History, Mystery, or Miss-story?

4th of July, early America, John Lewis Krimmel, Philadelphia

John Lewis Krimmel, Fourth of July in Centre Square, Philadelphia, 1819 (photo: wikimedia.org)

A panel of six mystery writers explored the elasticity of history at the Deadly Ink 2014 conference this weekend. They were, in chronological order by their topics:

One of the most interesting questions these panelists were asked is how comfortable they are changing facts to suit the fictional purposes of their story, and the division of opinion was striking. Belsky’s point of view seemed to be “It’s fiction—do what you want,” whereas others, including Alfieri and Inglee, especially, believed that if you incorporate real historical individuals, you have to be true to their attitudes and actions.

Belsky pointed out that we may never know the whole story or maybe even the true story of past events—and Irving pointed out that applies to current events as well—freeing the author to fill in the blanks. (My own opinion on this is there’s a big difference between not knowing a fact and making one up.)

When an author must change a fact, a date, or other detail, they can use author’s notes to describe what and why. With that manes, Scott Turow acknowledges some of the liberties he took in several pivotal event in the WWII novel Ordinary Heroes: “There was no ammunition dump at LaSaline Royale, which is actually situated a few miles from the site I describe . . . Heisenberg (Werner Heisenberg, physicist) did run from Hechingen, but not because anyone had attempted to blow up the secret location of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute on Haigerlocherstrasse. FDR’s death was announced near midnight overseas, not in the afternoon of April 12, 1945.” This last detail seems to be one that could have been fictionally accommodated. It was an event, like the Kennedy assassination, that every American alive at the time remembers vividly.

Alfieri created a character drawn from life down to his toenails and gave him his own name, much as real people appear in the novels of E.L. Doctorow, but when her mystery plot required this character to commit a violent act for which there is no evidence, she renamed him. She was able to build the character in the first place because of the strength of her research, and several panelists endorsed immersive research for fiction, which must appeal to many writers’ innate inwardness.

When an author knows enough about a period—how people thought, what they thought about, what they ate, how they made a living, what they feared—new story elements arise organically from that substrate. They fit the story, the story isn’t made to fit them. Such an approach makes for an infinitely richer reader experience, even if most of that research never appears explicitly in the book. The writer moves forward with confidence.

Another reason to get the details right is that readers will be sure to ding them if they don’t. Errors can destroy a book’s credibility and readers’—and reviewers’—interest in it. To avoid mistakes, Kelly and Rubin said they work with historians. Rubin, especially, because he is published by LSU Press, has to meet scholarship standards.

A final difficulty for historical writers is language. The conversations among characters have to read as if they are of the period, yet a precise rendition of old-fashioned language—by writing “forsoothly”—may be unreadable. David Mitchell, discussing the language he used in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (I loved this book!), described writing dialog for characters who were native speakers of Japanese, who were Dutch and speaking Japanese, Dutch and speaking Dutch, English upper-class sea captains, English lower-class seamen, and so on. Plus, the book begins in 1799, with two hundred-plus years of language evolution in between. Mitchell developed a language he called “bygone-ish,” which had the ring of the old and the clarity of the current, with variants for each nationality and class.

Mitchell’s approach points out an important issue that applies not just for words and phrases. Even if an event actually did happen or a word actually was in use at the time a story is set, writers of historical mysteries may avoid it anyway, because it will sound too modern, out of place. In this way, truth is more powerful than fact. And if this seems like another way of saying, “it’s fiction—do what you want,” it isn’t.