Writing historical fiction, I have come to learn, is like navigating a slippery slope along a precarious cliff. God forbid you get a fact wrong. Anyone who knows anything about the time period you are writing about will let you know that you did: in the reviews, on the internet, for all to see.
Let’s face it. Getting the clothing down, the setting, the politics and social graces of the times is the easy part. Keeping people entertained in another time period is what makes the story a story. So I have had to take liberties as well in my saga about the Dr. Thomas C. Durant family and their quest to open up the Adirondack wilderness to the New York City elite.
Here are my list of reasons why a writer may look beyond known facts to add more drama to a story as a way to lure in the reader/viewer.
1. When your main aim is to entertain the readers more than educate them.
This is a fine line. Many readers of historical fiction, and tv audiences want to see the characters in the appropriate dress, eating customary food, and displaying the correct mannerisms of the time period. Indeed, I read a review of the Downton Abbey fox hunting episode and equestrians from all over the world had written in complaining that one of the female characters was not holding her riding crop correctly. Jeesh. Were people really paying attention to that? I guess so. That kind of scrutiny puts a lot of pressure on the writers of these scenes. I am convinced however that what really keeps the majority of the tv audience watching Downton Abbey is the soap opera happening upstairs in the dining hall, and down stairs in the scullery.
2. When the known facts don’t explain WHY something happened, or to clarify the characters and motives of the protagonists, even if you have to invent them.
I am dealing with this one. One of my main characters: William West Durant, spent a huge portion of the family fortune building Great Camps in the Adirondack wilderness that never turned a profit. Indeed, when he sold these camps off to the Vanderbilts and Morgans, he LOST money. As he was bleeding out the family fortune with these artistic ventures, he also had the audacity to commission a $200,000 yacht (that’s close to $4 mil. in today’s US dollars) and used it to sail to Cowes and hang out with his old aristo buds at the annual royal yachting events. In the meantime, his sister was suing him for her share of the inheritance. Why then, did he flaunt his obvious wealth to all of their family friends while she was on an allowance of $200/month in London? Did he think she wouldn’t notice? Because William W. Durant didn’t keep a diary explaining all of his motives, he only admitted years later to his oral biographer that as a youth he had never learned how to make money, just how to spend it. But is that an excuse for his scandalous behavior toward his sister? I have to get into William’s head somehow, and use fiction to help the reader believe his motives as I predict them.
A while ago I started to notice that my daughter, the perpetual self-promoter of a good time had by all, wish you we here, wasn’t posting as much on Facebook. And I missed her, where was she? Then one day at an outing my friend asked me if I had seen my daughter’s recent post on Instagram.
“No,” I replied. “I’m not on it.”
“Not on Instagram?”
Well how dare I.
So I opened up an account to see what was going on and lo and behold all those friends of mine who I thought were just becoming recluses were posting their life events on Instagram, and I didn’t even know they had left Facebook.
Of course there are those who like to post to all media outlets in one gigantic swoop, which Instagram allows, as long as the photo is from your phone. I discovered that. But my mind is reeling because I sat up in bed last night and instead of counting sheep I counted all of the social media accounts I now have.
Let me explain, I am an author. I am self-published. Hence, I have to promote my books. I’d had Facebook since my high school reunion years ago, and opened up a twitter account soon after. I tweet. I had a Pinterest account before I began writing, to check out recipes and ideas for my back patio. Now I ‘Pin’ about my book, or my blogs. But things are getting out of hand.
I have two websites. I have a website called The Durant Family Saga that chronicles my research journey for the historical fiction trilogy I am writing. I have an author website page, and I have an outdated Blogger site that I started years ago called LivingintheFingerLakes that I haven’t posted to in months because I am too busy keeping up with all my other social media.
Did I mention I also have a Tumblr account? I forgot the password. I think I am on Reddit. I link to colleagues on Linkedin, I stumble on Stumbleupon, I review on Goodreads, I post to communities on Google Plus, and I have an Amazon Author page which one person started a discussion on about 18 months ago. I answered him. He didn’t reply.
