I wish I had a dime every time my mother would say, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” She was right. Look to history, or read today’s newspapers, and you’ll find an abundance of stories where human action seems unfathomable to imagine, whether violent or charitable. In this week’s blog, author Michael Tucker drives home the point that when telling a story set in history, it’s important to get facts right, down to the most specific details. After all, credibility is on the line, and readers are savvy.
Writing History Right
By Michael J. Tucker
Weaving actual historical events into the timeline of your story adds realism and color to the narrative and your characters. And it can be a lot of fun if, during your research, you stumble across some little known piece of trivia that causes you to say to yourself, “Gee, I didn’t know that.”
The process starts with selecting a time period. Will your characters be caught up in the Spanish Inquisition, or the Roaring 20’s? Or maybe they’ll be jitterbugging to the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B?”
Whatever period you select, you want to get the peripheries right. By peripheries, I mean those little things that surround your characters, but are not necessarily integral to the storyline. What hairstyle should the women in your story have—a bouffant, beehive, or bun? Should your African-American hero have a Jheri Curl, Hi-top fade, Afro, or Dreadlocks? When did men begin wearing earrings, gold necklaces, and open-neck shirts that showed off chest hair thick as Bermuda grass?
If you work music into your novel, be sure the song is period correct. While I was writing Aquarius Falling, a 1964 period story that takes place at a beach resort, I added Otis Redding’s, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” Perfect for the scene. Unfortunately, he didn’t record it until 1967. Luckily I discovered the mistake before publication, and learned a valuable lesson: memory can fail, so do the research.
In Aquarius Falling, my characters were tiptoeing through history; the events surrounded them, but they weren’t part of it. For the second novel of the series, Capricorn’s Collapse, I wanted my characters deeply immersed in the events of the time. I had to look into the future, allow the characters to mature, and find an event with which my protagonist, Tom Delaney, could credibly become involved. It turned out that 1972 was a honeypot of events that yielded delicious ideas.
The year started with a literal bang when the British Army killed twenty-six unarmed civil rights protesters on January 30, in Derry, Northern Ireland, in what is referred to as, Bloody Sunday. On June 17, the break-in at the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate complex is discovered. The perpetrators are suspected of being connected to the Committee to Re-elect the President, a group with the unfortunate acronym of CREEP. PLO terrorists interrupt the Munich Olympic Games, which results in the murder of eleven Israeli athletes in what is now known as Black September. A plane crash at Chicago’s Midway Airport on December 8, kills Dorothy Hunt, wife of Watergate conspirator, E. Howard Hunt. She is found carrying $10,000 cash.
Historical Fiction differs from the genre of Alternative History. In the former, the fictional characters are pulled into the events of the time. Ken Follett’s, The Pillars of the Earth, works through twelfth-century England during the building of a great Gothic cathedral. In Atonement, Ian McEwan leads his readers through a lie told in 1934 that alters forever the lives of two lovers during World War II. Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray exposes the oppressive regime of post World War II Soviet Russia in Lithuania.
Alternative History is what it sounds like—history altered. This genre is for those writers who really want to play God. The fictional characters engage in actions that change the outcome of history. One of the most recent applications of this is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a time-travel effort to thwart the Kennedy assassination. Fatherland, by Robert Harris, offers a take on how the world would look if Hitler had won World War II.
Working historical events into your writing offers the pleasure of learning details that you may have forgotten about or never knew. And it gives you, the writer, the fun of saying, “What if…?”
If you would like to read more about Michael Tucker’s books please visit our website.
Michael J. Tucker is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, Aquarius Falling and Capricorn’s Collapse. He has also published a collection of short stories entitled, The New Neighbor, and a poetry collection, Your Voice Spoke To My Ear. His poem, The Coyote’s Den was included in the Civil War anthology, Filtered Through Time. Visit his website at www.michaeltuckerauthor.com
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