Bending the Story

traditional-dining-chairsWriting a historical novel is in some ways like making a piece of furniture. Say, a chair. You have some wood, and an idea. To make the wood conform to your idea, you modify it. You saw it up, steam it and bend it, maybe stain it a different color. When you’ve done your work well you have something that people can sit on, something that highlights and does not disguise the beauty of the wood.

Your historical novel needs to be something that people can read with pleasure, that highlights and does not disguise the spirit of the period. You don’t want to make your book entirely out of fake events, but neither can you simply dump unvarnished history onto the page and call it a novel. If you want to do that, go be a historian. You’re going to have to change some things to get your idea to hang together and make fictional sense.

Anyway this is the conclusion I came to when I was working on FIREBOMB, a story about many real people and events, not only the ones I made up. I began with a strict timeline of what actually happened in New York City in the early days of the First World War. But if I stuck to that, all these characters would have to sit around for a whole year waiting for the climactic event while my readers closed the book and pitched it into a corner. So I compressed the action, and once I got up the nerve to do that, I found that I could move events around, arrange them to produce a sense of gradation and climax.

And then there were the characters: historical figures, people I made up, and historical figures I wanted to heavily fictionalize. Why heavily fictionalize a historical figure? I’m less sure about that now, but it just seems rude to paint somebody as a monstrous villain when his great-grandchildren might be around to take offense. “Grandpa was never like that.” I mean, what could I say?

Martha Held, however, was irresistible. A gift. Nothing is known about the woman except that she was a retired opera singer whom the Germans had bought a house for, a brownstone on Fifteenth Street, so that she and her young ladies could entertain German officers stranded in New York by the war. I was considering saying something more about her when Sheila York and I ran into a woman at a conference last year. This person, by her accent some sort of Middle-European, sat down with us and began to spew the most amazing bilge about the Jews. Sheila was almost fainting with horror, but I was delighted. Martha! Martha! Keep talking. I have such a spot for you in my book. Because a number of Germans were crazy anti-Semites even before Hitler took power, and it was useful to hold one of them up for examination.

Well, the book needs more work, it needs to be longer, but the structure is there. Now I’ll get back to it. A little glue, a little varnish.


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