Monday, January 9, 2012

Fast and loose?

My latest creative project, which for last several weeks has seen me involved in drastic, medically necessary line editing, is a series of stories half in historical in nature and half not. I've mentioned this in a couple blogs since last summer. What binds the stories is the
setting--Nantucket Island, Massachusetts--but I've found some similar themes evolving across the stories, whether they are contemporary or historical. I guess this isn't surprising since all the stories arise out of the same imagination.

The earliest story, chronologically, takes place in 1795. (Interestingly, this was the last story to be drafted.) The catalyst for the story was reading about an actual, and rather significant, event from that year: the robbing of the new Nantucket Bank by a group of off-islanders during the Nantucket's June sheep-shearing festival. No robbery is good for those victimized, but this crime proved particularly divisive, as accusations began flying wildly (cunningly?), especially from the mouth of the bank's president, one Joseph Chase. Islanders very quickly took sides in laying blame. On one side were the Quakers, who tended to be Jeffersonian Democrats; on the other side were the Congregationalists, who tended to be Federalists. Each side thought they had an explanation for the crime and were sticking to their guns, despite evidence to the contrary. This is especially true in the case of the Quakers. (Chase was part of their ranks.) At one point, William Coffin, a Congregationalist and Federalist--and someone suspected of being involved with the robbery--had to carry out his own investigation on the mainland, because the mostly Quaker, Democratic bank directors refused to look into, or didn't want to believe, clues and rumors that pointed to culprits from there. After months of searching off-island, Chase actually brought back to Nantucket two men from New York who admitted to the crime. But the bank directors, too busy trying to pin the crime on Coffin and his Federalist allies, never took the suspects seriously, and the two men were later permitted to escape. It proved a disastrously acrimonious episde for the island, and in the years following Nantucketers tended to look back on the pre-1795 years as a period of prelapsarian grace.

The Nantucket Bank robbery is a fascinating story--with even more complications that I've suggested above--so I couldn't resist approaching the event fictionally. It's probably worthy of a novel, but for now I've merely written a long short story. While I've stayed true to several facts about the case, I've also changed many facts, left others out, and am ignorant of still more. My characters, while based on real participants, are given new names and identities, and revised personal backgrounds. Also, in trying to shape the robbery into a coherent story, I've conflated the timeline and eliminated certain events and people that were significant to the historical account. Whether it works as a story is my main concern, not whether it works as history. Right now I can't tell because I'm still very close to it. My main worry for now, actually, is that because it's based on a real case I encountered in a history book (Nathaniel Philbrick's wonderful Away Off-Shore), I'm trying for too much historical perspective. But I have a feeling that historians, and perhaps Philbrick himself, would say that I'm playing way too fast and far too loose with the facts.

However, I wonder aloud--and am wondering in this post--if by giving my characters invented names and (mostly) invented identities, I have opened up exactly that "fast and loose" space for myself. I guess that's why I did it. (I say "I guess" because it was an intuitive choice. I didn't labor over it; I just did it.) Unlike my Van Gogh novel, I am not using real names. (Altough I am using a real event and a real island.) In my novel, I can fairly be charged, if in just a few spots, of creating an "alternative history." In completely abandoning real names and identities does the fiction become more or less alternative? Can a writer be criticized for not sticking to the "known facts" about a character if that character is fictional? What if the fictional character is in some vital ways drawn from a real person? Does this create a meaningful distinction or a distinction without a difference? Oh, the entangled mental waters one wades into when one starts blending history and fiction. But, then again, that's the fun of it, right?


  1. In general, there's always going to be someone criticizing for something :)

    I am curious why you're wanting to create "alternate history" when the real history sounds so fascinating. I know you mentioned trying to make it coherent, but I'm not sure I follow why it needs to be almost entirely made-up. I believe you mentioned before that all historical fiction to some extent is alternate history, so the question remains in my head, why create a fully fictitious event that mirrors something real? Wouldn't it make more sense to take the real history and then pare down or merge those details which don't need to stand alone (sort of like what Hollywood does with their "based on" or "inspired by" movies)? Of course, Hollywood does what you're suggesting as well...I'm just trying to wrap my mind around it all.

  2. These are good questions! As far as my Van Gogh books goes, I actually did stick to the "real" history except for maybe one spot where I invented a scene that I know didn't happen but made a terrible lot of sense for my novel. All the other scenes were ones which could have happened, based on what we know of Van Gogh's life, but because they are fully dramatized scenes, not historical summary, my imagination, by necessity, had as much control over how they turned out as if I were writing straight fiction. But I've mentioned that before.

    For my latest piece, I guess the best answer I can give is that I'm telling the story I care to tell. Also a story I feel I can tell within the confines of a traditional story length. But there's absolutely no reason why someone couldn't do exactly what you say: sticking as closely as possible to the facts and only trimming here and there. At least as a starting strategy that's perfectly sensible. But even so, inevitably a writer runs up against the demands and instincts of his imagination. And then what does the writer do? I tend to follow my imagination, but other writers operate differently. That's what makes historical fiction so tricky and so individual.