Last Friday, Mary Hoffman and I met up in London for a good old-fashioned brainstorming session. Our Kickstarter campaign now successfully funded and our much deserved holiday breaks behind us, it was time to crack on with our collaboration: In the Footsteps of Giants.
As with most creative endeavors, the way forward seemed smooth sailing at the outset. But once Mary waded into the breaking tides of the writing process, the route we’d planned proved un- navigable; her intended narrator an inadequate guide. We needed to chart a new course, together.
Our ensuing discussion, which focused on questions of genre and voice, forced us to examine the heart and soul of our mission to Turn History On. It compelled us to ask,
Are we going for historical accuracy or historical truth? Or both?
And how is that best done to serve the needs of a youthful audience?
Suddenly, I was time traveling, reliving my own process of birthing Beware Madame la Guillotine…
On Historical Scholarship
I still cringe with embarrassment thinking about the poor kids I pressed into service as readers of my earliest drafts. They’d hand back my manuscript, fake smiles plastered on their sweet little faces.
“It was good,” they’d say. But I knew the truth: It was B-O-R-I-N-G. It did not Turn History On.
The problem was that I was writing as I had been taught to write, the only way I knew how after 35 years as a student and educator. I was writing like an academic.
Imagination has traditionally been considered anathema in historic scholarship. Until more recently, historians depended on the pseudo-objectivity of the third-person narrator to deliver an interpretation of the past through an omniscient or God’s-eye view. They believed that truth would emerge from the objective laying down of the proverbial dots: the events, characters, and chronologies that detail humanity’s seminal moments.
Yet, without the creative flair of the poet or novelist, these fact-based texts had a limited readership. They certainly weren’t appropriate for or compelling to the young, as I was learning, the hard way.
The Plus and the Minus of Historical Fiction
After several years of research and writing, I put that manuscript in a drawer and embarked on a new Time Traveler Tale: Empire of the Dead. This time I invented a first-person narrator to tell the tale of Paris during the Napoleonic era. On the other side of the genre spectrum from historical scholarship, this was a work of historical fiction, illustrating the way life was, once upon a time, through the lens of a character that might have been.
I love historical fiction. It can be very engaging. What’s more, it can be used to raise valid social questions as well as illuminate universal truths.
But can it be relied upon to inform us about the actual past
when the novelist, by definition, does not claim responsibility
for the factual accuracy in his or her work?
Hence, my dilemma: I wanted my tales to be accurate and responsible; stories that parents and teachers could rely on to paint a truthful picture. I also wanted them to be accessible: factual, but fun, reads that young people would choose to pick up and not be able to put down. I wanted my tales not merely to lay down the dots of past people, places and events, but to connect those dots through the lens of human experience so that they might resonate more easily with youth today.
My editor and critique group partners agreed: This second manuscript didn’t work to forward my mission either. But the first-person narration was highly engaging. They suggested I continue working with this storytelling point of view.
Creative or Narrative or Literary Nonfiction
Now this was just about the time I happened upon a chalk picture portrait of Charlotte Corday. Suddenly, a light bulb blew up my head. It was as if Charlotte reached through the ages, grabbed me by the collar, and said, “Let me be your narrator. Let me tell my story as I was never able to do in life!”
So I dusted off my French Revolution manuscript once again, and I rewrote the whole thing, this time through Charlotte’s eyes. Her recounting of premeditated murder and self-sacrifice simultaneously illuminated her tumultuous age. I laid down the facts and connected them with her story. In so doing, I shifted genre again, this time falling under the umbrella of creative – or narrative, or literary – nonfiction.
No matter what you choose to call it, this genre is fact-based storytelling. It combines the poetic flair of the storyteller with the historian’s goal for accuracy and the journalist’s pursuit of the truth. While some consider it a new form, emerging in the 1960s and 70s with the “New Journalism” of Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, its roots can be seen in Montaigne’s 16th century essays.
Creative nonfiction finds its footing in actual events, characters, and places, but tends to be more personal than historical scholarship and more reliable than historical fiction. It harnesses the power of narrative to put you in the shoes of one who was there so that you might witness history as they did, and feel what they felt as they helped make history happen.
I believe Beware Madame la Guillotine more resembles a work of creative nonfiction than historical fiction. However, there are moments when I had to rely on imagination to better serve the story.
Nowhere in the historical record, for example, does it say how Charlotte actually felt about killing Jean-Paul Marat.
We know that she committed her crime on a blistering hot July day.
We know that she was determined: that she climbed three long flights of stairs three times that day to reach Marat’s apartments.
We know that having been turned away on each of her first two tries, she finally lied to gain entry;
that she found Marat languishing in the bath, dying of a skin disease;
that he was hateful and stank of vinegar and medicine and oozing, open wounds.
To recount these facts in a personal, engaging way, I put myself in Charlotte's shoes and created an emotional world for her, drawing on my own experience of what it means to be human. Does this move my story back in the historical fiction category?
Does this injection of imagination, connecting the dots that historical scholarship provided me though the first-person point of view, make my Time Traveler Tale less accurate and reliable,
or more so? Does it afford history a greater ring of truth,
allowing the reader an empathetic, emotional, human response?
To my mind, this is precisely how Beware Madame la Guillotine manages to Turn History On, by including Charlotte's humanity in the story. And this is how In the Footsteps of Giants will Turn History On as well, now that Mary (spoiler alert!) has decided to let the master himself, Michelangelo, steer the ship of their creative process.
So, I’m going with Aristotle on this one, who said,
[The poetics are] more philosophical and more serious than history:
in fact poetry speaks more of universals, whereas history of particulars.