Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lying for a Living

Novelists sometimes get teased about "lying for a living." After all. . . we make it up, right?

I remember the first time I told someone that for every novel I write, I probably read at least two dozen works of non-fiction. "But. . . don't you just make it all up?" the wide-eyed and, I think, tempted-to-disbelieve person on the other end of that conversation asked.

Well, of course I make it up. I made up this paragraph for A Claim of Her Own:

"She would have recognized him anywhere. Even if he'd cut the brown hair that hung in ringlets around his broad shoulders. Even if he'd stopped wearing the long, heavily embroidered buckskin coat or abandoned his gleaming ivory-gripped pistols--always worn butt out. In fact, Mattie would recognize Wild Bill Hickok if all she could see whas his hands, because she'd spent more hours than she could count dealing cards to those hands down in Kansas, both before and after Bill's short stint as the sheriff of Abilene."

The thing is. . . to write that paragraph I had to know: What did Wild Bill Hickok look like? What did he wear? When was he in Deadwood? Would the truth fit the timeline of my novel? Why did he wear his guns that way? Did he cross-draw? Where would Mattie have had to have lived before coming to Deadwood, in order to have met and played cards with him? When was Wild Bill Hickok sheriff of Abilene, Kansas? Would that historical fact fit my imagined story? And all of that was just to enable one paragraph in a 100,000 word novel.

It's a good thing I adore the research part of writing historical fiction. Photographs of Wild Bill Hickok aren't hard to find. I used the one above after learning what Deadwood was like in 1876. I could honestly visualize a man dressed like this walking what Mattie sees as "the frenzied and filthy" main street in Deadwood.

As to Wild Bill's guns, those weren't the only weapons I had to research, because Mattie needed to pack, too. What would a young woman carry to defend herself back then? After thinking I knew, I decided I'd better verify my selection. It't not always possible to double check everything, but laziness shouldn't be one of the reasons I make a mistake.

I asked friend and fellow novelist Stephen Bly ( what he thought of my choice. His reply began, "Steph. . . sending a lady alone into Deadwood in 1876 is a dangerous thing. . . " and then he showed me the scale of the pistol I had given Mattie next to what she likely would have carried (a Colt pocket pistol). There was no way Mattie would have "hidden" the weapon I chose in the specially-constructed pocket she sewed into every dress she owned. None. Stephen Bly not only saved me from making a big mistake, but also made me laugh when he ended his advice, "...if you really want her safe in Deadwood...give her a double barreled sawed off 10 gauge shotgun. Of course, if she had to fire it, the recoil would knock her into Wyoming." Mattie does end up having to fire a double barreled shotgun...and I made sure to have the recoil knock her a "fur piece." Just not quite into Wyoming.

Another source, Wild Bill Blackerby, was kind enough to show me the "Cavalry Twist." Wild Bill Hickok didn't cross draw, and if I had had him do so in my novel, that would have been a bad mistake. A lot of people know a lot about Wild Bill Hickok!

In the process of researching A Claim of Her Own, I learned about placer mining, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, small pox (not to be the topic of a future blog), and a man named Reverend Smith who became the prototype for my fictional preacher Aron Gallagher. (That's me at Preacher Smith's grave in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.) Of course I also stopped and photographed the most recent "Dead Man's hand"

someone left at the base of Wild Bill's impressive monument. The stone wall in the foreground of the photo of Wild Bill's grave is where Calamity Jane is buried. And by the way. . . Mt. Moriah Cemetery isn't the original graveyard used in 1876 ... or in my novel. Ingleside was the first cemetery. The bodies were exhumed and moved to Mt. Moriah later. I couldn't have Mattie going up the hill to Mt. Moriah in 1876 to sing at Wild Bill's funeral for more reasons than one. Mt. Moriah wasn't there yet, and Hickok's funeral happened in his friend Charlie's camp.

I may lie for a living, but I do try to make certain it's convincing thanks to my spending time with my literary nose to the grindstone. Now that I think about it ... who invented the grindstone? what kind of 'stone' is it? how much does one weigh? how long does it take to sharpen?

Have a blessed Lord's day, friends ... I have some research to do!

--Stephanie G.


  1. Hi Stephanie:

    In all seriousness, I believe that there is the moral equivalent of lying in historical fiction. This happens when, supposedly historical fiction, is written without the requisite research. Such writing amounts to lying to the reader.

    This is why I think there is so little ‘history’ in much of romantic ‘historical’ fiction. These authors are not really making any claim to historical accuracy but rather maintain that the ‘story’ is the thing. Often in these books the locations are fictional, there is no mention of historical events, no real historical characters are used, no prices or money types appear and dates are not given.

    This is all acceptable for romances qua romances but I would like to see a term like ‘history fiction’ used for books that are well researched and are full of history. That is, books that history buffs love.

    Unfortunately, these books can not be distinguished by their titles and covers alone. Even reviewers often fail to mention the historical authenticity of reviewed books. The science fiction genre has the term ‘hard/SF’ for stories using real science and terms like paranormal, soft/SF and fantasy for stories where there is no attempt at scientific accuracy.

    I must say your website goes a long way in establishing you as writing well researched ‘history fiction’. You’re doing a great job!


    P.S. Is it known if the ‘Aces and Eights’ were Clubs and Spades in the dead man’s hand? I don’t know the answer to this, BTW.

  2. Truly insightful comments, Vince. I like your idea of publishers adopting a new genre tag for the kind of historical fiction that's more history and less romance. I wonder what kind of audience there would be if publishers did that. It's all about numbers (i.e. sales) at the business end of this writing equation, you know.

    I began writing because of a fascination with history, and over the years I've been more than a little resistant to the demands of the largest target audience for my work, which tips the scales between "history" and "romance" in a direction that doesn't come naturally to me.

    As to the "Dead Mans Hand," it's largely accepted, but I found this bit of interesting commentary on a poker web site:

    "It is established that it was a game of five-card-draw poker but the exact hand that Wild Bill Hickok was holding remains elusive for there are no citations of the hand that are contemporary with his murder. Things are further complicated by the fact that dead man's hand was an established poker idiom associated with a number of different hands well before Hickok was murdered...Although the evidence is lacking, it is generally 'accepted' that Hickok's hand was ace of spades, ace of clubs, eight of spades and eight of clubs."

  3. Hi Stephanie -

    I've come across quite a few authors, who take great pains with their research. Liz Curtis Higgs, Julie Klassen, and Sarah Sundin come to mind. There are many others.

    Although I'm not writing historical fiction, I still need to get my facts straight. In my original draft, I had my characters lining up for the White House tour. My former boss informed me that you now have to get a ticket from your Congressman. He saved me a lot of embarrassment. I learned not to rely on my knowledge from the past.

    Susan :)

  4. Amen, sister. Writing contemporary fiction doesn't mean we don't have to reasearch. I can imagine your relief when you discovered how White House tours have changed. It's always embarrassing to have an error pointed out after it's in print. I've had that happen. It's humbling. -- Steph