Fact and Fancy in Historical Fiction
What is historical fiction and why do we write it?
In the months before she died, my dear friend Doris Betts read my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, and had kind things to say about it in print and elsewhere. But privately, she challenged me on why it was set in the past, even asking—with a grin and a wink—why anyone would set a novel in the past when the myriad resources of the present were before us.
Her question echoes a passing comment made by Harold Bloom in “An Elegy for the Canon” (the Introduction to his 1994 The Western Canon). Bloom wrote that even as literary fads come and go, “The historical novel seems to have been permanently devalued…. History writing and narrative fiction have come apart, and our sensibilities seem no longer able to accommodate them one to the other” (21).
If Bloom is right, then Doris’ question takes on added weight. If you want to be taken at all seriously as a writer, why would you set your action in the past? It’s a hard question to answer … unless you believe, as I do, that the present (2016 in Asheville, North Carolina, or New York, New York) is entirely too frantic and familiar to make an effective setting. Unless you believe, as I do, that all novels worth reading are novels of ideas. Do ideas—such as duty, faith, hope, life, and death—often get lost in the hurly-burly of the present moment? I think so. Plus we are often astonishingly ignorant about the present, not having had time enough to think it through.
My answer to Doris’ question now would be that time is a part of a story’s setting, just as place is. I search for the most compelling setting for the ideas I want to explore, wherever that setting might have existed in place or in time. Certainly, it could be the present moment or a time not long ago, but so far, my best moments have been securely lodged in the past: a German internment camp during World War I for A Short Time to Stay Here; and the summer after the end of the Civil War for That Bright Land. Those times are incredibly rich as settings for the larger questions that I felt compelled to explore, and I had to go there in my imagination if I was to find a stage that lived up to the ideas I wanted to explore.
The setting for my new novel, That Bright Land, is Madison County, North Carolina, in the summer of 1866 (exactly 150 years ago). Madison County was an especially dangerous place before, during, and after the Civil War because its citizens were divided in their loyalties to the point where violence of all kinds was commonplace. The Shelton Laurel killings that took place in the winter of 1862-63 are perhaps the most famous example, but that is only the most garish stain in a torn quilt of theft, rape, and murder.
But my story is more about healing than killing. It has to do with the fact that as adults, we are almost all of us wounded in some way—physically, emotionally, spiritually. And so I wanted to explore how deep and genuine healing can occur, whether in an individual, a family, or a community. I was therefore drawn to a place—and time—where everyone was wounded and healing was at a desperate premium and found my setting in the summer months of 1866, after the war was supposedly over.
When I write, it feels to me as if there is a constant dialogue between historical fact and imaginative fancy. When my imagination runs dry, I often turn back to the historical record (images as well as words), and almost invariably, a rich detail falls in my lap. When the historical record has nothing much to say about an event, I’m free to make it up. And in making it up, my imagination often leads me deeper into the history.
I first became interested in the historical events that serve as a backdrop to That Bright Land while reading the pension and disability records of my great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Freeman. Ben Freeman’s story is full of violence and humor, ready-made comedy folded into tragedy; it is also richly indicative of the ambiguity and hardship of the war years. So historical fact stirred up my imagination, and I began to wonder what the pension examiner who came down from Washington City must have thought of Freeman. And so it was that man, not Ben Freeman himself, who eventually became the narrator of That Bright Land. Fact. Equally brutal and hilarious, it was that man who fed my fancy.
Fancy, in turn, led back to fact. That fictional pension examiner, named Jacob Ballard, blew up into a wounded veteran and former Pinkerton agent who himself suffered from what was then known as the “soldier’s heart” (what we now call PTSD). It developed that he came South in the summer of 1866 to track down and execute a mysterious figure who was systematically killing Union veterans in Madison County. And so I had to go back to the records on Confederate and Union troops from Western North Carolina; I had to dig deep into the history of regional conflict during the war; and all along the way, I sifted acres of Civil War history to find that one telling detail to drop into the narrative.
My point is that in writing historical fiction, fact and fancy should have a symbiotic relationship. You can know too much about your past setting as well as too little. In particular, you can know too much too soon so that the history inhibits your imagination rather than primes it. For that reason, my practice has almost always been to alternate writing with research all the way through the process, so that history and story have a mutually beneficial rhythm.
If you’re drawn to a particular time in the past, explore the historical record to the point where it inspires your imagination, but don’t become so bloated with factual detail that it takes your protagonist twenty pages to walk from the porch to the barn. Use that one compelling, historical word or image, but don’t try to shoehorn in everything you’ve found.
And when your imagination comes up dry one day, go soak it in the research some more, until it again breeds story.
Congratulations to Terry Roberts for winning the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for 2016 for his novel That Bright Land!
Hatred and Healing
by Terry Roberts
Within the past few weeks, a woman I know was having her car serviced at a local dealership. As she was walking through a line of vehicles to pick up her own, she happened to walk behind a large pickup truck and noticed the bumper sticker advocating one of the presumptive party nominees for President. Involuntarily, she grimaced, as it happened not to be her candidate.
Unnoticed by her, the man who owned the vehicle was standing beside it, and when he spied the look on her face, he stepped around the back of the truck, thrust his fist within a few inches of her face and, as we say in the vernacular, flipped her a bird. The gesture was angry, even aggressive, and she staggered backwards before scurrying away. The entire event happened in silent pantomime, both parties assuming they knew what the other was thinking—and perhaps they did.
To me, this brief lantern slide glimpse into our public discourse is not about which candidate’s name was on the bumper sticker or whether facial expressions are protected by the First Amendment. It’s not about gender differences or geographical stereotypes.
