Fiction, Fast and Loose

Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching a historical anything with me will probably tell you that I’m nearly insufferable when it comes to period detail. I grouse about language, clothing, the construction of the buildings, the kinds of food that appear on the table. I nearly barfed while watching Outlaw King, and actor Chris Pine pats a child on the back while saying something that sounds suspiciously like “It’s going to be ok.”

Whaaatt? “OK” was not common parlance in medieval Scotland.  “OK” wasn’t common parlance anywhere in the English-speaking world for at least another 400 years. 

Television hasn’t proved much more satisfying. There was BBC America’s Copper, which featured a revolver-wielding detective navigating the gritty slums of New York in the years just following the American Civil War. Interesting concept. Except that the New York City Police Department didn’t have any detectives at the time. And policemen weren’t issued guns.

Reign was another show that caught my fancy. (And I watched it to the bitter end, mainly due to the captivating performances of Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici and Craig Parker as slippery nobleman Stephane Narcisse.) But among the many anachronisms that proved persistently distracting were characters drinking tea (which wouldn’t have been imported into Europe for another century). The clothing, too, was a mishmash of styles and periods that made it appear as if the series’ costume designer had raided a community theater wardrobe room and appropriated what was left from productions of PippinHair, and Our Town

Of course, there are exceptions. DeadwoodBoardwalk Empire. And even A Knight’s Tale, which makes a delicious nod to Geoffrey Chaucer while playfully winking at history; it’s a world where a medieval-sounding melody is used as a prelude to David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and characters are dressed in pants and tunics that carry more than a whiff of the Rolling Stones’ swagger. 

I realize that we watch movies and television to be entertained. But I believe that in order to tell a good story, we need to understand the world that the story is born in. 

And in the case of history, that does mean checking a few facts.

Or a lot of them. As I wrote The Admiral’s Wife, inspired by the amazing – and true – adventures of Katherine Cochrane, I wrote it very carefully. I read. I researched. I visited archives to examine centuries-old documents firsthand and took a bus to sleepy Scottish villages. Since Kate also spent a good part of her life in South America, I gave myself a crash course in the politics of early 19th-century revolutions, made a Chilean stew called charquiquan, and drank wines from the region where she lived. I listened to recordings of native songbirds and learned what flowers grew and where. I sent a letter to the 15th Earl of Dundonald to give him a heads up that I was writing a book about his formidable ancestress. (I even started a mood board for the Cochrane’s world via Pinterest.)

It was a lot to take on. But I didn’t see a way to get around it. Since I was dealing with actual historical figures who left a sizable paper trail, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be as informed about their real lives as humanly possible. Secondly, since Kate has living relatives, I also believe I have a duty to represent her fairly, with all the understanding and authenticity that is her due.

Of course, the pressure was terrible. I often felt that I was writing while walking across a tightrope in a straightjacket. Because I didn’t just want a novel that was well-researched and thorough. I wanted a story that was good.

The best thing to do, I realized, was to put it aside. And I started writing a book that was completely different. Historical, yes. Requiring a bit of research, yes. But with characters and plot entirely made up. And completely lacking in literary pretensions.

It was the most liberating thing I could have done. My characters don’t hew to any prescribed code of behavior, and in writing it, neither did I. If I wanted to put in racy bits, I put in racy bits. If a character was in a scene where it made sense for them to throw a punch, they threw a punch. They smoke and place bets and make secret ferry crossings over the Irish Sea. There are assumed identities and well-meaning liars. There’s a clever housemaid with a taste for intrigue. And a dog. And a barfight.

Best of all, there was no unseen judge looking over my shoulder. I wrote what I wanted. That’s not to say that I was careless about things. But I was certainly much more carefree. 

In fact, it was so much fun that I’ve started writing another one. A Western, set in Montana during the waning years of the frontier, where a grieving widow is called upon to serve as her town’s justice of the peace. Writing the meet-cute between my protagonist and the man destined to become her partner (and love interest, naturally) made my toes curl. In a good way. So did a scene where the heroine interrogates a suspect using a variation of the Reid technique and all of the good cop/bad cop shenanigans that go along with it. 

I’ve no doubt that I’ll go back to The Admiral’s Wife. It’s a tale that needs telling. And when I do, I have the feeling that both Kate, and myself, will move through it a little more freely. 

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