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Friday, August 16, 2013
HOW MUCH OF WHAT WE WRITE IS REAL?
By Velda Brotherton
Stephen King writes through his character in his novel JOYLAND, that the writer who writes history writes fiction. When I first read this I thought how untrue that was. Then I began to think about how we research. How we go back to other writings of historical happenings and the people who lived them. Or we interview people whose stories have been passed down through the generations.
The dictionary says fiction is a product of the imagination, the category of literature with imaginary characters, and events…
And so, in a way, King is correct. For we never can quite get it exact. There will be several versions of the same story, or the source won't be accurate even though many researchers use it. In the newspaper business they told us to go to at least three sources for our research, the caveat being that each of those sources must come from independent and reliable sources. Otherwise, we could be perpetuating what King calls fiction, which is something that is untrue.
For more years than I care to count, I've been a professional writer of both fiction and nonfiction. In that time researching has become second nature. In my interviews, I would often speak to several people about the same event. Each would tell the story a bit differently. Eye witness accounts of an event are notoriously unreliable. So how can we expect all those sources we consult to steer us in the right direction?
What can we get right? Recorded dates of events and locales are generally correct. What about the characters involved? Ask for stories about Jessie James. Notice how folks in every town in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri lay claim to the James Brothers either riding through, or committing a robbery there? No way could they have done all the things it is claimed. The best we can do is have some idea when they pulled off a big robbery that was written up in some newspaper. Can we completely trust that story? No, we can't, because eye witnesses were interviewed.
The best we can do as writers is find historians we can trust and use them. We are, after all, not historians, but writers, and most of us writers of fiction. As such we don't have the years it takes to dig deep enough to come close to the truth, and is it really necessary?
As a western writer, I know how many discrepancies there are. One of the latest so called facts of history in question is, did Pat Garrett really kill Billy the Kid?
When I was researching for my Kindle novella, THE LEGEND OF THE ROSE, based on the Rose of Cimmarron, I was surprised to learn that much of her legend was created in 1915 for a movie titled The Passing of Oklahoma Outlaws, and most of it never happened. Still, the legend was written and rewritten in both fiction and nonfiction books until it's impossible to tell where the truth left off and became fiction. Some today even claim she never existed at all. Rose disappeared into history the day of the famous battle in Ingalls, Indian Territory in 1893 between members of the Dalton/Doolin Gang and 13 United States Deputy Marshals. My choice, after reading several different versions of this tale, was to create my story around her legend, but write my own fictional tale of what happened to her after that fateful day based on what I could learn about the legendary character.
Since I write mostly western historical romance, research is very important to my work. Where was George Armstrong Custer on a certain day when I chose to have him lying with a Cheyenne woman who would bear his child? A child who would grow up to be Stone Heart in my book STONE HEART'S WOMAN? All I knew for sure was that, as a young man, he was on his way home on leave from the military academy, and he would have been in the right place at the right time to fit my story. The rest is pure conjecture.
Custer's life is pretty well documented as to when he was where and what he did. But can we ever truly know his motivation? Can we understand how a woman like Libby Custer could come to so love him that she protected his reputation long after his death? Those things, if we write about them, will be fiction. What we imagine them to be.
My latest project is The Victorians, a three-part series about three young women who emigrate from an orphanage in England to Victoria, Kansas. One has agreed to marry a titled property owner. The small town was begun by George Grant when he bought tracts of land from the railroad and resold them to the English who were eager to own land when no more was available in England. This much is well documented. My three books are fiction, yet they are based on something that really happened. So I have to decide how much of what I write will be true and how much I can invent. In the background of my tales are a few real characters who settled in Victoria, including George Grant. All the rest are figments of my imagination. But they remain true to the Victorian mores. One of my sources stated that the 1860-70 era was much like the 1960-70 era with flower children and free sex within the more prudish population. Fit right in with my romances.
My great-great-grandmother was a Victorian and she and her husband migrated to Kansas when my great-grandmother was thirteen. I was sixteen when she died, so I remember her well, and I remember how even my grandmother clung to some of the rules of that age.
Any writer, no matter the genre in which they work, must research certain facts and get them right. Even those writing fantasy and the related genres have certain restrictions.
Only you can decide where you'll draw the line, but you'd better not include real life characters who were known to be elsewhere at the time. Or get dates wrong on factual happenings. Most importantly, do not use slang or phrases from today in your historicals.
Velda Brotherton writes of romance in the old west with an authenticity that makes her many historical characters ring true. A knowledge of the rich history of our country comes through in both her fiction and nonfiction books, as well as in her writing workshops and speaking engagements. She just as easily steps out of the past into contemporary settings to create novels about tough women who conquer life’s difficult challenges. Gutsy heroines, strong and gentle heroes, villains to die for, all live in the pages of her novels and books.
WILDA'S OUTLAW, the first of the series, The Victorians, is her latest book.
“You want me to kidnap you so you don’t have to marry this remittance man?”
“Remittance…? I…never mind, that is essentially it, yes. I don’t wish to marry Lord Prescott.”
“What do you think they’ll do to me if they catch us?”
She shrugged, then remembered he couldn’t see her in the dark. “Well, but they are already going to hang you if they catch you. Is that not so? So what difference would it make?”
He uttered some words under his breath that she didn’t understand, but she decided it was best that way.
“I suppose that’s true,” he finally said. “But tell me one reason why I ought to do this. Just one would do, two would be better.”
“Or are you uppity English so used to having your way you thought all you had to do was ask? What’s in it for me, lady?”
Uppity? How dare he? Her tongue stuck to the roof of her dry mouth, and it was a moment before she could go on. Afraid to reply to his second question, for fear he might be getting at something she wouldn’t want to deal with, she answered the first.
“No. I don’t recall ever having my way. Not since my parents were killed and they sent me to that orphanage.”
A short silence, followed by a snort. “Oh, that’s good. Make me feel sorry for you. I watched my father murdered and my mother died of the pox when I was off fighting the damned Yankees, who burned down our house and killed both my brothers. Nobody’s ever given a damn about any of that, and they sure as hell won’t give me any breaks when they go to hang me, so why should I give you any?”
She thought about that. He was right of course. She had said nearly the same on occasion. “I’m sorry about your family, but at least I didn’t start robbing and killing people.”
“No, you just sold yourself to a man and now you want out of it."
"That's not exactly true."
"And it's not true I've killed…well, except in the war, and that doesn’t count. Where'd you get that idea anyway?"
“I suppose I…oh, I have no idea. I just thought – ”
“Thinking’s not good. Tell me, what do you suggest I do with you…that is, if I agree to this crazy idea?”
“Do with me?”
“Well, I can’t carry you around on the back of my horse the rest of my life, or stuff you in my saddle bags and only let you out to…uh, do your business once in a while.