info or get a better idea I clip the note card or scrap of paper onto that chapter. Sometimes I just throw them on top if I don’t know where to put them. By the end of the first run-through I might have a couple hundred cards in no order piled on top of the ms.
When it’s time to make the second pass I lay out all the chapters on the floor and try to put each card or scrap of paper where it belongs. Lucia’s cardfile system For this book, I took the cards that were left over, divided them by subject and characters, labeled each packet and laid them on the floor too. So when I have a scene from a certain character’s point of view I can mine those cards to help get a feel for them. I also have thousands of note cards, organized by subject, in the file drawers. They’re in reserve for when I need additional info.
For the re-writes I go back through the ms, listing each chapter on a legal pad by number, scene, month and year of the events, and chapter title (like “Picnicking on the Precipice,” “Souvenirs and Incendiaries,” “All’s Fair in War and Tango”) along with a brief description and whose P.O.V. the scene is from. Otherwise I would forget what was happening when and to whom. (When one’s memory is as bad as mine, organization is the key to survival).