Footnoting historic fiction too cumbersome for me to handle

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 you 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.

 

Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: Sittin’ on Campeche Bay

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

“The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding

Sometimes a song refuses to leave you. A marimba melody would be more appropriate, or the operatic chorus of the tamal vendor or the chant of the man pushing the cart hawking pulpo for sale.

But every time we left the house in Campeche, Otis Redding’s tune insisted on inserting itself in my mind. Of course, this meant I ambled along slowly. I was considerate enough not to let the Mister know lest he also would catch the musical infection.

This affliction does not mean a visit to Campeche is wasting time, but the city is so amazingly laidback. Even the major patriotic gathering to counter abusive trumpeting coming from El Norte in January resembled a family picnic more than a protest march.

When you ramble somewhat aimlessly, omens sometimes cross your mind. Sitting in a bayside seafood restaurant, a bird suddenly plopped down dead right next to our table. Unsure of the meaning of the occurrence, I decided it definitely was a lot closer to the adjoining table. If the omen was bad, it must belong to them.

And, then, in this time of post-election uncertainty, there was the inverted “El Viejo” boat seemingly symbolizing our retirement plan gone awry…. Surely, they won’t take away the healthcare benefits of these particular viejos not yet eligible for Medicare?

Soaking up the sun, the Crayola colors and the warmth of the people easily trumped these possibly ominous omens. And the trust. The painter at the top of a ladder placing his faith in his fellow worker perched on a quivering board below. The glowing Virgin of Guadalupe protecting the fishermen headed out before dawn.

It was almost Lent, and I mentally treated worries about gringolandia the way they kick off Carnaval in Campeche. The pre-Lenten festival begins with a festive  funeral procession. An effigy of a pirate is placed in a coffin and burned – the symbolic burial of all bad moods as the celebration gets underway.

Relaxing completely for three weeks, omens mellowed out and merged into positive signs for the coming year. Surely that bird signified ending one chapter in my life and the start of a new phase. This was strengthened by the typewriter fixating my gaze.

Returning to San Antonio, I finished work related to the manuscript on the history of the Coker Settlement and transformed from a nonfiction writer to one once again hearing her characters converse while soaking in the tub. When you involve as many characters as a Russian novelist, their conversations extend baths to toe-shriveling lengths.

One day, I will finish this epic tale of Hedda Burgemeister and San Antonio’s beer baron.

But along the way to completion, I might have to take a trip or two to seek out more good omens. A girl can never have too many of them.

And, hey, it’s the weekend. Go ahead and let this mellow melody wash away your worries:

Introducing Otto Koehler through a Prohibition politics caper of yesteryear

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Their voices circled me in the tub today, and I was so happy to hear them again. I was worried they wouldn’t return after being neglected for the past decade.

Last week, I finally hit “send” to submit the draft of a book on the history of the Coker Settlement to the book committee of the Coker Cemetery Association. I have been living with the extended Coker family since Banks Smith first asked me to tell the story of Minnie Tomerlin and Max Voelcker about nine years ago, resulting in Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill.

While the ghosts of more than 600 relatives of the Coker clan managed to haunt my baths enough to squeeze their way into the draft of the Coker book, they didn’t talk much. I wasn’t allowed to put words in their mouths; only hundreds of footnotes at the end of the chapters. Nonfiction rigidly based on historical facts.

But now I have returned to historical fiction, and, frankly, Hedda Burgemeister and Otto Koehler cannot keep their lips zipped.

I considered casting aside the first hundred pages of their story, An Ostrich Plume Hat, I wrote so long ago. One reason is no one has been clamoring for me to finish. My dialogue, despite how freely it spills out to me in the tub, probably only seems convincing to me. Counterpoint: I love listening to them.

The second reason is Joe Holley. His portrayal of Emma (Hedda) Burgemeister for Hotel Emma at Pearl describes her as a tall and blonde femme fatale. Counterpoint: Yes, Hedda shot Otto Koehler, but the nurse did not appear a sexy bombshell in her newspaper photos. The jury found her innocent of murder, and, through the years, I have grown to know her as a complex heroine of my story. I must rise to her defense.

The third reason is Mary Carolyn Hollers George. A serious historian, she is writing a book about Otto Koehler. Nonfiction, with no made-up conversations between the characters. She will surely send hers to press well before mine, if mine goes at all. Her truthful telling will make mine seem so frivolous. Counterpoint: None, except I am keeping myself entertained, and I don’t have to use footnotes.

Anyway, on the afternoon of the final exhausting presidential debate, I thought I would link you to some rowdy prohibition politics that I use to introduce to my version of Otto Koehler. This long-winded story is only for political history junkies. This is about an Austin caper much like the “killer bees” of more recent times. The tale is about 95 percent true, but was this truly Otto’s idea?

The diversion prior to debate will reassure you that politics of the past was often as messy as those clouding this election.

So, here is Chapter Three.