Writing History, Writing Fiction

Lorin Lee Cary

The following is a guest post by Lorin Lee Cary, whose photography appeared issue 21 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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Our view of the past is shaped by the questions we ask of it. As an historian I ferreted out details, pondered the evidence, deduced motivations from actions taken, and then presented my findings. I co-authored two books and wrote numerous articles, but always knew that the story was incomplete. At times characters spoke directly in primary sources (ones created at the time) such as diaries, letters, and court records, but huge gaps remained in the record. As a result, the view of one corner of the past remained incomplete and too often lacked emotional content.

I had no experience writing fiction until I worked with a company creating a computer game based on Dante’s Inferno. I’d been hired to develop historical background materials to enhance “the feel” of the project, but the head of the company liked my reports and said “write a draft of the story.” It was an exhilarating experience. I read Dante closely and imagined the descent into hell as a game. 

For a time after that experience I believed fiction required only imagination. After I joined the Cambria Writers’ Workshop I quickly learned that much more was involved. Point of view. A realistic setting. Plausible characters. A story arc. Active writing. Believable dialogue.

And so on. 

Historians work with an incomplete and fragmented record to get as close to what happened as possible. Fiction writers do research as well, particularly when dealing with the past, but they can create certainty and even introduce dialogue where none has been recorded in the historical documents. 

I found this to be an enormous freedom. One historical study I co-authored took 25 years. Research for The Custer Conspiracy (a humorous historical novel set in the present) took nowhere near as long. I steeped myself in the details of Custer’s reality, and then let my imagination run rampant. Custer aficionados didn’t appreciate the result, but I had lots of fun. My novella California Dreaming required even less research because I wasn’t dealing with an historical figure. In both cases, I learned that whereas I’d previously often had to deduce motivation or relationships, now I could invent them and let the characters have at it.

Questions drove my study of the past, and often that’s the case with the fiction I write too. I once overheard someone say “I was saved four times because I didn’t think it took.” That set off a quarter-ponder and resulted in my story “Saved.” After a critic lambasted someone for overusing clichés, I wondered what it would be like if a character spoke only in clichés—which led to “Silver Lining.” And so on.

The bottom line is that while historical writing and fiction writing are different, both require research and imagination. Enjoy the ride. 

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Lorin Lee Cary once taught Social History at the University of Toledo, wrote historical works and co-authored Slavery In North Carolina, 1748-1776 and No Strength Without Union: An Illustrated History of Ohio Workers, 1803-1980. Both won awards. He also served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Now he creates fictional cause and effect relationships. The Custer Conspiracy, a humorous historical novel set in the present, is one result, the novella California Dreaming, a meta fiction venture, another. Short stories and flash fiction pieces have appeared in Torrid LiteratureCigale Literary MagazinedecomP magazinELit.cat and Short Story, as well as in a couple of now defunct journals. (He did not cause their demise.) Other fiction is being considered by overworked editors. He is also a prize-winning photographer.

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