TURNING THE REAL PAST INTO YOUR FICTION by Carl R. Brush
Creating fictional characters is a ball. You get to fiddle around with height, weight, hair, temperament. You can put them in all kinds of situations, loving and fighting other people you’ve invented. But if you’re a historical novelist, your character sooner or later will meet up with a “real” person. Or if you’re a really brave author, that historical figure is your protagonist. From that moment on, you’re surfing the big waves.
There’s the research part of fashioning these characters, which puts some people off. I find it exciting, though. Digging up true tales of long ago helps me make sense out of the here and now, which often makes no sense at all. I mean Trump, Carson, Sanders, Clinton all in the same room? Really?
But to return to the past.
Another advantage of research is that it gives you some boundaries, which, in turn, creates security. Although your creative impulses can’t stray beyond certain physical details, dates, and events, you’d be amazed how much you fun you can have in your own back yard. Look what Shakespeare accomplished with three quatrains and a couplet.
There are different approaches. Gore Vidal created a monumental novel about Lincoln without ever bringing us face-to-face with the icon. Instead, we get Lincoln’s story via his secretary, John Hay. Vidal’s is a great work, but it seems to me he took a bit of a chicken way out. Nobody knows or cares much about John Hay, so Vidal gave himself almost complete artistic freedom.
Not that I’m up there with the great Gore, but I prefer a chancier approach, which I think is more fun. And if you’re not having fun, why are you doing this?
Like one of my mentors, Oakley Hall, in his brilliant turn-of-the-20th-century detective novels (Ambrose Bierce and the Ace of Spades, etc.), and like Max Byrd with his fine novelized biographies of presidents (Grant, Jefferson, Jackson), or like Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, I want to my readers to meet and talk to the Sam Houston’s, the Ambrose Bierce’s, the Hiram Johnson’s, the Sam Brannan’s, who figured large in the events that surround my books. That means I not only give them dialogue, I read their thoughts and feelings. It’s scary in a way. Many people know lots about some of these folks. What if I somehow get them wrong? After all my years in academia, I have an unhealthy respect for pedants. The very thought of them intimidates me. Will I be pilloried, and bloodied by scholar/readers, condemned to crawl away and die in some dark literary cave?
Well, you don’t win by trying not to lose, so I don’t try not to get them wrong. Research gives me the gift of limitations, and I make my people pretty much true to history. But that historical accuracy—and here’s the crux—comes second to making them true to my story.
Take Sam Houston of my The Yellow Rose, co-authored with the late Bob Stewart. Houston hated slavery, but owned slaves (not many) and was the founder of a Republic that embraced slavery in its constitution. And he was a monumental drinker. You couldn’t invent a better character than this warrior son of the south. Couldn’t conceive more dramatic fiction than to get him drunk and hear him rave about race and religion and war and fall desperately in love with the mulatto Emily West, who is revered in Texas history/legend as the original “Yellow Rose of Texas.” And what grander drama could you invent than to have Emily fall in love with Houston, yet remain her own person? Or to experience her rape by the brutal Mexican general Santa Anna?
History gives us an outline, all we had to do was let our imagination fill in the blanks.
My Bonita is a different sort of tale. She’s fictional, but she’s the niece (or thinks she is) of the very real Captain William Richardson. He’s not a household name like Houston, but he is connected with important events and places in San Francisco Bay Area history. Like Houston, he was known for eccentricities, for his difficult situation as an Englishman in Mexican California. The circumstances surrounding his untimely death are murky. We know much, but the spaces are large enough to allow me to bring my Bonita into his life and into the lives of many other early California movers and shakers. He and they serve my story wonderfully well both as a comfort and a foil to my heroine’s impulsive personality.
Blurb for The Yellow Rose:
Historically, “yellow rose” was a term for a pretty mulatto
woman. Also historically, the
original Yellow Rose of Texas was one
Emily West, and her story is intertwined in song and legend with the Texas
Revolution of 1836. That series of battles, led by Sam Houston, made Texas a
republic. Its own country. A historical event unique among the fifty states.
The Yellow Rose is set during the revolution and supposes that Emily and Sam not only
collaborated in certain incidents that gave the Texans victory over the Mexican
general/dictator, Santa Anna, but became romantically involved.
The novel mixes legend with
fact. No one knows for sure if our Emily met Sam Houston or if she participated
in the revolution at all. On the other hand, no one has proved the contrary.
So, The Yellow Rose asks the
question: What if . . .
What a fascinating article, Carl! Thank you! :)
Guest Blogger Bio
I’ve been writing
since I could write, which is quite a long time now. I grew up and live in
Northern California, close to the roots of the people and action of three of my
historical thrillers, The Maxwell
Vendetta, and its sequel, The Second Vendetta,
which take place in 1908-10 San Francisco and the high Sierra. The third of
the trilogy, Bonita, is set in
pre-gold-rush San Francisco. A fourth in the series is on the way.
For The Yellow Rose, I made a literary jump
from California to Texas, where my co-author, the late Bob Stewart, dwelled.
It’s a tale of the Texas revolution and an imagined affair between Sam Houston
and a legendary mulatto woman, Emily West, who is best remembered as The Yellow
Rose of Texas.
...You can find Carl
living with his wife in Oakland, California, where he enjoys the blessings of
nearby children and grandchildren.
Twitter: https://twitter.com/carlrbrushGoodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6538152.Carl_R_Brush
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Carl-R.-Brush/e/B00DCXPH64/
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Carl-R.-Brush/e/B00DCXPH64/
Co-Author Bob Stewart's Bio
On Facebook, Bob Stewart, called himself “Writer Bob
Stewart,” and it is an apt title.
Bob died shortly after completing The Yellow Rose, which he co-wrote with
Carl Brush. But proud as he was of this novel, it was only the latest work in a
career that covered decades of literary toil and produced millions of words.
He was a long-time journalist, based in San Antonio,
whose pieces were also published in such national publications as People Magazine. He interviewed
literally thousands of people, both famous and infamous, ranging from
presidents to serial killers to movie stars.
In addition to his journalistic credits, Bob wrote
two scripts for the popular TV show, Gunsmoke.
Later, he began a career as an author, publishing
four non-fiction works, Man to Man: Whenthe Woman You Love Has Breast Cancer; Sacrifice;
Revenge Redeemed; and No Remorse.
In recent years, Bob enjoyed publication of three
fiction novels: Alias,Thomas A. Katt, Hidden Evil, and First Born.
Yellow Rose is his first historical novel.
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Bob-Stewart/e/B001KHQ4IE/Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5626832.Bob_Stewart