Thursday, March 26, 2015

Oiling the Hinges of History ... by Robert Kresge

The fourth volume of Winston Churchill’s award-winning memoir of World War II concerns the D-Day landings and is entitled The Hinge of Fate. Historical events can lend themselves to great storytelling for novelists. We need not use events as momentous as famous battles. Even little recognized events can provide opportunity for writers to apply the oil of plot complexity and character interaction.

Discovering a real event, plan, or even a rumor can serve as a pivotal hinge for research, for character motivation, and for developing relationships between characters within an author’s chosen historical setting. When such a story involves real history, finding a hinge around which your story can revolve and oiling it as much as needed are important considerations in completing research, focusing the plot, and writing an entertaining historical novel.

Likewise, readers’ investment in the resulting story is enhanced when an author uses real or plausible new information that contributes to that “willing suspension of disbelief” that all novelists seek. Mark Twain said, “Always be sure you get your facts straight. Then you can twist ’em any way you want.” So I’ve put words in the mouths of such historical figures as Twain himself, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis, Yellowstone explorer Ferdinand Hayden, famous landscape painter Thomas Moran, Russian Grand Duke Alexis, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, and even Crazy Horse, though he spoke no English.

When I was writing my first novel, Murder for Greenhorns, my heroine recalls that Sam Clemens (Twain) told her “Nowadays, Truth goes out in public so seldom, most folks wouldn’t recognize her if they saw her.” My wife complimented me on finding such a good quote. I admitted that I hadn’t been able to find a good enough quotation, so I made that one up.

“How dare you do that? Mark Twain is a beloved American icon.”

“Dear, there isn’t anyone who believes that Julius Caesar and Richard III actually said the words that Shakespeare put in their mouths.” If Shakespeare can do it, every author can.

My 2013 Civil War spy thriller Saving Lincoln, a finalist for the 2014 Sue Feder Memorial Award for Best Historical Mystery and winner of a 2014 Tony Hillerman Award for Fiction, relates the story of a fictional female Union spy working in Richmond who stumbles across a Confederate Secret Service plot to send a wagon bomb filled with explosives to Washington and set it off close beside the White House while Lincoln is meeting with his generals. There were no fences around the executive mansion in those days and honor guards encamped on the South Lawn carried unloaded rifles.

According to the definitive 500-page study of the Confederate Secret Service, Come Retribution, written by a trio of former CIA officers, Richmond really did consider such a plot. And on April 10th, 1865, an important member of the South’s Torpedo Bureau (explosive devices of all kinds) was captured on Munson Hill, overlooking Arlington, Virginia and the city of Washington. There is no record that Federal soldiers found a wagon bomb, and no record of such a device was found in Richmond, where most documents had been burned or carried off by fleeing Confederate officials as the city was falling to Federal troops. The idea of such a device and the Munson Hill arrest served as the hinges I used to plot my 352-page novel.

My 1870s Wyoming mysteries, set in the first place in world where women could vote, includes other hinges I found. My female protagonist, schoolteacher Kate Shaw, is drawn to that place when her application letter is accepted by the fictional small town of Warbonnet, population 130, on the edge of Indian territory. Hinges for plots in this series involve Lincoln’s 1863 Land Grant Proclamation, the 1871 Hayden expedition to Yellowstone, Russian Grand Duke Alexis’ 1872 buffalo hunting trip with Custer and Cody, the presence of Crazy Horse in Wyoming in 1873, and intensely competitive dinosaur hunters from back East in 1874.

Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, placing a plausible recent event into the context of a contemporary novel can give any author a springboard into a richer plot and maybe inspire an entire novel.


Thanks for being my guest today, Rob! I love to read historicals and am always in awe of the research that goes into producing a fictional but believable novel featuring well-known personalities. Saving Lincoln sounds like a top-notch read.

Readers can learn more about Rob and his books at his website. His newest novel, Unearthing the Bones, is coming soon.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good point about Shakespeare attributing quotes. As long as the foundation is factual, I don't see why you couldn't build your own story from it, including lines that may or may not have ever been said.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks for being my guest today, Robert. I've worked on one historical novel (which still needs a lot of revision) and found the research part of the project addicting. I dug into more books than necessary, visited a prairie museum in Illinois, and am still finding new pieces of history that I don't need for the story but can't resist tucking into my info folders.

Creating dialog was especially fun when I found a well known political figure running the little post office in New Salem, IL. He only has a bit part in the story, but imagining how he would behave and talk was an interesting exercise. I think I'd like to do more of that in a future book.

Congratulations on your novels. I hope you'll come back again when future releases are scheduled.

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Rob.

Rob - Thanks for sharing your insights on writing historical fiction. I do like that genre. And I agree that weaving actual events into a novel, even if it's contemporary, can add to its credibility. I wish you success.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Pat and Robert - interesting what you're saying about building a plot around a period in history - and good time re Shakespeare and Richard III --

We have just re-interred Richard's bones after they were found in a car park 529 years later ... and there've been heated discussions about Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard: but he was writing in Tudor times over one hundred years after Richard's death.

Also I've just seen a film based in the 2nd World War "Suite Francaise" - a manuscript found 60 years after the Jewish author was gassed ... it was unfinished ... as you'd expect ... but it was a poignant film ...

The Service they used today for Richard was based on a Medieval Re-interrment Service ...

Just amazing what history will allow us to record, and allow us liberty with ...

Fascinating to read that women were allowed to vote in the 1870s in Wyoming ... I must add your books to my reading list - at least remember to pick one up sometime ...

Interesting post and good to learn from .. cheers Hilary

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments on my blog appearance today. I was pulled away earlier for a rescheduled grandparents day at a local school. It was great to write about the rivalry between dinosaur hunters Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh in my latest, Unearthing the Bones, which I finished revising today and will send to my publisher next month. But I was somewhat constrained by setting the book in 1874. The Bone Wars would really take off later in the decade. For background, I recommend the book The Bonehunter's Revenge. Rob

Patricia Smith Wood said...

Good job, Rob! I know how much time you've spent researching these things and it really shows in your writing. You have a way of making history breathe for your reader, and that's an important talent. I hope your books will become required reading for high school students who have trouble with history. Especially Saving Lincoln should give them an entirely new outlook on learning history!

Eileen Goudge said...

Words to live by whether you write historical or contemporary. It pays to get your facts straight. I've researched a variety of subjects and am knowledgeable enough to deliver a baby or milk a rattlesnake, though I pray to God I'm never called on to do either.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Pat and Rob, I agree about the researching part. Its so crucial to get all the facts right.