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Writing History and Historical Fiction



As both a novelist and historian, whose books have won awards in both categories, my presentation is a discussion of how I researched my books and what I believe the relationship between good historical fiction and good history ought to be. The discussion focuses on my three novels, The Children Bob Moses Led, Blacksnake’s Path, and Devil Dancer, as well as my history book, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest.
The Power of Filmmaking and Political Storytelling Symposium
September 11, 2016, Catalonia’s National Day, Chevy Chase, Maryland
William Heath: Writing History and Historical Fiction
“The world is real. It is there.” This closing line from a Robert Penn Warren
poem serves as the epigraph for my first novel, The Children Bob Moses Led. Don’t
those words merely restate the obvious? If so, why did I select them? Perhaps, in our
heart of hearts, we don’t really believe the world is real. In fact, how do we determine
what is real and what isn’t? If we don’t fully realize how real the world really is, what is
gained and lost? By choosing those words, I was letting the reader know that my novel
was about “the real world” and that I wanted my book taken seriously. At least as
important to me at the time was my awareness that most popular fiction—thrillers,
romances, sci-fi, even supposedly historical novels—are formulaic fantasies designed to
enable readers to escape from, not engage with, the real world. Essentially they are
glib games of let’s pretend and let me entertain you, not creative efforts to discover the
truth about the past and about human nature.
In my most recent book, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest, a
work of
history, I say this about my intentions:
My study of Wells is based on the deceptively simple dictum of
Leopold von Ranke that the essential task of the historian is “to show
what actually happened.” Of course this goal is forever elusive. The past
cannot be recaptured. Nevertheless, some works of history are more eloquent,
accurate, and reliable than others. Furthermore, the task of historians is not
only to present the facts but to interpret them, to give shape and meaning
to human events. To write vividly and validly about the past, I have told
the story of William Wells through direct quotes from a multitude of
primary sources…[in order to capture] the actual voices of the period. (xvii)
In between this most recent work and my first book, I have published two other
novels. One is entitled Blacksnakes’ Path: The True Adventures of William Wells. Since
I have both fictionalized and documented the remarkable life of Wells, in his case I can
discuss in detail how the novelist and historian deal with the same material in differing
ways. I might say that neither genre, in my eye, should receive priority of place. If done
well, historical fiction and history should complement each other. Both are necessary to
understand the past. My other novel, Devil Dancer, is a crime novel set in Lexington,
Kentucky, in 1972, a time when I lived there myself, thus it draws upon my own
observations and people I actually knew. Yet it, too, involved a considerable amount of
research, ranging from the inner workings of a thoroughbred farm to the machinations of
the Mafia in Ohio and Kentucky.
Anyone who has done historical research appreciates the importance of
archives. Although I participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and heard Dr.
King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, I was at best on the fringes of the civil rights
movement and, at that time, did not know who Bob Moses was, nor did I participate in
the Mississippi Project the following year. Looking back on and studying the Sixties,
however, I came to realize that what became known as Freedom Summer represented
a moral high water mark for my generation and that Bob Moses was a truly exceptional
leader whose significance was in danger of being utterly lost. Thus I decided to write a
novel about him and “the children” he led. I certainly knew from experience how people
talked, felt, and acted during the decade, but in order to write with accuracy about the
civil rights movement in Mississippi, I would need to find a wealth of primary materials.
Over the next several years, I talked with the people of Mississippi, visited dozens of
archives, copied thousands of documents, and spent years sorting and shaping the
material I had selected. Two archives in particular stood out. The Martin Luther King
Center in Atlanta has a vast collection of the SNCC Papers (the Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee, the mostly black organization that provided the “shock troops”
of the movement). It is not typical for social activists to leave a rich trail of documents
behind them—they’re too tired after a long day of risking their lives to write up reports.
But it so happened that James Forman, one of their leaders, was a former high school
history teacher, and he insisted that they do just that—in triplicate! Thus almost every
confrontation, great or small, is on record in telling detail. As a novelist, I needed to get
down to the nitty gritty—exactly what people said, where they lived, how they dressed,
what they ate, what the weather was like. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to bring my
characters to life.
The other exceptional archive was at the Wisconsin Historical Society in
Madison. There the letters, diaries, newspaper articles, memoirs, and interviews of the
hundreds of mostly white college students who participated in the movement are kept.
These files enabled me to dramatize what it was like to teach in a Freedom School, to
go door to door in the black community for voter registration, to learn that three of their
fellows had been murdered by the Klan, and to see their hopes dashed at the
Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, when LBJ refused to seat the Mississippi
Freedom Party. I might add that the William Heath Papers are now a part of that
archive. In sum, I wanted to revive and revivify an essential chapter in the history of a
decade that was, and still is, in great danger of being turned into pure mythology. By
the way, Bob Moses’s style of leadership is very relevant to the present Catalan
question; unlike Martin Luther King, who was of course a great orator, Moses was a
behind-the-scenes community organizer who believed in the power of people to identify
their grievances and through carefully planned action to accomplish important things.
