Verisimilitude is a big word that means giving the appearance of being real or truthful. A historical novelist has an obligation to his or her readers to write a story that is credible, authentic, and plausible. In writing The Iron Horse Chronicles, I spend countless hours scouring sources to ensure the historical timeline in which I place my characters adheres closely to the truth. Readers implicitly place a trust in me to provide an account of events that is believable and honest, while at the same time being entertaining and educational.
Printed books must compete with a plethora of electronic media. E-books are becoming more prevalent, making access to the written word potentially easier; but to many it is still easier to watch a television show or a movie. Middle grade students undoubtedly learn much about history from these latter media, and I am frustrated by what has been presented recently about the building of the first transcontinental railroad.
Screenwriters apparently do not feel the necessity to adhere to the principle of verisimilitude. Today’s scripts remind me of the Western movies of the 1940s and 50s (which I devoured as a boy) that didn’t care what stood in the way of a “good story.” Two recent offerings from the producers of the visual media have been disappointing because of their unnecessary distortion of history.
Hell on Wheels, an original AMC television series (TV-14), commenced in the fall of 2011. I have watched every episode and have marveled at how the writers ignore the facts. Recently, the conclusion of the show’s fourth season invented a meeting between President Ulysses S. Grant and Mormon leader Brigham Young in Salt Lake City. No such meeting occurred. The screenwriters included Doc Durant, who appears throughout the series as the Union Pacific’s principal on-scene manager. They never mention General Grenville Dodge, who was the real force behind the physical construction of the UP. When Durant, a financier, occasionally came west from the company’s New York headquarters, he usually made a mess of things. The Salt Lake City scene also included Collis Huntington, whom the screenwriters present as the manager of the Central Pacific’s field construction. Huntington was the CP’s lobbyist in Washington, DC. Charles Crocker was the driving force in the field. Students, young and old, who are not familiar with the history of westward expansion will come away with a misunderstanding of the facts.
The Lone Ranger, a 2013 Walt Disney movie (PG-13), also presented a distorted version of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The scriptwriters abandoned verisimilitude in favor of sensationalism. For the Comanche Indians to have attacked the Union Pacific Railroad, as depicted in the movie, they would have had to make a thousand-mile trek from Texas. The Sioux and the Cheyennes did attack the railroad in Nebraska and Wyoming, but the railroad traversed their hunting grounds. The Utes and the Shoshones, who inhabited Utah and were the tribes physically in a position to have attacked, were peaceable in 1869. There were no Indian attacks at the time of the driving of the Golden Spike. As a boy, I was an avid watcher of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. I looked forward to enjoying the resurrection of those memorable characters in the new movie, but the distortion of history ruined it. Sadly, some young readers of my book Eagle Talons told me the movie was a favorite.
Now that I have vented my frustration, I must return to finishing the third book in my trilogy and try to remain reasonably close to the truth. I admit to placing my fictional characters in juxtaposition with historical personalities in order to write about the real events of history. I'll try hard to use verisimilitude.