Dear God, help me. It’s pathetic.
I stumbled upon a review of my first novel in the Durant Family Saga: Imaginary Brightness. It was not entirely unflattering, not glowing either, but I appreciate anyone taking the time to post on social media their opinion of my chronicle of the family of the famous robber baron Dr. Thomas C. Durant. However, I realized while reading it, the reviewers were dismayed I ended the story abruptly because they wanted to know more about what happened to Durant family siblings.
So to be clear, readers, understand this: I wrote a trilogy. I had to. I don't like reading long books. Maybe that's why, in a recent visit to the library, I picked up The Gilded Hour, Sara Donati's 737 page fictional tome about two spinsters, both medical doctors working in New York City in 1883. I started reading it against my good judgement and have not been able to put it down since. This does not bode well for me, as I have to finish other books for work, and for my monthly book club meeting.
In all fairness, I can't behoove any author who chooses to write these long works of fiction. If one has the time and inclination, one can get caught up in a time and place for hours, days, and at the rate I read, weeks.
But when I had to decide what to do with all of my research, I decided early on to write a trilogy. I had too much material to cram into one book, or so I thought, knowing I favor books that are 300 pages in length. And there has been an advantage to me to do so.
Firstly, I kept discovering new material. Old newspaper articles that I may have missed before would pop up in my research to reveal that one of my characters spent time training to be a nurse in England. An archivist for New York City court emails me he found a long lost divorce case file, now if I could just get my hands on it. I had time. It would all come out in book three after all.
Secondly, the brief interlude between books allowed me the luxury to mull over my characters and their motivations. A recent breakfast meeting with one of my beta readers changed my whole perspective on how I was planning to write the narrative of the downfall of one of my main characters in book three. We contemplated: was he an egotistical maniac or a true artist at heart?
These types of meandering thoughts come at a snail's pace. They don't just pop up in my head without a lot of debate and thought. I like the process of peeling away at the characters in my story, one book at a time. And I like the idea that my novels are readable in one month for those people, like me, who live busy lives.
I'd hate to think people might be racing through my descriptive narrative to get to the end of the story, which is what I sometimes find myself doing when I become impatient with a story. Or maybe I'm just spoiled, like so many people these days, expecting instant answers to my question: what will happen next?
To be honest, I'd have to admit that at least the author of The Gilded Hour provided me closure in one reading. My poor readers had to wait until I figure out how to write the last book in the trilogy. Lucky for them, the third book, The Night is Done, is now available.
An Amish family came out of the train station. They marched in a line, Father, Mother, son, two daughters; plodding along with their hats and bonnets, coattails bobbing, skirts swishing along the sidewalk. It struck me as odd to see them there of all places, (as if the Amish don’t need or use modern transportation) even though there are several Amish communities in the Finger Lakes region where I live. But I still couldn’t help but wonder: where were they going? No van was waiting to pick them up, the nearest bus stop was at least a mile away, and yet, they weren’t fazed by this, they had—purpose.
Soon after they passed by my windshield my daughter came ambling out the doors of the station, iphone in one hand, her eyes plastered to its screen, her other hand dragging along luggage. I hadn’t even noticed if the Amish had luggage. I scanned the parking lot looking for them. Poof, they were gone.
“Did you see that Amish family?” I asked her when she got in the car.
“No,” she replied.
“But weren’t they on your train from New York?” I said.
She shrugged. “Possibly.” And she went back to examining an email from work.
Months later as I read David William’s When the English Fall, a dystopian novel set in an Amish community near Lancaster, PA, my mind wanders to the vision of that family and wonder if I have sacrificed my own sense of purpose to stay connected to a virtual reality. In William’s novel, a celestial storm knocks out the power grid throughout most of the world. Planes fall from the sky, villages, towns, and cities go dark. Only the Amish appear unfazed by the event as they are used to living off the grid.
