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.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.