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The Constellation of Possibilities: An Approach to Writing Historical Fiction


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The poet David Kirby once said that “only shallow people and charlatans begin with perfect knowledge of what it is they mean to say.  An honest writer begins in ignorance and writes his way to the truth.”

The word “truth” is a bit controversial when it comes to historical fiction.  Some authors of historical novels claim they only “stick to the facts,” while others acknowledge and celebrate their expansive creative license.  When I wrote Oleander CityA Novel Based on the True Story, I did so with the understanding that our notions of “truth” are complex, and that what we accept as historical actuality is often incomplete or misguided.  We all know about eye-witness testimony.  Even the best efforts at recorded history, such as newspapers, letters, diaries, government records, books, etc., can be specious at best, in many cases mixed with many decades of rumor, myth, ignorance, personal bias, and deliberate manipulation.  My first historical novel, The Wettest County in the World (titled Lawless in the movie tie-in edition), taught me a lot about this problem.  I learned that in order to create a compelling narrative (the end goal for any fiction writer) I would need to be vigilant and unsparing while researching.  I also learned to lean into my personal motivations, which was to seek out the gaps between what I call “the points of light,” or the moments that “really happened.”

But why do it as a novel at all?  “If this story actually happened, then why didn’t you do it as non-fiction?”

I get this question often, almost always from men.  Men like non-fiction, it’s true; many men read exclusively non-fiction, from newspapers to online essays to mass market history, science, or current events.  What to make of this weirdly gender-related tendency is something I’ll leave to others to puzzle out, but while I enjoy non-fiction, for me nothing tops the imaginative rewards of a fictional story.  There’s something about how a fiction writer can flesh-out the skeleton of an incident or anecdote, those points of light created by historical actuality, working with possibilities and plausible scenarios until they have created a story that is compelling and new.  A novel can simply unearth things that the facts of history will never reveal, and that has a lot to do with why I try to write them.

Oleander City came to me in the form of several historical footnotes, small incidents and figures that were part of a much larger catastrophe.  In the aftermath of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the worst natural disaster in American history, Veteran Jewish boxer Joe Choynski, an enigmatic, theater-loving, fashionable, well-read gentleman from an intellectual family, traveled to Galveston in a fundraising boxing match with the young up-and-comer Jack Johnson, who would go on to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.  Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and aging septuagenarian was on her last mission to ease the suffering of the hurricane “storm-orphans.”  Then I discovered the tragic story of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word orphanage in Galveston, where 93 girls and a half-dozen nuns perished in the storm, all of them bound together by a lengths of rope that they hoped would keep them from being swept away.  These are the facts we know.

Early in my research at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston I found a famous and somewhat peculiar photo.  It was taken the day Jack Johnson and Joe Choynski were released from the Galveston jail, having served twenty-three days together for an illegal prize-fight, a group of men posing on the jailhouse steps, Joe shaking hands with the sheriff with Jack looking on.  But there was also a single, mysterious figure, unknown to history; a little girl sitting on the steps of the Galveston jailhouse, wearing a rumpled dress, a sour look on her face, an old hound dog squatting next to her.  Who was she?  Why was she there?

I included this picture at the end of the book because it really was the catalyst.   Because in that moment of discovery I was suddenly beyond the known history of this event; I was exploring the possible world of this little girl and imagining all the plausible ways to describe how she came to be sitting at the feet of these two famous boxers on this auspicious/infamous day.  That’s when I knew there was a novel to be written.

Maybe you’re thinking this all sounds suspiciously like postmodernism, the specter of relativism rearing its ugly head.  Maybe you think I’m trying to convince you that “truth” is flexible or unobtainable, or something we shouldn’t desire to achieve.  That’s not my intention.  What I’m really trying to say is that all the historical information in the world, all the facts, will not help us fully understand the central players in this story, at least in terms of their specific situation, their thoughts and dreams, how the truth seemed to them at the time.  And every time the novelist (or any writer) embarks upon the task of portraying an event, a character, even a recorded line of dialogue, they are involved in an organic process of creation, shading and coloring the situation with tone, mood, style of depiction.  Each moment is created anew, even if it is something that actually happened.

