Wednesday, August 27, 2014

writing historical fiction without invoking too much history

My current novel-in-progress will fit a loosely defined literary genre of historical fiction.  That is, it will be fiction artistically grounded in a period of American history--an era in the mid-1870s--when an organized labor movement began its contest with the laissez-faire business interests of the period.  The story moves through the violent birth and tragic demise of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish immigrant mine workers who struck back at the railroad magnates who owned the mines and the lives of the mineworkers.  The railroad owners, often called the 'robber-barons' in American history, also owned the justice system of Pennsylvania at the time, a state where the deep underground anthracite coal mines were fueling American industry.  After the robber barons crushed an early attempt by the miners to form a labor union, they embarked on a campaign to exterminate a continued, violent resistance of the Mollies to the desperate wages and deplorable working conditions in the mines.

 The Young Molly Maguires was conceived as a YA novel,  and looks at the lives of several teen-aged boys and a girl, the sons and a daughter of Molly families in a local mine patch of the Pennsylvania mountains.  I'd done a fair amount of reading as a boy about Irish immigrant life, and whatever I could find about the Mollies.  In those days without the internet and its search engines there wasn't much, but enough to whet the appetite of a boy for reading about avengers of impossible causes.  There was even a Sherlock Holmes story that revolved around the existence of the Mollies.  A lot of the early stuff portrayed the Mollies as a totally villainous band of outlaws, and the newspapers of the times described them as worse than the secret society of Thugs in India, robbers and assassins devoted to the goddess, Kali.  Heady stuff, but that sort of press coverage effectively distracted readers from sympathetic concern for the desperate attempts of workers to wrest a living wage from the robber barons.

More objective and factual information about the working conditions and lives of the mineworkers became available from newspaper articles and essays written by labor union leaders following the failed efforts of the earlier union organizers.  By then, the Mollies were finished, and the immigrant waves had shifted to new arrivals from Eastern Europe.  Labor conditions were still very harsh, but they were beginning to improve as union organizing grew nationwide.  The most thorough and engaging documentary book I have read on the time of the Mollies was written by Kevin Kenny, a professor of history, titled, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, and published in 1998.  For general coal mining lore, I have been a geotechnical engineer and have worked in underground coal mines.  I did some research on the older equipment and techniques, and by 2000, I was ready to begin a first draft of my Mollies novel.

I thought it was an important point for me to keep in mind, relative to all such intriguing old and new data sources, to use only as much historical data as might enhance the 'fictional dream' (as in The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner) for my novel.  There is a recent Writer's Chronicle essay (Sep. 2014) by Debra Spark, Raiding the Larder--Research in Fact-Based Fiction, which addresses the point.  Among the ideas Spark discusses is... when it comes to fiction, information is only interesting because it is part of the story, because it has an emotional or narrative reason for being, and, Indeed all the research for authenticity can get in your way...and not just because it's a time suck.  Colum McCann distinguishes between what is true--or perhaps what is actual--and what is honest in fiction. SimilarlySparks quotes the author Jim Shepard... you're after a "passable illusion," not the truth.  This is fiction, after all.  It's a lie.  You're just trying to make it convincing."  And, discussing author Lily King's use of research for her anthropology-based novel (Euphoria)... the important thing isn't the information but (quoting King) "how you get your imagination to play with all that information."

I have a final draft of my Mollies novel about ready for review.  I've considered the possibility of submitting it through the traditional publishing route, but I'm getting old and do not relish wading through that long and often disparaging process.  Alternately, I had a thoroughly satisfying experience with self-publishing my first YA novel with Amazon, and I might go that route again with this one.  If there are any professional book reviewers (newspapers, YA book clubs) among readers of this blog who might offer a no-cost review with permission to cite (I'm hoping for a cover blurb), I would be pleased to hear from you through the 'comments' link below.


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