Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Changing the Course of the Mississippi River

A few days ago I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel on historical fiction at the American Independent Writers Washington conference, held at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. My co-panelists were Barbara Esstman, author of The Other Anna and Night Ride Home (and a former instructor of mine, years ago, in a novel-writing workshop at The Writer's Center); and C.M. Mayo, author of the intriguing The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire -- based, like my novel, A More Obedient Wife, on the lives of actual historical figures. I'm grateful to the moderator, author David Taylor, for inviting me to join them.

I don't know how the audience felt (we were the last panel of a day-long event), but I would have been happy to go on talking and listening and answering questions from the audience well past our allotted fifty minutes. I had a few thoughts I didn't get a chance to give voice to. But luckily, I have a blog!

So ... here's one: how much freedom should a writer exercise in playing around with historical fact? One of my fellow panelists, Barbara Esstman, opined that novelists should feel free to make up, or alter, whatever facts they want to, and mentioned that in her novel she had changed the course of the Mississippi River by five miles. It's all in how you present it, she argued. You can make anything believable, if you handle it the right way.

True enough, but personally, I'm loath to fool around with facts, or at least the ones that are fairly well known. Once, years ago, I had the opportunity to hear William Styron speak, and I asked him basically the same question about the interplay between imagination and truth. Styron, whose Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize, answered that historical novelists should give free rein to their imaginations with one important parameter: they should be careful not to contravene known historical fact.

Why? Because it can be distracting to the reader. At one point during the panel session, Barbara also cited John Gardner's famous dictum that a novelist should create for the reader "a vivid and continuous dream." It seems to me that if your narrative includes a detail many readers know to be untrue, they may suddenly be shaken out of that dream. "Huh?" they'll say. "That's not how it was. What's she (or he) talking about?" And pouf, the spell that you've carefully woven with your words will be broken.

Styron's advice made sense to me, and I tried to abide by it in A More Obedient Wife. I changed some little-known personal details -- for instance, I omitted a few siblings belonging to a couple of characters who came from dauntingly large families -- but I worked within the general framework that history had given me.

It seems to me that geographical fact should generally be treated in much the same way. I once read a novel set in an area I was familiar with, and I was constantly distracted by "mistakes" the author had made about where things were. Maybe she'd made those changes deliberately, although I can't fathom why. I wasn't focusing on what she presumably wanted me to focus on -- the characters, the story -- because I kept calculating distances and drawing mental maps and asking myself what she was talking about.

Of course, as with everything in writing, there's no hard-and-fast rule here. It's always a balancing test. If you feel a fact is sufficiently obscure that no one will really notice if you change it, maybe you'll want to go ahead. Or even if it's not that obscure a fact, you may feel the change is sufficiently important to your story that it's worth risking the distraction. Or maybe, like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, the whole point of your story is that it's counter-factual. And, as with everything in writing, it's all subjective. Maybe some readers won't mind at all if the Mississippi River isn't where they expect it to be, and maybe some writers don't care if they shake things up a bit.

But speaking just for myself, I try to stick with the facts and let my imagination play around in the gray areas -- of which, in the stories I'm drawn to, there are plenty.

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