Grounded in History: the history–fiction mix in historical fiction
By Kaaren Christopherson, author of Decorum
Chief among the many questions a writer of historical fiction must ask herself is, How much history and how much fiction? Historical fiction runs a very wide gamut on the history–fiction continuum. A particular era may form the backdrop for a story that is largely fictional. Another story may recreate a historical event so faithfully that it reads more like creative non-fiction, only inserting a minimum of fiction into the plot or cast of characters. A story may incorporate one or two (or more) historical figures into a fictional plot, or the reverse—a fictional character may be a witness to a momentous event. In writing my first novel, Decorum, a story of deception, love, bigamy, and murder in Gilded Age New York, I chose to create fictional characters who lived out a fictional plot in a real time and place amid real events.
Before you think this option is easy or doesn’t require much research, let me assure you that historical research may be even more critical to making a fictional work believable. Though we may find the corsets and petticoats, top hats and walking sticks we read about alluring, the author also must capture the world in which the characters move and function: Gas lamps or electricity? Horse-drawn carriages or motor cars? A lavish mansion or a sweat shop fire trap? When a character approaches a house, does he use the tradesman’s entrance or the front door—and if it’s the front door, is there a bell chain to pull, a buzzer to push, or a door knocker to tap? Often tiny details are the very things that transport the reader to the time and place.
I like to say that Decorum’s fictional characters chose me and I stuck with them and their surroundings. Tycoon Connor O’Casey and his paramour Blanche Wilson de Alvarado were the first to appear in my imagination, in full dress of the 1890s outside a New York hotel, quickly followed by heiress Francesca Lund and a host of others who began spinning their tale. As their story unfolded, no historical figures were present; I decided not to force the issue for a couple of reasons. First, since Decorum was my first novel, I wanted to concentrate on making the characters as three-dimensional as possible. I created backstories and biosketches that told me about their parents, siblings, birthplaces, marital status, education, employment, religious beliefs, and favorite pastimes to help me give the characters depth. Second, I was concerned that working a real historical figure into the story might throw the book off balance—either the person would be flat and wooden next to my well-developed fictional characters, or the historical figure would be so larger than life that he or she would overwhelm the story. This was the right choice for Decorum, a choice I made deliberately.
Similarly, the plot of Decorum is fictional. To help ground the story in history, however, I used a few events judiciously to advance the fictional plot. For example, Nellie Bly completed her round-the-world-challenge in early 1891. I used her success as the impetus for one of the fictional characters landing a job. The modern hotel business was booming in 1890s New York. I used Flagler and Vanderbilt as unseen competitors to the fictional characters’ hotel aspirations. Moreover, the trip to Banff was ostensibly a chance to see what W. Cornelius VanHorne and the Canadian Pacific Railway were up to in dotting the continent with hotels. Decorum’s fictional tycoon O’Casey tells the guests at Thanksgiving dinner about witnessing the historic 1889 fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain. In the case of Connor O’Casey, having done the extensive background on him early on made including the mention of the Sullivan–Kilrain fight a natural.
Finally, using my great-grandmother’s etiquette book for research turned out to be a great bit of serendipity when it comes to grounding Decorum in history. Starting each chapter with a short quotation was a reminder to the reader of how characters were supposed to act—not necessarily how they do act. With attention to historical events and using resources like the etiquette book, Decorum’s fictional plot and characters became grounded in the life and events of the 1890s.
To read the Thanksgiving chapter of Decorum for free, go to http://www.kaarenchristopherson.com/freechapter17
To see more backstories and bios for the characters and stories of historical events, go to http://www.kaarenchristopherson.com/the-ocasey-chronicle
To see more about my great-grandmother’s etiquette book, go to http://www.kaarenchristopherson.com/the-etiquette-book