This year marks the 300th anniversary of the death of the legendary Edward Thache, the former British Navy seaman and notorious privateer-turned-pirate known as Blackbeard. A Robin-Hood-like American patriot and the most famous freebooter of all time, Blackbeard was illegally hunted down by Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood, the British Crown’s man in Williamsburg obsessed with his capture. Here, author Samuel Marquis, great-grandson of Captain William Kidd and author of the new book Blackbeard: The Birth of America, offers his best advice for writing great historical fiction.
By Samuel Marquis
Writing Great Historical Fiction: Stick to the Real History While Sustaining a Crisp Pace
My loyal legion of book fans—okay, it might have been one guy in the back of the room at my latest book signing—recently asked me what was the key to recreating the world of pirates for my historical fiction book Blackbeard: The Birth of America.
My answer was that because I was the ninth great-grandson of Captain Kidd, I owed it to Blackbeard and my swashbuckling ancestor both to make historical accuracy my watchword. I was not joking. To portray the legendary Edward Thache of Spanish Town, Jamaica, as accurately as possible, I made my historical novel basically a history book that read like a fast-paced thriller or action-adventure novel.
To accomplish the feat, I had to synthesize available records from countless primary sources from colonial archives and the most reliable modern researchers and tell Blackbeard’s story without embellishment. I had to resist the temptation to indulge in the myriad Blackbeard and pirate myths that have permeated books like Treasure Island and Captain Blood, movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, and TV shows like Black Sails and Crossbones. I also had to force myself not to modernize the pirate commodore to make him more palatable to contemporary readers, a common mistake of historical fiction authors. And most importantly, while I was doing all this, I had to make sure to keep up a frenetic pace.
You can and should do the same in your own historical fiction or historical non-fiction work. Historical accuracy is paramount, and the truth must come first and foremost above the storytelling or modern-day political correctness.
Why? You want your story to be accurate because all the other important things—sympathetic characters, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and unexpected twists and turns—spring from portraying your beloved heroes and villains in all their glory and infamy just like the real-world, flawed historical figures they were.
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You also want to pass muster from history aficionados and your most demanding readers, who will pick you apart if you don’t get the details right. But of course, while you’re doing this you must maintain a crisp pace by choosing the most crucial historical events to showcase your characters, the ones that truly define them and portray their strengths and weaknesses in full measure.
So how do you go about being accurate and fast-paced? First, with respect to the events portrayed in your historical fiction novel, you should always place the actual historical figures where they physically were during a given recorded historical event and use, to the extent possible, their actual words based on government files, contemporary transcripts, trial documents, personal letters, and other quoted materials.
Like Michael Shaara in his excellent historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, do not “consciously change any fact” or “knowingly violate the action.” But many historical fiction authors and Hollywood violate that principle all the time, you protest. Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not them. That is not to say that you can’t have fictional characters in your novel along with the historical figures—I am simply saying that when a real historical figure inhabits the page in a real historical event, don’t deliberately change the facts to fit your personal agenda. Stick to the truth where the truth is known, and in the more fictionalized scenes between known historical events, at least stay true to character.
But what about the pacing? Don’t worry, you can stick to history and still propel the plot along at a furious pace. The key to consistently achieving this goal is to have ample external events that change the character dynamics and upset the status quo; to create characters that are both memorable and lovable specifically because they are real and not fake; and to construct a historical world that is utterly authentic.
In Blackbeard: The Birth of America and my forthcoming Spies of the Midnight Sun: A True Story of WWII Heroes, Book 3 of my WWII Series, I have selected more than fifty of real-life historical events and turned them into individual scenes that tip the scales in favor or against my heroes and villains so that they are nearly always in a state of flux. Most of the scenes are based on known events with specific historical figures present, but a minority are based on incidents that are generally accepted to have taken place but have unfortunately not been documented by history, or that I believe happened under similar circumstances to those described in the book but for which there is no historical record. That is okay.
Whether you’re writing about Captain Kidd, Alan Turing, or General Norman Schwarzkopf, you’re not going to have a documented record of every minute of a historical figure’s life, so even if you’re writing a fictionalized biography you will have to invent some scenes. And to maintain good pacing, you will need not just a few true events, but dozens to maintain the suspense and keep your readers turning the pages.
The main thing is to keep up a brisk pace by highlighting many defining moments in lives of your characters, thereby infusing your historical novel with plot twists and turns, while at the same time not purposefully distorting the truth in the false belief that you are making history more interesting or topical relative to our supposedly more enlightened, contemporary era.
The true story of any historical figure provides plenty of conflict, tension, and drama, and does not need to be consciously changed to generate more excitement. In fact, in the case of our friend Blackbeard, I would argue that the real man was far more interesting and humane that the villainous cutthroat spawned by the overactive imagination of the world’s first pirate author, Captain Charles Johnson (Nathanial Mist), who wrote A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1724 six years after Blackbeard’s death. As Blackbeard historian Arne Bialuschewski states about the book upon which the last nearly three hundred years of pirate literature has been based: “This book has been plundered by generations of historians, despite the fact that it is riddled with errors, exaggerations, and misunderstandings.”
Don’t be like Captain Johnson or a Hollywood movie—tell the truth. You can immerse your reader in the exciting world of the past while still propelling the plot along at a furious pace. The key to consistently achieving this goal is to maintain constant tension by selecting the most interesting and dynamic-shifting historical events and placing them one right after the other so that your reader doesn’t have a chance to take a breath.
If the overall pace is fast enough and the reader loves your characters and can empathize with them and believe what they believe, he will love your book. It all lies in the pacing and bringing historical characters to vivid life by peeling back the layers, highlighting their most stellar achievements and failures, and telling their overall true story to the best of your abilities.
The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of historical pirate fiction, a World War Two Series, and the Nick Lassiter-Skyler International Espionage Series. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest Best Book, USA Best Book, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis’s WWII thrillers Bodyguard of Deception and Altar of Resistance to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, and Alan Furst. Mr. Marquis’s newest historical fiction novel, Blackbeard: The Birth of America, commemorates the 300th anniversary of Blackbeard’s death. His website is www.samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact JKS Communications at firstname.lastname@example.org.