Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Historic Fact or Fiction?

Last week, I really enjoyed talking with writers at the monthly meeting of Spokane Authors about writing contests. I'd been invited to talk on this subject because I'd "won" two literary competitions. So I did a little homework and had fun in the process.

One writer asked a few questions as just now, I primarily write historical fiction. He wanted to know if I used footnotes when I wrote and how I separated historic fact from my fiction.

My automatic response is that writing historical nonfiction is about information. Yes, to avoid plagiarism, I would use footnotes, and the emphasis is on the what, how, and why.

When I'm writing historical fiction, though, my emphasis is on my characters, their conflicts, their motivations, their personal successes and failures. The 'facts' are deep background, buried in a telling image, or a historical personage, or the setting.

The telling image. The truth is I read and study, and then, maybe because I'm an older than average writer, I forget. Except a telling image will float in when I need it or just stick in my mind. 

For example, for Rivers of Stone, when the men of the Fur Brigade Express were trekking across Canada in the 1840s, of necessity they traveled so light, they would run out of food. I read one man's memoir to find this statement: "I can't tell you how many times I had to eat my moccasins."

Native American Moccasins
Kim Alaniz (Flickr)
That writer at Spokane Authors raised his hand and said, "That's a story right out of my family tradition." Turns out he was descended from those French Canadian voyageurs and had heard the "eat my moccasins" all the years he was growing up. I love this image and have already used it.

A historical personage. Even with a historical person, my approach to writing historical fiction is rather dreamy. I read as much as I can about the person, those physical details that mark the 'reality' of who that person was, what they did, how they acted, and, if possible, their manner of speaking. 

I want to be true to the person, but keep the focus on the story. For example, when writing about the intrepid Lady Jane Franklin in Years of Stone, I was shocked to discover her class bias. She never called her maid by anything other than her last name, Stewart.

The setting. Finally, while this is not always possible, I like to call on my personal background to transform what I read into fiction. 

My current draft for Rivers of Stone has me writing about the voyageurs and their incredible skill in navigating nasty rapids in fragile canoes at all times of the year -- for an average of fifteen hours a day. It helps that I've been white water river rafting and have stared down into great sucking whirlpools.

You may know this is NaNoWriMo month. So far, I'm making my word count every day, but this morning, I woke up wanting to blog about how I write historical fiction in hopes it will clarify the process of writing or help you achieve your writing goals. My tips simply are:

1. Do the deep research to find those images that speak to you.
2. Work to be true to the essence of any historical persons who are in your story.
3. Call on personal experience to transform what you read into what you know with your own five senses. 
4. Try to avoid information dumps. Historical fiction is always about the characters, their conflicts, their hopes and dreams.

And may your writing go well.