Sunday, September 18, 2011

At the Crossroads of History and Fiction

In the previous post, I mention that a very wonderful First Reader named Marlene attacked Mummer's the Word with a bright red pen.  If memory serves correctly, a highlighter, pencil and blue pen were also used, so I got the works!  I still owe her a fine, fancy dinner out when this thing gets published.

But the experience taught me, not just facts, but the skills I need to make a good story in historical fiction.

Am I an expert?  If by "expert" you mean "am I published?", then no.  What I detail below is what I've learned over the past four years, and some of it is educated guessing; but if it works for you, too, then fantastic.

1)  Question Everything

Take for example a hiccup I came across in editing a couple of nights ago.  Mummer says "And now for the Sixty-Four Dollar Question."  I thought myself rather clever, remembering that before the 64,000 Dollar Question, radio stations were modest in their prizes.  Then I went back and checked the broadcast dates of The Sixty-Four Dollar Question.  It aired 1950 - 1952.  My story is set in 1944.  The Sixty-Four Dollar Question is still six years OOP (out-of-period).

So then I got clever and decided to change it to "And now for the skill-testing question..."

I stopped and double-checked again, and boy did I learn some interesting things.

First, I thought skill-testing questions were a normal part of all lotteries and contests, around the world.  Wrong!  It's a Canadian thing. I did not know that.  Secondly, it's still OOP - even worse than the Sixty-Four Dollar QuestionSkill-testing questions are baked right into the Criminal Code of Canada (I didn't know that either), but - and this took some digging to find out - this was after provincial lotteries became legal in 1969.  Definitely OOP.

So, for now I'm stuck with "And now for the real question..."  Yawn.  But historically accurate.

2)  Little Details Make or Break Your Credibility

I'd mentioned in the last post that a police detective had on his person a ballpoint pen - and I had even done my research to see whether or not a ballpoint pen was mass manufactured in 1944.

It may have been inconsequential to me, but Marlene picked up on it, though she was actually reading to check the details about Camp X.  The appearance of a ballpoint pen itched her enough to mention it to me.

The scene is not about the invention of the ballpoint pen.  The scene is about a conversation between a police detective and a man who has lost the power of speech; the pen was meant to be a kind of go-between, a translator - an inconsequential detail.  But it was enough to pull a reader out of the story, and it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of my historical detail.  The illusion of time-travel was lost.

And remember - the strangers who read your book are going to be picking it off the shelves because they have an existing interest in history and the time period you're writing about.  Chances are, they're stacking you up against other historical fiction authors, and they have a lot of background knowledge about the period.  They'll be looking to your work for two things:  to build on their knowledge base, and to enjoy a good story.  If they wanted nothing but historical facts, they'd have bought a non-fiction book; so be entertaining without writing a history text book.  If the reader learns something new, and if you are credible, and if you write a good story, they'll buy more books and tell others to buy your book too.

3)  Etymology is your friend.  So are multiple sources.

In the last post, I'd referred to a police officer as a "flatfoot".  I'd done that very deliberately, for a couple of reasons.

First, it would have been in my character's vocabulary, and I know it, because it's said in a number of Old Time Radio plays that I have in my collection.  If it's in a radio play, it's fair game (so long as it predates the time-frame of your story, of course).  We quote movies in our every day speech.  "Go ahead punk.  Make my day", "I'll be back," "You had me at hello" and "Never fight a land war in Asia" all stick out in my head as modern examples.  So what's to stop someone from quoting the radio?

Secondly, the term "flatfoot" is a very subtle but keen insult, given the context.  If you do your research, you'll be surprised to find out why.

One site says cops are called "flatfoots" (ouch - awkward grammatical construction, that) because beat cops used to walk long patrol routes, which presumably gave rise to fallen arches - flat feet.

But another site states the historical reason why I actually chose the insult.  Men with flat feet were disqualified from military service during World War II, but not from serving on a police force.  So, for my ex-paratrooper main character to call someone a flatfoot is to point out that the civilian police officer wasn't fit enough (read "man enough") for army duty - or for any kind of conflict for that matter, when pitched against a man who has seen action overseas.

