Thursday, February 21, 2019

What If...

This coming Sunday, Feb 24, at 2:30 p.m., I (Donis) will be teaching a free class at Tempe, Arizona, Public Library on research for writers. I’ve spent the past couple of days getting my notes in order. The usual things : eschewing anachronisms, maintaining authentic cultural attitudes, avoiding data dumps, gaining information from internet/interview/travel/hands on experience, and so on.

As a historical novelist, one of my favorite sources for research about early twentieth century America is the newspapers. Before I even begin on a new book, I spend a fair amount of time perusing the newspapers from the place and time I intend to write about. Nothing is better for discovering what people knew about an event that may be historical to us but was happening at the moment to them, as well as discovering what they thought about the events of the day. Which believe you me, was not necessarily what we’ve come to believe. Besides, you can come across all kinds of fascinating information that may have nothing to do with what you were thinking about, but ends up leading you in directions you could never have imagined on your own.

I call this “serendipitous research.” It’s the accidental discovery of something that gives you an idea you would never otherwise have imagined. Perfect example: a couple of days ago, just while reading my morning paper I came across this delightful tidbit in the Arizona Republic :

February 17 : On this date in 1913, a prehistoric graveyard was unearthed along Sycamore Creek near Prescott containing the skeletons of people who appeared to have been at least 8 feet tall.

There’s an idea just a’waiting for some imaginative novelist.

How real do we need to be when we write, anyway? I’m not advocating playing fast and loose with history. The reader should never be disturbed or pulled out of the story. Caesar shouldn’t check his wristwatch. But let’s face it, the story is the thing. If you’re going to insist on absolute squeaky-clean accuracy, write a history book or a how-to-do-it or a biography. We all screw around with reality to some extent. Murders happen where none actually occurred. I decide that there should be a storm in Muskogee County, OK, on June 3, 1917. I could easily discover what the weather on that day in that place was actually like, but why bother? I’ve already decided that there’s going to be a storm in my fictional world whether or not there was one in the real world.Over my little universe-of-the-page, I am God Herself.

In fact, some authors change major historical events to suit themselves. This is called “alternative history”, and I love it. I am intrigued by how the past can be reconfigured by an imaginative writer. Have you ever read Fatherland, by Robert Harris? What if the Nazis had won WWII? Philip Roth’s Plot Against America is another popular alternative history. I also liked Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna. It’s actually a collection of short stories, but they all posit the idea that the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt didn’t go as planned, and Christianity never became the dominant religion of Rome.

I’d love to write an alternative history some time. But rather than change the outcome of world events, I think I might alter the past on a much more personal level. What if the circumstances of my birth had been exactly the same, but I had been a boy instead of a girl? What sort of life would I have lived? I am the perfect age for the Viet Nam draft. How would that have played out?

Now that I think about it, I actually do write alternative history, of a sort. In reality, I’m a childless, over-educated, ex-professional, left-leaner, who, through her series protagonist, has gotten to experience the life of a traditional farm wife and mother of ten children, and is now enjoying the lifestyles of the rich and famous in 1920s Hollywood.

No comments: