- I was living in Los Angeles, one of the USA’s newest cities. I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, one of the USA’s oldest cities. The city is like a museum of early American architecture. It was a rather like traveling back in time.
- I began to read about Providence history.
- I was visiting a school somewhere. A teacher took me aside and said, “I have a student who says it’s urgent that he talk to you alone. I don’t know what it’s about. But he’s very insistent. Could you spare a few moments?” My curiosity piqued I said “Sure.” I was led into a small office and there was a boy sitting there fiddling with a key chain. I sat down, introduced myself, and said, “I understand you want to talk to me.” He said. “I just wanted to say hello.” That was it. He had no more to say. But the moment becomes a key part of my book. It’s very believable because, in part, it is true.
- The Providence house (15 Sheldon Street) I moved into was a charming old one, built in 1835. If you go to Google Maps, and enter the address you can see it.
- The top floor was an attic that had been converted into an apartment. It had old wooden floors, and in the back was a small room. It had a stain on the floor.
- I began to read about Providence history.
- I began to wonder who had lived in my house a long time ago.
- I put all of this together and wrote a ghost story set in the house. See point 3.
- I had written the book, but had no title. On another school visit, I read the beginning of the book to a class. They liked it. Then I said, “But I have no title for it. Anybody have a suggestion?” A girl raised her hand. She said, “Why don’t you call it Something Upstairs?”
In discussions about writing there is often talk of a writer’s “Voice,” the voice of the narrator, be it the author’s voice or the character who is relating the tale. Not often mentioned is the rhythm or cadence of a narrative.
What I am writing about here is close to poetic usage, but not quite. A well written piece contains a natural, consistent flow of words that carries, indeed propels, the reader forward. Choppy, halting prose, causes the reader to stumble, so to speak. The English language, with its immense vocabulary, allows for infinite word choice, with vast varieties of syllable structure. It also allows for great simplicity. But that word choice is crucial, because it has much to do with structural rhythm.
Pick up an eighteenth century novel, say by Sarah Fielding, and compare it with the nineteenth century prose of Alcott, and then the twentieth century writing of Baum, or J.K. Rowling (all writers for young people) and you will immediately feel different rhythmic structures.
And while there are these general patterns of cadence for various historical periods, I would suggest that each and every book, to be successful, requires its own rhythm.
The best way to sense this in your own work is to read it out loud. Read it to someone, but listen carefully for that rhythm. Have a pencil in hand, and when that rhythm breaks (and it will!) mark and then rewrite.
Be consistent, strengthen that rhythm, and you will have a better piece of writing.
My dictionary of literary terms defines the historical novel as “A novel in which the action takes place during a specific historical period well before the time of writing (often one or two generations before and in which some attempt is made to depict accurately the customs and mentality of the period).”
As for generation (switching the dictionary) “The average time it takes for children to grow up, become adults, and have children of their own, generally considered to be about thirty years, and used as a rough measure of historical time.”
Well then, my newest novel, Catch you Later, Traitor, is set in 1951, which is to say some sixty-four years ago. That would seem to qualify it as a work of historical fiction. See above. Except, it is based on things I personally experienced, when I was about thirteen years old.
Is my life historical fiction?
Not so simple. What happens in the novel—a mystery, a spy story, a family saga, maybe even a love story, a political drama, a sports book—did not happen. It is fiction. That said many parts of it are based on things I do remember. They are factual, sort of.
For example: One of the key characters in the book is a blind man, for whom Pete (my hero) works, going to his apartment and reading him the newspaper. The fact: at about this age I had just such a job. Fact: his name was Mr. Smith. Fiction: I decided that name was too prosaic so I changed it to Mr. Ordson. Fact: While I found Mr. Smith interesting, he was not very important in my life. Fiction: In the novel, Mr. Ordson plays a key role in my protagonist’s life. Fact: in life, I had an older brother and a twin sister. Fiction, an early draft of the novel had three siblings, an older brother and a sister, plus Pete, my hero. Finding that the sister had no particular role to play, I took her out. [“That wasn’t nice,” said my real sister.] Nevertheless, all the facts about the New York Giants are true, and my reaction to the team I just started to root for is also true.
The most important point is this: it does not matter what parts of the book are true, or fiction. What matters is that the book feels true throughout. Never mind my life. Catch you Later, Traitor has a life of its own.
The most difficult aspect of Sophia’s War is the commingling of fact and fiction. The story of Benedict Arnold’s treason, and John André’s fate, is not just well known, it has been researched and detailed to an extraordinary degree. One of the books I used to research the event provided photographs and descriptions of everywhere André went during that extraordinary moment—virtually step by step. Moreover, my attempt to describe New York City during the British occupation (1776-7183) is based on detailed research that has been done by others. It is all as “correct” as I could write it.
But Sophia herself, and her story, is very much fiction. How can the two connect? It is because as the historians of the events record, there are two key moments in the Arnold/André saga that have never been satisfactorily illuminated. Historians speak of “luck,” “fate,” and “coincidence.” Perhaps. But it is just at those points that I have been able to create a character, motive, and means, for these mysterious events to be explained. Not the least of what makes it all work is that Sophia does not want to be noticed, is not noticed, and indeed, cannot be noticed in the context of who and what she is—an independent young woman. It’s very much like that wonderful book title, Anonymous Was a Woman.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said (if I have it right) “History is biography.” Sophia’s War is Sophia’s autobiography. Just don’t look for her in history books. You can only find her here. “The writer’s task,” as I once heard Paula Fox say, “is to imagine the truth.”
The most common question asked of authors is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Consider my newest book, Sophia’s War, a tale set in New York City (NYC) during the American Revolution.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn (NYC), close to the site of the biggest battle fought during the American Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn.
In 1947, when I was nine, The American Past, an illustrated history of the United States, came into my home. The first of its kind, its pictures fascinated me. I went through it countless times, gained a basic outline of US history, and a life-long love of history. I still have that book. I still read history.
From 1947 to 1950 I was an avid listener of the CBS radio series, You Are There, which reported great moments in history as if they were just happening.
Not far from my home was the place where the notorious British prison ships lay at anchor. At some point—I don’t know when—I learned of what happened.
As a teenager I read Kenneth Roberts’ Rabble in Arms. Roberts was the foremost historical fiction writer of his time, and my introduction to historical fiction. This book focused on General Benedict Arnold. The book gave me my first real introduction to Arnold, his fascinating history, his tragic downfall.
In high school I began to buy (and read) books offered by the History Book Club. Some still sit on my shelves.
In college I majored in history, mostly American and British history.
My first historical work was Captain Grey, (1977) a novel about the bitter aftermath of the American revolution. I would write some 35 other works of historical fiction.
In 1976 I watched battlefield enactments of the Revolution. Those experiences led me (1984) to write The Fighting Ground, about a boy fighting in the American Revolution. It’s one of my most successful books, and the first historical fiction for which I did serious research.
In 2007, I published Iron Thunder, a Civil War novel about the Monitor and Merrimack. I wanted to write an historically accurate account of that battle, while inserting a fictional character, and thereby creating an exciting adventure (and historical knowledge) for my readers. That was followed by Hard Gold—same format—about the Colorado gold rush. Before I had finished it, I conceived a similarly constructed story about the American Revolution. I decided it would begin with an account of Nathan Hale’s death. Three years before I started to write the book I knew the first line: “It is a terrible thing to see a man hang.”
Where did I get the ideas for Sophia’s War? Throughout my life.