Key lesson here:  if you stick with only website, you're only ever going to get one answer, and you'll be missing the bigger picture.  Worse:  you could be getting the wrong answer altogether.

Wikipedia is not the be-all and end-all of information; neither is  These are user-contribution sites; any Joe or Jane can add bald-faced lies, so long as they have an editor's membership and no one checks their sources.

Instead, go read a site or a book written by an authority on the subject.  Check their references - the footnotes are there for a reason.  Better yet, always try to get at the primary sources.  (Click here for a definition of primary and secondary sources.)  Get your hands on artefacts (antiques and vintage posters, for example), images (photos, paintings, films from that time period), and original written documents (newspapers, letters, advertisements from that time period, etc.).  If you're really lucky, talk to people who've lived in that time and in that place.

My favourite contact with primary sources:  a guided tour of the actual site of Camp X.  After the Camp was completely decommissioned, somebody, in their infinite military wisdom, took a bulldozer and literally pushed the buildings and materiel off the cliff overlooking Lake Ontario.  Now, after a big storm, bits and pieces of history wash ashore:  bits of plates, the handle of a mug, pieces of brick, water-worn glass...I even walked around for two years with a lump of coal in my purse - something I had picked off the shore that day.

By the way, Lynn Phillip Hodgson, author of Inside Camp X, is giving another guided tour the weekend of September 24th, 2011.  Great for the kids.  SO GO SEE HIM, OR ELSE!

Try to avoid historical films - i.e. movies made now, set 60 years ago.  They're great inspiration, but you run the risk of carbon copying someone else's error.

4)  Info dumps are for Wikipedia. 

I could name a few very popular authors who'd like to give you the historical background of the modern light bulb before the hero can turn one on.  Did someone die during the invention of the modern light bulb, and does it have any bearing on the plot at hand?  No?  Great, get it out of the book.  If you don't, I swear, I'll put the book down (in the recycling bin) and never pick it up again.

Historical details need to be as subtle as the chairs in a restaurant scene.  Your characters need to interact with them (actual headlines from real newspapers revealed when a character sits down to read it, dropping coffee beans into a hand-cracked coffee grinder while listening to a baseball game on the radio, or asking someone to check their stocking seams and giggling about an upcoming movie date).  Unless the character has a really good reason for it, they shouldn't treat the prop as a novelty or with nostalgia.

And for goodness sake, limit your props to what is readily and easily available in that year - and nothing more!

There are two types of historical fiction authors I would joyfully string up by their earlobes.  One has a character that says "Gee, I wish I had (this thing that is readily available in 2011)!  Wouldn't that be handy right now?"  The other has a character that says "Boy, I'll sure miss this (thing that was only available until 1952) when it's gone!"  Characters are not clairvoyant!  If they are, I don't want to read your story!  It's a lot more fun when nobody knows what's going on (except for the writer), because that's more realistic, and more suspenseful!

If you need to explain the history of a prop in your story, it had bloody well better be related to the story at hand.  Seriously.  I have no attention span when it comes to gratuitous detail.

5)  History has history.

Historical fiction needs to be written as if no time has passed since the epoch in which this story was set.  1945 does not exist in Mummer's world.  The Atom Bomb doesn't exist.  Hitler will keep on fighting until the end of time, and he might even win.  That is Mummer's world.  We may know differently, but Mummer doesn't.  This affects his every decision, and it's true to life.

But when you're researching your time frame (i.e. 1944), bear in mind that a) your characters and b) your world has had history leading up to this time.

Characters are influenced by today (1944), but also by personal history (1918-1944, primary and secondary education, a job, girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, fights, accidents...taxes...).  They're also influenced by global history (the Second World War, the Depression, the Roaring 20s and the First World War).  Did his father serve in another War before him?  Can they swap war stories?  Was his mother a war bride?