When it came to researching William Wells, the problems were much greater.
How could I recreate the world of the eighteenth century, both white settlers and Native
Americans, when the latter group’s culture had been largely obliterated and they left
behind almost no written records? If anything, I researched the life of Wells even more
vigorously than I did that of Bob Moses, who did grant me an interview and major
historians of the movement, such as Taylor Branch, shared their interviews with me.
The years it took to piece together the life of Wells and the culture of the Miami Indians
is too tedious to relate, but among the thirty-four archives I visited, two were especially
important. One, interestingly enough, was the Wisconsin Historical Society again. Back
in the early nineteenth century, a man named Lymon C. Draper realized that all the old
pioneers were dying off and their stories had never been written down. He devoted the
rest of his life to interviewing those who were still alive (if not, their children), and
gathering all the writings from the period he could find—letters, diaries, newspapers,
and so forth. He made an effort to locate surviving Indians as well. The Draper Papers
that resulted are now preserved on 480 rolls of microfilm, each containing hundreds of
pages of primary sources. Although often based on the shaky recollections of old
timers, for those whose eyes can survive the strain of squinting at all that microfilm, the
collection is a gold mine.
Appropriately enough the other great treasure trove is the National Archives here
in Washington. In those days the War Department was in charge of Indians Affairs, a
fact that tells you more than you need to know about our government’s intentions. The
letters to the Secretary of War alone contain thousands of pages of reports from
Kentucky and the Old Northwest frontier, an area that included Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, and Wisconsin. Indian treaties, as well as records of the often lengthy
negotiations, are especially valuable, because we learn what the government wanted to
impose and what the Indians said in protest. As my narrator Tom Morton remarks in
The Children Bob Moses Led, “If eloquence settled issues, the Indians would still own
America.” One of my most important discoveries in the course of my research was that
William Wells actually began a memoir. I found evidence that the anonymous Fort
Wayne Manuscript of 1783 was based on passages Wells had written some 75 years
earlier, and I was able to publish my findings in the Indiana Magazine of History. One of
the great pleasures of my novel was dramatizing the main events of Miami life that I had
diligently researched, such as what it was like to hunt black bears, to court and marry, to
raid the Kentucky settlers, and to fight against the United States Army. When I wrote
my biography of Wells, I welcomed the opportunity to quote directly the participants of
the period, from presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, to settlers and Indians
whose bloody conflicts shaped the nation. Reading my two books back to back
provides an immediate you-are-there experience as well as a documented overview.
Both try to be as accurate as possible about what we do know while admitting that “the
past is another country” that on certain levels will always be a mystery beyond our
In the cases of Wells and Moses, I was interested in telling the story of an
unsung hero of the past whose life, if properly told, illuminates an entire historical
period. Each of my books presents its own set of problems to be solved in terms of
what the story is and how it is to be told. With Moses, I decided on two first person
narrators presenting the story in alternating chapters. With Wells, I opted for an
omniscient narrator because during his life Wells was both a vigorous actor on the
historical stage but also a person being acted upon by larger historical forces he knew
little about and couldn’t control. Devil Dancer is presented from a third-person limited
point of view that enables me to use my own poetic prose while keeping within the
perspective and sensibility of my main character Wendell Clay.
As a historical novelist, the challenge is to gather enough facts, necessary
details, and actual conversations to enable me to describe people and places, render
dialogue and capture motive, based on how those people actually looked, spoke, and
thought. What I find most creative is the challenge to present these with the style, plot,
interest, and power we associate with works of literary merit. The stylistic bar is set
higher if you are writing serious historical fiction. It is important to remember that, as in
good poetry, a poetic prose in fiction appeals to all our senses. The novelist must
render the sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell of things, while the historian usually
presents his material at a greater distance, more abstractly. The best historical novels
provide a you-are-there feel that dramatizes important aspects of the truth. On the
other hand, the historian can present an interpretive overview that puts people and
events in a larger perspective.
In my history and fiction books I do more than re-create a period and give a
sense of what it might have been like to live at some particular point in the past. My
novels offer an engagement with and an interpretation of the history of the period, a
fresh way of looking at and experiencing what happened. Particularly in my history
book I found that one valuable “interpretation” I could make was simply by being more
accurate about what actually happened, thus correcting previous scholars. I was
surprised, for example, by how many historians are confused about battles of the
period, such as Harmar’s Defeat of 1790; in that case turning a major Indian victory into
a muddled draw. One of the pleasures of doing good research is being able to set the
record straight, moving a little closer to historical truth. I believe my novels should be of
interest to historians and lovers of fiction, as well as, I devoutly wish, filmmakers.
