The Peerless Four, based on the historical precedent of the first women allowed to compete in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics in track and field on a trial basis, was a departure from my previous story collection and novel, Drift and This Vacant Paradise, both set at the end of the 20th century in my fictionalized home-turf of Newport Beach, California.
This is what I learned about writing historical fiction.
This guest post is by Victoria Patterson, author of The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, which was a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and garnered rave reviews in Booklist, the New York Journal of Books, the Hollywood Reporter, and other major publications. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize and has been selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. Her work has appeared in various publications and journals, including the Los Angeles Times, Orange Coast Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Southern Review. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and as a visiting assistant professor at UC Riverside. For more info, please visit victoriapatterson.com.
1. Try not to ask how much should be based on history and fact, and how much should be fiction.
I soon realized that this question didn’t help.
It reminds me of those classmates in my high school English classrooms, raising their hands to our assigned creative free-writing stream-of-consciousness exercises and asking the teacher, But how long do you want it to be? How many paragraphs? What do you mean write whatever I want? What do you want me to write?
These questions manage to drain the endeavor of the mysterious alchemy of creativity, its original purpose.
2. That’s not to say that you don’t have to research. Research!
I spent over a year reading and researching, discovering how to enter my novel.
When I had all the facts at hand, I had to distinguish how to present them in service of the story.
But I took to heart Robert Penn Warren’s advice from his Paris Review interview:
When you try to write a book—even objective fiction—you have to write from the inside, not the outside—the inside of yourself. You have to find what’s there. You can’t predict it—just dredge it up and hope you have something worth dredging…you don’t choose a story, it chooses you. You get together with the story somehow; you’re stuck with it. There certainly is some reason it attracted you, and you’re writing it trying to find out that reason…I can always look back and remember the exact moment when I encountered the germ of any story I wrote—a clear flash.
3. Recognize your flash and then let it take you wherever it leads.
For me, the instant came from happening upon David Collier’s comic about the Canadian high jumper Ethel Catherwood. I couldn’t stop thinking and wondering about her, and so I began to read about her Olympic teammates. From there I started thinking about sports novels, and sports, and women athletes, and reading more. I kept in mind Daniel Orozco’s admonition to avoid what he termed “research rapture,” in a Story Prize post, wherein “one lingers in the pleasures of story research in order to put off the actual writing of the story.”
But at the same time, I allowed my interest to wander.
4. Try to recreate life and meaning in such a way that you restore the experience, whether historical or not.
In writing fictionalized history, the writer’s use or avoidance of real events depends on what it will do for or against the narrative.
Life, however much we may try to program, ritualize, or control it, continues to be mysterious, and much of this involves the mystery of the future. In historical fiction, we need a certain amount of maneuvering to keep the future unknown and mysterious, but otherwise the goal is similar: to take psychic possession of a happening and re-realize it, so that an engaged reader forgets she is reading, but rather feels herself as a witness to the experience itself.
5. Try to let your research have the spirit of a meditative walk in the evening air.
Robert Penn Warren, from his Paris Review interview, also states:
You see the world as best you can, and the events and books that are interesting to you should be interesting to you because you’re a human being, not because you’re trying to be a writer. Then those things might be of use to you as a writer later on. I don’t believe in a schematic approach to material. The business of researching for a book strikes me as a sort of obscenity. What I mean is, researching for a book in the sense of trying to find a book to write. Once you are engaged by a subject, are in a book, have your idea, you may or may not want to do some investigating. But you ought to do it in the same spirit in which you’d take a walk in the evening air and think things over.
There’s a sense of exhilaration in thinking of research as similar to a meditative walk in the evening air.
Not only did I read, I watched sports movies and television programs, whether hokey or not, and documentaries. Nothing was off limits, whether it be Friday Night Lights (book, television series, and movie), Personal Best, or a biography of John McEnroe. After reading a few books on running, I began, much to my surprise, to jog in the late afternoons.
I thought a lot about running while I jogged, and eventually, the narrator of my novel, Mel, was born in my mind. A former runner sidelined from exercise by doctors’ orders, now chaperoning the women’s Olympic team.
With her melancholic and searching outlook, Mel gave me my way in, an insider and an outsider. I saw her first while looking at old photographs of women’s Olympic teams, and noticing, off to the side of one photo, a chaperone standing beside the athletes, not named in the caption.
“That’s my narrator,” I thought, staring at the anonymous woman.
At some point, I realized I was done researching. I’d filled myself up—brimming with thoughts and ideas and questions—and it was time to try to make sense of it all.
The best fiction, whether historical or not, produces a spell where the characters live. This takes a combination of instinct and skill, and a concentration aimed toward appreciating and rendering complexity.
My characters in The Peerless Four have become so real to me that now I have trouble distinguishing the “real” from the fictional. What did I make up? What really happened? I’m not so sure any more.
I know certain facts—for instance that the javelin wasn’t included in the five track and field events permissible for women in 1928. But for my purposes, I included the javelin anyway. But the characters and what happened are not as clear-cut. Did I make it up? Or did it really happen the way that I wrote it? My fictive characters have blurred in my mind with their real life counterparts.
I’m taking this as a good sign. It reminds me of the power of the writer’s imagination, and the reality that it can create for an artist; and strangely, of Balzac’s physician, Dr. Bianchon, whom Balzac invented for his Comédie. On his deathbed, it’s reported that Balzac called for his fictive creation, saying, “Only Bianchon can save me…”
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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.