Technically, novelists can make up anything they please, but getting things right is important to me, particularly when writing historical novels.
I always try to create characters whose actions, decisions, dialog, and thoughts are comprehensible and who feel real within a narrative that seems believable. That’s true even for science fiction like The Sparrow and Children of God, where the situation and all the characters are entirely fictional.
Obviously, when Abraham Lincoln fights vampires, it’s fantasy, not historical fiction; nobody’s going to mistake the fun parts for what really happened. Personally, I hesitate to use a historical personage’s name for a character unless I intend to create a realistic portrayal. In general, I’m reluctant to distort history and in our present political climate, getting the facts right has become almost a moral issue for me. Any alteration of strict fact makes me feel complicit in the current willingness to devalue what Superman used to call “truth, justice, and the American way.”
For the past two years, I’ve been working on a novel about the 1913 copper strike in Calumet, Michigan (working title: Unremembered Lives). This is a little corner of American labor history that has escaped notice but which I think is important and compelling.
I am relying on comprehensive nonfiction accounts of the strike for the facts, but I am hoping to bring the story to a larger readership. That means playing with history more than I am entirely comfortable with, particularly after publishing Epitaph, which stayed very close to the facts.
Almost nobody is going to be aware of my changes as they read Unremembered Lives, but I have struggled with how much shifting around I can do without distorting what really happened during the 1913 copper strike. The rules of thumb I’ve settled on are these:
If I use the real name of a real person, I will stay as close to the facts as I can. CEO James MacNaughton was in reality a cold-hearted, inflexible man, and I’m not doing an injustice to him with my portrayal. Annie Clements was in fact an extraordinary 25-year-old woman who led a strike against the most powerful copper company in the world, and I am not making her more impressive than she really was.
If there isn’t much known about somebody who was involved with the strike, I will change that person’s name. I will be open about who the fictional characters were based on, with caveats about how I had to change them to make the story work.
In the Afterword, I will point the reader toward nonfiction accounts that do not stretch out the timeline or untangle the sequence of events, as I have in the novel.