Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Questions from Readers

Cheri Fields asks about adding emotional elements to historical writing. “What is allowable?” (I assume she refers to nonfiction.)

Authorities quote Truman Capote’s 1965 book, In Cold Blood, as the catalyst that changed nonfiction techniques. (Others were already doing it, but he made it popular.) After that, we began to use terms like narrative nonfiction and creative nonfiction. Some use the pejorative term faction.

Regardless of the term, today you can tell a true story that reads like fiction. You need to play close attention to the structure and style of novels to make it compelling.

Previously, you were restricted to who, what, when, where, and how. You couldn’t have your characters say anything you couldn’t prove as being literally true.

The newer style says you’re allowed to invent dialog and add color—providing that they fit within the scope of the true account. By color, I mean describing things that you can rightly assume were present at that time, such as the go pedal on a Model A Ford or the size of the Philco 41-221 radio manufactured in 1941.

It’s easier for me to show this by example. I wrote With Byrd at the Bottom of the World for Norman Vaughan about the 1928–1930 historic trip of Admiral Byrd at the South Pole.

The events started in 1927, and Norman and I wrote the book in 1990. Do you think Norman remembered the exact words Byrd and others spoke? In one place, we wrote about his being in fear of his life during the six months of total darkness when a member of the party went berserk and threatened to kill him. Sixty years later, he couldn’t be totally certain of his emotions, but he gave me the best responses he could.

As I worked with Norman and probed his memories, he could relate only the impression he carried in 1990 of what happened then. Although we didn’t say it, I could easily have made statements such as, “As I remember.”

We are so used to reading nonfiction with color added, that it’s acceptable as long as it stays as close to the truth as possible.

1 comment:

What are your thoughts?