question about historical fiction

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Philabuster
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question about historical fiction

Post by Philabuster » August 28th, 2011, 8:20 pm

I just started writing my next second novel and I'm incredibly excited about the whole thing! Partly because it will be thrilling to write about anything other than my first novel, and partly because I'm in love with the story. It's about a jailbreak that happened in 1923 involving 6 men where 1 managed to escape. The story is real but information about it is scarce. Most of the details I was able to pull up were through old newspaper clippings and books about prison history. My question is how much free interpretation am I aloud to have when writing about a true event where I list the true names of the individuals involved? I fully intend on keeping the basic points of the story as historically accurate as possible, but when it comes to the history of the prisoners, the dialogue they share, and the personalities they had than obviously there is very little information that I have to work off of. So even though this is based off a true story...how much can I just make up?

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polymath
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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by polymath » August 28th, 2011, 9:13 pm

Be faithful to the historic record and credible in all else and I think you'll find generous artistic license quite liberating. Actually, I think having some factual history reports with large gaps in them a wonderful starting point for a narrative. The freedom to invent a credible, personal experience offers great potential insight into discovering what it personally means for a writer, and best of all, for readers.
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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by Watcher55 » August 28th, 2011, 11:10 pm

What polymath said. Not only do you get to make up a story (stories) about the people involved and fill in gaps, it’s expected that you will. In fiction, authenticity often trumps fact. That means you have to get 1926 right. There’s no shamming on that; even with something as simple as starting a car (if you guess and you’re wrong, someone (probably lots of somesones) is going to call you on it).

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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by Matt Phillips » August 29th, 2011, 2:09 pm

One thing you might consider doing is writing an author's note to put at the end explaining specifically what is true and what you made up. That is a common technique among historical novelists.

Also, since 1923 isn't THAT long ago, you might find more background about the jailbreak by digging around local historical societies, court records, etc. You might even find living relatives or descendants of the prisoners who might give you insights on their personalities, the family's version of the story (taken with a grain of salt!), maybe even letters or diaries. It might also help you avert any objections living relatives might raise if you hadn't done due diligence. After all, these men might have been the grandparents (or even parents) of people alive today, unless you know for sure they had no children.

Is there a particular reason you want to use their real names? Using the crux of the story but changing the names, precise name/location of the jail, etc. might give you even more freedom and put you on safer ground as far as getting every knowable detail right about an actual event. Then in the author's note you can say, "This story was based on a jailbreak that actually happened at XYZ Prison on Month, Day, 1923 ..."

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Philabuster
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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by Philabuster » August 29th, 2011, 9:30 pm

Matt Phillips wrote:Is there a particular reason you want to use their real names? Using the crux of the story but changing the names, precise name/location of the jail, etc. might give you even more freedom and put you on safer ground as far as getting every knowable detail right about an actual event. Then in the author's note you can say, "This story was based on a jailbreak that actually happened at XYZ Prison on Month, Day, 1923 ..."

I wanted to use the real names mainly because I found it to be an incredibly interesting story that nobody has ever told and I wanted to give respect to the people who lived it. However, with the limited amount of information I have found on the details, I found myself "making up" more than what's on record. I'm very nervous about this fact not being right or that detail being off and I fear that I'll have to go back and change a lot of it afterward due to a sudden new piece of information. I would love to give credit where credit is due...but I think I'm going to take your advice and change the names and places while keeping the story the same. Like you said, I can always add a note later about the REAL jailbreak. With that being said...now I have a question of WHAT should I change? Can I just change the names and keep the details of the escape?

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polymath
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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by polymath » August 29th, 2011, 11:26 pm

Changed names and place names and large gaps in the historical record, seems to me it's mostly fiction, and is moving more that way all the time. A short note might be indicated. Inspired by true events. Then let readers have fun seeing if they can figure it out. 1923 is a little dicey, but on the cusp, considering in terms of historical fiction that's pushing a hundred years ago, at least four generations since the events. More recent events might be problematic. That long ago in the past, though with changed names and such, seems to me ripe for whatever.
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Quill
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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by Quill » August 30th, 2011, 1:38 am

For what it is worth, I just re-watched one of my favorite movies of the sixties, Bonnie & Clyde. You know, the one with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway? Although written directly for the screen, it did take place in the early thirties, so there may be an appropriate comparison here, to yours. The DVD of the film had a bonus disc which included a documentary on the crime couple. Guess what? Their actual lives were not very similar to the movie. Gang members were combined, and all sorts of timeline events were out of order or never happened that way. Yet they used the names of actual personages and places.

Come to think of it they were sued for their portrayal of the guy who hunted the duo down and gunned them down, and the guy won. Of course the movie was made a mere 35 years after the facts.

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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by longknife » August 30th, 2011, 2:52 pm

I agree with what Matt said.
I have extensive Author's Notes at the end of each of my novels about Father Serra.
I've done everything possible to find who and what real people existed during the time frame of each novel. BUT, I continue to have my imaginary characters view the events and places through their own eyes. Using what I've learned about the real characters, I try to make them real through showing imaginary actions and dialogue.

The main drawback in historical fiction is the chance that someone will read it who is an expert on that time and events and will find far too many areas and come back with a withering review.

You've just got to be as thorough as possible and admit that a lot of what you are writing is a figment of your imagination.

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Philabuster
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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by Philabuster » August 31st, 2011, 10:45 am

Thanks everyone for the insight!

Ive decided to go along with my original plan and tell the story as accurately as possible to the best of my ability...and hope for the best. I came to the realization that writing is very much art, and art is open to interpretation. As worried as I am that somebody one day may read it and get upset over me misrepresenting something, I feel that if I'm going to take the time to write a novel than I'm going to write it my way. If I don't get published...so be it. The point is for me to tell a story that someone else can enjoy. As long as I accomplish that than I have achieved my goal. Also, I have burned out on researching this book and I just want to write it already! Lol.

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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by longknife » August 31st, 2011, 11:43 am

Philabuster wrote:Thanks everyone for the insight!

Ive decided to go along with my original plan and tell the story as accurately as possible to the best of my ability...and hope for the best. I came to the realization that writing is very much art, and art is open to interpretation. As worried as I am that somebody one day may read it and get upset over me misrepresenting something, I feel that if I'm going to take the time to write a novel than I'm going to write it my way. If I don't get published...so be it. The point is for me to tell a story that someone else can enjoy. As long as I accomplish that than I have achieved my goal. Also, I have burned out on researching this book and I just want to write it already! Lol.
Oh Lord but do I know how you feel!!!!!

My problem is that TWO of the novels are written. My problem now is in the editing/revision stage.

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Re: question about historical fiction

Post by oldhousejunkie » September 1st, 2011, 2:47 pm

You are very brave to attempt the story of real people. I think you are taking the right way though...pick a subject and people who are not all that well known, research as much as possible, and then construct off of what you know really happened.

I've been pretty overwhelmed by the idea of writing a historical based off of real people. I felt like it wouldn't give me enough creative license, but I recently came to the conclusion that if I chose someone who is not a big name figure (snaps to those folks who tackle Napoleon and Josephine, Marie Antoinette, etc.) and stuck to the scant facts known about them, then I could fill in rest. I've been busily researching people in the eras that I specialize in, looking for someone who needs their story told.

Good luck with your novel.

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