Just the Facts, Ma’am

newspaperAnd get them straight. Know the difference between stalactites and stalagmites because no one likes tripping over stalactites in a cave – it means they’re traveling bat-like, feet up, and feeling nauseous at being upside down. And if you don’t know the difference between elicit and illicit, you may find yourself punctured by barbs volleyed your way by irritated readers. No one likes reading falsehoods, whether in non-fiction or fiction. People want certain inalienable facts to be correct and well established. Even science fiction should begin here on Earth.

As a kid I figured a word in print was a word in fact. I’ll always remember the first time I knew that to be wrong. I’d been reading a kid’s book, not one that was famous or remarkable in any way except that it occupied time in my boring life. The main character was a homely girl with few talents who was looking for something to make her shine – the same thing every lonely kid wants. A friend washes her long hair and discovers that, wet, her hair is curly. Thing is, wet hair, soaking wet hair, is straight. If curly hair is ever going to hang like iron rods, it’s going to be when the shampoo has just been squeezed out. Curly hair releases its springs as it dries, each tendril winding around its invisible cylinder to make a singular corkscrew among hundreds of corkscrews. I know. I have curly hair. I didn’t trust anything else that happened in that book and it was one of the last kid’s books I ever read. Healthy skepticism isn’t a bad trait to have but how unfortunate to have developed it in an activity – reading – I loved.

A colleague is writing a story that included a common if potentially dangerous medical condition, one of those events you learn to recognize when taking emergency first aid courses. Once trained, the markers are obvious, the course of action to protect the victim is well established, and the possible outcomes are reliably documented. When her story detoured through a completely inaccurate set of medical events, from onset of crisis to the all-clear sign, I wondered if she was trying to hint at the characters taking control by faking the medical incident in order to confuse the other characters. Discussion proved that the writer simply didn’t know her stuff and made up a scenario that fit her plot. Unfortunately the whole scene threw the book out of kilter and made what was supposed to be climactic, silly. The tone of the book went from thrilling to ridiculous.

One of my books relates a devastating local event that happened in our city when I was a teenager. It forms the backdrop of the story. A very dear friend who lived right next to the event, a huge fire, gave me first hand information based on what she saw, literally right out her window. She told me things I couldn’t have discovered any other way. But she had one crucial piece of information wrong: the year. I knew the actual year, and it was critical to my story to be accurate. She’d even loaned me the dozen or so saved newspapers with the fire as front page news, the date of the fire on top of every page. It provided a trove of facts and details I’ve incorporated into the story. I chalked up her error and insistence that she was right about the wrong year to stubborn one-ups-man-ship, or to the occasional quicksand of her golden years and her temporal distance from the event. (No, I didn’t argue with her. She was a dear friend and there was no need to point out her one little mistake. I did make it right in my book.)

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the main male character exhibits a gift for building and repairing (and later for finding hidden) radios. In the hands of rebels, radio transmissions reveal secret Nazi strategy. Thus conveyed, partisans are scuttling the Axis war machine. Fascinated by the ability of radios to condense time, to breach borders and allegiances, Doerr learned everything he could about their operation, how they’re built, how they can be located, and how they transmit across radio waves. A world of beauty and horror, of innocence and moral redemption, is made palpable through the simple but thorough descriptions of mollusks, birds, diamonds, and radios, all of it dependent on in-depth knowledge of the actual items.

Isabelle Allende is famous for lapsing into magical realism in many of her books, a jaunt into what is physiologically impossible yet essential to the story. In The House of the Spirits, based on historical events in twentieth century Latin America, the violence and abuse of a powerful male figure is juxtaposed by the loving spirituality of the women around him, and eventually leads to his reformation. One woman famously plays piano without lifting the piano lid. The connection to a world outside of science and pragmatism lends a radiant quality that makes the accurately depicted historical events ever more exquisite and horrible and ultimately comprehensible.

The difference between knowing what’s real yet choosing to present what isn’t, and not knowing the difference, is what makes one writer’s works celebrated, the next, criticized. Writers must build on a scaffold of fact and history. We may deviate but before we leap off the beams, best we know the tensile strength of the steel and the likelihood that we will be able to fly. I want to hear my readers gasp as they soar over chasms, to touch rock safely on the opposite side. Or believe they have.

