Friday, September 14, 2007

Bending the Rules of History

Don asked: "Tristi, I have a question about the subject of diverging from history.

"As a writer of Historical Fiction, how do you decide when to stick to the facts, and when to make stuff up?

"I know there are no hard and fast rules, but what guidelines do you follow?"

Anything I say from here on out must be understood in the context that I don't do things the way normal people do, because I am not normal. But that's part of my charm.

I always stick to a timeline on the overall historical event. I try to have everything happen as sequentially and factually as possible, but there are some times where I have diverged. Let me share some examples:

1. My first book, "Nothing to Regret," featured my character parachuting into Japan to carry out an espionage mission. At that time in the war, they had only sent parachutes into Europe, and parachuting into Japan wasn't done. But I wanted my character to do it, so I played a little "what if" and did it anyway. We don't really know what the military does on those top secret missions they're always pulling off, so I thought it would be fun to conjecture a little bit. Of course, I have had some students of history tell me that wasn't done, and I smile politely and say, "I know. But this is historical fiction, and that means I can use some creative license." Those same people hardly ever mention that 99% of the book is historically accurate -- they just like to point out the part that's not.

2. My second novel, "Strength to Endure," features a young lady who was pregnant during her incarceration in a concentration camp. Because the prisoners' stomachs would often swell because of malnutrition, I thought she'd be able to hide the pregnancy fairly well. Now, this actually turned out kind of funky. I thought I was going against history and I came up with a great scenario for how she hid her pregnancy and how she smuggled the baby out of the camp -- and then someone told me they had read a nonfiction account of a woman who did hide her pregnancy in the camps. Oh, well -- here I was trying to flaunt history and I didn't get to.

3. In my WIP, I have a character who is a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. In real life, there was a man by the name of Mike Christian who scrounged together some scraps and created an American flag with a scrap of fabric he found in the shower. That flag gave the other POWs a lot of strength, but when the guards discovered it, they hauled Mike off and beat him practically to death. It took him about two weeks to recover, but the very first thing he did when he could sit up again was to start making another flag. I wanted to tell that story in my book, but the timing didn't work out -- I needed to place it about a year and a half later. So I did, but I will include an author's note saying, "In actuality this event occurred on such and such date but for the purposes of this book, I placed it here yada yada yada." This way, the reader is aware that I know the timing is wrong and they also learn when it really did happen.

For the most part, I really am a stickler. I try to get everything as accurate as possible, but there are times when you do have to tweak a little bit. When you tweak, it's a good idea to include that author note like I mentioned. It saves lots of condescending letters and e-mails later.


Jaime Theler said...

I know this isn't a comment about your historical writing insights. Which were very insightful I must say, but I am so excited that I managed to write today that I wanted to do my BIAM report right away.

Today I managed to write 1100 words. But this came after trying multiple times to sit down and write and not having anything come. I thought the creative juices were frozen today. But I decided that I had to do my best to reach my goal so I sat down one last time, and this time the juices flowed. It was great!

Thanks again for the encouragement!

Tristi Pinkston said...

Way to work through it, Jaime! Sometimes I think that's how it works -- nothing comes, and it waits to see how determined we are to pull it out. Far too often, I know I give up if it doesn't work right off the bat. I'm glad you didn't give up.

Annette Lyon said...

I'm with you on the historical accuracy thing. Any time I've tweaked history, I've made a note of it in the back of the book. I also like to make notes to show that I do indeed know what I'm talking about, especially on things that readers may question. In House on the Hill, I have a similar situation to your Hanoi Hilton one--I flipped to events' orders, one happening about 18 months earlier than it really did, but I noted that in the back.

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