Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Rewriting the past.

We all do it. In our own lives, we do it. We all look back and retell stories as we remember them. And sometimes, we remember them in a totally different way than someone else telling the story. Such is the lot of history. It is left in the hands, memories, and imagination of those who are bound to repeat it…to others. I remember, with great ambivalence, seeing that one of my nonfiction history books was used as a Wikipedia reference for an historic figure. I knew I had done the research, putting things together as best as I could, and coming to a conclusion…but was I right? It really worried me, considering that, for now, and as long as there is Wikipedia, my claim is part of history, set down in virtual stone as truth. The question is…was I right? Perhaps a bigger question might be…does that matter?

from digital stamp design
History isn’t necessarily about being right or wrong. There isn’t a right, if we think of positions people take, views and ideas that differ greatly without being right or wrong. Yes, dates and certain events can be factual or not, but the how and the why, the motives and thoughts and emotions involved do not have a right or wrong. Even in our own histories, we reconstrue what happened, we review and reanalyze our own motives and feelings and intentions. These things change, as we do, and our relationship to our own history does, as well.

When we write historic fiction, we take a position and let the story play out from there. We invent as historians must do, to a degree, to put the narrative in order. We give life to characters that lived and give them a place in the story we build around them.

While the Young Inventors Guild books tell a story that is fiction, I discovered a mystery that I solved in my own way. I took events in history and rewrote them, keeping in mind that I was bound to both a moment in time and the events that were happening at that moment. There are elements of history that I tried to make as accurate as possible. I wanted my characters to fit into a history that would have surrounded them. How old would Noah’s mother, Ariana, have been when Célestine Galli-Marié played Carmen in Vienna? How big was the Grand Opera House in Toronto after the 1879 fire? How many times did I have to repeat ‘great’ to make sure that Benjamin Banneker was the properly placed great grandfather to Wallace? (It turns out to be three.) And how was Wallace related to Lewis Latimer? How could Faye’s mother and father have studied together at Harvard if the university didn’t let women until after 1879? Those are facts that need to be accurately portrayed in order to create a bond between fiction and history. The facts give us a sense of the history and get it onto the page. They make the story real. But it is up to the author to create the narrative that opens the story and takes the real off the page. That is what brings the story to life.

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