Always bear in mind the character's age if you have to delve into backstory.  Mummer was between the ages of 2 and 12 during the '20s.  He's likely to remember his first bike, or his trading cards and slingshot, or the time his uncle fell off the couch in a drunken stupor, and less likely to remember world events.

History affects all characters, too, not just the primary.  In fact, your supporting characters may have had longer personal histories than your main character, and a wider global history, too.  One supporting character in Mummer's the Word is Spanish.  Did you know that between the First and Second World War there was a Civil War in Spain?  How does that affect a man's character, if he serves in World War I (1914-1918) and emigrates to Canada during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and launches right into World War II (1939-1945)?  That's a lot of war in one man's lifetime.  And he didn't even know about Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War or the Middle East!

Consider history in terms of ethnicity as well.  I had one character in Her Poison Voice that came from a country that didn't exist when he was born (Yugoslavia); and even though he emigrated when he was a babe in arms, because of his nationality, he was interned during World War I.  And that was in Canada!  Imagine how that affects his psyche during the Depression, when competition for jobs is at its fiercest, and discrimination was commonplace.

History affects different social strata differently but concurrently.  A farmer in the Dustbowl will see the '30s differently from a laid-off factory worker in the big city, who will see the Depression differently from the middle-class car dealer with a family of three daughters, who will see it differently from the spoiled rich bachelor with the diamond cuff links and the black bow tie.  Worse, each one of these characters is looking at each other through the lenses of their own troubled existence.

Fortunately, most books won't have a farmer, factory worker, car dealer and Dapper Dan in the same scene, which simplifies things for writer and reader.  But I suggest you keep a wide perspective on your time period in order to enrich the characters, the setting and the plot.

History is broader, longer and more complex than you think.  Write first, research thoroughly second, and edit like crazy.

But be careful:  you'll lose me with too much back story and too many overt cases of "Lookit me!  Here's proof I did my research!".  Balance, balance, balance - and more on this in a moment.

Also, when was the last time you thought, "Wow, I wish we had never interned the Japanese."  If you're involved in a murder, you've got other things on your mind.  Use hindsight with great caution.  You can frame hindsight in context however:  "Who are you to scream about internment camps in the Fatherland?  You interned the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians.  You confiscated their wealth and property, even when they were born in Canada.  And do I have to bring up Indian Reservations?"

6)  You can make some stuff up, but people are going to call your bluff.

There are very practical reasons why I chose to make up the municipality of Morgan City.

For one thing, it allows me to merge the Ontario-ish-ness of the towns I grew up in, with the architecture I love in Montreal.  I'm well acquainted with the historical significance of places like Ajax, Ontario, for example (a town which came about because of World War II).  I'm familiar with the flora, fauna, waterways and personality of the area.

Secondly, dang it, it was faster and easier to make up a chimerical town than have to purchase a zoning map of an actual city as it was in 1944 - and then to have to layer in the architecture, the position of the sun, the industrial buildings and the great timing chain of lunches and breaks and bank hours.

Thirdly, I didn't want to pick on one city or another, because someone's always going to know more than me about the history of any real place.  But nobody knows Morgan City, Ontario, as well as I do.  You can ask me the hills, valleys, park lands, creeks and ravines, empty lots, commercial zones and residential neighbourhoods; you can ask me where the meat processing plant is in relation to the Utilities Building; you can ask me when's the best time to get a burger, and where.  I could even tell you about the various schools and religious conflicts in the town.  I've "studied" Morgan City so well I swear I've shopped at the Farthing & Gage Department Store for my underwear and bubble gum.

Sometimes, making stuff up is just plain easier - if you do it well.

But then you get into some sticky business where you have to fuse fiction with reality.

Mummer was a Lance Corporal and later Sergeant with the 4th Paratroopers of Morgan City (a unit affectionately known as the "4 Paramours" - 4th Canadian PARAchute Batallion of MORgan City).

There are two problems with that.  For one, the real-life 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was formed in 1942.  Mummer was already overseas with the 4th Paratroopers by happened to the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, and how come the 4 Paramours were already overseas before the 1st Battalion was even formed?

