Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fiction and Non-Fiction

Because I write both non-fiction history and history-based fiction, I am frequently asked to talk about the difference. There is a real distinction for me between scholarly nonfiction and novel writing in that the former requires that I stick close to my source materials in the conclusions I draw.

I started writing my first novel, The Wandering Heart, when I was working on a doctoral dissertation at Brown University, in part to allow me to explore the historian’s fantasy of having evidence come easily to hand rather than being the result of a methodical and often tedious process. I start the research for every project with some idea about where it is heading, but I am always prepared to let the documents I find change the direction or focus of the work. It can be frustrating when long hours of research do not result in evidence that will support your ideas, so I made it easy for my heroine, Lizzie Manning, to find things by creating the kind of evidence I would love to find myself. All the journal entries, letters, objects, poems and paintings in the book are fictional but I was inspired by historical examples.  The central house in the book was also constructed entirely in my head and on the page, but I used about a dozen sources on historic English homes to create it.

Writing a novel allowed me to stray from the sources, so that I could add new material to existing texts and even invent whole new documents, objects, and works of art, but I still wanted the book to be grounded in the process of historical research, and to introduce readers to how that process works. In order to give Lizzie some veracity as a historian, I gave her my own specialties: maritime history, museums, and Northwest Coast Indian cultural anthropology, but the situations I write about never happened, and the book is not autobiographical.

I must admit that it is fun to take an actual site and write a new history for it, and I have done that several times. In The Wandering Heart, for instance, there is a scene set in Salisbury Cathedral, where I found the tomb of a knight who died on a crusade in 1256 in Mansoura, Egypt.  The circumstances of his death provided good details for one of my character’s ancestors, and I made the Salisbury corpse his comrade. I also took advantage of a small adjacent tomb as a burial place for the mummified heart of my own crusader character (and then exhumed it with the assistance of a totally made-up crew of cathedral workers).

If this topic is of interest, I discuss it in some greater length in the “Reader’s Guide” section of The Wandering Heart. 

In the next post, I intend to write about how the whole subject matter of the non-fiction Devil on the Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, changed when I found unexpected documentation of the beastly mariner.  The book was not intended to be about him, but somehow he took over the project! 

Image:  Read more about the painting on the cover of The Wandering Heart, Frederick William Burton's 1864 Meeting on the Turret Stairs, at the "Cover Art" link on this webpage.

1 comment:

  1. The Wandering Heart got me hooked on Lizzie Manning and Mary Malloy's stories! Now I have the full set and space on my shelf for more.