Writer Tech: what price historical accuracy?

With three days left, I won’t make my self-imposed deadline of finishing the first draft of Epitaph by the end of June, but I’m pretty close. Maybe a chapter and a half to go, depending on the decisions I make today.

What I’m mulling over this morning is, Where do I intentionally diverge from historical fact in the service of the novel I’m writing?

From the start, my ambition has been to make Epitaph an accurate and insightful rendering of Tombstone story while maintaining narrative drive. I’ve been judicious about how much history to include. Too much, and the book becomes a wooden recitation of facts; too little, and it becomes yet another half-assed exploitation of a genuine tragedy.

I’ve followed the Homeric standard of telling both sides of the story. The Iliad tells of the siege of Troy, and makes it clear that neither the Greeks nor the Trojans had a lock on morality or brutality or heroism or cowardice. Both sides in the conflict had their reasons for fighting, and so did the individuals among them.

So, if you read Epitaph, I want you to feel as bad about Tom McLaury’s death as you do about Morgan Earp’s. I want you to feel kind of sorry for Ike Clanton and Johnny Behan, and to be horrified at the violence that Wyatt Earp was capable of. I want the living members of their families to feel they’ve been portrayed with compassion and fairness.

I’m pretty satisfied with the balance I’ve reached to this point, but now I have to wrap up Wyatt Earp’s part of the story. He lived to be 80, so that means compressing decades into these last two chapters. If I try to be accurate about them, I think they’ll devolve into a boring itinerary: Colorado, New Mexico, California, Alaska, back to California… If I’m not accurate about them, the book is going to get slammed by Earp scholars, and their opinion means a lot to me.

From a novelist’s point of view, however, I should focus on Wyatt’s return to Josie Marcus after the Vendetta. That’s the arc this story has been built on. It would be neater, and structurally satisfying, and I think I have to go in that direction. The challenge I face today is coming up with a clever way to imply the complexity of Wyatt’s life after the Vendetta, without boring the pants off readers who aren’t Earp scholars.

So. Get crackin’, Mary. Open the file and make the prose happen…







13 thoughts on “Writer Tech: what price historical accuracy?”

  1. I have to confess that I had avoided your historical fiction because I loved the Rakhat novels so much, but this summer I finally got around to Dreamers of the Day and Doc–both amazing feats of sympathetic imagination. Looking forward to Epitaph.

  2. I think the story between the two lovers will be an excellent close. I think there is something to the acceptance of each other for all those years, knowing what both of them did, knowing the horrors they both went through, and in all that, they find and stay with each other and that has to be love. And perhaps, who else would love them? As openly and freely as they seem to have done. Flawed characters, yes, but still they could have gone their separate ways, yet they stayed. Just think of a soldier, a Marine, who fought two years on the islands, killing and nearly being killed, seeing his buds killed. Comes home, and of course he is not the same, yet his girl, the one waiting for you, still wants him. Years and children later, and in him are still things he can never talk about, but she knows, and understands. Maybe she’s done some things, and he knows, and the two of them just “know” and make the best of it. My two bits worth. I say, stay with the love story at the end.

  3. Rebecca: I will never get over The Sparrow and Children of God. I have reread them almost yearly since they were published. Needless to say they are my favorite books ( and they are starting to age with all the reading, at least 10+ times. Oh the story, oh the depth and breadth of the characters. Each time I reread them new insights and new appreciations arise. Mary, good luck on finishing Epitaph soon between the excessive heat and the heavy rains and then the cold of this Midwest summer.

  4. Trust your judgement. I do. Your grist will provide work for their”‘scholarship” mill for which they should be thankful. It’s lonely world out there for Earp “scholars” (especially for those who are actually scholars)

  5. Is old age too boring? As a photographer who enjoy the aged and “The Family of Man” type of photo, I think not. The image of Wyatt in an old hotel room in LA fascinates me. I’m just saying.

  6. One thing is certain, whichever direction you take: you will never “bore the pants off” your readers! With your writing style, you could spend a chapter just talking about the dust on Wyatt’s boots, and we would be enthralled. I am also very much looking forward to Epitaph.

  7. Dear Mary,

    As an avid admirer of your work, I know full well your commitment to historical accuracy, and as a pre-service social studies teacher, I truly appreciate your hard work to flesh out the truth, while also allowing the reader to get lost in the story. It seems as though Earp’s life, in his later years, would seem boring compared to his early years. However, this can work to your literary advantage, in that you can delve into his mind-set, speculating as to how he dealt with all he had done- both on a mental and emotional level. As a non-Earp scholar, I am interested to know if he felt remorse or if he would have changed anything in his life. Perhaps this may help you fully flesh out the real Earp?
    Good luck.
    I look forward to your newest read!
    Warmest Regards,


  8. just thinking out loud…dream segue…Doc in the sanitorium reading a letter from Wyatt…fevered fantasies of his romantic adventures: Josie vs Kate…whatever: you’ll be great Mary

  9. That you are asking the question makes me confident you will find the best literary solution. You do the hard work, and we, your fans, are the grateful recipients. Thank you for that. It was so wonderful to hear you speak in Amarillo and get to meet you. Truly the highlight of my year. It was so worth the drive; I consider it a “life event.”

  10. Isn’t Wyatt like our country, ready to do what it takes, and finding the callouses build up in survival mode faster than the dream of a better life intended? What if the theme of redemption, being with a woman who held his heart, knew his worst, and brought him back to center to “season” the lessons and lesions of all that violence was like John, the man who held Emilio’s heart till he could return to making peace with whatever he imagined was behind all that violent activity? Does a person meet Spirit differently with a belief in natural justice as the way of the world, rather than the containment of Jesuit dogma? and isn’t that what “loving” the “other” often involves? a way to touch the Other, without a lot of dogma?
    that’s not just a romance, that’s a resolution of how the wounded warriors come home to themselves and to us who were protected by their willingness to face death.
    you probably solved this problem already. My internet was down, so i’m waiting eagerly to see how you weave in the next threads of Grace. History is told by the victors, stories are told by the ones who wish to learn from being fully human.
    So glad this book is nearly gestated!

  11. Great post, Mary. I also have confidence that you’ll come up with the right answer to your question. Having done some research on Wyatt and Josie for my own writing, I am fond of them and hope you enjoy finding an end to their story.

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