I also mention in the story that Mummer had encountered the 48th Highlanders of Canada.  The 48th is an actual Highland (kilt-wearing) unit that served in WWII.  They also used to be known as the Dirty Four Dozen, The Glamour Boys - and as one Canadian veteran told me, "The Ladies from Hell."  And I'm partial to adding the 48th Highlanders into the story, because that was the unit I served with for two years in the Reserves.  Dileas!  (I was a terrible soldier, by the way, that's why I was only in for two years.)

So I have some trouble here:  by having fictional units and real units in the same story, you cast doubt on the real units, and whether they existed or not.  The flip side is, because the 48th Highlanders actually existed, I have to wonder how many people are going to try and Google "4 Paramours" to see if they were real or not.

Blending in Mummer's involvement with Camp X is, by comparison, simple to do.  Only an extremely small number of people knew who graduated from Camp X.  There is some dispute whether Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) was one of the students there, but I have no reason to doubt it.  (I can't prove it one way or the other!)

But there's a simple explanation for why few know who went in or went out of Camp X:  they're called secret agents for a good reason.

So, until somebody tells me otherwise, we can all go on believing that some cutie like John "Mummer" Stillman could have been one of its graduates.

On top of that, I need to decide whether or not to fictionalize the actions of a person who actually existed.  I'm growing more and more uncomfortable with using this one personage in my story, though it would be a perfect tie-in between the real and the fictional.  I'm still on the fence, and even when I do make my final decision, I'll question it.  After all, what if it's public knowledge that this real life person was in Piccadilly Square at the time I have him in Morgan City?  What if the actions I'm putting him in are outside of his character, or his authority?  Can I make it up?

7)  My favourite historical fiction strikes a perfect balance.

If you're writing historical fiction, you are compelled to make some stuff up; but you also have to stick in some actual details, or else it's not historical fiction.  By definition, historical fiction is the weaving together of fact and fiction.

I have found a tendency toward laziness among some historical fiction authors (including those I've met but won't name, because I prefer stirring up trouble in person).  They carry an attitude of "Stop asking questions and just enjoy the story."  This kind of attitude allows a writer to shrug off glaring historical inaccuracies and call them "exercises in artistic license" or "fictionalization."  Blah!  Bad bad bad!  At least put some effort into it.

Draw a horizontal line, labeling one end "FACT" (coal ships sailed all over Lake Ontario) and the other end "FICTION" (Nazi-planted limpet mines blew up a coal ship in Morgan City Harbour).  Too far to the "Fiction" end, and you run the risk of being labeled "Alternate history" or even "fantasy".  Too far the other way, and I'll fall asleep.

Bisect that line with a vertical axis.  Put "HIGH DETAIL" at one end (sat in a scarlet brocade-upholstered genuine Louis XIV fauteuil smoking a meershaum pipe which had first been bought by a shady bookie in Ankara and sold for gas money in 1933).  At the other end, put "VAGUE DETAIL" (sat and smoked while reading the news).  Too vague, and I wonder why you don't just set the story in modern times; too much detail and I will tear whole paragraphs out of your book, marinate them overnight in brine and eat them.

But even I'm at risk of putting in too much.  I've done all but drawn a surveyor's map of Morgan County.  My challenge is not to describe everything in one book! Yes I know how one character lost an arm (where he was, what he was doing, what time of day it was, where he put the dynamite and why it blew up too soon); but how he lost his arm doesn't have any bearing on the trouble at hand (so to speak), so I have to leave it out for now.

In the intersection of those two lines, I think you'll find that perfect balance.  What historical fiction I've liked has fallen right in the middle of that diagram.  I want to read more historical crime fiction to see who I like best, but so far, it's Ellis Peters all the way (creator of Cadfael, among other characters).

So, given all these rules and pitfalls, why bother writing historical fiction at all?  Why read it?  In Part Three of this mini-series, I'll attempt to answer exactly those questions.

Stay tuned!

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