Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Facts of Fiction

Carolyn Schriber is a historian by training and profession. Here she discusses how her academic background helped her make the transition from classroom to novelist.

Six years ago, I retired from a career as a college history professor. I had a string of books and articles to my credit and some skills, like deciphering twelfth-century Latin handwriting, that were relatively useless in the real world. What surprised me was discovering that once I was free from the "publish or perish" rule of academia, I still wanted to publish. I knew I had always been a story-teller at heart. The stories behind the history were what fascinated me — not the dates or treaties or economic theories. But was I equipped to write fiction? That, I didn't know.

Making the switch from academic historian to historical fiction author required some fundamental changes in how I looked at writing. I had to re-think what was most important about the story I was trying to tell. I no longer had to document my research or prove a point. Believe me, giving up footnotes after a lifetime of teaching careful documentation was painful. But then I remembered a prescription one of my own advisors gave me in graduate school. "If your footnote contains information about your story, put it in the story," he said. "If it's simply a reference to your source, and if its an indisputable fact, leave it out. Only footnote those ideas or details that are likely to antagonize some important old goat looking for a reason to be cantankerous." Voila! My footnotes disappeared. And good riddance.

Other parts of my academic training, however, are impossible to jettison, and I think my writing is stronger because of it. First, I accept the fact that there are restraints on my imagination. I will never write a book about werewolves or space aliens, for example. I might enjoy reading such a tale, but my own flights of fancy never stray beyond the possible. I can create a character and then imagine how she will react in a given situation, I might even be able to write a story from a cat's point of view. But all my characters will resemble, in some form or other, people I have known or observed in real situations. I'm stuck with a focus on facts. Don't ask me to write a scene in which a six-eyed robot ends up in a fourth dimension. Even composing the preceding sentence strained my imagination. Fantasy? Can't do it.

Next, I believe strongly in doing one's homework, and I hold all writers, including myself, to a strict standard of accountability. A historical novel must be historically accurate. Nothing irritates me more quickly than finding that an author has changed the facts to suit herself. There's a famous, award-winning movie, in which a newly-crowned king of England marries a French princess who immediately gives birth to the heir to the throne. He's a real king, she's a real French princess, and the child does indeed inherit the throne. But the movie sets the marriage some fifteen years too early, when said princess was three years old. If it starts out with a horrible error, why should someone watch the rest of the film? Sorry! I will not play with the facts that way.

Now that I'm writing about America's Civil War, my desk always contains three types of resources. There's a multi-year calendar of the war, which allows me to check every date and keep the chronology straight. A small pile of books offer details of clothing, furniture, tools, and recipes from the 1860s, so that one of my characters does not sample a dish or use an invention before its creation. I don't hesitate to "google" details to make sure my characters are believable. To keep the dialogue true, I have a dictionary of nineteenth-century vocabulary that I find indispensible. I even have a handbook of the native flora and fauna of South Carolina, so that I can describe my scenery accurately.

To my delight, I've found that such facts do not usually bore readers. Small details may slip past a reader's attention unnoticed, but the cumulative effect of factual knowledge is an increase in plausibility. My historical focus functions as a familiar hook on which a great story can hang.

Carolyn Schriber now writes Civil War novels. Her latest release, Beyond All Price, is available from her Amazon Author's Page or from Katzenhaus Books. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. E-mail her at schribercat4@yahoo.com


Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks for hosting Carolyn today, Terry. I've become more interested in reading and writing historical fiction lately. For me, one of the hardest parts of writing a historical novel was validating the language. Many words I thought would be acceptable for frontier Illinois in the 1830s were not. I'm glad I checked them out.

Carolyn Schriber said...

That's one of the reasons I like working with actual letters or diaries written at the time, Pat. After reading through them for a while, you get a sense of how people in your period would have talked. Newspapers are also useful.

Sheila Deeth said...

I love reading historical fiction, but I'm sure I'd never dare write it. I grew up with my granddad spotting mistakes in TV movies, and I'd hear his voice in my head.