This book is based on a true story. All the characters are real. But because I have invented dialogue, this falls into the category of historical fiction. Please know, however, that the conversations and situations I have constructed are based on extensive reading and research about the characters and their history.
Why write historical fiction? Why not just stick with history itself and write a nonfiction account of something? I mean, David McCullough’s books aren’t so bad, and some say they read like novels. But here’s the thing—what about great stories, real ones, from history, where there is not enough material in the records to fill in all the blanks?
This is, I think, the greatest service the historical fiction writer can provide for readers. Sometimes the only “story” we have exists in fragments. The DNA of a broader narrative is there, but it’s not easily seen, and it must be carefully reconstructed with informed imagination.
Enter the practitioner of the craft of historical fiction. The writer builds a superstructure from a few fragile fragments, but always with an eye on all other relevant facts and materials extant. It’s sort of like how they build dinosaur skeletons from a small assortment of scattered bones.
The late Irving Stone was a genius at this. Writing in the preface to one of his great books, “The President’s Lady: A Novel About Rachel and Andrew Jackson,” he talked about this kind of research and writing. He said it was, “as authentic and documented as several years of intensive research, the generous assistance of the historians and librarians in the field, and literally thousands of books, magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, diaries, public records, correspondence and collections of unpublished memoirs and doctoral theses can make it.”
Then Mr. Stone dropped the other shoe: “The interpretations of character are of course my own; this is not only the novelist’s prerogative, but his obligation. Much of the dialogue had to be recreated, but every effort has been made to create it on the basis of individual character, personality, temperament, education, idiosyncrasy, as well as recorded conversations and dialogue, memoirs, diaries, letters, and published accounts by relatives, friends, associates, even of detractors, and enemies.”
To my mind, the late Mr. Stone struck the right balance, setting a standard for all who dare to reimagine the past.