ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
AN HISTORIAN AND HISTORICAL NOVELIST?
Nov. 4, 2014
Which reminds me of a joke: what’s the difference between a Catholic priest and acne? Acne doesn’t come on your face until your twelve.
But anyway, getting back to the difference between historians and historical novelists, one has a plentitude of facts and knows how to write; the other has a plentitude of facts, knows how to write, but also has an imagination which they use to fill in the unrecorded gaps.
I sit here day in and day out reading history, then stuffing it through my brain and transforming it into historical fiction. Although I love history, and I love historians for going to the trouble of researching and writing it, most of them have exactly the same issues as most of the others—they assume that we know more than we actually do, rarely feel the need to explain what anything means, believe that if they happen to mention a character’s rank (if they’re a soldier) or first name once, then they never have to bring it up again, if they mentioned what year it was they never have to say it again, even when the year changes, and will happily spew random and tangential facts that have nothing to do with the story, or, more specifically, the plot.
The plot, which is the structure or plan of a story, is about how A gets to B then gets to C . . . Historians don’t give a rat’s ass about plots; all they care about are facts. As a former screenwriter, where the plot means a lot, but the characters mean even more, I marvel at most historians’ ignorance of humanity. If you mention Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard once, then call him P. G. T. Beauregard fifty pages later, you can be Goddamned certain I’ve forgotten what those initials stand for.
But that’s nothing. I am presently writing, General Lew Wallace: Soldier, Statesman, and the Author of “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which begins with Wallace’s adventures during the American Civil War. At the infamous Battle of Shiloh, Lew Wallace was the third-highest ranked General in the Union army, after Generals Henry Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant, and that’s where Lew Wallace’s military career took a nose-dive. Why? Because of a garbled verbal order sent by Grant, who then denied it and threw Wallace under the wagon, so to speak.
But at the Battle of Shiloh there were two General Wallaces (Lew and W.L.H.), two General Johnstons (Joe and A.L.), Generals McClellen and McLernand, and it takes place right near Savannah (no, not Georgia, Tennessee), which is never explained and I finally had to get out a map and look it up.
My favorite part about writing historical fiction is dreaming up who the characters are, what they believe and stand for, and do they have a sense of humor or not, then adding in all the dialog. I use direct quotes whenever I can, usually from a letter or a report, then put the quote into the character’s mouth, then spin an entire conversation out of it. Rare is the time that you’ll find an historian making any historical character funny (even if they know they were), unless it’s perhaps W.C. Fields or Robin Williams. You can’t help but make Abraham Lincoln funny because he was and everyone remembered his humorous stories. You can’t make Adolf Hitler funny because he wasn’t—he was severely serious, even in his youth. However, since there was no indication one way or the other, I made Stephen Decatur, the greatest naval hero in the United States’ history, a funny, laughing, upbeat guy just because I could.
We may well read in a biography that a character was an extreme drunk, but we’ll never read about them slurring their words or inexplicably falling down and bashing their skull on the wall. Why? Because either there was no one there to see it, or the historian doesn’t want to make their hero look bad. The book I’m reading now about General Lew Wallace downplays the hell out of the fiasco he got into at Shiloh strictly because the author likes his character too much.
But of course, not all historians do these ridiculous things. I must immediately name my three favorite historians: David McCullough, John Toland and Robert K. Massie, who never do any ridiculous things. Harry Truman was a funny guy and McCullough gets that across amply in his epic, and wittily-titled, book, Truman. Adolf Hitler had very little sense of humor and this is made ever so clear by John Toland in his definitive life of Hitler, ironically-titled, Hitler. And who can ever forget—certainly not me—the tragic lives of Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, in Robert K. Massie’s brilliant, and heartbreakingly-titled, Nicholas and Alexandra.
One of the books I’m reading right now, just for fun, is Desert Queen by Janet Wallach, and she’s just great; as good as can be. She explains everything and has a wonderful sense of humor. I will be extremely pleased to read all of her other books. Finding a new, or at least new to me, historian, is like finding a treasure trove filled with gold doubloons.