But it’s more complicated than that.  Because sometimes, something that didn’t happen can be more true than something that did.  We have all witnessed incidents in our lives that seemed to be false, a lie – something that does not represent the truth of a person, place, or situation.  Conversely, I also believe that the act of writing a historical novel suggests that the writer thinks that things that didn’t actually happen can possibly be more true than things that did.  To varying degrees the historical novelist is participating in the historical record.  The people of Galveston in 1900 lived and died in real and dramatic ways, but due to the passage of time and circumstance it is difficult – I would say impossible – to render their lives with complete accuracy or fidelity to actuality.

There are also plenty of practical reasons why I chose to write Oleander City as a novel and not as non-fiction.  First, there’s barely enough available in the historical record to fill out a book, unless you engaged in quite a bit of creative license.  Secondly, I’m a fiction writer, that is what motivates me.  There are other reasons, some not so noble, but powerful all the same.  I’m reminded of an anecdote that the writer Jeffery Eugenedies told me once, about a friend who had a son was in college.  This son was on a date and things just weren’t working out.  At the end of the date they came back to his dorm room and the young woman noticed a copy of Eugenedies novel on his bedside – The Marriage Plot.  She was intrigued.  “You are actually reading this?”  They ended up talking about it, about books in general, novels, and let’s just say the evening ended up going much better for the young man.  There’s a couple lessons here, but one of them certainly is that no book of non-fiction ever got anybody laid.  The other is that when you find out someone else loves a book as ardently as you do, it creates a confusing, but pleasurable process.  There is something intimate and awkward at the same time, like you have managed to inhabit someone else’s dream.  This is what fiction can do, and specifically what historical fiction can do to the past, to historical actuality.  The shared love of a story can lead to shared love of other kinds.

So then how to account for this little girl sitting in a picture celebrating two famous boxers being released from jail?  I had some material to work with such as the tragedy of the orphans of the Sister of the Incarnate Word.  In the days following the hurricane, groups of bodies of the young girls were found buried under the sand and debris, tied together with rope, sometimes still clutched in the arms of a nun who refused to let go even in death.  I also knew that for months after the storm there were dozens, possibly hundreds of now newly-orphaned children, the “storm orphans” as they were called, hiding among the rubble, scavenging to survive, some of them so traumatized by the carnage they refused the attentions of Clara Barton and the Red Cross, who made caring for these orphans their principle charge.  I also knew that masked vigilante groups were using the chaos of the disaster to hunt down “undesirables.” There are historical reports of dozens of men on horseback galloping down the beaches at night with burlap sacks over their heads, hunting down immigrants, Jews, and black folks, and performing violent extrajudicial executions.  All of this happening at the same time, in the same place.

In order to get at that truth – the story truth, not just happening truth – I created characters, some who are combinations of historical figures, some quite close to the historical record as we know it, and others who are fully-fabricated.  The three principle characters in Oleander City (and perspectives) are all different levels or combinations of historical fact and fiction:  Joe Choynski is a real historical figure that I presumed upon with the tools available to a fiction writer, while trying to stay true to the historical record of him as a person.  Hester, the small girl in the photo, is an imagined character almost solely based on that single image.  Diana is a fully fabricated character with no direct historical precedent, though she is based on the nurses and ladies that worked for Clara Barton at the Red Cross during that time.  I have imagined a number of things for which there is no record, and I have presumed upon the actual historical figures with the liberty that is granted a novelist.  My intention is to reach that truth that lies beyond the poorly recorded and understood world of actualities.  I wanted to connect the points of light (the world of actualities) to create an image, a story, that might illuminate the dark spaces between.

I needed to bring Clara Barton and the Red Cross, Joe Choynski and Jack Johnson, the storm orphans, and the malevolent force in the vigilante mobs, all together in one loop, to create clear, plausible connections between them.  And at this point it becomes a series of “what if” scenarios, which for me is one of the great joys of writing fiction: what if the girl in the photo was the sole (unknown) survivor of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word?  What if the psychological trauma had made her unable to trust anyone, now that she had been orphaned twice-over?  How would she survive?  What if she encountered the Red Cross nurses, the masked vigilantes, our two boxing gentlemen?

This is what I call the “constellation of possibilities.”  In Oleander City I took several of these known, historical events and used them as guideposts, the points of light in the heavens.  The plot and other elements that I devised creates the plausible connections – the lines that connect the dots – and then the constellation, hopefully, becomes visible in the night sky of the readers imagination.

There is still so much that we don’t know about these people and this tragedy.  There is always so much more to discover, but I hope with this book I have brought a small bit of light to that darkness.  All we can do is start from ignorance, and try to write our way to the truth.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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