If you’ve read my novels, you know I particularly like to write about the romances of true couples from history. Over the past couple of years, I’ve branched into writing true historicals (versus more of the “inspired-by” that I did earlier). Last year, I published Luther & Katharina a historical based on the love life of the monk Martin Luther and his bride, a runaway nun named Katharina von Bora.
A couple of weeks ago, my second historical released, Newton & Polly. This book is based on the true story of John Newton, the atheist slave-trader who went on to write the famous hymn, Amazing Grace. The story spotlights his bride, Polly Catlett, a relatively unknown woman, but one who influenced Newton so much, that without her Newton may never have left the slave trade and had his amazing grace moment. Thus without Polly Catlett, we wouldn’t have our beloved hymn. Can you imagine a world without Amazing Grace?
When I talk about my historicals, invariably readers want to know how I balance writing fact with fiction. In other words, how much of the story is true and how much do I make up? Where does a historical fiction author draw the line in maintaining integrity with what really happened with what is invented for the sake of telling a riveting story?
I always make it my goal to stay as true to the known facts as possible. I want to represent the people and events that I write about as accurately as I can. I search out and consult primary sources (autobiographies, letters, diaries, etc.). I also narrow down the most comprehensive and accurate biographies, usually drawing on several and comparing their information. Using the true details, I build my story framework.
So for example, Newton and Polly really did meet at a young age. Newton really did claim to have fallen in love with her at first sight. He overspent his time at the Catlett home on numerous occasions and lost his jobs in the process. Because of his lack of character, the Catletts forbade Newton to have further contact with Polly. He was pressed into the Royal Navy but later deserted, was whipped, and demoted. He was transferred to a merchant vessel and from there spent time dealing in the slave trade in Africa.
Yes, it’s very important to remain true to the facts. And I make it my goal to do so to the best of my ability. However, if that’s all a fiction writer did the book would turn into a biography.
The challenge, then, is for historical writers to take the facts and craft them into a riveting tale that readers can’t put down. In order to do that, writers often have to add additional plot lines and characters. Since history doesn’t record everything and we weren’t there to see what really happened, writers have the liberty of interpreting the gaps and adding in things that could have occurred.
I always write with this motto: Build a solid framework with true facts, but then fill in the unknown and decorate the house with enough color and drama to make a good story.
What about YOU? Do you read historicals or historical romances? If so, what do you like best about the historical genre?