I just stumbled upon Donald Barr Chidsey (1902-1981) and his terrific book, The Barbary Wars. Actually, I read The Barbary Wars years ago and it so stuck with me that it inspired me to write my own historical novel about the Barbary Wars entitled, Commodore Stephen Decatur, ten years later. And, best of all, Mr. Chidsey has tons of other books, like thirty with just this one publisher, and many of them are naval histories and naval historical novels, too. Well, shiver me timbers! I’m in pig-heaven.
But getting back to historical fiction, I get to put words in the mouths of anyone and everyone, from the Roman Emperor Claudius in 41 AD to Heinrich Himmler to Teddy Roosevelt to Adolf Hitler to Sam Giancana, the guy that I say is responsible for JFK’s assassination. I just put a heap of words into the mouth of Abraham Lincoln. The secret is to climb into their heads, then talk like them. This is mainly achieved by reading about them and reading the words they said. Sam Giancana didn’t speak like John F. Kennedy—Giancana spoke like a goomba, saying such prosaic things as, “What the fuck’re you lookin’ at? It better not be me. OK, so I sez we whack this piece o’ shit before he whacks us, whatcha think?” as opposed to, “I, uh, asked Bobby if he wanted any chowdah, but he, uh, prodigiously refused my invitation, albeit with, uh, great affection.”
I have a scene in Commodore Stephen Decatur of which I’m quite proud. After retiring from active duty at the ripe-old age of thirty-five, Decatur went to work at the Naval Board of Commissioners in Washington City (it hadn’t gone D.C. yet). His good buddy, Oliver Hazard Perry, “The Hero of Lake Erie,” had mistakenly gotten himself challenged to four separate duels at the same time. Handsome, though a tad chubby, with pursed effeminate lips, his cheeks bedecked with long sideboards in a vain attempt of hiding his girlishness, Perry came to Decatur for advice and help. Since neither of them were presently on active duty since the USA, oddly, happened to not be at war with anyone at that exact moment, so both of them promptly became drunks. Anyway, Perry asks Decatur if he will intervene on his behalf with President Monroe, who can end Perry’s problems with the swipe of a quill pen, and Decatur says sure. So, to Decatur’s surprise, who should come walking into his office at noon to find him smash-assed drunk and urinating into a spittoon, but President Monroe, who’s an old man at this point in 1816, having previously been a member of the original Continental Congress in 1776. The president is somewhat taken aback, but not a lot, remember, this is before indoor plumbing, and if you gotta go you gotta go, particularly if you are heavily partaking in the brandy and sodas. Monroe is concerned for Perry and seeks Decatur’s advice. Decatur says, sign the amnesty and it’s all over. Monroe says he can’t get involved in duels of honor. Decatur returns his penis to his tight naval trousers, shrugs and pours himself another B&S. Monroe asks why Decatur is being so stand-offish, and Decatur replies, “You, sir, and all your Republican ilk are traitors.” Now Monroe is officially offended, asking if Decatur isn’t one of those horrible, liberal Federalists? Decatur proclaims, “I am indeed, sir. I follow the lead and the likes of General George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, your former masters whom you have betrayed, slinking over to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both traitors themselves. You and your fellow Virginians put the well-being of your state ahead of the well-being of the country.” “But,” says Monroe, “Washington was from Virginia.” “Yes,” replies Decatur, “and he was smart enough to be a Federalist, like me, unlike you.” Etc.
In reality, I don’t know what political persuasion, if any, Stephen Decatur held true; he was pretty much apolitical. But Monroe was certainly a Republican, so I decided to make Decatur a Federalist so I could spout my own political beliefs. I’m not breaking any facts, I’m simply adding my two-cents worth. Historians are not allowed to do that, which, in my opinion, is a bloody shame.