Often, when I'm giving a talk about my novels I'm asked, where did you come up with the idea to write the story? I get my inspiration from past. I've written about what led me to write the Durant family saga - I stayed in a cabin hidden in the wilderness that was supposedly built by William West Durant for trysts with his mistress. What I thought would be a one book love story/romance that would net me a lot of money, turned into a four year research journey. This folklore about William and his mistress started me down a path of clues that shed light on the lives of the Durant family and had me visiting the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, Winterthur Museum, the Adirondack Museum, and England. My one book idea turned into a trilogy.
While I was working on the Durant family saga, I told a friend I needed to find another story. We happened to be boating on the St. Lawrence River in a region called the 1,000 Islands. She suggested I write about the long history of smuggling along this wide swath of water that separates Canada and the U.S.
I took up the challenge thinking I'd be writing about the bootlegging years of the Great Depression. But as happens with research, my original concept changed as I found a more intriguing tale set in the 1990s. After reading Smuggler Nation, by Peter Andreas, and internet browsing, I found news articles about major Canadian cigarette manufacturers orchestrating smuggling across the U.S./Canadian border and profiting considerably from the operation.
And then a book titled Smoke Signals, by Jim Poling sent me on my way down the rabbit hole of research. Before I knew it I was using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to public hearings about environmental contamination on the river, and reading dissertations and books on the politics of smuggling contraband and humans, including Patrick Radden Keefe's book titled The Snakehead.
The result is a large bibliography and draft novel. While waiting for what may take months or years to get this traditionally published I embarked on another research journey. This time to the Great Smoky Mountains in the southeastern U.S., where one of the country's most popular National Parks was brought about by the displacement of first the native Cherokee, and then the mountaineers that eked out a living in the forest (southern highlanders as the folklore likes to call them).
While the research is a slow and steady task, never really ending, a lot of it can be done via use of digital archival material. However, the writing takes dedication. I'm lucky enough to be in an academic profession that allows me chunks of time to write. In the summer months I spend the mornings in a library or coffee house writing until I reach 3k words (usually about two-three hours). I do this until I have a rough draft of a novel - about 80k words. This can take up to three months of work. Editing takes at least another year.
Once in a while I panic, thinking, will I ever run out of ideas on what to write about? What if this novel is my last? Can I keep up with the research and the creative process involved in putting out a novel set in the past about real people and events?
Recently, while walking in the famous Fort Hill Cemetery where Harriet Tubman, and William Seward are buried, I thought about how many stories there are to tell and thought, "I'll ever run out of material."
After seeing a fellow colleague who is traditionally published post the first chapter of her book: The Underground River, on Wattpad, I thought I'd give it a try as well. Wattpad is a place readers may go to find free books to read online.
My first novel is a contemporary love story. Set in beautiful Upstate New York and the Canadian wilderness, it tells the story of Emalee Rawlings as she navigates life and love during her college years. The story draws heavily on experiences I've had working in the environment around the Finger Lakes.
You can find it here. Enjoy!
It is 1931, the heirs to a bygone fortune, William West Durant and his sister Ella are in the last decade of their lives and contemplating their legacy. William returns to visit the estate he once possessed in the Adirondacks to speak with the current owner, copper magnate Harold Hochschild, who is writing a history of the region and wants to include a biography of William. Simultaneously, Ella is visiting with an old family friend and former lover, Poultney Bigelow, journalist with Harpers Magazine, who talks her into telling her own story.
William recounts the height of his glory, after his father’s death in 1885 when he takes control of the Adirondack railroad assets, travels the world in his yacht and dines with future kings. However, his fortune takes a turn during the Financial Panic of 1893 and amid accusations of adultery and cruelty.
Ella’s tale begins when she returned from living abroad to launch a lawsuit against her brother for her fair share of the Durant inheritance. The court provides a stage for the siblings to tear each other’s reputation apart: William for his devious business practices and failure to steward the Durant land holdings, and Ella for her unconventional lifestyle. Based on actual events, and historic figures, The Night is Done is a tale about the life altering power of revenge, greed and passion.
Available on Amazon
Sheila Myers is an Associate Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.