Historical Fiction: Leap of Faith

graduate

“The Graduate” is a sculpture of WASP Dorothy “Dot” Swain Lewis.

In September 2013 I travelled to Texas to research my novel featuring women flying in World War II. Despite reading nearly every account of The WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in print, including memoirs and biographies, newspaper clippings, histories of women in general aviation, and corresponding with a former WASP, I still had not visited the WASP museum in Sweetwater, Texas. This is the former Army Air Base where some of my novel takes place.

On my first day I did a self-guided walking tour of downtown Sweetwater: wide streets, Spanish Colonial and Art Deco architecture, pecan trees. I ate fried okra and gravy for lunch. I visited the Pioneer Museum where I saw a wooden fire truck and an original slow cooker; a docent gave me a lively history of the local Boy Scouts. I drove the outskirts: the local wind farm and the towering, wooden ranch entrances. I stopped into Dandy Western Wear to marvel over the boots. I sat at the foundation of the Texas and Pacific Sweetwater station, imagining the trains that shaped this town and the entire the American West.

The second day was slated for the WASP museum, and I felt much trepidation. I am extremely respectful of the women who flew during the war and I want them to receive the credit they deserve. When asked what my book is about, people usually cock their heads. “Really? I didn’t know women flew during the war.” Sometimes people argue, as if it is just too far-fetched: “Oh, I don’t think so.” Accusingly. Or, when I tell them the women mostly ferried planes from factories, based in the US, they seem eager to be dismissive. “Oh. So they weren’t really in the war.” This is when I correct them by launching into the facts: 39 of the women lost their lives. It was grueling, intense, dangerous work. The women towed targets at military bases, ferried bombers, and tested airplanes the men had damaged to see if they were safe. They flew cross-countries in open cockpits and studied college level physics and math. To say nothing of their lack of militarization (no benefits, no recognition, lousy pay) and the cultural attitudes of the time working against them.

At the 2014 Muse and the Marketplace, I attended a Peter Ho Davies seminar on Writing Historical Fiction. He talked about the gap between our sensibility and the time we are writing about. Natural posthumous irony: we know, of course, how it all ends. The present informs, and ultimately changes, the past. My understanding of the WASP, seeing it from today, is flawed. There is no way around this, and it was quite freeing to hear it acknowledged by a successful author. I can imagine and place myself there; I can reconstruct history; but the only way to bolster my authority, having not lived during this time, is to research. And this research is done looking backwards. Then all bets are off: it is fiction, after all. Some writers reinvent, some recreate, some use diffusing tools like magical realism or humor.

I showed up to the WASP Museum the minute it opened and was led into an airplane hangar filled with memorabilia: a Stearman Kaydet, films, maps, a LINK trainer I could sit in (simulating flight) and a reproduction of the barracks. I could practically touch, feel, and smell the life of the women. It was thrilling, as if everything I had read about had come to life.

I spent so long there, taking notes, that the docent became skeptical. “Where are you from?” she asked.

“Massachusetts.”

A hand fluttered to the woman’s throat. “And what brings you to the museum?”

“I’m writing a book.” I gave her a big smile.

She nodded. “Everyone is writing a book. What kind?”

Oh dear. “Fiction.”

The lovely museum director emerged to meet me, asking if I was looking for anything particular from the archives. She made photocopies of records and letters and the docent ferried them to me from the back. After her third or fourth trip, she finally looked me in the eye, clutching the photocopies as if deciding whether or not I was worthy of them.

“Well,” she said. “I guess I just don’t think it’s r-i-i-i-i-ight.” She drew it out for emphasis, accentuating her Texas drawl, as if to mark the gulf between us.

I thought about this for months afterward, and still think about it. Is it right for me to fictionalize a very narrow, distinct event, embellishing and adding in the way fiction demands? Was it wrong to use the stories of the women, strong and courageous, to inform my book? 25,000 women applied to the WASP program. 1,830 were accepted and 1,074 graduated with wings. My protagonist is not one of them. She is wholly fictional, a character of my creation.

As I sat on a hard chair watching yet another film, the docent couldn’t help but offer some good Texas hospitality. “Can I get you a Coke?”

When I took it, thanking her profusely, she confided, “The last person through here, writing a novel, had carpet on the airplanes.” She whispered the last bit of sacrilege. “Can you imagine? Carpet?”

bilde1
I softened with a new understanding. She was protecting the real women memorialized here. She was in charge of preserving their history in all its concrete accuracies. That, after all, was what the museum was for: a monument and archive of real women’s lives, documenting what they did for their country in an extraordinary time. It is vitally important that their stories be documented and understood.

I had a decision to make. How accurate did I want to be? Where was the line between historical accuracy and imagination, and what kind of diffusing techniques was I going to employ? I decided I was brave enough not only to write the book — that first leap of faith — but also brave enough to get it right. I have built the historical scaffolding around my protagonist as carefully and accurately as possible. But once this was complete, and I did my best — no carpet on the airplanes — it was time to let go. I had to focus on the fictional story, the arcs, the character development, and the writing.

Ultimately, my book is not about the WASP. I am not writing a nonfiction history book. My book is about women struggling to find their place and the difficult decisions they must make for themselves and their families. So why the historical context, why the WASP at all? Because it is fascinating and entertaining, and it is important. How can we understand ourselves if we don’t understand the history that has come before us? I want people to know about it. But the most important leap of faith, the one all writers face, is the one we make creating art out of the universal human experience. Ultimately this, in all its iterations, is what we should strive to get “right.”

2 comments

  1. Tracey Domalik

    I’m currently writing a book set during the Blizt in London during World War 2, and I related to your post. I’m basing my protagonist on my grandmother after reading her memoirs. Your closing paragraph explained exactly why I am doing it. I felt I had a story and chose Word war 2 because it’s fascinating and needs to be told. I’m looking forward to reading your book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *