Historical

When Story Trumps Reality By Linda Bennett Pennell

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Write what you know! How often have we heard these words at writer’s conferences or read them in articles and blog posts? It is one of those hoary platitudes trotted out when some industry individual wants to sound . . . what? Particularly wise, experienced, worldly, can’t think of anything better to say? I’m really not sure because I can’t imagine being limited to writing what I know. My life hasn’t been terribly exciting. It has been personally and professionally rewarding, but it is not the stuff of a thrilling read. I have written about murder, incest, espionage, and other crimes. In all cases, I have been neither perpetrator nor victim. It is through research that I have gained insights into things about which I know little through my own life experience.

It is hoped that all writers, especially those of historical fiction, pay as much attention to researching their subjects as they do to crafting their stories. Nothing irritates readers of historical fiction more than finding blatant errors in the facts and details. With the advent of the Internet, there is really little excuse not to maintain accuracy whenever possible.

But what if the facts or reality of a situation do nothing to advance the story, worse yet, they detract from it or get in the way of character development? When should we sacrifice accuracy and how much? Since we are talking about fiction, not academic treatises, I believe the answer lies with another question. How much heat from readers am I, the author, prepared to take for altering the facts and am I prepared to justify my choices, if the need arises? If it makes for a better, more exciting story, I’m very willing to bend and alter reality.

For example, I made definite choices with altering some historical facts in my debut novel, Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel. The novel tells the story of lives unfolding in different centuries, but linked and altered by a series of murders in 1930 northern Florida. The story is revealed and the mystery solved through alternating chapters set in 1930 and in the present day. Although the Blanche Hotel is a real location where I stayed overnight some years ago, I altered the hotel’s interiors and the businesses surrounding the hotel because those changes worked to enhance my plot and move it forward. I created a presidential suite for Capone and his henchmen because that fit the characters I was building. Even in its heyday, the Blanche didn’t have such an exalted accommodation. I altered the lobby, dining room, and elevator so that certain events could take place in a more fluid manner. I created businesses that didn’t/don’t exist and relocated the county sheriff’s office, all for the sake of story. Anyone who once lived in or is presently living in Lake City, Florida, the novel’s setting, can readily identify these departures from reality.

The greatest of these departures, however, is the premise of the story itself. It is historical fact that Al Capone stayed at the Blanche at least once in transit from Chicago to his Miami property. The stay occurred in or around the year 1930. All other events in the historical chapters are pure fiction, but they are also evocative of that period in Florida history. If challenged on my playing loose with the facts of Capone’s stay at the Blanche, my answer will be that the story would not exist if I had stuck with pure historical accuracy. By departing from the factual and letting my imagination take over, I produced a story that readers have praised as highly readable and riveting.

Another example to illustrate my point lies in the chapters set in the current day. My secondary main character is a University of Florida professor specializing in the history of American crime. Initially, I thought I had made up this specialty, so you can imagine my surprise when I looked on the University of Florida history faculty website and the first professor listed teaches history of American crime. I felt very validated and clever, but I still needed for my girl to have as hard a time as possible adjusting to her new job and new life in Florida. I’ve never attended a single class at the University of Florida much less been inside the history department’s administrative suite, so I made it up, as I did my character’s awful office, extreme teaching load, and lack of a teaching assistant. Moreover, I broke a rule or two when I created her research path and techniques. Interestingly, I was challenged on these points by a real history professor of American crime associated with a mid-western university. In review, she stated that I had gone somewhat over-the-top in creating my character’s work environment and she quibbled with my character’s research procedures. None-the-less, she rated the book four stars and admitted that my character would go on to great professional success, if she were a real person. The reviewer also said that she would love to see another story featuring this character.

Rather than being upset that the reviewer marked me down one star due to my taking liberties, I was thrilled that she took the time to read and review Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel. I’ll take four stars and a request for another story any day, any time!

So what about you? Do you think it is legitimate for story to trump reality? Are you a reader, a writer, both?

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