FEATHER’S SIX DEGREES OF VERACITY
By Feather Schwartz Foster
Author of LADIES: A Conjecture of Personalities
Anyone who enjoys writing historical fiction needs to consider where actual truth ends and the fiction begins – and what kind of fiction it is.
Naturally, if you wish to create your characters from scratch and merely place them into a historic setting, such as a creating a fictional Revolutionary War soldier’s homecoming, you have a lot of latitude. You can do almost whatever you like. But if you want to use real people, for instance about George Washington coming back to Mount Vernon after the
Battle of Yorktown, you need to have a fair degree of accuracy.
ABSOLUTE TRUTH: If, for instance, in your research, you come upon a snippet of documentation, authentic, verifiable and footnotable, that “Martha Washington went for a walk and it started to rain,” you have a definite fact. This is true. It can be proven.
LOGICAL TRUTH: All this is, is an extension of logic. If Martha Washington went for a walk and it started to rain, the logical truth would be “she got wet. ”
EXPANDED TRUTH: This is probably the most common form of historical “truth. ” You take the absolute truth and expand it. For instance: “Martha Washington went for a walk. It started out to be a pleasant day, but after a half hour, there was a slight chill in the air, and the sun went in. She looked up, noticed that the sky was darkening rapidly and within
five minutes, it started to rain. ” It is the truth, of course, and fairly logical. This is what happens when it rains. It was merely expanded to show the details of the day. You can make it last pages and pages, if you like.
CONDENSED TRUTH: This is another very common occurrence in historical fiction. The author combines, condenses, merges and consolidates people, places and events. One could easily describe the Battle of Monmouth by combining pieces of actual facts gleaned about other battles. In an academic scholarly history of the Battle of Monmouth, this of course could not be done, but in a work of fiction, it might be ideal.
CONJECTURE: Aha! This is the interesting (at least to me) part of historical fiction. This is a presumption. This is putting thoughts and/or actions into an historical person’s head or life. For instance: “Martha Washington went for a walk, (blah blah), and it started to rain. She
got wet, and was worried that her new shoes would be ruined. ” Or, “Martha Washington went for a walk…. . and hoped that one of the servants would remember to close the bedroom window. ”
We have absolutely no idea what Martha might or might not have thought. We have no idea if her shoes were new. Or if the window was open.
The objective of a good conjecture should be its plausibility. It is entirely plausible that Martha Washington might be concerned about her shoes. Shoes were expensive and hard to come by. It is plausible that a window might have been left open. It would not be plausible to have Martha Washington wondering if she left the windows open in her car. A good conjecture is one that is also pertinent to the character. For instance, if George Washington went for a walk and it started to rain, he would not worry about his shoes. But he might express relief that it was a respite from the drought, or concern that they had been having too much rain lately.
WRONG: Then, of course, there is wrong history. Giving the wrong name to a real person – something that happens frequently with minor characters. Putting people in the wrong place, when the right place is well known. “George Washington returned to Mount Vernon after the Battle of Yorktown – he had always loved Mississippi. ” Definitely and inexcusably wrong. “Martha Washington went for a walk, and it did not rain. ” This is wrong,
but then again, would anyone care?
It is up to the author to decide where the accuracy needs to be – and where the fiction works better.
Feather: am the author of "LADIES: A Conjecture of Personalities," published in October, 2003, by PublishAmerica. It's about First Ladies Martha Washington through Mamie Eisenhower. The "old gals" write their own chapters, and everybody, including the modern FLs, chimes in with commentary. It is available through most online book sites, and you could google me up for all sorts of reviews and other information. (And, by the way, if any of your staff would like to review "LADIES" I would be happy to make a copy available.
I've been doing a lot of speaking during the past year on the First Ladies. I am also just finish my second novel, "GARFIELD'S TRAIN," about the death of President James Garfield in Long Branch, NJ in 1881. www.authorsden.com/featherschwartzfoster