This event is about the anger and even the hatred that has seeped like a blood-borne infection into our public discourse. Candidates, along with their partisans, spend more time talking about their opponent’s flaws than their own strengths and appeal directly to one another’s basest instincts. We are no longer about the free exchange of ideas but rather the sarcastic exchange of insults—name calling that invokes the worst of our individual and collective emotions.
Exactly 150 years ago this summer, our nation was striving to overcome the ravages of a civil conflict that burst into outright war between what was loosely termed the “North and the South.” The Civil War was horribly uncivil; it killed over 620,000 men, and wrecked entire sections of the country.
I recently published a novel set in Western North Carolina, the same locale as the bumper sticker/obscene gesture skirmish. The research for this book, titled That Bright Land, led me deep into the psychology of anger and the pathology of hatred. Because the novel itself is set in the summer of 1866, a year after the formal end to hostilities, it ultimately concerns itself with healing—the sort of personal, familial, and communal healing that I think we are badly in need of today—150 years later.
We have forgotten that some of the most determined fighters in that great bloodletting very quickly turned that same determination into peace making. In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln famously called on us as citizens “to bind up the nation’s wounds… and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.” Robert E. Lee orchestrated the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia while carefully instructing his own officers and men to go home and wage peace. Even so controversial a figure as Nathan Bedford Forrest was adamant that his soldiers return home and pour their energies into successful civilian life.
In other words, we should be as passionate in healing and community building as we sometimes are in anger and name calling. For we forget that anarchy lurks not far behind the shouted slur and the obscene gesture. And we forget Jefferson’s plea (in his own inaugural address) that we “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
In That Bright Land, I explore how one wounded veteran returns to his birthplace to help end the violence that still wracks an isolated mountain community a year after Appomattox. That former soldier and spy, Jacob Ballard, suffers from what was then known as the “soldier’s heart” (the acronym PTSD wouldn’t be invented for 100 years). He battles his own internal demons as he tries to find and nurture healing in himself and those around him.
Although our circumstances 150 years later are not so dramatic, we should heed the lessons of our own past—when we were ripped to shreds by racial, cultural, and geographical conflict. Let us now spend more time listening than shouting, more time smiling than gesturing, more time exchanging thoughts than flinging insults. Let us learn to seek our common ground, which often is and should be the high ground.
For history teaches us that we have within us the ability to wound if not destroy ourselves. Civil hatreds can lead to civil war.
Benjamin Franklin Freeman
by Terry Roberts
The version of Ben Freeman who appears in That Bright Land is in many ways a kinder, simpler version of my real great-great grandfather—who was a character in the folk sense of the term: fully alive and fully complex. This novel was inspired by him and the other mountain men and women of his generation, who lived through times that are difficult for us to even imagine.
My grandfather’s full name was Benjamin Franklin Freeman, who was born on October 13, 1834 in Madison County, North Carolina, to Daniel E. and Margaret Horton Freeman. He married Harriet Payne (also of Madison County) in 1862 after the birth of their first child. Harriet Payne Freeman would bear 13 children between 1861 and 1882; however, Freeman questioned whether the ones born after 1875 were actually his. Ben and Harriet separated several times between 1875 and 1882, when they each filed a suit for divorce. They were legally separated and lived consistently apart after that date but never officially divorced. Freeman died on July 24, 1907 and was buried in Madison County.
The historical events that occurred during Freeman’s lifetime played a large part in his life. He and his brother George fought for both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War: volunteering for and later deserting from the Confederate’s 64th North Carolina Mounted Infantry and the Union’s 2nd North Carolina Mounted Infantry. Additionally, there is reason to believe that Freeman and his brother rode with Kirk’s Raiders, the 3rd NC Mounted Infantry infamous for its use of guerilla warfare, during Kirk’s raid from East Tennessee to Morganton, NC, in 1864; although, wisely, Freeman never mentions the ride with Kirk’s Raiders in post-war interviews.
Freeman’s life is also emblematic of the death, poverty, and divorce that haunted North Carolina history in the decade after the war. His running battle with his wife Harriet—culminating with his stabbing of Harriet’s lover, his heavy drinking, and hard living are a fair example of life in the mountains of Reconstruction era North Carolina.
But these harsh realities are not the whole story. Freeman was a clever, articulate man who was not only functionally literate but a reader and story teller. Family lore recounts that he wanted to study medicine after the war and became a folk healer of no mean reputation. He was the primary parent to most of his children and probably raised many of them alone. He lived to be 73 years old despite his past battles, paralysis, alcohol abuse, and venereal disease. And in spite of all of the danger and despair he endured, Freeman is remembered as the kind and humorous man who held his family together through those dark years.
Priscilla Cushman, the actress who makes an appearance at the Warm Springs Hotel in That Bright Land, is based in part on the thespian sisters, Charlotte and Susan Cushman. Priscilla’s biography in the novel draws on that of Charlotte in particular, who loved playing male characters, and whose voice was of a remarkable compass and richness, with a full contralto register.
While Susan, the younger sister, died young and in time came to be known primarily as Charlotte’s younger sibling, the elder Cushman led a remarkable career both in her public life as an actress and in her private life as an expatriate, lesbian artist. She favored men’s clothing and highly dramatic relationships.
Charlotte was also famous for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, which is recreated in the novel for the pleasure of Jacob Ballard in the Laurel Suite at the Warm Springs Hotel.
It is historically impossible for either Charlotte or Susan to have been in Warm Springs, North Carolina in the summer of 1866; Susan had died in 1859 and Charlotte was busy cutting a wide professional and personal swath across the capitals of Europe and North America.
Even so, it is intriguing to imagine what might have occurred if Charlotte and Susan’s cousin Priscilla somehow lost her way and ended up in the Southern mountains.
Perhaps she would have met Jacob Ballard….