Unfortunately, most historians do not take historical fiction seriously and would never
think of citing me as a source in their own works. This, I think, is a mistake; however, I
should note a recent exception to this rule: Laura Visser-Maessen’s recent study,
Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots, cites The
Children Bob Moses Led and the William Heath Papers several times. In addition, I
must admit that many novelists are not very good readers of history and don’t know how
to incorporate relevant historical contexts in their books. Yet I believe both types of
narrative have an essential contribution to make in the quest, always incomplete, for
historical truth.
One disturbing proof of the importance of history is the grim fact that despicable
dictators such as Stalin and Hitler seem to have had as their number one priority not the
shaping of the future but the changing of the past. Both ruthlessly imposed a falsified
version of the past on their countries in order to eliminate their opponents and justify
their rule. Hitler argued that the Jews were trying to destroy the Germans, that’s why
they to be exterminated. Stalin argued that the Old Bolsheviks were plotting to
overthrow him, and thus they had to be killed. Neither version was even vaguely true.
Those who knew better, or who protested against the appalling falsifications, were
literally shot.
Every country to one degree or another has a vested interest in controlling the
interpretation of the past. Our worse moments as a nation are directly related to our
misreading and mythologizing our history. At the present we are in the midst of a
national crisis with potentially profound consequences. Thus far, our “informed
electorate” is not doing an especially good job of distinguishing a blatantly ill-prepared
charlatan from a flawed but clearly competent candidate. Should we get this crucial
question wrong, the notion that a President Trump would make America “great” again
would only prove the opposite. Rather it would demonstrate to the world that our
democratic process is so dysfunctional that it can no longer be admired or emulated. A
dangerous lesson to learn during this time of demented terrorists and dangerous
dictatorships. Europe would no longer look to us for leadership, and Eastern Europe, in
particular, would face an increasing risk that Putin would press forward his sinister
design to restore the old Soviet empire. A people who know and respect the truths of
history will not make so catastrophic a mistake. On November 7th, we will find out who
we truly are. As always, I hope for the best.
--A novel is a map of destiny. --me
--This different mind, the mind of the past, is the thing which is so difficult for the novelist
to recapture, no matter what period, place, or people are involved. –Madison Smart Bell
--History is not the past: it is consciousness of the past for present purposes. –Greg
--Insofar as history lives in the telling, and persuades us we are there, it is a species of
fiction. --John Updike
--The past is never dead; it’s not even past. --William Faulkner
--There is a might-have-been more true than truth. --William Faulkner
--Emotions do not grow old. --Eudora Welty
--I think of the West as the phantom limb of the American psyche, not there, but not
forgotten. --Larry McMurtry
“This was and was not.” How they begin folk tales in Majorca.
--History is the discipline of contexts. –E. P. Thompson
--By devising a set of images that did not rot on me overnight, I might confront what was
worth confronting. --T. C. Boyle
--Historical novels which have no resonance in the present are bound to prove of only
antiquarian interest. --George Lukas.
--Unlike sociology or political science, history is a conservative discipline—conservative,
of course, not in any contemporary political sense but in the larger sense of inculcating
skepticism about people’s ability to manipulate and control purposefully their own
destinies. By showing that the best-laid plans of people usually go awry, the study of
history tends to dampen youthful enthusiasm and to restrain the can-do, the conquer-
the-future spirit that many people have. Historical knowledge takes people off a roller
coaster of illusions and disillusions; it levels off emotions and gives people a perspective
on what is possible and, more often, what is not possible. By this definition Americans
have had almost no historical sense whatsoever; indeed, such a sense seems almost
un-American. –Gordon Wood
--At its best, the political novel generates such intense heat that the ideas if
appropriates are melted into its movement and fused with the emotions of its
characters…. The criteria for evaluating a political novel must finally be the same as
those for any other novel: how much of our life does it illuminate? How ample a moral
vision does it suggest? --Irving Howe
--Though the historian also catches the memory of life and even the touching pathos of
its details, the historian does not catch life alive. It is the peculiar gift of art—whether
music, painting, or poetry—to catch life in the full immediacy of action or presence. Art
bears vivid conviction because it is not a rewording or a recording of life, but a form of
life—a living score for experience as explicit as a musical score. --Helen
--I think history lives in people as imagery…. Imagination is a form of knowledge…it’s
probably naïve to think that there is always a clear distinction between fact and fiction.
We all compose the world we live in every moment of our lives…. History writing is
creative. Times is conceptualized. Events occur but, until the historian determines their
moral nature, their history can’t be written…. Good writing is supposed to evoke
sensation in the reader—not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained
upon. --E. L. Doctorow
--Politics in a work of literature is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something
loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.
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