Fact or Fiction in Historical Fiction

“Writing a novel is to fabricate an elaborate lie. The end game is not to recreate reality.”
-Craig Larsen in On Historical Fiction, True Stories, and not Recreating Reality on LitHub, October 7, 2016

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania plunked down in a valley in the Appalachian Mountains, where not much happened. Outside of school and whatever sports practice was going on at the time, I had nothing to do, so I read. A lot. Like with many kids, reading was my way of escape. I could travel beyond the boundaries of St. Marys, beyond Pennsylvania, beyond the United States even. What I could also do was travel across time. I could live on a prairie in the 1800s or Poland in the 1940s. I could live in a hut on Pacific island in the 1970s or a brownstone in New York City in the 1920s. I was smitten with historical fiction from an early age, comparing it to my history textbooks and wondering why history at school couldn’t be taught more like how a novel was written. I was able to remember dates, facts, and events from a novel much more easily than I could from my textbooks. I also believed in those dates, facts, and events despite them being wrapped inside a fictional world.

Enter me, the writer, many years later, working on a historical fiction novel of my own. I now want to tell a real story that people will remember. About two years ago, I read an article about a dog guiding a blind man across a busy New York City street in 1928. The story stayed with me, tucked inside my mind.  Eventually, the story pushed its way to the front of my brain and demanded attention. I did research, which was fascinating — how could it not be as dogs were involved — and found a person more interesting to me than the gentleman who crossed that New York City street. I am now writing a book about the first woman who trained those dogs. It’s set in 1930. The organization she trained dogs for still exists. It’s historical fiction very much rooted in the present day, which makes writing about this woman a little tricky. The woman’s children are still alive. The organization is well known. The founders of the organization are held in high esteem. Their portraits hang prominently in the lobby of the school. I have not read an untoward word about them, nor do I want to. They did good work that still goes on today. But, shiny reputations and a strong positive legacy do not make a good story.

As I work through my first draft, I’m constantly weighing how much fact and how much fiction to include. I had always planned on fictionalizing my protagonist’s background. The real woman was a New York debutante who just kind of fell into dog training, very little in the way of drama. The creating of a family and world for my protagonist is going well and the writing is coming easily. Pieces are falling into place. However, when I switch to writing about her work as a trainer and try to stick with the actual chain of events and locations where the classes took place, I feel much more constricted, boxed in by the very facts that I want to share with the world, having no room to move beyond the boundaries of that box. The writing of it felt stilted and was harder to do.

What to do? Do I continue with the research, which I’m very much enjoying and just get more comfortable with the world and facts I’m writing about, or do I fictionalize more, allowing me the freedom of fiction? I have heard arguments for each side. Remembering that I set aside my previous novel because I lost sight of what it was about, I searched my notes for my elevator pitch, that one sentence that is supposed to both describe the book in its entirety while piquing the curiosity of agent enough who can foresee selling the thing. For this particular novel, I had no trouble coming up with my pitch. In rereading that one sentence, I came back to the story I want to tell, which is not about the founding of the school, but about a young woman in 1930, who decided to buck all tradition and actually work outside the home and not just work, but work with dogs, which at the time were not members of families, but hunting or farming aids kept outside. I want to write about this woman, who accomplished something big, training guide dogs for the blind and convincing homeowners, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and innkeepers to let these well trained dogs inside their buildings. Sure, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do this work without the founders, but it’s clear to me theirs is not the story I want to tell.

So now I have my answer. My visit to the school, my conversations with the archivist, and my reading of newspaper accounts of the founding of the school will all inform the world which I am writing about, but ultimately I just want to write about a woman who lived in a time before me, who wanted to do a good thing, and who happened to share my love of dogs, a love not restricted to any particular time.

Fiction after all, historical or not, full of facts or not, is still fiction. The girl in me has to let go of the idea that all those stories I read about are nothing more than just that, stories. Truths are left for the history books.

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