Historical novels: alternative facts allowed?

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.





22 thoughts on “Historical novels: alternative facts allowed?”

  1. The guidelines you’ve set sound good to me. They remind me a bit of when I read The Perfect Storm and Sebastian Junger laid out how to tell when a quotation was real and when dialog was inferred from what was happening.

    Looking forward to Unremembered Lives, though I know it will be a couple of years before I see it on the shelves (yours are books that I want to own in paper, not electronic, form).

  2. I appreciate so much when an author of historical fiction points out in an Afterword what is fact and what is fiction. Most authors don’t do that, and I’m surprised they don’t care about their readers more.

    You’ve been working on this book for two years, which I hope means it will be published soon. I live in Michigan and am anxious to read it. I’ve read everything else you’ve written.

    Also, we’ve met twice, once at the Rochester, Michigan library and again at the Ann Arbor book festival. So you’ve signed all my books so far. I’ll have to get my hands on UNREMEMBERED LIVES (or whatever it’s called) so you can sign that one, too. Will I see you in Ann Arbor again? It would be even better if my library (Romeo) can get you.

  3. I suppose there is a fine line between Norman Mailer’s approach and yours.

    Playboy lampooned Mailer for using “factoids”. Alternate facts? Just as History is written by the winners, the losers write their own histories. The most artistic of these was the Scottish version of the life of William Wallace contained in “Braveheart”.

    I like the Scottish version better.

  4. This is of particular interest to me since my book group is reading Epitaph for our discussion the second Tuesday in April. I have had heated discussions in past (in a different group) with participants who would dismiss historical fiction. I definitely will hold onto a copy of your explanation.
    A fan who enjoys your blog,

  5. Thanks, Mary, as a lover of historical fiction and a writer myself, I appreciate that explanation. I have read every one of your books and you are master at making history come alive both with your historical accuracy ane with you fictional embellishment as you see fit! I trust your decisions and am glad be along for the ride!!

  6. Can’t wait. All MDR novels get read immediately when available. You are in my “no waiting until the price goes down” author list!

  7. As in “Thread of Grace” when I said to you no one would believe these mountain peasants in Italy would act this charitably toward strangers, you told me the events you wrote were factually related to you by the people or their near relatives–the truth was harder to believe than any fiction.

    I deeply fear this administration’s disregard for the truth, and even more, its demonstrable contempt for facts and scientific study. I am also afraid of the numbers of citizens who accept and endorse this reality show as anything more than smoke and mirrors. This is creating cracks in our American institutions that I have every hope they will withstand, but I’m watching and worrying.

    Your novel’s characters always remind us when it’s time to speak truth to power, and it’s usually one individual–one normal person–who finally has to stand up and act, and once she does, others do follow.

  8. In Michael Lewis’ most recent book, The Undoing Project, one of his main characters particularly ridicules the concept of “accurate history” from the perspective of the work they are doing in perception and memory. I’m reading Tom Clavin’s “Dodge City” and much of it is really different from my own memories of the local news papers I read as a kid working at the Boothill Museum in Dodge back in the early 60’s that I can’t help but be reminded of the fact that humans perceive and transfer information really inaccurately. We can’t even pass a short phrase down a line of 20 adults and have it end up the same in a few minutes. I’ve messed with a book idea about my hometown for 20-some years and the “accuracy” thing held me up until I realized it’s a myth and making up the story from nearly whole cloth might be as accurate as digging through the usual references for the “facts.” As an example, I’d put Pete Dexter’s “Deadwood” story about Bill Hickok against any of the stories written during Hickok’s lifetime, accuracy-wise.

  9. Mary,
    I, for one, am delighted that you have taken on this topic. We, in the U.P. Of Michigan, have a great deal of rich history that has been largely ignored due to our remote location on the map. Few people know how large the city of Calumet was in its heyday. Fewer still know that Henry Ford had an auto company in Kingsford. Or that a majority of the iron ore used in making the steel used in WWII came out of the UP mines.
    Sue Acocks

  10. Mary,

    The two guidelines are what I would expect from you. I am sure you will take care to be faithful to them. And I look forward to “reading” this bit of labor history.

    What likely will be the challenge is dealing with the thoughts and words of your two protagonists. The events happened a hundred years ago and there are no survivors to speak with. (Brown had access to participants in the events he portrayed in “The Boys in the Boat” but unfortunately you won’t have such sources.) Logic and psychology will come into play with dialog and thoughts.

    I admire how carefully you wrote about the current situation where Superman’s three precepts are being ignored. We live in very strange times.

    Ralph Melaragno

  11. Loved your books and now love your blog! You’ve inspired me and clarified some issues for me. I can’t wait to read your latest. So glad you’re doing what you do!

  12. Well, it sounds like a good story, but I’m committed to projects that take me into my mid-70s. Not sure how much writing I’ll do after that!

  13. Being a scientist personally, I do believe that accuracy is possible, or at least that inaccuracy can be ferreted out and disproved. I got caught by some bogus “research” about Kate Haroney when Angel Brandt tracked down her documentary paper trail. It was too late to correct it in DOC, but I didn’t perpetuate the myth about her being at the court of Maximilliam in Epitaph. (My fall-back for DOC is that she told him that version of her life, and he believed her…)

  14. EPITAPH is the book that sticks most closely to the facts as known in 2012-14, when I was writing. All named characters were real people and I tried not to misrepresent any of them. That said, any scene with both Doc and Josie is fictional — we have no record of them together. And Tom McLaury is believed to have had a crush on James Earp’s stepdaughter, but since I didn’t mention in DOC that Bessie Earp had two kids by earlier partners, it was too late to bring them up in EPITAPH. So I deflected his romantic interest onto Morgan’s wife Louisa. That allowed me to develop both their characters better: his sweetness and her loneliness.

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