A Cryptic Tale

origamicraneCan a writer present history that is more exciting than a textbook but still discharges the essence of truth if he strays from absolute fact by embellishing a real moment with creative interpretation?

Jim Fergus based his novel, One Thousand White Women, the Journals of May Dodd, on one small incident in American history. In 1854 Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf traveled to Washington and proposed to President Ulysses Grant that the two cultures make a trade. The Indians, whose people were dying out, would give one thousand horses in exchange for one thousand white women. The women would procreate with Indian men, and the resulting children would be a bridge between cultures, ensuring a future for Indians within the sustaining white community. Never happened, of course, or you’d know a gazillion women claiming to be heroic descendents of this social experiment and likely demanding reparations loudly, or hiding the humiliating fact of their heritage and likely demanding reparations secretly, depending on whether they found the act courageous or shameful.

Fergus used this failed attempt at genetic meddling as the kernel for his book, but he changes the original suggestion to take place in 1874. The U.S. government accepts Little Wolf’s offer and rounds up women on the fringes of American society (no debutantes these future Indian wives): those in insane asylums, prisons, or the social bondage of being too homely to marry. From an insane asylum comes May Dodd, a young and progressive woman who has already exhibited unconventional characteristics by living out of wedlock with a man below her social standing and bears him two children. Her own family determines the obvious conclusion: she is mad, and they confine her to a mental institution where she is treated brutally. May volunteers to go West and become a Bride for Indians, as it’s the only way she can be released from the asylum.

The strange journey of her life with the Indians reflects a great deal of the actual history of the broken treaties between the US government and the Indian tribes they are trying to confine to reservations. May Dodd witnesses horrible acts on the part of American soldiers as well as Cheyenne warriors. She finds the “savage” lifestyle of the Indians more appealing than that of the White America that betrayed her. In the end, May learns that betrayal and savagery is the territory of all men, and skin color and culture have little hand in making anyone a noble being. Is Fergus’ book a twist of history? Of course, but in his hands he reveals both Indian and American societies, showing that they are closer in kind than either would admit. There is much truth in the betrayal of the Indians at the business end of government rifles and broken treaties, and in the narration of repugnant tribal savagery. May Dodd is the vehicle through which this mortifying period of history comes alive in ways that history books don’t achieve.

The historian Josephus, a first century Jewish scholar who lived in Roman controlled Judea, wrote the only known account of the siege of Masada. Masada was a fortress built on a desert mountaintop south of Jerusalem which in 70 C.E. held out against 10,000 well armed and provisioned Roman troops. More than 900 Jewish men, women, and children determined that they would not concede to Roman condemnation of their faith or control of their destiny, and chose instead a mass suicide pact, thus deflating Rome’s power. Josephus’ history discloses that two women and five children survived the massacre though no details exist. Museums in Israel and Wales maintain in their collections several artifacts from the siege: a scrap of plaid fabric, a woman’s sandals, an amulet, remnants of silver armor, incantation bowls.

From these few remains Alice Hoffman constructed The Dovekeepers, a story of four women whose resilience and extraordinary skills bear witness to the cruelty of the Romans and the ingenuity of the Jewish rebels who refuse to be conquered. Yael is the daughter of the master assassin who leads the Jewish band. Revka fiercely hides and protects her grandsons after the murder of their mother at the hands of Roman soldiers. Shirah uses her skill with magic and folk medicine to aid those in precarious health, especially women. Aziza secrets herself in the guise of a male and bests the young Jewish warriors at skills they cannot imagine a girl could learn. These women maintain the dovecote, an essential asset in keeping the Jewish community from starving. Hoffman admits that there is controversy over whether or not doves were actually kept at Masada, but in her book they represent a critical resource and the future.

History may be intricately folded like origami or cut like lace in attempts to tell only the most significant parts of an event and leave out the mundane details. Thus textbooks explain complex troop movements, the rank of leaders, and political intrigue but miss telling about the impact of war on the children and wives left behind, of the ordinary farmers, weavers, and sailors still trying to bring in their crops, sew coats, or transport goods. Common folk have little place in the annals of world history and are given short shrift, if any shrift at all, in history books. In the hands of deft wordsmiths, the truths of these ordinary lives come to light in rich and unexpected ways, exposing the full breadth of history, filling in the spaces between what historians find important and what people want to know.

