Thursday, April 09, 2009

Notes from "The Art and Craft of Historical Fiction" with Fred Stenson


Is it necessary to be authentic?

Two good things to remember about historical fiction are that:
1. Historical fiction can only be written by people who weren’t there.
2. Historical fiction can only be read by people who weren’t there either.

Theoretically this could mean to the writer that he or she is under little obligation to be correct about all the facts, and some writers of historical fiction are very loose with the facts. Whether you try to be very accurate or don’t worry about it is, in my opinion, a matter of choice, not moral duty.

My own way of doing it is to try to stick close to historical fact, if I believe the facts, and to do my creating in the gaps between the historical facts. History is usually more gap than known fact anyway. And the more obscure your topic, the more gap relative to fact.

The reason that I like to stick with the facts, to the extent that they are known and I believe them, is again not because I feel a more duty to be authentic, but that I fear the consequences of being inauthentic. That is, I fear for the success of the fiction I write.

People have a spooky ability to smell that which is untrue, or poorly researched, or where the author doesn’t really know something and is covering up. It really does verge on the uncanny.

I view history as being like a vast Rubik’s Cube. Everything is attached to everything else. You cannot move one thing without making all kinds of other things shift. So, if I decide to change a fact—say if I decide to put a railway where there wasn’t one across the Great Karoo Desert, because I want my men to get somewhere quickly and in a rested condition; or for that matter if there is a railway and I remove it so that I can make the journey more harrowing for them—that fact alters countless things most of which I won’t be aware of.

The reverse is also true, I think. That is, if the writer sticks to known facts, leaves the railways where they were etcetera, a whole range of things attached to those facts also stay in their right places, and the whole is supported by all kinds of bits of information that the writer, again, may not ever know.

So that’s what I want going for me, that Rubik’s Cube of unaltered information. I want that support when I try to make the reader believe what I write.

What about using real people in your fiction?

First off I’m going to paraphrase something that Guy Vanderhaeghe said in an interview for a book by Herb Wyle called Speaking the Past Tense: Contemporary Novelists writing Historical Fiction. It refers to Guy’s novel The Last Crossing.

One of the characters in The Last Crossing is a fictionalized Jerry Potts, the Scottish-Blackfoot mixed blood scout who led the Mounted Police to Ft. Whoop-up, the illegal whisky fort, in 1874. He makes the point that it’s easier to write fiction about Jerry Potts than it is to write fiction about John A. MacDonald, because so very much less is known about Potts. So when he did write historical fiction, he looked for areas that were not too well known, where there was room to roam.

Most of the history-based characters I deal with are from the fringes of history, people who are well on their way to being forgotten, and it is helpful to have all those gaps to work with when creating their character. My own little rule is that I use what I find about them, unless I have reason to believe it is wrong, and if the existing information points in a certain direction as to their character, I go with that. I don’t try to bully them into being something else that might be more convenient for me.

Why I mostly deal with people on the lower rungs of the various societies I’ve written about is another matter. It’s not that I’m raving Marxist, but rather that these are the people I find most interesting and have the most identification with. I was raised on a farm, is part of it.

So my choice to write about fur trade clerks and boat builders as opposed to fur trade governors, cowboys rather than ranching aristocrats, and privates rather than generals, is a matter of instinct. But, having chosen that, I found I did like the idea that by pulling my characters off the forgotten fringes of history to the centre, I was perhaps changing history. Because history viewed through their eyes was a different thing than the usual history written by and about people in positions of power and control.

But what about the morality of making a fictional character out of a real historical person?

Is it really okay to fill all those biographical gaps with made-up things, even if they are made-up things that fit? And, having written three large books of historical fiction, all of which contained fictionalized real people, I have to say I don’t know if it’s morally okay.

Some people have said to me, why don’t you just take a little bit of this person, and a little of that person, mix their biographies together and call them something else? But it finally came to me that I think doing that would be the greater of two minor evils. I think if I am taking somebody’s biography and adding onto it to make a believable fictional character, the least I can do is call them by their name. A lot of these people are on their way to being forgotten even within their own families, and I think that if I build a fictional character out of them, they might hang on into the future.

Consider Robin Hood. They say there was a fellow in England who led a gang of rebel thieves who robbed from the noblemen and shared their bounty with the poor. Somewhere along the line, someone took that fellow and made Robin Hood out of him. Without that act of fictionalization of a real person, we would not have the whole myth of Robin Hood.