The historical novel requires an extra set of choices – what sources to consult, what shape to cut from the big picture – what to do when the evidence is missing or contradictory. Most of these choices are invisible to the reader. You must be able to justify your decisions to the well-informed. But you will not satisfy everyone. The historian will always wonder why you left certain things out, while the literary critic will wonder why you put them in. “Because I could” is not a good reason.
“Can These Bones Live?,” Dame Hilary Mantel, Reith Lecture, BBC Radio, June 24, 2017, The Spectator
How to handle historic fiction. I’ve received all kinds of advice and foolishly continue to reject most of it as too cumbersome.
Recently, a published author told me I needed to classify my novel about Hedda Burgemeister, the woman who shot Otto Koehler more than a century ago in San Antonio, as creative nonfiction. Her approach to citing references, accepted for print as mine might not be, is that, as the lead characters once lived, everything in the book must be footnoted. Meticulously. She also added that everyone’s names must be changed – both to protect the innocent and to protect oneself from lawsuits.
Well, the names in An Ostrich Plume Hat need to stay put because of the very fact they belonged to real people. But I admit, this is just one of Gayle’s new rules.
As for footnotes? I recently completed a manuscript about the Coker Settlement – nonfiction – with hundreds upon hundreds of numbered, well-documented endnotes. It almost killed me. And I’m quite far into writing this unfootnoted novel upon which I have been working for more than a decade as time allowed.
Last week, my solution hit me. Will Cuppy. A few years ago, blogger Bluebird Blvd introduced me to his The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Cuppy wrote about real people. With great artistic license taken. He footnoted his text, but certainly not according to the Chicago Manual for Style. In fact, Cuppy’s footnotes are a pleasure to read and contain some of his most amusing lines.
So I have decided to tread water instead of drowning in footnotes. I’m electing to float somewhere between Cuppy and the Chicago Manual.
I’m creating Gayle’s own rules for documenting historic fiction with unnumbered endnotes. This requires me to honestly identify what is true, what is unknown and what is invented for the sake of the story. This is particularly important in cases where I violate Dame Mantel’s “Because I could” mantra from above.
As of now, Gayle’s rules for endnotes are somewhat fluid, evolving as I strive for consistency. I want to establish credibility with the reader.
Chapter Three’s endnotes include this:
Please pay attention to spare me from typing portions of the following over and over: Resemblance to actual persons, no longer living, locales and events is far from coincidental. For the majority of characters, almost everything included about them was reported in print during their lifetimes. If some of these so-called facts are gleaned from fake news, please direct libelous claims to the appropriate publishers of more than a century ago.
I hope you will go review and evaluate my approach to documenting the first three chapters.
Let me know if you think Gayle’s rules will fly. I need advice and value yours, but please don’t be offended if I am too damn hardheaded to listen to it.