 

Robert Morgan writes at the end of his novel Gap Creek:

I tell my students that you do not write living fiction by attempting to transcribe actual events onto the page. You create a sense of real characters and a real story by putting down one vivid detail, one exact phrase, at a time. The fiction is imagined, but if it is done well, it seems absolutely true, as real as the world around us.

 

I offer only scant apology to the reworking of history in my own stories. I am a storyteller who loves history and researching real incidents, real people. But if a detail would better tell my story with a bit of imaginative revision, then hand me the scissors and glue. You can always go read a history book about the same events. It is not meant for one genre to usurp the other but for each to complement the other, a kind of silk word embroidery on homespun.

Be well, friends.

I Met You through Your Words

I really didn’t know my maternal grandparents.  I mean, I met them when I was little… like 4 or 5 years old.  But through the agony of broken family politics, I basically never saw or heard from them again once my parents got divorced.

When I re-established contact with my biological mother, around when I was 18 years old or so, my grandparents had already passed away.  I learned this during the first face-to-face interaction I’d had with my mother since I was a young kid.  It was also during this visit that my mother learned I was a writer (she really didn’t know me).  Upon learning this, she went to a box, pulled out an old folder and handed it to me.  I opened it up and found it to be filled with yellowed notebook pages covered in fading pencil marks.

It was my grandmother’s writing notebook.

imageIn these pages, I met my grandmother.  I know, I said in the first paragraph here that I had already met her when I was a toddler but here, in these 50-year old pages, I truly met my grandmother in her own words.  There were short stories, poems, songs, journal pages… a plethora of words and emotions and opinions which I never would have guessed belonged to the white-haired, soft-spoken woman I could call up from the remnants of 5-year-old-Rob’s memory.

I remembered my grandmother as being compassionate when I was injured and bleeding after the latch on the car door broke and I tumbled out of the car, somehow having the strength and wherewithal to grab onto the door handle and hold on so that I wouldn’t end up in the middle of the highway (we didn’t have seatbelts back then)… but I also remembered her as stern and unforgiving if I took an extra cookie or tracked mud into the house.  I remembered her as always deferring to my grandfather’s opinion on things.  But even those memories felt distant to me – almost fictional or fake – because so much time had passed since I’d seen or interacted with her. Basically, I didn’t know her.  I knew of her.  And yet, here in this folder, she was alive, young and vibrant.  She was witty. She was opinionated. She showed off an ironic sense of humor and a passion for life.  For the brief moment I held that folder, I was with her. I asked my mother if this was how she was in real life and the answer was yes – she was funny and dynamic and all the things I was reading.

Then my mother took the folder back and I never saw it again (and now that my mother has passed away, I doubt I ever will).

After having experienced my grandmother’s writing, I took a good look at my own.  How much of “me” was going onto the page when I wrote a story?  If, long in the future, my children’s children were to look through my own fading pages, would they get to meet me or would they just see words on a page?  I realized that while my poetry was pretty good at telling who I was (an angst-y teenaged boy with trust issues and a distinct love of food and advanced math), my prose was pretty bad at it. Sure, if I wrote a piece about monsters and murders and the like, that couldn’t really be who I was since I wasn’t a monster or a murderer… but I should still be able to put a piece of me into the story somewhere, right?

I feel like I became a better writer when I started to include bits of my own personality in the text.  It could be as simple as the now-expected comments about how awesome coffee is. It could be a character who blatantly expresses my own opinions on politics or religion.  It could be a sports team with the same propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as my preferred sports teams have.  Maybe I’m fooling myself a bit in thinking that it has added a layer to the writing which was absent before, but I truly believe that my stories are better with a little bit of me be in them. At this point, I don’t even think about it – it just happens naturally.

I never had a chance to know my grandmother, but through her words I was able to meet her and my life is more complete because of it. I’d be curious to know what you think about the subject.  Do you see bits of yourself in your writing?  Do you make an effort to put your opinions and thoughts on the world into the text of your fiction pieces?  Do you feel it is important or helpful to make your fictional worlds have this real-life connection, even if it is slight?

Whatever the answers, just keep writing… because I’d like to be able to get to know you better through your words.