The interview with Roger Hooverman introduced the topic of literary license. Roger was kind enough to respond to a follow up question.
Do you have a difficult time staying true to the family stories? Aren’t you tempted to exercise your literary license to further develop the person or plot?
When you write historical fiction, as opposed to narrative history, you have to go beyond the known facts and create detailed scenes and dialog that probably did not happen in the real world. Keep in mind, the people in my stories are not real people: they are fictional characters. But I need to make them as much like the real people as I can. Otherwise it won’t seem realistic when they do what the real people did.
As a writer I learned early on that you can create characters and plan how a scene should go; but then when you sit down and write the scene, the characters often go off on their own, saying or doing something you didn’t plan. If the characters don’t do what you want them to, you can’t force them to behave differently, it won’t read true. You have to back up and rethink your characters – who they are, what they want, what motivates them – so that they naturally end up doing what they should. When you write historical fiction, you don’t have the option of changing how the story comes out.
One of my reasons for writing about my family is to understand them better. For example, when my father was a teen-ager, he originally courted my mother’s older sister. Eventually he broke off with her and married my mother instead. I never understood what he saw in my aunt, a crabby, demanding person. When I wrote a story about their courtship, I had to create characters that – without my forcing them – acted and behaved the way the real people did. I came to better understand my father as a result.
But if you have the character imagined correctly and they do or say something unexpected, you end up knowing more about the character. In my book Catherine’s Diaries, which takes place a few years before I was born,it was not difficult to create characters that looked and spoke and acted like the real people, because I remembered most of them from my childhood. But my grandfather died before I was born. When I wrote the first scene he was in, I had no idea how he would act, what he would say, how he would sound. I knew him only through photographs and my mother’s stories. I simply pictured the scene in my mind and wrote it down as it unfolded. I heard his voice for the first time as it appeared on the page, and it felt right. The character who emerged seemed true to the real person. I felt I had met him for the first time.
In my book now in progress about my great-grandparents in the late 1800’s, I have no personal memories at all to depend on. I have to rely on historical data, old photographs and family stories and create full characters from these shreds of information. There is no guarantee that I have them right. All I have to go on is whether my characters feel real, and whether they do pretty much what the real people did.
The photos here show two of the ancestors I am re-creating as characters in my book: One is my great-grandfather Wilhelm Damm, a shoemaker from Germany who came to Shawnee, Ohio in 1881 and worked as a coal miner, so his sons wouldn’t have to fight the Kaiser’s wars. The other is my great-grandmother Martha Lunt from England, who bore eight children, suffered tragic losses, and found strength in Shawnee’s Primitive Methodist Church.
So: Do I ever force my characters to do things that I know the real people did not do, or would not have done, in order to make a more exciting story? No, never. That would be breaking the rules. But often when I’m writing a scene, my characters will say things I did not plan, reveal thoughts I had not expected. They do things that are not part of the historical record, but could have been. Did those things really happen? I don’t know, but if they are consistent with the facts and they feel true, I keep them in the book. Truth is more than facts.