|“The historian must remember his research, the historical novelist must forget it.” (1)
This is one of my favorite quotes about how to write historical fiction. I feel it sums up exactly what a writer must do in order to be successful in this genre. Historical details may be tweaked or altered to fit a story. But story will always, always trump fact.
Below is an excerpt to a novel that I’m currently writing. It takes place in rural Iowa in 1924. The main character has just survived a terrible car accident with her godfather. She’s guilt ridden, injured, and the doctor is persuading her to submit to an examination. This tiny sample will show how I weave my own personal experiences and research together to create a vivid setting. I have footnoted these for a smoother reading experience.
I stood on the farmhouse’s porch and clutched its railing. Flecks of cold dusted my knuckles. The stench of manure still hung potent in the air despite the mummer of falling snow.
Tears dampened my cheeks. My teeth gouged by lower lip, silencing the sobs that shook my body. The excruciating pain from my ribs couldn’t compare to the breaking of my heart.
Walley hadn’t meant the things he said. It was his broken legs and pelvis talking. He didn’t regret taking me in. He didn’t hate me. I wasn’t selfish for wanting him to live or was I?
For years Walley had been my knight. His blunt square features with his crooked nose, had been the first thing I’d seen after the thick fog of shock had dissipated after I’d killed my father. It was Walley and not Ida, who had comforted me when I woke screaming from the nightmares. He’d told me he had nightmares too about two boys in a jungle when he’d been a soldier in the Philippines. (2)
Someone touched my elbow. I startled. The movement jarred my ribs. I grimaced and turned away, wiping my face on the sleeve of my leather coat so the doctor couldn’t see my tears.
“He is finally asleep.” The doctor had a thick German brogue. He was a short, balding man with a tiny mustache. Behind a thick pair of specs, his enlarged brown eyes mirrored compassion. (3)
“I hesitate to give anyone such large doses of morphine, but in this case…” He sighed and stepped toward the railing. He smelled of perspiration and a sweet sickly odor that reminded me of the doctors who had operated on me when I was ten.
“I’ve done all that I can for him. I have no x-ray machine to know the exact details of his injuries. The governor needs a hospital.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “He is the governor, is he not?”
“Yes. He—he was to have given a speech at the the high school in Templeton.(4) We were to stay at the rectory with Father Brenahan. (5) He and Walley were friends and neighbors growing up near Corning.”
“The train does not usually arrive until eight o’clock.” The doctor reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his watch. “That—will not arrive for several hours.” He returned his watch. “I will accompany you both to Sioux City. I have a colleague, Dr. Switzer, who is a fine surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital.” (6)
I nodded. “Thank you, doctor. I will pay for everything.”
The doctor bristled before he made a disagreeable sound low in his throat. “Miss Parker described the state of the automobile to me. And by the look of you, he is not the only one who has sustained injuries.”
Walley’s words returned, echoing in my head. You ungrateful, selfish bitch! I told you I didn’t want to be a cripple. Why couldn’t you do it? You did it for him. The tears came again. I stared out into the night and dug my fingers into the railing. Tiny splinters poked into my skin.
“Take care of Walley,” my voice trembled. “I’ll be swell. I’ve been through far worse.”
“That very well maybe true, Miss O’Brian, but you do have injuries. Several to the head. You may have a concussion. I am able to see and smell the blood distinctly from where I stand. Your ribs are not doubt broken. How many and to what extend will be determined by my examination. The Governor has been seen too, now, it is your turn. I will take no further arguments.”
His footsteps were hard and steady. The hinges of the screen door squealed before he opened the kitchen door. The kerosene light made a silhouette of his stiff shoulders and the ridges of his knuckles as he gripped the door frame.
“Come, Miss O’Brian. If you do not, you will force me to do my examination out here in the cold.”
End of excerpt
- Celia Brayfield & Duncan Sprott, Writing Historical Fiction (2014).
- Iowa had many governors from 1900 to 1931. One thing they all shared was they were Republican. I combined many of their attributes to create Walley’s character. I used one element of former Governor Dan W. Turner’s life. He served in Iowa’s 51st K Company which fought in the Philippines for a year and a half. Many of the guerrillas he was fighting weren’t much older than fourteen. This haunted the former governor when he spoke of it in an interview years later. I used this as well when I would describe a flashback involving Pru and her father later on in the novel.
- This area of Iowa had a lot of German settlers. They brought their customs, language and way of life to northwest Iowa. German immigrants encountered a lot of hostility during and after the First World War. One of my favorite shows, Boardwalk Empire, had a German character, Eddie Kesslar. His accent is what I heard in my head when this doctor speaks.
- 1924 was an election year for the governor. I made him an incumbent riding into office on the dry ticket in 1920. Templeton was not a dry community. Much of the towns economy was based on agriculture and when the market tanked after World War I, farmers turned making money through illegal alcohol production to keep their farms afloat.
- Templeton is a small community located in Carroll County in northwest Iowa. It had a large influx of German immigrants in the 1880s who brought with them their catholic heritage and their love of alcohol. During 1920s and the 1930s the entire town banded together to keep the production and selling of illegal alcohol a secret from prying prohibition agents. Their brand of rye spirits became well known and desired by the bootleggers in Chicago. Two really good sources about Templeton are: Bryce T. Bauer’s Gentlemen Bootleggers and History Book, Century of Memories, Templeton, Iowa 1882-1982.
- Western Iowa is incredibly rural, and it still is today. Templeton is a very small town. Paved roads were not as numerous and were not as maintained as they were today. Rail service was the fastest way in and out of a town. Sioux City at the time was probably the largest city at the time equipped with a better hospital to care for someone with Walley’s injuries. However, Sioux City is 106 miles from Templeton.