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Historically Inaccurate...
And Proud of It!

Take a cue from some of the most successful authors in the world.
When it comes to historical fiction, you're a novelist first and a historian second

by D. J. Herda

So you wanna be a historical novelist, but you just don't know how to get started in the business.  Is that what's bothering you, bunky?

Well, step right up and pay attention, because do I have news for you.  And some of it, even good!  Listen here.

If you like history (you got good grades in Mr. Ferguson's history class in high school; you joined the history club in college; you belong to the History Book of the Month Club today), the historical novel is a natural.  Even better, many publishers are anxious to see well-written historical fiction.  Think of it.  It's like publishing two books for the price of one: a novel and a history.  The novel is admittedly a hit-or-miss proposition, particularly with untested authors.  But history has a built-in market attached to it.  And that translates into dollars, which every publisher loves.

Will your historical novel be about the Civil War?  Huge following.  Will it involve Marie Antoinette?  Massive audience.  President Hoover?  J. Edgar Hoover?  The Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company?  Tremendous built-in appeal.  See what I mean?  No wonder editors are so receptive.

That doesn't mean you can pluck virtually any subject out of thin air and hope to strike it rich.  For starters, your subject (or, in a broader scope, the people within a historical framework, such as World War II, The War of the Roses, or the Great Depression) should be easily identifiable.  If you have to explain to people who a historical figure is and why he/she is important, you've lost your audience before you've even started out.  So select someone or some time that is easily identifiable.  That can either be some identifiable big name (George Patton) or a relatively unknown person at a famous location (Dunkirk).

Be careful, though, when choosing historical figures.  Avoid living subjects.  Sure, a historical novel about Hillary Clinton would make for popular reading; but it would also make for lucrative lawsuits.  Unless you're prepared to go to battle to defend your first-amendment right to write (or your publisher is, and that's highly unlikely unless your name is Tom Clancy or Stephen King), choose someone who can't sue the daylights out of you.  Corpses usually make better subjects, anyway.  They're farther removed from everyday news and susceptible to reader speculation, which is what a historical fiction writer offers his audience, anyway.

Also, choose a particularly powerful historical event around which to build your story.  I'm currently working on a historical novel about Ernest Hemingway in Cuba at the time of the Marxist revolution.  Hemingway met Fidel Castro only once at a marlin fishing tournament long after Castro had seized power.  But I speculate in the book about Hemingway not only meeting Castro before the overthrow, but also working with him to help unseat Batista.  Suddenly, we have not one, not two, and not even three enigmatic characters to follow throughout the book (Hemingway, Castro, and Castro's second-in-command, Che Guevera), but also we have a host of easily recognizable historical bit players in the form of Hemingway's friends (Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Howard Hawks) and Washington politicos (J. Edgar Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy).  The book is loaded with name recognition.

Finally, get inside your historical characters' minds and make them real.  Read up on them so that you know how they might have thought, talked, and acted when faced with a particular situation.  Write as if you're quoting them from a news source.

In one place in my book, I have Hemingway searching the San Maestro mountains for the rebel's camp several weeks before the overthrow.  He locates them, and while he wants to meet Castro to tell him what he knows about Batista and Washington's probable reaction to an attempted coup, he has to settle for Guevera.  Here's a slice of the action:

“I was hoping Senor Castro would join us, yes?”


Guevera pulls a cigar from his fatigues, bites off the end, and proceeds to light it.  He extends one to Fuentes and another to the writer, who take him up on the offer.


“Is he here?” Hemingway asks.


Guevera blows a long plume of gray smoke across the compound, where it hangs in the thick afternoon air, casting shadows from the crackling fire beyond.  “I’m afraid not.  He took some men with him to Carmaguey, to the monastery to pick up some supplies.  He will not be back before morning.”


Hemingway looks disappointed.


“But, Ernesto,” Fuentes says, “you can tell Che anything you would say to Fidel.  He is el comandante of the Revolutionary Army of Barbutos.  He is second in command only to Fidel.”


Hemingway raises his brows.  “Well.  I didn’t realize.”


Guevera shrugs.  “It’s a job.”


The men laugh.  Guevera leans forward. 


“This information ... it concerns your country’s government?”


Hemingway stares squarely into his eyes.  “Yes.”


“We have been waiting for word from our operatives about Washington’s reaction to our little revolution here on the island.”


Hemingway smiles.  “Senor, in my vast experience, I have learned that there is no such thing as a little revolution.”  The men laugh again.


“This is true,” Guevera says.  “And when this revolution is completed, the island of Cuba will no longer be slave to the dictator Batista.  The glorious and vaulted People’s Revolution will see to that just as surely as the people of Argentina put an end to that corrupt regime.”  He pauses, draws on his cigar, and exhales slowly.  “But tell me, Ernesto.  Why is it that you are so willing to share information of value with the leaders of a socialist revolution?  Could it be that deep down inside, you are a socialist?”


Hemingway laughs.  “Deep down inside, everyone is a socialist.  It’s just that you have the courage to act on your feelings.  No, no.  But I am a writer.  A writer who happens to hate political injustice and corruption.  What I have to tell you involves some high-ranking people within the U.S. government and their view toward the revolution ... toward Castro.”


“Yes?  It is not good news, I imagine.”


Hemingway shakes his head. 

In this exchange, research into what Guevera would think and say and how Hemingway would talk and act make this fictitious meeting sound historically accurate and believable.  That, of course, is critical to pulling off any historical novel.

So, if you have a penchant for history, think about writing a historical novel.  Give it a try.  The worst that can happen is that you'll end up getting some invaluable experience.  The best is that you'll end up getting published.

And isn't that, after all, every writer's goal?



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